The half-way point: a few overlooked albums of 2017

We’re now a little more than halfway through 2017, and rather than my usual mid-year report, I’d like to share a few albums I’ve enjoyed that I haven’t noticed getting much widespread discussion/love.

Ai Shinozaki: LOVE/HATE Still quite surprised at this one myself: since 2015’s “A-G-A-I-N,” Shinozaki has put out a consistent string of lovely little singles, with last year’s “TRUE LOVE” single/EP a notable highlight. My only contention with LOVE/HATE is that there is room for so much more. Will we ever get a full-length album from Shinozaki? Short answer: hopefully, now that she’s on a major label. And also: I imagine some hesitation to give her due credit is wrapped up in the fact that Shinozaki is a gravure model/idol. This has never stopped idols from gaining popularity in the past, but she’s also not an adolescent either (I know, people born in the 90s can be in their mid-20s now?), nor is she dabbling in the conventional bubbly idol/anime-pop that younger kids are being forced to peddle. It’s a more sophisticated strain of pop that manages to trap a certain atmosphere of lightness without sacrificing its maturity. I can only hope this is the beginning of so much more.

Asako Toki: PINK This one kind of hit me out of nowhere with its understated cover art and that Rhythm Zone label gracing the spine. Toki has been releasing albums for more than a decade now, but PINK was my introduction, one I’ve been happily impressed by. While I wouldn’t say this is in the running for any year-end lists (probably?), its a humble respite from the 48 groups clogging the Oricon chart with its jazzy electronica and smooth, airy synths. It doesn’t lead me back to rest of her discography or make me reconsider my critical devotion to J-pop in all its fits and forms, 48s included, rather, it makes me appreciate Avex Trax more and more for their willingness to release something on a smaller scale like this, even while they chase the almighty idol dream across the street.

Erika Nishi: penetration This EP has nothing on 2015’s LISTEN UP, but if you are looking for that lost new jack swing/vaguely-TK, 90’s-J-pop sound that TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE used to provide on the reg, Nishi is the suitable alternative.

Sayonara PONYTAIL: Yumemiru Wakusei Even while the number of 48 groups has increased over time, I’ll concede that the top 20 of the Oricon chart has a little more in the way of variety over the last couple of years. And as it happens, a lot of that music is coming from alternative idol groups, groups frantic to secure a niche outside of that trademark sound. It’s not a question of bad versus good, as exploring why these groups are so popular, the minute differences, the broader contexts, and even enjoying music that can often sound like the same recycled chords and lyrical themes, is to an extent part of what makes J-pop so fascinating and fun. As it turns out, some seiyuu-pop isn’t instantly horrendous (Luna Haruna’s LUNARIUM, MACHICHO’s SOL)! As I’ve learned over the years, the basic structure of an idol group isn’t reason enough to ignore it — I proclaim this confidently, even after listening to 260+ new albums in the first half of 2017, 95% of which were J-pop/rock, and well over half of which I would estimate is typical idol/anime-pop that I would have outright dismissed several years ago. Most of it was indeed mediocre or average, but part of the passion is the pursuit itself, of the magical moment when something stands out from the one that came before. This is a long way of saying that Yumemiru Wakusei is in fact, very interesting. I find myself returning to this album, wondering what continues to draw me in, even while the songs never stick around in my head long enough for me to remember why I like them in the first place. Their more acoustic, scant approaches are peppered with moments that are irredeemably dull. And yet. The cover art is a bold, if somewhat eerie, statement, and the rock-influenced songs that are good have an irresistible melancholy (“Houkago TELEPORT,” “Niji”) that make them surprisingly playful, giving off serious echoes of an indie rock band like New Navy. I look forward to seeing where this is going.

predia’s “Kindan no MASQUERADE”

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It’s hard to compete with E-girls, who are one of the best J-pop groups we have right now (that the biggest influence on E.G. CRAZY/”E.G. COOL” is 1990’s Janet Jackson, makes it all the better), but I’m slowly warming to predia. They’re striving to have the same kind of edge without the benefit of distinctive and well-known individuals in their group — and the word individual is important here; we can instantly pick out faces and personalities like Ami, Reina Washio, and YURINO (or at least, personalities as they’ve been sold to us), but does a casual fan know any of the members of predia? The latter functions more like a collective unit than E-girls does, and its telling that an inability to connect with the group on any level other than superficial is mostly because none of the members stands out as more talented, or particularly interesting, than any other. I’m sure more enthusiastic fans beg to differ. Furthermore, because predia doesn’t have the advantage of sub units, like E-girls’s conjoining of dream, Happiness, Flower, etc., there’s less chance to see different sides of any of the members in other iterations.

Still, predia functions along much of the same ideology: a tougher, more-than–just-idols group (Avex would call them a “dance group,” I guess) that is built to increasingly appeal to female fans rather than male ones. It’s part of what I like about them so much. The other part is their music, which in a bid to compete against a group like E-girls, increases the chances that they’ll come out with something I like. Their new single “Kindan no MASQUERADE” is a great example of the type of aggressive pop that has become their hallmark. It’s nowhere in the realm of the funky-dance and cool that a group like E-girls now pulls off backwards and in heels, but there’s a studied skill and sharp attention to detail in the choreography, and the absence of a make-believe coyness, the sugar-coma levels of cute of a group and song like, say, Country Girls’ new “Peanut Butter Jelly Love.” They’re essentially incomparable, is what I’m saying, an instant plus.

I doubt that any one member of predia will eventually make inroads like former label-mates PASSPO☆ did, but it’s an appreciated alternative, and if their producers can break through the business-as-usual pop songs to release something that transcends their niche among the more mature sounds of groups like Da-iCE (say, a “Pink Champagne” or “E.G. Anthem“), they might prove some staying power beyond what anyone could easily estimate as their shelf-life. And hey, E-girls aren’t perfect either: they could take some tips on ways to fit all the girls on a jacket sleeve without resorting to terrible Photoshop templates.

2016’s song of the year: Arashi’s “Fukkatsu LOVE”

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It’s hard to believe we used to live in a time before Arashi: Arashi on variety programs, Arashi playing over the closing credits of dramas, Arashi acting in dramas,  Arashi making headlines for the perceived injustice of seeking out romantic relationships in their private lives, Arashi selling mascara and phones and cooking oil, Arashi’s promoting their new single, new concert, new album, and on and on. But when exactly did Arashi become the elder statesmen of Japanese boy bands? Is it just the logical conclusion to aging, to the company’s new marketing image that imbues the members with an impossibly smooth image of playful sophistication and wisdom, the kind that comes when you’ve seen it all and mastered each and every task the record label has thrown at you, from complicated dance moves, the proper time and way to tell jokes, to mentoring your juniors, and dressing up in giant foam popcorn hats?

