Top 10 East Asian pop/rock albums of 2018

With labels scrambling to debut as many rookies as possible to distract fans from recent scandals, lawsuits, and the ever-shrinking pool of legacy groups from which to draw, it’s been nearly impossible to keep up with the mostly mediocre or one-off mini-albums K-pop released this year. While this practice isn’t anything new, it does make it harder to enjoy a genre whose days of tent-pole hits with the power to unite eyes and ears nationwide has passed. However, these lowered standards (followed by lowered expectations) makes it easier to spot the masterpieces and the true stars who have stuck around, not because sacrificing a giant chunk of their life to the entertainment industry has left them with so few other options, but because of a passion and talent that won’t be swayed by the setbacks of Plan A. Since we outside the industry might never know which are the latter and which are the former, we can only sit back and patiently wait to see how business-as-usual versus genuine enthusiasm separates the herd.

A similar ennui permeates J-pop, which swam in its own self-referential muck this year, drawing on numerous tactics that worked in the past while only occasionally breathing anything fresh and new into the mix that didn’t reek of pandering. Meanwhile, we all stood back and watched as the mighty idol oaks began toppling one by one, from GEM, to X21, to PASSPO, a dizzying domino effect that revealed the same systemic cracks as in K-pop’s foundation. Perhaps it is because of this uncertain climate that suddenly the familiar feels good, a reassuring grip to hang onto until the genre realizes it can’t keep running on marbles. And when done with passion, sometimes you can still catch a frisson of that ol’ J-pop feeling, coursing softer, but no less mighty and proud.

Here are ten of those mighty albums and mini-albums, in no particular order, released in 2018, that prove K-pop and J-pop aren’t dead, that despite their diminishing influence as a powerhouse, a New Sweden, or a cure for the Billboard Hot 100, it still has much to offer if we are patient enough to receive.

JONGHYUN: Poet | Artist
More appalling revelations have surfaced in the K-pop industry recently, but none so tragic as the death of Jong Hyun, principal vocalist for one of SM’s most popular boybands, SHINee. Jong Hyun, who was found dead of an apparent suicide in his apartment in December of 2017, was mourned by both fans and industry insiders, the latter who didn’t express surprise so much as grief-stricken resignation. While the exact details of the situation will never be known, it is obvious from his absolutely heartbreaking suicide letter that Jong Hyun was under an immense amount of pressure and in an enormous amount of pain, which was dismissed by both personal acquaintances and professional help. But rather then risk misinterpreting the letter, it is simply important to note, again and more than ever before, that for a star of any kind, fame and celebrity can often be a contributing factor to, not an escape from, mental health issues. It would be unfair to imply Jong Hyun found relief in music or even enjoyed it very much at the end, as good as that would make the rest of us feel – maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Yet that doesn’t make his last solo album Poet | Artist, any less of a tribute to and record of his last months. Filled with soaring pop/R&B gems, the album is both testament to K-pop’s enduring ability to fight back against cookie-cutter accusations and lack of emotion, and proof to anyone who would deny that Jong Hyun worked hard. He really did work hard. They all work so hard.

EXO: COUNTDOWN
Every year, I can count on SM Entertainment to release an album driven purely by the heady excesses of dance-pop. With no agenda to inform or break new ground, than to revel in This Very Moment in Time, COUNTDOWN is the perfect response to accusations that K-pop has lost its fun side. The big twist is that it’s not a domestic Korean release, instead following in the footsteps of countless K-pop groups clamoring for a piece of the Japanese music market, and just like them, these tweaked experiments prove just as, if not more, enjoyable than their homegrown counterparts. Switching to Japanese hasn’t put a single stumble in EXO’s steps, as they tackle propulsive bops from “Electric Kiss” to “TACTIX” with an enviably aggressive energy.

