20. Your Gold, My Pink “Adolescence”
Back in May I saw Your Gold, My Pink play the Nara Street Style Music Festival, going into their late-day set absolutely jazzed to see what they could do live. An hour later I wanted to hightail it to the McDonald’s across the street to drown my disappointment in barbecue sauce. Their set didn’t clank off the rim as much as it felt like a layup drill – the energy seemed off, the songs didn’t pulse with the awkward manicness of their recorded material and even the Mates Of State intro seemed stupid. I saw a lot of great performances on that day, but it was Your Gold’s show I ended up remembering the most because of how let down I felt.
A couple months later, though, and they’d won me back by growing up right in front of my eyes. Their Pray mini-album saw the group make a monumental leap forward from their earlier material and proved the nap of a live show wasn’t an indicator of future direction. It features plenty of great, spazzy songs but “Adolescence” captured everything great about Your Gold in one place. A lot of bands across Japan have started taking the same meds that give Los Campesinos! their ADD drive, but those groups (no names dropped) seem to be forcing the it, trying to throw a confetti-laced party inside a strip mall. “Adolescence,” though, fucking nails it – Your Gold aren’t shouting because they have no other idea, they are shouting because it works perfectly in context. Besides featuring an opening guitar line that’s the sonic equivalent of making out on the first date, this song goes all over the place, to the point where dropping a critical turd like “it’s just like an actual n!” actually wouldn’t be means for being shot out of a cannon. I want to see them play this live.
19. Tokyo Jihen “Noudouteki Sanpunkan”
Like, the last thing James Bond needed was more mojo. Which is to say…”Noudouteki Sanpunkan” slinks the hell out. Ringo Shiina sings like a covert agent bends through a laser-security system, threading her voice perfectly through the mix of funky guitar and gurgling electronics. She’s the star…as she so often is…but the whole package comes together so seamlessly it’s hard to notice just how great she is. This might be the sexiest jam of the year. Those with bear-trap domes might be saying right about now “hey, this came out in December 2009!” Yessir, but back then it only sounded really good. A year later, and I can’t hit the “repeat” option on iTunes fast enough.
18. Asian Kung-Fu Generation “Shinseiki No Love Song”
Making grand societal gestures through song isn’t an easy task regardless of how many Rolling Stone articles ponder “what happened to the protest song?” Outside of “Fortunate Son,” how many of those much ballyhooed activist songs do we not wince at today? Isn’t this “voice of a generation” thing the reason a lot of people got sick of Green Day…or even the reason The Suburbs sorta struggles? Don’t we all hate Bright Eyes’ political junk? Trying to be relevant via direct confrontation with the ills of today isn’t something to ignore completely, but it’s also a risky move that can make you look like a dick. Scattered across Asian Kung-Fu Generation’s 2010 album Magic Disk are such instances, awkward attempts at making something “big” that ultimately hit like a high-school kid who read about Communism for the first time in history class. It’s on “Shinseiki No Love Song,” though, where they do what the rest of the CD fails to do…capture the boxed-in feeling modern life drapes over people oh so well.
What makes Magic Disk’s lead single rise above the rest of the album is how Asian Kung-Fu Generation make the music do all the talking. Here old-hat tricks like backwards guitars and muffled, plain spoken vocals create a suffocating atmosphere dripping with something-isn’t-rightness. The translated lyrics and the video…though both border on the melodramtaic tripe oh so much Japanese media bathes in…do a good job of driving the message home. As those English words hint at, “Shinseiki” mostly dwells on the terror of coming of age in today’s world – the inevitable acceptance of death lurking around every corner taught via terrorist attacks broadcast on corporate news shout-loops and realizing all the junk you buy won’t be joining you six feet under. Smartly, a personal element plays a prominent role, the narrator also obsessed with crippling regret. Which leads to “Shinseiki’s” most transcendent moment, the song bursting into catharsis and refusing to settle back down. Because a bumper sticker quoting “Imagine” is cool, but actually confronting your woes gets stuff done.
