Top ten debut albums of 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions

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

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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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Five disappointing albums of 2009

We’ve managed to get through the first week of December with nary a leak of the new Namie Amuro album, so for the record, it still has the possibility to make a revised version of this list (though I do very much like WILD, I’m already iffy on the promo clips of “LOVE GAME” and “The Meaning Of Us” – plus I’m still pretty mad about BEST FICTION thwarting the 60s 70s 80s single a proper album release). But if the weakest musical months are that dreary space between Thanksgiving and New Year when readers and writers are left maneuvering the sinking ship that is year-end lists and retrospectives, then who am I to abandon it at such a critical junction? Here is the first of my own: the five albums that disappointed me the most this year.

05. MEG’S BEAUTIFUL

MEG hit a low point in February when she ditched producer Yasutaka Nakata for Hadouken! on FREAK, a single so atrociously bad everyone pretended it never happened when BEAUTIFUL was released in May. But finally reunited with Nakata, the follow-up to 2008’s STEP was her first album to crack the Oricon Top Ten, a feat that would have been rendered impossible without the man behind the curtain. Magician to every female vocalist in his canon, Nakata’s precision and knack for finding just the right vocalist to suit each of his projects was already being taken for granted in 2009, a year which on one day alone (July 22) saw the release of four copycat albums (Mitsuka Aira’s PLASTIC, Ayaka Ikio’s Gossip, SAWA’s I Can Fly, and immi’s WONDER), rendering the entire genre expendable while exposing its redundancy. In 2008, MEG’s STEP was an appears top ten album with a B-side claiming the number one East Asian Pop/Rock spot: in 2009, MEG barely registered on the shibuya-kei radar. With mini-album Journey in August, she fell off entirely.

04. alan’s my life

alan’s first major stroke of popularity as vocalist for Red Cliff‘s theme song finally offered gravitas to a classically trained Tibetan; 2009 was turning out to be a flagship year when she scored her first crossover Top Ten Oricon hit with “Kuon no Kawa.” Without compromising her vocal talent or that monstrous Tibetan wail, so shrill it has the power to incinerate, alan proved that popular singers could be all things to all people: talented, intelligent, beautiful. Determined to stay in the comfortable ballad niche that was her hallmark, alan reworked most of her Chinese hits for her first Japanese-language album Voice of Earth. But by November, the record company was looking to expand the market on such a profitable young woman and stretched her repertoire to lite-pop as lifeless as a hangman’s corpses. alan could have been China’s answer to KOKIA or RURUTIA, but instead she became forgettable.

03. Perfume’s TRIANGLE

I’ve already discussed that icky, no good, very bad turn that shibuya-kei took in 2009, prostrating itself to the commercial gods in hopes of bandwagon success that eventually prompted Ian Martin of the Japan Times Online to predict that “the failure of any of these new electropop acts to reach anywhere near the success of Perfume suggests that it remains a niche genre and that supply may already be outstripping demand. In fact, with the appearance of an all-girl idol trio called Cosmetics, […] it looks like the whole genre has already descended into self-parody. Stereotyped and faintly sexist group names based on “things girls like” to look out for in the future include Accessories, Cooking and Rich Husband.” So let’s not revel in nostalgia. And anyway, TRIANGLE fans seem to be split down the middle, one half consisting of longtime listeners disappointed not so much with the sound, but with the lack of innovation, the inability to capture the spirit and elan that made GAME such a thrill, and newer fans unfamiliar with the group’s indie days, content to enjoy a pop record better than its mimicking peers. But I’m not complaining. It was great while it lasted: Yasutaka Nakata produced enough records in the past few years to solidify his reputation as a master of sound, one of those post-millenium everymen who oversaw a handful of wonderful projects and can ride the wave of dozens of hits without having to repeat too many during a DJ set. Perfume themselves worked incredibly hard to maintain their fan base this year: photo books, increasingly bigger live shows with precise choreography; they may yet resurrect from these ashes. Perfume is dead, long live Perfume.

02. AFI’s Crash Love

Rock music is in a sad place these days; toeing the line between electro and indie isn’t just tough to sell in a decade of music that’s so beyond hip it passed lame and went back to hip, it’s nearly impossible. And like Kill Hannah’s Wake Up the Sleepers, AFI’s Crash Love has yet to evolve past its major label debut to relevancy six years later. The problem really lies in the restrictions of guy-liner rock, a style which had its heyday when Panic at the Disco still used exclamation points. After the Blaqk Audio solo project by band mates Davey Havok and Jade Puget failed to produce more than one successful single that tapped into the decade’s electronic zeitgeist (follow-up pending), AFI reconvened to record Crash Love, essentially a duplicate of formulas that ditched punk aesthetics for upscale studio wizardry. The album is the mark of an entire genre on unsteady ground, stuck in the drippy anachronism of its past and afraid to pioneer a new, radical sound.