Maybe it was LOVE or THE DIGITALIAN, but it seems as if Japonism was something of a turning point, as the group’s post-Tohoku album seems to have solidified their status as representatives of the nation, as torchbearers, as a solid and comforting definition of a nation and a pop culture in a time when people are happy to bond over comforting assurances of greatness in the same way generations have during the uncertainty and fear that follows natural disaster. The pride and unity worked, and not just because of the underlying message — even as months passed, it was hard not to return to the album time and again this year, to its Johnny’s-typical melodies and carefully interwoven traditional elements (taiko, shamisen, etc.) blasting through the same old sludge any Johnny’s album can often be. I never would have believed it myself, but here we are. Can I take back its honorary mention in last year’s list to include it in my top ten? It’s an album I keep finding new things to love about.

apptatsuroEven more than Japonism, was the group’s follow-up single “Fukkatsu LOVE,” which already promised to be amazing upon the announcement of its producer Tatsuro Yamashita’s involvement. Yamashita was a beast in the 80’s, the type of king who lorded over his tiny City Pop kingdom as a benevolent, jovial ruler who took the time to nurture his craft and give his songs the care and attention they deserved. Like the best pop music, his songs are deceiving. They’re simple: simple bars, simple melodies. The lyrics? We’re talking Japanese 101, the stuff you can translate after a few days of relaxing with the Oricon Top 10 and a couple lessons of survival phrases. So then why are they so addictive? How do they manage to so perfectly encapsulate their time and place in the canon? How do you resist snapping your fingers and tapping your toes when something like “Love Talkin’ (Honey It’s You)” comes on? And good luck not being bewitched by his work on “Fukkatsu LOVE.” There’s nothing even the most ardent indie-kid who eschews commercial pop for the dreck that Pitchfork sometimes hoists out of the nowhere-deep can do about the fact that despite City Pop’s long comeback on the fringes of independent and hipsters’ record players, it took a group like Arashi to make it more than just a trend in name.

You can break it down, from the first guitar riffs, to the call and responses, to the jazzy breakdowns, to the countless climaxes the song ascends to, all the way down to the lyrics. The lyrics! They contain not one, but two of the most quintessential lyrics in Japanese pop songs of all time. If you have listened to five J-pop songs, you will have heard “yume no naka e” or “ame no naka,” and the best ones will make these cliches sound not like the stale drivel that keeps the Oricon chart floating year after bloated year, but like actual narrative. The disco strings help. The disco strings are everything. Yamashita produced this tribute to his own craft with his first great single of 2016 (the second was “CHEER UP! THE SUMMER“), with subtle tweaks (the speed, for one, is just that bit faster than what he probably first envisioned). It’s both commentary on J-pop and celebration of it: the story of a wounded heart, a lost love, the pain and romance of longing, and the triumph of reunion. Tale as old as time, etc., but from the master of nostalgia, loneliness has never sounded so aspirational.

The B-side, “Ai no COLLECTION” is so successful at its attempt at stealing glory, it’s a wonder they didn’t save the song as a future single (or maybe they did that with “I seek“?); in fact, you can hear a few other songs that must have been composed around these session on their new album Are You Happy?: triple openers “DRIVE,” “I seek,” and “Ups and Downs,” which all feature the same kind of tasteful disco-pop before the album hits a comfortable groove with more of what we’re used to hearing from Arashi (“Bad boy,” “Mata Kyou to Onaji Ashita ga Kuru,” and that ballad that’s actually, really now, great). It’s a successful follow-up to Japonism, though nowhere in the same realm.

apploveforsalWe can argue and complain about how the past decade or so has seen a swift decline in the quality and variety of music that used to define modern Japanese pop music, largely due to groups just like Arashi and their female-idol counterparts in Akimoto-driven AKB-sister groups, even as we praise them for contributing to some of the most fun singles of the year (we all know “LOVE TRIP” was pretty fun). Pop music is nothing if not the definition of fast-paced change, with songs jumping in and out of relevance before we’ve even finished downloading them. Because of this, it’s sometimes easy to dismiss every big K-pop single as just the next song to tide you over until tomorrow’s rookie group debuts, or SM Entertainment unleashes SHINee’s tenth comeback. In Love for Sale: Pop Music in America, David Hajdu recalls how

“[P]eople of mid-century America talked about the body of songs that were currently popular as “the hit parade,” a phrase that vividly captured the fleeting nature of hits. They pass by, one after another. To experience hits is very much like watching a parade, and our impression of a song is like a moment impressed on the eyelids during a blink. Open your eyes, and a new part of the parade is in front of you. The things that caught your attention for one moment — the twirl of a baton, the turn of a melody — is gone, and something else — a decorated float, a pounding dance tune — has replaced it.” (pg 71)

So, too, in Japan, generations removed from 1940, we still live in a world constantly pining for what we don’t have just yet. And still, nothing else released after February 24 of this year has stayed with and impressed me as much as “Fukkatsu LOVE” and its B-side. There have been good songs, some great songs, and some really, really great songs, but none that have tugged at me so persistently that I’ve been forced to re-consider, recall and realize all over again what J-pop is, what makes it different and special, and so amazing, and what drew me to it in the first place.

J-pop needs a group like Arashi, now more than ever. With the demise of SMAP, and the schizophrenic nature of a group like Hey! Say! JUMP (are they standard Johnny’s? Are they K-pop Johnny’s? They have really great songs followed by okay-ish to not-so-okay pop that makes them seem a little hectic. A.B.C.-Z. and Johnny’s WEST might be terrible, but at least they’re consistent). Johnny’s is desperate to pass the torch with swift and silent fanfare to distract from the fact that their longest running, and arguably most successful Japanese boy band of all time has suddenly decided to call it quits because reasons, shaking the foundation of J-pop as we know it — even if you don’t care for SMAP, their ubiquitous presence has touched just about every corner of Japanese pop culture, an impressive feat not worth ignoring.

apparashiareyouHow much of Arashi’s popularity is real versus the careful manufacture of the  company’s almost dynastic, but slowly ebbing monopoly over media? (Think about their resistance to the Internet and its inherent power to equalize and neutralize and divide pop culture, while providing alternatives and putting the nature of its dissemination in the hands of fans and fandoms and ah, yes, I see your point Japanese entertainment companies, but the capitulation is inevitable and you’d be wise to find ways to make it work rather than sulk and refuse to find ways to make it work). I’m not talking about the members’ inherent talent, charisma, and good looks, which they have all so obviously spent years and millions making sure they have or appear to have. But what other boy band had Tatsuro Yamashita? SMAP did have Yasutaka Nakata, once, long ago now, but it was clearly one of his chopping-block singles. It might seem sinister or oddly disconcerting that pop greats like Yamashita would “deign” to work with just another idol group, but on the contrary, history has shown us that only the greats had the privilege of doing so. Perhaps we’re living in an age where the well-respected have decided to join ’em, rather than beat ’em, but maybe there’s something worth examining here. Let’s put it another way: will it be AKB48 or Perfume or Arashi performing at the 2020 Olympics?