Fairies: JUKEBOX
Fairies are one of the few J-pop girl groups to make it out of 2018 alive, and the fact that they haven’t suffered the same fate as their Avex sisters seems less arbitrary with a closer listen to JUKEBOX. The album is a crystal clear distillation of J-pop, with the upbeat, dance-centered modern cool of songs like “Bangin’” and “Fashionable” playing alongside the very Avex-specific pop of songs like “CROSSROAD” and “Synchronized ~SYNCHRO~.” Where the album really excels is in its lack of typical idol-pop, the likes of which AKB’s sister groups have churned out this year at a rate James Patterson would find alarming. The state of the J-pop girl group, whether mainstream or niche, is an ever-evolving fluctuation, subject to the whims of fickle and sometimes bored managers and their demanding shareholders. Cherish each moment of fun in the here and now as JUKEBOX does: your favorite group is probably on the chopping block next.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Japamyu
Once upon a time, you couldn’t stalk three paces around this blog without coming across a glowing review of Yasutaka Nakata’s work. But when the inspiration dried up, it dried up hard: first for Perfume, then for Kyary, then for his own solo work. All seemed according to schedule when Digital Native dropped in February, and with it, any last hope that a slump was about to become a revival. Japamyu is not that comeback either, nor is it the Kyary album that fans have been waiting for, but it is the album we were given and it is a tight one, almost holy in its brevity. Catchy hooks sail past on a conveyor belt of hits from “Harajuku Iyahoi” to “Kimi no Mikata” at a speed which almost clear slices your fingertips off. Its bread-and-butter approach to composition and adherence to conciseness should make this feel phoned-in, but the idea that this album has been whittled down to its true essence is too tempting. Given the outrageous indulgences Nakata has churned out in the past few years, this album is a cheery distillation of what he’s still capable of, if someone could just harness and steer the genius, or tell him to just pull it together already.

Ai Shinozaki: YOU & LOVE
Ai Shinozaki finally released a full-length album this year, uninspired title and all. Still, her brand of laid-back pop is the perfect antidote to the artificial hyper-energy of the Oricon charts, a continuation of the breezy sound on all of her previous singles and EPs. Heavy on synths, many of the songs evoke earlier legacy-trends, such as the 80’s radio-jam “Cupid,” and the shuffling bop of “Blanket.” The second half of the album starting with “Baby I’ll Wish…” contains a collection of lost POWER OF WORDS-era Rina Aiuchi hits. There’s nothing here to push Shinozaki into the upper echelons of J-pop history, but its effortless grace feels like a gift, a victory of small steps and persistence that finally paid off.

BoA: WOMAN
There are many times when promo tracks are not accurate reflections of their albums, and “Woman” is one of them. The title track for BoA’s second major Korean release of the year is a doozy, the epitome of BoA’s legacy, and it provides all of the classic Janet Jackson-feels you could want, but it’s hardly the best track of the album. This is where the listener is free to take his or her pick, from the jazzy-pop of “Like It!” to the slow burn of “Hwatgime (Irreversible),” to my personal favorite “Encounter,” an electro-house #1-in-the-making, where distorted vocals weave through a template of loose textures and rhythms in a sublime patchwork of melodies. While ONE SHOT, TWO SHOT was a good, if scattered, selection, on WOMAN, everything BoA touches turns to gold, and it’s our own fault if we had forgotten, in the long interim of releases, just how amazing she is for even a moment.

Airi Suzuki: Do me a favor
As a former member of popular, now-defunct, girl-group C-ute, Suzuki is no stranger to showbiz. So although Do me a favor is her debut solo album, it hardly feels like one. Instead, it feels like a throwback, at times to the decadence of TK-era pop, up through the early 00s, when J-pop was king, not yet aware of the encroaching transformation imminent with R&B and hip-hop’s influence and a young New Yorker named Hikaru Utada. At other times, it couldn’t be anything other than an album produced in 2018, where it’s able to mix all of those potent memories with modern sensibilities into marketing magic. Airi Suzuki makes Do me a favor feel this oldness and newness like a second skin, like cherry-picking influences from all the past career highlights is the natural product of progress, one the Internet has trained us to expect: see how a very-contemporary idol-pop song like “Candy Box” follows a slower, cooler jam like “perfect timing.” It’s the type of segue that only works in a space and time defined by both E-girls and Keyakizaka46, by both Tokyo Performance Doll and Tsubaki Factory. There is only one other album on this list that is less surprising, and just as rooted in a wholly Japanese pop experience, marrying past and present styles in homage to everything that was and everything that will be, and this one was the least expected.

