Original photo by Akira Sato
With widely adored reissues of classic Japanese albums by artists like Haruomi Hosono, Mkwaju Ensemble, Kimio Kasai, Yasuaki Shimizu, Hiroshi Sato and High Rise, along with prominent news cycles around Ryuichi Sakamoto and Mac Demarco covers it might be easy to forget that Japanese music is also happening right now as we speak. And just as Americans are beginning to realize their mistake from the 80’s and 90’s, they set themselves up to make the same mistake once again. A genuine tragedy, as the spirit of musical excellence and genre reinvention that defined their history is only growing in it’s reach. Hip-hop and noise-pop are finding common ground in Haru Nemuri, raga-rock has found a heavy new reinterpretation under Kikagaku Moyo, and the sounds of avant-garde metal exploded into new dimension with Sigh.
So in the spirit of the season of giving, Overblown would like to present you with the 10 best albums from Japan in 2018.
10Ichiko Aoba – qp (Contemporary Folk, Singer/Songwriter)
The latest from emergingly sacrosanct dream-folk artist Ichiko Aoba is another step backwards conceptually. A backward facing trend that has begun to feel like an earnest decision to sidestep her newfound attention. Running a brief 37 minutes, qp sees Ichiko turn away almost completely from the wild experimentation of her international breakthrough 0, and even a bit back from the more restrained studio-work of it’s follow-up Mahoroboshiya. Ichiko seems determined to completely abandon her new image as an “avant-garde” artist and returns to the restrained songwriting and predictable dream-like blanket of her first three albums. Of course qp still has flashes of experimentation, like the choral opening song or the more english-folk style songs on the albums final ⅓, but as a whole it shifts wholeheartedly back into the same dreamscape-folk format her debut efforts utilized.
Despite it’s exasperating predictability at a time where Ichiko seemed to be creatively blossoming, it is a beautiful effort, from one of Japan’s best artists, working in an incredible period of song-writing excellence. It’s a great shame for all people who truly love music that the odd world of Ichiko is shrinking when just a few years ago it seemed to be growing without limit. In doing so she may well have found a bit of certainty, and relief from the mounting pressure of being called an “important” artist, but she has also made what is without a doubt, one of year’s most disappointing albums. Which is not to detract from the fact that it is also one of the years absolute best. A candle flickering down still emits light.
9Keiji 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. All blisteringly loud guitar wails, and the frantic screams of a man on the edge. If the very bottom of hell in all it’s noise and fury does not appeal to you as a concept then I would recommend that you don’t peer within.
The knowledge that Keiji Haino’s 40 year long career of absolute excellence within the Japanese noise scene has crafted him into vocal perfection as he wails and clamors against the walls of convention 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.
8Snail’s House – Snö/Ordinary Songs 4/L’été (Downtempo, Bitpop)
The world of bitpop and it’s even cutesier 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 and L’été are just delightful too by the way.)
7Shuta 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.
6Shinichi Atobe – Heat (Deep House, Outsider House)
Shinchi Atobe is the kind of enigma that could only exist in the fringes of electronic music. After releasing the slow-burn cult-classic 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 has begun to be unearthed in collective albums and remix works. A story that fits his actual work well. His slippery brand of cautious and strange ambient techno and ambient house almost felt as if it could disappear any second. It was the work of a removed auteur unconcerned with whether anyone actually listened to him.
So why does Heat almost sound like it could be played on the dancefloor? No hold that, that’s not quite right, because it definitely could be played on dance floor, the better question is, why does it sound like it could tear a dancefloor down? If you played it at the right club at the right time these deep house movements could feel like a night just on the peak of exploding. It’s a funny year to have released this, as Nicolas Jaar’s contemporaneous exploration of deep house and communal music Against All Logic has obviously had this monumental impact on the world’s electronic community. A reflection of what happens when great interpreters of the heart turn their insular gaze outward, and build songs about the collective heart of the floor.
5Wednesday 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 lacked the necessary room for the bodacious pop moves that Wednesday Campanella deals in. Released about a week before Galapagos, it felt like a warm-up to the explosive summer heat that they would eventually capture.
