Top ten metal/hard rock albums of 2019

In this, the year of our Lord 2019, I never thought I would find myself typing these words, but here we go: Rammstein created one of the best music videos of 2019. Now let me back up. The German outfit has been around for so long, it is sometimes hard to remember that there was a time when bands like Rammstein and Marilyn Manson were truly terrifying to a subset of parents and teachers. It was a different time, and as the Internet changed everything we know about religion, sex, politics, and personal boundaries, bands like these began to seem less and less important to people who now had to worry about their eight-year-old kids stumbling across hardcore porn  after clicking an innocent-looking link on a Geocities Pokemon fan site. Rammstein’s music always seemed purposely engineered to spark controversy, but by the time the group was packaging dildos with their new albums, it was all a little stale. Their low-budget videos didn’t seem so much thought-provoking or subversive, as they did a bunch of people in the active process of learning that art and taboo were not actually the same thing, and that pissing people off for the sake of it was an amateur’s game.

The music was one thing: Richard Kruspe is practically incapable of not writing a massive, chugging riff, but Till Lindemann’s message got muddled, and the band’s means of expression seemed hampered by their desire to first and foremost, provoke. Inevitably, intentions backfired after right-wing groups started co-opting their music, prompting the band to spell out their left-leaning political views and politely asking Nazis to get lost. Indeed, it’s like Rammstein has been waiting 25 years for someone with a better means of communication to corral all the interesting things they had to say in a meaningful way. That someone is Specter Berlin, and on March 28, he released “Deutschland” into the world.

Like all Rammstein videos, it is dark, violent, and makes for uncomfortable viewing. But due to the careful cinematography, its beauty makes it brutally remarkable. I cannot think of a music video that better captures what it is like to live in the ruins of a crumbling empire, of what it is like to love the freedoms and opportunities your country has given you, while knowing the truth of how those freedoms and opportunities were won. While watching those freedoms and opportunities narrow for more and more people. As Lee Seymour writes, ““Deutschland” makes clear [the band’s] intention: not to exploit or glorify, but to excoriate their homeland’s history of violent nationalism.” The video is a brief historical chronology of all of Germany’s worst moments, from the Middle Ages, to the Weimar Republic, and through two World Wars and the Iron Curtain. It does not sugarcoat, condone, or hide the atrocities committed by Germans against others and their own people (there are some great YouTube videos breaking the scenes down, for all my fellow history nerds). All this, set to words almost childlike in their simplicity, expressing the difficulty of reconciling the desire to take pride in one’s country, with that same country’s dark history. Is it possible when the future doesn’t look any brighter, when over and over again, we see that these fundamental evils have never really gone away, and return to the mainstream in almost clock-like cycles? You don’t have to be German to get it, though keeping up with current events helps. We are at a point in history when inroads are being made to rectify mistakes of the past, when responsibilities are being taken, but we are also at a point when a man who supports white supremacy lives in the White House.

These are scary times indeed, and making art of it is a tricky tightrope, one that I do not think Rammstein was capable of 15 or 10 years ago. For example, even their other recent attempts have been a bit dodgy, with follow-up song and video for “Auslander” making its point, but in a clumsy, cringey way (all you need is the shot of the butterfly being meticulously cataloged, studied and then slammed between the pages of the book — that’s it. Fin.). But “Deutschland,” both the song and video, manages to capture the shallowness, the fear, the confusion, the reckoning, the impossible reconciliation, and the unfulfilled promise of progress in a brief ten minutes. That doesn’t even begin to touch upon how great the music itself works to highlight all of these beats: the rhythmic verses, the chilly delivery of the chorus, the synths that journey in and out of the music like the red lights threaded throughout the video, connecting all of history, all of one nation’s self-contained life from the womb to outer space, while weaving in the band’s personal history through nods to past lyrics and imagery. It all works together like one great whole, like all of the world itself, self-contained by one action leading to the next, from one continent to another, like ripples on the massive timeline of world history. By the time the end credits, with its funereal take on “Sonne,” begins, as we watch one last macabre montage of devastating footage, all you can do is take one deep, collective breath and sigh, as Berlin wraps up with a mournful humble-brag of somber, haunting shots. As Leonid  Bershidsky concludes, “The discussion about the video is really about what’s bubbling close to the surface here — and about the importance of awareness, and bitter irony, in keeping the lid on.”

So is Rammstein’s self-titled the best metal album of the year? Nah. It’s bogged down by a particularly slow second half, and there are definitely other albums that have a stronger track-by-track presence, such as the critic-panned Resist by Within Temptation, one of my most-played albums of the year (I think I am the only person on this planet who didn’t hate this album). There are certainly more cerebral albums, like Atlantean Kodex’s The Course of Empire, and more fun albums like the insanely cheesy and quixotic throwback-metal of Beast in Black’s From Hell with Love. There are are more technical albums like Aephanemer’s Prokopton, and darker, comfort-haunts like Idle Hands’s Mana. They all have a place on this list, a small piece of the variety and surprises that await us in metal every year (and don’t forget to check out a few more on our debut list). But to my mind, nothing beats the enormity and accomplishment of “Deutschland,” which is why it is so disappointing to me that many had already dismissed this dinosaur of a band, due in part to their less-than-graceful past, and are missing out on one of the most honest and important musical statements of 2019.

Within Temptation: Resist // Aephanemer: Prokopton

Rammstein: Rammstein // Idle Hands: Mana

Screamer: Highway of Heroes // Dayseeker: Sleeptalk

Diviner: Realms of Time // Atlantean Kodex: The Course of Empire

Beast in Black: From Hell with Love // Black Therapy: Echoes of Dying Memories

Honorable Mentions

Riot City: Burn the Night
Stormhammer: Seven Seals
Dream State: Primrose Path
Lacuna Coil: Black Anima
Gygax: High Fantasy

Top ten original soundtracks/original scores of 2019

Like any musical microcosm, the world of film and video game scores is as niche as they come, and the fact that the music is such an integral and largely ignored part of what makes visual media work has already been documented. Is the best score one that remains unobtrusive, enhancing the visuals without taking on a solid identity of its own, or should a score cause you, at least once, to stop and think, wait, what was that? The best scores had me thinking a lot about this over the course of 2019, but I’m not the best person to answer this, especially as I continue to listen to most scores outside of their visual contexts. What makes a score satisfying for me takes place almost exclusively within the frame of the audio waves, and whether or not it stands on its own as an interesting work of music.

I was in luck: 2019 provided many scores to mull over and enjoy, without the need to spend extra time glued to a screen. There were more traditional scores, like Nathaniel Mechaly’s whimsical ode to Danny Elfman for Swoon and Martin Phipp’s The Aftermath. There were epic orchestral arrangements in the traditional style of scores of yore, from Geoff Zanelli’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and Hans Zimmer’s victory lap on The Lion King (the score only — I don’t care for the re-worked vocal pieces). There were modern scores for a handful of sequels, full of the kind of sound often reviled by traditionalists, like Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein’s synth-heavy work for the third season of mega-summer event Stranger Things 3, and Tyler Bates & Joel J. Richard’s even synth-heavier work on John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, neither the best of their respective franchises, but still adept at wringing something fresh out of their third rodeos.

