Top ten original soundtracks/original scores of 2018

A disclaimer: I am not a movie person. Nor have I really played video or other games, Tetris notwithstanding, in about fifteen years. I have nothing against any of these mediums, but I am not passionate about them, and when you have limited time to pursue avocations after a day at work and doing all of the adult things that need be done on a seemingly endless loop, your perspective on what is really and truly important to you becomes very clear. Simply put, I put my time toward what is most meaningful to me, which is music, and only occasionally watch films, and don’t play video games at all. This can be problematic for someone who adores film and video game soundtracks as much as any other of my favorite genres, but it doesn’t have to be.

In Charlie Brigden’s July installment of his monthly soundtrack roundup at The Quietus, he admits much the same, acknowledging the dissonance of enjoying a soundtrack bereft of the visual its created to enhance. “The context is obviously the film itself, so by taking the music away from that you are completely stripping it of context and relevance, right?” he asks, and concludes, no, not really. I generally agree that there seems to be two types of original scores: “On one hand, you have composers that are interested in curating an album that is musically interesting as a record, while on the other there seem to be those that put the score on album as it is and leave it at that.” It is the former, the “musically interesting as a record” scores that, as someone who watches so few films, appeals most to me. The majority of the records on this list will reflect that bias, though the latter is in no way missing. I am aware of how this might impede my ability to enjoy a record that could be perfect save the fact that I haven’t seen its corresponding film or video game.

All lists are biased, and this genre, as represented on this blog, is particularly so — I would rather “listen” to a movie then watch it. My philosophy, summed up by Brigden again, is that “[soundtracks] are a separate product, even if they are ostensibly a by-product of the film.” And like all the music I listen to, I do my very best to judge them as such, for when a score can entertain or bewitch on its own, like any other popular song removed from its music video, it is a success worth celebrating. Here are ten released in 2018, in no particular order, that deserve a party.

Humans: Dead Shack (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Mostly here to fill your Stranger Things void, the soundtrack for indie-horror film Dead Shack is obviously inspired not only by John Carpenter, but by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s homage to John Carpenter and other synth scores of the 1980s. Yes, we’re there now. Lots of imitators have emerged since Stranger Things became such a success, but Humans have managed to create a truly eerie and menacing vibe in this bare-boned score, where the hushed silences in between speak the loudest.

John Powell (& John Williams): Solo: A Star Wars Story (Original Soundtrack)
If you know nothing about John Williams, you can spend a whole afternoon studying the Music of Star Wars portal on Wikipedia and walk away bewildered and overwhelmed by his work on the legendary sci-fi franchise, but it’s only if you spend additional time even briefly skimming his body of work that you begin to get an understanding of the pressure someone like John Powell faced in composing Solo: A Star Wars Story. Powell, a giant in his own right, called the experience “difficult,” “nerve wracking,” and “professionally humbling” in the booklet accompanying the CD release, yet he needn’t have worried. Though Powell is mostly known for less “heavy” films (last year’s Ferdinand is a particular career-highlight for me), that doesn’t preclude him from casting a little bit of his own “witchcraft” and weaving a bit of his own “profound storytelling.” Solo offers the experience of old-school action and adventure fans expect in the canon, without ignoring all of the romance inherent in the genre. Whether the film itself reflects this same swashbuckling grandeur is up to professional film critics and anyone who has seen more than just one of the films.

The Newton Brothers: The Haunting of Hill House (Music from the Netflix Horror Series)
The Haunting of Hill House has received mixed reviews, dividing fans of innovative, artsy horror and viewers who like a little domestic drama with their haunted-house jump scares. Yet the soundtrack for the series finds success on all fronts. There have been a slew of critically-acclaimed horror-film soundtracks this year, from Johann Johannsson’s Mandy, all the way down to mediocre B-grade scores like The Nun (Abel Korzeniowski) and Winchester (Peter Spierig). The Haunting of Hill House finds the sweet spot in between, with haunting melodic pianos interspersed with simple atmospheric mood-setters, reflecting the tone of defeat, trauma, and nervous anticipation permeating the teleplay.

Jukio Kallio: Minit (Original Soundtrack)
There are now whole fandoms dedicated to chip-tune, so Kallio’s entry into the 8-bit world is hardly groundbreaking. But what elevates Minit is its strict adherence to melody and form, rather than simply recreating the tinny wave forms of the arcade. Songs like “Minit’s Awakening” and “Alarming Swamp” are fun-sized odysseys in themselves, capturing the fun and essence of both the video game and The Video Game. It’s a little bit moody and wholly absorbing — the jukebox genres on the second half are particularly inspired, offering near-parodic summations in easy to swallow, capsule-sized bursts, mirroring the game play itself.

