Johnny’s, KinKi Kids, and a Macro Snapshot of J-pop History

KinKi Kids

As one of the most prolific and popular talent agencies in Japan, Johnny’s Jimusho is a household name in the country, boasting a lineup of trainees, juniors, actors, singers, dancers, and even gymnasts. It takes a lot of time and development before an individual is finally chosen to debut, but that’s exactly what Koichi Domoto and Tsuyoshi Domoto of KinKi Kids finally did in July 1997, the first group to premiere under the new Johnny’s Entertainment, Inc. record label (before then, music was released under various second-party labels like Pony Canyon). Needless to say, the sheer market saturation and beloved reputation of a Johnny’s group was enough to propel the duo into overnight success.

Despite music being only a piece of the wider component of a Johnny’s group, it wouldn’t have helped if it was terrible, so it was to the company’s benefit to pay attention to singles by employing skilled writers and producers. As a testament to that commitment, the group teamed up with some of the most iconic, legendary songwriters and producers in Japanese pop history. It was a big, bold statement by the company, and a rare show of power that committed to the group’s, and thus the label’s, importance, boasting of their buying power and influence by uniting the twin conceits of business and art in an astronomical show of money and talent. Three prominent examples of this can be found in the group’s early singles, which were composed by city-pop pioneer Tatsuro Yamashita, gentle disciple and disruptor Koji Makaino, and prolific composer and hit-record holder Kyohei Tsutsumi. By marketing the group with music created by an ascending ladder of Japanese pop royalty already nationally recognized, Johnny’s Jimusho intentionally took its seat at the head of the table, coupling Japanese music history with its future in their own company.

Tatsuro YamashitaGlass no Shounen

The group’s debut single “Glass no Shounen” was written and arranged by none other than recent city-pop celeb/godfather, Tatsuro Yamashita. Now recognized around the world for his hits from as far back as the 70s, he, along with artists like Eiichi Ohtaki, are credited for helping to create, and embodying the quintessential sound of, city-pop, the hybrid of pop, jazz, and soft rock that gained prominence in the “economic miracle” of Japan’s comeback success in the 1980s. It reached #1 on the charts, and is the group’s best-selling single to date with over 1.7 million units sold, though the song itself gives no indication as to why, with its bitter, milquetoast admonishments to a woman who sold out her future for a new love and a shiny ring. Yamashita cropped up again on singles like the Sandals-esque jingles “JETCOASTER ROMANCE” and “Happy Happy Greeting.” This was not a high point for him, though I wonder how much of his work for KinKi Kids was heavily edited under strict boy-band company policy (it’s also worth noting he recorded his own version of the latter that ended up on the Rarities album, and it doesn’t sound much improved). Maybe it’s giving too much credit to the overlords at Johnny’s, but suffice to say, after the resurgence and worldwide respect given to city-pop in the last decade, Yamashita was given a redemption arc to exercise his unique and distinctive sound palette for the label much later, on one of the greatest pop songs in recent memory, Arashi’s “Fukkatsu LOVE.”

Aisareru Yori AishitaiKoji Makaino

Their sophomore single, “Aisareru Yori Aishitai” was written by a personal favorite, Koji Makaino, also a seasoned veteran who began his career in the 70s penning album cuts on the less-popular releases for idols like Megumi Asaoka (“Sayonara no Kawari ni,” “Yuuwaku no Toshigoro“), and who peaked in the Golden Age of the 1980s writing incredible songs for Yu Hayami (“HONEY na Hirusagari“) and magical girl anime like Mahou no Tenshi CREAMY MAMI (all of them, actually, but the ones everyone remembers and loves best, too). Makaino was versatile: despite often being connected with idols and idol culture, he was born into a musical family and also composed countless scores for TV, film, and anime like The Rose of Versailles and Bubblegum Crisis, the latter franchise of whose music comprises what are some of the most definitive 80s-sounding tracks of all time (I imagine the recently remastered box set is a real treat for fans who can afford it!). His contribution here illustrates his adaptability, with a pop song steeped in modern techno, as intricate and robust as its accompanying choreography. It’s a sonically delightful romp for someone as clearly dedicated to craft as he is the modern-day currency of popular sound among teens – the hit might now be as dated as any of the others on the first KinKi Single Selection, but twenty-five years ago it was a boy-band banger to rival the likes of the Euro-influenced Backstreet Boys.

Yamenaide, PUREKyohei Tsutsumi

Finally, we have Kyohei Tsutsumi on “Yamenaide, PURE.” Tsutsumi, an absolute song-writing monster, started his career in the 1960s, scoring #1 hits for dozens of artists like Ayumi Ishida (“BLUE LIGHT Yokohama“) and teen idols Hiromi Go and Iyo Matsumoto, up through the 2010s. His catalog runs so deep, that hours-long YouTube videos have been sliced over multiple segments to cover the sheer depth of his songbook (though he did have a noticeable habit of launching artists, sticking around for their peak years, and peace-ing out just before the public lost interest in them). You could spend hours swimming in that sea, so let’s keep it brief: part of what made Tsutsumi so successful is that there is no signature Tsutsumi sound, save one as vague as the definition of pop music itself. If anything, his style, like those already mentioned, was nurtured in an environment that valued colorful melody rather than a good beat, giving him the ability to mold  kaleidoscopic notes to technical developments in modern sound, which has cemented his reputation as an evergreen composer who was still writing hits for kids while in his 60s. At what point this went from genuinely great music, to a silent, assistant-heavy boost by younger arrangers, to respectfully, but maybe sheepishly, kissing the ring, is anyone’s hot take, but needless to say, here at 59, his name is behind the most hip-hop-leaning of the trio thus far, bringing a somewhat old-fashioned melodic approach to an unfortunate JNCO-inspired wardrobe choice.

And so on

Rounding things out, there was Takuro Yoshida (“Zenbu Dakishimete“), who helped an idol group like CANDIES grow up, newly-minted producer HΛL (“FLOWER“), who would go on to establish himself at a little indie label called Avex Trax with rising star Ayumi Hamasaki, and lesser-known names, including member Koichi himself (“Suki ni Natteku Aishiteki“). With a roster like that, it’s easy to see how ambitious and eager the team behind KinKi Kids was, ironically bowing to history and tradition with their forward-looking, modern J-pop duo. It’s no wonder that their first single collection sold so well and remains one of the group’s hallmarks — you are guaranteed to find at least fifteen copies in the KinKi Kids section of any used record store today. Nothing would imitate this run of composers in the group’s career ever again, though they continue to enjoy recognition to this day, regularly releasing singles and albums since, and dutifully make the rounds to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their debut this summer.

The only downside is that despite the names involved, all of these great songwriters were either already considered beyond their best days, or hampered by what I imagine was a strict adherence to the Johnny’s sound. One case in point is that so many of these songs carry the same style and feel to them, like being run under day-one Instagram filters, rather than bearing the distinctive thumbprints of their creators — one imagines Johnny himself popping in at the end of each recording session to remind everyone who was signing the checks. Tsutsumi and Makaino might have always been more flexible in their sound, adapting to the trends and technical capabilities of their current era, but a Tatsuro Yamashita song almost always sounds like a Tatsuro Yamashita song. Or rather, it does now that this is exactly what people want and expect from him.

But from 1997-1999, a more bland and consistent sound with the edges smoothed out was the order of the day, with most of the songs typical of what Make Believe Melodies dubbed the “Johnny’s house style”: upbeat, fluffy pop with heavy influences from disco, Latin styles like samba, and, at least in the last three years of the century, Euro-pop, with its safe major keys and hints of synth cheese. KinKi Kids illustrate that well enough on these slightly blurry debut singles underlining their epic mission by a series of absolute legends, hired to do what they now could do in their sleep, for an agency with more power and pull than most people wanted to believe, for that evergreen institution known as a boy band, at a time when that institution was enjoying the last of the kind of success it would ever see again until the explosion of K-pop.

