Top 10 Japanese Albums Of 2018 (So Far)

It’s that time of the year again isn’t it? List season, how delightful how lovely. You know there was a time where lists only came out once in a year. Just at the beginning of a new year we would all sit down and play with our toys, and then decide which were our favorites. We’d put them into a nice little list and then forget about them, left to remember at another time. Now we don’t even have to wait that long, every six months we can decide what albums were worth our time and our money (joking obviously). Hopefully sometime soon we can all decide that’s not enough and start up our “best albums of the last three months” lists. And soon, bi-monthly, and before you know it, daily. What were the best albums of June 2nd ya know? Eventually the lists will become a constant stream of information beamed into our head as albums download and play into our minds simultaneously. We can finally live in our dreaming utopia, where the albums of our lifetime are predicted before they even exist and play directly into our hearts all at once. Until we die in a beautiful noisy oblivion.

Anyways here’s some albums.

10Cero – Poly Life Multi Soul (Indie Pop, Downtempo)

Inspired by a classically-styled city-pop and Shibuya-kei spirit, Cero made one of the year’s best retro-futurist projects. A proud member of a long lineage of that type of album to come from Japan. Much as their fellow countrymen had blended up ye-ye and tropicália throughout the 90’s, Cero blend-up soul grooves and harmonies before pouring them into the open mouth of downtempo, and nu-jazz, all while being presented as a fresh dose of alternative r&b. If your head is starting to spin at the thought of that, then you’re starting to get the fun of it. Poly Life Multi Soul is a journey into absurdity as much as it is a journey into warm summer evenings. The radiant warmth of it’s slow-jam atmosphere never clearing despite it’s bizarre instrumental flairs, and equally strange song breaks and turns. 

Highlights include the jazzy hip-hop breaks of “At Night The Salmon Move”, which evokes the very highs of a modern lo-fi hip-hop artists like Joji with an almost effortless swing. Busting up the lazy monotony of the genre by twisting it into the creative fusion of Cero’s world as it segues, not into more monotone moods, but into a flamboyant piece of electro-funk.

Where many of their genre-space peers fail by locking too deeply into sleepy grooves and singular emotions, Cero excel by moving wherever the natural progression takes them. Always onto the next, and then the next…

9Tricot – potage/On the boom EP (Math Rock, Indie Rock)

With every release Tricot has put out since their Kabuku EP back in 2016, the band has religiously and relentlessly moved upward. Their guitars have become both punchier and stickier, weaving melodies into melodies until it achieves the sonic composition of a knit sweater, dense and enveloping. Fundamentally though, their songwriting as a whole just feels like an entirely new band. Gone are the directionless noodles and placid, middle-of-the-road grabs at pop appeal. Instead the songs find immediacy and vitality in their own explosive energy and monumental hooks. Hooks that feel deserved and important when the song blooms open for them like on “potage”. Working in a distinctly modern and pristine rock tonality, Tricot still structure their songs like a classic indie track. Anthemic and brave.

8Jyocho – 互いの宇宙 e.p (Midewest Emo, Math Rock)

Based around the ending song the band provided for the Junji Ito Collection anime, Jyocho bust out four more absolute burners in the style of last years Days in the Bluish House. So similar really that I don’t know if it would mean too much to try and write something new about the sound at all. I mean, I can’t complain when the results are sounding so good, but It does present me with a challenge now doesn’t it. This is what it must have felt like to write on Bob Dylan albums in the folk phase, like yah, it’s good, I’m just not sure I can tell you if it’s any different to the last one.

Loaded with beautiful and heavenly guitar-shimmers, elaborate instrumentation, and soaring female-vocals, it’s the kind of splendour and colour that seems to so often be missed in the technical focus of so many math-rock acts. On the blissful folk of “A Parallel Definition”, or the expansive, math-rocky opener “A Parallel Universe” it’s clear that Jyocho has no shortage of songwriting chops, or melodic ideas.

7World’s End Girlfriend – Meguri (Modern Classical, Post Rock)

“This music is only for the one person. I made this music for the life who couldn’t stay in this world for a long time. This music is for leaving evidence of that soul who are no longer with us. This music is in return of Joy and Humor that I was given from that life. This music is in return of Grief and Loss that I was given from that death.

Music is beautiful, Human life is sweet. Let’s play music together someday all through many reincarnations. I dedicate this music to my dearest child in the world, “巡(MEGURI)”.

Katsuhiko Maeda / world’s end girlfriend“

6Toshiya Tsunoda / Taku Unami – Wovenland (Field Recordings)

Wovenland is one of the most strikingly literal titles of the year considering how esoteric and difficult the material actually is. Constructed from various field recordings, taken from many different “lands”, and then woven together with only subtle manipulations, it seems on the face of it like a rather run of the mill Field Recordings album (which are in general, in my opinion, quite pointless and boring).

And in its opening moments it might even be easy to write off Wovenland as such too, like it’s some sort of new age laziness or a white noise machine refill pack. But eventually that first 10 minute track ends, and the downright confrontational “park cleaning / crickets chirping” begins. Smashing sounds together like the soft and cuddly version of an old school Japanoise group. Tsunoda and Unami’s strong avant-grade sensibilities engender within such slight music something that feels grander, vaguer. Even when it’s played straight, like in the longer tone-poem type songs, their work has a strong element of challenging norms and structure.

Of course, like any good avant-garde work, Wovenland the concept and theme is difficult to extract from Wovenland the piece, demanding repeated listens and an easement of your natural preconceptions. Nand in that sense, it is not a listen I’d recommend to everyone, but for the dedicated listen there are wonders here.

