Halfway through 2014 Album Roundup: The Rest
(Stuff that fell short of my notables list, but all highly recommended, so please go check ‘em out!)
Lullatone - While Winter Whispers
I’m biased, as I love their minimalist instrumentals no matter what they make, and this is their best seasonal EP so far. While Winter Whispers is not as twee as their usual work and evokes less childlike wonder and more quiet contemplation.
The NanbaTatin - Girlz.Reteru.Talk
While I was lukewarm on Nanba Shiho and The Tarte Tatin separately, sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The result of this collaboration is a breezy pop album in the mold of Soutaiseiriron.
Hitorie - Imaginary Monofiction
Hitorie is fronted by ex-Vocaloid producer Wowaka and this EP is the perfect marriage of Hatsune Miku-esque songs and rock instrumentation.
BABYMETAL - BABYMETAL
Japan sure knows how to roll out the unexpected - cutesy idol pop vocals mixed into a heavy metal sound? If you’re asking if the novelty factor is enough to sustain an album the answer is why yes, yes it is. For now.
JASMINE - Welcome to Jas Vegas
Clichéd clubbangers never sounded so good. The production and attitude are both top notch - eat your heart out, Koda Kumi.
Negoto - “Z”OOM
These girls have ditched the overly saccharine pop and stepped it up with a more serious set of songs with more complex arrangements. Now THIS is what an all-girl rock band should sound like (I was afraid they’d become a cheesy idol band à la SCANDAL). This EP puts them back on my radar and I’m excited to see what they come up with next.
Yano Akiko - Tobashite Ikuyo
Jazz meets synthpop, with a layer of Itou Masumi-esque whimsy.
Saintseneca - Dark Arc
This band wields quite the impressive variety of acoustic instruments (aside from the usual guitar, there’s mandolin, banjo, dulcimer, and balalaika, to name a few). Among the rustic instrumentation and sometimes cryptic lyrics, there’s a sense of reckless abandon. Dark Arc strikes me as the kind of folk rock that forest nymphs or Pan himself would make. Forget Mumford and Sons, this is where it’s at.
einsteins - kakukakusikajika
Chill synthpop with Yakushimaru Etsuko-esque whispersinging over pretty sparkly samples. One of the best albums I discovered via netlabel Maltine.
Rihwa - BORDERLESS
Basically pre-synth miwa, but not as sugary. A bit slow in places but there’s potential. And a country song in collaboration with Michelle Branch? Yes please.
Akdong Musician - Play
The internet buzz about this brother-sister folk-pop duo winning K-Pop Star first brought them to my attention, and their debut album is scarily polished and consistent for such a young age (he’s 17 and she’s 14) and not only retains the cheery charm of their competition material but also delves in their more solemn side.
Shirahata Kamin - Kudamono
This singer-songwriter’s major label debut is a set of intriguingly arranged (did not expect those saxophones!) melancholy rock tracks with a great sense of how to start small and build-up to a glorious climax. I was hooked the moment she opened with a song strongly reminiscent of KOKIA’s Shiroi Yuki. Would have made the notable list if not for the fact this EP feels just like a small random sampler of songs instead of a cohesive album.
Gotch - Can’t Be Forever Young
Asian Kung-Fu Generation frontman Gotou Masafumi ditches the Western punk to make a mellower, folk-influenced alt-rock record, sounding like Sukima Switch in some places, Oasis in others. Wonderful work, I like this far better than what AKFG’s up to as of late.
kotringo - birdcore!
Quirky pop that sounds like a cross between Sayonara Ponytail and Regina Spektor, with a small hint of KOKIA.
