Top ten debut albums of 2018

Debut albums are opportunities to establish a voice, a sound, and a vision — a promise of what’s to come. Sometimes this long-labored effort is never replicated again, and what we’re left with is one great moment, no less worthy because of its singularity. Who will be the unlucky few not to make it? That debate is fun, but not nearly as much as watching someone, against all odds, succeed and grow as an artist. If all of us have at least one great work of art within us, these are ten, in no particular order.

Ella Mai: Ella Mai
Ella Mai is the logical love-child of SZA’s breakthrough last year and the lingering chart run of the magical Khalid & Normani duet “Love Lies.” Ella Mai could do without all the cheesy talking (personal pet peeve) and I’m not sure why anyone is still letting Chris Brown be a thing, but this album’s cool evocation of 90’s R&B styles (see “Boo’d Up”) is a lovely addendum to a year full of them.

NINA: Sleepwalking
Italo-disco inspired, heavy retro-pop done expertly, with all the best intentions, from cited influences Depeche Mode and Kavinsky. Don’t expect the latter’s heavier electro bits: this isn’t Drive. It’s more delicate than a lot of the usual from the synth-wave/Bandcamp set, but no less evocative (“It Kills Me”), and no less rich in wistful affection for the kind of dreamy 1980s you can only find in music (“Beyond Memory,” “80’s Girl“).

fromis_9: To. Heart
Melissa Johnson does a phenomenal job tracking all the rookie groups in a given year, and brace yourself: there are dozens. It’s hard to bank on any when so many come and go quicker than mouse clicks, so it’s no use predicting if fromis_9 have any staying power. But they have released two EPs this year, and like many of the recent girl groups before them, expertly re-imagine the best parts of early Girls’ Generation (SNSD): fluffy pop confections lighter than meringue and just as sweet.

Chloe x Halle: The Kids Are Alright
Their 2016 EP and 2017 “not really a mixtape” hinted at what this duo could achieve, but the two young sisters, Chloe and Halle, surpassed expectations with their first studio album The Kids Are Alright. In what is becoming the new-traditional, the girls were discovered on YouTube, but prove they are more than their origin story on this electrifying debut that’s so good you can forgive the typo.

Hayley Kiyoko: Expectations
This personal collection of songs is less specific than it is general, a gift to anyone looking for direction, or even just company. It is wonderful having a person in the mainstream whom someone confused or overwhelmed can look up to, and not only is Kiyoko happy to represent, but like peers Dua Lipa, Kehlani, and Kali Uchis, she shows great potential as a pop artist.

Fickle Friends: You Are Someone Else
This British synth-pop duo have carved a commendable niche for themselves in a genre brimming with second-rate hacks and overindulgent copycats. Perhaps this is because the group is committed to relatable dance-pop gems like “Glue” and “Hard To Be Myself” that express a realness often glossed over as inconsequential, laying bare even the smallest anxieties and truths of the everyday mundane by spinning them into noble anthems that make even the tiniest doubts worth chiseling in stone.

Black Honey: Black Honey
The reissue of Garbage’s Version 2.0 has exposed a void left behind by Shirley Manson’s lithe vocals and industrial-sized rock. Black Honey might not fill that hole perfectly, but they could, and lead single, “Midnight Honey” off of this debut album tells you exactly why. Without losing a sense of fun, Black Honey rocks as hard as any mainstream album released this year.

Laurel: Dogviolet
Bedroom singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen, so it takes a lot to stand out from a crowd of pushy opportunists. But Laurel has an ear for melody, one that takes the form of lingering drums and rich piano, of raw guitars pillowed by scratchy vocals. All of these elements come together on Dogviolet, a promising debut album that proves there’s still plenty of room for anyone willing to put in the work to make cliches sound oh so new again.

DIAMANTE: Coming in Hot
Although there’s no shortage of female vocalists in hard rock and metal, most of these powerhouses tend to be found in bands. Very few have made it on the strength of a solo career in the genre. Whether or not DIAMANTE ticks past her fifteen minutes remains to be seen, but Coming in Hot is an especial treat given its draw: there have been many interesting debut albums this years, but none as arresting as this dichotomy — a blue-haired siren delivering tough-as-nails vocals ripped from the throat, straight to your gut. But these are not just the gripes of a teenage brat with a recording contract (and really, it would sill work if it was): DIAMANTE has steel here, in songs like “Bullet Proof,” “War Cry,” and the gritty “Haunted.” It’s the unexpected violence that fascinates, the frustrations of young womanhood given an aggressive, super-melodic outlet with a willingness to fall just a touch too far outside the acceptable, classically-trained, pretty-angry zone that makes it so honest, and so important.

Eves Karydas: Summerskin
When Eves Karydas disappeared to hone her songwriting skills, no one expected her to come back with such razor-sharp precision. Melancholy like Lana Del Rey (“There for You” sounds particularly reminiscent), moody like Lorde, but as charming as Baby One More Time-Britney, Karydas’s debut album is a promising addition in pop’s new emphasis on authenticity and the realities of first-person, lived experience. Summerskin has all of it, and gorgeous melodies on top.

