10. Nu Clear Classmate “Blank World”
“Suicide Pop,” Nu Clear Classmate’s self-created genre of choice, would be a tough one to explain save for the efforts of one pop star to define it for the world by complete accident – M.I.A. Her mostly reviled 2010 album ///Y/…for the record, not nearly as bad as critics made it out to be but still accurately summed up as “easily her worst album”…fooled around with pop songs most likely expected by the head honchos at her label, running them through some truly ear-testing noise. Thus, one song tries turning a Home Depot into a nightclub while the album’s most infamous cut “Born Free” sampled (you’ll start getting it now) Suicide and sounded really aggravating. What M.I.A. tried to do was very admirable – take pop, muss it up something fierce – but her execution missed just a bit.
Though unheard by most of the world, it also didn’t help that Nu Clear Classmate released an EP doing the same exact thing a month earlier and that the Tokyo duo’s results sounded a whole lot better. Whereas M.I.A.’s music sounded sounded deliberately ugly, Nu Clear Classmate managed to make squashing noise work alongside catchy pop. The already-listed “Causeless Pain” saw their style used to an absolutely crippling and isolating level, but “Blank World” showcases Suicide Pop at it’s most sunny. The blasted-out noise bubbling beneath the song doesn’t close in on the music but rather lift it up, allowing the rest of “World’s” elements to shine as much as they want. It’s the most upbeat thing the group released this year, the lyrics proclaiming “I’m ready to go to the dreamy world” before making a surprisingly simple political decleration (cough take notes Maya cough) “there isn’t needed much money or pride/they’re nothing/it’s just junk.” Nu Clear Classmate realized noise doesn’t have to be this big, confrontational thing bound to turn everyone off…it can actually be something fun to listen to on repeat.
9. Kaela Kimura “You Bet!!”
Though most people who regularly watch Japanese TV will probably head into 2011 remembering Kaela Kimura as the lady dressed as Santa singing a schmaltzy Christmas song in order to sell you a new cell phone, she should really be remembered for how she kicked off 2010 a.k.a. “You Bet!!” Kimura’s always been somewhat of a J-Pop advertising agency, keeping tabs on what seems to be selling and then releasing her own take on it which often times trumps the original. Her first best-of compilation, released this year, showcases this perfectly, not just serving as a brief overview of her career but also a time capsule at pop trends in Japan over the last five years. Yet the leadoff and one new track tacked onto this compilation sees Kimura do something unexpected – release something distinctively her own. “You Bet!!” channels the dizzying rock rush of her earliest singles that she seems to have abandoned in favor of “Ring A Ding Dong,” but now, older and wiser, she knows to include the very thing that makes her summer phone song great: insanely catchy vocals. It’s the culmination of all those years spent being a chameleon, taking bits and pieces from those prior singles and channeling them into something she can proudly call her own.
8. Nuxx “Journey To The West”
Techrock remains just as slippery a musical subcategory as chillwave despite the maybe-genre having a banner 2010. Nuxx, formerly known as Bang Bang Balloon and for me personally the first techrock band I ever encountered, didn’t make the best techrock album of the year but they did offer up a song summing up everything that makes this developing sound so thrilling. Most immediately, “Journey To The West” just sounds like one gigantic hook, Nuxx never letting the energy sag while lead singer ecco belts out the type of vocals you expect from a techno-club super jam. The head-spinning electronics courtesy of ize-mac and Gun-Hiroshi meld Underworld (Nuxx should give that away) with Perfume pop-scapes, forming the sort of backdrop bound to wear out the iPods “repeat” feature. Yet what separates this from the other techrock contenders of the year is the sheer scope of it all – true to its name, this song comes off like a journey, all constant movement and continuous thrills. Everything about it just seems big, and that’s just what techrock needs.