James Newton Howard: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Probably the most traditional score aside from Powell’s Solo that you’ll find on this list, James Newton Howard’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is the composer’s best score of the year, in a year full of choice picks — indeed, it almost feels that the pick for this panned Disney fantasy flick is mere seconds away from becoming another panned fantasy flick, Fantastic Beasts: The Tales of Grindelwald instead. That’s because the two soundtracks share several similarities, and while Grindelwald has the distinction of not lifting pieces from Pyotr Tchaikovksy’s The Nutcracker Suite, it is exactly that which makes it instantly recognizable. But if at any moment the spoils seemed unearned (certainly any other producer might not get away so easily with the score’s not-unusual take on the material), it’s worth remembering that any holiday bauble is meant to be a shiny, glittering confection that evokes the warmth of childhood and holidays gone by. And there’s enough of all of that mixed in with the gloomier pieces, plus a fun Nutcracker 101-piano solo by Lang Lang, to make this as beautiful, and rose-colored, as any holiday memory.

Mogwai: KIN (Orignal Motion Picture Score)
Because all of the cool kids are getting original scores, why not Mogwai, who are veterans of the genre and already pretty adept at moody atmospherics? In what Stuart Berman calls “impressionistic sketches,” the band revisits career highlights and dials the tone down to an exquisite melancholy, the kind of quiet, dour ambience that demands a set of noise-canceling headphones and perhaps a hug from a loved one afterward. But it’s not all stark and starless, as touches of orchestration and synth provide a lively noise to softer piano-lead cues like “Eli’s Theme” and “Funeral Pyre.” It all makes for cold comfort; but you knew that was coming when you saw the name Mogwai.

Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper: A Star Is Born (Soundtrack)
If you’re the type of person to get swept up in Oscar buzz, you’re already familiar with the attention being paid to A Star Is Born, the third in a line of remakes of the original 1937 film (two English-language, one Hindi). That’s a helluva lot of pressure, to share the spotlight with Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand (I’m not too worried about Shraddha Kapoor), and to craft a meaningful soundtrack to the one movie on this list that contains the largest amount of source music. But if anyone is up to that task, it’s Mother Monster, who has been laying low since 2016’s surprisingly serious, less poppy (some would say, disappointing) album Joanne. A Star Is Born folds neatly into this new era in Gaga’s career: she cut her teeth on theater and that sense of high-school drama permeates all of her work, but none so much as her work with Tony Bennett, the stepping stone off which Joanne and A Star Is Born launched. A Star Is Born gives us this, without forgetting to provide a taste of all of the Gagas: introspective Gaga, serious actress Gaga, poppy Gaga, and hard-working, dying-to-be-taken-seriously Gaga. It’s not always a successful mix, especially when Bradly Cooper adds his two cents, but its whole never begs to be more than its beautiful parts. You root for Lady Gaga not because she always succeeds, but because she always gets back up again.

Jason Graves: Moss (Original Game Soundtrack)
Jason Graves hides nothing: his YouTube channel stands as a testament to the ideal Internet, the kind where information is abundant and free, where everyone is willing to share and pass along what they know, not for pecuniary gain, but for sheer enthusiasm and passion. On top of it, he lives surrounded by a veritable zoo of adorable animals (what he calls his #AudioArk), not unlike in Moss, the pint-sized PS4 adventure game starring a cute little mouse named Quill. Graves’s gentle score for this game lends the perfect ambiance to the rich Earth tones of the world, keeping within the spirit of all the low-to-the-ground, foliage-filled perspective with its sustained flutes and hushed percussion. It’s all a bit mysterious and quiet, almost folksy at times, and though its compact sound occasionally grows, it never hits eleven like a full orchestra could. It doesn’t need to: like its hero, it proves that even the smallest among us are capable of doing big things.

Lena Raine: Celeste (Original Soundtrack)
Something hauntingly vague, though familiar, runs throughout Raine’s soundtrack to the Celeste video game. Tinkling piano notes like skipped stones pepper ice-cold synths, and minimal melodies do little more than evoke atmosphere, like many a bedroom-DJ before her. Yet Raine wrings genuine pathos from each number, their lengths varying from sips of hot cocoa to an indulgent evening by the fire. Not all video games are either epic symphonic suites or chip-tune beeps, but somewhere in between, somewhere as yet unexplored. Here, Lena Raine investigates this territory with a sensitive, shy reserve, but a big warm heart.

