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

TW music writer Ed Cunningham reviews the best albums by Japanese artists released this month

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Coming out the other side of a stricter summer than usual, it seems that this month every artist decided to drop whatever record they’d intended on releasing earlier in the year. Among the best of those has been excellent, hard-hitting hip hop releases from Awich, BIM and Yellow Bucks; power pop icons Veltpunch’s raw, melodic return; one of the most interesting idol releases of the year from the soon-to-be-dissolved Sora Tob Sakana; and 4s4ki’s (Asaki) exceptional post-industrial pop and bubblegum bass follow-up to her debut full-length of earlier this year.

Kenshi Yonezu, ‘Stray Sheep’

(SME)

Over the past decade or so Kenshi Yonezu has enjoyed a steady, almost natural road to pop stardom. After breaking ground as a Vocaloid artist and paying his dues with music for soundtracks and commercials, recent hits like “Lemon” and “Paprika” have seen his stock drastically rise. He releases Stray Sheep from a position of remarkable popularity – it comes with its own global line of Uniqlo collaborations and has already spent some time atop the Oricon albums chart. 

Stray Sheep amounts, therefore, to a significant pop event but it also far exceeds expectations of the usual matters of corporate, big-label, big-agency pop. One has long been able to boil down Yonezu’s success to a few admirable qualities, all of which persist into Stray Sheep

For one, Yonezu’s music is broad and his own. Yonezu dependably covers fresh musical ground, writes all his own stuff and he’s got particular talent for conjuring infectious pop tunes. In spite of those hits, however, he’s also a steady album artist. Yonezu doesn’t shy away from dramatic singles but never pushes them too far, either – his albums are balanced, well-made affairs.

Yonezu’s music also has clear identity. Wrapped in a sleeve of his own artwork, Stray Sheep offers a full hour of pop hits, each one rebelling in a slightly different way to the next. Though less carefree than Yonezu’s Yankee (2012) or Diorama (2014), the variation of elements of accordion folk and electropop, among a general fusion of contemporary R&B with alternative rock, keep him distinctive.

Stray Sheep was clearly an immense undertaking: an attempt by Yonezu to indeed show himself as a “stray sheep” in the so often plain pop charts. In that manner one can only see it as a success: another valid installment of Yonezu’s quality and one of the most rewarding “event” releases of the year so far.

Zombie-Chang, ‘Take Me Away From Tokyo’

(Roman Label / Bayon Production)

“Where’s my toilet paper?” murmurs Zombie-Chang (Meirin Yung) in the opening lines of her latest record Take Me Away From Tokyo, before spluttering into a mix of jabbering percussion and hard EDM beats. Yung immediately sets the tone for the nonsensicality of much that follows, an obnoxiously loud, bluntly entertaining work and a vivid vision of dystopian electronica. 

After a mysterious marketing campaign comprised of teasing songs as a series of questions marks, only to swiftly remove them from streaming services (often before I had the chance to include them in a monthly roundup), Take Me Away From Tokyo is as enigmatic and subversive as such promotion suggests. Seemingly intended as clever pastiche of EDM, the filthy, mechanical nature of its electropop gives Take Me Away From Tokyo the feeling of a guilty pleasure – only behind it all is thoughtful, serious justification.

Yung’s music might appear grimy and blunt but it amounts to an impressively well-thought-out, humorous vision of the future of electronic dance music. One can’t help but be both disconcerted and thoroughly intrigued by the pummelling madness which swings from weirdo-synthpop to boisterous Eurodance and trance.  

All the while, Yung’s vocals vary from robotic repetition to senseless French, adding to the sense of otherworldly strangeness. Frantic, bewildering and serious fun, Take Me Away From Tokyo is an inspired satire on EDM’s egoistic absurdity and Yung’s most entertaining Zombie-Chang album yet.

Min’yō Crusaders & Frente Cumbiero, ‘Min’yō Cumbiero’

(Mais Um Discos)

There’s a lot to be said for music that just oozes joy. The kind that adds a glint to a dreary day, wraps a smile around your face or gets your shoulders and hips twitching. That’s the sort of music that Min’yō Crusaders make by the bucketful.

