Top ten pop/electronic albums of 2020

This category is notorious for giving me the biggest headache. Between narrowing it down, and choosing honorable mentions, to committing to a list with 30+ mainstream pop albums from the year that I still haven’t listened to, nailing this one down is a marathon that begins in November and leaves me second-guessing through February. But for what it’s worth, here are 10 of the albums I listened to the most this year, in chronological order — why has everything been in chronological order this year? My unconscious motivation has been perfectly and succinctly explained over at Burn Your Hits, who says “I added release dates this year because I think they were especially relevant in 2020 (how quickly was the world ending when you first heard this song?)” — now with extra references to “quarantine,” “escapism,” and “not as good as their last, though.” (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.)

Selena Gomez: Rare
(2020.01.10)

Rare feels different, not just because fans have been teased with Selena Gomez collabs and feats for years, but because the singer’s statements regarding gossip-heavy story lines involving her life feel more personal than ever. There’s no hidden message or subtext behind songs like “Lose You to Love Me,” or “Look at Her Now,” and even in “Dance Again“and “Rare,” she’s not shy, lyrically, about claiming her own narrative. The album was a strong start to the year, a month we rarely see pop albums from big names as solid as this, and a January that now seems as distant and hazy as your very first day of school. Still, with everything that’s happened in between then and now, this album has remained as accomplished as ever, both for its creator, I’m sure, but also for the listener who appreciates records as brave and open as this.

Niall Horan: Heartbreak Weather
(2020.03.13)

Out of all the ex-One Direction members’ solo albums, Niall Horan’s Heartbreak Weather remains one of the best and most underrated. Sure, it’s missing the charisma, charm, and overall controversy-baiting of a Harry Styles, but its dependence on genres like new wave, synth, and acoustic keep the album anchored in time-tested comfortable familiarity. Between the acoustic and the synth sections, I find myself returning to the latter, like the arena-sized title track, “Arms of a Stranger,” and “Cross Your Mind,” songs the album would have been smarter to crowd out the weepies with. It’s a nice follow-up to his largely forgettable debut, and as all of the albums released at the beginning of the year can attest to, it’s unlucky release date seems to have gotten it unfairly buried.

The Weeknd: After Hours
(2020.03.20)

The big story in the music world this season was the obvious, and allegedly deliberate, omission of The Weeknd among the Grammy nominees, an omission so glaring that, as Main Pod Girl points out, tips from snub to scandal. Despite anyone’s personal feelings about The Weeknd’s behavior and lyrical content, anyone would be remiss to ignore this album’s stunning production value and national embrace in 2020: “Blinding Lights,” which rolled out at the end of 2019, has now officially lingered in the Top 10 of the Billboard’s Hot 100 longer than any other single in Hot 100 history. Most importantly, it has had the amazing capability to sound as fresh and exciting as it did a year ago when it was first released. While I’m still not sold on the entirety of the first half of this album, After Hours, with all of its interesting, successively topped performances, from fireworks to more fireworks, has slowly won me over during a year when wondering what Tesfaye and Team would come up with next provided much-needed, pleasant distraction. And if it’s true he missed out on noms because he chose to perform at the Superbowl over the Grammys? He made the right choice.

Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia
(2020.03.27)

When every other artist postponed their albums and canceled roll outs, Dua Lipa was the outlier, sending her album out into the world a week earlier than planned, on March 27, in the midst of history-making lockdowns. Releasing an album during a global pandemic is tough enough, but releasing a dance record during a global pandemic, with clubs shuttered and social gatherings verboten, is even tougher. Yet Future Nostalgia pulled off the impossible, streaming into living rooms and headphones with a welcome joy and comfort through its bite-sized, 37-minute long journey through Latin freestyle, early 00’s girl-group pop, swelling disco strings and cool, chunky synths. The album will forever remain “the quarantine album,” but for positive reasons, beaming light and hope into living rooms and kitchens through quirky pop songs about love, lust, betrayal, and the anticipation of the return to normal we can all look forward to if we’re brave and patient enough to meet it.

Lady Gaga: Chromatica
(2020.05.29)

Despite the hokey, ugly visuals for much of this album cycle, Chromatica has grown on me. Like a lot of pop music before it, it’s rooted in the near-past, the one just old enough to seem part-nostalgic and part-exotic to Millennials, drawing from wells as deep as Amber’s “This is Your Night,” to Robin S.’s “Show Me Love.” It’s more than a return to Gaga’s The Fame sound because it’s a sound that was only ever put on pause for more intimate projects like A Song is Born and Joanne that grabbed for something, anything, that would retain the spotlight after Art Pop tanked. But to be clear, Art Pop slapped, and everything in between it and Chromatica was just a strategic distraction, an elaborate show of smoke and mirrors meant to make everyone appreciate the magic of Lady Gaga once again.

Chloe x Halle: Ungodly Hour
(2020.06.12)

I’m still not sure that this album is better than their debut, but Ungodly Hour is so intent on pleasing, it’s hard to ignore its magnetic pull. The album sees two young women now confronting some of the more complicated and unpleasant compromises of adulthood, with their signature downbeats and twinkling harmonies. There are bittersweet moments all over this album, including a youthful production that hints that as far as they’ve come, they still have a way to go. This album shows that the journey to getting there will be as rich as its destination, offering much more than the average pop star ever could — I’ll take the scenic route.

Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure?
(2020.06.26)

Jessie Ware brings a levity and seriousness to disco on What’s Your Pleasure?, one that feels as grown-up, and uncool, music-for-adults as some of the best of the genre’s origins. The attention to detail and unwillingness to compromise on irony for the sake of a wider audience is commendable; Random Access Memories this is not, though de Homem-Christo and Bangalter could take some serious notes if they’re looking to craft songs that are more than just technical marvels, but beating hearts, too. As my introduction to Jessie Ware, this one has the unintended consequence of setting the bar beyond an ability to surpass.

Taylor Swift: folklore
(2020.07.24)

In the Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, Taylor Swift greets us with her disappointment at being snubbed a best-album nomination at the Grammys, determinedly avowing to do better next time. folklore is that next time. As an album, folklore works best when viewed in the context in which it was conceived, produced, and executed: a classic Swift album in texture and sound, but also desperate to please, competing against all of the other women who released career-defining albums this year, but mostly, seemingly, against herself. For better or worse, embracing all of that is part and parcel of Swift fandom. Yet folklore is also an album that has reached beyond the bubble, from everyone to casual listeners, to indie publications who appreciate its slicked-back production and elegant story-telling. It’s a new peak for the writer, who after seven albums, still proves to draw from a bottomless well of inspiration. In a time of endless “quarantine albums,” Swift’s is the ultimate flex, the one that captures what a creative mind can conjure with a solid work ethic, plenty of time, and complete creative freedom.

Ariana Grande: positions
(2020.10.30)

positions, while not the best album of Grande’s career, is as consistent as its predecessor thank u next, and boasts some of the best production on a technical level of the year. Listeners looking for a hit single or a pop number in the vein of “No Tears Left to Cry” or “Into You” will be disappointed, but that ship has sailed in lieu of an aggressively grown-up approach that flaunts an uninhibited and sexually frank lexicon, a sign of the times for Grande who is coming into her own in the age of The Weeknd. The album could do with a bit more variety and a bit more flesh on its track’s run times, but its warm strings and laid back chill has stayed with me these last few months, a palliative to some of the more frenetic albums on this list.

Kylie Minogue: Disco
(2020.11.06)

Kylie Minogue is first and foremost a pop star, not a disco diva, and the structure of each of the songs on this album keeps her rooted in very familiar territory. Disco joins a long list of club-ready hits from Jessie Ware, Dua Lipa, and Roisin Murphy this year, but besides Lipa’s, Minogue’s boasts the most accessible and the least experimental approach to its revival, a disco album for a general audience content to dabble rather than immerse. It’s an achievement nonetheless, banking on its ability to offer escapism and help put out the dumpster fire that was 2020. In that sense, it has succeeded. As the album I have listened to more than most of the others on this list in the last month and half alone, its ability to provide some sense of obliterating peace cannot be overstated.

Honorable Mentions

Allie X: Cape God
Meg Myers: Thank U 4 Taking Me 2 the Disco I’d Like 2 Go Home Now
Cleo: SuperNOVA
Bright Light Bright Light: Fun City
Kid Cudi: Man on the Moon III: The Chosen

Bonus Track: Top 5 Hard Rock/Metal Albums

As I said previously, I don’t want to do an official top ten for this category this year due to the less-than-usual number of new metal albums I was able to listen to, but for what it’s worth, here are my top five from what I did manage to hear in this category, including what is probably my favorite record of the year. I look forward to disowning a large portion of this list as soon as I tackle all the great releases I missed from numerous, well-curated year-end lists, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some amazing stuff to be heard here.

In This Moment: Mother
Stallion: Slaves of Time
Unleash the Archers: Abyss
Movements: No Good Left to Give
Oceans of Slumber: Oceans of Slumber

Top ten debut albums of 2020

The debut category is one of the most fun of the year, a chance to celebrate what riches may lay ahead in the future. While these albums and EPs may not be perfect, they can stop you in your tracks, spark intrigue, and tantalize with the promise of everything yet to come. While some may never make good on these promises, it’s the optimism that keeps me coming back to this category each year with necessary delight, an optimism we could all use now more than ever now. In chronological order, here are some of this year’s best debut music releases that, along with the vaccines, makes the future worth holding out for. (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.)

FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC 9
(2020.02.12

The EXILE franchise continued to expand in 2020 with the addition of FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE even as other branches were were lopped off entirely. The group released four notable singles over the course of 2019, culminating in a previously-heard-material heavy debut album, released in February. FANTASTICS are like the dancier, poppier, gentler cousin to GENERATIONS, with an emphasis on dance over hip-hop, and it all goes down as smoothly as some of the more Western Hey! Say! JUMP cuts. FANTASTIC 9 needed some serious trimming, but which hopefully stems more from an over-eagerness than lack of direction — the former can be harnessed, the latter can pull you under quicksand fast. Since this album, the group has released a few more singles, with “High Fever” in particular a stand out, all boding well for the future of this particular J-pop boy band.

