Top 10 Japanese Albums of 2019

It’s been three years since we started making these lists here at Overblown and it’s been a hell of a ride. By which I mean it’s been relatively unexciting but rather fulfilling to do each year. I find the lists get harder to make every year as the amount of Japanese music I listen to increases substantially with each passing year. Not because there’s too much to pick through but because the truly great albums I find stand so far above the rest that sometimes rounding out the list becomes a bit difficult. Thankfully this year, when I assembled the very best of the best it counted a full 12, which meant that only the simple job of trimming remained. If you’ll avert your eyes downward to the leading number below you, you’ll see I desperately failed at it anyways. Alas, here’s the list anyways.

 


 

Honorable Mentions:  Otoboke Beaver – Itekoma Hits, Iri – Shade, Shinichiro Yokota – I Know You Like It

11Mitsume – Ghosts

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, and 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.

10・・・・・・・・・  – Points 

Can You Feel The Change of the Seasons?

Winter is here and fall has left. Little trivial observations we make so routinely, like the bands (idol group?) 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 summer 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.

9Hakushi Hasegawa – エアにに

The nature of flamboyance is to overwhelm. A truly exuberant and self-assured person often seems to drown in you in their image and being. Whether this is a negative or positive experience is wholly separate from the core idea, it is simply intended to submerge. This type of submersion in the reality of another through sheer force is such a frequently returning motif in Japanese music that it seems inevitable each year that I’ll encounter one. Often to the detriment of the album’s content in my view. 

Much like the works of artists like Sheena Ringo or Cornelius the exuberance of Hakushi seems to exude from every pore manages to improve the quality of his music in it’s subtler aspects. The submergence draws attention to details and to finer aesthetic points which might have gone unnoticed by a less attentive audience. The hectic and difficult to grasp progressive jazz pop here is rewarding on a sliding scale of size which fluctuates between each listen.

8Not Wonk – Down the Valley

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.

7Smany – To Lie Latent

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.

6Meitei – Komachi 

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. 

5Wednesday Campanella & Oorutaichi – Yakushima Treasure

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. 

4CVN – I.C.

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. 

3Xiangyu – The First○○Picture Book

Produced by Hidefumi Kenmochi. of Wednesday Campanella fame, Xiangyu’s debut EP is the most stunning amalgamation of house the producer has ever assembled. Minus the dominating presence of KOM_I that has made Wednesday Campanella such a stunning mix of dance and pop music over the last few years, Hidefumi is free to work with a more fluid and floor-orientated set of dance tunes. Xiangyu’s performances are restrained and simpler, often gravitating towards a monotone dancefloor drone as the music smashes deep house and subtle Gqom influences into undeniable powerhouse anthems. 

The album’s second half, when the mask begins to peel off and the music starts to feel small, is a delight all it’s own as xiangyu shrinks to a simple human plagued by the simple tangible problems. Evoking the kind of everyday house of contemporaries like Yaeji on tracks like “I Went To Sleep Without Taking a Bath”.Minus the bassy detour of “Human Evolution” the second half soothes and refreshes before pushing towards pop ascendence on “Gyouza” grasping something altogether less, but also more.

As a juxtaposition to the massive size and inescapable pull of Wednesday Campanella’s last album, it is the perfect b-side, full of subtle pleasures and mindless loops meant to pulse your head.

2The Novembers – Angels 

Angels is the most brazen 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 knew about 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 knew 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.

 

13776 – Saijiki

Approximately 3 months ago I wrote this little inflammatory review of 3776’s new album on a music forum:

“According to RYM this is one of the absolute best Japanese albums of the 2010s, outpacing Haru Nemuri and Shinsei Kamattechan. In fact I see very little negative opinion going around about this so let me be the first to say this. I can’t stand this fucking album, this fucking band, or the fucking mindless repetitive babble of Chiyono, I could barely finish this fucking monumental slog of an album (it pushes 70 minutes btw) and I can’t imagine what could compel a human to listen to this bleepity bloopity-ass karaoke shit.”

Time is the great comedian isn’t it? It must have been around listen three or four of the album, sometime during the song “March” when I realized that the this album just goes. Something about the melodic phrases and consuming chords swallowed up in vocal loop after vocal loop just works. I couldn’t really explain it too well, since even I couldn’t stand this thing but a month ago. With each new listen I feel like this is one of those perfectly awful albums that might last a lifetime, just pushing the frame of good taste far enough to secure a place in canonical permanence.

Just listen to “September”, take a breath and give it up, you aren’t too intellectual to vibe out to a woman listing every single day of the year. Which feels like the appropriate time to introduce that this album is in fact every single day in the Gregorian calendar converted to seconds then counted as zodiac signs. This counting constitutes the entire album and takes you through each month which also represents a key (ala F, F#, etc.). A concept so overly dense and bizarre that it actively detracts from the music’s ability to immerse or flow, but functionally also adds a spirit of intention and meaning to a collection of songs that might have otherwise felt lost and ephemeral. It defies reason, but Saijiki just goes.