The past year saw plenty of worthwhile releases from Japanese artists, from the sort of stuff highlighted at major music stores in Japan to free albums posted on Bandcamp with little fanfare. Yet all 30 albums on this list were special to us here at Make Believe Melodies in some way or another – whether a CD made us excited about the future of J-Pop or helped us through a particularly rough patch or just made great music to relax to after a day of work. So now we present Make Believe Melodies’ top 30 albums of 2011. We hope you enjoy.
(Top artwork courtesy of Alan Castree, learn more about him and his excellent art here)
30. Dorian Studio Vacation
The glut of contemporary music rummaging through the closet of 80s pop music often forces listeners to choose sides – does one flock to the winking, irony smeared dance jams headlined by Chromeo, or to the painfully earnest yelping of dream-pop acts like Wild Nothing or Japan’s own tears-on-the-dancefloor dudes The Brixton Academy? Tokyo’s Dorian offers the perfect middle-ground…just get rid of the vocals completely! Though it sometimes seems he could tip into one extreme…his music videos often feel like canned cheese, while single “Summer Rich” features achingly honest singing…the majority of his Studio Vacation finds him mastering the Miami Vice meets neon light disco he’s been fiddling with for a few years now. It’s a great dance record where the emotional side bubbles just beneath the surface, beating out The Brixton Academy’s Bright As Diamond’s for this list’s “Reagan-Era-Aping Album Of The Year” spot courtesy of better consistency. Don’t mix Dorian up for some dude coasting on old Moogs he found in his parents attic – the one-two punch of “Melty Color” and, especially, “Like A Wave” show how far he’s come as a craftsman.
29. DODDODO Do
Osaka’s DODDODO is a tough act to figure out. On her 2011 album Do, she uses classical Japanese instruments to create a wide variety of music – she darts from sincere traditional songs seemingly ripped from a Japanese cultural museum to slightly off-kilter nursery rhymes ripped from alternate reality NHK kid’s shows. Yet what makes Do a compelling listen from front to back is the experimental edge DODDODO brings to almost every track here, dragging an entire box of crayons over otherwise formulaic doodles. Yet as if she wants to keep everyone alert, she drops a straightforward ballad late into the album. She’s a tough one to decode, but trying to do so is pretty fun on Do.
28. DUB-Russel Grasp Echoes
The electronic hellfire Tokyo duo DUB-Russel conjure up on Grasp Echoes leans toward dissonance, highlighted by the telephone-call-fron-Satan intro “Metallurgy” to the appropriately titled “Tracklaying,” wherein they add track after track of sweltering noise to the song right before your ears. Yet Grasp Echoes also hides an appreciation for electronic artists of yesteryear, DUB-Russel drawing inspiration from past legends while putting their own touch on them. “14-Layered” is pure Squarepusher mayhem, while “Hi, Go III” brings to mind skittery Aphex Twin. The album, available here, closes with a softer tune reminiscent of Boards Of Canada, and after the underworld trip of the prior trips it`s a pleasant ending.
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27. Sloppy Joe With Kisses Four
Sloppy Joe’s almost rigid devotion to 80’s indie-pop ends up being With Kisses Four greatest strength and weakness. No other album on this list comes pad-locked to its influences like this one, the group’s entire sound accurately summed up as “a lot like The Cure, The Smiths, The Jesus And Mary Chain, The Field Mice, etc etc.” This adherence sometimes seems a bit too clone like, lead singer Hitoshi Oka’s vocals even prone to approaching a Robert Smith warble. But these dudes know how to write great, catchy pop, and With Kisses Four packs in a bunch of sticky twee in 35 minutes, an imitation sure but so darn tasty you can’t put the thing down. Like sticking your nose in store-brand sugar and loving every second of it.
26. Tadzio Tadzio
Nice to see that the spirit of the dearly missed Afriampo floated east to Tokyo and inhabited this album. Tadzio’s self-titled does a lot of the same things the Osaka duo built a reputation on – hardcore pounding, psychedelic ventures, tag-team vocals sometimes melting into near orgasmic (or, like, at the peak of a rollercoaster) shouting – rounded out by lyrics seemingly designed to be screamed from a mosh pit. See “1 2 FUCK YOU” and “SEX DIE SEX BONE OH MY GOD” for pretty good examples. Similar to city contemporaries Puffyshoes and Miila And The Geeks, Tadzio make punk-rubbed rock aimed at moving the body just as much as the mind in a country in need of some good release.
25. Spangle Call Lilli Line New Season
New Season is a bit of an odd collection, neither an entirely fresh batch of material from Spangle Call Lilli Line nor a remix collection. Whereas brother release Piano Lesson reimagined older Spangle Call tunes as ivory-key-centric numbers, New Season revolved around a loose theme of “rockin’ out with some alternate/live versions thrown on.” The back half of this album features the latter and sounds plenty pleasant, but the reason this record sneaks into our list is the front half, powered by some of the most charging music the group has ever written. The highlight ends up one their older songs, here titled “For Rio” but rather the latest in the evolving series of songs featuring “Rio” in the title. It’s the best incarnation yet, the standout of a particularly strong run by a band still finding ways to sound new.
