Namie Amuro – Uncontrolled

July 13, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Posted in Namie Amuro | 4 Comments
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  1. In The Spotlight (TOKYO)
  2. NAKED
  3. GO ROUND (‘N ROUND ‘N ROUND)
  4. Sit! Stay! Wait! Down!
  5. Hot Girls
  6. Break It (AL Ver.)
  7. Get Myself Back
  8. Love Story
  9. Let’s Go
  10. SINGING “YEAH-OH”
  11. Fight Together
  12. ONLY YOU
  13. Tempest

After a handful of double A-sides and one triple A-side, Namie announced her tenth album, Uncontrolled, to celebrate her 20th anniversary. Since the album is filled with so many A-sides, she decided to touch a few of them up and even turned two of them into full English tracks. This is the first album that I’ve heard from her that has so many songs performed in English. I wasn’t sure how I would like them because I have never been a fan of her English but I was impressed by the risk she was taking. It’s always a good thing to see an artist try something different and succeed doing it.

Namie begins with In The Spotlight (TOKYO), the first English song on the album. “I feel alive/and tonight’s my night/I’ve got nothing to hide/I’m dancing in the spotlight,” she professes to a simple synth line but once it hits the verse it becomes a dance floor anthem. She takes on a very commanding presence in them and the beat is amazing. The synths take a backseat for the drums which are so crazy and infectious. It slows down again in the chorus but in the second half the synths crescendo into a raving dance beat. It sounds much more exciting with the upbeat melody. In the bridge, Namie goes wild to marching drums and it’s so much fun. The melody has a European sound to it so it plays on current trends but it’s really good. I’m surprised by how much I like the song and her English is fantastic. She’s improved tremendously over the years and there isn’t anything that is hard to understand. This is a great track to open the album because it’s fun, addicting and shows growth. NAKED has the most interesting composition on the entire record. It is an electronic paradise. The synth line is a psychedelic trip of epic proportions and it’s very heavy. Her light voice holds it’s own against the barrage of beats which become more intricate and advanced as the verses progress. Sighing background vocals add a sexy flair to the song and the spiraling synths that lead into the chorus are delicious. The chorus packs a massive punch and she delivers an energetically-charged performance. Her vocals are perfect, filled with excitement and power. I was hooked the first time I heard it and it’s still fresh. It’s just hardcore electro and every second of it is gold. The breakdown before the second verse and in the bridge is awesome. They’re filled with a variety of beats and beeps that get crazier as they go on. Namie ends this masterpiece by repeating “make up your mind now” to the heavy synth line. This is such an immensely wicked track and it’s my favourite song.

GO ROUND (‘N ROUND ‘N ROUND) is the first song to receive a makeover and it’s now sung entirely in English. Also, the intro is cut a few seconds short compared to the original but it’s not that big of a deal. I loved Go Round and I was a bit worried with how the English version would turn out even if there was already a lot of English in it. While some parts are a step down, the overall charm remains intact. Melody-wise, it has a catchy synth beat with mechanical mishaps and I love the flow of her voice. There’s a cute tinge to it despite the subject matter and I really like the lyrics, “still like the way that you stay on my mind when you leave (my mind when you leave)/still like the sound of your voice on my answer machine (on my answer machine).” The flow just gets more addicting in the pre-chorus and it shifts into an adorable delicacy for the chorus. The heavy synth beats wrap around her sweet vocals and the way she raises her register as she sings “go round (‘n round, ‘n round, ‘n round)” is so good. There’s only one thing about the new version that disappoints me and it’s the outro. Since the words “days” and “tears” are no longer used in the chorus, she only repeats “how many times” instead of “how many times/how many days/how many tears” which causes it to lose some of its emotion. Sit! Stay! Wait! Down! is relatively new for me because I didn’t become familiar with it as I did with the other singles. It’s humorous because she relates her lover to a dog and it’s a whole lot of fun. She uses deeper vocals this time and the arrangement is made of bouncing percussion and synths. It’s very contagious and I love its quirkiness. The song slows down a bit in its pre-chorus and she throws in some nice backing vocals. The transition to the chorus is amazing because the vocals and synths become wacky. With her fast-paced singing and hilarious dog references, the chorus is the highlight. It’s not an all-out dance track but it has a fantastic groove and it’s too cute when she sings the title. She’s so playful and the icing on the cake is the bridge when she repeats “good boy.” I love the soft dance feel and it’s great to see her be a bit silly.

