2016 mid-year report

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The first half of 2016 hasn’t been anywhere as interesting as 2015’s, but we’ve gotten some great new tracks and albums from producers as varied as Tatsuro Yamashita and Max Martin, as well as some up-and-coming producers from all over the world. I’ve chosen to focus on East Asian pop in this post, and have spent the last couple of weeks frantically catching up on everything I might have overlooked; still, I’m sure I missed a few things that will hopefully make its way to my ears by the end of the year. Until then, I hope you’ll find one or two things you might have missed here as we take the time to reflect on the last six months in music. As always, you can follow the notable releases tag over at the tumblr to keep up in real-time.

K-pop: The Gold, and the Silver

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Is there such a thing as a Silver Age? If so, K-pop might be in it. You might be disheartened enough to argue that we’re actually in a Bronze Age but it hasn’t come to that yet; let me make a case.

There have been signs of K-pop’s demise for a couple of years now, signaled by what Jin Min-Ji calls a “generation shift” caused by the expiration of the contracts many idols signed at the era’s beginning. “A multitude [of] second generation members’ contracts, which usually last seven years, have either terminated or are close to termination. An So-hee from Wonder Girls, for example, left the group in 2013 after her contract expired with JYP Entertainment. Other singers that left their groups are Jia from Miss A last month and Sulli from f(x) in August 2015.” In addition, members who have stuck around long enough to find out that the entertainment world isn’t all glitz and glam, are burning out and leaving to find other lucrative work that’s less stressful, demanding, and sometimes, the equivalent of unpaid labor.

Jessica’s departure from SNSD has turned out to be something of a game-changer: since then, we’ve seen Golden Age groups 2NE1, BEAST, and 4minute split, as members have departed on somewhat shaky terms. This leaves room for a new crop of K-pop groups, many which are attempting to imitate the sounds of their forerunners. For example, OH MY GIRL, Lovelyz, and G-Friend, all of which released solid EPs this year, are really just attempting to recreate the magic of the early years of a group like Girls’ Generation, while TWICE is exploring an edgier side in the style of 2NE1. Their efforts are rather admirable, particularly A New Trilogy and Snowflake, but it remains to be seen if a new crop of producers and songwriters will emerge parallel to this “second” generation to carry on the torch of a Teddy Park, E-Tribe, or Shinsadong Tiger; in fact, it seems K-pop is tending to outsource a lot more of its songwriting now, which is not a criticism, but an observation that it might be harder to find writers of hits as prolific as there once were. In addition, now that record companies and agencies finally have some working statistics for modern K-pop, many glitches and experiments can be ironed out, or expanded upon, even pushed to its very limit. This all has the potential to change the look and sound of K-pop as it moves forward.

Because a lot of groups that have managed to stay together are losing popularity, or simply, running out of ideas (BIGBANG comes to mind) there has also been a clear shift this year to giving surviving members solo opportunities. This is notable, since K-pop’s modus operandi is single-sex boy and girl groups, rather than solo artists. This year, we got additional solo work from AMBER (f(x)), Tiffany (SNSD), JONGHYUN (SHINee), Taemin (also SHINee), Luna (f(x)), Jun Hyo Seong (Secret), and an uncomplicated bit of J-pop from former KARA member NICOLE’s Japanese debut album bliss. Tiffany’s and Taemin’s stand out in particular, as SM Entertainment rarely disappoints (SNSD’s Taeyon’s solo effort notwithstanding, aside from last year’s lead single “I” — her next solo effort comes out in a few days as of this writing). “I Just Wanna Dance,” received mild reviews, but I find the song, and its sister follow-up “Heartbreak Hotel,” a slice of ethereal pop. It can easily be too slow for some listeners, and too fast for the others, but its mid-tempo essence is refreshing, and the fact that they held back on letting Tiffany go too crazy with the vocals is a sign of a wise restraint.

Taemin’s “Press Your Number,” on the other hand, channels his group SHINee’s endless, and welcome, repetition of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. I gushed a bit about the music video earlier, and the dance version of the PV is worth taking a second or third look, just to admire the grace and power Taemin brings to every step of the choreography. The album, too, is full of smooth R&B hooks, and stiller moments, like the lovely little balled “Soldier.” In other words, it’s nice to see that Jo Kwon’s solo album I’m Da One was good for something, even if it was just setting the precedent for seriously fun male solo albums.

Finally, I just really like Luna’s Free Somebody. The title track, which was penned by “The Family,” a songwriting trio from the land of the universe’s reigning country of pop production, and also, surprisingly, JoJo (yes that JoJo) is a tribute to Europe’s easy way of slipping electro-house and nu disco into the mainstream. I could easily see this song fitting onto a Kitsune Maison compilation with no problem, and that fact tickles me.

Even though the continued demise of K-pop’s Golden Age is disappointing, it’s also bringing forth a new crop of groups, mostly-successful solo work, and interesting outside collaborations (it’s less surprising that Skrillex worked with 4minute this year, than that the group is breaking up immediately following it). Hopefully, these new shifts will eventually be brought into the fold, making way for positive developments. It’s jarring not to have a seemingly endless procession of amazing song after incredible rookie group debut after excellent song like we did in 2011 or 2012, but none of this is alarming enough to signal the end. Not yet. In fact, the only true disappointment is that in a year ripe with them, CL has yet to release her promised solo debut.

