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. ]

June 2020: Highlights

What should be one of the best months of the year for pop music is instead one of the most disappointing. Pickings were understandably slim this June: there’s not much to celebrate; clubs, concerts, and large gatherings of any kind are still verboten; and the fatigue of endless 90+ degree F humidity makes it very hard to appreciate all the sunshine we’re finally getting (at least here in the appears music lounge). That leaves very little inspiration for songwriting or incentive for labels to release jams of any kind. Nevertheless, here are some interesting releases, served for our still-responsibly-staying-at-home consideration — the rest of us can keep listening to Chromatica, I guess.

Jamal Green: Skelattack (Original Soundtrack)
(2020.06.05)

Since Danny Elfman is one of the most well-known and iconic producers of modern film soundtracks, it’s almost cliche to cite him as an inspiration, and borderline psychotic to attempt imitating his sound. Yet Jamal Green does just that for the soundtrack to the video game Skelattack. Full of all the moody atmospherics of the composer’s best horror soundtracks (and there are so many), the music is a fitting soundscape to the inherently all-ages, Tim Burton-theatrics of the game’s spoopy game play. It can all get a bit your local Michael’s Halloween arts-and-crafts aisle, but that’s always been my favorite aisle (outside of October, it’s the pen and marker one).

Cosmic Girls (WJSN): NEVERLAND
(2020.06.09)

There were plenty of girl group comebacks to go around in June — and boy bands too — TWICE, IZ*ONE, and NATURE to name a few. Hot take: All of these were miles ahead of their male counterparts, who keep flirting with ways to sound more like their predecessors, with half of the motivation. As a long-time fan, I’m inclined to think WJSN’s NEVERLAND leads the pack. Though we have yet to receive a genuine, marketed-as “summer single” from K-pop, “BUTTERFLY” soars as close to that burning sun as we might get during this pandemic summer. (But it’s only June! Surprise me!) Still, we could do worse than the pastel brushstrokes all over these breezy watercolors. There’s nothing original about the title or concept art here, a very Anne of Green Gables meets Disney Golden Age, but I get enough pleasure and imagery out of mere words like “beach towel,” “popsicle,” and “Coppertone SPF50” to understand the power of sticking to the traditional, and very safe, playbook, the kind of joy sparked by the powerful pull of word association in touch and taste, in sight and smell, and in sound.

Chloe x Halle: Ungodly Hour
(2020.06.12)

There are other artists out there who can do what Chloe x Halle do, but few who do it so earnestly. As two young women who debuted at the age of 13 and 15 respectively, we have been given the opportunity to watch them grow, smoothing out the wrinkles of identity and personality that we do. Ungodly Hour sees them 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; no one emerges a Homecoming-Beyonce before putting in the work of a Destiny’s Child-Beyonce. After naming The Kids Are Alright one of the top ten debuts of 2018, and spending some time with its follow-up, I’m happy to continue keeping my eye on this duo’s evolution and obvious drive not just to create something great, but to contribute something truly unique and singular to the genre.

Poppin’ Party: Breakthrough
(2020.06.24)

Like many anime and game idol-franchises before them, from Creamy Mami to the ubiquitous Oricon presence of iDOLM@STER, Poppin’ Party, the group from BanG Dream!, releases music to the public as any real-life band or idol. They are, after all, backed by real-life seiyuu like Ayaka Ohashi, who enjoy success through the mixed-media marketing strategy that easily parlays into solo careers. Because these groups are a dime a dozen now, and many up-and-coming vocalists will have gotten their start in one of these animated or virtual arenas, the music itself is instantly recognizable: upbeat, rock-driven, and lyrically focused on recurring themes of goal-setting, and the self-determination, drive, discipline, and relentless perseverance that it takes to reach them. Poppin’ Party already released one big compilation of their anthems last year, and it was fairly enjoyable. Breakthrough coasts on the same energy, but unfortunately filters out most of the personality that made Poppin’on! so memorable. This sieve-like effect, where the second round is similar enough to warrant consideration, but missing a vital essence, is nothing new for a concept that is now reaping diminishing returns with the sheer number of more-of-the-same options. It’s a genre in desperate need of some novel, revitalizing gimmick, and one that I eagerly hold out for in between high-quality, but self-congratulatory echo chambers like this.

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

It’s nice to get the follow-up to Fever that we all deserve, and it’s none the worse for coming from Jessie Ware, who has released what is the best disco album of the year, and probably decade. This is actual disco, not electro-pop with some strings pinched into the production, or whatever modern K-pop tries to pass off as “disco-inspired” on occasion when it’s better off just being promoted as great pop. Ware brings a levity and seriousness to What’s Your Pleasure?, one that feels as grown-up, and uncool, music-for-adults as some of the best of the genre’s vintage origins. As someone who grew up with ABBA, I respect and admire the attention to detail and unwillingness to compromise on irony for the sake of a wider audience; 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.

NiziU: Make you happy
(2020.06.30)

The Japanese idol business has had a steady influence on K-pop long before NiziU, from Girls’ Generation on up, but it’s the sound that seems to be the main talking point with NiziU, who made their (pre-)debut this month with “Make you happy,” the type of throwaway effervescence common among debuts from Red Velvet’s “Haengbok (Happiness),” to the aforementioned SNSD’s “Dasi Mannan Segye (Into the new world).” It’s hard not to root for them when they’re following in such hallowed footsteps. The J-pop connection is a bit muddier; the group sounds heart-whole K-pop here, with the precise cut and paste choreography of their contemporaries. A Japanese word in their name and harmony-less shouts don’t a J-pop idol group make. If anything, this EP sounds a bit like early DalShabet, a “Mr. Bang Bang” send-up that makes me a little achey for a decade ago, when groups aimed to sound more like this all the time than “How Do You Like That.”