Round and round they go/where they stop no one knows,” she whispers at the start of Hot Girls before the dominant drum melody comes in for the repetitive but catchy hook. She takes an in-your-face approach for the chorus and the line “hot girls make the world go round” easily gets stuck in your head from all the times she repeats it. The synths imitate the pounding of the percussion and her voice gets a slight dose of vocoder in the verses. The melody is simple and very western but its heaviness is quite nice. The pre-chorus is much more enticing because the synths kick in and her voice rises, flowing wonderfully to the beat. The bridge features some heavy panting which is pretty sexy and she sings the chorus to a different beat. I’m not crazy about this song because it’s very generic but it’s catchy so it’s not that bad. Break It (AL ver.) came as a surprise to me because I didn’t know it was getting a makeover. Sadly, this new arrangement doesn’t live up to the original which was perfect to begin with. The funky guitar riff is replaced with a hard synth line that isn’t as infectious. In addition, her vocals have a bizarre muffling effect so she doesn’t sound as clear as she did before. However, I still really like the song. The new arrangement isn’t all that bad because the gritty sound of the synths does give it a slightly stronger feel. The chorus is explosive and it’s still immensely catchy. The post-chorus is just as great and she repeats “break it, break it, break it all/shout it, shout it, shout your soul” over a kick-ass beat. The outro was my favourite part and the raging guitars are still included, although muffled, so I’m happy they didn’t change that too much. It’s a shame that they messed with the melody but this is still one of the best tracks.

Halfway through the album and the first ballad, Get Myself Back, finally makes an appearance. Sweet licks of a piano start this incredible R&B ballad but it then soars into a grand melody. The piano becomes livelier and the added percussion compliments its elegance. She sings with soft, lighthearted vocals for the verses which are dominated by the percussion. The arrangement opens up to include a variety of different beats and as it nears the chorus the strings, piano and backing vocals flood in, elevating the serene atmosphere exponentially. This song oozes summery goodness and the chorus is heavenly. The melody is so vibrant and feel-good. The organic instruments are beautiful and the added touch of synths is wonderful. I love the sequence of strings after the chorus because her “ohs” are so catchy. The summer vibe makes this a fresh ballad and a standout in her discography. It’s compelling and performed beautifully. Her voice is warm, welcoming and with the lush instrumental is stunning. Love Story makes for back-to-back ballads and it’s just as great. While the previous one was happy and full of positive energy, this one relies on a more emotional performance. Fragile and vulnerable, her deep voice flows in with a breathless composition of piano, strings and snapping beats. The chimes that flutter in are magical and her tone is gentle and loving. In the chorus, the melody crescendos beautifully as her passionate vocals soar through it. It’s powerful and her emotional vocals make it a gem. It’s a very simple ballad but it’s anything but boring. It’s crafted smartly with a melody that pulls you in immediately and her voice is amazing.

After that little break, the album shoots right back into another banger, Let’s Go. The synths go hard in this rocking track and the drums that join them provide an even stronger punch. Namie takes a confrontational style of delivery and she gets more aggressive as the song progresses, especially in the chorus when the song hits its climax. The verses rely on a gritty sound but as soon as it reaches the pre-chorus the synths shift into dance/trance where she sings the catchiest part, “it’s the idea, the idea, idea of you/it gets me going, going/it gets me going, going.” The chorus continues with the heavy trance and the energy from the vocals and instrumental is incredible. It’s super addicting and she lets out her playful side during the bridge where she chants and shouts. This track borrows from the sound and attitude of her rock tracks but does it in a fun, electronic way. The mysterious and sexy SINGING “YEAH-OH” is next and it’s a delicious dance hit. The synth line is absolute fire and her voice snakes its way around it, making for one of the hottest verses on the record, “somebody stop me ‘cause I think I can’t keep in control (no, no).” It ends up with a very infectious and seductive flair. In addition, her English on this track is good and it’s on par with the original. The switch in melody for the pre-chorus gives it a positive dance vibe and her tone is more enthusiastic than sexual. The chorus is catchy but nowhere as amazing as the verses. It’s very dance-centered but the sensuality of the verses should have been incorporated. However, the bridge is fantastic and it starts with a fun breakdown before it darkens with her low, distorted vocals. This is sleek, sexy and cool, another great track from Namie.