Honorable Mentions

Shannon Shaw: Shannon in Nashville
Frozen Land: Frozen Land
VHS Collection: Retrofuturism
RIRI: RIRI
Party Nails: Past Lives & Paychecks

Top ten remastered/reissued albums of 2018

Every year the new releases keep piling up, and not far behind them is a long stretch of music history, staying fresh in memories with the sheer number of remasters and re-releases that grace our ears each year. With glossy new packaging and technological studio wizardry polishing up those dusty old master tapes, it’s easy to make the old look and sound just as fresh and exciting as any debut artist, with an added bonus: there’s no work involved in learning to love what is already familiar and comfortable, just a chance to re-appreciate a classic. Here are ten albums, in no particular order, that were remastered and/or re-released this year, across genre and language, that sound just as good as we remember, and now, even better.

Metallica: …And Justice for All [1988]
Metallica has been busy remastering their back catalog in chronological order, and in several formats that range from bank-breaking deluxe LP boxes to gate-fold digipaks sold for $5 apiece at Walmart. …And Justice for All is their latest, though anyone hoping for a louder bass line in the mix will be disappointed. However, …And Justice for All‘s infamous sound mixing is part of band lore, and to tinker with it to the extent that the entire soundscape would have changed would have fundamentally stripped the album of everything it is: the story of a band in turmoil, working through grief the only way they knew how; the last of an era. Of course, these backstory bits are fun, but unnecessary for enjoyment. What you’ll get here is the album exactly as it was released in 1988, just cleaner, louder, and with none of the surprises. Let’s hope we get a stateside remaster of the Black Album next.

Various Artists: Katamari Damacy (Original Video Game Soundtrack) [2004]
One of the most delightful video game soundtracks of its time, Katamari Damacy remains a beloved favorite of both gamers and J-pop enthusiasts alike. All of the jazzy, J-pop numbers, as well as iconic theme music are present on this gorgeous re-release, pressed onto vinyl by Mondo for the U.S. for the first time. First pressings that came in a glossy gate-fold on colored and swirled vinyl sold out quickly, but alternate second pressings continue to breathe new life into this masterpiece of game music.

Garbage: Version 2.0 [1998]
One of the definitive bands of the 90s finally got their due this year in a 20th anniversary remaster of their Grammy-nominated second album Version 2.0. Containing the band’s most popular songs, the album was an instant classic that catapulted the band into stratospheric fame beyond what even their debut effort could have foretold. Everything from “I’m Paranoid” to “Push It” sounds crisp on this 2-disk/3-LP set that also contains all of the era’s B-sides.

Megadeth: Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good!: The Final Kill [1985]
This is not the first time Killing Is My Business has been remastered — most of Megadeth’s albums were re-released in 2004, along with a couple of anniversary editions following. The original remastered Killing, ca. 2002, censored the cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” due to copyright claims, but it reappears here with rerecorded vocals and its original lyrics intact. In fact, many of the songs have parts that seem rerecorded. Purists claims this sullies the original release, and the whole point of remasters in general, but the trade-off is that it allows Mark Lewis to massage an impeccably modern, crystal-clear sheen out of what once sounded closer to a description Patricia Lockwood made about her own father’s guitar playing: “like a whole band dying in a plane crash in 1972.” Whether or not Killing was ever meant to sound so clean or if that messiness was part of its charm, and no matter which side you fall on the loudness wars, the spirit of Megadeth’s debut studio album has been preserved. One hopes this is as truly “final” as the subtitle implies and Mustaine can rest satisfied with this mix that includes several bonus live tracks and demos.

Red Velvet: The Perfect Red Velvet – The 2nd Album Repackage [2017]
The Perfect Red was an appears Top Ten Album last year, and like most K-pop albums, quickly received a re-release two months later to make a couple of extra bucks with the addition of new songs “Bad Boy,” and “All Right.” But just because the new songs and hyperbolic title don’t do much to enhance an already seamless record, you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy this K-pop gem all over again.

Alan Menken: Walt Disney Records The Legacy Collection: Beauty and the Beast [1991]
Walt Disney’s Legacy Collection had been re-releasing soundtracks on an anniversary schedule, but have slowed down considerably since 2015, with only one release in 2017 and one for 2018, this gorgeously reproduced 2-disk edition of the 1991 film soundtrack to Beauty and the Beast. Unlike the 2001 special edition, this one also includes previously unreleased material and demos from masterminds Alan Menken and Howard Ashman that provide a window into how subtle changes in lyrics, vocalists, and tempos can change a piece entirely. I’m not sure how “remastered” these tracks are, since many of them don’t sound too much different than those included on the 2001 edition, (though I am assured by experts more knowledgeable than me, that it is indeed much better) all of the original cues remain as sumptuous and sweeping as they first appeared, and anyone familiar with the film can clearly envisage the visuals with the album’s chronological track-sequencing. While Beauty and the Beast is not my personal favorite Menken/Disney soundtrack, it is without a doubt one of the finest, most timeless pieces of music set to a Disney film ever, and can now be fully appreciated with additional liner notes, nicely thick packaging, and stunning gouache artwork by Lorelay Bove that mimics that of the great Retta Scott Worcester. Aladdin next?

