March 2020: Highlights

March 2020, one of the longest months all of us have ever lived through, has been tough on us all. When Japan was first hit with the coronavirus and closed its schools for what is now looking like an optimistic two weeks, Avex Trax, perhaps to alleviate boredom, perhaps to atone for its string of live cancellations, began uploading several full-length HD concert videos on its YouTube page. This playlist is where I spent the majority of my free time this month, endlessly queuing up one video after another — discovering some new favorites, revisiting classics, mindlessly consuming any mix of audio and visual that had even a small chance of distracting me. Now this month will always be just as full of this memory for me, too, and for that I am grateful. And though I had a harder time concentrating on any hard rock/metal releases, and soundtracks are pretty much non-existent as theaters are closed and films have been postponed, we still had a month full of music releases to help us cope; here are some of the interesting ones.

Niall Horan: Heartbreak Weather
(2020.03.13)

Ex-One Direction members have unleashed a slew of solo records in the last four months, beginning with Harry Styles’s Fine Line in December of 2019, followed by Louis Tomlinson’s Walls in February, and now Niall Horan’s Heartbreak Weather this month. Each of these albums has taken on a distinct identity unique to the individual, but one thing they all have in common is their adherence to the 1D playbook. As Chris DeVille sums up, “[T]heir solo careers suggest they [want] to escape One Direction’s structure, not its substance.” This is not a complaint: all of these albums have been, to a degree, enjoyable, and all of them have had at least a couple of above-average songs. But while Styles carefully crafted a classic-rock Bowie persona and Tomlinson a 90’s Brit-pop avatar, Horan seems torn between two styles, which wrestle almost track by track on Heartbreak Weather. Which you like better will depend on how you prefer your pop: synth or acoustic. The two are sequenced throughout the album to ensure an equal distribution to avoid front- or back-loading either half, and though the soft-rock bits are okay, it’s the synth-pop songs that I find myself returning to over and over again. The arena-sized title track, “Arms of a Stranger,” “Cross Your Mind” — how perfect the album would be with more of this and less “Dear Patience.” It’s a nice follow-up to his largely forgettable debut, and as all of the albums released this month can attest to, it’s unlucky release date seems to have gotten it buried under the national traumas that are even now still rippling around the world. But for those of us looking for any form of comfort and taste of normalcy we can get, this album been an unexpected companion, the last breath we all took together before getting pulled under.

lol: lightning // Re:Complex: Neo Gravity
(2020.03.18)

Last month, I lamented the dirth of co-ed groups, noting that J-pop tends to be a tad friendlier toward the outliers, and in the wake of AAA’s hiatus, we got two torch-bearers in J-pop: a new album by their official replacements lol, and the debut of Re:Complex, the 13-member talent-competition winners from Kansai who released their debut single almost exactly two years ago. These two albums have a lot in common, most notably their styles — both use simple and frequent vocal trade-offs set to the kind of upbeat but generic dance-pop that AAA perfected in their early albums, but eventually moved past for a bit of personality. Both of these albums are extremely competent and enjoyable, but they lack something very important: a unique personality that elevates them beyond filler. Of course, competence is the preferable substitute for grand surface impression, the type of music that values face and personality over any attempt at shooting-for-average singles that run rampant in the idol industry, but really, who are these people? I can’t keep any of the members of either of these groups straight, and if lol’s 2018 concert tour -scream- is any indication, just about any skilled dancer and vocalist could have stepped in to understudy in the middle of the show and I wouldn’t have noticed. I’m not sure if this is a failure on the part of management, who can clearly spot talent, but not genius, or if it’s a reluctance to put in the resources to coax a star out of any one of these members who might just be waiting for the extra push. Or is the lukewarm response to a co-ed group like lol not worth the investment? Questions to ponder while these albums rotate in, enjoyable, but unmemorable.

