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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Momoiro Clover Z: What we talk about when we talk about idols

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If this is AKB48’s world and we’re just living in it, Momoiro Clover Z has an even greater task on their hands: tweaking the standard just enough to keep it different, without ever abandoning true blue idol pop. I should confess that AKB48 is my least favorite thing to happen to Japanese pop music in the past decade. This includes, by the way, teen boy bands, Funky Monkey Babys, and Ayumi Hamasaki’s last single. Because we have yet to crown a new diva, one who hasn’t been born before 1990, the Oricon charts and pop culture conversation revolves around girl groups and subgroups. Unfortunately, AKB48’s success may have unleashed an ever larger number of idiosyncratic idol groups, but it’s become difficult to mess with the formula in any substantial way. Take Perfume, an idol group by any definition, who have never truly fit the mold: their best feature — music that doesn’t succumb to traditional idol pop — has also been their commercial downfall. It’s easy to think of Perfume as wildly successful because of their vociferous niche community, but their last number one single was 2009’s “ONE ROOM DISCO.” And more than chart status, looking at a group’s ripple effect is a better indicator of the kind of popularity we’re dealing with. When Perfume hit it big, a spat of similar artists mopping the classic Yasutaka Nakata electro-pop sound debuted, hoping to get their foot in the door it took Perfume almost six years to pry open. In recent years, these groups and solo artists are almost all but forgotten.

apppassorIn their place are groups like PASSPO, whose shtick is travel in general and flight attendants in particular. In addition to the costumes and lyrical content, the group has also invented a dubious vocabulary to make them stand out from groups with other, less classy angles. From their generasia profile: “Their live events are called “flights” while those who are attendance [sic] are usually called “the passengers” who can earn points, called “frequent flier miles.” […] The group releases three versions of their singles, each name [sic] Business Class, First Class, and Economy Class, with different material inserted in each version.” Lest thou be fooled by the group’s aggressive marketing tactic, rest assured that this is your garden variety idol group, bubbly rock-pop and requisite graduations (may I suggest “that great gig in the sky”?) included.

appsaintfourrOf course, groups rocking a large number of members is nothing new. AKB48 had a predecessor in similar idol groups like Onyanko Club and Bishoujo Club 31. Momoiro Clover Z owe a debt to a rarer kind of ancestor like SAINT FOUR. That short-lived idol group churned out spunky synth-rock numbers in colored costumes while performing acrobatic dance routines to rival professional gymnasts. Unlike other groups that emphasized a coy vulnerability, they met the stage head on, bouncing around like loose springs in spandex costumes that evoked superheroes, or Super Sentai knock-offs. These girls didn’t whimper, they roared.

Momoiro Clover Z might be known for trolling the same geek circuit, but they also challenge the AKB legacy and its current spokeswoman Minegishi Minami. Both groups pander to an audience: in Z’s world, it’s what Patrick Macias explains are “bonkura.” To distinguish it from your run of the mill otaku, he says, “Bonkura guys are not anti-social. They will seek out and immediately bond with others who share the same wild enthusiasm for junk culture as they do. [..] All they want out of life is raw stimulation and to satisfy the unsophisticated desires of their eternal teenage boy within.” We’ll get back to that last thought in a second, but to sum up: Junk culture. Raw stimulation.

One of Momoiro Clover Z’s best known singles has the girls carousing around like drunk salarymen for “Rodou Sanka,” singing about the everyman giving it his best at work. Others have them traveling through outer space on bikes dressed as space pirates as a barrage of color hits the screen. When they’re not dressed up in color-coordinated boxing costumes, they’re endorsing anime like the newest reincarnation of Sailor Moon. Wacky and weird videos aside, before you start thinking they’re pushing the envelope with Edo period mythology, here’s another sample lyric: “Looky looky here, I want you to look here / When you look at me my heart pounds and I’m happy.” There’s that (teenage) male gaze again. These are idols, after all.

appmomocovrThe newest videos to promote the album 5th DIMENSION are a little different. At some point, in a crescendo mix of orchestra and dubstep, the members’ faces are covered completely by masks. In fact, the only way you could tell them apart (if you didn’t already know each girl by her distinctive height or movements) is by the signature color on their clothes. It’s hard to decide if this is a commentary on the bland, easily replaceable idol industry, or if the girls are just being eccentric again. Yet this isn’t the ridiculous fun of “Push” or “D’no Junjou“; they’re just wearing sparkly costumes with the equivalent of paper bags on their heads.

