An appears tumblr year-end round-up

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Though this, the appears music blog, features all of my long-form writing and reviews, I have written some longer, interesting things over at tumblr, including my most popular post of the year. Please let me know if you’d prefer all the writing to stay over here or if you like having some “exclusive” content in the form of retrospectives and thought-pieces at the tumblr.

Here are some highlights of the year (and don’t forget you can browse the Notable Releases tag for new and upcoming releases):

Arrest of former AKB48 manager reveals illicit footage of members: A take on one of the most messed up stories in J-pop this year.

Ai Otsuka retweeted my review of LOVE TRiCKY!: Still as fabulous as the day it happened.

Dil Dhadakne Do: What looked good and bad about the title song.

It doesn’t belong in a song: Amit Trivedi’s Shaandaar: Amit Trivedi’s first genuine flop as a music composer.

T.M.Revolution’s “HEART OF SWORD ~Yoake Mae~”: A retrospective.

Hikaru Utada’s “Movin’ on without you”: A retrospective.

Ayumi Hamasaki’s “evolution”: A retrospective.

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400 blows: A few greatest hits

After reading Elisabeth Vincentelli’s contribution to the 33 1/3 series, ABBA GOLD, I’m left thinking less about defending ABBA (because I really don’t think they need to be defended any longer; they’re kind of pop royalty, having finally been critically acknowledged), and more about defending greatest hits compilations in general, much of which Vincentelli discusses in the introduction. I used to be opposed to compilations for the simple reason that I wanted to be a part of a band as much as possible and thought the only way to do that would be to listen to entire, original albums, particularly in chronological order; if I couldn’t be a part of U2’s progression through the 80s, I wanted to at least be there synthetically. But in reality that’s sort of impossible: just being alive and breathing assures you’ve heard dozens of songs by artists out of chronological and even cultural context.

Today I think compilations are a good starting ground for unfamiliar artists; the only problem arises when these compilations are the best a group has to offer. These so-called “singles bands” shouldn’t exactly be written out of the canon, maybe just re-imagined to a hearkening of a not-so-long-ago time when singles were all that mattered and albums were those things that nobody really bought. However, thanks in part to The Beatles and Brian Wilson, who helped create the modern concept of an album, we now have a po-mo concept of compilations:

There’s perceived to be something distinctly second-rate about compilations, like sending a pre-printed thank-you note instead of a hand-written one: It smacks of an after-thought, something that can’t be taken quite seriously. Worst of all, it smacks of something done for purely mercantile reasons. Since bands and record companies have recouped their recording and promotional expenses, compilations are what happens when someone wants to make quick cash. They’re also what happens when a band is in a creative quagmire, or on hiatus, or gone: the reminder of something that was, not the promise of something that could be. (Vincentelli 7)

I can think of plenty of artists the dreaded “compilation” has affected negatively; Chihiro’s post-EMI split releases that really were outright manipulative cash cows, Ayumi Hamasaki’s A BEST, which she vehemently opposed, going so far as to appear in tears on the front cover, and pretty much all of hide’s compilations which serve as nothing more than posthumous dividends. And that’s just three artists off the top of my head. But conceivably, there may have been some bands that really were just the sum of a dozen really great songs. That isn’t to say that their contribution to music history is really any less (not if we’re looking at quality over quantity) but simply that they may not have been built for rock operas or extended concepts, instead, flourishing in the reduced brilliance of three or four minute mini-epics. Vincentelli notes that “acknowledging that your favorite band’s most important album is a compilation somehow casts a pall on the band itself – and thus on your judgment for championing that group” (5) but I don’t necessarily think that’s true, depending on the artist (and so doesn’t she, not really). I don’t think a lot of people  (especially critics) would pick a greatest hits album by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, or even Michael Jackson as their favorite, even if, statistically speaking, that album is the artists’ best seller.  But in acknowledging that greatest hits do have merit somewhere in this great big universe, and that ABBA’s GOLD is already de facto number one (don’t believe me? read the book), here are ten more of my favorite greatest hits compilations:

Golden Earring: The Continuing Story of Radar Love (1989)