The Weeknd: After Hours
(2020.03.20)

I’ve devoted enough space here to The Weeknd already, and the guy really doesn’t need any more press, so I’ll make this quick. After Hours is everything I’ve come to expect from Abel Tesfaye, for better and worse: the lead tracks are the sharpest knives in this shed, with all the glossy, stylized production only money can buy, while the album tracks go back to the Tesfaye of mixtape lore, slowing the album down considerably by soaking in the moody, navel-gazing bathwater that is now routine for him. I don’t mind these moments musically, though lyrically they leave a lot to be desired, but I prefer the album’s propulsive moments over the dirges, so the first half lags and the second half doesn’t feel long enough, and as a particular bone to pick, the synthwave bits don’t go in far enough or long enough to feel like a narrative vision, rather than shallow experimentation for novelty’s sake. So, it’s a lot like Starboy, with the best bits being better than the former’s best bits, and thankfully, not as long.

The World Standard: Wasuta BEST
(2020.03.25)

Every idol group has a gimmick, the thing that tries to make them stand out from the hundreds of groups they compete with for attention and sales. Wasuta’s, aside from having the classy, high-budget iDOL Street angle, is a mix of Dempa-lite and Momoiro-eccentricity, buffeted by the colorful bleeps of video game onomatopoeia and cat-ear headbands. It’s curious that a group with such a haphazard, kitchen-sink approach has managed to reach their 5th anniversary intact, when so many equally solid iDOL Street groups haven’t; Cheeky Parade, for example, was a first cousin to the aesthetic and they disbanded in their fifth year as well. Uh-oh…foreshadowing? A greatest hits collection like Wasuta BEST doesn’t exactly alleviate the fear. As a representation of a group’s best work, it doesn’t get more definitive than this: a 25-track odyssey through all of the fun, nonsense, and quirky curios the group has shared with us over the years, from debut single “Kanzennaru IDOL” to fan-favorites like “PLATONIC GIRL” (unless by “definitive” you mean “exhaustive,” in which case AAAs’ 15th Anniversary All Time Best -thanx AAA lot-, with over 70 tracks, takes the cake). At this point, Wasuta is one of the few existing all-in idol groups from whom I genuinely look forward to new releases, and it would be a real shame if they went the way of Kobushi FACTORY and GEM and PASSPO, though it seems inevitable. Being a fan of Japanese idol groups is often part guilty pleasure and part learning to cherish their ephemeral existence. Successful greatest-hits collections like these, though not essential, are able to wrap it all up in one neat, happily-ever-after, leaving us plenty to remember the group by when they inevitably pass into The Great Idol Beyond.

Haruka Kudo: KDHR
(2020.03.25)

Voice actress Haruka Kudo, not to be confused with former-Morning Musume member Haruka Kudou released her debut mini-album, and of all this month’s releases, aside from iri’s Sparkle, it has probably surprised me the most. I’m unfamiliar with the extensive work she’s done with the intimidating universe that is the BanG Dream! franchise, because like so many voice actors, it’s easy to get lost in the sheer amount of available content, but anyone who lists hide as a favorite guitarist and puts her money where her admiration is by actually playing guitar, gets an instant shift to the front of the line. I wouldn’t say KDHR makes exceptional on any of these promising bits of information, culminating in a sound that is very much like the bread-and-butter work of seiyuu before her, but I do appreciate the emphasis on the guitar work here, which in moments rips out riffs as hard as BAND-MAID, such as on opening track “MY VOICE,” when it’s not drowned in layers of synths. It’s a promising collection that hopefully foreshadows a full-length with just a bit more attention to originality.

Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia
(2020.03.27)

