#8 Lady Gaga - ARTPOP
ARTPOP is, at face value, a decent pop album. In fact I’d say it’s actually pretty good. Except when you generate a ridiculous amount of hype for how artsy and conceptual your new record is going to be, disappointment is inevitable unless you bring something mindblowing. While this album is by no means a flop when you compare it against her earlier work, I just wish it was a tad more interesting.
#7 FOLKS - Take off
FOLKS is fronted by Iwai Fumito, the ex-lead guitarist of Galileo Galilei, who left in 2012 due to alleged ‘creative differences’… except I’m failing to hear them. Take off is not particularly terrible, it’s just unadventurous, mellow, ambient indie rock…well, doesn’t that sound familiar. I find it hilarious that Iwai left to start which was basically the same band given where Galileo Galilei are heading.
#6 Kalafina - Consolation
At this point I’m only listening to Kalafina because of Wakana, Keiko, and Hikaru’s gorgeous harmonies. Consolation has some strong points but all of those were the singles - every album-only track is lifeless filler. Part of me really wants to cut Kajiura Yuki some slack - after all, Consolation is much better than After Eden. But then I go back and replay Seventh Heaven and Red Moon and that puts into perspective just how boring this album is.
#5 KOKIA - Where to go my love?
KOKIA’s got an amazing voice, there’s no denying that. But she’s got to stop thinking she can coast by on that alone because frankly she hasn’t done anything good for the last few years and this year’s Where to go my love? is probably the blandest album of hers yet. At least I’ll hand it to KOKIA for being very prolific - let’s just hope she has more inspiration for her next record.
#4 Tommy heavenly6 - TOMMY♥ICE CREAM HEAVEN♥FOREVER
You’d think that Kawase Tomoko would have indulged her fascination with Halloween with the 10-minute opus Lollipop Candy♥BAD♥girl back in 2006. Apparently not - if you took that song and turned it into a concept album, you’d get TOMMY♥ICE CREAM HEAVEN♥FOREVER (complete with the same cutesy hearts punctuating the title!) except Lollipop Candy♥BAD♥girl was actually good. Unfortunately, this album is some of the dullest alternative rock I’ve ever heard. And was an English version of Ash Like Snow really necessary?
#3 NU’EST - Sleep Talking
Last year, I had high hopes for two groups in 2013 - one was Goosehouse, a folk-pop ensemble that finally landed an anime tie-in for next year. The other was NU’EST, a rookie K-Pop boyband that impressed me with their ‘urban electro’ sound on two really strong singles, Face and Action. I was so enchanted by them that I was willing to excuse a so-so album as novelty. But when Sleep Talking came by, it was no use keeping up the pretense. The lead track is decent but as for the rest… let’s just hope Pledis has an amazing comeback planned for them because they’ve pretty much fallen off the map at this point.
#2 Galileo Galilei - ALARMS
I was almost willing to call these boys prodigies - after winning talent festival Senkou Riot in 2008, they’ve released a surprisingly large amount of good music in the space of three years (all before reaching legal drinking age!) - the highlight being 2012’s PORTAL, their excellent foray into synth-pop. ALARMS is decent, but they just set the bar too ridiculously high - and losing two members didn’t help either. I can’t tell if they’ve hit a creative rut or I just don’t like Chris Chu (of POP ETC)’s production style but everything mostly sounds the same. I’ve trudged through ALARMS several times and the only song I can remember is Circle Game.
#1 Hellogoodbye - Everything is Debatable
Hellogoodbye’s first two studio albums were of dramatically different musical moods - 2006’s Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs! was an autotuned synthpop affair and 2010’s Would It Kill You? had a more organic indie rock sound with more varied arrangements. I guess they figured if X works and Y works, why not combine them? Unfortunately, best of both worlds this album is not. Everything is Debatable just ends up sounding lazily in-between and oftentimes the arrangements don’t really suit the melodies. Honestly, I would have taken a knockoff of either of their previous albums over this.
This category is slightly different from my favorite Japanese songs in that I am not only looking at good songs, but how well they complement their respective series. I wasn’t originally planning to do this feature but I figured I might as well give a nod to anime, since that’s how I got into Japanese music in the first place ten years ago.
#9 T.M.Revolution x Mizuki Nana - Kakumei Dualism (Kakumeiki Valvrave season 2 OP)
Because nothing says universe-scale rebellion more than the fabulous double trouble duo of T.M.Revolution and Mizuki Nana - a dream collaboration of mine since high school, which was initially very disappointing. Their first opening song for Valvrave, Preserved Roses (handled by T.M.Revolution’s production team), was nothing more than generic mech anime theme #9849373. However, when Mizuki’s production team was in charge, we get this pumping rock track written by Elements Garden’s Agematsu Noriyasu. Kakumei Dualism just gets more poignant with each character death (damn you, Sunrise!) and it’s one of the rare opening sequences I don’t skip when watching the episode each week. I will be sorely disappointed if it doesn’t feature in the final episode’s battle sequences.