I may be pushing this one a bit too far; how easy could it possibly be to scale down a band who, up until 1989, had released nineteen original albums? Probably if most of the albums weren’t all that great. In the 60s, Golden Earring (known as The Golden Earrings) sounded like  any other British band, except nobody really cared about a little band from The Hague, except maybe people in the Hague. In the early 70s, Golden Earring, like many bands, re-focused their style and released “Radar Love,” a song you may recognize from classic rock stations or the second Wayne’s World movie. It wouldn’t be until 1983 that they released their first U.S. #1 with “Twilight Zone” a very rich, very long, rock epic that has become something of a musical swan song (very sad for the “oldest rock band in the world“), aptly noted by its inclusion as the last track on the CD and not the first. The Continuing Story of Radar Love isn’t necessarily the ultimate collection of Golden Earring songs (again nineteen albums; twelve songs) but it does offer a broad representation of their sound (rock with an honest, sometimes pop, sensibility in its melodies), encompasses two of their most beloved songs, and by omitting any mention of ‘greatest hits’ or ‘definitive collection,’ even purports an answer to Vincentelli’s point that compilations are the end, and not the beginning.

T.M.Revolution: UNDER:COVER (2006)

What’s so great about this greatest hits compilation is that it’s not even technically a greatest hits compilation; instead, Takanori Nishikawa, the main man behind the name, re-sung, re-arranged, and re-mixed fourteen songs in his catalog. While the choices aren’t all that great, the new versions of each of the tracks are. T.M.R’s style hasn’t really changed significantly, though Nishikawa’s other band abingdon boys school, probably had an influence on making the songs heavier, faster and more electric. There is no in between on UNDER:COVER: tracks like “THUNDERBIRD” have been restrained and taken down to the barest essentials, while “Twinkle Million Rendezvous” has a full orchestra. It may not be the best place to lead someone unfamiliar with the band’s work, but it certainly makes it worth purchasing for long-time fans.

Blondie: The Best of Blondie (1981)

Nobody will deny Blondie’s contribution to music history; however, though the studio efforts may have be more important, they’re certainly not as fun. It also says a lot that despite more than half a dozen more compilations following its release, 1981’s The Best of Blondie still has every single track that made Blondie so enjoyable. From the disco-inspired “Heart of Glass” to the punk-smeared “Hanging on the Telephone” the best of Blondie really does have every popular and well-loved Blondie song, in all its evolutionary glory.

Tommy heavenly6: Gothic Melting Ice Cream’s Darkness Nightmare (2009)

This album is almost farcical considering Tomoko Kawase only released two albums under this moniker (and she released a greatest hits for her Tommy february6 persona that same day). I think this compilation was meant to be a sort of end in a musical perspective (and one in a very poor direction, I was to learn). However, this compilation really does encapsulate the best of the two discs she did manage to release. Sure, it might be missing those really cool B-side acoustic versions of “Lost my pieces” and “+gothic Pink+” but it includes both singles and good album-cuts (“fell in love with you”/”2Bfree”) without being bogged down by too many fictitiously good B-sides. Though it may seem redundant to ardent fans of Tommy heavenly6’s work, it trumps the worst aspects of the sometimes filler-tracked self-titled Tommy heavenly6 and Heavy Starry Heavenly.

Whitesnake: The Definitive Collection (2006)

I’m not sure most 80’s rock bands weren’t sewn for greatest hits; most people remember Def Leppard, Skid Row, and Poison for a handful of singles, schmaltz, and not much else. But while a lot of commercial-oriented bands took themselves too seriously (Bon Jovi) or not seriously enough (Motley Crue), Whitesnake kind of fell in between. They had David Coverdale, a glam-ham by any other name, and his girlfriend, but they also had a classic rock upbringing (at least initially) that influenced what would later amount to a really hard-sell of commercial rock. You could argue that Whitesnake’s Greatest Hits released in 1994 gets the job done, but I prefer the sequencing of The Definitive Collection for a few reasons: 1) it opens with more blues-rock pieces that says something about the band’s origins, 2) it chooses songs from more than just three albums (as good as they were), and 3) um, why not a few extra tracks? While 2008’s 30th Anniversary Collection took things a bit too far (3 discs? really?), The Definitive Collection remains…a definitive collection of really great Whitesnake tunes that doesn’t make you feel excessively bad for liking something so perversely wonderful.

B’z: The Best “ULTRA” Pleasure (2008)

Speaking of excess, there’s a difference between too much and just enough; sometimes less really is more, at least in the case of B’z. For a band that has been around twenty-one years, owning all sixteen of their albums is quite unnecessary. This 2-disc compilation contains some of the best singles of the band’s career, all remastered to perfection (and I really mean that; some remasters just make things louder or less fuzzy, but these songs really sound phenomenal with a good pair of headphones), trumping 1998’s single-disc The Best Pleasure, while including some of the band’s later work on disc 2.

