It’s been a long year, and hate it or love it, 2016 will be one people remember.
Across the world, it’s been a very bittersweet year for music, with tragedy, and greatness coming in equal measure. In Japan however, it’s been mostly sweet. From the little college dorm punk-rock bands, to the biggest names in Japanese music. Japan had a great 2016, and has put out some of the years best music for us to enjoy. These are Overblown’s ten best Japanese albums of 2016.
11. Honorable Mention: Kinoko Teikoku – 愛のゆくえ
Kinoko Teikoku has been one of Japanese indie’s biggest exports over the past four years. In that time they have made their way from alt-rock to shoegaze to pop-rock, before finally landing on a uniquly Kinoko brand of dream pop with last years 猫とアレルギー. With 愛のゆくえ, it looks like they’ve finally settled down for a moment (minus the tinges of Dub influence). The sound, a more refined version of that occasionally shoegazey and harsh brand of dream-pop, is incredibly forlorn, and lost-in-the-clouds, with crashing-to-the-ground change ups as guitars often come bursting into the mix. It’s not nearly as experimental, or scene-defining as their first few albums, but immensly rewarding in its own, more refined way. And the first of their major label efforts to provide an entirely satisfying experience from front to back. The time to sit back and refine on a singular sound has apparently done them well, as the album’s short 9 tracks feel honed, and absolutely necessary as a singular unit, managing to capture both Kinoko’s pop sensibility and experimental tendencies together in harmony.
Similar to: Beach House, My Bloody Valentine, and Asobi Seksu
10. The Gerogerigegege – 燃えない灰 (Moenai Hai)
Absolutely essential 80s and 90s noisecore outfit Gerogerigegege returns after 17 years of album silence with another completely unexpected effort. Merging dark ambient, noise rock, and field recording into four, eight minute plus tracks, Gerogerigegege makes no effort to settle back in, or make anything less than the most boundary pushing music possible. The ambient moments are haunting and unsettling, with aching metal and concrete being washed over silent tape recordings, and muddy synth washes. And they only serve to keep you feeling on edge enough to scare the actual daylight out of you when the massive, ear-splitting noise rock comes ripping in unexpectedly and without warning. Distorted screams, and wails ride over guitars so gargantuan and distorted they make Sunn O))) look like heavy metal. Moenai Hai is an album that incredibly picks up as if 17 years hadn’t passed, while simultaneously sounding like something that could have only existed in 2016.
Similar to: Sunn 0)), Boris, Ben Frost, and Painkiller
9. Uyama Hiroto – Freeform Jazz
Frequent collaborator of internationally renowned hip-hop producer Nujabes, Uyama Hiroto has been working hard to get himself outside one of hip-hop’s biggest shadow since Nujabes unfortunate, and untimely death. It doesn’t help that Uyama Hiroto makes music in a very similar field to Nujabes, so his name pops up quite often when people are looking for more music “like Nujabes”. But with Freeform Jazz, Uyama takes a big step into his own legacy. Where Nujabes was a master of finding the perfect groove, and sample flip, and then giving it the minimal layerings on top, Uyama instead creates some of the densest instrumental jazz hip-hop out today. Layers of brass sit over complex rhythms, and waves of dreamy synth. It’s hazy, and laid back enough to let you close your eyes and relax to, but the flavor of it is really unique, it’s not background music to work or sleep to, it has this propulsion that makes you want to get up and walk through the city, it’s the perfect NY Subway album if you get what I mean.