Marc Shaiman: Mary Poppins Returns (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Despite the endless number of remakes now being churned out by the fistful, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement. After all, this is where Disney excels: marketing, advertising, selling substandard, cheap products made to look and feel like luxury experiences (or maybe last year’s cynical Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen has made any reader just a bit more suspicious). On top of it, this is a reboot of one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time — is it possible even theater-darling Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Blunt, and Meryl Streep can’t save such a vehicle? Irrelevant to our interests: the soundtrack, released ahead of the movie , is an experience all its own. There’s a reason Miranda cautioned moviegoers against spoilers: the soundtrack leads you, scene by scene, through the plot’s highlights, all the time indulging in the campy, clever, wink-wink humor of vaudeville inherent in classic Broadway musicals. Shaiman waves that magic Disney wand over the entire production, making the entire affair feel like notes left behind in Tinkerbell’s fairy dust — you’re not quite sure if this is as good as it sounds, or if there is some Fantasia-level of sorcery at work. Certainly it’s difficult to find any producer outside of this brand indulging in such a traditional sound, especially one that forces you into a nostalgic haze whenever the music quotes sections of the original score. It’s an immense sound, a rich, mammoth experience you can only get from a full orchestra, one with the ability to envelope you, to transport you, and to return you just a little bit starry-eyed, and just a little bit less disillusioned.

Honorable Mentions

Thomas Adès: Colette (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Brian Tyler: Crazy Rich Asians (Original Motion Picture Score)
Christopher Larkin: Hollow Knight: Gods & Nightmares
Mark McKenzie: Max and Me (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Rupert Gregson-Williams: Aquaman (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

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]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top ten albums of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honorableapptoptenhonor Mentions:

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

Yamapi: An alternative greatest hits collection

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Last week on January 27, Tomohisa Yamashita released his first greatest hits collection. As one of the few male solo singers in J-pop getting it right, it’s a shame that the album is such a pitiful example of the best this guy has to offer. Caught between traditional Johnny’s-pop and more mature dance music, I’m surprised this greatest hits isn’t spread across two discs! Yet, somehow, despite the wealth of singles, styles, and sheer number of songs to his name, apparently his record company was only able to find ten songs that they thought exemplified the best he has to offer. That’s right. Ten.

In case you’re looking for a complete starter kit on Yamapi, here’s a better collection of songs to get you started (I did the best I could, but apologies in advance for the lack of samples – he’s Johnny’s, which means you won’t find any of his work easily on YouTube, if at all). Let’s start with singles, because there are a lot of them, and it’s important to filter out the duds upfront so we can be honest about where things went wrong.

First there’s “Daite SENORITA.” Arguably Yamapi’s most well-known song, “Daite SENORITA” was also his debut single released ten years ago. Yamapi was still a member of the boyband NEWS at this point — actually, he didn’t leave until 2011, which is perhaps why so many of his later releases started doing poorly. Without the added benefit of NEWS fans, it was hard for him to gain a whole new set of fans, which left him scrambling to find them while still providing for the old with his more signature Johnny’s sound. This double life basically defines this guy’s career, so get used to picking through the mess to find the songs that speak to you. It was hard to find any songs off of Loveless worth adding here; there’s six to choose from, and none of them are bad, but none of them became fan favorites. All of these songs signaled Yamapi’s desire for a more “mature” sound, where “mature” means R&B, I guess.

Finally, Yamapi struck gold with “One in a million.” This is pop music at its best: it’s a love song, it’s a dance song, it’s the beginning of songs in the vein of old-school teen heartthrob odes, but with an updated sound. You can’t not include this song: it’s almost genius, and the only thing that could improve this collection is adding the remix he performed in concert as a bonus track. Shortly after this, Yamapi embarked on an epic American road trip across Route 66 to find himself and brought back “Ai, TEXAS” as a souvenir. While that explains the nature of this somewhat gimmicky single, with its twangy Americana, it’s still a great song. The B-sides “Candy” and “PERFECT CRIME” are even better. But since we’re running out of room, we’ll have to leave them behind and tack on “LOVE CHASE” and “NOCTURNE” to represent the EDM-vibe we’ll be hearing more of in a second. I’ve left “Ke Sera Sera” for the purists instead of “Beating,” but let’s just admit it’s a way better song. And I put “ERO -2012 version-” on there, though I couldn’t tell you why. It’s not particularly interesting. I’ve also included the one-off single he did under the name The MONSTERS with Shingo Katori from SMAP. It’s not a bad song and it has genuine gravitas with Katori on it.

