Best Japanese Albums of 2016

As a mild disclaimer, I don’t have the widest taste in music in terms of genre, so saying this is a list of my favorite rock and pop albums of the year would have pretty much the same results. There were so many wonderful albums that came out this year, but the following thirteen are all ones that I’ve been drawn to and listened to closely and often. I don’t necessarily love every track of every record, but they are certainly all worth a listen from front to back, and I hope someone will take an interest in something new from reading this list. All albums had to be four tracks or longer to count for the list. I’ve arranged them in order, but lining up your favorites is such a difficult task and on any given day, I feel like the ranking could be quite different. Next year it probably wouldn’t look anything like it does now. The more you listen to music, the more your impressions change. But for today, this is how I feel.

13. Yabai T-Shirts-ya-san – We Love Tank-Top
ヤバイTシャツ屋さん – We love Tank-top

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This is energetic and fun. Pop punk with funny lyrics. The contrast between slightly shouty male vocals and the very clear, high female vocals really makes their songs stand out despite the relatively simple structure, and they have great harmonies. It’s a three piece but the recordings have double-tracked guitar or sometimes keyboard, so it’s a relatively full sound for punk.

Best Track Overall: Musen LAN bari benri (無線LANばり便利)
Best Track You Can Listen To: Atsumare! Party People (あつまれ! パーティーピーポー)

12. Fuyuu Suru Neko – CLUTCH GIRL
浮遊スル猫 – CLUTCH GIRL

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Another band with twin vocals: one a full, mature sound, the second a nasally, purposefully cute sound that have surprisingly good play against each other. Also a three piece band, the guitar is often simple but soaring with a harsh distortion tone behind the melodic vocal play. The bass is heavy on the effect pedals and the drums are simple but fitting. This album is their third album and the most realized of their attempts thus far, having a bit of a more mature sound and a balanced quality between the different tracks. It’s hard to pick a highlight because there are so many strong songs, and they’ve also branched out of their sound in an effective way with the dreamy “Lion.”

Best Track Overall: Shirimetsurestsu (支離滅裂)
Best Track You Can Listen To: Lalalila/Lion (ララリラ / ライオン)

11. Koresawa – JPOP
コレサワ ジエイポップ

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Koresawa is the ideal JPOP-style singer-songwriter for me. Her songs are straightforward and basic in structure, but they are all catchy and feature wonderful instrumentation, with a mix of acoustic and electric guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, and extra percussion, well-mixed and well-performed by Koresawa herself and session musicians. Her voice certainly also trends toward the more nasally and cute singing often found in mainstream pop (one of the two archetypes, the other being strong powerhouse ballad singers), but she sings quite well. Her lyrics are always adorable, and this 4-track EP is probably her best effort to date with four songs that you could just let go on repeat.

Best Track Overall: Short Cut ni Akogarete (ショートカットに憧れて)
Best Track You Can Listen To: J-POP

10. Mikkai to Miminari – Utsukushii Gyakushuu
密会と耳鳴り – 美しい逆襲

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One of my favorites on the heavier end of alt rock since FLiP have gone on hiatus — a couple of their very early songs actually remind of me of FLiP quite a lot. They’ve since gone a different direction in their sound, but it’s heavy hitting and poppy, with impressive guitar leads and a very distinctive voice from singer Chako. The guitar is even more impressive live while Hase is doing highkicks… I’ve sometimes seen them compared to tricot, though I personally don’t see too much similarity (no changing time signatures and completely different guitar and vocal sounds). My favorite from the band is their first mini album, but their latest release (and first available in stores) is excellent and includes several rerecordings from previous CDs.

Best Rerecording: Kagefumi (影踏み)
Best New Song: Saitei!Kibunya!__Bokumestsu! (最低!気分屋!○○撲滅!)

9. Regal Lily – The Post
リーガルリリー – the Post

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Definitely one of the bands following in the footsteps of Chatmonchy, but Regal Lily easily breaks out of that paradigm with their unique style. Honoka’s slightly-out-out-tune, impassioned singing is wonderful and she makes liberal use of the chorus effect for her guitar (which is currently a Fender Mustang despite the single of this album being Rickenbacker). A strong indie character and some shoegazer influence, with quiet verses leading to huge choruses crashing down on you like a tidal wave with their ocean of sound. This CD is another first available-in-stores album and they seem well on their way to wider success.

Best Track: Rickenbacker (リッケンバッカー)

8. Gozen Sanji to Taikutsu – Seinen no Shiseikan
午前3時と退屈 – 成年の死生観

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The first Gozen CD to have more than a couple tracks on it — it certainly feels like their first really complete work. So much time has passed since their last recording that you can really feel the progress they’ve made. The mixing is better and a lot of the songs are ones they’ve been playing live for over a year, so they’ve been polished quite a bit. The lead track (with a music video) is the first song written by the band’s new guitarist and sole male member, Hoshi. All the rest of the tracks are by vocal/keyboards Anisonin. It definitely feels different from the minor key haunting songs that Anisonin dreams up, yet still is not jarring from sound. Definitely a good overall CD that makes me excited to see what they’ll do next.