MCND: into the ICE AGE
(2020.02.27)

We all lived on an entirely different planet back in February, one where the terrain of upcoming K-pop debuts felt wide and expansive. At that stage, a group like MCND felt like just another drop in the debut ocean, yet over time, as the number of debuts were culled, or folded from financial strain, MCND stood out more for its relative unique position, rather than genuine potential. Despite a lackluster followup that relied too heavily on their “element” gimmick over creating a stand-out hit, “ICE AGE” remains one of my favorite debut singles of the year, with a particularly good pre-chorus. It’s hard to see anything dramatic coming of this group, but MCND offer a pleasantly nostalgic look back at the state of the generous, forgiving, and hopeful mind we could all afford to be in ten months ago.

Nanaka Suwa: So Sweet Dolce
(2020.04.15)

So Sweet Dolce might rely a bit too heavily on its predecessors, from Aya Uchida to Yui Ogura, but its commitment to a (somewhat hackneyed) concept and relentlessly upbeat personality made this album a welcome distraction in the spring. While the album trades in a sound as expendable and nutritionally deficient as its thematic content, I’d argue that its sincerity and commitment give it some lee-way: junk food never promises anything more than a pleasing and evanescent mouth-feel and delicious sugar rush, followed by a crash that leaves the consumer lethargic and unsatisfied. On that front, this album comes fresh out of Wonka’s factory, perhaps all the better to keep it so short and so sweet. Suwa has since released a follow-up EP in November tha,t while scaling down my personal expectations, does portend a successful career in fresh-faced, anison idol-dom.

NiziU: Make you happy
(2020.06.30)

In a K-pop world where nearly every girl and boy group have fallen prey to BTS/BLANKPINK-syndrome (a terminal condition presenting with symptoms of similarity and pandering, with a fierce, almost desperate sense of competitiveness), including such venerable institutions as SM Entertainment, it was nice to see a group that went for a completely different approach, instead tailoring their sound to airy Japanese idol-pop. Though technically a “pre-debut,” this EP containing four songs has grown on me more slowly, but firmly, than any other debut this year, with its unbridled joy and warm-pancakes positivity. Their Japan-side buzz promises more of the same and I hold out hope that the group doesn’t capitulate to pressure to compete on a world-stage by diluting what makes them so great.

YUKIKA: Soul Yeoja
(2020.07.21)

I’m not completely sold on this debut album, but I have to admit its place in 2020 as a stand-out is nearly unparalleled. For example, YUKIKA’s commitment to city pop could do with a bit more consistency on the production side. Soul Yeoja leads with its jazzy, laid-back singles like “SOUL LADY” and the glimmering “NEON 1989,” giving every indication of a proto-Korean Dance for Philosophy before devolving into standard K-pop. Take “Yesterday” or “Day for Love,” which go for the bare minimum in vintage before “pit-a-pet,” an adorable homage to puppy love, boasts all the familiar tropes found on a standard GFRIEND or OH MY GIRL albums. Still, the potential for YUKIKA to transcend easy familiarity is high, and if Soul Yeoja is just the first in a line of skillful homages, it deserves credit for whetting appetites hungry for something different, even if city pop, in general, is as far from “different” as we can get a decade into the existence of Bandcamp.

Ava Max: Heaven & Hell
(2020.09.18)

While Axa Max lacks the quirky magnetism of The Fame-era Lady Gaga, she projects the same intrepid effort on her debut full-length Heaven & Hell. The basic Euro-pop foundations lend a steady purpose to an extended run of music, a stepping stone path of a track list that wraps up an almost 3-year block of fun, but indistinguishable singles. It’s not the best representation of what a major label like Atlantic can offer, but there’s raw material within Ava Max, one that hasn’t yet been tapped by truly innovative pop, the kind that gives songs an instantly recognizable personality. I would love to see what Ava Max can come up with with an A-list producer, and hope to see her get the chance to make magic in the years to come.

Dagny: Strangers / Lovers
(2020.10.02)

Dagny’s years in the trenches of pop music, writing for bigger artists with bigger budgets and bigger labels has paid off in her first full-length Strangers / Lovers. Collecting a handful of previously released singles, alongside new tracks, the album focuses less on fresh than fun, rooting itself in conventional dance-pop, while drawing upon little variety in production for a consistent, rather than diverse, palette of sounds. However, the songs emanate a deft skill and attention to detail crafted by an obviously seasoned hand. One hopes Dagny has finally proved she deserves more time and resources to devote to her own career.

beabadoobee: Fake It Flowers
(2020.10.16)

My aversion to grunge is tempered by the intense nostalgia it provokes, one that beabadoobee has harnessed to success on her debut album Fake It Flowers. Combined with sometimes naive, heart-on-its-sleeve confessions, the album focuses less on wrapping up a tidy package than on the process, one that indulges in all the messy feelings and everyday cliches that make up honest human relationships. The sound, reliant on the aforementioned 90’s alternative and indie rock sound, suits this very candid and clearly cathartic debut album from a voice that will only benefit from more time and experience.

Nova Miller: The Passion
(2020.10.16)

It’s time we all face the changing landscape and accept that TikTok is the new YouTube, brimming with undiscovered talent and up-and-coming chart toppers. As a succinct premonition, the debut EP The Passion from multi-talented Swedish singer Nova Miller exemplifies the riches we have to look forward to from some of the unlikeliest, and often derided sources. This EP is everything Strangers / Lovers could have been if it had managed a bit more luck in the catchy hook department. But we’ll be in for a real treat when Miller finally figures out how to incorporate and showcase her wide range, marking this as a true debut: one that teases rather than fully delivering.

RAYE: Euphoric Sad Songs
(2020.11.20)

Like Dagny, RAYE already has a history, giving her a leg-up on other debut albums, one that proves this distinction can get a bit murky and muddled when you’re trying to organize all the singles and collabs, and figure out what distinguishes an EP from a true full-length. I’m going with full-length here because there’s nothing that captures my attention faster than a throwaway 00s Eurodance sample, like RAYE incorporates into “Regardless,” her bouncy collab with Rudimental that references Nadia Ali’s iconic trill for iiO’s “Rapture.” Euphoric Sad Songs relies a a bit too heavily on this tongue-in-cheek homage to 90’s dance, but not without an endearing earnestness and genuine appreciation. I’m not sure if there’s a long career in this kind of largely niche sound, one that relies on a very of-the-moment retro callback, but it’s so fun, it’s hard to simply dismiss.

Honorable Mentions

color-code: Re∂l
Muni Long: Black
Gabby Barrett: Goldmine
Haruka Kudo: KDHR
Re:Complex: Neo Gravity

Top ten remastered/reissued albums of 2020

As important and fun as it is to look forward and tear through an unceasing avalanche of new releases, sometimes it’s nice to take a deliberate step backward and enjoy old favorites. Many of these old favorites can be seen in a new light, for better or worse, either by way of physical format, studio wizardry, or the life, experience, and older perspective you bring to it. And all of those factors have contributed to the way I have selected ten of the best reissues of the year, listed here in chronological order.

Depeche Mode: MODE
(2020.01.24)

Depeche Mode went big for their limited-edition career-spanning box set, first announced in 2019, and finally released in January of this year. The box set includes all fourteen studio albums along with additional material from b-sides to bonus tracks. The box is a testament to this group’s musical evolution, from their early synth-pop days to the darker rock-influenced 90s, up through their current iteration as an electronic legacy act. Fans with a slightly smaller budget who prefer vinyl over CD can instead opt for the band’s steady output of single reissues, including the latest from Songs of Faith and Devotion.

White Stripes: De Stijl (20th Anniversary)
(2020.06.20)

De Stijl is not my favorite White Stripes album (is it their best? Debatable), but you can count on Jack White to continue preserving his band’s legacy with the utmost attention and care. This 20th anniversary of the group’s sophomore album from the Third Man Vault includes the original album on double colored-vinyl, unreleased recordings, live performances on DVD, and a booklet full of unseen photos and ephemera from the era. Nobody is better at selling himself as a living legend than Jack White, and this reissue spares no expense or enthusiasm to exploit the hype, mystery and romance of his band’s history, the recent cultural fetish for vinyl, and more notably, the nostalgia it manufactures.

Katy Perry: Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection
(2020.07)

Urban Outfitters is known for their pop-appreciating vinyl reissues featuring a bevy of the serious critic’s most-hated from Britney Spears to Hilary Duff, so it’s a perfect distributor for Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream. The year-long celebration of one of the most successful pop albums of all time is a deserved victory for the set, which features iconic, era-defining chart hits like “Firework,” “California Gurls,” and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” This Complete Confection edition features the additional tracks released with the CD re-release like “Part of Me” and the “Megasix Smash-Up” by Tommie Sunshine. Tommie Sunshine! 2012, ya’ll!

ABBA: ABBA: The Studio Albums
(2020.07.03)

ABBA has released a countless number of box sets, reissues, demos, remasters, and related merchandise since their break-up, and the river never stops flowing. Capitalizing on the bewildering vinyl resurgence that defies both belief and common sense, the group has reissued all of their studio albums in a deluxe box set, perhaps in a bid to smooth over any grudges held over yet another postponed reunion, the first due to legitimate circumstances. Taking bets now: which will come first, new ABBA material or that new X Japan album?

James Horner: Casper (Original Soundtrack) 25th Anniversary Remastered Edition
(2020.08)

James Horner’s original score for Casper captures the tone of 90’s kid-flicks to a tee: with this delightfully nostalgic and quirky soundtrack, the composer secured yet another notch in his belt of absolute era-defining classics, from Hocus Pocus and Jumanji, to The Land Before Time and Titanic. This 25th anniversary remaster from La-La Land Records includes additional cues alongside the original release with detailed liner notes. Hocus Pocus next?

Goldfrapp: Supernature
(2020.08.14)

Supernature contains some of Goldfrapp’s most well-known commercial hits, from the iPhone 5-accompanying “Ooh La La” to the Target-celebrating, foot-to-arrow stomping DDR “Number 1.” In hindsight, the album was one of the group’s last gasps, the third in a trio of increasingly successful albums that culminated in multiple Grammy nominations as well as critical accolades (personally, my favorite is Head First, but my taste is lousy). To celebrate the 15th anniversary of this monumental album, Supernature has been reissued in a lovely peacock-green vinyl, all the better to relive your most awkward dance floor fantasies.

Marie Antoinette (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.10.09)

One might be nonplussed upon first hearing the incongruous use of new wave music by the likes of the Cure, New Order, and Bow Wow Wow  as the backdrop to the rococo tableau of history and pastels that is Marie Antoinette, but certainly not displeased. Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of the later life of France’s infamous queen bristles with fun, flirtatious, utterly decadent self-indulgence, and this cotton candy-pink vinyl reissue exclusive to Barnes & Noble is a fitting tribute. Not to be forgotten are the original works by Dustin O’Halloran who lays down some of his best piano work in the second half.

