September 2020: Highlights

Things have really picked up this month, prompting serious decisions about what I would realistically have time to focus on. At the same time, the race is now on to listen to any major releases I missed or put off all year in preparation for year-end lists. Yes, it’s already that time! In the usual way of things, the longest year of our collective lives is also careening past us, the unforgivable march of time continuing on its way. Below are a few of September’s highs and lows to enjoy in its wake.

BBHF: BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-
(2020.09.02)

It’s always with more hope than faith whenever a group makes the best debut list of the year, as BBHF would have last year, if it hadn’t turned out they were just masquerading under a new name. Many of the groups won’t amount to much, or like so many K-pop groups, sputter out or disappear. In many cases, the only thing left behind is one great moment orchestrated to prove beginner’s luck. So maybe it’s a good thing BBHF didn’t make the cut, or maybe the name change was just what the band needed, as their “debut” studio album, an ambitious 2-disc concept album chronicling one man’s emotional journey through a labyrinth of history and emotion set to a wave of poppy 80’s synth rock, proves. “Sooner or later, everything changes / I’m not happy at all / For better or for worse, this country is falling into a depression” they lament in “1988,” folding the twin tragedies of a burst bubble and a broken heart into an excuse to get wasted. “Let’s drink till we’re sick, of love itself,” they urge, as the synths swell and the titular character high tails it in a bid to escape depression and responsibility as if a physical entity, like so many Don Drapers before him. “Carrying all the burden in the back I will go south / I will go south, to survive.” It’s not the helpful message we need, perhaps one of the reasons the album was pushed back from its original May release date, but it’s honest, and refreshing, a J-rock band refusing to hide behind dour epithets without any genuine emotional anchor behind them. “Apps that I merely touched once and don’t use / I deleted them all, that is the pleasure of getting rid of things,” the opening track opines; one only wishes it was possible to shake off everything as easily.

Harry Gregson-Williams: Mulan (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.09.04)

The story of getting Mulan released to the public is almost as epic as the film’s story line, a journey that promises to get topped only by Wonder Woman 1984 or No Time to Die‘s own struggle to hit the silver screen. Gregson-Williams battled his own struggle in providing the musical backdrop, standing in the shadow of legend Jerry Goldsmith, and reckoning with one of the most iconic songs in Christina Aguilera’s discography. Luckily, he neither kowtows to nor completely eschews the original. If we’ve had to wait an extra six months to see the film, imagine how G-W, who began work for the film years before its release, felt! Luckily, the extra time paid off, with this score every bit as robust as the plot line and titular character requires: along with the usual soaring strings, there’s plenty of time-period appropriate instruments from the erhu, to woodwinds. The whole thing is capped off by the original theme, sung by returning vocalist Aguilera, who belts out “Loyal Brave and True,” with all of the sincerity, if not skill, as her original work on “Reflection.” What this soundtrack didn’t need was a repeat of “Reflection,” with the new vocals a mere memory of what the singer was capable of delivering twenty years ago, when she was still ambitious enough to put the work required into making it sound so easy. This score isn’t re-writing the Disney playbook, but it’s one of the few I was genuinely looking forward to this year, and it has delivered in ways the film, based on critical reviews, hasn’t.

TAEMIN: NEVER GONNA DANCE AGAIN: ACT 1
(2020.09.07)

TAEMIN is one of the closest people we have to The Great Pop Star, something on a par with the type of megalomania we had in the 80s and early 90s, a Michael Jackson or Madonna, a Solitary Figure with an otherworldly sense of talent, charm, and charisma. All of these traits are on display in his newest video for “Criminal“, including the hardly-human way he moves his body and the uncanny knack he has for looking through the camera straight at the heart of the viewer on the other side. It’s important, but easy, to look past all the shiny surfaces, CGI, and loose fabrics TAEMIN is always draped in, because there is never a moment he doesn’t emanate straight out of it. Like his predecessors before him, he’s seemingly more comfortable in front of the camera than behind, a man who comes alive in the pageantry of performance, and not a moment before. The rest of the mini-album serves its purpose well. TAEMIN’s sound is down pat now, a hook-based, sinister pop infused with tantalizing mystery, like the foreboding “Strangers” and ethereal “Clockwork.” It’s hard to be upset that his team rarely thinks outside of this box when he excels so well inside of it — a TAEMIN playing in his own shadowy sandbox instead of the bright ones his SM peers are often found running amok in is part of what preserves his iconic imagery. I’m not looking forward to his two-year absence to serve his time in the military, and thinking of SHINee without him helps little with the looming void. I’m glad he’s leaving us a few more tokens, and between this and his duties in SuperM, I’m sure the physical requirements of training will seem relatively familiar to the work SM has him put in day in and day out.

YooA: Bon Voyage
(2020.09.07)

There have been a number of girl-group members with less than solo-worthy chops getting their time in the spotlight, so it’s nice to see one come up that doesn’t deserve to go straight to the discard pile. YooA, from OH MY GIRL, has released her debut solo EP, Bon Voyage, and it’s giving off all the I ♡ Natural meets Shakira vibes. Unfortunately, the title track is the only one to take some risks with the quotidien K-pop sound, leaving the rest of the EP, especially tracks like “Nareul Chajaseo (Far)” and “Jagagmong (Abracadabra)” to fill in the blanks. Overall, the collection is indecisive, a box of pretty, but mismatched buttons that’s easy to chalk up to lack of direction, but as long as we’re not in Hyoyeon, or insipid, one-off ballad territory, I’ll take any of these I can get. In any other month, one not so jam-packed with top tier releases, this would have been easier to appreciate — YooA might not be a superstar, but mostly she just got unlucky.

BABYMETAL: LEGEND – METAL GALAXY (METAL GALAXY WORLD TOUR IN JAPAN EXTRA SHOW) DAY 1 & 2
(2020.09.09)

Live albums rarely get much appreciation, and BABYMETAL’s latest illustrates why. As a live group, they are pretty great, making use of their strongest assets to cover for places they might be more deficient. They’re idols, but a lot of their fans are metal heads, so many of the usual tricks are tweaked, with video screens promoting the band’s Fox God myth, pyrotechnics over lasers, minimal costume changes, some goth-y props, etc. Lip-syncing still helps in a pinch here and there, especially almost all of MOA and YUI-METAL’S “vocals,” while the band, central to the sound but not the marketing, remain wailing away at their instruments in shadow, with the focus staying on the three (now two) stars of the show. It’s all a lot of fun, and the band clearly enjoys the performance realm more than the studio one judging by the sheer number of live albums and videos that have been released over the course of this group’s 3-album existence. The problem is that rarely does their live music warrant so much attention — like most of it, these two albums are nearly note for note the studio versions with an audience piped in. Unless there are some crazy innovative, off-the-cuff solos, or new arrangements, albums like these, especially when they are unnecessarily spread across two separate releases, are blatant cash grabs of the worst kind. While “money-makers” is how most producers like business-minded Kobametal have always viewed idol groups, I’m not really sure how much longer fans will put up with a stagnated mythology, poor communication, and such obvious, and constant, recycling.

Ava Max: Heaven & Hell
(2020.09.18)

Going by initial buzz alone, you would think Ava Max wasn’t anything but a deliberate Lady Gaga clone. However, one thing was always clear during the drawn out string of singles leading up to her debut album Heaven & Hell: Ava Max has neither the quirky magnetism, nor the endearing desperation of Gaga’s early singles. “Just Dance” and “LoveGame,” were built on muscular hooks, their choruses as easily mutable through the expensive sound systems of clubs as tinny earbuds, the notes as hummable, and memorable, as a nursery rhyme. I barely registered any of Ava Max’s songs after the first listen. Luckily, her music works better in the album format, where the basic Euro-pop foundations lend a steady, sturdy purpose to an extended run of music, a stepping stone path of a track list that wraps up an almost 3-year block of fun, but indistinguishable singles. It’s not the best representation of what a major label like Atlantic can offer, but there’s raw material within Ava Max, one that hasn’t yet been tapped by truly innovative pop, the kind that gives songs an instantly recognizable personality. I would love to see what Max with a top-tier producer like Justin Tranter could come up with, though I worry that three years of little growth bodes ill for a journey to the next level.

Whenever You CallArashi: “Whenever You Call”
(2020.09.18)

It’s a shame that Arashi have reached a genuinely interesting stage of their career moments before calling it quits. Everything from a relatively robust Internet presence, to a Netflix documentary, to experimenting with popular social media platforms like TikTok that utilize their strongest appeal (personality), Johnny’s has finally allowed this group the space to grow, as the last year before hiatus, and what was sure to be a spectacular crowning performance at the 2020 Olympics went up in flames, comes to a close. This single, written by Bruno Mars and produced by D’mile is just another curve ball from the group this year. Technically, Mars’s name does not hold the same weight it would have five years or so ago, but his skill hasn’t waned in the four years since he hit a peak with 24K Magic (both the song and album). “Whenever You Call“‘s mid-tempo pace does a stellar job of covering all the group’s worst weaknesses, including some serviceable but awkward pronunciation (this doesn’t bother me, but it’s obvious most of the members are struggling a bit), and the video’s robust choreography that doesn’t quite match the laid back tone of the song (this routine has none of the chill that is a hallmark of Mars’ personality — even when he’s on his knees, he’s always in charge). Otherwise, this simple number is perfect for Arashi: bland enough to fit neatly into the group’s discography, but interesting enough to add a bit of flavor and genuine pathos to a long list of stuffy love songs. It’s no coincidence that Arashi is finally taking fun, sometimes lopsided, risks knowing that they have nothing left to lose, and it really makes one wonder what the group could have been if they had cared enough to think outside the very rigid confines of the Johnny’s formula ten or fifteen years ago instead. Of course, I have liked them just fine for the last few years, but imagine!

Movements: No Good Left to Give
(2020.09.18)

I feel a little guilty admitting that I think that Feel Something is one of the greatest debut albums of all time: the lead singer had barely reached legal drinking-age when the band put out one of the most honest and sincere depictions of depression set to audio. Does the album surpass its years to express a mature, wiser-than-its years clarity upon the subject? No, and all the better for it. The very heart-on-its-sleeve, sometimes angry, sometimes okay see-saw is the reason it works, a collection of haphazard emotional turbulence that only the young can, heart whole, deliver un-ironically. The dedicated post-hardcore touches only added to its mystifying success. Three years after its release, it’s still one of the CDs that sees the most re-play on my morning commutes. So with some apprehension, I queued up their follow-up album No Good Left to Give, already wincing at the train wreck of an album jacket. Luckily their sophomore album returns to the same trademark atmospherics of Feel Something. The genre has remained the same, but the execution feels more evolved and fleshed out, with a bit more specificity in its storytelling (“Seneca“) that lends songs a high relatability factor, and an overall less at-the-precipice than already-over-the-cliff commitment on the production side. The album can be a bit unforgiving in its relentless drive to play up the half-empty mindset when the music itself already does so much of the heavy lifting, with the lyrics an overkill at times and the spoken-wore segments still a distraction (also, note for note the same melody as the ones on Feel Something so it sounds — not in a good, come-full-circle way — like the exact same song), but this is still a world I can see myself spending as much time in as its predecessor, an aural space perfect for the bleak landscape we’ve all found ourselves in this year.

Kylie Minogue: “Magic”
(2020.09.24)

When Kylie announced the title of her new album, Disco, and revealed the cover art, I was hardly imagining the sound of “Say Something,” the first single released. But this is more like it! “Magic” perfectly captures the tone of “grown-up disco” that Minogue hinted at almost a year ago. With good reason, it lacks the serious resonance of Jessie Ware’s disco odyssey, reflecting, instead, the poppy fun we’ve come to expect from Minogue. It might not be so much grown-up, as an attempt by a grown up to capture the same nighttime feeling you only get at the club in your 20s, but it says a lot more than its predecessor. It also has a better, carefully social-distanced music video — okay, there’s only like six people total in the club and an invisible glass barrier surrounds our star, but we’re in the club again! Dancing! Celebrating! You can be nostalgic for 1979 and 2019!

