Just like the song list, I intend to share 25 albums almost surely overlooked by the West that I really enjoyed in the past year. Of course, I missed just as many great albums and a year from now I’ll probably regret/want to expand this. Yet these 25 albums definitely deserve your attention.
25. Hideki Kaji And Riddim Saunter Teens Films
You know that period of time after the start of a relationship where everything feels absolutely golden? Time seems to drag joyfully by and once routine trips to the supermarket feel like walking on a moonbounce. That’s how I feel about Teens Films right now, a late 2010 release I didn’t slip into my CD player until the start of December but now want to hold hands with every waking moment. Hideki Kaji and Riddim Saunter join forces to create an absolute rush of giddy indie-pop, the two complimenting one another so well that this CD never seems to drag. And hey, not to beat myself up to much, but “Slow Motion” stands out as the obvious snub from my songs list. It’s completely possible my relationship with Teens Films could turn into a sour “they don’t actually exist to me anymore” creature…or, even scarier, something really serious…but for right now I’m just happy to have this in my life.
24. Predawn A Bird In The Hand
Lasting about 20 minutes, A Bird In The Hand finds Tokyo’s Predawn crafting small folk sketches of life’s ho-hum details. It’s an appropriate place to begin this countdown – Bird gives us a promising glance at a young artist who played the Fuji Rock Festival this year, and also packs a surprisingly intimate punch. Predawn boasts a writer’s eye for detail, her songs zoning in on moments often lost in the rush of something bigger. The one-two punch of “What Does It Mean” and “Suddenly” serve as a sort of highlight reel of emotional extremes, the prior Predawn’s take on the instance of love ceasing, the latter a snapshot of it blooming. Bird doesn’t stick around long and often seems little, but those are the moments you need to watch out for the most.
23. Africaemo Squatter
Playing the “these guys sound like those guys” game would be too easy with Africaemo. On Squatter, their debut mini-album, they certainly sound like Zazen Boys – math-rock precision hinting at a lot of practice sessions backing up Hiroshi Kishi’s streetcorner-preacher speech-sing. Yet that really doesn’t do justice to what Africaemo do over the course of this sonic appetizer. Whereas Zazen Boys create great rock/pop songs they can then slash open, Africaemo create great rock/pop song they then engineer to be absolute fucking groove monsters. “Summer Of New York” tries on different hats but always keeps on the same shirt (shirt standing in for “body-controlling guitar lines) while “U Make Me Krazy” takes most of its cues from disco. The vocals, meanwhile, add a dash of manic-ness to these well-constructed jams…see the all-over-the-place “Logbook 23rd Dec.” Connecting the dots may be easy, but Africaemo also make sure to plop a few new ones down as well.
22. Hotel Mexico His Jewelled Letter Box
Easily the most frontloaded album of 2010, Hotel Mexico open His Jewelled Letter Box with their breakout chillwave hit “It’s Twinkle” and nothing that follows comes close to matching that song. Don’t read that as an insult though – it’s a mesmerizing song that Altered Zones hailed on a year-end list also featuring Ariel Pink and Games. Though the other tracks on Letter Box never match “It’s Twinkle,” they feature moments of inspired brilliance. Check the slow-burn hypnotism of “Starling, Tiger, Fox” or the Haunted Graffiti-worthy slink of “G.I.R.L.” And though it’s not quite “It’s Twinkle,” album closer “Animals Strike Back” almost matches it with a similar consistent build-up that keeps swelling but never popping.
21. Turntable Films Parables of Fe-Fum
The inclusion of Turntable Films…and Africaemo for that matter…intends to recognize a very young group bubbling with potential, 2010 serving more of a glance at what could be hence the landing near the back of the line. Yet despite our eyes looking excitedly towards what will come…specifically, finally getting a copy of the Turntable Film’s second mini-album of 2010 come January…our ears still recognize how good a listen the brief Parables Of Fe-Fum is. Most of Fe-Fum sets up camp in the same woods Fleet Foxes live, Turntable Films crafting delicate folk songs tinged with sweetness courtesy the vocals. Yet two moments make this album special – opener “Hot Tea After The Lunch” runs that folk-rock sound through a Brian-Wilson-lens, resulting in a gorgeous sound anchored by lovely harmonizing. Then “2steps” rushes in and showcases a band hitting on a dizzying high-point way sooner than they should.