May 2020: Highlights

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

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

TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE: Tokyo Girls Journey
(2020.05.05)

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

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

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

Bolbbalgan4: Sachungijib II Kkoch Bon Nabi
(2020.05.13)

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

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

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

TXT: THE DREAM CHAPTER: ETERNITY
(2020.05.18)

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

Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated Side B
(2020.05.21)

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

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

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

Lady Gaga: Chromatica
(2020.05.29)

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

April 2020: Highlights

It’s been another long month of uncertainty, stay-at-home orders, and streaming concert videos, the last a somewhat soothing balm to ease the blow of a virus that has wiped out any sense of security basically everywhere except South Korean, and not getting that Lady Gaga album that might have made it all just a little easier to deal with. Predictably, the music industries around the world scaled back and postponed in anticipation of more lucrative times, and we were left with a fraction of the music that would normally be rolled out to start heralding the great Song of the Summer Battle. But it hasn’t been a total blank and we did get some interesting releases in a variety of genres — here are a few that stood out.

(G)I-DLE: I Trust
(2020.04.06)

Up until now, (G)I-DLE has been the group to go to for straight-up tough-girl bangers like “Maze” and “Latata.” Their follow-up EP, I Made, paved no inroads, delivering more of the same generic, tropical-house that has been clogging K-pop the past few years. Luckily, the group has done a minor overhaul with I Trust, taking the moody lust of last year’s one-off “Lion,” and creating a whole EP around a sound less focused on getting bodies out of seats, than taking people outside of their bodies altogether. “Oh my god,” the lead track off of I Trust, is something of a red herring, not as cerebral as it wants to be, but certainly more dramatic, shifting the tempo abruptly into neutral just as soon as it seems to be taking off. These moments that give pause are scattered throughout this more somber side of (G)I-DLE. While the collection does rely a bit too heavily on trendy trap-hooks that set a very short expiration date on its longevity, it’s a nice, new color for the group, the more serious right of passage on any girl-group’s mood ring. (G)I-DLE wear it well, as I expect they would a big summer bop and winter ballad, too.

Anly: Sweet Cruisin’
(2020.04.08)

It would seem like the Anlys of the world are a dime a dozen now, so ubiquitous you can’t click a Related Artists link on Spotify without being bombarded by the same ten or so indie-bent singer-songwriters signed to major labels. Okinawa-born Anly’s origin story isn’t unique: the Millennial fairy tale-template is strong in this artist who grew up listening to her father’s music collection and began releasing and playing her own songs straight out of high school, gaining traction with modern gimmicks like iPhone-filmed music videos, pushing the “genre-less” party line, and boasting large streaming numbers. She was signed to a major on the promise of just two singles. But the music holds up well, though I’m not sure if “genre-less” is the correct term for Sweet Cruisin’, so much as “indecisive,” the kind of record that careens between swinging acoustic-prominent J-pop jams like “We’ll Never Die” and “Sunshine,” and mellow hip-hop like “Sleep” in an attempt to distinguish itself from more over-produced outfits by purposely maintaining a bit of a rough, DIY aesthetic that offers the illusion of authenticity, a sound now as marketable as any idol’s. There’s an audience for this kind of music, and while I might not be it, I can appreciate what Anly is doing within the confines of the box she’s built herself into.

Spell: Opulent Decay
(2020.04.10)

A minor avalanche of great metal albums have been release throughout April, so it’s a real shame that I just haven’t been in the mood to listen to and enjoy them as much as I normally would. I don’t have any explanation for this, aside from the inability to give the genre the concentration and consideration it deserves lately. Aside from Dawn of Solace’s Waves and Stallion’s Slaves of Time, Spell’s Opulent Decay is the first metal album I’ve enjoyed since 2020 kicked off, and even now I’m at a loss to articulate what distinguishes it from other albums in its sub-genre. The album is steeped in early 80’s hard rock, with its immediate influences being groups like Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult, though I hear a lot of debut-era Ghost in these songs, too (themselves drawing from the same wells in their first years). It’s full of decent hooks covered in a tell-tale funereal gloom, and guided first by the dominant guitar work and then the thin, somewhat incongruous vocals. But it all works, even when nothing feels particularly original, and while I’m under no impression this will be making many year-end lists, I have found it a treat to chew on this past week, a kind of aperitif that I hope will stimulate my appetite for more in the coming months.

Nanaka Suwa: So Sweet Dolce
(2020.04.15)

If you’re a young seiyuu looking to make the transition to solo idol star, the history of the genre has ensured there are plenty of models available to emulate. Nanaka Suwa seems to be pulling from a variety of sources, among them veterans like Luna Haruna and Aya Uchida, but especially Ayami Muto and Yui Ogura. The latter is proving a particular inspiration, not just in visuals, but in sound. Suwa’s debut album So Sweet Dolce is something of a concept album, with each song focused around exactly what its titles suggest: sweets. With titles like “Donut Ring World,” “CHOCOLATE PHRASE,” “MACAROON LOVE,” and “POPCORN no Kumo (Popcorn Cloud),” the album goes all in, though the lyrical content and music itself isn’t anything different than so much upbeat idol-pop before it. 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 doesn’t bring anything new to this genre that you can’t already get from someone like Ogura, but for those who can’t get enough of this sound, and the endless parade of pretty women in crinoline who represent it, then as the title track says, prepare for some “uncontrollable crush vibes.”