J-pop (Idols and otherwise)

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If you had told me as early as last year that my favorite song of 2016 would probably be by boy-band Arashi, I would have scoffed and continued finding the band as joyless and mediocre as ever. And yet, here we are, halfway through the year, and nothing has come close to “Fukkatsu LOVE” and its B-side “Ai no COLLECTION.” Sure, there have been songs that have been more upbeat, more powerful, and more fun (if you’re short of time, Namie Amuro’s “Mint” covers all of those bases), but none have rivaled “Fukkatsu” for atmosphere and production. The song, which was penned by legendary City Pop producer Tatsuro Yamashita, is similar to the general patterns of any Arashi song, and yet, completely different. For Yamashita, “smooth,” and “cool,” are less adjectives than steadfast principles to his success. The song, with which its throwback sounds to the early 80s could have been something of a risk for a group that has done phenomenal with its Johnny’s formula, adapts to the group’s somewhat elder statesmen status (the group debuted in 1999 — for all you collectors out there, it means their first single was issued on 3″ mini-CD, rather than the standard 5″ maxi). It’s a mature, relaxed look and sound for the group, with its subdued coloring and formal wear. Finally being allowed to act their age (the oldest member is 35) and associate itself closer to SMAP is doing this idol group a service, leaving the more strenuous tasks to juniors like Hey! Say! JUMP and A.B.C.-Z. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for that Yuma Nakayama follow-up (one year since Tokoton and not a word).

Other male groups that have stood out to me have been Da-iCE, which has been a sort of slow burn. It’s not surprising that some of the most interesting music is coming from the groups that are competing with their Korean peers overseas: there’s big bucks and, seemingly, bigger respect from groups who can bring something other than the standard “idol sound” to the charts. Your preference is a matter of opinion: there’s interesting things on both sides of the divide, and generally, even an EVERY SEASON has its pitfalls (imagine, for a moment, a man like Daichi Miura getting his hands on a song like “Got Your Back” and how much it would have made a good song incredible). As a counterweight, there’s NEWS’ QUARTETTO, which I find a perfect blend of the two.

One of the most interesting developments of the year to watch has been Avex Trax’s entrance into the idol world. Japan’s biggest independent label is on record as one of my favorite labels of all time, if not number one. They’ve made inroads beginning a couple of years back, choosing, wisely to develop and sustain their roster of dance-pop oriented groups like FEMM, Fairies, and FAKY, but groups like X21 have done better than a few of those. Without a signature sound, the only way I can describe it is idol-pop with a sheer of professional polish all over it. Wa-suta’s The World Standard and Cheeky Parade’s second album are the highlights, bringing to the endless churn of singles put out by groups like AKB48 (whose year-defining senbatsu single “Tsubasa wa Iranai” didn’t come close to last year’s “Bokutachi wa Tatakawanai“) a bit more gravitas. The attention to detail is surprising for songs that don’t sound much different than their more experienced contemporaries over at places like King Record. Still, iDOL Street, the name of Avex’s subdivision dedicated to idols, is a growing and interesting venture for them. SUPER☆GiRLS , the first group signed, has been something of a mixed bag, but it’s worth looking out for Wa-suta, and in the coming months, BiSH, who were signed earlier this year.

In addition, Avex has their hands full with dance groups like GEM, whose debut album Girls Entertainment Mixture, following a number of singles since 2013, has been one of my most-played of the year. Even though they’re under the same umbrella as CP and S☆G, they’re still a basic Avex dance-group like Fairies. The biggest criticism at this point is that Avex seems to be scrambling to debut and develop as many groups as possible, in the hopes that one or two will make an impression long enough to stick around. In other words, hopefully FEMM won’t be tossed aside for a group like FAKY, which hasn’t fulfilled any of its promise (perhaps one or two of the members will get solo opportunities? They’re too talented to throw away), and will start work on their follow-up album (as of this writing, a new single has been announced, but not released). You can always tell when a group has made it by the imitators that follow; if they all sound like Faint Star’s “Never Ever,” I won’t complain.

That leaves me wondering where groups like Prizmmy☆, Dorothy Little Happy, X21, or TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE will fit into the coming year. The latter, in particular, is now at something of a deadlock. They were Avex’s first and most successful idol group in a long time, with amazing New Jack Swing albums to back them up, but with the official departure of member Ayano Konishi, they’re unsure which direction to take them now that they’ve declared themselves artists, rather than idols. So far, they’ve been spending most of 2016 performing overseas, pushing a dead album onto the masses. It’s been six months since REFLECTION and there’s been no sign of a new single in the works; the style and tone of it will be telling of the group’s future.

Other groups that have failed to release follow-up albums, have been PASSPO☆, who so impressed me last year, callme, E-girls (just a greatest hits here), and palet, though I’m eagerly looking forward to any upcoming singles or projects that might still make it before the year is up. In the end, it’s been BABYMETAL’s continued success story overseas that has been J-pop’s crowning achievement of 2016 so far; the fact that METAL RESISTANCE is so great only makes it sweeter.

Going Solo

Here were the big solo releases of the year: Namie Amuro’s “Mint,” a grand pop gesture if there ever was one (hopefully, a new album follows her soon-to-be-released summer single), Ayumi Hamasaki’s M(A)DE IN JAPAN, which I’ve already discussed here (worth noting, though, is the constant cropping up of the term “renaissance” to describe this phase of her career, to which: maybe? Things like that usually only become clear after the fact, so I’ll sit tight for now), and the wild card, Mamoru Miyano’s “SHOUT!” He’s no Luna Haruna, but the anime-pop solo work of this voice actor has been a refreshing change from your everyday Nana Mizuki. Someone has to fill in for Yuma Nakayama.

Odds and Ends

One of the biggest stories in J-pop this year was the affair between Gesu no Kiwame Otome.’s Enon Kawatani and Becky, a talento. Unfortunately, the news overshadowed the release of the group’s album, Ryouseibai, a solid bit of J-rock, that runs just a bit too long to be truly outstanding. The J-rock album to beat this year has been uchuu,’s +1, a solid debut full-length from the indie group that graced us with HELLO, HELLO, HELLO, last year. I’ll be keeping my eyes on them.

But what is it good for?

