Better late than never?
I actually wasn't planning to list my favorite J-music CDs of 2006 because, well, truth be told, 2006 wasn't a great year. The bands I like most, like advantage Lucy and Spangle call Lilli line, didn't release any albums last year (and one beloved band, Orange Plankton, called it quits). I didn't make many fresh discoveries of new groups either.
But there were SOME good CDs, so here's a Favorite Five list for 2006:
The Orange Sun In My Room
Yucca, which released its second album last year, might just develop into a fantastic band in the same league as, say, Stereolab. Listening to Orange Sun, I feel a similar pleasure—about their newness, adventurousness and catchiness—as comes from doses of Stereolab. The two-guy, two-girl quartet says they are influenced by acts like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Pastels and, yes, Stereolab, and you hear those groups' echoes, but Yucca has its own musical signature. I like the way they describe themselves in their myspace page: “we love music, calm and impulsive, sophisticated and chaotic, and much beer.” I'm especially a big fan of drummer Ayako Sinada's feather-soft playing, which in a great song like “Mere Theory” in Orange Sun is as light as the sound of waterdrops popping on a hot frypan.
4. Quinka With A Yawn
I struggled to come up with words to describe the immediately appealing sound of this album by the one-woman unit Quinka With A Yawn, until I read a Japanese review comparing its songs to lullabies. Yes! Quinka's tunes are indeed like tunes to lull a child, thought up on the spot by a playful elder sister, who possesses a soft, earthy voice. She creates ever-changing gentle melodies with toy pianos and other musical instruments from the play-room, and continues playing after you've fallen asleep, the melodies entering your dreams.
When Cornelius's first album in five years came out in late 2006, I gushed about it, saying that it must be the best J-music CD of the year. I still think Sensuous is great, but... to be frank, I don't listen to it that much. Sensuous is an album that needs to be listened to from beginning to end, enjoying the way that Keigo Oyamada develops musical themes, starts out quietly with the gorgeous “Sensuous” but gradually goes out on a limb with more experimental numbers, before bringing it back to mellowness with a cover of Dean Martin's “Sleep Warm”. I don't listen to Sensuous for its singles, because they don't make much musical sense without the context of the album as a whole: in fact, I usually fast-forward those Sensuous tunes that pop up on iPod shuffle.
2. Tokyo Incidents
Adult Pour Femme
(or, Tokyo Jihen, Otona)
Rock of Japan has been posting a cartoon strip featuring two J-rock fans shooting the breeze, and in one recent installment one of the fans says that a lot of snobbish indie Japanese rockers claim they could care less about Shiina Ringo, and the other is surprised and says how can that be, Shiina is the best. And he's right. Shiina is staggeringly talented and has one of the most distinctive singing voices in Japan, a divine wail, a voice that is both young and old-sounding. That voice is at the center of her band Tokyo Incidents (or, Tokyo Jihen in Japanese), and their second album Adult Pour Femme (or, Otona). It's a bewitching voice that could make you listen to it all day regardless of the quality of the backing music; happily, Adult contains several knockout pop tunes, including “Shuraba”, “Tomei Ningen [Invisible Man]” and the passionate closing number “Tegami [Letter]”, a tune about growing up and becoming an adult, and clearly one of the best singles out of Japan last year. Overall, Adult is the more accessible album than Tokyo Incidents' debut effort, Kyoiku [Education], and is a great album that, yes, Rock of Japan, even indie snob-types should check out.
1. Asakusa Jinta
Once in a while a new album comes out of nowhere that opens up doors of fresh, unexpected possibilities—Sky “Zero” is such an album. The first time I listened to it on my iPod, walking home at night, the swinging number “Gokuraku Rock” came on, and suddenly, the world became a brighter, happier place. Passersby appeared to me good people—they were fellow countrymen of this amazing band. I put “Gokuraku Rock” on repeat and danced home (in my mind).
What makes Asakusa Jinta's music special is that the band digs up old Japanese popular music styles such as the march, kayoukyoku and jinta brass bands, and combines those with more modern styles like rock, ska and rockabilly, to create a new sound. The tempos are fast and the bass-line heavy (the ska influence), but on top of that a horn section and accordion lend their tunes a nostalgic feel. It's a musical fusion—one that sounds great. Probably, other Japanese bands have tried something like what Asakusa Jinta is doing; I don't, however, know any such band that is as good as Asakusa Jinta. Soul Flower Union sounds superficially similar, but I think they are different: SFU's thing seems more of picking and choosing old and traditional musical styles and using them in their songs, whereas AJ's aim is to actually update great old styles to a contemporary sound.
Band leader, bassist and vocalist Osho (a stage name meaning 'Buddhist priest') is the visionary of the group, and also the person that most lends Style to Asakusa Jinta. He has the charismatic presence and voice of a pre-War silver screen star. I had a chance to interview him once, and was struck by how devoted and serious he is about old Japanese popular music as well as the culture of Asakusa, an area of Tokyo that until then I didn't think of as much more than an old town for tourists to see. He said Asakusa is a place where Old Japan lives on, and is his primary source of inspiration. His band's music has made me want to explore this town more, listen to old records sold in stores there, and then have a drink or two later in one of its izakaya's. Sky “Zero” can do that to you—watch out!
Other albums I liked include Spaghetti Vabune's Guitar Pop Grand Prix, which, as its title suggests, is guitar pop goodness; the self-titled album of the Caraway, the band of Swinging Popsicle guitarist Osamu Shimada; and waffles' Kimi No Mahou [Your Magic] (though the waffles' work doesn't change much from album to album, leading me to wonder whether they've already come up with their perfect formula, or whether they should experiment more); and the eclectic vocal magician Nikaido Kazumi's Nikaido Kazumi No Album.