Who-ya extended: wyxt.
(2020.04.15)

Anime tie-ins won’t be the first or the last time I will see Who-ya on my radar if they keep this up: sampled at random, the debut album wyxt. took me a bit by surprise. Not much is known about Who-ya except that it features the voice of a gifted 20-something who hits all the right dramatic heights for the type of guitar-driven themes common in shounen. The album also incorporates just enough synths to keep things clipping at a very nice, quasi post-hardcore pace. I listened to this one around the same time as the new miyavi album, so while I’m bound to draw some comparisons, this album has a lot more studio spit-and-polish than the latter’s just plain polish, incorporating more bells and whistles like on “REC ON,” where some dubstep-lite makes an unfortunate appearance, or on “G.O.A.T” where all the hooks are electronic. It’s a true hybrid of an album, fusing rock, balladry, and electro in a way that shows modest promise.

CHUNG HA: “Stay Tonight”
(2020.04.27)

I have been waiting all year for K-pop to wake up, to give me the first glimpse of a genuine heart-pounding, intergalactic, stars-collide hit. I really did not expect that hit to come from CHUNG HA, who until now, has released some pretty good dance-adjacent solo songs after a stint in short-lived girl-group I.O.I., but nothing of the caliber of a “Stay Tonight.” The energy of this song reminds me a lot of my favorite song of 2013, Kim Sori’s “Dual Life.” It’s a knock-you-on-your-backside song from a somewhat out-of-left-field performer that you never thought would be good enough to attract the kind of songwriting that could elevate them from the lower tiers. That’s not to say this will send CHUNG HA to the top of the heap — after “Dual Life,” I never heard anything about Kim Sori again, but wow, wouldn’t it be nice? In addition, the music video for “Stay Tonight” takes this bouncy house song to another level: the precision of the choreography accompanied by some clever visuals and cuts make this a feast as much for the eyes as the ears. This is the first time I have really felt the spirit of K-pop this year, and though it’s sad that it took until late April, that click you hear is the resounding connection of the hope of normalcy restored.

April: Da Capo // OH MY GIRL: NONSTOP // GWSN: the Keys
(2020.04.22) // (2020.04.27) // (2020.04.28)

K-pop has become one of the few East Asian music industries that relies on overseas sales to float, so it’s not surprising that with that particular market (both nearby Japan, and far away Europe/United States) off-limits during the coronavirus pandemic, K-pop is eager to start getting back into the release cycle to churn out whatever revenue they can wring out of their groups. And since South Korea is one of the few countries to have managed their outbreak competently they can afford to — the last half of this month has finally seen glimmers of a return of regular, bigger-ticket brands, and release schedules, with mini-albums by girls-groups (G)I-DLE, Apink, April, OH MY GIRL, and GWSN. It was a nice surprise since the three latter are all groups that I regularly follow and have a genuine interest in. It’s fair to say most of them started out as spackle to fill the space left behind by Girls’ Generation, but have put a lot of effort towards breaking out of the mold. None of these is a game-changer, but they are undoubtedly strong, with April’s “LALALILALA” being the big standout for me. The track relies on a 90’s eurodance via T-ara hook that shimmers in all the right, bubbly places, not unlike one of WJSN’s summer hits (or even Apink’s own, “Dumhdurum“). OH MY GIRL’S “Saljjak Seollesseo (Nonstop)” is the most forgettable, shooting for a broad, tropical-house vibe that, while fun, leaves it rather indistinguishable. That leaves GWSN’s “BAZOOKA!” squarely in the middle of the two, the ultimate palette cleanser. What matters most in the end is that getting to compare, contrast, dissect, and pick a favorite among multiple comebacks is the real victory here, one of the first and few luxuries fans can indulge in after a bleak winter of bad news and an industry reluctant to roll out any significant music during a time very few people were paying attention. We’re not out of the desert yet, but what a welcome oasis.

March 2020: Highlights

March 2020, one of the longest months all of us have ever lived through, has been tough on us all. When Japan was first hit with the coronavirus and closed its schools for what is now looking like an optimistic two weeks, Avex Trax, perhaps to alleviate boredom, perhaps to atone for its string of live cancellations, began uploading several full-length HD concert videos on its YouTube page. This playlist is where I spent the majority of my free time this month, endlessly queuing up one video after another — discovering some new favorites, revisiting classics, mindlessly consuming any mix of audio and visual that had even a small chance of distracting me. Now this month will always be just as full of this memory for me, too, and for that I am grateful. And though I had a harder time concentrating on any hard rock/metal releases, and soundtracks are pretty much non-existent as theaters are closed and films have been postponed, we still had a month full of music releases to help us cope; here are some of the interesting ones.