There were also some surprises, like Hildur Gudnadottir’s brilliant and haunting work for Todd Phillips’s Joker. Having heard and hated Gudnadottir’s work for the Grammy-Award-nominated Chernobyl, my expectations pooled somewhere in the gutter for this one, so what a shock to hear how eerie and sublime (in the traditional sense of sublime — the invoking of both fear and awe), this soundtrack was. Gudnadottir captures something ruthless, dark, and delicate about this movie and its subject, without resorting to the type of horror-movie cliches that riddle so many scores. Its simplicity makes it all the more effective, and though I’m at a loss to understand how someone who made Chernobyl could have crafted something so vastly different, I hope this bodes well for the type of variety we will see from the composer in the future.

Overall, I don’t think there were as many rich experiences as there were last year, but there was still strong material to sift through if you were willing to step out of your comfort zone and bury preconceived ideas about music for, say, television/serial programming, for which Netflix has been utilizing an amazing group of talent, such as Daniel Pemberton and Frederik Wiedmann. And though I wish there were more video game and anime soundtracks on here, I look forward to a day that more are made easily accessible. Until then, this list does a pretty bang-up job of underlining how eclectic and diverse the world of original scores are, and how rewarding it is to take the time to close your eyes and really listen.

Nathaniel Mechaly: Swoon // Martin Phipps: The Aftermath

Hans Zimmer: The Lion King // Craig Armstrong: Mrs. Lowry & Son

Hildur Gudnadottir: Joker //  Adam Taylor: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Season One

Tyler Bates & Joel J. Richard: John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum // Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein: Stranger Things 3

Alexandre Desplat: Little Women // Geoff Zanelli: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Honorable Mentions

Cris Velasco: Dauntless, Vol. 1
Daniel Pemberton: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Vol. 1
Rupert Gregson-Williams: Catch-22
Frederik Wiedmann: The Dragon Prince, Season 1
James Newton Howard: A Hidden Life

Top ten debut albums of 2019

After the dumpster-fires that keep erupting around news of K-pop trainees, from grueling schedules to crash-diets to the lack of resources for mental health care, I am continually surprised (and, shamefully, grateful) that anyone still chooses to sign contracts and put themselves through the ringer for a chance at fame and fortune. After all, where would we all be without entertainment companies continuing to debut groups, with rookies taking on the burden of sometimes broken systems to hone an incredible array of talents, with artists continually mixing and matching influences past and present to create new music we’re all just blessed to hear?

We’ve had both disappointing and promising K-pop debuts this year, from the stale tropical and electro house drops that dominated lead singles, to yet another company hoping to hit on the same supernatural alchemy that generated hometown heroes Girls’ Generation and overseas warriors like BTS. On that front we had groups like Cherry Bullet, repping for the Red Velvet-lovers and TXT (TOMORROW x TOGETHER), the latter who in their youthful ear-worms released not one, but two enchantingly sweet takes on pop, channeling all the BTS-but-twice-as-earnest charm they could muster, with a similar look and vibe, too, as if spawned from the very rib of their big brothers (both groups are under Big Hit Entertainment). And it was nice being swept away by the joyful ambition of a group like ARIAZ, whose Grand Opera proved that the staple girl-group sound still has the ability to work new melodies into the same old bottles. I’m not sure any of these groups, from BVNDIT to Purple Beck to Bz-Boys, will have any staying power (especially the last two), but they deliver on everything K-pop promised back in 2009, when the future was a bright horizon promising fresh sounds you’d never heard before in beautiful, unblemished packages. Listening to something like “Drama” or “Dream Line,” you can almost believe that’s how it all turned out.

One of the most interesting things in music this year, previously only hinted at in bits and pieces, has been the mainstream emergence of the late 90’s and early 00’s aesthetic. It’s been done before (actually, as with any recent trend, I can almost always confidently say f(x) did it first), but with the 20th anniversary of Y2K looming, we’ve gotten two albums that solidified their dedication to the Western girl-group boom that gave us such gems as Dream’s “He Loves You Not” and “Hit Me Baby One More Time“-Britney Spears in LIZ’s super fun Planet Y2K and Slayyyter’s eponymous mixtape, the latter whose vocals embrace the same uncanny coo that Max Martin coaxed out of the young Spears, taken to its more gratuitous ends. The former boasts hyper-pop like the ooey-gooey-cheewy “Bubblegum,” Dream-esque “Intuition,” and Ace of Base-lite “Lost U 2 The Boys.” It’s one big celebration of and homage to kitsch Millennium, an early 00’s Kylie Minogue-music video brought to life, with all the glorious, nostalgic elements safely intact. Slayyyter fast-forwards a few years to the MySpace-era, but is no less dedicated to authenticity — it’s more sleazy, more skeptical of what happens when you’ve grown up on a steady diet of plastic backpacks, Von Dutch hats, leaked sex videos, and a wall of carefully curated glitter .gifs. They provide the same time-machine experience, but two very different perspectives, and it’s hard not to find a guilty pleasure in both, and hope to see more from these promising curistas.

J-pop is usually a genre that doesn’t get much representation in this category: it’s harder to get a sense of promise from a genre that has trouble generating hype without making you meet it halfway, and the more time passes, the more difficult the hard sell is. And then there are the logistics. Here are two prime examples of groups that caught my eye in 2019: the first, BBHF, who released two EPs this year (the second one, Family, being the one that piqued my interest when it hit the Oricon top 50), but they are, unfortunately, an old band under a new name, and don’t technically qualify. The second is another indie-rock group, GENIE HIGH, who released their debut studio album GENIE HIGH STORY at the tail-end of November. I was under the impression that they were operating under the obvious influences of Gesu no Kiwami Otome., before learning that Enon Kawatani, the front man of Gesu is actually in this band. Of course! It has all of the Kawatani hallmarks: dandy, ragtime pianos, thin, peppy drums, and vocals that have been coached into constant falsetto icecapades. GENIE HIGH STORY is incredibly fun, interlaced with quirky bits and skits that propel the album along at a crisp speed, and though it is largely inconsequential, it is remarkable for a debut album. Then again, Kawatani is a veteran at this point, and its similarity to Gesu makes it seems like cheating to land in this category. I mean, is SuperM a true debut group for that matter either? I make exceptions, but at the busiest time of the year, I don’t have time to play around with these kinds of logistics. In the end, these lists are as inconsequential as this album will be to the history of J-rock, and in the same sense of amusement, and anticipation of more from this group, I’ll allow it.

The debuts wrap up with two outstanding angles: two metal albums from musicians who, with the power of studio wizardry, turn their one-man acts into the sonic equivalents of group therapy. Discovering that Sermon’s Birth of the Marvellous and Ethereal Darkness’s Smoke and Shadows were essentially the products of a single mind was quite lovely: neither of these albums are seamless at hiding the flaws inherent in attempting to be their own islands, but they are achievements nonetheless, and as debuts, they promise future improvement with a little extra experience and resources at their disposable. Now contrast this with the technical proficiency of a group like Paladin: any band would be lucky to release Ascension as a second or third album, but these guys pulled off a nearly-flawless debut. In some ways this could be a handicap, as it will be hard to top this thrilling mix of thrash and power metal. But I look forward to the attempt and encourage everyone to keep an eye on this group.

Keep an eye on all of these people: the excitement of debut albums is the herald of new voices, new sounds, of getting to be a part of an artist’s journey from day one. They’re all at different stages of their evolution on that day, but Summer Walker, Mabel, Runaway June, and all the artists who didn’t quite make this list, have one thing in common: the ability to blow you away, now or in the future.