01. Koyote’s Jumpin’

Most of the albums on this list aren’t necessarily the worst albums of the year, just low points in particular artists’ careers, ones for which I either had a lot of hope for or which I expected better, but this one is an exception: the ridiculous and flashy cover should be enough to convince you. Koyote started out as a pop trio in 1999, going through several permutations where the only consistent member involved female vocalist Shin Ji. Despite Koyote’s strong beginning, the group quickly spiralled into a series of reprised sounds, sticking to their 90’s Eurodance schtick instead of embracing the rising dominance of hip hop and electro influences that would later provide an increasing level of interest of Korean pop groups hoping to break the Japanese music market. By their sixth album, Koyote was a joke but with their tenth, 2009’s Jumpin’, they’ve become the aural equivalent of pity, their work now a pointless, non-existent discussion on no one’s Korean pop forum.

(10) years of summer: Ranking Ayumi’s singles

Sincer her debut in April of 1998, Ayumi Hamasaki has released forty-six singles. Though the frequency and popularity has certainly dwindled, the months of June through August are still some of Hamasaki’s fans’ most anticipated musical celebration of all the most banal elements of summer: free-time, sunshine, friends, and exotic locales. With the exceptions of 2000 and 2008, years which saw the absence of any reference to fun or sun, the summer single has gained momentum from a tepid drive along the coast to its crescendo in 2005’s fairyland, a single whose music video now ranks as one of the most expensive of all time. To celebrate the release of her newest summer single Sunrise/Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~, here is appears’s ranking of Hamasaki’s ten summer singles.

10. glitter (2007)

Released as a short-film starring actor Shawn Yue, “glitter” and “fated” are my least favorite of Hamasaki’s summer singles. Located on GUILTY, the worst album of her career, the songs try far too hard to grasp the significance and ingenuity of “fairyland” and “BLUE BIRD,” but with unsuccessful results. Barely tolerable, the short film/music video was a rehash of Hamasaki’s increasingly paranoid obsession with her own fame, a music video that was also ironically (or depending on how you look at it, hypocritically) meant as a vehicle to gain her superstar status in the overseas Asian market  – plummeting sales on home ground had now forced Hamasaki to venture into territory outside her comfort zone. glitter is not only a testament to her slipping grasp of the title Empress of Pop and a nod to the bloated gimmick that had become the staple of her career, but also a very large, very loud tree that fell without a soul to hear. And nobody cared.

09. Sunrise/Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~ (2009)

On the cover of Hamasaki’s newest single, the singer appears inhuman: she’s staring with eyes glazed over, unnaturally long hair extensions resting upon a plastic, photoshopped body, in front of a computer-enhanced background that doesn’t even try to look authentic. Though it could be this blatant fiction that makes it one of the worst covers in her career, it’s really the lack of effort that stands out: is Hamasaki running out of ideas, or did this really seem like a great idea at the time? The songs are adequate enough, though they really bring to mind the same  grasping strain of glitter, and the coupling track, a song that features the same lyrics and melody but different composition, is really a poorly masquerading remix. The single suffers from sheer neglect on all accounts, though it’s the megamix that really hurts: even Sunrise/Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~ is reminiscing.

08. Trust (1998)

Her third single of all time, Trust, alongside Boys & Girls, was never released expressly as a summer single the way anything released between June and August now are; instead, it was just another somewhat mediocre single that followed the lackluster sales of her debut and follow-up singles. Regardless, “Trust” manages to capture what summers were like before Hamasaki hit it big; they were spent alone on rainy days, contemplating the world on beaches in overcast, sepia days, and driving along the coast – fast forward ten years and Hamasaki is still driving along the coast, but these days, it’s in classic muscle cars with the budget to invite friends and dancers, and when the Hawaiian dream-hut catches fire, they just take to private islands and super yachts. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

07. Boys & Girls (1999)

A concert favorite, Boys & Girls, is probably the first true summer single, before the phrase became ubiquitous: a light and fluffy catchy pop tune, the single was the first ever of Hamasaki’s maxi-singles, featuring a handful of equally entertaining remixes. Hamasaki’s vocals still retain that gloss from vocal lessons, with all the innocence and candor that would be lost by the time vogue was released. Though the music video is somewhat mundane, the song remains a concert staple for a reason: it has the sheer arena-pop quality that so many of Hamasaki’s songs now take for granted. Plus, you can sing, dance, jump, skip, add a guitar solo and ad lib to it, all without robbing the song of any of its simple inculpability.

