May 2020: Highlights

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

Every generation has their unifying song smith: Tetsuya Komuro and Yasutaka Nakata all had their rises, peaks, and falls, and it looks like we’ve now reached peak-Enon Kawatani. It’s marked by all the tell-tale signs: fingers in various pies, all maintaining consistency in brand and sound, numerous releases flooding the market as the torrent of genius overflows, and the beginning of ennui from an audience hitting the over-saturation point. We’re just at the beginning of that last one, goodwill is still intact: I had a blast with last year’s GENIE HIGH and while it seemed a little premature for another Gesu Kiwame no Otome. album so soon afterwards, the results aren’t at all bad. While I don’t think STREAMING, CD, RECORD has the same punch as the group’s early records, it’s by no means a total mess, especially if you already liked GENIE HIGH RHAPSODY, since this is the natural successor, and has the exact same spirit. Extensions, leftovers, whatever you want to call it, it’s pure Kawatani and while the whiff of disillusion grows ever stronger, I wager we’ll all still accept a couple more of these before complete fatigue sets in.

TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE: Tokyo Girls Journey
(2020.05.05)

Since declaring their status as artists rather than idols, TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE’s output has been erratic at best. After the coinciding departure of Ayano Konishi, the group lost their core fan base and with it, any consistent musical direction, flailing between mature dance-pop bops and the sort of generic idol-pop at which even B-grade idol groups would turn up their noses. With Tokyo Girls Journey, the group is back to their more grown-up sound, an EP that shoots for the best of both worlds, for example, taking very disparate parts of their iconic New Jack Swing song and feeding it through a house filter, as in the EP’s strongest track, “Bara no Kinbaku.” The following tracks are a bit more varied, with “Ever After” a pop song heavily influenced by indie, bedroom production, while “KIMI NI WOKURU” illustrates the clearest “old” TGS stripped of the fun NJS elements. There’s solid work here, but nothing that reflects where the group should be at this stage in their career, depicting neither growth, nor a path forward. Like much of their work post-Konishi, it highlights a growing disparity between what TGS was and what they could be, committing to nothing but doubt and a sense that any future releases are guaranteed DOA until Avex finally pulls the plug.

Sunna Wehrmeijer: The Music of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
(2020.05.08)

There haven’t been any major movie releases in months and summer isn’t looking so great either, as dates are pushed back and rescheduled indefinitely, along with their soundtracks. So while we should have been moved by Harry Gregson-Williams Mulan last month and moments from comparing his brother’s Wonder Woman to Hans Zimmer’s Wonder Woman 1984, we’re instead left to forage in the C-grade muck left behind by streaming services like Hulu and Netflix. Luckily, there is one superhero outfit that has come to the rescue: Sunna Wehrmeijer’s collected works from Netflix’s original series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which premiered its fifth and final season this month. The series, one in a long line of reboots (and recent mahou shoujo homages like Zodiac Starforce), follows the adventures of Adora and a group of other magical princesses in a campaign against the evil Horde and their leader Lord Hordak. Anyone familiar with 90’s anime will be happy to recognize many familiar tropes, from transformation sequences to the safe black and white-level nuances of good and evil, all accompanied by a fantastic and fun soundtrack just as magical as any of its girls. The cues are at turns modern and whimsically retrospective, indulging in cheesy synths and fanfares without excluding the heroic bombast of tension and suspense on which the plot relies. The creators’ notes to Wehrmeijer’s recommended “big and epic” — but also “sparkly,” a perfect summation of the overall vibe here. Wehrmeijer’s previous work has included several shorts and other animated projects like Spirit Riding Free and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, but her work for She-Ra is a strategic level up, one that will hopefully open more doors for this versatile musician.

Bolbbalgan4: Sachungijib II Kkoch Bon Nabi
(2020.05.13)

There are only a handful of true “indie” groups in South Korea that are popular by more than word of mouth. I would not say Bolbbalgan4 is one of them anymore, though they do a very good impression of the “indie sound,” that is, a calculated avoidance of the artificial synths, hip-hop, and brand-name luster that comprises the typical K-pop sound. Instead, BOL4’s sound has always relied on its whisper-volume lead vocalist, and as of last month, sole member, Ahn Jiyoung. The group has released music at a steady pace, even finding some success in Japan with a re-work of their only full-length studio to date, RED PLANET. But unlike the rollicking fun of a K-pop banger that makes for an instant hit, BOL4 has always come off as a bit more cerebral, the lyrical content of their songs just as important as the sound, one that lovingly emulates, rather than cynically mimics, a 8.0 Pitchfork review. That kind of sentiment seems to water down what BOL4 does, though, and it’s more complicated than that: in a sea of bad-ass angst and chipper aegyo, BOL4 are a welcome antidote, part the-boring-bits of a proper K-pop EP and part but-respectfully-authentic passion for the acoustic singer-songwriter sound. Take “Counseling,” where Jiyoung blurts out a series of self-recriminations, doubts, and bitterness: “I have good memories / I think I was really happy once. I want to live like a child / I don’t think I am […] I think I should say sorry / I am not, I am not. I hope you’re unhappy.” The gentle setting for these jewels belie their radicalness, the warm aura making palatable what by any other means seems humorously incongruous next to her sisters on the chart who are currently chanting “I can’t talk to you / I’m a little excited oh nanananana.”

