Top ten East Asian pop/rock albums of 2020

In a year that I dedicated myself to listening to as many albums in the top ten of various physical and streaming Japanese and Korean charts as I could, I was struck, as usual, by how many of the best albums were those on the periphery, those that just missed out, or never even saw the top thirty. But I was as equally struck, as usual, by how big and fun and all-encompassing pop albums are, as long as you’re willing to dig a little, to slog through the ten or twenty average or terrible albums to unearth the one that reiterates why it’s so important to listen as carefully, and widely, as possible. This year, we all took comfort in the familiar as much as possible, and many of the names on this list reflect that bias. The real surprise this year was how little it mattered, and how good it felt, list-making album or not, to see old favorites step up to the plate and bravely deliver what they were capable of in a year they very well could have sat back and took a well-deserved break. Here, in chronological order, are ten of my favorite. (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.) Thanks for spending the whole week looking back with me!

LatuLatu: Mangekyou ETERNITY
(2020.01.22)

LatuLatu were billed by HMV as a “desktop rock unit” that gained some fame on TikTok in 2019, but Mangekyou ETERNTY, the band’s first mini-album boasts an ambition beyond the boundaries of an office chair. Full of energy and earnestness, this quick shot of high-speed J-rock proves that while hibernating, J-rock is not nearly as listless or dead as any number of Oricon or streaming charts might have you believe. It feels like LatuLatu have the ability to breathe some fresh air into the lungs of a sometimes anemic, sometimes too anime-pop-reliant genre, a challenge that subsequent singles have proven they’re up to.

Sumire Uesaka: NEO PROPAGANDA
(2020.01.22)

For years, Uesaka has cultivated a uniquely gifted hyper-pop sound, one reliant on styles as far-reaching as idol-pop, chiptune, techno, metal, and military marches. Somehow, she makes them all work, creating a world so sonically exciting, it’s practically visual. NEO PROPAGANDA is just another installment in that ultra 4K world of poly-tempos and speed shifts. The album boasts song writers both old and new like Kenji Ohtsuki, Ryohei Shima of The Dresscodes, and MOSAIC.WAV who have imbued the album with all the hallmarks that have defined her sound from rolling Rs and high-pitched shrieks, to gonzo interpretations of Russian culture. So much unpredictability would make it an exhausting trek if it weren’t so much fun.

Reol: Kinjito
(2020.01.22)

Reol may be new to the J-pop scene but her sound is now as old as the first wave of electro-house that hit shores a la Nakata in the mid-00s. In fact, with her vocals turned up to computer glitch, she sounds remarkably like J-pop’s other blink-and-you’ll-miss-her indie-android, MAA, who released Monkey Kingdom exactly ten years ago, signed to a major, and promptly disappeared. One hopes Reol’s bio will read differently; Reol hopes so, too, with the aptly titled Kinjito, the culmination of years presumably learning how to push buttons, and cut and paste, in just the right ways. While the sound itself is nothing unique, Reol brings a charm and warm perspective to a sometimes erratic and jarring genre that can often feel downright arctic. Here’s hoping we see more from this personality than we did from those whose footsteps she’s following.

Shuta Sueyoshi: pret a porter
(2020.02.12)

Sueyoshi has spent the last few years carving a small groove in J-pop for himself, one he can now comfortably afford to dig into as AAA goes on hiatus. Following the release of 2018’s JACK IN THE BOX and last year’s EP WONDER HACK, pret a porter is Sueyoshi on his continual quest for the ever-elusive male solo star label, one coveted by many and achieved by almost none. While pret a porter doesn’t signal a victory, it does point in the right direction, a laid back blend of ironed out R&B and dance-pop-lite that wears its vocalist’s experience more than the desperate, youthful hunger of so many newcomers. It’ll take a bit more oomph to stand out and prove he’s worth sticking out for, but in a year of few direct contenders, pret a porter is a perfectly edible slice of contemporary Avex, with plenty of fun on the side.

ONEPIXCEL: LIBRE
(2020.02.26)

It’s not easy being a J-pop trio, not when you debut in hopes of drawing upon the same fan pool as Perfume and callme (or kolme, as it were now), and definitely not when you want to transition to the level of a Fairies or GEM or E-girls at a time when all of those groups have or are on the verge of disbanding. But in fact, this makes a group like ONEPIXCEL all the more vital, women singing for other women and girls and themselves, and boys and men, too, if they want, not exclusively for the hearts and pocketbooks of a convenient niche. Backed by an audaciously Avex-pop sophomore album, LIBRE, ONEPIXCEL make their struggle look and sound as fun as it should. As a veritable anomaly I applaud them. And pray.