06. H (2002)

When a song like “Boys & Girls” becomes huge, promoters take notice; enter the first official summer single. Geared specifically to play at large concert venues, the song features a full chorus that mimics the audience heard in the intro, hand claps that demand participation, and a formidable, bubbly BPM that keeps the pace from dawdling. The single features two other tracks, “july 1st,” a slightly more subdued summer anthem that features acoustic guitars and light breezes, and “HANABI,” a ballad that would prove just as popular for perhaps everything the first two tracks were not. H, released at the tail-end height of Hamasaki’s popularity, sold so many copies that a special limited edition was released to commemorate all three of the collectible covers. And with songs that ran the gamut from hopeful to pessimistic, the single would be the last of its kind to truly capture the zeitgeist of Hamasaki’s career.

05. fairyland (2005)

Though H may have run the spectrum, fairyland stands out for its sheer zing: an incredible, high energy pop song coupled with a dark, vengeful rock song, fairyland was one of the last singles to truly showcase Hamasaki’s versatility while transcending the genre-specific niche of her contemporaries. In addition, the music video was the first to truly sink into the summersploitation that was fast becoming the hallmark of her career. “alterna,” though already a return to the fame-paranoia trope Hamasaki began experimenting with in “Dearest” and would continue to throughout her career, is still one of the best rock songs Hamasaki has recorded.

04. BLUE BIRD (2006)

The last great summer single, BLUE BIRD rode the coat-tails of its predecessors without succumbing to the complete photocopy that later singles would resort to. The music video was shot in Guam and features the same cast as “fairyland,” though nothing catches fire and there’s a huge yacht involved. The video, which never reneges on these pedestrian themes associated with summer, reflects the song itself, though the song is somewhat less literal. Even with a somewhat dull coupling track, the title track stands on its own as the last of its kind.

03. & (2003)

By the time & was released, triple A-sides were no longer novel; its merit depended on the substance of the disc. And aside from the bizarro, unsettling delusion of “ourselves,” the somewhat impractical luster of “Greatful days” and the better-than-the-original sequel to “HANABI,” Hamasaki delivered a gorgeous, traditional piece as the theme to the avex summer festival a-nation. That’s not to dim the spotlight on the three triple A-sides, which were fantastic – the PV for “ourselves” may have been a Christina Aguilera rip-off, but the song is one of the first where Hamasaki actually used the sound and texture of words to create the eerie, possessive world of the song, “Greatful days” is exuberant without falling into the banal trap that so many Morning Musume songs do, and “HANABI ~episode II~” is both lovely and wistful without just being a total tear-jerker – but the real charm of the disc lies in the fourth track that gently steals the attention without even trying. “theme of a-nation ’03” is elegant, graceful, and totally different from anything Hamasaki had done and would ever do again.

02. INSPIRE (2004)

INSPIRE may not have been the best single (it only boasted the two tracks, plus instrumentals, a veritable dull staple for Hamasaki fans) but the content was quite different. “INSPIRE” would be the last of the rock-oriented pop singles Hamasaki would release before her rock atmosphere became a lot less fun and much more bitter. “GAME” sort of set the precedence for this with its spooked, reverberating piano and a music video that took Hamasaki’s relationship with pleather to new heights. Even so, the song is potently entertaining, with a wonderful mix of synth and guitar for the interlude – Hamasaki may have already been trying to re-capture formulas that worked so well in the past, but she still managed to do it competently.

01. UNITE! (2001)

Pink Wota appropriately called I am… Hamasaki’s Sgt. Pepper; the album spans several genres, showcased Hamasaki’s first attempts at songwriting, and was the only album to sell 4 million copies in Asia. Debuted at her insanely successful 2001 DOME TOUR, “UNITE!” was the fifth single composed by Hamasaki and highlights all the elements that would become her signature: a slow, subdued intro followed by messy, distorted drums and guitars. The haunting piano loop is revisited at times throughout the piece, highlighting the somewhat mournful sentiments that haunted much of Hamasaki’s personal disposition at the time. There may not have been any music video accompanying the single, but I sort of prefer it that way; UNITE! was released when Hamasaki’s music and image were still constantly evolving, without eluding to signs of desperation; it was released when things could still conceive to be building instead of dissolving; it was released when Hamasaki was still taken seriously as not just an entertainer, but as an artist. When singles like Sunrise/Sunset are being released, UNITE! is the summer single I look back on fondly, knowing that, unlike most nostalgia, I can honestly say I was there and it really was that awesome.

