February 2020: Highlights

LOONA: [#]
(2020.02.05)

I was ready for the next LOONA project a year ago when they released the brilliant [x x], which made the Top Ten Albums of the Year list, but [#] was not what I was expecting. It seems the group has gone back to the K-pop girl-group-template drawing board with lead track “So What,” a generic chunk of electro-pop I can picture any number of current trendy groups like ITZY or EVERGLOW releasing. It’s not a bad song, but it’s void of any unique identifying marker that makes it unmistakably LOONA, and not, say, peak-era f(x). It’s unclear where the magic of this group has gone: the entire project was founded on an exquisitely drawn-out reveal campaign, capped by an album that seemed just as enigmatic as the girls’ origins. Now that all identities have been revealed, BlockBerryCreative are treading water by falling back on well-worn concepts, in this case, a tough-as-nails clap back anthem that doesn’t float, and stings for all the wrong reasons.

Birds of Prey: The Album // Daniel Pemberton: Birds of Prey OMPS
(2020.02.07) // (2020.02.14)

Ever since Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning Black Panther: The Album lent legitimacy and prestige to film projects, soundtracks curated and/or produced by pop stars have become another sign of a singer’s cultural status. Last year, we had Beyonce’s very serious The Lion King: The Gift and Ariana Grande’s frothy Charlie’s Angels entries, the latter having somewhat bombed, though I personally took it for the escapist, mainstream-feminist bait collection it was and thoroughly enjoyed it. This year’s first entry is Birds of Prey: The Album, and though it lacks a central figure behind it, is filled with original tracks from some of the brightest new figures on Billboard, like Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, Halsey, and Summer Walker. This is somehow even more fun than Charlie’s Angels, boasting fifteen tracks that range from hip-hop, to dance, to silky R&B, all bent on juicing the hell out of the film’s theme of female independence (I’m assuming, based on the trailer — I know nothing about American comic books and super hero films). It doesn’t always stick the landing, but the spirit and energy it gives off feels exciting: production levels on this are turned up to eleven, with the compression and volume mix on these songs dominating every amount of space in the room. Imagine my surprise when Daniel Pemberton’s score was released a week later, the unsuspecting mirror-image to this rainbow-pop palette revealing that parts of the songs were actually extrapolated from the score. Charlotte Lawrence’s “The Joke’s on You” is from “The Fantabulous Emancipation Explosion” and “Harley Quinn (Danger Danger)” brought to life by Jucee Froot’s “Danger.” It’s a chance to play in some of the songs’ scaffolding while also bringing to life a somewhat unorthodox score that relies on its visuals to do most of the heavy-lifting, with tracks sounding less like a traditional score than the industrial beats backing old PlayStation racing video games. Still, it’s a cool twist on a practice I expect to continue seeing pop up, though I suppose it’s too much to hope for a companion to one of the scores I’m most excited for this year: Wonder Woman 1984, which drops in June.

Rocket Punch: RED PUNCH // Cherry Bullet: Hands Up
(2020.02.11)

A few girl-group debuts caught my eye last year, two of which were Rocket Punch and Cherry Bullet. Potential is a weak foundation to base hopes on, but you never really know which group will (or even can) end up being the next SNSD or 2NE1, and that is part of what makes debuts so exciting, and so disappointing when follow-ups fail to hit the same mark. Both groups released new music on the same day, Rocket Punch with their second mini-album, RED PUNCH, and Cherry Bullet with single “Mureupeul Tak Chigo (Hands Up).” The latter is near-abysmal: a sloppy “Fur Elise” sample, the lead (and arguably only) hook, has no chance of carrying this thin, lethargic hip-pop meringue that, as The Bias List points out, “is almost too obvious to work. Its repetitive use borders on cloying.” Luckily, RED PUNCH picks up the slack with lead track “BOUNCY,” a dynamic song with tempo modulations that keep the energy and novelty as bright as the title suggests. The rest of the EP is not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, but it extends the atmosphere introduced on PINK PUNCH, and this undervalued lack of pretense makes it one of the best K-pop releases of the month.

FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC 9
(2020.02.12)

I have long since given up on keeping track of the EXILE TRIBE franchise, mostly because it has never really struck me as worth paying attention to. Furthermore, now that my favorite iteration of this extended universe is coming to an end, it hardly seems worth investing any additional time. Still, it’s always nice to get in on the ground floor of a group: it always feels easier being there from the beginning as opposed to jumping into the middle of a career and playing catch up on albums and singles and scandals before you feel comfortable forming opinions. If you relate to that feeling at all, FANTASTICS is the newest train you still have time to get on before they leave the station for good (that and MCND, who delivered a decent debut mini-album, memorable mostly for the stand-out lead track). The group has released four singles over the course of the past year and just released their debut album FANTASTIC 9 this past month. The album is as predictable an EXILE album as you can imagine: there are no surprises hidden among this bloated 15-track collection (but still only second to the ironman triathlon that is BTS’s new album) complete with two unnecessarily drawn-out instrumental interludes (presumably archived here for future dance-showcases during live events), but it’s also as fun as you’d expect, too: it’s the dancier, poppier, gentler cousin to GENERATIONS. The emphasis here is on dance, not hip-hop, and it all goes down as smoothly as some of the more Western Hey! Say! JUMP cuts. I’m not blown away, but I’m impressed! FANTASTIC 9 needs some serious trimming, but it’s salvageable, and hopefully some of this stems more from an over-eagerness than lack of direction — the former can be harnessed, the latter can pull you under quicksand fast. I don’t think anything can fill the hole that E-girls will leave behind, but there’s potential for welcome distraction here.

KARD: RED MOON
(2020.02.12)

It’s tough out there for co-ed groups, but as someone who got into K-pop because of a group like Koyote, I can’t help rooting for these underdogs. I don’t know what it is about these groups that audiences seem so averse to when they used to be something of a norm — they’re a bit more popular in Japan, with groups like AAA (oops, never mind, they’re going on hiatus) and lol still representing for Avex, a label that never once succeeded at something twenty years ago that they think they can’t keep doing forever (literally no one is asking for more super eurobeat, but like clockwork, compilations continue to be released), but I guess it’s one of the few 90’s touchstones no one is ready to revive yet. Co-ed groups (especially dance-focused ones) peaked in the 90s around the world, with groups like trf, Real McCoy, move, and Koyote, but were left behind in K-pop during the big girl- and boy-group boom of the Second Generation. The last co-ed group I remember making any sort of impact was Co-Ed School, and while there are a couple of co-ed groups releasing music today, something like Triple H is the Yeti of the monster world: seasonal, and rarely standing out. I rather like “Red Moon,”: the song rests comfortably in the footsteps laid by groups before them — upbeat, trendy, and hardly groundbreaking, but extremely competent. Perhaps it’s just easier to market single-gender groups when you’ve got your target audience whittled down to a marketing science, but I’ll always root for those daring to take the difficult road and rising to the challenge.

Tink: Hopeless Romantic
(2020.02.14)

While researching TAEYEON’s solo album Purpose last year, I came across the very Wikipedia-like term “PBR&B,” a “stylistic alternative” to R&B. I”m not 100% sure I can distinguish this sound from contemporary R&B, or maybe this just is the sound of R&B now, and we’ve reached the apex of its transition, the point where it is now the default, rather than the alternative. The Weeknd’s early mix tapes are surely one early iteration, as are artists like Frank Ocean and Drake, but it is really women who have taken the reins of this sound and made it both mainstream and meaningful: SZA, Summer Walker, Kehlani, and Tinashe are just a few that instantly come to mind — Walker’s debut album Over It, in particular is still treading water in the Billboard Top 50 more than four months after its release, and her duet with Usher is a great example of the sound I’m referring to, whatever it may be called. It brings to mind softer 90’s ballads, but without the cheese; certainly more explicit — at times downright crude — but also insanely liberating. I slept on Doja Cat’s Hot Pink last year and after quickly correcting my mistake this month, I was determined not to let anymore of these gems pass by. Tink’s Hopeless Romantic is another addition to this shift in sound, rolling in on a bed of red satin and rose petals. She’s no newcomer to the sound, bringing a near-decade of experience to Hopeless Romantic, and the result is an effortless mix of drum machines set to scandalous soirees and storybook bodice-rippers. Listen, I’ll be happy if I never heard the phrase “in my feelings” ever again, its clipped millennial motto now a lazy shorthand meant to prove, rather than do the work of conveying, depth, but Tink’s use of it is justified. Perhaps in-my-feelings-R&B isn’t any less offensive or silly as PBR&B: it certainly gets to the heart, if not soul, of the matter.