Niall Horan: Heartbreak Weather
(2020.03.13)

Ex-One Direction members have unleashed a slew of solo records in the last four months, beginning with Harry Styles’s Fine Line in December of 2019, followed by Louis Tomlinson’s Walls in February, and now Niall Horan’s Heartbreak Weather this month. Each of these albums has taken on a distinct identity unique to the individual, but one thing they all have in common is their adherence to the 1D playbook. As Chris DeVille sums up, “[T]heir solo careers suggest they [want] to escape One Direction’s structure, not its substance.” This is not a complaint: all of these albums have been, to a degree, enjoyable, and all of them have had at least a couple of above-average songs. But while Styles carefully crafted a classic-rock Bowie persona and Tomlinson a 90’s Brit-pop avatar, Horan seems torn between two styles, which wrestle almost track by track on Heartbreak Weather. Which you like better will depend on how you prefer your pop: synth or acoustic. The two are sequenced throughout the album to ensure an equal distribution to avoid front- or back-loading either half, and though the soft-rock bits are okay, it’s the synth-pop songs that I find myself returning to over and over again. The arena-sized title track, “Arms of a Stranger,” “Cross Your Mind” — how perfect the album would be with more of this and less “Dear Patience.” It’s a nice follow-up to his largely forgettable debut, and as all of the albums released this month can attest to, it’s unlucky release date seems to have gotten it buried under the national traumas that are even now still rippling around the world. But for those of us looking for any form of comfort and taste of normalcy we can get, this album been an unexpected companion, the last breath we all took together before getting pulled under.

lol: lightning // Re:Complex: Neo Gravity
(2020.03.18)

Last month, I lamented the dirth of co-ed groups, noting that J-pop tends to be a tad friendlier toward the outliers, and in the wake of AAA’s hiatus, we got two torch-bearers in J-pop: a new album by their official replacements lol, and the debut of Re:Complex, the 13-member talent-competition winners from Kansai who released their debut single almost exactly two years ago. These two albums have a lot in common, most notably their styles — both use simple and frequent vocal trade-offs set to the kind of upbeat but generic dance-pop that AAA perfected in their early albums, but eventually moved past for a bit of personality. Both of these albums are extremely competent and enjoyable, but they lack something very important: a unique personality that elevates them beyond filler. Of course, competence is the preferable substitute for grand surface impression, the type of music that values face and personality over any attempt at shooting-for-average singles that run rampant in the idol industry, but really, who are these people? I can’t keep any of the members of either of these groups straight, and if lol’s 2018 concert tour -scream- is any indication, just about any skilled dancer and vocalist could have stepped in to understudy in the middle of the show and I wouldn’t have noticed. I’m not sure if this is a failure on the part of management, who can clearly spot talent, but not genius, or if it’s a reluctance to put in the resources to coax a star out of any one of these members who might just be waiting for the extra push. Or is the lukewarm response to a co-ed group like lol not worth the investment? Questions to ponder while these albums rotate in, enjoyable, but unmemorable.

The Weeknd: After Hours
(2020.03.20)

I’ve devoted enough space here to The Weeknd already, and the guy really doesn’t need any more press, so I’ll make this quick. After Hours is everything I’ve come to expect from Abel Tesfaye, for better and worse: the lead tracks are the sharpest knives in this shed, with all the glossy, stylized production only money can buy, while the album tracks go back to the Tesfaye of mixtape lore, slowing the album down considerably by soaking in the moody, navel-gazing bathwater that is now routine for him. I don’t mind these moments musically, though lyrically they leave a lot to be desired, but I prefer the album’s propulsive moments over the dirges, so the first half lags and the second half doesn’t feel long enough, and as a particular bone to pick, the synthwave bits don’t go in far enough or long enough to feel like a narrative vision, rather than shallow experimentation for novelty’s sake. So, it’s a lot like Starboy, with the best bits being better than the former’s best bits, and thankfully, not as long.

The World Standard: Wasuta BEST
(2020.03.25)

Every idol group has a gimmick, the thing that tries to make them stand out from the hundreds of groups they compete with for attention and sales. Wasuta’s, aside from having the classy, high-budget iDOL Street angle, is a mix of Dempa-lite and Momoiro-eccentricity, buffeted by the colorful bleeps of video game onomatopoeia and cat-ear headbands. It’s curious that a group with such a haphazard, kitchen-sink approach has managed to reach their 5th anniversary intact, when so many equally solid iDOL Street groups haven’t; Cheeky Parade, for example, was a first cousin to the aesthetic and they disbanded in their fifth year as well. Uh-oh…foreshadowing? A greatest hits collection like Wasuta BEST doesn’t exactly alleviate the fear. As a representation of a group’s best work, it doesn’t get more definitive than this: a 25-track odyssey through all of the fun, nonsense, and quirky curios the group has shared with us over the years, from debut single “Kanzennaru IDOL” to fan-favorites like “PLATONIC GIRL” (unless by “definitive” you mean “exhaustive,” in which case AAAs’ 15th Anniversary All Time Best -thanx AAA lot-, with over 70 tracks, takes the cake). At this point, Wasuta is one of the few existing all-in idol groups from whom I genuinely look forward to new releases, and it would be a real shame if they went the way of Kobushi FACTORY and GEM and PASSPO, though it seems inevitable. Being a fan of Japanese idol groups is often part guilty pleasure and part learning to cherish their ephemeral existence. Successful greatest-hits collections like these, though not essential, are able to wrap it all up in one neat, happily-ever-after, leaving us plenty to remember the group by when they inevitably pass into The Great Idol Beyond.

