2012 in Review: Favourite Korean Albums

This year was definitely one of consolidation rather than discovery, thanks to the fact that I no longer have lightning-speed internet (farewell forever, Tokyo!) and also because I’m back in the labour force (goodbye, free time).

Not much else to say so let’s get on with the list.

Guilt-free. eAeon

There are less than 10 albums I’d consider as having ‘changed’ me, in the sense that they changed my tastes in, and the way I listen to music. Radiohead’s OK Computer is one of them. sleepy.ab’s Palette is another. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to put Guilt-free in the same elusive category, it is just that amazing. In some ways, it’s similar to those two albums I mentioned – dark, intense and incredibly emotional. You don’t even have to understand a jot of Korean to feel the raw power in eAeon’s voice or to appreciate the intricate arrangements and instrumentation (you can even listen to all that on a second disc of minus one tracks!). I can’t really find adequate words in my limited vocabulary to praise Guilt-free enough, it is just a 100% perfect album for me.

SPARKLE. Humming Urban Stereo

I find it funny how Shibuya-kei is practically dead in its home nation, yet it’s still being kept alive in Korea by people like Clazziquai and this guy here. It’s taken him 5 years to make a new record and it only comes after the tragic death of humming girl Lee Jin Hwa, but boy what a great album SPARKLE is. Really commercial but that’s not a bad thing, its sing-a-long-ability is the main reason why I’ve had it on repeat in my car stereo for the last month or so now. It’s definitely a lot less mellow than Baby Love or Purple Drop as well, with a definite focus on dance and electropop – those songs featuring Brown Bunny from Instant Romantic Floor are just sick.

Primary and the Messengers LP. Primary

He’s the hippest producer in Korea, possessing plenty of old-school hip-hop sensibilities, possessing a keen ear for catchy hooks and having friends in high places. This is where you’ll want to start if you know nuts about Korean hip-hop.

1st Album + Repack. Busker Busker

These guys are not going to win any awards for creativity with the simple love song that is their forte, but what they do is sing with plenty of heart, emotions fully on display on their sleeves. It’s just music that makes you feel happy, fills your heart, and soothes your soul.

Pink Revolution. Annyeongbada

While their last album City Complex knew absolutely what it wanted to be – that is, a shamelessly generic pop record meant to appeal to the brainless masses, Pink Revolution has absolutely no idea who it is or where it wants to go. It’s a bit like throwing darts at the wall and seeing what might end up sticking and for once, I can forgive that lack of direction when the result is something as gleeful as this.

Who Doesn’t Like Sweet Things. Hot Potato

Kim C had already delivered an impressive album this year with the ambient soundscapes of Priority but I think this serving of good ‘ol rock’n’roll by his band is even better. If you missed The Black Skirts this year, try Hot Potato for something similar.

SPACEenSUM. Daybreak

Very similar to Annyeongbada’s album with its tendency to hop around various genres, this time under the pop banner. There isn’t any one style the guys stick to; one minute it’s folk music, the next minute it’s electropop. Almost like a greatest hits compilation, in fact – everything here is catchy enough to be a title track. Not often that you find a record that makes you want to cry, dance, break walls & jump around in joy, sometimes, all at the same time. I’d recommend listening to it in small doses though, it can be a shock to the system to hear so much weird stuff going on over the course of a dozen tracks.

Overcome. Achime

I was very lukewarm on their first album Hunch; that one just felt like it was lacking a little something special that would’ve made it more than merely ‘good’. I think they’ve really found their groove on Overcome. The songs are better developed, like they’ve put a lot more thought into the structure and more effort into the instrumentation…a lot more polished, if you like.

Supersonic. Younha

Her stint on I Am A Singer hasn’t really done her any favours and isn’t a great advertisement for the super Supersonic. Previous albums were just OK for me, this one is quality all the way through. It’s one of the few Kpop CDs I actually felt compelled to hand over good money for a copy of and it was well worth every won. Run is already a very special song but Younha’s vocal turned it into a work of wonder.