Linkin Park: Hybrid Theory 20th Anniversary Edition Super Deluxe Box Set
(2020.10.24)

Love them or hate them, Linkin Park went on to influence and change the face of chart-rock forever, and Hybrid Theory is where it all started. The story of Linkin Park is one of lightning-quick fame and lightning-quick backlash, despite the persistence of million-selling records; in fact, I’m always surprised that Hybrid Theory sold even more records than its follow-up Meteora! This 20th anniversary release features tons of demos, remixes, and unreleased material, for hours of cringe-inducing memories of that time you sat in a corner and cried into your bottle of Manic Panic hair dye while blasting “Crawling.” With time, like twenty years of it, it’s nice to know those wounds, they WILL heal.

Daft Punk & Hans Zimmer: TRON: Legacy (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.11)

Boutique labels like Waxwork and Mondo has been churning out exquisite vinyl reissues for years now, and finally tackled two of the greatest soundtracks of all time in one year, Edward Scissorhands at Waxwork for the 30th anniversary, and  TRON: Legacy at Mondo to celebrate its 10th. The reissue features the original score composed by Daft Punk and Hans Zimmer on double, colored vinyl (a chill ice blue and…sunset-orange? OK). The real draw here is the gorgeous new artwork created by Matt Taylor. You know it’s a disappointing year when only two of Hans Zimmer’s scores see release in a calendar year!

Minako Honda: Minako Honda COMPLETE ALBUM BOX
(2020.12.23)

Countless Golden-Age idols have gotten their due reverence over the past decade, with gloriously updated box sets, complete with almost every studio recording in his or her quiver, from Iyo Matsuomoto, to Yu Hayami, to Maiko Itoh, so it’s about time Minako Honda got the VIP treatment. Honda, cousin to mega-idol Seiko Matsuda, had a career which was all-too brief and cut off by serious illness, but in that short time released some of the most fun early J-pop records. Among them are the cut-and-paste synth-pop confections M’SYNDROME and Madonna-homage Lips, but her later move away from typical idol fare, like Cancel and Midnight Swing were just as good. All of these and more are available in this box set, released at the 15th anniversary of her passing, with also includes bonus material and a Blu-ray disc with music videos.

Honorable Mentions

Danny Elfman: Edward Scissorhands (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (30th Anniversary)
John Addison: Swashbuckler (Expanded Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
New Order: Power, Corruption & Lies: Definitive Edition
Britney Speas: Oops!…I Did it Again (20th Anniversary)
Reba McEntire: Rumor Has It (30th Anniversary)

Top ten most disappointing albums of 2020

It’s easy to spot a bad album — with music so devoid of effort, or so enamored with how great it is that it forgets to be good at all, or so earnest that it falls into parody — that it’s hardly fun to pick one out. Most of us will never bother getting all the way through these albums, as the first five or ten minutes renders them completely un-listenable, and anyway, there’s nothing interesting or worth saying about a truly awful record, and the less time spent acknowledging its existence, the better.

In fact, there are worse things out there in the music world, one of those things being an album you really set your heart on loving, heard wonderful things about, or were hyped into a preconceived notion of what you were going to get only to be dead wrong. These disappointments linger far after they have stunned, leaving wounds that sting weeks later because they force us to fundamentally alter the way we have expected a new favorite to sound, or relied upon on an old standby to come through. It might be the way it signals a shift in that artist’s career, foreshadows the end, or hammers the final nail in a coffin you can no longer make excuses for. In the best-case scenario, these might just be growers, or albums that require a different mindset or life stage than the one you’re in. In the worst-case, they are just dead ends in and of themselves, catastrophically and forever irredeemable.

Here are ten albums that dashed my hopes the most this year, listed in chronological order. Will any of these be growers? Only time can tell.

Sakurako Ohara: Passion
(2020.02.05)

Sakurako Ohara’s career started out strong, with two solid albums of casual, mid-tempo J-pop jams in 2015 and 2016. In 2018, she released a slightly less solid, but still enjoyable album that has been followed up by this completely unenthusiastic, limp set of pop standards. With a greatest hits collection that seems to have drawn a line over the inspirational half of her music career, it’s hard to muster any enthusiasm for what looks to be a slow decline into formulaic obscurity.

LOONA: [#]
(2020.02.05)

[#] was the first comeback from one of the best K-pop roll outs in recent memory. The prolonged, dramatic reveal of members through solo singles and social media hype culminated in two mini-albums, and one collection that successfully illustrated and topped years of mystery, talent, and anticipation. But [#], and to a lesser extent, it’s sister EP [12:00], has the girl group following in the footsteps of many go-big-or-go-home groups choosing to compete directly with BLACKPINK rather than their own back catalog. Generic BLACKPINK is as boring as it sounds when ten other groups are trying the same thing, and robbed this group of the unique narrative arc we all deserved.

Sam Sparro: Boombox Eternal
(2020.02.21)

Boombox Eternal, sold as a love letter to 90’s new jack swing, missed a prime opportunity to be at the forefront of an as yet unexplored genre to rely on word of mouth rather than delivery. Weak hooks and lack of direction bog down this record with hints of what could have been, never delivering on its tantalizing promise. I wasn’t expecting Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but when Hangin’ Tough-NKOTB surpasses your best intentions, it might be time to regroup. This could have been so good, and I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of the genre’s resurrection here in the West.

Red Velvet-IRENE & SEULGI: MONSTER
(2020.07.06)

My soft spot for SM Entertainment leads me to make a lot of excuses for the label’s choices, including questionable decisions regarding prime girl groups like f(x), or who gets awarded solo EPs, but even I can’t spin MONSTER into anything more than a musical placeholder, one that in the hindsight of emerging drama, throws the future of Red Velvet into even starker question. It would be a real shame if this the final impression we get of one of the best and most reliable things SM had going in many years.

Ayaka Sasaki: A-rin Assort
(2020.07.08)

Momoiro Clover Z-member Ayaka Sasaki is one of the first of the famed idol group to go solo, and expectations were big for a project lead by one of Japan’s most innovative and interesting idol groups. Unfortunately, A-rin Assort relies on torpid idol maxims for the bulk of its run time, never daring to lift the lid off of a human personality to reveal an iota of the person behind the persona. It’s idol oblivion done to death, rendering the point of a solo verklempt: from production to melody, there’s nothing here that wouldn’t be better served in the hands of Team Momoclo.

Summer Walker: Life on Earth EP
(2020.07.10)

At the beginning of the year, I couldn’t get enough of the type of slow, 90’s R&B-pop that was making the rounds from Kehlani to Tink’s Hopeless Romantic, to Summer Walker’s own full-length debut. Half a year removed, and several dozen more of these EPs and albums later, my warmth for the genre has cooled considerably. Perhaps it’s just timing that is working against Walker’s follow-up, but it takes more than B-side-quality material to stand out in one of the year’s now most over-exposed styles.

Ellie Goulding: Brightest Blue
(2020.07.17)

These are the last breaths I can muster over an artist once destined for mega-pop-music fame. Something tragic seems to have happened between the Max Martin-heavy Delirium of 2015, and the singles, collabs, and questionable turns of direction that has lead us to Brightest Blue, an album where more attention and detail seems to have been put into the physical packaging than the music itself. Even Joseph Kearns can’t raise this sunk ship.

Dua Lipa: Club Future Nostalgia
(2020.08.28)

Remix albums can bring old material into fresh light, or they can be self-indulgent marketing tools. I’m inclined toward the latter on this remixed take on the insta-classic Future Nostalgia, produced by The Blessed Madonna. The “club” portion of the title promises nothing already gained on the original, while the kitchen-sink mash-ups seem less curated than desperately frantic, relying less on a genuine vibe than on name-checks as impressive as Gen Hoshino, Jacques Lu Cont, and Madonna herself, and obscure, hip-crowd-approved samples designed less for dancing than status building. This could have been an actual nostalgia-inducing nod to 90s club music in the same aesthetic as Dua Lipa’s entire look in this promotional era, but for anything resembling music you an actually dance to, I’ll take the original.

Katy Perry: Smile
(2020.08.28)

It’s no surprise that the hype around Katy Perry this year has focused more on the 15th anniversary of Teenage Dream and the birth of her first child than on her first album in three years. As one of the biggest pop stars of her time, thanks in no small part to the success of Teenage Dream, it is vertigo-inducing to see how far and how fast Perry has lost the musical thread. I wouldn’t call Smile a horrible album, but it lacks almost everything I look for in an album from a pop superstar, not least of which is genuine enthusiasm for her material. I’m not sure where Perry intends to go after Witness, and then something as bemusing as this hodgepodge of unremarkable songs, but it would have to be near supernatural to get this career kicking again.

TXT(TOMORROW x TOGETHER): minisode1: Blue Hour
(2020.10.26)

TXT(TOMORROW x TOGETHER) had one of the best debuts of the year in 2019, and a serviceable follow-up in the very BTS-like third part of their Dream Chapter. Hopefully, this bewilderingly dull “minisode” is just that, a mere tiny, ever brief blip on the K-pop radar, and not a sign that the group is a one-trick pony, incapable of doing anything more than methodically adding the same kind of fuel to a fire that’s slowly losing its distinctive, incandescent glow.

Top ten 2019-misses of 2020

As list-making season always invites a host of anxieties about albums and singles missed out on, it’s important to remember that we have, indeed, missed out on great stuff, and that our lists are, necessarily, not complete. In lieu of this admission, here are ten of the best albums released in 2019 that I missed last year, listed chronologically. Naturally, most are from the last two months of the year, when life gets rushed, and quality listening-time and Twitter-scrolling trash-time drastically plummets. News slips through the cracks of holiday obligations, albums don’t get uploaded to Spotify in time, personal budgets run out for physical copies, lists need to be written and posted — well, there’s a lot of things happening. Now let’s imagine all the great 2020-misses we have to look forward to next year!

Reol: Bunmei EP
(2019.03.20)

Reol has made a real impact on Japanese popular music this past year, with her hyper auto-tuned electrobot vocals barely distinguishable from the hyper auto-tuned electrobot vocals of, say, MAA, who burst across the music scene for a mere firework of time, and offers something her predecessor never could: longevity and lasting impact. As her star rose ever higher on the charts, it was interesting to take a peek back at earlier work that has taken her to where she is today.