Fight Together oozes vibrancy with its overly cheerful synths. The composition’s feel-good air is contagious and exhilarating. The synths drown in the verses as the percussion takes over and her cute vocals bounce happily to bopping beat. I really like her backing vocals after each stanza in the verse and the sudden change to jazz for the pre-chorus caught me off guard. It definitely makes the song interesting and works as a great lead up to the chorus. The hook is a blast of grand synths and she gets to show off her vocal strength. When she shouts “we fight together,” it gives off such a strong feeling of camaraderie that is quite epic. In the bridge, there are even more surprises because all the electronic instruments die for a small taste of gorgeous live instruments. I totally love the outro where she repeats “life goes on.” It’s such a simple closing but it has such a massive impact and the a capella at the end is a nice touch. Namie performs in English one last time for ONLY YOU, a sentimental mid-tempo and another favourite. Despite the pronunciation issues, this is a sweet track with an uplifting melody. Eventually, the percussion kicks in making it more upbeat and catchier. Her voice is very pleasant, especially during the chorus when her voice rises with emotion and passion. Her “the only thing that can touch me is you” lines are cheesy but they’re addicting and it’s the part of the song that doesn’t leave your head. After the second chorus, her voice shines with the vocal runs she does and the little segment of piano is a sweet surprise. It adds a serene and more sentimental feel as well as making for a great lead back into the chorus. Uncontrolled ends in a beautiful way with the power ballad Tempest. This is the album’s major ballad and it’s easily the best I’ve heard from her. Beginning with a gentle, magical piano and her extraordinary, soft vocals, this is a masterpiece from the start. She’s never sounded so good and her voice is simply stunning. The song transcends to another level in the majestic chorus because the soaring strings crescendos the melody into a heavenly state and her belting is fabulous. The dreamy atmosphere that envelops the chorus is beautiful and really gives it that grandiose sound. I’m so amazed by her voice because it’s so powerful here. I’ve never heard her sing like this and it’s mind-blowing.

Conclusion: Uncontrolled didn’t wow me the first time I listened to it and the changes to some of the songs left me bitter because none of them needed to be tweaked. After getting used to the new English versions, they’re not that bad at all and her English has improved incredibly. It’s actually cool to see her take such a bold move and the songs still have the charm that the Japanese versions had. The ballads are all incredible and I love each and every one of them. Even though there aren’t many new songs, I don’t have any issue with that because all the singles have been great and together they make a strong unit. I wasn’t planning on giving this album a perfect rating but the more I listen to it the more I love it. She never fails to deliver and this is the first Japanese release of the year to blow me away.

Recommended Tracks: NAKED, Tempest, Get Myself Back, GO ROUND (‘N ROUND ‘N ROUND), SINGING “YEAH-OH”, ONLY YOU, Sit! Stay! Wait! Down! and Break It (AL ver.)

Rating

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.

Best Of 2011: Honourable Mentions

January 14, 2012 at 12:02 am | Posted in ~Special | Leave a comment
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Last year there were so many amazing releases and it doesn’t feel right to ignore them. This post is for all the top releases of 2011 that could have claimed the title “Album Of The Year.” Not only are they the top of 2011 but some of them are the best records I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. I love these albums so much and I just had to make a post to honour them all. The amount of talent, new and old, last year was unbelievable.  It’s safe to say that last year destroyed the music releases of 2010. The variety, originality and beauty of 2011’s music are nothing short of amazing. These are not arranged in any specific order.

Nicola Roberts – Cinderella’s Eyes

Nicola had me hooked the minute she released the bratty Beat Of My Drum, displaying a fresh new sound for 2011. She demonstrated to the world that she wasn’t just the quiet ginger that Girls Aloud pushed to the background. Cinderella’s Eyes allowed her to be herself and showcase how amazing she could be if given the chance. Her voice is one of a kind and it may take a while to get used to but once you do, you’ll never be able to stop loving it. Her falsetto is incredible and hearing it is one of the highlights of the album. She released the most original album of the year. Songs like Gladiator and Take A Bite throw you into a world hardly explored by pop artists while the personal and tragic sticks + stones is the icing that tops it off. Try listening to it and not get teary-eyed. There is no other album that comes close to how experimental this album is. She didn’t release for the fame because if she did she would have played it safe. She clearly set out to offer something new and the risks she took are commendable. If you haven’t already had the chance to listen to it, I urge you to do yourself a favour and experience this amazing work.