Similar to: Nujabes, Madlib, and Pete Rock
8. Fraqsea – Star Cocktail
Fraqsea, the alias of Aya, a member of the excellent dream-pop/shoegaze outfit Shelling, follows up 2013’s Majoram with the much more electronically focused Star Cocktail. Adding another piece to a long lineage of boundary pushing ambient-pop artists from Japan. She has this warm, tuneful voice that could have easily been applied to loud, sugary, and conventional J-pop music, but instead she chose to work her voice into low key, dream-pop influenced electronics, that melt and envelop her multi-tracked harmonies. The songs are primarily mellow, playing in low BPM, and warm textures, with a few notable detours into more conventional dance music where she proves she’s capable of excelling in a great deal of musical avenues, something that sets her apart from a lot of her ambient-pop peers. Fans of ambient-pop music will note a very noticeable similarity to cokiyu and the flau label’s brand of hazy, lazy day music. With Star Cocktail Fraqsea has painted her name in bright red letters as an artist that’s just getting started.
Similar To: Múm, Bjork, and Cokiyu
7. Metafive – Meta
Do you like your pop music retro and smooth? Would you describe 24K Magic as your “banger of the year”? Than Japan’s newest supergroup is making music for you. Formed by Yukihiro Takahashi, lead singer of legendary japanese synth-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra, and consisting of some of the biggest names in Japanese electronic music, including Keigo Oyamada of Cornelius, Yoshinori Sunahara of Denki Groove, TOWA TEI, Tomohiko Gondo, and LEO Imai. Together they make the smoothest, 80’s styled progressive pop music of the year, in Japan and across the world.
Every synth note is shimmering and silky, every vocal performance high-pitched, and sex filled. And on top of that incredibly physical, and immediate music, it features some of the most progressive pop instrumentation coming out of Japan right now, and that’s quite an achievement in Japan’s world of pop experimentalism. The lead vocals of Leo Imai are sung primarily in English, and demonstrate a commendable sense of tone, and force, as he rises over a wall of musical ideas to grab at your attention. They serve as a nice contrast to the much more refined, and textured vocals of Yukihiro Takahashi. Despite the incredible diversity of talent in Metafive, they seem remarkably singular in their vision, building songs that feel labored on, and pulled back for the lead singer to stake his claim on. A breath of fresh air after a lifetime of supergroups doing nothing but disappointing.
Similar To: YMO, Peter Gabriel, and Blue Nile
6. Mitsume – A Long Day
Mitsume have been making incredibly summery indie rock, and slacker rock for almost five years to surprisingly little fanfare outside of Japan. Their bored sunday afternoon vocal harmonies drift on plucky guitars, and propulsive drums, similar to many a classic 80’s college rock band, but the soft textures, and nostalgic tone is distinctly Japanese, and distinctly Mitsune. On A Long Day they prove they are writing some of the best pop-leaning indie rock out of Japan, and more importantly can consistently deliver that incredible music for a full length album, something many of their peers in both Japan and America struggle with. Every song captures a different angle to staring out the window, but feels essential to the album’s progression in its own way, from the shimmering chords of the jangle-poppy Wasureru, to the murky alt-rock of the album’s’ closer, Happiness. It’s an album that evokes simple joys, and proves that indie rock has some pop sensibility left in it.
Similar to: The Smiths, Mac Demarco, and The Field Mice
5. Funeral Moth – Transience
For the people who like their metal more experimental, and their soundscapes to be oppressive, Funeral Moth are on the cutting edge of bleak. The drums are sparse and pummeling, the vocals are growled and manic, and the guitars stretch to the horizon, it’s exactly what you think “Funeral Doom” would sound like. Built into 20 minute epics, Transience is the logical conclusion of Funeral Moth’s previous work on dense fog, moving from one guitar to two, to maximum, dreary effect. It lumbers between moments of great clarity and beauty, and those pummeling, and oppressive moments that take the air out of the room, and inspire its listener to burn the nearest church. It’s a doom metal album that pushes the emotional depths that metal can plunge, while retaining something very immediate that makes it hard to look away. We recently caught up with Funeral Moth for an interview, and guitarist and vocalist Makoto Fujishima told us that he felt that “I’m an optimistic type person and don’t care so much about negative matters”, after listening to Transience, forgive me if I don’t believe him.