You’ll notice that five singles are already on YAMA-P, with the exclusion of “Hadakanbo” (seriously, screw this single, does anyone even remember this song?), anything off Loveless, “One in a million,” (WHAT WHY), and “Ai, TEXAS” (HOW). It’s inconceivable how “One in a million” wouldn’t make the cut; I honestly can’t even speculate upon this matter. If they couldn’t include the original, why not that amazing, unreleased remix that was featured on the 2013 -A NUDE- tour? The world will never know.

So we still have tons of space left now for some of the edgier cuts from his albums; I doubled down so we could fit it all onto one disc. This is where I’m sure everyone’s opinions will diverge. I promise you, this is just my personal preference, so when you put your own playlist together for a friend, you can substitute twelve of your own songs. I’ve chosen a collection of fan favorites, with a balance of standard J-pop and more dance-pop (with help from which songs get the most love during concerts).

Plus, in 2011, Yamapi was also featured on Namie Amuro’s Checkmate!, a collection of collaborations she’s done over the years. “UNUSUAL,” her duet with Yamashita, was one of the new songs used to promote the album. Reader, this song is amazing. I have no idea why they wouldn’t put this on here: you had an amazing veteran of J-pop paired with a talented up and coming male solo singer and struck gold. I would rather have eight more collabs like this than any of the treacle m-flo comes up with. Namie Amuro performs this a lot on tour (without her partner, sadly), Yamapi not so much. One way of looking at it might be that this is more Amuro’s song: he’s guesting on her song, not the other way around. Let’s change that. Let’s put it on the greatest hits album and officially mark this as one of the greatest in J-pop for both of them. And there you have it. A much, much more precise, yet expansive, greatest his collection that both fans and newer listeners deserve. Take note, Johnny.

Singles:
“Daite SENORITA”
“One in a million”
“Ai, TEXAS”
“LOVE CHASE”
“NOCTURNE”
“Ke Sera Sera”
‘”ERO -2012 version-”
“MONSTERS”

SUPERGOOD, SUPERBAD
“Crazy You”
“Hadakanbou (Album ver.)”
“Saigo no LOVE SONG”
“PARTY DON’T STOP (feat. DJ DASK)”

ERO
“Hit the Wall”
“Baby Baby”

A NUDE
“SING FOR YOU”

YOU
“Birthday Suit”
“Konya ga Kakumei Zenya”

ASOBI
“HELLO”
“LET IT GO”

“UNUSUAL (with Namie Amuro)”

There it is. 20 tracks. The closest we can get to summarizing Yamapi’s career in one hour seventeen minutes and forty-three seconds.

Top ten albums of 2015: Honorable mentions, Bollywood, etc.

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Honorable mentions:

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callme’s Who is callme?: More than just Perfume knockoffs, this is a solid electro-pop debut that runs just a little long at 16 tracks.

Arashi’s Japonism: Idol seniors expand on the recent national pride movement with an album heavy on traditional instruments. I’ll give them their due.

JUJU’s WHAT YOU WANT: Fun disco-pop from an underrated stateswoman of J-pop.

AILEE’s VIVID: R&B vocal powerhouse finally given songs that aren’t just Beyonce-replicas (bonus points for the track featuring Amber).

Flower’s Hanadokei: Ballad masters hit all the sweet spots with this beautiful collection of slow-tempo torch songs.

Hey! Say! JUMP’s JUMPing CAR: Fun boy band idol pop that see-saws between cutesy idol pop and EXILE-light jams.

