Monday, January 25, 2010

8 Favorite Japanese CDs of 2009

Alas, at the moment I can't think of a nice, round '10' favorite albums for 2009, and can only come up with eight. I'm not sure if that's because it wasn't a good year, or I just wasn't looking hard enough (always a possibility). Still, there were some bright spots—my two favorite albums of the year were also a couple of the best in the last few years, for one thing.

#8. Soutaiseiriron
Hi-Fi Anatomia

For reasons explained in a previous post, I'm not a huge fan of the Soutaiseiriron's activities as a band. I don't like it that they've imposed a media black-out on their image. Maybe I'm traditional, but I want more than just music from favorite bands: also desired are their words, their visuals and fashion, the whole package. So, the 'faceless Soutaiseiriron' falls short for me. But, judging solely by their music, it does appear that Hi-Fi Anatomia is one of the better albums of 2009. The melodies are unfailingly catchy, and then there are the vocals of Etsuko Yakushimaru—soft, sleepy, yet also emotional and sexy, a wavering desert mirage voice. If these guys can make a few more albums as good as this, I may have to forgive their tiresome image control policy...

#7. Perfume
[The Right Triangle Album]

Moving along to about the most un-indie Japanese group one could come up with, a trio of dancing girls who don't even write their own songs, still, it's impossible for me to dislike the effervescent, bright plastic sound of Perfume. Their latest album has its share of skippable fillers, but “Love the World”, and, especially, “Dream Fighter” and the finale “Negai” are great songs. One interesting thing about Perfume is how wholesomely inspirational some of their lyrics are. “Dream Fighter”, for example, is a song about striving to do your best: “It must be evidence we are living that we take this endless trip to seek perfection” goes one line. Perfume's brilliant young producer Yasutaka Nakata (also of Capsule) is responsible for the trio's lyrics, and it makes me wonder whether lines like those were commercially-inspired—being the sort of stimulating lines that young consumers like to see accompanying appealing melodic hooks—or whether it reflects his own feelings. Probably, both. (The album title is an image of a right triangle, so I'm calling it the Right Triangle Album.)

#6. Hoover's Ooover
A-gata Sentimental

Hoover's Ooover was probably my biggest discovery of 2009. Well...actually, I knew of them since at least 2004 or so, but it took me fully five years until I figured them out. And repeated listens were required of past songs like “Palette Knife”, “Propane Gas” and “Rival Wa Rickenbacker” before I recognized them as classics. Even now, it's hard to put into exact words the attraction of Hoover—some combination of Masami Iwasawa's Literature-conscious lyrics, the distinct emotionalism of her singing, and the driving rock. Moving on to this album: I still don't really get it. With the exception of the exhilarating, quick-paced “Mamimumemo” (for which the band made an animation video), I haven't found a tune as good as their past stuff including the three mentioned above. But, considering the long time it took me to turn on to Hoover in the first place, I'm reserving judgment and putting it in as a favorite, on the assumption that I'll eventually see the light.

#5. Nirgilis

Combine an 80's New Wave-like synthesizer pop sound with a powerful singer who seems to dive into an ocean of feeling with every phrase of a song, and you get one of my favorite groups, Nirgilis. Their latest, RGB, isn't one of those albums you finish listening to on fire with the fresh realization of what an album can be; it feels more like a collection of singles; but they're excellent singles, including “Rainy Day”, “Koi no Resistance” and “Update”. As with their other work, RGB is a pick-me-up sort of album.

#4. Japan-Kuruu-Special
This Is Namennayo

This Osakan punk quartet KO-ed me twice: the first time when I saw their frenetic live show at the Loft with Asakusa Jinta, and the second, when I listened to their album, which I hurried to buy after the Loft gig. What makes their high-energy but pretty ordinary punk rock special is the vocals of Junzo, a tomcat voice spouting lines all in Osaka dialect, his words tapering off at the end like flaming jet plane tracks. I've only listened to this album a few times, but I'm going to be punk rock about the decision and immediately declare it my fourth favorite of last year.