Notes
[ The banner is an edit of a personal scan from the album KinKi Single Selection. The single covers are from here, here, and here. ]

Top ten East Asian pop/rock albums of 2021

2021ban

My listening veered towards the familiar when it came to East Asian pop this year, with many of this year’s top artists making second or third appearances on these year-end lists. This is totally unremarkable, considering that the most pervasive feeling I have had lately is the nagging gloom that 2020 and 2021 have actually just been one very long year, and everything bleeding together makes it hard to distinguish this year’s J-pop from last. Treading water is what you do when you’re trying not to drown, not when the environment is conducive to innovation, and so we saw a lot of trends hanging on throughout 2021, from the lasting impact of The Weeknd’s sizzling synths in “Blinding Lights,” (RYUJI IMAICHI, Lexie Lu) to the last gasps of a certain kind of aggressive dance-pop unique to mid-00s (w-inds.), warm bubble-bath Johnny’s (SixTONES, Snow Man), all the way to a doubling-down of all the familiar tropes of idol- and K- and City-pop (Yufu Terashima, TWICE, YUKIKA). Here are my top ten favorite, in no particular order:

Lexie Liu: GONE GOLD // LatuLatu: Hyakkaryoransen

Morning Musume ’21.: 16th ~ That’s J-POP // YUKIKA: TIMEABOUT,

Yufu Terashima: SURVIVAL LADY // RYUJI IMAICHI: CHAOS CITY

GENIE HIGH: GENIE STAR // TWICE: Formula of Love: O+T=<3

NiziU: U // w-inds.: 20XX “We are”

Honorable Mentions

BANDMAID: Unseen World
Sakurako Ohara: l
FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC VOYAGE
Perfume: POLYGON WAVE EP
Key: Bad Love

Top ten debut albums of 2021

2021ban

2020 was a tough year to debut but 2021 wasn’t much better. The albums on this list represent all of the experiences on the spectrum, from those being carried on a wave bigger than they could imagine, to those taking a calculated risk, to those throwing caution to the wind and just hoping for the best. Some of these albums will cast long shadows, thresholds that will be hard to meet or surpass in the future (Olivia Rodrigo), while others fell just slightly short of the mark but hint at enormous potential (CHUNG HA). But the most important and horrifying thing all of these albums did was show how relentlessly time moves forward, a steady stream of novelty that (thankfully, sometimes regretfully) refuses to ebb.

debut1

Noriko Shibasaki: Follow my heart // Maggie Lindemann: PARANOIA

debut2

Pink Sweat$: PINK PLANET // SG Lewis: times

debut3

Olivia Rodrigo: SOUR // Jay Diggs: Jams

debut4

BALLISTIK BOYZ from EXILE TRIBE: Pass The Mic // Kazaki Morinaka: Gekokujou

debut5

Silk Sonic: An Evening with Silk Sonic // MIRAE: KILLA

Honorable Mentions

MyDearDarlin’: Dearest
Khirki: Κτηνωδία
KOTONE: RESIST
CHUNG HA: QUERENCIA
Spiritbox: Eternal Blue

Top ten remastered/reissued albums of 2021

2021ban

It’s always interesting to see what music is chosen to be exhumed by the likes of small vinyl labels, eager to press and preserve any and everything, and large corporate monoliths, eager to milk whatever they can out of streaming numbers. I respect some of these decisions and loathe others – a 25th anniversary edition of the Spice Girls’ debut album is both fun and fair, but if you’re going to re-release the Kimagure ORANGE☆ROAD soundtracks, can you please remaster them first, and include CD and digital versions? Also, how do you even categorize something like the extras from the incredible Wonder Woman 1984 soundtrack? It’s included here as it deserves recognition and fits none of the other thirty categories I’ve dreamed up to avoid just such a nightmare scenario. In any case, where all of these succeeded was in getting me to spend time with music that I hadn’t heard in a while, and to remember why I loved it so much. It also reinforced an appreciation for how the past shapes and informs the endless parade of new, an important part of any deep listener’s musical education. Here are ten of my favorite re-releases from the year, in no particular order:

Hans Zimmer: Wonder Woman 1984 Sketches // Queen Najia: missunderstood…still

Kimagure ORANGEe☆ROAD Original Soundtracks [Vinyl] // Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure? Platinum Pleasure Edition

The Midnight: Endless Summer (5 Year Anniversary) // Metallica: Metallica

Ayumi Hamasaki: Cyber TRANCE presents ayu trance // Spice Girls: Spice 25

Taylor Swift: Red (Taylor’s Version) // Craig Armstrong: Love Actually (Original Soundtrack)

Honorable Mentions

Danny Elfman: Sleepy Hollow (Music from the Motion Picture)
Kylie Minogue: Disco (Guest List Edition)
SPEED: SPEED MUSIC BOX -ALL THE MEMORIES-
Rammstein: Herzeleid XXV Anniversary Edition
SHINee: : Atlantis

Top ten most disappointing albums of 2021

2021ban

It’s best to get the bad news out of the way, so let’s power through some of the worst listening experiences you could have: not the truly awful, but the ones that missed the mark, that ones that just didn’t hit the way you wanted them to, the ones that made you re-consider, even if just for a few minutes, why you called yourself a fan in the first place, the ones that make you question the weeks or months you spent in anticipation, only to be crushed by the weight of mediocre. This list has them all: YG’s much-anticipated new boy band that we haven’t seen or heard from again in the eleven months since THE FIRST STEP : TREASURE EFFECT underwhelmed back in January, maestros dropping the ball when it seemed as if the source material already did half the work (Lady Gaga, Hans Zimmer), and artists whose significant collaborations should have warranted a lot more than their net result (Halsey). And let’s not forget “official” debuts that deserved so, so much more (CL, aespa). Though to be frank, there was nothing more disappointing this year than the ubiquitous, unrelenting, and uninspired appearance of the colon in the titles of K-pop albums. Here are the other ten, in no particular order:

TREASURE: THE FIRST STEP : TREASURE EFFECT // Lady Gaga: Dawn of Chromatica

Hans Zimmer: Dune (Original Soundtrack) // aespa: Savage

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: CANDY RACER // Halsey: If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Nicholas Britell: Cruella (Original Score) // Daniel Pemberton: Being the Ricardos (Original Soundtrack)

CL: Alpha // Red Velvet: Queendom

Top ten 2020-misses of 2021

2021ban

Each year, as the previous year’s albums that I’ve listened to for the first time pile up, I’m reminded of how little time any of us really have. All of the newsletters, E-mail blasts, magazines, music writers, YouTubers, TikTokers, and personal recommendations continue to sit impatiently as the never-ending newer releases take precedent. As those at the bottom get pushed farther down, it becomes harder and harder to justify digging down, nor does the mess accruing at the surface always allow for it. But sometimes, those trips back are rewarded, rendering what I thought were iron-clad lists totally moot. As always, I welcome the reminder that best-of lists, even personal ones like these, are only relative to the music we were exposed to and able to hear. In no particular order, here are ten of the best albums released in 2020 that I didn’t discover until 2021, and in some other better, alternate universe, might have made last year’s lists.

Sachika Misawa: I AM ME // Benjamin Grosvenor: Chopin Piano Concertos

NINA: Synthian // Marc Timon Barcelo: San Mao: The Desert Bride (Original Soundtrack)

Neon Nox: Last Stand // Robert Parker: Club 707

IVVY: Awake // Marvel83′: Metropolis

misses5b

Natsu Amano: Across The Great Divide // Ryusenkei/Hitomitoi: Talio

Bold & ambitious: Innovation in Ayumi Hamasaki’s (miss)understood

On January 1, Ayumi Hamasaki marked the 15th anniversary of her seventh studio album (miss)understood, which seems as good a time as any to celebrate one of her last truly great, ground-breaking, and all-around amazing albums.