Similar To: Esoteric, Skepticism, and Shape of Despair
4. Asuna – Tide Ripples
Tide Ripples is where John Fahey, Steve Reich, and Stars of the Lid meet, exploring the places where ambient, minimalism, and classical guitar can blend into a focused, textured mood. Gentle guitar picking meets low feminine hums and ambient drones, all washed out with tape decay, heavily treated horns, fuzzed out organs and every other kind of dreamy instrumentation. Split into two monolithic 20 minutes songs, with equally monolithic titles, Tide Ripples represents another bold, uncompromising vision from Asuna. With tracks that build slowly and organically, before decaying into their most basic elements, at an equally deliberate pace. It’s beautiful and hypnotic, but also soft, and a tinge melancholic.
Similar To: John Fahey, Steve Reich, and Stars of the Lid
3. Seiho – Collapse
Featuring a kind of loose mixture between D/P/I, Sophie, and Girrafage, Seiho is carving out a place for himself in the future beats landscape with his acrobatic, syncopated synths, heavily altered vocal snippets, and chopped up brass samples. Running to every edge of emotional tone, and sonic texture, Collapse forms a collection of songs that sound like what downtown Tokyo looks like. On the more abstract interludes he stretches his more experimental wings, and runs through every sound in his massive library, like some sort of disjointed YouTube compilation of everything sugary and weird. But the real joy is the more structured songs in between, where he displays an incredible knack for finding strange grooves that grow and shrink throughout a song. Tracks like “Plastic” are like candy to the ears, and show a man with as much pop sensibility as experimental ambition.
Similiar To: Sophie, D/P/I, and Girrafage.
2. Yodaka/Kashiwa Daisuke – Betrayal & Reincarnation
The second album influential post-rocker Kashiwa Daisuke released this year, along with the sequel to his breakout album, Program Music 1, Betrayal and Reincarnation was made with his semi-frequent backing band Yodaka. It is by far his darkest work to date, full of decaying/fuzzy guitars, reverb-y synths, and omnipresent dark moods. It’s a much bolder release than Program Music 2, and has had substantially more staying power for it. In a lot of ways it shares parallels to Nicolas Jaar’s Darkside, where a talented guitarist was able to interpret his monolithic songs into more textured rock epics. Epics that evoke entirely new feelings than the original format would have. In the press release, Kashiwa and Yodaka cited artists like Sigur Ros and GY!BE as primary influences on their process, and while those influences certainly come to the surface, there’s something very distinctly Kashiwa in how the melodies develop, and in how these tracks seem to rise to cinematic, bone crushing crescendos. And the classic Kashiwa electronic flourishes are still there, like in the unsettling synth “slipping” noise at the beginning of “Baobab” that almost sounds like the distorted cries of a child coming through an out of focus AM radio. All together it’s one of the most ambitious post-rock efforts of the year, and a testament to the unrelenting creativity of Kashiwa Daisuke.
Similar To: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur ros, and Mogwai
1. Ichiko Aoba – Mahoroboshiya
(Alternate Link To Video For US/UK Readers)
Mahoroboshiya is the latest album from acclaimed, and unpredictable dream-folk artist Ichiko Aoba, and it might just be her best. Running just 34 minutes, Mahoroboshiya sees Ichiko step back from the wild experimentation of her past two efforts, 0 and 0%, and really focus in on quality songwriting and a more murky, lost-in-the-dark tone. Of course, it still blends the off-kilter sampling, and gentle field recordings with her cavernous, dreamy folk music, painting the same dreamscape musical tone as her previous efforts. With Mahoroboshiya however, she simplifies her drifting fingerpicking into something more linear, and adds some secondary instruments, like the grainy pianos of “コウノトリ”, which serve to create a more tangible structure to the music. It’s a beautiful effort, from one of Japan’s best artists, working in an incredible period of creative excellence. The odd world of Ichiko is only growing, and in doing so, she has made, without a doubt, the most essential album from Japan this year.
Similar To: Vashti Bunyan, Sibylle Baier, and Linda Perhacs.