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
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
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
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
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
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
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”
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”
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
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”
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”
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.