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”

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

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Ai Otsuka: LOVE TRiCKYaiotsutrickapp

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

2015 mid-year report

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2015 has offered a number of notable releases so far: so much so, in fact, that narrowing it down to discuss the highlights without resorting to a wall of YouTube videos is difficult. For the purposes of this blog, I’ve chosen to focus exclusively on Japanese and Korean pop, omitting digressions on American pop, electronic, and Bollywood soundtracks, which sometimes crop up here. I think you’ll find plenty to sample and I encourage you all to share anything you may have found particularly awesome that I missed.

The Annual Yasutaka Update

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So here’s a first: Perfume released a new single and it barely registered. The trio has been getting more Internet buzz over their SXSW performance (I mean, it seems pretty cool, but it’s kind of hard to tell with all the annoying camera angles and visual effects splashing across the actual performance). For years now, Perfume has focused on live, especially overseas, performances, and songs that enhance those performances: singles aren’t so much indicative of Nakata himself, Perfume-as-statement, or even advertising anymore — they’re just the fuel that keeps the tour bus rolling. It’s hard to be completely disappointed by a Perfume single, though. Even when the A-side isn’t the newest addition to your workout playlist you were hoping for, the B and C-sides always offer alternatives. That said, “Relax In The City” isn’t bad, but it is largely superfluous next to “Pick Me Up” and “Toumei Ningen.” As Kashiyuka pointed out in an interview, it’s very Yasutaka Nakata to hide the more commercial crowd-pleasers at the back (remember “Hurly Burly” on Spending all my time?) He’s one producer who likes to dole out rewards only if you’re paying attention.

capsule’s latest original album, WAVE RUNNER, is something of a mixed bag with few really great standout tracks; it’s business as usual as the follow-up to the experimental CAPSLOCK. We also got Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s single “Mondai GIRL.” While I appreciate Kyary as an artist, I’m not always happy with Nakata’s work with her, but “Mondai GIRL” proves how perfect the pieces can fall into place when the producer steps away from the xylophones. As always, the kiddie orgel ticks and marching drums are almost completely absent from every great Kyary song: I’ll remember this every time Mito Natsume releases any music with Nakata and won’t even bother. Instead, it’ll be nice to see if Nakata produces any more one-offs like the excellent “Music Flyer” on E-girls’ E.G.TIME: I always enjoy hearing what magic he can conjure for artists outside of his usual roster.

Girls On Top

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Thanks to some wrinkle in time, we were blessed with four long-time top Avex female artists’ albums this year. Are you there God? It’s me, grateful. To halt anticipation, I’ve never been a Kuu fan, despite my repeated visits to her back catalog, so WALK OF MY LIFE is a non-conversation. To a large extent, neither is Ayumi Hamsaki’s A ONE. But the album has some really beautiful moments: this is the first Ayumi album in years that has felt like a solid, cohesive whole. It has some breathtaking moments (the last two minutes of “Out of control,” “The Show Must Go On,” the lively cover of “Movin’ on without you” — wow! What a gentle, grand statement that Ayumi covered a Hikaru Utada song to prove that any competition between those two was always fabricated by the record companies and not by the two women themselves) that really round out what have been some truly awful career lows.

Obviously, Ai Otsuka’s LOVE TRiCKY is my favorite of the four so far (read the full review here), but it’s worth spilling a few words on Namie Amuro’s _genic, an album so uniformly perfect, it’s almost not worth listening to more than once. This album is pure pop gold, but it offers little extra on repeat listens. As Otsuka’s album is dark and vulpine, Amuro’s is effortless and seasoned. _genic is trendy hooks, high production value, and class: it’s hard to find cracks in something that already seems iconic, songs that were precisely chosen to bewitch you in the first 20 seconds, except that it’s perhaps all just very glossy surface, and I imagine many people can find fault in that the same way some people prefer the pops, hisses, and scratches in a vinyl record over 320kbps mp3 files. You can’t please everyone.

K-pop

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Post-Golden Age, good, but not necessarily great, things are happening in K-pop. Ever since Jessica’s departure from Girls’ Generation, we’ve gotten a lot of artists mimicking their debut album in a very short nostalgia turnover: OH MY GIRL’s “Cupid” and G-Friend’s “Glass Bead” are the first that come to mind. The standouts for me this year so far have been AMBER’s solo EP BEAUTIFUL, miss A’s fun “Dareun Namja Malgo Neo” and BoA’s “Kiss My Lips” (the single, not the album, which is just okay). I get the feeling many people haven’t been wowed by BIG BANG’S MADE project, or maybe that perception is just an extension of my own disappointment. The group’s releases used to be events that seemingly everyone in the K-pop fandom could get behind. Now it just seems that stretching out singles over the course of a few months is tedious and suspect, kind of like splitting the last season of an iconic show in two. Sometimes it feels that the context of other songs on an album can really change your mind about particular songs that just seem off: now all these stand-alone tracks feel obvious and not a bit whelming. Just because G-Dragon composed it and T.O.P has a really cool new haircut doesn’t make it worthy of applause, or the music videos any less problematic. Basically I’ve largely ignored the new songs up until now due to meh.