Hitomi Arai: “Shoujo A” PV
(2020.02.19)

It has now been five years since TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE’s last album, a time so interminable as to be equal to a lifetime in the entertainment world. In the idol world, groups have risen, peaked, and fallen in less time. While Avex clumsily fumbles around with what used to be their greatest girl-group of the decade, member Hitomi Arai, has been getting some unusual solo time. Last year, the sub-leader covered Ohta Takako’s 80’s hallmark “DELICATE ni Suki Shite.” It’s now obvious Avex has some grand plan for Arai that involves an older audience that can best appreciate these Golden Age hits with a cover of Akina Nakamori’s 1982 classic “Shoujo A”. But what do these songs really have in common? They were both the first true hits in both artist’s careers and propelled them to stardom — that first-time feeling being what producers are most likely homing in on for Arai herself, who is now no longer a new-face herself, but whose career has stalled so long in TGS that she might as well be. Unfortunately, the covers, while fun natsukashii-bait aren’t strong enough on their own: they’re not different, or improve upon the original, enough to be memorable in any way. The PV for “Shoujo A,” released a month ahead of the official single release, seems redundant, the wig coming off as gimmicky rather than clever after we’ve seen every iteration of this concept, from parodies to critical satires, to really earnest job well-dones over the past decade. But worst of all, Hitomi Arai is clearly a star in search of a galaxy, someone who deserves a lot better than these half-hearted projects that rely entirely on unoriginal, already-proven-successful material. Immediately after watching this PV, I re-listened to Killing Me Softly, the last great TGS album and thought, Is there life after TGS? And wondered why the real question couldn’t be, Is there a way to revive and reignite the magic of TGS? To correct all the mistakes made after the departure of Ayano Konishi?

Allie X: Cape God
(2020.02.21)

Despite my appreciation of Allie X, I wasn’t too impressed by the singles leading up to her new album Cape God. While still steeped in the mystical art-pop style that has become her signature, they seemed a little too self-serious, missing some of the smart humor of tracks off of CollXtion II or Super Sunset. I suppose that’s all par for the course when you’re drawing inspiration from opioid-addiction documentaries, and anyway, no one goes to Allie X for mindless pop formulas (though there are a couple of slightly more conventional bops, like “Sarah Come Home,” and “Life of the Party”). But in the end, despite the whip-quick hooks, Cape God is a slow, quiet burn — there aren’t many bells and whistles adorning this one to make it more palatable for a casual listener, nor have I been able to process my reaction as easily as I can on most first-listens. This is a record I see myself necessarily returning to many times with pleasure, and not a little bemusement, that only time can help clear.

Lady Gaga: “Stupid Love”
(2020.02.28)

Three big music videos were released during the last week of the month: Lady Gaga’s new song for “Stupid Love,” Doja Cat’s “Say So,” and Taylor Swift’s Lover-cut “The Man.” Upfront, the best of these is, Doja Cat’s “Say So,” which is practically a shoo-in for my favorite music video of the year in all its gorgeous, decadent, campy, low-key-is-for-basics glory. But none of these videos are understated — Taylor Swift’s video is as subtle as a hammer to the head, and while I really appreciate its general message and amusing tone, it seems a tad smug about what are essentially very literal retreads of points that have been made for years. Swift (and technology) does an amazing job of transforming into a man, but each scenario is more like a knowing chuckle than a wow, that’s funny and I never thought about it like that before. Is this really an attempt to critique the patriarchy or just one asshole in particular? It is hardly the same. But it’s Lady Gaga’s video that has made the most waves. I’ve read a lot of mixed responses to this and mine tends to err more on the disappointed side. It is indeed a return to Lovegame-era dance-pop, but I would have preferred a continuation of the growth exhibited on Artpop. I know that album divides fans, but it had some amazing album cuts that were lost in the shadow of a mediocre lead-track like “Applause.” “Stupid Love” feels like it hit rewind just a little too long, past both this album and Born This Way. The video, which looks like it was assembled over a weekend in a frenzy of aluminum, spray paint, and hot glue guns is fun (and luckily, Gaga seems to be having a blast filming this), but inconsequential, a mere side quest on the journey that is The Legend of Gaga. It is not impossible that this was rushed due to the song’s leak, so I hope that with time and the proper rollout, Gaga still has some tricks up her sleeve that will make LG6 the true Artpop follow-up everyone deserved. Until then, God bless Doja Cat for getting us through this month.

An overdue Valentine: The underappreciated Takanori Nishikawa

Some artists have been around for so long that it’s easy to take them for granted, their existence a ubiquitous modern convenience, like airplanes or light bulbs. And their origin stories seem so irrelevant, that they hardly seem worth questioning; like Moses floating on a riverbed, their delivery seems inevitable, a gift from the music gods that simply emerged one day among the cattails. Since they’ve always been around, it feels like they always will, and so it becomes easy to let interesting work slip through the cracks. Takanori Nishikawa can seem like that sometimes, each new release like a routine dental check-up — ah yes, it’s that time again — but in reality, he has done a lot of good, ground-breaking work, constantly reinventing his look (if maybe not his sound) with each release, and with some side-projects that still seem a tad ahead of their time, just a bit like they got swept under the rug of a household name whom by that point, was dismissed as a bit of a joke, and a little bit of a has-been.

In Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, the singer laments how often women must reinvent themselves to stay relevant and interesting, especially as they age and are sentenced to “an elephant graveyard by the time they’re 35.” One would imagine Takanori Nishikawa, born in a country where the turnover rate for idols can cause vertigo, was introduced to the concept of reinvention at a young age and instead found his raison d’etre, a kind of freedom that he saw less as chains and more as the liberation to experiment and explore, a way to keep things fresh when they seemed stagnant. The singer has been evolving since he found a receptive audience, almost with each single, and he certainly didn’t limit it to the people with whom he worked.

In the beginning

Takanori Nishikawa began his career in the early 1990s in a visual-kei band, before getting his first big break when he teamed up with Asakura Daisuke. This fortuitous meeting led to the formation of T.M.Revolution, short for Takanori Makes Revolution. The purpose of the name was to include all of the musical creators who contributed to make Nishikawa one of the most successful male solo artists of the late 90s (and we know how scarce and coveted those are today). He scored his first #1 album on the Oricon with 1998’s triple joker, and celebrated in style by releasing one of the most fantastically trippy J-pop music videos of all time for his next single “HOT LIMIT,” in an outfit that has become so iconic, it now has its own homages and gross figurines, though it has also made him the tail-end of many jokes (which he luckily seems to take in good-humored stride). Till then, Nishikawa was increasingly, and understandably, relegated to the otaku-zone: occasionally, his work was peppered with slightly darker content, like “Slight faith,” and “AQUALOVERS ~ DEEP into the night,” but mostly his songs took on the often highly dramatic air of shounen animation, an amalgamation of the genre’s staple sounds – bright, speedy rock music with lyrical content that reflected the target audience: staying strong, moving forward, never giving up, and tapping into your inner power.