Will Young: Lexicon
(2019.06.21)

Britian’s first Pop Idol winner, back in 2002, has released seven studio albums, but none as worthy of a re-listen as this breezy synth-by-way-of-Sam-Smith collection released at the start of 2019’s summer. I don’t know if this style is any more “Will Young” than any of the other identities he has flirted with over the years, but it’s a style that suits him nicely as an update on the stale options made available to him throughout his career.

Miyuki Watanabe: 17% -REPACKAGE-
(2019.07.10)

Repackages have the chance to make it all better, and 17%‘s does just that, adding additional life to an average album release earlier in the year. No AKB/SKE48 member has ever moved any mountains, but frothy hits like “Cheek-tic-Cheek” don’t have to. They just have to be better than whatever song the group-of-the-week is putting out. Luckily, it’s not that hard!

Misaki Iwasa: Misaku Meguri ~Dai 2-sho~
(2019.11.06)

Misaki Iwasa has made a cozy niche for herself in the enka-pop world, and delivered a second collection of re-worked standards and originals, here growing into her role as a youthful, pop-adjacent entry into a very traditional genre normally reserved for your grandma and the out-of-touch CD-buying population of the Oricon charts — I’m basically both now, an ancient, CD-buying troglodyte, but enka has never struck me as worth the effort until this former-AKB48 member released her gently accessible full-length debut in 2016. As on that one, she seems to be having fun with the songs and style in a manner of playing dress-up that also happens to come off as very earnest, charming, and almost accidentally successful. Here’s hoping she gets more originals to her name in the future.

Doja Cat: Hot Pink
(2019.11.07)

A fall release and busy schedule left me pushing this one down the listening queue until early 2020, when I was immediately crushed not to have discovered it earlier. “Say So“‘s climb to the top of the charts had true potential to be a defining track of the summer, hampered only by aggressive competition from a cascading pile of hits that included The Weeknd’s own slow rise to Song of the Summer victory (official crowning ceremony to be held the evening of Sunday, February 7).

Louise Burns: Portraits
(2019.11.08)

Synth-pop has never sounded so understated as this elegant album of gentle, new wave-inspired tracks by Canadian songstress Louisa Burns. These light-weight, cotton-candy concoctions could use a bit more vigor, as in the somewhat anemic “Over You” which begs for a bit more muscle over atmosphere, but otherwise enchant as much as they occasionally frustrate.

Lady A: Ocean
(2019.11.15)

Back when Lady A were still going by Lady Antebellum and beset by a different type of cringe, they released this competent collection of country-pop hits. Neither the group’s best, or sharpest, it nonetheless boasts a tight production by Dann Huff, long-time veteran of pop and country legends from Mariah Carey to Selena to Shania Twain.

Therapie TAXI: Cadavre exquis
(2019.12.06)

French-pop trio Therapie TAXI may have lost some of their dance-pop chops to take a more straightforward approach to their sometimes-absurd tongue-in-cheek style, but to excellent ends. While I miss the rush and energy of tracks off of Hit Sale, Cadavre exquis boasts the same spirit, an attention and care to electro-pop not often heard outside of the high-brow, curated nooks of DJ booths. Their trademark sense of play only enhances this group’s uniqueness, promising a future as bright as the risks they’re clearly willing to take.

Airi Suzuki: i
(2019.12.18)

Former °C-ute and Buono!-member Airi Suzuki has one of the most infectious, warm stage presences I’ve encountered: if you were lucky enough to catch the limited-time solo live uploaded to her account, or one of the limited-time concerts from °C-ute, in the spring, it was easy to catch the piercing charm whistling through the screen. Unfortunately, a bright smile only goes so far, so it’s a good thing that Suzuki’s music is upper-tier material, harking back to both mid-90s and early-00s J-pop trends. With i, she assembles a sophomore collection more than worthy of following up 2018’s brilliant Do me a favor. Suzuki has real potential to fill the desperately vacant top-J-pop-girl hollow, if only Hello! Project’s rules about streaming allowed her the space to.

mirage²: KISEKI
(2019.12.25)

Idols are a dime a dozen in the industry, so there was never any hope that anything major would come of a cut-and-paste group like mirage², destined to exist for a mere year as a tie-in with a TV drama, but the group shared a bright, kinetic aesthetic across its marketing that culminated in a breezy, joyful EP of inoffensive, niji-iro joy. RIP miracle², and sisters mirage² and Girls².

November 2020: Highlights

It’s been a pleasure spending the first Monday of every month going over some highlights with you all, but it’s also been a personal lifeline this past year. We’ve never been luckier to have hard-working, passionate, talented people who, despite the events of the last eleven months, have continued to entertain us, distract us, and make us think. I’m happy to think anyone might have discovered some new music through this site, or looked at something in a new way, and I hope the year-end wrap-up to come will cover some more of the hundreds of releases I didn’t have time to write about or listen to deeply enough to feel comfortable writing about. So without further ado, here is the (slight, but heartfelt) last of the monthly highlights for 2020, and I’ll see you all at the end of the year!

Kylie Minogue: Disco
(2020.11.06)

Like a lot of labels, Kylie Minogue’s decided to start promoting its legendary star’s newest album back in July with the most radio-friendly and least-representative song of her new album Disco. “Say Something,” an otherwise halfhearted shrug of a song, did little to ramp up excitement for an album with such campy cover art promising a no-holds barred, mirror ball, leisure suit, Studio 54 fantasy extravaganza. Luckily, the rest of the album, while emphasizing the pop, mostly delivers on its tantalizing premise. What’s Your Pleasure? this is not: Kylie Minogue is first and foremost a pop star, not a disco diva, and the structure of each of these bubbly baubles keeps her rooted in very familiar territory. Its an album that joins a long list of club-ready hits from the aforementioned Jessie Ware, Dua Lipa, and Roisin Murphy, but besides Lipa’s, Minogue’s boasts the most accessible and the least experimental approach to its revival, a disco album for a general audience content to dabble rather than immerse. It’s an achievement nonetheless, banking on its ability to offer escapism and help put out the dumpster fire that was 2020. Most importantly, it is not Golden.

FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: “High Fever”
(2020.11.11)

The female-side of the EXILE family has suffered tremendously this year with the loss of E-girls, one of the greatest J-pop girl groups of the last decade. I say this with no exaggeration — we will be waiting a long time for a group as remarkable, talented, and inclusive as E-girls to appear in J-pop again. Until then, we will have to make do with their closest male-counterparts, FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE, who are now tasked with carrying the dance-pop torch. The trick will be avoiding the temptation to fall into boring ballad territory, which the group has already flirted with this year. Luckily, “High Fever” takes a page from the “Blinding Lights” playbook, feasting on a spread of lightweight 80’s synths and groovy tension, all in service of showcasing an endless parade of ooh-and-ahh parlor tricks and choreography amidst a sea of eye-popping sartorial patterns. The song is in desperate need of more heft, but is otherwise one of the most focused boy band songs of the year, with a clear, noble purpose: piping in a constant stream of simultaneous activity from eight different corners to keep us as distracted as possible.

aespa: “Black Mamba”
(2020.11.18)

aespa is SM Entertainment’s newest girl group, the next in a long line rumored to be all but replacing its predecessor Red Velvet, much as Red Velvet replaced f(x), one group trumping the next in an endless and increasingly bizarre one-upmanship that continually suffers in quality, like a copy of a copy of a copy. Unlike groups like SNSD or f(x), aespa, with its “modern” gimmick of virtual members, spends less time proving they’re in it for the long haul, than that they are very much here to compete in the here and now with BLACKPINK, the world’s current reigning girl group. Thrust onto the world stage, K-pop groups no longer have the luxury to make the gradual journey with fans from neophytes to seasoned professionals, instead storming out of the gate with their “I Got a Boy“s like experienced veterans on their fifth comeback. So goes “Black Mamba,” with its technicolor PV evoking almost every saturated, holographic, Y2K-rainbow trend in visuals this year, from “How You Like That?” to Kalen Anzai’s “FAKE NEWS REVOLUTION.” It has a killer chorus, a dazzling hook, and arresting choreography, made instantly iconic by belly-up angles and abrupt camerawork. All of these pleasing elements make the song hard to hate, but also rob the group of what should have been its most important hallmark: the unique and instantly recognizable feel of an SM group. As SM’s least-SM group to date, it will be interesting to see where they evolve from here when this debut feels less like a prologue than an ultimate finesse.

RAYE: Euphoric Sad Songs
(2020.11.20)

There’s nothing that captures my attention faster than a throwaway Eurodance sample, as RAYE incorporates into “Regardless,” her bouncy collab with Rudimental that references Nadia Ali’s iconic trill for iiO’s “Rapture.” Euphoric Sad Songs relies a bit too heavily on this kind of tongue-in-cheek homage, tailgating on the 90’s dance trend that has consumed Brit-pop on and off over the past decade, but not without an endearing earnestness and genuine appreciation for the source material. There’s not much of long-term career in this kind of largely niche sound, one that relies on a very of-the-moment retro callback that won’t age well when the inevitable dub step revival commences, but a lot of this year’s best pop music has been predicated on successfully working within the confines of a less than ideal environment and limited shelf-life, and this one, without having much to say, says it all.

The World Standard: What’s “standard”!?
(2020.11.25)

With Avex in the middle of its dark night of the soul, any of our favorite groups are fair game for the chopping block. Among others, I’m preparing myself for the inevitable end of TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, FAKY, possibly even FEMM. None of these groups have had the kind of popularity that could possibly justify continual investment from a company that is now bleeding profit. The worst of these would be Wasuta, rather than TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, because we’ve been prepared for years to bid farewell to a years-in-the-making footnote that has long since ceased to play on any relevant field, while Wasuta has proved through their newest EP What’s “standard”!? that while they may be removed from their most inspired material, they can still churn out idol-pop with the best of them. While a lot of the charm of this EP relies on a long-term connection with the group, I can still imagine a casual listener finding a reason to explore their back catalogue with this as an introduction. Unfortunately, the upcoming single releases and scheduled lives don’t mean we’re out of the woods, yet, and I’m reluctantly prepared for the worst.

October 2020: Highlights

Dagny: Strangers / Lovers
(2020.10.02)

Dagny’s story is similar to many pop artists in the age of Spotify: a never-ending stream of digital singles while moonlighting for more well-known pop stars like Katy Perry. Often this entails trying to gain a foothold in the industry by contributing to the packed song-writing labs of today’s Frankentstein-ed Billboard hits (in this case, “Never Really Over,” where she joins seven others with songwriting credits). So it’s nice that Dagny finally gets her moment in the spotlight, here proving she has the ability to surpass the bigger names who might as well admit it’s time to pass the torch. Like the massive hooks of a single like “Come Over,” the entire album is rooted in conventional dance-pop, drawing upon little variety in production for a consistent, rather than diverse, palette of sounds. While it could do with a bit more surprises, it’s not a hard sell in a month where the only other major release from a female soloist was Ariana Grande’s positions, though it’ll really have to fight harder to be remembered in a year full of them.

