Top ten East Asian pop/rock albums of 2021

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My listening veered towards the familiar when it came to East Asian pop this year, with many of this year’s top artists making second or third appearances on these year-end lists. This is totally unremarkable, considering that the most pervasive feeling I have had lately is the nagging gloom that 2020 and 2021 have actually just been one very long year, and everything bleeding together makes it hard to distinguish this year’s J-pop from last. Treading water is what you do when you’re trying not to drown, not when the environment is conducive to innovation, and so we saw a lot of trends hanging on throughout 2021, from the lasting impact of The Weeknd’s sizzling synths in “Blinding Lights,” (RYUJI IMAICHI, Lexie Lu) to the last gasps of a certain kind of aggressive dance-pop unique to mid-00s (w-inds.), warm bubble-bath Johnny’s (SixTONES, Snow Man), all the way to a doubling-down of all the familiar tropes of idol- and K- and City-pop (Yufu Terashima, TWICE, YUKIKA). Here are my top ten favorite, in no particular order:

Lexie Liu: GONE GOLD // LatuLatu: Hyakkaryoransen

Morning Musume ’21.: 16th ~ That’s J-POP // YUKIKA: TIMEABOUT,

Yufu Terashima: SURVIVAL LADY // RYUJI IMAICHI: CHAOS CITY

GENIE HIGH: GENIE STAR // TWICE: Formula of Love: O+T=<3

NiziU: U // w-inds.: 20XX “We are”

Honorable Mentions

BANDMAID: Unseen World
Sakurako Ohara: l
FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC VOYAGE
Perfume: POLYGON WAVE EP
Key: Bad Love

Top ten pop/electronic albums of 2021

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Escape continues to be the name of the game, and pop music is always happy to deliver. In particular, as Bandcamp Friday continued to honor artists with well-deserved and actually useful recognition, it was easy to fall into the synthwave spiral again, where labels like New Retro Wave and Timeslave continued to feature the best in throwback nostalgia. There are a number of new artists here, too, like Sergey Lazarev, who continues to be the king of Eurovision-pop, and Nick Jonas, who continues to elude chart success despite my repeated streams of his most ridiculed work. I can’t say great taste is the engine of this particular list, but for a year that continues to be as unsettling as ever, you could do a lot worse. Here are my ten favorite of the year, in no particular order:

Red Soda: Metatron Chronicles // Roosevelt: Polydans

Doja Cat: Planet Her // WILLOW: lately, I feel EVERYTHING

New Arcades: In the Deepest of Dreams // Nick Jonas: Spaceman

Fury Weekend: Signals // Earmake: Comsic Hero 3

Sergey Lazarev: 8 // Khalid: Scenic Drive (The Tape)

Honorable Mentions


Zara Larsson: Poster Girl
Mariah the Scientist: RY RY WORLD
Summer Walker: Still Over It
Selena Gomez: Revelación
Droid Bishop: Into the Abstract

Top ten metal/hard rock albums of 2021

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This list trended more towards hard rock than metal this year, with many bands making their usual appearance. With a year as static as 2021, it’s no surprise that old standbys provided more comfort than newer finds: Legends Chevelle and Evergrey both released fine examples of longevity at its finest, groups like Beast in Black and Greta Van Fleet continued to mine the sounds of yore for their brands of throwback power metal and 70’s dino-rock respectively, and a group like Aephanamer just kept doing whatever incredible spell-casting they do to produce another album both beautiful in sound and sight. It wasn’t the greatest year for the genre by far, but it’s a sign of my enduring trust in it that I could still find ten albums that reminded me why I never give up on metal. In no particular order, here are my ten favorite:

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The Pretty Reckless: Death by Rock and Roll // Evergrey: Escape of the Phoenix

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Chevelle: NIRATIAS // Greta Van Fleet: The Battle at Garden’s Gate

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DIAMANTE: American Dream // Unto Others: Strength

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Angels & Airwaves: Lifeforms // Beast in Black: Dark Connection

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STARSET: Horizons // Aephanemer: A Dream of Wilderness

