Top 10 East Asian pop/rock albums of 2018

With labels scrambling to debut as many rookies as possible to distract fans from recent scandals, lawsuits, and the ever-shrinking pool of legacy groups from which to draw, it’s been nearly impossible to keep up with the mostly mediocre or one-off mini-albums K-pop released this year. While this practice isn’t anything new, it does make it harder to enjoy a genre whose days of tent-pole hits with the power to unite eyes and ears nationwide has passed. However, these lowered standards (followed by lowered expectations) makes it easier to spot the masterpieces and the true stars who have stuck around, not because sacrificing a giant chunk of their life to the entertainment industry has left them with so few other options, but because of a passion and talent that won’t be swayed by the setbacks of Plan A. Since we outside the industry might never know which are the latter and which are the former, we can only sit back and patiently wait to see how business-as-usual versus genuine enthusiasm separates the herd.

A similar ennui permeates J-pop, which swam in its own self-referential muck this year, drawing on numerous tactics that worked in the past while only occasionally breathing anything fresh and new into the mix that didn’t reek of pandering. Meanwhile, we all stood back and watched as the mighty idol oaks began toppling one by one, from GEM, to X21, to PASSPO, a dizzying domino effect that revealed the same systemic cracks as in K-pop’s foundation. Perhaps it is because of this uncertain climate that suddenly the familiar feels good, a reassuring grip to hang onto until the genre realizes it can’t keep running on marbles. And when done with passion, sometimes you can still catch a frisson of that ol’ J-pop feeling, coursing softer, but no less mighty and proud.

Here are ten of those mighty albums and mini-albums, in no particular order, released in 2018, that prove K-pop and J-pop aren’t dead, that despite their diminishing influence as a powerhouse, a New Sweden, or a cure for the Billboard Hot 100, it still has much to offer if we are patient enough to receive.

JONGHYUN: Poet | Artist
More appalling revelations have surfaced in the K-pop industry recently, but none so tragic as the death of Jong Hyun, principal vocalist for one of SM’s most popular boybands, SHINee. Jong Hyun, who was found dead of an apparent suicide in his apartment in December of 2017, was mourned by both fans and industry insiders, the latter who didn’t express surprise so much as grief-stricken resignation. While the exact details of the situation will never be known, it is obvious from his absolutely heartbreaking suicide letter that Jong Hyun was under an immense amount of pressure and in an enormous amount of pain, which was dismissed by both personal acquaintances and professional help. But rather then risk misinterpreting the letter, it is simply important to note, again and more than ever before, that for a star of any kind, fame and celebrity can often be a contributing factor to, not an escape from, mental health issues. It would be unfair to imply Jong Hyun found relief in music or even enjoyed it very much at the end, as good as that would make the rest of us feel – maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Yet that doesn’t make his last solo album Poet | Artist, any less of a tribute to and record of his last months. Filled with soaring pop/R&B gems, the album is both testament to K-pop’s enduring ability to fight back against cookie-cutter accusations and lack of emotion, and proof to anyone who would deny that Jong Hyun worked hard. He really did work hard. They all work so hard.

EXO: COUNTDOWN
Every year, I can count on SM Entertainment to release an album driven purely by the heady excesses of dance-pop. With no agenda to inform or break new ground, than to revel in This Very Moment in Time, COUNTDOWN is the perfect response to accusations that K-pop has lost its fun side. The big twist is that it’s not a domestic Korean release, instead following in the footsteps of countless K-pop groups clamoring for a piece of the Japanese music market, and just like them, these tweaked experiments prove just as, if not more, enjoyable than their homegrown counterparts. Switching to Japanese hasn’t put a single stumble in EXO’s steps, as they tackle propulsive bops from “Electric Kiss” to “TACTIX” with an enviably aggressive energy.