As luck would have it: SM Entertainment & SuperM

You can just imagine the increasingly horrific consternation crossing the features of SM execs over the past two years, as BTS, the K-pop boy band from not one of the Big Three, broke more barriers and records then any previous group before them. Being the first South Korean group to hit #1 on the Hot 100 (for two consecutive weeks) must have hit particularly hard for an entertainment agency that has carefully leveraged every last one of its resources into building a reputation for the nation’s best and brightest pop music. Building an empire takes a lot of time and meticulous planning, capital and vast resources, and enormous talent and likable personalities, but it also takes one fickle factor no one has any control over: luck. That last elusive ingredient has changed everything for BTS. In 2020, the boy band’s track record now includes high-profile appearances on American talk shows (day and night), award shows, magazine cover stories, and the privilege of having physical copies of their CD albums stocked in big stores with tiny, exclusive shelf space like Target. SM Entertainment might have laid the very important groundwork, but you can imagine how they might be seething over not reaping the same prestige and pride that Big Hit does for really cracking the code (what other purpose does giving SuperM the same initials as the company serve, other than ego?).

We’re now seeing changes and accommodations for K-pop in the music industry that fans could only dream about ten years ago, including category designations for major awards and charts (my favorite is Billboard’s new Global 200 and Global Excl. US). Certainly, K-pop can’t be credited on its own, not with the hard work and patience of groups with global-popularity like BABYMETAL and Perfume, but the popularity that BTS ushered in has done something unique in America — the very sloth-like, near-miraculous job of normalizing and reinforcing Asian pop music and celebrity, of folding it into mainstream culture the way anime and manga has been doing over the last few decades.

This tentative embracing of Asian culture and celebrities for the long-term benefits everyone: the leading trade publication in the US for music sales, has expanded its coverage in recent years to artists like Perfume, Kenshi Yonezu, and Arashi. Finally coming to terms with the enormous influence and success of the business overseas and its potential to generate revenue stateside, it created an entire K-pop subsection on its web site. These aren’t trifles, and it comes with its stumbling blocks (K-pop, for example, is still mostly “other,” and the creation of all of these separate categories says a lot about how it’s still handled in a way to keep it carefully segregated from everyday, Western pop), but it’s progress. All of these highlights are important not because Western coverage legitimizes East Asian pop culture, but because some of these changes acknowledge that it is more than a one-hit wonder or passing phenomenon stateside, and is here for the stay, with those at the top finally making an effort to ensure it. And if BTS’s lasting success in all of this is what is takes to keep that fire lit under SM, I’m all for it.

SM’s answer to BTS is SuperM, their “Avengers” super group, featuring members hand-picked from groups SHINee, EXO, NCT, and WayV. All of them bring good looks and particular talents to the group, from dance to vocals to affable personality as a group constructed solely for the purpose of courting the same kind of success in the US that BTS has. The obvious rivalry would be comedic if it weren’t so earnest. After dropping their first EP last year with the earworm-y “Jopping” (because not only are they here to prove that they are the better K-pop boy band, they are also the more innovative!), the group returns this month with their first full-length album Super One, which includes the digital singles “Tiger Inside,” and “100,” both sequels exploiting aggressive boy-band energy with slick, metallic CGI, typically masculine imagery (fast cars! motorcycles! predatory animals!), and the kind of fast-paced, robust choreography that makes two hours of cardio at the gym seem like a warm-up. Pay particular attention to the song titles and lyrics, purposely selected to exploit its fan base and maximize its brand. This is the kind of album as clinical in its musical approach as the group’s construction itself, which of course, makes it no less methodical than any other major-label pop album.

Super One is not perfect, but like its predecessor, it mostly checks out. Longtime fans will appreciate the SM hallmarks all over here: the polished hooks and spotless production, the professional approach to songwriting and structure down to a precise science but infused with the lustrous X-factor that makes a song not just a song, but a hit. There’s some filler (“Better Days”) and some obvious condescension to trends that annoy more than they succeed (“Drip”), but other songs, like the lead titles “One (Monster & Infinity),” while clearly re-hashed concepts from EXO, are no less fun or aptivating for their lack of originality. It’s a very different approach than that of BTS’s, which is perhaps why though SuperM is doing well, they’re still not at the same level of fanatical popularity. SuperM lacks the organic chemistry of BTS, and the wide-eyed and earnest DIY approach to songwriting the group is known for. As an SM group, this is exactly what one would expect, and I don’t think we’d really want it any other way.

However it does highlight the company’s ongoing quest for that ever elusive ingredient: luck. SM refuses to give in to their lack of it, instead doubling down with Super One on skill, talent, money, the psychology of fans and consumers, and aggressive marketing campaigns. Concentrating on these objectives can give the company a sense of control in a situation almost completely out of their hands: the reception and embrace of fans and a wider audience outside of South Korea. Certainly doing all of the above gives them an enormous advantage, but it’s no fail-safe, and it will be interesting to see how the album does in the next few months with touring and meet-and-greets still unsafe in the U.S, and yet another new BTS album scheduled for release in November. While this story develops, stay tuned for a week of BTS on Jimmy Fallon!

[ Image credit ]

August 2020: Highlights

The glaring drawback to writing monthly highlights is the lack of time spent with each new release, with mere days in the case of a few. With new releases piling up in the queue every week, it can seem self-indulgent to go back for more than a couple of repeat listens – but how else do you know if an album is terrible, a grower, or ephemeral? This column allows little space for that, and so I’ve been treating it more like footnotes to initial impressions. I’ve always been spotty with criticism itself, preferring history and context to straight musical analysis, and I keep in mind something Jill Lepore wrote in her introduction to These Truths: A History of the United States every time I sit down to write: “The work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the storyteller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales, the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth” (xix). So once again, for your consideration, some notes on the journey to uncovering those truths.

Kenshi Yonezu: STRAY SHEEP
(2020.08.05)

Kenshi Yonezu’s music is the type the Oricon chart loves: absolute mid-brow J-pop, its mid-tempo, soft rock-heavy tones and nasal male vocals weaving back through a historical J-pop tunnel that includes the likes of Gen Hoshino, Official HigeDANDism, Mr. Children, and Southern All Stars. To start! As a distillation of the very precise, average mean of J-pop itself, you would think it would be hard not to like a little, like the gradual sponge-soaking of AKB48’s discography, now so saturated into the consciousness of any J-pop fan alive enough to count to two, that it’s hard to find it completely deplorable, or to realize the extent to which its sound is, essentially, the “J-pop sound” today. But where they really excel is in how much they have influenced other producers to steal the basic formula and inject it with style and substance, something lacking in the carbon copy prints of Kenshi Yonezu’s music. None of this is to say that STRAY SHEEP is a terrible album — how can any of it be terrible, when it is so unobjectionable, so safe, so ready to please the majority of a music-listening population who just want something that fits snugly into a pair of AirPods at the office? Something mellow enough to overlay, without having too much distracting personality or emotion, over opening credits and closing credits, and advertisements for flavored sugar water? Its big central themes of depression and overcoming struggle are universal, hard-wired to be relatable. Hey, I get depressed, too! It’s a kind of alchemy that seems destined to fall at the wayside of exceptional, original, and ultimately material matter, a surprise only if you aren’t aware how most people aren’t really looking for anything more than a reflection of their known reality in a safe, comforting package. For these people, an album that contains the hits “Uma to Shika,” “Lemon,” and “PAPRIKA” is the perfect bathwater, another entry in a long list of J-pop music that is more symbolic than it is artistic. As of this post, STRAY SHEEP has been #1 on the chart for the past four unbelievably consecutive weeks, which more than solidifies it as the most popular Japanese album of the year, a designation that is unlikely to get topped by any other album this year (surprise me!). Congratulations Kenshi, you’ve done it. Welcome to the hallowed, tepid halls of J-pop’s absolute middle.

Miley Cyrus: “Midnight Sky”
(2020.08.14)

Drag queens used to imitate celebrities, but with the sheer fun, originality, and mainstreaming of RuPaul’s Drag Race, it seems inevitable, in hindsight, that celebrities would now be imitating drag queens. Par for the course that Miley Cyrus would pick up the torch, since she has been imitating others throughout her whole career — country stars, pop stars, rap stars. I hope one day Miley finds out just exactly who she is, and though I’m certain this is just another re-invention on the road to that discovery, it’s one of the better ones. “Midnight Sky” is a song about walking out the door and not turning around now, masquerading as an innocuous pop song. “Free Woman” it is not, but it reaches for the same stars. Miley has worked in this 80’s disco-pop style before, notably with Mark Ronson, himself no stranger to vintage influences, though it seems to have taken a small team to assemble this seemingly straight-forward single. More exciting is the news that she worked with Max Martin for tracks on her upcoming album, which she promised to release when it’s safe to promote on tour. So is she really going to make us wait til 2024? I predict a backtrack on that: if it’s anything like “Midnight Sky,” it’s too irresponsible, and cruel, to hold out that long.

Unleash the Archers: Abyss
(2020.08.21)

It’s been so long since I’ve heard a metal album that I really, really like, that I am considering foregoing a top hard rock/metal list for this year’s annual year-end countdown. Not only have I been hard-pressed to find anything worth returning to in the genre, but I’ve been finding it near impossible to discover any new artists that make for a lazy Saturday spent surfing a back catalog. It’s now August, and Unleash the Archers is the very first. I have no qualms sharing that one of my favorite sub-genres of metal is power metal, the more a review contains the words “explosive,” “emotional,” and “epic,” the better. Cheese a plus. Abyss has all of that, including “incendiary” guitar solos, “soaring” female-fronted vocals, and a pace that never flags. Its at-times goofy fun and throwback riffs are welcome words and sounds this year, and I love forward to spending time with this band’s previous work whenever one of those Saturdays pop up, which seems to be more of a mythical optimism this year.

Hans Zimmer: “Themyscira”
(2020.08.22)

Wonder Woman was the first first female superhero to star in her own movie in either of the two shared universes from rivals DC and Marvel. The movie also had the distinction of being directed by a woman, one who vowed to hire as many women as she could for the crew, so it’s a bit of a head scratcher why she couldn’t make an impact by hiring a woman to compose and direct the score. Female composers are so scarce, that the industry is falling all over themselves to heap praise on Hildur Guðnadóttir. Guðnadóttir deserves every bit of the acclaim she received for her work on Joker, but there actually are other women in the industry, and they could all use a little exposure to help them get the recognition their talent deserves in a heavily male-dominated industry. I mean, was Pinar Toprak busy or something? I feel a bit guilty saying that because Rupert Gregson-Williams did a phenomenal job with the original score: his Wonder Woman is action-packed, thrilling, and hits all the right punches, and knowing a sequel is coming down the slide makes me think it will be hard to top “Action Reaction” or “Lightening Strikes.” But also…was Pinar Toprak busy again? I suppose Wonder Woman‘s success now merits the prestige direction of Hans Zimmer, and I really do feel if anyone can come close or top the original, it might be him. Then again, his superhero work is really hit or miss for me, so I’ve been anxiously awaiting the Wonder Woman 1984 score, and then waiting, and then waiting some more, as every movie release has been pushed back, and then pushed back again. Finally, the unheard offering of a cue “single” has been released as an olive branch. The track is “Themyscira,” and it hints at what we can expect from the full score: orchestral grandeur, with a bit of choral flair. It’s hard not to compare this piece to Zimmer’s main theme for Gladiator, and I expect that’s a nod to the scene this piece will show up in, a rather deliberate one-note delivery of the composer’s idea of arenas and ancient games. I don’t hate it, but it’s hardly original. I know Zimmer composed the original WW “theme” in (very loose use of that term here) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice that Gregson-Williams cited, but I hope that Zimmer returns the favor and drops subtle hints to the original score. Wonder Woman 1984 — and presumably the score — is now set to drop October 2. If we’re lucky, we’ll get some more teaser tracks before the date gets pushed back again.

(By the way, in case you’re wondering what Pinar Toprak has been up to, her score for the smaller-screen superhero Stargirl was released this month. No, this is not Wonder Woman-level work, but it’s solid, and better, I think, then her work last year on Captain Marvel. Every year she seems to expand as an artist, and I look forward to seeing her get her big-screen due in time, not just because she is a woman, though that is certainly noteworthy for the industry, but because her level of skill demands it.)