Honorable Mentions

Khemmis: Deceiver
Dee Gees: Hail Satin
Eastern High: Halo
IOTUNN: Access All Worlds
Orden Ogan: Final Days

Top ten original soundtracks/original scores of 2021

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While films were released in theaters again, a lingering sense of hesitation remained, whether intentional or not (well, until Spider-man, I guess), as if composers are only half-heartedly putting in effort for what they know will be mostly heard piping through standard audio equipment, laptops, and even headphones as many still balk at visits to a crowded hall, preferring to huddle in front of streaming devices at home. It makes for a frustrating listening experience. Nothing feels as big and bold as some of the releases from previous years, and more scores than usual made my disappointing list than in previous years. At the same time, I found myself selecting titles by composers that have never appeared on these lists before, and that’s always a welcome change. Here are my top ten favorite scores of the year, in no particular order:

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Leo Birenberg & Zach Robinson: Cobra Kai Season 3 // Roque Banos: Explota Explota

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Aaron Boudreaux: The Wanting Mare // Inon Zur: Syberia: The World Before (Original Soundtrack)

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Isabella Summers & Brian H. Kim: Panic //  Lorne Balfe: Black Widow

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Bartosz Chajdecki: Mistrz // Richard Jacques: Guardians of the Galaxy (Original Soundtrack)

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Hans Zimmer: No Time to Die // Yoko Kanno: Cowboy Beboy

Honorable Mentions

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Salvinsky: Narita Boy (Original Game Soundtrack)
The Blake Robinson Synthetic Orchestra: Lost in Random, Vol.1 (Original Game Soundtrack)
Mattie Bye: Young Royals (Soundtrack from the Netflix Series)
Chris Wong, et al: Camellia Sisters (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Dmitry S. Silantyev: Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous (Original Soundtrack)

Top ten debut albums of 2021

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2020 was a tough year to debut but 2021 wasn’t much better. The albums on this list represent all of the experiences on the spectrum, from those being carried on a wave bigger than they could imagine, to those taking a calculated risk, to those throwing caution to the wind and just hoping for the best. Some of these albums will cast long shadows, thresholds that will be hard to meet or surpass in the future (Olivia Rodrigo), while others fell just slightly short of the mark but hint at enormous potential (CHUNG HA). But the most important and horrifying thing all of these albums did was show how relentlessly time moves forward, a steady stream of novelty that (thankfully, sometimes regretfully) refuses to ebb.

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Noriko Shibasaki: Follow my heart // Maggie Lindemann: PARANOIA

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Pink Sweat$: PINK PLANET // SG Lewis: times

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Olivia Rodrigo: SOUR // Jay Diggs: Jams

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BALLISTIK BOYZ from EXILE TRIBE: Pass The Mic // Kazaki Morinaka: Gekokujou

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Silk Sonic: An Evening with Silk Sonic // MIRAE: KILLA

Honorable Mentions

MyDearDarlin’: Dearest
Khirki: Κτηνωδία
KOTONE: RESIST
CHUNG HA: QUERENCIA
Spiritbox: Eternal Blue

Top ten remastered/reissued albums of 2021

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It’s always interesting to see what music is chosen to be exhumed by the likes of small vinyl labels, eager to press and preserve any and everything, and large corporate monoliths, eager to milk whatever they can out of streaming numbers. I respect some of these decisions and loathe others – a 25th anniversary edition of the Spice Girls’ debut album is both fun and fair, but if you’re going to re-release the Kimagure ORANGE☆ROAD soundtracks, can you please remaster them first, and include CD and digital versions? Also, how do you even categorize something like the extras from the incredible Wonder Woman 1984 soundtrack? It’s included here as it deserves recognition and fits none of the other thirty categories I’ve dreamed up to avoid just such a nightmare scenario. In any case, where all of these succeeded was in getting me to spend time with music that I hadn’t heard in a while, and to remember why I loved it so much. It also reinforced an appreciation for how the past shapes and informs the endless parade of new, an important part of any deep listener’s musical education. Here are ten of my favorite re-releases from the year, in no particular order:

Hans Zimmer: Wonder Woman 1984 Sketches // Queen Najia: missunderstood…still

Kimagure ORANGEe☆ROAD Original Soundtracks [Vinyl] // Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure? Platinum Pleasure Edition