#8 angela - Requiem of Red (K Project insert song)
This is not technically the version used in the show, but it’s the one I prefer. angela originally wrote it for Horie Yui (seiyuu for Kushina Anna) and the rest of HOMRA’s seiyuu. While Horie Yui’s voice has a sweet fragility to it, I find that atsuko’s delivery fits the mystical hymn feel of the arrangement far better - she starts off in a child-like sing-song whisper and transitions to her fuller, ‘real’ voice as the choir climaxes. I really think this would have made a much powerful epilogue song in place of to be with U!, which in my opinion is one of angela’s worst anime songs.
#7 Uchida Maaya - INNOCENT NOTE (Gatchaman Crowds ED)
Oh, Gatchaman Crowds. Such a series with missed potential. The music, on the other hand, is pretty sweet - Iwasaki Taku used computer blips, dubstep, and hip-hop in the OST to evoke the futuristic urban setting. The ED song, written by Shinya Yutaka, also fits the series to a tee by revamping what would have been a typical 90s acoustic guitar J-Pop song by adding synths, ditching a normal drum groove in favor of something more breakbeat-esque, and inserting a brief dubstep breakdown in the bridge. Coupled with the lyrics stating ‘no man is an island’, this song perfectly embodies Ichinose Hajime and the main cast’s team spirit.
#6 Horie Yui - Sweet & Sweet CHERRY (Golden Time ED)
First off, this is Horie’s best pop song since silky heart - a good hook, and an arrangement that just screams ‘sparkly’ from the crystalline piano line to the mass of synths, strings, harp, and chimes. Seriously gotta hand it to composer kohei by SIMONSAYZ for managing to write something so cutesy while making it so freaking good - this blows all idol-pop this year out of the water. Secondly, the YUKAKO-penned lyrics are about girly fluff topics like drinking lattes while wearing cute cherry-colored dresses and captures the main character Kaga Kouko (also voiced by Horie Yui)’s sweet side as a blushing girl in love perfectly.
#5 Suzuki Konomi ‘n Kiba of Akiba - Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dou Kangaete mo Omaera ga Warui (WataMote OP)
And now from the left field… metal in an anime song? Holy shit, I had to double check that this wasn’t a MAXIMUM THE HORMONE track - and it’s even better, with all the changes of musical mood - there’s the prechorus with just piano and Kiba rapping before it winds up into an epic chorus. And there’s an awkward synth breakdown mid-song - the whole thing is just so tongue-in-cheek and goes so well with the overdramatizations of Tomoko’s struggles with daily life due to her social anxiety. I’m really glad to see Suzuki Konomi on something interesting like this - I liked her on CHOIR JAIL and I was afraid her music career would flop afterwards but with this she’s definitely in the zone (for now).
#4 Linked Horizon - Guren no Yumiya (Attack on Titan OP 1)
The hands-down over-hyped anime song of 2013, with people syncing it to videos of other anime series and even cats (what’s new, internet?). The TV-size version is an exciting over-the-top action anime theme, and many fans were disappointed that the full version didn’t reiterate the first minute and a half in standard verse-chorus form. Having been familiar with Revo’s meandering, story-like songs from his work with Sound Horizon, I wasn’t surprised that his side project featured something similar. The full Guren no Yumiya (actually, the full single, featuring second OP Jiyuu no Tsubasa and a third original song) is a bombastic rock opera - what better to set the backdrop of mankind’s brutal struggle against man-eating giants?
#3 STYLE 5 - SPLASH FREE (Free! ED)
If you’re going to make an anime starring five attractive, often shirtless boys, it’s not going be long before there’s fanart of them as a boyband. KyoAni beat fangirls to the punch with this ED theme, complete with cheesy lyrics about swimming pools. Don’t be fooled by the fake group name - STYLE5 are Shimazaki Nobunaga (seiyuu for Haruka), Suzuki Tatsuhisa (Makoto), Miyano Mamoru (Rin), Yonaga Tsubasa (Nagisa), Hirakawa Daisuke (Rei). Thankfully three out of the five (Suzuki, Miyano, and Hirakawa) are strong singers in their own right - though with all the autotune, who cares? SPLASH FREE is delicious guilty pleasure boyband synthpop that reminds me of Matsushita Yuya’s 2010 hit Trust Me and an earworm that rivals Nakata Yasutaka. Oh yeah, I went there.