The Beatles: The Beatles [1968]
There is no new ground to cover here, considering this is one of the most iconic rock albums of all time, famous not just for its music but for the story of a legendary band on its last legs. Cracks and all, this album is track-for-track the definitive distillation of two of the Western world’s best songwriters, and their equally talented friends (what were their names again?). This 50th anniversary remaster, a further expansion of the Beatles’ 2009 re-release series, comes in several iterations with varying degrees of bonus material that will leave fans occupied for weeks.

Alan Silvestri: The Mummy Returns (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) [2001]
Intrada continues to do the Lord’s work with their remastering of the action-adventure saga The Mummy Returns, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, the sequel to The Mummy. While Jerry Goldsmith laid fine groundwork with the original (also remastered by Intrada this year), Silvestri’s score really gives a sense of power, with varying tempos, obligatory swelling violins, and rollicking percussion, working within the film’s very smart ode to classic action-adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Silvestri’s work is in its own league, and though opinions on this will vary, his continuation and expansion of Goldsmith’s score is, in a sense, closer in spirit to the thematic elements of the swashbuckling visuals. Both soundtracks were remastered from the original sessions, and include bonus material left out on the hasty original releases.

BAND-MAID: MAID IN JAPAN [2014]
MAID IN JAPAN is the J-rock group’s debut album that made all the impact of a forcefully lobbed cotton ball. Due to the limited press of its initial run, the album sold out quickly, leaving a legion of new fans without access to it. The album was re-released in new packaging this year alongside their new album WORLD DOMINATION. This coincided release really emphasized how much the band has evolved and grown in as little as four years, with the sophistication and ease of WD contrasting nicely with the simpler, but no less passionate MIJ. It’s a nice little time capsule of a band on the verge of figuring out just what kind of band they wanted to be.

Iron Maiden: The Number of the Beast [1982]
Iron Maiden are going a second round with remasters, the first being in 1998 (although these digital remasters are the same as those available on the vinyl editions released in 2015). For all the purists who hated the edits of the 1998 versions, these have preserved the mixes of the original vinyl releases. So far, their first four albums have been released, and you can take your pick at any one of these foundational NWOBHM releases, though I’m partial to The Number of the Beast, which includes the band’s first appearance with Bruce Dickinson on vocals, and a personal favorite song. Though there’s no new bonus material here (unless you’re into Eddie figurines), it’s never a bad time to get a louder Maiden CD into your collection.

Honorable Mentions

Guns ‘N Roses: Appetite for Destruction [1987]
John Willians: Harry Potter: The John Williams Soundtrack Collection [2001-2004]
Ramones: Rocket to Russia [1977]
Pet Shop Boys: Please [1986]
Def Leppard: The Collection: Volume One [1980-1987]

Best albums of 2018: What to expect

This year I have decided to do things a bit differently. Due to the tremendous amount of music I have listened to this year, instead of having one main list of the top pop/rock albums that focus on J-pop and K-pop, and a separate, brief rundown of peripheral albums under a general English-language/Western category, I have expanded my year-end lists into six categories. Each category features ten of my favorite album releases of the year, followed by five honorable mentions. The complete list, posting schedule, and further information are as follows:

(12/27) Top ten remasters/reissues: Any remastered or reissued album from anywhere in the world, whether CD, vinyl, box set, etc.
(12/28) Top ten debut albums: Any artist who released an original studio album for the first time in 2018 from anywhere in the world.
(12/29) Top ten original soundtracks/original scores: Any original soundtrack or score composed exclusively for film, television, or video game from anywhere in the world.
(12/30) Top ten hard rock/metal: Any hard rock or metal album released by an English-speaking and/or Western band/artist.
(12/31) Top ten pop/electronic: Any pop or electronic album released by an English-speaking and/or Western band/artist.
(01/01) Top ten East Asian pop/rock: Any pop or rock album released in East Asia (especially Japan and South Korea).

These lists are not meant to be exhaustive, nor absolute (most likely, there are one or two overlaps I missed concerning debut albums): they are simply a reflection of the genres I listened to the most in 2018, and any accidental omissions are mentioned in each post’s introduction. Above all, these are meant to be FUN: so much music continues to be released each year and it is both a joy and a privilege to get through and share with you all even a tiny fraction of it. Unfortunately, a lot of great songs that never appeared on albums were released this year but I won’t be getting the chance to discuss them in this year’s lists (time constraints dictated I focus on one or the other). However, I hope you enjoy these albums as much as I have enjoyed listening to them all year.

Finally, a quick thank you to the readers who have stuck with me during this year’s extended absence. I appreciate you all more than you’ll ever know. I’ll see you all on December 27, when we get this party started. All the best in the New Year and happy listening!

Top ten albums of 2017

When NPR posted their 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women list earlier this year, Ann Powers summed up the struggle to create “definitive” lists of anything:

In music, lists are what comes after an experiment — the experiment of listening itself, alone and then together, of sharing music and arguing about it and realizing how an artists’ personal expression might be a listener’s personal (and political) one too. A list says no to the possibility that any other list on the same subject might be valid. It forces authority. Or does it? Another way to look at a list is as the beginning of new conversation.