Summer Walker: Over It // GENIE HIGH: GENIE HIGH STORY

Ethereal Darkness: Smoke and Shadows // Sermon: Birth of the Marvellous

ARIAZ: Grand Opera // Slayyyter: Slayyyter

TXT: THE DREAM CHAPTER: STAR // LIZ: Planet Y2K

Paladin: Ascension // Sigrid: Sucker Punch

Honorable Mentions

Cherry Bullet: Let’s Play Cherry Bullet
Mabel: High Expectations
Felivers: Felivers
Runaway June: Blue Roses
Dreamchaser: Heart

Top ten remastered/reissued albums of 2019

Every year, it seems more albums are released and made available for streaming than the previous year. Having so much music at a moment’s notice is thrilling, especially as more and more overseas artists get on board. It is nearly impossible to ignore the lure of shiny new album covers, the promise of a new favorite song, the inane attempt to make a small dent in the pile, and the nagging duty to move the music everyone is talking about to the top of the pile to remain a part of the ongoing, unceasing pop culture narratives that define our lives. This can make re-listening and taking deep dives into albums that actually punch you in the gut seem like a distant dream, a selfish indulgence to be tickled only sparingly as time rushes past.

But every year, a handful of albums get remastered or reissued as if to gently tap you on the shoulder and remind you of albums you’ve loved and lost in the Spotify rabbit-hole, of the gems that lie in the archives waiting to be re-discovered or re-visited, of the fulfilling experience it is to spend quality time with music that was meant to last longer than the one-week release cycle. Here are ten of those, because what’s a better reminder of an artist’s enduring legacy than an album that sounds as good today as it did twenty years ago? From the ubiquitous vinyl reissues being churned out like chocolates in Lucy’s factory, to giant, commemorative anniversary editions, to the reissues that put an exclamation point on an artist’s career, to not one, but two of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time, let’s first take a moment in our celebration of the year in music to step back in time and enjoy some old favorites.

James Horner: The Mask of Zorro [Vinyl] // Florence and the Machine: Lungs (10th Anniversary Box Set)

Ayumi Hamasaki: LOVEppears / appears -20th Anniversary Edition- // Yasunori Mitsuda: Chrono Cross Original Soundtrack Revival Disc

Whitesnake: Slip of the Tongue (30th Anniversary Remaster) // The Beatles: Abbey Road (50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition)

Nobuo Uematsu: Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack Revival Disc // Negicco: Melody Palette [Vinyl]

LUNA SEA: SHINE [Vinyl] // New Kids on the Block: Hangin’ Tough (30th Anniversary Edition)

Best albums of 2019: The lists are coming!

Just like last year, I listened to a stupid amount of new music in 2019, so I have again assembled expanded best-of lists for the year. There will be six categories, each featuring ten of my favorite album releases of the year, followed by five honorable mentions (except the remasters/reissues — there just weren’t that many great ones this year). Each post will feature an introduction, followed by the list, except for East Asian pop/rock, which features full blurbs for each of the top ten picks. 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 2019 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 metal/hard rock: 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 (i.e. J-pop/K-pop): Any pop or rock album released in East Asia (especially Japan and South Korea).

Once again, these lists are not meant to be exhaustive, nor absolute: they are simply a reflection of the genres I listened to the most in 2019. In addition, a lot of great songs that never appeared on albums were released this year, or were featured on just-okay albums, and I won’t be getting the chance to discuss them in this year’s lists. But every year, I enjoy talking and sharing music with you all, and since I can tell you upfront there will be no Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, or Billie Eilish anywhere on these lists, I hope you all find something new here that hasn’t already been featured ad nauseum on everyone else’s lists.

Thank you to everyone who continues to visit this tiny corner of the Internet, leaves a comment, sends a message, or connects in some way. I hope you all have a wonderful New Year, and happy listening!

Love. Angel. Music. Baby. 15th anniversary

I was a senior in high school when Gwen Stefani released Love. Angel. Music. Baby., and as clueless as I could be at that age, there was immediately something about the album that bothered me when it first came out: the blatant exploitation of Japanese culture on this album. Japanese street-fashion was having an international moment in the early 00s, with publications like FRUiTS gaining some worldwide recognition, while in the same year L.A.M.B. was released, Tyra Banks’s reality-television show America’s Next Top Model spent its international destination in Japan, committing one embarrassing faux-pas after another, flubbing Lolita-inspired looks, and being on the receiving end of many awkward, bewildered, but painfully polite interactions. If it wasn’t for the painful “Harajuku Girls” track, a perfect example of mythologizing a people as if they were magical creatures from another planet, it was the way Stefani paraded around every red carpet with a team of silent, dolled-up Asian women, as inconsequential as a handbag or other accessory to her “look.” Rather than a genuine appreciation of these women or the fashion culture, it was used as a way to enhance the exotic, cool appeal of Gwen Stefani herself. It’s not like they ever got to speak for themselves.

On top of it, the heavy throwback to 80’s synth-pop and italo disco was hailed as being innovative, when someone like Tommy february6, an actual Japanese woman, had already been doing it for almost half a decade. In fact, Tommy had already released her most iconic album, Tommy airline, and she didn’t have to borrow another country’s pop culture to make it interesting (she did use American cheerleaders in some of her promotional material, but this wasn’t exclusive — they were featured interchangeably with Japanese cheerleaders, too). But perhaps what annoyed me above all was how much I still couldn’t help loving some of the songs on the album. How do you reconcile appropriation and a general uneasy atmosphere with the music itself?

This album wasn’t original or smart, but it was catchy. I still skipped over the biggest hits like “Hollaback Girl” and “Rich Girl,” gravitating instead toward “Cool,” “Serious,” and “Danger Zone.” There were also some amazing remixes released for the single “What You Waiting For?” by Stuart Price (under Jacques Lu Cont) that introduced me to the prolific producer. The 80’s-influenced tracks on this album sound as zippy as ever, perhaps because they were meant to sound dated to begin with. The fizzy cartoon synths on tracks like “Crash,” and deep, hazy New Order guitars on “The Real Thing” are as sublime as the day they were recorded. I can’t say the same for all of the tracks.

I feel much the same now about the above-mentioned problematic elements, the easy use and discard of culture for the purposes of selling music albums: it has serious, long-term consequences that effect real people, and it’s a decision that has only aged worse over time. Nor can I say much for Stefani’s garbled reminiscences about the tracks, where re: “Harajuku Girls,” she says, “When it first came out, I think people understood that it was an artistic and literal bow down to a culture that I was a superfan of,” which is about as fantasy-inspired a belief as anything on this album. She continues, “I get a little defensive when people [call it culture appropriation], because if we didn’t allow each other to share our cultures, what would we be?” which just goes to show how deep of a misunderstanding people have of the term itself. There’s no easy way around it: it can’t be erased by denial or the omission of the track altogether. The two can’t ever be divorced. It has to coexist forever as a monument to doing better, to genuine recognition and sincere accountability.

The 15th anniversary remaster itself seems like an afterthought — it arrives one week after it’s official release date, and only digitally. I’m not sure technology has shifted so drastically in the last 15 years as to make a digital-only remaster necessary. Most people will stream it, and how big of a difference will you be able to tell streaming it on Spotify through $15 ear buds? Probably not much. Go big with a deluxe box set that includes bonus tracks, remixes, outtakes, and demos, or go home.

The baddest female: The rise and fall of CL

There are only a few K-pop groups that have the ability to say they’ve been there since the beginning. 2NE1 was not one of them, but they did usher in the second generation, and lay the groundwork for BTS and the rest of the third wave we’re all currently riding. Among them were groups like Girls’ Generation (SNSD), BigBang, Super Junior, Kara, 2PM, Wonder Girls, Brown Eyed Girls… There were a lot of amazing groups in that generation, many of them only now brought up on the break-up, scandal, or contract-ending news cycle beats, but 2NE1 was one of the best. They were YG’s answer to SM’s hyper-cute and feminine Girls’ Generation: they were there to sell a street-savvy, hip-hop, “ugly” image in a country where there was no historical precedent for genuine hip-hop. In this way, even though they were marketed as “real,” they sold a fantasy world just as much as SNSD did. And they did it so well.