Katy B – On A Mission

British female singers dominated 2011 and Katy B’s On A Mission boasts some of the best dance music to come out in years. This BRIT school graduate dabs into some exciting genres ranging from dubstep, R&B, house and garage. Her album sounds like it was created in the depths of the underground in England. She’s unlike other pop artists for the simple fact that she makes real, relatable club music. This isn’t your typical electropop dance music. Her music is centered on what it actually feels like to be in the midst of a crowd, dancing and feeling the music with every single one of your senses. Katy On A Mission, Easy Please Me and Broken Record are examples of that while Witches’ Brew attracts attention with it’s American appealing production. Not only does she have some of the hottest productions ever, she’s also an excellent singer and Go Away shows just how amazing she is. The album is a non-stop party and even the slower tunes have rocking beats. It’s not everyday an electropop artist has a voice like hers and she proves you don’t have to use auto-tune/vocoder to make good music. On A Mission is a throw back to when music had integrity and didn’t rely on cheap tactics to sell.

Adele – 21

What would a “Best Of 2011” list be without Adele? She single-handedly slayed every chart in 2011 and was the most talked about artist. Rolling In The Deep and Someone Like You were some of the most successful songs of the year and they’re definitely up there as the best. This wasn’t a case of a singer being overhyped because she had the album to back up the success. Without a doubt, she is the best vocalist to come out in years. While electropop was dominating, she came out of nowhere and released a soulful album that captured the hearts of millions. 21 is filled with music that everyone can relate to, my favourite song being Set Fire To The Rain. Her appeal transcends demographics and this is the reason for her massive success. She doesn’t use gimmicks or crazy fashion to get attention. She keeps it simple, something that many artists these days aren’t able to do. Adele is a talented artist who deserves all the success she has received and will continue to receive. No one has made heartbreak sound this good.

Kelly Clarkson – Stronger

Stronger may have not been a change from her usual material but it was definitely much more mature than her past releases. It’s not overly pop or dark. It’s a balanced record that contains great songs. Kelly, once again, does a little bit of everything and succeeds in all the genres that she touches. Mr. Know It All was such a different sound for her to return with but it was good. This isn’t the most creative release of the year but she sticks to what she’s comfortable with and that’s what I’ve always loved about her. Her music never lacks heart and Stronger continues that trend. Unlike her past releases, this album sticks to a single theme and each song revolves around it. There’s still fun songs like You Can’t Win and Don’t Be A Girl About It as well as ballads fans have come to love from her, Honestly and The War Is Over. All the songs share a similar sound which isn’t a bad thing because there isn’t any token rock or dance song. It’s all very cohesive and every song brings something new to the album.

LIGHTS – Siberia

LIGHTS ventured into a grittier and dubstep influenced sound with her sophomore release, Siberia. As a result, her music received a polish that it didn’t have before and the production was so much edgier. It’s quite a dark album but there are still some light moments that are reminiscent of her past release but they received a massive surge of vibrancy. The lighter songs, Banner and Peace Sign, are enthusiastic power anthems of hope and love. Flux and Flow and Suspension are the best songs she’s ever done and I still love them to death. I was happy to see her include more ballads as well. And Counting… is so stunning and its romantic air is simply adorable. Her little voice grew during her break and she reached new heights with it, hitting notes I never thought she would sing. It’s an understatement to say that this is a good pop record because it’s more than that. She fought with her American label that wanted to mold her into a clone and released an album that she could be proud of. As a fan, that’s all I can ask for in an artist.

Evanescence – Evanescence

Gothic rock made a return when Evanescence released their long-awaited album and it was so worth the wait. Sure, it may have been overly cohesive but it was filled with brilliant hard rock masterpieces. Lost In Paradise, Swimming Home, My Heart Is Broken and Secret Door are out of this world and Amy’s haunting voice is so special. She sounds like an angel and they’re the most melodic ballads I’ve heard all year. The whole band came through on each track and that was something new for them as the focus has always been on Amy. They were more intense and aggressive with their productions which led to more headbanging anthems from the band, Oceans and Never Go Back are the bands classic sound mixed with a new energy. Evanescence is truly a unique rock band as they push the envelope time and time again. They’re not afraid to experiment but they’re also not afraid to hold back and stick to their roots. The feeling of having a band I adored when I was younger make a successful comeback is indescribable. It’s such a great feeling and I’m so happy for them.