Idol Corner

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OK guys, brace yourselves, we’re gonna crank this one out, because idols are everywhere now and you can’t download a rar file or follow a tumblr without stumbling across this stuff and it’s been my year’s goal to start embracing more idol-pop and I feel I’ve mastered the rhythms when I can make a statement like: And anyway, there’s some decent stuff out there. On principle I cannot in good conscience discuss AKB48 anymore, so let’s just say that whether or not you believe that good music can stand on its own, far apart from its commercial, or more prurient interests, AKB always manages to get in those one or two songs that surprise you: if among the deluge of choices on their new album Koko ga Rhodes de, Koko de Tobe! (with all editions packing thirty-eight songs) you can’t find at least two songs that make you hesitant to dismiss the music completely, maybe J-pop is not the genre for you.

We had fantastic albums from Negicco and Luna Haruna and an okay album from Avex idols X21, and more of the same from Johnny’s groups like Hey! Say! JUMP (again, again there’s usually at least one song I can sink my teeth into, and so it is with JUMPing car‘s “Boys Don’t Stop”). I’m not sure if Shoujo X is commendable just because X21 is an Avex group and I’m now so deeply invested that to reject outright any of their output without giving it an honest try is so repugnant that is sends me into lonely spirals of repeat listens, but it’s a group that I’ll be monitoring in the future.

PASSPO☆’s Beef or Chicken? has had the most repeat value for me this year, an album that I keep playing over and over because of how fun it is. The promo “Honey Dish” is the album’s highlight, lending it the vintage-y pop style the album was going for, without abandoning the group’s hard rock style or falling into the Meghan Trainer trap of cloying, wince-inducing brass as Yuma Nakayama’s “YOLO moment” — I genuinely like this guy and think he has potential as a soloist, but the YOLO reference feels dated and the 50’s soda shop-pop doesn’t feel fresh enough to be a classic, rather then just a hopeful, throwback. I’m on board for rolled up jean cuffs and ties under varsity jackets, but only if the angle is more than just earnest heartthrob: am I the only one who feels this is really more of an homage to the 80’s-referencing-the-50’s? It just screams 80’s teen flicks more than 50’s surf movies. I guess I just want to like the guy more than I do and will scale back my ire when it’s so hard to find good male solo artists.

And finally, here are some interesting newcomers to keep an eye out for: Maria’s “HURRICANE” is an adorable slice of “chame-rock” (playful/mischievous rock). I understand that after the perceived success of BABYMETAL et al., there’s a push for more rock/metal idols but even more hyper-specific, with just-that-little-bit-different angle, but this one seems a little more Blue Hearts than so many of the heavy metal idols coming out. Everyone’s Ramones bangs are a great backdrop for the song (a cover of Chanels/Rats & Star), even when the backpacks look like a pain to dance in. Cupitron and callme are both going for Perfume tributes here — callme even has the unoriginal primary colored square mod dresses going for them — but they’re both worth keeping an eye on. callme are Avex (yeah, there’s that) and are composed of former Dorothy Little Happy members. Cupitron’s outfits were designed by Tomoe Shinohara, which is enough to pique my interest. Ayumikurikamaki: This is just fun.

Special mentions

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Shout outs to the following fun records:

Hanae’s Jokyo Shoko
uchuu,’s HELLO, HELLO, HELLO, (token J-rock)
E-girls’ E.G. TIME
Sakurako Ohara’s HAPPY

For more great music I haven’t featured here, please browse the Notable Releases tag over at tumblr.

On the horizon

Here are a few things I’m looking forward to in the rest of 2015: Girls’ Generation’s new album (sometime in July?), more singles from TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE (an album might not be imminent this year, but I guess anything’s possible), more stuff from Tomomi Itano (whose “Gimme Gimme Luv” will be a great summer single), Ayumi Hamasaki’s mini-album (August), CL’s debut (I don’t think this will necessarily make her a huge overseas contender, but I’m criminally curious what this will look and sound like), anything more that will or will not happen with f(x) this year, and finally, an honest to goodness fun Bollywood soundtrack, which has been seriously lacking this year.

Ai Otsuka’s “LOVE TRiCKY”

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Ai Otsuka / LOVE TRiCKY / April 22, 2015

What does it take to make a successful comeback? According to Avex Trax, it’s a mix of collaborations and dance music. In the late 00’s, Namie Amuro’s hip-hop style tapered off until reaching the electronic zenith of 2013’s FEEL (not necessarily a big change, rather than a step back to the type of music the superstar debuted with). Last year, Ayumi Hamasaki collaborated with a whole roster of international dance producers after a slew of unsuccessful albums that were poorly received by both critics and fans. hitomi’s last few albums, Ami Suzuki’s DOLCE and Supreme Show…Avex practically has an emergency roster of producers behind glass, ready and waiting to assist. But whether they’ve been “successful” or not is, in fact, a tougher question of audience reception versus actual sales numbers.

Because there are no fresh faces in J-pop primed to take over (let’s pause for a chuckle over those few naive years we thought Meisa Kuroki was maybe, possibly, could have…nope), our perennial pop stars continue to fight for relevance, some bitterly, some gamely. Ai Otsuka would never be the artist anyone would associate with dance music: since a young age, Otsuka has composed and produced her own music, some fluffy pop songs, others more acoustic, all the while known for her adorably tender ballads usually accompanied by soaring piano chords. However, even in last year’s LOVE FANTASTIC, a slightly more evolving sound could be heard emerging. Unfortunately, while musically it was a solid, albeit not extraordinary, album, it only debuted at #22 on the Oricon chart, and fell rapidly from there. This year’s LOVE TRiCKY makes no compunction about its scramble for victory. Veteran Avex Trax producer, Abe Noboru, known as STUDIO APARTMENT, was brought in to produce the album, and his style is both obvious, and critical, to what has made this album such a triumph.