#3. Quinka, With a Yawn

Number three is by one of my recent big favorites, Quinka, With A Yawn, the solo unit of Michiko Aoki. Quinka's Field Recordings was my best album of 2008; [Su] is great too, but it's lower down on the list because most of the songs are new versions of previously released tunes. Still, this is an album that puts on vivid display the poetry of Quinka songs and the growing, touching expressiveness of Aoki's singing. I particularly like “Harunire”, which I wrote about recently, and “Story”, a ruby of a song that comes at you like dream music during a twilight nap.

#2. Frenesi

Cupra took me by surprise. I'd been a fan for a while of Frenesi, another one-woman unit, but even so this album far exceeded my expectations. It doesn't sound like anything Frenesi's done before; it doesn't sound like anything I've heard before. Frenesi takes a big gamble with these songs—everything is on the verge of just not working, the vocals almost, but not quite, too child-like, soft, out-of-tune, the music almost, but not quite, too silly, forced, the lyrics on the verge of being senseless and self-absorbed, but in the end, not. Instead, by taking things about as far as they can go, Cupra ends up with songs that walk in new territories ...Unless you don't have the ears for this sort of music, and something about it makes it fall flat for you. That's Frenesi's gamble—this isn't music that will appeal to everyone.

My favorite songs are “Kasou Kako (Virtual Past)”—like a children's TV song that mutated into an alternative hit; “Sky Bus Tokyo”—wherein our heroine sings place names, 'Chidorigafuchi, Kasumigaseki, Tokyo-eki, Marunouchi' etc. to underwater kingdom background music; “Watashi no Yes-man”—a bossa nova piece that seems to hide within it something icy and tragic; and “Lowitz Arc”—like an unexpected karaoke gem in a far frontier disco bar.

#1. Asakusa Jinta

I dig Asakusa Jinta's vision: the way they unearth old and obscure Japanese sounds, mix them together with modern ingredients like punk and rockabilly, and end up with something totally new; the engaging theatricality of their performances, the bright, hipster costumes, the dancing horns, the waving banners; the retrospective, Showa-feel of many of their melodies and lyrics, that nevertheless speak to us, music lovers of the 21st century.

Their latest album, going even further than their previous, dazzling Sky Zero, establishes them as hard-working, talented inventors of new sounds. Setsuna ranges from a tune out of a fuzzy pre-war radio (“Junpuu Yakyoku”) to a frenzied drum-and-horn cabaret number (“Grand Cabaret”) to a ballad that could accompany some energy-overflowing 60's Japanese youth movie (“Star”) to an epic, deep rock anthem (the title track) to my favorite single of the year, “Tokyo Sabaku De Jidanda”, an unstoppable musical orgy of fast, exploding bass notes, far-gone screams of horns and guitar, and in the background a super-cool but insistent Japanese male singing about the Tokyo sabaku, the metropolitan desert.

Amazingly, it all holds together. And it tells a story, purely musical, without plot, about what Asakusa Jinta is.

Setsuna is a Buddhist word that means the briefest moment in time. The 54 minutes of the album is also not long, like the dream on a spring night. But it's vivid.



I only found out until after I created this list that the girl solo unit formerly known as Hazel Nuts Chocolate, now named HNC, released a new album in December called Cult. A few listens and I'm fighting the urge to possibly prematurely declare this new work a masterpiece—but wow, is it good...After more listens, it might turn out to be one of my top three favorites of 2009. Yuppa, the HNC girl, has jettisoned her image as a children's picture book-made-into-music type of composer, and transformed herself into techno-addicted, random-sampling-manic (meows, 'uno, two, tres, four'), sexually-sometimes-sorta-explicit ('all day long walk a girl/with a little lips/little crack/little fxxk/every little girl things' goes one line in the great song “Girl Things”), edgy-cover-art artist. “Girl Things”, in particular, I love, with its attractive melody, and the feel that it may be one of the first steps in a new movement, of songs written by girls, for girls, about girl things.

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