Bear McCreary: Outlander (Original Television Soundtrack: Season 5)
(2020.05.15)

Bear McCreary is a jack of all trades: Rather than fall into the genre rut that a lot of composers fall into (Abel Korzeniowski, Junkie XL), McCreary has kept his options and his horizons open: he’s composed music for horror films, but also critically-acclaimed video games, B-level motion pictures, and for the last five years, the Outlander television series, now premiering its fifth season. It’s easy to fall into a rut when you’re bound to the same themes, endlessly pouring old melodies into new bottles — what was an interesting novelty in season 1 hit its peak in season 2, when McCreary got to take the familiar sounds of the iconic Scottish Highlands and filter them through the French Baroque, a truly inspired collection of interpolations that brought a decadent brightness to the sometimes dour mists of the moors. McCreary’s work since then has remained positively steady, though unremarkable, giving the show the soundscape it desperately needs, but not necessarily wants. Season 5’s soundtrack keeps the thread going, offering more iterations of the “The Skye Boat Song” and “The Fiery Cross,” amidst the few novelties he’s allowed to offer. It’s comfortable territory for him by now, and it shows. The soundtrack is none the less for it, balancing its gentle and sometimes sweeping romantic strings with carefully construed dramatic arcs, and if I was at all able to devote the time that a series like this demands, I have no doubt I’d still enjoy it as much, but never more, than I did the first two seasons.

TXT: THE DREAM CHAPTER: ETERNITY
(2020.05.18)

Last year, BTS-labelmates TXT (TOMORROW x TOGETHER) made one of the best debuts of the year with THE DREAM CHAPTER: STAR, the perfect remedy for the surge of dark electro and tropical-house anthems pouring out of boy bands old and new alike. Its cheerful effervescence was replicated in their quick follow-up THE DREAM CHAPTER: MAGIC. This month’s ETERNITY edition mixes things up, adding a bit of funk to the group’s playbook with tracks like “Drama” and adolescent distress with “Can’t You See Me?” While the EP as a whole doesn’t hold up to its predecessors, I was pleasantly surprised to see TXT holding up strong after three mini-albums. The individual members have still failed to make any impression on me, and I think the group still has a long way to go to prove they are more than what their label can afford them to be, but it’s been fun seeing what Big Hit can come up with for their more conventional group outside of the pressures that BTS must necessarily impose upon them now.

Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated Side B
(2020.05.21)

It’s an understatement to point out how disappointing Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated was after the magnum opus E-MO-TION. While it made my honorable mentions list, I find it hard remembering more than a handful of songs off of this album: I just never go back to it in the same way that I still do its predecessor. And just like E-MO-TION, Jepsen has released a Side B, one that finally unearths the true successor. While there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking on Dedicated Side B, it does pose one question re: the decision-making process for her albums: Jepsen now has a proven track record of coming to an album with dozens of amazing songs that never make the official cut. So what prompts an artist or record label to choose a “Julien” over a “Stay Away“? While some songs are simply evident (bright, unstoppable hooks, big-name co-producers, demographic obligations), sometimes the choices seem less focused and more optimistic, perhaps reckless. Maybe Side B is a bit more generic and lacks a big number like “Now That I Found You” or “Too Much,” but it’s everything I wanted the original to be, which is to say, it lacks the hiccups like “I’ll Be Your Girl” and “Right Words Wrong Time” that slow the original down. It’s a pitch-perfect companion, one that expands upon positively, rather than overwhelms the listener with inferior cuts. It’s nice to know that we can at least count on the Queen of Endless Pop Hits for that.

Terence Blanchard: Da 5 Bloods (Original Motion Picture Score)
(2020.05.29)

What was that I just said about Netflix muck? Looks like the streaming service just released the month’s, and possibly the year’s, most gorgeous original soundtrack. The film it’s attached to, Da 5 Bloods, is directed by Academy Award-winner Spike Lee and follows four Vietnam veterans who return to the country in search of their squad leader and a buried treasure. The film’s release is still two weeks away, so there’s no telling if it will live up to the promise of Blanchard’s score, but if it’s any indication, we only have amazing things to look forward to. What stands out to me is just how traditional Da 5 Bloods, is; unlike some of Blanchard’s earlier scores, like BlacKkKlansman, this one is wholly traditional, utilizing the entire breadth of an orchestra’s strings and brass to indulge in the sort of heavy, heart-tugging romance and tragedy that accompanies any high-stakes war drama. The themes are as arresting as any I’ve heard in well over a year — listen to the particular James Horner-level pathos in “MLK Assassinated” or “Rice Paddies.” I’m quite content to eat my words when a score like this passes my way, and fairly certain this will be the soundtrack to beat in the upcoming months.