Katy Perry: Smile
(2020.08.28)

It’s fortunate for Katy Perry that Teenage Dream did so phenomenally well, as it’s the kind of success that’s allowed her to coast long after she had anything original or noteworthy to share, and well, well past the time anyone else would have been hunted down by cancel culture before a single apology could be performed on a kind of please-let-me-keep-my-career world tour posing as genuine understanding, glossed over with virtue-signalling self-enlightenment. Katy Perry knows how to play to the people, is what I’m saying. She’s the type of person intent on ticking off all the boxes required to keep the public’s attention, any number of which has included ditching religion, kissing girls, shooting whipped cream from her chest, making highly inappropriate comments about other cultures, engaging in trendy, Twitter-worthy beefs with high-profile celebrities, cashing in on those beefs by copping the opponent’s successful playbook of trendy celebrity cameos, and jumping on bandwagons from music styles, to dances, to feat. guests. Katy Perry is not the first celebrity to stoop to desperate tactics (there’s at least one other in this month’s highlights), and even your unproblematic faves have employed some of these measures over the course of their careers, but only a few have done it as recklessly, as guilelessly, and as obviously, all the while hopscotching across a series of increasingly mediocre albums. The newest batch of Perry singles, in particular, has left me perplexed, the type of toothless nosedive as disappointing as Gwen Stefani’s trajectory. Is it something about mega-popular talent programs that force people to dilute anything even remotely interesting about themselves? All this meandering dither is just to say, Smile is okay, but the world deserves a lot better from someone trying so hard, from someone who released a Teenage Dream and yet still gets all the same hype despite failing to produce a single album as great. Max Martin is notably absent on this set, replaced by a lively circus of producers (many fellow Swedes, but many not), creating a kind of charcuterie board of leftovers that has been sitting out just a bit too long to be wholly palatable. The songs range from high-octane decent (“Cry About It Later,” “Not the End of the World“) to mid-paced meh (“Champagne Problems,” “Tucked“). The album is also marked by the exclusion of her best single, post-Witness‘s “365,” although I guess some deluxe editions include the other duds not worthy enough to make the album proper. It’s been a whole lot of build-up for something so conservative, and in a sea of solo albums from Selena Gomez (yes, that was actually this year), Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Jessie Ware, this is surely the most tone-deaf. As a side note, the concept art is a baffling overreach, and last-minute additional cover art hints to the rush in which this was clearly put together. Perhaps more thought into anything Perry does would help, as years of scrambling continues to work against her.

Selena Gomez & BLACKPINK: “iCE Cream”
(2020.08.28)

At the pace at which K-pop moves, it’s hard to believe that 2NE1 will only be celebrating the 10th anniversary of their first full-length studio album this month. It might as well be two times that number considering how quickly the group has fallen out of memory, and how the widespread popularity of boy bands like BTS have created an entirely new generation of K-pop fans, one for whom 2NE1 never existed and might as well serve as nothing more than a historical footnote to the massive ascendancy of BLACKPINK. It’s sad, but not surprising: groups like Super Junior and Girls’ Generation and 2NE1 were themselves replacements for groups like H.O.T. and Baby V.O.X and in five years, another YG group will replace BLACKPINK. It’s a dizzying pace of constant recycling that requires little more than a basic understanding of the pace at which fashion and style move.

So I can’t help but wonder if fans of S.E.S. felt as bewildered by “Naega Jeil Jal Naga” as I currently do by BLACKPINK. Aside from a global popularity that rests almost entirely on three or four songs, they’ve also managed to strike up collaborations with artists as high-profile as Lady Gaga (on this year’s “Sour Candy“) and now, Selena Gomez with “iCE Cream.” It’s all brilliant marketing, I suppose, splashy neon colors, and shiny backdrops, and trendy choreography working its butt off to make the group look a lot better than singles that are wholly self-contained in the first five seconds actually are. Three minutes later and you’re still waiting for a proper chorus. The collaboration aspect isn’t as important as the message itself, which is that BLACKPINK and Gomez are at a stage where both parties, with their astronomical social media numbers, can mutually benefit from the other. The medium, YouTube, is perfect, because it provides the ideal mode in which to place beautiful women in highly-stylized fantasy settings, doing beautiful, fantastical things, like pretending they’re allowed to eat sweets. Tale as old as time, really, but it only succeeds if the music has any sort of substance, which “iCE Cream” does not. Not to mention that “iCE Cream” is already the fourth or fifth high-profile K-pop song about frozen junk food, and just as far down on the list compared to, just off the top of my head, f(x), Hyuna, and Red Velvet. I want to like BLACKPINK, and I already like Selena Gomez, but this single is another in a long-line of empty hits from the group that make me feel older with each passing day. Am I out of touch? No, it’s the children who are wrong.

July 2020: Highlights

I guess this is the accidental no-boys-allowed edition which is a good time to ask where all the great K-pop boy bands went. With any luck, YG’s new group set to debut in August will be neither male equivalent-BLANKPINKs, nor the type of clones who take all their inspiration from BTS like most of the recent crop of boy bands (though with a title like THE FIRST STEP : CHAPTER ONE, it’s not looking good). I have listened to every major boy band release this year, from SF9 to to 1THE9 to AB6IX to ATEEZ and everything in between and can’t help wondering — when is SHINee coming back?

Ayumi Hamasaki: OHIA no Ki // Dreamed a Dream
(2020.07.04) // (2020.07.31)

Despite cancelling her remaining tour dates, Ayumi Hamasaki has been working as always in 2020. In July, the singer released her first two digital singles of the year, the first an ode to her infant son whose existence she revealed in a surprise post on the first day of the New Year (sadly, my response was eerily prescient). “OHIA no Ki” debuted on the finale of the height-of-soap drama based loosely on her early career, Ai Subeki Hito ga Ite, starring Kalen Anzai and Shohei Miura. The song is typical of many Ayu ballads, and should come as no stylistic surprise with long-time producer Kazuhito Kikuchi at the helm. Kikuchi, who worked on past singles like “appears” and “HEAVEN,” hits all of his signature beats: soft pianos and swelling strings playing tag amidst a playground of leisurely vocals and an ascending major key chorus. It’s very pretty, but too similar to previous ballads to be anything more than another extremely competent, but rote, single. Its sweetest spot is the story, Ayu’s lyrics expressing the type of sentiments able to melt the freeze off the iciest cynic, sharing slices of the joy, fear, and relief that mark the firsts every parent experiences with a child. You really have to be a toad not to appreciate its charm, at least a bit. The second single, “Dreamed a Dream,” is the Tetsuya Komuro-penned comeback that fans have been waiting for. Komuro, busy spending the last few years lapping up nostalgia projects and taking liberties with words like “retirement,” took the time to produce this new single, which luckily has more teeth than his first contribution to the 46/48 franchise, a late-stage trf outtake, presumably. This is a very comfortable space for Ayumi, and like “OHIA no Ki,” it doesn’t add anything novel to the canon with its frenzied pace, thin guitar solo, and piano exit, but it’s nice to see jacket art that isn’t B&W or sepia-toned, and this year we really have to take any positives we can get.

Red Velvet-IRENE & SEULGI: Monster
(2020.07.06)

While track records are never 100%, there are some labels you intrinsically expect to deliver great hits. SM Entertainment is up there in the Top 5 (or 3, as it were…): there are few records labels, let alone Korean ones, that have released more enjoyable groups and hit songs than this monolith, and when word started going round about a favorite group’s new sub-unit, I couldn’t help but prepare myself for new favorite songs. But, alas, never 100%. So where does Monster go wrong? This EP feels half-baked, a collection of B-sides and filler album tracks, like Red Velvet’s Velvet side without any of the mystery or understated cool. Its inability to be more like Red Velvet shouldn’t work against it, yet “Jelly,” the EP’s most RV-esque track, is its strongest and least mid-tier. This is the kind of disappointment that hits on two levels – dashed expectations, and abuse of an otherwise high-quality production. The lazy name of this sub-unit should have tipped me off, but old loyalties die hard.

Katy Perry: “Smile”
(2020.07.10)

A new album from Katy Perry was obvious considering how many singles she’s released since Witness. The real kicker here is that “Smile” is 100% okay. The mellow vibes of neither “Harleys in Hawaii” nor “Never Really Over” provided any clues as to where the Katy of Teenager Dream was hanging out these days, but at least they weren’t as insufferable as “Never Worn White,” with its very Beyonce-at-the VMAs reveal (that’s two pop titans taking cues from Queen Bey in the same column!) or as boring as “Daisies.” My expectations for Smile were immediately relegated somewhere to the basement, next to that new Hitomi Arai single, but this lead-single is decent enough to have piqued a very, very mild interest. The album cover had me hoping for a concept a little more along the lines of Chaplin’s “Smile” (I am going to be disappointed if it’s not sampled anywhere on the album) but the performance video is more of an undeveloped alternate-universe Joker, one where Arthur Fleck’s mental health is quite stable, actually, and his passion and talent for bringing laughter and joy to the world was acknowledged and rewarded accordingly, leading to a happy and fulfilling career and personal life. So, very mindful, enlightened, centered, me-time Katy Perry, ca. 2020! I’m not sure the world is ready to receive a record as earnest as this right now, nor does it seem to promise any retribution for the tiresome C-level hits we’ve been getting since, oh, “Wide Awake.” I’m happy for Katy, but I’m not exactly sure this hyper-positive me-time is meeting the moment.

YUKIKA: Soul Yeoja
(2020.07.21)

Consistency is still a problem in K-pop. Look, of course it makes sense, from a money-making standpoint, to put all your resources into creating one hit single and culling the budget for album tracks that often exist for purposes of extra “content” rather than artistic continuity, but it’s harder to reconcile with the genre bait-and-switch that promises listeners something truly innovative, only to be a one-off. As far as I know, one of the few to really commit the whole way though was Wonder Girls. So YUKIKA’s Japanese city-pop angle is a revelation, a chance to truly give the industry something that’s maybe no longer fresh (not after almost a decade of Bandcamp tributes), but certainly different. Too bad it falls just short of committing all the way. Soul Yeoja leads with its jazzy, laid-back singles like “SOUL LADY” and the glimmering “NEON 1989,” the album giving every indication of a proto-Korean Dance for Philosophy before devolving into standard K-pop. Take “Yesterday” or “Day for Love,” which go for the bare minimum in vintage before “pit-a-pet,” an adorable homage to puppy love, boasts all the familiar tropes found on a standard GFRIEND or OH MY GIRL album. The songs themselves deserve little of the blame, for what is proving to be a lack of commitment on the production side. An album like Feel, that takes the less-traveled road of bravely ignoring the pressure to drop a traditional K-pop ballad, deserves every morsel of praise in its critical arsenal, but it’s hard to throw kudos to an album that chooses to play it safe when it’s clearly capable of taking it all the way. I like this album, and certainly appreciate what it’s doing the majority of the time, but I want to love it, and all I can do, now that YUKIKA is a full-length album in, is imagine the potential.

Kylie Minogue: “Say Something”
(2020.07.24)

Anything longer than 24 months is too long without a Kylie Minogue album, especially when that last album was Golden. While it’s nice to see artists try something new, it’s always disappointing when those visions don’t quite work the way they might have been pictured in pre-production. So it was good news when late last year Kylie spoke to The Guardian about working on new music that would get her “back on the dancefloor,” hinting at “grown-up disco,” and dropping the tantalizing adjective “shimmery.” This month, we finally get a taste of what she was talking about when Minogue announced her new album, Spartanely, but hopefully not too tastefully, titled Disco. The album cover is a thousand word, 12-pt font, double-spaced essay to describe that genre’s campiness, but the lead single “Say Something,” is mostly silent on the subject. The short pop song is less Golden Age-Donna Summers and more Sally Shapiro minus inspiration. There’s still plenty of unheard content on the album to look forward to, but if it’s just more of this, it’d do better to drop the “grown-up” tag and commit to youthful hedonism. It’s greedy to expect two world-class revival records in the same year when we already got Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, especially when no one was expecting Minogue’s so soon, but you can’t dangle an album cover like that with Kylie Minogue’s name on it and not deliver 100% of the fun and cheese it implies.