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

In 2020, we reached peak-Enon Kawatani. With fingers in various pies, all maintaining consistency in brand and sound, and numerous releases flooding the market, we’re just at the beginning of what could be the end. So, with goodwill precarious, but still intact, it’s a good time to celebrate STREAMING, CD, RECORD. While the album doesn’t land the same punches as the group’s early records, it’s by no means a lackluster addition. Whether extensions of his other projects, or leftovers, it’s pure Kawatani, all dandy pianos, studied rap-singing, and audaciously wacky interludes, on par with the seasoned, almost so-easy-it’s-boring vibes Kawatani is giving off. This can easily start to fall into the existential throes of condescension for either his work or his audience, but for now, Kawatani still manages to make it sound easy in the spirit of experience, rather than cynicism.

BBHF: BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-
(2020.09.02)

Across all genres and languages, BBHF’s BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-, 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, is one of the greatest albums of the year. 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; “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. During a year we all had to navigate a new world, it was easy to relate to a desire to leave it all behind and start somewhere new. But as the hero discovers for himself, there is no genuine escape, only the boring, unromantic work of dealing with baggage you can never leave behind anywhere you go, today, tomorrow, and every day for the rest of your life.

TAEMIN: Never Gonna Dance Again : Act 1
(2020.09.07)

SHINee-member TAEMIN released two solo EPs this year, and it is the first of the pair that continues to shine, leading with the slinky single “Criminal,” and “2 KIDS.” Unlike the second set, which so desperately needed to balance Never Gonna Dance Again : Act 1‘s darker side and didn’t, Act 1 showcases TAEMIN as man who comes alive in the pageantry of performance with a sound down pat from a lifetime of training and practice. 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. It’s a thin line between indulging and wallowing but Act 1 gets it right, incorporating some more uptempo tracks like previous Japanese hit “FAMOUS” to illustrate TAEMIN’s ability to be both artist and pop star, one of the closest living talents we have to the Super Stars of old.

SuperM: SuperOne
(2020.09.25)

SM’s answer to BTS is SuperM, their “Avengers” super group, featuring members hand-picked from groups SHINee, EXO, NCT, and WayV. But while good looks and unique abilities have captured the attention of long-time fans and curious, new eyes, it has been up to the music itself to deliver the final ingredient. For their first full-length album, SM spared no expense in flexing their resources, pouring massive amounts of time and budget into the songwriters who chorus, by verse, by sample, by effect, stitched together a defining statement for the group, one perhaps leaning a bit too heavily on aggressive boy-band energy with typically masculine imagery (fast cars! motorcycles! predatory animals!), but that bares its teeth in the service of catchy hooks and of-the-moment trends nearly pile-driving each other into infinity. Super One nails it: with no expense spared, it sounds just as rich as it cost, and just as good, too, the best pop money can buy. And 2020 is a year we all deserved to splurge.

TWICE: Eyes wide open
(2020.10.26)

TWICE continues to defy expectations with their releases, a not always welcome back and forth between otherworldly, next-level pop, and head-scratching hiccups. Like last year’s Feel Special, Eyes wide open is the former, a deliciously indulgent callback to K-pop’s dance roots, with lead track “I CAN’T STOP ME” recalling groups like T-ara and Dal Shabet at their best. The synthy 80’s sound finds further purchase in songs like “UP NO MORE” and “DO WHAT WE LIKE,” stopping only for lower-key vibes on the back half, like “GO HARD” and “HANDLE IT.” The entire album is like a guided tour of the best of the last decade in K-pop girl groups, from 2NE1 to WJSN, all the way up to BLACKPINK, and while this might not say much for TWICE specifically, it makes for a particularly cozy listening experience that surprises and delights with each track.

Honorable Mentions

Mia REGINA: MIAUSEUM -CURATION-
Ayaka Ohashi WINGS
CY8ER: Tokyo
KAI (EXO): KAI
RINGOMUSUME: Cool & Country

As luck would have it: SM Entertainment & SuperM

You can just imagine the increasingly horrific consternation crossing the features of SM execs over the past two years, as BTS, the K-pop boy band from not one of the Big Three, broke more barriers and records then any previous group before them. Being the first South Korean group to hit #1 on the Hot 100 (for two consecutive weeks) must have hit particularly hard for an entertainment agency that has carefully leveraged every last one of its resources into building a reputation for the nation’s best and brightest pop music. Building an empire takes a lot of time and meticulous planning, capital and vast resources, and enormous talent and likable personalities, but it also takes one fickle factor no one has any control over: luck. That last elusive ingredient has changed everything for BTS. In 2020, the boy band’s track record now includes high-profile appearances on American talk shows (day and night), award shows, magazine cover stories, and the privilege of having physical copies of their CD albums stocked in big stores with tiny, exclusive shelf space like Target. SM Entertainment might have laid the very important groundwork, but you can imagine how they might be seething over not reaping the same prestige and pride that Big Hit does for really cracking the code (what other purpose does giving SuperM the same initials as the company serve, other than ego?).