20. Tokyo Jihen Sports
Can we keep in mind how Tokyo Jihen actually are considered mainstream Japanese rock despite sounding like this? Ringo Shiina and crew aren’t toiling away in cramped night clubs in Shinjuku hoping someone buys their shirt…they play Music Station and Sports topped the Oricon album charts this year. The fact they managed to shoot an album opening with a robo Church choir and features diversions into AM soft rock and slinky spy-movie exercises makes Sports even more of a triumph. Yet above all else, Tokyo Jihen’s latest finds them writing solid-as-frozen-stones J-Rock, running the gamut from the relaxed sway of “Zettai Zetsumei” to pretty balladry on “Sweet Spot” to…well, however you want to classify “Denpa Tsuushin.” Listening to Sports actually explains the project’s success…a group this seasoned and varied seems destined to be a big hit.
19. De De Mouse A Journey To Freedom
Ignore the Final Fantasy lite cover art and, for the moment, De De Mouse’s reliance on chopped-up children’s voices for his vocal samples. A Journey To Freedom prides itself as a drum-and-bass-inspired album, limb-flailing numbers like “New Town Romancer” and “My Favorite Swing” recalling vintage Squarepusher. Yet De De Mouse rises above retro-aping status thanks to his sonic trademark – those sliced vocals, at times sounding like out-of-order Bollywood (Gold Panda and this guy should have a study session) and at other moments giving Freedom a deceptively sweet veneer, those harsh beats hidden by glossy sounds. De De Mouse makes sure to round out this album with slow numbers too, those samples becoming the backbone on more relaxed romps like “Starry Mice Parade.” A Journey To Freedom may lean on a few signatures, but it’s a triumph of variety.
18. Nuxx Sound Ache
Around this time last year, Osaka’s Nuxx called themselves Bang Bang Balloon and had released one intriguing EP of what we now have no reservations calling techrock. Sound Ache, the trio’s first full-length, delivers on all the promise hinted at during the Balloon days. Nuxx have cleaned up their hyperactive techno-pop ever so slightly here, gifting them with a crisp studio sound that allows all of their strengths to shine through. These three can write a killer hook, and they aren’t afraid to let said earworms constitute the majority of a song like on older-tracks-reaching-maturity “Runner’s High” and “Am I Free?” Elsewhere, they show off their knack for penning more complex fare like on the feathery “Kaede” or the blip-bloop rise of “Autumn Leaves.” And it all comes together on the head-rush of young career highlight “Journey To The West,” where Nuxx come across a chorus worth of such an adventure-summoning title. Sound Ache is a document capturing a band getting comfortable in their skin…and somehow making music years ahead of such a youthful group.
17. Wednesday Start The Start
The music on Wednesday’s Start The Start sounds incredibly peppy, the sorta stuff I picture Archie selecting from a jukebox down at the malt shop. The Osaka trio make happy chug-a-lugs ripped from the 1950s – guitar-driven tunes boasting the types of choruses that would get a high school prom dancing. Yet, like seemingly every artsy movie made about the Eisenhower years, Start The Start hides a whole lot of bad feelings beneath the Life magazine front. Wednesday’s lyrics veer towards the more downtrodden and at times bitter – standout “Hello Myself” loathes a presumed friend who gets all the girls and friends in the world. Elsewhere, “? Love” and “Why You Love Me” focus on self-doubt in various forms, while all the buried angst bursts out on the supreme kiss-off “YOU.” “Don’t need you no more/bye-bye go-away/Don’t wanna be with you/cuz I’m not gonna be like you.” Did Happy Days ever get this pissed off?
16. Capsule Player
For all the praise we heap on Yasutaka Nakata around these digital parts, let’s be honest…his latest album working as Capsule features three colossal duds. His experimental bent this past year deserves a lot of praise, but I’d also be a liar if I said they’ve all been great. So although he produced “575,” he also retched out the dreadful zombie-stomp of “The Music” and the ear-damaging clunk of “Factory.” To be fair, Nakata can’t be blamed for the title track’s stumbles, though his decision to enlist a rapper who spits lukewarm steam for seven minutes shouldn’t be brushed away.