Fairies: JUKEBOX
Fairies are one of the few J-pop girl groups to make it out of 2018 alive, and the fact that they haven’t suffered the same fate as their Avex sisters seems less arbitrary with a closer listen to JUKEBOX. The album is a crystal clear distillation of J-pop, with the upbeat, dance-centered modern cool of songs like “Bangin’” and “Fashionable” playing alongside the very Avex-specific pop of songs like “CROSSROAD” and “Synchronized ~SYNCHRO~.” Where the album really excels is in its lack of typical idol-pop, the likes of which AKB’s sister groups have churned out this year at a rate James Patterson would find alarming. The state of the J-pop girl group, whether mainstream or niche, is an ever-evolving fluctuation, subject to the whims of fickle and sometimes bored managers and their demanding shareholders. Cherish each moment of fun in the here and now as JUKEBOX does: your favorite group is probably on the chopping block next.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Japamyu
Once upon a time, you couldn’t stalk three paces around this blog without coming across a glowing review of Yasutaka Nakata’s work. But when the inspiration dried up, it dried up hard: first for Perfume, then for Kyary, then for his own solo work. All seemed according to schedule when Digital Native dropped in February, and with it, any last hope that a slump was about to become a revival. Japamyu is not that comeback either, nor is it the Kyary album that fans have been waiting for, but it is the album we were given and it is a tight one, almost holy in its brevity. Catchy hooks sail past on a conveyor belt of hits from “Harajuku Iyahoi” to “Kimi no Mikata” at a speed which almost clear slices your fingertips off. Its bread-and-butter approach to composition and adherence to conciseness should make this feel phoned-in, but the idea that this album has been whittled down to its true essence is too tempting. Given the outrageous indulgences Nakata has churned out in the past few years, this album is a cheery distillation of what he’s still capable of, if someone could just harness and steer the genius, or tell him to just pull it together already.

Ai Shinozaki: YOU & LOVE
Ai Shinozaki finally released a full-length album this year, uninspired title and all. Still, her brand of laid-back pop is the perfect antidote to the artificial hyper-energy of the Oricon charts, a continuation of the breezy sound on all of her previous singles and EPs. Heavy on synths, many of the songs evoke earlier legacy-trends, such as the 80’s radio-jam “Cupid,” and the shuffling bop of “Blanket.” The second half of the album starting with “Baby I’ll Wish…” contains a collection of lost POWER OF WORDS-era Rina Aiuchi hits. There’s nothing here to push Shinozaki into the upper echelons of J-pop history, but its effortless grace feels like a gift, a victory of small steps and persistence that finally paid off.

BoA: WOMAN
There are many times when promo tracks are not accurate reflections of their albums, and “Woman” is one of them. The title track for BoA’s second major Korean release of the year is a doozy, the epitome of BoA’s legacy, and it provides all of the classic Janet Jackson-feels you could want, but it’s hardly the best track of the album. This is where the listener is free to take his or her pick, from the jazzy-pop of “Like It!” to the slow burn of “Hwatgime (Irreversible),” to my personal favorite “Encounter,” an electro-house #1-in-the-making, where distorted vocals weave through a template of loose textures and rhythms in a sublime patchwork of melodies. While ONE SHOT, TWO SHOT was a good, if scattered, selection, on WOMAN, everything BoA touches turns to gold, and it’s our own fault if we had forgotten, in the long interim of releases, just how amazing she is for even a moment.

Airi Suzuki: Do me a favor
As a former member of popular, now-defunct, girl-group C-ute, Suzuki is no stranger to showbiz. So although Do me a favor is her debut solo album, it hardly feels like one. Instead, it feels like a throwback, at times to the decadence of TK-era pop, up through the early 00s, when J-pop was king, not yet aware of the encroaching transformation imminent with R&B and hip-hop’s influence and a young New Yorker named Hikaru Utada. At other times, it couldn’t be anything other than an album produced in 2018, where it’s able to mix all of those potent memories with modern sensibilities into marketing magic. Airi Suzuki makes Do me a favor feel this oldness and newness like a second skin, like cherry-picking influences from all the past career highlights is the natural product of progress, one the Internet has trained us to expect: see how a very-contemporary idol-pop song like “Candy Box” follows a slower, cooler jam like “perfect timing.” It’s the type of segue that only works in a space and time defined by both E-girls and Keyakizaka46, by both Tokyo Performance Doll and Tsubaki Factory. There is only one other album on this list that is less surprising, and just as rooted in a wholly Japanese pop experience, marrying past and present styles in homage to everything that was and everything that will be, and this one was the least expected.