Lady Gaga – Born This Way

Born This Was may have been an overhyped mess for some but for me it secured my love for Lady Gaga. The songs were interesting, daring and so infectious. Heavy Metal Lover, Scheiße and Government Hooker are the album highlights and her best songs. The religious themes left a bad taste in some people’s mouths but she’s not the first and certainly won’t be the last artist to use religion in music so I don’t see what the big deal is. Moreover, only a few of the songs use these themes so it’s not really an issue and they’re some of the best songs on the album, Judas, Electric Chapel and Bloody Mary. Most of the songs deal with the album’s major concern which is about not being ashamed of who you are. The 80s and European pop influences are a breath of fresh air. Gaga is heavily inspired by the 80s and this album is full of throwbacks to the era. It’s a look into her past and her teenage life, making her more accessible on a personal level.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Make A Scene

I heard of Sophie a few years back but I never heard any of her music until last year when I found out Richard X, a producer who worked with Rachel Stevens, produced a song for her called Starlight and it was a synth masterpiece. Make A Scene turned out to be a deliciously crafted electropop album. Everything from the up-tempos to the symphonic ballads utilizes synths in magical ways. Her music is very European so except some fantastic slices of disco heaven. Bittersweet is a melodic song that touches the border between mid-tempo and up-tempo, Heartbreak (Make Me a Dancer) is the type of song that doesn’t let you stop moving and Dial My Number, my favourite, is hardcore synthpop. These are massive songs designed to get you to dance but Sophie’s not afraid of slowing down and getting sensual, Synchronised being proof of that. The title track, Make A Scene, is a quirky concoction of beats, something that seems like it shouldn’t work but does. Make A Scene is her best album yet, providing the finest slice of European pop you can hear.

Simon Curtis – R∆

As I’m sure you’re all aware, I don’t praise male artists that often but Simon Curtis is an exception. He released R∆, his second album, and it was a blast of excellent electropop hits. His first album was amazing and it’s not everyday you hear a male vocalist singing this kind of pop music. He’s been regarded as a male alternative to Britney Spears so expect heavy dance tracks. Flesh is the hottest and dirtiest song released last year and it’s a must-hear. What makes him so remarkable is that he’s not signed to a label. The amount of work he puts in to his albums is incomparable to someone who has a huge label backing them up. Despite this, his music never sounds low budget and it’s one of the best releases of the year. Compared to his debut, the music is darker, better produced and there’s more variety. It’s not a departure from his previous sound but it’s an improvement and that’s all that matters.

Ro Danishei – End of the Rainbow

Ro is another unsigned artist and a friend of Simon’s. She also shares a love for electropop and she’s just as talented. End of the Rainbow was a fantastic surprise and boasted some of the catchiest songs of 2011. Later in the year, she released it on iTunes with brand new songs and remixes. The new songs were just as catchy and they made the album better. Even the remixes were well done and weren’t the type of lame remixes that most artists tack on to fill space. They brought a different feel to the song that was enjoyable and certainly very interesting. The album as a whole is strong and dominated by songs that long for the dance floor. Blackout and Baby Doll are club hits that force you to move to their delicious beats. Her collaborations, Michelle (feat. Simon Curtis) and Wicked Baby (feat. Simon Curtis), are the best pairing of artists I’ve ever witnessed. They’re a match made in heaven. She may not be the greatest vocalist but she knows how to use her voice and doesn’t try to be anything that she’s not. She makes feel-good dance music that’s meant to be fun and exhilarating which is exactly what this album is.

Genki Rockets – GENKI ROCKETS II -No border between us-

Genki Rockets blew their debut away with their second album, GENKI ROCKETS II -No border between us-. Dropping their virtual sound, they opted for a more realistic approach to their music and look which benefited them greatly. The heavy use of vocoder was dropped and Lumi’s natural voice was granted the freedom to breathe. Furthermore, there was also a focus on organic instruments that raised their melodies to unbelievable heights. There were still tons of synths but they worked with the organics to produce infectious songs. Curiosity, Touch Me and make.believe are excellent electropop songs, the best from Japan, and they show off their new style perfectly. Their first album was based on the concept that Lumi was born in outer space and wanted to come to earth. This one gives the impression that she, in some way, has made contact with earth which explains the emphasis on natural elements. I honestly thought that I wouldn’t hear from them again but I’m so glad I was wrong because this album is incredible.

Namie Amuro – Checkmate!