The Midnight: Endless Summer (5 Year Anniversary) // Metallica: Metallica

Ayumi Hamasaki: Cyber TRANCE presents ayu trance // Spice Girls: Spice 25

Taylor Swift: Red (Taylor’s Version) // Craig Armstrong: Love Actually (Original Soundtrack)

Honorable Mentions

Danny Elfman: Sleepy Hollow (Music from the Motion Picture)
Kylie Minogue: Disco (Guest List Edition)
SPEED: SPEED MUSIC BOX -ALL THE MEMORIES-
Rammstein: Herzeleid XXV Anniversary Edition
SHINee: : Atlantis

Top ten most disappointing albums of 2021

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It’s best to get the bad news out of the way, so let’s power through some of the worst listening experiences you could have: not the truly awful, but the ones that missed the mark, that ones that just didn’t hit the way you wanted them to, the ones that made you re-consider, even if just for a few minutes, why you called yourself a fan in the first place, the ones that make you question the weeks or months you spent in anticipation, only to be crushed by the weight of mediocre. This list has them all: YG’s much-anticipated new boy band that we haven’t seen or heard from again in the eleven months since THE FIRST STEP : TREASURE EFFECT underwhelmed back in January, maestros dropping the ball when it seemed as if the source material already did half the work (Lady Gaga, Hans Zimmer), and artists whose significant collaborations should have warranted a lot more than their net result (Halsey). And let’s not forget “official” debuts that deserved so, so much more (CL, aespa). Though to be frank, there was nothing more disappointing this year than the ubiquitous, unrelenting, and uninspired appearance of the colon in the titles of K-pop albums. Here are the other ten, in no particular order:

TREASURE: THE FIRST STEP : TREASURE EFFECT // Lady Gaga: Dawn of Chromatica

Hans Zimmer: Dune (Original Soundtrack) // aespa: Savage

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: CANDY RACER // Halsey: If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Nicholas Britell: Cruella (Original Score) // Daniel Pemberton: Being the Ricardos (Original Soundtrack)

CL: Alpha // Red Velvet: Queendom

Top ten 2020-misses of 2021

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Each year, as the previous year’s albums that I’ve listened to for the first time pile up, I’m reminded of how little time any of us really have. All of the newsletters, E-mail blasts, magazines, music writers, YouTubers, TikTokers, and personal recommendations continue to sit impatiently as the never-ending newer releases take precedent. As those at the bottom get pushed farther down, it becomes harder and harder to justify digging down, nor does the mess accruing at the surface always allow for it. But sometimes, those trips back are rewarded, rendering what I thought were iron-clad lists totally moot. As always, I welcome the reminder that best-of lists, even personal ones like these, are only relative to the music we were exposed to and able to hear. In no particular order, here are ten of the best albums released in 2020 that I didn’t discover until 2021, and in some other better, alternate universe, might have made last year’s lists.

Sachika Misawa: I AM ME // Benjamin Grosvenor: Chopin Piano Concertos

NINA: Synthian // Marc Timon Barcelo: San Mao: The Desert Bride (Original Soundtrack)

Neon Nox: Last Stand // Robert Parker: Club 707

IVVY: Awake // Marvel83′: Metropolis

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Natsu Amano: Across The Great Divide // Ryusenkei/Hitomitoi: Talio

Best albums of 2021

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Unlike this past year, we’re going to keep the year-end lists short and sweet. Nothing here should surprise long-time readers of the blog, nor do I expect anyone to see anything that hasn’t appeared on thirty other, much better, lists. Curating these lists was tough, as much that this year had to offer was good, but a lot less was excellent. That doesn’t mean it was all bad, but it was harder to find albums and singles that really impressed and stayed with me — some categories have been fleshed out with work that wouldn’t have made an Honorable Mentions list in previous years.