And as the music became more dramatic and anime-adjacent, his look became accordingly more cartoonish. Quasi-cos-play began to feature heavily into the way his work was marketed, from the jungle-animal-aesthetic of “WILD RUSH” (used to promote Teressa Jungle Jungle hair-care products), to “Burnin’ X’mas,” where he dressed as a kind of Dollar Tree-fashion Father Christmas for the jacket photo and promo appearances. The cover of his 1999 album, the force, featured the singer in two opposing looks — lounging in a hyper-flat fantasy Eden, abundant with fruit and birdsong, and a sly, skull-bearing demon. This very Shelley Duval’s Faerie Tale Theatre-production was just a taste of the visual components Nishikawa envisioned for himself and his music. But the singer seemed bored, and when pop stars get stuck in a rut, there’s one surefire way to spice things up.

It was around this time that he first put T.M.Revolution on hold to once again team up with old pal Asakura Daisuke for the end of genesis T.M.R.evolution turbo type D, or TMR-e, project. A one-off, this more moody, atmospheric music didn’t hit it off as much the duo hoped, and they soon parted ways. The diversion put a bit of a stumble in Nishikawa’s step, and he took a few years to regain his footing, releasing mostly bland, safe rock music after 2000’s incredible opus progress. As he rooted around for traction back in the world of anime, which had continued to explode with new talent like Nami Tamaki and Nana Mizuki, even as his peers began falling to the wayside (shout out to anyone who remembers and appreciates Two-Mix), he tried on a few new personae: that of stateside crossover with 2003’s coordinate, television emcee on beloved music show Pop Jam (RIP), and finally, nostalgia-bait with a slew of best-ofs and self-cover albums.

abingdon boys school

But one of his greatest creative outlets was the short-lived side-project abingdon boys school. The band, which consisted of T.M.Revolution members SUNAO (guitar), Shibasaki Hiroshi (guitar and principal composing), and Kishi Toshiyuki (synths, programming, composing), formed in 2005, and named themselves after the real-life Abingdon School located in Oxfordshire, England. Of course, Nishikawa never leaves things at a 5 when he can take it to 10, so the group went all in, dressing up in the uniforms of boys decades younger (the members were all in their mid-30s when the group formed), and posing next to vintage sports equipment and British automobiles in press material. This would all be a kind of cute lark if the music wasn’t a jump in quality from anything T.M.R. had been coming up with in the last few years. Not only that, but the cos-play angle was a bit novel for an all-male band[1]: with the startling number of J-pop girl groups marketed wearing school uniforms and other straight-male fantasy costumes (French maids, flight attendants), it could leave audiences wondering where the male equivalents were. Nishikawa seemed destined to fill this gap with what was now a long history of subversive, highly-stylized stage looks. Aside from the requisite make-up-heavy groundwork laid by visual-kei bands and the like, who pulled from vintage gothic-horror fashion movements that reflected the counter-cultural ethos and heavy music more than their implied servility to an audience (I would exclude a handful of artists, Gackt for example, who were also genuinely radical), there were few all-male groups that reflected the sartorial diversity of options for male performers, particularly in relation to their audience.

The only difference here, was that, being all-male, abingdon boys school, despite, and let me repeat this, being 30-year-olds wearing school uniforms, was never sexualized the way that female groups like AKB48 were, for which only one reason is that this look was chosen, rather than necessarily thrust upon them by the demands of a male-consumer driven market — it was an option, not necessarily a requisite, like their counterparts. Nishikawa was simply lucky in this sense — as long as he continued to play the game, he got away with it, without having his vision and music questioned or devalued by what he was wearing. Which is important when you think about how great abingdon’s music was.

Unlike the poppier, kid-friendly rock of Nishikawa’s early work, their music was louder, heavier, and darker, though still buffeted by Nishikawa’s signature resounding vibrato. Many of the songs were about having been treated badly by exes, or being unable to move on from broken relationships. They expressed angst, frustration, and even anger, all soundtracked to a propulsive wall of guitar feedback that only got more interesting as the singles piled up. abingdon boys school released their first self-titled album in 2007, drawing largely from Western hard rock and nu metal influences filtered through the inescapable J-rock major-chord cadence of bands like GLAY and L’arc~en~Ciel. Unlike many of T.M.R.’s songs, these were riff-heavy, and less concerned with adding a touch of symphonic grandeur, though pinches of those occasionally peeped out from corners like vigilant reminders of their origins.

The band released their follow-up album in 2010, their last, and though it did as well as their debut, they soon stopped releasing original material, only reuniting as a live band to play local rock festivals. Indeed, they just played a casual set at INAZUMA ROCK FES. in 2019, for which you’ll notice one glaring omission right off the bat: the absence of their trademark school uniforms. Perhaps it’s their age, or time itself, or the atmosphere of the festival, but it’s one gimmick that seems to have fallen to the wayside, a performance no longer required, stuck in the photo studios that forever captured and left us with one brief moment of an impeccable, Japanese rock band clothed in the gimmicky uniforms of those far younger than they were. It’s an interesting rewind from a man whose whole career is practically based on playing a part. But as they are now, they can be agenda-less, T-shirt wearing rock stars like their  too-cool-to-try-too-hard peers.

Still serving looks

Since the side-project’s demise (or not — do these performances mean there’s hope for a new abs album?[2]), Nishikawa has continued to release music, now notably, and finally, releasing under his own name. He also returned to creating novel looks and reinventing for his albums, releasing concepts like the jacket covers for UNDER:COVER 2 (itself a series of albums that musically re-envisions old hits) where he dressed in homage to various iconic female pop stars like Madonna, Amy Winehouse, and Katy Perry. Of particular note is the absence of underlying cruelty in these photos, the kind that usually accompany depictions where a man-dressed-as-a-woman is played for laughs to emphasize just how silly women are: though other photos of him do play up the hyper-feminine, commercialized form of womanhood, it comes off as sincere and fun, and, while still being used to sell a product, lacks any sort of punchline — it is presented as just another way Nishikawa wants to express himself — really, it is astounding how low these flew under the radar. Of course, with his body of work now looking like a long line of clues, this also prompted several questions by devoted fans and the general public about whether or not Nishikawa would, could, or even should confirm or deny his sexuality.

Yet it’s not just Nishikawa — we can look at a slew of pop stars, most notably my pick for our current great male solo singer, TAEMIN, whose androgyny is part of what fuels his whole career. It is not my place or intention to speculate on the private lives of entertainers who choose to neither confirm nor deny publicly for whatever reasons, reasons they are more than entitled to, but there are undeniably a number of men and women in K- and J-pop groups who are gay, trans, queer, etc., who, as long as they continue performing their assigned roles, reap the rewards of the system, both for themselves and their entertainment companies. This is not an accusation: again, there are many reasons to side-step inquiry, among which may involve the safety of self, family and friends, reputation, and careers, and to the livelihoods of giant corporations with many employees and share-holders, that go into these decisions. This is totally beyond the scope of this essay, but it would be remiss not to acknowledge the specter that hovers over this entire essay and the East-Asian (and Western) entertainment industry.

What is apparent, however, is that Takanori Nishikawa is fearless, and that he has done valuable, innovative work for an audience of all gender and sexual orientations. In choosing to just be himself and lead with an artistic vision that often falls outside the box, both musically and visually, he has done what only few in the J-pop industry have done before him. And still Nishikawa’s work is not done, having just released his first official solo album, Singularity, which dropped last year with a Photoshop-heavy, cyborg-inspired cover. The cyborg concept seems almost redundant for him at this point, but it’s nice to see that he is still inspired and having fun, rather than letting age dictate his level of taste or willingness to continue challenging norms. Despite reinvention being a sort of harness on celebrities, and it certainly is when forced upon or unwanted, pop stars like Nishikawa seem to thrive on it, giving audiences decades of interesting, novel looks and concepts that question everything from how men and women should look and dress, to the gender binary and double standard of the idol system. As an ever-present figure and cultural mainstay, his sometimes-groundbreaking work in the industry has largely gone under the radar: ignored, dismissed, shrugged off, or treated as a passing joke. One can only hope that one day, the disservice will be corrected and Nishikawa can get his due recognition as a creative artist, just like his biggest influence, Prince. Thirty years into his career, he might just be as omnipresent, and forgettable, as bands like Southern All Stars or Mr. Children, but it’s important not to take for granted, or forget, trailblazing icons like Takanori Nishikawa.