Hey! Say! JUMP: SENSE or LOVE
Speaking of groups being dissolved, this really puts pressure on Arashi, doesn’t it? Johnny’s has had a hard time of it in the second half of the 10s, with groups like SMAP on the outs and the constant rumors of Arashi members’ personal lives interfering with the company’s streamlined vision. And the younger groups groomed to take their place saw lineup hiccups this year as well, with Sexy Zone member Sou Matsushima going on hiatus to treat a panic disorder, and even Keito Okamoto “taking a break” from Hey! Say! Jump to “study in the U.S.,” which we has nothing to do with his penchant for absolutely verboten idol-extracurriculars. (It’s uncertain what Johnny’s finds more offensive: that people can’t control their natural desires to hook-up, or that they are caught doing so. It is also unclear if he will actually be able to return to the group following the company’s scramble to do damage control, but history isn’t on his side). Yet the H!S!J train rolls on, and SENSE or LOVE does a fine job of pretending nothing is amiss. Okamoto’s presence lingers but is hardly missed, as the remaining eight members commit to professionalism. All of this might seem to mark the album as desperate, or at the very least nothing but a catchy distraction, but it works in the album’s favor, loaning it a sense of urgency absent from previous albums that relied more on a relationship with fans taken for granted. The other most traditional album on this list, SENSE or LOVE is low on surprises, but expert at reminding listeners why they come to Johnny’s in the first place, and most importantly, asking them very politely, and very softly, to stay.

BAND-MAID: World Domination
BAND-MAID is becoming a staple here at appears, and no complaints — they already appeared on the best reissue list earlier this week, and now calmly grace a spot in the ten best albums list as well. But this is no mindless consolation — these women have earned their spot with talent and consistency, regularly releasing some of the metal genre’s best music in any language, anywhere. World Domination finally acknowledges the band’s ambitions, bravely asserting themselves when many of their peers are content to stay local. BAND-MAID want more, as stated in the album’s riff-laden, guitar-heavy, drum-bashing lead single “Domination.” Ditching the maid-costume gimmick at this point might be suicide, but it continues to be largely irrelevant to everything the group does and is capable of, and if the worst it did was enhance their appeal, it could be forgiven. But alas, keep your eyes on the true prize: expert musicianship and a growing craftsmanship that reveals itself in the relationship each member continues to hone with her instrument. The pace at which this band moves is mind-blowing, and to release another career-defining album within one year proves this band has the habits of hard work and focus necessary to meet any goal they set. First Japan, then the world.

Seungri: THE GREAT SEUNGRI
In a world full of baby-faced rookies, Seungri, at age 27, is a K-pop grandfather. The youngest member of legendary group BIGBANG, Seungri has been in the business more than twelve years and has already released two solo EPs, and an album in Japanese. Now, after a five-year pause, we get THE GREAT SEUNGRI, which contains this year’s most joyous K-pop single, “1, 2, 3!” Like his earlier solo work, the album relies on big horns, an enormous hook, and the inherent cool of its lead singer. “1, 2, 3!” is the type of song that demands personality, the type of song a debut singer, as yet bereft of connection with its audience, could never pull off. But it’s all cake for Seungri, who takes the song and infuses it with enough character to make even the keenest listener forget that its mostly absent chorus is almost entirely instrumental. Elsewhere, collaborations abound on TGS and while it’s never quite clear who’s helping whom, all parties benefit. The album is rounded out nicely by both ear-wormy dance hooks and slower, more hip-hop-influenced numbers that make it, if not one of the most interesting YG albums of the year, certainly the most complete. TGS is an album you can play from start to finish, secure in the knowledge that nothing is filler, and that nothing sounds like it’s simply trying to recapture a time and place that can now only be reached through an old CD collection.