Perhaps Hajdu is right and “[i]mpermanence is a necessity of the pop culture ecosystem” (77), and next year we’ll have forgotten about all of this year’s hits, as most of us did 1997’s and 2009’s. Maybe “Fukkatsu LOVE” was not meant to be enduring in any way beyond the space between when it was released and then usurped by its predecessor. But I can’t help but think that the greatest hit makers, Max Martin, TK, Yamashita, Ohtaki, and Nakata among them, somehow managed to crack the code of the medium, without compromising their approach from a place of love and respect for the form and its possibilities. The greatest pop songs last two minutes and fifty seconds with the capability of landing on many arbitrary lists, but the greatest ones linger on and on, longer than anyone ever planned.

Top ten albums of 2016

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Any year-end list is relevant only in context, with the strongest and weakest albums only as good as their release date-companions, and 2016 proves the rule more than ever. There were a lot of good releases, and a few really solid pop albums, but nothing great enough to be called the best of anything, (not, for example, like last year, where I dithered for weeks on which albums to cut out, or something like K-pop in 2011) except the best in a year full of other pretty good albums. Here are ten of them, in no particular order.

appgemgemGEM: Girls Entertainment Mixture: I’m a sucker for Avex’s dance-groups, and GEM fits in nicely where Fairies went on some kind of unspoken hiatus (only one single release the entire year) TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE is spiraling out of control (one member quit, and their aesthetic quickly devolving into a stale, throwback-90s tribute act since abandoning their idol status) and FAKY? was, more or less, a failed experiment. Overall, Avex Trax’s dance groups aren’t doing nearly as well as they should this year, mostly because they keep trying to create markets that don’t need to exist right now – lol anyone? While E-girls are still doing the all-female dance group better than anyone right now, GEM are more than capable of holding their own with this collection of loud dance-pop hits. Plus, I’m not in the habit of handing out awards to best-of collections, so while E-girls killed it this year (“Pink Champagne” was a very strong contender for track of the year), since their next original album is due this coming January, I’ll save a spot on next year’s list and let GEM have their well-deserved moment now. Listen: “Do You Believe?” “Baby, Love Me!” “Star Shine Story

appsumireuesaka20Sumire Uesaka: 20 Seiki no Gyakushuu: Definitely the winner in this year’s bat-shit crazy, hard rock album of the year category. As usual, we’re dealing with a hyper-kawaii female idol with an angle (she loves Russia and Russian things?), contrasting those high-pitched, delicate vocals against music the likes of which would find a comfortable home on a Metallica album. You either love it, hate it, or are slowly getting sick of the sheer number of albums that come out in Japan like this in hopes of both appealing to otaku and breaking through that niche market. Still, Uesaka’s stab at it is quite fun, a 22-track almost-rock opera of Russian space-age miscellany. Junk culture at its most entertaining. Listen: “PARALLAX VIEW” “Inner Urge

apparashiareyouhappyArashi: Are You Happy?: 2016 was the year J-pop boy bands in general, and Arashi in particular, finally managed to chip away at my icy, stone-cold heart. Only a time machine could correct the mistake of keeping Japonism off the top 10, and I’m determined not to let any mistakes like that happy this year. Though lacking the bold brushstrokes and concept of Japonism, Are You Happy? is a decent follow-up, with enough cheery disco-pop to keep even the most die-hard haters closer than arm’s length. Plus it contains the best pop song of the year, a ballad that isn’t just pandering (“Miles away”), and, most importantly, with the demise of SMAP, the evidence of Arashi’s evolution from a run-of-the-mill Johnny’s group, to the new de facto face of Japanese boy bands. No pressure.

babymetametalresistanceBABYMETAL: METAL RESISTANCE: There’s a lot to process here in my top ten East Asian pop albums list, namely the inclusions of groups and styles of J-pop that I have been historically averse to (idols, I mean idols). But with the challenge to myself to be more open to embracing the ubiquitous new styles of J-pop, comes the freedom to enjoy even the most media-saturated groups that top the Oricon chart to the chagrin of “true” music fans. 2015 saw no lack of effort in my attempt to study and begin to understand what, in 2016, I was able to reconcile: the gap between what I always traditionally associated “J-pop” with and what “J-pop” has become today. And J-pop, if nothing, is more idol-centric and divided on lines of gender than ever before. “AKB48-sounding” and “Johnny’s-sounding” is too simple a description, reducing the genre to its most base definition, but it is also, whether we like or not, as fairly accurate a summary as any outside of indie and critical circles. BABYMETAL don’t exactly fall outside of this circle — their brand of cute young girls as the conduit to some of the heaviest metal you’ll hear out of Japan this year isn’t original, or even the best example, but with a bit of expert marketing, they’ve managed to capture the eye of the public overseas, making just the tiniest dent in the West. In this case, the album isn’t all just talk: it’s a dynamic piece of constantly moving chess pieces, each square an opportunity to showcase a rock style, a drawn-out solo, or an instrumental exercise in long-form musical discourse. While I still believe other groups are more deserving of the fame (I used to think it was a group more like PASSPO☆, but with their move to a major label, the group has crumbled like a house of ancient LEGOs, bearing little resemblance, sonic or otherwise, to the group they started out as), BABYMETAL is an interesting piece of performance art meats genuinely good music. You can read more of my thoughts on the phenomenon here. Listen: “KARATE” “THE ONE

apptomomiitanogetreadyTomomi Itano: Get Ready: And quite possibly, my favorite album covers of the year, as well. I was a late-comer to Itano’s brand of pop, unsure and slightly uncomfortable with what angle they were getting at with 2014’s SxWxAxG. Get Ready is a bit too mixed-bag to be a cohesive original album, with teen house-party dance (“COME PARTY!“) mixed with some genuinely interesting creep-factor pop (“Hide & Seek“) and hard-hitting EDM (“You Should Try HARDer,” of course), but the parts that don’t make up any kind of  logical whole are fun, if a bit questionable. Perhaps if they stopped pushing Itano in four different directions and gave her sound and image more focus, with the capability of filling in some kind of needed gap in J-pop, we’d get something that resembles a bit more of the solo singer she is capable of becoming. Listen: “COME PARTY!” “Hide & Seek” “Gimme Gimme Luv