WJSN Chocome: “Hmph!”
(2020.10.07)

With the world’s eyes on K-pop like never before, the niche groups of the Golden Age, the ones content to focus solely on a domestic audience with in-jokes and culture-specific references, have fallen to the wayside. There is almost no incentive to promote groups like Orange Caramel or Crayon Pop, groups with no chance of making their way outside of Asia without LOLs attached. Since every new or comeback group’s aesthetic nowadays is “cool,” “dark,” or “sexy,” it makes a sub-unit like WJSN Chocome even more novel and enticing. Their cues stem from off-the-wall sub-units before them in sight and sound from gugudan OGUOGU to OH MY GIRL BANHANA (and hey, whatever happened to FANATICS-FLAVOR?), to vintage J-pop (those Chisato Moritaka outfits!), though of course most comparisons to peak-Orange Caramel are most accurate, the eurodance, saxophone-loaded “Hmph!” one big Neapolitan-flavor-melt of uninhibited, geeky K-pop at its best. As these groups get fewer and farther between, it makes the ones that come along just that more radiant.

The Newton Brothers: The Haunting of Bly Manor (Music from the Netflix Horror Series)
(2020.10.09)

Like it’s fellow anthology series, American Horror Story, the second installment of Netflix’s The Haunting series casts many of the same actors in a loose re-telling of Henry James’ The Turning of the Screw. Like its predecessor, the real horrors are those that are less supernatural than ultra-natural, the ghosts of guilt, and shame, and past lives re-surfacing at a person’s most vulnerable moments. The Newton Brothers are back for the soundtrack, although in lieu of composing brand-new themes or re-inventing their sound, they’ve largely expanded upon their original work, dashing off a series of new snippets among a collection rife with quotes from the most iconic themes of Hill House. Luckily, they’ve learned a thing or two, trading in atmospherics for more melody, drawing out the first’s best elements: the eerie, melancholy piano most prominent in cues like “Beginning of the End Movement IV,” eschewing the necessary, but superfluous, sharp violins and abrupt dynamics. This makes for an overall more unsettling, and more listenable, experience of the two outside of their visual elements, perfect for any rainy autumn evening.

Nao☆: gift songs
(2020.10.13)

It’s inevitable, but disappointing, whenever great idol groups peter out. Sure Negicco’s peak-era run was short, ending with Rice & Snow, but at the time, they were as close to a bonafide idol group as possible, one both passionate idol fans and casual indie kids enjoyed. That cred has lent itself to other Tower Records-adjacent soloists like Michiru Hoshino, and to the other members themselves who have been dabbling in the solo waters since at least 2018. Their sounds are similar: last month Keade’s Stardust in Blue and this month, Nao’s gift songs are two EPs as close to mirror images as they get. Nao’s boasts help from groups with some rising clout like the band apart, it’s low-key vibe an antidote to Kaede’s more low-effort attempt. It’s a matter of personal taste, but Nao’s gift songs retains a kind of warm, whimsical charm missing from its sister EP, one closer in sound to the Rice & Snow sound. Neither of these are particularly game-changing, memorable EPs, but their throwback, warm-water oases are refreshing in a desert full of dusty, major-label idol pop that only Keyakizaka46 (RIP, kind of) can nominally transcend.

LOONA: [12:00]
(2020.10.19)

After the long wait after 2019’s double mini-albums, we only had to wait eight months since LOONA’s last, [#], released in February. A disappointing collection to say the least, I’m happy that this month’s [12:00], while still veering into unoriginal territory, is at least less of an attempt to compete on the same sonic world stage as BLACKPINK than more local girl groups, though all the mystery is still visibly reduced by the amount of stock samples in some of the tracks, especially the lead single, “Why Not?” which is clearly stitched together from various sources (check out the first three tracks of Super M’s Super One for an instructional guide in stitching independently-composed choruses, verses, and bridges together to create one massive hit, not unlike the origin story of every K-pop group itself) to encompass a songwriting-credits list as long as some telephone books (for anyone who remembers those) and nearly as many emotional beats. I’m partial to the more straight-forward dance-pop of “Voice,” one of [12:00]‘s strongest tracks, but as someone who no longer falls within their direct marketing demographic, I’m probably mistaken. The rest of the EP boasts some fun tracks, rounded out by obligatory subdued moments. It’s better than [#], but only just enough to keep me interested, rather than impressed.

Carlos Rafael Rivera: The Queen’s Gambit (Music from the Netflix Limited Series)
(2020.10.23)

It’s difficult to make chess, with its stoic concentration, and all the most exciting parts happening unseen, cerebrally, riveting on screen, but with the help of camera angles, quick cuts, and most importantly, a thrilling soundtrack, Netflix makes it seem easy. As one of the only companies poised to deliver a constant avalanche of new content during a pandemic that has shuttered theaters around the world, the streaming service is one of the few sources we looked to for a year bereft of blockbusters and their original scores that would have normally rolled off the assembly line this autumn like Lucy’s chocolates (actually, we did technically get Mulan, and I guess, Alan Silvestri’s score for The Witches, which was fine). The Queen’s Gambit, composed by newcomer Carlos Rafael Rivera, who has but a couple low-key credits to his name, relies on the show’s thematic content, deploying suspenseful strings and lush momentum alongside a gorgeous base of piano for his score, all while maintaining distinct themes for each of the show’s most important matches. Making chess as dramatic as the final game in the World Series has its challenges, and Rivera admits, “I grew up with chess in that my dad played a little, but I never cared about it. But as long as you know that someone stands to lose, you can score for it.” With an arresting story line and such a stunning score, it’s a win-win for the viewer.

Ariana Grande: positions
(2020.10.30)

From the moment the lead single, “positions” dropped, it was apparent this was not going to be Ariana Grande’s experimental album. The question was: just how similar would it be to thank u, next? The answer is, extremely. Throughout her career, as a vocalist with incredible range and skill, Grande has had the pleasure and pain of being compared to Mariah Carey. positions proves that’s where the parallels end: while Grande has a hand in composing all of the tracks on this album, it lacks the melodic depth and dynamism of Carey as a songwriter at the same point in career (Carey’s sixth album was Butterfly, widely regarded as the turning point in her career, and one that has enjoyed not only critical acclaim, but popular support). On the other hand, the comparisons can only increase, as Grande seemingly does her best to imitate not only late-era Carey (specifically Caution), but her closest contemporaries, among them Victoria Monet, whose producer worked on both singers’ 2020 releases (and with Monet making a direct appearance on “34+35).” This doesn’t make positions a terrible album at all, in fact, sonically, it’s just as consistent as its predecessor, and boasts some of the best production on a technical level, of the year. Still, listeners looking for a hit single or a pop number in the vein of “No Tears Left to Cry” or “Into You” will be disappointed. That ship, with Max Martin waving from the deck, has sailed, in lieu of an aggressively grown-up approach that boasts an uninhibited and sexually frank lexicon, a sign of the times for Grande who is coming into her own in the age of The Weeknd.

Meghan Trainor: A Very Trainor Christmas
(2020.10.30)

It’s hard to find holiday music that doesn’t suck the life out of classics that were never meant for a punk-rock or trance-pop remix. They exist, they’re just few and far between — if pressed, I could maybe name five albums right now. Yet every year I subject myself to the new year’s crop in search of the ever elusive black diamond of Christmas music. Among this year’s hopefuls, including Carrie Underwood, The Bird and the Bee, Goo Goo Dolls, and Maddie & Tae, Meghan Trainor is the last person I would expect to produce a serviceable, let alone good, album of holiday classics. But this is 2020, where all bets are off and we’ve truly reached an historical nadir, so here we are, in the muck, with Trainor’s album this year’s Christmas front-runner. Earlier this year, Trainor released a collection of pop music so past its sell-by date, it wouldn’t even have been relevant if it had met its original release date, scheduled for a year earlier. Yet the annoyingly jolly desperateness that hallmarks Trainor’s brand of confused feminism translates well into music that is built on joyful earnestness. In fact, Trainor could have easily taken this to JoJo Siwa-levels of exuberance, instead displaying a tasteful level of restraint on classics like “Silent Night,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that lesser souls have insisted on jazzing up with unnecessary tempo changes. The jazzing up, in fact, is relegated to originals like “Holidays” featuring, of all groups, Earth, Wind, and Fire, “My Kind of Present,” and “Christmas Got Me Blue.” These are not the kind of canon-storming songs planning to meet “All I Want for Christmas is You” on the top of the Hot 100, but you can do a lot worse if you’re desperate to feel some semblance of manufactured holiday cheer this year.

Sam Smith: Love Goes
(2020.10.30)

Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders, recently translated into English, unravels the story of a mass murder through interviews with several people related to the crime. One such character, an editor who worked with the woman who spent her graduate years researching the murders, appears at the climax of the mystery, eloquently musing on the book that he helped eventually publish: “In one sense,” he states, “something can only be recognized as having happened if there is a record of it.” Love Goes is Sam Smith’s record, chronicling what appears to be a very tumultuous time in their life. Like many albums this year, the album was delayed due to the pandemic, and in another sense, for a re-branding, its original title taking that of the then-titular track “To Die For,” where the singer laments not having someone in their life worth that very ultimate sacrifice. It is, instead, now named for a song about the tough decision to walk away from an irreparable relationship: “You’re broken, we know that,” they reluctantly admit, “And if you knew it, you won’t fight me when I say farewell.” It’s a total change to the original way listeners could interpret this album, from a place of reluctance, and of tortured loss looking back, to a more hopeful, forward-facing perspective of resigned understanding and acceptance. The entire album is rife with this kind of bruised sensitivity, with heartache, and a spiritual search for home and acceptance. Its highly personal, self-reflecting lyrical content can seem like the most irresponsible kind of self-indulgence in these times, but the care with which these songs were constructed make it more than just a whiny diary of break-up songs about Sam Smith’s former lovers. But even if it was, Love Goes, as a record of that time in their life, finally shared with the entire world, bears witness. It means it happened, and it means it happened forever.