#2 Sukima Switch - Hello Especially (Silver Spoon ED)
Silver Spoon is about the adventures and hijinks of city kid Hachiken finding his world turned upside down after he decides to attend an agriculture high school and Hello Especially is an uplifting, folksy acoustic-guitar driven number with a jazzy piano line, tambourine, glockenspiel, and melodica(!) that evokes the countryside setting and the lighthearted and sometimes offbeat humor of the series. This is a wonderful comeback for Sukima Switch, as it’s miles above a lot of the stuff they’ve put out in the past two years or so.
#1 Galileo Galilei - Circle Game (AnoHana the Movie OP)
With all the hype over Madoka Magica in 2011, two amazing series got slighted - one of them was Mawaru Penguindrum, and the other was Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae wo Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai (now say that three times fast!). AnoHana did get some critical acclaim for being so heartwarming and such a tearjerker, and it was the opening song Aoi Shiori that got me into Galileo Galilei in the first place. I was excited to hear that there would be a feature film adaptation and I wondered how Galileo Galilei would top the TV series OP but they’ve really outdone themselves with Circle Game - it retains the same mellow, nostalgic summer mood but is so much better arranged (from the clean guitar riffs to guest singer Chima’s backing vocals). Circle Game is my personal best anime theme of 2013, and I can’t wait to watch the AnoHana movie when it comes out.
Just Missed the Boat:
Porno Graffiti - Matataku Hoshi no Shita de (Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic OP 2)
I haven’t actually watched far enough in Magi to see this song in use, which is why it didn’t make the list. But I love Porno Graffiti and Matataku Hoshi no Shita de (“beneath the twinkling stars”) is everything a good adventure anime theme should be, with its driving melody, soaring strings, and the chimes giving a ‘falling star’ sound. While it’s not Arabian Nights themed like the series is, I have no doubt it will be good fit. Also it’s refreshing to hear Porno Graffiti’s take on a more modern anime theme sound, as opposed to their retro style (shown on Bleach movie theme Koyoi, Tsuki ga Miezu Tomo)
#10 Passepied - Enshutsuka Shutsuen
I checked out their stuff last year just because they had a cool band name. For a group aiming to do what they call ‘Super High Performance Personal Computer Destruction music’, they came across as too derivative and too lifeless for such high ambitions. Fast forward a year - when the killer Cinema was released as a digital single, my attention was piqued. Shortly after, the full studio album came out and while I don’t think they’ve quite achieved their objective yet, Enshutsuka Shutsuen is a damn solid synth-pop album that has put them on the map. For many, I feel like Ogoda Natsuki’s nasal singing voice would be a dealbreaker and while it can be hard to listen to, the arrangements complement and use her voice well, so I don’t mind. I’m very excited to see what this group cooks up for their next album.
#9 Soutaiseiriron - TOWN AGE
Losing one of your primary songwriters is never good for a band - bassist Manabe Shuiichi’s quitting left guitarist Nagai Seiichi to fend for himself, or so we would think. Vocalist Yakushimaru Etsuko stepped up to plate - while previous’ albums credits show that she helped in writing the lyrics, TOWN AGE has her writing a large portion of the music as well. The result is the best work that Soutaiseiriron has put out so far. I can’t choose a favorite because I’m caught up in savoring just how good the arrangements are (the chemistry between the guitars, bass, and drums is impossibly fluid), but I’ll give a nod to curious album opener Shanghai-an for throwing in a recorder and making it work so well and Kids No Return which recalls Yakushimaru’s solo work for Mawaru Penguindrum. Considering how all Manabe has to show for this year is the lukewarm album he produced for Hanae, it’s obvious that Soutaiseiriron has thoroughly trounced him.
#8 supercell - ZIGAEXPERIENTIA
I had very low expectations for this album given composer ryo’s track record. He has always been better at writing single hits than strong albums - the Yanagi Nagi-fronted Today Is A Beautiful Day was limp and his side project, EGOIST’s Extra terrestrial Biological Entities (featuring breathy-voiced chelly) was downright messy. However, it seems like ryo’s found his inspiration in vocalist Koeda, whose nuanced and powerful delivery evokes a young Shiina Ringo. ZIGAEXPERIENTIA has him delving into rock and pushing the limits of Koeda’s voice. ryo serves up a good variety, with the slow-burning, dark No.525300887039, the lively sing-along-able Yeah Oh Ahh Oh!, the RADWIMPS-esque Juuzoku Ningen, and much more. This is his most cohesive album to date and you know he’s doing it right when the best stuff isn’t the anime tie-ins but the new album tracks.
