Best Japanese Albums of 2023

Japanese artists released some fantastic albums through 2023. Here are my faves.

Tujiko Noriko – Cr​é​puscule I & II

Over 20 years since her era-defining release Shojo Toshi on Mego label, Tujiko Noriko’s latest album is a world away from that. Since then, a poignant evolution has taken place, both at the label — now Editions Mego — and in her own sound. Dedicated to the label’s founder, Pita Rehberg, who passed away in 2021, Cr​é​puscule I & II is a gorgeous tribute to someone important, from an apprentice who became a master herself. Since I heard the album in February — a little late for TW’s monthly round-up — it has been on repeat throughout the year. Fantastic to sit and think to, work to and sleep to, it is a beautiful, sensual exploration in the subtleties of sound.

Upon first listen Cr​é​puscule I & II feels like you are dipping into a calm body of water while relaxing lakeside. Second listen, however, begins to unearth its body of treasure, glinting sound fragments hidden among deep, drawn-out tones. With each hearing, you’ll discover something new. Give it a go.

Gezan with Million Wish Collective – Anochi

Back in February, I found myself “coming back again and again” to this album and testified that it got “better with each listen.” Nearly one year on and this sentiment still stands. Gezan’s album Anochi, with 15 local Tokyo musicians joining as Million Wish Collective, is an addictive, bagpipe-laden, riot-raising affair. It’s also deeply layered with clattering percussion, dad-rock guitar riffs and a trombone.

The album’s core message is an overarching theme of peace, which it undertakes in an unconventional way, shouting from the rooftops and through heavy chords murmuring with bass and reverb. Yet within the chaos and calculated mayhem, the album poses some tender moments. “Tokyo Dub Story” is mainly an acapella track, composed of voices upon words, highlighting concepts such as the algorithm. It builds into a kind of loneliness before subsiding.

Yurufuwa Gang – Journey

Yurufuwa Gang, a formidable duo of Nene and Ryugo Ishida, released Journey at the end of June this year. Make no mistake, this is not an album to have you thinking about the meaning of life. Unless, of course, your main goal is to get high and ignore responsibilities for as long as feasibly possible. This is music to jump around the kitchen to, or have a one-person party while you get ready for work or to head out, and maybe even have a minor head bang as well. As a complete work, the album is satisfying, boasting an introduction which sounds just like it’s taken from an airline announcement, until the announcer name-drops “Yurufuwa Gang.” But an airline is an apt analogy, as we trust you’re strapped in for the ride.

“Ms Groove & Mr Freaky” pops up midway through as a feel-good jungle track, with Die Antwoord-esque vocals repeating a refrain you’ll be familiar with by the second verse. “Do it Like Me” speaks to the sucker-punch new rave culture springing up in Japan. While you’re listening, I recommend you watch this Boiler Room to get a sense of how this would go down in the club. But the album isn’t all high energy. “Electric People” has Balearic vibes and “Journey” is an emotional reminiscence, reflecting how far the double act has come.

I’ve been blasting this album for half a year now, with no signs of stopping. A minor obsession.

Maya Ongaku – Approach to Anima

I enjoyed Maya Ongaku’s debut so much that I invited them to feature in the coveted TW music pages, where the four-piece chose their favorite albums.

As a band from Enoshima, the sun, sea and sand influence is hard to ignore, as Approach to Anima brings the seaside to wherever you are. And it’s the kind of seaside that works regardless of the weather. It may be freezing cold on a winter’s night, but inside is toasty and the plodding, unhurriedness of each song lulls you into a warm comfort.

Whether the track at hand has fully formed lyrics like “Melting” or merely snippets a la “Description of a Certain Sound” is irrelevant. Each possesses the power to soothe and balm, a welcome tincture for your ailments. And for almost any other time, too. Put this album on when you’re at the park for a hanami or when friends visit as you’re making dinner. Also good to listen to on the train, this is an album for all occasions and we trust you to make the most of that.

Approach to Anima is a fantastic debut, and I’m excited to see how Maya Ongaku progresses moving into 2024.

Goat(jp) – Joy in Fear

The third and long-awaited album from Koshiro Hino’s band project, Goat(jp), Joy in Fear features machine-like drumming and rhythms so tight they’ll have you screwing your eyebrows searching for a miss in the pattern. It is a lesson in precision and pointillism, uncategorizable by conventional genres. There’s probably some jazz in there. Maybe some experimental sounds. And possibly some rock too.

