An album of the decade can be more than just a great album. It can be legacy-defining, a piece of music that typifies the trends or peaks of this decade, a decade-long obsession or a more recent masterpiece. In many ways, this decade will be noted for the scale with which streaming enabled the worldwide appreciation of Japanese musicians old and new. These are 10 phenomenal Japanese albums released over the past 10 years coming from the far-flung corners of the musical genre spectrum.
10) Uyama Hiroto, ‘Freeform Jazz’ (2016)
Arranger and multi-instrumentalist Uyama Hiroto has long been intrinsically involved in the cross-pollination between jazz and hip hop. As a close collaborator of Nujabes, Hiroto played and worked on albums like Modal Soul and Metaphorical Music, and his work this decade has sought not to fill Nujabes’ boots but to take his style and progress it. Freeform Jazz is the culmination of those efforts, an album that charts the influence of jazz on hip hop and, crucially, paths it back again. Though this may not actually be “freeform jazz” in the strictest sense, Hiroto still looks back to a different style of jazz from a similar period.
Hiroto takes Nujabes’ instrumental hip hop and returns to a strain reminiscent of the great spiritual jazz greats like Pharoah Sanders, John and Alice Coltrane and Archie Shepp. In the way the saxophones meander and daze, Sanders seems the greatest influence, though the bits of samples and odd guest rapper feature ensures that Hiroto’s instrumental hip hop roots are never fully forgotten. Freeform Jazz is as good as modern spiritual jazz records get, and though it’s necessarily a record placed firmly in the wake of Nujabes, it’s also Hiroto’s first real, independent project that sets him apart as an important artist in his own right.
9) Seiko Omori, ‘Senno’ (2014)
Often touted as this decade’s Sheena Ringo, Seiko Omori is more Ringo’s spiritual successor than her stylistic heir. While Ms. Ringo continues to make jazz-oriented pop (some rather good), Omori has taken the genre-crumbling ethos of albums like Ringo’s 2003 release Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana and applied it to different styles that are often wilder, more bombastic and more relevant to current music trends. Senno is her most satisfying work thus far. Moulding bits of EDM, folk, electropop and rock behind a façade of conventional pop, on the face of it the tracks here can sound either unstructured and chaotic or discomfortingly normal.
Look a little deeper, however, and Omori’s genre-blending is thoroughly ingrained in her songwriting. Songs commonly have numerous conflicting styles, densely fitted together and arranged as such that the numerous instrumental phases never overshadow each other. The contrasts aren’t just within the music, either. Omori’s lyrics, often sexual, critical and self-aware, juxtapose the joyous instrumentals so that when Senno bursts into catchy, operatic choruses, there’s always a certain, knowing dark humor. And yet, Omori is entirely unpretentious and ambiguous in her intentions; openly admiring mainstream stalwarts and stating that her music is little more than J-pop. There are, therefore, few art pop albums so technically outstanding as Senno, and even fewer that are so modest in their achievements.
8) OOIOO, ‘Gamel’ (2014)
It isn’t often that an artist can tastefully and appreciatively take on the styles and sounds of entirely different, intensely localized and essentially cultural forms and build them into more popular genres. Too often the likes of Drake, Iggy Azalea and Bruno Mars appropriate the culturally important music of others for purely aesthetic and commercial purposes. OOIOO’s Gamel, however, lies firmly in the camp of the former. It approaches Gamelan, a form of indigenous Javanese music, with the intent to thoroughly explore its rhythms and tones. While Gamel is certainly playful, it’s also tremendously effective in enabling one’s appreciation of a genre that many won’t have heard.
It’s difficult not to get mesmerized by the album’s own obsession with Gamelan, frequently sweeping you up in its combination of metallophone, chanting and more standard psychedelic-rock instrumentation. It is, perhaps as we should have expected from Boredoms drummer Yoshimi (née Yoshimi P-We), a percussive odyssey. Easily one of the highlights in experimental music this decade, Gamel is more coherent than any Boredoms release of the last 10 years and is OOIOO’s most live record so far. It firmly establishes OOIOO as more than just Yoshimi’s Boredoms spin-off and is as eye-opening, explorative and unpretentious as great experimental records should be.
7) Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, ‘Nanda Collection’ (2013)
There is no one else in Japanese pop, culture or pop culture like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Fittingly, in the history of Japanese pop music, there too has never been an album quite like Nanda Collection, her second work with producer extraordinaire Yasutaka Nakata (previously of Perfume fame). Like Kyary’s “Harajuku-kei,” Nanda Collection is designed to be sensorially overwhelming; supremely hyper, surreally colourful and primed for virality. That makes it far more than just another idol record but one of the most experimental and progressive pop albums of the decade.
Nanda Collection builds on Nataka’s success with records like Game and Triangle in the late 2000s and yet, while those records reinvigorated techno-kayo, the pop genre made famous by Yellow Magic Orchestra in the 1980s, Nanda Collection is designed to be inimitable, severed from any traditions of Japanese pop. Part of that is built out of Kyary’s persona and the desire to make the music as bright and saccharine as she is, but there’s more to the album than sugary pop. Underneath all the novelty is a wildly experimental pop album. It can feel like deliriously danceable pinball music – and occasionally makes you seriously question your own sanity – but does so in an intelligent, boundlessly experimental fashion. Its neurotic detail and rabid pace take influences from styles as broad as city pop, bubblegum bass, wonky and UK bass, crafting Kyary’s listeners a special ward for their own blissful mania. At this rate, Nakata has redefined pop music twice in two separate decades and, in both cases, no one else has come close to challenging his levels of ingenuity or influence.
6) Tricot, ‘T H E’ (2013)
Math rock (the use of uncommon or non-standard time signatures in rock music, for those of you who aren’t music nerds) doesn’t usually tend to have much by way of pop sensibility. T H E, Tricot’s debut, however, did. It was the rare occasion where an album managed to be both technically excellent and still holster an undeniable grasp of melody. Rightly praised as one of the most innovative math rock records in the genre’s modern era, its production assured catchiness and accessibility and Tricot’s performances reassured of its quality.
Its numerous guitar melodies, performed precisely and arranged minutely, somehow don’t seem convoluted or samey. Ikkyu Nakajima’s expressive, potent vocals don’t overpower the mix but humanize the intricacy of the instrumental arrangements, allowing the terrific musicianship of all four of them to bleed into every moment. T H E doesn’t commit too much to either pop or math rock, but that allows it to benefit from both. It’s technically incredible for a pop album and yet far more revisitable than most math rock works. Though Tricot haven’t really moved on from this sound in their follow-ups to T H E (A N D and 3), it remains an outstanding and fresh contribution to a genre that has never seen an approach quite like it.
5) Sakanaction, 834.194 (2019)
To claim any of 2019’s releases as a highlight of the decade is perhaps a flawed – read: obnoxious – task. It’s far easier to note the influence or long-term viability of a record released in, for example, 2010 than it is for an album that has barely had such a chance to gestate, gather a legacy or mould the musical landscape. However, when it comes to Sakanaction’s 834.194 (Tokyo Weekender’s album of 2019) I’ll throw my hat in the ring.
Gaining a sense of perspective of the importance of recent releases is made all the more easy by such an outstanding work. A work that is so grandiose and technically brilliant; a double album of inch-perfect pop that is both culminative of a band’s achievements and celebratory of the breadth and quality of J-pop as a whole. 834.194 is an extraordinary, game-changing album and it’s difficult to imagine it not tilting the trajectory of J-pop in some way or another.
4) Masakatsu Takagi, ‘Kagayaki’ (2014)
Music commonly expresses the subjective experiences and intentions of those who make it, giving an insight into the life and workings of a particular individual or group. It isn’t often that music can effectively replicate, imitate or embody the human experience more generally. Masakatsu Takagi’s Kagayaki (or Shine), however, does just that. Its 23 tracks, a collection of chamber folk pieces and samples of nature and field recordings, sketch out a world that is tender and joyous, blossoming and expansive.
To me, however, it doesn’t feel like just another musical world but an embodiment of our own, one that is emotional and full of unspoken, familiar experiences. With little but a piano (and a few other chamber folk instruments) and a remarkably broad atmosphere of field recordings, Takagi manages to evoke intense emotion on every listen. It’s the detail with which he carves out his ambient atmospheres that brings Takagi’s piano play blossoming and buzzing into life. There is no overstating just how serene, tender and playful every moment of Kagayaki is. Though Takagi has made plenty of outstanding pieces of chamber folk, none of his other records quite capture the common human experience that Kagayaki does and, indeed, few albums generally manage such a feat.