#7 Perfume - LEVEL3
Nakata Yasutaka is definitely on a roll this year - both Perfume’s LEVEL3 and Kyary’s Nandacollection made magnificent bids for my year-end list but in the end I chose LEVEL3's glossy laser beam pop over Nandacollection's twee eclecticism. By laser beams I mean the projection mapping in a Perfume concert - the reason I’m bringing this up is because much of the album sounds like it’s adapted to suit potential visuals. Most of the singles are given extended intros/outros and even better, we have glorious EDM banger Party Maker clocking in at about seven and a half minutes. That said, Nakata also makes sure the album is as enjoyable on an iPod as in a club. I’m pleased to see B-sides Daijobanai and Handy Man next to each other, and Dream Land is really pretty with the gamelan line. Mirai no Museum still sticks out like a sore thumb, but it’s the sole low point in an otherwise wonderful album.
#6 amazarashi - Nee Mama Anata no Iu Toori
If I had to describe amazarashi in one word, it would be emo. I don’t mean that in the eyeliner-wearing, teenage angst about first world white boy problems sense. I mean that in the truly depressing, heart-wrenching way. I don’t know what frontman Akita Hiromu has been through but he has a lot to get off his chest. In seven tracks (two of which are spoken monologues) he spills all about disillusionment with society and self, the raw hopelessness of dreams dying, and the loss of innocence. Musically, it’s your standard indie rock formula of guitar or piano-driven songs buffed out by strings and the occasional glockenspiel but it’s Akita’s voice that really makes the album - possessing a rough, weary tone, he cries out with startling emotional intensity.
#5 sakanaction - sakanaction
I was anxiously wondering how they’d follow up their excellent 2011 album, DocumentaLy, and I am pleased with the answer. With their self-titled album, sakanaction is delving deeper into electronic elements and moving further away from rock sounds, which usually makes me sad with bands that so successfully straddle both realms but if the crossing over sounds this damn good then by all means, carry on. I love Nantetatte Haru's gently pulsing synth and Yamaguchi Ichiro's careful falsettos, the haunting choir of Aoi, and Structure, a primarily instrumental track with some vocalizing in the latter half. A minor flaw is that the album does peak a tad early (with lead singles Music and Yoru no Odoriko back to back) but sakanaction sounds so sleek and sexy regardless.
#4 CHVRCHES - The Bones of What You Believe
If there’s one thing CHVRCHES is good at, it’s precision - the instrumentals on this album are calculated, neat, and intentional. This could render the songs clinical, but that’s avoided via the warmth of Lauren Mayberry’s light, clear voice. There may be complaints about Mayberry being a weak live singer, but at least in the studio her voice is a valuable instrument with its emotive range, sounding acerbic, yearning, or fragile whenever appropriate. As for the songs, The Mother We Share and Recover stand out for having the strongest hooks. Other notables are Tether, which starts out listless then winds up to climax with the sparkling synths in the second half, and the dark, pounding, almost frantic Science/Visions.
#3 noanowa - Cry Like a Monster
I can’t imagine it being pleasant finding out that the band you left made their best material after you’re gone - if you think Soutaiseiriron’s Manabe had it bad, it must really suck to be noanowa’s ex-drummer, Honma Shunta, who quit after two so-so albums noanowa released while on a major label. They were not a complete waste - Cry Like a Monster combines the theatrics of SPECTACLE and MAGICAL CIRCUS with the honest songwriting of the Yume no Arika EP and adds a light dusting of shoegaze on top, producing one of the best albums in Japanese indie rock this year. It’s the whimsical touches that give a song something special, like the outro riff on Sniper ga Neratteru that sounds like it was lifted from a Bach etude. Other highlights are Core., a sparse piano and percussion-driven track that ends in eerie echoes, and I AM HERE, which closes the album on a suitably grand note.
#2 HAIM - Days Are Gone
I’ll admit now that half the reason this album is so high on this list is because of how good these girls are live. But performance can only carry you so far - the songs still have to be good for a truly great show. They mostly explore the themes of love and heartbreak and the like, all delivered in Danielle’s husky voice (I will forever think of her as an airier version of GARNET CROW’s Nakamura Yuri). While Danielle sings lead most of the time, I love it when her sisters also get prominent vocal lines - Este’s voice, while not as technically precise, has a raw energy to it that has its own unique charm. Days Are Gone blends soft rock and R&B effortlessly and tops it off with a reserved pop veneer (also, kudos to producer Ariel Rechtshaid). My picks of the album-only tracks? Go Slow and My Song 5.