Madeline Ava - okay
More bedroom recordings of her brief, honest diary entries, this time swapping out the ukulele for guitar and bass. okay feels like a less solemn version of Waxahatchee’s American Weekend.
tUnE-yArDs - Nikki Nack
One of my favorite album concepts was Coralie Clement’s 2008 Toystore, in which she added toy instruments to lend a twee air to the arrangements. Clement’s songs, however, were still quite reserved for such a whimsical idea. This album definitely captures the concept far better (whether or not it’s intending to) - it’s playful, chaotic, and definitely approaches the arrangements with the glee of a child let loose in a toy store. The lyrics go from serious to seriously weird and I love the overall tongue-in-cheek attitude running through Nikki Nack.
may.e - REMINDER
Fuzzy, lo-fi, acoustic songs. I like the fact that her voice is not in the forefront and is more of a texture, and the emotions come through more in her delivery than the lyrics (which are indistinguishable).
Piana - Muse
Ethereal and ambient, sounds like it was written by Rurutia and sung by Okazaki Ritsuko. A good collection of songs that range from sparse piano ballads to dark electronica to more standard pop/rock.
Swans - To Be Kind
Unsettling experimental rock/post-rock. A bit difficult to digest due to colossal song lengths but definitely worth the trip. Going through it can be best described as staring into a void. Or having a sinister out-of-body experience. Don’t ask me to explain, just check it out and you’ll see.
Kishi Bashi - Lighght
While 151a had a better lead single (Philosophize is still outdone by Bright Whites), Kishi Bashi takes his chamber pop sound to more fantastical realms here. He builds a wall of sound with more complex violin parts, synths, and a variety of other sounds. Everything soars higher and is more theatrical, but does not sound overdone.
SWIM SWEET UNDER SHALLOW - focus
Shoegaze-y indie pop - think mitsume meets geek sleep sheep. Both Tanaka Hiroki and Yoshida Midori sing and play guitar, and it’s especially nice when they’re singing together.
Shelling - Aquarium Sympathy
Ambient shoegaze. Gentle whisper vocals, hazy synths, and dreamy, delay-laden guitars fuse together perfectly to paint an image of a rainy day or the feeling of floating in water.
NIKIIE - Pianism
Sweet piano-driven pop that fills the void in my heart left by Hoshimura Mai.
Acoustic Collabo - I Do
Sunny, soothing folk-pop that brings back memories of sipping lattes at cute cafes in K-Town. Most similar acts can end up boring and bland but this duo didn’t.
Miwa Jiro - III
A raw, seriously awesome folk and blues EP. The vocals have such an unrefined charm, and the collaboration with Oomori Seiko is just icing on the cake. I feel like this is what Hirakawachi 1-chome would have made as adults if they didn’t quit music.
Usotsuki - Kinseijin ni Koi wo Shita.
Nostalgic feel-good rock that I’m a total sucker for. Think BUMP OF CHICKEN meets Spitz meets Hata Motohiro.
A Crow is White - Onsoku Merry-Go-Round
Another Soutaiseiriron ripoff but I’ll let it slide because this sounds like a promising starting point for them. I hope they take a leaf from Passepied’s book and develop their own personality and don’t get stuck. This EP boasts some cool bass lines too.
Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence
For an album titled Ultraviolence, this is remarkably chill and atmospheric, with Del Rey’s floaty voice crooning melancholy lines about troubled relationships. The perfect CD for driving around rich-people beaches (or Hollywood, if you will…) at sunset and feeling melancholy about not being as rich and glamorous.
A Sunny Day in Glasgow - Sea When Absent
Brought to my notice by a friend, and this album definitely would have made my notable list had I heard it sooner. I usually expect shoegaze to be meandering and atmospheric, and while the music is richly textured it’s also full of strong, pop-worthy hooks.
PHOX - PHOX
Relaxed indie folk-pop with blues undertones, fronted by a vocal that bears an uncanny resemblance to Imogen Heap.
Aimer - Midnight Sun
More cohesively arranged and less filled with lethargic string-drenched ballads than her first studio album. I’m liking the slightly more rock tone, and I think all her live performances have paid off - she’s singing with much more character than before. A bit strange to hear the Sawano Hiroyuki-penned StarRingChild and RE:I AM here but they give the album more variety so I’m not complaining.