Amidst the tragic, history-making events of March, Dua Lipa held an Instagram live chat on Monday, March 23 where she tearfully announced that her highly-anticipated sophomore album Future Nostalgia would be released at the end of the week, instead of the original release date of April 3. Releasing an album during a global pandemic is tough enough, but it looks like the primary impetus behind the decision was the album leaking in full online, a heart-breaking incident for any artist in the best of circumstances. Initial reviews for this album were nearly all raves: The Guardian called it “viscerally brilliant,” Rolling Stone, a “studio 54-worthy disco revival,” NME, “powerful pop perfection.” The album is a tight, LP-sized 37-minute long journey through Latin freestyle, early 00’s girl-group pop, swelling disco strings and cool, chunky synths set to slick modern production, culminating in heart-tugging anthems like “Don’t Stop Now,” “Levitating,” and the album’s show-stopping “Physical.” Mega-producer Stuart Price’s magic touch shimmers all over this record, and his influence is palpable even on the songs he isn’t a part of, with many songs like “Hallucinate” recalling the audacity of his work on Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor. It’s easy to think the universal praise is just over-hype, but lest the album seems too sterile, it does miss the bullseye in spots, most notably the final tracks “Good in Bed,” and “Boys Will Be Boys,” which joins Taylor Swift’s “The Man” in good intentions but dull execution. Unlike recent albums that tack on eight or ten extra filler tracks for streaming stats, Lipa practices a graceful discretion, one we can look forward to being appended by later deluxe editions full of tantalizing bonus tracks (which has already been confirmed) that will keep this album fresh in the ears of listeners who are craving more, or who might still be too distracted to tune in. But that’s hardly enough to take away Future Nostalgia‘s true accomplishment: making good on pop’s promise to create music that makes you smile, that makes you dance, and that makes you proud.

5 Seconds of Summer: CALM
(2020.03.27)

Boy-band concepts have evolved throughout the decades, from The Beatles, to Menudo, to *NSYNC, to 5 Seconds of Summer, but the point has stayed the same: to create music that makes people, especially young women, feel appreciated. 5SOS went all-in on this on 2018’s Youngblood, though by then they were already veterans of the genre. CALM packs the same lusty earnestness into its 40 minutes: “What a blessing to feel your love,” they sing in “Red Desert,” “Sometimes when I look at you, I see my wife,” in “Teeth,” and later, “I’ll make up for all of your tears / I’ll give you the best years,” and “You’re the only thing that I think I got right / I’ll never give you away.” These are psalms for lovers, odes to significant others, and devotionals for the rose-colored and deluded. While most songs linger in these early utopian stages of amour, they even make angst sexy, as on “Easier,” where even anger can’t help but melt into a helpless confession: “Right now, it’s so hard to blame you / ‘Cause you’re so damn beautiful.” They’re exactly what we expect from our boy bands, delivering on every front; it helps that the tracks keep it simple, the production sizzling with hooks and ardor. Like their predecessors, whatever CALM lacks in genuine self-awareness, it more than makes up for in heart.

The Birthday Massacre: Diamonds
(2020.03.27)

There are fewer things more comforting during times of rapid, intense change than the comforts of something familiar, something that offers a bit of stability. The Birthday Massacre have now released eight studio albums since 1999; I’ve been around for seven of those and I can confidently say that I’m always going to get exactly what I expect and want from this group: a nostalgic, early 00’s Hot Topic-goth aesthetic set to chunky 80’s-inspired synth-rock. The Birthday Massacre has become one of my most reliable go-tos, and this month, there was nothing more reassuring than an album that delivered nothing more than what a group has now mastered and knows best. Diamonds is not the best BM album — it’s not even as great as 2017’s Under Your Spell and feels a bit on the short side, but it’s as solid as it comes, and for fans who have been in it for the long-haul, it’s like a hug from a friend you haven’t seen in years. The Birthday Massacre might be short on original ideas at this point, might be relying a bit too hard on that iconic aesthetic to do all the visual work, and yeah, it’s hard not to argue that I’m giving them a pass, but no music is released in a vacuum, and Diamonds, an album by an independent group set to be even more hard-hit by the dip in album sales and touring revenue this spring, deserve recognition for making the brave choice to move forward with the release of this album, helping to keep at least one thing feeling consistent and reliable. If you like what you hear, don’t hesitate to support them.

