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 ]

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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

Top ten albums of 2017

When NPR posted their 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women list earlier this year, Ann Powers summed up the struggle to create “definitive” lists of anything:

In music, lists are what comes after an experiment — the experiment of listening itself, alone and then together, of sharing music and arguing about it and realizing how an artists’ personal expression might be a listener’s personal (and political) one too. A list says no to the possibility that any other list on the same subject might be valid. It forces authority. Or does it? Another way to look at a list is as the beginning of new conversation.

Because it can be difficult to assert authority, I prefer to think of my own lists as the “beginning of a new conversation,” specifically, the state of East Asian pop music today, the trends and future-coming of both J-pop and K-pop, and where it will all take us next year. As usual, this isn’t so much a definitive list of the ten best East Asian pop albums of 2017, open to a vigorous debate I can fight to the death, but a discussion, one that shares ideas rather than forces them down spoonful.

And also, one whose length I hope makes up somewhat for my absence around here this year. As usual, it’s a watering down of the tremendous amount of listening I do all year, a distillation of full-length albums that don’t always represent the year with its many excellent singles, or songs contained on just-okay or bad records. It’s a sort of crude snapshot, but not without its own special kind of joy. Without further ado.

10 Arashi: untitled / w-inds.: INVISIBLE

It’s a topsy-turvy world we live in when Arashi has made their second consecutive top-ten appearance on a year-end list at appears. So what is it that keeps a Johnny’s group like Arashi rising above all other J-pop albums? Despite its sometimes cookie-cutter, personality-void vocals, untitled is full of the cozy J-pop melodies that Arashi has been so adept at since Japonism. And “cozy” is really the right term: like warm updrafts and fuzzy blankets, these songs are perfect comfort-tunes: positive, uplifting, inoffensive, but unapologetically fun. Despite the appearance of a few faster dance songs, untitled continues Arashi’s new image as the fathers of J-pop: serious, nurturing, stern, and mellow, but good for a laugh or two.

As the ultimate symbol of a broad segment of Japanese popular culture, “Arashi” is a heavy burden for the five men of this group to shoulder, but untitled shows how flexible and game they are to adapt and humbly preserve an audience hungry for tradition and time-worn institutions in a fast-paced, unpredictable world that can feel overwhelming.

There are two visible splits within the overall hierarchy of Japanese boy bands: the traditional J-pop groups that fall more along the lines of the well-perfected Johnny’s sound, with their extended song lengths and major keys (see above), and the more Western/K-pop-influenced groups that incorporate everything from hip-hop to EDM to dubstep, condensed into crunchy 3-minute YouTube-approved chunks. The newer groups struggle with these two styles, often establishing themselves in the former while including sprinkles of the latter onto album cuts and B-sides to give them something of an edge (Hey! Say! JUMP is one of the only groups who manage to balance this fairly successfully). In rare cases, the K-pop/Western style is used as a tool for reinvention, a way to evolve a group beyond what has sustained them thus far. This trick seems to have worked for w-inds., who have probably been waiting something like eight years to release INVISIBLE — or at least it seems to have taken that long for w-inds. to find a solid mix of pop and dance and grit worth writing about. I can’t hand out gold stars for potential, but I can for the group most impressively improved, for an album that doesn’t even contain some of the group’s best songs of the year despite including “Come Back to Bed.”

9 Monari Wakita: I am ONLY

The loss of J-pop group especia hit fans hard, but the debut of ex-member Monari Wakita was a cause for celebration, particularly when it was announced that she would be working with VIVID SOUND and Hase Hajimu, Michiru Hoshino’s label and producer. Her debut single “IN THE CITY” gave especia fans even more reason to rejoice: her sound takes only the best elements of especia’s retro city-pop style, and the glee of what is quickly becoming my favorite Tower Records stamp of authenticity: 70’s funk and what Wakita herself calls “danceable rhythmical disco.” Not unlike Michiru Hoshino’s own solo work in general and idol group The Dance for Philosophy in particular (a criminally underrated group that often gets mistaken for 80’s pop revivalists), Wakita’s album is able to juggle both a level of maturity and wide-eyed youthfulness beyond what contemporary idol groups are capable of (despite churning out desperate singles at a rate almost impossible to keep up with). No one would accuse Wakita of being too cool; in fact, her image is largely predicated on being quirky and purposely uncool. As such, I am ONLY is like making a new friend who seems weirdly, but not unpleasantly, familiar and comfortable.