Unlike many of the interchangeable members of K-pop groups, each member of 2NE1 was given a distinct personality: a hook that could appeal to many different audience members across the spectrum, but especially any one looking to be a bit more bad-ass than they were in real life, which is pretty much everyone. While this did initially reduce the women down to types, it never took over any more than any performer’s carefully-crafted image. Perhaps we loved them all the more for this image they presented, and the way their odd-shaped pieces just seemed to fit together so well. There was Bom Park, the classy, quiet siren of song. There was Minzy, the youngest and the one with the sickest dance moves. There was Dara, the bubbly effervescent hype-girl that exuded light like a bonfire. And then there was CL, the undisputed center to which all spotlights gravitated, the one you knew would claw her way out of a box-shaped girl group to do what she was meant to do: take over the world.

The group released a number of hit singles beginning exactly ten years ago, starting with the tepid “Fire,” through the blazing “Nal Ddara Haebwayo (Try to Follow Me),” all the way to the inferno that was “Naega Jae jal Naga (I Am the Best).” That last one is the one that gained traction overseas years after its initial popularity had already propelled it to iconic status in its home country. One night, I sat in a movie theater and heard it play over an advertisement, bemused and surprised but also thinking, Yes, of course.

It was around this time, that I began predicting 2NE1 would be the K-pop group to make it huge (so I guess blame me because I am notorious for getting it wrong, every single time). English-language publications began to pick at the “Hallyu wave,” publishing think pieces about and decrying the idol “factory” system. Pitchfork published their first K-pop feature, To Anyone: The Rise of Korean Wave, by James Brooks, featuring screen shots from “Naega Jae jal Naga (I Am the Best),” where he says, “the group grabs you by the throat and demands [your attention]. Firing AK-47s at the camera, smashing their own records with baseball bats, and brandishing a WWE Championship Belt, 2NE1’s four members each exude the manic, larger-than-life charisma of peak-efficiency Nicki Minaj.” Many writers were still falling back on the compare-it-to-a-well-known-Western-figure/phenomenon, (especially Beatlemania, if you can, please) to give those new to the scene a foothold, but it was enough to get people talking. Now that Pitchfork was a bandwagon-jumper themselves, it was merely seconds before they upped their coverage with companion K-pop editorials and adjacent East-Asian music coverage.

Unfortunately, this seemed to be the sole purpose of 2NE1, and once they completed their mission of grabbing attention, and the novelty of “Naega Jae jal Naga (I Am the Best)” finally expired well past its due date, they fell rapidly off the radar. YG Entertainment fumbled at this point, denying the girls any worthy follow-up, while other agencies began preparing for international domination. Instead, they continued to focus on the Japanese market, releasing petty-good songs like “SCREAM” and “Crush.” Their last really great song was 2012’s “I Love You.” It was also at this time that members began to leverage popularity by releasing solo material.

In predicted fashion, CL’s was the most hotly-anticipated. Her debut single was “Nappeun Gijibae (The Baddest Female),” (known for the infamous line “Not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good, you know?”) and it was spectacularly fine, with a typically overwhelming music video that was at turns breathtaking, ironic, fun, and problematic. It was classic YG, but it lacked a strong hook. That was okay, though, because it did the important work of getting her noticed by some important names overseas, namely Scooter Braun (you’ve probably heard a lot about him this week – he’s the reason Taylor Swift is floating rumors about re-recording her entire back catalog and can’t perform her old material at the AMAs now). We all held our breath; this was it. It was only a matter of time before an Asian artist became an international household name in music, and as CL bode her time making minor appearances on tracks from Skrillez, et al., hopes and spirits were high. She had paid her dues in 2NE1 and spent years in a musical limbo that seemed to prevent her from releasing anything of worth, but if anyone was going to crossover successfully, it would be her. She seemed to have the support and pull from the industry, not to mention the quadruple threats of voice, beauty, stage presence, and the kind of fearless energy you just can’t teach.

But her big debut, “Hello Bitches” hit with all the force of a flat tire, leaving fans bewildered and bummed out. To be blunt, it was kind of a mess. The track lacked any real substance, relying instead on a video with the superstar power of CL’s performance and heavy inclusion of Parris Goebel’s choreography and crew, who were riding off the high of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” video. CL was astounding in the video, a kinetic energy who sold every second of those insane three minutes, but naturally the song, an in media res mix of an extreme personality, bereft of a proper introduction or context, for its target audience, did not chart well and was largely forgotten as soon as one month later when year-end lists starting coming out. Looking back, this song isn’t as bad as I remember, and I can see the magic struggling underneath it, but it hasn’t had any longevity, and I know critics who will argue that CL’s best solo was still “Menbung” off of CRUSH. That seemed to be her one big chance, and the label having set all their chips on one square, gave up. The big lackluster follow-up, “Lifted,” though it set a record for a female Asian artist, only made it as high as 94 on the Billboard Hot 100. No one can argue that was a great song.

CL was pushed onto increasingly C-level collabs as low as the My Little Pony franchise before it started to become clear that there were other, more lucrative K-pop stars to begin investing in, namely, boy bands. YG themselves started over again with 2NE1-clones BLACKPINK, who carried the torch all the way to Time Magazine and other decent Western coverage. CL got the ultimate consolation prize when she performed at  the 2018 Winter Olympics closing ceremony at Pyeongchang with EXO, a fitting, but sad, farewell to a female performer with more solo potential than 95% of current girl-group members (it doesn’t help that the performance itself was…not great). Furthermore, there was no where to return: like many of their second-generation peers, 2NE1 began losing members, became plagued by scandal, and officially disbanded in 2016. CL was stuck signed to a company that suddenly stopped supporting her work and gave her no opportunities for growth.

The news everyone expected dropped on November 8, 2019, a decade after 2NE1’s debut: CL was no longer with YG Entertainment. What once would have been horrifying news resounding with a sudden, disturbing crash, has fallen in a deserted forest, being mostly met with ambivalence and shrugs from the fans of this third-wave of K-pop for whom CL barely registers. This is the unfortunate and natural result of a pop machine that is ever-moving, filling and re-fitting trainees into the cog of dance practice, vocal lessons, and media handling, of huge sums of money being spent, being invested, being blown, being dried up. Of the next young shiny thing coming down the stairs after you, willing to kick harder and sing louder. Of the only thing separating you from them being the unpredictable sliver of luck inherent in timing, places, and connections. Quite frankly, CL deserved better. It was a drawn-out, bitter end to a decade of passionate effort, relentless work, and enormous talent. Quintessentially, it’s the story of K-pop, and it’s coming for them all, one by one.

LOVEppears: A (personal) history

There are many albums I have listened to over the course of my life that have gradually peeled back the layers of my passion for music, revealing, with each successive tier, a broader, wider, and deeper appreciation and curiosity. This happened over the course of so many years, that it’s difficult to pinpoint when any one album spun me off into a whole new direction. These special albums are rare, but I can think of a few of them, the ones that have actually changed my life, stretching all the way back to a vinyl record of ABBA’s Super Trouper, a cassette tape of Natalia Kukulska’s Natalia, and Ace of Base’s The Sign. Certainly the Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon Sailor Stars Best Song Collection CD set me permanently on the road I would travel for the rest of my life. And definitely X Japan’s Silent Jealousy, which I came across in the dusky bowels of a now-deceased (duh) brick-and-mortar music shop (I think it’s used for university housing now). And Ayumi Hamasaki’s LOVEppears. Now that’s special.