1 After decades of seeing (and admittedly, using) the phrase “all-girl band” as a reference to the “all-male band” as default, I just love when I get to use the phrase all-male band instead.

2 abingdon boys school is the one project of his that I wish we would see more of — there was just something about those particular four guys in a room that seemed to bring out the magical, musical alchemy of J-rock, both visually and aurally, that for a brief moment in time, re-framed both the genre and Nishikawa’s career; abs3, please.

[ All images original scans, except for those credited to here, here, here, and here. ]

January 2020: Highlights

As expected, maybe due to the sheer amount, the majority of music released at any given time in any genre is either average or forgettable. There are, sometimes, hopefully, less than we’d like but still, a few that end up being excellent. But if they can’t all be excellent, they can at least be interesting. Whether or not any of that music manages to avoid the trap of being derivative or just plain bad, it gets people thinking and talking, and that is, by far, one of the greatest by-products of the relentless pursuit of excellence. So let’s dive into some of the interesting releases of January 2020, with perhaps a smattering of excellent or excellent-in-training among them.

Shingo Katori: 20200101
(2020.01.01)

Former SMAP-member Shingo Katori is no stranger to collaborations, having released one-offs with several fellow J-poppers during his time in the mega-successful boy band, most notably with Tomohisa Yamashita on the short-lived, but fun, project THE MONSTERS in 2012. But now that SMAP is no longer, he’s free to indulge in a full-length project, and I really hope the first-day-of-the-new-year release date is a flex signaling his intent to pursue this type of thing full-time in the next decade — so says Takuya Kimura, too, but no one is feigning surprise over the music of Go with the Flow, a literal parody of safe J-pop. Meanwhile, Katori’s album is filled with borderline bizarre collaborations with artists ranging from TeddyLoid to SCHA DARA PARR to AINA THE END of idol-group BiSH (the BiSH members have been getting around, though, so maybe that’s not notable). As you can imagine from such a varied roster of guests, the album is musically all over the place, its central thesis being Katori himself, who brings a surprising sense of wonder and delight to these tracks that run the gamut from J-rap to disco. This box-of-chocolates approach is the last thing I expected to be hearing and enjoying during the first week of 2020, and is all the more welcome knowing the alternative was probably a Go with the Flow. Katori has set a new bar for SMAP solo albums: good luck clearing this one boys.

YOUNHA: UNSTABLE MINDSET
(2020.01.06)

Who is Younha? This is a bad question to be asking in 2020, both of a singer who has been quite prolific for the last fifteen years, releasing a large amount of albums in both Korean and Japanese, and for someone I’ve somehow never even heard of until now. Personal shame aside, UNSTABLE MINDSET is the sequel EP to 2019’s STABLE MINDSET, though it’s hard-pressed to form any immediately obvious correlation outside of the linked cover art. Acoustic, indie-sounding ballads of K-pop are my Achilles heel, the Korean genre I am least interested in and most likely to avoid, so maybe it’s not surprising this one didn’t register. But I guess the slow rollout of January releases had this one rising to the top in a way it never would have in June or July. There’s all the usual hallmarks of this subgenre, not least the devastatingly heartfelt vocal performances, but most of all, it is gentle, just the type of music to open a new year with. Going back to hear some of her earlier releases hasn’t inspired me to continue looking into the singer, or anticipate future work, but I like the unexpectedness of how this one turned out, how there’s always room to be surprised, and how one of the least exciting months in K-pop on record can make you appreciate even the small things.

Selena Gomez: Rare
(2020.01.10)

I’ve already written a bit about Rare, the first great pop album of the year, but that doesn’t mean it has left me entirely. No, none of the hooks require more than a few chews to digest, but it has got me reconsidering the references I dropped to Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande. Pop stars mining their personal lives for hit songs is nothing new, but it does make me wonder if everyone would have been as interested in an album that didn’t indulge in obvious nods to exes and personal struggle. We live in an era where everyone, even grandma, wants you to check out their very important, personal-brand curated Twitter, fashioning drama out of every mundane breakfast known to humanity. Would this album have felt like such an event if it steered clear of finger-pointing and back-clapping? If it refused to give fans and hungry audiences exactly what it wanted? Is it possible to create an album that’s not so personal, yet universal? Does anyone want to listen to an album like that? Is it cheating to walk upon the bridge laid by the paparazzi you complain about, if the story you told and responded to didn’t need overt explanations because it was assumed, by the foundation they planted, that we already know about Pete Davidson and Mac Miller and Joe Alwyn and a kidney transplant? I don’t know! But I do know it didn’t make Halsey’s album any more listenable, so there’s clearly skill involved in pulling it off successfully.

Poppy: I Disagree
(2020.01.10)

Poppy has left the world scratching its head: there are plenty of stereotyped “millennial” artists now flourishing in the music business (Billie Eilish, Kim Petras, anyone making overt homages to Y2K culture), but none as Internet-savvy as Poppy, who has fashioned her entire brand on being a weird hodgepodge of social media and “shock” culture, the type of thing that is giving me Dark Web vibes when it’s not making me wonder if “Concrete” is the first actual American J-pop song I’ve ever heard. It’s not all a success, as the vocals and lyrics rarely reflect the instrumentation, which mostly invokes a quasi-experimental meets industrial, nu-metal spirit. Still, I can’t shake this one, and I keep returning to it: it feels a bit like being given pieces to several different puzzles and asked to both separate and construct them, and I for one, knowing the final picture might not result in a genuine accomplishment, am having a good time putting it all together.

Eminem: Music To Be Murdered By
(2020.01.17)

Controversy aside, I wasn’t expecting anything from a new Eminem album (the last time I noticed Eminem was seventeen years ago when he starred in a weirdly successful film that made an actual Academy-Award winner out of him), so this was a nice change from the usual Billboard-Hot-100-rap, the Top 40 being as far as my curiosity and exposure to the genre takes me, and what you hear there is mostly the rattling hi-hats of trap. It’s almost like looking into a fun house mirror, a brief reminder of why almost everyone I knew in sixth grade had memorized the words to “My Name Is” (because there were only two music videos being requested and played on The Box, and it was this or Aerosmith’s “Holy in My Soul,” that’s it, for like three years). Actually, Tom Breihan summed up what I found most moving about this album: “the thing that really sets Music To Be Murdered By apart […] is the way it flaunts Em’s obvious and overwhelming love of rap music.” And later, “the Eminem of this album sounds present and focused. He seems to love rap music again. That’s something.” Something is not to be scoffed at when you expected nothing. Trim off the dead weight (the Ed Sheeran song, definitely, but like five other tracks, too) and you’ve got something that feels close to victorious.

Sumire Uesaka: NEO PROPAGANDA
(2020.01.22)

Technically a seiyuu, Uesaka has cultivated a unique brand of off-the-wall idol-pop that is mostly due to songwriters and producers, though that doesn’t exclude her from the creative equation. In addition, she’s the perfect vehicle for the poly-tempos and speed shifts that weave throughout her poppy, techno, sound effect-heavy onomatopoeia odysseys. She fell back on a more traditional J-pop sound with NO FUTURE VACANCES, but NEO PROPAGANDA boasts song writers both old and new like Kenji Ohtsuki, Ryohei Shima of The Dresscodes, and MOSAIC.WAV who have imbue the album with all the hallmarks that have defined her sound from rolling Rs and high-pitched shrieks, to gonzo interpretations of Russian culture, all wrapped up in highly-stylized song titles like “Bon♡Kyu♡Bon wa Kare no Mono♡” and “Run Fast, Rasputin!” Unpredictability would make it an exhausting trek to the end of this album if it wasn’t so much fun; I can’t help but root for this colorful collection of odds-and-ends.