appakbdebutAKB48 Alumnae 2016 Debuts: Misaki Iwasa: Misaki Meguri ~Dai 1-sho~/Minami Takahashi: Aishite mo Ii Desu ka?/Atsuko Maeda: Selfish: Three former AKB48 members released debut albums this year, with Maeda and Takahashi cornering the pop/rock market and Iwasa making inroads with a somewhat poppier, mainstream-friendly enka in the vein of a Yuko Nakazawa. They’re all fun albums without anything in particular to say, though the lead track off of Selfish definitely offers the best of the three, with the album coming in as a respectable mirror image of AKB48’s 2015 album Koko ga Rhodes da, Koko de Tobe! And I rather like Iwasa’s album, even though I’m not very interested in enka, and even though I think, in terms of what the genre demands, she has a long way to go to produce the necessary vocals it requires. Still, since this list is basically turning into a run-down of J-pop at its most J-pop, you can choose any one of these three for this spot while discarding the others and I’d be okay with whichever decision you’d make. They’re really that interchangeable. Listen: “Gomen ne Tokyo” “Selfish

apptaeminpressitTAEMIN: Press It: SHINee is one of the best  boy bands in East Asia right now: they had an incredible 2015 with Married to the Music, an album that I’ve returned to far too much this year, and while this year’s follow-up, 1 of 1, was a cute, but somewhat gimmicky pastiche, the effort was appreciated: commitment is releasing a cassette-tape version to go with your primary-colored suits and Nick Carter bowl cuts. But TAEMIN’s solo was really SM Entertainment’s stand-out release this year. The group’s most skilled dancer, all fluid lines and calculated movement was a joy to witness, whether on “Press Your Number” or his Japanese solo debut “Sayonara Hitori.” SM Entertainment’s work with SHINee and its solo members (minus Jong Hyun’s Joha (She Is)) is the only group with the most successful attempts at carrying on the legacy of Michael Jackson — and if Michael Jackson is the epitome of pop music (agree or disagree, but recognition is in order), then SHINee is one of the only groups bothering to acknowledge the realms it is possible to take pop with the benefit of his influence every step of the way. Listen: “Press Your Number

appcallmethisiscallme: This is callme: You can argue that Perfume’s COSMIC EXPLORER had better singles (“FLASH” is pretty good, “Miracle Worker” is even better), but overall, I think This is callme works better as a package. COSMIC EXPLORER is disappointing: while the trio might be gaining popularity overseas, with stops in more and more major cities on their tour, their producer Yasutaka Nakata has checked out creatively years ago, ensuring that this is a group whose fire will go out gradually, rather than suddenly. It’s too much to hope for a comeback and I’m content re-living the glory days spinning GAME and Triangle (can you believe I once named it one of the most disappointing albums of the year? What a difference time and perspective makes) while keeping an eye out for a worthy successor in the J-electro market. I’m not entirely convinced it’s going to be callme; for one, their songs lack a certain strength and pep, even while indulging in some of the most elegant melodies you’ll find on an Avex release this year. And secondly, their members (three former members of idol-group Dorothy Little Happy) lack the personality of a group like Perfume, whose earnest and formidable members are really one of the only reasons to continue supporting them. Since This is callme is a direct answer to their debut album Who is callme? as neither a derivative slide, nor envelope-pusher, and could, by all logical means, be the conclusion of this somewhat-experimental project, it will be interesting to see what a potential third album would sound like. Listen: “Confession” “Can not change nothing

appgfriendlolG-Friend: LOL: LOL was chosen, in part, for all the similar-sounding K-pop albums it represents then on the strength of just itself. Alone, it’s a great album, but is it really any better than all of the other girl groups re-creating SNSD’s debut? Not really. Fortunately, SNSD had one of the greatest K-pop debuts years of all time, and their most ardent imitators, OH MY GIRL, G-Friend, Lovelyz, and WJSN (Cosmic Girls), have their work cut out for them tirelessly working to soothe the broken hearts of S♥NEs official and casual alike. Though there will never be a group just like Girls’ Generation for a long time, I’m happy taking the scrappy-seconds of groups like G-Friend; all criticism aside, it’s really quite a fantastic album. Listen: “Neo Geurigo Na (NAVILLERA)”

appnicoleblissNicole: bliss: Despite the number of great K-pop EPs and mini-albums to come out during the course of the year, their Japanese-release equivalents can and do often surpass their Korean offerings. AFTERSCHOOL was one such group, and now ex-KARA vocalist NICOLE can be added to the list, with her Japanese-debut album bliss, a quaint, mellow take on the most common-denominator pop known to the genre. Despite this critique, it’s nowhere near as tedious as it might sound: there is still ample space to add hints of something special on an album that is the very median of pop music in the 2010s, and NICOLE’s producers make the most of this stab at inoffensive, disco-lite, average groove, the very opposite of the lengths K-pop will sometimes go to churn out louder-than-the-last trendy hit singles. Both have their place on my list. Listen: “Don’t Stop

Honorableapptoptenhonor Mentions:

APink: Pink Revolution
Ayumikurikamaki: Ayumikurikamaki ga Yattekuru! KUMAA! KUMAA! KUMAA!
Cheeky Parade: Cheeky Parade II
Gesu no Kiwami Otome.: Ryouseibai
LUNA: Free Somebody
predia: Byakuya no VIOLA ni Idakarete
Wa-suta: The World Standard
Tiffany: I Just Wanna Dance

The complete Retrospective round-up

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Things have been a little quiet here, but from the end of 2015, and through the first eight months of this year, I was busy writing a weekly series of retrospectives on a number of classic Japanese pop songs over at tumblr. I tried to approach the songs within broader cultural contexts, and/or providing some sort of different or new perspective on the history or legacy of the artist, song, or genre, thus covering a wide range of themes from K-pop crossovers, to the good and bad sides of idols, to nostalgia, to anime, to what it means to work with some of the greatest producers the world has ever seen. I limited myself only by a) singles I owned in my own personal collection, and b) keeping it at one song per artist (with the exception of Ayumi Hamasaki, where I was compelled to do two). This is not meant to be a complete history of, or primer, of J-pop — I ran out of time and energy to cover boy bands, a lot more rock music, and anything released earlier than 1980, for starters — but I’d like to think anyone new to contemporary J-pop would find some of these posts illuminating and helpful, while seasoned fans would enjoy looking back.