Eclipse. Tete

It’s been two pitches, two strikes for the former(?) Telepathy bassist. Last year’s Romantico was already very good, this follow-up blows it out of the water. I don’t know what the Korean equivalent for 歌謡曲 is but Tete’s sound feels like that, owing much to the traditional styling of ’90s Kpop ballads yet keeping it contemporary by infusing it with soul and Latin flavours. Lovely cameos from Han Hee Jung & fromm are just the icing on the eight-tiered wedding cake that is Eclipse.

Yonyonson. Lee Lang

In a depressingly overproduced, manufactured Kpop landscape Lee Lang stands out with her raw, unpolished psychedelic folk style and passionate delivery. I used to obsess over this kinda music back in my teens when I was going through my Damien Rice and Badly Drawn Boy loving stage and it seems so strange to me how this kinda stuff which is so common in the West – think of Bon Iver, Damien Jurado, Basia Bulat & a hundred million others; could be so alien to Asians. That’s talking from experience; none of my friends understand how I can listen to and like folk music. I just tell them they have no soul.

3rd Kind. Kingston Rudieska

I hadn’t found any decent ska band to listen to following The Miceteeth’s split a couple of years ago, ’til I chanced upon Kingston Rudieska. Now this is real good stuff, the kind of ska I like – not the pop/punk variety (ska-core), but the type that is melodic, relies on lots of brass and is mostly instrumental, with definite nods towards blues, swing and jazz. And that’s what these guys are all about! 3rd Kind is a godsend to my ska-deprived soul and I’m really looking forward to digging into their older stuff to see if it’s as good as this one.

Grace. 9 & the Numbers
It’s taken them three years to follow up their self-titled album in between side projects but the results are not disappointing in the least. They show inclination to copy The Smiths and The Stone Roses wholesale this time around, choosing instead to inject their own infectious brand of nostalgia. I approve!

10 Years of Misunderstanding, Verbal Jint
It’s a bit more laidback and melodic than Go Easy was but the quality is consistent throughout. The track with Sanchez from Phantom was one of my jams this year.

Principle of My Soul. Naul
Now this guy’s voice is truly precious! That falsetto of his is really something…even America don’t make Motown-influenced records like this no more.

Différance. Jambinai
Modern traditional Korean music, if that makes sense. It’s pretty freaky-sounding actually, but very intriguing. I’m curious to hear what they come up with next.

Koreans do Engrish emo-rock reasonably well too.

May 2013 bring us fewer idol group debuts.

2012 in Review: Intro
2012 in Review: Anime Music
2012 in Review: Favourite Japanese Albums


Jay Chou – Opus 12

When I first got into Jay’s music 12(!) years ago, it was his vocals that really grabbed my attention off the bat. His songs are the usual Mando-ballad dross but the way Jay lazily drawls and slurs his way through them has always been for me, his one USP that set him apart from all the other pretty boy singers out there. For him to use autotune on a song that didn’t need it (手語) here is silly & pointless, and rather hypocritical in the face of his recent anti-Hallyu comments. What’s so “Chinese” about this record Jay? You’re just using the same, tired old tricks that every other Kpop act and wannabe Asian r’n’b artist does anyway – stealing lines and beats from the American urban music scene. Only difference is that your lyrics are in Mandarin and besides, you didn’t write most of them anyway (hi there Vincent Fang). Hardy har har.

The rest of Opus 12 has Chou’s usual mix of soaring piano ballads and horrible hip-hop/rap. Of the former, 明明就 and 紅塵客棧 are the kind of material he’s been churning out since time immemorial; if you liked 星晴 and 東風破 etc, you’ll have no problem loving those songs. Of the latter category…well. I’ve hated a lot of Chou’s weird attempts at innovation over the years – that cowboy song whose name escapes me,  all his bombastic heavy metal-rap war songs (驚嘆號 etc) and so forth, but 公公偏頭痛 really takes the biscuit. Obnoxious laugh at the beginning? Check. Annoying, repetitive chorus (公公 公公 etc)? Check. Rapping that sounds more like mumbling with marbles in his mouth? Check. God, the song makes me want to hurl teacups against the wall. I’d rather listen to Gangnam Style.