Taylor Swift: folklore
(2020.07.24)

Who knew that seven years after Queen Bey dropped Beyonce to an unsuspecting nation always hungry for “content,” that surprise album-drops would be one of the defining moves of her legacy? While she may not have been the first to do so, “a release of this nature was unheard of from someone of Beyoncé’s magnitude,” and since then, pop stars from Ayumi Hamasaki to Ariana Grande have labored in secret, only to parachute in from seemingly nowhere with full-length albums. But in fact, at this time last year, when Swift was spending months hyping her newest album Lover, it was still one of the few things she hadn’t done. The element of surprise and capture just doesn’t fit Swift, who’s prone to elaborate teasers, extended to heighten anticipation with her audience. Incorporating hidden images, weaving clues in visuals, and even working seemingly innocent hints into interviews is how she operates. This kind of fan interaction takes lots of time and forethought, none of which were given in Swift’s first official out-of-nowhere album drop folklore, announced less than 24 hours before it hit streaming platforms (and a record sixteen different physical versions). The confirmed album artwork down through the list of producers and co-writers were maximized to prepare listeners for an understated album of slower, more acoustic numbers, an album very different from the niji-iro Lover (though it’s a shame that Swift is making the rookie mistake of equating black & white photography and lowercase lettering with maturity, and sophistication). Slower, more acoustic numbers were never my favorite Swift tracks, so I went in with low expectations and suffered no disappointment. It’s a fairly satisfying album to listen to, and gives fans some primo content to chew, but it’s re-play value is nearly non-existent for me. I’m on the cynical side of the fence here with Andrew Unterbreger, who points out that “[b]y releasing it overnight with what for her is an unprecedentedly minimal amount of build-up, she frees Folklore from all of these questions and expectations [that “would have marked something of a risk if rolled out like one of her previous albums.”] If fans love it and consume it like crazy, then great. If it gets a lukewarm response critically and/or commercially, then she can underplay it as a quarantine-released personal project, not subjected to the same standards as one of her ‘official’ albums — like a mixtape, basically.” Very, very smart move though Swift is still too big to fail completely, and the sound here isn’t radical enough from songs here and there to divide fans as, say, Gaga’s Joanne did. If anything, it’s a return to Swift’s story-telling and songwriting roots with all the maturity and technical experience that she has acquired over years of honing a skill that is as second nature to her as posting cat pictures. Many songs have the usual stylistic notes and flourishes of a Taylor Swift chorus, citing note changes and key shifts present throughout her previous albums that identify her as succinctly as a sticky thumbprint. I’m not completely immune to its rustic-chic charm, but I’m no fan of the National or Bon Iver sound, so my curiosity tapers here. That’s the drawback to surprise-albums: the anticipation is always, if not more than, half the fun, so as quickly as it arrives it can be forgotten, like the last twenty tumblr posts you just scrolled through, and the twenty after that.

15th anniversary: The legacy of Namie Amuro’s Queen of Hip-Pop

There are few comebacks in J-pop history as important as Namie Amuro’s Queen of Hip-Pop. Released in July 2005, the album was the first in a gradual, then sudden, ascent from the depths of critical and popular derision that beset the singer following her first official comeback in 1998 after a pregnancy, quickie marriage, and family tragedy threatened to derail the singer’s career. A lot can happen in a gap year, including changing tastes, shifting trends, and broken allegiances: Tetsuya Komuro was well on his way to generating fatigue on the Japanese charts, his robust, and exceedingly familiar style coating Amuro’s early discography finally reaching its saturation-point while his numerous outfits and affiliated projects began losing their hold as dance music was replaced by hip-hop and R&B as the leading pop style. Two women, among many, were permanently changing the landscape of J-pop, chipping away at “TK” as a synonym for J-pop; Hikaru Utada and Ayumi Hamasaki, both of whom made their major-label single debuts in Amuro’s absence with “poker face” and “First Love” respectively.

This left Amuro and her team scrambling to re-strategize, first by courting denial and doubling down on TK’s production, shooting for a seamless transition between Concentration 20 and GENIUS 2000 with singles like “RESPECT the POWER OF LOVE” and “toi et moi.” It didn’t work. The spark was gone, any fire TK was able to light available only in the scattered ashes of vague memories and the brief embers of a bright hook. Amuro herself, now older and wiser, wished for a bit of distance from her former image that would allow for more freedom outside of the rigid constraints that sometimes trapped artists, as much as they provided for unheard of luxuries.

Luckily, she and her team recognized the need to adapt. With Ayumi Hamasaki now cornering the market on dance-pop, there was a vacancy in Avex artists going the hip-hop route and they seized the opportunity to do so. After testing the waters with producer Dallas Austin on GENIUS 2000, he and Amuro collaborated again on the tellingly-titled follow-up break the rules, where TK would take his final bows as chief producer. The truth is that Amuro took a huge risk by cutting him off: even with his declining popularity, TK was still a mostly sure-thing, a household name not above tugging at the heart strings of loyalty and premature nostalgia. Recruiting a number of no- and lesser-names was hardly the direction you would imagine Avex taking in the early 00s with their biggest star. But Namie Amuro was no longer their biggest star.

At the turn of the century, when the up-til-then J-pop sound was struggling on the charts, audiences and producers turned increasingly to the Billboard pop charts, full of boundary-pushing artists like Britney Spears, who released her racy single “I’m a Slave 4 U” in 2001. Just as TK was being pushed out by the passing of time itself, Max Martin’s signature teen-pop sound was being shoved aside by producers like The Neptunes, the dancehall and reggaeton beats of Sean Paul and Daddy Yankee, the trademark yowls of Lil’ Wayne, and the solo debut of Beyonce Knowles, who released the Grammy Award-winning Dangerously in Love in the summer of 2003. This was followed by Sean Garrett unleashing Usher’s “Yeah” into radio waves (a “hip-pop” track if there ever was one), in turn paving the way for a sound like the Pussycat Doll’s “Buttons” to soundtrack both summer carnivals and strip clubs. All of these accelerating and massively popular changes in the industry were exactly where artists turned to create fresh faces: all of the modern style and hype of this Western-borrowed, black-community-co-opted “urban” sound was being poured into newcomer Kumi Koda, who made her debut in 2000, and quickly dominated the market as Avex’s resident alterna-diva. But Amuro, eager to regain her standing at the top, wouldn’t stray too far from there to find her own missing ingredients in a (somewhat ironic) attempt to stand out against an ascending batch of equally talented and hungry young men and women.

One: Total confidence.

Any female singer worth her weight in enormous revenue will be dubbed an adjacent moniker by the media at some point in her career, whether laudatory, derisive, or calculated to spark unhealthy competition. Time magazine dubbed Ayumi Hamasaki “The Empress of Pop” in 2002, but Namie Amuro was mostly compared to artists like Madonna, a Japanese derivative. “Diva of the Heisei Era” would come much later — in 2005 Amuro needed a singular, self-serving title, and there is rarely any PR that works faster for image haul than re-naming. To lead her sixth studio album, the big comeback from 2003’s lackluster, bereft-of-personality STYLE, Amuro dubbed herself the Queen of Hip-Pop, taking cues from the pomp and ego of Western artists to market herself as “the finest in the game” someone so hot, so on top, that no one could catch up. It was an astounding, emphatic announcement, impossible to ignore, even if just for the audacity in a culture that values a degree of humbleness in its celebrities.

Two: Kitchen-sink sequencing.

It’s tricky to write about the West’s influence on popular Japanese music, but easy to examine in micro. Queen of Hip-Pop, a tiny world unto itself, is one example that openly, and cheerfully, took almost all of its influence from then-current black musical styles, creating a vibrant toy box of trends from the early to mid 00s. Lead single “ALARM” released in 2004, kicked off the album’s thesis statement, with its propulsive call to wake up and pay attention, though the song now plays more like a sound in the process of finding itself with its studio sheen and over-eager bass line. It’s the following singles that did the heavy lifting, with “GIRL TALK” and “WANT ME, WANT ME” expressing two seemingly dichotomous sides: the laid-back girl’s night in, and the club-ready bhangra beats night out. “WANT ME WANT ME,” in particular, is Amuro knee-deep in her reinvention, exuding a sense of weary, but cool know-how. Back when it was released, it came off as the kind of slick, emotional detachment women were encouraged to cultivate, though today it reads a bit more desperate in a frantic, rather than sad, way. Its strategy over sincerity, putting into question how much genuine fun Amuro was actually having with this new style.

But it’s the album as whole, with its mastery of several styles and propulsive sequencing, that brought it all together, charging in with the title track’s haughty, daring call to sexual satisfaction, and smooth transition to the giddy glee of “WoWa.” The softer songs, nestled towards the middle, offer a bit of respite from the harder beats, tucking the cozy blankets in under a girl’s night of gossip and Sex and the City marathons (side note: it is difficult to overstate Sex and the City‘s popularity at this point in time, and its heavy association with women as rampant, unabashed consumers of everything from the material to the emotional and sexual markets — even Ai Otsuka starred in a loose, PG-rated homage for the drama Tokyo Friends), before launching into the Lil’ Wayne sample slathered liberally all over “My Darling,” and the album’s coolest, flying-solo track “Free.” In between, there’s more posturing with a humble-brag nod to an adoring fan base, the instant gratification of a casual love affair, and a finale that ends the album on a high flourish. It’s a carefully planned execution, an album that utilizes every million cent’s worth of trend and resource at the disposal of a studio with the right amount of power and prestige to ensure maximum attention and profit.

Three: Reap and repeat.

Queen of Hip-Pop was the bridge Amuro crossed to get back in the spotlight, and its success was understandably replicated in the follow-up album PLAY, which took its predecessor as a literal template, and was her last album to focus so strategically on the hip half of her new moniker. These two albums together comprise an interesting interstitial phase in Amuro’s career, one in which she was in the process of reclaiming her status, establishing a new fan base, and asserting her control at the top of the pecking order, before eventually returning to her roots as less queen-of-hip-pop, than general queen-of-J-pop, where she has regained both the respect and popularity lost during that very brief, turbulent moment in her personal life. The fact that she did it by borrowing artifacts from African-American and Western culture is one that can’t go ignored: what began with a series of SUITE CHIC collabs took its form in everything from the music, to the application of tattoos, to the choreography, fashion, use of rhyme schemes foreign to the Japanese musical traditional, to the heavy use of slang (“booty,” “coochie,” “baby boy”). The debt she owes is massive, not just in this context, but throughout her entire career — even in the 90s, Hiroshi Aoyagi points out that she was noted for “incorporat[ing] dances derived from black hip-hop artists” (Islands of Eight Million Smiles, 101). Without the cherry-picking all coming together on one propulsive advertising vehicle for Namie Amuro herself, it is unlikely she would have been given the opportunity to return to the dance-pop roots that propelled her back to #1 and not just commercial, but respectable superstar status, a prime signifier of pop itself, rather than remembered as one of the greatest artists of the TK-boom who was punished with obscurity for a few unpopular choices. It was a very desperate, very calculated, very smart move, one that she had a definite hand in, and one that she no doubt looks back on with at least some regret, if the decision to laser off the tattoos says anything (and not surprisingly, seeing her change her mind has made her even more relatable).

Actually, Queen of Hip-Pop is more than just a comeback: it’s a time capsule, a whole year of music and tabloid pop culture, and Von Dutch hats and velour tracksuits, and leaked sex tapes and that bizarre docu-series where Britney Spears was hooking up with Kevin Federline on television. The Amuro of Queen of Hip-Pop is a tremendous force of attitude, style, talent, a willingness to take risks and, like the greatest pop stars before her, sometimes sacrifice self to stand in for something so much bigger. It might not be her best album, but it’s one of her most iconic, the precise moment we witnessed the resurrection of a legend, the one that breathed life back into an ambitious, hard-working woman who always did anything and everything to succeed.