5Keiji Haino + SUMAC – American Dollar Bill – Keep Looking Sideways, You’re Too Hideous to Look at Face On (Noise Rock, Experimental Rock)

You know whats in this box, don’t pretend you don’t. I mean come on, look at the name, look at those genres. You know whats in this box. It’s a very loud box, a patently absurd box, and definitely not one that’s easy to chew. If blisteringly loud guitar wails, and the frantic screams of a man on the edge don’t sound like your cup of tea, then just don’t open this box.

Me telling you that Keiji Haino is one of the most important people in the Japanoise scene, and that he’s had an almost 40 year long career of absolute excellence won’t convince you. And the knowledge that SUMAC is one of the best new Sludge Metal groups in the world wont help you either. You know whats in this box. I love the world in this box, and I hope you like it too, but I can’t trick you, you know whats in this box.

4Snail’s House – Snö/Ordinary Songs 4 (Downtempo, Bitpop)

The world of bitpop and it’s even cutesier and sillier cousin picopop might elude you. Maybe the sugar sweet, candy like nature just isn’t your cup of… dessert, but Snail House has made his first step into something bigger with Snö. Something so big he might even convince you, yes, YOU, to like it.

Weaving through intersections of downtempo, bitpop, and chillstep like a curious child lost in a hall of mirrors, Snö is creative energy made manifest. In the massive scope of his sounds and tonalities he worms his way into something approaching sincerity. Even through the self-imposed layers of irony and anime fetishism. There’s something earnest and heart-wrenching to the longing here, like an effective anime scene delivered with a deft directorial hand, plucking its audiences emotions with a precise arc, up, down, and back around again. But then, some people don’t like anime, so as with all things your mileage may vary. (Ordinary Songs 4 is just delightful too by the way.)

3Shuta Hasunuma & U-Zhaan – 2 Tone (Ambient Pop, Indie Pop)

Let’s talk technicality for a moment, yes, this came out in 2017, and if you were so blessed to live in Japan at the time, you could have been listening to this for almost a year now. But then I would question your motives for reading an English list about the best Japanese albums in the first place. For those of us everywhere else, even the more pirate-ey of us, it wasn’t until 2018 that this subtle masterwork became available to us.

Stepping out of their own shadow as “background musicians”, and of their own legacy as indie musicians always on the cusp of excellence, Shuta Hasunama and U-Zhaan work like they never have before on 2 Tone. Which is not to say work “hard”, because each has a list of credits and solo releases worth a thousand lesser artists, but work as in “well”. It’s the transcendent promise of the duo’s individual, decade-long careers fulfilled. Or less abstractly (and pretentiously), it’s a combination of the two together into a new improvisational and dreamy ambient pop form. One that stands far and above each as individuals. It’s one of Japan’s newest masterworks from perhaps its most unlikely sources.

2Wednesday Campanella – ガラパゴス (Galapagos) (Art Pop, Hip-House, Tropical House)

Continuing a stunning run of artistic highs, starting with the runaway crossover success of Superman (our 2017 JAOTY), Wednesday Campanella have already released another two full works in 2018, setting a frenetic pace of accomplishment that’s been hard to follow. The first, a film score to the Holding The Cat in Arms film was slight and warm, but obviously lacking the room required for Wednesday Campanella’s signature pop-exuberance. Released about a week before their new mini-album, it worked as a tidy warm-up to the release of Galapagos. A steamy work of exceedingly bright pop dropped dead into the heat of summer.

Working in an obvious summer nights/summer days delineation, Galapagos is a masterwork of crystal-clear instrumentation. Whether operating in it’s night modality, with it’s bubbly tabla-esque drums and pizzicato strings (like on opener “The Bamboo Princess”), or it’s summer modality, riding rich baselines over top Komuai’s whispery and erotic vocal style (like on “Picasso”), everything pops out of the mix like a light bulb. It has a distinctive classical flair, evoking retro city pop sounds, while still operating in a hyper-modern hip-house and art-pop space. Filling the cracks between drums and bass with rich synths and modern house bounces. Wednesday Campanella won’t ever let you forget that it’s a ground-shattering act, pushing the sounds of house, pop, and hip-hop to new highs with every passing release.

1Haru Nemuri – 春と修羅 (Noise Pop, Indie Pop)

‘MAKE. MORE NOISE. OF YOU.’

It’s the coda that comes erupting out 春と修羅’s very first seconds. A more perfect little quote couldn’t be forged in a thousand think-thinks, or from a thousand marketing hacks slapping a thousand different keyboards for a million years. Haru Nemuri comes spilling out with her entire life story written on her forehead and her guitar’s aching strings ripping off her fingertips. There’s nothing to misconstrue here. From those desperate and demanding pleas comes an entire album of shrill guitar wails and pleading yelps. Occasionally played at different levels of forcefulness, but never with anything less than a bloody headbutt’s directness, and never with anything less than a completely consuming intensity.

With her second album Haru Nemuri has begun to feel like a scene essential, like one of the most important voices coming out of the country, and possibly even the continent. Pushing noise pop to ludicrous new highs of immediacy, and pushing the sonic limits of brittle guitar work to even higher planes. On songs like “せかいをとりかえしておくれ” and “鳴らして” it feels as if the whole sonic wall might just shatter. But to really capture emotions held at a breaking point, nothing less then the work of a true sonic auteur will do, and Haru Nemuri has entered the arena as one of the truly few names worth handing that label.

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