7. She Talks Silence “Again & Again”
The music She Talks Silence makes often sounds immensely lonely…a stark, lo-fi approach to recording will do that to you…but she isn’t always singing about being lonely, sometimes genuinely sounding like she might be kind of content. “Again & Again” isn’t one of those songs. This is the monochrome artist’s most solitary effort from an album flooded in them. The lyrics visit well-worn subject matter – unrequited love, how one person would do anything for someone who doesn’t even see them. Nothing groundbreaking there, but as hinted at by the title “Again & Again” this song turns a common emotional situation into an obsession. The whole track feels like one doomed loop, somebody recognizing the futility of a situation but still dwelling on it, running negative and hopefully hopeless ones over and over again inside their head. The irony of “Again & Again” is, given the lonely subject matter, that it’s She Talks Silence’s most pop-ready song, anchored by an irresistible guitar line. Every room needs a beam of light.
6. Ice Cream Shout “Tattooed Tears”
The actual music of “Tattooed Tears” doesn’t need any more words devoted to it – plenty of other blogs have celebrated the sweet indie-pop hop present here, a guitar-guided skip some have described as “dreamy” and I can’t really argue with that adjective (especially since the band themselves described it as such). If we just stopped there this song would still easily find its way onto this list, but what makes “Tattooed Tears” a top-ten number are the lyrics, which admittedly get an unfair boost around these parts for being in English but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it because the words sound so good.
“As I worked on it I happened to notice a triangle of synchronicity take shape around the Smiths, Cholos, and East of Eden so it ended up being about all three,” Ice Cream Shout vocalist Bob wrote when the group first posted the song. True to form, the very first line muttered on the song are “Heaven knows I’m miserable now,” the first of several Smiths references (check the “Louder Than Bombs” line). The words tilt between lovely short story details about life as a Latino gangster and the subversive references also favored by outfits like The Radio Department and The Embassy. Like those groups, it’s easy to focus too much on hidden meanings that very well may not be there at all. Yet also like those bands, they make the whole package shines so bright you don’t get too distracted from the prettiness that’s right in front of you.
5. MIR “TV 2010”
The “2010” in the title doesn’t refer to the past year…this song is actually a new take on the song “TV” released a few years back. And yes, I did have a slight dilemma trying to decide whether this should go on this list…but given the modern-world crush hinted at by MIR here it might as well. As I’m writing this, Time magazine just named Mark Zuckerberg their “Person Of The Year” for his ever-prevalent Facebook, a piece of news I learned about while updating Twitter. “TV 2010” isn’t longing for simpler days…Arcade Fire took care of that with “We Used To Wait,” which came with a video that, oddly enough, basically required Google Chrome…but rather hinting at one of the byproducts of our hyper-connected world. The electronics aren’t bright and happy, but rather sharp and bearing down upon the listener, a potentially pretty Italo disco track turned into something mundane. The vocals rarely rise above speak-sing, and frequently get splashed with various digital effects that make them sound even more lost in the buzzing shuffle. It’s a stunningly lonely song despite sounding so full that seems somewhat beaten down. When MIR get to the chorus, they don’t offer any catharsis, just a monotone “sayonara” repeated a few times. MIR might not have set off to make some grand commentary track out of a strangely hypnotic sad song, but they stumbled across it anyhow. “TV 2010” doesn’t beg you to delete your social networking presence, because it knows the world just keeps on clicking away even when you step back.
4. Turntable Films “2steps”
A commanding, simple beat. A Spanish-tinged guitar strummed ferociously but remaining incredibly suave. A sneakily good bass line. A downplayed keyboard line that pops up at just the right moment. Vocals that strike as both refined and on the verge of giving themselves over to passion completely. The smarts to know that, when you come across something this intoxicating, you Olympic-sprint with it as far as you can go…save for the subdued pillow-talk segment near the back which offers just enough of a break to make the revved up ending hit even harder. The most love-drunk three-and-a-half minutes of manic folk-pop recorded this year.