SawanoHiroyuki[nZk]:Aimer - UnChild
While Sawano’s compositions sounded a tad out of place on Aimer’s solo album, they shine properly on this collaboration album. UnChild is darker and more experimental than Midnight Sun, and it’s interesting that both were released on the same day. While I still prefer Aimer’s solo work, Sawano has some really great moments here (the standout being the steel drum-driven Destiny).
(The lukewarm, the meh, the failed expectations.)
POLYSICS - ACTION!!!
Blegh. At this point the only way this band would ever be enjoyable is if I got to see their antics live. And even then, I’m not 100% sure it would save this album…
Every Little Thing - FUN-FARE
There are some excellent singles propping up this album, but the filler is so lifeless not even Mochida Kaori’s sunny voice can save it.
Ieiri Leo - a boy
Not bad, I almost put it under ’honorable mentions’, but there’s just been too many strong female pop singer-songwriter releases this year (NIKIIE, Rihwa, Niiyama Shiori, etc.) and this album just pales in comparison.
Ishikawa Chiaki - Zenya
The opening track is lovely, but nothing really sticks about the rest.
She Her Her Hers - Stereochrome
Yet another album sidelined by stronger releases in the same genre. This year’s been decent for Japanese shoegaze and shoegaze-influenced indie pop - if you like mitsume and SWIM SWEET UNDER SHALLOW, you’d like this one. I actually really like this album, just it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the bands it sounds like it’s an amalgamation of.
the HIATUS - Keeper of the Flame
There’s only a few good songs, and those have already been on their previous release, the Horse Riding EP.
indigo la End - Ano Machi Record
I would have loved this if not for the fact that Gesu no Kiwami Otome.’s EP beat this to bloody bits.
Lily Allen - Sheezus
Actually has some interesting moments starting midway through, but geez she wasn’t kidding when she called the singles rubbish because having them all back to back in the beginning shows she really wants to get them over with, and for good reason.
Oda Kaori - Colors
Marginally better than PLACE, but still too packed with boring anisong crap. Kajiura, can you come collect her and just write her a proper solo album?
aiko - Awa no You na Ai Datta
Reminds me of what I liked about Otsuka Ai in some parts, but otherwise bland.
ClariS - Party Time
I’ve always wanted to like ClariS since they have deeper voices than the typical idol singers (much like Asou Natsuko) and have had the rare great song, but their albums tend to be consistently boring.
Neat’s - MOA
I bought this because the previews excited me but the full length album drags a bit. I like the fact she’s experimenting with adding a more atmospheric synthpop sound and everything sounds so pretty, but I really wish she’d go back to making upbeat piano pop (like NIKIIE’s album). Previous album Modern Times was definitely more on point - please go back to the drawing board?
(Self-explanatory. On a side note, lucky for Robin Thicke that he dropped his album in July because it would have edged out all the competition here due to the sheer creepiness of it…)
HY - GLOCAL
This album is 1/4 decent Okinawan folk-pop and 3/4 godawful cheese that even GReeeeN and Aqua Timez would be ashamed of.
OLDCODEX - A Silent, Within the Roar
The over-the-top Free! opening theme Rage on is the best song here. By a million miles. Let that sink in.
Mizuki Nana - SUPERNAL LIBERTY
It physically pained me to listen to this. She’s such an amazing vocalist and charismatic performer and just deserves so much better. Everything here has shit melodies and is swallowed up by arrangements that use about 20 too many instruments. When I go back and listen to DREAM SKIPPER or HYBRID UNIVERSE, I just curl up into fetal position and weep silently for how far she’s fallen.
petit milady - Petitmiladear
Whoever thought it was a good idea to make the Taketatsu Ayana-Yuuki Aoi collab a thing instead of a one-off for one song should be promptly shot, since both possess high nasal voices and almost no sense of pitch or phrasing. I can marginally tolerate azurite but that’s because I liked The Pilot’s Love Song.
Another Story - Truth or Dare
Basically a more metal/screamo version of ONE OK ROCK singing in Engrish. I’ll admit it’s a great guilty pleasure album, but it’s just so over the top I can’t take it seriously at all.