Because it can be difficult to assert authority, I prefer to think of my own lists as the “beginning of a new conversation,” specifically, the state of East Asian pop music today, the trends and future-coming of both J-pop and K-pop, and where it will all take us next year. As usual, this isn’t so much a definitive list of the ten best East Asian pop albums of 2017, open to a vigorous debate I can fight to the death, but a discussion, one that shares ideas rather than forces them down spoonful.

And also, one whose length I hope makes up somewhat for my absence around here this year. As usual, it’s a watering down of the tremendous amount of listening I do all year, a distillation of full-length albums that don’t always represent the year with its many excellent singles, or songs contained on just-okay or bad records. It’s a sort of crude snapshot, but not without its own special kind of joy. Without further ado.

10 Arashi: untitled / w-inds.: INVISIBLE

It’s a topsy-turvy world we live in when Arashi has made their second consecutive top-ten appearance on a year-end list at appears. So what is it that keeps a Johnny’s group like Arashi rising above all other J-pop albums? Despite its sometimes cookie-cutter, personality-void vocals, untitled is full of the cozy J-pop melodies that Arashi has been so adept at since Japonism. And “cozy” is really the right term: like warm updrafts and fuzzy blankets, these songs are perfect comfort-tunes: positive, uplifting, inoffensive, but unapologetically fun. Despite the appearance of a few faster dance songs, untitled continues Arashi’s new image as the fathers of J-pop: serious, nurturing, stern, and mellow, but good for a laugh or two.

As the ultimate symbol of a broad segment of Japanese popular culture, “Arashi” is a heavy burden for the five men of this group to shoulder, but untitled shows how flexible and game they are to adapt and humbly preserve an audience hungry for tradition and time-worn institutions in a fast-paced, unpredictable world that can feel overwhelming.

There are two visible splits within the overall hierarchy of Japanese boy bands: the traditional J-pop groups that fall more along the lines of the well-perfected Johnny’s sound, with their extended song lengths and major keys (see above), and the more Western/K-pop-influenced groups that incorporate everything from hip-hop to EDM to dubstep, condensed into crunchy 3-minute YouTube-approved chunks. The newer groups struggle with these two styles, often establishing themselves in the former while including sprinkles of the latter onto album cuts and B-sides to give them something of an edge (Hey! Say! JUMP is one of the only groups who manage to balance this fairly successfully). In rare cases, the K-pop/Western style is used as a tool for reinvention, a way to evolve a group beyond what has sustained them thus far. This trick seems to have worked for w-inds., who have probably been waiting something like eight years to release INVISIBLE — or at least it seems to have taken that long for w-inds. to find a solid mix of pop and dance and grit worth writing about. I can’t hand out gold stars for potential, but I can for the group most impressively improved, for an album that doesn’t even contain some of the group’s best songs of the year despite including “Come Back to Bed.”

9 Monari Wakita: I am ONLY

The loss of J-pop group especia hit fans hard, but the debut of ex-member Monari Wakita was a cause for celebration, particularly when it was announced that she would be working with VIVID SOUND and Hase Hajimu, Michiru Hoshino’s label and producer. Her debut single “IN THE CITY” gave especia fans even more reason to rejoice: her sound takes only the best elements of especia’s retro city-pop style, and the glee of what is quickly becoming my favorite Tower Records stamp of authenticity: 70’s funk and what Wakita herself calls “danceable rhythmical disco.” Not unlike Michiru Hoshino’s own solo work in general and idol group The Dance for Philosophy in particular (a criminally underrated group that often gets mistaken for 80’s pop revivalists), Wakita’s album is able to juggle both a level of maturity and wide-eyed youthfulness beyond what contemporary idol groups are capable of (despite churning out desperate singles at a rate almost impossible to keep up with). No one would accuse Wakita of being too cool; in fact, her image is largely predicated on being quirky and purposely uncool. As such, I am ONLY is like making a new friend who seems weirdly, but not unpleasantly, familiar and comfortable.

8 Cosmic Girls (WJSN): Happy Moment

Cosmic Girls (WJSN) was my favorite K-pop rookie group last year; their debut Would You Like? and follow-up The Secret both provided all the magical-girl fantasy aesthetic you could ask for. In 2017, galactic backdrops were huge testaments to the very make-believe quality inherent in K-pop, from EXO, to Brave Girls, to G-Friend, but only Cosmic Girls have a logical reason to do so. With their first release of the year amping up the incongruous outer-space rainbows, shooting stars, and unicorns with the very reality-based fantasies of emojis and outdated technology, “Neoege Dahgireul (I Wish)” was as deliberately incredible in the original sense of the word as it was unsubtle. But Happy Moment, their first full-length, pulls back on what we’ve come to associate with the group, giving listeners more of a greatest-hits of girl-pop in the New Millennium. While this might seem counterproductive to all of the groundwork WJSN has laid, it instead elevates them into the higher rank of contemporary K-pop groups by deftly executing every modern style from R&B to hyper disco-pop. While nothing that the album offers is particularly novel, it possesses all the joy, fun, and technical power that the genre is known for — not something that a lot of groups can pull off in a full-length album. While I’m not sure any current K-pop group has the potential to pick up where the major groups have left off — certainly, we’ve had other really great copycats like OH MY GIRL and April — this is the year we all suffered the inevitable end or might-as-well be of groups as beloved as 2NE1, T-ara, and SNSD. The future of K-pop seems littered with earnest attempts to regain the magic and mystery of the first generation phenomenons; I hope they all continue to sound this good.

