10. Puffyshoes Something Gold
Welcome to the top 10, and what better way to start the countdown than with what should be the most divisive album on this entire list. Of course, everything needs to be taken in context – Puffyshoes’ debut album didn’t get enough attention to really inspire the sort of rage that, say Soulja Boy gets whenever he cracks a smile. Just pretend, then, that Something Gold did get the attention it deserves – it would certainly leave just as many folks hesitant as it would make giddy. This duo make lo-fi, feedback dunked garage rock…someone would have once maybe called this “shit-gaze” with a straight face – featuring songs about ice cream, kittens and McDonald’s. It’s simultaneously too twee at times and existing within a style of music already over saturating the Internet. This isn’t the type of music one just brushes off as “OK.”
Sonically, Something Gold proves that you sometimes can’t toss out an album based on a single genre stuffed with groups using fuzzy production for nothing more than a cosmetic boost. Puffyshoes make the scuzz a vital element of their often-times relentless drive – it buffs out a fair chunk of their songs, what would have sparse drum-and-guitar constructions transformed into forceful squeal-outs with ear-grabbing choruses. Neco and Usagi aren’t even leaning on that for the entire album – for all the free-wheeling chaos, they also are capable of stuff like the twisting nightmare “The Scary Ghost” or the Vegas-ready Guided By Voices imitation of “Good Girl.” They closely resemble Brooklyn’s Vivian Girls, another group working with cheap sound but being way more calculating than their recording methods would hint at.
Just like that American group, Puffyshoes also conceal a lot of emotional depth. Something Gold is a very lonely recording – the lyrics talk about birthdays spent alone and of pining for imagined lovers. Even the song about junk food (“Junk Food”) hints at some Michael Moore-ish commentary, of being surrounded only by the most disposable of stuff. Noise becomes a replacement for connection. The duo eventually get a bit more hopeful – “Good Girl” and especially propulsive closer “Lazy Seventeen” showing change can be grasped as long as you turn off the TV and get off the couch. Something Gold comes with a lot of contextual baggage, but at it’s core this is a painfully relatable album.
9. Texas Pandaa Down In The Hole
Whereas Puffyshoes made a potentially divisive album around messy clambering, Texas Pandaa built a painstakingly pretty record which clearly involved a lot of practice sessions. Accordingly, it seems ridiculous to consider Down In The Hole as a contentious LP, as something so labored over could most negatively called “boring.” Which Down In The Hole certainly isn’t. Japanese bands love to make music easily filed away as “dream pop,” groups turning guitars into black-and-white circles you spin until you can’t stop staring at them. Texas Pandaa avoid the easiest trapdoor of this type of sound – letting the “hazy” guitars drone off to the point where the song goes absolutely nowhere – by making sure their tracks always progress, even if slowly. A lot of moments on Down In The Hole sound frost covered, slowly trudging exotic birds, but always going towards something and sounding damn pristine. Other times, like on the surreal title track or standout “Suddenly,” Pandaa push a little harder and hit on some borderline pop ideas. Every song the group plays here…and, frankly, have played in their entire history…sounds gorgeous, but what makes Down In The Hole especially awe-worthy are the dual vocals. The group’s two singers tango their voices together, weaving in and out to add an extra pretty sheen to the entire affair. It’s Texas Pandaa’s best album yet, and also dream pop done right.