It’s amazing how observing wild animals in their natural habitat can help lend clarity to human behavior. In his New York Times-Notable Book of the Year, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, Carl Safina observes sperm whales, scarlet macaws, and chimpanzees, drawing fascinating parallels between their world and that of humans. Here’s one line of thought that I kept circling back to in the course of reading: is it inevitable that cultural innovators will become conformists over the course of time? It started with Safina’s rumination on “culture”:

One definition of culture that is pretty good is: “the way we do things.” Behavior is what we do; how we do it–is culture. […] But one big thing is missing from that definition: to have culture, someone must do something that is NOT the way we do things. We live in an automobile culture, but only because an innovator invented an automobile. We listen to rock music, but one person electrified the age-old guitar. Ironically, culture–a process of learning and conformity–depends on individuals who don’t entirely conform to the way we do things. Culture depends both on doing what you’ve seen done–AND on someone, at some point, doing what no one has ever seen done.” (47)

Not only in terms of sheer numbers, but in reach and depth, it is inarguable that Ayumi Hamasaki was one of the great innovators of J-pop culture in the early 00s, and I would argue that (miss)understood was one of the last times she released an album unlike anything else in the genre, and unlike anything she herself had ever done. It was one of the last times her music, and not just her fashion or personal life, made an impact on the industry, changing the way record labels approached the creation and packaging of solo artist/performers, due to both circumstance (the resurgence of idols and idol groups like AKB48, who were just about to release their debut single “Sakura no Hanabiratachi,” and decline of female solo artist/performers as we knew it, notably marked by Hikaru Utada’s hiatus two years later) and the beginning of her focus on other aspects of her career at the expense of the music, which she no longer had a hand in composing by her sixth album MY STORY (though she continued to write lyrics). (miss)understood, was, in many ways, the last time Ayumi Hamasaki seems to have effectively (hang on, Colours-fans) created an album with a risky, over tried-and-true, approach, taking a chance on a style she had till then never explored. It is an album that demonstrates exactly how Ayumi was the massive star she was, and why she deserved the recognition and status as a massive force and principal creator — that fabled “innovator” Safina is referring to — in Japanese pop culture for nearly a decade.

This is not to say that Ayumi stopped releasing great albums or songs, but rather that she found a musical space within which comfortable and safe slowly started to take precedent over experimentation. The difference between all four of her first albums, from A Song for XX to I am…, all sound vastly different from the one next to it, while the sound and production of Secret and GUILTY sound very similar, as does nearly everything from Love songs to M(A)DE IN JAPAN. A couple of albums (and singles) stick out in terms of quality, with a few going the extra mile in terms of concept, like NEXT LEVEL or Party Queen, but nearly all carry the distinctive hallmarks springing from the foundation she laid down in the early 00s. In 2002, everyone wanted to be and sound like Ayumi, but by 2012, the musical and cultural landscape had changed so wholly, from Yasutaka Nakata and the emergence of electronic music, to the influence of K-pop, that Ayumi was now a stark alternative rather than a driver of any one of these trends. To her admirable credit, with only a few exceptions, she rarely jumped onto any bandwagon, choosing instead to forge her own path, for better or worse; as she famously quipped in response to a press inquiry about K-pop: “I don’t really care if it’s trendy or not. I (stick) to my own style.”

While I never stopped being a fan, (miss)understood did mark a line for me, one from where I could never cross back. The moment “Startin’” and its music video were released, was one in which the rose-colored glasses of naive, uncompromising fandom could never overshadow the critical antennae necessary for deep analysis. It would take a few years before I learned that a critical eye doesn’t spell doom for our most treasured past times and pop stars, that instead, it does the important work of allowing one to question and examine closely with intelligence and detail, and that it can deepen empathy and a better understanding of people, and celebrities in particular, in all of their flawed and very real humanity. It is, in fact, programmed to reveal complexity and heighten appreciation. But in between that time, both history and I had changed.

Which is all to say: it wasn’t really Ayumi’s fault. Any analysis of album sales and popularity will show a natural decline in sales and quality across almost all recording artists. Human beings are designed to seek out novelty and many a star’s continued success has depended on trust and loyalty, two hard-won virtues that can only be gained by a sincere devotion to craft, a strong work ethic, and frequent, heartfelt gratitude to the fans who continue to make their object of devotion relevant. Ayumi Hamasaki is 3/3. So while I spent 2006 and 2007 going through major changes in the way I approached listening to and writing about music, it was inevitable that the simple and natural act of growing up would be doing most of the subconscious work for me, silently hacking away at the kind of unquestionable idol worship every kid is free to indulge in before they reach adulthood and come face to face with the stuff beyond the theater of life’s surface.

This is a birthday, not a funeral

With the release of the 20th anniversary edition of her sophomore album, LOVEppears, in 2019, Ayumi Hamasaki has firmly settled into legacy mode. While this status update might have once elicited a gasp of horror, it brings a kind of relief now. As I’m sure many artists who have found themselves in this privileged sphere have come to realize, it’s like falling into the perfect bathwater at the end of a really long, really hard day, one that offers time to reflect on amazing accomplishments while resting weary old joints. So let’s reflect and pour some love all over it: (miss)understood, one of the best albums Ayumi Hamasaki ever released, one that distinguished her as what Safina would label an “original innovator.”

The singles

There were four major singles released in the run-up to the album’s release: STEP YOU/is this LOVE?, fairyland, HEAVEN, and Bold & Delicious/Pride. At this point, Ayumi was well past her remix-phase, having stopped the practice of album-length maxi-singles in 2002 with Daybreak. What followed was a series of conservative or triple A-sides, with the gradual integration of a standard A-side/B-side duo beginning with INSPIRE.

Physically, STEP you/is this LOVE? is notable for being the last single to feature the same cover art on both its CD and CD+DVD versions (actually, this happened only twice, with this one and 2004’s CAROLS — why offer one or the other when you can sell both?). Musically, it’s a doozy – the A-side features one of the most propulsive pop songs in Ayumi’s catalogue, while the B-side boasts one of her finest hard rock tracks. This tight duo is a nearly perfect combination of a sound that was unlike almost anything else in J-pop at the time. The music video for “is this LOVE?” utilizes some of the coolest effects she would ever feature in a PV, because let’s face it, slow motion makes everything cooler, especially when it’s exploding. The DVD also features the music video for “my name’s WOMEN,” a track off of her previous album, MY STORY. It’s one of the few music videos Ayumi has ever shot to feature a back story before the music kicks in. It’s not my favorite track or song, and the delivery of its message is a little confused, but it’s fun and gives her the obligatory showgirl moment that every diva is obligated to have at some point in their career.

fairyland, released four months later, is one of many summer-themed singles, notable for its music video, which was the most expensive at the time. Shot on location in Hawaii, it features gorgeous panoramic shots of the islands’ colorful flora and fauna, as well as an entire building that catches fire and burns to the ground (also in slo-mo, naturally). Its B-side was the wholly A-side deserving track “alterna,” one of many songs Ayumi used to portray her career-long struggle with fame and celebrity. It draws from her ongoing inspiration, Madonna, and contains one of her most literal experiences of the entertainment industry, with plastic Ayu-dolls being assembled in a factory, the suits and media portrayed as clowns, who raise her up only to throw her in the garbage dump later, and the whole thing wrapped up in surreal, storybook portrait frames. It’s Ayumi as Aesop, a moral she had to learn the hard way. (One of my favorite shots is the newspaper headline that reads “Almost Human!!,” a succinct phrase to describe the way women have been treated in the media, especially in the mid-00s). It’s basically brilliant and I still marvel at how she managed to get away with it; nobody was this candid about the industry in Japan without some fallout, yet it only boosted respect for her willingness to be forthright and transparent.

HEAVEN” was the last really great winter-ballad we got until 2009’s You were…/BALLAD combo. The quiet, gently-paced intro makes way for a breathtaking deluge of instrumentals and breathy vocals, sweeping the listener up in the expansive space created by longtime collaborator Kazuhito Kikuchi. One thing worth highlighting is her vocal performance: in 2005, whether it showed all the time or not, it was obvious Ayumi wasn’t settling for good enough, and still doing the regular work involved in being both a good singer and a good vocalist. Whoever coached this vocal performance out of her, in particular, did an incredible job of toning down some of the harsher aspects of her delivery that came out occasionally and is now done with frequency. The B-side, “Will,” was a very new kind of ballad for her, proving just how experimental she was still willing, and could afford, to be.