400 blows: A few greatest hits

After reading Elisabeth Vincentelli’s contribution to the 33 1/3 series, ABBA GOLD, I’m left thinking less about defending ABBA (because I really don’t think they need to be defended any longer; they’re kind of pop royalty, having finally been critically acknowledged), and more about defending greatest hits compilations in general, much of which Vincentelli discusses in the introduction. I used to be opposed to compilations for the simple reason that I wanted to be a part of a band as much as possible and thought the only way to do that would be to listen to entire, original albums, particularly in chronological order; if I couldn’t be a part of U2’s progression through the 80s, I wanted to at least be there synthetically. But in reality that’s sort of impossible: just being alive and breathing assures you’ve heard dozens of songs by artists out of chronological and even cultural context.

Today I think compilations are a good starting ground for unfamiliar artists; the only problem arises when these compilations are the best a group has to offer. These so-called “singles bands” shouldn’t exactly be written out of the canon, maybe just re-imagined to a hearkening of a not-so-long-ago time when singles were all that mattered and albums were those things that nobody really bought. However, thanks in part to The Beatles and Brian Wilson, who helped create the modern concept of an album, we now have a po-mo concept of compilations:

There’s perceived to be something distinctly second-rate about compilations, like sending a pre-printed thank-you note instead of a hand-written one: It smacks of an after-thought, something that can’t be taken quite seriously. Worst of all, it smacks of something done for purely mercantile reasons. Since bands and record companies have recouped their recording and promotional expenses, compilations are what happens when someone wants to make quick cash. They’re also what happens when a band is in a creative quagmire, or on hiatus, or gone: the reminder of something that was, not the promise of something that could be. (Vincentelli 7)

I can think of plenty of artists the dreaded “compilation” has affected negatively; Chihiro’s post-EMI split releases that really were outright manipulative cash cows, Ayumi Hamasaki’s A BEST, which she vehemently opposed, going so far as to appear in tears on the front cover, and pretty much all of hide’s compilations which serve as nothing more than posthumous dividends. And that’s just three artists off the top of my head. But conceivably, there may have been some bands that really were just the sum of a dozen really great songs. That isn’t to say that their contribution to music history is really any less (not if we’re looking at quality over quantity) but simply that they may not have been built for rock operas or extended concepts, instead, flourishing in the reduced brilliance of three or four minute mini-epics. Vincentelli notes that “acknowledging that your favorite band’s most important album is a compilation somehow casts a pall on the band itself – and thus on your judgment for championing that group” (5) but I don’t necessarily think that’s true, depending on the artist (and so doesn’t she, not really). I don’t think a lot of people  (especially critics) would pick a greatest hits album by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, or even Michael Jackson as their favorite, even if, statistically speaking, that album is the artists’ best seller.  But in acknowledging that greatest hits do have merit somewhere in this great big universe, and that ABBA’s GOLD is already de facto number one (don’t believe me? read the book), here are ten more of my favorite greatest hits compilations:

Golden Earring: The Continuing Story of Radar Love (1989)

I may be pushing this one a bit too far; how easy could it possibly be to scale down a band who, up until 1989, had released nineteen original albums? Probably if most of the albums weren’t all that great. In the 60s, Golden Earring (known as The Golden Earrings) sounded like  any other British band, except nobody really cared about a little band from The Hague, except maybe people in the Hague. In the early 70s, Golden Earring, like many bands, re-focused their style and released “Radar Love,” a song you may recognize from classic rock stations or the second Wayne’s World movie. It wouldn’t be until 1983 that they released their first U.S. #1 with “Twilight Zone” a very rich, very long, rock epic that has become something of a musical swan song (very sad for the “oldest rock band in the world“), aptly noted by its inclusion as the last track on the CD and not the first. The Continuing Story of Radar Love isn’t necessarily the ultimate collection of Golden Earring songs (again nineteen albums; twelve songs) but it does offer a broad representation of their sound (rock with an honest, sometimes pop, sensibility in its melodies), encompasses two of their most beloved songs, and by omitting any mention of ‘greatest hits’ or ‘definitive collection,’ even purports an answer to Vincentelli’s point that compilations are the end, and not the beginning.

