Top ten albums of 2017

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

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

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

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

10 Arashi: untitled / w-inds.: INVISIBLE

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

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

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

9 Monari Wakita: I am ONLY

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

8 Cosmic Girls (WJSN): Happy Moment

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

7 EXO: The Power Of Music

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

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

6 Red Velvet: Perfect Velvet

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

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

5 Kumi Koda’s W FACE ~outside~

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

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

4 PASSPO☆ : Cinema Trip

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

3 BAND-MAID: Just Bring It

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

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

2 Satellite Young: Satellite Young

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

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

1 E-girls: E.G. CRAZY

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

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

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

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2016 mid-year report

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

K-pop: The Gold, and the Silver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J-pop (Idols and otherwise)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Solo

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

Odds and Ends

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

But what is it good for?

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

 

Top ten albums of 2015, #7: PASSPO☆’s Beef or Chicken?

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passpobeefappPASSPO☆: Beef or Chicken?

We reached peak-idol a few years ago, so why are we still clinging to groups who keep shuffling members, graduating them off, or sparking sub units in the hopes they’ll branch out into worthy successors? There’s no shortage of them, and the number only grows: they become more niche, more esoteric, and more attention-grabbing — it doesn’t get any worse than a group like LADYBABY, who combine the now-banal dichotomy of cute girls singing hard rock or metal songs, but with the added eye-sore of a masculine, bearded-wrestler wearing the same outfits and pigtails as his group mates warbling out signature death metal growls. It’s maybe why I’d like to take the time to luxuriate in Beef or Chicken?, the very-likely last great PASSPO☆ album (the first being One World). The album title is another push in the gimmicky air-hostess direction, but the songs are as hard and fun as ever. And there’s nothing so fun as lead single “HONEY DISH,” a combo hard rock-and-girl-pop number whose overwhelming sweet tooth is balanced out by the heavy guitars. The rest of the album is classic PASSPO☆: gritty rock and make-no-mistakes-about-it metal. The group is signed to a major label, so skilled session musicians and writers are at their disposal to conjure the retro Americana diner of the album jackets without sacrificing the sound we’re used to. It offers something of a varied menu, like the touch of Southern rock in “Itazura Rock n’ Roll,” grungy metal in “Not in theory,” and a softer glow on “Shiny Road.” All the signature speed and energy of the group is there, despite this being the shortest PASSPO☆ album to date. Following this amazing release in May, the group took a (relatively) long hiatus, after which they announced both a graduation and a label change to Nippon Crown at the end of the year. So long and goodnight PASSPO☆?

Momoiro Clover Z: What we talk about when we talk about idols

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If this is AKB48’s world and we’re just living in it, Momoiro Clover Z has an even greater task on their hands: tweaking the standard just enough to keep it different, without ever abandoning true blue idol pop. I should confess that AKB48 is my least favorite thing to happen to Japanese pop music in the past decade. This includes, by the way, teen boy bands, Funky Monkey Babys, and Ayumi Hamasaki’s last single. Because we have yet to crown a new diva, one who hasn’t been born before 1990, the Oricon charts and pop culture conversation revolves around girl groups and subgroups. Unfortunately, AKB48’s success may have unleashed an ever larger number of idiosyncratic idol groups, but it’s become difficult to mess with the formula in any substantial way. Take Perfume, an idol group by any definition, who have never truly fit the mold: their best feature — music that doesn’t succumb to traditional idol pop — has also been their commercial downfall. It’s easy to think of Perfume as wildly successful because of their vociferous niche community, but their last number one single was 2009’s “ONE ROOM DISCO.” And more than chart status, looking at a group’s ripple effect is a better indicator of the kind of popularity we’re dealing with. When Perfume hit it big, a spat of similar artists mopping the classic Yasutaka Nakata electro-pop sound debuted, hoping to get their foot in the door it took Perfume almost six years to pry open. In recent years, these groups and solo artists are almost all but forgotten.

apppassorIn their place are groups like PASSPO, whose shtick is travel in general and flight attendants in particular. In addition to the costumes and lyrical content, the group has also invented a dubious vocabulary to make them stand out from groups with other, less classy angles. From their generasia profile: “Their live events are called “flights” while those who are attendance [sic] are usually called “the passengers” who can earn points, called “frequent flier miles.” […] The group releases three versions of their singles, each name [sic] Business Class, First Class, and Economy Class, with different material inserted in each version.” Lest thou be fooled by the group’s aggressive marketing tactic, rest assured that this is your garden variety idol group, bubbly rock-pop and requisite graduations (may I suggest “that great gig in the sky”?) included.

appsaintfourrOf course, groups rocking a large number of members is nothing new. AKB48 had a predecessor in similar idol groups like Onyanko Club and Bishoujo Club 31. Momoiro Clover Z owe a debt to a rarer kind of ancestor like SAINT FOUR. That short-lived idol group churned out spunky synth-rock numbers in colored costumes while performing acrobatic dance routines to rival professional gymnasts. Unlike other groups that emphasized a coy vulnerability, they met the stage head on, bouncing around like loose springs in spandex costumes that evoked superheroes, or Super Sentai knock-offs. These girls didn’t whimper, they roared.