Hey! Say! JUMP: SENSE or LOVE
Speaking of groups being dissolved, this really puts pressure on Arashi, doesn’t it? Johnny’s has had a hard time of it in the second half of the 10s, with groups like SMAP on the outs and the constant rumors of Arashi members’ personal lives interfering with the company’s streamlined vision. And the younger groups groomed to take their place saw lineup hiccups this year as well, with Sexy Zone member Sou Matsushima going on hiatus to treat a panic disorder, and even Keito Okamoto “taking a break” from Hey! Say! Jump to “study in the U.S.,” which we has nothing to do with his penchant for absolutely verboten idol-extracurriculars. (It’s uncertain what Johnny’s finds more offensive: that people can’t control their natural desires to hook-up, or that they are caught doing so. It is also unclear if he will actually be able to return to the group following the company’s scramble to do damage control, but history isn’t on his side). Yet the H!S!J train rolls on, and SENSE or LOVE does a fine job of pretending nothing is amiss. Okamoto’s presence lingers but is hardly missed, as the remaining eight members commit to professionalism. All of this might seem to mark the album as desperate, or at the very least nothing but a catchy distraction, but it works in the album’s favor, loaning it a sense of urgency absent from previous albums that relied more on a relationship with fans taken for granted. The other most traditional album on this list, SENSE or LOVE is low on surprises, but expert at reminding listeners why they come to Johnny’s in the first place, and most importantly, asking them very politely, and very softly, to stay.

BAND-MAID: World Domination
BAND-MAID is becoming a staple here at appears, and no complaints — they already appeared on the best reissue list earlier this week, and now calmly grace a spot in the ten best albums list as well. But this is no mindless consolation — these women have earned their spot with talent and consistency, regularly releasing some of the metal genre’s best music in any language, anywhere. World Domination finally acknowledges the band’s ambitions, bravely asserting themselves when many of their peers are content to stay local. BAND-MAID want more, as stated in the album’s riff-laden, guitar-heavy, drum-bashing lead single “Domination.” Ditching the maid-costume gimmick at this point might be suicide, but it continues to be largely irrelevant to everything the group does and is capable of, and if the worst it did was enhance their appeal, it could be forgiven. But alas, keep your eyes on the true prize: expert musicianship and a growing craftsmanship that reveals itself in the relationship each member continues to hone with her instrument. The pace at which this band moves is mind-blowing, and to release another career-defining album within one year proves this band has the habits of hard work and focus necessary to meet any goal they set. First Japan, then the world.

Seungri: THE GREAT SEUNGRI
In a world full of baby-faced rookies, Seungri, at age 27, is a K-pop grandfather. The youngest member of legendary group BIGBANG, Seungri has been in the business more than twelve years and has already released two solo EPs, and an album in Japanese. Now, after a five-year pause, we get THE GREAT SEUNGRI, which contains this year’s most joyous K-pop single, “1, 2, 3!” Like his earlier solo work, the album relies on big horns, an enormous hook, and the inherent cool of its lead singer. “1, 2, 3!” is the type of song that demands personality, the type of song a debut singer, as yet bereft of connection with its audience, could never pull off. But it’s all cake for Seungri, who takes the song and infuses it with enough character to make even the keenest listener forget that its mostly absent chorus is almost entirely instrumental. Elsewhere, collaborations abound on TGS and while it’s never quite clear who’s helping whom, all parties benefit. The album is rounded out nicely by both ear-wormy dance hooks and slower, more hip-hop-influenced numbers that make it, if not one of the most interesting YG albums of the year, certainly the most complete. TGS is an album you can play from start to finish, secure in the knowledge that nothing is filler, and that nothing sounds like it’s simply trying to recapture a time and place that can now only be reached through an old CD collection.