Haruka Kudo: KDHR
(2020.03.25)

Voice actress Haruka Kudo, not to be confused with former-Morning Musume member Haruka Kudou released her debut mini-album, and of all this month’s releases, aside from iri’s Sparkle, it has probably surprised me the most. I’m unfamiliar with the extensive work she’s done with the intimidating universe that is the BanG Dream! franchise, because like so many voice actors, it’s easy to get lost in the sheer amount of available content, but anyone who lists hide as a favorite guitarist and puts her money where her admiration is by actually playing guitar, gets an instant shift to the front of the line. I wouldn’t say KDHR makes exceptional on any of these promising bits of information, culminating in a sound that is very much like the bread-and-butter work of seiyuu before her, but I do appreciate the emphasis on the guitar work here, which in moments rips out riffs as hard as BAND-MAID, such as on opening track “MY VOICE,” when it’s not drowned in layers of synths. It’s a promising collection that hopefully foreshadows a full-length with just a bit more attention to originality.

Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia
(2020.03.27)

Amidst the tragic, history-making events of March, Dua Lipa held an Instagram live chat on Monday, March 23 where she tearfully announced that her highly-anticipated sophomore album Future Nostalgia would be released at the end of the week, instead of the original release date of April 3. Releasing an album during a global pandemic is tough enough, but it looks like the primary impetus behind the decision was the album leaking in full online, a heart-breaking incident for any artist in the best of circumstances. Initial reviews for this album were nearly all raves: The Guardian called it “viscerally brilliant,” Rolling Stone, a “studio 54-worthy disco revival,” NME, “powerful pop perfection.” The album is a tight, LP-sized 37-minute long journey through Latin freestyle, early 00’s girl-group pop, swelling disco strings and cool, chunky synths set to slick modern production, culminating in heart-tugging anthems like “Don’t Stop Now,” “Levitating,” and the album’s show-stopping “Physical.” Mega-producer Stuart Price’s magic touch shimmers all over this record, and his influence is palpable even on the songs he isn’t a part of, with many songs like “Hallucinate” recalling the audacity of his work on Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor. It’s easy to think the universal praise is just over-hype, but lest the album seems too sterile, it does miss the bullseye in spots, most notably the final tracks “Good in Bed,” and “Boys Will Be Boys,” which joins Taylor Swift’s “The Man” in good intentions but dull execution. Unlike recent albums that tack on eight or ten extra filler tracks for streaming stats, Lipa practices a graceful discretion, one we can look forward to being appended by later deluxe editions full of tantalizing bonus tracks (which has already been confirmed) that will keep this album fresh in the ears of listeners who are craving more, or who might still be too distracted to tune in. But that’s hardly enough to take away Future Nostalgia‘s true accomplishment: making good on pop’s promise to create music that makes you smile, that makes you dance, and that makes you proud.

5 Seconds of Summer: CALM
(2020.03.27)

Boy-band concepts have evolved throughout the decades, from The Beatles, to Menudo, to *NSYNC, to 5 Seconds of Summer, but the point has stayed the same: to create music that makes people, especially young women, feel appreciated. 5SOS went all-in on this on 2018’s Youngblood, though by then they were already veterans of the genre. CALM packs the same lusty earnestness into its 40 minutes: “What a blessing to feel your love,” they sing in “Red Desert,” “Sometimes when I look at you, I see my wife,” in “Teeth,” and later, “I’ll make up for all of your tears / I’ll give you the best years,” and “You’re the only thing that I think I got right / I’ll never give you away.” These are psalms for lovers, odes to significant others, and devotionals for the rose-colored and deluded. While most songs linger in these early utopian stages of amour, they even make angst sexy, as on “Easier,” where even anger can’t help but melt into a helpless confession: “Right now, it’s so hard to blame you / ‘Cause you’re so damn beautiful.” They’re exactly what we expect from our boy bands, delivering on every front; it helps that the tracks keep it simple, the production sizzling with hooks and ardor. Like their predecessors, whatever CALM lacks in genuine self-awareness, it more than makes up for in heart.

The Birthday Massacre: Diamonds
(2020.03.27)

There are fewer things more comforting during times of rapid, intense change than something familiar, something that offers a bit of stability. The Birthday Massacre have now released eight studio albums since 1999; I’ve been around for seven of those and I can confidently say that I’m always going to get exactly what I expect and want from this group: a nostalgic, early 00’s Hot Topic-goth aesthetic set to chunky 80’s-inspired synth-rock. The Birthday Massacre has become one of my most reliable go-tos, and this month, there was nothing more reassuring than an album that delivered nothing more than what a group has now mastered and knows best. Diamonds is not the best BM album — it’s not even as great as 2017’s Under Your Spell and feels a bit on the short side, but it’s as solid as it comes, and for fans who have been in it for the long-haul, it’s like a hug from a friend you haven’t seen in years. The Birthday Massacre might be short on original ideas at this point, might be relying a bit too hard on that iconic aesthetic to do all the visual work, and yeah, it’s hard not to argue that I’m giving them a pass, but no music is released in a vacuum, and Diamonds, an album by an independent group set to be even more hard-hit by the dip in album sales and touring revenue this spring, deserve recognition for making the brave choice to move forward with the release of this album, helping to keep at least one thing feeling consistent and reliable. If you like what you hear, don’t hesitate to support them.