This is the only compilation on the list but there’s no denying how amazing Checkmate! is. Namie is always spot-on with her collaborations and to have an album of them is a fans dream come true. She didn’t just release an album of old material though. She packaged five brand new songs that were unique and unexpected collaborations. Finally having Luvotomy / m-flo loves Namie Amuro and BLACK DIAMOND / DOUBLE & Namie Amuro on a Namie album was a great treat. Despite having some old tracks included, I never heard many of them so most of the album felt new. There’s a lot of variety and it shows all the different musical trends she’s gone into. She’s extremely versatile and the album shows that in the best possible way. Her collaborations are amazing and they should not be missed.

Best Of 2011: Reader’s Choice Polls

December 30, 2011 at 11:54 am | Posted in ~Special | Leave a comment
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I wanted to try something different with my “Best Of 2011” posts so I decided to make some polls to get you all involved! This is completely separate from my own “Best Of 2011” posts which will be up next week. The polls last for one week and they’re multiple choice so you can vote for three options. I tried to make them as inclusive as possible and tried to add albums other than the ones I’ve enjoyed. I hope you all participate!

Namie Amuro – Checkmate!

May 4, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Posted in Namie Amuro | 6 Comments
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  1. Wonder Woman feat. AI & Anna Tsuchiya
  2. UNUSUAL feat. Yamashita Tomohisa
  3. make it happen feat. AFTERSCHOOL
  4. ROCK U feat. Namie Amuro / ravex
  5. Do What U Gotta Do feat. AI, Namie Amuro & Mummy-D / ZEEBRA
  6. Wet’N Wild feat. SUITE CHIC / Heartsdales
  7. Do or Die feat. Namie Amuro / JHETT
  8. FAKE feat. Namie Amuro / AI
  9. #1 feat. Kawabata Kaname (CHEMISTRY)
  10. BLACK OUT feat. Lil Wayne & Namie Amuro / VERBAL
  11. BLACK DIAMOND / DOUBLE & Namie Amuro
  12. Luvotomy / m-flo ♥ Namie Amuro
  13. AFTER PARTY feat. Namie Amuro / ZEEBRA
  14. WANT ME, WANT ME feat. VERBAL (m-flo)

When it was announced that Namie was going to release Checkmate!, a collaboration best album, I was ecstatic. The majority of her collaborations are fantastic and to finally have an album of them was wonderful news. She has worked with many artists over her career for a variety of styles and genres. These collaborations demonstrate her versatility as an artist and some of the artists she’s joined forces with are unexpected which make the collaborations even better.

Wonder Woman feat. AI & Anna Tsuchiya is one of the unexpected collaborations and one that I didn’t think would ever happen. It’s not surprising for her to work with AI because they’ve collaborated before but Anna is a complete surprise. This is the first time two artists I like have collaborated together and that in itself is amazing. The song is all about girl power and they sound fantastic together. Namie handles the first verse and she sounds incredible. She sounds so different that I didn’t recognize her voice the first time I heard it. Her vocals are fierce and her fast-paced singing is beyond addicting with the groovy synths and guitar. Anna takes over for the second verse and she nails it with her aggressive fast-paced singing. AI does her thing in the pre-chorus and I really like her vocals. It’s a great transition into the chorus which is absolutely infectious with loud guitars, drums and synths. All of them sing with strong vocals and the backing vocals are insane, “I’ll be your wonder woman.” AI’s “wonder, wonder, wonder, wonder, wo-wo-woman” part after the chorus is enjoyable as well. In the bridge, the music slows down for Namie before going back into the hectic arrangement for the chorus. This is a wonderful collaboration and a great way to open the album. Namie joins forces with Tomohisa Yamashita from NEWS for UNUSUAL feat. Yamashita Tomohisa. It opens up with Namie singingdo you wanna feel maybe something unusual baby?” which immediately leads to her verse. The beat for the verses is quite interesting with all the synths and for the pre-chorus the arrangement is somewhat messy but in a good way. Yamashita does the lead vocals for the first pre-chorus while Namie does the backing vocals. The chorus has a good beat and they sound great together. The parts where they sing to each other are wicked cool and my favourite part of the song, “hey boy do you have a big plan? (yes!)/respect me as a woman? (yes!)/can you be my superman? (yes!)/this is so unusual.” The breakdown in the bridge shows off the instrumentation nicely and it has a good dance vibe.

