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 the comforts of 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.

Top ten debut albums of 2019

After the dumpster-fires that keep erupting around news of K-pop trainees, from grueling schedules to crash-diets to the lack of resources for mental health care, I am continually surprised (and, shamefully, grateful) that anyone still chooses to sign contracts and put themselves through the ringer for a chance at fame and fortune. After all, where would we all be without entertainment companies continuing to debut groups, with rookies taking on the burden of sometimes broken systems to hone an incredible array of talents, with artists continually mixing and matching influences past and present to create new music we’re all just blessed to hear?

We’ve had both disappointing and promising K-pop debuts this year, from the stale tropical and electro house drops that dominated lead singles, to yet another company hoping to hit on the same supernatural alchemy that generated hometown heroes Girls’ Generation and overseas warriors like BTS. On that front we had groups like Cherry Bullet, repping for the Red Velvet-lovers and TXT (TOMORROW x TOGETHER), the latter who in their youthful ear-worms released not one, but two enchantingly sweet takes on pop, channeling all the BTS-but-twice-as-earnest charm they could muster, with a similar look and vibe, too, as if spawned from the very rib of their big brothers (both groups are under Big Hit Entertainment). And it was nice being swept away by the joyful ambition of a group like ARIAZ, whose Grand Opera proved that the staple girl-group sound still has the ability to work new melodies into the same old bottles. I’m not sure any of these groups, from BVNDIT to Purple Beck to Bz-Boys, will have any staying power (especially the last two), but they deliver on everything K-pop promised back in 2009, when the future was a bright horizon promising fresh sounds you’d never heard before in beautiful, unblemished packages. Listening to something like “Drama” or “Dream Line,” you can almost believe that’s how it all turned out.

One of the most interesting things in music this year, previously only hinted at in bits and pieces, has been the mainstream emergence of the late 90’s and early 00’s aesthetic. It’s been done before (actually, as with any recent trend, I can almost always confidently say f(x) did it first), but with the 20th anniversary of Y2K looming, we’ve gotten two albums that solidified their dedication to the Western girl-group boom that gave us such gems as Dream’s “He Loves You Not” and “Hit Me Baby One More Time“-Britney Spears in LIZ’s super fun Planet Y2K and Slayyyter’s eponymous mixtape, the latter whose vocals embrace the same uncanny coo that Max Martin coaxed out of the young Spears, taken to its more gratuitous ends. The former boasts hyper-pop like the ooey-gooey-cheewy “Bubblegum,” Dream-esque “Intuition,” and Ace of Base-lite “Lost U 2 The Boys.” It’s one big celebration of and homage to kitsch Millennium, an early 00’s Kylie Minogue-music video brought to life, with all the glorious, nostalgic elements safely intact. Slayyyter fast-forwards a few years to the MySpace-era, but is no less dedicated to authenticity — it’s more sleazy, more skeptical of what happens when you’ve grown up on a steady diet of plastic backpacks, Von Dutch hats, leaked sex videos, and a wall of carefully curated glitter .gifs. They provide the same time-machine experience, but two very different perspectives, and it’s hard not to find a guilty pleasure in both, and hope to see more from these promising curistas.

J-pop is usually a genre that doesn’t get much representation in this category: it’s harder to get a sense of promise from a genre that has trouble generating hype without making you meet it halfway, and the more time passes, the more difficult the hard sell is. And then there are the logistics. Here are two prime examples of groups that caught my eye in 2019: the first, BBHF, who released two EPs this year (the second one, Family, being the one that piqued my interest when it hit the Oricon top 50), but they are, unfortunately, an old band under a new name, and don’t technically qualify. The second is another indie-rock group, GENIE HIGH, who released their debut studio album GENIE HIGH STORY at the tail-end of November. I was under the impression that they were operating under the obvious influences of Gesu no Kiwami Otome., before learning that Enon Kawatani, the front man of Gesu is actually in this band. Of course! It has all of the Kawatani hallmarks: dandy, ragtime pianos, thin, peppy drums, and vocals that have been coached into constant falsetto icecapades. GENIE HIGH STORY is incredibly fun, interlaced with quirky bits and skits that propel the album along at a crisp speed, and though it is largely inconsequential, it is remarkable for a debut album. Then again, Kawatani is a veteran at this point, and its similarity to Gesu makes it seems like cheating to land in this category. I mean, is SuperM a true debut group for that matter either? I make exceptions, but at the busiest time of the year, I don’t have time to play around with these kinds of logistics. In the end, these lists are as inconsequential as this album will be to the history of J-rock, and in the same sense of amusement, and anticipation of more from this group, I’ll allow it.

The debuts wrap up with two outstanding angles: two metal albums from musicians who, with the power of studio wizardry, turn their one-man acts into the sonic equivalents of group therapy. Discovering that Sermon’s Birth of the Marvellous and Ethereal Darkness’s Smoke and Shadows were essentially the products of a single mind was quite lovely: neither of these albums are seamless at hiding the flaws inherent in attempting to be their own islands, but they are achievements nonetheless, and as debuts, they promise future improvement with a little extra experience and resources at their disposable. Now contrast this with the technical proficiency of a group like Paladin: any band would be lucky to release Ascension as a second or third album, but these guys pulled off a nearly-flawless debut. In some ways this could be a handicap, as it will be hard to top this thrilling mix of thrash and power metal. But I look forward to the attempt and encourage everyone to keep an eye on this group.

Keep an eye on all of these people: the excitement of debut albums is the herald of new voices, new sounds, of getting to be a part of an artist’s journey from day one. They’re all at different stages of their evolution on that day, but Summer Walker, Mabel, Runaway June, and all the artists who didn’t quite make this list, have one thing in common: the ability to blow you away, now or in the future.

Summer Walker: Over It // GENIE HIGH: GENIE HIGH STORY

Ethereal Darkness: Smoke and Shadows // Sermon: Birth of the Marvellous

ARIAZ: Grand Opera // Slayyyter: Slayyyter

TXT: THE DREAM CHAPTER: STAR // LIZ: Planet Y2K

Paladin: Ascension // Sigrid: Sucker Punch

Honorable Mentions

Cherry Bullet: Let’s Play Cherry Bullet
Mabel: High Expectations
Felivers: Felivers
Runaway June: Blue Roses
Dreamchaser: Heart