#1 Vienna Teng - Aims
A year after releasing the excellent Inland Territory, Vienna Teng went back to school to pursue a master’s degree in sustainable enterprise. Inspired by her experiences in grad school, Aims is laden with social and political commentary yet does not become heavy-handed. The arrangements are as varied as the topics - the songs range from Hymn of Acxiom, a haunting Imogen Heap-esque track where a choir of robotic Tengs harmonize about a Big Brother-like marketing database, to Landsailor (featuring a guest vocal from Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips), a love song between humanity and capitalism using an overachiever couple as a metaphor, to Flyweight Love, a loop-driven track with a calypso flair (and a marimba line!) about lovers who care as much about changing the world as each other. As layered with meaning as this album is, the lyrics of many of the songs are versatile enough to also be interpreted as personal stories. Musically, this album has Teng relying on the piano less and experimenting with more electronic elements. Aims is creative success in every aspect and my favorite album of 2013.
Beyoncé - Beyoncé
No promotion, no leaks, nothing, and BAM, Queen Bey drops a bomb. I have yet to watch most of the videos, but after a few listens I can say it is definitely a solid pop album that can stand on its own. Aside from No Angel (co-written with Caroline Polachek of Chairlift), I’m also really digging Haunted, XO, and Flawless - the last one samples feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s speech.
Sky Ferreira - Night Time, My Time
Almost every review of this album I’ve read mentions the controversial cover image and it makes perfect sense since it encapsulates the tone of the album - unapologetic, at times angry, and unapologetic about being angry. If Night Time, My Time was intended to establish Ferreira as a more serious artist, then I think it succeeded. Thanks to Ariel Rechtshaid, this album mixes a grungy rock sound with big pop hooks to incredible results.
Kindan no Tasuketsu - Arabia no Kindan no Tasuketsu
Kindan no Tasuketsu is a mishmash of people going the DIY route and I’m pleased by the versatility shown in their second full-length album - they’re primarily focused on upbeat electronic pop, but they’ve also proven themselves capable of more organic, laid-back songs. Konya wa Boogie Night sounds like it was inspired by Daft Punk, and it seems like they are taking cues from Nakata Yasutaka and even Soutaiseiriron on other tracks. Definitely keeping an eye on them next year. Check out Ring a Bell below, which is one of their more acoustic, jazzier songs.
RADWIMPS - X to O to Tsumi to
I feel like RADWIMPS are in a transitional phase - this album shows them moving towards a newer sound but they haven’t quite figured out where they want to go. X to O to Tsumi to returns to the band’s funk and punk roots while integrating a little of the more experimental material from frontman Noda Yojiro’s solo project. This album doesn’t reach the heights of RADWIMPS 4 ~Okazu no Gohan~ or even Zettai Zetsumei, but you can hear them continue to explore and grow, which is always a good thing.
Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
I was charmed by the eclectic African percussion-inspired Contra, but now they’ve returned to a more accessible indie rock sound and put out their best album yet - both the songwriting and the arrangements have matured (aaaaaaand Ariel Rechtshaid strikes again, I can’t get away from this guy). Don’t be fooled by the summery sound, this album touches on themes such as death and disillusionment - gloomy stuff. Modern Vampires of the City would have actually made my top 10 list if not for the fact I got around to listening to it too late and haven’t had enough time to properly digest it.
#11 Nano - neophobia
Didn’t think an English song from a J-Rock album would make the list, but here it is. I’ve followed Nano’s career from when she was covering anime theme songs on YouTube in 2006 to sharing originals on her own personal website to landing an anime tie-in, then to her first proper original album, and it has been quite the journey. neophobia is Nano at her best - an angst-filled, driving rock song showcasing tomboyish powerhouse vocals. Also her backing band is awesome.
#10 Lily Allen - Hard Out Here
I’m frankly not surprised that Lily Allen’s return to music sparked some controversy. I guess I almost expected it, given how she always does things with sass. Now ignore all the Tumblr vitriol over the music video, and take the song on its own. With lyrics commenting on what women are put through in the entertainment industry and a hook rendered in shameless autotune, it’s both a fantastic feminist anthem and a fun track to dance to in a club - a win-win in my book.
#9 Beyoncé - No Angel
Now that we’re over the initial shock of her new album dropping out of nowhere, I have to say this is probably my favorite track from it. The minimalism on this is great - just a beat and some claps and unobtrusive synths. The real treat is Beyoncé singing in a breathy falsetto, coming across as both delicate and seductive in a song in which she states that both she and her lover are not perfect.