I loved Joy in Fear because of the band’s sheer fearlessness to create something original. It’s a testament to the power of its five members. Even the second track name: “III I IIII III” reads like a drum pattern or even drum sticks themselves. It’s an interesting journey that Goat(jp) takes their listeners on. As the album progresses, we (the listeners) become sensitized to the patterns and frenetic structures its drum, saxophone, guitar and bass create. Every pause or change in the rhythm had me reacting without realizing. Each lull or hushed beat becomes a jump or implores us to listen harder.

A magnificent album that you’ll whip out to impress friends.

CreativeDrugStore – Wisteria

I had high expectations for Wisteria after I interviewed CreativeDrugStore (CDS) member, DJ Doooo for TW, and he dropped the news that the crew was making an album. It didn’t disappoint. As to be expected with a crew that has more than 10 years experience gigging in Tokyo, the first collaborative album from all its members is an accomplished piece of work.

The strength of the crew’s bond shines through, and VaVa doesn’t hold back with his lyrics, poking fun at the other members, like on “Taste Test” where he jokes about DJ Doooo’s advanced years. The lyrics in English are on point as well: “My success is determined by me,” had me nodding in approval. Wisteria boasts upbeat songs to have you waving your hands up, and darker sounds too, leaning into sampling like the kind from Dilla and older Common. I’ll be listening to this well into 2024 too.

Special Mentions

These albums were great, too.

Masahiro Takahashi – Humid Sun

I put on Masahiro Takahashi’s ambient album at almost every chance I got, when the sun was shining or when I was in the bath. Gorgeous, soothing soundscapes from the producer, everyone I introduced it to loved it. Meditative music at its absolute finest.

NTsKi – Calla

A previous guest of Tokyo Weekender’s music pages, NTsKi released her sophomore album Calla on the Kansai-based imprint, EM Records. In stark contrast to her debut, Orca, her latest offering sees the singer joined by four band members, playing guitar, synth, drums and bass.

Ermhoi – Junebug Rhapsody

Junebug Rhapsody is a sublime work of floating sonic textures and explorations. Irish-Japanese singer Ermhoi’s voice bobs around the soundscapes she creates in each song. Each track on the album introduces a new Ermhoi dream world, jumping through hoops and swimming down sunbeams. I’ve listened to this so much over the past year, it’s criminal.

Best Japanese Singles/EPs of 2023

Ogre You Asshole – Outside the House

I ate up the funk bassline and smooth productions on Ogre You Asshole’s most recent one, popping it onto my repeat list straight away. Krautrock-inspired rhythms and Moog-inspired synth make for the type of release you’ll be listening to over and over.

Tamanaramen – Telepath

A haunted drum & bass lullaby, Pikam Watanabe guides us into “Telepath,” the sister-duo’s last single of 2023. I’ve put this one into numerous playlists since it was released and can testify that it fits with pretty much everything.

Nina Utashiro – Better

There is a time we all want to scream “just like you only infinitely better” from the rooftops. As the hook to Utashiro’s single from 2023’s Operetta Hysteria, we found ourselves playing this perhaps more than we should have done.

Ryoto and The Franchise Owner – Bad Boy

Ryoto Ohara, lead singer of the band Tempalay, blessed us with another hilarious video and accompanying track back in April. I love his tongue-in-cheek music as Ryoto and The Franchise Owner, and “Bad Boy” is no exception.

Sunny Only 1 feat. Mori – Dance Like a Monkey

This summer anthem came courtesy of Sunny Matsushita, also known as Sunny Only 1, joined by Mori. I enjoyed this all summer long, which is saying something seeing as summer lasted until mid-October this year.

Bed – 130

As a band that has been a defining feature of the Tokyo scene over the past year, I couldn’t leave them out of the top music list. The track “130” harnesses Bed’s bottomless energy source and throws it at the wall, bouncing off again and again. Set this as a wake-up alarm tone, I dare you.

Meta Flower – The Priest

The rapper and sculptor, Meta Flower, reached new heights with The Priest. Enlisting the help of producer Miru Shinoda from Protest Rave helped bring a depth to the production previously unseen by the artist, and had me playing it throughout 2023.

Maria – Perfect

Simi Lab member Maria released “Perfect” which heavily samples Linda Yamamoto’s 1970s hit “Nerai Uchi.” Maria’s lyrics injected enough sass to keep me going through to the end of year lists. Play this and sing along for a confidence boost.

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