Here is the complete list in the order they were posted in case you don’t follow me over there, or missed any. (I also took a break one week to write about Amit Trivedi’s amazing “Rangaa Re” from the Fitoor soundtrack.)

01. T.M.Revolution: Heart of Sword ~Yoake Mae~ (1996)
02. Hikaru Utada: Movin’ on without you (1999)
03. Ayumi Hamasaki: evolution (2002)
04. globe: DEPARTURES (1996)
05. the brilliant green: Tsumetai Hana (1998)
06. Yukiko Okada: FIRST DATE (1984)
07. Namie Amuro: White Light (2005)
08. SPEED: Body & Soul (1997)
09. Tommy february6: Love is forever (2004)
10. Hiroko Yakushimaru: SAILOR Fuku to Kikanjuu (1981)
11. Morning Musume: Daite HOLD ON ME! (1999)
12. Hidemi Ishikawa: LOVE COMES QUICKLY ~Kiri no To No Ihoujin~ (1986)
13. Every Little Thing: NECESSARY (1999)
14. X Japan: THE LAST SONG (1998)
15. Kumi Koda: Koi no Tsubomi (2007)
16. Perfume: ONE ROOM DISCO (2009)
17. Imokin TRIO: HIGH SCHOOL LULLABY (1981)
18. Ai Otsuka: Neko ni Fuusen (2005)
19. Dir en grey: ain’t afraid to die (2001)
20. hide: PINK SPIDER (1998)
21. Yu Hayami: Natsuiro no NANCY (1983)
22. Ami Suzuki: FREE FREE (2008)
23. hitomi: Sexy (1996)
24. Zwei: Dragon (2005)
25. Sae: Kirari*Sailor Dream! (2003)
26. T-ara: Sexy Love (2013)
27. MY LITTLE LOVER: Shiroi Kite (1995)
28. Onyanko Club: SAILOR Fuku to Nugasanaide (1985)
29. Ayumi Hamasaki: July 1st (2002)
30. B’z: BE THERE (1990)
31. Nanase Aikawa: Lovin’ you (1998)
32. Akemi Satou: Itooshi Hito no Tame ni (1995)
33. Rica Fukami: Ai no Megami no How to love (1996)
34. Masami Okui: Rinbu-revolution (1997)
35. Takeshi Kaoru: VIOLENT BLUE/Aoi no Senkou (1992)
36. PUFFY: CIRCUIT no Musume (1998)
37. Seiko Matsuda: Natsu no Tobira (1981)

2016 mid-year report

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The first half of 2016 hasn’t been anywhere as interesting as 2015’s, but we’ve gotten some great new tracks and albums from producers as varied as Tatsuro Yamashita and Max Martin, as well as some up-and-coming producers from all over the world. I’ve chosen to focus on East Asian pop in this post, and have spent the last couple of weeks frantically catching up on everything I might have overlooked; still, I’m sure I missed a few things that will hopefully make its way to my ears by the end of the year. Until then, I hope you’ll find one or two things you might have missed here as we take the time to reflect on the last six months in music. As always, you can follow the notable releases tag over at the tumblr to keep up in real-time.

K-pop: The Gold, and the Silver

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Is there such a thing as a Silver Age? If so, K-pop might be in it. You might be disheartened enough to argue that we’re actually in a Bronze Age but it hasn’t come to that yet; let me make a case.

There have been signs of K-pop’s demise for a couple of years now, signaled by what Jin Min-Ji calls a “generation shift” caused by the expiration of the contracts many idols signed at the era’s beginning. “A multitude [of] second generation members’ contracts, which usually last seven years, have either terminated or are close to termination. An So-hee from Wonder Girls, for example, left the group in 2013 after her contract expired with JYP Entertainment. Other singers that left their groups are Jia from Miss A last month and Sulli from f(x) in August 2015.” In addition, members who have stuck around long enough to find out that the entertainment world isn’t all glitz and glam, are burning out and leaving to find other lucrative work that’s less stressful, demanding, and sometimes, the equivalent of unpaid labor.

Jessica’s departure from SNSD has turned out to be something of a game-changer: since then, we’ve seen Golden Age groups 2NE1, BEAST, and 4minute split, as members have departed on somewhat shaky terms. This leaves room for a new crop of K-pop groups, many which are attempting to imitate the sounds of their forerunners. For example, OH MY GIRL, Lovelyz, and G-Friend, all of which released solid EPs this year, are really just attempting to recreate the magic of the early years of a group like Girls’ Generation, while TWICE is exploring an edgier side in the style of 2NE1. Their efforts are rather admirable, particularly A New Trilogy and Snowflake, but it remains to be seen if a new crop of producers and songwriters will emerge parallel to this “second” generation to carry on the torch of a Teddy Park, E-Tribe, or Shinsadong Tiger; in fact, it seems K-pop is tending to outsource a lot more of its songwriting now, which is not a criticism, but an observation that it might be harder to find writers of hits as prolific as there once were. In addition, now that record companies and agencies finally have some working statistics for modern K-pop, many glitches and experiments can be ironed out, or expanded upon, even pushed to its very limit. This all has the potential to change the look and sound of K-pop as it moves forward.

Because a lot of groups that have managed to stay together are losing popularity, or simply, running out of ideas (BIGBANG comes to mind) there has also been a clear shift this year to giving surviving members solo opportunities. This is notable, since K-pop’s modus operandi is single-sex boy and girl groups, rather than solo artists. This year, we got additional solo work from AMBER (f(x)), Tiffany (SNSD), JONGHYUN (SHINee), Taemin (also SHINee), Luna (f(x)), Jun Hyo Seong (Secret), and an uncomplicated bit of J-pop from former KARA member NICOLE’s Japanese debut album bliss. Tiffany’s and Taemin’s stand out in particular, as SM Entertainment rarely disappoints (SNSD’s Taeyon’s solo effort notwithstanding, aside from last year’s lead single “I” — her next solo effort comes out in a few days as of this writing). “I Just Wanna Dance,” received mild reviews, but I find the song, and its sister follow-up “Heartbreak Hotel,” a slice of ethereal pop. It can easily be too slow for some listeners, and too fast for the others, but its mid-tempo essence is refreshing, and the fact that they held back on letting Tiffany go too crazy with the vocals is a sign of a wise restraint.

Taemin’s “Press Your Number,” on the other hand, channels his group SHINee’s endless, and welcome, repetition of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. I gushed a bit about the music video earlier, and the dance version of the PV is worth taking a second or third look, just to admire the grace and power Taemin brings to every step of the choreography. The album, too, is full of smooth R&B hooks, and stiller moments, like the lovely little balled “Soldier.” In other words, it’s nice to see that Jo Kwon’s solo album I’m Da One was good for something, even if it was just setting the precedent for seriously fun male solo albums.

