It’s been a funny year, hasn’t it? And not just in music (as if Arcade Fire selling fidget spinners wasn’t already enough to exhaust me for an entire year), it’s like the whole world has gone and lost it’s mind. For better or for worse, the world we live in is moving a mile a minute, and every mile is filled with horrible people abusing their power, artists making awful comeback albums, and superhero movies where the lead character sports fake lips.
Thankfully we’ll always have the forever invigorating Japan to give us a daily dose of uplifting, engrossing, and enthralling music. A daily ritual to cleanse ourselves of these gross circumstances, or at the very least an altar to rest upon and ruminate. Or just you know, listen to music.
10Jyocho – Days In The Bluish House (Midwest Emo)
A small movement of midwest-emo bands has thrived in Japan for more than a decade now. Since the mid-2000s they have been faithfully recreating the genre’s iconic maudlin sound, and expansive structures, a sort of mass tribute to the Kinsella family. But Jyocho, led by songwriter Daijiro Nakagawa, who formerly fronted the beloved emo-scene staple Uchu Conbini, have begun making moves towards becoming Japan’s first revolutionary mark on that midwest scene.
Jyocho follow their 2016 debut album with an album which is in many ways very similar, but in so many others a complete revelation. Loaded with even more beautiful and heavenly guitar-shimmers, elaborate instrumentation, and soaring female-vocals, it’s the colour that was so desperately missing from the empty spaces of their previous effort. While Daijiro’s previous work, with Jyocho and before, felt like cathartic releases, it’s beginning to bear signs of transcendence. On the blissful folk of “A True Figure Of”, or the expansive, math-rocky finale “A Glass Of Night” it’s clear that the scene has grown tired of imitation.
9Hisato Higuchi – Kietsuzukeru Echo / 消え続けるエコー (Lo-Fi Folk, Ambient, Free Folk)
Kietsuzukuru Echo is not an album for the faint of heart. It will assuredly test the patience of even the most welcoming listener as Hisato stumbles his way through eight, almost entirely uneventful “songs” played at a whispers volume. Though the word “song” comes with a lot of heavy implications, most of which don’t really apply here, these are more like… musical moods.
There isn’t much structure to them, and they play out rather repetitively for their generally five-ish minute run times. Sonically they sound a lot like Elliot Smith’s early lo-fi recordings, as gentle tape hiss looms over a finger-picked acoustic guitar, and pained whispers. But structurally they take on a sort of Mark Hollis-type minimalism, and formlessness. For those willing to push through that natural aversion though, there’s a kind of rainy day perfection to this album. Working liberally in greys and lazy, melancholic moods. Hisato isn’t exactly reinventing himself here, but whatever he’s plugged into just keeps spinning gold, so it’s difficult to complain.
8Sapphire Slows – Time (Ambient Techno)
It took four years for Kinuko to follow up her breakout debut album Allegoria, an absolute lifetime in electronic music. Perhaps it was because Allegoria was the kind of success that an artist in Japan could spend a lifetime trying to craft, landing her praise both at home and abroad (securing the coveted Pitchfork review treatment). After it’s release she may have found herself floating in some void, searching for new purpose after creating such a perfect crystallization of the bedroom techno scene she once inhabited (A “tug-of-war” as she describes it in her interview with Japan Times).
Time is militant perfectionism for its brief 30-minute runtime, exuding perfectionism from the album’s opening seconds. Her evolution seems considered and deliberate, a complete and unequivocal step forward.
7Cornelius – Mellow Waves (Indietronica, Indie Pop)
Since Keigo Oyamada’s (aka Cornelius’) exuberant, and genre-defining magnum opus, 1997’s Fantasma, he has been on a trajectory away from the density, complexity, and restless energy that defined his work in the 90s. From the more sonically stripped-down follow-up, 2001’s Point, to his last album, the borderline sleepy Sensuous in 2006, Cornelius has been teasing a move towards more ambient and dreamy shores for almost two decades now. With Mellow Waves, his first album in eleven years, that promise is finally delivered upon.