Honorable Mentions

JUNHO: Souzou
Sumire Uesaka: NO FUTURE VACANCES
Sakurako Ohara: Enjoy
Monari Wakita: AHEAD!
E-girls: E.G.11

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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

Cool Japan vs. Hallyu: The long, loud road to soft power

perfumecooljaapp2

Like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu before them, Perfume is all set to make their North American debut this fall on a tour that includes stops in Los Angeles and New York, as well as an international release of last year’s album LEVEL3, which will include two bonus remixes. The Internet has been predictably awash in both pleasant surprise and utter horror — worries FilmiGirl, “Their songs are tied up in their intricate visual choreography but I’m afraid that part won’t be clear to the Western arts types trying to write about them.” While South Korea has had a fruitful K-culture export strategy, Japan has been less successful, for several reasons I’ve gone over before in this blog, and that others have reiterated across the Internet. But the one point it always comes back to is that Japan lacks effort because they simply do not care. Japan still holds the distinction of being the second largest music market in the world with physical sales of CDs still trumping digital by leaps and bounds. At least for the time being, Japan’s business strategy works for the music entertainment industry in their favor.

Yet we still see the occasional group or singer attempt an American, or international, crossover. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has toured the US and released an international version of Pamyu Pamyu Revolution, globe-trotting on her brand of Harajuku fashion and artistic, sometimes off-the-wall visuals. But crossovers have gone all the way back since Hikaru Utada, Mai Kuraki, Pizzicato Five, Seiko Matsuda, Pink Lady, and so on. Despite these artists sharing Western styles of music and performance, rather than Japan’s abundance of idols and idol pop, rarely has anyone been able to attain a palpable sense of popularity, perhaps one of the reasons that crossovers tend to stay local, with Asian artists focused on growing a fan base in other East Asian countries like China and Singapore.

Japan, and, especially, Korea have attempted to rectify their low cultural influence outside of Asia with initiatives like Cool Japan and what is known as Hallyu, or the Korean Wave. Both of these tactics are similar, with government funding initiatives to pump up soft power: food, television, cinema, music, and electronics are only some of the positives the countries want associated with themselves, banking on the idea that foreigners will eventually form positive opinions of their country through this coercion, rather than force (hence the term “soft power”). Japan is investing $500 million in a 20-year plan, most likely in response to Korea’s enormous gain in the international pop culture wars — while Japan used to be Asia’s predominant taste maker, Korea has caught up in a phenomenally short amount of time.

koreancoolappIn The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture, Euny Hong outlines the reasons Japan’s reign has come to an end:

“First of all, Japanese pop culture, like the Japanese archipelago itself, is too isolated from the rest of the world to have remained a sustainable global influence. […] Others, like pop culture critic Lee Moon-won, point out that Japan is a big enough consumer market as it is (the population is 100 million) and is less dependent than Korea is on foreign exports. For many Japanese companies, it’s not worth the huge risk of a very, very costly overseas marketing campaign.” (200-201)

In addition, she cites that “many of Japan’s video games are for the Japanese market only,” the Japanese are reluctant to learn English (“J-pop bands don’t strategically include non-Japanese members, for example”), the presence of online distribution channels like YouTube and the use of subtitles which Japanese companies refuse to take advantage of, and the practice of grooming potential stars much differently than their Korean counterparts (201-202). Korean agencies churn out K-pop stars in a factory system, training idols from a very young age in dancing, singing, and media presence, and sending them out into the world as polished and professional as most audiences would expect. On the other hand, Japanese idols start out at a young age to purposely appear green: their real marketing push is to debut somewhat untalented so they can hone their skills in the public eye, giving the audience a sisterly or brotherly pull to support them. This creates a sort of emotional (and financial) bond unique to J-pop idols. In addition, it’s worth mentioning that Japanese idols are valuable less for their singing or dancing skills, than their ability to effortlessly float across media platforms, such as dramas, variety shows, and advertising.

W. David Marx writes in “The Jimusho System: Understanding the Production Logic of the Japanese Entertainment Industry“: “In pursuit of profit, they [agencies] maximize entertainers’ incomes through a wide variety of activities, most deeply focused on product sponsorship. […] Idols are products of their jimusho, [agency] and the jimusho work to create idols who have the greatest economic potential (37).” This “economic” potential is difficult to parlay into an overseas net value where the same advertising tie-ins would be highly difficult to obtain, and artists would, instead, have to rely solely on their music and performances. In that case, it would be a Sisyphean task to attempt to cross over hugely successful groups like SMAP, Arashi, or AKB48. Furthermore, it makes little sense from a business standpoint to drop what is already such a lucrative endeavor that needs no explanation at home, to a country such as the United States, that would require footnotes at every step (see my post Japanese Pop Culture and Intertextuality to get a sense of what we’re dealing with here).