Standout tracks “laugh” and “affair” drive home the album’s thesis: the former a fantasy-destination, propulsive EDM number, the latter the kind of song that would have been less than compelling, but in the hands of Noboru becomes a haunting, almost violent song, coaxing Otsuka into actual wails. While her vocals may not always be up for the task before her, there’s something provocative about these songs: it’s not the themes of love we’re used to hearing Otsuka explore, as if this album is her mature understanding of how complicated and sticky the word can get when we open ourselves to temptations and succumb to cravings. Yet it’s manic and lusty without being  rapacious. The “old” Ai Otsuka isn’t so much dead and gone, as living vicariously through her riskier avatar. Delicate tracks are still present (“summer lovely days,” “reach for the moon”), but function more as afterthoughts.

Whether or not LOVE TRiCKY is a permanent musical change, or just an exercise in reaching out to a new audience and reconnecting with fans who had grown up and went astray (hint: the album only debuted this week at #24), the album is an accomplishment: an accomplishment for pop music, for dance music, and for Ai Otsuka. Avex Trax might have a formula to address their artists’ panic, but it can work. History shows that others haven’t always followed up — Ami Suzuki, hitomi, and  recently Ayumi Hamaski’s careful and deliberate switch back to a familiar style on A ONE. Regardless, these collaborations, like LOVE TRiCKY, are audacious, beautiful achievements, even in the short term, even just for the length it takes for the CD to play from start to finish.

Top Ten Albums of 2014

apptop1010. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: PIKAPIKA Fantajin

I’m under the impression that this is not the best Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has to offer; depending on who you ask that would be her debut Moshi Moshi Harajuku or Nanda Collection and let’s just say I didn’t care for Nanda Collection. Kyary can sometimes be a mixed bag of sounds, but we can aways expect producer Yasutaka Nakata to sprinkle her songs with child-like xylophones, even when her latest conceit is turning 20 and becoming an adult. Kyary represents the child in all of her fans, even when she’s clearly moving forward in “Yume no Hajima Ring Ring,” – only three albums old, and she can’t help nostalgically looking back before moving on. There’s beauty in that kind of hesitation, a gentle reminder that who we are comes directly from who we were. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu was and, until he takes someone else under his wing, always will be Nakata’s most divisive project, the kind you’re either upset to see occasionally sprouting in his other work like ugly weeds or happy to find expanding like interesting fauna.

apptop909. 2NE1: Crush

Too little, too late? Well maybe, but you almost can’t help but continue to love any project CL is attached to. For a while the promises of an American takeover derailed the group to the point of obscurity, releasing half-hearted singles like the Instagram filtered “Do You Love Me?” I certainly don’t think 2NE1 will ever surpass the highs they reached with 2011’s “Naega Jeil Jal Naga” (think about how it’s still hitting the shores of the West in commercials as if it’s brand-new while the rest of us yawn and try not let the hangover dilute its magic). Still 2NE1 tried their best with this one, and there are still remnants of what made the group a trailblazer: CL’s “Menbung” solo, for one, a song produced almost exclusively to be played loudly in a car with the windows rolled down. The one glaring omission is “I Love You,” replaced by a Korean version of Japanese single “SCREAM.” Even though 2NE1 was left behind in the great K-pop races, it’s nice to see them still soldiering on, despite how much it seems their hearts are no longer in it.

apptop808. Tomohisa Yamashita: Asobi

Yamapi is famous for his dual career aspirations: forever chained to focusing on the Johnny’s pop music that won over his diehard group of fans, he’s consistently dabbling in dance music, particularly in the songs he composes on his own: is Asobi Yamashita’s reward for playing by the rules? A bit of indulgence in a passion that satisfies him musically so he will continue to put out albums like YOU? While I think YOU isn’t necessarily a terrible album, it is safe, a lot more safe that his collaboration with house producers Shinichi Osawa and Yasutaka Nakata. Asobi is the perfect antidote for fans who prefer songs like “Hit the Wall” and “Turn Off the Lights” to “Daite SENIORITA,” and as a dance album, it holds its own against the EDM-heavy banquet that Top 40 still feasts on, years after the genre hit its mainstream peak.

apptop707. Ai Otsuka: LOVE FANTASTIC

As the Oricon charts become increasingly irrelevant, their reflection of both the everyday musical tastes of the common Japanese person, and the quality of music remain at odds. And though Avex Trax had an incredible year, they seem to have less luck with their roster of seasoned professionals than they do with newcomers and girl groups (often the same thing). LOVE FANTASTIC is not the best album Ai Otsuka has come up with, but it it the most complete. It illustrates the warmth and grace she brings to love songs (“Gomen ne.,” “Mawari Mawaru Mawareba Mawaro”) and the fun she has with upbeat pop/rock numbers that sound like indie circuit-approved staples (“LUCKY☆STAR” and “9”). She may not have had the sales numbers, but Ai Otsuka can still have it both ways when albums come packaged in such understated elegance.

apptop606. TaeTiSeo: Holler

TaeTiSeo is Girls’ Generation’s vocal powerhouse subunit, consisting of three of the group’s strongest singers: Taeyeon, Tiffany, and Seohyun. In their second mini album, they have ample room to show off their technical skills and range, though lead single “Holler” sometimes veers a little too close to K-pop’s fascination with endlessly recreating Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” My vote for favorite track goes to “Adrenaline,” a song whose drums double down with each escalating vocal track, truly capturing the thrill and excitement inherent with encountering a crush. Holler is a far step up from the poppy Twinkle, a showcase to SM Entertainment’s progress in action.