Finally, I just really like Luna’s Free Somebody. The title track, which was penned by “The Family,” a songwriting trio from the land of the universe’s reigning country of pop production, and also, surprisingly, JoJo (yes that JoJo) is a tribute to Europe’s easy way of slipping electro-house and nu disco into the mainstream. I could easily see this song fitting onto a Kitsune Maison compilation with no problem, and that fact tickles me.

Even though the continued demise of K-pop’s Golden Age is disappointing, it’s also bringing forth a new crop of groups, mostly-successful solo work, and interesting outside collaborations (it’s less surprising that Skrillex worked with 4minute this year, than that the group is breaking up immediately following it). Hopefully, these new shifts will eventually be brought into the fold, making way for positive developments. It’s jarring not to have a seemingly endless procession of amazing song after incredible rookie group debut after excellent song like we did in 2011 or 2012, but none of this is alarming enough to signal the end. Not yet. In fact, the only true disappointment is that in a year ripe with them, CL has yet to release her promised solo debut.

J-pop (Idols and otherwise)

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If you had told me as early as last year that my favorite song of 2016 would probably be by boy-band Arashi, I would have scoffed and continued finding the band as joyless and mediocre as ever. And yet, here we are, halfway through the year, and nothing has come close to “Fukkatsu LOVE” and its B-side “Ai no COLLECTION.” Sure, there have been songs that have been more upbeat, more powerful, and more fun (if you’re short of time, Namie Amuro’s “Mint” covers all of those bases), but none have rivaled “Fukkatsu” for atmosphere and production. The song, which was penned by legendary City Pop producer Tatsuro Yamashita, is similar to the general patterns of any Arashi song, and yet, completely different. For Yamashita, “smooth,” and “cool,” are less adjectives than steadfast principles to his success. The song, with which its throwback sounds to the early 80s could have been something of a risk for a group that has done phenomenal with its Johnny’s formula, adapts to the group’s somewhat elder statesmen status (the group debuted in 1999 — for all you collectors out there, it means their first single was issued on 3″ mini-CD, rather than the standard 5″ maxi). It’s a mature, relaxed look and sound for the group, with its subdued coloring and formal wear. Finally being allowed to act their age (the oldest member is 35) and associate itself closer to SMAP is doing this idol group a service, leaving the more strenuous tasks to juniors like Hey! Say! JUMP and A.B.C.-Z. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for that Yuma Nakayama follow-up (one year since Tokoton and not a word).

Other male groups that have stood out to me have been Da-iCE, which has been a sort of slow burn. It’s not surprising that some of the most interesting music is coming from the groups that are competing with their Korean peers overseas: there’s big bucks and, seemingly, bigger respect from groups who can bring something other than the standard “idol sound” to the charts. Your preference is a matter of opinion: there’s interesting things on both sides of the divide, and generally, even an EVERY SEASON has its pitfalls (imagine, for a moment, a man like Daichi Miura getting his hands on a song like “Got Your Back” and how much it would have made a good song incredible). As a counterweight, there’s NEWS’ QUARTETTO, which I find a perfect blend of the two.

One of the most interesting developments of the year to watch has been Avex Trax’s entrance into the idol world. Japan’s biggest independent label is on record as one of my favorite labels of all time, if not number one. They’ve made inroads beginning a couple of years back, choosing, wisely to develop and sustain their roster of dance-pop oriented groups like FEMM, Fairies, and FAKY, but groups like X21 have done better than a few of those. Without a signature sound, the only way I can describe it is idol-pop with a sheer of professional polish all over it. Wa-suta’s The World Standard and Cheeky Parade’s second album are the highlights, bringing to the endless churn of singles put out by groups like AKB48 (whose year-defining senbatsu single “Tsubasa wa Iranai” didn’t come close to last year’s “Bokutachi wa Tatakawanai“) a bit more gravitas. The attention to detail is surprising for songs that don’t sound much different than their more experienced contemporaries over at places like King Record. Still, iDOL Street, the name of Avex’s subdivision dedicated to idols, is a growing and interesting venture for them. SUPER☆GiRLS , the first group signed, has been something of a mixed bag, but it’s worth looking out for Wa-suta, and in the coming months, BiSH, who were signed earlier this year.

In addition, Avex has their hands full with dance groups like GEM, whose debut album Girls Entertainment Mixture, following a number of singles since 2013, has been one of my most-played of the year. Even though they’re under the same umbrella as CP and S☆G, they’re still a basic Avex dance-group like Fairies. The biggest criticism at this point is that Avex seems to be scrambling to debut and develop as many groups as possible, in the hopes that one or two will make an impression long enough to stick around. In other words, hopefully FEMM won’t be tossed aside for a group like FAKY, which hasn’t fulfilled any of its promise (perhaps one or two of the members will get solo opportunities? They’re too talented to throw away), and will start work on their follow-up album (as of this writing, a new single has been announced, but not released). You can always tell when a group has made it by the imitators that follow; if they all sound like Faint Star’s “Never Ever,” I won’t complain.

That leaves me wondering where groups like Prizmmy☆, Dorothy Little Happy, X21, or TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE will fit into the coming year. The latter, in particular, is now at something of a deadlock. They were Avex’s first and most successful idol group in a long time, with amazing New Jack Swing albums to back them up, but with the official departure of member Ayano Konishi, they’re unsure which direction to take them now that they’ve declared themselves artists, rather than idols. So far, they’ve been spending most of 2016 performing overseas, pushing a dead album onto the masses. It’s been six months since REFLECTION and there’s been no sign of a new single in the works; the style and tone of it will be telling of the group’s future.

Other groups that have failed to release follow-up albums, have been PASSPO☆, who so impressed me last year, callme, E-girls (just a greatest hits here), and palet, though I’m eagerly looking forward to any upcoming singles or projects that might still make it before the year is up. In the end, it’s been BABYMETAL’s continued success story overseas that has been J-pop’s crowning achievement of 2016 so far; the fact that METAL RESISTANCE is so great only makes it sweeter.

Going Solo

Here were the big solo releases of the year: Namie Amuro’s “Mint,” a grand pop gesture if there ever was one (hopefully, a new album follows her soon-to-be-released summer single), Ayumi Hamasaki’s M(A)DE IN JAPAN, which I’ve already discussed here (worth noting, though, is the constant cropping up of the term “renaissance” to describe this phase of her career, to which: maybe? Things like that usually only become clear after the fact, so I’ll sit tight for now), and the wild card, Mamoru Miyano’s “SHOUT!” He’s no Luna Haruna, but the anime-pop solo work of this voice actor has been a refreshing change from your everyday Nana Mizuki. Someone has to fill in for Yuma Nakayama.