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Which leads us to the biggest disappointments of the year. Of note, there have only been two: Perfume’s COSMIC EXPLORER and Negicco’s Tea for Three. Perfume’s is the least surprising, with the quality of Yasutaka’s Nakata’s compositions on a decline for the past few years; still COSMIC EXPLORER, unlike LEVEL3, left so little room for surprises, such as a “PARTY MAKER” or “Clockwork,” that its two interesting songs “Miracle Worker” and “FLASH” pale in comparison. Negicco, who showed such promise after years of toiling in obscure ridicule, set such a high bar with Rice & Snow that Tea for Three is less a disappointment, than a given. It’s an okay album for a group that released okay singles leading up to it, with a few stand-outs, like “Kounan Yoi Uta.” I’ll take it, but I’m not happy about it.

 

Some luck, but mostly effort: The anomaly and allure of BABYMETAL

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Marty Friedman was both right and wrong: J-pop idols are pretty amazing, and he emphasized this point when he enthused that “all the stuff I introduced to you from Japan is going to make it outside of Japan, and soon. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. I’m talking this year, or next year something is going to explode because this stuff is too good.” Four years later, we’re seeing a tiny, almost barely-perceptible fissure in the musical landscape. Perfume is successfully touring Europe and North America, adding major cities to their stops over time, while metal idols BABYMETAL are catering to both the LOLJapan crowd, and prurient hipsters, ever on the prowl for the new and different. The latter is nowhere more telling then their appearance in the entertainment issue of this week’s New Yorker, buried in the back in the teenage tastemakers article, Teenage Dream, by Matthew Trammell.

“Teen-agers with their serial rebellions, romantic infatuations, and unabashed experimentalism, have proved to be adept at reworking pop’s core provocations. Technology, meanwhile, has made it easy for teens to inject their aesthetics into the mainstream, with or without the guiding hand of managers and record labels.” (70)

newyorkerappThat last point is a stretch, and none of the artists briefly profiled could be considered to have gained “mainstream” success (Rappers Novelist and Kodak Black, piano prodigy Joey Alexander, popster Låpsley, etc.), but the New Yorker wouldn’t be the New Yorker if it didn’t purport to being on the absolute up-and-up. As in TIME‘s special Fall 2001 issue, which featured Hikaru Utada, (notably, she was working on her American debut with Foxy Brown and the Neptunes and planning to retire very young, around 28, probably to become a neuroscientist), articles like these tend to be peak Western exposure for said artists, rather than the beginning of a phenomenon, though BABYMETAL does get relatively considerable space. Writes Trammell,

“Though the songs are addictive, Babymetal’s sharpest asset is its singular combination of J-pop’s theatrical pageantry and metal’s primal sprint. Adherents of each genre are becoming fans: Babymetal has enjoyed huge success in Japan, and its fame is growing in the United States and in London. […] Babymetal’s act, like much of the best pop, is at once recognizable and profoundly new.” (78)

This is a singularly Western explanation; in fact, for fans of J-pop, young teenage girls dancing and singing in a genre they never heard of, or downright dislike, is nothing new, and has been done, often, if not, arguably, better, by Japanese idol groups before them. The “profoundly new” angle is only new to American pop, where metal remains the domain of a largely male demographic. This, too, was true in Japan, until a meeting of the minds pinpointed a great way to sell idols units to otaku male audiences (the, ahem, most important, ones) and their skeptical friends even quicker: by making young female idols the mouthpieces of a traditionally “masculine” genre, they created the jarring allure and unexplored juxtaposition of teenage girls belting out aggressive metal songs, and lured fans’ wallets with something they could enthuse about publicly. This opened the idol business to even more mainstream revenue: suddenly it was just a little less unseemly for young and older men alike to collect posters and photo cards, attend handshake events, and attend concerts to see their idols because the music wasn’t soft rock or bubblegum pop: it was heavy and authentic and respectable and composed by real virtuosos of the genre with immeasurable skill and talent. While the genre (here, idol pop as an all-encompassing umbrella term) has always had both male and female fans, the female fans tend to be outliers: female idols, especially those who are front women for increasingly edgier hard rock or metal music, are first and foremost catered to a male audience, most especially an older male audience, who has the buying power to keep up with the sale of related merchandise. Female fans are the superfluous extra perks, a welcome byproduct, but hardly the target, which is why you get a lot of lyrical content that is usually either a) specific to men’s interests, especially, as the market saturates, super-niche interests — see Momoiro Clover Z — or b) specific to what boys and men think girls think, talk, and daydream about.

There are very few actual female idol groups marketed to girls and women, and most of them aren’t pure idols, skirting the broader definitions that prefer terms like girl group, or dance group, like E-girls or Fairies. Female fans are steered in the direction of Johnny’s idols, where young boys and men release softer, more heartfelt, treacly pop music, the type women are typically assumed to like: photoshoots present male idols as nonthreatening, cute, and cuddly, and their singles and albums reinforce this. While a crop of new K-pop-imitators like Da-iCE and Choshinsei, are struggling to redefine the preconceived notions of idol boy bands, they are still the exception, outnumbered by their best-selling rivals. Even groups like EXILE, KAT-TUN, and lately NEWS, lean toward heavy dancepop at its most aggressive; another genre traditionally undervalued in the critical world.

babymetaltrivappIn many ways this is a sign of the outrageous gender binaries that comprise the marketing and distribution of Japanese idols; for purposes of the music itself, it also reinforces the notion that genres that comprise huge male audiences (hard rock, metal) can be deemed authentic and worthy of critical attention, while those that women enjoy are considered fluff that no one would ever take seriously. Under that idea, it’s hardly surprising that a group like BABYMETAL could make it in the circles of certain American subcultures, and less so that articles in the Western media feel the need to justify their interest in the group by constantly reminding readers that their material was written by veterans of the metal genre (Nobuki Narasaki, Herman Li, Sam Totman, Takeshi Ueda, etc.), or that the girls themselves are influenced, or appreciated by, everybody from the members of Metallica to Slayer. There are few that don’t, and in many ways, these men serve to legitimize their existence. Under these caveats, it’s hard to imagine an equivalent Japanese male group/boy band (who don’t write their own music or play instruments) could make it stateside, not even if like Jimi Hendrix came back from the dead to write an album for them. Because it seems to be acceptable, if not preferable, for women to be mostly muses and good-looking faces for the music, a group like Perfume can get a lot of critical praise because of their music producer Yasutaka Nakata, but it rarely goes the other way for boy bands, who can’t seem to catch a break unless they’re more in control of their music and image, for example G-Dragon of K-pop group BIG BANG.