8 Cosmic Girls (WJSN): Happy Moment

Cosmic Girls (WJSN) was my favorite K-pop rookie group last year; their debut Would You Like? and follow-up The Secret both provided all the magical-girl fantasy aesthetic you could ask for. In 2017, galactic backdrops were huge testaments to the very make-believe quality inherent in K-pop, from EXO, to Brave Girls, to G-Friend, but only Cosmic Girls have a logical reason to do so. With their first release of the year amping up the incongruous outer-space rainbows, shooting stars, and unicorns with the very reality-based fantasies of emojis and outdated technology, “Neoege Dahgireul (I Wish)” was as deliberately incredible in the original sense of the word as it was unsubtle. But Happy Moment, their first full-length, pulls back on what we’ve come to associate with the group, giving listeners more of a greatest-hits of girl-pop in the New Millennium. While this might seem counterproductive to all of the groundwork WJSN has laid, it instead elevates them into the higher rank of contemporary K-pop groups by deftly executing every modern style from R&B to hyper disco-pop. While nothing that the album offers is particularly novel, it possesses all the joy, fun, and technical power that the genre is known for — not something that a lot of groups can pull off in a full-length album. While I’m not sure any current K-pop group has the potential to pick up where the major groups have left off — certainly, we’ve had other really great copycats like OH MY GIRL and April — this is the year we all suffered the inevitable end or might-as-well be of groups as beloved as 2NE1, T-ara, and SNSD. The future of K-pop seems littered with earnest attempts to regain the magic and mystery of the first generation phenomenons; I hope they all continue to sound this good.

7 EXO: The Power Of Music

The big K-pop success story this year was BTS, who, against all of the increasing odds and barriers stacked against them, somehow landed performances on both the American Music Awards and Ellen. Despite having only one fluent English speaker, the group presented themselves as both charming and adorably overwhelmed. The incongruity of the group was downplayed in their best attempts to recreate K-pop music shows both in stage and with the addition of screaming ARMYs. Despite the massive fun of a song like “DNA,” the performances felt just a bit jarring, not unlike SNSD’s appearance on late night a few years ago. Even more surprising is that the group hasn’t struck me thus far as anything but an interesting rookie-level group worth keeping an eye on, whereas a group like EXO, who are well-established and have released one of the year’s most casually-brilliant pop albums of the year, won’t be lucky enough to get an opportunity like that when the group is geared towards the overseas Chinese market instead. And frankly, The Power Of Music blows BTS’s mini-album out of the water.

Every year SM Entertainment pulls out all the stops for one of their boy bands, and this repackaged version of THE WAR, which has an additional three cuts tacked onto the front, is the year’s flagship. The tracks range from YG-bangers, the kind we haven’t seen actually come out of YG all year, like “Sweet Lies,” to the slick-pop SM is famous for, like “Power” and “What U do?,” to the languid reggae in single “Ko Ko Bop.” Fans might hand out awards for potential, but I prefer doling out accolades in moments of genuine triumph, and The Power Of Music is an assured follow-up to a string of hit-or-misses that see the group finally catching up to their label mates SHINee.

6 Red Velvet: Perfect Velvet

Cool is, by definition, a word that constantly mutates, adapting to its time and place with surprising accuracy, even as it stays exactly the same. Ever elusive, it’s not a concept that can be obtained deliberately; on the contrary, aiming to be cool seems to be just the thing that makes something or someone uncool. Yet the entire enterprise of K-pop is built on coolness, a cultural coleslaw of style, trend, and depeche mode with turnover rates only slightly faster than Internet memes. Still, there are few groups who can pull off actual, unintended coolness, and Red Velvet seems to be one of them. Aside from their debut, the group has had very few missteps, releasing a serious of dual-concept mini-albums that are both frothy fun and sophisticated cool. July’s Red Summer leans toward the former while Perfect Velvet encompasses the latter.

Beginning with the poppy “Peek-a-Boo,” the album surges through retro synth hooks and casually elegant disco-pop, culminating in the sort of chillingly simple R&B that makes “Perfect 10” almost ethereal. SM Entertainment has been on a role this year, with a similarly flawless, easy elegance on Seohyun’s mini-album Don’t Say No. Despite a sound that hints at a peak, and the fact that Red Velvet has been around for almost four years, the group still feels refreshingly novel, more like eager rookies than jaded veterans. Perfect Velvet is more than another successful album from SM’s SNSD/f(x)-offspring: they’re a group freed from the constraints of their label-sisters, with a sound that is wholly and effortlessly cool.