The Weeknd: “Blinding Lights”
(2020.01.21)

As someone with mixed, but mostly positive, feelings about Starboy, I was pleased with both “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights” when they were released just before the new year, the former which had, and continues to have, a ton of repeat value for me. These two songs are the well-known yin-and-yang of Tesfaye, the “Starboy” and the “In the Night,” the dark, brooding self-flagellating nightmare-scape of indie mixtapes, and the groovy, darkwave pop star who flirts with fame and Max Martin-level stardom so at least he can dance while it destroys him (is there anybody more consistently conflicted about their fame in music videos as Tesfaye and like, Ayumi Hamaski?). “Blinding Lights” finally got a video release, this one both a sequel and car advertisement that illustrates the previous point perfectly. Both songs have been getting some unique performance visuals on late night, the first when “Heartless” was performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with a very cool, very re-watchable, very vertigo-inducing stage set-up, and then “Blinding Lights,” both on Colbert again, with box and audience participation, and seemingly immediately after he stumbled off the streets of the music video, on Jimmy Kimmel Live! I love when an artist goes all in on a concept, and as the term “era” (as in Starboy-era, and Like a Virgin-era) has been plucked from the trade pubs and into the tweets of the casual-listening public, I hope we get an album announcement soon, so we can put a decent name to this deliciously decadent-in-Vegas, sinfully-red jacket era and hashtag it immediately.

CY8ER: “Renai REALITY-sho”
(2020.01.22)

The electro-pop boom has long since bust, but believe it or not, there was a glorious time when Yasutaka Nakata ruled J-pop and nobody could go two weeks without some official collaboration or production credit or eager knock-off fighting for prime headphone real estate. But it’s been a while since Nakata was able to pull off anything as game-changing and seminal as his early work with Perfume, MEG, Ami Suzuki, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, or his own passion project with capsule. Still, that laundry list gives you an idea of how prolific he was and it’s not something any one can easily dismiss after a few years of disappointments. I might be losing hope of anything interesting from Perfume and Pamyu, but I see a cred with his name and my heart still skips a beat. “Renai REALTIY-sho,” for idol-group CY8ER, is a very safe and comfortable space for him. It’s the bread-and-butter of Nakata-pop, that while bereft of any depth, does give off extra thick slices of the year 2008. It’s a welcome respite from some of the forgettable, slower-paced music he’s been putting out with Perfume, and it fits CY8ER like a VR glove. Unfortunately, the video, which does have some really cool visuals, is an exploitative mess, and this pretty-good-but-nothing-special track is the highlight of their new album Tokyo. Still, it was nice, just for a few minutes, to be transported in musical time, and I hope others continue to keep their minds open to Nakata, as I believe that he is still capable of surprises. But mostly, I hope that the increasing staleness of his particular sound, like that of Tetsuya Komuro’s in the early 2000s, doesn’t hamper his ability to adapt and adjust, or discourage him from putting in the effort to grab new listeners.

LatuLatu: Mangekyou ETERNITY
(2020.01.22)

If rock is dead, I’m not sure how to even think about J-rock, which sometimes seems plagued with an identity crisis, trapped between visual-kei inspired anime-pop and indie math rock. At the wayside has fallen the type of rock music that showed both how technical and how fun the genre could be. Bands like B’z and hide with spread beaver, who didn’t take themselves too seriously, who appreciated a big hook and a satisfying riff, and didn’t suffer the type of fools who objected to chart-appreciation. This is not a lament on the State of J-rock Today, nor is LatuLatu (not 100% on the romanization here, is it LatouLatou? I’ve yet to see it in its native habitat) here to save the genre, but boy did I have more fun listening to Mangekyou ETERNITY than I have listening to J-rock in a long time. The group, which might have made my best debut list last year if I had any idea who they were two months ago, were billed by HMV as a “desktop rock unit” that gained some fame on TikTok. They released their first official single in September and their first mini-album this month, which has gotten a bit of much-needed press. If you like ONEOKROCK, you won’t find anything objectionable here, though note that the comparison applies more to the energy and earnestness of this set than ethos. Neither rock nor J-rock is dead or has ever been dead, but it’s always nice when something comes along that feels like it could breathe some fresh air into the lungs of a sometimes-anemic genre.

SixTONES: “Imitation Rain”
(2020.01.22)

The last weekly #1 for the Oricon chart this month is a doozy, the type of thing that makes me wonder who talked whom into bringing this into existence. The double A-side single featuring the debut of two Johnny’s groups, SixTONES (pronounced “stones” because the alphabet is meaningless) and Snow Man, were dropped last year, and I remember noting Snow Man’s super fun, super K-pop approach (yes, it is 2020 and J-pop is still trying to Frankenstein pieces of K-pop) not only in sound, but in production, styling, visuals, all of it. It’s nothing special, but it was different and I liked it. I would call it a success. But SixTONES’s “Imitatation Rain” is actually doing better on social media, and after finally watching the video I have no idea why: it’s like one giant step backward. The ridiculous over-the-top emoting, drama, rainfall, the spoken interlude, it all made sense when I saw the production credit for Yoshiki, X Japan’s tireless and now inescapable leader. You can go back and pick out every single Yoshiki-ism in this: the piano, the whiny, soap-opera monologue (I can’t resist, here is a sample, and try to pretend you haven’t already heard this at the end of every X Japan ballad since 1988: “What’s the meaning of life, what’s the point of getting it right? / Cause’s everything’s fake, everybody breaks. […] Breaking down, I am breaking down / peace of mind is shutting down”), the entire catalog of his favorite English vocabulary (rain, life, dreams, endless — the only one missing, I think, is crucify and scar, but I’m going off of the shortened-PV version). There is even a point at the end of the video where one of the guys plays air piano! Air piano! As choreography! I wish I could like this because I love the idea of established producers taking their talent and tackling genres outside of their comfort zone, but this is the opposite of where Johnny’s should be taking their Reiwa debuts (among other actions they should strongly reconsider), and the fact that it made #1 was purposely inevitable, rather than indicative. I’m not writing this group off just yet, but needless to say, Snow Man wins this round. I hope someone handed Yoshiki his paycheck and politely declined any further contact, but a #1 doesn’t bode well.

Dua Lip: “Physical”
(2020.01.31)

What completed Dua Lipa’s transformation into a bonafide pop star? Was it “Don’t Start Now,” and its dance floor-therapy music video? Was it the blonde hair? The homages to past pop movements stacking up like dominoes, as if to absorb the essence of all of the past greats through musical osmosis, from the Spice Girls to Kylie Minogue and now all the way back to Olivia Newton-John? Her utter commitment to the trendy nostalgia-for-the-90s Look, from performance to red carpet? Dua Lipa was great when she was just Dua Lipa, but Future Nostalgia promises something bigger and better, a Dua Lipa with enormous ambition and a record company that knows what it’s doing. This is her Oops…! I Did It Again moment, a cataclysmic pop event that Warner is drawing out in excruciating, exquisite anticipation. It’s going to be a long, hard road to April 3, but so far, I have no reason to believe it won’t be worth the wait.