apptop505. f(x): Red Light

No, it’s not Pink Tape, but SM Entertainment’s answer to one of the best pop albums of all time was more of the same, with surprisingly efficient results. I can understand how some might see Red Light, and K-pop in general, too clinical, with too much emphasis on production, order, and reliability, but I believe that is K-pop at its best. And Red Light has plenty to offer in terms of novelty: rare instrumentation, deliciously catchy choruses, and the right vocalist for every line, utilized for maximum synergy. Read more about this album here.

apptop404. Michiru Hoshino: E・I・E・N Voyage

There’s no shortage of idol groups reaching back into the Golden Age of Idols to resurrect the nostalgia and vivacity of an era that still marked the beginning of a brilliant future rather than the beginning of the end. Ever since idols and idol groups made a comeback in the 00’s after the 90s’ “artist” boom, it only made sense that producers and composers would look backward to see what worked. Mostly, that seems to be cute girls in mid-century fashion, back when we could still glamorize airplanes and stewardesses, those ever beautiful, slim, neatly pressed, highly-coiffed women who existed solely to bring us an extra pillow and refill our whiskey. There’s no shortage of this motif, from Girls’ Generation’s second album, to Vanilla Beans, to the group PASSPO☆ that banks its entire existence upon the concept. This goes hand in hand with the reemergence of shibuya-kei, which largely lagged behind when Perfume came along, now quickly catching up to help struggling idols like Negicco. So it makes sense that former AKB48 member Michiru Hoshino would embrace the concept as well, tackling the shibuya-kei aesthetic for her solo career. The album E・I・E・N Voyage is largely successful, for what it lacks in famous brands like Konishi Yasuharu or Yasutaka Nakata, it makes up for in pinning the atmosphere down to a science. You couldn’t hear greater horns or steel drums on an authentic bossa nova compilation, while the sparse production, sounding largely like it was made out of Hoshino’s bedroom on a budget computer program, adds the modern, 21st century touch (I’m thinking paricularly of “Hanshite…” or “Seikan Renraku-sen ~Night Voyage~.”). In that way, this isn’t shibuya-kei in the sense of nostalgia or a blatant recreation of 60’s jet set pastiche, but in the sense of aligning herself outside of the mainstream idol scene as if getting as far away from her recent past as possible. Many other idols would do well to follow this example, not because the mainstream is horrible, but because it really is just different, slower, anti-AKB pop music that reminds you, for a moment, what it was like when possibilities were more abundant than the number of girls in your super group. Natsukashiii~.

apptop303. YUKI: FLY

Having never been a YUKI fan, I was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected wonder of her seventh studio album. FLY is for the YUKI fans who loved the single “JOY” and wondered where the rest of the songs from that recording session ended up. The first few tracks of the album are light dance-pop at their most simple and effective, with the middle portion are reserved for more standard YUKI tracks with rock and jazzy influences. Unfortunately, the album isn’t given any space to breathe, and so is forced to take on more than it can handle: everything after around track ten might as well not exist, bringing the album’s momentum to a jarring stop in order to re-live the early 00’s worst production sin: just because you can fit up to 80 minutes of music on a CD doesn’t mean you have to.

apptop202. Far East Mention Mannequins (FEMM): Femm-Isation

Far East Mention Mannequins are not from this planet. We’re not exactly sure which planet in which galaxy would have the proper elements to nurture the lives of mannequins but astrophysicists are presumably working on it. Until then, we should just be glad they’ve managed to travel all the way out here and manage to assemble such a talented team of visionaries including LiKi inc., HIDALI, GM Atelier, maximum 10, EPOCH, OKNACK Films, and Avex Trax. While so many J-pop groups in the last half decade are cookie cutter girl and boy groups with little to offer outside of the usual, FEMM is one of the few innovative, truly experimental groups outside of the indie scene (technically Avex Trax is an indepenent label, but their business practices make them all but major label in theory): not only did they eschew physical CD sales to shack up with YouTube (a union that would make every other Japanese major label queasy just to consider), releasing singles in full, each accompanied by bright, splashy music videos that challenge the alliance between movement and music, fashion and the human body. Though I’m not sure how comfortable I am with women essentially posing as living dolls, with all the inevitable objectifying that comes with it, and the novelty of the genre — largely eletcro-pop with a heavy, trendy EDM influence — wears off, it doesn’t diminish how much it stands out from other popular Japanese music in the mainstream. Maybe like Lady Gaga, it’s not about how most of the music is just Euro-fluff the Swedes have been doing for decades, but about how we challenge norms (“Fxxk Boyz Get Money“), question the quotidian and illustrate how little you have to stretch to stand out when every other #1 Oricon single is an Arashi song. It helps if you’re meme-ready. By 2014 we were all dying to buy into the narrative of a pair of beautiful mannequins even if they could never take us home to their leader.

