Here’s my personal view on these sort of lists, at least as someone operating an English-language blog about music from a country that mostly gets overlooked by English-language media/listeners — it doesn’t even matter whether I view year-end lists as a portal for discovery or as some attempt at canon building, because for the bulk of people who come across these lists, it is always going to be about the prior. And that’s great! Plus, I can still rank music to my heart’s content without worrying about, well anything.
Working under all that, this year I’ll be posting a Best Albums List sometime later this week, but for today I’m running a Favorite Songs collection. What’s up with that wording, you might be asking? Well, this songs collection is really just a way to highlight music that won’t end up on the album list, whether because it came out as a single (or SoundCloud/Bandcamp loosie) or because the album it was attached to just missed out on the final set. What this means is a lot of fantastic songs released in Japan this year don’t appear after the jump because they’ll get shine in the next few days.
Oh, and if you want my take on the year as a whole, jump over to the Japan Times.
This one still charms because it is the rare song in 2015 — errrr, ever — to actually give critics a thumbs up without any implied sarcasm. “Avoiding critics is the easy way out/ the ones who judge you is a clever man.” Still feel warm inside, though honestly I would tell all electro-funk acts to just listen to how effortless “Scholar” sounds in its retro vibes and go from there.
Sugar’s Campaign “Holiday”
Seiho and Avec Avec have long viewed Sugar’s Campaign as a vehicle to indulge in the sounds of ’70s and ’80s J-pop, and this year’s Friends found them operating in full-on geek mode, creating sun-dazed tributes to Tatsuro Yamashita and his compatriots. Yet only twice did the album every really blast off beyond tribute — this blog’s unofficial top song of 2012 “Netokano” and “Holiday.” The latter found the duo bringing sounds more likely to be found in their respective solo output to a rubbery pop song, yet the end result never sounds dusted-off or Tupperware-ish. This won’t be the first time I write some variant of this, but this is what “New City Pop” should sound like.
Speaking of futurism that is anything but sterile…I shared the bulk of my thoughts over at The Singles Jukebox, but it is also worth stressing how this is 2015’s most unexpected triumph, because the rest of Sky-Hi’s music is pretty meh, and his main group AAA…errrr, let’s not talk about it. But this is a modern marvel.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu “Mondai Girl”
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu caught attention because of her wacky videos and catchy songs, but that’s not the reason she stuck around and reached the point where 2015 felt like somewhat of a lost year for her. There has been no shortage of acts pre-and-post-Kyary tapping in to the whole wild visual thing and hoping for some press, but the Kyary on Pamyu Pamyu Revolution and (especially) Nanda Collection was more than just an avatar for Harajuku. Her songs were all about personal identity and growing up, and the confusion that sets in when you realize adulthood looms on the horizon. She even found a resolution at the end of Nanda Collection, realizing she could become a mature person without losing her childlike qualities in the process. She realized she could be Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
That was the last time she’s been particularly compelling, as her music since has mostly been her trying to keep up the kawaii image, with hits and misses. There are a million reasons why this goofy Kyary parody sucks, but none trumps the fact Kyary and producer Yasutaka Nakata were all on board for it, hinting at them just being exhausted by keeping up colorful guises. But one song stood out as an exception.
Weirdly, “Mondai Girl” works because it explores the opposite side of the spectrum than anything on her first two collections — here, she’s grappling with the pitfalls of her now-settled-in fame (the video excels at this better, focusing on her interactions with the media and her [uhhh then] relationship with the Sekai No Owari guy). And maybe because she’s not trying to be Harajuku! Pop! all the time here, Nakata provides a nice, ’80s inspired backdrop for her to grapple with all of this. She finds herself in a state of friction heading into 2016, but “Mondai Girl” shows all the juice hasn’t been used quite yet.
Pictured Resort “Head West”
Osaka always has an excess of indie-pop bands hanging around, but Pictured Resort managed to stand out thanks to the laid-back longing of “Head West.” It’s a breezy bit of guitar pop matching up well with lyrics about, well, taking a road trip out west and seeing what happens.
Daoko “Kakete Ageru”
Daoko had her big “ready for the spotlight” moment later in the year (featuring the unveiling of…her face!), but it already feels like something is sorta lost from her previous existence as high-school girl rapping out her thoughts and observations. “Kakete Ageru” was her last moment to shine in this light, a giddy but nervous song with backing music that Passepied should be pissed they didn’t write first.
Saue And Nakae “SO.RE.NA.”
The best produced song about a millenial having to interact with a generation X’er you’ll hear in 2015, that’s for sure.