Kalen Anzai: “FAKE NEWS REVOLUTION” PV
(2020.03.31)

Our eleventh-hour entry this month is the PV for new Internet-It Girl Kalen Anzai’s “FAKE NEWS REVOLUTION.” Anzai has generated a lot of buzz since she debuted last year with a slew of Y2K-inspired visuals and a face so digitally edited for perfection that it didn’t take long for rumors to start circulating that Anzai was a computer-generated cyber-idol: one of her first live performances that leaned heavily on holographic visuals didn’t help. But, as it turns out, Kalen Anzai is a real, flesh-and-blood woman, and her potential to generate capital has just rocketed thanks to the announcement that she would be playing Ayumi Hamasaki in a drama based on the “fictional” life story of the legendary J-pop singer’s rise to fame within Avex — the same label to which Anzai is signed. Till now, Anzai’s whole aesthetic has been turn-of-the-millennium nostalgia, a retro-futurist amalgamation of hyper-CGI, shiny metallic and rubbery-plastic couture, and boxy, vintage computer screens, an aesthetic that recalls the peak years of Avex Trax, and notably, the salad days of their female solo-singers like hitomi, Ami Suzuki, and Ayumi Hamasaki. It is the last that Anzai is most indebted to, especially in “FAKE NEWS REVOLUTION,” which, like her earlier singles, sounds specifically designed to evoke late 90’s/early 00’s Avex-pop from Favorite Blue to LOVEppears- and Duty-era Hamasaki, with its twinkling keyboards, soft, major-key production, and urgent twists in the chorus. As someone who grew up on this sound, I’ve been very intrigued with what Avex is doing with Anzai, even if Anzai herself just seems like an avatar at the moment, a convenient hanger on which to project an era she seems, by age alone, to be somewhat ignorant and disinterested in, and the tabloid-heavy drama that fans and non-cold-blooded humans are eager to witness. In that sense, the music video and song are a success, adding to the carefully-constructed narrative of her origins. But what really matters is what will happen once Anzai is allowed to move past M and let us see the person behind the persona, an identity tethered to the present — at least as much as Avex and pop, as an institution, allows any of that, as Ayumi can sit down and tell her all about.

Timing is everything

The Weeknd on SNL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 2020: Highlights

LOONA: [#]
(2020.02.05)

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

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

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

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

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

FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC 9
(2020.02.12)

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

KARD: RED MOON
(2020.02.12)

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

Tink: Hopeless Romantic
(2020.02.14)

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

Hitomi Arai: “Shoujo A” PV
(2020.02.19)

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

Allie X: Cape God
(2020.02.21)

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

Lady Gaga: “Stupid Love”
(2020.02.28)

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

January 2020: Highlights

As expected, maybe due to the sheer amount, the majority of music released at any given time in any genre is either average or forgettable. There are, sometimes, hopefully, less than we’d like but still, a few that end up being excellent. But if they can’t all be excellent, they can at least be interesting. Whether or not any of that music manages to avoid the trap of being derivative or just plain bad, it gets people thinking and talking, and that is, by far, one of the greatest by-products of the relentless pursuit of excellence. So let’s dive into some of the interesting releases of January 2020, with perhaps a smattering of excellent or excellent-in-training among them.

Shingo Katori: 20200101
(2020.01.01)

Former SMAP-member Shingo Katori is no stranger to collaborations, having released one-offs with several fellow J-poppers during his time in the mega-successful boy band, most notably with Tomohisa Yamashita on the short-lived, but fun, project THE MONSTERS in 2012. But now that SMAP is no longer, he’s free to indulge in a full-length project, and I really hope the first-day-of-the-new-year release date is a flex signaling his intent to pursue this type of thing full-time in the next decade — so says Takuya Kimura, too, but no one is feigning surprise over the music of Go with the Flow, a literal parody of safe J-pop. Meanwhile, Katori’s album is filled with borderline bizarre collaborations with artists ranging from TeddyLoid to SCHA DARA PARR to AINA THE END of idol-group BiSH (the BiSH members have been getting around, though, so maybe that’s not notable). As you can imagine from such a varied roster of guests, the album is musically all over the place, its central thesis being Katori himself, who brings a surprising sense of wonder and delight to these tracks that run the gamut from J-rap to disco. This box-of-chocolates approach is the last thing I expected to be hearing and enjoying during the first week of 2020, and is all the more welcome knowing the alternative was probably a Go with the Flow. Katori has set a new bar for SMAP solo albums: good luck clearing this one boys.

YOUNHA: UNSTABLE MINDSET
(2020.01.06)

Who is Younha? This is a bad question to be asking in 2020, both of a singer who has been quite prolific for the last fifteen years, releasing a large amount of albums in both Korean and Japanese, and for someone I’ve somehow never even heard of until now. Personal shame aside, UNSTABLE MINDSET is the sequel EP to 2019’s STABLE MINDSET, though it’s hard-pressed to form any immediately obvious correlation outside of the linked cover art. Acoustic, indie-sounding ballads of K-pop are my Achilles heel, the Korean genre I am least interested in and most likely to avoid, so maybe it’s not surprising this one didn’t register. But I guess the slow rollout of January releases had this one rising to the top in a way it never would have in June or July. There’s all the usual hallmarks of this subgenre, not least the devastatingly heartfelt vocal performances, but most of all, it is gentle, just the type of music to open a new year with. Going back to hear some of her earlier releases hasn’t inspired me to continue looking into the singer, or anticipate future work, but I like the unexpectedness of how this one turned out, how there’s always room to be surprised, and how one of the least exciting months in K-pop on record can make you appreciate even the small things.