Setting aside the gender breakdown of the critical music sphere for a second, any writer putting together an article about BABYMETAL deserves applause, since nothing gives away their idol-ness more than an interview, where stock quips and rehearsed nothings are the order of the day. Says Moa Kikuchi, when asked about the international reach of their fans, “Everyone loves music. I think music is the common language of the world. Music is a wonderful connection for all people – it brings people together.” These are hardly the insights of seasoned performers, though it speaks to their unique perspective, both as teenagers and Japanese teens, which they are very quick to take pride in (Yui Mizuno: “BABYMETAL music is a blend of hard music and metal music with Japanese pop and sounds. If we were not from Japan, we’d be a totally different band with totally different fans”).

artravebabvy2While Marty Friedman believed that Japanese pop music would only reach an audience outside Japan “with luck” and “timing,” and other factors that couldn’t be planned, BABYMETAL, has been a slow, methodical climb to relevance, not least of which included shows in Paris, New York, and the UK, and opening for Lady Gaga’s ArtRave: The Artpop Ball tour starting back in 2014. Noisey did a brief introduction back in the same year, while Jake Cleland at Pitchfork picked “Gimme Choco!!” as one of his favorite tracks of 2010-2014. All said and done, BABYMETAL, originally conceived of as a subunit of uber-traditional idol group Sakura Gakuin, has done well for itself, and not just because of luck and timing.

In fact, idol groups like BABYMETAL flourish in Japan, many of them far superior to the group, who are getting the attention and accolades that many Japanese idols simply don’t care about, or can’t be bothered with. PASSPO☆, in particular, has some of the highest quality, and variety, of hard rock and metal on their albums, especially on the legendary One World, and last year’s Beef or Chicken? Other examples include BAND-MAID, Momoiro Clover Z, and BiSH, all bands that might be considered too niche to crossover in America (it would surely involve a lot of context and explanation).

stephenbabyappThat being said, in rare cases the music can transcend context, as BABYMETAL’s fantastic new album, METAL RESISTANCE, does. There are some truly epic and astounding risks the album takes and pulls off, particularly with lead tracks “KARATE” and the mostly-instrumental “From Dusk Till’ Dawn.” As Ryotaro Aoki points out in his review, the album has “more nods to 1980s hair metal and symphonic metal, which are perhaps more suited for mixing with J-pop than metal’s edgier subgenres” and fulfills “the crux of idol music; they know what you like, and they can convincingly make it exactly the way you like it.” It will be interesting to see how long BABYMETAL can sustain their novelty act in a country where trends come and go, Japanese pop culture is not often taken seriously, and the majority reaction is still more laugh-at-them than laugh-with-them (to be fair, homegrown girl groups aren’t having it much easier, even as they look to edgy K-pop for inspiration, but Fifth Harmony and Little Mix, bless their souls, are trying). While seeing the girls on Stephen Colbert was pretty exciting, simply appearing on late night portends nothing; just ask Girls’ Generation. The goal is always that music from other parts of the world can be appreciated and enjoyed for what it is and what it’s trying to do, rather than fit a predetermined, acceptable mold, regardless of which audience it’s attracting and why, and at least in that sense, BABYMETAL are chipping away at America’s icy heart proudly, and on their own terms.

(Photo credit.)

Top ten albums of 2015, #2: Wonder Girls’ REBOOT

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wondergrroeappWonder Girls: REBOOT

The praise that rolled in for Wonder Girls’ comeback REBOOT are not without cliches: “late 80s nostalgia,” “synth-pop that is so utterly ’80s it defies logic,” “a vintage synth-pop dream on VHS,” etc. It’s simply impossible to talk about this album without using the words “retro,” “vintage,” “synth,” or “throwback,” so let’s skip them and get to the heart of why this album succeeds where so many have failed: this album is the perfect marriage of a razor sharp understanding of pop music and the skills of master producers who use just the right sound effects to achieve that scary-good level of authenticity. It’s the addition of a visually accurate mock up of all the best and worst things we loved about 80’s music videos. It’s the keytar. It’s the breathless vocals and cascading star bursts on “Candle,” the drawn out “eh eh eh”s on “Baby Don’t Play,” the alluring anonymity of “John Doe,” and the euphoric, chilly shadows of “One Black Night.” REBOOT isn’t just an attempt to revive the best of Madonna’s golden era, or cleverly appropriate a culturally significant touchstone as the title, it’s a thank you to the decade that taught us how modern pop music should be made: with an emphasis on the now, on how it should be listened to after the fact, and how we should see it when we get older. There’s nostalgia, yes, but all of our accumulated nows, too, everything we’ve heard and experienced to help us appreciate what a wonderful “then” it was, without having to sacrifice our own “now” to have it: we get K-pop AND Carly Rae Jepsen AND Donna Summer AND The Beach Boys (if that’s your thing), and what a wonderful world we live in that we can experience all of it in what was once the distant future.