7 EXO: The Power Of Music

The big K-pop success story this year was BTS, who, against all of the increasing odds and barriers stacked against them, somehow landed performances on both the American Music Awards and Ellen. Despite having only one fluent English speaker, the group presented themselves as both charming and adorably overwhelmed. The incongruity of the group was downplayed in their best attempts to recreate K-pop music shows both in stage and with the addition of screaming ARMYs. Despite the massive fun of a song like “DNA,” the performances felt just a bit jarring, not unlike SNSD’s appearance on late night a few years ago. Even more surprising is that the group hasn’t struck me thus far as anything but an interesting rookie-level group worth keeping an eye on, whereas a group like EXO, who are well-established and have released one of the year’s most casually-brilliant pop albums of the year, won’t be lucky enough to get an opportunity like that when the group is geared towards the overseas Chinese market instead. And frankly, The Power Of Music blows BTS’s mini-album out of the water.

Every year SM Entertainment pulls out all the stops for one of their boy bands, and this repackaged version of THE WAR, which has an additional three cuts tacked onto the front, is the year’s flagship. The tracks range from YG-bangers, the kind we haven’t seen actually come out of YG all year, like “Sweet Lies,” to the slick-pop SM is famous for, like “Power” and “What U do?,” to the languid reggae in single “Ko Ko Bop.” Fans might hand out awards for potential, but I prefer doling out accolades in moments of genuine triumph, and The Power Of Music is an assured follow-up to a string of hit-or-misses that see the group finally catching up to their label mates SHINee.

6 Red Velvet: Perfect Velvet

Cool is, by definition, a word that constantly mutates, adapting to its time and place with surprising accuracy, even as it stays exactly the same. Ever elusive, it’s not a concept that can be obtained deliberately; on the contrary, aiming to be cool seems to be just the thing that makes something or someone uncool. Yet the entire enterprise of K-pop is built on coolness, a cultural coleslaw of style, trend, and depeche mode with turnover rates only slightly faster than Internet memes. Still, there are few groups who can pull off actual, unintended coolness, and Red Velvet seems to be one of them. Aside from their debut, the group has had very few missteps, releasing a serious of dual-concept mini-albums that are both frothy fun and sophisticated cool. July’s Red Summer leans toward the former while Perfect Velvet encompasses the latter.

Beginning with the poppy “Peek-a-Boo,” the album surges through retro synth hooks and casually elegant disco-pop, culminating in the sort of chillingly simple R&B that makes “Perfect 10” almost ethereal. SM Entertainment has been on a role this year, with a similarly flawless, easy elegance on Seohyun’s mini-album Don’t Say No. Despite a sound that hints at a peak, and the fact that Red Velvet has been around for almost four years, the group still feels refreshingly novel, more like eager rookies than jaded veterans. Perfect Velvet is more than another successful album from SM’s SNSD/f(x)-offspring: they’re a group freed from the constraints of their label-sisters, with a sound that is wholly and effortlessly cool.

5 Kumi Koda’s W FACE ~outside~

There’s something irresistible about an album that’s been boiled down to its barest, naked self. Last year, Bruno Mars released one of the greatest pop albums of the decade and like the best of his pre-90’s predecessors, managed to keep the scant 9 tracks under a tight 35 minutes: the perfect length for two sides of an LP. The music world is now split on these two methods: those that cut mercilessly to showcase the very cream on today’s unforgiving, but preferred listening medium for music enthusiasts, the vinyl record (Miley Cyrus’s Younger Now, Beth Ditto’s Fake Sugar, Danielle Bradbery’s I Don’t Believe We’ve Met), and those (still) tied to the endless possibilities of the twice-as-able CD, where double the length can mean either creative possibilities and more to love, or a license to bloat (Ellie Goulding’s Delirium, Dua Lipa’s Dua Lipa, Katy Perry’s Witness). This year, Kumi Koda opted for both and neither.

Instead of cramming as many styles and tracks as possible on her new album, Koda released two separate albums in two different styles: W FACE ~inside~, the “ballad” album, and W FACE ~outside~, the “pop” album. It was no question that the latter would appeal more to me, even as Koda and her team crafted one of the least subtle albums of the year without compunction. Aside from one painless slow song, every track is a crack-whizz-pow banger, from the title track on down to the brevity-is-the-soul-of “Cupcake.” I couldn’t have been more surprised, or delighted, to have stuck with Koda’s albums over the years, and finally found one that impressed me from start to finish. More of my thoughts on the album here.