Lady Gaga: Chromatica
(2020.05.29)

Several music critics will have you believing that Lady Gaga is the last true pop star on the planet, but I would like to posit that Lady Gaga is only one of the most prominent spokespersons for pop itself, the type of artist who embraces her far-reaching celebrity, wanton desire for hooks upon hooks, and brazen (and successful) pillaging of any trend that will have her at the top. Her obvious endgame is Madonna-level popularity, and she’s made absolutely no qualms about playing every trick in the book from Eurodance, to controversial music videos and collabs, to the surest-bet and safest collabs of the last 12 months. The latter points to her high-profile duets with both Ariana Grande, a pop star in her own ascendancy, and BLACKPINK, YouTube’s favorite K-pop girl-group. Critics might call Taylor Swift calculating, but every pop star has to compromise artistic freedom with commercial reach, and the very, very best of them, find the sweet middle ground, right about where you will find Chromatica nestled in among the young, fresh wildcard Future Nostalgia and the smart, fun, indie-approved Dedicated Side B. Now that the album has capitulated after a pointless delay, it’s easy to see how Gaga could have believed the global pandemic would never reach the invincible shores of Chromatica — she announced a huge stadium tour as late as the first week of March, back when festivals like Ultra Music were already calling in rain checks. But Chromatica wasn’t immune, and rather than postpone the album a year or more, Gaga let go and releaseded this huge follow-up, foregoing what was sure to be heavy rotations on the late-show circuit, clubs, and outdoor music festivals. Was the album worth the wait? Yeah, it was, and it makes the hokey visuals all the more unnecessary, the biggest superfluous hook on the entire album, one filled with monster 90’s house grooves and sizzling synths. Like a lot of pop music before it, it’s rooted in the near-past, the one just old enough to seem part-nostalgic and part-exotic to Millennials drawing from wells as deep as Amber’s “This is Your Night“‘s just audible deep-in-the-eardrums wub while out waiting in the long line to spend a night at the Roxbury, to the cool vibes of Robin S.’s “Show Me Love.” It’s more than a return to Gaga’s The Fame sound because it’s a sound that was only ever put on pause for more intimate projects like A Song is Born and Joanne that grabbed for something, anything, that would retain the spotlight after Art Pop tanked. But to be clear, Art Pop slapped, and everything in between it and Chromatica was just a strategic distraction, an elaborate show of smoke and mirrors meant to make everyone appreciate the magic of Lady Gaga once again.

Timing is everything

The Weeknd on SNL

How long should an album rollout last? This is the question buried in almost every review of The Weeknd’s After Hours, from Micah Peters at The Ringer to Tom Breihan at Stereogum. Both highlight The Weeknd’s exquisite, and now anachronistic, performances on Saturday Night Live, the former by starting his article saying that the night of March 7 “belongs to an entirely different era of human life,” the latter, “[i]t happened 12 days ago, and it belongs to a different age.” Most album rollouts aren’t going to get interrupted by a global pandemic, but every artist brave and unfortunate enough to release new music this month, from Adam Lambert, to 5 Seconds of Summer, to Dua Lipa, has seen their work sliced in half: the hope, joy, and careful anticipation that preceded the full set, and the mid-pandemic full-lengths brought into a world where everyone is reading the news more than ever, and listening to music less. You would think the sudden anxiety and fear gripping the world would have people turning to music as a palliative, a reassuring, escapist activity with the power to distract, but Rolling Stone confirms that “[d]uring the week of March 13th through March 19th — the week restaurants and bars across the nation closed and more Americans self-quarantined — streams dropped 7.6 percent. […] [and p]hysical sales plummeted 27.6 percent last week, while digital album sales dropped 12.4 percent.” According to Billboard, only 1.52 million records (combining CDs, vinyl records, cassettes, and digital) were sold in the last full week of March, with physical sales suffering the most at a 36% drop.

For many, if not most, people, music is a social activity, the sound that passes between bodies crammed into bars, movie theaters, festivals, sporting events, arenas, car trips, house parties, and senior proms. With all of these effectively verboten as social distancing measures are implemented to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the soundtracks pumped out by the music industry explicitly to facilitate and cushion these moments, have gone with it. Nothing has illustrated better what an outlier people who listen to music on their own — whether seriously, critically, or just because — actually are. One is not inherently better, or more valuable, than the other, but it’s an important distinction when we’re facing a near-future of further cancellations and postponements. Lady Gaga, whose big sound has always relied on the acoustics of stadiums with sprawling blue sky, has already pushed back the release of Chromatica, her highly-awaited comeback album that, as of this writing, is still scheduled to be promoted with the six-show Chromatica Ball tour.