“2steps” ends up the easiest song on this list to write about because its greatness sounds so obvious – it’s all of the above. The fact it came from an extremely young group’s first mini-album only makes it that much more exciting.
3. Perfume “Natural ni Koishite”
You think Perfume would be a simple act to universally describe but based on my personal experience in 2010 the pop trio means a lot of different things to different folk. Some critics like myself see them as pop fine-tuned to peak performance, while others scoff at what they see as the musical equivalent of a Roomba being gently nudged by its owner. One friend who hates most pop music concedes to digging Perfume but attributing it to the production. Another friend, bunkered down waiting for the inevitable grunge revival, literally recoiled when the opening of “Dream Fighter” came on over his computer speakers. Still, another friend simply said “oh boy” when I invoked their name. Half my students say they are “cute,” while the other half (plus teachers) look at me with screwed-up faces. Save for the one who sang a riveting take on “Chocolate Disco” with me at karaoke. American Dad called them “space-age robot Jazz from Japan.” My mom called them “that band you always write about.”
Opinions regarding Perfume land all over the place, but this year’s “Natural Ni Koishite” is undeniable pop, a song hell-bent on accomplishing something…in this case, sounding excellent and selling skirts for the Natural Beauty Basic chain of stores. As a B-side, Perfume’s foray into proper, potentially chart-reckoning pop probably won’t last long and next year will see them to continue wowing many and offending countless others with their well-worn electro-dance-pop. So let’s celebrate the one song where they allowed split-second breaks between the madness, tiny pauses that made the whole mess boom and bap like nothing they’ve ever done before. Yet for its embrace of pure pop, “Natural” also boasts a very weird size, punctuated by all those weird noises Nakata weaves in and out during the verses. Still, for all the praise I could heap on the insane structure of this song or the strange touches littered about…or for all the swipes I could take at this being a glorified clothes commercial, complete with a video best titled “Consumerism: Yay!”…it all comes back to the chorus, a simple (by Perfume standards) blast of sunny delight that’s hard to deny. Seth MacFarlane might need to update his punchline.
2. MASS OF THE FERMENTING DREGS “ひきずるビート”
The term “J-Pop” get abused all the time by the Western media, often used as a cop-out to avoid really confronting Japan’s brand of pop and basically dismiss it as something better suited for folks who hang around Tenchi Muyo message boards. It of course isn’t so simple a genre, if a genre at all…Japanese pop music can be just as diverse as its American counterpart scene, a look over the 2010 charts revealing all sorts of unique entries. Sure, there exist a few constants…an ever-present flood of ballads, plus the putrid Johnny’s sound that gets the most exposure…but to simply lump an entire nation’s pop scene into a category implying “something I’d hear inside a really bright arcade” smacks of good ol’ fashion Western ignorance.
Yet the term “J-Rock” presents a much trickier predicament. To these ears, bands classified as “J-Rock” often do end up sounding completely like one another. Which is to say – bands trying to make pop music that will sell in Japan but doing it with guitars in an attempt to be “more edgy.” J-Pop serves up plenty of liver-and-onions quality music but also gives us head-rushes like Perfume, Kaela Kimura and (why not) “Going!!” J-Rock rarely seems so daring, most bands playing it safe and making samey sounding songs that’ll sell OK. Or you get the Twilight-cosplay of VAMPS. Even Asian Kung-Fu Generation, one of the best J-Rock bands around, released a mostly ho-hum album this year.
So bless MASS OF THE FERMENTING DREGS for giving us a song that’s basically the equivalent of driving a tank through J-Rock’s storefront. Seconds into this single lead singer Natsuko Miyamoto kills every other J-Rock song of the last year by unleashing a forceful wail forcing you to pay attention to everything that comes next. The relentless charge of this song..the drums, well simple, hit harder than any others this year…hides the well-planned layout present, seeing the track shift from heads-first rush to surprisingly melancholic bridge to the best kind of guitar solo, less instrument-masturbation and more “I’m punching you in the face right now and you don’t even realize it.” Miyamoto’s vocals push the whole affair to something even higher, her singing capable of both immense pleasure as shown on the chorus and pure brute force as demonstrated…everywhere else. This sounds sorta stupid but…DREGS have the massive balls J-Rock needs oh so badly, and “ひきずるビート” absolutely shames everything else considered “mainstream Japanese rock.” Calls to arms rarely sound so great.