Working in an obvious summer nights/summer days delineation Galapagos is built on a newly coined crystal-clear instrumentation that immediately separates it from the dense mixes of their past few albums. Whether operating in it’s night modality, with bubbly tabla-esque drums and warm pizzicato strings (like on the opener “The Bamboo Princess”), or in it’s summer modality, with rich basslines, and featuring Komuai’s more whispery, erotic vocal style (like on “Picasso”), everything pops out of the mix. It has a distinctive classic flair, evoking classic city pop sounds, while still operating in a hyper-modern hip-house and art pop space. Filling cracks between the drums and bass with rich dreamy synths and modern house bounces. Wednesday Campanella won’t ever let you forget that it’s a ground-shattering act, one that is pushing the sounds of house, pop, and hip-hop to absolute new highs with every passing release.
4Sigh – Heir To Despair (Avant-Garde Metal, Progressive Metal)
More of the same… so to speak. Nothing like the last… so to speak. Sigh’s position as the inscrutable oddballs of metal has continued into the 10’s in only a very superficial capacity. Sure they have continued to completely destroy the metal “form” with harsh genre breaks and absurdist song structures, but with each album the singularity of that goal has only served to make them monotonous. The motions and intentions have become so startlingly clear that the albums stopped feeling exciting despite their own nature. With Heir To Despair Sigh actually reach for new sounds in an earnest manner. A revelation that makes them arguably one of the most exciting bands in metal again.
Drawing from their own countries native folk music, Sigh’s new sonic obsession seems to actually interest them in a pure and unpretentious capacity. Their musical breaks and intense genre wankery no longer feels like a band running through the motions expected of them. Japanese folk music and acoustic revelary weave into their sound seamlessly, giving power and reprieve to their blast beats as the volume cranks way down in their usually frank interludes and song breaks. Their incorporation feels like a natural step within their larger legacy, while also proving the band has something more to give to the world of avant-garde metal. Over 20 years after their debut they have begun to feel like kids again.
3Maison Book Girl – Yume (J-Pop, Art Pop, Field Recordings)
In what continues to be a highly frustrating assault on my notions of pretentious superiority and existential separation from J-Pop’s most sugary and simplistic form, the dreaded girl group, I must concede to Maison Book Girl. They are everything I wish pop music could be. In a much less humiliating surrender, I must also admit that their albums are no longer too messy or too variable in quality to add to these lists. Yume is a masterpiece, even at it’s absurd hour plus run-time. From the haunting and fragile ambient classical interludes (“Six”) to the heart wrenching pop ballardry of the songs in earnest, it’s like an emotional IED snuck into your latest pop basket. Centered around the pure perfection of it’s classical sampling production and string based melodies, it’s almost like Aphex Twin crica-Drukqs had decided he was king of the weaboos, and wanted nothing more than to make joyful, upfront, and explosively high intensity J-Pop.
The stark cover, the subtle field recording song leads which draw upon industrial despair and digital dysphoria, and those god damn harmonies. I weep for I finally am the weeaboo I promised I would never become. I look into my phone and a subtle “-kun” has been added to the back end of all my contacts. I am no longer me, we are maison book girl.
2Yuragi – Still Dreaming, Still Deafening (Shoegaze, Post-Rock)
Yuragi’s newest album is like a skyline cracking open, or a city falling into ash at the golden hour. Images so absurd and intense they almost defy the canonical comparisons to “cinematic”, instead opting for a kind of hyper-cinematic-ness. It’s an album of emotional gestures so unbearably large and heartbreaking it almost hurts the heart to listen to. Like Loveless by way of Arcade Fire, careening from blistering shades of noise into a fiery and passionate ennui, spilling one into another as it slingshots between them.
As a development from their debut EP Nightlife it’s a remarkable achievement, but as an album taken on its own terms, it feels like something wholly unheralded and masterful. The delivery of the promise that Kinoko Teikoku’s hyper-intense, Japan-centric shoegaze had been teasing for almost a decade now. From Whirlpool to this, it finally seems as if the country has made a new sound within the Shoegaze space that is all their own.
The unceasing climb of “Horizon” into one of the genre’s greatest ever climaxes. The slow-fuse of “Unreachable” which seems to explode backwards, as if the world was being pulled up and away from you, upended and weightless. These song are singular statements, crystallizations of a new paradigm in shoegaze, of a form of noise-based guitar wizardry.
1Haru Nemuri – 春と修羅 (Noise Pop, Indie Pop)
‘MAKE. MORE NOISE. OF YOU.’
It’s the coda that comes erupting out of the first seconds of 春と修羅. A more perfect little maxim couldn’t have been 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 mistake here. From those desperate and demanding pleas follows an entire album of shrill guitar wails and frenzied yelps. Perhaps 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 guitar sounds’ brittle-ness 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 truley feels like the whole sonic wall might just shatter. But to really capture emotions held on 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.