It also shows a confidence and trust in her audience, one manifested in somewhat riskier moves, like the 360° of the final single “Bold & Delicious,” which utilizes a full choir for the backdrop to it funk-based rhythm. We’ll get to Sweetbox, the composer of this track, later on, but what’s notable here is the production Ayumi and her team brought to the song, which far exceeds the original (later released on Sweetbox’s album Addicted, which also featured the original versions of B-side “Pride” and album track “Ladies Night“). The videos for this single were shot in New York City, a sort of homecoming for Ayumi, who first featured the city’s iconic skyline as a prominent character in the video for “appears” (Note: Behind-the-scenes photos for a feature in Ayumi’s exclusive Deji Deji Diary series for ViVi has photos of more sight-seeing that never made it to the video, particularly the iconic locales of several scenes from Sex and the City, which was still hugely popular in Japan at the time, including the Magnolia Bakery, and home of Carrie Bradshaw, a brownstone located between Park and Madison. It’s a very, very of-its-time, photograhic capsule of the period). The kind of risk-taking we hear on “Bold & Delicious” is euphoric, and needless to say, we never got another out-of-left-field song as wild ever again.

The album

One of the most interesting and frustrating things about Ayumi’s albums at this time for those who prefer a cohesive, consistent sound, was the sheer variety of musical styles that it offered. This workedboth  for and against the album: on one hand, it offered a something-for-everyone approach, reflecting both Ayumi’s diverse personality and maximalist approach to style, and causing a sort of disjointed listening experience, one that started with one of the most joyous songs she has ever done, “Bold & Delicious,” to hard rock, to gothic balladry (“Pride”), all the way to eager, sunshine-filled larks (“Beautiful Day”), followed by gloomy poems (“rainy day“). This style of sequencing began back on I am… (when a traditional rock song like “I am…” was followed by an upbeat interlude, which was followed by a straight-up trance song, which was followed by more rock), but is also something of a given, as singles in Japan are often composed and released independently over the course of a year until the rest of the album tracks are arranged, seemingly in a final, tight series of recording sessions. This means that many of the singles can seem to stick out among tracks that have a bit more of a cohesive feel to them.

Of course, the other particular reason for this new sound was Ayumi’s decision to work with Geo of Sweetbox for the album’s non-single tracks. Sweetbox were a fledgling German pop group/project formed in the 90s, who composed the tracks “Bold & Delicious,” “Ladies Night,” “In The Corner,” “Pride,” “Beautiful Day,” and “rainy day.” In fact, the only non-singles composed by someone other than Sweetbox were the title track (a rock song penned by Tetsuya Yukumi, a longtime collaborator who worked on six tracks for MY STORY), and “criminal,” by Kazuhiro Hara (who seemed to have been inspired by the big sound of “Bold & Delicious” and whom we’d see more of the following year on “Startin'” and “Born to Be…“), and the interludes.

The interludes on (miss)understood are another puzzle, one belonging to a whole other discussion: do interludes belong on pop albums? What role do interludes play on an album that feels wholly disassociated with them, as many do here? While the interludes on many of Ayumi’s albums began to feel pro forma by this point — a nod to the CD as a medium, and the freebies-feel of filling out the extra space of an 80-minute run time just because you could — it’s luck that many of the interludes on (miss)understood are…fine. Many funtion as mood-breaks, like short, moving sidewalks that carry and deposit the listener to the next section of the album, from part one’s mammoth hits, to the weightier second part mostly filled with ballads and heavier cerebral pieces, to the somewhat indecisive, mixed-bag that makes up the final trio. For Ayumi, that makes a conservative two, none of which are bad at all, but also none so great that they would invite extended mixes like “opening Run” (“JK’s extended mix” on the Daybreak single), or “Mirror” on GUILTY (which became the single “Mirrorcle world“).

Despite the wide array of musical styles, it is the lyrics that bring it all together. Though Ayumi mostly stopped composing her own music after RAINBOW, she never stopped writing her own lyrics. Her earlier work focused inwardly, using her own personal experiences and perspective as a sort of filter through which stories of pain and catharsis emerged, but her later work began taking on the more difficult task of turning outward. Despite the change, they have always remained true to her unique world view, the thread and stamp connecting and identifying any seemingly random music choice. As she said in an interview in the January 2006 issue of CD Data,

“I had a hard time trying to decide the sequence of the songs. (laugh) But, if I looked at the lyrics booklet while listening to the songs, I could hear them being sung by a cute girl, a girl who is worrying over love. Thus I was able to listen to them with a lighter heart, sort of like listening to background music flowing softly out of a room. Whenever I am thinking of many different things, or when I am looking to find myself, just looking at my lyrics booklet while listening to the songs really helps me to see the other side of things.”

The themes are consistent, with some of Ayumi’s favorites cropping up like perennials, among them the sublime awe and horror of mega-celebrity and the possessive, all-consuming, but also fickle, allure of fame, which she’s grappled with since A Song for XX through to promo campaigns for A BEST, and songs and videos like “ourselves,” “Because of You,” and “Don’t look back,” to the present. On (miss)understood, the title track and the video for “alterna” perform the heavy lifting, as does the title and overall concept of the album itself, as represented by the stiff, disingenous grin on the CD-version jacket, and the deliberately covered one on the CD+DVD version. Again, from CD Data, is Ayumi talking about the ephemeral quality of fads re: a popular television commercial, and a not-so-subtle dig at the industry and those quick to abandon when the next best thing comes along:

“But it’ll probably be forgotten soon with amazing speed, like all things. Just as if nothing had happened, and everything will settle down quietly again. Everything’s like this nowadays. When you fall in love with something, from the time you start liking it, you’ll spend all your time and energy pursuing it with all your spirit, concentrating on it totally. And when its time is over, you’ll withdraw from it, or discard it completely. That’s actually very scary when you think about it.”

That terror manifests through the loss, anger, confusion, and uncertain future present on the album. Even the moments of joy stem from fear, as in “Ladies Night,” when Ayumi takes a friend out to distract her from boyfriend troubles after the friend calls her up in tears. She ultimately pins the blame on her friend who refuses to see reality and have the strength to walk away from a bad relationship: “This so-called fight with your boyfriend / Is truly a fight with your inner self.” A night out with the girls ends in “laughing like we’re crying” and “singing like we’re screaming.” In “is this LOVE?” she berates herself for a love that doesn’t work out, “Why isn’t it me? I won’t ask / Such a ridiculous and trivial question.”

The looming threat of emptiness also pervades the album, as on “Pride,” where she recognizes the futility and somewhat pathetic effort of moving forward when others would have given up long ago. “Even if others laugh and call it pointless / Let’s go together, because there is / Nothing more frightening than giving up.” Sure, there’s bravery in moving forward into the unknown, but it offers no guarantee, something others might see as naive or even perhaps a bit stupid. It’s an admirable tenacity that speaks volumes about Ayumi’s determination and relentless perseverance. “You already know / That being beautiful doesn’t mean you will attain beautiful things,” she says in “Beautiful Day.” She doesn’t care: she feels the fear, ignores the doubters, and does it anyway. Beautiful days don’t just happen, she makes them happen.

The photo books

Ayumi’s career has been synonymous with travel since she moved to New York in the late 90s to undergo vocal training before her debut. For the album, she set out to New York again, notably to film the music videos for “Bold & Delicious” and “Pride,” as well as the photo for the jacket cover. However, it is her time in Hawaii, where she shot the video for “fairyland,” that makes up the content of the two special photo books, on my way and off my day, included with first-press editions of the album.

Photo books have cropped up serially throughout Ayumi’s career, from fashion books like A BOOK and uraayu, to the commemorative 15th anniversary book Tell All. We can gain some insight into the purpose of on my way and off my day from Tell All, as the latter was essentially a recreation of the former (of Tell All, said Ayu,”I want to create a booklet like the one we did for (miss)understood“.) Copies of the 70-page on my way were included with the first press editions of the CD+DVD versions, and showed “private,” behind-the-scenes photos. While it’s obvious all of these were purposely staged, they still offer insight into the type of image Ayumi wanted to project, riffing off of some of the popular “Stars! They’re just like us!” pages of tabloid magazines, with trips to the grocery store (in full hair and makeup), seeing the local sights, dinner with friends, and so on. off my day features behind-the-scenes photos of Ayumi working on the album.