[ All images original scans, except for those credited to here. ]

June 2020: Highlights

What should be one of the best months of the year for pop music is instead one of the most disappointing. Pickings were understandably slim this June: there’s not much to celebrate; clubs, concerts, and large gatherings of any kind are still verboten; and the fatigue of endless 90+ degree F humidity makes it very hard to appreciate all the sunshine we’re finally getting (at least here in the appears music lounge). That leaves very little inspiration for songwriting or incentive for labels to release jams of any kind. Nevertheless, here are some interesting releases, served for our still-responsibly-staying-at-home consideration — the rest of us can keep listening to Chromatica, I guess.

Jamal Green: Skelattack (Original Soundtrack)
(2020.06.05)

Since Danny Elfman is one of the most well-known and iconic producers of modern film soundtracks, it’s almost cliche to cite him as an inspiration, and borderline psychotic to attempt imitating his sound. Yet Jamal Green does just that for the soundtrack to the video game Skelattack. Full of all the moody atmospherics of the composer’s best horror soundtracks (and there are so many), the music is a fitting soundscape to the inherently all-ages, Tim Burton-theatrics of the game’s spoopy game play. It can all get a bit your local Michael’s Halloween arts-and-crafts aisle, but that’s always been my favorite aisle (outside of October, it’s the pen and marker one).

Cosmic Girls (WJSN): NEVERLAND
(2020.06.09)

There were plenty of girl group comebacks to go around in June — and boy bands too — TWICE, IZ*ONE, and NATURE to name a few. Hot take: All of these were miles ahead of their male counterparts, who keep flirting with ways to sound more like their predecessors, with half of the motivation. As a long-time fan, I’m inclined to think WJSN’s NEVERLAND leads the pack. Though we have yet to receive a genuine, marketed-as “summer single” from K-pop, “BUTTERFLY” soars as close to that burning sun as we might get during this pandemic summer. (But it’s only June! Surprise me!) Still, we could do worse than the pastel brushstrokes all over these breezy watercolors. There’s nothing original about the title or concept art here, a very Anne of Green Gables meets Disney Golden Age, but I get enough pleasure and imagery out of mere words like “beach towel,” “popsicle,” and “Coppertone SPF50” to understand the power of sticking to the traditional, and very safe, playbook, the kind of joy sparked by the powerful pull of word association in touch and taste, in sight and smell, and in sound.

Chloe x Halle: Ungodly Hour
(2020.06.12)

There are other artists out there who can do what Chloe x Halle do, but few who do it so earnestly. As two young women who debuted at the age of 13 and 15 respectively, we have been given the opportunity to watch them grow, smoothing out the wrinkles of identity and personality that we do. Ungodly Hour sees them now confronting some of the more complicated and unpleasant compromises of adulthood, with their signature downbeats and twinkling harmonies. There are bittersweet moments all over this album, including a youthful production that hints that as far as they’ve come, they still have a way to go; no one emerges a Homecoming-Beyonce before putting in the work of a Destiny’s Child-Beyonce. After naming The Kids Are Alright one of the top ten debuts of 2018, and spending some time with its follow-up, I’m happy to continue keeping my eye on this duo’s evolution and obvious drive not just to create something great, but to contribute something truly unique and singular to the genre.

Poppin’ Party: Breakthrough
(2020.06.24)

Like many anime and game idol-franchises before them, from Creamy Mami to the ubiquitous Oricon presence of iDOLM@STER, Poppin’ Party, the group from BanG Dream!, releases music to the public as any real-life band or idol. They are, after all, backed by real-life seiyuu like Ayaka Ohashi, who enjoy success through the mixed-media marketing strategy that easily parlays into solo careers. Because these groups are a dime a dozen now, and many up-and-coming vocalists will have gotten their start in one of these animated or virtual arenas, the music itself is instantly recognizable: upbeat, rock-driven, and lyrically focused on recurring themes of goal-setting, and the self-determination, drive, discipline, and relentless perseverance that it takes to reach them. Poppin’ Party already released one big compilation of their anthems last year, and it was fairly enjoyable. Breakthrough coasts on the same energy, but unfortunately filters out most of the personality that made Poppin’on! so memorable. This sieve-like effect, where the second round is similar enough to warrant consideration, but missing a vital essence, is nothing new for a concept that is now reaping diminishing returns with the sheer number of more-of-the-same options. It’s a genre in desperate need of some novel, revitalizing gimmick, and one that I eagerly hold out for in between high-quality, but self-congratulatory echo chambers like this.

Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure?
(2020.06.26)

It’s nice to get the follow-up to Fever that we all deserve, and it’s none the worse for coming from Jessie Ware, who has released what is the best disco album of the year, and probably decade. This is actual disco, not electro-pop with some strings pinched into the production, or whatever modern K-pop tries to pass off as “disco-inspired” on occasion when it’s better off just being promoted as great pop. Ware brings a levity and seriousness to What’s Your Pleasure?, one that feels as grown-up, and uncool, music-for-adults as some of the best of the genre’s vintage origins. As someone who grew up with ABBA, I respect and admire the attention to detail and unwillingness to compromise on irony for the sake of a wider audience; Random Access Memories this is not, though de Homem-Christo and Bangalter could take some serious notes if they’re looking to craft songs that are more than just technical marvels, but beating hearts, too.

NiziU: Make you happy
(2020.06.30)

The Japanese idol business has had a steady influence on K-pop long before NiziU, from Girls’ Generation on up, but it’s the sound that seems to be the main talking point with NiziU, who made their (pre-)debut this month with “Make you happy,” the type of throwaway effervescence common among debuts from Red Velvet’s “Haengbok (Happiness),” to the aforementioned SNSD’s “Dasi Mannan Segye (Into the new world).” It’s hard not to root for them when they’re following in such hallowed footsteps. The J-pop connection is a bit muddier; the group sounds heart-whole K-pop here, with the precise cut and paste choreography of their contemporaries. A Japanese word in their name and harmony-less shouts don’t a J-pop idol group make. If anything, this EP sounds a bit like early DalShabet, a “Mr. Bang Bang” send-up that makes me a little achey for a decade ago, when groups aimed to sound more like this all the time than “How Do You Like That.”

May 2020: Highlights

Gesu Kiwame no Otome.: STREAMING, CD, RECORD
(2020.05.01)

Every generation has their unifying song smith: Tetsuya Komuro and Yasutaka Nakata all had their rises, peaks, and falls, and it looks like we’ve now reached peak-Enon Kawatani. It’s marked by all the tell-tale signs: fingers in various pies, all maintaining consistency in brand and sound, numerous releases flooding the market as the torrent of genius overflows, and the beginning of ennui from an audience hitting the over-saturation point. We’re just at the beginning of that last one, goodwill is still intact: I had a blast with last year’s GENIE HIGH and while it seemed a little premature for another Gesu Kiwame no Otome. album so soon afterwards, the results aren’t at all bad. While I don’t think STREAMING, CD, RECORD has the same punch as the group’s early records, it’s by no means a total mess, especially if you already liked GENIE HIGH RHAPSODY, since this is the natural successor, and has the exact same spirit. Extensions, leftovers, whatever you want to call it, it’s pure Kawatani and while the whiff of disillusion grows ever stronger, I wager we’ll all still accept a couple more of these before complete fatigue sets in.

TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE: Tokyo Girls Journey
(2020.05.05)

Since declaring their status as artists rather than idols, TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE’s output has been erratic at best. After the coinciding departure of Ayano Konishi, the group lost their core fan base and with it, any consistent musical direction, flailing between mature dance-pop bops and the sort of generic idol-pop at which even B-grade idol groups would turn up their noses. With Tokyo Girls Journey, the group is back to their more grown-up sound, an EP that shoots for the best of both worlds, for example, taking very disparate parts of their iconic New Jack Swing song and feeding it through a house filter, as in the EP’s strongest track, “Bara no Kinbaku.” The following tracks are a bit more varied, with “Ever After” a pop song heavily influenced by indie, bedroom production, while “KIMI NI WOKURU” illustrates the clearest “old” TGS stripped of the fun NJS elements. There’s solid work here, but nothing that reflects where the group should be at this stage in their career, depicting neither growth, nor a path forward. Like much of their work post-Konishi, it highlights a growing disparity between what TGS was and what they could be, committing to nothing but doubt and a sense that any future releases are guaranteed DOA until Avex finally pulls the plug.

Sunna Wehrmeijer: The Music of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
(2020.05.08)

There haven’t been any major movie releases in months and summer isn’t looking so great either, as dates are pushed back and rescheduled indefinitely, along with their soundtracks. So while we should have been moved by Harry Gregson-Williams Mulan last month and moments from comparing his brother’s Wonder Woman to Hans Zimmer’s Wonder Woman 1984, we’re instead left to forage in the C-grade muck left behind by streaming services like Hulu and Netflix. Luckily, there is one superhero outfit that has come to the rescue: Sunna Wehrmeijer’s collected works from Netflix’s original series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which premiered its fifth and final season this month. The series, one in a long line of reboots (and recent mahou shoujo homages like Zodiac Starforce), follows the adventures of Adora and a group of other magical princesses in a campaign against the evil Horde and their leader Lord Hordak. Anyone familiar with 90’s anime will be happy to recognize many familiar tropes, from transformation sequences to the safe black and white-level nuances of good and evil, all accompanied by a fantastic and fun soundtrack just as magical as any of its girls. The cues are at turns modern and whimsically retrospective, indulging in cheesy synths and fanfares without excluding the heroic bombast of tension and suspense on which the plot relies. The creators’ notes to Wehrmeijer’s recommended “big and epic” — but also “sparkly,” a perfect summation of the overall vibe here. Wehrmeijer’s previous work has included several shorts and other animated projects like Spirit Riding Free and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, but her work for She-Ra is a strategic level up, one that will hopefully open more doors for this versatile musician.

Bolbbalgan4: Sachungijib II Kkoch Bon Nabi
(2020.05.13)

There are only a handful of true “indie” groups in South Korea that are popular by more than word of mouth. I would not say Bolbbalgan4 is one of them anymore, though they do a very good impression of the “indie sound,” that is, a calculated avoidance of the artificial synths, hip-hop, and brand-name luster that comprises the typical K-pop sound. Instead, BOL4’s sound has always relied on its whisper-volume lead vocalist, and as of last month, sole member, Ahn Jiyoung. The group has released music at a steady pace, even finding some success in Japan with a re-work of their only full-length studio to date, RED PLANET. But unlike the rollicking fun of a K-pop banger that makes for an instant hit, BOL4 has always come off as a bit more cerebral, the lyrical content of their songs just as important as the sound, one that lovingly emulates, rather than cynically mimics, a 8.0 Pitchfork review. That kind of sentiment seems to water down what BOL4 does, though, and it’s more complicated than that: in a sea of bad-ass angst and chipper aegyo, BOL4 are a welcome antidote, part the-boring-bits of a proper K-pop EP and part but-respectfully-authentic passion for the acoustic singer-songwriter sound. Take “Counseling,” where Jiyoung blurts out a series of self-recriminations, doubts, and bitterness: “I have good memories / I think I was really happy once. I want to live like a child / I don’t think I am […] I think I should say sorry / I am not, I am not. I hope you’re unhappy.” The gentle setting for these jewels belie their radicalness, the warm aura making palatable what by any other means seems humorously incongruous next to her sisters on the chart who are currently chanting “I can’t talk to you / I’m a little excited oh nanananana.”

Bear McCreary: Outlander (Original Television Soundtrack: Season 5)
(2020.05.15)

Bear McCreary is a jack of all trades: Rather than fall into the genre rut that a lot of composers fall into (Abel Korzeniowski, Junkie XL), McCreary has kept his options and his horizons open: he’s composed music for horror films, but also critically-acclaimed video games, B-level motion pictures, and for the last five years, the Outlander television series, now premiering its fifth season. It’s easy to fall into a rut when you’re bound to the same themes, endlessly pouring old melodies into new bottles — what was an interesting novelty in season 1 hit its peak in season 2, when McCreary got to take the familiar sounds of the iconic Scottish Highlands and filter them through the French Baroque, a truly inspired collection of interpolations that brought a decadent brightness to the sometimes dour mists of the moors. McCreary’s work since then has remained positively steady, though unremarkable, giving the show the soundscape it desperately needs, but not necessarily wants. Season 5’s soundtrack keeps the thread going, offering more iterations of the “The Skye Boat Song” and “The Fiery Cross,” amidst the few novelties he’s allowed to offer. It’s comfortable territory for him by now, and it shows. The soundtrack is none the less for it, balancing its gentle and sometimes sweeping romantic strings with carefully construed dramatic arcs, and if I was at all able to devote the time that a series like this demands, I have no doubt I’d still enjoy it as much, but never more, than I did the first two seasons.