#8 All Dogs - Farm
It seems like garage-band pop-punk is coming back again (not that I was particularly aware when it was first ‘in’, but I’ll take my friend’s word for it), with acts like Swearin’ gaining popularity. In the same vein is this group’s work, with driving drum grooves, simple guitar riffs, and a sweet, honest vocal delivery. Farm has a charming lethargy to it - it’s the kind of song that’d be great for driving around aimlessly with a friend on a warm sunny day.
#7 Bear Attack - Lucidity
Of all the acts to come out of USC Thornton School of Music’s pop music program, Bear Attack’s folk-rock with boy-girl harmonies caught my attention the most. Lucidity is about feeling overwhelmed by everything going on in the hectic Los Angeles, and just needing to keep a clear head. Bear Attack is slowly but surely honing the art of starting a song on a subdued note (with Mia’s voice an ethereal whisper) and building up to a dramatic climax via subtle changes in arrangement as the song continues, and this is one of their best examples of this.
#6 Lorde - Royals
For someone only 16 (now 17) years old, Royals is a surprisingly insightful critique on the hedonistic culture glorified in entertainment. Here’s another song that understands that less is more - again it’s just a beat and some claps and sparse synth, capped off with a mini-chorus of Lordes harmonizing when appropriate.
#5 Taylor Swift - Sweeter Than Fiction
Hey, this is what happens when Taylor Swift tries to write a HAIM song… okay, not really, but the production style is very similar. I seriously don’t know how the girl does it - she takes words that aren’t very complicated and mixes them up to be both sonically pleasing and a good read. Oh, and I love the guitar solo in the bridge.
#4 Goldspot - The Border Line
I lost count of how many times I listened to this in the past few weeks. It’s catchy as all hell, and there’s a retro feeling to this that reminds me of The Beatles (don’t ask me what era, my listening knowledge of them consists of the songs that pop up when I shuffle my entire library). Also, the lyrics about being a second generation immigrant (the entire album it’s from is about that experience) resonate with me.
#3 HAIM - The Wire
I’ll reiterate one thing that’s mentioned in many HAIM reviews but it’s worth mentioning again - these sisters have been playing music for most of their lives and it really shows in how tight and on point the composition, arrangement, and performance is. It’s often small things that make the song for me - here it’s the particularly well-placed cymbal crash and ‘hey!’ in the chorus, and the transition from the bridge to the final chorus where the girls sing in harmony, and Danielle goes back to the main vocal line while the others maintain the secondary part.
#2 Vienna Teng - In the 99
I knew a Vienna Teng song was going to end up in this spot, but the question was which one? It was a tough call between Level Up, In the 99, and Never Look Away, but this one won out in the end because of the cool beat and the infectious ‘am I?' refrains. Inspired musically by Kanye West and lyrically by Jay-Z, In the 99 is written from the point of view of an investment banker looking down on the Occupy Wall Street movement and questioning his position and the state of the people. Teng trades away melancholy piano balladry for synth-driven hip-hop and the result is stellar.
#1 CHVRCHES - The Mother We Share
There something so nostalgic about this song that I can’t pinpoint - is it Lauren Mayberry’s plaintive, almost child-like delivery? Is it the synths that sound just a shade too heavy and create a hazy atmosphere around her voice? Is it the parts where Mayberry’s chopped up vocals echo across both channels, creating a haunting and disorienting effect? Whatever it is, all the elements in The Mother We Share align perfectly to make it the hands down best electronic song of the year.
Just Missed the Boat: Imogen Heap - Me the Machine
I’ve been following her heapsongs project with keen interest since it started and I’m really excited for Sparks' release next year. Me the Machine's nerdy computer-themed lyrics and that excellent performance with the musical gloves at the WIRED talk won me over. The only reason it's not on the actual list is because there's no studio recording out yet.
#12 I-RabBits - Starliner
While this was technically out as a single in 2012, I wasn’t able to get ahold of an mp3 that wasn’t a rip from the music video until their album Treasure Forever this past May, so I’ll count this in. I-RabBits are an enthusiastic bunch and seem like they would be a joy to see live, but they’ve yet to really show variety in terms of songwriting, since everything I’ve heard is an aggressive or at least semi-aggressive rock track. What sets Starliner apart from the others, though, is the superior hook and how the emotional delivery on this comes across as most sincere. Also the bridge with that piano is gorgeous.