So yeah Nakata isn’t perfect, big shocker. Still, it’s a bit more exciting for me as a writer to jot something down that isn’t just another “he’s back with ANOTHER amazing electro-pop jam!” because what else is their to say about this guy? Player features all but three of those, and his 2010 creative streak touched this one too, especially on the glitchy slow numbers “I Wish You” and “I Was Wrong.” Besides the token Capsule monster pop song (the bright buzzy “Can I Have A Word”), Nakata bent his usual sound a little closer to the Beach Boys on the sun-hopping “Stay With You” and even found a competent rapper to flesh out “Love Or Lies.” Despite these bright sonic stickers screaming “NEW! CHECK IT OUT!,” Capsule have made another solid album full of what Nakata does best. Though straight club music isn’t one of them.
15. 80kidz Weekend Warrior
Somehow 80kidz found a way to not end up a blog-house punchline. Recall the electro-dance crew’s career prior to Weekend Warrior – the then trio gained some web notoriety with some noised-out singles in the Justice style. They then released a full-length album featuring a few familiar singles, some great slower songs anchored by vocal contributions from future footnotes Hey Champ and The Shoes, plus a whole lot of filler. It wasn’t an exactly memorable LP from a group operating within a flash-bang sub-genre…nobody even makes fun of blog-house anymore…who then became a duo heading into 2010. 80kidz’s situation wasn’t looking particularly bright…and that was before they teamed up with the lead singer of CSS.
Then…Weekend Warrior. 80kidz dropping a consistently good album would have been a big enough shock. But they released an album album, the sort of thing that works as a long playing statement. Save for the first two songs, 80kidz still immersed in meh-provoking noise-dance, Weekend ends up being an emotionally rich (!) hour of music. Starting off with the twinkling duo of “Red Star” and “Prisma,” 80kidz craft slower songs similar to the highlights of their debut, except this time around they don’t need fucking Autokratz to do the heavy lifting. Between the more introspective dance tracks, they refine their more active moments to not sound like a poor man’s Ed Banger artist, dropping the wonky “Go With The Flow” and the skittery “Weak Point.” They even manage to merge these two worlds together on the glossy “Private Beats,” which also features the album’s most prominent vocal sample. It all concludes with the title track, a joyous bit of party music fit for a celebration. 80kidz have earned it.
14. Afrirampo We Are Uchu No Ko
We Are Uchu No Ko ended up being spazzy Osaka duo Afrirampo’s final album, and as far as finales go it’s about as perfect a bow Oni and Pikachu could give. The intimidating two-disc album documents everything that made Afrirampo such audio-IED over the last eight years – which is to say, it’s an all-over-the-place, loud mess jumping from metal buzz to Sonic Youth-esque whirlwinds, buffed out by plenty of shouting. We Are Uchu No Ko comes off as just a little more expansive than previous Afrirampo albums…three songs break the ten-minute mark, and that’s not including the grand finale mini-suite. Afrirampo hold nothing back – “Miracle Lucky Girls” features tag-team vocals that flirt with sloppy pop, while “Umi” spends the majority of its playtime slowly building up only to see the band demolish everything with waves of noise. They even work in a subdued guitar transition somewhere in amongst all the flailing, though it leads to the frantic “Yah Yah Yeah” which features the album’s most joyous climax. Everything ends with the five-part “Hoshi No Uta” suite, an ambitious (not to mention all-over-the-place) and appropriate close to their career. We Are Uchu No Ko would be a great listen even without the context, but since it ends up being Afrirampo’s swan song it feels a little extra special.
13. Miu Sakamoto Phantom Girl
Current Tokyo buzz band The Suzan recently told Black Book Magazine “J-Pop sucks. It’s so boring.” The writer agrees, calling it “ringtone-ready pop.” It’s a bit of an ignorant statement…something tells me the writer hasn’t listened to much of the songs that “dominate Japanese airwaves”…but also a sadly common one. Japanese pop music rarely gets lauded at all, and when it does it rarely gets props for being forward thinking. J-Pop more often than less ends up a punchline, and gets shout-outs at an even rarer rate.