Kalen Anzai: “FAKE NEWS REVOLUTION” PV
(2020.03.31)

Our eleventh-hour entry this month is the PV for new Internet-It Girl Kalen Anzai’s “FAKE NEWS REVOLUTION.” Anzai has generated a lot of buzz since she debuted last year with a slew of Y2K-inspired visuals and a face so digitally edited for perfection that it didn’t take long for rumors to start circulating that Anzai was a computer-generated cyber-idol: one of her first live performances that leaned heavily on holographic visuals didn’t help. But, as it turns out, Kalen Anzai is a real, flesh-and-blood woman, and her potential to generate capital has just rocketed thanks to the announcement that she would be playing Ayumi Hamasaki in a drama based on the “fictional” life story of the legendary J-pop singer’s rise to fame within Avex — the same label to which Anzai is signed. Till now, Anzai’s whole aesthetic has been turn-of-the-millennium nostalgia, a retro-futurist amalgamation of hyper-CGI, shiny metallic and rubbery-plastic couture, and boxy, vintage computer screens, an aesthetic that recalls the peak years of Avex Trax, and notably, the salad days of their female solo-singers like hitomi, Ami Suzuki, and Ayumi Hamasaki. It is the last that Anzai is most indebted to, especially in “FAKE NEWS REVOLUTION,” which, like her earlier singles, sounds specifically designed to evoke late 90’s/early 00’s Avex-pop from Favorite Blue to LOVEppears- and Duty-era Hamasaki, with its twinkling keyboards, soft, major-key production, and urgent twists in the chorus. As someone who grew up on this sound, I’ve been very intrigued with what Avex is doing with Anzai, even if Anzai herself just seems like an avatar at the moment, a convenient hanger on which to project an era she seems, by age alone, to be somewhat ignorant and disinterested in, and the tabloid-heavy drama that fans and non-cold-blooded humans are eager to witness. In that sense, the music video and song are a success, adding to the carefully-constructed narrative of her origins. But what really matters is what will happen once Anzai is allowed to move past M and let us see the person behind the persona, an identity tethered to the present — at least as much as Avex and pop, as an institution, allows any of that, as Ayumi can sit down and tell her all about.

Top ten pop/electronic albums of 2018

Pop music in 2018 wasn’t one for the history books, but it has delivered its fair share of healthy distractions, and in the current political and cultural climate, sometimes that’s all anyone is looking for. Below are ten of the best English-language and/or Western pop and electronic albums of the year — ten albums, in no particular order, that made the year just a bit less unbearable and proved there is no end to the styles and content that can be mined from such rich and broad genres across continents.

Ariana Grande: Sweetener
Ariana Grande has spent this year conducting herself with a poise and dignity beyond most pop stars’ capabilities. As proof, Sweetener showcases a notable maturation of Grande’s sound: the album trades most of the Max Martin tent-pole hits for slower, groovier numbers like “The Light is Coming” and “Everytime.” Fans of the pop-maestro need not worry, as commercial demands necessitate the inclusion of some of the album’s best tracks for radio singles, like the effervescent “God is a Woman” and “Breathin’.” But unlike past albums stitched together with equal parts Martin and Grande, Grande alone carries Sweetener with her singular vocal talent, a voice that blends a dizzying assortment of soars and coos and reverb, curated for maximum effect.

Allie X: Super Sunset
It has been a pleasure and a pain to watch Allie X grow as a pop star only to be denied widespread recognition. While it’s easy to write off the artist with a glance at her very Lady Gaga-like visuals, the content of her compositions belies any sense of mere copycat. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of music that is released each week, with Spotify and Bandcamp and YouTube all making grabs for ever-decreasing attention spans, though it does make it all the more magical when something brilliant like “Science” cues up, all twinkling synths and epic chorus breaking through the routine of sonic wallpaper. It’s both story and song, a 4D experience you can touch and feel, the wind hitting your face from top to bottom in degrees as Allie punctuates and draws out the win. dows. ro-o-o-o-o-o-lling down. It’s fresh, it’s fun, and it eschews half-measures for the big win; it’s the kind of serious pop music we haven’t heard in years outside of last year’s CollXtion II.