Nanase Aikawa: ID (1999)

Nanase Aikawa’s first hits compilation features all of her best songs with a few notable exceptions from 2000’s Foxtrot (for obvious reasons), but it hardly matters much; Aikawa’s style was already changing with the new millennium and ID chronicles her short, but fruitful career as an 80’s metal-influenced 90’s alterna-chick. Since I was never interested in her post-90’s output, it only makes sense that ID says everything good about Aikawa without eluding to what would later become subdued, restrained pop rock.

Stevie Nicks: Timespace: The Best of Stevie Nicks (1991)

I had two choices: I could pick Crystal Visions or Timespace, and without hesitation, I chose Timespace; Crystal Visions is bogged down by not enough great songs and too many live cuts (though I do really like the live version of “Rhiannon,” it’s not even a Stevie Nicks song, belonging to the Fleetwood Mac canon). Timespace, on the other hand, contains everything good and wonderful about the mystical “Reigning Queen of Rock and Roll” that not even multi-platinum albums like Bella Donna and The Wild Heart could do. It features some of her best collaborations (with Tom Petty, Bon Jovi, and Prince – yes, that’s him playing synth on “Stand Back”), along with the surrealist mix of rock and magic that has made her so entertaining (both musically and personally). Fleetwood Mac may have been more pure in its genre, but Nicks challenges the foundations of that trade through her unique vocals, bluesy swagger and mystical inspiration. I’ll always enjoy Nicks more for her most successful tunes than the albums that comprised them.

Pet Shop Boys: Discography: The Complete Singles Collection (1991)

If ABBA threw their arms around the flighty, four minute pop song, the Pet Shop Boys carried the dropped torch into the 80s. Nobody is going to deny that the Pet Shop Boys wrote some excellent albums, all which contained great songs – but the Pet Shop Boys will be most remembered for their mastery over what would be the singles’ last flourishing decade. Discography, released right before the start of their most disappointing albums, is the epitome of all things quick and consumable about pop music, tinged with a misty aura of italo disco; everybody knows these songs are unmistakably from one of the gluttonous decades that would later result in both backlash and an endless revival. But Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant never tried to do anything but make really fun music and they accomplished just that with an elegant pride. With an injection of wit, sarcasm, and intelligence, every single song on this compilation is more than an ode to the great theme of pop (love and all its permutations), it’s also an ode to the ennui of suburbs, religious guilt, making money (or trying to), loving someone (because he/she pays your rent), and political headlines (though in a somewhat pointedly disaffected way). ABBA may have made it look easy, but the Pet Shop Boys made it look appealing.

Journey: The Essential Journey (2001)

This might be a bit far-fetched; The Essential Journey doesn’t have any songs from their first three albums (a real pity, as I find them genuinely interesting and meritable classic rock); but what it lacks in musical self-awareness, it makes up for in personal self-awareness: Steve Perry’s vocals put Journey on the map and the band kind of knows that. The Essential Journey caters to the lowest common denominator by compiling really great singles from a band that not everyone will admit to liking, but whose songs have become staples of American rock (I imagine “Don’t Stop Believin'” might be one of the most definitive American rock songs, but that’s debatable and I’m still working through the counter-arguments – for one, that Journey sure isn’t an indestructible band, being marred by a few poor records that have driven them and their fans into a closet, and two, that their very inclusion on this list is something of a double-edged sword that denies their right to that privilege; clearly, I believe a greatest hits collection is better than any one of their original albums, putting the issue of single-bands versus album-bands at odds all over again). Journey was never an album-oriented band, though their albums as a whole were huge sellers, particularly from 1978 to 1983. There are some strange choices that mar disc 2 (“Chain Reaction” is a good song off of Frontiers, but “Troubled Child” is much more powerful), but that’s even if you get that far – disc 1 is really all you need, and the only reason I didn’t pick 1988’s Greatest Hits is for its exclusion of “After the Fall.” There’s nothing really essential about most essential compilations (especially those with more than one disc) – except for this one.

Do you think the ‘greatest hits’ compilation has any true merit? Which artists do you think flourish in the greatest hits format – and which don’t?