Ultimately, there’s nothing as genuine and real here as Ayumi’s lyrics. Seeking to understand anything through what are essentially promotional vacation slides is a fool’s task, a red-herring dropped in Ayumi’s repeated quest to be heard, but also provide the fantasy the public came to expect, cornering her in an unavoidable trap. They’re nice photos, but they are, essentially, the “Hamasaki Ayumi” she referred to, as opposed to “the real ayu” (S Cawaii! April 2012), the “miss” before the “understood” (draw your own conclusions in connection to Tell All, and an album titled (miss)understood by someone who has stated “I’ve never wished for others to understand me. I aim to get through to others, to make them believe in me, but everyone is free to feel whatever they want.”).

The legacy

It’s easy to break down an album into its disparate parts and then reassemble it using hindsight, context, and the cooled-off distance that only time can lend, but harder in the moment, when the promo campaign is intent on exposure by any means possible: numerous magazine features, third-party commercial tie-ins, television appearances, photo shoots, and giant Shibuya billboards, all designed to drum up enough passion, hype, and excitement to get you to buy the album in the first couple weeks of its release for the bragging rights of units moved and numbers charted. It worked, I guess: (miss)understood debuted at #1 on the Oricon chart and stayed in the Top 10 for four weeks, the top 50 for eleven, and ended as the eighth highest-selling album of the year in Japan. Commercially, it was not her most successful album, falling just behind the sales of MY STORY, and the fourth album in a row to sell less than the previous one, a trend that would continue nearly indefinitely to today (in 2015 A ONE sold more albums than the previous year’s Colours). I, too, as a fan, reveled in the excitement and immediately purchased a copy when it was released, proceeding to listen to it not in fits and bursts, but almost non-stop for the first two months that it was out.

Because I was rooted in various fan communities and forums like LiveJournal blogs and the Ayumi Hamasaki Sekai forum, I understood that not all fans enjoyed the entire album from start to finish. This made sense considering the album’s departure from the sound that gained her popularity on LOVEppears and I am… To this day, Ayumi’s music has divided fans, causing not a few rifts and bemused debates on the freedom and duty an artist has to their fans. On the 15th anniversary of her debut in the industry, just seven years removed from (miss)understood, the author of the album’s photo books, Takako Tsuriya, marveled in Tell All at how much Ayumi had changed as a person, artist, and performer.

“It’s been 7 years since then… The [A]yu who spoke in stunted English had now become someone who could converse with the foreign staff in fluent English, without the help of an interpretor, and that was only one of the changes she had undergone. However, as I looked through the 2 previous booklets, the words I had written 7 years ago are still relevant to the person [a]yu is now. In a good way, it shows that her true self had withstood the test of time.”

Another seven years later, and we’re looking at an even bigger growth spurt: in addition to the events that prompted Ayumi to remark that she could never go back to the person she was before (twelve more singles; six more albums; twelve more concert tours; a Vegas marriage; a divorce; presumably friends, fans, and co-workers that came and went), she has released another four albums, embarked on nearly another dozen concert tours, married again, divorced again, had a child and conceived a second child — neither decision for which she felt the need to explain or defend — and saw the literal end of another era, as Heisei made way for Reiwa. At the end of it all, one presumes what she said in Tell All has held fast.

“I don’t need to be perfect, nor to protect myself anymore. I’m really afraid of nothing now. In the past, I created an iron wall with things such as hair and make-up, and felt safe when enclosed inside. Now, whenever I make myself up to be perfect, it just feels different and sort of lonely. Being perfect now feels incomplete.”

To be fair, (miss)understood, is not perfect, though it’s clear that was the ballpark for which Ayumi was aiming. It was astoundingly close. Today, the production still sounds as massive as any major release from one of the world’s biggest pop stars is meant to sound, but more importantly, it still sounds exciting. The songs sound fresh and promising, evoking joy and pathos. Most importantly, it comes from a place of honesty, that wish to communicate on a genuine level that marks all great works of art. At times assertive, vulnerable, insecure, headstrong, smug, self-satisfied, brave, and moved to grief, it highlights the myriad emotions and personalities that made up the woman behind a revolving door of expectations and personae crafted to entertain and satisfy. It would take several more years for Ayumi to stop striving for that perfection, to be comfortable in the mistakes and open wounds she shared with a public not always ready to forgive or treat with empathy, but (miss)understood is the sound of that beginning. The end of Ayu-chan, squeaky with high-pitched, awkward coquetry, to Ayumi Hamasaki, assertive, grown-up and at ease. Chasing after understanding and approval is the fruitless task of the young, something Ayumi has moved far past in life and in her career — it is the self-acceptance she feels closer to obtaining that resonates now.

“Either way, no matter how I am, it’s more important that everyone is enjoying themselves. It doesn’t matter if that means that I’ll be exhausted, and have to travel a long way, because that’s important to me. This thing, which seems so natural, is what I have chosen. When I realized that, I really became fearless.”

That fearlessness seems to have manifested not only in her personal life, but in the approach she takes to the once-crushing sense of obligation to fans and the public, for whom her current music and life choices never seem to be good enough. However, while the open sense of fresh novelty has long since worn off, with albums following this one ranging the gamut from solid, to surprisingly good, to disappointing, none have offered something as innovative, fresh and also successfully executed since (miss)understood. Put it plainly: we never heard from Sweetbox, or a  Sweetbox-equivalent, again.

In many ways, conforming to her own standards is a natural endgame of  anyone around long enough to no longer be chased by the necessity of capturing attention. Conformity, as Carl Safina points out, observing the behavior of chimpanzees within their social groups, provides refuge and safety. He tells the story of a line of wildebeests going to water who follow a straight line, one behind the other, without so much as deviating around a tree. Why? By the animal’s continued existence, that path was proven to be safe for the guy ahead of him. What happens to the free-spirited springbok who decides to take a risky sip in the middle of the night, on his own? He’s spotted by a lion and promptly eaten (257). However these two things have to co-exist.

“CULTURE is mainly about conformity, consistency, and tradition. Fact is: culture requires BOTH innovators, who create some new thing never before learned (and are often ignored and resisted), and adopters, who, by learning, narrow themselves and conform. […] Being conservative is safer than thinking freely. Safer than experimenting and innovating.” (260)

In this case, “safe” meant albums (as great as they were) like GUILTY and Secret. Like LOVE again and M(A)DE IN JAPAN.

I don’t know if conformity or caution is inevitable, a kind of by-product of growing older, the instinct or learned behavior to keep doing what works because it’s proven effective and not gotten you eaten by hungry mountain lions or offended music critics, but I can understand where it comes from. It’s all the more reason to remember and celebrate all those with the courage to take a chance on something fresh and unusual, even when it doesn’t always work or takes a few listens to appreciate (full disclosure: I didn’t like “Bold & Delicious” when I first heard it). After all, if Ayumi is conforming to any sound, it’s her own, one she created and perfected at the peak of her abilities.

Again, “[w]ithout some original innovator […] there is NO knowledge, skill, or tradition that can get shared; there is no culture to copy and conform to. Innovation is to culture what mutation is to genes; it’s the only way to make any progress, the root of all change” (47), so it’s worth underscoring: if anyone was out there setting standards in music and fashion in the early 00s, it was Ayumi Hamasaki. A lack of innovation after (miss)understood simply hit the brakes on the musical evolution, not necessarily quality or consistency. Ten years ago, it was kind of depressing. Today, considering what a gigantic back catalog she’s given us to listen to, and think and write about, and argue over, and love and hate in equal, sometimes maddening, measure, I’ll take a fulfilled, confident, well-adjusted, and happy Ayumi enjoying her well-deserved success, over chasing popularity and culture-resetting pop songs. She gave us LOVEppears, and Duty, and I am…, and Memorial address, and (miss)understood, and that’s not even the half of it. After all of that, and seven years removed from that previous statement where she placed the happiness of others over her own health, I hope she’s found found the confidence to switch the importance of “everyone” enjoying themselves, to Ayumi enjoying herself first. I’d like to think she has.