LOVEppears: A (personal) history

There are many albums I have listened to over the course of my life that have gradually peeled back the layers of my passion for music, revealing, with each successive tier, a broader, wider, and deeper appreciation and curiosity. This happened over the course of so many years, that it’s difficult to pinpoint when any one album spun me off into a whole new direction. These special albums are rare, but I can think of a few of them, the ones that have actually changed my life, stretching all the way back to a vinyl record of ABBA’s Super Trouper, a cassette tape of Natalia Kukulska’s Natalia, and Ace of Base’s The Sign. Certainly the Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon Sailor Stars Best Song Collection CD set me permanently on the road I would travel for the rest of my life. And definitely X Japan’s Silent Jealousy, which I came across in the dusky bowels of a now-deceased (duh) brick-and-mortar music shop (I think it’s used for university housing now). And Ayumi Hamasaki’s LOVEppears. Now that’s special.

I remember surfing the Internet in the early 00s, desperate to find any information I could on Japanese pop music, and to get my ears on any RealAudio snippet I could find before committing to a $35 album from a little shop called YesAsia that I learned about from flipping through Animerica. This was before we all got used to typing credit card numbers into any box that told us to, and any way, there was no way my parents were going to let me use theirs, so after having my interest piqued when coming across numerous pretty single covers and spending an hour waiting for “SURREAL” to finish downloading, I remember painstakingly printing out an order form, filling it out, walking to the bank for a money order, stuffing it all in an envelope, and patiently waiting by the door for the next eight weeks until my big gamble arrived: a copy of a maxi-single called Far away, and a full-length album called LOVEppears, by Ayumi Hamasaki.

By this point, I had already bought the evolution single, my very first Ayu purchase, from the import section of Virgin Records Megastore on Michigan Avenue, but that didn’t alleviate any of the apprehension: “evolution” didn’t sound like any of the other Ayu material I was hearing. But when you’re a pre-teen, you don’t have the intelligence to abstain from pinning all your hopes on something as inconsequential as a compact disc. Till then, I had enjoyed music from T.M.Revolution, and lots of other opening and closing anime themes, plus some visual-kei and J-rock like X Japan and hide. But pure, non-sieyuu J-pop was still uncharted territory. Admittedly, my memory is fuzzy on the timeline, but I know that I was at a turning point where Japanese music was still just an option, rather than the norm. Ayumi Hamasaki helped change all of that, and if it wasn’t already for evolution and a dozen dance remixes, than it was for one of her most beloved studio albums: LOVEppears.

LOVEppears capped off a whirlwind year for Hamasaki, which began back in February 1999, when she released the first single from the album, WHATEVER. While the production of “WHATEVER” is stylistically similar to the songs off of her debut album A Song for XX (many songs from that album were also written by Kazuhito Kikuchi), there was one very big exception: it was her first song to incorporate techno elements. No doubt an extension of her record label, Avex Trax’s, raison d’etre, this signaled a new sound that Hamasaki would explore throughout her career. Of course, Avex Trax had been pumping out dance music since the label’s inception, but this was new territory for an idol initially marketed as a sort of peer to label-mate Ami Suzuki, a sort-of anti-Hikaru Utada, whose background in American R&B and singer-songwriters was changing the mainstream landscape of J-pop. Avex wasn’t entirely convinced, hanging on to its bread-and-butter while letting the Western influences melt down into an artist like Namie Amuro, who was at one of the lowest points of her career. Instead, they began packing all their punches into two of their smartest potentials: Every Little Thing and Ayumi Hamasaki, both of whom received the star-studded Avex treatment replete with the best songwriters and marketing gurus, and an abundance of dance compilations with local and foreign DJs to give them a bit of global exposure. All of this would reveal itself in time, but for now, Hamasaki was at step one: “WHATEVER,” a modest bop promoted with two versions: a standard J-pop number, and the other, the delectably cold electronic version, as if cautiously gauging the audience’s reception. The waters proved warm, and her team got to work.

In the mean time Hamasaki got busy releasing a couple of safe winter ballads. The first was “LOVE~Destiny,” a song in collaboration with mega-producer Tsunku, who was hot off the success of his new girl group Morning Musume. The song’s music video is notable for depicting the first of many times Hamasaki would illustrate the loneliness of celebrity, featuring herself alone in several vast interiors, including a particularly chilly dressing room.

The second was Hamasaki’s last single to be released in the 3″ mini-CD format, “TO BE,” and written by D-A-I, whom Hamasaki would go on to work with for many years until 2002, when his appearances on albums became nearly scarce (as of this writing, the last song he wrote that appeared on an album was “Sweet Scar” on 2013’s Love again). Like all of Hamasaki’s singles, this one is particularly personal, with later speculation nearly confirming that the song was written for her then-producer Max Matsuura with whom she was rumored to have had a nearly life-long love affair (this is neither the space, nor time, to discuss her romantic life, but it also feels dishonest to leave it out completely, when it effects so much of her songwriting, especially in these early years when Matsuura had such a profound influence on her development as an artist. We’ll get back to him later). Musically, both of these ballads were typical of their time, and though I’ve never been a huge fan of “LOVE~Destiny~,” “TO BE” grew on me over the years. It has a quietly stunning production, with a richness to it that subsequent re-recordings have always failed to recapture, since it doesn’t play to Hamasaki’s increasingly strained vocals since it was recorded, particularly in the chorus, which highlights her worst vocal sin of camouflaging high notes outside of her reach in an ascending ladder of  exhaustive nasal gasps. For example, compare the calm and ease of hitting those notes in the original to her 10th anniversary re-recording on the Days/GREEN single, and you get a sense of this strange in-between period of Hamasaki’s vocal performance: still keen on improving with formal lessons, but navigating techniques that would help her stand out a little bit, for better or worse. That unique, and almost defiant, approach made its true mark on her third album Duty (“End of the World,” and “teddy bear” especially), and finally gave free reign on I am… But not yet.

Finally, it was time to roll out the album’s banner singles in the summer, beginning with “Boys & Girls,” Hamasaki’s first album-length maxi-single, and the only one to receive the dubious extinction of being released in an ultra-slim case without an OBI. It not only featured one of the most iconic singles of her career, but eight remixes, including two of her previous ballads. It was here that the blueprint for subsequent maxi-singles was laid, a model that would continue until her last maxi-single, Daybreak, in 2002. While none of the remixes are real standouts on here, except for that by the inimitable HAL, it was a bold move, one that no other mainstream J-pop artist was making. Stylistically, this single connected directly to her following single, A, by the threads that appear on the cover art (and eventually found their way into the booklet of LOVEppears).

A was released less than one month later, and made an even bigger statement as a quadruple-A side, along with remixes. It also used the first of many marketing gimmicks to cash in on and manipulate fan-devotion, by releasing one standard edition, and four limited-edition versions with varying colored discs and OBIs, and track lists. After the single sold 1 million, and then 1.5 million copies, additional gold versions were released in commemoration. Finally, the album featured the first incarnation of Hamasaki’s “A” brand logo, which here looked a little bit like an asymmetrical pi sign. Again, we have an artist still figuring out her place in the pop pantheon, working out an iconic symbol that could both identify and evoke feelings without a single sound or accompanying image. Like the fabled bowl of porridge, this one was either too hot or too cold, but the next one would be just right. More importantly, the songs on this single are more self-assured than ever: there’s “too late,” and “Trauma,” two more iconic singles that ended up becoming concert staples, the slower-paced and underrated “End roll,” and the abrasive “monochrome.”

All of these singles were accompanied by numerous promotional appearances on legendary music shows like Pop Jam,  Music Station, and Hey! Hey! Hey! Music Champ, on magazine covers like CD Data, GIRLPOP and SCawaii!, and a plethora of commercial tie-ins for consumer goods like makeup, scooters, chocolates, and flavored water. It was now becoming impossible to ignore Ayumi Hamasaki which meant only one thing: it was time to put an exclamation point on this era of her career with an album.

