Best Of 2011: Japanese Music

January 14, 2012 at 12:04 am | Posted in ~Special | 3 Comments
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Last year was quite a slow year for Japanese releases. There weren’t many releases that I was anticipating and there were a lot of gaps between releases that I did enjoy. However, I was able to discover some interesting new artists and even become fans of artists I never thought I would like. The divas of J-pop all released great material last year but I was far more impressed by lesser known artists. There were many hidden gems released and I’m happy that I was able to experience a few of them. Japan had its fair share of drama ranging from Koda Kumi’s marriage and pregnancy, Maki Goto’s hiatus and ayaka’s announcement of return. It felt like an unproductive year for J-pop but it slowly started to pick up in the end and some truly great records were put out before the year was concluded.

Best Discoveries

LIL

I don’t even remember how I came across LIL but I’m pretty certain it was the album cover that caught my attention. It was so bizarre that I had to listen to how the music sounded. LIPS IN LUSH is a hardcore electropop album and I wasn’t expecting it to sound that way at all. It’s the hardest electropop album I’ve heard from Japan and it’s not easy to take it all in. I wasn’t sold on the group at first but after becoming familiar with the songs I started to see how great they were. “Moshi Moshi” Radio is all the great things about electropop rolled into one while me, too shows just how heavy their music is. There’s great variety between the tracks, some contain a very dark ambience while others are poppy, bright tunes. Earlier in the year, they released their second album, Synchronize. It still had some heavy tracks but there wasn’t as much of a focus on them anymore. Carnival, BLACK WALL feat. MIYAVI and Girl in the mirror are must-hear tracks and she hits some awesome notes in the latter. They’re not well-known but they’re great electropop artists and fans of the genre should check them out.

Miu Sakamoto

Miu Sakamoto is an artist I came across two years ago and I was impressed by PHANTOM girl. Her operatic vocals are so amazing and unique, a very unusual voice for an electropop singer. I wasn’t enamoured with her until last year. News of her album came out and when I went back to listen to her, I liked her much more. This isn’t the usual electropop most are used to. It’s otherworldly and her melodies are full of imagination. Her voice is part of the instrumentation, bringing a listening experience that is truly unique to her. Thanks to a few friendly bloggers, I was able to find her old material. It’s different than her material with Dave Liang but the experience is the same. Her music is always fresh, taking you into a beautiful world that’s atmospheric, almost euphoric. It’s a shame an artist like her isn’t well known because she has so much to offer.

Shiina Ringo/Tokyo Jihen

Shiina Ringo is an artist that I never thought I would fall for. I disliked her voice and I couldn’t get into any of her songs. However, 4lvy sent me the video for Noudouteki Sanpunkan and I loved it. I was so surprised because I could never find a song from her that I liked and then this one came along, shifting my whole view of her. I immediately went through her entire discography as well as her Tokyo Jihen discography and I enjoyed everything. The songs I heard before sounded much better. There’s so much more to her voice than I had previously thought. Her raspy voice is actually incredible, a perfect voice for rock music. The more I read and see of her, the more I love her. Her live performances are incredible and she has pretty wicked music videos. Tokyo Jihen released a new album, Discovery, last year and I liked it but I still need to give it more time. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. I’m more excited for her solo material though. She released a new single, Carnation, and I liked it much more so hopefully her next releases are just as good. Her voice definitely takes time to appreciate as it’s very unusual but once you do, it’s hard to ignore.

Best Cover

Namie Amuro – Checkmate!

There weren’t any covers that really caught my attention and wowed me but Namie’s cover is the most memorable. It’s not the most creative and the chess theme is very predictable. However, it all comes together visually. The colours work so well with each other. The emphasis on black makes her stand out and she looks beautiful. She’s one of the Queens of J-pop and taking on the role of the queen piece in chess is a nice nod to that title. She looks like a total diva and the purple looks so good on her. This cover is all about her and there’s nothing wrong with that because she’s flawless.

Runner-up: MAA – BubbleMan Engine

Best Single

Maki Goto – What is LOVE / SCANDALOUS

I had such a hard time deciding for this category because I haven’t been listening to too many singles lately but this is the one that stood out to me the most. She released this single as a lead-up to her debut album and both tracks were hot dance tunes. Many people, myself included, hoped she would release music similar to her SWEET BLACK material and these songs brought that hope to reality. What is LOVE is dance perfection. The introduction is fire, catchy beyond belief and leads into a raving synth and bass beat. The dark elements take it above and beyond and her voice is packed with an infectious liveliness. Her vocoded moans in the breakdown are so sexy and its trance-like influence is amazing. It was the first song that I adored from her and it really pushed me into liking her a lot more. SCANDALOUS has a different dance flavour to it but it’s equally brilliant. Her high register, sadly underused by her, dominates it with the electric synths. The 80s flair takes it even further and the chorus provides a taste of synth heaven. It’s easy to lose yourself in the beat and her screaming after the breakdown is very sexy. Not only are these tracks amazing singles, they’re some of the best tracks her album has to offer. It was a smart move on her part to release them because it definitely had more people anticipating the album. Credit for the cover goes to KKalil.

