Tokyo Jihen “Sa_i_ta”
It might be hard to tell given the number of live DVDs and best-of releases that have packed store racks this year, but Tokyo Jihen called it quits back at the start of 2012. Assessing the group’s legacy ends up being a tricky task – lead singer Shiina Ringo’s solo albums remain more adventurous than anything in her proper band’s discography, her decision to form Tokyo Jihen looking more like a way to find a way to edge away from the experimental towards something more straightforward. Her proper band had a handful of great moments, but always seemed more content to be just a solid J-Rock band with the occasional jazzy flourish rather than trying to push their sound into any strange decisions.
Yet Tokyo Jihen closed out their existence with one of – if not the – best songs they’ve ever done in “Sa_i_ta.” Penned by guitarist Ukigumo, the track finds the band pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. This is a funky, multi-part song that makes every sound matter, from the backing vocals to the handclaps that sneak into the mix at times. It’s a pop song with its eyes locked on the future – and that’s before Ringo douses her voice in Vocoder for a late song break. This is the most daring Tokyo Jihen…and Ringo herself…have been in a long time, and about as good as a note they could go out on.
Canopies And Drapes “The Door Into Summer”
Tokyo’s Canopies And Drapes gets under your skin. Her music before “The Door Into Summer” were twinkling short stories that sounded happy sonically but hid shadows behind all of the brightness, secrets that became more clear with repeated listens. “The Door Into Summer” was jarring for a different reason when it came out – it’s the most bare-bones sonic creation from Canopies And Drapes yet. She constructed the song out of nothing more than guitar, channel-hopping synth and vocals buried deeper in the mix than on her previous tracks. Despite the sonic change, “The Door Into Summer” retains her ability to imbue her music with a sense of uneasiness. It’s a song about nostalgia – “how could I/forget/I still love you/I’ll never get over that summertime/that was almost one year ago” – in yet another year swamped with songs about looking back, but this one didn’t sound wistful. The past sounds painful to her, and over the course of the song she sounds like she’s trying to work out everything that has happened, ending with the begging “I thought you were happy too.” It has been more than half a year, and this one still hides a lot.
Post Modern Team “Never Let You Down”
The boom in indie-pop music in Japan this year featured a lot of names worthy of attention, including Ano(t)raks, Boyish, For Tracy Hyde, Wallflower, Homecomings, Twinkle Twinkles, Foodie, Jolie Jolie, Elfs In Bloom, The Paellas, Soft As Snow But Warm Inside and many many more. Trying to choose a single song to capture this mostly-online movement seems like a daunting task, so why not go with the one that embraced the tenants of indie-pop in a big ol’ bear hug? The world’s first taste of Osaka’s Post Modern Team was “Never Let You Down,” the year’s best indie-pop song. If one of the appeals of indie-pop music is simplicity…and the idea that anyone can pick up a guitar and a boombox and start recording…this is about as beautifully bare bones as it gets, just a beat and some easy-breezy guitar chords leading up to that chorus. It’s five syllables long and only those five repeated, but Post Modern Team realize complexity can be a needless burden when what you already have sounds gorgeous enough. It’s nothing more than one amazing hook, but that’s what the best indie-pop leans on, and why mess with it when it’s always there for you?
Rapunzel8083 “Miró Jazz”
Spanish artist Joan Miró’s work long focused on themes of childhood, so it’s appropriate that Osaka electronic duo Rapunzel8083′s tribute to the painter features samples of toddlers talking throughout its nearly eight-minute run. Their voices aren’t saying anything particularly deep…they seem to be introducing themselves and talking about dreams, and midway through the song Rapunzel8083 even sample once-inescapable Internet meme “Charlie Bit My Finger.” Yet they elevate these young voices from kindergarten babble to something worthy of Cinemascope via their production, which combines the jittery electronics favored by Kansai electronic artists with strings plucked from a historical drama’s soundtrack. Many of the segments here first appeared as solitary beats on Rapunzel8083′s SoundCloud page, but sewed together they become more powerful and become an audio adventure, one that never lags despite running as long as nearly eight beat songs. The grandeur of the pair’s music sounds good enough alone, but it takes on a new power when mixed with those innocent voices, “Miró Jazz” portraying childhood as something powerful. The highlight comes early, when one kid tosses off a line about studying, only for the music to swell in a way that would make Terrance Malick happy.