Furthermore, celebrity endorsements work differently in Japan anyway. Jason G. Karlin writes in “Through a Looking Glass Darkly: Television Advertising, Idols, and the Making of Fan Audiences” that

“[u]nlike celebrities in the US, Japanese [talents] do not endorse products. Instead, image characters lend their star image to the brand, but without implying any direct endorsement or testimonial. The Japanese celebrity is not making any claims or representations for the product. Indeed, in most commercials, the celebrity never even mentions the name of the product.” (74-75)

To sum up again, we’re looking at a culture that is financially stable in its own system that, at least for the time being, works in their favor. To move outside Japan, Japanese companies would be losing control of large amounts of income and the enormous influence they yield over broadcast networks and other companies by providing stars that earn those companies revenue in return.

On the other hand, K-pop idols are much more willing to play the long-game and adapt to their Western counterparts in both business practice and image. This is especially easy when K-pop is already so familiar and hip to an international audience that recognizes its references immediately without needing to Google eight separate pieces of background information to get an idea of what’s going on with the sounds or visuals. Perhaps this is why Perfume in particular have been chosen as the next torchbearers: their sound is largely irreverent of current J-pop trends, capable of being enjoyed in as basic a vacuum as you can get when it comes to J-pop. They are also not idols in the traditional sense, yet they do bring a sense of something wholly unique and Japanese, that Yasutaka Nakata sound that is so difficult to replicate and so chillingly important in a music market that sounds more and more homogenous. While they don’t have Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s fashion cred, they do have a uniform look and appeal that remains classic, and a forward-looking visual aesthetic that can be as breathtaking as it is innovative. They are, in short, one of the best musical groups Japan currently has to offer and continuing to send them off into the world is the only way to keep the party going when domestic sales start to flutter.

hellokiappIt’s also a way to promote Japanese pop culture without using the words many already associate with Japan: anime, cute, kawaii, Hello Kitty, etc. While none of those things are inherently bad unto themselves, Japan already has a PR campaign focused on nurturing kawaii. In “Wink on Pink: Interpreting Japanese Cute as It Grabs the Global Headlines” Christine Yano lists everything from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs using the robot kitty Doraemon as its mascot, to Hello Kitty for its tourism, to using three young women, Misako Aoki, Yu Kimura, and Shizuka Fujioka, to model Lolita, Harajuku, and schoolgirls-in-uniform fashion at Japanese global events to showcase how “Japanese cute – including its tease of youth and femininity — has become part of official policy in creating a new face that beckons the overseas customer (685).” While there is something of a tongue-in-cheek way that these fashions and messages are worn by consumers (the “wink” in the article’s title), it’s still a wonder to see three girls like Perfume promote something other than a stereotype: indeed, the girls are hard-working and talented and feminine and strong and they don’t have to wear a maid uniform to get your attention or represent their country. Progress.

Regardless, none of this points to absolute success, where success is defined by the acceptance of a widespread Western audience: for example, while the Japanese lyrics are part of the appeal, it may be difficult for a broader audience to accept the authenticity. In fact, historically we have nothing to predict this will catapult Perfume into global stardom, rather than do the same thing groups like Girls’ Generation have done: bring happiness and delight to a small niche audience, maybe open a few new eyes and ears to something new and different (in this case, recruiting English speaking members is a plus when you plan on conducting interviews and making audiences more comfortable with English-language albums). Maybe get the ball rolling for more, mostly insignificant, collaborations, or spark the hope that a person or persons of Asian background can become celebrities outside their respective countries. At best, get “Gangnam Style” out of their heads. This is why fans that fear the group will change, or that they’ll lose something fragile and precious, as if they own trends or people and would rather hold them back to the detriment of their overall success, probably don’t have much to worry about.