Capping off a successful year with an album sounds counter-intuitive to Western audiences, who in a reverse process, use albums to kick off blitzes of subsequent singles, appearances, and tours. But at this point in time, albums in the Japanese market tended to bring eras to a kind of close; aside from concert tours which followed album releases, all major promotions and singles connected with the album were brought to an end. This could sometimes leave albums feeling a bit anticlimactic, as anywhere up to half or more of the album could have already been previewed, leaving a mere handful of new tracks to await. By the time November 10 rolled around, LOVEppears would really only have five new full-length songs (plus a hidden bonus track) and two short interludes. But Avex had one last twist up its sleeve, and that was to turn what could have been an epilogue into an extended prologue.

On the same day that the album LOVEppears was released, Avex released the limited-edition maxi-single appears, another 12-track juggernaut packed with remixes. This was followed by the limited-edition maxi-single kanariya, which capitalized on the album’s hidden track to release yet more remixes, in addition to a vocal track to encourage fan remixes. A final victory lap, just bragging at this point, was the release of the limited-edition maxi-single Fly high in 2000, another album track that was given the promotional video and remix treatment. If any of this just seems like a moment to indulge in a drawn-out Wikipedia-like set of facts, it’s important to remember how unprecedented this was in the history of J-pop: virtually no major artist was releasing singles off of already-released albums. There was simply no point. The most important moment of an album’s release was the first few weeks, when it could make its biggest impact on the Oricon charts. By then, all the hard work and budget releasing and promoting singles had been put in and used up. Using data from the performance of singles and gauging public reaction to appearances was enough to predict an album’s performance.

There are a couple of interconnected conjectures that can be made as to why this strategy was employed, namely, that Avex Trax always did things a little differently. They may be an independent record label, but they are one of the most successful independent record labels of all time, and in many respects, remain “indie” by name only. Avex Trax was established on the bedrock of dance music, and their connection with the dance-music world of producers and DJs not only gave their music a distinctive edge, but influenced major business and creative decisions, including their compilations series like the SUPER EUROBEAT and cyber trance lines, not to mention finding work for many budding producers by commissioning remixes that would appear on various singles. Hamasaki’s singles took this fellowship to its ultimate and most capital conclusion: by using their extended personal network to create what were essentially promotional albums for DJs, but in disguise of one of Japan’s most successful brands. This was mutually beneficial: Hamasaki kept her name at the forefront of a continuous cycle of promotions, essentially selling fans the same product over and over and over again, but tweaked just a bit to give identity to underground artists who were grateful for the opportunity. In fact, only a handful of these artists became mainstream, popular names in their respective fields (namely Ferry Corsten, and later, Above & Beyond and Armin van Buuren). Later maxi-singles improved upon the quality of artists, but very few went on to have long-lasting, lucrative careers. In fact, none of these artists could have benefited monetarily from these maxi-singles, which were album-length and usually 10+ tracks, but still cost the same as any standard single at ¥1,260 (roughly, $10-12 at the time). What an extremely creative and cheap way to scratch multiple backs! Loyalty to your roots, helping your friends, and keeping the artist you’re pinning all your shares on in the local, and potentially, global public eye. Indeed, many of these producers were European and American, who were guaranteed to spin their remixes in their own sets overseas.

All this makes the whole thing seem cynical, and I hesitate to leave it this way. Peeking behind the curtain of the music business is not unlike spending an afternoon flipping through back issues of Billboard: you get up feeling a bit jaded, a bit letdown by the whole pursuit of artistic integrity. But in truth, no thorough assessment of the purpose of these maxi-singles and subsequent remix compilations can erase the fact that they were one of my favorite things about Ayumi’s early career, and without them, it might very well have taken me longer to come around. As I stated previously, evolution was the first Ayu single I ever purchased, followed by Far away, SEASONS, LOVEppears, and then back to the ayu-mi-x II series. I grew up on dance music and part of the appeal was the endless and diverse versions of club tracks to sample, and so importantly, at a price that was far more affordable than a $35 album in namely one unpredictable style that may or may not have ended up being good. My taste in grade school was unsophisticated and still developing, and having a hook to make the introduction was effective. That is to say, the process worked. Actually, the process worked like gangbusters.

By the time the year 2000 rolled around, just two years after her debut, when Hamasaki was preparing for her first major concert tour, she was a star. LOVEppears made that happen. Avex Trax made that happen. But, and this is important, Ayumi Hamasaki also made that happen.

Hamasaki spent months training in New York under the encouragement of her producer Max Matsuura, who pushed her to write her own lyrics, and it was this that endeared fans to her. Unpolished and at times awkward, Hamasaki’s lyrics were personal, and real; they are what today’s brand gurus would call “authentic” and “relatable” “content.” Before social media, they were the best way Hamasaki had to communicate with her audience. And just like her sartorial choices (endearingly cataloged in her 1999 fashion-book A BOOK), vocal style, and stage performances, her lyrics only matured and grew in time. If Hamasaki at all felt boxed in by the business or musical decisions being made around her, she always felt that her lyrics were hers, and she used to them express everything from her joys and victories, to her anxiety and frustrations. LOVEppears is not only the first glimpse we get of Hamasaki’s brush with the darker and lonelier side of fame, but the complex tender and forgiving experience of first love had and lost. Her whole approach to the album was a compelling mix of complete vulnerability and hidden depth: her famous commentary on the title track was that things are never as they seem, and what to outsiders might seem like happy moments, could in reality be painful, or harrowing ordeals. This is as succinct as any observation on fame, relationships, and life I can think of.

By the time the last maxi-single was released, the only true remaining album-only exclusives were the short interludes, the tremendous ballad “Who…”  which Hamasaki would belt out in tears to close out every concert tour, save one, for the next four years, and a curiously harsh sequel to “POWDER SNOW” entitled “P.SII” (not counting the slightly alternate take on “LOVE~Destiny,” titled “LOVE~refrain~,” which is nearly identical) The album also included a second disc, featuring promotional mixes from her first ayu-mi-x album and her upcoming SUPER EUROBEAT remix compilation. And in a very of-its-time move, the disc contained CD-ROM content that included a discography, commercial spots, behind-the-scenes photos, and random sound bites of Hamasaki speaking (you can view all this original content as it appeared at this official 20th anniversary site, minus the constant background hum of the GROOVE THAT SOUL MIX of “Trust”).

When you take into account the singer’s prolific career since this album’s release, it’s astounding to think that a mere fifteen months later Hamasaki was under the very scary, and sincere belief that her career was over. Yet what she has accomplished in the last twenty years is astounding: with her relentless work ethic, commitment to perfection, eye for detail, ear for striking melodies, and increasing control over her image and body of work, Hamasaki has done what few J-pop idols before her could: she became an artist and a legend. LOVEppears may be the most obvious album to commemorate, but it laid the foundation for the rest of her career, marking a beginning, an end, and a turning point, all at the same time. Neither artist nor fan could imagine the journey about to unfold, the musical gifts unleashed in increasing frequency throughout 2000 and beyond, the singular voice growing louder, more confident, and more bold than any surface-level nude album cover could express, and the trail blazed forth for the numerous female artists who followed. And for one kid about to be released into the horrors of junior high, a whole new world of music as exciting, and intriguing, and different, as anything she had experienced up to that point. Happy 20th Anniversary to this astounding, life-changing album, and thank you.

Still can’t crack the code: TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE’s “Hikaru yo”

It doesn’t take a grand feat of hindsight to see where it all went wrong for TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, especially now that Avex is backtracking as fast as possible. When the members of the group grew up, their record label looked to be maturing them into more sophisticated “artists,” rather than idols with a big marketing ploy that involved declaring they would no longer be performing certain songs (“Onnaji Kimochi” and “Ganbatte Itsudatte Shinjiteru”), a transition out of their signature New Jack Swing sound into more electronic territory, and, eventually, the lose of a member. Avex was banking on the idea that after giving the market what it wanted (idols, more idols, just idols, all the time), it could take a loyal audience with them into territory where they were more comfortable, and leave the idol experimentation to sub-labels like iDOL Street. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bit of a miscalculation.