The real disappointment is the album itself. After the amazing teaser PV of “Neo STARGATE,” it’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking there’s genuine novelty about to happen in an idol group. 5th DIMENSION seemed like it would at least continue the trend of the group’s quirks, even if those quirks are just deliberately standing out from their peers. But the album is a collection of a lot of the same idol treacle with a few catchier stand-outs. It’s especially disappointing if you’re unable to reconcile the idea that Japanese idols created by a male-dominated industry for male-dominated audiences can’t be idols and also women and also positive role models in image and creativity.

One thing they do differently from other idols is put on children-only and women-only lives, perhaps to let minority fan communities get in on the fun without having to constantly rub shoulders with some of the seedier male fans, otaku and bonkura included. Don’t worry, guys get their own lives too, which is to say, Momoiro Clover Z wants you to have a good, safe time in a comfortable environment. But in essence, this also opens up the dreaded conversation about the extreme, less savory fans of idol groups, the ones that crop up the most in the media and make you just a little ashamed because you bought AKB48’s latest single for the song, not the election ballot.

app2ne1rI’ve spoken about the difference between Japanese and Korean idols before, but in an interview with Robert Michael Poole, the CEO of Something Drastic International Music Promotion, he finds it worth noting that “the majority of the audiences [for K-pop shows] are young girls, not boys. [ …] The Japanese pop market has typically been all about cuteness, presenting boys with the ideal submissive girl to treat like a doll rather than lust over.” And later: “The J-pop industry couldn’t create a K-pop style group, because Japanese girls being that edgy would be seen as wholly un-Japanese. [… ] It seems girl groups in Japan have actually become increasingly cuter, younger and presented as servants (maids being the ultimate example), with the likes of AKB48 and their many copycats.” While the general tone of the interview highlights J-pop’s innovative inertia, keeping a pop sound that wouldn’t be out of place two decades ago, the two short years since the interview has seen what is perhaps the Hallyu wave’s last crash. Worth noting is the difference in marketing tactic K-pop groups have taken, attempting to deliberately cater their image to reach that coveted male Japanese fan and his spending money at the expense of strong, independent, and mature role models girls might want to see (note T-Ara’s original video for “Bo Peep Bo Peep” compared to the Japanese version).

This is not to argue how much more noble the K-pop industry is — for one thing, the process of training idols has fallen under extreme scrutiny — but rather to examine the function of idols, the freedom of expression and options girls are encouraged to pursue, and what it says about a particular culture’s notions of what boys and young men should come to expect from the girls and women they are presented with, from entertainment, to the boring, mundane interactions of real life.

Are Momoiro Clover Z the same as their idol peers, or are they actually forcing us to question the predominant image of female idols? Are they presenting different choices for talented girls, or delivering the same message through a different medium? When Tomohisa Yamashita goes solo from NEWS and takes risks working with producers like Yasutaka Nakata to make atypical music, or we see the girls of Fairies performing in outfits rather than costumes encouraging listeners to “Flow like a hero” instead of waiting for one, are we seeing a future of optical and musical variety, or will it simply satisfy a tiny niche so the industry can stay busy catering to the male psyches that offer an unyielding mix of loyalty and money?

For now, it seems all idol groups and solo artists with their eyes on the charts can do is avoid releasing singles and albums the same week the AKBs do. Maybe Momoiro Clover Z, with their aggressive sound and daft intersection of idol and junk culture, will continue to provide alternatives to what has become a fetid industry. Idols as they are now want to relieve us of the burden of examination, from the responsibility of honoring the opposite sex with dignity, from looking at the presentation of young women, and men, in the media and what they say about our own attitudes and responses to the easy glamour of pop culture, and from the courage it takes to confront what doesn’t feel quite right.