There are two sides to this: while some major labels with banner-artists like Gaga are forced to postpone to a more lucrative time when people are, perhaps, more readily willing to lose their bodies and wallets to dance, in an effort to recoup the massive amount of money invested in these projects, other artists are either reluctantly rolling with the circumstances (The Weeknd, Adam Lambert, 5 Seconds of Summer), or taking the optimistic route of sharing the music in hopes of applying a sort of balm to the circumstances (Dua Lipa). With the exception of Lady Gaga, all of these artists campaigned long and hard on their albums, albums totally unmoored from what now seems a borderline-excessive promotional blitz: Lambert already released an EP with half of VELVET titled VELVET: Side A back in September of last year, complete with all of the glamour and glitter that usually accompanies his eras, 5 Seconds of Summer started releasing singles a year ago with the grungy, self-indulgent “Easier,” The Weeknd’s “Heartless” first dropped in November 2019, and Dua Lipa began what was (and make no mistake, is) her imperial phase with the disco-pop maximalist “Don’t Start Now” in November of 2019, followed by the brilliant “Physical” two months ago.

You can’t help wondering if all of these albums, obviously through no fault of their own, would have been better served if released in 2019 or early 2020, their buzz build-ups cut in half. The K-pop model is one extreme alternative: a comeback trailer is teased on a Monday morning and the album or mini-album usually drops anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks later. Short, sweet, simple. Of course we are dealing with a totally different business model in an industry that is explicitly designed to cycle through talent and songs as quickly as possible. What’s the point of keeping a singer busy promoting a mini-album for longer than two months when they can get more exposure and coin appearing on talk shows, dramas, and red carpets? The music can often be only one small portion of a K-pop celebrity’s overall revenue, the term “artist” a relative, loose term. Instead the West seems to be increasingly adapting Japanese business tactics: from releasing a number of singles before an album drops over a lengthy period of time, rather than after, to releasing multiple collectible versions to capitalize on the number of sales from hardcore fans. Taken as a whole, the Western paradigm we see in these luxurious rollouts are a testament to the game-plans for those who have their eyes on the long-term prizes of both critical and popular acclaim. And the prize, as illustrated by these recent albums, are worth fighting for.

The Weeknd’s After Hours is everything we’ve come to expect from Abel Tesfaye: slick and cool, the songs slide from self-indulgent R&B missives to the Max Martin-helmed, synthwave-heavy beats of “Blinding Lights” and “In Your Eyes,” all pummeled into line by Tesfaye’s magnificent, soaring vocals. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia is the Kylie Minogue-comeback we’ve all been waiting for since Kiss Me Once, all credit to Lipa and her team who have wedded the sound of Latin freestyle to late 90’s/early 00’s pop, evoking both the titular nostalgia and a future that now hinges more than ever on our present response and action, the capacity to which Future Nostalgia offers a bit of emotional respite and hope, the tantalizing promise of a return to the things we might once have lamented and now long for: Normalcy. Ennui. A news cycle so slow that lifestyle pieces about Goop candles serve as national conversation. And for many people, the opportunity to put on their most expensive dress, uncomfortable shoes, and heaviest eye liner, step outside, and share less than a six-foot space with a beautiful stranger.

Spring and early summer are typically the months when big-name albums like these, hoping to cash in on all the warm-weather activities, begin their early chart climbs: claiming Song of the Summer is one of the most coveted, if not revered, music traditions in any country, and the climb can be a slow-burning one, best started early and accompanied by a touring schedule that supports enormous gatherings of young people looking to fill hot, empty vacation hours (it wasn’t until last week that The Weeknd and Dua Lipa finally hit #2 and #3 on the Hot 100 respectively). The extraordinary run of releases we’re looking at today just happened to fall in the middle and back-end of March, the same time, as Random J Pop says, Miss Corona set out on her own Contamination world tour. What kind of changes the long-term effects of an industry set to lose a lot of money and cachet in the months to come will wreak on our long-held musical traditions, if any, from physical releases to time-frames remains to be seen, though recent history can offer some hope.

In March of 2011, Japan suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami that took and changed the lives of thousands of people, and understandably, the music industry was quick to step back during a time of national upheaval and mourning. Most music releases were postponed for weeks and some forced to make quick changes: Yasutaka Nakata’s group capsule was set to release its newest album, titled — and you want to talk about poor timing — KILLER WAVE (the album was quickly and generically re-titled WORLD OF FANTASY and new copies shipped, though you can still find old promo copies floating around on Ebay with the original title). But the country did find a way to heal and move forward, the albums were eventually released, and things returned to normal for many, many people, especially the many not directly effected. Perhaps it’s too optimistic to compare and hope the same of a disaster set to effect millions of more people around the entire world, whether on a psychological or economic level, but it does offer some semblance of light at the end of this dark tunnel.

As for what will happen to these albums, all phenomenal and now tragic in their own way, that is even more uncertain (some are even making quick changes a la capsule like Sam Smith, who is re-titling their new album originally called To Die For). What will happen to Chromatica or Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III isn’t any less certain, now looking to be welcomed in a post-pandemic world that in the present seems like it may never come, and will certainly feel fundamentally altered from the world we took for granted, the world we knew before, the one more amenable to leisurely, decadent rollouts that made eight months of anticipation feel exquisite, rather than pointless. As for the rest of us, the ones sitting in bedrooms and basements and kitchens alone, and who maybe always have, this music is a comfort that won’t soon be forgotten.