apptop101. Jolin Tsai: Play

Up until this point, the closest Jolin Tsai has come to impressing me with an entire album was 2012’s MUSE, which unfortunately  contained one too many fillers that weakened the glue that made so much of the album’s wink-wink pop pretensions so fun. Without necessarily being able to articulate why, Play, which boasts equal number of ballads as it does dance-pop, feels like an almost perfect approximation of pop in 2014. First, there’s the delightful music video, one of my favorite of the year. While many of Tsai’s videos focus on magnifying pop trends to the point of satire, “Play” focuses on critiquing the image each one of us projects to the world: regardless of whether you’re a pop princess, a rich snob, or a frugal hipster, we’re all subconsciously competing for the scarce resources of attention, and the ultimate self-congratulations of surpassing our peers. Except, that is, for Jolin, who rises above it all, the incomparable, original superstar who can poke fun at herself and her career without missing a dance step. From the album’s cover art and packaging, to the ballads on the album, everything is big and everything is about how we present and look at women as objects, clothes hangers, lovers, and even, as actual people. Only skimming the surface would give the impression that Tsai is a lot more dense than she lets on, merely a puppet to be paraded about in couture. In response, Tsai collaborates with #1 Japanese diva Namie Amuro to say, “I don’t need you anymore / I’m not your girl.” Not to mention the truth bombs she drops all over “Play” and the graceful self-preservation of “Zi Ai Zi Shou“: “My moments of sweet happiness and lonely sadness are not someone else’s novel / Concerning the matter of my most private life, please do not listen to hearsay.” There’s also heartbreaking comfort in the album’s closer, “Bu Yiyang You Zenme Yang,” a tribute to the beauty, surrender, and courage of falling in love. This is an album concerned with more than just the surface, rewarding the effort it takes to unwrap and understand what lies beneath what only appears to be another pop star bending to the power of pornographic imagery to sell albums.

Honorable mentions under the cut. Continue reading

Ai ♥ Otsuka and the fantastic fall of the Oricon charts

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Every month some new article pops up about the fall of Ayumi Hamasaki, often in terms of CD sales according to the Oricon. Sometimes it’s about Namie Amuro. Or Kumi Koda. They all end the same way: your favorite thing is no longer a thing. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to talk about a J-pop artist’s diminishing sales because a) CD sales are rapidly declining every year, especially since the early 00’s and b) most of the titans we talk about when we talk about “diminishing sales” have been around since just before the CD industry collapsed. Therefore, while the number of years an artist has been around and the decreasing number of sales might be correlated, we can’t really know just how deep the Oricon sales dip might be if it weren’t for digital sales and/or people no longer paying for music in general. Here’s a chart of what Ayumi Hamasaki’s CD sales have looked like since A Song for XX up until Colours (as of today’s date).*

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This might look familiar to you because basically every J-pop diva’s chart looks exactly the same.

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(You might also mistake these charts for that of Japan’s annual inflation rate.)

Rather than say an artist is losing popularity, it might be wiser today to notice, for example, how popular Japanese recording artists all seem to follow the same trajectory: building up to an explosive album sale only to rapidly lose selling power. Instead of assuming sales are a reflection of the artists or the musical content itself, it’s safer to state a host of other hackneyed platitudes: that the general public is fickle, that fame is fleeting, and that selling music today is a Herculean task for only the bravest of record labels. Or more certainly, that the Oricon chart is meaningless, telling you neither who is buying albums nor why, that digital sales are better markers, or even that selling music is less important than selling concert tickets, merchandise, or providing opportunities for an artist to sponsor other products.

aiotsukalovefancovappNowhere is this more obvious than in some of the music that’s contained on these incredibly low-selling albums. My personal vote for most underrated album of the year is already Ai Otsuka’s LOVE FANTASTIC, which as of this writing, debuted at #22, slipped to #113, and has only sold a total of 5,188 units in its first two weeks (the vast majority of sales occurred the first week — the second only yielded 770 units). These are scary numbers for an album that is a quintessential example of J-pop done right, including Otsuka’s lush signature ballads (“Gomen ne,” “Mawari Mawaru Mawareba Mawaro”) and quirky upbeat numbers (title tracks “LOVE FANTASTIC” and, especially, “LUCKY☆STAR,” which sounds like a hip indie band’s debut single). In fact, this is one of the most cohesive albums Otsuka has ever released, and certainly one of my favorites overall, down to the jacket art (let’s not pretend LOVE JAM isn’t just some outrageous garbage).

But perhaps the “love” gimmick is just getting too hard for anyone to buy into anymore. Perhaps not releasing an album for six years has caused the public to forget who exactly this talented musician is — and perhaps Avex staying busy promoting Namie Amuro’s BALLADA has left them with little time, or incentive, to give the album the extra push it needed. Releasing any album ever, anywhere, anymore is always going to be like starting over, like forgetting all the past numbers, like forgetting numbers altogether, and simply making music that can hold its head up with grace while the charts crumble.

*(All statistics have been gathered from generasia.com/wiki. Please note that although the graphics appear to reach extreme lows, none of the numbers reach zero, as it might appear to — it’s just hard to illustrate drops to the low thousands on a scale with such large numbers).

All you need is Ai: “Is” PV

Ai Otsuka’s given name means love and she has never ceased to remind us this on every album she has released: LOVE PUNCH, LOVE JAM, LOVE COOK, LOVE PiECE, LOVE LETTERHer first greatest hits collection was entitled Ai am BEST, and her new collection, to be released November 11, is exactly the same: LOVE is BEST. It’s a tad more inclusive, ditching the “clever” wordplay for a more straightforward, in your face, in case you didn’t quite catch it the first time summary of everything Ai Otsuka writes and sings about. But everything in her world isn’t just filtered through the permutations, challenges, setbacks, and joys of love, it is love; “Is” being the key word. And I mean everything.

