Remembering every album that had a major impact is difficult to do, not to mention entirely subjective. For this list, we kept it as objective as possible. To ensure a varied selection, we included albums from a range of genres, from pop to rock, experimental to hip-hop.
10. Zombie-Chang – Stress de Stress
Hearing that Meirin aka Zombie-Chang prefers staying in to going outside was somewhat surprising considering that her third album makes us want to go out. The album features a pumping, somewhat aggressive selection of songs, from the bass-heavy “Switch,” an ode to computer gaming and a middle finger to men trying to pick up, to “No to Ieru Genki,” a nearly 200-bpm bashing track that does not hold back. Standing on the verge of gabber and PC music, Meirin half-raps and half-sings over the relentless bassline.
An album without a reprise, Stress de Stress is a soundtrack to stress release, akin to punching a boxing bag 300 times to get the pent-up feelings out. We reckon Meirin must have felt very relieved to get all that stress out.
9. Hikaru Utada – Bad Mode
One of Japan’s biggest pop stars burst back onto the scene in January 2022 with their newest album, Bad Mode. The album cited production credits from some of the biggest names in dance music, including AG Cook (Beyonce, Charli XCX) and Floating Points.
Utada has never been one to stick firmly to one style, and Bad Mode slips through R&B, pop, house and even EDM with a guest appearance from Skrillex. Every listener will find at least one track to relate to as a gateway to the album. Judging by the press and high reviews the LP received, Utada has gained more than just a few new fans.
8. South Penguin – R
South Penguin released its sophomore album in March 2022 to critical acclaim. Headed by frontman Akatsuka, and with a revolving lineup of members that includes contemporaries Roth Bart Baron, R is a sparkling, accomplished affair.
Jazz drums, slack guitar and even some bongos make an appearance on the meandering “Fancy.” “Gadja” heralds South Penguins’ lauded collaboration with Japanese experimental hip-hop group Dos Monos. The collaboration is fantastic teamwork, despite Akatsuka confessing that his only knowledge of hip-hop was Porno Graffitti. He only reached out as he heard hip-hop was “popular right now,” apparently — which might be what makes this such a great collaborative track. The charged opener, “Vitamin,” also features NGS from the band.
The album bows out with a satisfyingly layered instrumental, “N.T.” The perfect album for home listening, as well as an ideal lonely hearts type: accomplished, calm and assured.
7. Awich – Queendom
Yentown member Awich released her major label debut in March with Queendom on Universal. A defiant, brazen ode to her Okinawan home and the events that have shaped her past few years, Queendom paints the picture of a queen’s homecoming.
The title track opens the album with swelling beats and emotional proclamations. Next up is “Gila Gila,” featuring JP the Wavy and YZERR. “Yacchi Maina” is a drill-influenced, frantic recollection of taking what isn’t hers alongside KOHH collaborator Anarchy.
Closing out with a reflective monologue, Queendom is the rapper firmly cementing her well-earned star status.
6. Taro Nohara – Hyper Nu Age Tekno!
Stones Throw-affiliated producer Taro Nohara aka Yakenohara headed in a different direction this year.
His March release, Hyper Nu Age Tekno!, saw him take an altogether different approach from the rap via which he made his name. Hyper Nu Age Tekno! is a cosmic trip mixing subtle ambient melodies alongside shimmering modular pads.
The first track, “Space Debris,” really does conjure up space debris vibes, if space were compact, and concludes nicely with popping synths and a consistent drumbeat towards the end. “Airplane Without People,” with squelchy acid and playful Vocaloid samples, isn’t quite as eerie as the name suggests. “Music for Psychic Liberation” is the most downtempo of the album, melancholic before the closing title track sweeps everything to a close in a whir of hardware.
This was followed in August by a spacey ambient album, another delicious listen.