#11 BUMP OF CHICKEN - Niji wo Matsu Hito
If there was one gripe I ever had about these guys, it’s that they can get stale. They’ve stuck to similar arrangements, similar melodies, similar everything for far too long. However, it seems like they’ve gotten the creative juices flowing again. Last year we were treated to sweeping ballad Zero and the more angst-driven firefly - while the latter was still within their comfort zone, it boasted more energy and passion than I’ve heard from them in a while. And just as I expected that to be it, they threw out a track with a prominent synth line that’s reminiscent of Mylo Xyloto-era Coldplay. The melody and lyrics are still classic Fujiwara Motoo but there’s new life brought by this unusual (for them) arrangement. I’m not exactly aching for BUMP OF CHICKEN to dive into synth-pop but this was a pleasant, much needed breath of fresh air.
#10 Pirokalpin - Charles Gogh no Hoshi Furu Yoru
I’ve been following Pirokalpin since last year and they’ve mostly been hit or miss (Shinkirou was a good EP, Maboroshi Anthology felt sluggish), a trend they have yet to buck. I really wanted to love their major label debut Taiyou to Tsuki no Oasis but there were too many slow moments. On the other hand, there are some gems. Charles Gogh no Hoshi Furu Yoru (the title is a reference to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” but his name is Vincent so I’m confused) shows how much they’ve grown as a band. I’ve written about lead guitarist Okada Shinjiro being too eager to show his chops, but man does he play well here. He’s subtle enough when the vocals take center stage and shines with a math-rock inspired riff during his solos. Matsumoto Chieko’s choir-girl vocal is as beautiful as ever, and everything about the arrangement is just so tight.
#9 Hata Motohiro - Goodbye Isaac
My relationship with his music has been on and off - while I loved his smoky voice instantly from the pretty Altair last year, digging into his backlog left me mostly bored. When j1m0ne mentioned that Signed POP was amazing, I knew I had to give it a try and while I wasn’t as wowed, there are a lot of good moments. The song that’s stuck to me the most throughout the year is the unabashedly cheery Goodbye Isaac, which might be way too uplifting for some of you grumps but I love it to death. It’s the best thing to lighten the mood when you’re stuck in downtown Los Angeles traffic on a gloomy cloud day, that’s for sure.
#8 Kyary Pamyu Pamyu - Ninjari Bang Bang
I was unsure whether Nakata Yasutaka could turn Kyary into a big-time pop star and more than just a meme since Fashion Monster hit all the wrong notes with me and Kimi ni 100 Percent was good but not great. But then this song came out and all I can say is, well played, Nakata. I’ve read on music blogs that because Nakata doesn’t have as much at stake with Kyary as he does with Perfume (since they have all their commercial tie-ins), he has more room to experiment with her. I’m so glad he did, because this is possibly the best Kyary song ever in my opinion - typical Nakata earworm dressed up with traditional Japanese elements. I don’t care if that shamisen is sampled, it sounds so damn good.
#7 sakanaction - Music
As a friend of mine puts it, sakanaction likes to take a ‘not-bad idea’, start small and work with it until everything explodes towards the end (also, Yamaguchi Ichiro seriously loves using kieta in his lyrics). And they do exactly that here, ridiculously well. The beginning starts with Yamaguchi singing reservedly over a sparse beat and synth, and the tension ebbs and flows and slowly rises (I love Kusakari Ami’s bass in the second verse) and when they finally cut loose, the payoff is glorious. God, those choir vocals.
#6 tricot - Ochansensu-su
I’ve only recently started getting into math rock, and I’m glad to see a J-Rock band get recognition for incorporating it into their sound. These girls (+ guy) have put out a solid album this year, but this track stood out to me the most - I especially love the stop and go feel. While I’m heavily biased towards songs that center around a definite vocal melody, tricot proves that you can make a great song using just a repeated, nonsense phrase as ornamentation, especially if it’s delivered in Nakajima Ikkyu’s silken whisper. Also, boy does Kida Motoko play a mean riff - that solo was probably what sold me in the first place.
#5 illion - Aiwaguma
When RADWIMPS frontman Noda Yojiro ventured off to pursue a solo project, I had assumed he was aiming at something more Western inspired - at least, that’s what his interviews led me to believe. That held true for the most part, but what I did not expect was that he’d draw upon traditional Japanese music as well. Not that I’m complaining, if this is the result. Aiwaguma is a lush, almost mystical song laden with tabla and Noda’s own vocal harmonies. It conjures up the image of a ceremony around a fire, with a drum circle (and I mean that in the good ‘this is something really spiritual sounding’ way, not the ‘pretentious, unwashed faux-hemian way’). The buildup in the song is wonderful - it starts dignified and winds its way up to a compelling final chorus.