September 2020: Highlights

Things have really picked up this month, prompting serious decisions about what I would realistically have time to focus on. At the same time, the race is now on to listen to any major releases I missed or put off all year in preparation for year-end lists. Yes, it’s already that time! In the usual way of things, the longest year of our collective lives is also careening past us, the unforgivable march of time continuing on its way. Below are a few of September’s highs and lows to enjoy in its wake.

BBHF: BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-
(2020.09.02)

It’s always with more hope than faith whenever a group makes the best debut list of the year, as BBHF would have last year, if it hadn’t turned out they were just masquerading under a new name. Many of the groups won’t amount to much, or like so many K-pop groups, sputter out or disappear. In many cases, the only thing left behind is one great moment orchestrated to prove beginner’s luck. So maybe it’s a good thing BBHF didn’t make the cut, or maybe the name change was just what the band needed, as their “debut” studio album, an ambitious 2-disc concept album chronicling one man’s emotional journey through a labyrinth of history and emotion set to a wave of poppy 80’s synth rock, proves. “Sooner or later, everything changes / I’m not happy at all / For better or for worse, this country is falling into a depression” they lament in “1988,” folding the twin tragedies of a burst bubble and a broken heart into an excuse to get wasted. “Let’s drink till we’re sick, of love itself,” they urge, as the synths swell and the titular character high tails it in a bid to escape depression and responsibility as if a physical entity, like so many Don Drapers before him. “Carrying all the burden in the back I will go south / I will go south, to survive.” It’s not the helpful message we need, perhaps one of the reasons the album was pushed back from its original May release date, but it’s honest, and refreshing, a J-rock band refusing to hide behind dour epithets without any genuine emotional anchor behind them. “Apps that I merely touched once and don’t use / I deleted them all, that is the pleasure of getting rid of things,” the opening track opines; one only wishes it was possible to shake off everything as easily.

Harry Gregson-Williams: Mulan (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.09.04)

The story of getting Mulan released to the public is almost as epic as the film’s story line, a journey that promises to get topped only by Wonder Woman 1984 or No Time to Die‘s own struggle to hit the silver screen. Gregson-Williams battled his own struggle in providing the musical backdrop, standing in the shadow of legend Jerry Goldsmith, and reckoning with one of the most iconic songs in Christina Aguilera’s discography. Luckily, he neither kowtows to nor completely eschews the original. If we’ve had to wait an extra six months to see the film, imagine how G-W, who began work for the film years before its release, felt! Luckily, the extra time paid off, with this score every bit as robust as the plot line and titular character requires: along with the usual soaring strings, there’s plenty of time-period appropriate instruments from the erhu, to woodwinds. The whole thing is capped off by the original theme, sung by returning vocalist Aguilera, who belts out “Loyal Brave and True,” with all of the sincerity, if not skill, as her original work on “Reflection.” What this soundtrack didn’t need was a repeat of “Reflection,” with the new vocals a mere memory of what the singer was capable of delivering twenty years ago, when she was still ambitious enough to put the work required into making it sound so easy. This score isn’t re-writing the Disney playbook, but it’s one of the few I was genuinely looking forward to this year, and it has delivered in ways the film, based on critical reviews, hasn’t.

TAEMIN: NEVER GONNA DANCE AGAIN: ACT 1
(2020.09.07)

TAEMIN is one of the closest people we have to The Great Pop Star, something on a par with the type of megalomania we had in the 80s and early 90s, a Michael Jackson or Madonna, a Solitary Figure with an otherworldly sense of talent, charm, and charisma. All of these traits are on display in his newest video for “Criminal,” including the hardly-human way he moves his body and the uncanny knack he has for looking through the camera straight at the heart of the viewer on the other side. It’s important, but easy, to look past all the shiny surfaces, CGI, and loose fabrics TAEMIN is always draped in, because there is never a moment he doesn’t emanate straight out of it. Like his predecessors before him, he’s seemingly more comfortable in front of the camera than behind, a man who comes alive in the pageantry of performance, and not a moment before. The rest of the mini-album serves its purpose well. TAEMIN’s sound is down pat now, a hook-based, sinister pop infused with tantalizing mystery, like the foreboding “Strangers” and ethereal “Clockwork.” It’s hard to be upset that his team rarely thinks outside of this box when he excels so well inside of it — a TAEMIN playing in his own shadowy sandbox instead of the bright ones his SM peers are often found running amok in is part of what preserves his iconic imagery. I’m not looking forward to his two-year absence to serve his time in the military, and thinking of SHINee without him helps little with the looming void. I’m glad he’s leaving us a few more tokens, and between this and his duties in SuperM, I’m sure the physical requirements of training will seem relatively familiar to the work SM has him put in day in and day out.

YooA: Bon Voyage
(2020.09.07)

There have been a number of girl-group members with less than solo-worthy chops getting their time in the spotlight, so it’s nice to see one come up that doesn’t deserve to go straight to the discard pile. YooA, from OH MY GIRL, has released her debut solo EP, Bon Voyage, and it’s giving off all the I ♡ Natural meets Shakira vibes. Unfortunately, the title track is the only one to take some risks with the quotidien K-pop sound, leaving the rest of the EP, especially tracks like “Nareul Chajaseo (Far)” and “Jagagmong (Abracadabra)” to fill in the blanks. Overall, the collection is indecisive, a box of pretty, but mismatched buttons that’s easy to chalk up to lack of direction, but as long as we’re not in Hyoyeon, or insipid, one-off ballad territory, I’ll take any of these I can get. In any other month, one not so jam-packed with top tier releases, this would have been easier to appreciate — YooA might not be a superstar, but mostly she just got unlucky.

BABYMETAL: LEGEND – METAL GALAXY (METAL GALAXY WORLD TOUR IN JAPAN EXTRA SHOW) DAY 1 & 2
(2020.09.09)

Live albums rarely get much appreciation, and BABYMETAL’s latest illustrates why. As a live group, they are pretty great, making use of their strongest assets to cover for places they might be more deficient. They’re idols, but a lot of their fans are metal heads, so many of the usual tricks are tweaked, with video screens promoting the band’s Fox God myth, pyrotechnics over lasers, minimal costume changes, some goth-y props, etc. Lip-syncing still helps in a pinch here and there, especially almost all of MOA and YUI-METAL’S “vocals,” while the band, central to the sound but not the marketing, remain wailing away at their instruments in shadow, with the focus staying on the three (now two) stars of the show. It’s all a lot of fun, and the band clearly enjoys the performance realm more than the studio one judging by the sheer number of live albums and videos that have been released over the course of this group’s 3-album existence. The problem is that rarely does their live music warrant so much attention — like most of it, these two albums are nearly note for note the studio versions with an audience piped in. Unless there are some crazy innovative, off-the-cuff solos, or new arrangements, albums like these, especially when they are unnecessarily spread across two separate releases, are blatant cash grabs of the worst kind. While “money-makers” is how most producers like business-minded Kobametal have always viewed idol groups, I’m not really sure how much longer fans will put up with a stagnated mythology, poor communication, and such obvious, and constant, recycling.

Ava Max: Heaven & Hell
(2020.09.18)

Going by initial buzz alone, you would think Ava Max wasn’t anything but a deliberate Lady Gaga clone. However, one thing was always clear during the drawn out string of singles leading up to her debut album Heaven & Hell: Ava Max has neither the quirky magnetism, nor the endearing desperation of Gaga’s early singles. “Just Dance” and “LoveGame,” were built on muscular hooks, their choruses as easily mutable through the expensive sound systems of clubs as tinny earbuds, the notes as hummable, and memorable, as a nursery rhyme. I barely registered any of Ava Max’s songs after the first listen. Luckily, her music works better in the album format, where the basic Euro-pop foundations lend a steady, sturdy purpose to an extended run of music, a stepping stone path of a track list that wraps up an almost 3-year block of fun, but indistinguishable singles. It’s not the best representation of what a major label like Atlantic can offer, but there’s raw material within Ava Max, one that hasn’t yet been tapped by truly innovative pop, the kind that gives songs an instantly recognizable personality. I would love to see what Max with a top-tier producer like Justin Tranter could come up with, though I worry that three years of little growth bodes ill for a journey to the next level.

Whenever You CallArashi: “Whenever You Call”
(2020.09.18)

It’s a shame that Arashi have reached a genuinely interesting stage of their career moments before calling it quits. Everything from a relatively robust Internet presence, to a Netflix documentary, to experimenting with popular social media platforms like TikTok that utilize their strongest appeal (personality), Johnny’s has finally allowed this group the space to grow, as the last year before hiatus, and what was sure to be a spectacular crowning performance at the 2020 Olympics went up in flames, comes to a close. This single, written by Bruno Mars and produced by D’mile is just another curve ball from the group this year. Technically, Mars’s name does not hold the same weight it would have five years or so ago, but his skill hasn’t waned in the four years since he hit a peak with 24K Magic (both the song and album). “Whenever You Call“‘s mid-tempo pace does a stellar job of covering all the group’s worst weaknesses, including some serviceable but awkward pronunciation (this doesn’t bother me, but it’s obvious most of the members are struggling a bit), and the video’s robust choreography that doesn’t quite match the laid back tone of the song (this routine has none of the chill that is a hallmark of Mars’ personality — even when he’s on his knees, he’s always in charge). Otherwise, this simple number is perfect for Arashi: bland enough to fit neatly into the group’s discography, but interesting enough to add a bit of flavor and genuine pathos to a long list of stuffy love songs. It’s no coincidence that Arashi is finally taking fun, sometimes lopsided, risks knowing that they have nothing left to lose, and it really makes one wonder what the group could have been if they had cared enough to think outside the very rigid confines of the Johnny’s formula ten or fifteen years ago instead. Of course, I have liked them just fine for the last few years, but imagine!

Movements: No Good Left to Give
(2020.09.18)

I feel a little guilty admitting that I think that Feel Something is one of the greatest debut albums of all time: the lead singer had barely reached legal drinking-age when the band put out one of the most honest and sincere depictions of depression set to audio. Does the album surpass its years to express a mature, wiser-than-its years clarity upon the subject? No, and all the better for it. The very heart-on-its-sleeve, sometimes angry, sometimes okay see-saw is the reason it works, a collection of haphazard emotional turbulence that only the young can, heart whole, deliver un-ironically. The dedicated post-hardcore touches only added to its mystifying success. Three years after its release, it’s still one of the CDs that sees the most re-play on my morning commutes. So with some apprehension, I queued up their follow-up album No Good Left to Give, already wincing at the train wreck of an album jacket. Luckily their sophomore album returns to the same trademark atmospherics of Feel Something. The genre has remained the same, but the execution feels more evolved and fleshed out, with a bit more specificity in its storytelling (“Seneca“) that lends songs a high relatability factor, and an overall less at-the-precipice than already-over-the-cliff commitment on the production side. The album can be a bit unforgiving in its relentless drive to play up the half-empty mindset when the music itself already does so much of the heavy lifting, with the lyrics an overkill at times and the spoken-wore segments still a distraction (also, note for note the same melody as the ones on Feel Something so it sounds — not in a good, come-full-circle way — like the exact same song), but this is still a world I can see myself spending as much time in as its predecessor, an aural space perfect for the bleak landscape we’ve all found ourselves in this year.