I remember surfing the Internet in the early 00s, desperate to find any information I could on Japanese pop music, and to get my ears on any RealAudio snippet I could find before committing to a $35 album from a little shop called YesAsia that I learned about from flipping through Animerica. This was before we all got used to typing credit card numbers into any box that told us to, and any way, there was no way my parents were going to let me use theirs, so after having my interest piqued when coming across numerous pretty single covers and spending an hour waiting for “SURREAL” to finish downloading, I remember painstakingly printing out an order form, filling it out, walking to the bank for a money order, stuffing it all in an envelope, and patiently waiting by the door for the next eight weeks until my big gamble arrived: a copy of a maxi-single called Far away, and a full-length album called LOVEppears, by Ayumi Hamasaki.

By this point, I had already bought the evolution single, my very first Ayu purchase, from the import section of Virgin Records Megastore on Michigan Avenue, but that didn’t alleviate any of the apprehension: “evolution” didn’t sound like any of the other Ayu material I was hearing. But when you’re a pre-teen, you don’t have the intelligence to abstain from pinning all your hopes on something as inconsequential as a compact disc. Till then, I had enjoyed music from T.M.Revolution, and lots of other opening and closing anime themes, plus some visual-kei and J-rock like X Japan and hide. But pure, non-sieyuu J-pop was still uncharted territory. Admittedly, my memory is fuzzy on the timeline, but I know that I was at a turning point where Japanese music was still just an option, rather than the norm. Ayumi Hamasaki helped change all of that, and if it wasn’t already for evolution and a dozen dance remixes, than it was for one of her most beloved studio albums: LOVEppears.

LOVEppears capped off a whirlwind year for Hamasaki, which began back in February 1999, when she released the first single from the album, WHATEVER. While the production of “WHATEVER” is stylistically similar to the songs off of her debut album A Song for XX (many songs from that album were also written by Kazuhito Kikuchi), there was one very big exception: it was her first song to incorporate techno elements. No doubt an extension of her record label, Avex Trax’s, raison d’etre, this signaled a new sound that Hamasaki would explore throughout her career. Of course, Avex Trax had been pumping out dance music since the label’s inception, but this was new territory for an idol initially marketed as a sort of peer to label-mate Ami Suzuki, a sort-of anti-Hikaru Utada, whose background in American R&B and singer-songwriters was changing the mainstream landscape of J-pop. Avex wasn’t entirely convinced, hanging on to its bread-and-butter while letting the Western influences melt down into an artist like Namie Amuro, who was at one of the lowest points of her career. Instead, they began packing all their punches into two of their smartest potentials: Every Little Thing and Ayumi Hamasaki, both of whom received the star-studded Avex treatment replete with the best songwriters and marketing gurus, and an abundance of dance compilations with local and foreign DJs to give them a bit of global exposure. All of this would reveal itself in time, but for now, Hamasaki was at step one: “WHATEVER,” a modest bop promoted with two versions: a standard J-pop number, and the other, the delectably cold electronic version, as if cautiously gauging the audience’s reception. The waters proved warm, and her team got to work.

In the mean time Hamasaki got busy releasing a couple of safe winter ballads. The first was “LOVE~Destiny,” a song in collaboration with mega-producer Tsunku, who was hot off the success of his new girl group Morning Musume. The song’s music video is notable for depicting the first of many times Hamasaki would illustrate the loneliness of celebrity, featuring herself alone in several vast interiors, including a particularly chilly dressing room.

The second was Hamasaki’s last single to be released in the 3″ mini-CD format, “TO BE,” and written by D-A-I, whom Hamasaki would go on to work with for many years until 2002, when his appearances on albums became nearly scarce (as of this writing, the last song he wrote that appeared on an album was “Sweet Scar” on 2013’s Love again). Like all of Hamasaki’s singles, this one is particularly personal, with later speculation nearly confirming that the song was written for her then-producer Max Matsuura with whom she was rumored to have had a nearly life-long love affair (this is neither the space, nor time, to discuss her romantic life, but it also feels dishonest to leave it out completely, when it effects so much of her songwriting, especially in these early years when Matsuura had such a profound influence on her development as an artist. We’ll get back to him later). Musically, both of these ballads were typical of their time, and though I’ve never been a huge fan of “LOVE~Destiny~,” “TO BE” grew on me over the years. It has a quietly stunning production, with a richness to it that subsequent re-recordings have always failed to recapture, since it doesn’t play to Hamasaki’s increasingly strained vocals since it was recorded, particularly in the chorus, which highlights her worst vocal sin of camouflaging high notes outside of her reach in an ascending ladder of  exhaustive nasal gasps. For example, compare the calm and ease of hitting those notes in the original to her 10th anniversary re-recording on the Days/GREEN single, and you get a sense of this strange in-between period of Hamasaki’s vocal performance: still keen on improving with formal lessons, but navigating techniques that would help her stand out a little bit, for better or worse. That unique, and almost defiant, approach made its true mark on her third album Duty (“End of the World,” and “teddy bear” especially), and finally gave free reign on I am… But not yet.

Finally, it was time to roll out the album’s banner singles in the summer, beginning with “Boys & Girls,” Hamasaki’s first album-length maxi-single, and the only one to receive the dubious extinction of being released in an ultra-slim case without an OBI. It not only featured one of the most iconic singles of her career, but eight remixes, including two of her previous ballads. It was here that the blueprint for subsequent maxi-singles was laid, a model that would continue until her last maxi-single, Daybreak, in 2002. While none of the remixes are real standouts on here, except for that by the inimitable HAL, it was a bold move, one that no other mainstream J-pop artist was making. Stylistically, this single connected directly to her following single, A, by the threads that appear on the cover art (and eventually found their way into the booklet of LOVEppears).

A was released less than one month later, and made an even bigger statement as a quadruple-A side, along with remixes. It also used the first of many marketing gimmicks to cash in on and manipulate fan-devotion, by releasing one standard edition, and four limited-edition versions with varying colored discs and OBIs, and track lists. After the single sold 1 million, and then 1.5 million copies, additional gold versions were released in commemoration. Finally, the album featured the first incarnation of Hamasaki’s “A” brand logo, which here looked a little bit like an asymmetrical pi sign. Again, we have an artist still figuring out her place in the pop pantheon, working out an iconic symbol that could both identify and evoke feelings without a single sound or accompanying image. Like the fabled bowl of porridge, this one was either too hot or too cold, but the next one would be just right. More importantly, the songs on this single are more self-assured than ever: there’s “too late,” and “Trauma,” two more iconic singles that ended up becoming concert staples, the slower-paced and underrated “End roll,” and the abrasive “monochrome.”

All of these singles were accompanied by numerous promotional appearances on legendary music shows like Pop Jam,  Music Station, and Hey! Hey! Hey! Music Champ, on magazine covers like CD Data, GIRLPOP and SCawaii!, and a plethora of commercial tie-ins for consumer goods like makeup, scooters, chocolates, and flavored water. It was now becoming impossible to ignore Ayumi Hamasaki which meant only one thing: it was time to put an exclamation point on this era of her career with an album.