Sexy Zone: This isn’t it

Japanese pop culture is all about cute, and their teams of double digit group members are as old as Onyanko Club. If you’re at all familiar with idols, you’re probably used to seeing girls act like they’re nine years old, even when they’re closer to nineteen. Unfortunately, sometimes less attention is paid to their equally problematic male counterparts, the stuff you’ll usually find coming out of the Johnny’s factory.

One of the talent agency’s newest idol groups, Sexy Zone, consists of five underage male members: you might have skipped over their newest single on a torrent or rar blog, blinded by the awful photoshopped cover. A quick look at their Wikipedia page provides the most terrifying information you will ever find in a bullet point: 100-year old Johnny & Associates founder Johnny Kitagawa says, “The group name came from Michael Jackson’s sexiness.” Which…so. The same article speaks of the group being one of the youngest at Johnny’s since Hey! Say! JUMP (the youngest member is eleven and the oldest seventeen), as well as the use of “sexy roses” at their debut, making you wonder if Kitagawa doesn’t know the definition of “sexy” or if he’s just trolling hard.

What it seems Kitagawa does is create commercially successful scenarios that require the viewer to acknowledge a twelve year old’s relationship to sex, a necessity brought on by nothing more than the group’s name. He did the same thing in ’97 with KinKi Kids, a pun on the Honshu area the group members come from. It’s easy to disassociate the two on the surface because Sexy Zone’s promotional videos are unusually typical, a space to explore Japan’s relationship with cute in the same way a Berryz Kobou video does. For example, in Sexy Zone’s newest video for “Lady DIAMOND,” the boys are dressed in pink sequin blazers and striped trousers from Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” era on a stage made of diamonds, glitter, and stars (hopes and dreams implied). Without a hint of anything that made Jackson’s stage persona legendary, it’s much more conceivable to argue that the video is just an amalgamation of bad taste, rather than anywhere near sexy.

As Never Ending Music Power points out: “I think I have come to the point where I am just ignoring the whole “sexy” theme for this group as I just cannot see something that is so adorable as sexy in anyway [sic]. Sure Nakaken and Fuma can pull off the sexy part but the other three are cute-zoned for me until they start closing in on 18 years old at least.” Even fans are ignoring the failed “sexy” concept and clinging to the kawaii. Furthermore, unlike an abundant number of other groups, it can be argued that Sexy Zone is largely a failure of semantics. While South Koreans are learning perfect English at an astonishing rate, the Japanese are still falling behind due to a number of factors including the tendency to use English decoratively or more as punctuation marks, often at the expense of correct grammar. Where the Engrish phenomenon was born, we get band names like w-inds., Kiss-My-Ft2, Hey! Say! JUMP, and, well, Sexy Zone. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the entertainment company is pushing an agenda, but more that “sexy” here seems to be striving for “cool,” “glamorous,” and “appealing” (none of which it nails).

Even so, it’s difficult when you have a seventeen year old lumped in with a twelve year old as if the ages are inclusive. A seventeen year old dancing among much younger children in the same vein as 2011’s runaway hit “Maru Maru Mori Mori!” doesn’t exactly exempt the group from fetishizing adolescence. While certainly not all Japanese groups are like Sexy Zone, it does help explain some of the appeal of K-pop, where groups like 2NE1 are allowed to have dynamic and evolving personalities while acting like the young women that they are. The Hallyu wave has given Japan something of a difficult task in embracing this new attitude while trying to keep what makes the country’s popular music culture so unique. The emergence of groups like Fairies, that try to keep the flavor of Watarirouka Hashiritai 7 by sending conflicting messages about girlhood while combining the blunt mannerisms of a K-pop dance routine, illustrate the country’s attempt to cash-in on a trend without compromising the number of thirteen and fifteen year old talents. But whether this is a sign of old school agencies like Johnny’s dying out, or simply one shot fads, will remain a defining question for Japan as the country adjusts to the reality of musical inertia.