TXT: THE DREAM CHAPTER: ETERNITY
(2020.05.18)

Last year, BTS-labelmates TXT (TOMORROW x TOGETHER) made one of the best debuts of the year with THE DREAM CHAPTER: STAR, the perfect remedy for the surge of dark electro and tropical-house anthems pouring out of boy bands old and new alike. Its cheerful effervescence was replicated in their quick follow-up THE DREAM CHAPTER: MAGIC. This month’s ETERNITY edition mixes things up, adding a bit of funk to the group’s playbook with tracks like “Drama” and adolescent distress with “Can’t You See Me?” While the EP as a whole doesn’t hold up to its predecessors, I was pleasantly surprised to see TXT holding up strong after three mini-albums. The individual members have still failed to make any impression on me, and I think the group still has a long way to go to prove they are more than what their label can afford them to be, but it’s been fun seeing what Big Hit can come up with for their more conventional group outside of the pressures that BTS must necessarily impose upon them now.

Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated Side B
(2020.05.21)

It’s an understatement to point out how disappointing Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated was after the magnum opus E-MO-TION. While it made my honorable mentions list, I find it hard remembering more than a handful of songs off of this album: I just never go back to it in the same way that I still do its predecessor. And just like E-MO-TION, Jepsen has released a Side B, one that finally unearths the true successor. While there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking on Dedicated Side B, it does pose one question re: the decision-making process for her albums: Jepsen now has a proven track record of coming to an album with dozens of amazing songs that never make the official cut. So what prompts an artist or record label to choose a “Julien” over a “Stay Away“? While some songs are simply evident (bright, unstoppable hooks, big-name co-producers, demographic obligations), sometimes the choices seem less focused and more optimistic, perhaps reckless. Maybe Side B is a bit more generic and lacks a big number like “Now That I Found You” or “Too Much,” but it’s everything I wanted the original to be, which is to say, it lacks the hiccups like “I’ll Be Your Girl” and “Right Words Wrong Time” that slow the original down. It’s a pitch-perfect companion, one that expands upon positively, rather than overwhelms the listener with inferior cuts. It’s nice to know that we can at least count on the Queen of Endless Pop Hits for that.

Terence Blanchard: Da 5 Bloods (Original Motion Picture Score)
(2020.05.29)

What was that I just said about Netflix muck? Looks like the streaming service just released the month’s, and possibly the year’s, most gorgeous original soundtrack. The film it’s attached to, Da 5 Bloods, is directed by Academy Award-winner Spike Lee and follows four Vietnam veterans who return to the country in search of their squad leader and a buried treasure. The film’s release is still two weeks away, so there’s no telling if it will live up to the promise of Blanchard’s score, but if it’s any indication, we only have amazing things to look forward to. What stands out to me is just how traditional Da 5 Bloods, is; unlike some of Blanchard’s earlier scores, like BlacKkKlansman, this one is wholly traditional, utilizing the entire breadth of an orchestra’s strings and brass to indulge in the sort of heavy, heart-tugging romance and tragedy that accompanies any high-stakes war drama. The themes are as arresting as any I’ve heard in well over a year — listen to the particular James Horner-level pathos in “MLK Assassinated” or “Rice Paddies.” I’m quite content to eat my words when a score like this passes my way, and fairly certain this will be the soundtrack to beat in the upcoming months.

Lady Gaga: Chromatica
(2020.05.29)

Several music critics will have you believing that Lady Gaga is the last true pop star on the planet, but I would like to posit that Lady Gaga is only one of the most prominent spokespersons for pop itself, the type of artist who embraces her far-reaching celebrity, wanton desire for hooks upon hooks, and brazen (and successful) pillaging of any trend that will have her at the top. Her obvious endgame is Madonna-level popularity, and she’s made absolutely no qualms about playing every trick in the book from Eurodance, to controversial music videos and collabs, to the surest-bet and safest collabs of the last 12 months. The latter points to her high-profile duets with both Ariana Grande, a pop star in her own ascendancy, and BLACKPINK, YouTube’s favorite K-pop girl-group. Critics might call Taylor Swift calculating, but every pop star has to compromise artistic freedom with commercial reach, and the very, very best of them, find the sweet middle ground, right about where you will find Chromatica nestled in among the young, fresh wildcard Future Nostalgia and the smart, fun, indie-approved Dedicated Side B. Now that the album has capitulated after a pointless delay, it’s easy to see how Gaga could have believed the global pandemic would never reach the invincible shores of Chromatica — she announced a huge stadium tour as late as the first week of March, back when festivals like Ultra Music were already calling in rain checks. But Chromatica wasn’t immune, and rather than postpone the album a year or more, Gaga let go and released this huge follow-up, foregoing what was sure to be heavy rotations on the late-show circuit, clubs, and outdoor music festivals. Was the album worth the wait? Yeah, it was, and it makes the hokey visuals all the more unnecessary, the biggest superfluous hook on the entire album, one filled with monster 90’s house grooves and sizzling synths. Like a lot of pop music before it, it’s rooted in the near-past, the one just old enough to seem part-nostalgic and part-exotic to Millennials drawing from wells as deep as Amber’s “This is Your Night“‘s just audible deep-in-the-eardrums wub while out waiting in the long line to spend a night at the Roxbury, to the cool vibes of Robin S.’s “Show Me Love.” It’s more than a return to Gaga’s The Fame sound because it’s a sound that was only ever put on pause for more intimate projects like A Song is Born and Joanne that grabbed for something, anything, that would retain the spotlight after Art Pop tanked. But to be clear, Art Pop slapped, and everything in between it and Chromatica was just a strategic distraction, an elaborate show of smoke and mirrors meant to make everyone appreciate the magic of Lady Gaga once again.

April 2020: Highlights

It’s been another long month of uncertainty, stay-at-home orders, and streaming concert videos, the last a somewhat soothing balm to ease the blow of a virus that has wiped out any sense of security basically everywhere except South Korean, and not getting that Lady Gaga album that might have made it all just a little easier to deal with. Predictably, the music industries around the world scaled back and postponed in anticipation of more lucrative times, and we were left with a fraction of the music that would normally be rolled out to start heralding the great Song of the Summer Battle. But it hasn’t been a total blank and we did get some interesting releases in a variety of genres — here are a few that stood out.

(G)I-DLE: I Trust
(2020.04.06)

Up until now, (G)I-DLE has been the group to go to for straight-up tough-girl bangers like “Maze” and “Latata.” Their follow-up EP, I Made, paved no inroads, delivering more of the same generic, tropical-house that has been clogging K-pop the past few years. Luckily, the group has done a minor overhaul with I Trust, taking the moody lust of last year’s one-off “Lion,” and creating a whole EP around a sound less focused on getting bodies out of seats, than taking people outside of their bodies altogether. “Oh my god,” the lead track off of I Trust, is something of a red herring, not as cerebral as it wants to be, but certainly more dramatic, shifting the tempo abruptly into neutral just as soon as it seems to be taking off. These moments that give pause are scattered throughout this more somber side of (G)I-DLE. While the collection does rely a bit too heavily on trendy trap-hooks that set a very short expiration date on its longevity, it’s a nice, new color for the group, the more serious right of passage on any girl-group’s mood ring. (G)I-DLE wear it well, as I expect they would a big summer bop and winter ballad, too.

Anly: Sweet Cruisin’
(2020.04.08)

It would seem like the Anlys of the world are a dime a dozen now, so ubiquitous you can’t click a Related Artists link on Spotify without being bombarded by the same ten or so indie-bent singer-songwriters signed to major labels. Okinawa-born Anly’s origin story isn’t unique: the Millennial fairy tale-template is strong in this artist who grew up listening to her father’s music collection and began releasing and playing her own songs straight out of high school, gaining traction with modern gimmicks like iPhone-filmed music videos, pushing the “genre-less” party line, and boasting large streaming numbers. She was signed to a major on the promise of just two singles. But the music holds up well, though I’m not sure if “genre-less” is the correct term for Sweet Cruisin’, so much as “indecisive,” the kind of record that careens between swinging acoustic-prominent J-pop jams like “We’ll Never Die” and “Sunshine,” and mellow hip-hop like “Sleep” in an attempt to distinguish itself from more over-produced outfits by purposely maintaining a bit of a rough, DIY aesthetic that offers the illusion of authenticity, a sound now as marketable as any idol’s. There’s an audience for this kind of music, and while I might not be it, I can appreciate what Anly is doing within the confines of the box she’s built herself into.

Spell: Opulent Decay
(2020.04.10)

A minor avalanche of great metal albums have been release throughout April, so it’s a real shame that I just haven’t been in the mood to listen to and enjoy them as much as I normally would. I don’t have any explanation for this, aside from the inability to give the genre the concentration and consideration it deserves lately. Aside from Dawn of Solace’s Waves and Stallion’s Slaves of Time, Spell’s Opulent Decay is the first metal album I’ve enjoyed since 2020 kicked off, and even now I’m at a loss to articulate what distinguishes it from other albums in its sub-genre. The album is steeped in early 80’s hard rock, with its immediate influences being groups like Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult, though I hear a lot of debut-era Ghost in these songs, too (themselves drawing from the same wells in their first years). It’s full of decent hooks covered in a tell-tale funereal gloom, and guided first by the dominant guitar work and then the thin, somewhat incongruous vocals. But it all works, even when nothing feels particularly original, and while I’m under no impression this will be making many year-end lists, I have found it a treat to chew on this past week, a kind of aperitif that I hope will stimulate my appetite for more in the coming months.

Nanaka Suwa: So Sweet Dolce
(2020.04.15)

If you’re a young seiyuu looking to make the transition to solo idol star, the history of the genre has ensured there are plenty of models available to emulate. Nanaka Suwa seems to be pulling from a variety of sources, among them veterans like Luna Haruna and Aya Uchida, but especially Ayami Muto and Yui Ogura. The latter is proving a particular inspiration, not just in visuals, but in sound. Suwa’s debut album So Sweet Dolce is something of a concept album, with each song focused around exactly what its titles suggest: sweets. With titles like “Donut Ring World,” “CHOCOLATE PHRASE,” “MACAROON LOVE,” and “POPCORN no Kumo (Popcorn Cloud),” the album goes all in, though the lyrical content and music itself isn’t anything different than so much upbeat idol-pop before it. While the album trades in a sound as expendable and nutritionally deficient as its thematic content, I’d argue that its sincerity and commitment give it some lee-way: junk food never promises anything more than a pleasing and evanescent mouth-feel and delicious sugar rush, followed by a crash that leaves the consumer lethargic and unsatisfied. On that front, this album comes fresh out of Wonka’s factory, perhaps all the better to keep it so short and so sweet. Suwa doesn’t bring anything new to this genre that you can’t already get from someone like Ogura, but for those who can’t get enough of this sound, and the endless parade of pretty women in crinoline who represent it, then as the title track says, prepare for some “uncontrollable crush vibes.”

Who-ya extended: wyxt.
(2020.04.15)

Anime tie-ins won’t be the first or the last time I will see Who-ya on my radar if they keep this up: sampled at random, the debut album wyxt. took me a bit by surprise. Not much is known about Who-ya except that it features the voice of a gifted 20-something who hits all the right dramatic heights for the type of guitar-driven themes common in shounen. The album also incorporates just enough synths to keep things clipping at a very nice, quasi post-hardcore pace. I listened to this one around the same time as the new miyavi album, so while I’m bound to draw some comparisons, this album has a lot more studio spit-and-polish than the latter’s just plain polish, incorporating more bells and whistles like on “REC ON,” where some dubstep-lite makes an unfortunate appearance, or on “G.O.A.T” where all the hooks are electronic. It’s a true hybrid of an album, fusing rock, balladry, and electro in a way that shows modest promise.