Notes
[ All images original scans by author, except for magazine scans by iloveayu.com and AyuAlanis@NihonWa, which were posted to the AHS Forum a lifetime ago, and this gallery of scans. Special thanks to Misa-chan’s J-pop Blog for all of the amazing translated interviews and lyrics that provided so much insight. I understand that some of my parallels to the animal world stretch the imagination, but all of those far reaches are my own fault (even when I’m reading about the cultural differences between bonobos and chimpanzees, I’m thinking about music, and I think I’ve proven more than once on this blog that I can relate just about anything to Ayumi Hamasaki), not Carl Safina’s, whose book, Becoming Wild, is fascinating. I encourage everyone to read it and think deeply about its content (the section on whales and their songs is particularly good). ]

Top ten East Asian pop/rock albums of 2020

In a year that I dedicated myself to listening to as many albums in the top ten of various physical and streaming Japanese and Korean charts as I could, I was struck, as usual, by how many of the best albums were those on the periphery, those that just missed out, or never even saw the top thirty. But I was as equally struck, as usual, by how big and fun and all-encompassing pop albums are, as long as you’re willing to dig a little, to slog through the ten or twenty average or terrible albums to unearth the one that reiterates why it’s so important to listen as carefully, and widely, as possible. This year, we all took comfort in the familiar as much as possible, and many of the names on this list reflect that bias. The real surprise this year was how little it mattered, and how good it felt, list-making album or not, to see old favorites step up to the plate and bravely deliver what they were capable of in a year they very well could have sat back and took a well-deserved break. Here, in chronological order, are ten of my favorite. (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.) Thanks for spending the whole week looking back with me!

LatuLatu: Mangekyou ETERNITY
(2020.01.22)

LatuLatu were billed by HMV as a “desktop rock unit” that gained some fame on TikTok in 2019, but Mangekyou ETERNTY, the band’s first mini-album boasts an ambition beyond the boundaries of an office chair. Full of energy and earnestness, this quick shot of high-speed J-rock proves that while hibernating, J-rock is not nearly as listless or dead as any number of Oricon or streaming charts might have you believe. It feels like LatuLatu have the ability to breathe some fresh air into the lungs of a sometimes anemic, sometimes too anime-pop-reliant genre, a challenge that subsequent singles have proven they’re up to.

Sumire Uesaka: NEO PROPAGANDA
(2020.01.22)

For years, Uesaka has cultivated a uniquely gifted hyper-pop sound, one reliant on styles as far-reaching as idol-pop, chiptune, techno, metal, and military marches. Somehow, she makes them all work, creating a world so sonically exciting, it’s practically visual. NEO PROPAGANDA is just another installment in that ultra 4K world of poly-tempos and speed shifts. The album boasts song writers both old and new like Kenji Ohtsuki, Ryohei Shima of The Dresscodes, and MOSAIC.WAV who have imbued the album with all the hallmarks that have defined her sound from rolling Rs and high-pitched shrieks, to gonzo interpretations of Russian culture. So much unpredictability would make it an exhausting trek if it weren’t so much fun.

Reol: Kinjito
(2020.01.22)

Reol may be new to the J-pop scene but her sound is now as old as the first wave of electro-house that hit shores a la Nakata in the mid-00s. In fact, with her vocals turned up to computer glitch, she sounds remarkably like J-pop’s other blink-and-you’ll-miss-her indie-android, MAA, who released Monkey Kingdom exactly ten years ago, signed to a major, and promptly disappeared. One hopes Reol’s bio will read differently; Reol hopes so, too, with the aptly titled Kinjito, the culmination of years presumably learning how to push buttons, and cut and paste, in just the right ways. While the sound itself is nothing unique, Reol brings a charm and warm perspective to a sometimes erratic and jarring genre that can often feel downright arctic. Here’s hoping we see more from this personality than we did from those whose footsteps she’s following.

Shuta Sueyoshi: pret a porter
(2020.02.12)

Sueyoshi has spent the last few years carving a small groove in J-pop for himself, one he can now comfortably afford to dig into as AAA goes on hiatus. Following the release of 2018’s JACK IN THE BOX and last year’s EP WONDER HACK, pret a porter is Sueyoshi on his continual quest for the ever-elusive male solo star label, one coveted by many and achieved by almost none. While pret a porter doesn’t signal a victory, it does point in the right direction, a laid back blend of ironed out R&B and dance-pop-lite that wears its vocalist’s experience more than the desperate, youthful hunger of so many newcomers. It’ll take a bit more oomph to stand out and prove he’s worth sticking out for, but in a year of few direct contenders, pret a porter is a perfectly edible slice of contemporary Avex, with plenty of fun on the side.

ONEPIXCEL: LIBRE
(2020.02.26)

It’s not easy being a J-pop trio, not when you debut in hopes of drawing upon the same fan pool as Perfume and callme (or kolme, as it were now), and definitely not when you want to transition to the level of a Fairies or GEM or E-girls at a time when all of those groups have or are on the verge of disbanding. But in fact, this makes a group like ONEPIXCEL all the more vital, women singing for other women and girls and themselves, and boys and men, too, if they want, not exclusively for the hearts and pocketbooks of a convenient niche. Backed by an audaciously Avex-pop sophomore album, LIBRE, ONEPIXCEL make their struggle look and sound as fun as it should. As a veritable anomaly I applaud them. And pray.

Gesu no Kiwami Otome.: STREAMING, CD, RECORD
(2020.05.01)

In 2020, we reached peak-Enon Kawatani. With fingers in various pies, all maintaining consistency in brand and sound, and numerous releases flooding the market, we’re just at the beginning of what could be the end. So, with goodwill precarious, but still intact, it’s a good time to celebrate STREAMING, CD, RECORD. While the album doesn’t land the same punches as the group’s early records, it’s by no means a lackluster addition. Whether extensions of his other projects, or leftovers, it’s pure Kawatani, all dandy pianos, studied rap-singing, and audaciously wacky interludes, on par with the seasoned, almost so-easy-it’s-boring vibes Kawatani is giving off. This can easily start to fall into the existential throes of condescension for either his work or his audience, but for now, Kawatani still manages to make it sound easy in the spirit of experience, rather than cynicism.

BBHF: BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-
(2020.09.02)

Across all genres and languages, BBHF’s BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-, an ambitious 2-disc concept album chronicling one man’s emotional journey through a labyrinth of history and emotion set to a wave of poppy 80’s synth rock, is one of the greatest albums of the year. It’s honest and refreshing, a J-rock band refusing to hide behind dour epithets without any genuine emotional anchor behind them. “Apps that I merely touched once and don’t use / I deleted them all, that is the pleasure of getting rid of things,” the opening track opines; “Sooner or later, everything changes / I’m not happy at all / For better or for worse, this country is falling into a depression” they lament in “1988,” folding the twin tragedies of a burst bubble and a broken heart into an excuse to get wasted. During a year we all had to navigate a new world, it was easy to relate to a desire to leave it all behind and start somewhere new. But as the hero discovers for himself, there is no genuine escape, only the boring, unromantic work of dealing with baggage you can never leave behind anywhere you go, today, tomorrow, and every day for the rest of your life.

TAEMIN: Never Gonna Dance Again : Act 1
(2020.09.07)

SHINee-member TAEMIN released two solo EPs this year, and it is the first of the pair that continues to shine, leading with the slinky single “Criminal,” and “2 KIDS.” Unlike the second set, which so desperately needed to balance Never Gonna Dance Again : Act 1‘s darker side and didn’t, Act 1 showcases TAEMIN as man who comes alive in the pageantry of performance with a sound down pat from a lifetime of training and practice. It’s hard to be upset that his team rarely thinks outside of this box when he excels so well inside of it — a TAEMIN playing in his own shadowy sandbox instead of the bright ones his SM peers are often found running amok in is part of what preserves his iconic imagery. It’s a thin line between indulging and wallowing but Act 1 gets it right, incorporating some more uptempo tracks like previous Japanese hit “FAMOUS” to illustrate TAEMIN’s ability to be both artist and pop star, one of the closest living talents we have to the Super Stars of old.