4 PASSPO☆ : Cinema Trip

Ever since PASSPO☆ switched labels, the group has stopped releasing at such a clipped pace, leaving us with a two year gap between their last album Beef or Chicken? (a 2015 top ten album) and this year’s Cinema Trip. Leading with the cheeky zombie-rock singlePlayGround,” the album contains all of the new Nippon Crown singles, including “Mr. Wednesday” and “BACHELORETTE wa Owaranai,” songs that rely on PASSPO☆’s upbeat, fast-paced, breezy hard rock. While the album doesn’t reach the overall brilliance of a classic like One World, there are some really great chances for opulent guitar solos and thick riffs like “NASA! ~Nande Aitsu Suki nan da~” and “Fukutsu no RESISTANCE.” Cinema Trip isn’t as panoramic or colorful as the title would suggest, but it’s another strong offering from one of the few idol groups in Japan that seem to genuinely understand how to craft a brilliant variety of rock styles as opposed to watered down idol rehashes.

3 BAND-MAID: Just Bring It

BAND-MAID is a group I should hate on principle. We are now living in a state of J-pop that forces even the most talented, musically adept young women to dress in maid costumes. The idea, which sprung from one of the members’ personal experience working in a maid cafe, is one of those gimmicks that seems less a statement about anything the band stands for than a combination of J-pop’s current practice of marketing idols to young men and otaku with the kind of music that might best appeal to them and the ever encroaching cultural practices that corner women in roles of service — maids are the most obvious, but flight attendants are right up there next to them. There might be “anti-idols” and musicians who subvert these images, but to get any enjoyment out of Japanese music, it’s often necessary to separate what you see from what you hear. In BAND-MAID’s case, it is absolutely necessary, as their costuming is an unnecessary holdover best left abandoned.

Their 2017 album Just Bring It showcases just how little of their success should have to do with gimmicks at all: the album, which is written almost entirely by the members themselves, is a raw, energetic, rage-blizzard expressing hostility, anxiety, grudges, and remorse in a tidy package of chunky chords and monster melodies. Miku Kobato’s vocals might seem thin at times with none of the guttural growls that distinguish the hard rock and metal genres, but they are not without passion and a dizzying mix of both self-righteousness and apology. Akane Hirose’s drums are a personal highlight, but all the members contribute meaning and pathos to a genre that can sometimes seem singularly focused on speed and strength when hesitation and vulnerability can do the trick. Just Bring It does both, and pretty much backwards and in heels.

2 Satellite Young: Satellite Young

The 80’s have made yet another comeback, with Netflix-hit Stranger Things leading the pack, but this isn’t the first time we’ve heard hits as decadent and nihilistic as the synth-driven fingering of Satellite Young. The group is young enough to be influenced more by Tommy february6 than Strawberry Switchblade, but they seem to have combined both to create a flawless hybrid of 80’s-tribute and 80’s-tribute-of-80’s-tributes on their self-titled debut album.

From their VHS-scrambled music videos to the imposing wall of synths behind them on the cover of the album, members Emi Kusano, Bellemaison Seikine, and self-proclaimed cyborg Tele Hideo have crafted not only a delicately accurate time-capsule, but also a love letter to nostalgia itself. Like the frenzied, but carefully curated collections that pepper tumblr, the band’s image is a hodge-podge of images of dead technologies and by-gone fashion, imbued with the myth-making worship that only happens when looking back to a time you never actually experienced firsthand, or experienced when young enough to be capable of retaining only half-memories (they sum this up nicely on “Fake Memory“). It’s a sort of hiccup, when everything is imbued with the sense and feeling of the first time, and what the Duffer Brothers in using Walkie-Talkies on Stranger Things called “practically magic” to a child. This is most obvious in the group’s latest release, “Modern Romance,” where touches of 90s and early 00s props are definite party crashers of their signature era, yet still retain that feeling of almost talismanic power that old objects gain when they’ve been replaced by newer models and we haven’t seen them in a long while. Yet while it might seem the group is based largely on look and style over substance, Satellite Young successfully kidnaps all the best moments from the Pet Shop Boys, italo-disco, and waves of twinkling glissandos (my favorite is in “Sniper Rouge“) to create an authentic experience aurally too. Even if it’s nothing but nostalgia, the album, like the sci-fi-homage Netflix show, is a pitch-perfect example of it, drawing upon retro resources without just spitting them out into a formulaic mold, instead using it as a framework to create something new and altogether magical.

1 E-girls: E.G. CRAZY

It’s something of an anomaly that E-girl’s best album is also their last as the large super-unit we’ve come to know and love them as. E.G. CRAZY was released at the very top of the year back in January, and was proceeded four months later by a flurry of announcements that has shaken the group loose of its core conceit. Fan-favorite Ami was leaving to pursue a solo career; Dream, the subunit she was a member of, disbanded, taking the rest of the members with it; new sub units were created; and several members from sub units Flower and Happiness left E-girls exclusively.