5 Kumi Koda’s W FACE ~outside~

There’s something irresistible about an album that’s been boiled down to its barest, naked self. Last year, Bruno Mars released one of the greatest pop albums of the decade and like the best of his pre-90’s predecessors, managed to keep the scant 9 tracks under a tight 35 minutes: the perfect length for two sides of an LP. The music world is now split on these two methods: those that cut mercilessly to showcase the very cream on today’s unforgiving, but preferred listening medium for music enthusiasts, the vinyl record (Miley Cyrus’s Younger Now, Beth Ditto’s Fake Sugar, Danielle Bradbery’s I Don’t Believe We’ve Met), and those (still) tied to the endless possibilities of the twice-as-able CD, where double the length can mean either creative possibilities and more to love, or a license to bloat (Ellie Goulding’s Delirium, Dua Lipa’s Dua Lipa, Katy Perry’s Witness). This year, Kumi Koda opted for both and neither.

Instead of cramming as many styles and tracks as possible on her new album, Koda released two separate albums in two different styles: W FACE ~inside~, the “ballad” album, and W FACE ~outside~, the “pop” album. It was no question that the latter would appeal more to me, even as Koda and her team crafted one of the least subtle albums of the year without compunction. Aside from one painless slow song, every track is a crack-whizz-pow banger, from the title track on down to the brevity-is-the-soul-of “Cupcake.” I couldn’t have been more surprised, or delighted, to have stuck with Koda’s albums over the years, and finally found one that impressed me from start to finish. More of my thoughts on the album here.

4 PASSPO☆ : Cinema Trip

Ever since PASSPO☆ switched labels, the group has stopped releasing at such a clipped pace, leaving us with a two year gap between their last album Beef or Chicken? (a 2015 top ten album) and this year’s Cinema Trip. Leading with the cheeky zombie-rock singlePlayGround,” the album contains all of the new Nippon Crown singles, including “Mr. Wednesday” and “BACHELORETTE wa Owaranai,” songs that rely on PASSPO☆’s upbeat, fast-paced, breezy hard rock. While the album doesn’t reach the overall brilliance of a classic like One World, there are some really great chances for opulent guitar solos and thick riffs like “NASA! ~Nande Aitsu Suki nan da~” and “Fukutsu no RESISTANCE.” Cinema Trip isn’t as panoramic or colorful as the title would suggest, but it’s another strong offering from one of the few idol groups in Japan that seem to genuinely understand how to craft a brilliant variety of rock styles as opposed to watered down idol rehashes.

3 BAND-MAID: Just Bring It

BAND-MAID is a group I should hate on principle. We are now living in a state of J-pop that forces even the most talented, musically adept young women to dress in maid costumes. The idea, which sprung from one of the members’ personal experience working in a maid cafe, is one of those gimmicks that seems less a statement about anything the band stands for than a combination of J-pop’s current practice of marketing idols to young men and otaku with the kind of music that might best appeal to them and the ever encroaching cultural practices that corner women in roles of service — maids are the most obvious, but flight attendants are right up there next to them. There might be “anti-idols” and musicians who subvert these images, but to get any enjoyment out of Japanese music, it’s often necessary to separate what you see from what you hear. In BAND-MAID’s case, it is absolutely necessary, as their costuming is an unnecessary holdover best left abandoned.

Their 2017 album Just Bring It showcases just how little of their success should have to do with gimmicks at all: the album, which is written almost entirely by the members themselves, is a raw, energetic, rage-blizzard expressing hostility, anxiety, grudges, and remorse in a tidy package of chunky chords and monster melodies. Miku Kobato’s vocals might seem thin at times with none of the guttural growls that distinguish the hard rock and metal genres, but they are not without passion and a dizzying mix of both self-righteousness and apology. Akane Hirose’s drums are a personal highlight, but all the members contribute meaning and pathos to a genre that can sometimes seem singularly focused on speed and strength when hesitation and vulnerability can do the trick. Just Bring It does both, and pretty much backwards and in heels.

