Red Velvet: The Red
A lot of the criticism that Red Velvet gets stems from their perceived inheritance of everything f(x) lost with the departure of Sulli. They’re considered knock-offs, the worst kind, that don’t even get original material but hand-me-downs and rejects, the stuff f(x) probably took a hard pass on. But it’s impossible to compare the two when f(x) released such a dismal follow-up to two of the greatest K-pop albums of all time. I didn’t hate 4 Walls, but it certainly has none of the subversive elements of Pink Tape or ambition of Red Light. Even if you like both SHINee’s “View” and title song “4 Walls” despite the fact that they’re so similar (maybe that’s why you like them? I know I do), it’s hard to find redeeming qualities in duds like “Glitter” and “Traveler.”
On the other hand, label mates Red Velvet might still be considered rookies, but their album sounds more like what 4 Walls could have been if it wasn’t constrained by f(x)’s need to stay so Insta-hip. “Dumb Dumb” has the effusiveness of “Cheos Salangni (Rum Pum Pum Pum)” even when it doesn’t have any of the underlying mystery. Unburdened like their veteran superordinates, Red Velvet is able to embrace tried-and-true K-pop formulas like “Huff n’ Puff” and “Red Dress,” songs that might not be particularly special, but that have such high production value and catchy staying-power, it’s impossible not to find yourself scrolling past 4 Walls to get to The Red again. “Oh Boy” knows all the right ways to emphasize keyboard, while more R&B numbers finally perfect the group’s earlier attempts with “Automatic.” By the time “Cool World” hits, it’s easy to forgive SM’s relentless attempts to keep reminding you they created once-legendary group Girls’ Generation and would like to continue breaking out that sound just to remind you on “1 Day.” The Red might not be a perfect album, but it has so many hooks hanging on impeccable arrangements, it makes 4 Walls sound less and less the cool comeback it was supposed to be. It’s official: Amber too good, too pure for this world.
Namie Amuro: _genic
Namie Amuro has been flourishing in her senior year as a pop singer: everything she does is cool and effortless. She is a master of keeping her audience interested with her quiet, unassuming presence, her lack of social media exposure, and her insistence on a level of professionalism that defies logic. She’s the blueprint of what the media might call an “ice queen.” She’s where fans still find inspiration for everything from fashion to ambition. There’s no shortage of hardworking women in pop, but Amuro is almost obsessed in her pursuit of making it look so easy, without ever sacrificing her privacy.
Despite that, it’s no secret that all of the songs on _genic were selected by Amuro using a simple process: as soon as she heard the intro. Despite the fact that less and less singles are being released by our living legend (and when Amuro does, they don’t even appear on albums anymore — her excuse? they mess up the vibe), each song on _genic could be a hit song: it grabs you and piles on hook after hook, like the opening guitar of “Photogenic” which literally boasts its best feature upfront. From the blaring horns on “Golden Touch” (and its viral PV), to the pleasant number of dance-pop show pieces like “Scream” and “Stranger,” the album is textbook pop. Some of the best songs aren’t even the obvious ones (my personal favorite is “Space Invader,” where she cheer leads a series of irritations that segue into exposing grievances against the most annoying person you know; it’s a fuck you, but classy-like), like the unassuming grace of the only slow song on the album, “Anything,” a kind of updated “Heartplace” on acoustic guitar.
Of all of my favorite female solo singers, I can see how Namie Amuro might be pinned smack dab in the middle, neither safe, nor too risky. Hers is a calculated sound, the pop music that can’t fail, that’s so inoffensive it might be boring. It’s easy to dismiss the album because there’s only one “Golden Touch,” and a dozen “Neon Lipsticks,” or because there’s an opaque shield over the entire affair. No, this album is for those of us who go nuts when we watch Amuro perform and finally catch her crack an unintended smile, a small giggle, a tiny glimpse into the human behind the carefully crafted pop star who’s so determined to keep us happy, but guessing.
Negicco: Rice & Snow
There’s been no shortage of words spilled over Negicco’s origin story: to sum up, they’re often painted as the humiliated local ambassadors of onions who gained critical appeal after a few strategic collaborations with Yasuharu Konishi and other indie-approved creatives. Their early singles were simple at best, utilizing the resurging idol boom without any particular focus on what made Nao, Megu, and Kaede different. Initially, there wasn’t much, and even today, it’s a scramble to identify what makes any of the three girls unique. What makes Negicco, as a unit, stand out, has very little to do with the three girls themselves, and almost everything to do with their roster of producers who have created an airtight homage to the girls’ roots (snow and rice being hometown Niigata’s main exports). In fact, the central marketing technique involves pushing these names to the forefront; as Memories of Shibuya writes: “Far from the usual idol-group scenario of songwriters being kept behind the scenes as the girls take center stage, the press for Rice&Snow loudly trumpets the assortment of Shibuya-kei luminaries handling composition duties on the album.”