CHUNG HA: “Stay Tonight”
(2020.04.27)

I have been waiting all year for K-pop to wake up, to give me the first glimpse of a genuine heart-pounding, intergalactic, stars-collide hit. I really did not expect that hit to come from CHUNG HA, who until now, has released some pretty good dance-adjacent solo songs after a stint in short-lived girl-group I.O.I., but nothing of the caliber of a “Stay Tonight.” The energy of this song reminds me a lot of my favorite song of 2013, Kim Sori’s “Dual Life.” It’s a knock-you-on-your-backside song from a somewhat out-of-left-field performer that you never thought would be good enough to attract the kind of songwriting that could elevate them from the lower tiers. That’s not to say this will send CHUNG HA to the top of the heap — after “Dual Life,” I never heard anything about Kim Sori again, but wow, wouldn’t it be nice? In addition, the music video for “Stay Tonight” takes this bouncy house song to another level: the precision of the choreography accompanied by some clever visuals and cuts make this a feast as much for the eyes as the ears. This is the first time I have really felt the spirit of K-pop this year, and though it’s sad that it took until late April, that click you hear is the resounding connection of the hope of normalcy restored.

April: Da Capo // OH MY GIRL: NONSTOP // GWSN: the Keys
(2020.04.22) // (2020.04.27) // (2020.04.28)

K-pop has become one of the few East Asian music industries that relies on overseas sales to float, so it’s not surprising that with that particular market (both nearby Japan, and far away Europe/United States) off-limits during the coronavirus pandemic, K-pop is eager to start getting back into the release cycle to churn out whatever revenue they can wring out of their groups. And since South Korea is one of the few countries to have managed their outbreak competently they can afford to — the last half of this month has finally seen glimmers of a return of regular, bigger-ticket brands, and release schedules, with mini-albums by girls-groups (G)I-DLE, Apink, April, OH MY GIRL, and GWSN. It was a nice surprise since the three latter are all groups that I regularly follow and have a genuine interest in. It’s fair to say most of them started out as spackle to fill the space left behind by Girls’ Generation, but have put a lot of effort towards breaking out of the mold. None of these is a game-changer, but they are undoubtedly strong, with April’s “LALALILALA” being the big standout for me. The track relies on a 90’s eurodance via T-ara hook that shimmers in all the right, bubbly places, not unlike one of WJSN’s summer hits (or even Apink’s own, “Dumhdurum“). OH MY GIRL’S “Saljjak Seollesseo (Nonstop)” is the most forgettable, shooting for a broad, tropical-house vibe that, while fun, leaves it rather indistinguishable. That leaves GWSN’s “BAZOOKA!” squarely in the middle of the two, the ultimate palette cleanser. What matters most in the end is that getting to compare, contrast, dissect, and pick a favorite among multiple comebacks is the real victory here, one of the first and few luxuries fans can indulge in after a bleak winter of bad news and an industry reluctant to roll out any significant music during a time very few people were paying attention. We’re not out of the desert yet, but what a welcome oasis.

March 2020: Highlights

March 2020, one of the longest months all of us have ever lived through, has been tough on us all. When Japan was first hit with the coronavirus and closed its schools for what is now looking like an optimistic two weeks, Avex Trax, perhaps to alleviate boredom, perhaps to atone for its string of live cancellations, began uploading several full-length HD concert videos on its YouTube page. This playlist is where I spent the majority of my free time this month, endlessly queuing up one video after another — discovering some new favorites, revisiting classics, mindlessly consuming any mix of audio and visual that had even a small chance of distracting me. Now this month will always be just as full of this memory for me, too, and for that I am grateful. And though I had a harder time concentrating on any hard rock/metal releases, and soundtracks are pretty much non-existent as theaters are closed and films have been postponed, we still had a month full of music releases to help us cope; here are some of the interesting ones.

Niall Horan: Heartbreak Weather
(2020.03.13)

Ex-One Direction members have unleashed a slew of solo records in the last four months, beginning with Harry Styles’s Fine Line in December of 2019, followed by Louis Tomlinson’s Walls in February, and now Niall Horan’s Heartbreak Weather this month. Each of these albums has taken on a distinct identity unique to the individual, but one thing they all have in common is their adherence to the 1D playbook. As Chris DeVille sums up, “[T]heir solo careers suggest they [want] to escape One Direction’s structure, not its substance.” This is not a complaint: all of these albums have been, to a degree, enjoyable, and all of them have had at least a couple of above-average songs. But while Styles carefully crafted a classic-rock Bowie persona and Tomlinson a 90’s Brit-pop avatar, Horan seems torn between two styles, which wrestle almost track by track on Heartbreak Weather. Which you like better will depend on how you prefer your pop: synth or acoustic. The two are sequenced throughout the album to ensure an equal distribution to avoid front- or back-loading either half, and though the soft-rock bits are okay, it’s the synth-pop songs that I find myself returning to over and over again. The arena-sized title track, “Arms of a Stranger,” “Cross Your Mind” — how perfect the album would be with more of this and less “Dear Patience.” It’s a nice follow-up to his largely forgettable debut, and as all of the albums released this month can attest to, it’s unlucky release date seems to have gotten it buried under the national traumas that are even now still rippling around the world. But for those of us looking for any form of comfort and taste of normalcy we can get, this album been an unexpected companion, the last breath we all took together before getting pulled under.

lol: lightning // Re:Complex: Neo Gravity
(2020.03.18)

Last month, I lamented the dirth of co-ed groups, noting that J-pop tends to be a tad friendlier toward the outliers, and in the wake of AAA’s hiatus, we got two torch-bearers in J-pop: a new album by their official replacements lol, and the debut of Re:Complex, the 13-member talent-competition winners from Kansai who released their debut single almost exactly two years ago. These two albums have a lot in common, most notably their styles — both use simple and frequent vocal trade-offs set to the kind of upbeat but generic dance-pop that AAA perfected in their early albums, but eventually moved past for a bit of personality. Both of these albums are extremely competent and enjoyable, but they lack something very important: a unique personality that elevates them beyond filler. Of course, competence is the preferable substitute for grand surface impression, the type of music that values face and personality over any attempt at shooting-for-average singles that run rampant in the idol industry, but really, who are these people? I can’t keep any of the members of either of these groups straight, and if lol’s 2018 concert tour -scream- is any indication, just about any skilled dancer and vocalist could have stepped in to understudy in the middle of the show and I wouldn’t have noticed. I’m not sure if this is a failure on the part of management, who can clearly spot talent, but not genius, or if it’s a reluctance to put in the resources to coax a star out of any one of these members who might just be waiting for the extra push. Or is the lukewarm response to a co-ed group like lol not worth the investment? Questions to ponder while these albums rotate in, enjoyable, but unmemorable.

The Weeknd: After Hours
(2020.03.20)

I’ve devoted enough space here to The Weeknd already, and the guy really doesn’t need any more press, so I’ll make this quick. After Hours is everything I’ve come to expect from Abel Tesfaye, for better and worse: the lead tracks are the sharpest knives in this shed, with all the glossy, stylized production only money can buy, while the album tracks go back to the Tesfaye of mixtape lore, slowing the album down considerably by soaking in the moody, navel-gazing bathwater that is now routine for him. I don’t mind these moments musically, though lyrically they leave a lot to be desired, but I prefer the album’s propulsive moments over the dirges, so the first half lags and the second half doesn’t feel long enough, and as a particular bone to pick, the synthwave bits don’t go in far enough or long enough to feel like a narrative vision, rather than shallow experimentation for novelty’s sake. So, it’s a lot like Starboy, with the best bits being better than the former’s best bits, and thankfully, not as long.

The World Standard: Wasuta BEST
(2020.03.25)

Every idol group has a gimmick, the thing that tries to make them stand out from the hundreds of groups they compete with for attention and sales. Wasuta’s, aside from having the classy, high-budget iDOL Street angle, is a mix of Dempa-lite and Momoiro-eccentricity, buffeted by the colorful bleeps of video game onomatopoeia and cat-ear headbands. It’s curious that a group with such a haphazard, kitchen-sink approach has managed to reach their 5th anniversary intact, when so many equally solid iDOL Street groups haven’t; Cheeky Parade, for example, was a first cousin to the aesthetic and they disbanded in their fifth year as well. Uh-oh…foreshadowing? A greatest hits collection like Wasuta BEST doesn’t exactly alleviate the fear. As a representation of a group’s best work, it doesn’t get more definitive than this: a 25-track odyssey through all of the fun, nonsense, and quirky curios the group has shared with us over the years, from debut single “Kanzennaru IDOL” to fan-favorites like “PLATONIC GIRL” (unless by “definitive” you mean “exhaustive,” in which case AAAs’ 15th Anniversary All Time Best -thanx AAA lot-, with over 70 tracks, takes the cake). At this point, Wasuta is one of the few existing all-in idol groups from whom I genuinely look forward to new releases, and it would be a real shame if they went the way of Kobushi FACTORY and GEM and PASSPO, though it seems inevitable. Being a fan of Japanese idol groups is often part guilty pleasure and part learning to cherish their ephemeral existence. Successful greatest-hits collections like these, though not essential, are able to wrap it all up in one neat, happily-ever-after, leaving us plenty to remember the group by when they inevitably pass into The Great Idol Beyond.

Haruka Kudo: KDHR
(2020.03.25)

Voice actress Haruka Kudo, not to be confused with former-Morning Musume member Haruka Kudou released her debut mini-album, and of all this month’s releases, aside from iri’s Sparkle, it has probably surprised me the most. I’m unfamiliar with the extensive work she’s done with the intimidating universe that is the BanG Dream! franchise, because like so many voice actors, it’s easy to get lost in the sheer amount of available content, but anyone who lists hide as a favorite guitarist and puts her money where her admiration is by actually playing guitar, gets an instant shift to the front of the line. I wouldn’t say KDHR makes exceptional on any of these promising bits of information, culminating in a sound that is very much like the bread-and-butter work of seiyuu before her, but I do appreciate the emphasis on the guitar work here, which in moments rips out riffs as hard as BAND-MAID, such as on opening track “MY VOICE,” when it’s not drowned in layers of synths. It’s a promising collection that hopefully foreshadows a full-length with just a bit more attention to originality.

Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia
(2020.03.27)

Amidst the tragic, history-making events of March, Dua Lipa held an Instagram live chat on Monday, March 23 where she tearfully announced that her highly-anticipated sophomore album Future Nostalgia would be released at the end of the week, instead of the original release date of April 3. Releasing an album during a global pandemic is tough enough, but it looks like the primary impetus behind the decision was the album leaking in full online, a heart-breaking incident for any artist in the best of circumstances. Initial reviews for this album were nearly all raves: The Guardian called it “viscerally brilliant,” Rolling Stone, a “studio 54-worthy disco revival,” NME, “powerful pop perfection.” The album is a tight, LP-sized 37-minute long journey through Latin freestyle, early 00’s girl-group pop, swelling disco strings and cool, chunky synths set to slick modern production, culminating in heart-tugging anthems like “Don’t Stop Now,” “Levitating,” and the album’s show-stopping “Physical.” Mega-producer Stuart Price’s magic touch shimmers all over this record, and his influence is palpable even on the songs he isn’t a part of, with many songs like “Hallucinate” recalling the audacity of his work on Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor. It’s easy to think the universal praise is just over-hype, but lest the album seems too sterile, it does miss the bullseye in spots, most notably the final tracks “Good in Bed,” and “Boys Will Be Boys,” which joins Taylor Swift’s “The Man” in good intentions but dull execution. Unlike recent albums that tack on eight or ten extra filler tracks for streaming stats, Lipa practices a graceful discretion, one we can look forward to being appended by later deluxe editions full of tantalizing bonus tracks (which has already been confirmed) that will keep this album fresh in the ears of listeners who are craving more, or who might still be too distracted to tune in. But that’s hardly enough to take away Future Nostalgia‘s true accomplishment: making good on pop’s promise to create music that makes you smile, that makes you dance, and that makes you proud.