HIGH and MIGHTY COLOR’s “HOT LIMIT”

HIGH and MIGHTY COLOR / HOT LIMIT / June 25, 2008
01. HOT LIMIT

One of the strangest music videos I have ever seen in my life is for T.M.Revolution’s “HOT LIMIT.” Released ten years ago, the video features Takanori Nishikawa on an orange star-shaped platform in the middle of the ocean, belting out his vibrato-drenched lyrics in nothing but strips of black cloth. Never one for subtlety, Nishikawa’s determination to be androgynous was almost more apparent than the skin on his body as he shimmied and vogued his way into what can only be described as the most interesting screenshots of 1998. Perhaps more intriguing than his outfit is, however, the concept of the video itself, which is more like a video within a video; not only is this creation filmed as it’s filmed, but the viewer is constantly reminded of the deeper, and perhaps, scarier level of self-awareness. For within all of the dramatics of his “feminine” poses is a performance artist completely aware of how bizarre the entire premise of entertainment can reach in order to grab attention (my favorite part is when one of the glass sheets making up the star platform come unhinged). Or so we hope.

Where HIGH and MIGHTY COLOR fail in their interpretation of the single (and for all purposes, I was more than a little bewildered when I queued up the track and realized what it was) is the sheer uninhibited spirit with which Nishikawa always throws himself into during songs, particularly this one. The songs better suited to him are power ballads and the edgier or fast paced rock numbers (which is where the abingdon boys school project works so brilliantly: it’s a band that has finally cornered its vocalist into the perfect niche) where his elan for sheer volume compliments rather than compromises the songs. Maki, the vocalist of HIGH and MIGHTY COLOR, is simply devoid of passion, leaving the lyrics crooned in a sort of light, feminine tone that leaves me disappointed (although I applaud her attempt to mimic the crazy couture [and even some of the dance moves] in both the video and on the cover of the single). The greatest difference between the two is Maki’s apparent use of her sex which kills both the curiosity and sheer bizzarenes of the original (it’s no surprise Nishikawa cited Prince as his biggest influence), eschewing questions regarding sex and gender politics within both the context of the song and its representation in the music video; the outfit is now a skirt, not shorts and there is nothing closeted in her coy smiles, the stereotypical (of her culture) wide-eyed pout, and straddling of a motorcycle. The other band members confuse me as to the direction of the song, never making it quite clear if they’re going for an interpretation or a reinterpretation (the rap at mid-point indicates the latter). Either way, the organic instruments that compose the bulk of the tracking removes another aspect of the synth pop that made up the original; only a song built completely upon plastic can have the audacity to accompany such lyrics as “Fairies make summer come to life” and “My hot lust is like a tornado.”

The rest of the single is barely worth skimming, as HIGH and MIGHTY COLOR have seized bringing anything new to the table since 2005’s PRIDE (and even then it was HAL’s remix I preferred); “KIRAKIRA Summer” and “MIRROR” don’t even meet their own personal aggressive standard. So far, I’m oh for ten as far as Japanese summer singles go (the disappointments range from Zwei’s DISTANCE to GLAY’s VERB – even T.M.Revolution’s Resonance was an unwelcome break from his school boy alterego). But as Nishikawa managed to find his niche eventually, I suppose HIGH and MIGHTY COLOR might one day realize they’ve already fulfilled theirs.

Official Site
Buy HOT LIMIT

Midpoint of 2006: Time to play catch up

A lot of really awesome stuff has been released this year that I’ve been too lazy/busy to review. Here are some of the year’s personal highlights I missed:

Ayumi Hamasaki – (miss)understood: This CD was packed with so many songs (16) and bonus material (a large photobook and DVD filled with music videos and behind the scenes footage) it was almost ridiculous. Ridiculously awesome. However, it failed to meet my expectations, bearing a sad stamp of quantity over quality. Plus, Sweetbox ruined it. Although I will say this; “is this LOVE?” is one of the greatest B-sides ever written and probably the greatest music video of all time. Also, I applaud Ayumi for staying true to her eclectic genre distribution ratio; it’s hard to believe the rock songs “alterna” and “(miss)understood” are nestled among “fairyland,” “In The Corner,” and “Beautiful Day.” But they are. And though I don’t necessarily love those frivolous pop songs, I love their presence. In the end, I’m half and half on this album although “rainy day” almost makes up for all of that as the beat ticks to the tune of years rolling down your cheeks in it beautiful sadness. Almost.

ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION – FANCLUB: More bad than good. Between the fantastic tracks “Angou no Waltz'” and “TIGHTROPE” lays a band that has reached the point of monotone redundancy. Most of the good songs were previously released singles so the new material didn’t really hold up. If I was a teacher I would give them a C. But I’m not, so I’ll give them a hug and another chance instead.

Lacuna Coil – Karmacode: Surprisingly, I still have not gotten around to buying this CD yet, so I don’t know what it sounds like. However, I did hear “Enjoy the Silence” and as a huge Depeche Mode fan, I was surprised to find it a very well done cover song. “Enjoy the Silence” is one of those songs that is so good, you couldn’t imagine anyone ever being able to redo it on the same level, but it’s pretty damn good and about five million times better than that sad In Flames cover, although between you and me, I refuse to acknowledge its existence. That particular cover is dead to me.

T.M.Revolution – UNDER:COVER: The last time I spoke of T.M.Revolution, I spoke of his dwindling career. The last I heard of him, he was performing at nerd-tastic anime cons in the United States and sporting two tones in his longish mane of hair that oh so subtly split down the middle of his hairline. I was all set to mock this man and make fun of my previous obsession with him and his music, but god damnit, then he put out this album, which could very well be the best cover album ever produced. Anyone can cover Beatles’ songs or Bloc Party songs, but who the Hell has the balls to cover their own songs? Takanori Nishikawa, that’s who. For this album, he basically went back to the dusty archives of his discography and remade old singles and popular songs with so much energy and soul, you can’t even really tell they’re old songs they so sound so fantastically new. And delicious. Mm mmm. From the hard rock of “Joker” (this was once a pop song?) to the simple piano backing of “THUNDERBIRD,” to the rock orchestrated “Yume no Shizuka” to all the other songs on this CD, the songs grab hold of you, and by George, they will not let go. Not that you would want them to. Taka, you have made me proud to be a fan once again. I will no longer mock you for singing at the anime cons. All is forgiven.

Mindless Self Indulgence – Straight To Video: Awesome, awesome single. I already wrote somewhat of their single in a previous article devoted solely to them, but it’s worth repeating; buy this CD if only to own that Birthday Massacre masterpiece of a remix. Sure, the tune gets redundant after a while and the song is so catchy it almost hurts, but among the many remixes of the title track lays precise and deliberate melodies that without their parent tune, would still be free-roaming, brilliant arrangements. Well done, my dirty, Mindless & co.

T.M.R.: Slowly rising or quickly falling?

OK, I’ll admit it. I was a huge T.M.Revolution fan back in the day when he released progress. This was around the time when I first started getting interested in Japanese music in general and to me, his sound and look were both new and exciting. Now, almost four years later, the man has decided to release some new music, a follow up to his newfound fame at Tofu Records and the American anime scene. And honestly, what the fuck?

It’s sad that T.M.R’s fame has been put to such shame as to be relentlessly tied into anime promotions just to have his music heard and sold. However, with a quick listen to his latest album SEVENTH HEAVEN it’s pretty obvious why: there’s nothing new. The album has the same sound and feel of progress, released four years prior. I guess it’s not such a shame to recycle such redundant music for new fans who haven’t his work before but what about his older fans? Shouldn’t his sound revolve around the idea that his fans are also four years older and looking for something a bit new and different?

It’s also questionable why they chose T.M.R in particular to represent the Jpop scene by playing so many lives at anime cons here. If we’re going down the Jpop route, it’s misleading to attach someone with his unique sound as a staple of Jpop to newfound listeners who might mistake his eccentricity as a write-off for the rest of the Japanese artists. Let’s face it, T.M.R does not come close to the “pop” that’s being put out there. And while we’re on the subject of propaganda, Nami Tamaki (another anime con performer in the US) isn’t either.

I guess what I’m trying to get across here is that this whole anime-con thing is one big silly promotional method to try and get “Jpop” popular here in the U.S. Unfortunately, by attaching these artists to anime-cons, they’re just making the whole thing seem geeky and inaccessible with T.M.R getting stuck in the crossfire. It’s too early to tell how this is affecting his popularity in Japan (wait, what popularity?), but it’s pretty obvious this has given his career a boost (prior, he hadn’t released anything for ages), but just how long can he keep releasing the same sounding tunes before both American and Japanese fans get annoyed enough to finally stop buying his albums?