Top ten albums of 2015, #3: SHINee’s Married To The Music

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SHINee: Married To The Musicshineemarrapp

Girls’ Generation might have been around longer than SHINee, but not much longer — SNSD debuted with “Dasi Mannan Segye (Into the new world)” in 2007, while SHINee released their first single a year later in 2008. But the boy band has managed to avoid many of the potholes that seem to be tripping up the girl group, which is mostly to say, that while the quality of SNSD’s music declined, it took a sharp nosedive after the departure of Jessica; SM Entertainment truly does not care about Girls’ Generation anymore. Maybe they always sensed a waning interest, maybe they understand how fragile a group can become when the original members are no longer intact, or maybe they sense the futility when there are so many new girl groups who are doing SNSD so much better than they can, and maybe that’s why sister group f(x) (also under SM) also got the short end of the production stick (in this case, pretty much everyone agrees that f(x) got SHINee’s leftovers; great leftovers, and yet).

Odd was released in May of this year, followed three months later by this repackaged version, Married To The Music. It’s essential that we examine MTTM, rather than Odd, because the former contains two extra songs that I simply can’t live without, particularly “SAVIOR.” This is an album that grows on you, rather than pulling you in from the beginning, the type of songs that take root and blossom over time. These are mostly jazzed-up R&B songs, deep-fried in pop, the kind that SM is famous for, with an ear worm of a 90’s house lead single. Despite all the vocal flourishes and genre influences on this album, it never feels overwhelming. Instead, it feels like just the right mix of dance, hip-hop, and five unmistakable vocals, coming together in a fun, understated declaration of what victorious staying-power sounds like.

Top ten albums of 2015, #4: Red Velvet’s The Red

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redvelvettheredRed Velvet: The Red

A lot of the criticism that Red Velvet gets stems from their perceived inheritance of everything f(x) lost with the departure of Sulli. They’re considered knock-offs, the worst kind, that don’t even get original material but hand-me-downs and rejects, the stuff f(x) probably took a hard pass on. But it’s impossible to compare the two when f(x) released such a dismal follow-up to two of the greatest K-pop albums of all time. I didn’t hate 4 Walls, but it certainly has none of the subversive elements of Pink Tape or ambition of Red Light. Even if you like both SHINee’s “View” and title song “4 Walls” despite the fact that they’re so similar (maybe that’s why you like them? I know I do), it’s hard to find redeeming qualities in duds like “Glitter” and “Traveler.”

On the other hand, label mates Red Velvet might still be considered rookies, but their album sounds more like what 4 Walls could have been if it wasn’t constrained by f(x)’s need to stay so Insta-hip. “Dumb Dumb” has the effusiveness of “Cheos Salangni (Rum Pum Pum Pum)” even when it doesn’t have any of the underlying mystery. Unburdened like their veteran superordinates, Red Velvet is able to embrace tried-and-true K-pop formulas like “Huff n’ Puff” and “Red Dress,” songs that might not be particularly special, but that have such high production value and catchy staying-power, it’s impossible not to find yourself scrolling past 4 Walls to get to The Red again. “Oh Boy” knows all the right ways to emphasize keyboard, while more R&B numbers finally perfect the group’s earlier attempts with “Automatic.” By the time “Cool World” hits, it’s easy to forgive SM’s relentless attempts to keep reminding you they created once-legendary group Girls’ Generation and would like to continue breaking out that sound just to remind you on “1 Day.” The Red might not be a perfect album, but it has so many hooks hanging on impeccable arrangements, it makes 4 Walls sound less and less the cool comeback it was supposed to be. It’s official: Amber too good, too pure for this world.

2015 mid-year report

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2015 has offered a number of notable releases so far: so much so, in fact, that narrowing it down to discuss the highlights without resorting to a wall of YouTube videos is difficult. For the purposes of this blog, I’ve chosen to focus exclusively on Japanese and Korean pop, omitting digressions on American pop, electronic, and Bollywood soundtracks, which sometimes crop up here. I think you’ll find plenty to sample and I encourage you all to share anything you may have found particularly awesome that I missed.

The Annual Yasutaka Update

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So here’s a first: Perfume released a new single and it barely registered. The trio has been getting more Internet buzz over their SXSW performance (I mean, it seems pretty cool, but it’s kind of hard to tell with all the annoying camera angles and visual effects splashing across the actual performance). For years now, Perfume has focused on live, especially overseas, performances, and songs that enhance those performances: singles aren’t so much indicative of Nakata himself, Perfume-as-statement, or even advertising anymore — they’re just the fuel that keeps the tour bus rolling. It’s hard to be completely disappointed by a Perfume single, though. Even when the A-side isn’t the newest addition to your workout playlist you were hoping for, the B and C-sides always offer alternatives. That said, “Relax In The City” isn’t bad, but it is largely superfluous next to “Pick Me Up” and “Toumei Ningen.” As Kashiyuka pointed out in an interview, it’s very Yasutaka Nakata to hide the more commercial crowd-pleasers at the back (remember “Hurly Burly” on Spending all my time?) He’s one producer who likes to dole out rewards only if you’re paying attention.

capsule’s latest original album, WAVE RUNNER, is something of a mixed bag with few really great standout tracks; it’s business as usual as the follow-up to the experimental CAPSLOCK. We also got Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s single “Mondai GIRL.” While I appreciate Kyary as an artist, I’m not always happy with Nakata’s work with her, but “Mondai GIRL” proves how perfect the pieces can fall into place when the producer steps away from the xylophones. As always, the kiddie orgel ticks and marching drums are almost completely absent from every great Kyary song: I’ll remember this every time Mito Natsume releases any music with Nakata and won’t even bother. Instead, it’ll be nice to see if Nakata produces any more one-offs like the excellent “Music Flyer” on E-girls’ E.G.TIME: I always enjoy hearing what magic he can conjure for artists outside of his usual roster.