Honorable Mentions

JUNHO: Souzou
Sumire Uesaka: NO FUTURE VACANCES
Sakurako Ohara: Enjoy
Monari Wakita: AHEAD!
E-girls: E.G.11

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Top 10 albums/20 songs of 2009

10. Lady Gaga: The Fame Monster

“Bad Romance” is topping more year-end lists than Animal Collective, and not without reason: if “ra-ra-ah-ah-ah, roma-roma-ma, ga-ga-oh-la-la” is the only thing we’ll remember about Lady Gaga, we’ll still look back fondly while overlooking some of her more dubious wardrobe choices. But The Fame Monster boasts more than just the notorious song: “Dance in the Dark” and “Monster” are also among the signature Gaga entendres, club-ready and unapologetically catchy.

09. Meisa Kuroki: hellcat

If I had to pick one successor to Namie Amuro, Meisa Kuroki would be it, and since Amuro has shown herself to be forging new territory with PAST < FUTURE, it looks like Kuroki is the likeliest competition. hellcat doesn’t have the intensity or acumen behind albums like Queen of Hip-Hop or PLAY, but it’s one of the most fun debut albums I’ve heard in a while and shows great promise, a promise Kuroki is looking to fulfill if the first single off her upcoming album is any indication.

08. Big Bang: BIGBANG [ read full review ]

Korean pop bands are taking over the world. This is not the first time I’ve said it, and I’m sort of hoping it will be the last, as we can now move forward with this knowledge intact and focus on individual artists. Big Bang finally made a break in Korea with “Lies” but it’s their dominance of the Japanese market that finally put them on the map. As a testament to the members’ individual talent, G-Dragon also released the award-winning Heartbreaker which topped Korean charts and showed the band had the potential to be indestructible. With their 2010 album already in the works, one can only hope they continue to prove themselves as adept and proficient as BIGBANG.

07. Mr Hudson: Straight No Chaser

Mr Hudson’s Straight No Chaser is more than just a rap record: it’s a rap record that doesn’t resort to petty clichés, revels in pop appreciation, and isn’t afraid to show its vulnerability as much as it does its ire. More than a bid for authenticity, Mr Hudson never lets on that he has something to prove, instead teaming up with artists like Kanye West and Kid Cudi to craft clever rhymes and confessions, a sort of mea culpa that at the last moment, decides it wasn’t in the wrong after all. At its core, it’s just another break-up record (the track listing is almost unbearably linear: boy tells lies, boy loses the girl, boy begins to reminisce, boy learns to live without love, boy cries, boy gets angry, boy comes to terms), but it’s rendered in such brilliant music, it becomes more than just another entry in Kanye’s blog.

06. BoA: BoA [ read full review ]

BoA is everything a pop fan could wish for. Far more commercial than anything she had yet released, best-selling Korean artist BoA portrays an incredible bevy of talent: deft grasp of the English language, stunning dance skills, and a knack for mainstream sound. Made all the more brilliant in comparison to Hikaru Utada’s own second English language album released the same week, which fared poorly with both critics and fans, a lot of credit must go to the writers and producers who assembled songs very of the moment, nurtured BoA’s strengths, and kept the electropop tone consistent.

05. Lights: The Listening [ read full review ]

A synth-heavy record, Lights’ The Listening is a very mature record that tackles very adolescent issues, centering around the clichéd angst of growing up. The album might be too unrealistic for some listeners, reveling in fairy tale notions of attraction and nostalgia for childhood (and the early 90s that accompanied it), but it’s still a stunning full-length debut record that explores just how hard it is to define adulthood.

04. Nadia Ali: Embers

Trance albums rarely make my year-end lists (Oceanlab was the first last year), though this has more to do with the fact that trance is a very single-based genre with mostly big-name artists releasing full-length albums. I guess Nadia Ali is further exceptional considering her music is not traditional trance, but more of a typical dance style with heavy elements of euro. In glowing tribute to a broken relationship that refuses to release its spark, Embers is steeped in accusations (“Point the Finger”), longing (“Ride with Me”), regret (“Be Mine”), and finally, self-preservation (“Fine Print”). It’s dance music you can’t dance to, stoking and re-stoking what’s left in the ashes of loss.

