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)

New Music Video from Zekkei Kujira

I know I just wrote about them twice, but Zekkei Kujira put out a new music video from their new album that happens to be one of my “standout tracks” from the CD. The video itself is very interesting, as well, with some trippy camera pans with doubled images of the members. The director is named Kodaka Sari and perhaps a creative individual to keep an eye on.

Zekkei Kujira – Saigo ni ai wa katsu

Review: Zekkei Kujira – Jidori

Following their April release of the mini album Tadori (“picture taken by another”) comes today’s release of the sequel work, Jidori (“selfie”). Although today is the official release date, I picked this up yesterday in a practice called “flying get,” where CD stores put out new albums the day before release in the afternoon. It gives them an advantage over internet retailers like Amazon and fans who can make it to a Tower Records and sometimes HMV, Disc Union, and Village Vanguard can get a head start listening. And boy am I glad I got a running start.

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Track List

  1. #selfie
  2. Saigo ni Ai wa Katsu (最後に愛は勝つ)
  3. Season II (シーズンII)
  4. Saishin Heiki (最新兵器)
  5. Demakase (デマカセ)

This album is fabulous. It’s a contender for best album of the year, with no throwaway tracks. Emotion drips off every lyric that frontwoman Natsuko Polaris belts out over the indie pop tracks. You can hear the influence of city pop and its dance beats as it mixes with their psychedelic tone and heavy hitting rock ‘n roll guitar with the fuzz turned way up. The choruses and instrumental leads are insidiously catchy, but they also don’t stray away from weird, especially when it comes to the keyboards (see the breakdown on Saishin Bukki with the reverse string setting or the intro to Season II with the synth voices).

Jidori is head and shoulders above their last mini. Although I enjoyed Tadori, the two strongest tracks, My Little Parallel Dreamers and papapa, were re-recordings from their demos, and two more of the five songs were relatively forgettable. Their newest effort is a lovingly crafted album of five single-worthy songs.

Standout Tracks

  • Saigo ni Ai wa Katsu – the frenetic spoken lyrics in the prechorus are only topped by the killer hook
  • Season II – addictive prechorus guitar riff

Zekkei Kujira signs to tricot’s Bakuretsu label

In a bit of serendipity, I talked about Zekkei Kujira and tricot in the same post earlier this year, and it turns out they are now labelmates, with Zekkei recently announced to become the first band signed to tricot’s independent label Bakuretsu. That is of course excluding tricot’s joke band “Disappointing Girl.”

In a follow up to Tadori (“picture taken by someone else”), released earlier this year on Jackman Records after being one of the 2015 winners of the RO69 JACK 2015 amateur band contest, in just four days they will release Jidori (“selfie”) on Bakuretsu. “Saishin heiki” (“newest weapon”) is the single track from this upcoming mini album.

New tricot and Zekkei Kujira on 4/27

I was watching a live stream broadcast of tricot’s concert in Wakayama tonight. It was the last stop on their Yattokosa tour of Japan, where they performed at all 17 of 47 prefectures of Japan in which they had never done a show. tricot has always been a band that really shows they care about there fans and this tour is a great example of that attitude. They purposefully went to play shows that probably didn’t sell very well compared to their other options so that fans who live far away could get a chance to see them.

During the encore of the show, they announced a new five-track CD entitled “KABUKU EP” to be released April 27th. None of the tracks have been released, although it’s possible that Pork Ginger will be one of them. It will also be interesting to see what they do about drummers — will there be multiple guest musicians like the last album or will regular support drummer Miyo be doing them all? They also released a new art picture, shown below.

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It was also announced last week that another favorite of mine, Zekkei Kujira, will be releasing an album on the same date. It’s also five tracks and is called “Tatori” (他撮り). The lead track is papapa. This was previously included on their third demo, but they’re re-recorded the song. The song hasn’t changed much but the different instrument parts are a little clearer. The tracks have been announced as follows:

  1. My Little Parallel Dreamers (マイリトルパラレルドリーマーズ)
  2. papapa
  3. The burger of Idaho
  4. Mercy Haku (メルシー伯)
  5. Tatori (他撮り)

The first track is also on the third demo, but I imagine it will be a re-recording as well. They’ve released a new music video of papapa with the new recording.

Review: Zekkei Kujira – SHE

SHE is the newest demo CD from Zekkei Kujira (絶景クジラ), a four-piece all-female band based out of Osaka. Featuring a wide range of musical styles, Zekkei Kujira is fronted by the charismatic Natsuko Polaris, whose powerful vocals are sure to leave an impression. Their instrumental leads are often a duel between Natsuko’s  weird and eerie synth keyboard and guitarist Nozo’s classic, overdriven riffs.

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Track List

  1. basalisk
  2. Taiwan II (台湾 II)
  3. Gomen ne to sayonara wo(ごめんねとさよならを)

basalisk starts the demo single off with an atonal guitar blend and an almost insect-like keyboard drone before leading to the featured song, Taiwain II. A catchy, poppy vocal refrain over yet another weird synth starts off this upbeat number that fails to disappoint all the way through. The third track finishes off the demo with a classic-sounding pop rock love song. As a whole, this is their strongest release to date. It’s their fourth demo release, each featuring three tracks (although usually one track is not a standard song).

Zekkei Kujira are currently making quite the impression in the indie scene, with a spot at premiere festival Rock in Japan this summer and an upcoming gig as opening act for Hook Up Records’ 10th anniversary show at Shinsaibashi BIGCAT, the largest all-standing music venue in Osaka.