Perfume “Pick Me Up / Relax In The City”
I wrote at length about “Pick Me Up” when it first appeared, and I hold by pretty much all of it. Except for the bit about “Relax In The City” not being that interesting to write about (lolz no wonder people hate music writers), because its sweetness didn’t reveal itself until later in the year, when the hyper-busy realities of work life really set in and I wish I could just sprawl out on the park near my apartment for eternity. It’s far and away Perfume’s best mellow song, but given how weak that competition is, it feels like a slight because “Relax In The City” does what Perfume’s music has always excelled at — it captures a specific feeling in all its details, and here it is of pure peace.
Half Mile Beach Group “Yankee” / “Twilight”
“Yankee” blew in from the shores of Zushi as winter was just coming to an end, but it still feels like it dropped in from Neptune. Half Mile Beach Group staged an evening bonfire as narrated by a group of aliens, crafting a wind-swept number ideal for some interstellar dunes.
Then they went and released “Twilight” a month later, taking the same windy, alien vibe and moving it to the off season. It’s a slow-burning, emotional number, highlighted by the MVP-worthy decision to get the singer Ico from another coast dwelling outfit Far Farm to provide the heavily manipulated vocals. She crushes it, delivering a melancholy stare out towards the sea and simply letting every feeling drift out, her static-charged voice floating into the distance come the climax. This list is in chronological order more or less, but this was my favorite Japanese song of the year.
Gesu No Kiwami Otome “Watashi Igai Watashi Jyanai No”
I’m not going to side-eye anyone who wasn’t ready to embrace the YouTube-fueled rise of Gesu No Kiwami Otome just because a band appearing on banal variety TV shows might have listened to King Crimson once. But I don’t know man, the past five years have been an endless sea of people complaining about how terrible the idol-centric state of Japanese music was, with plenty of justification. So yeah, tastes don’t align etc etc but I don’t get how anyone sour on J-pop post 2010 wouldn’t at least be a little giddy at the biggest song of the year (aside: Gesu’s rise might be the strongest argument against the Oricon charts in years) being this, a tight and nerdy bit of rock boasting vaguely existential lyrics. The biggest songs of this decade have come from groups with very little overall musical appeal — it’s pretty refreshing for the situation to flip completely.
Carpainter “Out Of Resistance”
Not to get too deep in ~niche blog politics~, but Carpainter fell just outside the album list thanks to a different act on Trekkie Trax. The bubbling-up producer made a lot of solid songs in 2015, but I didn’t hear any as much as I did “Out Of Resistance,” which popped up a lot at club events. Rightfully so, as it is a dizzying number that sounds great both booming out of big sound system and out of my shitty headphones.
Nyankobrq “Good Day Sunshine”
You can’t convince me “kawaii bass” is a thing whatsoever, but if it were to someone be more than a nifty SoundCloud tag, this manic bit of anime-sampling Jersey club wouldn’t be a bad foundation to build from.
Namie Amuro “Golden Touch”
Score one for humanity — as intriguing as I find the uncanny-valley-gone-pop of Namie Amuro and Hatsune Miku’s “B Who I Want 2 B,” it can’t touch the warm blood rushing through “Golden Touch,” a song about orgasms that sounds like a fireworks display over the French coast. This is massive, car-ready pop done excellently by an artist who has never sounded this immediate and imposing. Pure pop pleasure.
Oomori Seiko “Magic Mirror”
The most fractured Disney feature song you’ll hear all year.
When this thing goes wonky at the one minute and 60-second mark, that’s one of the single best moments in Japanese electronic music I’ve heard all year.
Especia “Aviator/ Boogie Aroma”
Xinlisupreme “I Am Not Shinzo Abe”
Political music doesn’t — and probably shouldn’t — get too poetic about the things it protests against. Xinlisupreme’s “I Am Not Shinzo Abe” appeared the same day as a highly controversial and contested security bill that would alter the nation’s Constitution, and wastes zero word. It’s a driving, angry number featuring only one line — the title — repeated over and over again, mantra like. It’s a powerful piece of protest because it chooses loud identification over deconstruction.
Plenty of Japanese songs went fast, but “Hanabi” is the only one I can think of that hit the brakes at the perfect moment. KiWi, the whizz-bang duo of AZUpubschool and Cor!s,” brought both of their production skills to the table to create a dizzying electronic number weaving in twinkles and elements of traditional Japanese music, all anchored by a chorus some mainstream J-pop labels would kill for. Which is great, but “Hanabi” doesn’t explode until it stops. After a dash of a first half that comes off like a kid zipping through a crowded summer festival, everything slows down for a wink and the sound of fireworks burst overhead. It’s a moment of appreciation that is fleeting but ultimately the sweetest bit of nostalgia on one of the year’s best electro-pop songs.
Emerald Four “Tameiki”
A year after releasing their breakthrough Nothing Can Hurt Me, the duo Emerald Four remained drifting in orbit, all lonely and beautiful “Tameiki” is a slowly unfolding song that lets every syllable take its time to get out, a continuation of what they did all of 2014 but a reminder of just how stunning it could still be.