Girls On Top

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Thanks to some wrinkle in time, we were blessed with four long-time top Avex female artists’ albums this year. Are you there God? It’s me, grateful. To halt anticipation, I’ve never been a Kuu fan, despite my repeated visits to her back catalog, so WALK OF MY LIFE is a non-conversation. To a large extent, neither is Ayumi Hamsaki’s A ONE. But the album has some really beautiful moments: this is the first Ayumi album in years that has felt like a solid, cohesive whole. It has some breathtaking moments (the last two minutes of “Out of control,” “The Show Must Go On,” the lively cover of “Movin’ on without you” — wow! What a gentle, grand statement that Ayumi covered a Hikaru Utada song to prove that any competition between those two was always fabricated by the record companies and not by the two women themselves) that really round out what have been some truly awful career lows.

Obviously, Ai Otsuka’s LOVE TRiCKY is my favorite of the four so far (read the full review here), but it’s worth spilling a few words on Namie Amuro’s _genic, an album so uniformly perfect, it’s almost not worth listening to more than once. This album is pure pop gold, but it offers little extra on repeat listens. As Otsuka’s album is dark and vulpine, Amuro’s is effortless and seasoned. _genic is trendy hooks, high production value, and class: it’s hard to find cracks in something that already seems iconic, songs that were precisely chosen to bewitch you in the first 20 seconds, except that it’s perhaps all just very glossy surface, and I imagine many people can find fault in that the same way some people prefer the pops, hisses, and scratches in a vinyl record over 320kbps mp3 files. You can’t please everyone.

K-pop

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Post-Golden Age, good, but not necessarily great, things are happening in K-pop. Ever since Jessica’s departure from Girls’ Generation, we’ve gotten a lot of artists mimicking their debut album in a very short nostalgia turnover: OH MY GIRL’s “Cupid” and G-Friend’s “Glass Bead” are the first that come to mind. The standouts for me this year so far have been AMBER’s solo EP BEAUTIFUL, miss A’s fun “Dareun Namja Malgo Neo” and BoA’s “Kiss My Lips” (the single, not the album, which is just okay). I get the feeling many people haven’t been wowed by BIG BANG’S MADE project, or maybe that perception is just an extension of my own disappointment. The group’s releases used to be events that seemingly everyone in the K-pop fandom could get behind. Now it just seems that stretching out singles over the course of a few months is tedious and suspect, kind of like splitting the last season of an iconic show in two. Sometimes it feels that the context of other songs on an album can really change your mind about particular songs that just seem off: now all these stand-alone tracks feel obvious and not a bit whelming. Just because G-Dragon composed it and T.O.P has a really cool new haircut doesn’t make it worthy of applause, or the music videos any less problematic. Basically I’ve largely ignored the new songs up until now due to meh.

Idol Corner

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OK guys, brace yourselves, we’re gonna crank this one out, because idols are everywhere now and you can’t download a rar file or follow a tumblr without stumbling across this stuff and it’s been my year’s goal to start embracing more idol-pop and I feel I’ve mastered the rhythms when I can make a statement like: And anyway, there’s some decent stuff out there. On principle I cannot in good conscience discuss AKB48 anymore, so let’s just say that whether or not you believe that good music can stand on its own, far apart from its commercial, or more prurient interests, AKB always manages to get in those one or two songs that surprise you: if among the deluge of choices on their new album Koko ga Rhodes de, Koko de Tobe! (with all editions packing thirty-eight songs) you can’t find at least two songs that make you hesitant to dismiss the music completely, maybe J-pop is not the genre for you.

We had fantastic albums from Negicco and Luna Haruna and an okay album from Avex idols X21, and more of the same from Johnny’s groups like Hey! Say! JUMP (again, again there’s usually at least one song I can sink my teeth into, and so it is with JUMPing car‘s “Boys Don’t Stop”). I’m not sure if Shoujo X is commendable just because X21 is an Avex group and I’m now so deeply invested that to reject outright any of their output without giving it an honest try is so repugnant that is sends me into lonely spirals of repeat listens, but it’s a group that I’ll be monitoring in the future.

PASSPO☆’s Beef or Chicken? has had the most repeat value for me this year, an album that I keep playing over and over because of how fun it is. The promo “Honey Dish” is the album’s highlight, lending it the vintage-y pop style the album was going for, without abandoning the group’s hard rock style or falling into the Meghan Trainer trap of cloying, wince-inducing brass as Yuma Nakayama’s “YOLO moment” — I genuinely like this guy and think he has potential as a soloist, but the YOLO reference feels dated and the 50’s soda shop-pop doesn’t feel fresh enough to be a classic, rather then just a hopeful, throwback. I’m on board for rolled up jean cuffs and ties under varsity jackets, but only if the angle is more than just earnest heartthrob: am I the only one who feels this is really more of an homage to the 80’s-referencing-the-50’s? It just screams 80’s teen flicks more than 50’s surf movies. I guess I just want to like the guy more than I do and will scale back my ire when it’s so hard to find good male solo artists.

And finally, here are some interesting newcomers to keep an eye out for: Maria’s “HURRICANE” is an adorable slice of “chame-rock” (playful/mischievous rock). I understand that after the perceived success of BABYMETAL et al., there’s a push for more rock/metal idols but even more hyper-specific, with just-that-little-bit-different angle, but this one seems a little more Blue Hearts than so many of the heavy metal idols coming out. Everyone’s Ramones bangs are a great backdrop for the song (a cover of Chanels/Rats & Star), even when the backpacks look like a pain to dance in. Cupitron and callme are both going for Perfume tributes here — callme even has the unoriginal primary colored square mod dresses going for them — but they’re both worth keeping an eye on. callme are Avex (yeah, there’s that) and are composed of former Dorothy Little Happy members. Cupitron’s outfits were designed by Tomoe Shinohara, which is enough to pique my interest. Ayumikurikamaki: This is just fun.