We’ve got all eight categories this year, including the return of hard rock/metal, which was absent last year. Each category features ten of my favorite albums, followed by five Honorable Mentions where available. The complete list, posting schedule, and further information are as follows (note: this list will be updated with links as the posts go live):

(12/27) Top ten 2020-misses: Any album, in any genre, released in 2020 that I didn’t hear until this year.
(12/28) Top ten most disappointing: Any album, in any genre, that failed to meet expectations.
(12/29) Top ten remasters/reissues: Any remastered or reissued album from anywhere in the world, whether CD, vinyl, box set, etc.
(12/30) Top ten debut albums: Any artist who released an original studio album, or comparable EP, for the first time in 2020 from anywhere in the world.
(12/31) Top ten original soundtracks/original scores: Any original soundtrack or score composed exclusively for film, television, or video game from anywhere in the world.
(01/01) Top ten hard rock/metal: Any hard rock or metal album released by an English-speaking and/or Western band/artist.
(01/02) Top ten pop/electronic: Any pop or electronic album released by an English-speaking and/or Western band/artist.
(01/03) Top ten East Asian pop/rock: Any pop or rock album released in East Asia (especially Japan and South Korea).

Once again, these lists are not meant to be exhaustive, nor absolute: they are simply a reflection of the genres I listened to the most in 2021. In addition, a lot of great songs that never appeared on albums, or that were featured on just-okay ones were released, and I won’t be getting the chance to highlight them in this year’s lists.

Thank you to everyone who continues to visit this tiny corner of the Internet. I appreciate you all sticking with me immensely. I can’t wait to start looking back with you all, and wish everyone the best in what will hopefully be better times for all of us.

JUNK STORY

At the end of 1997, hide took a break in the studio from working on his soon-to-be-released single “ROCKET DIVE,” the first under the new recording moniker hide with Spread Beaver, which finally credited the band he had been touring with since his solo debut in 1993, to chat about the busy year ahead of him, including two new albums and a national tour.*

“I just finished a meeting with the staff about what to do next year. I can’t tell you any more, but I think I’ll be busy next year. I have full schedules from January to December. Next year, I’ll release a single [“ROCKET DIVE”] that I’m making now. As I said in the magazine interview, I formed another new band [Zilch] based in L.A. I’ll also release the band’s album and perform live concerts. And after the third solo album, with this song “ROCKET DIVE,” comes out next spring, it will be early summer. What will be the schedule from early summer to the end of the year? I’m going on a six-month tour.”

Everything proceeded roughly as hide outlined, beginning with the release of “ROCKET DIVE” on January 28, 1998. Following the single’s release, hide flew to Los Angeles to film the music video for the follow-up, “PINK SPIDER,” and to finish working on his third solo album, which would come to be called Ja,Zoo. Much of the making of the album and its music videos, as well as the funeral ceremony, footage and interviews recorded around L.A. (including Tower Records, which closed in 2006, and Jerry’s Famous Deli, which closed late last year due to the pandemic) and at Sunset Sound Studio on April 2, as well as extensive interviews and footage of his final performances pre-recorded for television on May 1, was filmed and officially documented in the video releases hIS iNVINCIBLE dELUGE eVIDENCE (1998) and hide A STORY 1998 hide LAST WORKS~121 Nichi no Kiseki (1999).

But today we know that less than half of his plans came to fruition. On the morning of May 2, 1998, hide’s brother Hiroshi Matsumoto dropped hide off at home after a night of celebrating at a wrap-up party for the television recordings. While heavily intoxicated, hide accidentally self-asphyxiated while attempting to perform a routine muscle-relaxation technique for the particular neck and shoulder strain that develops from frequent guitar playing.** It was a tragedy the likes for which the Japanese music world was unprepared.

Since the footage of his last months and days alive were released to the public, little of quality worth has been released from those in charge of preserving hide’s memory and life work. Over the last two decades, in addition to numerous plush toys, plastic key chains, and figurines, we’ve gotten a number of tribute albums, compilation albums largely comprised of the same handful of songs, and a few demo tracks, re-recorded, re-mixed, and in the case of 2014’s “Co GAL,” a single that recreated hide’s voice using Vocaloid technology, a popular bit of 21st century technology that ends up sounding as uncanny valley as predicted.