Defined by minimalistic, bright synth tones, and crystal-clear guitar lines, Mellow Waves is the sonic equivalent of clean white linen hanging on a line during a breezy summer day. The sonic palette is immaculate, and warm (with a few notable exceptions), in a way that plays to both Keigo’s greatest strengths, and his greatest weaknesses. The clarity of Keigo’s production proves once and for all that he is one of the greatest musicians to have touched the boards. It’s vision, scope, and clarity are mesmerizing. The way he seems to find an endless amount of nooks and crannies to fill with synthetic whizzes, or gently panned acoustic guitar notes, is unparalleled. Spilling the songs over with creativity, but never once compromising the overall minimalistic aesthetic. Complex soundscapes are reduced to their barest components in a way that still feels rich and fulfilling.
The problem that arises though, is that on albums like Fantasma and Point, the sonic complexity was the songwriting in many ways. Songs developed with new layers of complexity, and explosions of color. Now Keigo has denied himself that option, leaving some of the songs on Mellow Waves feeling more like formless soundscapes than bonafide “songs”.
Where it works though, that sense of Cornelius bliss is unmatched, and even where it doesn’t, it remains as some of the best-produced music you’ll hear in years.
6Phew – Light Sleep (Minimal Synth)
A full 36 years after the release of her self-titled debut album, arguably the best Japanese post-punk album ever recorded, Phew manages to surprise again. Light Sleep doesn’t gravitate too far from what people have come to expect from Phew, the monotone, chant-like vocal delivery, and the harsh synthetic tones, but in most other ways, it’s a consistently surprising listen. One which reestablishes her position as queenpin of the Japanese experimental underground.
She pushes the emotionless quality of her voice to its limit with heavily distorted vocals laid overtop relentless, and brittle synths on “CQ Tokyo”’, pulling out the latent industrial flavour of Phew’s early work. Something she does again with the heavily layered, menacing drones of “Mata Aimasho”, which extract the elements of dark ambient that have also long lingered in the background of her work. And while simpler, noisy tracks like those have a sort of immediate physical pleasure to them, just as much of the album is abstract and difficult, requiring repeated attentive listens. Tracks like “Usui Kuki”, where Phew chants dispassionately over a bed of disembodied voices, and a skeleton frame of brittle drum machines certainly won’t click on the first time around.
Even after a career spanning four decades, Phew has managed to release what may just be the most challenging, and experimental album to come out of Japan so far this year.
5Shinichi Atobe – From The Heart, It’s a Start, a Work of Art (Dub Techno, Microhouse)
Shinchi Atobe is the kind of enigma that could only exist in the fringes of electronic music. After releasing the increasingly beloved Ship-Scope EP in 2001, Shinichi disappeared. Not even his label, Chain Reaction, could track him down. It wasn’t until 2014, when Sean Canty of Demdike Stare tracked the man down, that anyone heard from Shinichi again. Through Sean’s label DDS, Shinichi’s music began to be unearthed in collective albums, and remix works, not too unlike the process Aphex Twin has been embarking on in recent years. From The Heart, It’s a Start, a Work of Art is the fourth post-return release from Shinichi, or at least, the fourth work compiled by DDS, and it’s without a doubt his best yet. The melting synthetic drones on top gentle drum knocks are not too different from his other work, but here he feels focused. The grooves are razor-precise, despite their lackadaisical nature. Just listen to the infectious shuffle of “First Plate 2”, or the melodic drive of opening epic “Regret”.
Shinichi, like many of his great minimal techno, microhouse, and dub techno contemporaries (Herbert, Panthu Du Prince, The Field) is locked into something slight, and yet profound. Watch as he builds emotional sculptures with synth washes and body shaking grooves that sneak up from underneath the dreamy atmosphere. Here is a genuine master artisan, honing deeper and deeper into his craft.
4Tricot – 3 (Math Rock, Post Hardcore)
3 is the sound of Tricot finding their groove. Since their conception they’ve been caught up in a great deal of tug-of-wars within their sound, trying to balance sweetness with roughness, blissful math rock with crunchy post-hardcore, pop sensibilities with a punk heart. With 3 the conflicts remain, but the fight isn’t as apparent from the outside, as the many elements of Tricot slowly begin clicking into place. On opener “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” they find a way to make crunchy post-hardcore blissful, and on the following “Wabi-sabi” they sneak some crunch into their blissful, math-y numbers.