make it happen feat. AFTERSCHOOL marks Namie’s first time collaborating with a Korean group and the result is an incredible up-tempo. The first verse starts with AFTERSCHOOL and they sing in pairs until Namie takes over. Namie easily outshines the other girls with her confident and cool vocals which are backed up by dramatic strings, “I found a man who has his dreams and desires.” The strings are replaced by delicious synths in the pre-chorus and Namie sings with drawn out vocals while AFTERSCHOOL sings “turn the lights on, turn the lights off,” which is very catchy. The song only gets better in the chorus where the arrangement becomes a barrage of synths. AFTERSCHOOL does the backing vocals while Namie performs in strong and loud vocals. The girl group isn’t used much as they only have half a verse to themselves but their ad-libs and backing vocals throughout the song, especially in the final chorus, are wonderful. ROCK U feat. Namie Amuro / ravex is electropop heaven with blaring and heavy synths. The verses are filled with groovy synths and Namie sings with vocoded vocals which sound awesome, “party’s poppin’ on Friday night.” The English lyrics are super catchy, especially in the pre-chorus, “so shut up and get up, cuz that’s what we do.” In the chorus, the synths become intense with scratching sounds and Namie repeats the title of the track a few times. For the second half of the chorus, her vocals are very girly and energetic. The synths in the bridge are crazy and I love how they pick up speed before the final chorus. All in all, this is a purely hardcore electronic track from start to finish.

Do What U Gotta Do feat. AI, Namie Amuro & Mummy-D / ZEEBRA is one of the first songs from Namie that I listened to when I started getting into her music. It’s a sick hip hop track and ZEEBRA opens it by introducing the other singers. The first verse is split between ZEEBRA and Mummy-D and their raps are very entertaining. ZEEBRA has a deep voice while Mummy-D has a lighter tone to his voice and they sound good. The drums and brass instruments are infectious and produce an irresistible melody. The chorus is sung by Namie and it’s the best part. Her singing flows better with the melody than the rapping and she sounds hot. AI shares the third verse with the guys and her rap is just as strong as theirs. Namie’s ad-libs at the end are so amazing and they’re so catchy. I’ve actually never heard Wet ‘N Wild feat. SUITE CHIC / Heartsdales before as it’s from her SUITE CHIC days but I like it a lot. It also opens with a rapper introducing the singers while Namie continuously sings “nasty nasty” which sounds incredible. Jewels and Rum rap in the verses and they alternate back and forth. I haven’t listened to them before but I dig their style. Their voices are deep and their rapping is so good. The chorus is a mix of relaxing vocals from Namie and aggressive vocals from Heartsdales which works very well with the lovely guitar melody. The part after the chorus is more upbeat because of the synths and Heartsdales sings it entirely in English, “gonna getchuu wet wet all wet’n wild/so make some noise.” Even though Namie doesn’t play a big role, it’s still a great addition to the album.

I’m familiar with Do or Die feat. Namie Amuro / JHETT but I’ve never listened to it all the way through. It’s an aggressive song and Namie puts a lot of attitude into her voice. The arrangement consists of hard beats and synths which are very in-your-face and they don’t change very much. I like her sped up vocals in the pre-chorus and the repetition in the chorus of “do or die” is so addicting. The bridge is the only part of the song where Namie uses soft vocals, “my life…/gambling, tumbling, then hustling,” and it doesn’t sound out of place. Overall, this is a really cool track. FAKE feat. Namie Amuro / AI lacks a little compared to the other songs but it’s still fun and I love their vocals. The first verse is sung by AI and she performs with funky vocals against the drums, synths and brass instruments. In the pre-chorus, AI and Namie sing in a high tone that sounds a bit whiny but I love it. They don’t usually sing in this tone so it’s a nice change for the both of them. In the chorus, they continue with the high tone but it’s a bit more breathy and the repetition of “fake” is somewhat catchy. Namie’s verse is better because I like her vocals more and you get to hear her high voice more in the second pre-chorus. The bridge starts out with some sick synths but then it chills out into a calmer arrangement with a few piano notes.

