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]

Best albums of 2018: What to expect

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

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

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

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

Top ten albums of 2017

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

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

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

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

10 Arashi: untitled / w-inds.: INVISIBLE

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

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

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

9 Monari Wakita: I am ONLY

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

8 Cosmic Girls (WJSN): Happy Moment

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

7 EXO: The Power Of Music

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

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

6 Red Velvet: Perfect Velvet

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

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

5 Kumi Koda’s W FACE ~outside~

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

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

4 PASSPO☆ : Cinema Trip

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

3 BAND-MAID: Just Bring It

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

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

2 Satellite Young: Satellite Young

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

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

1 E-girls: E.G. CRAZY

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten English-Language Albums of 2017: Honorable Mentions

 

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

Top Ten English-Language Albums of 2017

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

Top Ten Albums of 2017: Honorable Mentions

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

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

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

An appears 2017 tumblr year-end round-up

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top ten albums of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honorableapptoptenhonor Mentions:

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