Miu Sakamoto isn’t popular enough to be heard blaring out of every passing iPhone, but she did make an album exploring the ways traditional J-Pop could be reconfigured into something experimental. Phantom Girl deconstructs Oricon-winning sound as much as possible, resulting in skeletal whisps of songs that sound strangely intimate given the Fruit-Loops-colorful shades most J-Pop does dabble in. “Silent Fiction” trims away any excess, leaving only a simplistic beat and some smokey piano to back up Sakamoto’s unnerving pillow talk, which all leads to a chorus where full sentences get eschewed in favor of the word “no” repeated over and over. Sakamoto does more with way less – the gusty intro “Blue Hour” and the wordless prayer “Our Home” border on pure atmosphere, while the bumpier “The Magic Hours” hints at something ready for the dancefloor but never lets it explode. Sakamoto’s voice functions as the needle threading all these songs together, a high-pitched singing giving even the most minimalist compositions a bright soul and elevating the album’s most chart-ready moment “Phantom Girl’s First Love” into something special. Most importantly, Phantom Girl shows where J-Pop can go. This stuff would make a horrible ring tone.
12. Nini Tounuma Woolgathering
Kana Otsubo fronts the band Spangle Call Lilli Line, an at-times trip-hop leaning outfit that sounds perfectly good based on the little bit I’ve heard from them. Yet it’s when Otsubo goes all Black Swan on the world and transforms into Nini Tounuma does she create something otherworldly. Woolgathering avoids easy genre tagging, and even trying to muster up somewhat decent artistic comparisons becomes a difficult task. The multi-faced electronic songs recall Dirty Projectors at their most experimental, especially when it comes to vocal interplay. Otherwise, Tounuma takes inspiration from R&B and chillout music to create…well, Woolgathering. Voices pop up all over the place, Otsubo taking the main melody only to be suddenly joined by a clone of herself in the background, all while the various beats and shiny sounds ping off and occasionally splinter off like cells into new sonic mutations. On “Weather Fear Seesaw” the entire song splits apart, going from a flirty skitter to full-blown robo-funk in half a second. Tounuma takes familiar pop tropes and shifts them into something unheard of…even the R&B flourishes, a genre ran dry by indie musicians this year, sound fresh. Every new spin reveals something new, meaning Woolgathering promises only to get better with age.
11. Nu Clear Classmate Lick The Star
Hop onto your Internet hoverboard and jet back to the top of this article please. Remember when I wrote that Turntable Films and Africaemo landed onto this list with a little help courtesy of youthful ambition? It’s true…both Squatter and Parables Of Fe-Fum feature plenty of amazing moments, but both mini-albums get a bit of a push from the promise both bands show. Both artists seem to be carving out a distinctive sound but aren’t quite there yet…though with “U Make Me Krazy” and “2steps” they come damn close. We expect them to land on future features down the line.
Nu Clear Classmate’s debut EP isn’t like those two.
Lick The Star comes into the world fully formed, about as perfect as an under-20-minutes EP can get. The duo making up Nu Clear Classmate show huge swag by inventing an entire genre for themselves, dubbed “suicide pop”…like Blake Griffin suiting up for the first time and giving himself his own trophy. Just like the NBA’s most exciting rookie, though, NCC completely meet all expectations. They have created a sound unique to them – a merger of crowd-pleaser pop with the fuzzy cacophony groups like, well, Suicide perfected back in the day. Other artists tried out this look in 2010 – M.I.A. got skewered for giving it a go, unless the whole truffle fry affair really peeved off music critics – but nobody mastered it like this obscure Tokyo outfit. Each song on Lick The Star does something thrilling with this formula, going from almost stupid positivity (the pop hum of opener “Blank World”) before settling into a despairing middle stretch where the waves of synths join the defeated singing to choke out any joy. Before going, though, NCC end on a hopeful note, those once pulverizing sounds lifting them up towards the sun. “Suicide pop is the solution” they shout, and I can’t help but nod my head.
I have high hopes for NCC’s future, but I also don’t pin their success on anything in particular. They’ve already given the world an EP distinctively theirs…what else can they do?