1. The Brixton Academy “So Shy”
Something something David Foster Wallace something something irony. The late writer’s call for emotional honesty has become a cliche reference within the community that critically thinks about entertainment, lots of scribes scoffing at insincere posturing while also embracing plenty of the stuff. Nothing’s wrong with enjoying bad media…watching The Room with copious amounts of booze and friends should be a requirement, and I still sometimes cue up “Miracles” for a good laugh…but it gets complicated when we don’t take time to also champion the really honest, good stuff. We live in an age where ripping someone to shreds online rarely raises an eyebrow, where one of the most popular sites on the Internet features videos of people raging about old, bad movies. Look, I’d kill for another season of Check It Out With Steve Brule but I also think taking time away from 4 Loko-fueled cynicism to celebrate the sincere stuff is important.
The Brixton Academy’s “So Shy” seems, based on description alone, potentially doomed to ironic posturing. It’s an uber new wave song done by a group who make music almost religiously devoted to the sounds of the 1980s. Plenty of other outfits do similar stuff in at least a semi-jokey way – Cut Copy make amazingly catchy stuff but it’s also a little cheesy, and Chromeo don’t even try to hide the smirks on their face when they do their thing. Yet The Brixton Academy rarely feel like an Ian Michael Black punchline…their music oozes honesty, and no song hits harder than “So Shy.”
The fuzzy synths and day-glo keyboards that open up “So Shy” aren’t jokes, they set the scene. Out they drop, and all that’s left is a bare background of guitar, drums and vocals, a surprisingly lonely trio. The lyrics fill out the details – our protagonist sits on the sidelines of some disco, “I’m staring at the girl/you are the best dancer in this club.” Then the simplest of longings – “I just want to know your name/I just want to know who you are.” He seems ready to do something about it – “I’ll fight the distant” – but enter those twinkly keyboards again and out comes the doubtful chorus, an admission of being “so shy/so I can only gaze at you.”
The Brixton Academy’s lead singer – very skilled at hiding his name online I might add – possesses the kind of voice most people would label as “bad for singing.” I mean…he sometimes does sound a lot like Fozzie Bear. Yet he also belongs to a rare class of singers who, despite not having the best vocal chords around, manage to make shaky singing into something brutally human. Like Jeff Mangum, Spencer Krugg and Kanye West when he tries crooning, TBA’s front man seems a hundred percent honest when he mumbles out “I need more courage.” It’s unique sounding, it’s off-putting at times…but it’s also easy to connect with, especially on a song about one of the most painful universal experiences around. The rest of the band wisely lets his words drift into the center, the music working mostly as a continuous build towards that moment of revelation.
And what a moment it is. “So Shy’s” protagonist decides he “just wants to know more about you/I don’t care if you don’t know of me,” the music matching this do-or-die attitude. Then…incoherent oooooohs and ahhhhhhhs as The Brixton Academy let the music unfurl into an amazing New Order imitation. Like the ending to one of 2010’s best films Inception, it’s meant to be purposefully vague and leave audiences with something to debate. Yet the concrete ending doesn’t actually matter – it’s all about what came before, the feelings of self-doubt and loneliness turned into a moment of clarity. The fact “So Shy” also sounds incredibly catchy makes my case for it being the best Japanese song of 2010 a little easier – heck, nobody else in the world managed to do an 80s-centric sound like The Brixton Academy did on this single and on their album Vivid. Yet it’s the emotional core – painful and filled with a longing so easy to relate to – that makes this something special.