Another year draws to a close, but 2011 wasn’t just another run-of-the-mill desk calendar for Japanese songs. The past 365 days saw an abundance of great tunes from Japan-based artists, ranging from shadowy electronic movers from Tokyo to dreamy pop numbers born in Osaka to space-tripped clackers via Kyoto. Just as exciting, though, were how many of these songs rose above domestic attention and made ripples…regardless of how big or small…in various forms of Western media, be it music blogs or just some kid in Florida’s Tumblr showing his friends how trippy the “Pon Pon Pon” video was. As 2012 shapes up to be a possibly even bigger year for the world recognizing a whole bunch of scenes blooming around this country, lets take a look back at 50 of our favorite Japanese tracks of 2011. From the stuff that became Gorilla Vs. Bear mainstays to the tracks still waiting to breakout, all these songs meant something to us.
(Note: In order to offer as wide a variety of Japanese music as possible, artists were restricted to a maximum of two songs. Needless to say, you should buy the Perfume and Sakanaction albums.)
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50. Toddle “Shimmer”
Considering Toddle counts members of essential Japanese rock groups Number Girl and Luminous Orange as part of the band, the easy-going catchiness of “Shimmer” almost comes off as automatic for these guys. Just because Toddle could probably polish something like this off in an afternoon isn’t a detraction, though, but rather a sign of the experience going into the track. The guitars weave around one another in a deceptively simple way to lend “Shimmer” a good foundation, while Hisako Tabuchi’s airy vocals give the song – especially the chorus, where she pushes especially high – a pop edge.
49. Kou Shibasaki “Mukei Spirit”
Tough to imagine the same person behind “Mukei Spirit” also once played the role of no-regards-for-anything killer Mitsuko Souma in the movie version of Battle Royale. This sounds mostly giddy, the only bits even approaching a scrunched up face being the thudding guitars late in the song. Yet “Mukei Spirit” hides considerable depth, skipping from candy-colored pop segments early on to shouty rock-inspired passages down the line, nothing here sounding particularly repetitive but always catchy. Credit goes to Kou Shibasaki too, making like a good actor and changing up her voice to match the shifting sounds around her, flashes of Kaela Kimura’s zig-zagging singing style bubbling up.
48. Faron Square “Comes Around You”
Lets take a second to honor all the CUZ ME PAIN tracks we couldn’t cram onto this list – and there were a lot, because the upstart label had one prolific 2011. Like the woozy loveliness of AAPS’ “Invisible Sophisticated,” the radiant strut of :visited’s “Sunset Article” and the Flinstones-sampling groove of MASCULiN’s “Emmanuel.”
What earns Faron Square this spot, though, is how “Comes Around You” manages to stand out within the CUZ ME PAIN 2011 collection. Whereas the majority of the labels music could be described as “dark” and “shadowy” (I did it in the list intro) dance music, this cut from the Willys Anthology EP sounds defiantly bright, the dreaminess-via-keyboards touch of other CMP projects present but working alongside something that could play at a wedding held in someone’s bedroom (alternative metaphor: inspirational sports jam for someone about to play six hours of NES Baseball). CUZ ME PAIN grabbed international attention thanks to haunted house disco tunes, but “Comes Around You” hints at the variety lurking inside these dudes.
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47. Aloha “ChinaTown”
Boasting an intro that sounds vaguely similar to The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo,” Aloha’s “ChinaTown” ignores the allure of tropical drinks melting in your hand in favor of Hawaiian Punch served at a lounge’s “Tropical” theme night. The extreme breeziness of this track, powered by horns and a particularly beach-ready sax solo, makes it hard not to enjoy, though Aloha isn’t just wasting his day away in a hammock. The chorus kicks everything up a pinch, the singing going from lazy to near speak-sing, the sudden change in tempo exciting but never a huge left turn. “ChinaTown” imagines the place to go being a cruise ship, and the charmingness on display here makes it hard to disagree.
46. Gellers “Guatemala”
The big draw of Gellers is that they are Shugo Tokumaru’s band when he isn’t locked up in his instrument room making Playmobil pop, and “Guatemala” was the groups big return single after a few years of no activity. Yet here’s the rub – “Guatemala” would sound painfully out of place on Gellers’ one album. That self-titled disc found Shugo and friends making music that was raw, messy at times, and full of weirdo twists and turns. “Guatemala” sounds like a leftover from Tokumaru’s (whimsical) Port Entropy, studio perfected and catchy as heck. Anyone expecting to hear a new side of Shugo probably should have felt letdown.