femmappAs for where J-pop is going, it is indeed interesting to watch the music market evolve with the influence of K-pop. I’ve written before how groups like Fairies are borrowing some of the look and style of K-pop groups. Earlier, I quoted Euny Hong stating J-pop groups are reluctant to learn English (“J-pop bands don’t strategically include non-Japanese members, for example”), but this also seems to be changing with groups like FAKY and GENERATIONS from EXILE TRIBE. Both groups are under the record label avex trax and include non-Japanese members that were born outside the country or are of mixed background. It’s worth noting that avex trax might be one of the few labels that can attempt to experiment with the market: as one of the most successful independent record labels in Japan, they have the reputation and the funds to put things like hyper-experimental (and oh my god amazing) “mannequins” FEMM out into the world. All of these are responses to the K-pop model of music, a mutation in the J-pop virus that churns out uber-pop boy and girl bands for the sake of banking on present trends rather than taking a chance on the future, or rather, creating one. However, this is still not the typical practice of Japanese record companies.

Japan needs to remember that as it leads the world in music sales, it also has the responsibility to remain as diverse as it always has, to support not only its huge corporations but its budding indie labels and future taste makers, to utilize social media and not fear the big, bad, icky feeling of not being able to dictate how their audience will buy, share, view, or consume their products at all times. Because of the lose of control of their performers, over segments of the industry as a whole, and the extra revenue generated from crossover platforms, exporting Japanese culture would need to transcend the bottom line for the ideals of national pride and a genuine desire to share culture across borders rather than to niche audiences like fans of anime or Harajuku fashionistas. Perhaps “the ultimate question of whether “Cool Japan” can really pose a challenge to Hallyu lies in whether people even want the Japanese brand of cool when Korean cool seems to be working so well already,” writes sophie at Beyond Hallyu. Nonetheless, whether or not Cool Japan has the potential to catch up with or surpass the Hallyu wave depends on all of this, in addition to how willing the country will be to let go of business-as-usual and dare to try new things – or decide it’s worth it in the first place.

Welcome back appears

The state of East Asian pop music can now be summed up in three words: South Korean. Dubstep. What once seemed a sort of hip novelty has quickly become the most irritating trend that refuses to die softly. It’s greatest example, Hyuna’s “Bubble Pop!” is a prime example of what can make it so difficult to care about: unlike miss A’s expert weave of electro house in album Touch, “Bubble Pop!” strives for at least three different genres without providing any glue. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve missed a lot. And I’m going to make up for it by talking about three or four of my favorite, least favorite, and most interesting musical moments of 2011, April onwards; blink and you’ll miss the Cut Copy reference.

Yasutaka Nakata, etc.

There are a couple of different ways to approach some of the best music that was released in 2011, and Yasutaka Nakata’s work is as good a place as any to start. Yes, Perfume’s JPN was annoying in all the ways it was the best: as long as you didn’t think too much about how it was mostly a singles collection with very little original material (and everyone did), it’s really a generous serving of everything Nakata does so well, without all the annoying self-involved navel-gazing that can happen on albums like STEREO WORXXX.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu also happened this year, in case you didn’t know. And though it’s a shame one of her songs ended up on JPN, she still brings something quintessentially Japanese to the mix. I guess I’d like to believe that everything she does is tongue-in-cheek, which makes what she has to say about being Harajuku’s fun house mirror that much more worthwhile. But even if it wasn’t, there is nothing ambiguous about what she, or Perfume are doing. The titles of the albums (JPN and Moshi Moshi Harajuku) are homages in themselves, proud labels that no Korean pop star wants to stick on themselves. Yes, Perfume is on a major label now and Kyary seems to have made some kind of inconsequential mark on Scandinavia, but these aren’t artists trying to do or be anything different than they already are. This is Japan. This is our pop music. Irrashaimase.

South Korean Pop Music

K-pop is everywhere: it’s on The Singles Jukebox, it’s being championed by rock critic Frank Kogan, it’s on David Letterman, it’s being analyzed and dissected in really awesome, really smart ways all around the web. And that 2NE1 video! Best pop song of the year? You don’t say! It’s amazing how much effort has been put into making K-pop a thing and how quickly it’s caught on when compared to the months and years and decades that Japanese pop/rock has tried to crawl into the market (J-pop could take a note here and there). Then again, it’s also amazing how long Korean pop music has actually been around, and how little anyone seems to think it existed pre-2NE1.

