This is the final installment of this feature, mostly as a way to get a few brief comments in about albums that could very well appear on our Top 30 albums of the year list (fast approaching, whoa!). Some of the below could even land pretty high up….
Kaela Kimura 8Eight8
Somehow, Kaela Kimura’s new album ended up flying a bit under our radar, released in early October which was a pretty busy time for new music. Though, in all honesty, that’s a cop out – the reason 8Eight8 didn’t end up a big talking point was because her latest album looked like it wouldn’t be all that exciting to talk about. Despite once listening to nothing but her first best-of album for a week once, Kaela’s latest looked like an excuse to release all her recent singles under a slightly overpriced umbrella. Those singles run from “great” to “great fun” to “pretty OK,” but didn’t inspire much excitement to be honest (this has also made me a bit cautious about the new Perfume, though we will find out really soon how that is). Her albums to this point haven’t been great stand-alone offerings, Kaela to now being a singles artist. I’d buy a copy of “Ring-A-Ding-Dong” but shelling out cash for a CD of the same song buffed out by fluff…no thanks.
Well, I finally spent some time with 8Eight8 and I’m sorta flabbergasted…this is one of the best albums of the year, Kaela Kimura’s finest full length to date and a document announcing her from being a “pop idol” to legit artist. For most of her career, she’s been a J-Pop chameleon, seeing what sells and adding her own touch to a sound she couldn’t call completely hers. Last year’s rolling “You Bet!!” popped out of nowhere and stood as her first fully-formed Kaela song, her J-Rock influences finally mutating into a sound all her own. 8Eight8 sees her mastering that personal sound, the rock-pop hybrids making up the bulk of the album being simply better than what came before. Coupled with the stylistic diversions that add a dash of variety to the CD (“Ring-A-Ding-Dong,” “Lollipop” and head-on-shoulder closer “Chocolate”) it adds up to one of the best releases of 2011, and a snapshot of what J-Pop could be if more artists weren’t afraid to explore new sounds. I’m excited to write the year-end blurb for this one.
Though this is already longer than I expected, I do want to yammer a bit more about the album’s title track, Kaela’s masterpiece. If “You Bet!!” found her stumbling across her own sound, “8Eight8” finds her confident in it enough to fuck around with it – this song’s noisy, the guitars practically turning themselves inside out as everything rushes by. It’s catchy but it’s also unnerving. Kaela also pens her best lyrics to date here, revolving around the metaphor of her being a spider (hence the album art) that somehow stands in for a relationship. The chorus of “I’m gonna be scary/a black spider in the end” repeats a few times before the track’s best moment strikes, the line “I’m gonna be lonely” sneaking in, bluntly delivered and like a shot to the sternum. Again, I’m excited to write the year-end blurb for this.
Two Tokyo girls cranking out fuzzy, rock music…Puffyshoes, right? Nope, Tadzio, who might resemble Puffyshoes on a text description but sound from another universe. Whereas Puffyshoes’ songs about boys and fast food coated in feedback owes a debt to Vivian Girls, Tadzio’s manic creations channel the ghost of Osaka’s Afriampo, all tag-team vocals and fist-to-nose aggression. Standout trakc “Beast Master” swings between orgasmic noises and manic shouts of “fuck you!” Elsewhere, Tadzio scream “fuckyoufuckyou” one second before declaring “I love you” the next. Despite having a Puffyshoes-appropriate song about eating birthday cake, they immediately follow it up with “You Gotta Fuckin’ Mail,” featuring such lyric book gems like “SEX DIE SEX BONE OH MY GOD.” This is music of violence, capable of swinging from surf-rock melody to death metal chug on a blood-soaked dime, even the song about capybaras focusing on how they bite. It’s primal stuff…sometimes a bit too messy for its own good, some songs more like boxing therapy than proper tracks…that’s constantly gripping.
