Make Believe Melodies’ Favorite Japanese Albums Of The Year: 10 – 6

Again, not my art, just clip art, bless it forever.

10. Emerald Four Nothing Can Hurt Me

“Nothing can hurt me.” Imagine it as a mantra, a sentence muttered to build confidence in otherwise bleak moments. It’s easy to imagine those four words running through someone’s head while listening to Emerald Four’s album of the same name. The Kyoto duo conjure up spacious songs out of synthesizers, zero-gravity music unfolding slowly. The stunning “Love Labyrinth” drifts, made all the stronger by a detached voice that make it sound like the singer is floating through space (or their own head), forced to face bad thoughts all by themselves. Nothing Can Hurt Me is half melancholic, half therapeutic — the most upbeat numbers (the skip of “Ten Ten,” the gooey “Astral Tones For Mental Therapy,” which doubles as a nice summation of how this album sounds) are more reflective than rejoicing, like breathing into a paper bag. Emerald Four’s best work to date sounded exhausted, but with the insight to know to keep moving forward, unafraid of anything.

Get it here.

9. Eadonmm Aqonis

While Emerald Four moved slowly through the ether, fellow Kyoto native Eadonmm plunged into the hell fire. Long before his debut album Aqonis emerged, my defining image of hi came at the Tokyo SonarSound festival, as he played a bass-heavy rumbler in front of a movie of nothing but fire burning…while having the biggest grin on his face. Aqonis is one of the heaviest Japanese albums of the year, Eadonmm sticking with the unsettling sound of microgenre witchhouse and pushing them even further. Voices creep around the edges, including some deep-voiced ones, as the music around it practically drips downwards. It ends with a punishing noise song built to make ears tremble. The year was still young when Aqonis came out, but its dark vibes have only gotten stronger as a pretty shitty year dragged on.

8. LLLL Paradice

We have a small theme going so let’s just keep on rolling…LLLL formed in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, an unsettling time that really hasn’t been reckoned with in Japanese pop culture. The music the pair created took on a dark edge, but with a center shaped by the more upbeat sounds of contemporary J-pop, resulting in music that was unnerving but packed with moments of grace (provided primarily by the voice singing over the shadowy beats). Many of the songs LLLL produced since starting appear on Paradice, but it is far more than just a compilation. Paradice shows the dramatic (“Drowned Fish”) and icy (“Drafting Still”) and dance-oriented (“I Wish You”) sides of the project, but everything is threaded together by the interplay between light and dark present in LLLL’s thrilling brand of pop.

Get it here.

7. E-Girls Colorful Pop

Let’s just get it out — this is the album I wish Perfume had made instead of Level3.

On paper, E-Girls seem like a non-starter. The “E” stands for “EXILE,” aka these guys, and the stable of writers and producers working on Colorful Pop are all regulars for EXILE, Arashi and similar J-pop groaners. Yet here, it’s like they got together and decided “let’s actually try on this one,” and came up with the year’s bubbliest pop album. And “pop” is key here — the uptempo songs are tightly constructed numbers anchored by choruses built for car stereos (“ASAP,” the dizzying disco of “Fancy Baby”) and every rough edge gets sandpapered away. The ballads are garbage but, seeing as E-Girls make no qualms about being pure J-pop sugar, there is zero guilt in skipping forward. Not when luxury like “Diamond Only” is right there begging to soundtrack a purse commercial (it did).

It was a pretty great year for artists who sounded like Perfume — Negicco’s thrilling “Triple! Wonderland,” a fair share of PC Music’s output along with what SOPHIE cooked up — but E-Girls did it best by delivering pop that was built like a space ship, every part working just right. They whizzed forward on “Diamond Only,” captured the jittery feel of new love on “ASAP,” transformed Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Rydeen” into a Latin-tinged club banger and covered a Bananarama song…and turned it into thrilling future-pop. They get extra points for being an idol group that, in the often gross world of idol music circa 2014, actively appealed to women with no regards if men cared at all (my youngest girl students LOVE E-Girls, if you need an observation), and actually sold albums and got mainstream media attention. Colorful Pop is the best Oricon topper of the year easily, and even Yasutaka Nakata has jumped over to produce a song for their follow up. Which, well, they didn’t even need, honestly.

6. Metoronori Veil/Taiki, Tape No Hire, Memo Shyu/Shikata Nashi Kakuri Yo

There’s very few places to actually escape to within the borders of Tokyo. Without straight-up beelining towards the coast or Saitama, everything in the capital can feel pretty claustrophobic. Bedroom artist Metoronori has spent the last couple of years creating her own worlds to vanish into, off-kilter places where sound twist in unexpected ways and voices flow out of mouths in weird shapes. It wasn’t until her three self-released albums this year, though, that she perfected her jittery otherworld. Starting with this January’s chilly , Metoronori found a way to meld pitch-shifted synths and her unique sing-speak vocal delivery into shy pop songs that never sounded off putting (even when they sounded like they were recorded in a blizzard)…just wholly themselves.