Momoiro Clover Z might be known for trolling the same geek circuit, but they also challenge the AKB legacy and its current spokeswoman Minegishi Minami. Both groups pander to an audience: in Z’s world, it’s what Patrick Macias explains are “bonkura.” To distinguish it from your run of the mill otaku, he says, “Bonkura guys are not anti-social. They will seek out and immediately bond with others who share the same wild enthusiasm for junk culture as they do. [..] All they want out of life is raw stimulation and to satisfy the unsophisticated desires of their eternal teenage boy within.” We’ll get back to that last thought in a second, but to sum up: Junk culture. Raw stimulation.

One of Momoiro Clover Z’s best known singles has the girls carousing around like drunk salarymen for “Rodou Sanka,” singing about the everyman giving it his best at work. Others have them traveling through outer space on bikes dressed as space pirates as a barrage of color hits the screen. When they’re not dressed up in color-coordinated boxing costumes, they’re endorsing anime like the newest reincarnation of Sailor Moon. Wacky and weird videos aside, before you start thinking they’re pushing the envelope with Edo period mythology, here’s another sample lyric: “Looky looky here, I want you to look here / When you look at me my heart pounds and I’m happy.” There’s that (teenage) male gaze again. These are idols, after all.

appmomocovrThe newest videos to promote the album 5th DIMENSION are a little different. At some point, in a crescendo mix of orchestra and dubstep, the members’ faces are covered completely by masks. In fact, the only way you could tell them apart (if you didn’t already know each girl by her distinctive height or movements) is by the signature color on their clothes. It’s hard to decide if this is a commentary on the bland, easily replaceable idol industry, or if the girls are just being eccentric again. Yet this isn’t the ridiculous fun of “Push” or “D’no Junjou“; they’re just wearing sparkly costumes with the equivalent of paper bags on their heads.

The real disappointment is the album itself. After the amazing teaser PV of “Neo STARGATE,” it’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking there’s genuine novelty about to happen in an idol group. 5th DIMENSION seemed like it would at least continue the trend of the group’s quirks, even if those quirks are just deliberately standing out from their peers. But the album is a collection of a lot of the same idol treacle with a few catchier stand-outs. It’s especially disappointing if you’re unable to reconcile the idea that Japanese idols created by a male-dominated industry for male-dominated audiences can’t be idols and also women and also positive role models in image and creativity.

One thing they do differently from other idols is put on children-only and women-only lives, perhaps to let minority fan communities get in on the fun without having to constantly rub shoulders with some of the seedier male fans, otaku and bonkura included. Don’t worry, guys get their own lives too, which is to say, Momoiro Clover Z wants you to have a good, safe time in a comfortable environment. But in essence, this also opens up the dreaded conversation about the extreme, less savory fans of idol groups, the ones that crop up the most in the media and make you just a little ashamed because you bought AKB48’s latest single for the song, not the election ballot.

app2ne1rI’ve spoken about the difference between Japanese and Korean idols before, but in an interview with Robert Michael Poole, the CEO of Something Drastic International Music Promotion, he finds it worth noting that “the majority of the audiences [for K-pop shows] are young girls, not boys. [ …] The Japanese pop market has typically been all about cuteness, presenting boys with the ideal submissive girl to treat like a doll rather than lust over.” And later: “The J-pop industry couldn’t create a K-pop style group, because Japanese girls being that edgy would be seen as wholly un-Japanese. [… ] It seems girl groups in Japan have actually become increasingly cuter, younger and presented as servants (maids being the ultimate example), with the likes of AKB48 and their many copycats.” While the general tone of the interview highlights J-pop’s innovative inertia, keeping a pop sound that wouldn’t be out of place two decades ago, the two short years since the interview has seen what is perhaps the Hallyu wave’s last crash. Worth noting is the difference in marketing tactic K-pop groups have taken, attempting to deliberately cater their image to reach that coveted male Japanese fan and his spending money at the expense of strong, independent, and mature role models girls might want to see (note T-Ara’s original video for “Bo Peep Bo Peep” compared to the Japanese version).

This is not to argue how much more noble the K-pop industry is — for one thing, the process of training idols has fallen under extreme scrutiny — but rather to examine the function of idols, the freedom of expression and options girls are encouraged to pursue, and what it says about a particular culture’s notions of what boys and young men should come to expect from the girls and women they are presented with, from entertainment, to the boring, mundane interactions of real life.

Are Momoiro Clover Z the same as their idol peers, or are they actually forcing us to question the predominant image of female idols? Are they presenting different choices for talented girls, or delivering the same message through a different medium? When Tomohisa Yamashita goes solo from NEWS and takes risks working with producers like Yasutaka Nakata to make atypical music, or we see the girls of Fairies performing in outfits rather than costumes encouraging listeners to “Flow like a hero” instead of waiting for one, are we seeing a future of optical and musical variety, or will it simply satisfy a tiny niche so the industry can stay busy catering to the male psyches that offer an unyielding mix of loyalty and money?

For now, it seems all idol groups and solo artists with their eyes on the charts can do is avoid releasing singles and albums the same week the AKBs do. Maybe Momoiro Clover Z, with their aggressive sound and daft intersection of idol and junk culture, will continue to provide alternatives to what has become a fetid industry. Idols as they are now want to relieve us of the burden of examination, from the responsibility of honoring the opposite sex with dignity, from looking at the presentation of young women, and men, in the media and what they say about our own attitudes and responses to the easy glamour of pop culture, and from the courage it takes to confront what doesn’t feel quite right.