Nami Tamaki “Paradise”
One could easily turn cynical just taking a glance over Oricon’s top singles for 2012 list – it’s a seemingly endless parade of Johnny’s projects and groups ending in a big number (though, uhhh, more on that in a bit), one that makes it look like the actual sonic qualities of J-Pop refuse to budge from the same snooze-inducing sounds that sell stupid amounts of units. Look deeper than what splatters up against Oricion, though, and you start hearing a bunch of exciting stuff, like Nami Tamaki’s “Paradise.” The production, courtesy of Shinichi Osawa, takes cues from England’s Gold Panda, all half-second stutters (check the way Tamaki’s “mhm” gets looped just after the chorus) and tipsy synths, but all rendered into a pop song that never gets bogged down in experimentalism. Instead, this song uses those more interesting sonic decision as a way to construct a really great pop song that has a unique sound in 2012′s J-Pop marketplace. This is more like an oasis.
Shortcake Collage Tape “Polaroid Full Of Kisses”
What happens when something deemed terribly uncool by a large amount of people means a lot to you personally? A lot of Japanese artists…and many internationally…did just that with Japanese cartoons, an Internet punchline that was probably around when AOL started handing out free-trial disks. Lots of folks ignored how uncool many see anime as and instead flipped it into a central tenant of their artistic output, whether it be music or art or whatever. At the center of Shortcake Collage Tape’s “Polaroid Full Of Kisses” rests a sample taken from a cartoon show the creator enjoyed as a kid, dropped in here not as a gag or meaningless political statement (hello vaporwave) but instead an aching reminder of the past. The surrounding music, from the lava-lamp bass to the dismembered voice floating around before the anime, help drive home the swirling mood, the whole thing taking cues from chillwave but also being on its own trip altogether. The key, though, is that sample, joined by a melancholy flute line that makes this one sound painfully earnest, the mind caught daydreaming about a simpler time now long gone. It isn’t remotely trendy, but it’s affecting.
Super VHS “Remember The Night”
Speaking of getting caught on a memory…I listened to “Remember The Night” for an hour straight one night while walking around the neon-tinged streets of a city I didn’t know that well. It was the end of a particularly fun weekend, a much needed break from the hum-drum of everyday life, and as I stumbled around looking for Mexican food, this song from Tokyo’s Super VHS was already making me wistful for all that had passed. It’s a strange song, as its elements are jumbled out of time – the guitars say lounge, the synths say decaying city pop, the beat says “Push It.” The vocals are basically untranscribeable, recorded as if they started fading away once the words are out of the lead singer’s mouth. Yet this at-times-awkward composition nails its time-gone-by vibe incredibly well, and is 2012′s “jam of the year for walking around a city late at night with heavy thoughts on your mind.” The conclusion, when the synths start whirring off as the track fades out, offers a glimpse of hope that these nights can happen again, while still also acknowledging that they will never be the same. I’ll never be able to reclaim that time when this song meant so much to me, but I’m sure it will soundtrack plenty more.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu “Fashion Monster”
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s just a goofy gal who likes wearing fake eyelashes, starring in silly music videos and singing about childlike behavior, right? Nope, not with “Fashion Monster” in her singles catalog. This Halloween single features almost all of the aforementioned qualities associated with Kyary – check the steampunk-meets-Yoshi’s-Island clip – and I’ve seen more than one person bemoan how people enjoy what is a glorified ad (because all music videos aren’t selling the music within, geez). Yet “Fashion Monster” finds Kyary, who spent the majority of her excellent debut Pamyu Pamyu Revolution up to shenanigans, barring her teeth. Yasutaka Nakata’s production veers towards a more simple rock-based creation, one accented with 8-bit burps that make it more Adventure than Adventure Time. It’s a surprisingly spacey – but driving – backdrop for Kyary to get reflective. “I want to say I’m interesting/But I can’t say I’m not boring,” she sings before also wondering “do you want to be bound to the rules of someone?” The fashion scene she practically represents now has long been dismissed, both by fashion people (I talked to a few who rolled their eyes at the mention of Kyary) and by those who just need validation that Japan is weird and people basically wear Halloween costumes (which, “Fashion Monster” and that video). Kyary doesn’t want her lifestyle put under the microscope or made fun…she just wants to be free, and in a year where she became the face of Harajuku, “Fashion Monster” is the sound of her lifting that scene on her back and telling everyone else to step back.