Yet, hey, just because this might as well be a Shugo-only song doesn’t mean it isn’t catchy as heck as anything the dude has ever released. “Guatemala” is pure indie-pop dazzle from one of Japan’s best makers. The fact it comes with a nice back story is only cream on top.
45. MacDonald Duck Eclair “Clarion”
The majority of MacDonald Duck Eclair’s Kono Tokimeki Ima Sugu album finds the trio playing around with EeL-like crazy pop, all cutsey vocals smashed up against aggressive noises. On highlight “Clarion,” though, MacDonald drop all gimmicks and just focus straight ahead, guitars and keyboards locked hand-in-hand as the group barrels forward. It’s uncomplicated J-Rock done right, simplistic structure leading to a sticky-sweet chorus, the whole time MacDonald unafraid to show their fangs a little bit. Sometimes a little reduction is all you need.
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44. RIP SLYME “Sense Of Wonder”
RIP SLYME gave Japan one of the worst songs AND marketing tie-ins of 2011 with “Jack Goes On,” an ad where the members of the group turned into living gold statues to shill a canned highball made by Jack Daniels a friend once described as the “worst experience of his life.” Keep in mind, he said this while watching Jersey Shore. To me, though, I hate “Jack Goes On” because the song and accompanying clip were inescapable at this year’s Summer Sonic festival. RIP SLYME probably deserved a lot of hate for everything about “Jack Goes On.”
But I’m not gonna be the one to crucify them, because they also gave us the lovely “Sense Of Wonder,” a laid-back nocturnal number that more than makes up for the Jack Highball in a can. The beat is an incredibly minimal creation, bongos meeting street-lamp synths and a few other neon touches, the whole thing sounding airy and free. the members of RIP SLYME never try to mug over this empty-street production, instead strolling alongside and blending right in. Think of this as the late-night pizza place serving you after a night of downing Jack – regardless of how ugly things could (or would) get, this moment is wonderful.
43. Three-Weeks-Old Lovesick Puppy “Parachute Love”
“Parachute Love” neither exists in any form online nor as a downloadable commodity from the iTunes store, turning this blurb into more of a time capsule than a chance to say “click below.” Three-Weeks-Old Lovesick Puppy’s debut mini-album Tickle Tickle requires not a single listen through to hear cuteness oozing out of every corner, and though the whole disc sounds good, “Parachute Love” shines brightest because she tempers her Lisa Frank tendencies with aggression. It dashes faster than anything else on Tickle, the vocals still the audio equivalent of marzipan but with a no-second-thoughts chug propelling everything forward. You’ll have to take my word for it – it’s adorable and head-moving.
42. Ayumi Hamasaki “Brillante”
Good pop stars give the people something to follow, music that sounds like something the average listener could never hope to experience reduced to an experience they can. Huge pop stars make music that sounds like even they should have no part being involved in. “Brillante” comes off like a single built for an Egyptian pharaoh, not a pop singer boasting her own line of pachinko machines, but Ayumi Hamasaki has reached the point where going overboard seems like a completely rational choice. And she makes it work – “Brillante” is basically a typical Hamasaki ballad made big enough to fill Rome’s Colosseum, Hamasaki’s voice flanked by Western string sections and Eastern percussion, upping the chorus by adding a full-blown LITERAL chorus to turn this into something of pure decadence. Hamasaki fancies herself a queen, and instead of just boast about it in song, she went and got the sounds you would expect to turn royalty into epics. Nothing touches the pure scale of this, and thank goodness someone is still going to absurd lengths to prove how memorable they are.
41. MFP “Steppin’ Into Changes”
MFP is part of the crew putting on Osaka’s INNIT event, and like a lot of the dudes getting together once every few months to melt minds, his take on beat-centric electronic music draws inspiration from a bunch of sources. Most clearly on 2011 highlight “Steppin’ Into Changes,” MFP turns to the cosmic blunts distributed by Brainfeeder (see the way it sounds like he’s projecting Nintendo games against Jupiter) and the soulful memories of producer J. Dilla (check the vocal samples, appearing in the back of the mix like wisps of smoke). Yet the most undeniable part of “Changes” is the joy flowing through its bouncy veins. Every time this song comes on I get teleported back to this past summer when I first heard it, and everything sounds alright.