Charlie Puth: Voicenotes
One year ago, anyone would have laughed at the idea of Puth being a viable contender for that elusive gap in our charts: the male pop star. Certainly no one is counting on Justin Timberlake or Nick Jonas any longer. Yes, Post Malone and Drake have massive chart presence where Puth has almost none, having taken grave missteps with his poor debut album and Meghan Trainor collabs, but Voicenotes portends a welcome change. Gone is a reliance on the retro, doo-wop of a youthful Michael Buble, the sort of music that passed through the ears of listeners quicker than a passing siren. Voicenotes shows Puth a bit older, a bit wiser, and most importantly, a bit more honest. Puth finally sounds like a real human being, a person with insecurities and skeletons finally spilling out of a closet previously packed tight with crisp shirts and shiny shoes, and it is only by finally revealing and owning his truths, with a dash of inspired Hall & Oates, that he can finally find a place among the cheesiest of pop stars and their fans, all just as uncool as the rest of us.

Dance with the Dead: Loved to Death
Just like your favorite mass market paperbacks, you can tell just by looking at some covers exactly what the contents will be like. Perhaps it’s the famous clinch, or the back of a shadowy, running figure, or even a a cover taken up entirely by the enormous font of an author’s name. Some of the best genre paperbacks were designed in the 70s and 80s for horror fiction, lovingly chronicled by super-fan Grady Hendrix in Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. Any one of these tales, from the one about Nazi Leprechauns, to Satanic nuns, to children with kinetic abilities look like they could be accompanied by one of Dance with the Dead’s albums. Their aesthetic, like the look of all darkwave, looks ripped from the pages of a Stephen King novel, and their latest, Loved to Death similarly leans in hard. Justin Pointer and Tony Kim, the duo behind these morbidly fun 80’s synth-horror tracks, expertly weave in all of their influences, from Justice to John Carpenter to Metallica to create instrumental sonic treats that brim with crunchy energy, like “Salem” and “Oracle,” and guitars, especially on tracks like “Into the Shadows.” Highly danceable, playfully creepy, and always entertaining, Dance with the Dead will fit in nicely with your Stranger Things viewing party next summer.

Janelle Monae: Dirty Computer
Sometimes an artist’s greatest album isn’t a personal favorite: certainly, Monae’s previous album The Electric Lady contained just as many, if not more, attention-grabbing songs and as much style. In fact, Dirty Computer seems a touch less effortless, maybe a bit too glossy, a tad obvious. But it is hyper-stylized for a reason: it’s the logical conclusion of experience, and of time spent in the presence of luminous mentors and the trenches of viral Internet warfare. Slapping a concept film on this album does little to enhance what is already Monae’s winning hand: ability, ambition, and personality. Natural talent puts all of these to work and an appreciative audience hungry for the gospel allows this star to finally come into her own — part cyborg, part human, all American.

5 Seconds of Summer: Youngblood
If you’ve spent five seconds in the electronics department of a Target, you’ve heard 5 Seconds of Summer, who’ve blared from the giant monitors every time I’ve set foot in one over the course of the summer. This relentless repetition makes it easy to forget how fun Youngblood is. Look, it’s hard out there for an English-speaking boy band. Just ask Why Don’t We. The boy band mini-revival rose and set in the shadows of One Direction, and its future is now being pulled into question. In response, 5SOS have released one of their most musically accessible albums, a triumph of synths and enormous pop hooks. Their third studio album sounds like a group that has finally embraced their place in the pop pantheon and taken it to its biggest, most obvious conclusion, whether it’s the lyrical staples of “Want You Back,” “Better Man,” and “Why Won’t You Love Me,” or blissful, windows-down jams like “Talk Fast” and “More.” Part of the ability to appreciate this album will hinge on how much someone is willing to concede that the world hates teenage girls and everything they touch, but once a person can come to terms with the idea that the things girls like and things that are great are not exclusive, we can all evolve as a species together.