Fancy Books “Sister Carry Stars”
Bedroom-centric label CUZ ME PAIN stood at the center of the Tokyo music scene in 2011, and they spawned a decent amount of imitators in their wake. Saitama’s Fancy Books take cues from that imprint, but what makes them stand out is how they didn’t just copy moves from those artists. Instead, they took the CUZ ME PAIN sound and pushed it into a poppier direction, best highlighted on this year’s seasick “Sister Carry Stars.” The best cut from their Wisteria EP on Dead Funny Records, “Sister Carry Stars’” individual sonic elements are all woozy, yet arranged in such a way that the track never sounds experimental but rather pop. Like the best CUZ ME PAIN productions, it sounds slightly unsettling but Fancy Books avoid being copy cats and instead use those sounds as a platform to craft their own sonic identity.
OK, I know, but don’t hit “back” just yet.
AKB48 serve a very important role in the J-Pop community, both for Japanese and English critics and fans – they are the big ugly pop mutation everyone can point to and be like “THIS is killing music in Japan” or “WHY are these people inescapable?” or “HEH guess this is why the birth rate is so low” or “FUCK THIS.” There are plenty of valid reasons to criticize Japan’s premier pop militia, and a bunch of them for music reasons (and I certainly have), but AKB48 attract a dislike that transcends your usual “what the hell is wrong with people nowadays” fist shaking. People loath this group to the point people say things that would get you slapped in different situations, whether it be about the people who like this group or the women comprising AKB48 themselves, who have inspired some really vile writing that is really straight-up misogyny. It’s easy to forget, for whatever reason, that AKB48 features real people doing something they presumably love (or hell, maybe just do it because they need to pay the bills), and that extreme criticism can get terrifying really fast.
What happens, then, when a pop group ridiculed by thousands suddenly turns towards the camera, scrunches their faces up and lets out a shout of “how annoying?” That’s “UZA,” AKB48′s masterpiece and the most self-aware J-Pop song of the year, a single that recognizes how hated the AKB institution is and practically breaks down from that fact, but manages to muster up a “piss off” to those folks. The lyrics, ostensibly, deal with romance, peppered with lines like “you should love him your own way/without thinking of the other person,” but could also be read as a message to fans, to ignore what others think of their interests (say, a giant pop group). Other parts talk about hurting people, and there is that chorus, which translates to “how annoying” and which, late in the song, is delivered in a dizzying fashion that makes it sound like whoever is saying those words is losing their mind a bit. This is a single that sold a million copies and landed as the year’s fourth best-selling track…designing it to have a chorus that says “how annoying” seems very thought out.
The ultimate trick AKB48 played, though, was making a song that is legitimately good on its own sonic merits. “UZA” came out on Halloween, so it required a “spooky” theme, but that constraint ended up being the best thing that could happen to this group’s music. This sounds dark and aggressive, a complete flip from their usual sugar rush. It opens with synths lifted from a horror movie and features vocal samples, including an unsettling “just use your imagination” line. In one of the biggest surprises of the year, it turns out that bathing AKB48′s vocals in Auto-tune actually makes them sound better, especially on a track like “UZA” where the more alien the sound, the better. It’s forceful and boasts a bunch of great moments and (controversial opinion coming up) is more daring than anything a decent-sized chunk of Japan’s independent scene could muster up in 2012. A lot of very talented people spent the past 12 months coasting on past glories, while AKB48 – a group with no reason to change their style, as they will sell a million copies of whatever they put out – actually did something daring with their sound. Ideally, this would be a wake-up call in 2013, but for now it will go down as 2012′s biggest surprise and finest middle-finger.