Best Track Overall: Ougon Jidai ni Timeslip (黄金時代にタイムスリップ)
Best Track You Can Listen To: Tokyo Dreamland (東京ドリームランド)

7. tricot – KABUKU EP

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This feels like a slightly more mature and slightly more experimental tricot. It’s not a large departure from their previous music, mathy alt rock with cleanly overdriven guitars, but definitely feels like they want to try some different ideas. This may also be the reason for singer Ikkyu’s solo project that started this year. With each track drummed by a different person, each song has a bit of a unique groove. As with most of tricot’s releases, there were some songs that I felt were much stronger than others, but still no bad songs. This is one of the earlier releases from this year to make this list, which speaks to its staying power. Read my earlier full review here.

Best Track: Setsuyakuka (節約家)

6. Hara From Hell – Minohodo
ハラフロムヘル – みのほど

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As always, it’s hard not to be captivated by the dramatic vocals of Tatejima Yoko. She sounds like a singer straight out of the 30s or someone performing in a musical, yet the band is playing rock/folk. You definitely won’t find this mix anywhere else, and is definitely a sound that’s not for everyone, but I think it’s completely captivating. Minohodo has several rerecordings, but the new songs are good, including the lead track “Pants Hill” — the live version of which I initially watched on YouTube and fell in love with the band over. They’ve changed one guitarist since their last music release, but with only a subtly different style, the music feels relatively the same to their last CD, Matryoshka-san.

Best Track: Pants Hill (パンツヒル)

5. THE HUNGRY RUGRAT – Te
THE HUNGRY RUGRAT – 手

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This was one of my biggest surprises of the year. I’d never heard of this band, as they mostly play locally in Hokkaido, but they were in the Tokyo area for a short tour and I happened to see them play at a show I was at to see another band. The sound is so strongly UK rock that if the lyrics were in English you might not even suspect it’s a Japanese band. The songs are short and punchy and completely satisfying.

Best Track Overall: Aitsu no Sei (アイツのせい)
Best Track You Can Listen To: Shikai wa Kurai (視界は暗い)

4. ayumi melody – Froh Flow

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One of the most relaxing, sweet, and wonderful albums I’ve listened to all year. These folky numbers, with just singing, acoustic guitar, and piano, are truly beautiful and the lyrics are incredibly touching. This album is a testament to the power of simple music beautifully crafted. Read my earlier full review here.

Best Track Overall: Hikari no Tsubu (ひかりのつぶ)
Best Track You Can Listen To: Midori no Sheets (みどりのシーツ)

3. Yubisaki Nohaku – Full Range
指先ノハク – フルレンジ

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Yubisaki Nohaku is a band that has been working hard for a long time for an indie band with no lineup changes — eight years — without much success but is finally starting to gain some momentum. This newest album is produced by former Chirinuruwowaka guitarist Sakamoto Natsuki. They had an internet commercial promotion with Pocari Sweat sports drink for their song “Festablue,” and in their last series of events performed with some big indie names including a twoman show with tricot. This album has a couple of weaker songs like “No.9,” but overall is fantastic. A 90s-rock-esque alternative sound with some distinctive sounds from lead guitarist Junko. They’ve abandoned the keyboard for the time being with Full Range in favor of two guitars for all tracks on the record. The album is tied up with my favorite song of the year, “Sou.”

Best Track: Sou (層)

2. Peroperoshiteyaritaiwazu – Localism no Yoake
ペロペロしてやりたいわズ。 – ローカリズムの夜明け

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This is an interesting album for this list. I like all of the songs, yet nothing stands out strongly like “Sou” on Full Range. But the album, 10 tracks long, works so well as a complete piece that it forged its way all the way to #2 on my list. Funk-inspired pop rock with groovy basslines and funky lead guitar and interesting singing — often leaning more to talking than singing depending on the track. I found myself listening to Localism front to back for several days on end when it came out, and then even went back to re-listen to all of their old CDs too.

Best Track Overall: City Boy
Best Track You Can Listen To: Furico

1. Zekkei Kujira – Jidori
絶景クジラ – 自撮り

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Another release from earlier in the year that managed to stay in my mind this whole time. Jidori is the best Zekkei has ever been and is a perfect five tracks of pop-rock with a little edge, a little groove, and impressive, addictive singing. It’s a shame that bassist Uemaya is leaving the band in March. Hopefully they can find a good replacement and continue to put out amazing music. Read my earlier full review here.

Best Track: Saigo ni Ai wa Katsu (最後に愛は勝つ)

Best Japanese Music Videos of 2016

Polkadot Stingray – Telecaster Stripe

This is the perfect indie video. It’s not fancy but it’s super clean. And the most impressive thing is that band leader Shizuku (vocals/guitar/songwriting) directed and edited the whole thing.