Odds and Ends

One of the biggest stories in J-pop this year was the affair between Gesu no Kiwame Otome.’s Enon Kawatani and Becky, a talento. Unfortunately, the news overshadowed the release of the group’s album, Ryouseibai, a solid bit of J-rock, that runs just a bit too long to be truly outstanding. The J-rock album to beat this year has been uchuu,’s +1, a solid debut full-length from the indie group that graced us with HELLO, HELLO, HELLO, last year. I’ll be keeping my eyes on them.

But what is it good for?

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Which leads us to the biggest disappointments of the year. Of note, there have only been two: Perfume’s COSMIC EXPLORER and Negicco’s Tea for Three. Perfume’s is the least surprising, with the quality of Yasutaka’s Nakata’s compositions on a decline for the past few years; still COSMIC EXPLORER, unlike LEVEL3, left so little room for surprises, such as a “PARTY MAKER” or “Clockwork,” that its two interesting songs “Miracle Worker” and “FLASH” pale in comparison. Negicco, who showed such promise after years of toiling in obscure ridicule, set such a high bar with Rice & Snow that Tea for Three is less a disappointment, than a given. It’s an okay album for a group that released okay singles leading up to it, with a few stand-outs, like “Kounan Yoi Uta.” I’ll take it, but I’m not happy about it.

 

The Empress’s New Clothes

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There was a time when Ayumi Hamasaki was a trend-setter, a pioneer in music, image, and business. In her long, storied career, she was known for trying new things, even when those things seemed gimmicky or never saw a repeat. For example, in 2009 she bundled limited editions of her album NEXT LEVEL onto a specially designed USB. The following year, a special edition of Love songs was released in deluxe, LP-sized packaging with a USB and micro-SD. In 2012, along with many of her label Avex Trax’s popular artists, her albums were re-released in the comically unnecessary PLAYBUTTON format, a literal button loaded with the album’s contents and a jack for headphones. And now, as Avex tackles the logistics of its own streaming service AWA, Ayumi Hamasaki’s new album M(A)DE IN JAPAN was launched in conjunction, a Beyonce-like drop that caught fans unaware stateside on a Friday morning (or Thursday night, depending on where you call home – it was released Wednesday, May 11 in Japan).

Hamasaki had made hints on her Instagram account (and to that she was a little late, preferring Twitter to the image-only app — she launched the account only recently to promote a concert tour, then reappearing to post behind-the-scenes photos of her recording sessions and stage rehearsals), captioning outtakes from the cover shoot with lyrics from the new songs. Though the release was unexpected, it wasn’t surprising: Hamasaki’s career has relied less and less on the music than on other aspects that keep it rolling along, like personal scandal and gossip, fashion and designer accessories, appearances for launch events, and of late, the massive stage shows that have become more and more technical and vigorous, first with added acrobatic elements and aerial specialists, then with Hamasaki tackling those same acrobatic stunts herself. Despite her overall declining popularity and diminishing sales, each arena show always looks packed, leading fans on the AHS forum to speculate that tickets are sold outside the show for cheap, or given away free to fill seats, all in an attempt to maintain appearances and keep the star blissfully ignorant of her current status. Is it true? One can only guess. Smaller stars with less-fawning entourage are guilty of worse.

Certainly, Hamasaki is no fool, and a case of Sunset Boulevard this is not. The artist might not draw in the same numbers, but her track record is nothing to scoff at: rumors that she refused to release any more singles so as not to taint her record-breaking streak of #1s were balanced by the fact that most stars aren’t releasing singles anymore at all. Not even Namie Amuro can be bothered to release singles regularly, and most of those songs don’t even end up on albums. After a two year hiatus, Hamasaki finally released one, watching her sales numbers almost halve. Anyway, singles are for newcomers and idols, not seasoned professionals. And professional is what Hamasaki is.

ayumadeinapp2J-pop’s reigning queen, a shrewd businesswoman, can play the game better than anyone else (I’ll allow for two exceptions); she didn’t become TIME‘s Empress of Pop by playing it safe or always being nice. Throughout her career, Hamasaki has bent others to her will, championing her own unique style, re-branding her image on personal whims, signing multiple endorsements, and standing back to watch the public buy every single camera, cellphone, and limited edition box of donuts not because of any need, but from an obsessive want to posses, in some way, that same charm and effortless beauty that she radiated. Tapping into that insecure desire, some would say exploiting it, was her specialty. But by some Machiavellian spirit, all was forgiven, because in the end, she always stayed true to an authentic, artistic vision in her music and in her relationship with her fans.

Her singles, and especially albums, were the touchstone. Even if a fan couldn’t afford to attend all four of her sold out Dome Tours, even if they could only buy one copy of the original A BEST, or one edition of a single, and not even the DVD version, but the regular edition that came with the least-pretty cover art, they could always feel like she was right there in the room with them, just by pressing play. It’s been written about many times: the songs and lyrics that comprise Hamasaki’s discography are some of the strongest of any female solo artist, and they have the added dignity of coming from a very personal, very carefully curated place in her life. Part confessional, part biography, part memoir, each song had a distinctive, quantifiable identity of its own, a little world that someone could spend days poring over, seeking all the various interpretations; a universe of possibility, wisdom, and truth. Overarching themes tackled everything from breakups, to unrequited love, to empowerment, to depression, to weakness, vulnerability, and all the myriad permutations of human relationships and the petty sins they could lead to. Getting down to the very thing of life itself was her specialty, and reward and respect is in order to a woman who could successfully balance the forces of hollow commerce with the depths of artistic integrity and insight.

But relying on the goodwill of the past can be a dangerous, feckless thing to attempt. The precedent was set before her: Japanese pop stars will always fade away before they burn out. The relationships that bind long-terms business associations are eternal. Loyalty will always trump a fresh new face. The brick foundations of relationships formed over time — those between artist and fans, producers and protegees, record labels and singers — are more than mere givens: they are long-term business strategies and even longer-term unspoken promises, more like blood, than ephemeral, contractual ties.