03. Donkeyboy: Caught in a Life

I’ll admit I’m hypocritical when it comes to the 80s synthfluence of the 00s; on one hand, it’s becoming redundant, on the other, it’s still inspiring some pretty amazing music. Donkeyboy may not have the brash sex appeal of a Gwen Stefani or the Pitchfork-endorsed review of a Neon Indian, but they have the gifted ability to work within the confines of Scandinavia’s celebrated track record to produce some of the most fundamental pop music of the decade. The cheerful melodies set against gloomy lyrics are a testament to the quintessential pandering of youth, meandering its way through real world infancy; Caught in a Life is dreamy and escapist without being immune to the harshest glare of life’s headlights.

02. Florence + the Machine: Lungs [ read full review ]

Lungs is not a perfect album – a few tracks still disrupt the musical narrative, tending to stick out like sore-thumb intervals – but in spite of its flaws, it remains a grand, sweeping album that asks more questions than it answers, provides more enigma than understanding, and never lacks for want of a desperate, sometimes frantic search – for passion, for comfort, for spiritual enlightenment. Florence Welch’s voice cuts through tempos and soars somewhere in the highest realms, lingering far above the already massive melodies, wallowing in the heady first days of romance, the agony of losing love, and finally finding it again in the least expected place.

01. Kent: Röd [ read full review ]

Kent is relentless; releasing masterpiece after masterpiece is one way to show you have enough talent to start throwing it away on B-sides, but the other is simply to keep doing what they do: releasing intricate, carefully crafted albums that build upon previous work without showing any sign of strain to which so many bands two decades old succumb. Any weaknesses the band has never appears on the record, a heady cocktail of fear, aggression, anxiety, and coping with a sort of self-inflicted isolation. Kent is nowhere near where it started in 1990, but Röd is an incredible place to land and probably more than even the most enthusiastic fans could have dreamed.

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Girls in the men’s room: BoA’s androgyny

I’m not saying girls dressing up like guys is anything new (nor vice versa), but when super-feminine waif BoA’s new single is still touting the same fedoras, three-piece suits, and all-male dance cast, it’s worth reiterating a notion I skimmed while gushing over “Eien.” At a time when popular Korean girl groups like SNSD, 2NE1, and 4minute are wrapped in layers of techno-colored wardrobes and purporting to sell tough girl images while skirts get shorter and suits come tailored in revealing short-shorts (and I would be making a completely different point if it wasn’t so obvious that they weren’t choosing any of it themselves and instead, kowtowing to image consultants and gender standards), BoA gets a short haircut (that isn’t pixie, or twee), a three-piece suit (that wouldn’t look attractive on anyone, and looks a size too big), and gender-neutral choreography (that has never showed off her talent better).

Hip-hop may still be a man’s game, but BoA has never been playing it better. A determination to keep her overseas Japanese urban reign has produced some interesting choices, among them “BUMP BUMP!”, her new collaboration with VERBAL. The music video initially caught my eye because it uses the same effect that Koda Kumi’s “Physical Thing” does wherein the edges of frames are dark and blurred so it seems the only light comes from a cheap camera flash, creating a keyhole view. This technique is often used in brooding music videos, a sort of updated film noir that’s supposed to let you know something seedy, sexual, or sinister is occurring. “Physical Thing” played up the stereotype, alluding to bodies littering a room but never taking the lens off Kumi, all the while watching her perform sexually suggestive gestures with wine bottles and grapes. But the effect in “BUMP BUMP!” is absolutely G-rated to the point where it’s almost dull; at least in “Eien” there were multiple settings. “BUMP BUMP!” takes place in one room with two masters of their craft doing nothing much but dancing, singing, and goofing around.

I’m deeply interested in the point behind this particular evolution: Appeal to a wider audience? Highlighting craft over image? Deliberate separation from younger, more stereotypical idol-esque pop groups? Interestingly, there was a completely different marketing strategy with the U.S. release of “I Did it For Love” at the same time the costume change was occurring across the ocean. In any case, no complaints about the turn around here. If at all successful, it will at least provide immunity from the pesky Japanese media who ignore whatever women are actually trying to do to field questions on relationship status, parenthood, and ex-boyfriends at charity events and promotional parties with which men don’t have to deal. I just wish I could dig the song as much as I do the concept.

