J-pop is a mess right now. The biggest challenge at the moment is sifting through everything to figure out just what’s going on, and if you zeroed in squarely on what charts say is doing well, I wouldn’t blame you for feeling underwhelmed. Yet dive into the vast middle and you’ll find all sorts of wild ideas and interesting sounds creeping closer to the mainstream. And maybe…just maybe…something more concrete is developing. The best top-level J-pop song I’ve heard so far in 2018 has been Nariaki Obukuro’s “Lonely One,” a wonky number with a strong Hikaru Utada guest spot that turned the sort of fans who only communicate in Tyra .gifs into people geeking out for warped-out R&B. “Featuring Hikaru Utada” goes a long way, but if this is what gets attention this year, that’s a good sign.
Obukuro’s sound is starting to gain more traction too. Alongside fellow Tokyo Recordings artist Yaffle and the performer herself, he helped shape “Corner,” the lead single from singer/songwriter Iri’s forthcoming album Juice. She’s been on the rise for a bit, getting attention for a nocturnal sound not far removed from the “city pop revival” that pushed so many bands to the forefront in the last two years. Yet last year she made a huge leap forward with her Life EP, a set showcasing her range and making a strong argument she has a shot to jump up a level on her next release. She’s worked with Kenmochi Hidefumi of Suiyoubi No Campanella before, and now the Tokyo Recordings crew comes into her orbit, helping give her just the right sound to showcase her singing.
“Corner” opens frayed, the big gloopy keyboard notes distracting how the other noises sound like they are peeling off. Then the song settles into something sturdier, pushed on by persistent beat and guitar playing. It leaves just enough space to allow Iri to show off her voice, huskier and more forceful than most J-pop singers at the moment, and an instrument she knows how to control well. What sets “Corner” apart are the stranger details they all bring in — how the vocals layer over themselves to create strange combinations, the way they chorus kind of bursts apart only to reassemble stronger before, the slow dissolve ending the whole thing. It’s a group of artists hitting a stride. Listen to a preview above, or go to your preferred streaming service to listen to the whole song (I mean, not Tidal, c’mon).