Finally, in 2015, on what would have been hide’s 50th birthday, we got the documentary hide 50th anniversary FILM “JUNK STORY.” The film is notable for telling hide’s life story through interviews, photos, and behind-the-scene clips. The interviews are particularly telling, and largely include hide’s brother (who was something of hide’s personal assistant/chauffeur), former band members, and other staff, including stylists and photographers. Sadly, the film chooses to largely skip over hide’s time in X Japan after the initial anecdote of his joining the group. (I assume this is because the producers didn’t want to conflict with a separate documentary about the band, We Are X, released one year later, and whose production, I believe, was already underway, but hide’s story here suffers for the omission, as it is hard to understand the impact the group and its disbandment had on him later without the details.)

One bit of ominous, and somewhat tone-deaf, foreshadowing occurs early on in the film, when various friends provide sketches concerning hide’s drinking, which hide himself referred to as nearly uncontrollable, (“Once I start drinking, I drink a lot”), including his out-of-character and often violent behavior when under the influence. Here is one story related by former Spread Beaver-member I.N.A, a key figure in the documentary as one of hide’s closest colleagues and musical collaborators:

“I didn’t go out of the room because hide seemed to be completely drunk. I looked out through the door view and he was rioting. He suddenly picked up a fire extinguisher and hit the door of my room. Bang! Bang! I was really scared. Eventually the hinge was broken. So I blocked the door from the inside. After a while, he went back to his room. This is what I heard later, but they said that hide threw many things at the window.”

He was also described as going on “rampages” and for expressing guilt and remorse the following day, often having blacked out and been unable to remember anything, let alone what exactly he was apologizing for. It’s a chilling moment in the film, as stories are told with smirks and resigned chuckles, the sort of words couched in the somewhat sheepish, but entirely mischievous winks steeped in culturally-sanctioned substance abuse. Not that any one individual is to blame, but it gives room for pause to consider what hide’s life could have looked like if peer-approved binge-drinking has been less a part of his life to the point of serious bodily injury that landed him in the hospital and “comical” odes like 1994’s “D.O.D. (Drink Or Die).” In this light, hide’s death becomes a prolonged tragedy with multiple levels that spanned a longer time frame than the wee hours of May 2.

As any good documentary, hide’s offers a handful of new questions and grist for the thought-mill, while also answering some of the most enduring: how hide’s life and art touched the lives of so many, from friends and family, to fans and staff members, to the important work each one has done to preserve his memory and contribution to Japanese music and culture, and how seemingly random and unfair tragedies ripple throughout time and space. It’s hard not to speculate upon whether or not hide’s English-language band would have made any significant impact in the U.S., or if it would have bombed as spectacularly as every other American-crossover; if he would have grown as an artist and released better material as the years went on, or would have lost his musical touch; if he would have remained as respected and beloved a figure with the same opportunity of additional decades to lose the plot as some of his contemporaries have, or if he would have faded, a cultural icon and dinosaur of the 1990s, subsumed by a wave of indie-rock, neo-visual kei, and idol-pop too big to surf.

May 2, 2021 marks the 23rd anniversary of his death, a number just as uneven, odd, and idiosyncratic as the event it marks. It’s an anniversary shadowed again by the pandemic that continues to rage globally. Still there’s tentative hope around the corner as vaccines have begun their slow, and uneven rollout. And 2021 will also mark a very important anniversary, one that we don’t have to spend asking questions and wringing our hands over, as it celebrates the 25th anniversary of hide’s biggest, most ambitious, and critically-lauded album, 1996’s PSYENCE. Let’s treat ourselves when we get to it.

I wrote a previous tribute for hide back in 2010, which can be read here.

Notes

*All of the quotes here have been pulled from the subtitles of VisualKei Jrock’s translation of JUNK STORY. They have been edited for grammar when needed. So much thanks goes to them for translating and posting the video.

**I’m sure it appeared before, but the first time I have seen this reason for death officially recognized was in the documentary. When the news first broke, and for a long time after, the official cause of death was always cited as suicide, with the caveat of the relaxation technique treated as important and likely speculation, but not fact. The documentary’s official take on this says it was “sudden accident by doing cervical vertebra traction treatment during drunkenness.”