Kylie Minogue: “Magic”
(2020.09.24)

When Kylie announced the title of her new album, Disco, and revealed the cover art, I was hardly imagining the sound of “Say Something,” the first single released. But this is more like it! “Magic” perfectly captures the tone of “grown-up disco” that Minogue hinted at almost a year ago. With good reason, it lacks the serious resonance of Jessie Ware’s disco odyssey, reflecting, instead, the poppy fun we’ve come to expect from Minogue. It might not be so much grown-up, as an attempt by a grown up to capture the same nighttime feeling you only get at the club in your 20s, but it says a lot more than its predecessor. It also has a better, carefully social-distanced music video — okay, there’s only like six people total in the club and an invisible glass barrier surrounds our star, but we’re in the club again! Dancing! Celebrating! You can be nostalgic for 1979 and 2019!

July 2020: Highlights

I guess this is the accidental no-boys-allowed edition which is a good time to ask where all the great K-pop boy bands went. With any luck, YG’s new group set to debut in August will be neither male equivalent-BLANKPINKs, nor the type of clones who take all their inspiration from BTS like most of the recent crop of boy bands (though with a title like THE FIRST STEP : CHAPTER ONE, it’s not looking good). I have listened to every major boy band release this year, from SF9 to to 1THE9 to AB6IX to ATEEZ and everything in between and can’t help wondering — when is SHINee coming back?

Ayumi Hamasaki: OHIA no Ki // Dreamed a Dream
(2020.07.04) // (2020.07.31)

Despite cancelling her remaining tour dates, Ayumi Hamasaki has been working as always in 2020. In July, the singer released her first two digital singles of the year, the first an ode to her infant son whose existence she revealed in a surprise post on the first day of the New Year (sadly, my response was eerily prescient). “OHIA no Ki” debuted on the finale of the height-of-soap drama based loosely on her early career, Ai Subeki Hito ga Ite, starring Kalen Anzai and Shohei Miura. The song is typical of many Ayu ballads, and should come as no stylistic surprise with long-time producer Kazuhito Kikuchi at the helm. Kikuchi, who worked on past singles like “appears” and “HEAVEN,” hits all of his signature beats: soft pianos and swelling strings playing tag amidst a playground of leisurely vocals and an ascending major key chorus. It’s very pretty, but too similar to previous ballads to be anything more than another extremely competent, but rote, single. Its sweetest spot is the story, Ayu’s lyrics expressing the type of sentiments able to melt the freeze off the iciest cynic, sharing slices of the joy, fear, and relief that mark the firsts every parent experiences with a child. You really have to be a toad not to appreciate its charm, at least a bit. The second single, “Dreamed a Dream,” is the Tetsuya Komuro-penned comeback that fans have been waiting for. Komuro, busy spending the last few years lapping up nostalgia projects and taking liberties with words like “retirement,” took the time to produce this new single, which luckily has more teeth than his first contribution to the 46/48 franchise, a late-stage trf outtake, presumably. This is a very comfortable space for Ayumi, and like “OHIA no Ki,” it doesn’t add anything novel to the canon with its frenzied pace, thin guitar solo, and piano exit, but it’s nice to see jacket art that isn’t B&W or sepia-toned, and this year we really have to take any positives we can get.

Red Velvet-IRENE & SEULGI: Monster
(2020.07.06)

While track records are never 100%, there are some labels you intrinsically expect to deliver great hits. SM Entertainment is up there in the Top 5 (or 3, as it were…): there are few records labels, let alone Korean ones, that have released more enjoyable groups and hit songs than this monolith, and when word started going round about a favorite group’s new sub-unit, I couldn’t help but prepare myself for new favorite songs. But, alas, never 100%. So where does Monster go wrong? This EP feels half-baked, a collection of B-sides and filler album tracks, like Red Velvet’s Velvet side without any of the mystery or understated cool. Its inability to be more like Red Velvet shouldn’t work against it, yet “Jelly,” the EP’s most RV-esque track, is its strongest and least mid-tier. This is the kind of disappointment that hits on two levels – dashed expectations, and abuse of an otherwise high-quality production. The lazy name of this sub-unit should have tipped me off, but old loyalties die hard.

Katy Perry: “Smile”
(2020.07.10)

A new album from Katy Perry was obvious considering how many singles she’s released since Witness. The real kicker here is that “Smile” is 100% okay. The mellow vibes of neither “Harleys in Hawaii” nor “Never Really Over” provided any clues as to where the Katy of Teenager Dream was hanging out these days, but at least they weren’t as insufferable as “Never Worn White,” with its very Beyonce-at-the VMAs reveal (that’s two pop titans taking cues from Queen Bey in the same column!) or as boring as “Daisies.” My expectations for Smile were immediately relegated somewhere to the basement, next to that new Hitomi Arai single, but this lead-single is decent enough to have piqued a very, very mild interest. The album cover had me hoping for a concept a little more along the lines of Chaplin’s “Smile” (I am going to be disappointed if it’s not sampled anywhere on the album) but the performance video is more of an undeveloped alternate-universe Joker, one where Arthur Fleck’s mental health is quite stable, actually, and his passion and talent for bringing laughter and joy to the world was acknowledged and rewarded accordingly, leading to a happy and fulfilling career and personal life. So, very mindful, enlightened, centered, me-time Katy Perry, ca. 2020! I’m not sure the world is ready to receive a record as earnest as this right now, nor does it seem to promise any retribution for the tiresome C-level hits we’ve been getting since, oh, “Wide Awake.” I’m happy for Katy, but I’m not exactly sure this hyper-positive me-time is meeting the moment.

YUKIKA: Soul Yeoja
(2020.07.21)

Consistency is still a problem in K-pop. Look, of course it makes sense, from a money-making standpoint, to put all your resources into creating one hit single and culling the budget for album tracks that often exist for purposes of extra “content” rather than artistic continuity, but it’s harder to reconcile with the genre bait-and-switch that promises listeners something truly innovative, only to be a one-off. As far as I know, one of the few to really commit the whole way though was Wonder Girls. So YUKIKA’s Japanese city-pop angle is a revelation, a chance to truly give the industry something that’s maybe no longer fresh (not after almost a decade of Bandcamp tributes), but certainly different. Too bad it falls just short of committing all the way. Soul Yeoja leads with its jazzy, laid-back singles like “SOUL LADY” and the glimmering “NEON 1989,” the album giving every indication of a proto-Korean Dance for Philosophy before devolving into standard K-pop. Take “Yesterday” or “Day for Love,” which go for the bare minimum in vintage before “pit-a-pet,” an adorable homage to puppy love, boasts all the familiar tropes found on a standard GFRIEND or OH MY GIRL album. The songs themselves deserve little of the blame, for what is proving to be a lack of commitment on the production side. An album like Feel, that takes the less-traveled road of bravely ignoring the pressure to drop a traditional K-pop ballad, deserves every morsel of praise in its critical arsenal, but it’s hard to throw kudos to an album that chooses to play it safe when it’s clearly capable of taking it all the way. I like this album, and certainly appreciate what it’s doing the majority of the time, but I want to love it, and all I can do, now that YUKIKA is a full-length album in, is imagine the potential.

Kylie Minogue: “Say Something”
(2020.07.24)

Anything longer than 24 months is too long without a Kylie Minogue album, especially when that last album was Golden. While it’s nice to see artists try something new, it’s always disappointing when those visions don’t quite work the way they might have been pictured in pre-production. So it was good news when late last year Kylie spoke to The Guardian about working on new music that would get her “back on the dancefloor,” hinting at “grown-up disco,” and dropping the tantalizing adjective “shimmery.” This month, we finally get a taste of what she was talking about when Minogue announced her new album, Spartanely, but hopefully not too tastefully, titled Disco. The album cover is a thousand word, 12-pt font, double-spaced essay to describe that genre’s campiness, but the lead single “Say Something,” is mostly silent on the subject. The short pop song is less Golden Age-Donna Summers and more Sally Shapiro minus inspiration. There’s still plenty of unheard content on the album to look forward to, but if it’s just more of this, it’d do better to drop the “grown-up” tag and commit to youthful hedonism. It’s greedy to expect two world-class revival records in the same year when we already got Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, especially when no one was expecting Minogue’s so soon, but you can’t dangle an album cover like that with Kylie Minogue’s name on it and not deliver 100% of the fun and cheese it implies.

Taylor Swift: folklore
(2020.07.24)

Who knew that seven years after Queen Bey dropped Beyonce to an unsuspecting nation always hungry for “content,” that surprise album-drops would be one of the defining moves of her legacy? While she may not have been the first to do so, “a release of this nature was unheard of from someone of Beyoncé’s magnitude,” and since then, pop stars from Ayumi Hamasaki to Ariana Grande have labored in secret, only to parachute in from seemingly nowhere with full-length albums. But in fact, at this time last year, when Swift was spending months hyping her newest album Lover, it was still one of the few things she hadn’t done. The element of surprise and capture just doesn’t fit Swift, who’s prone to elaborate teasers, extended to heighten anticipation with her audience. Incorporating hidden images, weaving clues in visuals, and even working seemingly innocent hints into interviews is how she operates. This kind of fan interaction takes lots of time and forethought, none of which were given in Swift’s first official out-of-nowhere album drop folklore, announced less than 24 hours before it hit streaming platforms (and a record sixteen different physical versions). The confirmed album artwork down through the list of producers and co-writers were maximized to prepare listeners for an understated album of slower, more acoustic numbers, an album very different from the niji-iro Lover (though it’s a shame that Swift is making the rookie mistake of equating black & white photography and lowercase lettering with maturity, and sophistication). Slower, more acoustic numbers were never my favorite Swift tracks, so I went in with low expectations and suffered no disappointment. It’s a fairly satisfying album to listen to, and gives fans some primo content to chew, but it’s re-play value is nearly non-existent for me. I’m on the cynical side of the fence here with Andrew Unterbreger, who points out that “[b]y releasing it overnight with what for her is an unprecedentedly minimal amount of build-up, she frees Folklore from all of these questions and expectations [that “would have marked something of a risk if rolled out like one of her previous albums.”] If fans love it and consume it like crazy, then great. If it gets a lukewarm response critically and/or commercially, then she can underplay it as a quarantine-released personal project, not subjected to the same standards as one of her ‘official’ albums — like a mixtape, basically.” Very, very smart move though Swift is still too big to fail completely, and the sound here isn’t radical enough from songs here and there to divide fans as, say, Gaga’s Joanne did. If anything, it’s a return to Swift’s story-telling and songwriting roots with all the maturity and technical experience that she has acquired over years of honing a skill that is as second nature to her as posting cat pictures. Many songs have the usual stylistic notes and flourishes of a Taylor Swift chorus, citing note changes and key shifts present throughout her previous albums that identify her as succinctly as a sticky thumbprint. I’m not completely immune to its rustic-chic charm, but I’m no fan of the National or Bon Iver sound, so my curiosity tapers here. That’s the drawback to surprise-albums: the anticipation is always, if not more than, half the fun, so as quickly as it arrives it can be forgotten, like the last twenty tumblr posts you just scrolled through, and the twenty after that.