T.M.Revolution: UNDER:COVER (2006)

What’s so great about this greatest hits compilation is that it’s not even technically a greatest hits compilation; instead, Takanori Nishikawa, the main man behind the name, re-sung, re-arranged, and re-mixed fourteen songs in his catalog. While the choices aren’t all that great, the new versions of each of the tracks are. T.M.R’s style hasn’t really changed significantly, though Nishikawa’s other band abingdon boys school, probably had an influence on making the songs heavier, faster and more electric. There is no in between on UNDER:COVER: tracks like “THUNDERBIRD” have been restrained and taken down to the barest essentials, while “Twinkle Million Rendezvous” has a full orchestra. It may not be the best place to lead someone unfamiliar with the band’s work, but it certainly makes it worth purchasing for long-time fans.

Blondie: The Best of Blondie (1981)

Nobody will deny Blondie’s contribution to music history; however, though the studio efforts may have be more important, they’re certainly not as fun. It also says a lot that despite more than half a dozen more compilations following its release, 1981’s The Best of Blondie still has every single track that made Blondie so enjoyable. From the disco-inspired “Heart of Glass” to the punk-smeared “Hanging on the Telephone” the best of Blondie really does have every popular and well-loved Blondie song, in all its evolutionary glory.

Tommy heavenly6: Gothic Melting Ice Cream’s Darkness Nightmare (2009)

This album is almost farcical considering Tomoko Kawase only released two albums under this moniker (and she released a greatest hits for her Tommy february6 persona that same day). I think this compilation was meant to be a sort of end in a musical perspective (and one in a very poor direction, I was to learn). However, this compilation really does encapsulate the best of the two discs she did manage to release. Sure, it might be missing those really cool B-side acoustic versions of “Lost my pieces” and “+gothic Pink+” but it includes both singles and good album-cuts (“fell in love with you”/”2Bfree”) without being bogged down by too many fictitiously good B-sides. Though it may seem redundant to ardent fans of Tommy heavenly6’s work, it trumps the worst aspects of the sometimes filler-tracked self-titled Tommy heavenly6 and Heavy Starry Heavenly.

Whitesnake: The Definitive Collection (2006)

I’m not sure most 80’s rock bands weren’t sewn for greatest hits; most people remember Def Leppard, Skid Row, and Poison for a handful of singles, schmaltz, and not much else. But while a lot of commercial-oriented bands took themselves too seriously (Bon Jovi) or not seriously enough (Motley Crue), Whitesnake kind of fell in between. They had David Coverdale, a glam-ham by any other name, and his girlfriend, but they also had a classic rock upbringing (at least initially) that influenced what would later amount to a really hard-sell of commercial rock. You could argue that Whitesnake’s Greatest Hits released in 1994 gets the job done, but I prefer the sequencing of The Definitive Collection for a few reasons: 1) it opens with more blues-rock pieces that says something about the band’s origins, 2) it chooses songs from more than just three albums (as good as they were), and 3) um, why not a few extra tracks? While 2008’s 30th Anniversary Collection took things a bit too far (3 discs? really?), The Definitive Collection remains…a definitive collection of really great Whitesnake tunes that doesn’t make you feel excessively bad for liking something so perversely wonderful.

B’z: The Best “ULTRA” Pleasure (2008)

Speaking of excess, there’s a difference between too much and just enough; sometimes less really is more, at least in the case of B’z. For a band that has been around twenty-one years, owning all sixteen of their albums is quite unnecessary. This 2-disc compilation contains some of the best singles of the band’s career, all remastered to perfection (and I really mean that; some remasters just make things louder or less fuzzy, but these songs really sound phenomenal with a good pair of headphones), trumping 1998’s single-disc The Best Pleasure, while including some of the band’s later work on disc 2.

Nanase Aikawa: ID (1999)

Nanase Aikawa’s first hits compilation features all of her best songs with a few notable exceptions from 2000’s Foxtrot (for obvious reasons), but it hardly matters much; Aikawa’s style was already changing with the new millennium and ID chronicles her short, but fruitful career as an 80’s metal-influenced 90’s alterna-chick. Since I was never interested in her post-90’s output, it only makes sense that ID says everything good about Aikawa without eluding to what would later become subdued, restrained pop rock.