This failure could be for any number of reasons, not least which is that the new material just didn’t live up to the old. While not horrible, it was jarringly different: musically speaking, TGS’s first four albums are near perfect at marrying peppy messages of positivity with idol what-have-yous to a classic 90’s TK, J-pop sound — it’s not an easy trick to pull off. But it seems that the team behind the group took it for granted, erroneously believing that, like many idol groups before them, the members themselves had established enough of a connection with fans that they would be followed anywhere they went, even into adulthood. But it seems that while fans primarily of idols and idol groups want to watch their biases grow, they don’t want them growing too much. Turns out there’s a line in the sand, when the unwritten contract between idols and their fans cease to exist regarding any number of expectations from behavior to lyrical content, that can cause a gradual erosion of loyalty. And when fans began to slowly abandon TGS after the abrupt set of changes, Avex didn’t necessarily try harder at marketing to a different audience — they just pushed forward and hoped for the best as the four women left in the group were forced to start from scratch. Yet now it seems an opportunity has presented itself.

First, two idol groups affiliated with Avex disbanded last year (GEM and X21). Second, none of Avex’s recently debuted non-idol groups (FAKY and Def Will) seem to have taken off. Though the group announced as early as 2017 that, just kidding, they’d like to be both “idols and artists”, it’s with the release of their new single, “Hikaru yo,” that it seems Avex is truly rethinking their strategy and steering TGS back into the services of full-on idol worship. The song and PV have no distinguishing features of which to name; instead, it is generic J-pop at its lowest common denominator, a song that could be sung by virtually any group, with a visual that includes an attempt to turn the clock back with a magical-girl transformation sequence that sees the members go metaphorically from very contempo-SPEED back to dolls. With neither the chunky beats present on their first four albums, nor the dance-heavy groove of their “post-idol/artist” era, the song is a blank canvas on which audiences can begin drawing, or re-drawing, their expectations (in case it isn’t clear enough, the B-side for this single is titled “Reborn”). Only a follow-up single just as formulaic and bereft of personality can confirm suspicions of the label’s intentions, but the prognosis doesn’t seem promising.

With so many of their all-girl idol groups folding and their dance groups not taking off, it looks like Avex still hasn’t quite figured out how to tackle the market in a musical environment where, despite predictions and best intentions, idols, rather than artists, still dominate. I am curious to see if TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE will survive a second re-branding, but skeptical, and overall disappointed at what their failure at moving forward as artists and young women says about the current state of J-pop.

[ Photo credit ]

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

Top ten debut albums of 2018

Debut albums are opportunities to establish a voice, a sound, and a vision — a promise of what’s to come. Sometimes this long-labored effort is never replicated again, and what we’re left with is one great moment, no less worthy because of its singularity. Who will be the unlucky few not to make it? That debate is fun, but not nearly as much as watching someone, against all odds, succeed and grow as an artist. If all of us have at least one great work of art within us, these are ten, in no particular order.

Ella Mai: Ella Mai
Ella Mai is the logical love-child of SZA’s breakthrough last year and the lingering chart run of the magical Khalid & Normani duet “Love Lies.” Ella Mai could do without all the cheesy talking (personal pet peeve) and I’m not sure why anyone is still letting Chris Brown be a thing, but this album’s cool evocation of 90’s R&B styles (see “Boo’d Up”) is a lovely addendum to a year full of them.

NINA: Sleepwalking
Italo-disco inspired, heavy retro-pop done expertly, with all the best intentions, from cited influences Depeche Mode and Kavinsky. Don’t expect the latter’s heavier electro bits: this isn’t Drive. It’s more delicate than a lot of the usual from the synth-wave/Bandcamp set, but no less evocative (“It Kills Me”), and no less rich in wistful affection for the kind of dreamy 1980s you can only find in music (“Beyond Memory,” “80’s Girl“).

fromis_9: To. Heart
Melissa Johnson does a phenomenal job tracking all the rookie groups in a given year, and brace yourself: there are dozens. It’s hard to bank on any when so many come and go quicker than mouse clicks, so it’s no use predicting if fromis_9 have any staying power. But they have released two EPs this year, and like many of the recent girl groups before them, expertly re-imagine the best parts of early Girls’ Generation (SNSD): fluffy pop confections lighter than meringue and just as sweet.

Chloe x Halle: The Kids Are Alright
Their 2016 EP and 2017 “not really a mixtape” hinted at what this duo could achieve, but the two young sisters, Chloe and Halle, surpassed expectations with their first studio album The Kids Are Alright. In what is becoming the new-traditional, the girls were discovered on YouTube, but prove they are more than their origin story on this electrifying debut that’s so good you can forgive the typo.

Hayley Kiyoko: Expectations
This personal collection of songs is less specific than it is general, a gift to anyone looking for direction, or even just company. It is wonderful having a person in the mainstream whom someone confused or overwhelmed can look up to, and not only is Kiyoko happy to represent, but like peers Dua Lipa, Kehlani, and Kali Uchis, she shows great potential as a pop artist.

Fickle Friends: You Are Someone Else
This British synth-pop duo have carved a commendable niche for themselves in a genre brimming with second-rate hacks and overindulgent copycats. Perhaps this is because the group is committed to relatable dance-pop gems like “Glue” and “Hard To Be Myself” that express a realness often glossed over as inconsequential, laying bare even the smallest anxieties and truths of the everyday mundane by spinning them into noble anthems that make even the tiniest doubts worth chiseling in stone.

Black Honey: Black Honey
The reissue of Garbage’s Version 2.0 has exposed a void left behind by Shirley Manson’s lithe vocals and industrial-sized rock. Black Honey might not fill that hole perfectly, but they could, and lead single, “Midnight Honey” off of this debut album tells you exactly why. Without losing a sense of fun, Black Honey rocks as hard as any mainstream album released this year.

Laurel: Dogviolet
Bedroom singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen, so it takes a lot to stand out from a crowd of pushy opportunists. But Laurel has an ear for melody, one that takes the form of lingering drums and rich piano, of raw guitars pillowed by scratchy vocals. All of these elements come together on Dogviolet, a promising debut album that proves there’s still plenty of room for anyone willing to put in the work to make cliches sound oh so new again.

DIAMANTE: Coming in Hot
Although there’s no shortage of female vocalists in hard rock and metal, most of these powerhouses tend to be found in bands. Very few have made it on the strength of a solo career in the genre. Whether or not DIAMANTE ticks past her fifteen minutes remains to be seen, but Coming in Hot is an especial treat given its draw: there have been many interesting debut albums this years, but none as arresting as this dichotomy — a blue-haired siren delivering tough-as-nails vocals ripped from the throat, straight to your gut. But these are not just the gripes of a teenage brat with a recording contract (and really, it would sill work if it was): DIAMANTE has steel here, in songs like “Bullet Proof,” “War Cry,” and the gritty “Haunted.” It’s the unexpected violence that fascinates, the frustrations of young womanhood given an aggressive, super-melodic outlet with a willingness to fall just a touch too far outside the acceptable, classically-trained, pretty-angry zone that makes it so honest, and so important.

Eves Karydas: Summerskin
When Eves Karydas disappeared to hone her songwriting skills, no one expected her to come back with such razor-sharp precision. Melancholy like Lana Del Rey (“There for You” sounds particularly reminiscent), moody like Lorde, but as charming as Baby One More Time-Britney, Karydas’s debut album is a promising addition in pop’s new emphasis on authenticity and the realities of first-person, lived experience. Summerskin has all of it, and gorgeous melodies on top.

Honorable Mentions

Shannon Shaw: Shannon in Nashville
Frozen Land: Frozen Land
VHS Collection: Retrofuturism
RIRI: RIRI
Party Nails: Past Lives & Paychecks