Special mentions

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Shout outs to the following fun records:

Hanae’s Jokyo Shoko
uchuu,’s HELLO, HELLO, HELLO, (token J-rock)
E-girls’ E.G. TIME
Sakurako Ohara’s HAPPY

For more great music I haven’t featured here, please browse the Notable Releases tag over at tumblr.

On the horizon

Here are a few things I’m looking forward to in the rest of 2015: Girls’ Generation’s new album (sometime in July?), more singles from TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE (an album might not be imminent this year, but I guess anything’s possible), more stuff from Tomomi Itano (whose “Gimme Gimme Luv” will be a great summer single), Ayumi Hamasaki’s mini-album (August), CL’s debut (I don’t think this will necessarily make her a huge overseas contender, but I’m criminally curious what this will look and sound like), anything more that will or will not happen with f(x) this year, and finally, an honest to goodness fun Bollywood soundtrack, which has been seriously lacking this year.

Top Ten Albums of 2014

apptop1010. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: PIKAPIKA Fantajin

I’m under the impression that this is not the best Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has to offer; depending on who you ask that would be her debut Moshi Moshi Harajuku or Nanda Collection and let’s just say I didn’t care for Nanda Collection. Kyary can sometimes be a mixed bag of sounds, but we can aways expect producer Yasutaka Nakata to sprinkle her songs with child-like xylophones, even when her latest conceit is turning 20 and becoming an adult. Kyary represents the child in all of her fans, even when she’s clearly moving forward in “Yume no Hajima Ring Ring,” – only three albums old, and she can’t help nostalgically looking back before moving on. There’s beauty in that kind of hesitation, a gentle reminder that who we are comes directly from who we were. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu was and, until he takes someone else under his wing, always will be Nakata’s most divisive project, the kind you’re either upset to see occasionally sprouting in his other work like ugly weeds or happy to find expanding like interesting fauna.

apptop909. 2NE1: Crush

Too little, too late? Well maybe, but you almost can’t help but continue to love any project CL is attached to. For a while the promises of an American takeover derailed the group to the point of obscurity, releasing half-hearted singles like the Instagram filtered “Do You Love Me?” I certainly don’t think 2NE1 will ever surpass the highs they reached with 2011’s “Naega Jeil Jal Naga” (think about how it’s still hitting the shores of the West in commercials as if it’s brand-new while the rest of us yawn and try not let the hangover dilute its magic). Still 2NE1 tried their best with this one, and there are still remnants of what made the group a trailblazer: CL’s “Menbung” solo, for one, a song produced almost exclusively to be played loudly in a car with the windows rolled down. The one glaring omission is “I Love You,” replaced by a Korean version of Japanese single “SCREAM.” Even though 2NE1 was left behind in the great K-pop races, it’s nice to see them still soldiering on, despite how much it seems their hearts are no longer in it.

apptop808. Tomohisa Yamashita: Asobi

Yamapi is famous for his dual career aspirations: forever chained to focusing on the Johnny’s pop music that won over his diehard group of fans, he’s consistently dabbling in dance music, particularly in the songs he composes on his own: is Asobi Yamashita’s reward for playing by the rules? A bit of indulgence in a passion that satisfies him musically so he will continue to put out albums like YOU? While I think YOU isn’t necessarily a terrible album, it is safe, a lot more safe that his collaboration with house producers Shinichi Osawa and Yasutaka Nakata. Asobi is the perfect antidote for fans who prefer songs like “Hit the Wall” and “Turn Off the Lights” to “Daite SENIORITA,” and as a dance album, it holds its own against the EDM-heavy banquet that Top 40 still feasts on, years after the genre hit its mainstream peak.

apptop707. Ai Otsuka: LOVE FANTASTIC

As the Oricon charts become increasingly irrelevant, their reflection of both the everyday musical tastes of the common Japanese person, and the quality of music remain at odds. And though Avex Trax had an incredible year, they seem to have less luck with their roster of seasoned professionals than they do with newcomers and girl groups (often the same thing). LOVE FANTASTIC is not the best album Ai Otsuka has come up with, but it it the most complete. It illustrates the warmth and grace she brings to love songs (“Gomen ne.,” “Mawari Mawaru Mawareba Mawaro”) and the fun she has with upbeat pop/rock numbers that sound like indie circuit-approved staples (“LUCKY☆STAR” and “9”). She may not have had the sales numbers, but Ai Otsuka can still have it both ways when albums come packaged in such understated elegance.

apptop606. TaeTiSeo: Holler

TaeTiSeo is Girls’ Generation’s vocal powerhouse subunit, consisting of three of the group’s strongest singers: Taeyeon, Tiffany, and Seohyun. In their second mini album, they have ample room to show off their technical skills and range, though lead single “Holler” sometimes veers a little too close to K-pop’s fascination with endlessly recreating Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” My vote for favorite track goes to “Adrenaline,” a song whose drums double down with each escalating vocal track, truly capturing the thrill and excitement inherent with encountering a crush. Holler is a far step up from the poppy Twinkle, a showcase to SM Entertainment’s progress in action.

apptop505. f(x): Red Light

No, it’s not Pink Tape, but SM Entertainment’s answer to one of the best pop albums of all time was more of the same, with surprisingly efficient results. I can understand how some might see Red Light, and K-pop in general, too clinical, with too much emphasis on production, order, and reliability, but I believe that is K-pop at its best. And Red Light has plenty to offer in terms of novelty: rare instrumentation, deliciously catchy choruses, and the right vocalist for every line, utilized for maximum synergy. Read more about this album here.