Stevie Nicks: Timespace: The Best of Stevie Nicks (1991)

I had two choices: I could pick Crystal Visions or Timespace, and without hesitation, I chose Timespace; Crystal Visions is bogged down by not enough great songs and too many live cuts (though I do really like the live version of “Rhiannon,” it’s not even a Stevie Nicks song, belonging to the Fleetwood Mac canon). Timespace, on the other hand, contains everything good and wonderful about the mystical “Reigning Queen of Rock and Roll” that not even multi-platinum albums like Bella Donna and The Wild Heart could do. It features some of her best collaborations (with Tom Petty, Bon Jovi, and Prince – yes, that’s him playing synth on “Stand Back”), along with the surrealist mix of rock and magic that has made her so entertaining (both musically and personally). Fleetwood Mac may have been more pure in its genre, but Nicks challenges the foundations of that trade through her unique vocals, bluesy swagger and mystical inspiration. I’ll always enjoy Nicks more for her most successful tunes than the albums that comprised them.

Pet Shop Boys: Discography: The Complete Singles Collection (1991)

If ABBA threw their arms around the flighty, four minute pop song, the Pet Shop Boys carried the dropped torch into the 80s. Nobody is going to deny that the Pet Shop Boys wrote some excellent albums, all which contained great songs – but the Pet Shop Boys will be most remembered for their mastery over what would be the singles’ last flourishing decade. Discography, released right before the start of their most disappointing albums, is the epitome of all things quick and consumable about pop music, tinged with a misty aura of italo disco; everybody knows these songs are unmistakably from one of the gluttonous decades that would later result in both backlash and an endless revival. But Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant never tried to do anything but make really fun music and they accomplished just that with an elegant pride. With an injection of wit, sarcasm, and intelligence, every single song on this compilation is more than an ode to the great theme of pop (love and all its permutations), it’s also an ode to the ennui of suburbs, religious guilt, making money (or trying to), loving someone (because he/she pays your rent), and political headlines (though in a somewhat pointedly disaffected way). ABBA may have made it look easy, but the Pet Shop Boys made it look appealing.

Journey: The Essential Journey (2001)

This might be a bit far-fetched; The Essential Journey doesn’t have any songs from their first three albums (a real pity, as I find them genuinely interesting and meritable classic rock); but what it lacks in musical self-awareness, it makes up for in personal self-awareness: Steve Perry’s vocals put Journey on the map and the band kind of knows that. The Essential Journey caters to the lowest common denominator by compiling really great singles from a band that not everyone will admit to liking, but whose songs have become staples of American rock (I imagine “Don’t Stop Believin'” might be one of the most definitive American rock songs, but that’s debatable and I’m still working through the counter-arguments – for one, that Journey sure isn’t an indestructible band, being marred by a few poor records that have driven them and their fans into a closet, and two, that their very inclusion on this list is something of a double-edged sword that denies their right to that privilege; clearly, I believe a greatest hits collection is better than any one of their original albums, putting the issue of single-bands versus album-bands at odds all over again). Journey was never an album-oriented band, though their albums as a whole were huge sellers, particularly from 1978 to 1983. There are some strange choices that mar disc 2 (“Chain Reaction” is a good song off of Frontiers, but “Troubled Child” is much more powerful), but that’s even if you get that far – disc 1 is really all you need, and the only reason I didn’t pick 1988’s Greatest Hits is for its exclusion of “After the Fall.” There’s nothing really essential about most essential compilations (especially those with more than one disc) – except for this one.

Do you think the ‘greatest hits’ compilation has any true merit? Which artists do you think flourish in the greatest hits format – and which don’t?

Top 10 albums/20 songs of 2008

01. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours [ read full review ]
02. Ami Suzuki – DOLCE [ read full review ]
03. OceanLab – Sirens of the Sea [ read full review ]
04. PlayRadioPlay! – Texas
05. M83 – Saturdays = Youth
06. Perfume – GAME
07. Tiziano Ferro – Alla mia Eta
08. Britney Spears – Circus [ read full review ]
09. MEG – STEP
10. Santogold – Santogold

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2006 in music: albums #10-2

I hate end of the year lists. As soon as they’re done and posted, I go back and “Oh shit, I totally forgot about this!” or worse, I find this life-changing album in 2007 and I’m all, “Tthis is the greatest album ever and I can’t even talk about how much it’s changed this year of my life because I’m a year too late!” That being said, here are ten albums I really enjoyed this year, released in 2006. They are probably not the CDs that dominated most of my playlist, as most of the music I listen to isn’t always up-and-coming hipster jam. Nonetheless, enjoy numbers 10-2.