The women-rapping trend is very real, and looks like 2016 will be loaded with groups trying to cash in on this in the same way a million idol groups emerged from the ether during the “idol boom.” Well, here’s the one to beat so far. Chelmico’s “Junejuly” is an energetic bouncer, loading up on sounds common in the netlabel scene but coming out the other side with a sparkling number highlighting the duo above all else. Waves tend to be manufactured, but “Junejuly” is pure joy.
The stable of producers Yun*chi has worked with looks extremely impressive — Taku Takahashi, kz, Avec Avec, bo en — yet it is her collaboration with J-pop big timer Chara for the meditative “Jelly” that stood out the most. Possibly because she was the first to slow Yun*chi down instead of speed her up, and came across the perfect sonic bubble to put her in.
HyperJuice “City Lights” (Pa’s Lam System Remix)
Based purely on how many time I’ve thrashed around my apartment to a single song (a.k.a. iTunes play total), this was my champion of 2015. Which makes sense considering that everything Pa’s Lam System touches turns to gold, and they held the same title the year before. The original “City Lights” is a sweet little glider, more a reflection while staring out a loop line train at early evening. Pa’s take ramps up the emotion tenfold, transforming this from a wispy mediation to manic ball of energy, all with the central emotion still oozing out in all its messy glory. Someone tweeted at a point this year that if Pa’s Lam System were, like, on Mad Decent, they would be massive. True, but they deserve it just for being themselves and for making stuff as intense as this.
Boogie Man Running Through With Tavito Nanao “Future Running”
Interest in juke music comes and goes in Japan — although a very established and very fascinating scene keeps going on here, general interest wavers. I mean, the highest point of visibility the genre has had when some guys from EXILE went to Chicago to learn about footwork. That was three years ago. Left-field troubadour Tavito Nanao isn’t a household name, but he’s big enough in the alternative pop-scape that his collaboration with Yokohama producer Boogie Man has gotten a fair share of looks from people who might not be diving into the Paisley Parks discography. And thankfully, “Future Running” is a great synthesis between mellow pop and juke, that is until it snaps apart and just turns into a fierce juke track.
Mariana In Our Heads “Flash Shot”
Plenty of great indie-pop this year, and 2016 (like every year before it) promises an avalanche of fantastic twee-but-not-painfully-so music. Here’s one of the more pleasant surprises from this year’s crop, a sweet little shoegaze-tinged number.
Zombie-Chang “Summer Time”
It starts like the castle music from Super Mario Brothers melted down into something more sinister, but the magic of “Summer Time” is how it blooms into a bright little number while still maintaining an unsettling edge. Best/most tense use of cicadas in song, 2015 award.
Quarta 330 “Otome Landscape”
The long-runner electronic producer still has it, and this fuzzy little breeze is one of the sweeter things to come out of the netlabel scene in 2015.
Native Rapper “Water Bunker”
How in the world do you transform a golf trap into a fizzy bit of electro-submerged rap-pop? Kyoto’s Native Rapper somehow pulls it off, with a song touching on a lot of sonic trends that started from the country’s Internet-centric scenes and scrambling them up into a bouncy tornado of a song.
Feel like there aren’t nearly enough melancholy songs on this list. Maybe that’s because Nagoya outfit Crunch’s “Blue” puts on a better display of longing than most, a chilly number for staring out a window on a rainy morning.
Neko Atsume Background Music
The lowest point of my year came sometime in early September. I was sitting in a coffee shop juggling a bunch of work. I was still getting over the recent sting of having an editor I always wanted to write for killing a story I had been working on, and feeling like I had failed a big opportunity. That same day, a different editor killed a big feature story I had been working on for a few months, though I couldn’t blame him as the star of planned piece was being extremely difficult. But most stressful of all, I was wrapped up in something that had already consumed a month of my time and would drag on for another, one where the threat of a lawsuit hung over my head.
At this point, I turned on a 30-minute loop of the music to the popular mobile phone game Neko Atsume, and just zoned out for half an hour.
A lot of music ends up being experienced as an aside to something else — maybe you heard a catchy song in a commercial, or in a great Vine, or in the background of Master Of None. Stepping outside of the eternally insular world of ~music writing Twitter~ (or any fandom-centric zone) reveals that a lot of folks brush up against songs in some way that is far from spectacular. Yet a lot of that music — which might just be background music for a popular cat-collecting game — can mean just as much to people.
This is my most listened to song of 2015, because Neko Atsume is my most played game and I always put my headphones in to here this jaunty little melody because nothing sounded more soothing this year. And eventually I just started putting on the music, gathered from YouTube loops, because very little music from Japan or anywhere else in the world made me feel as relaxed and at peace as this.