COMezik – Imagination

Simple, powerful, beautiful, and featuring bass/vocal Lin’s amazing art.

Yabai T-Shirts-ya-san – Party People

This video is hilarious from one little (big?) gag. You can watch or read here for my post about it.

Okazaki Taiiku – Music Video

Music Video is a hilarious music video where Okazaki Taiiku sings about cliches for Japanese music videos while doing them in the music video. Music video. You get the most out of it if you understand Japanese, but the beginning segment goes something like:

Walking and singing while facing the camera
Suddenly the band members come in from the sides
Then suddenly cover the camera with your hand
And it cuts to a different location

FLiP – Rainbow

This FLiP video makes the list simply because this is their last song and it so well fits the song and the hopeful, uplifting tone they aimed to set their final show before their hiatus.

Best Albums Released Pre-2016 That I Listened to in 2016

I’m always looking for new music. When I find a new band, the majority of the time, they aren’t really a new band, they’re just new to me. This is a list of the best albums that I listened to for the first time this year, even though they were released sometime before. I’m planning on writing up a best albums of 2016 list as well, but we’ll start here. These are listed simply in the order I listened to them.

Regal Lily – Regal Lily

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When I first saw Regal Lily (リーガルリリー) last year, this eponymous first mini album had already gone out of print (some few months after it had been released). Earlier this year I borrowed it from a friend. It’s a great first effort, with two particularly moving tracks: 3. “Majo” (魔女), which has been rerecorded and released on their latest CD The Post, and 5. “Sakamichi no Tochuu de.” (坂道の途中で。 ).

cinema staff – Symmetoronica

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I finally picked up a cinema staff CD, having seen them at the Rock in Japan festival last year and been interested. This is a sold post-hardcore(?) 5-track mini with this lead track.

Peroperoshiteyaritaiwazu – Peroperoshiteyaritaiwa

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The pop! The funk! Peroperoshiteyaritaiwazu (ペロペロしてやりたいわズ) wins the award for longest band name. Every song on this is great and it’s followed up by an even better full length album released this year. “Bless you!” is probably my favorite track and “Highlight” (ハイライト) is a good example of a heavier song from them (there’s only this live version online).

Yuyun – Curtain Call

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This album. Is. So. Good. This would almost certainly have been my #1 album of 2015 if I had listened to it before making my list. 10 songs long and every song is great. But it’s better listened to as a whole. Cohesive yet there is variety in the tempo, tone, and intensity of the songs. Great use of vocals with all four singing. The singer/bassist used to be in Skirt no Naka, a band that I only found out about after the fact and which I would have killed to see live. I only got to see them a few times before they went on a hiatus (the “we don’t want to break up so we’re calling our break up a hiatus” kind) and it still makes me upset! “Hansuu”(はんすう) is my favorite track (live version linked). For a change of pace, the downtempo: “Gyuunyuu” (牛乳).

Mikkai to Miminari – Saijoukai kara, Sayounara

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Alt rock/hard rock that packs a poppy punch. Mikkai to Mimimari (密会と耳鳴り)’s first mini album is probably their best work to date with so much goodness packed into just five songs. The newer stuff is still quite good though. Check out “Disco” (ディスコ) with its pretty entertaining MV or “Kagefumi” (影踏み) (live).

Hitsuji Bungaku – BiRTH.epcfmfnbyukaanf4y

Even if this CD only had one track (it has four), it would be on the list, because “Haru” (春) is just that good. Hitsuji Bungaku (羊文学) means “sheep literature” and is one of my favorite band names. I saw them once in 2015, but wasn’t that drawn in at the time. “Haru” changed everything. Unfortunately, the bassist of the band has quit as of their last show of the year, held last week (I think to look for a job for after college in the upcoming job search season), and the future of Hitsuji Bungaku is unclear. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Moeka will at least continue solo music projects.

COMezik’s First U.S. Tour This January

Three-piece alt rock band COMezik will be playing six shows in NJ, NY, MA, and RI from January 3rd through 8th. Their sound has a bit of a metal influence and some idiosyncratic vocals, and they overall remind a bit of System of a Down. This is my favorite track. Their live shows are great, so I’d definitely recommend checking them out if you’re in the area.

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Hump Back – Tsuki Made | Music Video Monday

Hump Back is yet another three-piece all female band aspiring to be the next Chatmonchy. They formed all the way back in in 2009 in their high school pop/rock music club in Kansai, but the current member lineup is as recent as 2015, with only the vocalist/guitarist remaining from the forming members. Their first CD available in stores, Yoru ni nattara (夜になったら), was published just this past week. “Tsuki made” 「月まで」 is the lead track of the 8-song mini album and definitely the catchiest. I also appreciate the 2:09 length, which seems a rarity these days.