BoA vs. Utada: Graphing the inevitable

This may be the least appropriate way to do this, but it’s also the most satisfying; I could talk for hours about  where  Utada’s (nee Hikaru Utada) second attempt at crossing over failed, but I don’t have much to say about BoA’s  successful English debut. However both deserve to be acknowledged in some capacity: BoA’s, for its simple elegance and Utada’s, for its complete clumsiness.

Cover art: This is kind of a moronic category, but if we still buy into the notion that people judge things by covers (and they do), then Utada’s is likely to turn heads the most, if only because it looks like it was done by a seven year old using an outdated version of Photoshop (don’t forget to bold and italicize the font!). Might as well slap a Bargain Bin sticker on this sleeve already. Utada’s covers have famously hit the snooze on every chance to be  memorable, instead opting for uncomfortably close head shots (see: First Love, Distance, ULTRA BLUE, etc). BoA’s isn’t significantly different; sure, there’s a disembodied hand on the cover with a giant ring in the process of digesting her fingers, but sitting up there next to Utada’s album, it might as well be The Sistine Chapel.

Marketing: I left these both empty, as neither albums received very good marketing, or, I think, any marketing at all. There was a promo video going around for Utada’s album where she talks about being really huge in Japan, but relatively unknown in the U.S. and then she shares a boring anecdote about how someone told her this album was going to be “the one” and she thought it was brilliant that she had already decided on the title of the album as This is the One and how hard she managed to squeeze out a “mainstream sound,” which is ironic only because this is the one that is going to be remembered in Japan as the album that sucked and in America not at all. There’s a similar video where BoA harps on about dreams and learning English and it’s equally lost. The point is: nobody I know who hasn’t been following these two women’s careers already had any idea that these album were going to be released. Which is really sad in BoA’s case, because this album is the one. More on that in a minute.

Mainstream accessibility: For all of Utada’s chatting about managing to write a really mainstream album, its content appeals to zero senses. None of the songs are memorable; I listened to this album once through and had no desire to repeat any of the songs, nor did I understand to which demographic this album was aiming. The attempt to grab everybody’s sensibilities ends in grabbing no body’s sensibilities; this album is neither pop nor rock nor hip hop nor dance. It’s just really dull. BoA’s self-titled album, on the other hand, finds a niche: hip-pop. It sticks to a basic formula of short, quick hits with catchy hooks. This is an album for dancing and there are no ballads, no slow songs, and no attempts to be something it’s not. BoA has always been a product of a recording company and handles management well; Utada seems to have gotten lost in coercions to pen something really MTV-able instead of trusting her high-brow, pop musical instincts that have written such fantastic, friendly singles as Keep Tryin’. Plus BoA dances, speaks a couple of extra languages, and isn’t ashamed of being a creation instead of a creator.

Lyrics: The lyrics on This is the One sound like freshmen college poetry; they’re earnest, but they’re also dense,  prosaic, and in most cases, dubious. In “Apple and Cinnamon,” the song that will be forever remembered for anthropomorphizing spices, she rhymes cinnamon with innocent to describe chemistry in a relationship. Identity becomes confusion in “Come Back to Me,” where she alternately takes on the role of first and third person (“She goes shopping for new clothes / And she buys this / And she buys that”/”I admit I cheated / Don’t know why I did it / But I do regret it”). In “Dirty Desire,” she’s painfully obtuse and even makes lyrics like “Doing my nine to five / I’m thinking six and nine” sound neutered. As in Exodus, she tries to be both intellectual and street smart (“Like Captain Picard / I’m chilling and flossing”), but ends up sounding desperate (“Sexy stiletto boots, tight jeans, no panties on / Oops, did I turn you on?” in “Poppin,'” “I kept on givin’, baby / Because the sex was so good” in “Taking Back My Money”). The lyrics on BoA aren’t any better, but they function in context. The attempt to portray her as an aggressive, liberated 21st century woman usually ends up making her sound like the social networking marketer’s every-girl: she’s confessional (“I Did it for Love”), hyper-sexual (“Eat You Up”/”Touched”), self-involved (“Girls on Top”), and slightly obsessive (“Obsessed”). Oh, and she likes to dance (“Hypnotic Dancefloor”). There’s nothing particularly stimulating or unique about the lyrics, but the sound isn’t built for it; the textbook script works with the textbook plot.