Selena Gomez: Rare
(2020.01.10)

I’ve already written a bit about Rare, the first great pop album of the year, but that doesn’t mean it has left me entirely. No, none of the hooks require more than a few chews to digest, but it has got me reconsidering the references I dropped to Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande. Pop stars mining their personal lives for hit songs is nothing new, but it does make me wonder if everyone would have been as interested in an album that didn’t indulge in obvious nods to exes and personal struggle. We live in an era where everyone, even grandma, wants you to check out their very important, personal-brand curated Twitter, fashioning drama out of every mundane breakfast known to humanity. Would this album have felt like such an event if it steered clear of finger-pointing and back-clapping? If it refused to give fans and hungry audiences exactly what it wanted? Is it possible to create an album that’s not so personal, yet universal? Does anyone want to listen to an album like that? Is it cheating to walk upon the bridge laid by the paparazzi you complain about, if the story you told and responded to didn’t need overt explanations because it was assumed, by the foundation they planted, that we already know about Pete Davidson and Mac Miller and Joe Alwyn and a kidney transplant? I don’t know! But I do know it didn’t make Halsey’s album any more listenable, so there’s clearly skill involved in pulling it off successfully.

Poppy: I Disagree
(2020.01.10)

Poppy has left the world scratching its head: there are plenty of stereotyped “millennial” artists now flourishing in the music business (Billie Eilish, Kim Petras, anyone making overt homages to Y2K culture), but none as Internet-savvy as Poppy, who has fashioned her entire brand on being a weird hodgepodge of social media and “shock” culture, the type of thing that is giving me Dark Web vibes when it’s not making me wonder if “Concrete” is the first actual American J-pop song I’ve ever heard. It’s not all a success, as the vocals and lyrics rarely reflect the instrumentation, which mostly invokes a quasi-experimental meets industrial, nu-metal spirit. Still, I can’t shake this one, and I keep returning to it: it feels a bit like being given pieces to several different puzzles and asked to both separate and construct them, and I for one, knowing the final picture might not result in a genuine accomplishment, am having a good time putting it all together.

Eminem: Music To Be Murdered By
(2020.01.17)

Controversy aside, I wasn’t expecting anything from a new Eminem album (the last time I noticed Eminem was seventeen years ago when he starred in a weirdly successful film that made an actual Academy-Award winner out of him), so this was a nice change from the usual Billboard-Hot-100-rap, the Top 40 being as far as my curiosity and exposure to the genre takes me, and what you hear there is mostly the rattling hi-hats of trap. It’s almost like looking into a fun house mirror, a brief reminder of why almost everyone I knew in sixth grade had memorized the words to “My Name Is” (because there were only two music videos being requested and played on The Box, and it was this or Aerosmith’s “Holy in My Soul,” that’s it, for like three years). Actually, Tom Breihan summed up what I found most moving about this album: “the thing that really sets Music To Be Murdered By apart […] is the way it flaunts Em’s obvious and overwhelming love of rap music.” And later, “the Eminem of this album sounds present and focused. He seems to love rap music again. That’s something.” Something is not to be scoffed at when you expected nothing. Trim off the dead weight (the Ed Sheeran song, definitely, but like five other tracks, too) and you’ve got something that feels close to victorious.

Sumire Uesaka: NEO PROPAGANDA
(2020.01.22)

Technically a seiyuu, Uesaka has cultivated a unique brand of off-the-wall idol-pop that is mostly due to songwriters and producers, though that doesn’t exclude her from the creative equation. In addition, she’s the perfect vehicle for the poly-tempos and speed shifts that weave throughout her poppy, techno, sound effect-heavy onomatopoeia odysseys. She fell back on a more traditional J-pop sound with NO FUTURE VACANCES, but NEO PROPAGANDA boasts song writers both old and new like Kenji Ohtsuki, Ryohei Shima of The Dresscodes, and MOSAIC.WAV who have imbue the album with all the hallmarks that have defined her sound from rolling Rs and high-pitched shrieks, to gonzo interpretations of Russian culture, all wrapped up in highly-stylized song titles like “Bon♡Kyu♡Bon wa Kare no Mono♡” and “Run Fast, Rasputin!” Unpredictability would make it an exhausting trek to the end of this album if it wasn’t so much fun; I can’t help but root for this colorful collection of odds-and-ends.

The Weeknd: “Blinding Lights”
(2020.01.21)

As someone with mixed, but mostly positive, feelings about Starboy, I was pleased with both “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights” when they were released just before the new year, the former which had, and continues to have, a ton of repeat value for me. These two songs are the well-known yin-and-yang of Tesfaye, the “Starboy” and the “In the Night,” the dark, brooding self-flagellating nightmare-scape of indie mixtapes, and the groovy, darkwave pop star who flirts with fame and Max Martin-level stardom so at least he can dance while it destroys him (is there anybody more consistently conflicted about their fame in music videos as Tesfaye and like, Ayumi Hamaski?). “Blinding Lights” finally got a video release, this one both a sequel and car advertisement that illustrates the previous point perfectly. Both songs have been getting some unique performance visuals on late night, the first when “Heartless” was performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with a very cool, very re-watchable, very vertigo-inducing stage set-up, and then “Blinding Lights,” both on Colbert again, with box and audience participation, and seemingly immediately after he stumbled off the streets of the music video, on Jimmy Kimmel Live! I love when an artist goes all in on a concept, and as the term “era” (as in Starboy-era, and Like a Virgin-era) has been plucked from the trade pubs and into the tweets of the casual-listening public, I hope we get an album announcement soon, so we can put a decent name to this deliciously decadent-in-Vegas, sinfully-red jacket era and hashtag it immediately.