17. Nini Tounuma “Face It”
Plenty of folks whose opinion I greatly value have spilled enough positive digital-ink on Spangle Call Lilli Line that I wouldn’t tell singer Kana Otsubo to quit her day job. Yet…I’d implore her to explore her Nini Tounuma solo-project a lot more, even if it means slowing down the Spangle Call output. “Face It” imagines what chill-out music would sound like delivered by Dirty Projectors but produced by Flying Lotus – Otsubo nails the relaxed-but-still-groovin’ element down, but she adds in enough digital-wrinkles to make every second of this already irresistible tune consistently brainy as well. Yet what makes “Face It” distinctively hers is her voice, a quiver sometimes backed up by itself that’s unafraid to breakaway from its self. I’ve said a lot of the songs on this list feature star vocal performances that elevate the single into something special, but Otsubo instead chooses to blend into the background and bit more to make the actual music stand out more. And moving back turns out to be a brilliant choice.
16. Kimonos “Soundtrack To Murder”
Greg Saunier of Deerhoof plays drums on “Soundtrack To Murder” but without the Kimonos liner notes you would have tricked me. With his regular band, Saunier pounds the skins like he has six arms, each one more jacked on protein powder than the last. On this, the second single from Mukai Shutoku of Zazen Boys side project Kimonos, Saunier goes to work with way more restraint by his standards. “Milk Man” this isn’t – he keeps the zaniness in check to instead deliver a slower, sustained beat that sometimes sounds a little like something an 80s hair band would use. As much as I love hearing Saunier destroy his kit, I admit it’s a smart move as “Soundtrack To Murder” shines thanks to all its elements coming together so well.
Besides the star-powered drums that aren’t that star-powered, “Soundtrack To Murder” cherrypicks the best elements of Zazen Boys (the math-rock construction of the guitar and bass parts) plus the ominous electric side perpetually hanging out. Yet the surprise here comes from the other dominant member of Kimonos, Leo Imai. He seemed like the most suspect aspect of Kimonos when the duo first surfaced, his pretty-boy singing an odd choice to combine with Shutoku’s eccentric self. “Soundtrack To Murder,” though, proves the decision to be a into-the-parking-lot homerun – Imai can, pardon my language, fucking sing. He gives this song its emotional center and an energy not even Saunier could have dropped in. And it still hangs on the rest of the music to reach its potential. “Soundtrack To Murder” avoids the fate of similar respected-artist-choked songs of the past by not trying to showcase how great each contributor is, but instead letting them just go to work.
15. Nu Clear Classmate “Causeless Pain”
In five and 10 spots time you’ll understand why I don’t want to spend much time on “Causeless Pain.” Let’s drill right into this song then – no song came as close to being as claustrophobic as this Nu Clear Classmate jam. The wall of harsh synths making up the bulk of “Pain” never relent, cascading down on the listener as lead-singer Chick gets absolutely covered in the muck. It’s also on the shortlist for most flat-out depressing Japanese song of 2010, Chick’s downtrodden singing made even more melancholy when suffocated by some of the grimmest electronics anyone concocted.
14. Capsule “Can I Have A Word”
Player boasts a lot of moments of great experimentation. The sunny-pop strokes of “Stay With You,” the glitched-out stroll of “I Wish You,” the extended club menaces plopped into its middle, any instance of rapping. Yasutaka Nakata also helped inch Perfume into more wild-for-them territory. He seemed to be in a forward-thinking mood this year. MEG should sue for not getting a drop of those creative juices.
Yet for all the change-ups, Capsule’s best individual song ended up being the one that stuck to the hyper-loaded formula they established long ago. “Can I Have A Word” opens with strings ripped from a big budget musical but this just ends up a cinematic fake-out because just as quickly enter the bubbling synths and the glow-tinged voice of Koshijima Toshiko. From their the song spirals into an especially manic Capsule track, hints of disco mixed with a unflappable energy capped off by Toshiko’s incredible vocal performance. Nakata tried out a lot of new looks in 2010, but it’s nice to know he can still pump out an infectious clectro-whirlwind like this.