5. Hatis Noit – Aura
A stirring sophomore release from London-via-Japan artist Hatis Noit. Inspired by her Ainu heritage, with elements of gagaku and Nepalese ritual singing, Aura is an emotional trip, featuring predominantly vocal arrangements interspersed with field recordings. As Hatis Noit has previously claimed to dislike the studio, Aura is impressive in that it features mainly live recordings, expertly remastered, “re-amped” and “re-looped” for the album.
The title track sees operatic transitions and Meredith Monk-esque vocal quips and squeaks. It is difficult not to be moved by Hatis Noit’s voice — raw, vulnerable and powerful in its versatility and range. The artist is clearly influenced by her roots, as shown on “Jomon,” an ode to the ancient Japanese civilization. “Inori” features recordings from the Fukushima power plant and is undeniably emotional.
4. Shintaro Sakamoto – Like a Fable
Veteran Japanese musician Shintaro Sakamoto is still going strong since disbanding his cult band Yura Yura Teikoku. Like a Fable was released back in June and stayed on our playlist all year.
The opener, “That was Illegal,” is a slow-chugging number, complete with a trumpet, plodding along over Sakamoto’s half-spoken vocals. The album gets into more upbeat territory with the next song, which could easily be a brass-band number. “You Still OK?” features slack guitar and foreground percussion with snappy hi-hats. Sakamoto’s vocals groove along upbeat, joyously asking “Are you OK?” [CLOSER]
It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Sakamoto’s contemporary, Haruomi Hosono. Putting them onto the same playlist is an obvious thing to do. And recommended. Like a Fable soundtracked many of our countryside car drives and slow evenings through 2022.
3. The Hatch – Shape of Raw to Come
While previous releases saw The Hatch compared to the likes of Fugazi, The Shape of Raw to Come sees the raucous Hokkaido band veering into Death Grips territory. In The Shape of Raw to Come, a coming-of-age album for the band, we can hear singer Midori confident to sing huskily, comfortably holding his space.
With “Volvo” setting the scene for a contemplative second half of the album, tracklisting is on point, too. “Step Inna Rain” is as close to jazz as the group has come. A jazzy instrumental unlike the other tracks on the album, “Step Inna Rain” sounds like pals having a refined jam, in the best way. The album swerves through rocky, heartfelt tracks before closing with the plaintive “Discharming Us.”
Shape of Raw to Come showed a new direction for The Hatch, and we can’t wait for more.
2. Hitomi Moriwaki – Subtropic Cosmos
Fukuoka-based Hitomi Moriwaki released her first album in nearly 10 years on the label Guruguru Brain, home to the likes of minimal wave outfit Minami Deutsch. Recorded between 2020 and 2022, the album is by definition a COVID composition, floating with fever dreams and wandering consciousness that stray through each of Subtropic Cosmos’s 12 tracks.
A fantastically varied, diverse album that gets better with each listen.
1. Kikagaku Moyo – Kumoyo Island
Slack guitar psychedelic crusaders Kikagaku Moyo released their farewell album, the fantastic Kumoyo Island, in May.
Opening track “Monaka” lulls in crooning vocals as the two frontmen begin to deconstruct the title, and Ryu Kurosawa’s twanging sitar gently washes along the song’s beach of percussion. “Dancing Blue” pulls us into a gleeful cowboy-style groove to the ice-cream-stand bassline while the effervescent “Daydream Soda” does what it says on the tin (or can?). Distant drums chug along sluggishly in the background of the track, overlaid with delicious-sounding twinkles and crackles.
“Yayoi Iyayoi,” the most rock-inspired track on the album, is a rare instance of a song sung in their native tongue. While, personally, “Effe” seems more of a nap song than the album’s actual “Nap Song,” the latter ushers in surf over murmuring guitar licks to round off a track that does indeed feel, by the end, like a track you could nap to. 10/10 farewell album and one that we’ve had on repeat the whole year.
If you’re a Japan-based musician and interested in featuring here in 2023, please send any forthcoming releases over to editor[at]tokyoweekender[dot]com and include the subject line: “FAO Music Editor.”