February 2020: Highlights

LOONA: [#]
(2020.02.05)

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

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

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

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

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

FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC 9
(2020.02.12)

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

KARD: RED MOON
(2020.02.12)

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

Tink: Hopeless Romantic
(2020.02.14)

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

Hitomi Arai: “Shoujo A” PV
(2020.02.19)

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

Allie X: Cape God
(2020.02.21)

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

Lady Gaga: “Stupid Love”
(2020.02.28)

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

Top ten original soundtracks/original scores of 2018

A disclaimer: I am not a movie person. Nor have I really played video or other games, Tetris notwithstanding, in about fifteen years. I have nothing against any of these mediums, but I am not passionate about them, and when you have limited time to pursue avocations after a day at work and doing all of the adult things that need be done on a seemingly endless loop, your perspective on what is really and truly important to you becomes very clear. Simply put, I put my time toward what is most meaningful to me, which is music, and only occasionally watch films, and don’t play video games at all. This can be problematic for someone who adores film and video game soundtracks as much as any other of my favorite genres, but it doesn’t have to be.

In Charlie Brigden’s July installment of his monthly soundtrack roundup at The Quietus, he admits much the same, acknowledging the dissonance of enjoying a soundtrack bereft of the visual its created to enhance. “The context is obviously the film itself, so by taking the music away from that you are completely stripping it of context and relevance, right?” he asks, and concludes, no, not really. I generally agree that there seems to be two types of original scores: “On one hand, you have composers that are interested in curating an album that is musically interesting as a record, while on the other there seem to be those that put the score on album as it is and leave it at that.” It is the former, the “musically interesting as a record” scores that, as someone who watches so few films, appeals most to me. The majority of the records on this list will reflect that bias, though the latter is in no way missing. I am aware of how this might impede my ability to enjoy a record that could be perfect save the fact that I haven’t seen its corresponding film or video game.

All lists are biased, and this genre, as represented on this blog, is particularly so — I would rather “listen” to a movie then watch it. My philosophy, summed up by Brigden again, is that “[soundtracks] are a separate product, even if they are ostensibly a by-product of the film.” And like all the music I listen to, I do my very best to judge them as such, for when a score can entertain or bewitch on its own, like any other popular song removed from its music video, it is a success worth celebrating. Here are ten released in 2018, in no particular order, that deserve a party.

Humans: Dead Shack (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Mostly here to fill your Stranger Things void, the soundtrack for indie-horror film Dead Shack is obviously inspired not only by John Carpenter, but by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s homage to John Carpenter and other synth scores of the 1980s. Yes, we’re there now. Lots of imitators have emerged since Stranger Things became such a success, but Humans have managed to create a truly eerie and menacing vibe in this bare-boned score, where the hushed silences in between speak the loudest.

John Powell (& John Williams): Solo: A Star Wars Story (Original Soundtrack)
If you know nothing about John Williams, you can spend a whole afternoon studying the Music of Star Wars portal on Wikipedia and walk away bewildered and overwhelmed by his work on the legendary sci-fi franchise, but it’s only if you spend additional time even briefly skimming his body of work that you begin to get an understanding of the pressure someone like John Powell faced in composing Solo: A Star Wars Story. Powell, a giant in his own right, called the experience “difficult,” “nerve wracking,” and “professionally humbling” in the booklet accompanying the CD release, yet he needn’t have worried. Though Powell is mostly known for less “heavy” films (last year’s Ferdinand is a particular career-highlight for me), that doesn’t preclude him from casting a little bit of his own “witchcraft” and weaving a bit of his own “profound storytelling.” Solo offers the experience of old-school action and adventure fans expect in the canon, without ignoring all of the romance inherent in the genre. Whether the film itself reflects this same swashbuckling grandeur is up to professional film critics and anyone who has seen more than just one of the films.

The Newton Brothers: The Haunting of Hill House (Music from the Netflix Horror Series)
The Haunting of Hill House has received mixed reviews, dividing fans of innovative, artsy horror and viewers who like a little domestic drama with their haunted-house jump scares. Yet the soundtrack for the series finds success on all fronts. There have been a slew of critically-acclaimed horror-film soundtracks this year, from Johann Johannsson’s Mandy, all the way down to mediocre B-grade scores like The Nun (Abel Korzeniowski) and Winchester (Peter Spierig). The Haunting of Hill House finds the sweet spot in between, with haunting melodic pianos interspersed with simple atmospheric mood-setters, reflecting the tone of defeat, trauma, and nervous anticipation permeating the teleplay.