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Oh no, I’m horrible! I like a bit of dignity in my Jpop!

Note: I originally posted this as a response to a comment I received today on an article I wrote well over a year ago, on February 10, 2006. However, it ended up being quite long and I think it has a lot of interesting data relating marketing image and sales for the top-selling Japanese female pop artists and would be well worth posting here as an editorial, regardless of the fact that it doesn’t come equipped with any freebie music files.

Note II: During the wipe-out of ’07, all comments and discussions were erased, alongside the follow-up and second-part I had written to this. I have absolutely zero desire to revisit this debate and will simply leave this as is.

First of all, I appreciate you commenting on this entry in a coherent and grammatically correct manner, which makes your argument easy to read and legitimate. I respect your opinion and the dignity and poise with which you conveyed it (unlike the dude before you, whom I’m not sure has reached Conversational English in his textbook yet).

Second of all, to repeat something I wrote earlier: It’s worth noting that I find most opinions have a six to ten month expiration date before they need to be updated. Therefore, commenting on something I wrote almost one year ago is like assuming I am still drinking from the same milk carton I bought several months ago.

In other words, you have to understand I wrote this rant at a time when Ayumi had released the “my name’s WOMEN” promotional video followed by this, the “Startin’” PV, within a year. At the time, I was speculating on where Ayumi’s career was headed. Also, no one had yet foreseen her move back to friendly and PG-rated videos like “BLUE BIRD” and “JEWEL.” I still stand by my opinion that at that time, Ayumi had begun exploiting her sexuality as female musicians like Kumi Koda and Namie Amuro began following Western trends of exploiting their femininity as if to say, “I’m a liberated female who can dress as little and as sexy as I want and not be called a slut because it’s what I choose,” which, in my opinion, can be a misguided intent that can breed negative repercussions (I’m old-school feminist like that).

While I agree that “my name’s WOMEN” was not the focus of that particular single, it was significant enough to release a PV after an album had already contained the song. And in this case, I have to disagree; in this video, Ayumi was selling herself as a sexual object. And it worked. Sales records show her previous two singles, CAROLS and INSPIRE c/w GAME sold 340,000 and 329,145 units respectively. In 2005, STEP you/is this LOVE?, which contained the “my name’s WOMEN” promotional video, sold 401,000, and was actually her best selling single since 2003’s No way to say single. Sure, internet downloading may have something to do with it. Or a PV where Ayumi struts around with a whip and dances suggestively in a male strip club could have something to do with it.

I also agree that Ayumi does have a message in her lyrics. “my name’s WOMEN” does have some female empowering lyrics throughout the entire song, including “We are not just dress-up dolls,” and my favorite, “We are not such simple creatures, remember that.” So my question is, why turn this music video into a dancing S&M romp? It is completely unnecessary and she could have gone with an entirely different route to express the words in these songs much better (“Real me,” which also contained an empowering message for females, took place on a space ship with non-suggestive dance moves and modest attire…come to think of it, did this PV have anything to do with the lyrics?). But Ayumi, as she herself has said, is a product and she understands she has to market herself to compete with sales figures of artists who are beginning to take over her almost ten year reign as Queen of Jpop. So she shows a little skin. And then in “Startin’” she added some new dance moves, none of which, as far as I can tell, had much to do with the lyrics or gave some sort of message, unless she mentioned dancing provocatively in chaps somewhere in the song that I missed. Little was I to know that Ayumi had even more to say she as swung her way around a strip pole in 2006’s “1LOVE.”

This was, for all purposes, an opinion piece; in 2005, I was speculating on the reasons Ayumi was beginning to change her image from a fresh-faced, cutesy teen idol into a woman who can do a pretty good imitation of Britney Spears. Compare her “SURREAL” PV or “SEASONS” PV or “Boys & Girls” PV or any PV before 2005 to any of her PVs after 2005, and there is a huge difference; all which has to do with sexuality and expressing that sexuality in a stereotypically modern female fashion; you have never seen Kinki Kids or SMAP have to resort to the things Ayumi has had to do, ironic considering what she is trying to say throughout songs like “my name’s WOMEN” (although you have seen Gerard Way and Bert McCracken making out, but boys, you are not fooling me).

And finally, being an opinion piece, I was obviously expressing a huge one that I personally hold; that women do not need to resort to air humping or whip cracking to be sexy, beautiful, driven, aggressive, talented and successful entertainers. Unfortunately, this being the ’00s, most of the general public will disagree with me. Why? Western media being broadcast around the world has already desensitized most viewers to react to women acting in an overt sexual manner as normal. Most people don’t see a problem with Ayumi shaking her hips in “Startin’” because they’ve seen Christina Aguilera half-naked on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and rap videos where women wear barely-there shorts and halter tops, with their breasts hanging out, grinding against any (and many) number of men. Compared to that, sure, Ayumi looks downright chaste. However, in my article, I didn’t mention any of these things because I was attempting to display and focus solely on Ayumi’s progression through music videos. As I mentioned, she had already appeared naked on the cover of 2002’s RAINBOW and barely covered in leaves that same year on I am… but there was absolutely nothing sexual about these images in the way having people rub her breasts in “Startin’” was.