8. Halfby The Island Of Curiosity
Falling somewhere between the imagined Casio beaches of chillwave and the subversive coasts of nu Balearic, artists like Tanlines and El Guincho made albums in 2010 devoted to tropical sounds, all steel drums and beach fire dance parties working as perfect soundtracks to the summer. Kyoto’s Halfby made a celebratory album falling in line with those two with The Island Of Curiosity, an LP that ended up being Second Royal Record’s best in an especially great year for the label. Halfby turns whatever elements get handed to him into dancey pop gems – he takes guest vocals courtesy of Broadcast 2000′s Joe Steer and turns them into the paradise hula of “Man On Fire”, while he drops Skibunny’s Tanya Mellotte’s croon on top of the dreamy “North Marine Drive.” Give Halfby a crate’s worth of rap vocals or chipmunked samples and he’ll pump out post-Since I Left You dance tracks like “Juicy” and “Mad Surfin.” Or just leave him to his own devices and watch him drop the beach-blanket fantasy of “Blue Condition,” the twinkly dream “Whispering My Name” or the Ibiza-club of “Flash Bam.” For all its island flavor and twists, The Island Of Curiosity is a damn amazing pop-dance album by a guy with a hell of an ear for catchy hooks. It’s fine-tuned for summer, but works just as well in the depths of winter as a mental postcard from some far off island.
This album STILL hasn’t been reviewed on this blog, and by revealing my cards here (it’s a good album folks) I’ve made it even more unnecessary to revisit that Word document screaming out for completion. Yet I will finish it, so hold tight another week or two if you want a rambling, in-depth breakdown of why I think this new joint project between Leo Imai and Zazen Boys’ brain Mukai Shutoku. For now, something to the point. Kimonos works as both the logical follow-up to the electro-heavy Zazen Boys 4 (see the jazzy minimalism of “Almost Human” and the moments when Shutoku takes the reigns completely, even bringing in sounds he used on the last Zazen Boys’ album) and as a complete departure for Shutoku. On this album he gives Krautrock a go, but more radically he attempts to make something that sounds definitively pop. Check the 80s-arena-filling vibe of “Soundtrack To Murder” or the fuzzy drive of “Tokyo Lights.” It’s this side of the Kimonos project, the one trying to make something clean and at times linear, that requires Imai, the most polarizing aspect of this outfit. To these ears, he’s vital – he boasts a powerful howl featuring none of the sandpaper roughness Shutoku’s croon carries, a touch that makes the poppier moments on Kimonos really work. Again, expect more on this album later…but rest assured, it’s a great one.
6. MASS OF THE FERMENTING DREGS Zero Comma, Iro Toridori No Sekai
On the second song of MASS OF THE FERMENTING DREGS’ debut album, the trio thunders through a pretty above-standard rock hop. Then they reach the chorus, and everything gets thrown out of whack for about three seconds – the singing and guitars go on as normal, but the drumming picks up to the point where everything else seems displaced for one breath. It’s a moment of cacophony casually thrown into an otherwise solid song, and a great individual summary of why Zero Comma, Iro Toridori No Sekai ends 2010 as the absolute best J-Rock album of the year.
Not to be THAT guy who scowls at the idea of a group sounding “mainstream,” but much of the J-Rock clogging the Tower Records of Japan today sounds too content. It all strikes these ears as perfectly pleasant but not all that thrilling, groups playing it a little safe and making inoffensive rock that might strike it lucky and soundtrack the closing credits of next season’s new drama. DREGS, meanwhile, could care less about showing up on NHK. They make songs that are definitely poppy…and I can attest to them getting a decent position at the Tower in Osaka…but aren’t afraid to give them a black eye to boot. Zero Comma devastates all in it’s wake – the guitars buzz of louder than anything that landed on Music Station this year, and the drums hurtle forward with no mercy. I’ve got nothing against ORANGE RANGE but it’s sort of a mockery their newest single sits so close to the DREGS’ display.
This could very well end up DREGS peak year – guitarist Chiemi Ishikawa left the group late this year for medical reasons and it’ll be interesting to see how they continue to be so loud minus one member – but even if it is they’ve given the Japanese landscape one hell of a kick in the testicles. From the wordless shoegaze-romp of “RAT” to the Pixies-inspired slow burn of “ONEDAY” (the closest they’ve come to a proper ballad yet) to the harsh prettiness of the title track, Zero Comma shows J-Rock doesn’t have to be lifeless routine but can be catchy and confrontational. And, on the standout “ひきずるビート,” they show the combination can be next level too.