After hearing the group’s output since the changes (singles “LOVE QUEEN” and “Kitakaze to Taiyou“), it’s not a stretch to say that the group will never again have an album as bold and expansive as E.G. CRAZY. The group’s ethos, which rested on the idea of nurturing the talent of several incredible singers and dancers for an audience of women and young girls in stark contrast to the country’s reigning system of idols, might not have been anything new for Avex Trax, the group’s label, but remained a consistent and fortifying breath of fresh air with the debuts of each subsequent AKB-sister group. The album showcases the group at their peak, collecting a long stretch of dance-heavy pop hits across two discs of non-stop celebrations of the life and times of the modern Japanese woman. From the fist-pumping solidarity in “All Day Long Lady” (you can read more about my thoughts on the song here), to the amuse-club-hopping of “Pink Champagne” and “DANCE WITH ME NOW,” the songs pay tribute to an array of iconic pioneers on Disc 2 — the “give me a beat!” sandwiched in “Dance Dance Dance” is still one of the album’s highlights for me — without sacrificing what makes listeners return time and again to the uniqueness, joy, and fun of J-pop at its very, very best on Disc 1.

Due to the length and variety of pop styles, it makes little sense to limit a listening to once or twice — I have been spinning this album regularly since it was released and still haven’t found a reason to let go of the comfort it provided two days before the very world we live in ceased to make any sense whatsoever. Escape is rarely the answer and girls don’t always just want to have fun, but E-girls make it so easy to indulge in tiny escape-bubbles, perfectly formed at the just the moment before they pop.

Top ten albums of 2017: English-language, Honorable mentions & #15-11

Before we get into the annual, intergalactically-famous Top Ten Albums of the Year post, here are a few miscellaneous lists, sans blurbs. Since I have done more music-listening than in any previous year, I am fairly confident with my picks, though I am aware that as soon as this goes live, someone will immediately link me to my new favorite 2017 release on Spotify. Until then, here are my Top Ten English-Language Albums, a few honorable mentions, and a bonus rundown of #15-11 to get us started.

Top Ten English-Language Albums of 2017: Honorable Mentions

 

Bebe Rexha: All Your Fault Pt.1
PVRIS: All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell
Lana Del Rey: Lust for Life
Kehlani: SweetSexySavage
Wanting: LLL
All Time Low: Last Young Renegade

Top Ten English-Language Albums of 2017

01. Beth Ditto: Fake Sugar [ “Fire” ]
02. Dua Lipa: Dua Lipa [ “Last Dance” ]
03. Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein: Stranger Things 2 Original Soundtrack [ “The Return” ]
04. Danielle Bradbery: I Don’t Believe We’ve Met [ “Hello Summer” ]
05. Allie X: CollXtion II [ “Paper Love” ]
06. Paramore: After Laughter [ “Hard Times” ]
07. Lights: Skin&Earth [ “Skydiving” ]
08. Hey Violet: From the Outside [ “Guys My Age” ]
09. Movements: Feel Something [ “Daylily” ]
10. SZA: Ctrl [ “Weekend” ]

Top Ten Albums of 2017: Honorable Mentions

Taichi Mukai: BLUE
ONE OK ROCK: Ambitions
Negoto: SOAK
Mamoru Miyano: THE LOVE
UP UP GIRLS kakko Kari: 4th ALBUM (Kari)
uchuu,: Keep On
Girls’ Generation (SNSD): Holiday
The Dance for Philosophy: FOUNDER
Tokyo PERFORMANCE DOLL: WE ARE TPD
S.E.S.: Remember

A Little Extra: Top Ten Albums of 2017 #15-11

15. Kana Hanazawa: Opportunity
14. Natsume Mito: Natsumelo
13. Wa-suta: PARADOX WORLD
12. LILILIPS: Make You Pop
11. Seohyun: Don’t Say No

An appears 2017 tumblr year-end round-up

Due to the low number of posts on the main blog here this year, enjoy this round-up of a few longer-form posts over at the appears tumblr!

The beauty of Seohyun’s “Don’t Say No”
Futuristic Tokyos in Ai Otsuka’s “Watashi” and Perfume’s “TOKYO GIRL”
Avex girl groups: Def Will’s “Winding Road”
Max Martin et al. crafts pop perfection in Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm”
Better than CL: Kumi Koda’s W FACE ~outside~
A sisterhood of survivors: E-girls’ “All Day Long Lady”

Time Has Come: Namie Amuro to retire in 2018

With the world on fire, it seems self-indulgent to grieve over the announcement that a pop star is retiring. But then, since it’s our beloved Namie Amuro, allow me to indulge a bit.