apptop404. Michiru Hoshino: E・I・E・N Voyage

There’s no shortage of idol groups reaching back into the Golden Age of Idols to resurrect the nostalgia and vivacity of an era that still marked the beginning of a brilliant future rather than the beginning of the end. Ever since idols and idol groups made a comeback in the 00’s after the 90s’ “artist” boom, it only made sense that producers and composers would look backward to see what worked. Mostly, that seems to be cute girls in mid-century fashion, back when we could still glamorize airplanes and stewardesses, those ever beautiful, slim, neatly pressed, highly-coiffed women who existed solely to bring us an extra pillow and refill our whiskey. There’s no shortage of this motif, from Girls’ Generation’s second album, to Vanilla Beans, to the group PASSPO☆ that banks its entire existence upon the concept. This goes hand in hand with the reemergence of shibuya-kei, which largely lagged behind when Perfume came along, now quickly catching up to help struggling idols like Negicco. So it makes sense that former AKB48 member Michiru Hoshino would embrace the concept as well, tackling the shibuya-kei aesthetic for her solo career. The album E・I・E・N Voyage is largely successful, for what it lacks in famous brands like Konishi Yasuharu or Yasutaka Nakata, it makes up for in pinning the atmosphere down to a science. You couldn’t hear greater horns or steel drums on an authentic bossa nova compilation, while the sparse production, sounding largely like it was made out of Hoshino’s bedroom on a budget computer program, adds the modern, 21st century touch (I’m thinking paricularly of “Hanshite…” or “Seikan Renraku-sen ~Night Voyage~.”). In that way, this isn’t shibuya-kei in the sense of nostalgia or a blatant recreation of 60’s jet set pastiche, but in the sense of aligning herself outside of the mainstream idol scene as if getting as far away from her recent past as possible. Many other idols would do well to follow this example, not because the mainstream is horrible, but because it really is just different, slower, anti-AKB pop music that reminds you, for a moment, what it was like when possibilities were more abundant than the number of girls in your super group. Natsukashiii~.

apptop303. YUKI: FLY

Having never been a YUKI fan, I was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected wonder of her seventh studio album. FLY is for the YUKI fans who loved the single “JOY” and wondered where the rest of the songs from that recording session ended up. The first few tracks of the album are light dance-pop at their most simple and effective, with the middle portion are reserved for more standard YUKI tracks with rock and jazzy influences. Unfortunately, the album isn’t given any space to breathe, and so is forced to take on more than it can handle: everything after around track ten might as well not exist, bringing the album’s momentum to a jarring stop in order to re-live the early 00’s worst production sin: just because you can fit up to 80 minutes of music on a CD doesn’t mean you have to.

apptop202. Far East Mention Mannequins (FEMM): Femm-Isation

Far East Mention Mannequins are not from this planet. We’re not exactly sure which planet in which galaxy would have the proper elements to nurture the lives of mannequins but astrophysicists are presumably working on it. Until then, we should just be glad they’ve managed to travel all the way out here and manage to assemble such a talented team of visionaries including LiKi inc., HIDALI, GM Atelier, maximum 10, EPOCH, OKNACK Films, and Avex Trax. While so many J-pop groups in the last half decade are cookie cutter girl and boy groups with little to offer outside of the usual, FEMM is one of the few innovative, truly experimental groups outside of the indie scene (technically Avex Trax is an indepenent label, but their business practices make them all but major label in theory): not only did they eschew physical CD sales to shack up with YouTube (a union that would make every other Japanese major label queasy just to consider), releasing singles in full, each accompanied by bright, splashy music videos that challenge the alliance between movement and music, fashion and the human body. Though I’m not sure how comfortable I am with women essentially posing as living dolls, with all the inevitable objectifying that comes with it, and the novelty of the genre — largely eletcro-pop with a heavy, trendy EDM influence — wears off, it doesn’t diminish how much it stands out from other popular Japanese music in the mainstream. Maybe like Lady Gaga, it’s not about how most of the music is just Euro-fluff the Swedes have been doing for decades, but about how we challenge norms (“Fxxk Boyz Get Money“), question the quotidian and illustrate how little you have to stretch to stand out when every other #1 Oricon single is an Arashi song. It helps if you’re meme-ready. By 2014 we were all dying to buy into the narrative of a pair of beautiful mannequins even if they could never take us home to their leader.

apptop101. Jolin Tsai: Play

Up until this point, the closest Jolin Tsai has come to impressing me with an entire album was 2012’s MUSE, which unfortunately  contained one too many fillers that weakened the glue that made so much of the album’s wink-wink pop pretensions so fun. Without necessarily being able to articulate why, Play, which boasts equal number of ballads as it does dance-pop, feels like an almost perfect approximation of pop in 2014. First, there’s the delightful music video, one of my favorite of the year. While many of Tsai’s videos focus on magnifying pop trends to the point of satire, “Play” focuses on critiquing the image each one of us projects to the world: regardless of whether you’re a pop princess, a rich snob, or a frugal hipster, we’re all subconsciously competing for the scarce resources of attention, and the ultimate self-congratulations of surpassing our peers. Except, that is, for Jolin, who rises above it all, the incomparable, original superstar who can poke fun at herself and her career without missing a dance step. From the album’s cover art and packaging, to the ballads on the album, everything is big and everything is about how we present and look at women as objects, clothes hangers, lovers, and even, as actual people. Only skimming the surface would give the impression that Tsai is a lot more dense than she lets on, merely a puppet to be paraded about in couture. In response, Tsai collaborates with #1 Japanese diva Namie Amuro to say, “I don’t need you anymore / I’m not your girl.” Not to mention the truth bombs she drops all over “Play” and the graceful self-preservation of “Zi Ai Zi Shou“: “My moments of sweet happiness and lonely sadness are not someone else’s novel / Concerning the matter of my most private life, please do not listen to hearsay.” There’s also heartbreaking comfort in the album’s closer, “Bu Yiyang You Zenme Yang,” a tribute to the beauty, surrender, and courage of falling in love. This is an album concerned with more than just the surface, rewarding the effort it takes to unwrap and understand what lies beneath what only appears to be another pop star bending to the power of pornographic imagery to sell albums.

Honorable mentions under the cut. Continue reading