Jukio Kallio: Minit (Original Soundtrack)
There are now whole fandoms dedicated to chip-tune, so Kallio’s entry into the 8-bit world is hardly groundbreaking. But what elevates Minit is its strict adherence to melody and form, rather than simply recreating the tinny wave forms of the arcade. Songs like “Minit’s Awakening” and “Alarming Swamp” are fun-sized odysseys in themselves, capturing the fun and essence of both the video game and The Video Game. It’s a little bit moody and wholly absorbing — the jukebox genres on the second half are particularly inspired, offering near-parodic summations in easy to swallow, capsule-sized bursts, mirroring the game play itself.

James Newton Howard: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Probably the most traditional score aside from Powell’s Solo that you’ll find on this list, James Newton Howard’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is the composer’s best score of the year, in a year full of choice picks — indeed, it almost feels that the pick for this panned Disney fantasy flick is mere seconds away from becoming another panned fantasy flick, Fantastic Beasts: The Tales of Grindelwald instead. That’s because the two soundtracks share several similarities, and while Grindelwald has the distinction of not lifting pieces from Pyotr Tchaikovksy’s The Nutcracker Suite, it is exactly that which makes it instantly recognizable. But if at any moment the spoils seemed unearned (certainly any other producer might not get away so easily with the score’s not-unusual take on the material), it’s worth remembering that any holiday bauble is meant to be a shiny, glittering confection that evokes the warmth of childhood and holidays gone by. And there’s enough of all of that mixed in with the gloomier pieces, plus a fun Nutcracker 101-piano solo by Lang Lang, to make this as beautiful, and rose-colored, as any holiday memory.

Mogwai: KIN (Orignal Motion Picture Score)
Because all of the cool kids are getting original scores, why not Mogwai, who are veterans of the genre and already pretty adept at moody atmospherics? In what Stuart Berman calls “impressionistic sketches,” the band revisits career highlights and dials the tone down to an exquisite melancholy, the kind of quiet, dour ambience that demands a set of noise-canceling headphones and perhaps a hug from a loved one afterward. But it’s not all stark and starless, as touches of orchestration and synth provide a lively noise to softer piano-lead cues like “Eli’s Theme” and “Funeral Pyre.” It all makes for cold comfort; but you knew that was coming when you saw the name Mogwai.

Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper: A Star Is Born (Soundtrack)
If you’re the type of person to get swept up in Oscar buzz, you’re already familiar with the attention being paid to A Star Is Born, the third in a line of remakes of the original 1937 film (two English-language, one Hindi). That’s a helluva lot of pressure, to share the spotlight with Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand (I’m not too worried about Shraddha Kapoor), and to craft a meaningful soundtrack to the one movie on this list that contains the largest amount of source music. But if anyone is up to that task, it’s Mother Monster, who has been laying low since 2016’s surprisingly serious, less poppy (some would say, disappointing) album Joanne. A Star Is Born folds neatly into this new era in Gaga’s career: she cut her teeth on theater and that sense of high-school drama permeates all of her work, but none so much as her work with Tony Bennett, the stepping stone off which Joanne and A Star Is Born launched. A Star Is Born gives us this, without forgetting to provide a taste of all of the Gagas: introspective Gaga, serious actress Gaga, poppy Gaga, and hard-working, dying-to-be-taken-seriously Gaga. It’s not always a successful mix, especially when Bradly Cooper adds his two cents, but its whole never begs to be more than its beautiful parts. You root for Lady Gaga not because she always succeeds, but because she always gets back up again.

Jason Graves: Moss (Original Game Soundtrack)
Jason Graves hides nothing: his YouTube channel stands as a testament to the ideal Internet, the kind where information is abundant and free, where everyone is willing to share and pass along what they know, not for pecuniary gain, but for sheer enthusiasm and passion. On top of it, he lives surrounded by a veritable zoo of adorable animals (what he calls his #AudioArk), not unlike in Moss, the pint-sized PS4 adventure game starring a cute little mouse named Quill. Graves’s gentle score for this game lends the perfect ambiance to the rich Earth tones of the world, keeping within the spirit of all the low-to-the-ground, foliage-filled perspective with its sustained flutes and hushed percussion. It’s all a bit mysterious and quiet, almost folksy at times, and though its compact sound occasionally grows, it never hits eleven like a full orchestra could. It doesn’t need to: like its hero, it proves that even the smallest among us are capable of doing big things.

Lena Raine: Celeste (Original Soundtrack)
Something hauntingly vague, though familiar, runs throughout Raine’s soundtrack to the Celeste video game. Tinkling piano notes like skipped stones pepper ice-cold synths, and minimal melodies do little more than evoke atmosphere, like many a bedroom-DJ before her. Yet Raine wrings genuine pathos from each number, their lengths varying from sips of hot cocoa to an indulgent evening by the fire. Not all video games are either epic symphonic suites or chip-tune beeps, but somewhere in between, somewhere as yet unexplored. Here, Lena Raine investigates this territory with a sensitive, shy reserve, but a big warm heart.

