Seeing as so many of us are finding ourselves spending far more time inside than usual these days, what better company is there than music? Speaking of which, I’ve actually had almost too much time to listen to music this month. So much so, in fact, that I’ve found more great Japanese music than I bargained for or, more accurately, than I could feasibly find the words to write about.
Before I get into my five favorite Japanese releases for March, shout out to Downy for their first album in four years, Lucky Kilimanjaro’s !magination as one of the most joyful and shamelessly cheesy dance-pop works I’ve heard in a while, Yeye’s typically lush and calmly adventurous 30, and Lemna (Maiko Okimoto), whose Storytelling #1 – Reminiscences of Inner Memory is a terrifyingly effective – if consumingly despondent- melting pot of dark ambient soundscapes and industrial techno.
Yano et Agatsuma, ‘Asteroid and Butterfly’
Ever since their collaboration on Yano’s 2018 album Futari Botchi de Ikou, the prospect of an entire album of music from both Akiko Yano and Hiromitsu Agatsuma always seemed enticing. Asteroid and Butterfly doesn’t disappoint. Yano, the art pop icon and renowned collaborator, and Agatsuma, one of the best-renowned shamisen players of his generation, are predictably a great fit.
Asteroid and Butterfly is the perfect balance of pop and traditional folk. The majority of tracks here are covers of folk songs (or minyo) with ancestry from the likes of Toyama, Kumamoto and Miyagi. The rest are made up of two old Yano songs and one brand new number written by both her and Agatsuma. All of them show the strengths of both Yano and Agatsuma. As a minyo specialist, Agatsumu purportedly plays the traditionalist role, keeping these tracks rooted somewhat in their original form while deftly modernizing them. Yano, on the other hand, adds bits of modern instrumentation like electronica and ambience, turning these sparse folk tunes into full-band efforts.
The outcome is particularly pleasing, but even more so because it is so collaborative. Both Yano and Agatsuma share vocal duties, while both of their instrumental inputs are heard equally. Neither dominate and together they make these modernizations and reinterpretations sound seamless and natural. Asteroid and Butterfly is a rewarding endeavour well worth the time of traditional folk and art pop fans alike.
Moment Joon, ‘Passport & Garcon’
(Grow Up Underground)
Moment Joon loves Japan. It’s important to make that clear because, for the majority of his debut album Passport & Garcon, he is frustrated and critical, occasionally even hostile in his perspectives and politics. Moment is also, unlike most musicians in these roundups, not Japanese. He’s Korean, born in Seoul and now living and studying in Osaka. His rapping is in Japanese but, crucially, it is his content that makes him such an essential voice in Japanese-language hip hop.
The reason that Passport & Garcon makes my list is because Moment captures the individual experience of an immigrant living in Japan like nothing I’ve heard before. He does so with vivid lyricism and multiply-phased beats, rapping through his personal experiences with poeticism and eloquence. He employs (and is capable of) the kind of cinematic storytelling one would associate with Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D City (a line of influence made easier to trace by Moment’s references to Kendrick on at least two tracks).
Also in common with Kendrick are Moment’s themes of discrimination and alienation, and his intent to change society. His topics and the ways in which he expresses them are often uncomfortable. He uses his own struggle to combat those he deems worthwhile, whether it be rallying against politicians and racists, or venturing into personal topics like youth and self-censorship. So perceptive and personal is Moment’s concept that, no matter how deep one tries to get into Passport & Garcon, one always gets the feeling that there is more to read into and uncover.
Passport & Garcon clearly has all the hallmarks of an essential hip hop album, not just because of Moment’s story but because of how expertly he communicates it. Moment is out to change the aspects of Japanese society that oppress him, but he frequently appreciates Japan and Japanese people. Despite being loaded with controversial topics that many may prefer to ignore, Passport & Garcon is most easily read as a love-letter to Japan, with all her flaws. And, if anything sums that up the clearest, it’s Passport & Garcon’s final line: “Japan is Beautiful” – a moment of simple, glaring affection that beams through and reveals something close to forgiveness.
Sunny Day Service, ‘Line!’
One can hardly imagine the pressure upon bands that, in the wake of popular success, still feel the desire to improve and evolve. It must be another kind of pressure entirely that weighs down on those already lucky enough to be deemed culturally or historically significant, the kind whose work has already been written about by music journalists for years, perhaps decades. It must be even more difficult when that band is Sunny Day Service, whose ‘90s output is so widely celebrated, and whose name will be forever tied to the legacy of Shibuya-kei (their 1996 record, Tokyo, is oft-feted as emblematic of the movement’s broad popular impact).
Yet, Sunny Day Service continue to breezily move with the times. Their latest work Line! sees them in the form of their lives. A professionally pleasing piece of indie rock and pop and a terrific latter-career work, it plays to all of their strengths while maintaining complete contemporaneity. The usual Sunny Day Service traits of folk pop, jangly neo-acoustic pop and Beatles-worship are executed with an energy and panache more commonly attributed to the succinct catchiness of power-pop. Line! packs soaring vocal melodies and delightful little guitar riffs into an album that barely exceeds a half-hour, capturing everything one could want from guitar-centric pop music.
But, most of all, Line! shows the longevity of Sunny Day Service. After a hiatus, a bandmember’s death and a few stylistic reinventions (to say the least), they continue to thrive. Line! amounts not only to Sunny Day Service’s best post-reunion album and one that might one day be part of a legacy just as revered as their role in Shibuya-kei, but proves that they are a band whose music is not just legendary, but continues to simply be so easy to enjoy.
Seigen Tokuzawa & Masaki Hayashi, ‘Drift’
Drift is the archetype of everything rewarding about the best of modern classical music. Although rooted in the simple, more typically orchestral combination of Seigen Tokuzawa’s cello and Masaki Hayashi’s piano, the music of Drift strides far beyond what one would expect of a modern classical record. Drift contains compositions from both performers (and avant-garde composer Gavin Bryars) but also unexpectedly covers tracks from electronic mastermind Squarepusher and art-rock, proto-punk pioneers The Velvet Underground.
It’s this deference to modern forms of experimental music like drone, ambient, IDM and post-rock that make Drift so brilliant, but it’s also the music itself. Despite the minimalist solitariness of only two instruments, Drift frequently sounds far larger. It can be haunting and miserable, embracing and momentous. It’s always really, truly gorgeous.
It is one thing to hear Tokuzawa and Hayashi’s respective experiences working with cross-cultural styles, and another thing entirely for the project to be executed so masterfully. Drift is just one example of how orchestral music persists to push boundaries, but the ways in which Drift manages to transcend genre and connect emotionally still manage to astound me.
Haru Nemuri, ‘Lovetheism’
As an EP, mini-album or even just a collection of Haru to Shura afterthoughts, Lovetheism continues to pedestal what makes Haru Nemuri’s sound so invigorating. Some tracks play out in a similar vein to that 2018 debut album, combining noise pop and hip hop with art rock, but it’s the highlights that excite most.
I’m still somewhat in awe of “Fanfare,” the lead single and standout track (that I also included in my song picks in January), which sounds even more experimental in the context of the rest of the tracks here; though the more ambient, dreamy direction explored on the titular “Lovetheism” suggests that Nemuri isn’t done exploring new avenues of noisy pop music.
A lot of the rest of Lovetheism offers more of the kind of hazy, synth-heavy noise-pop that we’ve come to expect from Nemuri. So fresh does her sound remain, however, that it’s difficult not to keep intrigued. This mini-project offers only a few glimpses of a fresh sound, but it only cements her reputation as one of the most exciting innovators in progressive pop.
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