So yeah if this reads like a typical Jay Chou album review, it’s because Opus 12 is a typical Jay Chou album. Amazing at times, infuriating at others. As far as I’m concerned he’s well past his peak musically and should just do movies. I enjoyed his performances in The Green Hornet and The Viral Factor.

2012 in Review: Favourite Japanese Albums

I can’t pinpoint exactly when it started, but I’ve developed an intense loathing for the music made by bands I loved for so, so long. Mr.Children, Spitz, Bump of Chicken…it was good while it lasted, but I can no longer bear to listen to the soulless claptrap you guys produce. Where’s the passion, the innovation? Why not try incorporating the sounds of hair-dryers, trickling water, weird beeps and bloops into your music? If you ain’t got triangles, cowbells and didgeridoos in your songs, you’re no longer cool!

I’m only half-joking, of course. It is true that I have lost my patience with the trend of promising young rock bands turning into conformist zombies once they get that all important major label record deal, but that annoyance only lasts about 12 seconds when I realize there’s a treasure trove of exciting new acts out there waiting for me to discover them. And boy, have I made a lot of great finds this year – had a really tough time narrowing it down to just 12 picks but I’ll try.

Again, the list is in no particular order.

Doubutsu no Karada. haisuinonasa

Zankyo Records and its various imprints is home to many of Japan’s most exciting indie acts of the moment: té, Mudy on the Sakuban, perfect piano lesson and texas pandaa, just to name a few. And now we have haisuinonasa, a quirky five-piece whose music defies genre pigeonholing – as their official profile suggests: “if you are into polyrhythms and ostinatos, you’re in for a treat”. Doubutsu no Karada builds on the good work of their first two EPs, treading familiar musical ground on post-hardcore/math-rock logos and the ambient electronica of 水の形、面の終わり , plus they even deliver three songs with proper singing and *gasp* melody lines. haisuinonasa is an assault on the aural senses – in a strictly good way.

Ikutsu mo no E. Itsue

It would be so easy for bands like Itsue to get lost in the never-ending shuffle of shoegaze/post-rock bands without a gimmick or a USP, so thank heavens for frontwoman Mizuki. Having a charismatic female lead vocalist can easily drive a band from being ordinary to something superb – just think of Mikami Chisako (fra-foa), Shiina Ringo (Tokyo Jihen) or UA (AJICO), and that’s what Mizuki does for Itsue. Pity that this album came too early to include 海へ還る, an absolute stonker of a song they just released a few weeks ago.

Tenkousei. Tenkousei

Apparently Tenkousei aka Mizumoto Natsue prefers to write songs when she’s angry, which might explain why we end up with songs titled 人間関係地獄絵図 (Relationship Hell) or lyrics like “Even if you feel like dying, there’s nothing I can for you”. Musically, she inhabits the same bubblegum ballad space as songstresses aiko and Hitoto Yo but lyrically, she’s their antithesis, spewing strangely bitter words over sugary piano lines. きみにまほうをかけました (I cast a spell on you) is perhaps most typical of Mizumoto’s unnerving approach – clocking in at 5 minutes long, the song has but 12 lines of lyrics, which go ‘I cast a spell on you (7x) / in your sleep / to you (whom) I can’t see / I’ll sing you a song / I’ll cast a spell on you’. How sinister.

My Little Imperial. Nakada Yuji

Nakada was for all intents and purposes, the heart and soul of Tsubakiya Shijuusou, writing and singing all the songs and being the only face to feature on the cover of the group’s first two albums. It’s no surprise then, that he’s doing just fine without his band members as he continues his crusade to find kayokyoku a place in mainstream rock, dishing up some of his best work with FUTEKI and 春雷.