Marc Shaiman: Mary Poppins Returns (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Despite the endless number of remakes now being churned out by the fistful, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement. After all, this is where Disney excels: marketing, advertising, selling substandard, cheap products made to look and feel like luxury experiences (or maybe last year’s cynical Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen has made any reader just a bit more suspicious). On top of it, this is a reboot of one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time — is it possible even theater-darling Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Blunt, and Meryl Streep can’t save such a vehicle? Irrelevant to our interests: the soundtrack, released ahead of the movie , is an experience all its own. There’s a reason Miranda cautioned moviegoers against spoilers: the soundtrack leads you, scene by scene, through the plot’s highlights, all the time indulging in the campy, clever, wink-wink humor of vaudeville inherent in classic Broadway musicals. Shaiman waves that magic Disney wand over the entire production, making the entire affair feel like notes left behind in Tinkerbell’s fairy dust — you’re not quite sure if this is as good as it sounds, or if there is some Fantasia-level of sorcery at work. Certainly it’s difficult to find any producer outside of this brand indulging in such a traditional sound, especially one that forces you into a nostalgic haze whenever the music quotes sections of the original score. It’s an immense sound, a rich, mammoth experience you can only get from a full orchestra, one with the ability to envelope you, to transport you, and to return you just a little bit starry-eyed, and just a little bit less disillusioned.

Honorable Mentions

Thomas Adès: Colette (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Brian Tyler: Crazy Rich Asians (Original Motion Picture Score)
Christopher Larkin: Hollow Knight: Gods & Nightmares
Mark McKenzie: Max and Me (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Rupert Gregson-Williams: Aquaman (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

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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Top 10 albums/20 songs of 2009

10. Lady Gaga: The Fame Monster

“Bad Romance” is topping more year-end lists than Animal Collective, and not without reason: if “ra-ra-ah-ah-ah, roma-roma-ma, ga-ga-oh-la-la” is the only thing we’ll remember about Lady Gaga, we’ll still look back fondly while overlooking some of her more dubious wardrobe choices. But The Fame Monster boasts more than just the notorious song: “Dance in the Dark” and “Monster” are also among the signature Gaga entendres, club-ready and unapologetically catchy.

09. Meisa Kuroki: hellcat

If I had to pick one successor to Namie Amuro, Meisa Kuroki would be it, and since Amuro has shown herself to be forging new territory with PAST < FUTURE, it looks like Kuroki is the likeliest competition. hellcat doesn’t have the intensity or acumen behind albums like Queen of Hip-Hop or PLAY, but it’s one of the most fun debut albums I’ve heard in a while and shows great promise, a promise Kuroki is looking to fulfill if the first single off her upcoming album is any indication.

08. Big Bang: BIGBANG [ read full review ]

Korean pop bands are taking over the world. This is not the first time I’ve said it, and I’m sort of hoping it will be the last, as we can now move forward with this knowledge intact and focus on individual artists. Big Bang finally made a break in Korea with “Lies” but it’s their dominance of the Japanese market that finally put them on the map. As a testament to the members’ individual talent, G-Dragon also released the award-winning Heartbreaker which topped Korean charts and showed the band had the potential to be indestructible. With their 2010 album already in the works, one can only hope they continue to prove themselves as adept and proficient as BIGBANG.

07. Mr Hudson: Straight No Chaser

Mr Hudson’s Straight No Chaser is more than just a rap record: it’s a rap record that doesn’t resort to petty clichés, revels in pop appreciation, and isn’t afraid to show its vulnerability as much as it does its ire. More than a bid for authenticity, Mr Hudson never lets on that he has something to prove, instead teaming up with artists like Kanye West and Kid Cudi to craft clever rhymes and confessions, a sort of mea culpa that at the last moment, decides it wasn’t in the wrong after all. At its core, it’s just another break-up record (the track listing is almost unbearably linear: boy tells lies, boy loses the girl, boy begins to reminisce, boy learns to live without love, boy cries, boy gets angry, boy comes to terms), but it’s rendered in such brilliant music, it becomes more than just another entry in Kanye’s blog.

06. BoA: BoA [ read full review ]

BoA is everything a pop fan could wish for. Far more commercial than anything she had yet released, best-selling Korean artist BoA portrays an incredible bevy of talent: deft grasp of the English language, stunning dance skills, and a knack for mainstream sound. Made all the more brilliant in comparison to Hikaru Utada’s own second English language album released the same week, which fared poorly with both critics and fans, a lot of credit must go to the writers and producers who assembled songs very of the moment, nurtured BoA’s strengths, and kept the electropop tone consistent.

05. Lights: The Listening [ read full review ]

A synth-heavy record, Lights’ The Listening is a very mature record that tackles very adolescent issues, centering around the clichéd angst of growing up. The album might be too unrealistic for some listeners, reveling in fairy tale notions of attraction and nostalgia for childhood (and the early 90s that accompanied it), but it’s still a stunning full-length debut record that explores just how hard it is to define adulthood.

