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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: #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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New blackglassG: “Common Story” EP

The best releases on NC4K have a kind of out-of-body vibe going for them, with the sounds making up their dance tracks feeling just a little hazy and untethered. That’s present on blackglassG’s Common Story EP, where the wooziness comes across subtly and in a way where the fun never gets cancelled out. The title track does this best of all, with all kinds of sounds crossing paths — bass, guitar, glassy percussion being just some of what comes through — but everything working just right although it all sounds a step off, too. Get it here, or listen below.

New Xinlisupreme: “J-Pop”

So far in 2019, there have been two prominent J-pop songs about J-pop itself, at least to some degrees. Teenager SASUKE practically gives the industry an entire pep talk with a song going to great lengths to tell you J-pop will never end (raising the stakes significantly with a line about how “Japanese people will also never end.” Long-running pop group Arashi, meanwhile, finally were allowed access to the internet to push “Turning Up,” a surprisingly bouncy bit of afternoon dance pop. The most memorable line, though, comes at the hook, with Arashi singing “turning up with the J-pop.” It’s weird seeing this industry now trumpet itself so loudly, trying to channel some enthusiasm out of mid air.

Xinlisupreme’s “J-Pop” comes at an interesting moment. It isn’t about J-pop proper, but really about celebrating the “feeling when I first plugged a distortion effects unit into a guitar and the music played from an amplifier,” according to an email sent to me ahead of the song’s release. Rather than embrace the noisy style of last year’s I Am Not Shinzo Abe, Xinlisupreme opts for a more disorienting mish-mash of sound, featuring Mac-speak-like English discussing the grim economic realities of Japan to life as a hikikomori, with Japanese speaking brushing by too. The music is sparse, barely there, more like a mist letting all these combating thoughts float around, with only a few harsher moments popping up for a few seconds to pull people out. It isn’t a direct celebration of music or even a critique, but rather the experience of wrestling with multiple thoughts at once and trying to piece something together from it. It’s complicated, and that’s way more real than any trumpeting. Get it here, or listen below.