Sarah Reeves: Easy Never Needed You
Contemporary Christian, Christian pop, “inspirational music,” or whatever you want to call it, has been mostly segregated to the outskirts of the mainstream. It’s a tough genre to define when it can sound just like anything else on the radio, but you’re not quite sure if it’s about a significant other, or actually Jesus. It’s a tough call to make, and Easy Never Needed You has a good time playing around with those perceptions and doubts. Sarah Reeve’s voice, as soft and pillowy as Ellie Goulding’s, also seems to be taking inspiration from the artist’s music, with fast-paced Top-40 pop like “Something About You” and “Right Where You Want Me.” The album’s more obvious references to faith, like “Nowhere,” and “Faithful,” never feel as preachy as they could; it’s a true crossover album, the kind that blurs the distinction between holy and secular, and when is the latter ever devoid of the former, in a non-religious sense? Music only ever means what you believe it does, and any proscribed interpretations are always presumptive. To whit, Sarah Reeves won’t be making any converts any time soon, but she has made one hell of a pop album.

Rita Ora: Phoenix
Rita Ora is a jack-of-all-trades: it’s been six years since she released an album, but in that time she’s managed to find time to act in mega-blockbusters, shill for major corporations like Skullcandy and DKNY, design clothes, and host reality television shows like America’s Next Top Model. It’s all in a day’s work for today’s young celebrities, but one thing you can’t say is that Ora hasn’t worked hard hitting up every medium, besides, like, podcasts, to remain as relevant as possible. Spreading oneself so thin usually results in poor work, a sign of scattered focus rather than deep dives into true passion projects, but Phoenix, its title a reference to Ora’s trouble with past record label Roc Nation, soars as high as any big-budget pop album in its class. Opener “Anywhere” sets the tone for the record’s trendy EDM hooks and functions as both a statement of intent and a litmus test: non-interested parties are invited to disembark immediately at the next stop. Ora doesn’t have the most versatile pipes, but she’s the perfect fit for an album that would have made more sense released in the summer, perfect for windows-down, volume-high cruising. This is not the type of album that can move mountains, but it can get you out of your chair, and that’s a lot more useful in the day-to-day banality of the average person’s life.

Neon Nox: Syndicate Shadow
What happens when you have the capabilities of a sonic storyteller, but no contract with a film studio? Johnny Jewel and his label mates over at Italians Do It Better are sure to steer you in the right direction, but there is no shortage of artists outside that particular milieu who have their own original Drives and Blade Runners to score. If Dead Can Dance’s specialty is horror, than Neon Nox’s is the 80’s action flick — except few 80’s action flicks in the U.S. were heavy on these particular massive synths, culled from all the best glittering gems on the italo-disco circuit, like Vincenzo Salvia on steroids. There is no shortage of these kinds of synthwave artists (many featured on this list!), and a quick visit to NewRetroWave’s page gives you an assorted menu from appetizers to these kinds of full courses that do everything but hand you a script. Rather, the opening track recalls TRON: Legacy‘s “The Grid” in setting the scene and then inviting you to use the song titles as prompts and the limits of your own imagination, like a sonic storybook. The unique perspective each person will bring to “the score” in the interactive nature of the genre  is part of what makes this particular sub genre so compelling, and Syndicate Shadow so fun.

Troye Sivan: Bloom
Troye Sivan has had a whirlwind year, least of which is collaborating with Charli XCX on one of the year’s most fun singles, “1999.” Like Rita Ora, when he’s not discoursing upon Justin Timberlake’s “inspiring” ‘N Sync ‘do, he’s working on any number of side hustles, including acting (no big deal, just critically acclaimed flicks like Boy Erased). This year also saw the follow-up to his debut album, Blue Neighbourhood, and like “1999,” it’s a bit of a throwaway, with playful tributes to the dawning of 90’s teen-pop, down to that Michael Jackson and Naomi Campbell 2-tone vibe in single “My My My,” haunting each catchy, hook-laden corner. It’s never more apparent than on the stand-out titular track “Bloom,” and “Lucky Strike,” which meld funky tempos with finger-snapping beats. While I’m not entirely sold on the album’s more introspective moments, when Sivan is at his most confessional, it proves the album is more than just surface: a deep heart beats beneath Sivan, a dual nature that captures life’s black and white, its good, its bad, its highs, its lows, and the beautiful moments in between.

Honorable Mentions

Robert Parker: End of the Night
Kimbra: Primal Heart
Midnight Danger: Malignant Force
Wild Moccasins: Look Together
Annalisa: Bye Bye