We’re now seeing changes and accommodations for K-pop in the music industry that fans could only dream about ten years ago, including category designations for major awards and charts (my favorite is Billboard’s new Global 200 and Global Excl. US). Certainly, K-pop can’t be credited on its own, not with the hard work and patience of groups with global-popularity like BABYMETAL and Perfume, but the popularity that BTS ushered in has done something unique in America — the very sloth-like, near-miraculous job of normalizing and reinforcing Asian pop music and celebrity, of folding it into mainstream culture the way anime and manga has been doing over the last few decades.

This tentative embracing of Asian culture and celebrities for the long-term benefits everyone: the leading trade publication in the US for music sales, has expanded its coverage in recent years to artists like Perfume, Kenshi Yonezu, and Arashi. Finally coming to terms with the enormous influence and success of the business overseas and its potential to generate revenue stateside, it created an entire K-pop subsection on its web site. These aren’t trifles, and it comes with its stumbling blocks (K-pop, for example, is still mostly “other,” and the creation of all of these separate categories says a lot about how it’s still handled in a way to keep it carefully segregated from everyday, Western pop), but it’s progress. All of these highlights are important not because Western coverage legitimizes East Asian pop culture, but because some of these changes acknowledge that it is more than a one-hit wonder or passing phenomenon stateside, and is here for the stay, with those at the top finally making an effort to ensure it. And if BTS’s lasting success in all of this is what is takes to keep that fire lit under SM, I’m all for it.

SM’s answer to BTS is SuperM, their “Avengers” super group, featuring members hand-picked from groups SHINee, EXO, NCT, and WayV. All of them bring good looks and particular talents to the group, from dance to vocals to affable personality as a group constructed solely for the purpose of courting the same kind of success in the US that BTS has. The obvious rivalry would be comedic if it weren’t so earnest. After dropping their first EP last year with the earworm-y “Jopping” (because not only are they here to prove that they are the better K-pop boy band, they are also the more innovative!), the group returns this month with their first full-length album Super One, which includes the digital singles “Tiger Inside,” and “100,” both sequels exploiting aggressive boy-band energy with slick, metallic CGI, typically masculine imagery (fast cars! motorcycles! predatory animals!), and the kind of fast-paced, robust choreography that makes two hours of cardio at the gym seem like a warm-up. Pay particular attention to the song titles and lyrics, purposely selected to exploit its fan base and maximize its brand. This is the kind of album as clinical in its musical approach as the group’s construction itself, which of course, makes it no less methodical than any other major-label pop album.

Super One is not perfect, but like its predecessor, it mostly checks out. Longtime fans will appreciate the SM hallmarks all over here: the polished hooks and spotless production, the professional approach to songwriting and structure down to a precise science but infused with the lustrous X-factor that makes a song not just a song, but a hit. There’s some filler (“Better Days”) and some obvious condescension to trends that annoy more than they succeed (“Drip”), but other songs, like the lead titles “One (Monster & Infinity),” while clearly re-hashed concepts from EXO, are no less fun or aptivating for their lack of originality. It’s a very different approach than that of BTS’s, which is perhaps why though SuperM is doing well, they’re still not at the same level of fanatical popularity. SuperM lacks the organic chemistry of BTS, and the wide-eyed and earnest DIY approach to songwriting the group is known for. As an SM group, this is exactly what one would expect, and I don’t think we’d really want it any other way.

However it does highlight the company’s ongoing quest for that ever elusive ingredient: luck. SM refuses to give in to their lack of it, instead doubling down with Super One on skill, talent, money, the psychology of fans and consumers, and aggressive marketing campaigns. Concentrating on these objectives can give the company a sense of control in a situation almost completely out of their hands: the reception and embrace of fans and a wider audience outside of South Korea. Certainly doing all of the above gives them an enormous advantage, but it’s no fail-safe, and it will be interesting to see how the album does in the next few months with touring and meet-and-greets still unsafe in the U.S, and yet another new BTS album scheduled for release in November. While this story develops, stay tuned for a week of BTS on Jimmy Fallon!

[ Image credit ]