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Poppin’ Off On A Friday Night: New Sugar’s Campaign, Tempura Kidz And Shiggy Jr.

Good couple of days for folks who like J-pop, but prefer the artists operating in the middle-class zone rather than the upper echelons (which is not to say Nishino Kana lacks solid moments). A few familiar mid-tier faces released new songs (and accompanying videos) over the last two days. One outfit was Sugar’s Campaign, the classic-pop-leaning duo of Avec Avec and Seiho, who shared the title track to their second full-length album Mamagoto ahead of its release next week (video above). A slightly misleading thing about Sugar’s Campaign were the songs they released ahead of last year’s Friends — “Netokano” set the table, and “Holiday” boosted expectations high up. Yet as the subsequent album — and “Mamagoto,” which features young singer Inoue Sonoko on vocal duty — proved, Sugar’s Campaign is really a chance for the pair to indulge in their ’70s pop dreams, as the making-the-song video hints at. With that in mind, “Mamagoto” makes a lot of sense, from the Tatsuro-Yamashita-indebted backing harmonies to the ’80s crystalline synth. It’s like comfort food and, though I’m not sure a whole album of it could work, they do it well on the title track.

Speaking of “making-of” videos, Shiggy Jr. are back with their latest, “Beautiful Life,” above. The clip riffs on numerous classic — and recent — Japanese ad archetypes, down to “vaguely offensive curry commercial.” It’s a fun little video, and the song finds Shiggy Jr. doing what they do best — making bouncy mid-tempo pop accented by synthesizer. Doesn’t reach the heights of their last single, but hints that their next album is going to sound mighty nice.

What the last two songs have had in common is they are groups doing what they do best, or at least what they think they do best. Dance-unit-slash-pop-outfit Tempura Kidz’ latest single is…ummmm, I can’t decide if it is a sudden stylistic shift or really just them doing what they do best. The hook with “I Like It” is the song was produced by AG Cook and easyFun of PC Music, and also Sarah Bonito of Kero Kero Bonito was involved somehow. Thinkpiece fodder, right? Even though all the usual PC Music signifiers are present, it actually matches up well with Tempura Kidz because…well, Tempura Kidz have embraced a sort of high-energy, vaguely wacky style in the past. For all the hand wringing over PC Music — remember 2015? Thank goodness we write about important things like Instagram posts now — their style matches up well with this group, squeaks and all. Listen above.

New Sugar’s Campaign: “Holiday”

And I thought I’d go on break this week.

The duo of Seiho and Avec Avec make music together as Sugar’s Campaign, and their first major-label album comes out this January. And here’s the first single, “Holiday,” which….ahhhhhhh so good. They merge late ’70s city pop sounds (the chorus) with very “now” touches (helium vocals, laser-ey sounds) with the end result being a great pop song. Watch the video above.

Check The Credits: Izumi Makuro’s “Tokyo Kinkou Rosenzu” (Produced By Sugar’s Campaign)

Look, I don’t want to take anything away from Izumi Makuro. She sounds just fine here, rapping in a relaxed way that sounds effortless and certainly isn’t as, shall we say, acquired as other pop-rap outfits in Japan. If anything, it is easily compared to Her Ghost Friend, except with a more hip-hop bend. It’s good, but she wasn’t the reason I was drawn to this, even if a hook built around the idea of a “Tokyo suburbs map” is intriguing. The production here is handled by Sugar’s Campaign, a.k.a. Seiho and Avec Avec, a.k.a. two people who should be producing J-Pop singles off the strength of last year’s list-conquering number. This seems like a good first step. This is a laid-back groove, sounding ritzy enough for a penthouse suite but remaining funky enough not to end up in the lobby. Features some nice guitar too, and at the end one half of the group (Avec Avec maybe?) actually sings as this one fades away. Listen above.

Four Your Enjoyment: Sugar’s Campaign And Dancingthruthenights (Tofubeast X Okadada)

When electronic music producers get together in Kansai, they get down. The best example of this, up until now, was Sugar’s Campaign, a project that brought bubbly beatmaker Avec Avec together with the usually trippy Seiho. Tell the two to create something new together, though, and you end up with party-starting pop indebted to the funky sounds of J-Pop from the 70’s and 80’s. The duo’s ability to take cues from the past while still injecting their bubbly pop with experimental touches helped woo us to last year’s peppy “Netokano,” our favorite Japanese song of the year. They are back with new song “Houkago Yuurei,” which finds the pair having even more fun than before. It’s a big bright slice of disco pop, peppered with female dialogue and featuring the most direct stab at singing I’ve ever heard from Sugar’s Campaign. It also sounds vaguely like an alternate-universe take on “Ghostbusters” – which makes sense, as the title translates to “Afterschool Ghost.” This is Sugar’s Campaign getting goofy, but remembering to provide catchy music alongside the punchline.

Even better, though, is the song by new collaboration Dancingthruthenights, which finds the hip-hop-loving Tofubeats joining forces with Okadada. Their group theme song is certainly out for a good time – those five-cocktails-down horns! The Toro-Y-Moi-evoking synth boogies! The part where one of them shouts “let’s spend the night with me!” – but it crucially doesn’t hide its heart either. This sounds like having a late-night club crush, an anthem made for those folks who routinely find themselves locking eyes with new faces on the dancefloor. Dancingthruthenights also make sure to make this sexy, highlighted by the slower portions of the song where the vocals (which are far and away the weakest aspect of this track…but also lend an air of “screw it, let’s do it” to the proceedings) get a bit sweeter. Both songs on this EP are catchy and, most importantly, fun. Get it here.

Mid-Year Report: The Best J-Pop Of 2012 Halfway Through

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.

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