Capping off a successful year with an album sounds counter-intuitive to Western audiences, who in a reverse process, use albums to kick off blitzes of subsequent singles, appearances, and tours. But at this point in time, albums in the Japanese market tended to bring eras to a kind of close; aside from concert tours which followed album releases, all major promotions and singles connected with the album were brought to an end. This could sometimes leave albums feeling a bit anticlimactic, as anywhere up to half or more of the album could have already been previewed, leaving a mere handful of new tracks to await. By the time November 10 rolled around, LOVEppears would really only have five new full-length songs (plus a hidden bonus track) and two short interludes. But Avex had one last twist up its sleeve, and that was to turn what could have been an epilogue into an extended prologue.

On the same day that the album LOVEppears was released, Avex released the limited-edition maxi-single appears, another 12-track juggernaut packed with remixes. This was followed by the limited-edition maxi-single kanariya, which capitalized on the album’s hidden track to release yet more remixes, in addition to a vocal track to encourage fan remixes. A final victory lap, just bragging at this point, was the release of the limited-edition maxi-single Fly high in 2000, another album track that was given the promotional video and remix treatment. If any of this just seems like a moment to indulge in a drawn-out Wikipedia-like set of facts, it’s important to remember how unprecedented this was in the history of J-pop: virtually no major artist was releasing singles off of already-released albums. There was simply no point. The most important moment of an album’s release was the first few weeks, when it could make its biggest impact on the Oricon charts. By then, all the hard work and budget releasing and promoting singles had been put in and used up. Using data from the performance of singles and gauging public reaction to appearances was enough to predict an album’s performance.

There are a couple of interconnected conjectures that can be made as to why this strategy was employed, namely, that Avex Trax always did things a little differently. They may be an independent record label, but they are one of the most successful independent record labels of all time, and in many respects, remain “indie” by name only. Avex Trax was established on the bedrock of dance music, and their connection with the dance-music world of producers and DJs not only gave their music a distinctive edge, but influenced major business and creative decisions, including their compilations series like the SUPER EUROBEAT and cyber trance lines, not to mention finding work for many budding producers by commissioning remixes that would appear on various singles. Hamasaki’s singles took this fellowship to its ultimate and most capital conclusion: by using their extended personal network to create what were essentially promotional albums for DJs, but in disguise of one of Japan’s most successful brands. This was mutually beneficial: Hamasaki kept her name at the forefront of a continuous cycle of promotions, essentially selling fans the same product over and over and over again, but tweaked just a bit to give identity to underground artists who were grateful for the opportunity. In fact, only a handful of these artists became mainstream, popular names in their respective fields (namely Ferry Corsten, and later, Above & Beyond and Armin van Buuren). Later maxi-singles improved upon the quality of artists, but very few went on to have long-lasting, lucrative careers. In fact, none of these artists could have benefited monetarily from these maxi-singles, which were album-length and usually 10+ tracks, but still cost the same as any standard single at ¥1,260 (roughly, $10-12 at the time). What an extremely creative and cheap way to scratch multiple backs! Loyalty to your roots, helping your friends, and keeping the artist you’re pinning all your shares on in the local, and potentially, global public eye. Indeed, many of these producers were European and American, who were guaranteed to spin their remixes in their own sets overseas.

All this makes the whole thing seem cynical, and I hesitate to leave it this way. Peeking behind the curtain of the music business is not unlike spending an afternoon flipping through back issues of Billboard: you get up feeling a bit jaded, a bit letdown by the whole pursuit of artistic integrity. But in truth, no thorough assessment of the purpose of these maxi-singles and subsequent remix compilations can erase the fact that they were one of my favorite things about Ayumi’s early career, and without them, it might very well have taken me longer to come around. As I stated previously, evolution was the first Ayu single I ever purchased, followed by Far away, SEASONS, LOVEppears, and then back to the ayu-mi-x II series. I grew up on dance music and part of the appeal was the endless and diverse versions of club tracks to sample, and so importantly, at a price that was far more affordable than a $35 album in namely one unpredictable style that may or may not have ended up being good. My taste in grade school was unsophisticated and still developing, and having a hook to make the introduction was effective. That is to say, the process worked. Actually, the process worked like gangbusters.

By the time the year 2000 rolled around, just two years after her debut, when Hamasaki was preparing for her first major concert tour, she was a star. LOVEppears made that happen. Avex Trax made that happen. But, and this is important, Ayumi Hamasaki also made that happen.

Hamasaki spent months training in New York under the encouragement of her producer Max Matsuura, who pushed her to write her own lyrics, and it was this that endeared fans to her. Unpolished and at times awkward, Hamasaki’s lyrics were personal, and real; they are what today’s brand gurus would call “authentic” and “relatable” “content.” Before social media, they were the best way Hamasaki had to communicate with her audience. And just like her sartorial choices (endearingly cataloged in her 1999 fashion-book A BOOK), vocal style, and stage performances, her lyrics only matured and grew in time. If Hamasaki at all felt boxed in by the business or musical decisions being made around her, she always felt that her lyrics were hers, and she used to them express everything from her joys and victories, to her anxiety and frustrations. LOVEppears is not only the first glimpse we get of Hamasaki’s brush with the darker and lonelier side of fame, but the complex tender and forgiving experience of first love had and lost. Her whole approach to the album was a compelling mix of complete vulnerability and hidden depth: her famous commentary on the title track was that things are never as they seem, and what to outsiders might seem like happy moments, could in reality be painful, or harrowing ordeals. This is as succinct as any observation on fame, relationships, and life I can think of.

By the time the last maxi-single was released, the only true remaining album-only exclusives were the short interludes, the tremendous ballad “Who…”  which Hamasaki would belt out in tears to close out every concert tour, save one, for the next four years, and a curiously harsh sequel to “POWDER SNOW” entitled “P.SII” (not counting the slightly alternate take on “LOVE~Destiny,” titled “LOVE~refrain~,” which is nearly identical) The album also included a second disc, featuring promotional mixes from her first ayu-mi-x album and her upcoming SUPER EUROBEAT remix compilation. And in a very of-its-time move, the disc contained CD-ROM content that included a discography, commercial spots, behind-the-scenes photos, and random sound bites of Hamasaki speaking (you can view all this original content as it appeared at this official 20th anniversary site, minus the constant background hum of the GROOVE THAT SOUL MIX of “Trust”).

When you take into account the singer’s prolific career since this album’s release, it’s astounding to think that a mere fifteen months later Hamasaki was under the very scary, and sincere belief that her career was over. Yet what she has accomplished in the last twenty years is astounding: with her relentless work ethic, commitment to perfection, eye for detail, ear for striking melodies, and increasing control over her image and body of work, Hamasaki has done what few J-pop idols before her could: she became an artist and a legend. LOVEppears may be the most obvious album to commemorate, but it laid the foundation for the rest of her career, marking a beginning, an end, and a turning point, all at the same time. Neither artist nor fan could imagine the journey about to unfold, the musical gifts unleashed in increasing frequency throughout 2000 and beyond, the singular voice growing louder, more confident, and more bold than any surface-level nude album cover could express, and the trail blazed forth for the numerous female artists who followed. And for one kid about to be released into the horrors of junior high, a whole new world of music as exciting, and intriguing, and different, as anything she had experienced up to that point. Happy 20th Anniversary to this astounding, life-changing album, and thank you.