2 Satellite Young: Satellite Young

The 80’s have made yet another comeback, with Netflix-hit Stranger Things leading the pack, but this isn’t the first time we’ve heard hits as decadent and nihilistic as the synth-driven fingering of Satellite Young. The group is young enough to be influenced more by Tommy february6 than Strawberry Switchblade, but they seem to have combined both to create a flawless hybrid of 80’s-tribute and 80’s-tribute-of-80’s-tributes on their self-titled debut album.

From their VHS-scrambled music videos to the imposing wall of synths behind them on the cover of the album, members Emi Kusano, Bellemaison Seikine, and self-proclaimed cyborg Tele Hideo have crafted not only a delicately accurate time-capsule, but also a love letter to nostalgia itself. Like the frenzied, but carefully curated collections that pepper tumblr, the band’s image is a hodge-podge of images of dead technologies and by-gone fashion, imbued with the myth-making worship that only happens when looking back to a time you never actually experienced firsthand, or experienced when young enough to be capable of retaining only half-memories (they sum this up nicely on “Fake Memory“). It’s a sort of hiccup, when everything is imbued with the sense and feeling of the first time, and what the Duffer Brothers in using Walkie-Talkies on Stranger Things called “practically magic” to a child. This is most obvious in the group’s latest release, “Modern Romance,” where touches of 90s and early 00s props are definite party crashers of their signature era, yet still retain that feeling of almost talismanic power that old objects gain when they’ve been replaced by newer models and we haven’t seen them in a long while. Yet while it might seem the group is based largely on look and style over substance, Satellite Young successfully kidnaps all the best moments from the Pet Shop Boys, italo-disco, and waves of twinkling glissandos (my favorite is in “Sniper Rouge“) to create an authentic experience aurally too. Even if it’s nothing but nostalgia, the album, like the sci-fi-homage Netflix show, is a pitch-perfect example of it, drawing upon retro resources without just spitting them out into a formulaic mold, instead using it as a framework to create something new and altogether magical.

1 E-girls: E.G. CRAZY

It’s something of an anomaly that E-girl’s best album is also their last as the large super-unit we’ve come to know and love them as. E.G. CRAZY was released at the very top of the year back in January, and was proceeded four months later by a flurry of announcements that has shaken the group loose of its core conceit. Fan-favorite Ami was leaving to pursue a solo career; Dream, the subunit she was a member of, disbanded, taking the rest of the members with it; new sub units were created; and several members from sub units Flower and Happiness left E-girls exclusively.

After hearing the group’s output since the changes (singles “LOVE QUEEN” and “Kitakaze to Taiyou“), it’s not a stretch to say that the group will never again have an album as bold and expansive as E.G. CRAZY. The group’s ethos, which rested on the idea of nurturing the talent of several incredible singers and dancers for an audience of women and young girls in stark contrast to the country’s reigning system of idols, might not have been anything new for Avex Trax, the group’s label, but remained a consistent and fortifying breath of fresh air with the debuts of each subsequent AKB-sister group. The album showcases the group at their peak, collecting a long stretch of dance-heavy pop hits across two discs of non-stop celebrations of the life and times of the modern Japanese woman. From the fist-pumping solidarity in “All Day Long Lady” (you can read more about my thoughts on the song here), to the amuse-club-hopping of “Pink Champagne” and “DANCE WITH ME NOW,” the songs pay tribute to an array of iconic pioneers on Disc 2 — the “give me a beat!” sandwiched in “Dance Dance Dance” is still one of the album’s highlights for me — without sacrificing what makes listeners return time and again to the uniqueness, joy, and fun of J-pop at its very, very best on Disc 1.

Due to the length and variety of pop styles, it makes little sense to limit a listening to once or twice — I have been spinning this album regularly since it was released and still haven’t found a reason to let go of the comfort it provided two days before the very world we live in ceased to make any sense whatsoever. Escape is rarely the answer and girls don’t always just want to have fun, but E-girls make it so easy to indulge in tiny escape-bubbles, perfectly formed at the just the moment before they pop.

Top ten albums of 2017: English-language, Honorable mentions & #15-11

Before we get into the annual, intergalactically-famous Top Ten Albums of the Year post, here are a few miscellaneous lists, sans blurbs. Since I have done more music-listening than in any previous year, I am fairly confident with my picks, though I am aware that as soon as this goes live, someone will immediately link me to my new favorite 2017 release on Spotify. Until then, here are my Top Ten English-Language Albums, a few honorable mentions, and a bonus rundown of #15-11 to get us started.