Hakken. Hora

Hora (formerly Shibata) is the moniker of Nagano-based musician Miyashita Kazuo, who in addition to recording and producing his own songs, also heads tiny independent label Kore Records. Miyashita’s downtempo, laidback style owes more to the ambient folk influences of Kicell than say, famed bedroom musician Shugo Tokumaru’s dreampop soundscapes. The music is already excellent but he tops it with a crazy array of song titles ranging from the mundane: 山 (Mountain), 祭日 (Holiday) to the utterly bizarre, including three songs named after people:  ジョセフ・マクモニーグル (Joseph McMoneagle, a remote viewing expert), イ・デホ (Lee Dae Ho, a Korean baseball player) & タイエ・タイウォ (Taye Taiwo, a Nigerian footballer). On his Twitter account a couple of weeks ago, Miyashita pondered whether he should attempt bringing his music to Tokyo, and he well should. There aren’t many out there making music of this quality in the entire world, let alone Tokyo or Japan.

Uzu ni Naru. Kinoko Teikoku

True to their name (which roughly translates as Mushroom Empire), these very talented kids peddle a brand of addictive  melodic post-rock that seems to hint that they’ve had more than just a little help from magic spores. Endorsements from Nakamura Koji and Kinoshita Riki might have caused lesser acts to collapse under the weight of expectation, but not these guys. It’s no-frills guitar rock, punctuated by Satou Chiaki’s lazy but brash vocal delivery style and they even have the cheek to namecheck NUMBER GIRL on one of the song titles. The best is surely yet to come.

Shinkirou. Pirokarpin

It really has been a case of making up for lost time for founder & frontwoman Matsumoto Chieko, who formed the band after advertising for members on the internet back in 2003. Having turned major this year, Pirokarpin has quickly put out two LPs and Shinkirou wins out over Maboroshi Anthology for its stronger, more anthemic body of material. And yeah, Spitz’s Kusano Masamune has given the band his rubber stamp of approval so there’s no reason not to trust his good tastes now.

Manon. Akira Kosemura

On paper, it seems like a horrible mismatch: hip young ambient/electronica musician tasked with penning the score for a localised rendition of a French opera? You gotta be smokin’ something really strong there, bro. Except it’s not quite so funny when you hear it in execution. In fact, it’s a 80-minute long work of beauty spanning two discs and is more breathtaking than any other soundtrack or movie score heard in 2012. Eat this, Hisaishi.

Loveless Letter. Suck a Stew Dry

As soon as the best young rock bands flee the indie nests into the arms of the mainstream, another set of young pretenders will magically pop out of the woodwork to lay their claim on the throne. With the likes of Galileo Galilei, NICO Touches the Wall and Base Ball Bear all having sold their souls to the money devils, Suck a Stew Dry are one of the newer bands to emerge in the scene. Typically, they possess irrepressible energy levels and endless optimism as they cheerfully sing about their hopes and dreams..for now. We know it’ll all come crashing down in a hail of drugs and cynicism a couple of years down the road so we’d better enjoy it while they’re still all about sunshine and unicorns. And hey – even if they don’t make it big at least they’ll leave a great legacy of having one of the dumbest band names I’ve heard in recent times.

Kusuguru no Album. Kusuguru

Odd to share a band name with a Pokemon, of all things. Kusuguru is a collaborative project between small-time solo musicians Ando Akiko & virginfish/Ijii Akira. The low profile of both musicians means it’s not surprising that the arrangements are pretty bare bones – most of the time it’s just an acoustic guitar, some effects and the pair’s contrasting voices. This sparse approach however, allows the strength of their songwriting to shine through: who needs fancy bells-and-whistles production when you’ve got a good song and a good voice? Very affecting, heartfelt stuff.

Beautiful Stories. Tarachine

Why it’s taken the group 6 years to produce a follow-up album to their 2006 debut 桃源郷 is a mystery. Maybe bassist Degawa Mikiko (from texas pandaa) was too busy? I was worried that the long gap between releases might see them going heavy metal or something equally crazy but nope, it’s the same minimalist folk style fans will be familiar with. The one thing I’d like to complain about is that Kishi Mayuko doesn’t sing nearly enough – Kuwahara Okihiro’s deep-throated growl does tend to get annoying after a while.