#4 Perfume - Handy Man
Is Nakata full of surprises this year or what? We have Kyary, his minimalist concept album with capsule, and also this. Perfume B-sides have mostly been solid, but this one totally blew me away. I think I’ve probably called this song ‘Nakata meets Bollywood’ way too many times when talking about it, but it’s the most apt phrase I can think of. From the sitar-inspired intro to the synthesized violin to a melody where Bollywood-style dancing wouldn’t be too out of place with… (alright the last one was a stretch but you get the idea). Most underrated Perfume song for sure.
#3 noanowa - Barairo no Dance
Oh look, a J-Pop version of Arcade Fire! (my friend’s reaction upon hearing this). I don’t know if I’d agree with that comparison but I don’t care. I fell in love with this band through their debut EP but sadly after they went major, their studio albums were not up to scratch. After returning to the indie scene they are back with their A game for sure - I thought I’d be sad that Yukko ditched her cello for the most part, but with the quality of music they’ve been making I don’t think I mind too much. Barairo no Dance is simple and uplifting, and utterly charming in a way that is completely noanowa (watch them perform it live here). And it’s been stuck in my head since February and I don’t think it’ll come out any time soon.
#2 Passepied - Tooryanse
It was difficult choosing between this and their song Cinema, but I believe Tooryanse shows more growth and is more exciting overall. I guess it also has the unfair advantage of being more recent and fresher in my mind, but whatever. I wrote about my love for it here already.
#1 RADWIMPS - Dreamer’s High
I’m not ashamed to admit that no matter how boring a RADWIMPS song gets, I’ll probably still find a way to love it. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. Dreamer’s High is the mellower RADWIMPS at their best with Noda’s trademark contemplative poetry, a rolling melody line (I also like the fact that instead of just looping the chorus at the end, it’s used as a background vocal to an outro melody), and Kuwahara Akira’s clean, precise to a fault riffs. As for something unheard in their songs before, drummer Yamaguchi Satoshi gets his moment in the spotlight during the bridge. Dreamer’s High was my personal anthem throughout this year and my clear favorite Japanese song of 2013.
Just Missed the Boat: GReeeeN - Cooking Kareshi
While I really enjoyed their album Ii ne! (´・ω・`)☆ when it first came out, like any cheese GReeeeN’s work is best enjoyed in moderate doses and not in excess. Cooking Kareshi is cutesy boyband pop at its best (it reminds me of the NEWS hit weeeek) with a strong hook and an energetic vocal delivery that doesn’t take the song too seriously.
- overall a bit lukewarm first listen, but second time through reveals some really good points
- seems like they are both going back to their roots and moving forward. You can hear them falling back upon the funk influences they had pre-Altocolony and also incorporating more of the keyboard-driven soft rock that Noda did with his solo project, illion.
- I liked Breath ever since it was played on the tour DVD, and the proper studio recording/new arrangement is so pretty
- I love Saigo no Bansan - glad to see they’re doing a folk rock track. While I think Keitai Denwa on their last album might be stronger, I don’t ever tire of this sound
- Tummy is probably the most illion-like song
- Jikkyu Chukei is so ridiculously fun. Probably my favorite new track as of now.
- As for the singles, I like where Gogatsu no Hae and Dreamer’s High were placed. Kind of a bit sad that Sprechchor was left out but it doesn’t really fit the tone of the album now that I think about it
- Kaishin no Ichigeki is most like what RADWIMPS sounded like before this album. Like, it would not sound out of place on Zettai Zetsumei
So I have finalized the categories for my Twelve Days of Christmas Music Countdown, and I’ve (roughly) finalized my favorite albums of the year list.
Of course there are some potentially great releases this month, so I’ll most likely go on a listening spree after my project is over.
Get ready and get hyped! :)
There’s a couple of blog posts that I have in my mind but sadly not enough time nor energy to get to them until I finish this term project that’s been looming over my head.
Things I plan to post soon-ish:
Also considering more casual mini-posts when I feel like talking about music but not feeling up to the task of doing long reviews.
But back to school shit, and in the meantime I’ll plug one of my favorite music-related Tumblr blogs - Sounds of Asian America.
I love that blog because it targets something close to my heart. As a kid, I felt discouraged from trying to explore and compose pop music because I didn’t see any Asian pop stars in America (and the internet wasn’t really a huge thing in the early 90’s so I had no way of really discovering Asian artists in Asia).
It’s also a great blog because it features Asian American artists in a wide span of genres, from indie rock to traditional Asian instrumental to DJs - you name it!
I’ve fallen in love with two of their fairly recent features - Rakkatak, a female-fronted tabla ensemble with some sick rhythms, and Goldspot, an indie pop band with a vaguely old school feel that kind of evokes The Beatles (I’m addicted to The Border Line and I ended up buying their album Aerogramme on iTunes).