The reason I wrote this article was because I was obviously disappointed in the direction I thought Ayumi was headed in 2006, especially when what initially attracted Ayumi to me, besides the music and lyrics which came first, was the fact that she was at her most popular in jeans and a T-shirt, literally, as many witnessed in her encore of the DOME TOUR 2001 concert. It’s no doubt that Ayumi’s popularity has begun to wan, and it’s interesting that this side of her should come out at this time. Do I still listen to and enjoy her music? Yes. Do I still think she is one of the most creative, driven, beautiful, talented and self-made entertainers in the Japanese music industry? Absolutely. Do I think her wearing chaps and grinding the air is artistic? No, I really don’t, and I can’t see how art can be found in that in the same way that my brain tells me that the next step is a Puff Daddy video and there is zero art involved in that. This is my opinion. But I’m sure the marketers think it’s great peple love this, that it’s wonderful that so many male fans think she looks sexy and gorgeous while just as many women feel they have to resort to moves like that to be popular and have men find them sexy and attractive. Because it’s what sells. That’s what’s wrong.

I’m not going to stop calling myself an Ayu fan just because you say I shouldn’t in the same way I wrote this rant and don’t expect anyone reading to agree (although I’m finding it ridiculous that this is the post I have the most complaints and disagreements with). The only kind of person that makes a bad fan is somebody who never stands back and questions why they like what they like and if they are truly buying a product or a CD or watching a show or a movie and enjoying it because they want to, or because it’s being cleverly marketed towards them, or worse, because everything else the artist has done has been great, so they are, therefore, incapable of putting out crap. So what if Bob Dylan was phenomenal in the 60s, nobody was going to let him get away with those crap albums he put out in the 80s, and to give them high ratings just because his previous work was so great would be absurd; he might never have learned from his mistakes and put out Love & Theft and 2006’s Modern Times, his first #1 album since ‘76. Sure, we want to support artists in their not-so-great periods, but patting them on the back for their lackluster efforts is akin to stabbing them in the back.

Your argument that I shouldn’t call myself a fan is the same half-witted argument that says people who don’t like something about America should leave the country. If you can’t critique and find fault, how can you improve and become better and fix what’s wrong? You can’t. And then you find that despite all the shimmying and juking, instead of focusing on developing the sound and cohesion of the music, your latest album Secret still only sold 804,000 units, and while sure, breast-baring Kumi’s 2006 Black Cherry sold 994,130, artists who never went the sexual route like Hikaru Utada, sold 906,202 units of 2006’s ULTRA BLUE and Ai Otsuka’s 2005 LOVE COOK sold 835,333 units. On the other hand, Namie Amuro struts her stuff in choreographed routines all the time wearing skimpy skirts, short-shorts and in her latest PV, a whip and tight leather. Her latest album, 2005’s Queen of Hip-Hop? 475,600 units. Interesting.

Ai Otsuka’s “Ai am BEST”

Ai Otsuka / Ai am BEST / March 28, 2007
♫ 01. Momo no Hanabira / 08. Cherish
11. Neko ni Fuusen

When Ai Otsuka first crawled into the world of Japanese pop music in 2003 with the release of her debut single “Momo no Hanabira,” many critics immediately hailed her as the next queen of pop, or well, princess, at least. With her cutesy image, innocent lyrics and what many had seen as an opening spot between the recent sale plummets of Ayumi Hamasaki’s records and Hikaru Utada’s short-lived respite into the world of American non-break through, Otsuka seemed the ideal candidate to steal the spotlight. However, while she failed to amass the insta-sensational status of artists like Hamasaki or Utada, she still managed to gain quite a phenomenal following with the release of her eighth single and second album, both her first releases to rank #1 on the Oricon charts.

Otsuka’s discography ranges from quirky kid-pop songs like “PONPON” to serene and almost heart-crushing love ballads like “PLANETARIUM.” After the release of her third album, LOVE COOK it was clear that Otsuka’s bubbly personality and talent for musical composition were the basis of her popularity, at which point, it was time to release the dreaded “best collection.” As Otsuka’s first compilation, it’s actually a rather poor representation of her work, with mostly singles and a huge dollop of ballads. The collection starts off with some of her more tamed-down pop numbers like “Momo no Hanabira” and “Happy Days” before abruptly switching gears and deluding the disc with her most famous ballads, “Kingyou Hanabi,” “Daisuki da yo,” (a sugary sweet love song) and “Cherish.” Instead of adding any of her really upbeat, sometimes rockish influences, the compilation plays it safe by sticking to songs like “Biidama,” failing to show an aspect of Otsuka’s career that she relies heavily on: the almost neauseatingly hyper-sweet. Otsuka’s vocals, are, as always, high-pitched, annoying, and seldom evolve anywhere on the disc. Probably the only props the album gets is for its optional DVD combo, which features all of the accompanying promotional videos.

While this is a great introduction to some of Otsuka’s best songs (both “Neko ni Fuusen” and “PLANETARIUM” are on the disc), its basic fault is that which each best collection must demurely embrace: it’s a singles collection, thus leaving out plenty of Otsuka’s better album songs and b-sides (”Natsu Sora,” “Sensu,” etc.). Particularly noticeable is the lack of tracks from her latest releases (”Frienger,” “Renai Shashin,” and “CHU-LIP,” her last three singles) which fail to make an appearance entirely, all which could have easily fit on the sparse thirteen track compilation (not counting the hidden tracks). This is probably best for hardcore fans looking to own said hidden tracks on disc, or for those who haven’t had the opportunity to buy her last three albums. In the end, it’s quite disappointing for a best collection, but then again, when are they ever not?