#1 feat. Kawabata Kaname (CHEMISTRY) is a slick and sexy mid-tempo. Namie hasn’t done this style in a while and she sounds fierce and hot. The verses alternate between her and Kaname Kawabata, who sounds just as great. When they sing together they sound so amazing and seductive. The chorus is also split between them with Namie singing the first half and Kaname singing the second half but for the second chorus their positions are switched. The chorus is quite catchy, “you need to be my #1 yup,” and the whispering backing vocals are simply delicious. The bridge is just as hot and the repetition of “# 1” is infectious. For the final chorus, both of them sing together which makes it even better. BLACK OUT feat. Lil Wayne & Namie Amuro / VERBAL is a surprising collaboration because it features a popular American rapper, Lil Wayne and it has a dark vibe to it. The synths in the verses are crazy while they’re tamer in the chorus. VERBAL does his thing in the first verse and for some reason he’s one of the few rappers that I seem to enjoy most of the time. Lil Wayne raps for the second verse and I’m not really a fan of his voice. He has a raspy tone that doesn’t sound good at all and the song would have benefited more without his inclusion, “and I wear them skinny jeans so you see my fat wallet.” The dark elements are very prominent in the chorus and Namie kills it. It’s the best part of the song and her vocals work perfectly with the melody. I especially love her repetition of “black out” near the end.

BLACK DIAMOND / DOUBLE & Namie Amuro is one of the hottest tracks on the album and one of Namie’s most popular collaborations. With crazy synths and irresistible vocals from both ladies, the song oozes sex the second it begins. Namie owns the first verse with her sexy vocals and the backing vocals as well as the pre-chorus, which are sung by DOUBLE, are superb. The second verse isn’t as strong as the first one because Namie sounded fiercer and DOUBLE did the backing vocals, which were mostly in English, better. While the chorus is infectious, it’s slightly weaker than the verses and that’s mainly due to the lyrics, “when you meet a guy who’s fly/always call him black diamond.” I do like how Namie sings the final line in the first chorus while DOUBLE sings it in the second and in the final two choruses they sing it together, “we’ll be the winners/so we get the black diamond.” The bridge mainly consists of the title being repeated and in the second half they sing together but they’re voices don’t go well together because of the high tone that they use. Besides this little issue, this song is ridiculously hot. I immediately fell in love with Luvotomy / m-flo ♥ Namie Amuro when I heard it and it’s my favourite song that Namie’s taken part in. It starts off almost like a ballad with a repeating synth line and her vocals are flawless. The pre-chorus is out of this world and the English backing vocals make it even better. Namie closes the pre-chorus with strong vocals and the song switches to an up-tempo which leads into VERBAL’s amazing rap. This is probably one of the best raps I’ve ever heard and I love the back and forth singing he does with Namie, “you want it all… this… that…this… that… this… that…” The chorus is synth heaven and completely irresistible. The shouting backing vocals pump up the energy and the English lyrics are great, “I wanna walk away,” and “it’s a lie.” VERBAL’s second rap is even better and it’s crazy. As the song picks up in speed he raps just as fast and it’s just jaw-dropping. Namie returns for a slowed down version of the chorus and her distorted vocals sound really good. This is, without a doubt, the gem of the album.

AFTER PARTY feat. Namie Amuro / ZEEBRA is another song that I didn’t know existed and it really surprised me because it’s the most laid-back and relaxing song on the album. The arrangement is quite tropical and it gives off a summery feel. ZEEBRA’s vocals aren’t as exciting as they were in his other track and he sounds a bit lifeless. His relaxed vocals don’t really work well. In contrast, Namie does the soft and sexy vocals much better which is why the chorus stands out the most, “so, just love me/it’s after party.” However, the beat doesn’t change so it kind of drags on at the end. The hidden song, Want Me, Want Me feat. VERBAL (m-flo) closes the album and it’s a nice remix. The only difference of this song is that VERBAL’s rap replaces the first verse. This version isn’t anywhere near the level of the original but VERBAL’s rap fits the song really well and the “nananas” he sings to the beat of the song are so catchy. This is a nice little bonus to the album.

Conclusion: Checkmate! is the best compilation I’ve ever heard and one of the reasons why it’s so good is because it doesn’t feel like a compilation album at all. While there are many different styles on the album which range from hip hop to electropop, it actually flows well and the old tracks sound as fresh as the new ones. Namie’s played around with many styles over her career and these collaborations showcase that. This is a wonderful treat for the fans and it’s a release I’ve been wanting for a long time. If you aren’t familiar with her collaborations, this is your chance to get to listen to some incredible songs.

Recommended Tracks: Luvotomy / m-flo ♥ Namie Amuro, make it happen feat. AFTERSCHOOL, Wonder Woman feat. AI & Anna Tsuchiya, BLACK DIAMOND / DOUBLE & Namie Amuro and UNUSUAL feat. Yamashita Tomohisa

Rating


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