SuperM: SuperOne
(2020.09.25)

SM’s answer to BTS is SuperM, their “Avengers” super group, featuring members hand-picked from groups SHINee, EXO, NCT, and WayV. But while good looks and unique abilities have captured the attention of long-time fans and curious, new eyes, it has been up to the music itself to deliver the final ingredient. For their first full-length album, SM spared no expense in flexing their resources, pouring massive amounts of time and budget into the songwriters who chorus, by verse, by sample, by effect, stitched together a defining statement for the group, one perhaps leaning a bit too heavily on aggressive boy-band energy with typically masculine imagery (fast cars! motorcycles! predatory animals!), but that bares its teeth in the service of catchy hooks and of-the-moment trends nearly pile-driving each other into infinity. Super One nails it: with no expense spared, it sounds just as rich as it cost, and just as good, too, the best pop money can buy. And 2020 is a year we all deserved to splurge.

TWICE: Eyes wide open
(2020.10.26)

TWICE continues to defy expectations with their releases, a not always welcome back and forth between otherworldly, next-level pop, and head-scratching hiccups. Like last year’s Feel Special, Eyes wide open is the former, a deliciously indulgent callback to K-pop’s dance roots, with lead track “I CAN’T STOP ME” recalling groups like T-ara and Dal Shabet at their best. The synthy 80’s sound finds further purchase in songs like “UP NO MORE” and “DO WHAT WE LIKE,” stopping only for lower-key vibes on the back half, like “GO HARD” and “HANDLE IT.” The entire album is like a guided tour of the best of the last decade in K-pop girl groups, from 2NE1 to WJSN, all the way up to BLACKPINK, and while this might not say much for TWICE specifically, it makes for a particularly cozy listening experience that surprises and delights with each track.

Honorable Mentions

Mia REGINA: MIAUSEUM -CURATION-
Ayaka Ohashi WINGS
CY8ER: Tokyo
KAI (EXO): KAI
RINGOMUSUME: Cool & Country

Top ten debut albums of 2020

The debut category is one of the most fun of the year, a chance to celebrate what riches may lay ahead in the future. While these albums and EPs may not be perfect, they can stop you in your tracks, spark intrigue, and tantalize with the promise of everything yet to come. While some may never make good on these promises, it’s the optimism that keeps me coming back to this category each year with necessary delight, an optimism we could all use now more than ever now. In chronological order, here are some of this year’s best debut music releases that, along with the vaccines, makes the future worth holding out for. (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.)

FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC 9
(2020.02.12

The EXILE franchise continued to expand in 2020 with the addition of FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE even as other branches were were lopped off entirely. The group released four notable singles over the course of 2019, culminating in a previously-heard-material heavy debut album, released in February. FANTASTICS are like the dancier, poppier, gentler cousin to GENERATIONS, with an emphasis on dance over hip-hop, and it all goes down as smoothly as some of the more Western Hey! Say! JUMP cuts. FANTASTIC 9 needed some serious trimming, but which hopefully stems more from an over-eagerness than lack of direction — the former can be harnessed, the latter can pull you under quicksand fast. Since this album, the group has released a few more singles, with “High Fever” in particular a stand out, all boding well for the future of this particular J-pop boy band.

MCND: into the ICE AGE
(2020.02.27)

We all lived on an entirely different planet back in February, one where the terrain of upcoming K-pop debuts felt wide and expansive. At that stage, a group like MCND felt like just another drop in the debut ocean, yet over time, as the number of debuts were culled, or folded from financial strain, MCND stood out more for its relative unique position, rather than genuine potential. Despite a lackluster followup that relied too heavily on their “element” gimmick over creating a stand-out hit, “ICE AGE” remains one of my favorite debut singles of the year, with a particularly good pre-chorus. It’s hard to see anything dramatic coming of this group, but MCND offer a pleasantly nostalgic look back at the state of the generous, forgiving, and hopeful mind we could all afford to be in ten months ago.

Nanaka Suwa: So Sweet Dolce
(2020.04.15)

So Sweet Dolce might rely a bit too heavily on its predecessors, from Aya Uchida to Yui Ogura, but its commitment to a (somewhat hackneyed) concept and relentlessly upbeat personality made this album a welcome distraction in the spring. While the album trades in a sound as expendable and nutritionally deficient as its thematic content, I’d argue that its sincerity and commitment give it some lee-way: junk food never promises anything more than a pleasing and evanescent mouth-feel and delicious sugar rush, followed by a crash that leaves the consumer lethargic and unsatisfied. On that front, this album comes fresh out of Wonka’s factory, perhaps all the better to keep it so short and so sweet. Suwa has since released a follow-up EP in November tha,t while scaling down my personal expectations, does portend a successful career in fresh-faced, anison idol-dom.

NiziU: Make you happy
(2020.06.30)

In a K-pop world where nearly every girl and boy group have fallen prey to BTS/BLANKPINK-syndrome (a terminal condition presenting with symptoms of similarity and pandering, with a fierce, almost desperate sense of competitiveness), including such venerable institutions as SM Entertainment, it was nice to see a group that went for a completely different approach, instead tailoring their sound to airy Japanese idol-pop. Though technically a “pre-debut,” this EP containing four songs has grown on me more slowly, but firmly, than any other debut this year, with its unbridled joy and warm-pancakes positivity. Their Japan-side buzz promises more of the same and I hold out hope that the group doesn’t capitulate to pressure to compete on a world-stage by diluting what makes them so great.

YUKIKA: Soul Yeoja
(2020.07.21)

I’m not completely sold on this debut album, but I have to admit its place in 2020 as a stand-out is nearly unparalleled. For example, YUKIKA’s commitment to city pop could do with a bit more consistency on the production side. Soul Yeoja leads with its jazzy, laid-back singles like “SOUL LADY” and the glimmering “NEON 1989,” giving every indication of a proto-Korean Dance for Philosophy before devolving into standard K-pop. Take “Yesterday” or “Day for Love,” which go for the bare minimum in vintage before “pit-a-pet,” an adorable homage to puppy love, boasts all the familiar tropes found on a standard GFRIEND or OH MY GIRL albums. Still, the potential for YUKIKA to transcend easy familiarity is high, and if Soul Yeoja is just the first in a line of skillful homages, it deserves credit for whetting appetites hungry for something different, even if city pop, in general, is as far from “different” as we can get a decade into the existence of Bandcamp.

Ava Max: Heaven & Hell
(2020.09.18)

While Axa Max lacks the quirky magnetism of The Fame-era Lady Gaga, she projects the same intrepid effort on her debut full-length Heaven & Hell. The basic Euro-pop foundations lend a steady purpose to an extended run of music, a stepping stone path of a track list that wraps up an almost 3-year block of fun, but indistinguishable singles. It’s not the best representation of what a major label like Atlantic can offer, but there’s raw material within Ava Max, one that hasn’t yet been tapped by truly innovative pop, the kind that gives songs an instantly recognizable personality. I would love to see what Ava Max can come up with with an A-list producer, and hope to see her get the chance to make magic in the years to come.

Dagny: Strangers / Lovers
(2020.10.02)

Dagny’s years in the trenches of pop music, writing for bigger artists with bigger budgets and bigger labels has paid off in her first full-length Strangers / Lovers. Collecting a handful of previously released singles, alongside new tracks, the album focuses less on fresh than fun, rooting itself in conventional dance-pop, while drawing upon little variety in production for a consistent, rather than diverse, palette of sounds. However, the songs emanate a deft skill and attention to detail crafted by an obviously seasoned hand. One hopes Dagny has finally proved she deserves more time and resources to devote to her own career.

beabadoobee: Fake It Flowers
(2020.10.16)

My aversion to grunge is tempered by the intense nostalgia it provokes, one that beabadoobee has harnessed to success on her debut album Fake It Flowers. Combined with sometimes naive, heart-on-its-sleeve confessions, the album focuses less on wrapping up a tidy package than on the process, one that indulges in all the messy feelings and everyday cliches that make up honest human relationships. The sound, reliant on the aforementioned 90’s alternative and indie rock sound, suits this very candid and clearly cathartic debut album from a voice that will only benefit from more time and experience.

Nova Miller: The Passion
(2020.10.16)

It’s time we all face the changing landscape and accept that TikTok is the new YouTube, brimming with undiscovered talent and up-and-coming chart toppers. As a succinct premonition, the debut EP The Passion from multi-talented Swedish singer Nova Miller exemplifies the riches we have to look forward to from some of the unlikeliest, and often derided sources. This EP is everything Strangers / Lovers could have been if it had managed a bit more luck in the catchy hook department. But we’ll be in for a real treat when Miller finally figures out how to incorporate and showcase her wide range, marking this as a true debut: one that teases rather than fully delivering.

