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 releaseded 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.

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