LEF!!! CREW!!! Mixtape Number 5
“Huh, what,” I can see you mouthing, “a mixtape featuring no Japanese songs save for the intro track?” Yep, but I felt it necessary to give this mix a shout-out because it turned me onto some really good tracks…and to tell you if you have the chance to see these dudes DJ, go check them out because they put on a good show. This electronic-leaning mix features floor-fillers courtesy Africa Hitech, Star Slinger and Instra:Mental among others, and remains pretty grooveable for its entire run. The best moment comes late, though, when LEF!!! CREW!!! bust out two sped-up wonders from 2011 back-to-back…Machinedrum’s slippery “GBYE” transitions into the lightspeed R&B blasts of Rustie’s “Ultra Thizz.”
The Mornings Save The Mornings
Winner of the 2011’s “worst album art in comparison to how good the music within sounds,” The Mornings’ long-coming debut album flails around all over the place – lead-off track “Opening Act” flirts with punk nihilism before suddenly switching into something slower and more pretty for a few seconds, before they return to the mosh-pit, this time with saxophone blurts in tow. The rest of Save The Mornings dashes off in similar compass-shattering directions – “Amazon Surf” melds fried Donkey Kong keyboards to the band’s best Zazen Boys vocal interpretation…before they jump into a register Zazen Boys rarely attempt and the song spirals into pure insanity. The rest of the album features plenty of other mish-mashes…plus a Dead Kennedy’s cover…that strike just the right balance between punk/hardcore and art rock, neither side of The Mornings making a mockery of the other, instead everything turning into one excellent head-fuck of an album.
Sebastian X Futures
Sebastian X are one of those bands that routinely put out good music and are a loveable underdog story in the world of Japanese music – but they also aren’t a group bound to release a “classic” album anytime soon. They have a very specific style that’s engaging…piano-heavy pop and ballads prone to flights of manic joy, all led by a singer who doesn’t sing as much as she yelps…but only goes so far. Futures is their first full-length after several good mini-albums, and somehow a band fronted by someone who at times sounds a lot like Joanna Newsom has become relatively successful, grabbing decent real estate at Tower Records and landing in a few Japanese publications. Futures finds Sebastian X being perfectly Sebastian X-ey, jumping between rollicking pop numbers like “Rose Garden, Baby Blue” and “F.U.T.U.R.E.”, and slower ballads which get an extra pinch of spice thanks to those vocals, the band’s main weapon in grabbing attention. Futures is a good album and the latest chapter in a nice story, but also nothing threatening to make you do a double take at the speakers. Which isn’t a bad thing! Sebastian X seemingly belong in the category of “consistently good, sometimes great” bands like The Clientele and Shonen Knife. Just be glad this stuff appears in karaoke booths.
Her Ghost Friend Her Ghost Friend
DJ Obake has been making dance music and…slightly weirder dance music for awhile now, but his project with singer/illustrator Shinobu Ono dubbed Her Ghost Friend has forced him to change his style a bit and make something more pop friendly. In the same way teaming with Perfume forced Yasutaka Nakata to hone his production, Her Ghost Friend results in DJ Obake’s prettiest soundscapes to date, lush electronic creations at times sounding like (!) Animal Collective peppered with video game noises and even strings. Ono, meanwhile, handles vocal duties well, swinging between nasally singing and spoken-word interludes. One of the the sneakier pop albums in Japan this year.
N’Shukugawa Boys Planet Magic
Seeing N’Shukugawa Boys, it’s tough to take this trio seriously. It seems like they are playing rock ‘n’ roll dress-up at first glance, two of them mimicking a David Bowie and the third summoning Elvis from Saturn. Not a particularly fair way of judging them…which is why their album Planet Magic works wonder. Not having to see their goofy get-up leaves space for only the music and…swerve!…it’s really good! Taking cues from 70’s rock, Boys craft these catchy rock songs boasting great choruses, uncomplex creations that seek out ear space and make room. Planet Magic works best when Marya Love handles vocal duties, while the songs featuring dude Rindadada aren’t quite as up to snuff (except for “Try Again,” which rivals the title track for best song on the album). It’s a short album, but surprisingly strong. And with no distractions to take away from the music.