Ed’s Picks: Top 5 Japanese Albums of June 2020

TW music writer Ed Cunningham reviews the best music coming out of Japan this past month

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While not necessarily a busy month for Japanese releases in general, June has had more than its fair share of albums that are particularly notable or important – in my eyes at least. The five in the list below are my favorites but they had stiffer competition than any other month so far this year.

Among those other releases, there’s a great story behind the minimal neo-soul of Jonah Yano’s Souvenir, a broad, tender album that explores themes of identity, loss and reconnection, while easy-listening legends Paris Match released their first record since 2015, the professionally pleasant Round 12.

1. Daoko, ‘Anima’

(Toy’s Factory)

Daoko’s Anima is a very particular kind of futuristic hip hop project. She’s experimental, looking towards the limits of current styles, but also immersive: Daoko’s music has long been distinct in that it is visualising and imaginative, often appearing to border on science fiction.

Her sound seems largely unclassifiable, a blueprint for a genre that mixes the vocal delivery of hip hop with bold electropop and club beats, all with the accessibility of J-pop. Daoko also has a distinctive overall atmosphere: Anima employs current elements of left-field electronica like post-dubstep and IDM but is bound together by a wider atmospheric depth shaped by an insistence on everything synthetic.

In her vocal delivery and lyrical themes, Daoko herself is just as distinctive as her instrumentals. She can rap on and off beat, sing her hooks and whisper through spoken word bridges. Her lyrics, here often themed around the notion of anima in terms of soul or life, could be as much dystopian or a comment on an alienating society as illustrative of Daoko’s view of the world. Through themes that include emotional disassociation and the technologizing of her relationships, Daoko’s lyrics are full of remarkably vivid, picturesque metaphors.

In its futurism, Anima goes beyond the limits of most mainstream hip hop. Yet in its lyrical eloquence, it remains thoroughly impressive within the current confines of the genre. It is both a cold, synthetic album and an astute, emotionally lucid one, an arresting and versatile work.

2. Takuro Okada, ‘Morning Sun’

(Only In Dreams)

Takuro Okada’s Morning Sun is folk rock of a different ilk, an album of strong songwriting and crisp production that never forces its brilliance. In fact, it rarely forces anything at all. Okada’s music is so pleasing because it mostly sticks to a simple approach that doesn’t overload his songs with too much instrumentation or too many phases.

That kind of stripped-back formula, without centerpieces or moments of ostentatious instrumental prowess but with an emphasis on an uncluttered, finer-tuned whole, is sorely underrated. Morning Sun gives clarity to each instrument through immaculate arrangements and earthy, breathable production, allowing Okada’s somewhat abstract, very pretty lyrics to swirl throughout.

The achievements of the sound that so emphasizes Morning Sun are owed somewhat to engineer Toshihiko Kasai, known for his work with Skirt, Tim Hecker and Ichiko Aoba among others, who is evidently skilled at valuing the space between each instrument. But a lot of Morning Sun’s distinction comes from Okada himself, his songwriting being both measured and patient but also capable of unfurling towards heights of drama and volume.

One doesn’t necessarily have to do so much that is individualistic and explicitly remarkable for the total effect of something to still be outstanding. Morning Sun is testament to that notion, a distinctive, compelling and affecting album.

3. CVN, ‘Egg’

(Self-released)

Since the millennium, there haven’t been many names in Japanese experimental electronica so prolific or exploratory as Nobuyuki Sakuma. Whether at the helm of chillwave duo Jesse Ruins or under his guises of Cold Name and CVN, Sakuma’s work in glitch, IDM, sound collage and club music has been foundational for a Japanese scene that is more fruitful than ever before.

In recent years, Sakuma’s work has been heavily influenced by hip hop. His latest, an EP entitled Egg, is even more hip hop-centric, though this is the kind of hip hop that transforms one’s perceptions of just how wild and off-kilter the genre can be. No doubt due to the fact that Sakuma has never really been a hip hop artist, the beats on Egg are fractured, hyper and sometimes a bit deranged. Up to the task of rapping over them are Valknee and Dos Monos’ Botsu, while Dove sings over the more mellow final track.

Valknee is unfazed by Sakuma’s post-industrial clangs and bullets of bass while Botsu works over an equally difficult, pulsing instrumental. Dove’s track is far less coarse, though her role is instead to add to Sakuma’s spaced, alien and eventually triumphant tune. Egg is sometimes a difficult listen but it’s also thrilling – a pioneering, cross-genre veteran’s take on hip hop’s multidimensionality.

(Also, if bought on Bandcamp, all proceeds go to Black Lives Matter.)

4. Stereogirl, ‘Pink Fog’

(Chigakushitsu)

The term “stereo girl” is supposed to be slang for a kind of “perfect rocker”: a mix of punk, goth, emo, raver and indie (if I’m off, blame urban dictionary). Compared to those cross-scene terms, Stereogirl, a young five-piece band from Tokyo, might not be quite so broad – but they aren’t actually that far off.

Stereogirl combine punk rock simplicity with the melodic elements of indie rock, spun through a punch of thick, alt-rock layering and shoegaze-esque feedback. They are, in their music and interviews, particularly indebted to some of the most notable British and American rock acts of the past half-century. Pink Fog, their debut, has compositional references to Britpoppers Oasis and the Stone Roses and obvious nods to the Velvet Underground (the cover is a nod to the Velvets’ Loaded), while their interviews routinely discuss influences similarly found in the gig scenes of London or New York.

Nine tracks of forthright, danceable rock that fashion Stereogirl’s inspirations into something surprisingly fresh, Pink Fog isn’t unique but it is entertaining and wholly unpretentious. It’s also performed with an admirable sort of wholehearted vigour. At festivals all over the globe, Stereogirl have been gradually adding to the hysteria over their loud, simple and danceable indie rock – Pink Fog justifies the hype.

5. Aki Onda, ‘Nam June’s Spirit Was Speaking to Me’

(Recital)

Nam June’s Spirit Was Speaking to Me was ignited upon artist and sound designer Aki Onda’s visits to Seoul’s Nam June Paik Art Center in 2010. After days spent performing surrounded by some of the most reputable works of the 20th century avant-garde, Onda retired to his hotel room and turned on his handheld radio. What he heard led him to believe that “Paik’s spirit [was] reaching out to me” and, over the next few years or so, inspired him to conduct “séances” as part of his own homage to Paik.

Onda’s recording of that experience in Seoul is heard as the first track here, while his séances in Cologne, Lewisburg and Wroclaw follow. Given that Nam June’s Spirit is supposedly inspired by Onda’s unconscious, that it’s inherently reliant on listeners’ abstract thinking, and that it invites association – perhaps even comparison – with an icon of modern art, it would have been easy for Onda to slip into silliness, self-absorption or self-importance.

But he doesn’t. Nam June’s Spirit is so conceptual and open to interpretation that it can’t help but be a rather appropriate, somewhat intimate homage. It’s also tremendously interesting – Onda makes full use of the mystery of radio to create cascading loops and static storms, engrossing in their hypnotic rhythms. Nam June’s Spirit does, of course, require a leap in terms of how willing its listener is to leave everything up to interpretation but, so far as tributes to legendary artists go, there are few so suitable.

 

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