CY8ER: “Renai REALITY-sho”
(2020.01.22)

The electro-pop boom has long since bust, but believe it or not, there was a glorious time when Yasutaka Nakata ruled J-pop and nobody could go two weeks without some official collaboration or production credit or eager knock-off fighting for prime headphone real estate. But it’s been a while since Nakata was able to pull off anything as game-changing and seminal as his early work with Perfume, MEG, Ami Suzuki, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, or his own passion project with capsule. Still, that laundry list gives you an idea of how prolific he was and it’s not something any one can easily dismiss after a few years of disappointments. I might be losing hope of anything interesting from Perfume and Pamyu, but I see a cred with his name and my heart still skips a beat. “Renai REALTIY-sho,” for idol-group CY8ER, is a very safe and comfortable space for him. It’s the bread-and-butter of Nakata-pop, that while bereft of any depth, does give off extra thick slices of the year 2008. It’s a welcome respite from some of the forgettable, slower-paced music he’s been putting out with Perfume, and it fits CY8ER like a VR glove. Unfortunately, the video, which does have some really cool visuals, is an exploitative mess, and this pretty-good-but-nothing-special track is the highlight of their new album Tokyo. Still, it was nice, just for a few minutes, to be transported in musical time, and I hope others continue to keep their minds open to Nakata, as I believe that he is still capable of surprises. But mostly, I hope that the increasing staleness of his particular sound, like that of Tetsuya Komuro’s in the early 2000s, doesn’t hamper his ability to adapt and adjust, or discourage him from putting in the effort to grab new listeners.

LatuLatu: Mangekyou ETERNITY
(2020.01.22)

If rock is dead, I’m not sure how to even think about J-rock, which sometimes seems plagued with an identity crisis, trapped between visual-kei inspired anime-pop and indie math rock. At the wayside has fallen the type of rock music that showed both how technical and how fun the genre could be. Bands like B’z and hide with spread beaver, who didn’t take themselves too seriously, who appreciated a big hook and a satisfying riff, and didn’t suffer the type of fools who objected to chart-appreciation. This is not a lament on the State of J-rock Today, nor is LatuLatu (not 100% on the romanization here, is it LatouLatou? I’ve yet to see it in its native habitat) here to save the genre, but boy did I have more fun listening to Mangekyou ETERNITY than I have listening to J-rock in a long time. The group, which might have made my best debut list last year if I had any idea who they were two months ago, were billed by HMV as a “desktop rock unit” that gained some fame on TikTok. They released their first official single in September and their first mini-album this month, which has gotten a bit of much-needed press. If you like ONEOKROCK, you won’t find anything objectionable here, though note that the comparison applies more to the energy and earnestness of this set than ethos. Neither rock nor J-rock is dead or has ever been dead, but it’s always nice when something comes along that feels like it could breathe some fresh air into the lungs of a sometimes-anemic genre.

SixTONES: “Imitation Rain”
(2020.01.22)

The last weekly #1 for the Oricon chart this month is a doozy, the type of thing that makes me wonder who talked whom into bringing this into existence. The double A-side single featuring the debut of two Johnny’s groups, SixTONES (pronounced “stones” because the alphabet is meaningless) and Snow Man, were dropped last year, and I remember noting Snow Man’s super fun, super K-pop approach (yes, it is 2020 and J-pop is still trying to Frankenstein pieces of K-pop) not only in sound, but in production, styling, visuals, all of it. It’s nothing special, but it was different and I liked it. I would call it a success. But SixTONES’s “Imitatation Rain” is actually doing better on social media, and after finally watching the video I have no idea why: it’s like one giant step backward. The ridiculous over-the-top emoting, drama, rainfall, the spoken interlude, it all made sense when I saw the production credit for Yoshiki, X Japan’s tireless and now inescapable leader. You can go back and pick out every single Yoshiki-ism in this: the piano, the whiny, soap-opera monologue (I can’t resist, here is a sample, and try to pretend you haven’t already heard this at the end of every X Japan ballad since 1988: “What’s the meaning of life, what’s the point of getting it right? / Cause’s everything’s fake, everybody breaks. […] Breaking down, I am breaking down / peace of mind is shutting down”), the entire catalog of his favorite English vocabulary (rain, life, dreams, endless — the only one missing, I think, is crucify and scar, but I’m going off of the shortened-PV version). There is even a point at the end of the video where one of the guys plays air piano! Air piano! As choreography! I wish I could like this because I love the idea of established producers taking their talent and tackling genres outside of their comfort zone, but this is the opposite of where Johnny’s should be taking their Reiwa debuts (among other actions they should strongly reconsider), and the fact that it made #1 was purposely inevitable, rather than indicative. I’m not writing this group off just yet, but needless to say, Snow Man wins this round. I hope someone handed Yoshiki his paycheck and politely declined any further contact, but a #1 doesn’t bode well.

Dua Lip: “Physical”
(2020.01.31)

What completed Dua Lipa’s transformation into a bonafide pop star? Was it “Don’t Start Now,” and its dance floor-therapy music video? Was it the blonde hair? The homages to past pop movements stacking up like dominoes, as if to absorb the essence of all of the past greats through musical osmosis, from the Spice Girls to Kylie Minogue and now all the way back to Olivia Newton-John? Her utter commitment to the trendy nostalgia-for-the-90s Look, from performance to red carpet? Dua Lipa was great when she was just Dua Lipa, but Future Nostalgia promises something bigger and better, a Dua Lipa with enormous ambition and a record company that knows what it’s doing. This is her Oops…! I Did It Again moment, a cataclysmic pop event that Warner is drawing out in excruciating, exquisite anticipation. It’s going to be a long, hard road to April 3, but so far, I have no reason to believe it won’t be worth the wait.