Still can’t crack the code: TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE’s “Hikaru yo”

It doesn’t take a grand feat of hindsight to see where it all went wrong for TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, especially now that Avex is backtracking as fast as possible. When the members of the group grew up, their record label looked to be maturing them into more sophisticated “artists,” rather than idols with a big marketing ploy that involved declaring they would no longer be performing certain songs (“Onnaji Kimochi” and “Ganbatte Itsudatte Shinjiteru”), a transition out of their signature New Jack Swing sound into more electronic territory, and, eventually, the lose of a member. Avex was banking on the idea that after giving the market what it wanted (idols, more idols, just idols, all the time), it could take a loyal audience with them into territory where they were more comfortable, and leave the idol experimentation to sub-labels like iDOL Street. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bit of a miscalculation.

This failure could be for any number of reasons, not least which is that the new material just didn’t live up to the old. While not horrible, it was jarringly different: musically speaking, TGS’s first four albums are near perfect at marrying peppy messages of positivity with idol what-have-yous to a classic 90’s TK, J-pop sound — it’s not an easy trick to pull off. But it seems that the team behind the group took it for granted, erroneously believing that, like many idol groups before them, the members themselves had established enough of a connection with fans that they would be followed anywhere they went, even into adulthood. But it seems that while fans primarily of idols and idol groups want to watch their biases grow, they don’t want them growing too much. Turns out there’s a line in the sand, when the unwritten contract between idols and their fans cease to exist regarding any number of expectations from behavior to lyrical content, that can cause a gradual erosion of loyalty. And when fans began to slowly abandon TGS after the abrupt set of changes, Avex didn’t necessarily try harder at marketing to a different audience — they just pushed forward and hoped for the best as the four women left in the group were forced to start from scratch. Yet now it seems an opportunity has presented itself.

First, two idol groups affiliated with Avex disbanded last year (GEM and X21). Second, none of Avex’s recently debuted non-idol groups (FAKY and Def Will) seem to have taken off. Though the group announced as early as 2017 that, just kidding, they’d like to be both “idols and artists”, it’s with the release of their new single, “Hikaru yo,” that it seems Avex is truly rethinking their strategy and steering TGS back into the services of full-on idol worship. The song and PV have no distinguishing features of which to name; instead, it is generic J-pop at its lowest common denominator, a song that could be sung by virtually any group, with a visual that includes an attempt to turn the clock back with a magical-girl transformation sequence that sees the members go metaphorically from very contempo-SPEED back to dolls. With neither the chunky beats present on their first four albums, nor the dance-heavy groove of their “post-idol/artist” era, the song is a blank canvas on which audiences can begin drawing, or re-drawing, their expectations (in case it isn’t clear enough, the B-side for this single is titled “Reborn”). Only a follow-up single just as formulaic and bereft of personality can confirm suspicions of the label’s intentions, but the prognosis doesn’t seem promising.

With so many of their all-girl idol groups folding and their dance groups not taking off, it looks like Avex still hasn’t quite figured out how to tackle the market in a musical environment where, despite predictions and best intentions, idols, rather than artists, still dominate. I am curious to see if TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE will survive a second re-branding, but skeptical, and overall disappointed at what their failure at moving forward as artists and young women says about the current state of J-pop.

[ Photo credit ]

Top 10 East Asian pop/rock albums of 2018

With labels scrambling to debut as many rookies as possible to distract fans from recent scandals, lawsuits, and the ever-shrinking pool of legacy groups from which to draw, it’s been nearly impossible to keep up with the mostly mediocre or one-off mini-albums K-pop released this year. While this practice isn’t anything new, it does make it harder to enjoy a genre whose days of tent-pole hits with the power to unite eyes and ears nationwide has passed. However, these lowered standards (followed by lowered expectations) makes it easier to spot the masterpieces and the true stars who have stuck around, not because sacrificing a giant chunk of their life to the entertainment industry has left them with so few other options, but because of a passion and talent that won’t be swayed by the setbacks of Plan A. Since we outside the industry might never know which are the latter and which are the former, we can only sit back and patiently wait to see how business-as-usual versus genuine enthusiasm separates the herd.

A similar ennui permeates J-pop, which swam in its own self-referential muck this year, drawing on numerous tactics that worked in the past while only occasionally breathing anything fresh and new into the mix that didn’t reek of pandering. Meanwhile, we all stood back and watched as the mighty idol oaks began toppling one by one, from GEM, to X21, to PASSPO, a dizzying domino effect that revealed the same systemic cracks as in K-pop’s foundation. Perhaps it is because of this uncertain climate that suddenly the familiar feels good, a reassuring grip to hang onto until the genre realizes it can’t keep running on marbles. And when done with passion, sometimes you can still catch a frisson of that ol’ J-pop feeling, coursing softer, but no less mighty and proud.

Here are ten of those mighty albums and mini-albums, in no particular order, released in 2018, that prove K-pop and J-pop aren’t dead, that despite their diminishing influence as a powerhouse, a New Sweden, or a cure for the Billboard Hot 100, it still has much to offer if we are patient enough to receive.

JONGHYUN: Poet | Artist
More appalling revelations have surfaced in the K-pop industry recently, but none so tragic as the death of Jong Hyun, principal vocalist for one of SM’s most popular boybands, SHINee. Jong Hyun, who was found dead of an apparent suicide in his apartment in December of 2017, was mourned by both fans and industry insiders, the latter who didn’t express surprise so much as grief-stricken resignation. While the exact details of the situation will never be known, it is obvious from his absolutely heartbreaking suicide letter that Jong Hyun was under an immense amount of pressure and in an enormous amount of pain, which was dismissed by both personal acquaintances and professional help. But rather then risk misinterpreting the letter, it is simply important to note, again and more than ever before, that for a star of any kind, fame and celebrity can often be a contributing factor to, not an escape from, mental health issues. It would be unfair to imply Jong Hyun found relief in music or even enjoyed it very much at the end, as good as that would make the rest of us feel – maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Yet that doesn’t make his last solo album Poet | Artist, any less of a tribute to and record of his last months. Filled with soaring pop/R&B gems, the album is both testament to K-pop’s enduring ability to fight back against cookie-cutter accusations and lack of emotion, and proof to anyone who would deny that Jong Hyun worked hard. He really did work hard. They all work so hard.

EXO: COUNTDOWN
Every year, I can count on SM Entertainment to release an album driven purely by the heady excesses of dance-pop. With no agenda to inform or break new ground, than to revel in This Very Moment in Time, COUNTDOWN is the perfect response to accusations that K-pop has lost its fun side. The big twist is that it’s not a domestic Korean release, instead following in the footsteps of countless K-pop groups clamoring for a piece of the Japanese music market, and just like them, these tweaked experiments prove just as, if not more, enjoyable than their homegrown counterparts. Switching to Japanese hasn’t put a single stumble in EXO’s steps, as they tackle propulsive bops from “Electric Kiss” to “TACTIX” with an enviably aggressive energy.