13. Soutaiseiriron “Miss Parallel World”
Like a really well-done Photoshop, it takes a few listens to “Miss Parallel World” to start noticing the details that make it seem a bit strange. The bright, pirate-ish guitar sucks you in and keeps the whole track moving forward at a nice, hoppy pace. Yet then the stranger sides start sticking out – Etsuko Yakushimaru’s nearly whispered, nearly instructional singing on the verses don’t standout as much as they creep around the corners. Plenty of J-Pop singers tried out slightly weirder ways of singing this year…this list features a few of them…yet Yakushimaru towers over all of them due to how unforced she sounds. Then the chorus, wherein “Miss Parallel World” bends into itself, the word “parallel” said repeatedly. It gives the whole track a hypnotic edge that, even once you spot the irregularities, keeps you zoned in.
12. Hotel Mexico “It’s Twinkle”
After being heavily featured in an introduction to chillwave article in Snoozer magazine and being profiled in the Japan Times, Hotel Mexico have basically already cemented their legacy as the band responsible for turning the sub-genre into a micro-trend in Japan. Time will tell us whether that distinction actually deserves a standing ovation or arms-crossed scorn, but for now it’s just sort of unfair. Yeah, this Kyoto band definitely fit all the requirements for a little Altered Zone’s love…general fuzziness, cheesy “retro” sounds, album artwork managing to both have a maritime theme AND be a found photo…but at times Hotel Mexico absolutely shatter all the trappings we’ve come to associate with these types of bands. Their breakout song and still showstopper “It’s Twinkle” features bedroom production values but nothing about it sounds “chilled out.” This song straight-up builds, and not in a subtle way – Hotel Mexico make the opening minute and a half sound gargantuan. Then it cuts out and we’re left with some confused vocals just getting through, “And I don’t know quite what to do/I’m always gonna be here sleeping alone.” Then…that steady build starts up again, and smothers all the way to the end save for a slight break. It never explodes…”Twinkle” ends just as the guitars seem prepared to let completely loose, leaving the listener right on the verge of something even bigger…but always sounds big. Call them chillwavers all you want, just remember “It’s Twinkle” glows a whole lot more massively than that term implies.
11. Perfume “575”
“Every Perfume song generally sounds the same,” yours-truly wrote back in April for the “Fushizen na Girl” single review. Four months later, Yasutaka Nakata completely clowned me with “575.” The B-side to the “VOICE” single isn’t so much a dramatic overhaul as much as an economically-appropriate “doing more with less” approach from a trio known for music choking on excess. “575” doesn’t go full thrift store – Nakata fits some strings into the chorus and this song does feature the members of Perfume psuedo-rapping – but for once the most prominent addition is silence. The verses, in particular, are refreshingly sparse, nothing but downplayed drum machine, undramatic singing and a neon-tinged keyboard line that Nakata should place pretty high up on his resume. It’s exciting new territory for a group regularly classified as pop-bots, but would just be “different” if the song itself didn’t work so well. The slinky verses bend into a potent chorus (those strings!) before dissolving into the Perfume rap…which over time grows on you to the point where I couldn’t picture “575” without it.
The production deserves a lot of praise, but while we’re here at the end of the year throwing praise wildly like so many Brett Favre 4th quarter passes…how about Perfume themselves? The big critical knock against the three people who constitute the public side of Perfume…the ones shilling for Pepsi products and girly fashion boutiques…is they don’t have any “personality,” reduced to a near-software role responsible for one friend of mine saying anyone could be plugged into their roles. “575” begs to differ – Nakata definitely casts a sheen over parts of this track’s vocals and outright screws with their voices at a few points, but the majority of the time what’s coming out of their mouths barely gets manipulated. The result – the flat-out sexiest song they’ve ever recorded, their singing tangoing with that lit-up keyboard line like they majored in dance. Even the rap gushes with “personality.” “575” does everything a great Perfume song usually does but in a very un-Perfume like way. They sure know how to make us critics look dumb.