Min’yo Cumbiero is their latest release, an EP with Colombian cumbia nueva maestros Frente Cumbiero. Luckily one doesn’t have to hold a thorough knowledge of either traditional Japanese min’yō (folk tunes) nor of Colombian cumbia, a folkloric music and dance style known for its soft, rapid rhythms, to thoroughly enjoy Min’yō Cumbiero (though, if you do, this is probably what you’ve always dreamt of). 

The EP consists of a cover of a Chinese kung-fu computer game, one cumbia classic with Japanese vocals and two ancient Japanese festival songs. They’re all chaotic, large scale efforts, each track crammed with tonnes of instrumental shifts and scattered with influences well beyond simply min’yo and cumbia. 

Despite the apparent chaos, Min’yo Cumbiero is fitted together immaculately. Anchored by solid composition, it’s arranged so that the fusion between the groups is fluid and natural. It emphasises the skill and enthusiasm of the performances and infectiousness of the rhythms. Min’yo Cumbiero is  terrific and, jammed into such a short time frame, I can’t think of a better, more uplifting way to spend fifteen minutes. 

Chelmico, ‘Maze’

(unBORDE)

Chelmico embody so much that is compelling about Japanese hip hop in 2020. MCs Mamiko and Rachel are two of the most versatile, energetic rappers around, known for wilfully flinging themselves on eccentric instrumentals that most other rappers would steer well clear of and reliably transforming them into pop rap bangers.

Since 2016 they’ve averaged at least one release every year and, on each occasion, have worked with ambitious new styles and shown significant artistic growth. Back in January, the release of “Easy Breezy”, a TV show theme tune, became Chelmico’s breakout hit but it also hinted at a newer, greater brilliance than was shown on any of their previous records.

A punky hip hop track based around a third-wave ska-style guitar loop, “Easy Breezy” was Chelmico’s most ambitious (and best) track so far. Since, it’s been followed by an array of singles that have ranged from hip house to folk pop, all of which one would assume were too stylistically-divergent to logically fit into a single album.

And yet, in some of the best sequencing I’ve heard all year, all of those tracks make it onto Maze, Chelmico’s broadest, most consistent and most experimental feat yet. “Easy Breezy” opens an album that covers genres as diverse as downtempo, nu-disco, electropop and experimental electronica. Meanwhile, Chelmico are joined by the likes of nu-jazzist Hakushi Hasegawa and rappers U-zhaan and Toshiki Hayashi (%C), among many, many others – none of which detract from the cohesion of the album as a whole. 

Maze is a diverse, well-assembled, well-performed and pioneering Chelmico record – but none of those descriptors really capture why it’s so enjoyable. Maze is of such carefree, unchecked pleasure that it’s best heard to be believed, one of the most essential Japanese hip hop releases of 2020 so far.

Avissinyon, ‘Avissinyon’

(Self-Released)

The following ominous message amounts to the sole content of the Bandcamp information page for the self-titled debut record from Avissiniyon: 

“We play the role of projector and mist in your brain

The home in the home record refers to the whole city of Avissiniyon where is the city that may really exist”

“Avissiniyon” appears to be the name of a conceptual city visualised in the tracks of this EP, while the artists involved are roleplaying projector and mist, possibly imagining and distorting the image of  said city for their listener. Avissiniyon is also nearly a syllabic translation of “Abyssinian”, the name given to the people of the old, now-broken-up Ethiopian Empire… 

As you’ve probably guessed, I haven’t a clue what any of this is supposed to mean. The concept of Avissiniyon has whooshed so far over my head that I couldn’t have craned my neck sharply enough to see it go. In more concrete terms, Avissiniyon is a collaborative EP from Ohzora Kimishima and Uami. Kimishima is a wizard of arty, electronic contemporary folk and Uami, a relatively new artist, seems relatively un-pin-downable – though her material similarly tends towards folk and singer-songwriter stuff. 

One doesn’t have to understand the bigger picture of Avissiniyon to enjoy it for what it is. Each song here has a lovely story, sung beautifully. The folk tracks are played with a particularly rustic, physical manner that is both homely and solitary, while Kimishima’s usual eclectic mix of glitch, distortion and pop fit perfectly, without distracting from the stories or overall atmosphere. 

While the meaning of Avissiniyon almost entirely eludes me, the beauty and skill on display certainly doesn’t. In only the length of an EP, it accomplishes its own particular atmosphere and establishes listeners’ interest. Needless to say, it’s well worth seeking out and a project I’m looking forward to hearing much more from in the future. 

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