Yes, this is still my happy record for 2012.

In Focus. Shugo Tokumaru
Mainstream success has for now, not marred Tokumaru’s playful psychedelic pop symphonies.

Geiger Counter Culture. Urbangarde
Ups the ante from Mental Hells by amping the weirdness to max.

Sun in the Rain. LOVE LOVE LOVE
A welcome return to form for the chirpy rock trio.

flowering. TK from Ling Tosite Sigure
I might not have hesitated quite so much to put it on the list of twelve if it didn’t sound identical to a Ling Tosite Sigure album.

eye. mitsume
Very fine stoner psychedelic dream pop.

Looking back, last year’s list was totally mainstream and this year’s…is so far left-field. Sorry for swinging from extreme to extreme, I’m just 二重人格 like that…

2012 in Review: Intro
2012 in Review: Anime Music

2012 in Review: Anime Music

I didn’t do one of these last year? How strange.

Anyways, 2012 was a bit of a see-saw year for me with regards to anisong, which I think reflects the state of the anime industry as a whole. Fewer and fewer shows that I would consider watching are being made; that means anything that doesn’t focus on harems, breasts and underwear. The kind of anime targeted at my demographic (older, female) that actually made it into production turned out to be…less than satisfactory. I’m referring to things like Sakamichi no Apollon, the second season of Moyashimon and Natsuyuki Rendezvous. Kamisama Hajimemashita was the only show to buck the trend…but I guess I’ll talk about that on a post on some other blog.

At least I can count on there being a few dozen half-decent opening and ending themes every year. Soundtracks were a bit more iffy though. Most of my choices this year came from shows I spent 3-6 months getting cozy with and even so, I wouldn’t really think of any of them as being potential all-time classics on the level of .hack or Someday’s Dreamer. They were just the pick of a dreadfully ordinary bunch.

Lastly, vocal anisong albums (seiyuu, bands & the like). Honestly, I didn’t think there were more than 5 releases that I’d consider ‘above average’ all year long so I’m not doing a list for that. Instead, I’ll just mention who I liked in brief.

I don’t know if I would consider fhána ‘anisong’, their tenuous link to the industry is through Vocaloid, some work with Choucho and the fact that Tada Aoi features on one of their songs. Oh, and they sold their fantastic New World Line album at Comike. They’re just a bunch of doujin musicians with caricatures a la Sayonara Ponytail, but they’re very, very good. Definitely my favourite otaku-related CD in 2012.

Next would be coincidentally, another singer with ties to the doujin/Niconico scene – Choucho. I don’t normally say this about Lantis peeps but they’ve done good with her so far; excellent choice of songwriters and a string of strong singles makes her my favourite anisong artist this year.

Also, mad props to Hanazawa Kana‘s team – her solo career has been handled very, very well with material that fits her limited voice like a glove. I actually look forward to her single releases now!

Lastly, a special mention for Okamoto Nobuhiko. Even if his singing is a bit off, he still did one of my absolute favourite songs this year in 未来スケッチ (Mirai Sketch), off Palette. Rest of the album was…not very good.

On to the lists!

5 Favourite OSTs & Image Albums

Jinrui wa Suitai shimashita OST. Otani Ko
I haven’t really expected Otani to ever top his wonderful score for Haibane Renmei but he comes close with this one. Very close indeed.

TARI TARI Music Album~Utattari, Kanadetari~ 1 & 2. Hamaguchi Shiro
Like the show, the music isn’t perfect but there are more than a few bright spots to warrant its inclusion.

Natsuiro Kiseki Image Album. Ito Masumi
Nijine’s soundtrack for the show was only lovely in short, sharp bursts. Ito’s image album of instrumentals however, is another strong piece of work from her.

Chihayafuru OST1 & 2. Yamashita Kosuke
My fondness for the music grew as the show progressed, watching the kids grow and mature with swelling pride that matches the soaring strings of the soundtrack. Sequel coming soon!