Top Ten English-Language Albums of 2017: Honorable Mentions

 

Bebe Rexha: All Your Fault Pt.1
PVRIS: All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell
Lana Del Rey: Lust for Life
Kehlani: SweetSexySavage
Wanting: LLL
All Time Low: Last Young Renegade

Top Ten English-Language Albums of 2017

01. Beth Ditto: Fake Sugar [ “Fire” ]
02. Dua Lipa: Dua Lipa [ “Last Dance” ]
03. Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein: Stranger Things 2 Original Soundtrack [ “The Return” ]
04. Danielle Bradbery: I Don’t Believe We’ve Met [ “Hello Summer” ]
05. Allie X: CollXtion II [ “Paper Love” ]
06. Paramore: After Laughter [ “Hard Times” ]
07. Lights: Skin&Earth [ “Skydiving” ]
08. Hey Violet: From the Outside [ “Guys My Age” ]
09. Movements: Feel Something [ “Daylily” ]
10. SZA: Ctrl [ “Weekend” ]

Top Ten Albums of 2017: Honorable Mentions

Taichi Mukai: BLUE
ONE OK ROCK: Ambitions
Negoto: SOAK
Mamoru Miyano: THE LOVE
UP UP GIRLS kakko Kari: 4th ALBUM (Kari)
uchuu,: Keep On
Girls’ Generation (SNSD): Holiday
The Dance for Philosophy: FOUNDER
Tokyo PERFORMANCE DOLL: WE ARE TPD
S.E.S.: Remember

A Little Extra: Top Ten Albums of 2017 #15-11

15. Kana Hanazawa: Opportunity
14. Natsume Mito: Natsumelo
13. Wa-suta: PARADOX WORLD
12. LILILIPS: Make You Pop
11. Seohyun: Don’t Say No

An appears 2017 tumblr year-end round-up

Due to the low number of posts on the main blog here this year, enjoy this round-up of a few longer-form posts over at the appears tumblr!

The beauty of Seohyun’s “Don’t Say No”
Futuristic Tokyos in Ai Otsuka’s “Watashi” and Perfume’s “TOKYO GIRL”
Avex girl groups: Def Will’s “Winding Road”
Max Martin et al. crafts pop perfection in Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm”
Better than CL: Kumi Koda’s W FACE ~outside~
A sisterhood of survivors: E-girls’ “All Day Long Lady”

Time Has Come: Namie Amuro to retire in 2018

With the world on fire, it seems self-indulgent to grieve over the announcement that a pop star is retiring. But then, since it’s our beloved Namie Amuro, allow me to indulge a bit.

After years spent commuting long distances to train at the famed Okinawa Actors Studio, Namie Amuro debuted in 1992 with the group SUPER MONKEYS. A natural star, the group’s name was shortly changed to highlight their strongest player to Amuro Namie with SUPER MONKEYS. Their debut single, “Koi no CUTE BEAT,” was a tribute to the growing popularity of European techno, a subgenre that would eventually gain fame in Japan as “para para,” or Avex’s trademarked “super eurobeat.” Both Amuro and her back-up dancers, now re-christened MAX, signed with Avex Trax and went their separate ways. While MAX sustained a modest career pursuing the eurobeat line, Amuro was taken under the wing of an already well-known prolific music producer, former TM Network-keyboardist and current trf-producer Tetsuya Komuro. “Body Feels EXIT” was released in 1995, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the 1990s, the Japanese pop music industry was changing rapidly, with Komuro at the helm. The bubble had burst, the Golden Age of Idols was a long-gone idyll, and consumers, especially women, were no longer content to settle for less. Putting on a cute dress and swaying back and forth, warbling off-key to 4/4 treacle, was no longer enough. While being cute might have been enough in the 1980s to delay adulthood and escape the expectations of growing up and getting married, Hiroshi Aoyagi in Islands of Eight Million Smiles: Idol Performance and Symbolic Production in Contemporary Japan (2005) notes that it “gradually lost its appeal as a form of rebellion. Moreover, there was an emergent perception that “cutesy” embraced fragile femininity, which continued to become objectified by adult men.” (98) A flurry of new fashion trends emerged to replace kawaii, styes that “conjured up the figure of an assertive, self-centered young woman who is in no hurry to marry and who maintains a stable of boyfriends to serve her different needs (Robertson 1998: 65).” (98) Among these styles, Aoyagi sites gyaru and all their sub types, including “Amuraa.” Amuraa was a style adopted by Amuro’s fans in 1995 and 1996, a whole movement that helped change women’s fashion and attitude, one pair of short pants and long boots at a time.