And Rice & Snow is indeed all very shibuya-kei, with its hallmark array of genres and sounds. Sparkling pop standard “TRIPLE! Wonderland” opens the album followed by respites in bossa nova (“CREAM SODA Love”), 80’s synth (“Futari no Yuugi”, Hiroyasu Yano in a clear nod to Haruomi Hasono), drum n’ bass (“BLUE, GREEN, RED AND GONE”), and atmospheric electronica “(Space Nekojaracy”). There’s at least two songs that utilize hand claps, and a few more that capture the same sing-along spirit. The magic is that you don’t actually have to care why that makes this album more “hip” than say, E-girls’ E.G. TIME. They’re light, sentimental pop songs you can enjoy without any of the baggage that comes with every other idol group, and as long as they keep a tight line-up of producers, the girls might stand a chance at a lifespan just a bit longer than them, too.
PASSPO☆: Beef or Chicken?
We reached peak-idol a few years ago, so why are we still clinging to groups who keep shuffling members, graduating them off, or sparking sub units in the hopes they’ll branch out into worthy successors? There’s no shortage of them, and the number only grows: they become more niche, more esoteric, and more attention-grabbing — it doesn’t get any worse than a group like LADYBABY, who combine the now-banal dichotomy of cute girls singing hard rock or metal songs, but with the added eye-sore of a masculine, bearded-wrestler wearing the same outfits and pigtails as his group mates warbling out signature death metal growls. It’s maybe why I’d like to take the time to luxuriate in Beef or Chicken?, the very-likely last great PASSPO☆ album (the first being One World). The album title is another push in the gimmicky air-hostess direction, but the songs are as hard and fun as ever. And there’s nothing so fun as lead single “HONEY DISH,” a combo hard rock-and-girl-pop number whose overwhelming sweet tooth is balanced out by the heavy guitars. The rest of the album is classic PASSPO☆: gritty rock and make-no-mistakes-about-it metal. The group is signed to a major label, so skilled session musicians and writers are at their disposal to conjure the retro Americana diner of the album jackets without sacrificing the sound we’re used to. It offers something of a varied menu, like the touch of Southern rock in “Itazura Rock n’ Roll,” grungy metal in “Not in theory,” and a softer glow on “Shiny Road.” All the signature speed and energy of the group is there, despite this being the shortest PASSPO☆ album to date. Following this amazing release in May, the group took a (relatively) long hiatus, after which they announced both a graduation and a label change to Nippon Crown at the end of the year. So long and goodnight PASSPO☆?
E-girls: E.G. TIME
So here we are. The 2015 J-pop magnum opus. The album that quietly dropped on the very first day of the year and still beat out hundreds of other J-pop albums to make this list. You’re not going to find any surprises on E.G. TIME: this is unadulterated dance music, Avex Trax-style, with elements of idol pop’s optimism and verve, touches of trendy EDM showers, and the conspicuous vowels of Japanese punctuated by American words and phrases. It’s an update on 2014’s COLORFUL POP, tweaking the tracks for the ultimate frenetic dance-pop, a brand that EXILE does more or less successfully. It’s a massive girl-group firing on all cylinders, optimizing their key members for optimum vocals and choreography. The album comes charging in with singles “E.G. Anthem -WE ARE VENUS-” and “Mr. Snowman;” they’re no “RYDEEN ~Dance All Night~” but for mood-setting, you can’t get closer to this album’s raison d’etre. Add in a chunky Yasutaka Nakata production, a cover song, several other successful tie-in singles, and the album closes with some merciless reminders of how E-girls have pretty much always been this good, even if it took you this long to notice.
Limited editions of this album also come bundled with footage from E-girls LIVE TOUR 2014 “COLORFUL LAND,” one of the best concerts to be released this year: the opening performance of “RYDEEN” is still the most exciting cold open I’ve experienced all year, and possibly this decade, since Ayumi Hamasaki’s DOME TOUR 2001 A, with it stratospheric production value. It’s also the most fun I’ve had watching a concert performance in a long, long time: COLORFUL LAND is packed with costumes, color, movement, and the crackling exuberance of a group of girls who look seriously thrilled to be doing what they’re doing for their audience.