5. Shugo Tokumaru Port Entropy
Ho hum, just another collection of Crayola-filled twee from a guy who has been making making flights of childhood whimsy like this for years now. It’s appropriate the press photos accompanying Port Entropy find Shugo playing a scientist, toying around with beakers full of whoknowswhat, because he manages the seemingly impossible feet of creating something that shouldn’t be so easily recreated – youthful wonder. Port Entropy isn’t a huge departure from Exit, but does feature a few of Tokumaru’s strongest moments yet in a career loaded with them. He gets deeply reflective on the bare “Linne,” and he reaches new heights of delirious joy on the one-two jab of “Lahaha” and “Rum Hee.” Some critics looked at this album suspiciously, like Shugo was swimming around in the ball pit at a Discovery Zone. Yet Port Entropy is a very grown-up album, in that Shugo pays a lot of attention to creating a very hard mood that it seems like only him and the folks at Pixar do right. This album hasn’t even come out officially in America yet, but in Japan I still sometimes here “Tracking Elevator” at the local convenience store. Finally, people are starting to pay attention.
4. √thumm Yamatopia
Whatever the hell you constitute as “techrock,” whether you even choose to recognize it as a sub-genre or even know what that means…this is exactly the album the fledgling sound needed. Yamatopia follows one year after √thumm’s debut Coton, an album I still consider the best Japanese release of 2009 thanks to its stainless merger of dancey electronics with gooey pop sensibilities. Don’t let this three-spots-lower rating fool you into thinking this is some sort of disappointment – the next three albums just happen to be especially dazzling becauseYamatopia bests Coton in my book.
√thumm still pump out catchy pop approximating what Perfume would sound like if they came up from the underground instead of a pop laboratory. What makes Yamatopia a step forward…for the Nara trio and techrock…is that it’s a legitimate album. Coton felt like a collection of great singles – this album realizes the importance of sequencing and feels like it’s always going somewhere, capped off with a song called “Good Bye Bye!!” Still, it wouldn’t mean a thing if the songs themselves weren’t popping off, and on their sophomore album √thumm cement themselves as a trio who know how to write a mind-melting pop song. They specialize in big hooks – see the thumping center of “Fuji” or the high-note routine of “ヤマトコトノハ” or the strobe-light chorus of “Alive.” “Kiss Me Kiss Me” comes closest to matching Coton highpoint “Magic Love” in terms of pure club-pop excellence, while closer “Good Bye Bye!!” shoots the band into space courtesy of the most cathartic chorus they’ve conjured up yet.
They also serve up two moments of forward-thinking techpop. The group embraces simpler, Brian Wilson-esque structure on the melancholia “Since Yesterday” – though they up the vocoder to compensate. More stunningly is “Harukami,” √thumm’s attempt at crafting a techrock ballad. It’s not great just because they rejiggered one of the most oft-annoying J-Pop templates into a good electro-heavy creature – it’s the most beautiful (as in, picture flowers blooming and birds swooping into the scene as the trio plays in some meadow) song √thumm have ever written, all tinkling piano and a memorable vocal performance. Yamatopia splits the difference between these new vistas and those they’ve already settled, and the whole result sounds splendid.
3. The Brixton Academy Vivid
All The Brixton Academy had to do was pin a grin to their face. Whether they, uh, vividly recall the 1980s or just know how to be excellent students, they’ve mastered the moves of the new wave decade down to a tee. On their debut long player TBA hit on the right mix of New Order, Human League and John Hughes – danceable synth-pop that in 2010 sounds distinctively nostalgic. With excellent throwbacks like the stuttering “Ready For The Romance” and the bouncy “Lovely Lies, Little Signs” they could have easily played the whole thing as a gag like so many other contemporary groups do. TBA could have embraced the role of a musical “I Love The 80s” and still be celebrated for making damn catchy music.