10. Ayumi Hamasaki – Secret [ read full review ] [ Buy Secret ]

OK, I pretty much slammed Hamasaki’s album in my formal review but if you had looked between the lines, you’d still find a general appreciation. I left out some of the little bits and pieces which equated Hamasaki’s album to a parts greater than the sum analogy. Plus, it kind of grew on me. The singles were (and definitely are) the poptastic energy one could find spanning all of her discography; “Startin’,” “Beautiful Fighters,” “BLUE BIRD”…maybe even the cheesy “Born To Be…”, if you look at it strictly under the sub context it was produced. The LOVEppears flashback of “momentum” is pretty great, even following the tear-jerking “JEWEL” and the interludes are so wonderful, you wonder why they were never developed into the brilliant full tracks they could have been. Sure, what we’re basically left with is potential, but even that string is strong enough to grip and hang on to, maybe. Nine out of fourteen ain’t so bad, I reckon. As always, I’m greatly anticipating her 2007 releases. (Note: I might have picked (miss)understood, but regardless of its January 1 release date, I consider it a 2006 release due to its leak and even early store release.)

until that Day… / momentum / kiss o’ kill

09. The Changes – Today is Tonight [ Buy Today is Tonight ]

In one of the most surprising twists of fate this year, The Changes have somehow made it to my list. Sure, they sound nothing like the rest of the albums featured on this list, but perhaps that’s why it initially stood out so much for me. I can’t even recall where I picked up information about this band or how “When I Sleep” went into heavy rotation in my playlist, but before long, I found myself pleading fellow friends to see them live with me. My dream was never realized, but I did fall asleep that night listening to this CD and it has (at least somewhat) change the way I see the city. And if album picks are based on feeling and emotion, rather than on the basis of composition, then yeah. That is all.

Such a Scene / When I Sleep

08. Snow Patrol – Eyes Open [ Buy Eyes Open ]

Yeah, I’m going there. So the album isn’t really all that great, I’ll admit. The opening two tracks are even lackluster and I never boarded the “Chasing Cars” bus. Ever. But the trifecta. Oh, the trifecta. Tracks six, seven, and eight are one of the greatest triplets ever given birth by a musical outfit, especially if we’re not talking about Ayumi’s “vogue,” “Far away” and “SEASONS.” “You Could Be Happy” drips with melancholy until it’s practically bursting at the seams with sobs. The gentle and soothing music box melody is offset by the bitterly hopeless lyrics which pretty much equals perfection. The pace picks up a bit with “Make This Go On Forever,” a song with crescendos run amok that never reach that pinnacle they constantly strive for but keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time. And finally, “Set The Fire To The Third Bar,” that plateau it was constantly striving for, mounted and then descended. The rest of the album, I can’t tell you much about. But if The Decemberists can compose novels, then why can’t Snow Patrol wrap depressing ballads in a sorrowful box and tie it with a ribbon of angst and market it as one of the best albums of 2006? Sure, three tracks do not a great album make. Or do they?

You Could Be Happy

07. Johnny Boy – Johnny Boy [ Buy Johnny Boy ]

Thank you, Good Weather For Airstrikes. I noticed a lot of music bloggers say things like, “I don’t like reading other blogs in case I find something I want to blog about from them and then I’d be repeating and blah blah blah.” Who cares? Spread the love. For all this talk of The Pipettes resuscitating 50s and early 60s pop, where is the talk of Johnny Boy? With the re-release of their tunes on the self-titled 2006 release, “Generation” is still one of the most simple, “Be My Baby”-influenced gems in the treasure box that is the entire collection.

Generation

06. MSI – Straight to Video: The Remixes [ Buy Straight To Video ]

So it’s a maxi-single and I’m cheating a bit. Truth is, the single is longer than some, maybe even most, albums. Some of the greatest bands (Birthday Massacre, Assemblage 23, KMFDM) got together to remix one of the already most amazing songs, “Straight To Video.” Techno, dance, house, industrial, electronic…all of the hipster genres pretty much wave their magic wands over the song to morph them into the amazing products that compose this single. Sure, maybe the original melody gets a bit annoying after sixteen different versions, but the journey is totally worth it. The best are probably the kick your ass “Funker Vogt Remix” and, of course, the insanely good “Dramaclub Remix” by the Birthday Massacre. If the Birthday Massacre doesn’t release some new material in 2007, sadness will most definitely be felt.