2015 was the year E-girls proved you can no longer write them off as just another double-digit girl-group cash cow. Any misconceptions you have about pop music from Japan are finally put to rest on E.G. TIME; it’s a vibrant and unique approach to pop that can’t be replicated by anyone else, anywhere else.
Ayumi Hamasaki: A ONE
“I felt the past me was “already gone”, but now I feel ‘She’s still here. For good or bad, I’m still the way I was.’ […] I feel this album taught me that I haven’t changed much since I created A Song for XX. My surroundings may have changed, but there’s still a part deep inside of me that thinks ‘People are born alone and will die alone.’ The people who related to songs like A Song for XX have changed as well over the years, that’s what I thought. But with this album, I feel like we can say ‘In the end, we’re still the same’ to each other.” Ayumi Hamasaki, 109 News
It has been more than ten years since one of Ayumi Hamasaki’s albums has landed in my best of the year list. Despite being one of my favorite recording artists of all time (maybe THE defining influence on my appreciation for Japanese pop music), her albums haven’t resonated with me since, truthfully, (miss)understood. But she’s remained a fascinating figure to watch develop, both personally and musically. Since her skyrocket to celebrity, she’s experimented with a wide palette of genres, even when those explorations haven’t proved successful (NEXT LEVEL, Colours) or noteworthy (Rock n’ Roll Circus, LOVE again). Love songs is the only recent album that sparked a bit of joy into her discography, thanks in large part to Tetsuya Komuro — to see these two perfectionists finally in the studio together is a Holy Grail moment in J-pop — even when her career tanked further during her Vegas-wedding and divorce. That’s when everything burst into flames: the poorly-received, scraped-together confessional, an ill-conceived rebound album (and boyfriend…which…), and the stretch for brand-name producers with capital EDM beats in a bid to remain relevant. Of this time in her life, Hamasaki recalls, “I feel like I was trying to run away from the biggest slipup [sic] in my life. ‘I’ve done something horrible’ — I couldn’t shake that feeling. And when I felt it would continue to shadow me my entire life, I just felt so pathethic [sic]. I felt ‘nothing makes sense no matter what I sing’ when making music.” It all but effectively burned her brand to the ground. Until atonement. Until A ONE.
Let’s assume for a moment that it’s not an L missing from that title, but a T. It’s penance, a musical redemption fit for a queen; royalty kneeling before us with all her weakness and vulnerability. The album’s track listing is stately, the songs almost all expansive ballads or power anthems, songs that fill first rooms, then stadiums, then quiet corners. Komuro and Hamasaki have managed to pull off an unlikely coupling of humility and bravado where once all we had was elaborate window-dressing: the pomp and flash of big hooks and bigger, more universal (read: generic) sentiments. There are still moments of intimate intensity, like fan favorite “The Show Must Go On,” but it’s not attention-seeking; it’s the honest statement of someone’s not always-pleasant reality. It’s the subtle ways we communicate the unspeakable truths of our every day. It’s the occasional detail that relieves us of shame, but with the grace that keeps our dignity intact. It’s the universal created by just the right personal reveals, a return to one’s “true core.” It’s the Ayumi I’ve known and loved, the album I’ve been waiting for over a decade to hear, a road map to the things she’s always been capable of if she could only remember what she’s fought to embrace – that everything she’s done was already enough.
Suiyoubi no CAMPANELLA: ZIPANG
How can you sum up an album with such an eclectic mix of styles and sounds without falling into the trap of hammering out an indictment against the evils of major labels and the freedom that indies give you to experiment with more oddball ventures? You shouldn’t, because Suiyoubi is the exception, not the rule, the elegant fissure in a landscape of low-budget, bedroom-produced ideals of what “art” and “authenticity” is and how pop music presumably can’t come close. But ZIPANG is a pop record: it’s also a rap record, a house record, and a collection of sound effects put to rhythm. It’s polished enough to have dizzying highs (“Chohakkai,” “MEDUSA“) and confused enough for impossible lows (“TWIGGY”). It’s not a group at their peak, but rather, a group still scaling the mountain, still in search of a defining genre, but capable of churning out dazzling aesthetic set pieces in the ascent. The group itself also has a hard time tackling their identity: singer Komuai concedes that yeah, sure, they’re a hip hop group, but that also “there’s like, an idol world over here, and the J-rock scene over here, and off in the corner is the programmed beats place. I think we are sort of in the middle of all that.” That’s where you’ll find ZIPANG: smack dab in the middle of the Japanese music Venn diagram.