15th anniversary: The legacy of Namie Amuro’s Queen of Hip-Pop

There are few comebacks in J-pop history as important as Namie Amuro’s Queen of Hip-Pop. Released in July 2005, the album was the first in a gradual, then sudden, ascent from the depths of critical and popular derision that beset the singer following her first official comeback in 1998 after a pregnancy, quickie marriage, and family tragedy threatened to derail the singer’s career. A lot can happen in a gap year, including changing tastes, shifting trends, and broken allegiances: Tetsuya Komuro was well on his way to generating fatigue on the Japanese charts, his robust, and exceedingly familiar style coating Amuro’s early discography finally reaching its saturation-point while his numerous outfits and affiliated projects began losing their hold as dance music was replaced by hip-hop and R&B as the leading pop style. Two women, among many, were permanently changing the landscape of J-pop, chipping away at “TK” as a synonym for J-pop; Hikaru Utada and Ayumi Hamasaki, both of whom made their major-label single debuts in Amuro’s absence with “poker face” and “First Love” respectively.

This left Amuro and her team scrambling to re-strategize, first by courting denial and doubling down on TK’s production, shooting for a seamless transition between Concentration 20 and GENIUS 2000 with singles like “RESPECT the POWER OF LOVE” and “toi et moi.” It didn’t work. The spark was gone, any fire TK was able to light available only in the scattered ashes of vague memories and the brief embers of a bright hook. Amuro herself, now older and wiser, wished for a bit of distance from her former image that would allow for more freedom outside of the rigid constraints that sometimes trapped artists, as much as they provided for unheard of luxuries.

Luckily, she and her team recognized the need to adapt. With Ayumi Hamasaki now cornering the market on dance-pop, there was a vacancy in Avex artists going the hip-hop route and they seized the opportunity to do so. After testing the waters with producer Dallas Austin on GENIUS 2000, he and Amuro collaborated again on the tellingly-titled follow-up break the rules, where TK would take his final bows as chief producer. The truth is that Amuro took a huge risk by cutting him off: even with his declining popularity, TK was still a mostly sure-thing, a household name not above tugging at the heart strings of loyalty and premature nostalgia. Recruiting a number of no- and lesser-names was hardly the direction you would imagine Avex taking in the early 00s with their biggest star. But Namie Amuro was no longer their biggest star.

At the turn of the century, when the up-til-then J-pop sound was struggling on the charts, audiences and producers turned increasingly to the Billboard pop charts, full of boundary-pushing artists like Britney Spears, who released her racy single “I’m a Slave 4 U” in 2001. Just as TK was being pushed out by the passing of time itself, Max Martin’s signature teen-pop sound was being shoved aside by producers like The Neptunes, the dancehall and reggaeton beats of Sean Paul and Daddy Yankee, the trademark yowls of Lil’ Wayne, and the solo debut of Beyonce Knowles, who released the Grammy Award-winning Dangerously in Love in the summer of 2003. This was followed by Sean Garrett unleashing Usher’s “Yeah” into radio waves (a “hip-pop” track if there ever was one), in turn paving the way for a sound like the Pussycat Doll’s “Buttons” to soundtrack both summer carnivals and strip clubs. All of these accelerating and massively popular changes in the industry were exactly where artists turned to create fresh faces: all of the modern style and hype of this Western-borrowed, black-community-co-opted “urban” sound was being poured into newcomer Kumi Koda, who made her debut in 2000, and quickly dominated the market as Avex’s resident alterna-diva. But Amuro, eager to regain her standing at the top, wouldn’t stray too far from there to find her own missing ingredients in a (somewhat ironic) attempt to stand out against an ascending batch of equally talented and hungry young men and women.

One: Total confidence.

Any female singer worth her weight in enormous revenue will be dubbed an adjacent moniker by the media at some point in her career, whether laudatory, derisive, or calculated to spark unhealthy competition. Time magazine dubbed Ayumi Hamasaki “The Empress of Pop” in 2002, but Namie Amuro was mostly compared to artists like Madonna, a Japanese derivative. “Diva of the Heisei Era” would come much later — in 2005 Amuro needed a singular, self-serving title, and there is rarely any PR that works faster for image haul than re-naming. To lead her sixth studio album, the big comeback from 2003’s lackluster, bereft-of-personality STYLE, Amuro dubbed herself the Queen of Hip-Pop, taking cues from the pomp and ego of Western artists to market herself as “the finest in the game” someone so hot, so on top, that no one could catch up. It was an astounding, emphatic announcement, impossible to ignore, even if just for the audacity in a culture that values a degree of humbleness in its celebrities.

Two: Kitchen-sink sequencing.

It’s tricky to write about the West’s influence on popular Japanese music, but easy to examine in micro. Queen of Hip-Pop, a tiny world unto itself, is one example that openly, and cheerfully, took almost all of its influence from then-current black musical styles, creating a vibrant toy box of trends from the early to mid 00s. Lead single “ALARM” released in 2004, kicked off the album’s thesis statement, with its propulsive call to wake up and pay attention, though the song now plays more like a sound in the process of finding itself with its studio sheen and over-eager bass line. It’s the following singles that did the heavy lifting, with “GIRL TALK” and “WANT ME, WANT ME” expressing two seemingly dichotomous sides: the laid-back girl’s night in, and the club-ready bhangra beats night out. “WANT ME WANT ME,” in particular, is Amuro knee-deep in her reinvention, exuding a sense of weary, but cool know-how. Back when it was released, it came off as the kind of slick, emotional detachment women were encouraged to cultivate, though today it reads a bit more desperate in a frantic, rather than sad, way. Its strategy over sincerity, putting into question how much genuine fun Amuro was actually having with this new style.

But it’s the album as whole, with its mastery of several styles and propulsive sequencing, that brought it all together, charging in with the title track’s haughty, daring call to sexual satisfaction, and smooth transition to the giddy glee of “WoWa.” The softer songs, nestled towards the middle, offer a bit of respite from the harder beats, tucking the cozy blankets in under a girl’s night of gossip and Sex and the City marathons (side note: it is difficult to overstate Sex and the City‘s popularity at this point in time, and its heavy association with women as rampant, unabashed consumers of everything from the material to the emotional and sexual markets — even Ai Otsuka starred in a loose, PG-rated homage for the drama Tokyo Friends), before launching into the Lil’ Wayne sample slathered liberally all over “My Darling,” and the album’s coolest, flying-solo track “Free.” In between, there’s more posturing with a humble-brag nod to an adoring fan base, the instant gratification of a casual love affair, and a finale that ends the album on a high flourish. It’s a carefully planned execution, an album that utilizes every million cent’s worth of trend and resource at the disposal of a studio with the right amount of power and prestige to ensure maximum attention and profit.

Three: Reap and repeat.

Queen of Hip-Pop was the bridge Amuro crossed to get back in the spotlight, and its success was understandably replicated in the follow-up album PLAY, which took its predecessor as a literal template, and was her last album to focus so strategically on the hip half of her new moniker. These two albums together comprise an interesting interstitial phase in Amuro’s career, one in which she was in the process of reclaiming her status, establishing a new fan base, and asserting her control at the top of the pecking order, before eventually returning to her roots as less queen-of-hip-pop, than general queen-of-J-pop, where she has regained both the respect and popularity lost during that very brief, turbulent moment in her personal life. The fact that she did it by borrowing artifacts from African-American and Western culture is one that can’t go ignored: what began with a series of SUITE CHIC collabs took its form in everything from the music, to the application of tattoos, to the choreography, fashion, use of rhyme schemes foreign to the Japanese musical traditional, to the heavy use of slang (“booty,” “coochie,” “baby boy”). The debt she owes is massive, not just in this context, but throughout her entire career — even in the 90s, Hiroshi Aoyagi points out that she was noted for “incorporat[ing] dances derived from black hip-hop artists” (Islands of Eight Million Smiles, 101). Without the cherry-picking all coming together on one propulsive advertising vehicle for Namie Amuro herself, it is unlikely she would have been given the opportunity to return to the dance-pop roots that propelled her back to #1 and not just commercial, but respectable superstar status, a prime signifier of pop itself, rather than remembered as one of the greatest artists of the TK-boom who was punished with obscurity for a few unpopular choices. It was a very desperate, very calculated, very smart move, one that she had a definite hand in, and one that she no doubt looks back on with at least some regret, if the decision to laser off the tattoos says anything (and not surprisingly, seeing her change her mind has made her even more relatable).

Actually, Queen of Hip-Pop is more than just a comeback: it’s a time capsule, a whole year of music and tabloid pop culture, and Von Dutch hats and velour tracksuits, and leaked sex tapes and that bizarre docu-series where Britney Spears was hooking up with Kevin Federline on television. The Amuro of Queen of Hip-Pop is a tremendous force of attitude, style, talent, a willingness to take risks and, like the greatest pop stars before her, sometimes sacrifice self to stand in for something so much bigger. It might not be her best album, but it’s one of her most iconic, the precise moment we witnessed the resurrection of a legend, the one that breathed life back into an ambitious, hard-working woman who always did anything and everything to succeed.

[ All images original scans, except for those credited to here. ]