Fairies: JUKEBOX
Fairies are one of the few J-pop girl groups to make it out of 2018 alive, and the fact that they haven’t suffered the same fate as their Avex sisters seems less arbitrary with a closer listen to JUKEBOX. The album is a crystal clear distillation of J-pop, with the upbeat, dance-centered modern cool of songs like “Bangin’” and “Fashionable” playing alongside the very Avex-specific pop of songs like “CROSSROAD” and “Synchronized ~SYNCHRO~.” Where the album really excels is in its lack of typical idol-pop, the likes of which AKB’s sister groups have churned out this year at a rate James Patterson would find alarming. The state of the J-pop girl group, whether mainstream or niche, is an ever-evolving fluctuation, subject to the whims of fickle and sometimes bored managers and their demanding shareholders. Cherish each moment of fun in the here and now as JUKEBOX does: your favorite group is probably on the chopping block next.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Japamyu
Once upon a time, you couldn’t stalk three paces around this blog without coming across a glowing review of Yasutaka Nakata’s work. But when the inspiration dried up, it dried up hard: first for Perfume, then for Kyary, then for his own solo work. All seemed according to schedule when Digital Native dropped in February, and with it, any last hope that a slump was about to become a revival. Japamyu is not that comeback either, nor is it the Kyary album that fans have been waiting for, but it is the album we were given and it is a tight one, almost holy in its brevity. Catchy hooks sail past on a conveyor belt of hits from “Harajuku Iyahoi” to “Kimi no Mikata” at a speed which almost clear slices your fingertips off. Its bread-and-butter approach to composition and adherence to conciseness should make this feel phoned-in, but the idea that this album has been whittled down to its true essence is too tempting. Given the outrageous indulgences Nakata has churned out in the past few years, this album is a cheery distillation of what he’s still capable of, if someone could just harness and steer the genius, or tell him to just pull it together already.

Ai Shinozaki: YOU & LOVE
Ai Shinozaki finally released a full-length album this year, uninspired title and all. Still, her brand of laid-back pop is the perfect antidote to the artificial hyper-energy of the Oricon charts, a continuation of the breezy sound on all of her previous singles and EPs. Heavy on synths, many of the songs evoke earlier legacy-trends, such as the 80’s radio-jam “Cupid,” and the shuffling bop of “Blanket.” The second half of the album starting with “Baby I’ll Wish…” contains a collection of lost POWER OF WORDS-era Rina Aiuchi hits. There’s nothing here to push Shinozaki into the upper echelons of J-pop history, but its effortless grace feels like a gift, a victory of small steps and persistence that finally paid off.

BoA: WOMAN
There are many times when promo tracks are not accurate reflections of their albums, and “Woman” is one of them. The title track for BoA’s second major Korean release of the year is a doozy, the epitome of BoA’s legacy, and it provides all of the classic Janet Jackson-feels you could want, but it’s hardly the best track of the album. This is where the listener is free to take his or her pick, from the jazzy-pop of “Like It!” to the slow burn of “Hwatgime (Irreversible),” to my personal favorite “Encounter,” an electro-house #1-in-the-making, where distorted vocals weave through a template of loose textures and rhythms in a sublime patchwork of melodies. While ONE SHOT, TWO SHOT was a good, if scattered, selection, on WOMAN, everything BoA touches turns to gold, and it’s our own fault if we had forgotten, in the long interim of releases, just how amazing she is for even a moment.

Airi Suzuki: Do me a favor
As a former member of popular, now-defunct, girl-group C-ute, Suzuki is no stranger to showbiz. So although Do me a favor is her debut solo album, it hardly feels like one. Instead, it feels like a throwback, at times to the decadence of TK-era pop, up through the early 00s, when J-pop was king, not yet aware of the encroaching transformation imminent with R&B and hip-hop’s influence and a young New Yorker named Hikaru Utada. At other times, it couldn’t be anything other than an album produced in 2018, where it’s able to mix all of those potent memories with modern sensibilities into marketing magic. Airi Suzuki makes Do me a favor feel this oldness and newness like a second skin, like cherry-picking influences from all the past career highlights is the natural product of progress, one the Internet has trained us to expect: see how a very-contemporary idol-pop song like “Candy Box” follows a slower, cooler jam like “perfect timing.” It’s the type of segue that only works in a space and time defined by both E-girls and Keyakizaka46, by both Tokyo Performance Doll and Tsubaki Factory. There is only one other album on this list that is less surprising, and just as rooted in a wholly Japanese pop experience, marrying past and present styles in homage to everything that was and everything that will be, and this one was the least expected.

Hey! Say! JUMP: SENSE or LOVE
Speaking of groups being dissolved, this really puts pressure on Arashi, doesn’t it? Johnny’s has had a hard time of it in the second half of the 10s, with groups like SMAP on the outs and the constant rumors of Arashi members’ personal lives interfering with the company’s streamlined vision. And the younger groups groomed to take their place saw lineup hiccups this year as well, with Sexy Zone member Sou Matsushima going on hiatus to treat a panic disorder, and even Keito Okamoto “taking a break” from Hey! Say! Jump to “study in the U.S.,” which we has nothing to do with his penchant for absolutely verboten idol-extracurriculars. (It’s uncertain what Johnny’s finds more offensive: that people can’t control their natural desires to hook-up, or that they are caught doing so. It is also unclear if he will actually be able to return to the group following the company’s scramble to do damage control, but history isn’t on his side). Yet the H!S!J train rolls on, and SENSE or LOVE does a fine job of pretending nothing is amiss. Okamoto’s presence lingers but is hardly missed, as the remaining eight members commit to professionalism. All of this might seem to mark the album as desperate, or at the very least nothing but a catchy distraction, but it works in the album’s favor, loaning it a sense of urgency absent from previous albums that relied more on a relationship with fans taken for granted. The other most traditional album on this list, SENSE or LOVE is low on surprises, but expert at reminding listeners why they come to Johnny’s in the first place, and most importantly, asking them very politely, and very softly, to stay.

BAND-MAID: World Domination
BAND-MAID is becoming a staple here at appears, and no complaints — they already appeared on the best reissue list earlier this week, and now calmly grace a spot in the ten best albums list as well. But this is no mindless consolation — these women have earned their spot with talent and consistency, regularly releasing some of the metal genre’s best music in any language, anywhere. World Domination finally acknowledges the band’s ambitions, bravely asserting themselves when many of their peers are content to stay local. BAND-MAID want more, as stated in the album’s riff-laden, guitar-heavy, drum-bashing lead single “Domination.” Ditching the maid-costume gimmick at this point might be suicide, but it continues to be largely irrelevant to everything the group does and is capable of, and if the worst it did was enhance their appeal, it could be forgiven. But alas, keep your eyes on the true prize: expert musicianship and a growing craftsmanship that reveals itself in the relationship each member continues to hone with her instrument. The pace at which this band moves is mind-blowing, and to release another career-defining album within one year proves this band has the habits of hard work and focus necessary to meet any goal they set. First Japan, then the world.

Seungri: THE GREAT SEUNGRI
In a world full of baby-faced rookies, Seungri, at age 27, is a K-pop grandfather. The youngest member of legendary group BIGBANG, Seungri has been in the business more than twelve years and has already released two solo EPs, and an album in Japanese. Now, after a five-year pause, we get THE GREAT SEUNGRI, which contains this year’s most joyous K-pop single, “1, 2, 3!” Like his earlier solo work, the album relies on big horns, an enormous hook, and the inherent cool of its lead singer. “1, 2, 3!” is the type of song that demands personality, the type of song a debut singer, as yet bereft of connection with its audience, could never pull off. But it’s all cake for Seungri, who takes the song and infuses it with enough character to make even the keenest listener forget that its mostly absent chorus is almost entirely instrumental. Elsewhere, collaborations abound on TGS and while it’s never quite clear who’s helping whom, all parties benefit. The album is rounded out nicely by both ear-wormy dance hooks and slower, more hip-hop-influenced numbers that make it, if not one of the most interesting YG albums of the year, certainly the most complete. TGS is an album you can play from start to finish, secure in the knowledge that nothing is filler, and that nothing sounds like it’s simply trying to recapture a time and place that can now only be reached through an old CD collection.

Honorable Mentions

JUNHO: Souzou
Sumire Uesaka: NO FUTURE VACANCES
Sakurako Ohara: Enjoy
Monari Wakita: AHEAD!
E-girls: E.G.11