Straight To Video (Funker Vogt Mix) / Straight To Video (Dramaclub Remix)

05. T.M.Revolution – UNDER:COVER [ Buy UNDER:COVER ]

I have to give it to Takanori Nishikawa; the dude made an amazing comeback. T.M.R. was one of the first Japanese pop rock acts I got into back in 1999 until his pitiful demise into musical stagnation and anime-con exposure. Surely he could have set his standards a bit higher. But in all honesty, he really whooped my ass with this album. UNDER:COVER is Nishikawa covering the songs of his own discography, although the songs are almost remixes, they’re so different. All of the songs I grew up loving were redone, most with a bombastic rock edge and an almost arena-sized ego, but a perfectly executed ambition. I’m sure he’ll just go back to writing more crap, but for this brief moment, I was one with the past and present T.M.R. simultaneously. Niiiice.

Yume no Shizuku

04. Puffy – Splurge [ read full review ] [ Buy Splurge ]

Puffy was one of the big surprises of this year, mostly because I never liked Puffy and probably still don’t. Sure, I met them at a signing, they autographed my CD, and a good time was had by all after the two hour wait, but their music was never something I could really get into. At the time I met them, it was all hide this and X Japan that and, “Can they not attempt crossing over a Japanese musical act without the anime tie-in thing, for Chrissake’s?” But the album turned out to be pretty nice and after I climbed over the wall of hate I had erected between us, well, what I discovered was a beautiful world of 60s pop songs, except with lots of alternative. Let’s just forget about that “Basket Case” cover, shall we?

Koi no ETUDE

03. AFI – Decemberundergroud [ read full review ] [ Buy It ]

I liked this CD, then I didn’t. Then I liked it. Then I plateaued. Then my love wavered and dipped again. Yeah, I’ve been on a tumultuous journey with the boys of AFI, but it turned out for the best. Maybe they do wear too much makeup, but who cares? Maybe they are producing music with a pinch or five too much pop, but who cares? The results are still lovely. “Prelude 12/21?” Bad. Bad asssss. That foot stomping entrance takes me to dizzying heights I’d rather not come down from, thanks. “Miss Murder?” Maybe too radio-friendly, but me likey. “Love Like Winter?” C’mon, must I seriously go on? “37mm?” It almost leaves me speechless. Instead of commenting on AFI selling out and messing up their organic punk sound, I would just like to take this moment to congratulate them on their commercial success. OK, moment over.

37mm

02. Junior Boys – So This Is Goodbye [ Buy So This Is Goodbye ]

2006 was a pretty shitty year for me, on a personal level. There was this really shitty part in the beginning, right after it looked like shit was going to happen this year and that shit was gonna’ rock. Instead, it did not. And so, I listened to a lot of sappy, teenage cry-cry music for a long time, and then lots of angry music, you know, like whatever Tommy heavenly6 had put out to that point, alongside mainstream nu metal. I mean, Adema, Seether, Alexisonfire, Hoobastank, Killswitch Engage, Tool…I was all over that. And then the shit cleared and I stepped into the world of bubbly electronic music. Again, not sure how I stumbled across Junior Boys, but I stumbled and fell. Hard. Head over heels. “In The Morning,” is such a catchy dance hit, it was like getting knocked in the head with perfection. The rest of the album turned out to be just as amazing. I mean, when I hear a song like “In The Morning,” my first thought is usually, “Surely, surely the rest of the album cannot be as great, for this song can almost move mountains with its awesomeness.” I mean, the beat, the melody, the breaths, the bass line… I don’t use this word often, but I totally have to bust it out here; majestic. There I said it. A veritable magic carpet ride through the greatest, most brilliant montage of a sunset ever beheld. But if this song was the jelly filling in a delicious donut, than the rest of the CD was the necessary dough and powdery topping, and honestly, this is a bad, maybe even the worst, analogy, but the album leaves me without words. It’s like a delicious donut and while the center is the delicious part (and maybe it’s not strawberry or raspberry, just insert your favorite confection or pudding flavor), it’s really the other pieces that bring it all together and bring out that taste even better. That is this album and if it was sitting there in front of me, there is no way I could not just eat it all up in one sitting and come back for seconds and thirds and fortieths…

Count Souvenirs / So This Is Goodbye