Get them here.

New Sugar’s Campaign: “Holiday”

And I thought I’d go on break this week.

The duo of Seiho and Avec Avec make music together as Sugar’s Campaign, and their first major-label album comes out this January. And here’s the first single, “Holiday,” which….ahhhhhhh so good. They merge late ’70s city pop sounds (the chorus) with very “now” touches (helium vocals, laser-ey sounds) with the end result being a great pop song. Watch the video above.

New Homecomings: “Great Escape”

We are in the midst of a year-end album list, but let’s take a moment to look at a song from an album that could crash said feature. Kyoto’s Homecomings have a new album out on Christmas Eve (!), and you can hear the song “Great Escape” now, above. It isn’t as urgent as what appeared on the band’s first couple of releases…and doesn’t embrace one of the best things about them, their harmonizing…but boasts a strong chorus that gets better as the song skips ahead.

Make Believe Melodies’ Japanese Albums Of The Year: 20-11

I’m not a designer of any sort, so please enjoy this clip art.

Something that tends to happen with end-of-the-year lists is writers and publications end up creating narratives for the year that just unfolded. The dominant one for 2014 so far has been “what a horrible year,” which…fair enough, if you followed the news coming out of nearly any country. Yet a smaller, more musically relevant angle has creeped up a bit, though not really explored to deeply because, well, why would said publications carry through with lists if they really thought about it? The album as a format is losing steam.

In most places around the country, long-playing CDs and clusters of MP3s felt more and more irrelevant with the rise of streaming platforms, an emphasis on music videos and even Vine reminding us that most people just want to hear the hook of a song. Japan hasn’t embraced all of those things (though the Vines are great!), but CD sales continue to dip, propped up only by rabid fans buying plastic in order to get tickets to meet-and-greets or to simply support their favorites on the forever-frustrating Oricon Charts. “Let It Go” was the most omnipresent hit of the year in Japan, and you could see that in a theater.

So why continue to write “best album” lists? Well, partially out of laziness…there are way more great songs out there, beyond the obvious singles. But also because, as at-times-doomed the format felt in 2014, more than enough stellar examples of the album working…both as a conceptual framework OR just a way for artists to explore their sound…popped up across all corners of Japan to warrant it. The market was changing (very very slowly), but artists are still happy to explore what they can do within the confines of an album.

Let’s get on with it, starting with 20-11, with MBM’s ten favorite tomorrow (hopefully). And let’s take a moment to emphasize the “favorite” part of this (because people freak the fuck out when you write “best”), and note that this list doesn’t include recent releases from Sayoko Daisy and a forthcoming one from Homecomings (which, geez, talk about something that could disrupt)…and considering how much music we still discover daily, who knows what this would look like next March.

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New Especia: “We Are Especia ~ Naki Nagara Dancing”

Note: This will be the final regular update around these parts for a bit…starting tomorrow (hopefully!) we will share MBM’s top 20 Japanese albums of the year. And then we will go on a vacation where posts will be more infrequent. Fittingly, we end with Especia.

Osaka idol outfit Especia – who take cues from ’80s city pop and ’90s acid jazz sonically, and vaporwave visually – recently announced they signed a major-label deal with VERSIONMUSIC, under Victor, and will release their major-label-debut EP Primera this February. This is, immediately, good news – Especia have created some of the best J-pop of the last few years, capped off by this year’s Gusto. More exposure and opportunities…and budget…via a bigger label is an obvious plus.

Yet worries surface, as ridiculous as that seems (especially because we are talking about idols, built for mainstream attention). A bigger label means more micro management, and the first taste of Primera’s “We Are Especia ~ Naki Nagara Dancing” hints that this is already under way. Mainly, the video is only available through Yahoo! Japan’s Gyao! video service…only a major label in Japan would think “the best way to get this outfit over to a bigger audience is to limit them to one site.” The video, meanwhile, is a bit less wonky than what came before…instead of weather reports or glossy vegetables, we get faked live-show footage. The Parental-Advisory bit is good, but the rest of this is unremarkable.

If this sounds like goofy fan behavior…well, it probably is, as Especia is the only idol group going now where I’m willing to admit I start acting like your typical “stan” (ugh), give or take Perfume. But spirits remain upbeat…especially when I slap myself and remember “this is great for them! They probably get more dough! Good!”…after listening to the song. Which strikes a decent balance between major-label intro and Especia doing their thing. The first half is a slog – it is pure set up, introducing the group at the speed of a pre-credit info scroll – but then it opens up into an easy-going sway where the group do their thing over something that isn’t quite as brash as some of Gusto’s finer moments…but plenty good. And they introduce some central sonic ideas…the sax solo…and do throw in one exciting development with the rough-neck “what’s my *bleeeeeeep* name? section.

So yeah…who knows where this will go, but that’s part of the fun. And here’s Especia’s pitch for the mainstream listeners of Japan. Watch it here.