04. Nadia Ali: Embers

Trance albums rarely make my year-end lists (Oceanlab was the first last year), though this has more to do with the fact that trance is a very single-based genre with mostly big-name artists releasing full-length albums. I guess Nadia Ali is further exceptional considering her music is not traditional trance, but more of a typical dance style with heavy elements of euro. In glowing tribute to a broken relationship that refuses to release its spark, Embers is steeped in accusations (“Point the Finger”), longing (“Ride with Me”), regret (“Be Mine”), and finally, self-preservation (“Fine Print”). It’s dance music you can’t dance to, stoking and re-stoking what’s left in the ashes of loss.

03. Donkeyboy: Caught in a Life

I’ll admit I’m hypocritical when it comes to the 80s synthfluence of the 00s; on one hand, it’s becoming redundant, on the other, it’s still inspiring some pretty amazing music. Donkeyboy may not have the brash sex appeal of a Gwen Stefani or the Pitchfork-endorsed review of a Neon Indian, but they have the gifted ability to work within the confines of Scandinavia’s celebrated track record to produce some of the most fundamental pop music of the decade. The cheerful melodies set against gloomy lyrics are a testament to the quintessential pandering of youth, meandering its way through real world infancy; Caught in a Life is dreamy and escapist without being immune to the harshest glare of life’s headlights.

02. Florence + the Machine: Lungs [ read full review ]

Lungs is not a perfect album – a few tracks still disrupt the musical narrative, tending to stick out like sore-thumb intervals – but in spite of its flaws, it remains a grand, sweeping album that asks more questions than it answers, provides more enigma than understanding, and never lacks for want of a desperate, sometimes frantic search – for passion, for comfort, for spiritual enlightenment. Florence Welch’s voice cuts through tempos and soars somewhere in the highest realms, lingering far above the already massive melodies, wallowing in the heady first days of romance, the agony of losing love, and finally finding it again in the least expected place.

01. Kent: Röd [ read full review ]

Kent is relentless; releasing masterpiece after masterpiece is one way to show you have enough talent to start throwing it away on B-sides, but the other is simply to keep doing what they do: releasing intricate, carefully crafted albums that build upon previous work without showing any sign of strain to which so many bands two decades old succumb. Any weaknesses the band has never appears on the record, a heady cocktail of fear, aggression, anxiety, and coping with a sort of self-inflicted isolation. Kent is nowhere near where it started in 1990, but Röd is an incredible place to land and probably more than even the most enthusiastic fans could have dreamed.

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Waiting for Gaga

I’ve been rather mum on the topic of Lady Gaga, a pretty demonstrable feat when the majority of my interest appears to reside in the body of work inhabited by divas of all varieties. Maybe I’m just too ashamed to admit that I’m part of this second generation of Gaga enthusiasm, a movement that occurred shortly after the release of “Bad Romance” when the rest of the mildy interested finally got it and were made to suffer the blows of a million I-told-you-sos. But even that’s not being fairly accurate: I was always more than mildy interested. I was there when The Fame was released, I was there to predict songs later released as singles before (rightly) dismissing the rest of the album as filler (because the album, as a whole, is incredibly problematic on whatever narrative grounds Gaga has defended it), I was there to rank a “Just Dance” remix #9 on a year-end list. But even her gradual climb and eventual domination atop the Billboard wasn’t enough to offer respect to someone so determined to be weird for the sake of being weird (it’s probably pointless to note Gaga has said every moment of her life is a performance).

But though “Just Dance” and “LoveGame” were too big to ignore if at any time you had left the house in the past few months, they were still easy to dismiss as the insane warbling of a one-album wonder; I don’t think it’s as easy to dismiss “Bad Romance” and its follow-up leaks “Alejandro” and “Dance in the Dark,” all which are exceptional moments of sonic improvement. The production on Gaga’s numbers are becoming so huge they’re somewhere up in space and her music videos are bringing discussion back into not just the speculation of video as art, but what art is and where it can function. “Bad Romance” isn’t just acclaimed by casual listeners and fans but by critics, who have adopted Lady Gaga as their poster child of pop (PopJustice called the video “basically fucking amazing” based off of a 30 second preview), marveling over that jerky, schizophrenic (“Thriller”-inspired) choreography, gushing over those avant-fashion costumes, and deciphering the muddle that is her lyrics.

This taste for the bizarre, campy, and sometimes tacky and her inability to wear anything with less than two feet of protruding plastic has given hope to a group still mourning the loss of Madonna’s Blonde Ambition. As a persona, Gaga’s may be one of the most inclusive examples of niche marketing: rarely sentimental, focusing on life’s intimate insta-pleasures, she appeals to alternative subcultures while working even the most conservative mainstream dance floors. The Fame Monster, in particular, seems to have struck a nerve, maybe because the world has waited long enough for this Godot, wanting new material as desperately as Gaga wants your bad rah rah romance. The fact that it technically could have been written anytime in the last fifteen years and still inspires so much adulation is the only proof we have that she may be more than just a chapter in the book of pop: there may be only one Lady Gaga, but we may not be willing to stick around as long next time.