The Only Three Bollywood Soundtracks You Need, 2015:

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01. Amit Trivedi: Bombay Velvet
02. Sanjay Leela Bhansali: Bajirao Mastani
03. A. R. Rahman: Tamasha

Top Ten English Language Pop Albums of 2015:

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01. Adam Lambert: The Original High
02. Justin Bieber: Purpose
03. Ellie Goulding: Delirium
04. Selena Gomez: Revival
05. Madeon: Adventure
06. Carly Rae Jepsen: E-MO-TION
07. One Direction: Made in the A.M.
08. Hilary Duff: Breathe In. Breathe Out.
09. Marina and the Diamonds: FROOT
10. Miami Horror: All Possible Futures

Top ten albums of 2015, #1: Ai Otsuka’s LOVE TRiCKY

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Ai Otsuka: LOVE TRiCKYaiotsutrickapp

I still haven’t found a sexier song this year than Ai Otsuka’s “affair.” I still haven’t found a better beat  than Ai Otsuka’s “laugh” (BT’s “Lifeline” is the only thing that comes close). I still haven’t found an artist more willing to evolve and change, while staying true to the core, underlying message of all of her albums this year, than Ai Otsuka. There’s always a possibility that this wouldn’t work out for someone else attempting this advanced level of sorcery, but LOVE TRiCKY‘s magic lies in the hands and incantations of producers like STUDIO APARTMENT. Together they’ve conjured the perfect mix of wide-eyed wonder and chilly intimacy. Her sales are doing worse and everyone thinks she’s sounding worse: I think Ai Otsuka is only growing and getting better, willing to take risks that just so happen to keep working out. You can read my further analysis of this album over at the full review here.

Top ten albums of 2015, #2: Wonder Girls’ REBOOT

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wondergrroeappWonder Girls: REBOOT

The praise that rolled in for Wonder Girls’ comeback REBOOT are not without cliches: “late 80s nostalgia,” “synth-pop that is so utterly ’80s it defies logic,” “a vintage synth-pop dream on VHS,” etc. It’s simply impossible to talk about this album without using the words “retro,” “vintage,” “synth,” or “throwback,” so let’s skip them and get to the heart of why this album succeeds where so many have failed: this album is the perfect marriage of a razor sharp understanding of pop music and the skills of master producers who use just the right sound effects to achieve that scary-good level of authenticity. It’s the addition of a visually accurate mock up of all the best and worst things we loved about 80’s music videos. It’s the keytar. It’s the breathless vocals and cascading star bursts on “Candle,” the drawn out “eh eh eh”s on “Baby Don’t Play,” the alluring anonymity of “John Doe,” and the euphoric, chilly shadows of “One Black Night.” REBOOT isn’t just an attempt to revive the best of Madonna’s golden era, or cleverly appropriate a culturally significant touchstone as the title, it’s a thank you to the decade that taught us how modern pop music should be made: with an emphasis on the now, on how it should be listened to after the fact, and how we should see it when we get older. There’s nostalgia, yes, but all of our accumulated nows, too, everything we’ve heard and experienced to help us appreciate what a wonderful “then” it was, without having to sacrifice our own “now” to have it: we get K-pop AND Carly Rae Jepsen AND Donna Summer AND The Beach Boys (if that’s your thing), and what a wonderful world we live in that we can experience all of it in what was once the distant future.

Top ten albums of 2015, #3: SHINee’s Married To The Music

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SHINee: Married To The Musicshineemarrapp

Girls’ Generation might have been around longer than SHINee, but not much longer — SNSD debuted with “Dasi Mannan Segye (Into the new world)” in 2007, while SHINee released their first single a year later in 2008. But the boy band has managed to avoid many of the potholes that seem to be tripping up the girl group, which is mostly to say, that while the quality of SNSD’s music declined, it took a sharp nosedive after the departure of Jessica; SM Entertainment truly does not care about Girls’ Generation anymore. Maybe they always sensed a waning interest, maybe they understand how fragile a group can become when the original members are no longer intact, or maybe they sense the futility when there are so many new girl groups who are doing SNSD so much better than they can, and maybe that’s why sister group f(x) (also under SM) also got the short end of the production stick (in this case, pretty much everyone agrees that f(x) got SHINee’s leftovers; great leftovers, and yet).

Odd was released in May of this year, followed three months later by this repackaged version, Married To The Music. It’s essential that we examine MTTM, rather than Odd, because the former contains two extra songs that I simply can’t live without, particularly “SAVIOR.” This is an album that grows on you, rather than pulling you in from the beginning, the type of songs that take root and blossom over time. These are mostly jazzed-up R&B songs, deep-fried in pop, the kind that SM is famous for, with an ear worm of a 90’s house lead single. Despite all the vocal flourishes and genre influences on this album, it never feels overwhelming. Instead, it feels like just the right mix of dance, hip-hop, and five unmistakable vocals, coming together in a fun, understated declaration of what victorious staying-power sounds like.