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Make Believe Melodies’ Favorite 2019 Japanese Albums: #10 – #01

#10 Wai Wai Music Resort WWMR 1

If total number of plays need to be considered for any favorites list, Wai Wai Music Resort ran away with my 2019. Whether because I needed to concentrate on work or simply wanted a stereophonic sound trip bound for endless summer, WWMR 1 delivered pure breeze. It’s also the surprise crown jewel of Local Visions’ previous 12 months, as no release under their umbrella better captured the ethos of what they are about like this one. City pop has become the big bright neon core of how many people (at least online) see older Japanese music, and while plenty of great stuff has received newfound attention, it results in a distortion about just how varies this corner of Japanese pop could be. Wai Wai expand the memory pool to include resort BGM, easy-going tropical lounge and the type of music you’d find on those JAL records that are like “the sound of the Grand Canyon” clogging up Hard Offs. Of course, it isn’t quite that — it’s their own read on the type of forgotten albums you have to buy guidebooks to learn about, given a specific setting thanks to samples of airplane intercom chat and a pace made for vacation. And that’s all an illusion today, something Wai Wai wink at with standout “For Lonely Drivers (F.L.D.),” a fake radio transmission promising warmer climes to solitary highway travelers (and maybe for music critics…”tropical synths,” adjective lovers rejoice). If we are always doomed to misremember the past, Local Visions exists to at least offer new interpretations on these misconceptions, while reminding of the escapist power it holds. Get it here, or listen below.

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Make Believe Melodies’ Favorite 2019 Japanese Albums: #20 – #11

#20 Chelmico Fishing

Take a moment to appreciate how timing really is everything, and how many artists could have shot down a different path entirely if you wind the clocks back or forward just one year. It’s not hard to picture a reality where Chelmico are closer to idols like Lyrical School or Rhymeberry if they emerge closer to AKB48’s peak, or they get pushed to be more traditionally hip-hop if trends break right. Yet the pair popped up at a sweet spot in the mid 2010s where they could develop their genre-hopping approach to rap, and when they did reach the majors they didn’t have to fill any pre-determined boxes, but could be a social-media age take on RIP SLYME and Halcali’s hip-pop.

Fishing is the pay off, a Warner-backed full-length showing Chelmico’s versatility in all its sonic and emotional breadth. The duo’s main inspiration point — the aforementioned RIP SLYME — can be a divisive one in how the J-pop up rap, with plenty to critique. Chelmico, though, nail all the positive points, glueing tag-team verses to earworm hooks. The backdrop doesn’t matter, as they can dash alongside electronic skitters on “Exit” or work within the confines of something approaching eyes-down indie-rock on “12:37.” The pop highs on Fishing are their best to date, highlighted by “Switch” and “Summer Day’s” bounce-house energy, but it’s the more deflated numbers like “Balloon” and “Navy Love,” where Chelmico turn their usually chipper style towards heavier feelings that really make this album their breakthrough. It’s them taking risks and not always hitting — no song on any album featured here or after is as bad as “Beer Bear” — but the willingness to go for it comes through clearly, and results in one of J-pop’s brightest spots in 2019 and something perfect for the times. Listen below.

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Make Believe Melodies’ Favorite 2019 Japanese Albums: #30 – #21

#30 Snail’s House Alien Pop II + Alien Pop III

Near the start of 2019, Yasutaka Nakata shared the theme song he composed for an anime series about Virtual YouTubers, sporting vocals delivered by the digital influences themselves. It sounded a lot like Nakata trying to mimic the innocent bleeping of Snail’s House. Consider it a weird twist, considering Snail’s House’s Alien Pop finds him channeling his love of Perfume and other feelings-flowing electro-pop into original songs. For this year at least, point for the molluscan. The latest entries in the Alien Pop series offered up dizzying dance songs borrowing not just from the Nakata playbook but also French touch. “Cosmo Funk” and “Planet Girl” surrounded unintelligible syllable chirps with synthesizer flurries adding a glow to every track. “Invader” reimagined “Night Flight” as something Yusaku Maezawa might fund, while “Fusion” saw Snail’s House get more delirious than they’ve ever tried before, with the same songwriting intricacy coming through. Snail’s House put out a lot over the course of this year, but these two saw the project achieve a bubbly new high. Get them here, or listen below.