3) Shinsei Kamattechan, ‘Tsumanne’ (2010)
It isn’t often that a singular sound can be so comforting and yet so surreal as the guitars on Tsumanne. Not unlike shoegaze (the reverb-heavy style of guitar music that came out of Britain in the 1990s) but warmer and far, far more poppy, Shinsei Kamattechan stumbled upon a sound that was at once warm and enticing. Those guitars act as an indescribable bed of comfort, from which the rest of the record attempts to wriggle free.
Bits of synthpop, new wave, post-hardcore, noise rock, city pop, glitch and lo-fi bedroom pop all glisten and blister through the flood of guitar noise; melodies sweeping and sparkling among synthesizers, piano and strings. Tsumanne sounds like dozens of pop bands all playing on top of one another, yet its production somehow allows for this scale without it sounding entirely incoherent. On top of everything, lead singer Noko’s vocals provide a contrast in their tortured, often disturbing content, his delivery ranging from drawls to screams, sometimes pitch-shifted or multi-tracked.
Needless to say, for a record named “boring,” one couldn’t imagine anything less so (especially for a major label debut). The record is inimitable and triumphant, and is unlike any other pop release this decade (or perhaps ever).
2) Melt-Banana, ‘Fetch’ (2013)
Melt-Banana are clearly, and more obviously than most, terrific musicians. While that’s been the case for rather a long time (it’s been almost a quarter of a century since they formed), they’re still no less propulsive, manic and restlessly creative. Fetch, their only statement from the 2010s, takes their particular brand of noise rock to new, stratospheric levels of intensity and technicality.
Yasuko Onuki’s high-pitched, mostly-illegible screams and Ichirou Agata’s walls of static, fuzzy, distorted guitar noise combine with synthetic instrumentation in the form of samples, electro-static and rattling drum fills. Together they whisk through hardcore punk, post-hardcore, noise rock, electro-noise, progressive metal and more, their collective maturity stacking lengthy, methodical numbers against shorter, drilling bouts of mayhem. Fetch trades in noisecore’s usual exhausting, self-aggrandizing, moody seriousness for spiraling, joyous fun and rapturous noise, but that doesn’t dent its capacity for tension and indescribable release.
It’s masterfully-weighted (especially considering its length) to gather nearly-unbearable amounts of tension before releasing it in roars of static and drum fills. And, despite all that, it still never loses sight of something more tuneful. Such is the breadth of their scope and ambition that Fetch even has a recurring instrumental theme running throughout. It encapsulates everything crucial to the longevity and success of Melt-Banana; inventive noise music unlike anything else I’ve heard this decade.
1) Ichiko Aoba, ‘0’ (2013)
The 2010s have been witness to the unlikely, meteoric rise of Ichiko Aoba, one of folk’s most pristine and resonant voices. In an era where music seems ever more synthetic, manufactured and focus-grouped, Aoba presents an antithesis. Her folk is bareboned and unblemished, principally composed of minimalist instrumental arrangements and her sole, stark, intimate vocals. And yet, Aoba’s sound is necessarily modern in that she intelligently utilizes post-production techniques to buttress her sound with deftly-underlain field recordings. As a result, her music is consistently captivating; few operate with quite as much emotion and complexity under the guise of a sound so deceptively simple.
Out of the six studio albums she’s put out so far (and all this decade), 0 is her finest. Incorporating as many original, modern folk elements as she does of Latin folk and the classic sixties revivalists (see: Baier, Van Zandt, Dylan, Cohen etc), on 0 Aoba meticulously works folk into an entirely contemporary sound. Exceptional songwriting fits textured, precise guitar play among rich, measured collages of field recordings. Aoba moves between instrumental phases with sleuthing, almost unnoticeable ease, while her vocals don’t just float atop the mix but saturate every square inch of it.
She’s both welcoming and alienating, reassuring and distant, but always emotive and rewarding. 0, as an all-consuming and utterly affecting folk album, proves that the genre can still be one of the most groundbreaking styles of popular music, and that Ichiko Aoba is its most exciting voice.