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Make Believe Melodies’ Favorite 2019 Japanese Albums: #50 – #41

At some point this fall, Make Believe Melodies turned ten. I’d known this decade milestone was looming — mainly because 2019 also marked my tenth anniversary of moving to Japan to work in the countryside teaching English to bored teenagers “for a year or two, tops” — and toyed around with ways to celebrate. Then life happened and…forget marking the occasion, even updating this blog fell to the wayside.

I wish I could point to some sharp and biting reason for this — Blogging is dead! Music journalism is on life support! Just like what you like, man! — but the real reason is far more boring. Life simply got in the way. I had a kid, work became far more outsized even before that became a reality and time suddenly became scarce in a way I never would have imagined when I started this in 2009 between repeat-after-me drills in far-off Mie. I’m thankful for all the above, but to make it work the starting point had to suffer (to the point I’m actually blogging about most of the same artists I would here over at Otaquest now because…well, that pays, and this has always been a not-for-profit site, first for personal beliefs but now because I have zero idea who would advertise for something like this).

All fall, I knew I still wanted to do this annual exercise — which, if you are new (welcome, thanks for reading that intro which probably confused you!) entails me, the only person working on Make Believe Melodies save for the few people who take pity on me to help with the WordPress nitty gritty, highlighting my personal favorite Japanese albums of the year. Thing is, I’m not sure what comes next. I’ve told myself “this is the week I find more time to blog” for most of the last three months, and then that tumbles down a chute. I’ve started seriously wondering if this site’s time has come…or, at the very least, having it mutate into something different, whether that’s fewer posting or becoming something else entirely (get in on the newsletter boom before that crashes?).

What keeps making me feel pangs of guilt and still pushes me to want to get back on this, however, is surveying Japanese music in 2019. I haven’t encountered a year as stacked for the country’s musical output in my time living in the country, to the point where I seriously came close to going wild and making this 100. Then I realized that the world probably doesn’t need to know Tacoyaki Rainbow made my 98th favorite release of the year and kept it a tad tighter. Still, so much fantastic stuff came out this year both on the top level of J-pop and in the indie-adjacent spaces this site primarily covers that I went into list season not having two or three favorites for the top spot, but closer to 11. On top of that…and here’s some industry side-eyeing for those seeking a touch of the dramatic…I believe English-language coverage of non-English music has mostly gotten worse over the decade since I started out, save for maybe Spanish-language music and some corners of K-pop (though…that’s a whole different door to open up). Congratulations to CHAI (on my list) and Otoboke Beaver (#54…told you it was cutthroat!) for grabbing Western attention, but there’s so much more happening here just totally ignored on a wider scale that deserves to be screamed about, even if it’s coming from some small dorky digital corner of the web. I guess my voice hasn’t gone out yet, at least.

Which brings us back to what I say every year…follow along, listen and see if you find something you love that normally wouldn’t hit your radar.

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New Teen Runnings: “Baby G”

A lot has changed over the past decade, but sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper to find the constants. Teen Runnings have a new album out later this month, the project’s first in five years, and plenty has changed for Shota Kaneko’s project. Each full-length has found the group getting less fuzzy, and if “Baby G” (and previously released cut “Hair Wax 95“) isn’t some outlier, Teen Runnings has welcomed in laid-back electronics into their arsenal. “Baby G” lets a guitar riff push everything forward, but it isn’t coating everything in a layer of noise as much as it lends a nudge towards a melody also making plenty of room for beach-ready keyboard lines. Everything is a bit clearer here, but just focus on Kaneko’s words to be reminded of that ol’ melancholy always lurking in his music. “Now that I’m trying hard enough / But who’s gonna care about me / Who’s gonna care about me.” Now that’s the Teen Runnings we know (and hey, you always have Make Believe Melodies). Listen above.

New Teen Runnings: “Hair Wax ’95”

Teen Runnings were way ahead of the curve. The trio — initially known as Friends — were playing a take on beach-fitting rock all the way back when MySpace was still the dominate way to find out about new music. They added a thick layer of distortion, lending their songs a sense of unease the otherwise fun-in-the-sun melodies didn’t bring. But then they went on hiatus…and suddenly every ascendant rock band in Japan was also playing sun-dappled rock. The noise coating it was gone, but it’s tough listening to half of these bands and walk away not thinking “man…Teen Runnings was just way better than this Mac DeMarco stuff.”

But now they are back! For at least one new song (demo, technically, but we can make an exception here) and a show in Montreal later this month. “Hair Wax ’95” is not as feedback-drenched as older Teen Runnings’ cuts, opting instead for a bouncy, vaguely tropical number. The lyrics, though, still lean towards the less tubular, even if they often sound upbeat enough. Here’s hoping for more. Listen above.

New Teen Runnings: “New Work Silly”

Shota Kaneko goofs around and visits a wax museum in the video for “New Work Silly,” a bouncy song from this year’s Now album. As it goes, “New Work Silly” finds Teen Runnings sounding extremely sunny and surf-ready, but the lyrics hint at something a touch less blissful.

New Teen Runnings: “High School Love”

One of the most straightforward sweet songs the trio Teen Runnings have ever written, “High School Love” is the latest taste of the group’s forthcoming Now full-length, and it hints that not all of the outfit’s interpretations of ’60s surf music are fractured with bad memories. This is sugar sweet, about a usually doomed subject (right in the title), but delivered here with the earnestness of prom night. Listen below.