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Make Believe Melodies’ Favorite 2019 Japanese Albums: #40 – #31

#40 Universe Nekoko Kimi No Youni Ikiretara

Bump into someone walking down the main shopping arcade in Koenji and you have pretty good odds that they play in either a shoegaze band. Few styles have persevered in Japan like this corner of rock, and as a result standing out from the field can be a deeply difficult task when so many MBV acolytes abound. Universe Nekoko offer plenty of feedback over the course of Kimi No Youni Ikiretara, but it’s the lessons they gather from another longstanding style — indie-pop — that elevates them a step up. Despite all the noise, shoegaze taps into the same teenage melancholy the best twee pop grazes. They leave space for those feelings to come across on the title track and highlight “Like A Raspberry,” holding off on any sonic fireworks in favor of drifting. It makes the moments they do rip it open on “(I’m) Waiting For The Sun” all the more effective. Get it here, or listen below.

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Make Believe Melodies’ Favorite 2019 Japanese Albums: #50 – #41

At some point this fall, Make Believe Melodies turned ten. I’d known this decade milestone was looming — mainly because 2019 also marked my tenth anniversary of moving to Japan to work in the countryside teaching English to bored teenagers “for a year or two, tops” — and toyed around with ways to celebrate. Then life happened and…forget marking the occasion, even updating this blog fell to the wayside.

I wish I could point to some sharp and biting reason for this — Blogging is dead! Music journalism is on life support! Just like what you like, man! — but the real reason is far more boring. Life simply got in the way. I had a kid, work became far more outsized even before that became a reality and time suddenly became scarce in a way I never would have imagined when I started this in 2009 between repeat-after-me drills in far-off Mie. I’m thankful for all the above, but to make it work the starting point had to suffer (to the point I’m actually blogging about most of the same artists I would here over at Otaquest now because…well, that pays, and this has always been a not-for-profit site, first for personal beliefs but now because I have zero idea who would advertise for something like this).

All fall, I knew I still wanted to do this annual exercise — which, if you are new (welcome, thanks for reading that intro which probably confused you!) entails me, the only person working on Make Believe Melodies save for the few people who take pity on me to help with the WordPress nitty gritty, highlighting my personal favorite Japanese albums of the year. Thing is, I’m not sure what comes next. I’ve told myself “this is the week I find more time to blog” for most of the last three months, and then that tumbles down a chute. I’ve started seriously wondering if this site’s time has come…or, at the very least, having it mutate into something different, whether that’s fewer posting or becoming something else entirely (get in on the newsletter boom before that crashes?).

What keeps making me feel pangs of guilt and still pushes me to want to get back on this, however, is surveying Japanese music in 2019. I haven’t encountered a year as stacked for the country’s musical output in my time living in the country, to the point where I seriously came close to going wild and making this 100. Then I realized that the world probably doesn’t need to know Tacoyaki Rainbow made my 98th favorite release of the year and kept it a tad tighter. Still, so much fantastic stuff came out this year both on the top level of J-pop and in the indie-adjacent spaces this site primarily covers that I went into list season not having two or three favorites for the top spot, but closer to 11. On top of that…and here’s some industry side-eyeing for those seeking a touch of the dramatic…I believe English-language coverage of non-English music has mostly gotten worse over the decade since I started out, save for maybe Spanish-language music and some corners of K-pop (though…that’s a whole different door to open up). Congratulations to CHAI (on my list) and Otoboke Beaver (#54…told you it was cutthroat!) for grabbing Western attention, but there’s so much more happening here just totally ignored on a wider scale that deserves to be screamed about, even if it’s coming from some small dorky digital corner of the web. I guess my voice hasn’t gone out yet, at least.

Which brings us back to what I say every year…follow along, listen and see if you find something you love that normally wouldn’t hit your radar.

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