Runner-up: Namie Amuro – NAKED/Fight Together/Tempest

Best Video

Miu Sakamoto – Precious

Miu Sakamoto single-handedly showed every other J-pop singer how a music video should look. While it’s simple, there’s a beauty that resonates and captivates until the end. It’s not easy to make a simple video interesting but when it’s done, it needs to be praised. What starts off emulating a promotional ad for a drink quickly turns into a sparkling wonderland. Everything in this video literally sparkles and the scenery is gorgeous. It’s so vibrant and dominated by blues that are so cheerful. Blue is my favourite colour and this video reminds me why. There are a few shots that focus on her baby blue ring and I don’t know why but I love them. It’s such a simple shot but there’s magic in them. The endless blue sky carries an unimaginable beauty and the beach scenes with the water behind her are the most beautiful moments in a music video I’ve seen. It’s so natural and it compliments the song well. This was the first time I got a good look at Miu and she’s stunning. I wish more artists would release videos like this because it’s effective and you don’t get more beautiful than this.

Runner-up: Namie Amuro – Naked

Best Mini-Album

Ayumi Hamasaki – FIVE

FIVE wins by default because it was the only mini-album that I heard. I didn’t love this release but it’s a great little unit of songs. All the collaborations turned out well, my favourite being Why… feat. JUNO. progress is the gem and it’s the type of song that I love from her. I always look forward to her rock influenced tracks and it was chock-full of energy. Its action oriented, I wouldn’t expect any less from a Tales theme song, and it builds up quite nicely into the climax. The song that surprised me the most is beloved because it’s such a simple and elegant ballad. From what I heard about it, I didn’t think I would like it but it turned out to be one of the best songs. She may not be part of my favourite singers but I do enjoy her music and she’s proven again why she’s one of the best pop stars in Japan.

Runner-up: None

Best Album

Maki Goto – Ai Kotoba (VOICE)

Of all the albums that came out, I never thought that Maki would come out on top but Ai Kotoba (VOICE) blew me away. In the beginning of the year, I thought Maki would only have me as a casual fan but her debut turned out to be remarkable. Not only is this an amazing debut, it’s also a compilation as it contains most of her collaborations, making the whole package a complete success. The amount of amazing songs is unbelievable and it’s impossible not to find something to love. What is LOVE, SCANDALOUS, EYES, and Paradise are the dance songs I’ve been craving. The heat that they carry is phenomenal and they all have a delicious retro flavour. Believe and Tsukikage show a different side to her that I’ve never seen. I love the traditional aspects of the production and her voice is astonishing on these ballads. The second disc of collaborations contains songs that are just as hot. Her SWEET BLACK material is a nice bonus and it’s her best work ever. This release is very lengthy but there isn’t any song I dislike. I have to give it to her for releasing this unexpected gem.

Runner-up: Namie Amuro – Checkmate!

Best Artist

Maki Goto

Who would’ve thought that this former Morning Musume member would come out on top in 2011? During her time at avex, she released four mini-albums, each one demonstrating a different sound and style. While some loved what each mini had to offer, others were uncertain with her direction as an artist. Despite this, her debut album took all the great things about the minis and focused them into a single unit with brand new songs that complimented them. This resulted in a surprisingly cohesive record. Her vision finally came to fruition and it’s a really great pop album. Moving from her Morning Musume days, where I didn’t care for her music at all, and watching her mature into an artist was a journey worth being part of. Her music, as she has matured over the years, has continuously become stronger and more impressive. She’s gone through so much to get to where she is now. Her brother was arrested back in 2007 and her mother died soon after she signed to avex. She’s had to grow up and learn to cope while being a celebrity in the spotlight. She’s shown a resilience that is inspirational and has constantly put her all into her music. It’s understandable that she’s going on hiatus but it’s sad to see an artist who was showing promise have to put it on hold. Thankfully, she released an incredible album and said her goodbyes during her G-Emotion FINAL ~for you~ concert. It’s kind of bittersweet that I’ve become a fan now that she’s leaving the music scene behind for a while. However, I‘m looking forward for her to return and hopefully her next release is as amazing as Ai Kotoba (VOICE).

Japan had a slow start at the beginning of the year but the releases started picking up and by the end of the year I was satisfied with what I heard. In a way, the slow start was beneficial because it forced me to find new music, leading me to discover some amazing artists. There were other releases that I liked but didn’t get a chance to mention. Genki Rockets’ GENKI ROCKETS II -No border between us- , Angela Aki’s WHITE, MAA’s BubbleMan Engine, Rie fu’s I Can Do Better, alan’s JAPAN PREMIUM BEST & MORE, BENI’s Fortune, MISIA’s SOUL QUEST and MISIA no Mori -Forest Covers– and moumoon’s 15 Doors are all amazing albums and worthy of your time. 2012 is already looking interesting with Koda Kumi releasing JAPONESQUE at the end of the month. Ayumi’s going to release an album this year as well and ayaka’s coming back from hiatus, maybe she’ll win me over this year. After a bunch of singles, MiChi has stated that her sophomore album will be out sometime soon. moumoon is coming back already with a new album due out in February so 2012 is already looking like it will be busier than last year.

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  1. […] reviews. Two articles definitely worth your time are end-of-year assessments posted in mid-January: Best Of 2011: Japanese Music and Best Of 2011: Korean Music. The love for Goto Maki and Brown Eyed Girls is especially […]

  2. I loved the album covers for Checkmate! but just couldn’t get into the album at ALL. As for FIVE, well… I liked progress and BRILLANTE but everything else was a bit lackluster for me.
    And yes. Gomaki ruled this year!

    • Thanks for commenting. The covers are really great! It’s such a predictable theme but it was executed flawlessly. Namie looks so good. I didn’t love FIVE but it was the only mini-album that I actually heard and it was pretty good. I hope her next album is an improvement. Maki Goto definitely ruled last year! Her album was such a great surprise and she totally blew me away.


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