Years, years, where do they go. 2019, and by extension the last year of the 2010s, is drawing to a close. And for those of us with deeply unfulfilling jobs this means beginning to think about what the decades best albums were and stacking up these past few years against the long gone early years of the decade. 2019 is by all accounts shaping up to be a substantial year for music in Japan as trends that’ve been boiling over for years begin to make definitive statements worth sharing, and the upstarts of the mid-2010s boom begin to mature into their voices.
Here’s our list for the ten best Japanese albums of 2019
10Hidefumi Kenmochi – Footwork (Footwork – May 15th)
The appeal of Wednesday Campanella, beyond KOM_I’s charismatic and impassioned vocal performance, is the group’s ability to derive clear and simplistic pop from very disparate and underground electronic influences. The third solo album from Wednesday Campanella producer Hidefumi Kenmochi is another step towards Japan’s pop distillation of footwork, and an interesting sign of what’s to come for the group. The jittery drums and traditional MC-style vocal chops are untouched, but instead immersed into emotionally rich and dense soundscapes. Abstracting the sound into new dimensions while keeping the core signifiers obvious.
Compared to the hectic bangs and minimal fuck-it-all-leave-it-on-the-floor quality of most Chicago footwork, Hidefumi’s compositions are a bit more sedate and soundcaped. It’s a solid exploratory footwork album that reveals a producer deeply enamored with a sound he is trying to unravel and learn.
9Mitsume – Ghosts (Indie Rock, Art Rock – April 3rd)
Mitsume is the most dependable rock band working in Japan right now, whether they are fully diving into slacker rock and jangle pop, ala 2016’s A Long Day, or reconfiguring themselves into an art rock band on this year’s Ghosts, they are a dependable brand of perfection. Their guitar melodies are always intricate and endearing, their rhythm section is always airy and transfixing, keeping hazy intentions floating in plain sight above.
Ghosts has some of the darkest fringes that Mitsume has ever indulged in but the album still has this alluring beauty and simple-minded flavor which makes it easy to take. The city-pop informed synths which poke in and out through the hand claps and jangled guitars are odd and color-drained, tugging on the compositions like anchors pulling from below. The songs still float though, and there is still such an amiable quality to it all. It’s a sad friend who musters a genuine smile for you and leaves with at least a tinge of warmth in your stomach.
8Iri – Shade (Electropop, Pop, Hip-House – March 6th)
Iri is the antithesis of J-pop’s current state. As electropop and j-rock pursue an absolute rejection of texture and humanity on the charts in exchange for melodrama (to very intermittent success), iri’s sound has always found sexuality and tangible qualities in electronic textures. From her embrace of the more androgynous qualities of her voice to the more textural melodies and bloody baselines. As pop music it invigorates and challenges it’s listener to live unique and full-bodied lives, to feel anguish and drip sweat on the dance floor. Her sounds are sleak and modern, leaning on sharp clicks, and fluttering details along with highly contemporary vocal effects, but all in service of something tried and true, pop songs from the gut.
7・・・・・・・・・ – Points (Shoegaze, Dream Pop, Techno – April 4th)
Can You Feel The Change of the Seasons?
Summer is here and the spring has left. Little trivial observations we make so routinely, like the bands we know calling it quits, and the lives we will imagine them living from here on out. A fruitless gesture we make in our minds to try and sort out these lives and the importance these silly little bands play into them. I wonder where The Dismemberment Plan are now, I hope they are doing ok. I hope Points find their new spring and their new place, because they will be dearly missed. Right as they were beginning to bloom we must bid ado.
I’m sick of growing old. I remember watching movies in my old apartment a year ago, thinking about the new relationship I was embarking on, and the life I might lead after college came to an end. I was listening to Points’ debut EP back then, wondering what it would feel like to do something new and slip out of myself after 21 years in this ceaseless forward motion towards nothing in particular. Points seemed so sure that being young could mean something, that we could live forever in a state of waiting and yearning. I guess the season was bound to change eventually, I’m no longer blooming. The ground is drying out under me and I’m sure this will all be for nothing. I will miss your colors and your sense that there was water deep beneath me Points.
6Not Wonk – Down the Valley (Indie Rock, Post-Hardcore – June 5th)
June was a big month for indie rock. Black midi made an album that felt new in a genre space so well run-through it might as well be buried, and Mannequin Pussy put out one of those rare song oriented indie rock records, one where aesthetic and posturing are sidelined in favor of songs firsts. It’s getting harder and harder for me to find indie rock albums I care about each year. Perhaps my back library is just too immense to surmount. I mean every indie rock album is competing against every album from Daydream Nation to Funeral, what chance does any new album stand?
I think Not Wonk reveal that the secret to success in the face of genre claustrophobia is relentless undeterred gut-slitting. Down The Valley is the sound of a band emptying their coffers down to the last measly coin of strength they have. In the visceral breakdown of the title track, or the scum raking emotional release of “Of Reality” it’s relentlessly plunging. No corner, sonically or lyrically, avoids uncovering. It is passionate young kids trying to make the kind of blood-on-the-guitar masterpiece that worked for Slint, Dismemberment Plan, or Unwound. Does it achieve masterpiece status? I’d say it’s a fair shake shy of it considering the weak final thrid, but fuck are they willing to go the depths they need to earn that title.
That opening track’s breakdown is one of the years most preposterous statements of will, and the album’s seven minute closer is one of the years most preposterous statements of purpose. The voice might put some of you off, but this is for sure up there for me as one of the year’s best indie rock albums.