Because by the the mid-90s, Japanese pop culture was ready for their Madonna, for their Mariah Carey, for their Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. They were ready for true artists, female solo singers not afraid to nurture their skills and show off real talent. The hours put into dancing, singing, and cultivating personal style, was just the minimum amount of effort necessary for the type of profession that required effortless grace, fearless confidence, and unapologetic ambition. Once, we had more than one of these women, firing simultaneously at the peak of their careers, changing perceptions of what it meant to be a woman living in modern Japan. But Namie Amuro was one of the first, and she made it look criminally easy.

With her modern, forward-thinking dance music, a style that eventually evolved into R&B, soul, hip-pop, and then back to dance, Amuro’s debut solo album, SWEET 19 BLUES was a landmark J-pop album that hinted at the iconic pop gems to come: “Chase the Chance,” “a walk in the park,” “CAN YOU CELEBRATE?“. It’s certainly not the strongest album of hers to date, but it cemented her central role as the new face of contemporary J-pop, the successful paragon of what producing and marketing a woman based on artistic ability and talent was capable of achieving. Whatever his faults (and there are many), Tetsuya Komuro’s business style at Avex Trax was critical in giving Amuro the platform to be more than an idol. Writing in Nippon Pop, Steve McClure quotes Komuro as saying, “The artist should come first. I always say so in interviews like this, in the hope that the Japanese music production system will change.” (87) Despite Komuro’s insistence that his protegees were still idols, they were to be “quality” idols (to be fair, his use of the term is dubious; he calls Michael and Janet Jackson both idols, which in terms of Japanese media culture, is an incorrect use of the term).

Amuro’s career since then was an exhilaration, a row of toppling dominoes sending stereotypes, prejudices, and the expectations of female performers tumbling. Seiko Matsuda struggled with criticism after continuing her career post-marriage and children in the 1980s, and as late as 1988, Agnes Chan was defending her choice to bring her son with her on national television, sparking a fierce debate over show-business etiquette and a woman’s role in politely, and humbly, mediating images of “good” women who didn’t date, marry, or have children publicly. Exactly one decade later, Amuro was passed the torch, announcing a marriage and pregnancy, defying any and all judgments of her choice. When she returned to show business, she was sorry-not-sorry, fighting to overcome the shock of her “scandalous” sabbatical and win her rightful place back in the entertainment industry with a more aggressive look and sound. She inked up, stripped down, and held on tight for the next 19 years, bringing J-pop into the 21st century alongside her labelsisters while the resurgence of hyper-kawaii idols and their countless imitators swept the charts and fought to set it back two decades, back to dependence and helplessness and exploitation.

Later, set amidst those same sisters, most losing popularity from releasing unpopular album or facing personal setbacks, Amuro released a succession of brilliant singles, her albums getting sharper and more polished over time, her discipline and professionalism astounding even the most jaded and cynical while working the media to her advantage by abstaining from a strong social media presence and remaining coy about her personal life. And then, on September 20, 2017, amid of flurry of promotions for a documentary series set to debut on Hulu on October 1 and celebrations for the 25th anniversary of her debut, Amuro announced that she would be retiring on September 16, 2018. She promised to leave her fans one final album and a series of concert performances.

The announcement follows a legal battle to secure the rights to release music under her own record label, Dimension Point (still a sub label of Avex Trax), leaving many fans speculating as to whether or not she will continue working in the music industry after her retirement in a different role, perhaps paying it forward as a producer. It would be selfish to deny someone a break after the years she put in sharing incredible music and illustrating what it means to be real, genuine people whose lives sometimes get messy, but don’t have to get dirty. For more than two decades, she showed us how to deal with setbacks, pick ourselves up, and keep moving forward without losing a sense of self-worth. So despite any sense of anger or misfortune, despite the urge to linger over our own loss in the deal, the appropriate answer is: thank you.

Whether she chooses to relax, or to keep up her enviable work ethic, I know Namie Amuro will be able to pull off whatever she sets her mind to. There are 25 years that prove it.