Music: This is the One is an exercise in musical regression. While Utada’s music has successfully obtained art-pop status (quirky, lovable, kinda cute, even kinda serious), This is the One almost triumphantly obliterates her last two Japanese-language releases. “Come Back to Me,” the lead single, is lifeless and its attempt to be heartfelt leaves it as empty as Ghandi’s bar tab. The melodies are simple, resourceful and the instrumentation unnecessarily sparse. On the other hand, BoA’s album is energetic and dynamic. The first single “Eat You Up,” is almost heavy. The choice to include an English version of “Girls on Top,” although not as potent as the original, is still brilliant. The songs are fun and catchy, without taking the conceit too far. The auto-tune could have been used less liberally, but even then, it’s used more for effect than necessity. It is a shame this album hasn’t been promoted properly, as it is the album that would have gone places where Exodus only hypothetically dreamed.

BoA Official Site
Hikaru Utada Official Site

Maki Goto’s “Fly away” and BoA’s “Eien”


Maki Goto – Fly away / BoA – Eien

These are the coolest pop videos and songs I have seen and heard so far this year. “Fly away” is dynamic, with teeth, and even though the music video is not really edgy and it’s not even all that entertaining (no story line, no discernible context for the lyrics), it’s this conventionality that works in favor of, rather than against, the music. In a time when experimental drivel like MEG’S FREAK is coming out (and OK, I acknowledge and applaud the hypothesis, but I reject its aural conclusion), it’s the simple songs that seem most stimulating; “Fly away” and “Eien” use technology that compliments the genre, rather than bastardizes it.

In fact, “Eien” is almost quaint: boy meets girl, girl falls in love, boy shares text messages, boy breaks up with girl, girl cries. The sound comes from mid-90’s era R&B and the music video is much like Maki Goto’s: amazing, entertaining dance routines, set amid some useless shots of a somewhat, to not at all related backstory. BoA looks androgynous and pulls it off beautifully and even though the dancing is kind of a Michael Jackson rip-off, what isn’t? Plus, it lets BoA show off the extent of her skills. Now there are some major gender issues that make these music videos a tad repulsive (there’s the obviousness of Maki Goto, squirming around blindfolded on a bed, following by high-heeled thrusting, but then there’s the suited, crop-haired BoA, who makes this masculine image appealing only because despite the attempt, BoA is still portrayed as so goddamn feminine, it’s regressed to an almost condescending “cute” status), but they’re still entirely enjoyable as a whole; there’s real talent here, despite how the marketers are selling it.

BoA’s “Sweet Impact”

 

BoA / Sweet Impact / April 25, 2007
♫ 01. Sweet Impact / 02. Bad Drive

Spring is once again upon us. Long gone are the marshmallow coats and boots caked with snow, the winter ballads, the slow and serene ambient-jazz-pop, the terrible and disappointing releases from The Arcade Fire and Bloc Party and Linkin Park and pretty much everything else released in 2007 besides Hellogoodbye (!) and Hilary Duff (!!!). However, I am honestly ready for cheesy pop music, in fact, I welcome it, if only because it means I don’t have to steer my automobile through two feet of snow and two inch visibility.

I’ve never been a huge BoA fan and I’m still not. Any reviews I’ve done of her music in the past have been filled with disappointment and disinterest; so why I keep sampling her new releases, I have no idea. Maybe in hopes that I’ll find another “Girls on Top” (the song, not the album). Well, I definetly did not find it in her latest single. “Sweet Impact” is a typical Japanese pop song complete with a retro-ish vibe and plenty of synth keyboard effects. Nothing catches my interest in this song. The c/w track however, is actually…good. Not excellent, not astounding, not another “Girls on Top,” but it is significantly more catchy and original than the title song. If I could be disappointed in anything about it, it would be that it was not chosen as the title track. With a larger funky sound and less full instrumentation, it’s a song lighter on the ears with smoother transitions and techno influence perfect for cruising.

But bottom line: it basically impressed me because it wasn’t completely awful. This is truly a step-up for BoA. You know, until her next single.

Official Site
Buy Sweet Impact

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~