Instead, though, they let emotional honestly bleed all over these eight songs. The potentially cheesy sounds of the aforementioned “Ready For The Romance” and “Lovely Lies, Little Signs” transform into desperate pleas when the vocals, which on the latter get close to going completely off the rails, kick in. The singing on Vivid sounds ragged, approaching a Kermit The Frog tone that lends these tracks an everyman feel that makes the impact even more powerful. “In My Arms” spirals from a glossy dance track into a pleading cry set on repeat, that pained singing making the moment as honest as possible. Vivid’s centerpiece is the constantly rising “So Shy,” where the album’s themes of longing and moving on collide into one majestic single. TBA easily could have made an 80s-aping album with a wink, and captured the sound of all those synth-pop bands. Instead, they made one dripping with authenticity that actually pays homage to what those groups were actually about.
2. Cubismo Grafico Five Double Dozen
Usually an artist makes their masterpiece by hunkering down, cutting out all the filler and making something refined. Cubismo Grafico Five have been doing that for awhile now, crafting LPs around loose sound themes like “reggae-tinged” or “synthy.” Yet none of those albums ever felt like the artistic peak Cubismo Grafico and his band seemed capable of, good enough listens but always feeling a little overstuffed, one or two songs outshining the rest. So when they crammed 24 rock sketches into 40 slapdash minutes in 2010 and called the whole thing Double Dozen, not surprisingly they ended up with what had eluded them all these years – a bonafide masterstroke of an album.
Double Dozen channels the same forces that have turned Bee Thousand into part of the indie canon – Cubismo Grafico Five don’t worry about fleshing out their songs, instead finding one great idea and jumping to the next one while sprinkling a few experimental segues between the peaks. This album could be said to follow a similar “theme” like older CG5 LPs, this one being their most “rocking” one yet – though the copious amounts of omnichord and the climatic group-sing of “Chukit” hint at far greater depth than that sentence indicates. Still, Double Dozen rocks the fuck out, and considering the longest song on the album lasts a scant 2:41 you can imagine how breakneck this stuff goes. In a year where all sorts of indie kids tried to make the punk-pop of the 1990s a trend, Cubismo aced the vintage Green Day sound by being faster and simply better than anyone else. Elsewhere they showed off their songwriting skills on the twisty-turny “Green Monster” – the best song about being jealous and turning into a monster as a result – and on the glowing neck-wrecker “Left Right Up Down.” The key line to Double Dozen can be found on “Chukit” – after spending the whole song dwelling on heartbreak, the chorus sings “just drink some beer/and dance.” Sometime just clearing your mind and doing can work wonders – Double Dozen is that thought in album form.
1. She Talks Silence Noise And Novels
Seemingly all the major music outlets have turned in their end-of-year lists by now, and a quick survey of these critic-penned countdowns reveals the most celebrated albums of 2010 ended up being the most “big.” Kanye topped most for his Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a go-for-broke event of a full-length crammed with a Vegas club’s worth of A-list guest stars. Elsewhere, Titus Andronicus dropped a Civil War epic, Joanna Newsome gifted the world with a triple-LP, Flying Lotus blasted off into space and Janelle Monáe made a concept record about robots. Even a fair amount of the music I’ve been championing on this list holds very little back – √thumm and Nuxx threw noise around like wedding rice, Afrirampo bid farewell with a double-disc album with one CD pretty much devoted to a single suite, while Cubismo Grafico Five got all the way up to the two spot by loading 24 frantic songs into about 40 minutes.
Make Believe Melodie’s number one album of 2010 Noise And Novels, though, exists as the polar opposite of this bombastic trend. This isn’t some adolescent stab at standing out – while the rest of the critical masses dawn day-glo vests and pants, we aren’t throwing on all black and lighting up a clove to scoff. All the above mentioned albums deserve all that praise…as does this one. She Talks Silence’s debut existed in cloudy mystery well before it even got a single spin here. It could barely be found in even the hippest Kansai-area shops, and lacked proper cover art or production notes – instead, each album (packaged in a clear CD case) came with a random photo and a bookmark containing sparse information. Later in the year Noise And Novels got a slightly larger redistribution with the art you see next to this blurb. One hopes this leads to more attention for the mysterious Tokyo artist but regardless of what happens next the music on her first album won’t change – it’s 11 unsettling bedroom pop songs that, despite a few illuminated corners, sounds immensely lonely.