5 Seconds of Summer: CALM
(2020.03.27)

Boy-band concepts have evolved throughout the decades, from The Beatles, to Menudo, to *NSYNC, to 5 Seconds of Summer, but the point has stayed the same: to create music that makes people, especially young women, feel appreciated. 5SOS went all-in on this on 2018’s Youngblood, though by then they were already veterans of the genre. CALM packs the same lusty earnestness into its 40 minutes: “What a blessing to feel your love,” they sing in “Red Desert,” “Sometimes when I look at you, I see my wife,” in “Teeth,” and later, “I’ll make up for all of your tears / I’ll give you the best years,” and “You’re the only thing that I think I got right / I’ll never give you away.” These are psalms for lovers, odes to significant others, and devotionals for the rose-colored and deluded. While most songs linger in these early utopian stages of amour, they even make angst sexy, as on “Easier,” where even anger can’t help but melt into a helpless confession: “Right now, it’s so hard to blame you / ‘Cause you’re so damn beautiful.” They’re exactly what we expect from our boy bands, delivering on every front; it helps that the tracks keep it simple, the production sizzling with hooks and ardor. Like their predecessors, whatever CALM lacks in genuine self-awareness, it more than makes up for in heart.

The Birthday Massacre: Diamonds
(2020.03.27)

There are fewer things more comforting during times of rapid, intense change than something familiar, something that offers a bit of stability. The Birthday Massacre have now released eight studio albums since 1999; I’ve been around for seven of those and I can confidently say that I’m always going to get exactly what I expect and want from this group: a nostalgic, early 00’s Hot Topic-goth aesthetic set to chunky 80’s-inspired synth-rock. The Birthday Massacre has become one of my most reliable go-tos, and this month, there was nothing more reassuring than an album that delivered nothing more than what a group has now mastered and knows best. Diamonds is not the best BM album — it’s not even as great as 2017’s Under Your Spell and feels a bit on the short side, but it’s as solid as it comes, and for fans who have been in it for the long-haul, it’s like a hug from a friend you haven’t seen in years. The Birthday Massacre might be short on original ideas at this point, might be relying a bit too hard on that iconic aesthetic to do all the visual work, and yeah, it’s hard not to argue that I’m giving them a pass, but no music is released in a vacuum, and Diamonds, an album by an independent group set to be even more hard-hit by the dip in album sales and touring revenue this spring, deserve recognition for making the brave choice to move forward with the release of this album, helping to keep at least one thing feeling consistent and reliable. If you like what you hear, don’t hesitate to support them.

Kalen Anzai: “FAKE NEWS REVOLUTION” PV
(2020.03.31)

Our eleventh-hour entry this month is the PV for new Internet-It Girl Kalen Anzai’s “FAKE NEWS REVOLUTION.” Anzai has generated a lot of buzz since she debuted last year with a slew of Y2K-inspired visuals and a face so digitally edited for perfection that it didn’t take long for rumors to start circulating that Anzai was a computer-generated cyber-idol: one of her first live performances that leaned heavily on holographic visuals didn’t help. But, as it turns out, Kalen Anzai is a real, flesh-and-blood woman, and her potential to generate capital has just rocketed thanks to the announcement that she would be playing Ayumi Hamasaki in a drama based on the “fictional” life story of the legendary J-pop singer’s rise to fame within Avex — the same label to which Anzai is signed. Till now, Anzai’s whole aesthetic has been turn-of-the-millennium nostalgia, a retro-futurist amalgamation of hyper-CGI, shiny metallic and rubbery-plastic couture, and boxy, vintage computer screens, an aesthetic that recalls the peak years of Avex Trax, and notably, the salad days of their female solo-singers like hitomi, Ami Suzuki, and Ayumi Hamasaki. It is the last that Anzai is most indebted to, especially in “FAKE NEWS REVOLUTION,” which, like her earlier singles, sounds specifically designed to evoke late 90’s/early 00’s Avex-pop from Favorite Blue to LOVEppears- and Duty-era Hamasaki, with its twinkling keyboards, soft, major-key production, and urgent twists in the chorus. As someone who grew up on this sound, I’ve been very intrigued with what Avex is doing with Anzai, even if Anzai herself just seems like an avatar at the moment, a convenient hanger on which to project an era she seems, by age alone, to be somewhat ignorant and disinterested in, and the tabloid-heavy drama that fans and non-cold-blooded humans are eager to witness. In that sense, the music video and song are a success, adding to the carefully-constructed narrative of her origins. But what really matters is what will happen once Anzai is allowed to move past M and let us see the person behind the persona, an identity tethered to the present — at least as much as Avex and pop, as an institution, allows any of that, as Ayumi can sit down and tell her all about.

Timing is everything

The Weeknd on SNL

How long should an album rollout last? This is the question buried in almost every review of The Weeknd’s After Hours, from Micah Peters at The Ringer to Tom Breihan at Stereogum. Both highlight The Weeknd’s exquisite, and now anachronistic, performances on Saturday Night Live, the former by starting his article saying that the night of March 7 “belongs to an entirely different era of human life,” the latter, “[i]t happened 12 days ago, and it belongs to a different age.” Most album rollouts aren’t going to get interrupted by a global pandemic, but every artist brave and unfortunate enough to release new music this month, from Adam Lambert, to 5 Seconds of Summer, to Dua Lipa, has seen their work sliced in half: the hope, joy, and careful anticipation that preceded the full set, and the mid-pandemic full-lengths brought into a world where everyone is reading the news more than ever, and listening to music less. You would think the sudden anxiety and fear gripping the world would have people turning to music as a palliative, a reassuring, escapist activity with the power to distract, but Rolling Stone confirms that “[d]uring the week of March 13th through March 19th — the week restaurants and bars across the nation closed and more Americans self-quarantined — streams dropped 7.6 percent. […] [and p]hysical sales plummeted 27.6 percent last week, while digital album sales dropped 12.4 percent.” According to Billboard, only 1.52 million records (combining CDs, vinyl records, cassettes, and digital) were sold in the last full week of March, with physical sales suffering the most at a 36% drop.

For many, if not most, people, music is a social activity, the sound that passes between bodies crammed into bars, movie theaters, festivals, sporting events, arenas, car trips, house parties, and senior proms. With all of these effectively verboten as social distancing measures are implemented to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the soundtracks pumped out by the music industry explicitly to facilitate and cushion these moments, have gone with it. Nothing has illustrated better what an outlier people who listen to music on their own — whether seriously, critically, or just because — actually are. One is not inherently better, or more valuable, than the other, but it’s an important distinction when we’re facing a near-future of further cancellations and postponements. Lady Gaga, whose big sound has always relied on the acoustics of stadiums with sprawling blue sky, has already pushed back the release of Chromatica, her highly-awaited comeback album that, as of this writing, is still scheduled to be promoted with the six-show Chromatica Ball tour.

There are two sides to this: while some major labels with banner-artists like Gaga are forced to postpone to a more lucrative time when people are, perhaps, more readily willing to lose their bodies and wallets to dance, in an effort to recoup the massive amount of money invested in these projects, other artists are either reluctantly rolling with the circumstances (The Weeknd, Adam Lambert, 5 Seconds of Summer), or taking the optimistic route of sharing the music in hopes of applying a sort of balm to the circumstances (Dua Lipa). With the exception of Lady Gaga, all of these artists campaigned long and hard on their albums, albums totally unmoored from what now seems a borderline-excessive promotional blitz: Lambert already released an EP with half of VELVET titled VELVET: Side A back in September of last year, complete with all of the glamour and glitter that usually accompanies his eras, 5 Seconds of Summer started releasing singles a year ago with the grungy, self-indulgent “Easier,” The Weeknd’s “Heartless” first dropped in November 2019, and Dua Lipa began what was (and make no mistake, is) her imperial phase with the disco-pop maximalist “Don’t Start Now” in November of 2019, followed by the brilliant “Physical” two months ago.

You can’t help wondering if all of these albums, obviously through no fault of their own, would have been better served if released in 2019 or early 2020, their buzz build-ups cut in half. The K-pop model is one extreme alternative: a comeback trailer is teased on a Monday morning and the album or mini-album usually drops anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks later. Short, sweet, simple. Of course we are dealing with a totally different business model in an industry that is explicitly designed to cycle through talent and songs as quickly as possible. What’s the point of keeping a singer busy promoting a mini-album for longer than two months when they can get more exposure and coin appearing on talk shows, dramas, and red carpets? The music can often be only one small portion of a K-pop celebrity’s overall revenue, the term “artist” a relative, loose term. Instead the West seems to be increasingly adapting Japanese business tactics: from releasing a number of singles before an album drops over a lengthy period of time, rather than after, to releasing multiple collectible versions to capitalize on the number of sales from hardcore fans. Taken as a whole, the Western paradigm we see in these luxurious rollouts are a testament to the game-plans for those who have their eyes on the long-term prizes of both critical and popular acclaim. And the prize, as illustrated by these recent albums, are worth fighting for.

The Weeknd’s After Hours is everything we’ve come to expect from Abel Tesfaye: slick and cool, the songs slide from self-indulgent R&B missives to the Max Martin-helmed, synthwave-heavy beats of “Blinding Lights” and “In Your Eyes,” all pummeled into line by Tesfaye’s magnificent, soaring vocals. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia is the Kylie Minogue-comeback we’ve all been waiting for since Kiss Me Once, all credit to Lipa and her team who have wedded the sound of Latin freestyle to late 90’s/early 00’s pop, evoking both the titular nostalgia and a future that now hinges more than ever on our present response and action, the capacity to which Future Nostalgia offers a bit of emotional respite and hope, the tantalizing promise of a return to the things we might once have lamented and now long for: Normalcy. Ennui. A news cycle so slow that lifestyle pieces about Goop candles serve as national conversation. And for many people, the opportunity to put on their most expensive dress, uncomfortable shoes, and heaviest eye liner, step outside, and share less than a six-foot space with a beautiful stranger.

Spring and early summer are typically the months when big-name albums like these, hoping to cash in on all the warm-weather activities, begin their early chart climbs: claiming Song of the Summer is one of the most coveted, if not revered, music traditions in any country, and the climb can be a slow-burning one, best started early and accompanied by a touring schedule that supports enormous gatherings of young people looking to fill hot, empty vacation hours (it wasn’t until last week that The Weeknd and Dua Lipa finally hit #2 and #3 on the Hot 100 respectively). The extraordinary run of releases we’re looking at today just happened to fall in the middle and back-end of March, the same time, as Random J Pop says, Miss Corona set out on her own Contamination world tour. What kind of changes the long-term effects of an industry set to lose a lot of money and cachet in the months to come will wreak on our long-held musical traditions, if any, from physical releases to time-frames remains to be seen, though recent history can offer some hope.

In March of 2011, Japan suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami that took and changed the lives of thousands of people, and understandably, the music industry was quick to step back during a time of national upheaval and mourning. Most music releases were postponed for weeks and some forced to make quick changes: Yasutaka Nakata’s group capsule was set to release its newest album, titled — and you want to talk about poor timing — KILLER WAVE (the album was quickly and generically re-titled WORLD OF FANTASY and new copies shipped, though you can still find old promo copies floating around on Ebay with the original title). But the country did find a way to heal and move forward, the albums were eventually released, and things returned to normal for many, many people, especially the many not directly effected. Perhaps it’s too optimistic to compare and hope the same of a disaster set to effect millions of more people around the entire world, whether on a psychological or economic level, but it does offer some semblance of light at the end of this dark tunnel.

As for what will happen to these albums, all phenomenal and now tragic in their own way, that is even more uncertain (some are even making quick changes a la capsule like Sam Smith, who is re-titling their new album originally called To Die For). What will happen to Chromatica or Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III isn’t any less certain, now looking to be welcomed in a post-pandemic world that in the present seems like it may never come, and will certainly feel fundamentally altered from the world we took for granted, the world we knew before, the one more amenable to leisurely, decadent rollouts that made eight months of anticipation feel exquisite, rather than pointless. As for the rest of us, the ones sitting in bedrooms and basements and kitchens alone, and who maybe always have, this music is a comfort that won’t soon be forgotten.