Yet I love how exuberant and free of burden all of the songs seem to be: they are unfettered by turmoil or angst or the general day to day shitstorm of life. In some ways, this creates quintessential pop narratives, even when it’s bizarre and sometimes tasteless. It’s the type of sound that practically begs you to feel guilty, and if I believed in guilty pleasures, I might feel somewhat paranoid about my enthusiasm for stuff that still kind of makes me cringe sometimes.

Still, for every Big Bang and 2NE1 and “Hot Summer” and “Oh! Honey,” we get “Bubble Pop!” and “FACE” and a neverending series of Japanese language crossovers. I like Korean pop, and as anything I really like, I want to see it grow and evolve and stop resorting to dubstep breakdowns or cliche representations of gender. I want to see it go beyond crafting brilliant dance singles to craft one, just one, slow song that doesn’t sound like it was written for Toni Braxton in 1994. One of my top ten albums of the year was a Korean pop album, but it wasn’t one you’ve probably heard much about: it’s Neon Bunny’s Seoulight and it was not performed on Inkigayo or accompanied by a career-defining music video. It has no trademark single easily recognizable by a syllable or phrase: it’s just a great album, made up of more than mostly filler. There’s a lot of debate about K-pop’s longevity, it’s ability to really go anywhere, but whether or not it continues to crop up on Pitchfork or simply recede into its own home field niche market, is irrelevant: we’ll always have 2011.

Group Therapy

2011 was also pretty great for EDM of any kind: if at some point you considered yourself a music fan this year, you probably heard it somewhere, even if what you heard was just pop music’s appropriation. My favorite song of the year was probably Above & Beyond’s “Sun & Moon.” But the most disappointing album of the year (besides Cut Copy’s Zonoscope) was Group Therapy, the album on which it was released. When you coin a defining phrase for a genre, practically renaming that genre in the process, there’s a type of pressure so immense it threatens to collapse on itself. Group Therapy wasn’t a terrible album, it just wasn’t as epic as it should have been. Or rather, it wasn’t as therapeutic as its live component was meant to be — enough that speaking about seeing the group live on the North American leg of their “Group Therapy Tour” makes me a bit uncomfortable.

There were a lot of albums this year that seemed to be just a little less ambitious than advertised: Shonen Knife’s Osaka Ramones was supposed to be a fun covers album, instead it was just another useless, mediocre version of songs that don’t need any improving, remixing, or alternate versions. Ayumi Hamasaki’s FIVE, “BRILLANTE” aside, is now that mini-album sandwiched between what are now two really interesting albums (whether they are conventionally bad or good is irrelevant). I liked Hunx and His Punx’s Too Young to Be in Love and Mind Spiders’ self-titled debut, but these are not albums I have given much thought to since the year ended. Yet I still think about Hamasaki’s impromptu marriage and her sincere belief in its grit, this album, Love songs, that is so clearly written for and about it, and then, last month, Party queen, and how quickly we are able to change our minds, and not bother to suffer over it.

In a way, trance music is the best place to tread this territory, as it’s probably some of the saddest music you’ll hear. There’s a lot of crossover between electro and prog right now, a lot of stuff like BT & Adam K’s “Tomahawk” that illuminates whole new corners that EDM has forgotten to scavenge, but there is still the “Never Let Me Go“s next to the “Let Go“s and the “Never Go Back“s with the “Start Again“s. It’s in this frame where it becomes visible that sometimes Group Therapy tries so hard to make a statement that it forgets to say anything. It also forgets its own purpose in the process: trance music is meant to be played to massive crowds and a sea of bodies so dense, one’s life is threatened by an enthusiastic groover’s elbow. For an album summing up what makes the genre so unique, so all-encompassing, there’s a lot of shuffling self-reflection, a lot of time spent alone among the aural equivalent, with minimal instrumentation and lyrics that sometimes border on the nonsensical. Though it succeeds in avoiding the sometimes too-literal weakness of vocal trance, it fails to capture what the lead singles so simply summed up in a few lines: I’m sorry. I’ll never get over you. I won’t forget about the people I love. This song is going to help me. That’s what music does.