Official Site
Buy Ai am BEST

Wrapping up the summer J releases

BoA / KEY OF HEART / August 08, 2006
01. KEY OF HEART

BoA shouldn’t need an introduction so I’ll keep this one brief and in helpful snippets. Mega-huge Korean pop star who churns out albums at alarming speeds. Criss crosses between singing in Korean and Japanese, as has also gained huge popularity in Japan. Also sings in Chinese (Mandarin? Cantonese? I stupie and not know) and English. Released new single for the summer, KEY OF HEART.

Infused with summer flavor, the synth spectacle of the title track edges in during the last weeks of summer, barely scrimping on the deadline. With the recent influx of hippy poppy dancey synthy numbers released in the world of Jpop for the past three months, I’m losing my tolerance. I’m all popped out. After changing my mind and deciding AFI’s CD was pretty much a victory lap for Sing the Sorrow, and already overplaying the best on Kill Hannah’s latest, I ask myself…where did the rock go? I’m totally sidetracking, but thank God Dir en grey released Ryoujoku no Ame before I commited metal suicide. Or nu metal suicide. Or visual kei, or whatever the kiddies are calling them now. What I’m trying to say is, I wasn’t expecting rock or anything near it from BoA. But I can say, thank you but this is totally useless considering Ayumi Hamasaki, Morning Musume, and Koda Kumi have already released their summer singles. Among the three dozen or so others.

Ai Otsuka / Yumekui / August 02, 2006
01. Yumekui

Last year, I remember being thrilled with Japan’s summer releases. Namie Amuro’s Queen of Hip-Pop nestled in among Ai Otsuka’s Natsu Sora, Hamasaki’s fairyland, and Zwei’s Dragon. I was actually sad to see the summer go; now I’m pushing it out the door. After being nothing but disappointed by Otsuka’s last release in the Spring, I was hoping to be amazed by some sort of abrupt turnaround this summer. Instead, I got Yumekui which is what Aerosmith is to their last two albums. I’m at a loss for words and seldom does this occur unless I am dealing with complete crap (see: the last review I did of F.I.R.’s Flight Tribe which is more a brief history and final statements than an actual review).

Nami Tamaki / Speciality / July 12, 2006
02. Result / 07. No Way Back / 11. MY WAY

On that note, I planned on writing a separate feature review of Nami Tamaki’s new album Speciality, but than I actually heard it and realized I would have absolutely nothing to write about. Mostly because I think I worded myself out nicely six years ago when Two-Mix already released all of Tamaki’s CDs, except with less guitar and catchier. The songs “No Way Back” and “Reach for the Rainbow” are the only songs I could find relief in, but using “Ready Steady Go!” to conclude just broke my heart because what sort of moron decides to leave a lasting impression on the listener with a song that doesn’t sound anything like the rest of the album…in a bad way? I used to be of the persuasion that believed that the beginning and middle of the CDs were the only parts that really counted. But now that I’m not seven years old anymore and used to rewinding side A of a tape, I’m pretty sure that all parts of a CD matter. See, Nelly Furtado could get away with topping Loose with some extra filler songs because a) the good songs weren’t just good, they were phenomenal, b) it started out with a strong track and ended with a strong track (these things leave impressions), and c) the fillers were interspersed among the album and not just in one place, so they were just sort of that one song before the next three good ones.

Dir en grey / Ryoujoku no Ame / July 26, 2006
01. Ryoujoku no Ame

Finally, I already mentioned Dir en grey, but I’d just like to extol some more to wrap it up. I was going to do a separate review of the single, too, but there’s basically only one song on it and it’s hard to review just one song for two paragraphs unless it’s absolutely the greatest thing since “Come Together.” And it’s not. Buuut…I do like it. A lot. It’s got melody and drive and hey, it’s Dir en grey (I’m not one for bands resting on the success of their past, but I’m biased; they’re like my dysfunctional younger brothers who wear makeup and love to spit blood on stage and who wouldn’t be proud of that?). Plus, Dir en grey went on the Family Values Tour and so I should congratulate them on that. However, the other three tracks on the single were all live recordings of previous released songs. We can do better than that.

Perfume / Perfume ~Complete Best~ / August 02, 2006
09. FOUNDATION

Other worthy mentions this summer? Perfume released a best of collection, aka, a single collection. If we’re going dance-pop/techno, this is of what I want to see more. “FOUNDATION” and “COMPUTER CITY” actually make me feel happy. This is rare. Even more than rare, I thought it was an extinct emotion I could only recall memories with by listening to “Hey Jude” or “Hot Stuff.” See, Perfume is a good example of not only the quality of Japanese indie groups, but an overall Jpop DO. Arashi’s ARASHIC is an example of a Jpop DON’T. See how that works? Let’s try that again. HINOI TEAM’s Now and Forever: Jpop DO. Mai Kuraki’s DIAMOND WAVE: Jpop DON’T. All together now.

There are still a few summer releases I have yet to formally review, but those will be wrapped up in the next week or two. And then I can finally, gleefully, bid summer adieu.

BoA Official Site / Buy KEY OF HEART
Ai Otsuka Official Site / Buy Yumekui
Nami Tamaki Official Site / Buy Speciality
Dir en grey Official Site / Buy Ryoujoku no Ame
Perfume Official Site / Buy Perfume ~Complete Best~