Noise And Novels isn’t quite another entry into the still-booming garage rock revival – She Talks Silence rarely relies on feedback, her music less fuzzy and more hushed – and lacks the bright nostalgia-evoking elements of chillwave. It’s rock-pop spiked with new wave and a little bit of goth (see that new cover art for one), all the music feeling like the result of prolonged solitude and undercut by disorienting touches. The best comparison would be, strangely enough, with a lo-fi artist who embraced a proper backing band and polished production in 2010 en route to all sorts of critical praise. Ariel Pink used to do similar tricks years ago, showing a knack for writing great pop songs but forced to record them in a hyper simplistic way that made them sound very strange. She Talks Silence never dives as deep into the weirdlands as The Doldrums did…no beatboxed drums recorded in a closet…but her Noise And Novels feels similar, even her happier moments coming off as forced grins from behind four walls.
Onward from the lonesome guitar plucking that opens up “Hear The Way She Talks,” She Talks Silence crafts catchy tunes that she quickly finds way to subvert. “She’s Not Going Back” features slightly blurred vocals sandwiched between dusty samples. “Josef” shrouds STS’s vocals into further shadows while metallic slices interrupt the song, while jarring electronics kick-off the fidgety shuffle of “Complexe Elegant.” Even her more straightforward moments start sounding off with repeated listens. “Quiet Sun” sports the album’s most upbeat lyrics (“here’s a song for holy sunshine/delicate and tiny sunshine”) but the abrasive guitars make those words sound like they are coming from someone who hasn’t seen sunrays in sometime. “Again & Again,” She Talks Silence’s best stab at a single here, becomes uncomfortable over time. The bright guitar lines and bouncy thumping eventually turn into a doomed loop, the desperate vocals clinging to a hopeless desire doomed to be lusted after for far too long. On a lot of albums, the minute-and-a-half keyboard and vocal fart around “Sorry For Laughing (But It’s Kind Of Phoney)” would feel like filler. Within the dimly lit world of Noise And Novels it feels like vital atmosphere, a creepy dream sequence propped up in a David Lynch project.
Though the theme of urban isolation could easily be applied to any part of Japan…or our recession-plagued, Twitter-addled world…She Talks Silence has created a distinctively Tokyo-centric album. Though something like Lost In Translation…or, to some degree, Enter The Void…paints the sprawling metropolis as a giant, blinking slot machine. Yet lost within all those Skittles-bright lights is how isolating the place can be, how easy it is to shut out the outside world and be disconnected from fellow people (please see Shutting Out The Sun and the works of Tsai Ming-Liang). Amidst all the noise hides a muffled voice. STS’s lines about worshiping sunlight, or the lyrics of “Josef” which tackle life “in the city” directly and confront interactions with people who are “a fiction,” reveal someone trying to connect to the greater world through their art. In this way, Noise And Novels isn’t that thematically different from Kanye’s masterpiece…both albums find their author trying, to some degree, to find their place in the world (“Lost In The World” anyone?). Yeezy has an all-star cast to help him…She Talks Silence has two other players at most and a lot of longing.
By the end of Noise And Novels, She Talks Silence gets slightly less bleak. “Sometimes I’m up/Sometimes I’m down/Take a free ride through the town, and slow down,” she sings in the head-raised “Tails Of The New Age,” making peace with the world around her and giving it an honest go to make things better. It all ends with the melancholy strums of “I Know It’s Over,” a final wave to whatever brought her down. This album isn’t a grand statement of any sort but rather a small personal journey, a testament to the individual in a time where it’s so easy for that idea to get lost in the movements of the everyday. In 2010, that’s a triumph, which is why Kanye tops so many lists this year and Noise And Novels finishes number one here.