RAYE: Euphoric Sad Songs
(2020.11.20)

Like Dagny, RAYE already has a history, giving her a leg-up on other debut albums, one that proves this distinction can get a bit murky and muddled when you’re trying to organize all the singles and collabs, and figure out what distinguishes an EP from a true full-length. I’m going with full-length here because there’s nothing that captures my attention faster than a throwaway 00s Eurodance sample, like RAYE incorporates into “Regardless,” her bouncy collab with Rudimental that references Nadia Ali’s iconic trill for iiO’s “Rapture.” Euphoric Sad Songs relies a a bit too heavily on this tongue-in-cheek homage to 90’s dance, but not without an endearing earnestness and genuine appreciation. I’m not sure if there’s a long career in this kind of largely niche sound, one that relies on a very of-the-moment retro callback, but it’s so fun, it’s hard to simply dismiss.

Honorable Mentions

color-code: Re∂l
Muni Long: Black
Gabby Barrett: Goldmine
Haruka Kudo: KDHR
Re:Complex: Neo Gravity

Top ten remastered/reissued albums of 2020

As important and fun as it is to look forward and tear through an unceasing avalanche of new releases, sometimes it’s nice to take a deliberate step backward and enjoy old favorites. Many of these old favorites can be seen in a new light, for better or worse, either by way of physical format, studio wizardry, or the life, experience, and older perspective you bring to it. And all of those factors have contributed to the way I have selected ten of the best reissues of the year, listed here in chronological order.

Depeche Mode: MODE
(2020.01.24)

Depeche Mode went big for their limited-edition career-spanning box set, first announced in 2019, and finally released in January of this year. The box set includes all fourteen studio albums along with additional material from b-sides to bonus tracks. The box is a testament to this group’s musical evolution, from their early synth-pop days to the darker rock-influenced 90s, up through their current iteration as an electronic legacy act. Fans with a slightly smaller budget who prefer vinyl over CD can instead opt for the band’s steady output of single reissues, including the latest from Songs of Faith and Devotion.

White Stripes: De Stijl (20th Anniversary)
(2020.06.20)

De Stijl is not my favorite White Stripes album (is it their best? Debatable), but you can count on Jack White to continue preserving his band’s legacy with the utmost attention and care. This 20th anniversary of the group’s sophomore album from the Third Man Vault includes the original album on double colored-vinyl, unreleased recordings, live performances on DVD, and a booklet full of unseen photos and ephemera from the era. Nobody is better at selling himself as a living legend than Jack White, and this reissue spares no expense or enthusiasm to exploit the hype, mystery and romance of his band’s history, the recent cultural fetish for vinyl, and more notably, the nostalgia it manufactures.

Katy Perry: Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection
(2020.07)

Urban Outfitters is known for their pop-appreciating vinyl reissues featuring a bevy of the serious critic’s most-hated from Britney Spears to Hilary Duff, so it’s a perfect distributor for Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream. The year-long celebration of one of the most successful pop albums of all time is a deserved victory for the set, which features iconic, era-defining chart hits like “Firework,” “California Gurls,” and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” This Complete Confection edition features the additional tracks released with the CD re-release like “Part of Me” and the “Megasix Smash-Up” by Tommie Sunshine. Tommie Sunshine! 2012, ya’ll!

ABBA: ABBA: The Studio Albums
(2020.07.03)

ABBA has released a countless number of box sets, reissues, demos, remasters, and related merchandise since their break-up, and the river never stops flowing. Capitalizing on the bewildering vinyl resurgence that defies both belief and common sense, the group has reissued all of their studio albums in a deluxe box set, perhaps in a bid to smooth over any grudges held over yet another postponed reunion, the first due to legitimate circumstances. Taking bets now: which will come first, new ABBA material or that new X Japan album?

James Horner: Casper (Original Soundtrack) 25th Anniversary Remastered Edition
(2020.08)

James Horner’s original score for Casper captures the tone of 90’s kid-flicks to a tee: with this delightfully nostalgic and quirky soundtrack, the composer secured yet another notch in his belt of absolute era-defining classics, from Hocus Pocus and Jumanji, to The Land Before Time and Titanic. This 25th anniversary remaster from La-La Land Records includes additional cues alongside the original release with detailed liner notes. Hocus Pocus next?

Goldfrapp: Supernature
(2020.08.14)

Supernature contains some of Goldfrapp’s most well-known commercial hits, from the iPhone 5-accompanying “Ooh La La” to the Target-celebrating, foot-to-arrow stomping DDR “Number 1.” In hindsight, the album was one of the group’s last gasps, the third in a trio of increasingly successful albums that culminated in multiple Grammy nominations as well as critical accolades (personally, my favorite is Head First, but my taste is lousy). To celebrate the 15th anniversary of this monumental album, Supernature has been reissued in a lovely peacock-green vinyl, all the better to relive your most awkward dance floor fantasies.

Marie Antoinette (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.10.09)

One might be nonplussed upon first hearing the incongruous use of new wave music by the likes of the Cure, New Order, and Bow Wow Wow  as the backdrop to the rococo tableau of history and pastels that is Marie Antoinette, but certainly not displeased. Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of the later life of France’s infamous queen bristles with fun, flirtatious, utterly decadent self-indulgence, and this cotton candy-pink vinyl reissue exclusive to Barnes & Noble is a fitting tribute. Not to be forgotten are the original works by Dustin O’Halloran who lays down some of his best piano work in the second half.

Linkin Park: Hybrid Theory 20th Anniversary Edition Super Deluxe Box Set
(2020.10.24)

Love them or hate them, Linkin Park went on to influence and change the face of chart-rock forever, and Hybrid Theory is where it all started. The story of Linkin Park is one of lightning-quick fame and lightning-quick backlash, despite the persistence of million-selling records; in fact, I’m always surprised that Hybrid Theory sold even more records than its follow-up Meteora! This 20th anniversary release features tons of demos, remixes, and unreleased material, for hours of cringe-inducing memories of that time you sat in a corner and cried into your bottle of Manic Panic hair dye while blasting “Crawling.” With time, like twenty years of it, it’s nice to know those wounds, they WILL heal.

Daft Punk & Hans Zimmer: TRON: Legacy (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.11)

Boutique labels like Waxwork and Mondo has been churning out exquisite vinyl reissues for years now, and finally tackled two of the greatest soundtracks of all time in one year, Edward Scissorhands at Waxwork for the 30th anniversary, and  TRON: Legacy at Mondo to celebrate its 10th. The reissue features the original score composed by Daft Punk and Hans Zimmer on double, colored vinyl (a chill ice blue and…sunset-orange? OK). The real draw here is the gorgeous new artwork created by Matt Taylor. You know it’s a disappointing year when only two of Hans Zimmer’s scores see release in a calendar year!

Minako Honda: Minako Honda COMPLETE ALBUM BOX
(2020.12.23)

Countless Golden-Age idols have gotten their due reverence over the past decade, with gloriously updated box sets, complete with almost every studio recording in his or her quiver, from Iyo Matsuomoto, to Yu Hayami, to Maiko Itoh, so it’s about time Minako Honda got the VIP treatment. Honda, cousin to mega-idol Seiko Matsuda, had a career which was all-too brief and cut off by serious illness, but in that short time released some of the most fun early J-pop records. Among them are the cut-and-paste synth-pop confections M’SYNDROME and Madonna-homage Lips, but her later move away from typical idol fare, like Cancel and Midnight Swing were just as good. All of these and more are available in this box set, released at the 15th anniversary of her passing, with also includes bonus material and a Blu-ray disc with music videos.

Honorable Mentions

Danny Elfman: Edward Scissorhands (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (30th Anniversary)
John Addison: Swashbuckler (Expanded Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
New Order: Power, Corruption & Lies: Definitive Edition
Britney Speas: Oops!…I Did it Again (20th Anniversary)
Reba McEntire: Rumor Has It (30th Anniversary)