24. Madegg Bluu
The blooming Kansai electronic scene has thus far been a tale told in individual songs unveiled across online channels like SoundCloud and Bandcamp. Next year promises a jump in EP and album-length releases from the scene, CDs from MFP and And Vice Versa already penciled in courtesy of fellow producer Seiho’s new label. This also probably means even more from Madegg, the Kyoto-based 19-year-old wizard who acted as the Kansai region’s constantly running faucet in 2011. The kid released new songs at a prolific clip, his stardust smeared take on Teebs-like space beats evolving in all sorts of ways over the year. Madegg ended up being ahead of the curve too, releasing a handful of EPs on various labels, highlighted by his Bluu album which distills the dude’s talents best. The songs present here jump from Dilla-inspired vocal trips to hazy shiners like “Salty Day.” Then he had stuff like “Bluu Forms,” which seems like hip-hop beats dividing like cells under a microscope. Madegg released a lot in 2011 and 2012 will probably be no different, but Bluu is as good a starting point as any.
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23. Chabe Me
Most people go it alone when crafting a personal work of art, the image of the solitary artist hunched over a typewriter or locked up in a cabin with an acoustic guitar (thanks Bon Iver!) being the classic mental picture for such a pursuit. Cubismo Grafico’s Chabe worked a bit differently on his solo outing Me – he remained the central character, but like an especially decadent Roman emperor he also brought in a decent-sized cast to play in his work, mostly to recite ancient scrolls…errrrr, sing covers of older tracks. Love And Hates do Brigitte Bardot the only way Love And Hates can do anything (fun and silly), while El Gatito pretties up The Velvet Underground’s “After Hours.” Sayaka Kushibiki practically steals the album from Chabe on The Sunday’s “Here’s Where The Story Ends,” her vocals welcoming as a pillow after an 18-hour flight. Yet for all the cameos, this is Chabe’s personal work and he’s in a reflective mood compared to his Cubismo Grafico (and Cubismo Grafico Five) work. Standout “White Cube” bounces on lovely, chilled out tropical vibes while instrumental number “BLOOMoon” feels like standing under a waterfall of pleasant memories. Yet the most touching moment comes on “And Me,” where Chabe simply recites things that are important to him – “girl” “beer” “London” and so on. It ends with the line “you…and me” and it is a sweet as a musical admission as any this year. Regardless of all the great people around him, Me is a triumph of one.
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22. Puffyshoes Finally The Weekend
Calling this Puffyshoes’ lyrical album misleads like a TEPCO press conference, seeing as the Tokyo duo’s words rarely venture beyond subjects like boys, bands and bad food. One song on Finally The Weekend, titled “Oh Yeah,” boasts only the lines “oh yeah/hell yeah.” Yet this 19-minute treat sounds vastly different than last year’s buzzing Something Gold – that album treated feedback and woozy amplifier output like a third member, the fuzzy noise looping around everything the band pumped out. On Weekend, though, the volume gets turned down a bit, the songs here less frantic and a tad more spacious…meaning the vocals (and the meaning behind them) stick out more than they ever did on Something Gold. Puffyshoes still kick out catchy blasts of punk-inspired pop, yet the real surprise on this brief album ends up being the heart behind numbers like “Baby Kiss Me” (new attraction) and “Backstage Pass” (a quest for the titular item so the narrator can meet a boy in the band). The stinging “Changed” details a meeting with an ex-crush/fling/lover, while “Secrets” comes off as the softest thing the duo have ever laid down, a gentle cry for love. Weekend ends with the stunning “Dear My Friend,” wherein the band step away from boys for a second to sing about the joys of friendships, and they deliver in an achingly sincere way. Puffyshoes aren’t turning into Destroyer, but Weekend plays like pages from their personal diary.
21. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu Moshi Moshi Harajuku
Here’s the real world of fantasy in 2011, a place where an 18-year-old model best known for selling fake eyelashes can get a musical wizard to turn her into a pop singer, crafting for her some of the most irresistible, candy-colored songs of the year. The unlikely pair work all sorts of wonder, like creating something as smooth and airy as “Cherry Bonbon,” which plucks a few old touches from the wizard’s older creations but morphs them into something fresh. Or how “Chodo Lino” takes a sound replicating a human passing gas and transforms it into laid back, almost dreamy disco. The wizard even dusted off an old spell for the young singer, and recalibrated it so that the song actually sounded better from the new girl. Yet most stunning of all was the very first bit of magic the two created, a blast dubbed “Pon Pon Pon” which was one of the most insanely catchy pieces of music either person had ever been associated with. It even got labelled a tool of the Illuminati by some! They also called the song “annoying,” but these people turned out to be lunatics. Regardless, Moshi Moshi Harajuku ended up a surprising escape into a place nobody thought could exist…a place where nonsense words like “pon pon way way way” rang like a secret language.
(Translation: This album should not have worked, but it totally did and is nearly flawless [thanks “Pon Pon Pon” extended mix!]. The year’s biggest surprise, at least before she got accused of being a New World Order lackey.)