The top of the J-Pop world remains cemented in place so far in 2012 – the best selling albums and singles have been from all the usual suspects of the Japanese music landscape. AKB48, Ikimono-gakari, EXILE, everything Johnny’s…with a few exceptions, the dominant music of 2012 has been pretty much the same as the last few years, and the back half isn’t showing any signs of bucking that trend. Taking stock of this world, then, would mostly be watching repeats, a non-story worthy of only a few sentences.
Yet bubbling just beneath the peak of J-Pop…and, in a few cases, rising up to the static top…are all sorts of fascinating developments threatening to push Japanese pop music into thrilling, still-accessible places. Friends who lived in this country around the time Perfume broke through into mainstream popularity recall a brief window of time where people though that THIS would usher in a new era of pop, of groups mimicking the techno-pop triumph of Perfume while simultaneously tearing down the statues of boring music mainstays in the process. That didn’t happen – soon after, Perfume simply became the only group doing that style of music at a pop-chart level. The status quo remained.
These six months, though, have seen a bunch of mid-level (and beyond) artists merge the future-obsession Perfume introduced to the J-Pop world with all sorts of different styles, none of these groups really sounding like knockoff Perfumes but rather applying the rules that trio introduced to their own work, creating great new material in the process. The top of the charts don’t reflect it, but Japan is experiencing a J-Pop renaissance, full of forward-thinking pop songs that sharply contrast with a large chunk of the nation’s independent music scene, which embraced indie-pop over the past six months and looked back. Below are some of Make Believe Melodie’s favorite J-Pop songs of 2012 so far.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu Pamyu Pamyu Revolution
Easily the most important J-Pop artist of 2012 thus far, because unlike everyone who follows, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu broke through. She’s gone from fashion model to YouTube curio to pop star to someone whose image is inescapable during my day-to-day life. Even more, she’s become a big act while also releasing great music – her full-length debut Pamyu Pamyu Revolution features some of the best pop music of the year period, her Harajuku-zany image forcing producer Yasutaka Nakata (Perfume, Capsule) to create an entirely new approach. This is the freshest Nakata has sounded in years – he melds Shibuya-Kei with bass music on “Minna No Uta,” turns Kyary’s repeated chanting of her own name into one of the sweetest sounds of the year and even gave her the best slow song of the year in the wistful “Drinker.” And then there were the singles – “PonPonPon” has established itself by now, but “Candy Candy” (above) is no slouch either. Straightforward, yes, but built for maximum cheeriness, that chorus being one of the stickiestly sweet things of the year.
Even better, she sticks out of the J-Pop crowd, and loves the fact she does (the fashion background comes in handy, I imagine). The best metaphor of the year came when Kyary, on an episode of Music Station, wore a dress complete with huge shoulders and a big ol’ bow. Her wardrobe ended up obscuring Johnny’s pop-bots Kanjani8, forcing her to apologize, but providing a great image of something wonderfully new blocking out the old shit.
As great as Kyary has been, she still finishes second when it comes to best overall J-Pop album, an honor going to MiChi’s thrilling Therapy. Most Japanese CDs in 2012 finish behind this one…if it weren’t for INNIT’s continued goal of bending space and time, this would easily be the best Japanese album of the year so far. I’ve already gushed about this one, but this should be the blueprint for further great post-Perfume J-Pop – songs unafraid to pull in elements of electronic music (hell, the above song takes bro-step and makes it soft) and pull them into fascinating new shapes.
Nanba Shiho “Shoujo, Futatabi”
One of the arguments laid out against K-Pop is that it forsakes “Korean music” in favor of Western sounds and trends. I’m not going to ponder about that one for a bunch of reasons…I think that argument has some holes in it!…but I feel this attitude carries over to J-Pop, where many fear change because they don’t want to lose the something that makes J-Pop “unique.” Nanba Shiho shows this shouldn’t be a concern – remove the synths and slow the pace down, and her “Shoujo, Futatabi” transforms into a soapy ballad, the sort choking Tower Records and TV dramas across the country. Now add those elements back in and you have one of the bubbliest sounds singles of the year, and whirring bit of wonder that still manages to sound deeply human amongst all the glowing. This isn’t far from the anime-spiked hyperpop Maltine Records releases – hell, my favorite personal observation of the year was when Avec Avec (who released this fine EP) bobbed along to this song as it played in an izakaya.
Kou Shibasaki “Strength” and “ANOTHER:WORLD”
Kou Shibasaki appears pretty regularly on TV…she has been on Music Station twice this year…and by all accounts seems like the sort of act that would appeal to a wide variety of people. Yet her singles this year have been…strange for the sort of thing deemed worthy of airtime. “Strength” is all chirpy melody with traces of math-rock precision thrown in…and then joined by the sort of cheap-sounding keyboards I expect to hear at The Smell, not on Space Shower TV. Even stranger, mid-song Shibasaki fires the track into an entirely different thing altogether, the passage sounding like a different song. It lasts like fifteen seconds and then we return to the sunny pop. It’s baffling, but also a bit intoxicating.
Her other single trades in the afternoon rays for late-day melodrama, without handing over the math-rock traces. It is far more dramatic, but still blessed with all sorts of strange touches one wouldn’t expect from a mainstream artist like this. Sometimes, daring comes from strange places.
Kaela Kimura “Mamireru”
Kaela Kimura’s always been ahead of the curve – she was one of the first radio DJs to play Perfume back in the day, and she’s always kept one ear out for great sonic trends she can borrow and weave into her own style. Her embrace of a sound is almost like a seal of approval, and “Mamireru” is a huge “OK!” for Sakanaction, a band whose 2011 album DocumentaLy housed the most daring sounds of the year (and was our #2 album of the year). Kimura takes the dancey-repetition mixed with arena-ready singing and puts her initials on it, but by doing so she’s also helped prod the Sakanaction sound a little further into the limelight.
This does a lot of the same things MiChi does, albeit not quite as well – but the backing robo-whispers and (especially) the chorus kill me. Just way more…fun than most of the stuff on the Oricon charts.
Sugar’s Campaign “Netokano”
Twist! This is pure indie stuff…the product of the aforementioned Avec Avec and INNIT’s Seiho, along with a few others…that exists as a self-released video. But it gets on here because 1. it’s pop excellence and 2. Avec Avec and Seiho have said they want to capture the sound of the J-Pop they listened to growing up, and would love to get signed to a major label. Considering so many of the best indie acts in this country seemingly loathe J-Pop, hearing this and seeing WHAT COULD BE (awesome) is refreshing. Godspeed guys.
Tokyo Jihen “Sa_i_ta”
Tokyo Jihen’s farewell stretch at the start of the year was full of huge concerts and Shiina Ringo slinks, a bunch of final bows. Yet they also left the contemporary Japanese music scene with this song, which crams so many great ideas into one song that it was a genuinely big surprise hearing this on the otherwise playing-it-safe EP Colorbars. It almost seems like a challenge…c’mon young groups, try to match this.
Perfume “Spring Of Life”
Because duh, of course…and they only have more thrilling sounds coming soon.