After years spent commuting long distances to train at the famed Okinawa Actors Studio, Namie Amuro debuted in 1992 with the group SUPER MONKEYS. A natural star, the group’s name was shortly changed to highlight their strongest player to Amuro Namie with SUPER MONKEYS. Their debut single, “Koi no CUTE BEAT,” was a tribute to the growing popularity of European techno, a subgenre that would eventually gain fame in Japan as “para para,” or Avex’s trademarked “super eurobeat.” Both Amuro and her back-up dancers, now re-christened MAX, signed with Avex Trax and went their separate ways. While MAX sustained a modest career pursuing the eurobeat line, Amuro was taken under the wing of an already well-known prolific music producer, former TM Network-keyboardist and current trf-producer Tetsuya Komuro. “Body Feels EXIT” was released in 1995, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the 1990s, the Japanese pop music industry was changing rapidly, with Komuro at the helm. The bubble had burst, the Golden Age of Idols was a long-gone idyll, and consumers, especially women, were no longer content to settle for less. Putting on a cute dress and swaying back and forth, warbling off-key to 4/4 treacle, was no longer enough. While being cute might have been enough in the 1980s to delay adulthood and escape the expectations of growing up and getting married, Hiroshi Aoyagi in Islands of Eight Million Smiles: Idol Performance and Symbolic Production in Contemporary Japan (2005) notes that it “gradually lost its appeal as a form of rebellion. Moreover, there was an emergent perception that “cutesy” embraced fragile femininity, which continued to become objectified by adult men.” (98) A flurry of new fashion trends emerged to replace kawaii, styes that “conjured up the figure of an assertive, self-centered young woman who is in no hurry to marry and who maintains a stable of boyfriends to serve her different needs (Robertson 1998: 65).” (98) Among these styles, Aoyagi sites gyaru and all their sub types, including “Amuraa.” Amuraa was a style adopted by Amuro’s fans in 1995 and 1996, a whole movement that helped change women’s fashion and attitude, one pair of short pants and long boots at a time.

Because by the the mid-90s, Japanese pop culture was ready for their Madonna, for their Mariah Carey, for their Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. They were ready for true artists, female solo singers not afraid to nurture their skills and show off real talent. The hours put into dancing, singing, and cultivating personal style, was just the minimum amount of effort necessary for the type of profession that required effortless grace, fearless confidence, and unapologetic ambition. Once, we had more than one of these women, firing simultaneously at the peak of their careers, changing perceptions of what it meant to be a woman living in modern Japan. But Namie Amuro was one of the first, and she made it look criminally easy.

With her modern, forward-thinking dance music, a style that eventually evolved into R&B, soul, hip-pop, and then back to dance, Amuro’s debut solo album, SWEET 19 BLUES was a landmark J-pop album that hinted at the iconic pop gems to come: “Chase the Chance,” “a walk in the park,” “CAN YOU CELEBRATE?“. It’s certainly not the strongest album of hers to date, but it cemented her central role as the new face of contemporary J-pop, the successful paragon of what producing and marketing a woman based on artistic ability and talent was capable of achieving. Whatever his faults (and there are many), Tetsuya Komuro’s business style at Avex Trax was critical in giving Amuro the platform to be more than an idol. Writing in Nippon Pop, Steve McClure quotes Komuro as saying, “The artist should come first. I always say so in interviews like this, in the hope that the Japanese music production system will change.” (87) Despite Komuro’s insistence that his protegees were still idols, they were to be “quality” idols (to be fair, his use of the term is dubious; he calls Michael and Janet Jackson both idols, which in terms of Japanese media culture, is an incorrect use of the term).

Amuro’s career since then was an exhilaration, a row of toppling dominoes sending stereotypes, prejudices, and the expectations of female performers tumbling. Seiko Matsuda struggled with criticism after continuing her career post-marriage and children in the 1980s, and as late as 1988, Agnes Chan was defending her choice to bring her son with her on national television, sparking a fierce debate over show-business etiquette and a woman’s role in politely, and humbly, mediating images of “good” women who didn’t date, marry, or have children publicly. Exactly one decade later, Amuro was passed the torch, announcing a marriage and pregnancy, defying any and all judgments of her choice. When she returned to show business, she was sorry-not-sorry, fighting to overcome the shock of her “scandalous” sabbatical and win her rightful place back in the entertainment industry with a more aggressive look and sound. She inked up, stripped down, and held on tight for the next 19 years, bringing J-pop into the 21st century alongside her labelsisters while the resurgence of hyper-kawaii idols and their countless imitators swept the charts and fought to set it back two decades, back to dependence and helplessness and exploitation.

Later, set amidst those same sisters, most losing popularity from releasing unpopular album or facing personal setbacks, Amuro released a succession of brilliant singles, her albums getting sharper and more polished over time, her discipline and professionalism astounding even the most jaded and cynical while working the media to her advantage by abstaining from a strong social media presence and remaining coy about her personal life. And then, on September 20, 2017, amid of flurry of promotions for a documentary series set to debut on Hulu on October 1 and celebrations for the 25th anniversary of her debut, Amuro announced that she would be retiring on September 16, 2018. She promised to leave her fans one final album and a series of concert performances.

The announcement follows a legal battle to secure the rights to release music under her own record label, Dimension Point (still a sub label of Avex Trax), leaving many fans speculating as to whether or not she will continue working in the music industry after her retirement in a different role, perhaps paying it forward as a producer. It would be selfish to deny someone a break after the years she put in sharing incredible music and illustrating what it means to be real, genuine people whose lives sometimes get messy, but don’t have to get dirty. For more than two decades, she showed us how to deal with setbacks, pick ourselves up, and keep moving forward without losing a sense of self-worth. So despite any sense of anger or misfortune, despite the urge to linger over our own loss in the deal, the appropriate answer is: thank you.

Whether she chooses to relax, or to keep up her enviable work ethic, I know Namie Amuro will be able to pull off whatever she sets her mind to. There are 25 years that prove it.