5Smany – To Lie Latent (Ambient Pop, Glitch, Art Pop – June 12th)
Smany is ambient pop at its compositional apex. Melodic and rich, simplistic and emotive. Perfect.
Reworking a bunch of old songs for a “new” album Smany has stumbled backwards into a masterpiece. Searching through her past catalog to find songs which hadn’t managed to find their feet, but had some great unrevealed quality. Sonically drawn with the rich blue and white hues that take up the cover To Lie Latent is an infinitely soothing experience propped up on Smany’s fragile voice and her knack for perpetual melodic release. It orbits between glitchy strings and electronics which draw heavily from artists like Dntel and Maison Book Girl while primarily drawing on cloistering and motherly ambient pop. Cokiyu for the 2010s.
It’s an album that constantly feels as if its pulling baggage of your shoulders you hadn’t even realized was there, and then reveling in the evaporation of the contents within.
4Meitei – Komachi (Ambient, Japanese Folk, Tape Music, Field Recordings – March 15th)
Komachi works from a place of formal sophistication. Blurring lines between ambient sub-genres, electronic flirtations, and textural folk music through the perfecting lens of structure. Songs build and coalesce, split apart and fractalize, empty and become full again. In response to one of the most promising debuts made in avant-garde/ambient last year, 怪談 (Kwaidan), Meitei has hunkered down to really define the idea of what he was doing, and parse out what exactly that meant in terms of construction. The way synthetic warbles blend into wooden claps and open strums is composed and measured, intended from the beginning. The emotional conveyance of synthetic memories and tactile history blurring come across crystalline and unhindered. When inevitably the songs oblong melodies, and wavering floaty sounds evoke his Japan in duality concept, it’s simply a delivery of the premise which was so carefully fostered.
This is Japan’s best ambient album of the year, and I would be amazed to hear one top this before the year is done.
3Wednesday Campanella & Oorutaichi – Yakushima Treasure (Japanese Folk Music, Electroacoustic – April 3rd)
In a lifetime of surprises some still stand out to me. Avant-pop auteur Oorutaichi teaming up with one of the biggest names in Japanese pop-music in the past 4 years, Wednesday Campanella, is one of those. Merging their oddly cooperative talents they created a project of avant-garde japanese folk music informed by electroacoustic and sound collage. It’s unlike anything the duo have done separately, and even together it doesn’t make much sense particularly. Far from the 80’s informed Zolo experiments of Oorutaichi’s last album, and even further from the hip-house, electropop, and straight up pop music which has been the lifeblood of Wednesday Campanella’s career it strays more into the realm of Japan’s avant-garde electroacoustic history evoking artists like Ground-Zero and Taku Unami on it’s fringes.
It’s also an almost perfect 29 minutes. Deconstructing and revitalizing these traditional folk sounds into some of the most immersive soundscaping I have heard in electroacoustic all year. It’s equal parts assuring and guiding and completely fucking batshit.
2CVN – I.C. (Deconstructed Club, Glitch-Hop, Experimental Electronic – June 7th)
The cover of CVN’s I.C. is one of those tortured windows-95 nightmares that’s so incredibly common for most experimental electronic post-vaporwave boom. What that obvious iconography belies though is one of the year’s most absurdly bop-heavy electronic albums. One that feels unattached to the scene it inhabits. The drums across I.C. skitter and rattle with a drive, evoking a time where electronic artists actually pursued concise grooves. At the same time, as a release on the notable experimental label Orange Milk, it is also one of the most boundaries pushing pieces of excellence you will hear in 2019. Combining qualities of new age, ambient, pop, hip-hop, synthpop and deconstructed club into something that isn’t cheap or self-conscientious, The reinterpretation of hip-hop and synthpop stand as some of the most outrageous, bar none, shit I have heard this year. Consistently liquid and evil, and just as frequently airy and emotive.
1The Novembers – Angels (Art Rock, Post-Punk, Shoegaze – March 6th)
Angels is the most substantial album to come out of Japan in 2019. This is not an achievement accomplished by razor-thin margins or wavering indifference, it’s a proclamation screeched into a tin can coming from the back of your conference room. Arresting, startling, and a completely unforeseen revelation about the anarchist spirit of your co-workers. Sure I know of The Novembers, they’ve been some of the most stalwart contributors to Japan’s new shoegaze revolution, releasing a string of highly functional and pleasant shoegaze albums since 2008. Sure I know of them, but I have never particularly cared much about them. They existed in a space, in a box, between the lines. Their juxtaposition of noise rock and shoegaze felt conventional.
The perfect description of The November’s new sound, or lack thereof, is their cover of “Ghost Rider”, kicking off the final third of the album, which sounds like the original song spit out onto the moshpit of a Daughters’ show. Overlapping industrial and grind sensibilities played over noisy beds of synthetic textures and anarchic yelps. It’s what I imagine Alan Vega would have dreamed of had he grown up in the early 2010s. The most incredible quality of the album though, is that what follows is not more post-punk-ey skin-shearing noise in the vein of “Ghost Rider”, or even another fellow barn-burner like “Down to Heaven” or “Bad Dream”. Instead what follows is the albums lowest sinking dream-pop ballad “Close to Me”. The Novembers’ couldn’t be any less concerned with the rigid sonic boundaries I thought they lived in. Taking their noise and beauty fetishizations to outlandish and unpredictable extremes.