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.
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.
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