The joys of 3 are as readily apparent as on any of Tricot’s previous albums, those piercing and emotive vocals from Ikkyu, and the dense weave of drums and bass entwining around gargantuan guitars. In a lot of ways, Tricot have a certain 80s hair band sensibility to them. They pull out complex emotions through front-and-centre guitar leads that make you clench your teeth, in service of a vocal presence that feels confident, and powerful, but which belies a certain sincerity and softness. But Tricot are no hair metal band, on 3 they prove, as if anyone didn’t already believe it, that they’re one of the most visceral things happening in post-hardcore the world over.
3Heaven In Her Arms – 白暈 (Post-Rock, Blackgaze)
Almost 10 years after their debut, Heaven in Her Arms return on their third full length like valiant kings. After years of working in the shadows of legendary Screamo/Post-Hardcore pioneers Envy, they leave behind the Screamo-centric, atmospheric-sludge shtick and pull towards the 21st century. Softening their blood-curdling edges with the much more fitting sounds of blackgaze, and a more traditional post-rock fusion. Elements which end up playing into the band’s compositional strength. A secret weapon which had before been hidden under thunder and monotony. Overwrought riffs and blistering drums no longer serve to pummel, but to emotionally shelter the listener like a little, horrific noise-cocoon. It evokes both the sonics of pioneering blackgaze legends like Alcest, but also that hardcore, screamo Japanese scene where Heaven In Her Arms cut their teeth, merging the two into a potent emotional cacophony.
白暈 is a towering testament to the power of gruelling, painful screams across expansive guitars. The absolute best that Japan has given since Envy’s blistering run of masterpieces in the early 2000s. Here’s to the hope that this begins a new legacy.
2Ryuichi Sakamoto – async (Ambient, Modern Classical)
Back in 2014, a few months after his last “solo” album, Three, had been released, Ryuichi revealed to the world that he had been diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer, taking a year break to receive treatment before returning back to his usual, prolific self in 2015. That year he would score two films (including the hugely successful Revenant), create another collaborative album with Taylor Dupree, and even compile a nice little retrospective compilation. But async is the very first genuine statement we’ve heard from Ryuichi since that diagnosis, and if its sounds are to be believed, Ryuichi’s world has become a great deal bleaker. From the sombre spoken word segments which linger on memory, and the end of it all, to the funeral dirge of “solari”, and the many other deeply melancholic sonic detours like it.
async may just be the first time in which ambient music has been turned towards one’s own mortality, and for that reason alone it would be an immensely interesting release. Combine that with the sparse synthetic soundscapes and sombre field recordings, paired with what could be Ryuchi’s most desolate classical compositions ever, however, and it makes for an album which is powerful enough on its own two musical feet.
1Wednesday Campanella – Superman (Electropop, Hip House)
Hip-House has had an endlessly disappointing history here in the west. From its explosive emergence in the late 80s to it’s quick and merciless death at the hand of hardcore hip-hop in the early 90s, it never really achieved the sort of artistic highs that most hip-hop subgenres have been afforded. Its resurgence in the 2010s was no less disappointing, despite promising singles out of newcomers like Azealia Banks, and Vic Mensa, no one seemed to be able to string together a project that had any sort of consistency, or even fully embrace that hip-house sound. The balance of pop-sensibility, sugary electronics, and hip-hop viability just seemed too hard to work out.
Switch gears to Japan though, and a different history began to form, one where everything seemed pre-designed for Hip-house’s success. It was a scene that was free from America’s rigid and history-laden hip-hop scene, and with a much deeper understanding of electropop and house, defined by their internationally renowned electronic scene. Over the past 4 or so years, a great deal of artists began to emerge with hip-house sounds, and influences. The best of them all, far and way, was Wednesday Campanella. Since their 2013 debut, they have slowly building towards a sound that was intoxicating, and blissful in a way no hip-house had been before. Here on Superman, that sound is even more vibrant than ever, and explodes open with great washes of colour on singles like “Aladdin”, and “Ikkyu-San”. Not to neglect the vocals from the incomparable KOM_I, which stick in the brain harder than they ever have before, as well as flow over a beat like water. Perhaps it’s bold to say, but it may well be the best hip-house full length of all time. An incredible capstone for an incredible year for Wednesday Camapanella.