Speaking of the Power of Music

Ayumi Hamasaki’s concerts haven’t exactly been the stuff of legend lately. They’ve just been a lot like what everyone else is doing with more useless dance interludes (really, it doesn’t take that long to change an outfit). But after the earthquake in March, she decided to nix the “~HOTEL Love songs~” thing (a full-blown concept based around the idea of her and at-the-time husband Manny, I’m guessing) and bring it back to the one thing she seems to be forgetting about lately: her music. The “POWER of MUSIC” live is Hamasaki at some of her finest diva moments (even though her vocals aren’t always up to the challenge). There’s a simple stage set up in what alternately resembles a roulette wheel and a giant record player with some moving pieces here and there, but that’s about it. Songs get whole new arrangements or take their cues from classical versions we’ve heard from previous remixes. There’s minimal monologuing, which is always appreciated. The song choice is a little dubious, but it’s more a chance to show off how lasting and epic Hamasaki’s back catalog is: it’s a huge pay-off for long-time fans who have context and experience to witness how thrilling it still is to hear “Boys & Girls” live or how huge “A Song is born”‘s leap can be from one continent’s tragedy to another. There were rumors a while back that this might be turned into a live album, and for Hamasaki’s first and only live album, I don’t think Avex could go with a better choice. It’s pretty seminal in its own way, complete without being overwhelming, stripped down without losing its lushness. And also, she looks like a goddess, so there’s that.

It’s the opposite from my other favorite concert released in 2011, Tomohisa Yamasahita’s “Asia Tour 2011 SUPER GOOD, SUPER BAD.” Where Hamasaki brings herself and the crowd to tears, choking up lyrics like they’re repressed memories, I’m fairly certain there is not a single song Yamashita actually sings live. It’s two hours of really incredible Japanese pop music, bereft of audience banter and any kind of actual emotion. I don’t know why this concert happens to work, but Yamashita is actually a fairly superb performer. No, not exactly the type of guy who will happily run through all the concert gimmicks while refusing a paycheck for the encore, but certainly a professional entertainer. The outfits are a bit Justin Timberlake circa N’Sync, yet I am still all about feeling this man in his jewelry or whatever the hell that line in that amazing song that has yet to have a studio release is (seriously, help me out): but he had an incredible dual album of the same name, a duet with Namie Amuro, and hasn’t been around for two decades, so he’s someone to look out for.

Finally, “Perfume Live @ Tokyo Dome” was more a victory lap, but it was still super fun. There’s some cool lasers and minimal fireworks at the end during “POLYRHYTHM” (which, if this doesn’t provoke some sort of welling up of emotions, either because you are a huge fan and seeing Perfume play the Dome is a sort of triumph you can share in, or because they hit those ‘works at just the right moment, when you’re exhausted from just watching all three of them sweat it out in dance routine after dance routine, and you’re forgetting how many songs there are in their discography but damn, “POLYRYTHM” is still one of the greatest pop songs ever put to sound system and it’s just so lovely), but it’s Perfume, and it’s still pretty amazing how far they have come and how far they can still go.

Oh and one more thing

“Born This Way” is a great album. Even after all that squawking about herself during endless concert monologues, and that annoying title track, there is something fundamentally wonderful about Lady Gaga’s album. There are open roads, confessional bar stools, heavy metal lovers, and a sheisse on top of it. Juggling Christian metaphors, big Broadway numbers, and teenage punks running around with their parents’ hard-earned money is almost more than one album can take, but Born This Way‘s single failure of trying on too many things at once is like saying that human beings are failures for doing the same. This is Gaga’s statement album, and beneath the ode to an ex-boyfriend that seems to choke every song, there is also some pretty fallible, ugly, and beautiful music.

Without further ado, here are my “best of” lists for 2011.

Top Ten Albums of 2011

01. Perfume: JPN
02. Lady Gaga: Born This Way
03. Neon Bunny: Seoulight
04. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Moshi Moshi Harajuku
05. Yelle: Safari Disco Club
06. Tomohisa Yamashita: SUPERGOOD, SUPERBAD
07. Cults: Cults
08. Escort: Escort
09. Kaskade: Fire & Ice
10. Hunx and His Punx: Too Young to Be in Love

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