And in many ways Avex Trax is like a blood-bound family: famed producer Tetsuya Komuro, despite his own dubious, philandering behavior and illegal dips into money-making disasters, is still tucked under the record labels’ protective wing in deference to his legendary history of hit-making and artist-molding. We can never forget that if the term J-pop was coined by the media, it was Komuro who shaped it, gave it a weight and a wonder that is still being imitated today. Hamasaki garners the same due respect, though her longevity is now a telling sign that yes-men outnumber the taste makers and the common sense of a capricious public; whether or not anyone would approve, cares, or likes what she has to offer is of little concern. In many ways, it’s not just empowering or fearless, it’s flat-out amazing, yet in others, concerning, a ham-fisted, clumsy way of coming to terms with reality, rather than humbly forfeiting a personal vision for one that could bring in a younger, broader audience, or change public perception.

ayumadeinapp5Namie Amuro has been more successful at this. Since she never had a conflicting, self-motivated vision for her image and style, always choosing to opt for professional taste and image makers, ebbing and flowing with the current trends, she’s managed to remain not only popular, but relevant. In many ways, Amuro is doing the same thing she was doing fifteen years ago, but with the added heft of experience and visible maturity, both in the way she has grown as a performer, and in her handling of the public. It might just be an old-fashioned aversion to social media, a language she feels too old to learn, but her lack of any Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram accounts has also served to keep her mysterious and alluring, a femme fatale-superhero who swoops in by night to put on the world’s greatest show as if from nowhere, and exiting the stage as if into thin air. As Hamasaki imprints herself onto the public with bigger and bolder strokes, Amuro is retreating into the shadows, any outward sign of personal identity disappearing with her tattoos, so that what we’re left to identify with is something more elusive, but universal: an enduring spirit and attitude, a don’t-quit, never-say-die-diva who is able to have both the amazing career and the secrets. These aren’t mutually exclusive. In many ways, you can’t be a musician who mines personal experiences to make art without opening yourself to scrutiny and public reaction, both positive and negative.

The difference, and this is only speculation, is that Amuro has changed course when things haven’t worked, experimented with things she may not have always liked, and shifted focus to what worked in the past. This willingness to take in criticism and learn from her mistakes — for example the relationship with her backup dancer and brief career hiatus — has only benefited her. We know she’s a mother to an eighteen year old son, but to all of us, she’s our ageless drag mama, teaching us all how to work a sidewalk like a runway, perennially confident, poised, and graceful. Maybe she’s only these things because it’s what she’s given us to work with, or maybe we just need her to be these things because we can’t always be them ourselves; somebody needs to be the guiding light of inspiration. On the other hand, Hamasaki’s mistakes are never actually lessons in disguise, in fact, they’re worth repeating when things start to get too quiet. Rather than acknowledge any critical commentary, she plows ever-forward, a singular, but self-motivated vision. Exhilarating, but exhausting.

ayumadeinjpanaapp3Hamasaki would benefit from listening to honest judgment concerning her recent career choices, not because they necessarily need to change altogether, or cater exclusively to long-time fans (a demographic I will forever pledge allegiance to) or the whims of youthful trends as many artists past their prime do, but because it allows one to not just work harder (Hamasaki is already a notorious workaholic), but to grow and develop harder, rather than grasp at straws. These straws are how I view albums like Love again and COLOURS. In many ways, as much as A ONE was a wonderful album, the first Hamasaki album that’s felt like a Hamasaki album in as much as eight years, it is how I now view M(A)DE IN JAPAN, a competent album, a very Ayumi-album, with its hard rock, edgy guitars, and emphatic verbiage, its anger, pain, and domineering presence, but yet another companion to the aforementioned A ONE and sixxxxxx. Like sixxxxxx, it’s a collection of standards, not hits. It’s temping to be content with the humble offering (and it is very humble, at a restrained 10-tracks), especially when there’s so little to find fault with. The album’s biggest misstep seems to be the final original track, “Summer of Love,” which is actually a really great song, but for some other really great album, lacking the sound and feel of the other tracks. I can take or leave “Many Classic Moments,” which begs the question of whether or not dancey cover songs are the way Hamasaki will be ending all of her albums from now (is two a pattern, or do we have to wait for three?).

Furthermore, we can add M(A)DE IN JAPAN to the country’s other great national-pride-inspired albums which began cropping up in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake, from Kumi Koda’s JAPONESQUE, to Perfume’s JPN, to Arashi’s Japonism. Hamasaki’s album, too, boasts the traditional subtleties, with a very faint presence of Japanese instrumentation punctuating the modern sounds of pop and rock — a very apt metaphor for the country’s popular culture today, with its blend of old and new. And the songs are every bit as dramatic as we expect her songs to be, with a minimally fresh take on the standard formula that keeps the album interesting, moving from tear-jerkers to fist-pumpers, rather than the awkward bid for trendy relevancy that COLOURS sought (innovation only works when it’s done successfully).

Yet what is most significant, and infuriating and sad, is that M(A)DE IN JAPAN is the definitive end of an era, probably a personal one, but one that any long-time fan can identify with: the Ayumi-album-as-event that marked a generation of J-pop fans’ yearly calendars. Released as quietly as it was, with no promotional tie-ins, no crazy-huge posters in Shibuya, no cover art blazoned on trucks passing by, you could almost miss it, as I did last week, stuck at work all night and just catching the headline the following morning. The album might be released as a physical CD at the end of June, but the moment has already come and gone.

ayumadeinjapp4In many ways now, as for many seasoned artists, new work is immaterial, an insignificant blip that merely provides the excuse for a little bit of income and extended touring. It makes one wonder if Hamasaki has found a new, more immediate outlet for expressing herself, through the heady theatrics of her live shows that now stretch upwards of three hours long. The wild artifice and spectacle of her stage shows, even in an era of increasingly amazing pyrotechnics and computer effects, is still dazzling to see. In this environment, Hamasaki gets immediate attention and first-hand affection from fans in a reality-defying wave of all-consuming love. The costumes, the sets, the lights, and the song selection, a hyper-hardcore update of shows past, are just some ways that the bridge between audience and artist is crossed and re-crossed, destroyed and re-built, in the course of an evening. It is Hamasaki attempting to express her truth in ways we’ve only seen lately through her songs and lyrics, and sometimes, barrage of cryptic Tweets. Despite the number of things that could go wrong — especially now that pulleys and ropes and rings and precarious rigging of giant vats of water have been introduced — or maybe because of them, Hamasaki thrives on stage, commanding and in charge, forever demanding “Motto, motto!” from her audience.

While all signs point to the end of a musical era, it’s impossible to predict what the future holds for Hamasaki’s career as a whole, let alone the choices she might make. Marriage hasn’t slowed her down, nor has age or any other factor insignificant in the face of a persevering, born celebrity, beholden only to her fans, and is an unlikely predictor of any directions she might take; and yet, it’s unlikely that such a steep dip in sales and popularity can be ignored completely. Only time will tell when one of the most glorious artists and entertainers Japan has ever seen will break all our hearts and take her final bow. The show must go on, but it can’t go on forever.