Shin Sekai Yori OST1. Komori Shigeo
The show is a right shambles so far but the music has been very good at matching its moods, which seem to be swinging from schizophrenia to paranoia to exuberance, sometimes within a single episode.

etc: Natsuyuki Rendezvous‘s soundtrack turned out to be utterly dull. No, I don’t like Tsuritama. Or Kanno Yoko. I just don’t. Kajiura hasn’t done anything good since Kara no Kyokai.

Incidentally, my favourite soundtrack of 2012 is Gontiti’s score for the Going My Home dorama.

20 Favourite Theme Songs
Not in any particular order. And I only care about the music so I don’t give a toss if the accompanying video is just 1 minute 30 seconds of floating clouds or whatever.

1.Luminous. ClariS [Madoka Magica movie theme]
Every ClariS release has me sucking in my breath before I hit play, wondering if it’ll be ‘good’ ClariS I’m getting, or ‘bad’ ClariS. Cos when they’re bad, they’re terribad (ie Naisho no Hanashi). No prizes for guessing which of those categories Luminous is in.

2.Requiem. Hiiragi Nao [Tasogare Otome x Amnesia IN] *YT*
I had no idea who Hiiragi Nao is before this. Her site seems to establish her as an accomplished street musician & those raw performance skills are reflected in her nasal-but-not-to-the-point-of-annoying vocal.

3.Wareta Ringo. Taneda Risa [Shin Sekai Yori ED] *YT*
Since I’m completely clueless about seiyuu these days, a great way to make me sit up and take notice of new talent is if they sing decently. Taneda’s had major roles in two anime I’ve watched this year, plus a voice that’s easy on the ears so she’s definitely on my radar now. Shin Sekai Yori is a bit hit-or-miss but this song is extremely good.

4.Houkago no Yakusoku. Yoshitani Ayako [Nazo no Kanojo X ED] *YT*
A great pop song that mayyyybeee could’ve been sung a little better if Kitagawa had been able to make use of one of his regular girls (Maaya, Nino etc), but I won’t complain too much.

5.Black Holy. Komatsu Mikako [Moretsu Pirates special ED] *YT*
This reminds me a lot of how most anime themes used to sound in the early-to-mid 2000s before denpa, idol and moe crap started taking over. They don’t make ’em like this any more…

6.Shirushi. Kitamura Eri [C3 OP2] *YT*
I used to be a fan but KitaEri’s OTT nasal delivery has been getting on my nerves of late. Shirushi however, is very nicely done and great for people who liked Mizuki Nana’s older songs.

7.Hana no Atosaki. Mao [Hakuoki Reimeiroku ED] *YT*
It’s obvious that I am very keen on the Anze Hijiri + Mao/Duca pairing and this song continues that good form.

8.sign. Ray [Ano Natsu de Matteru OP] *YT*
Classic KOTOKO not done by KOTOKO. She should’ve saved this song for herself.

9.Kill me no baby!. Akasaki Chinatsu & Tamura Mutsumi [Kill Me Baby OP] *YT*
There was no way I was going to forget or leave this off! It is bloody annoying from start to finish and easily ranks in my list of ‘top 10 most weirdass anime themes’ alongside the Kemeko DX ED & the Excel Saga ED. Gotta give this a shot in the karaoke next time I’m in Japan…

10.Kamisama Hajimemashita. Hanae [Kamisama Hajimemashita OP] *YT*
It appears quitting Soutaiseiriron has not weakened bassist Manabe Shuichi’s penchant for using breathy-voiced female vocalists.

11.Kokoro no Kara. Team Nekokan feat. Amaoto Junca [Kokoro Connect ED1] *YT*
The best thing to come out of Kokoro Connect. Is it a coincidence that the show went to shit when they changed the ending song?

12.Iolite. JOY [Eureka Seven AO ED2] *YT*
They reminded me a lot of nano.RIPE on this song, turns out their other stuff is even better.

13.Manten. Kalafina [Fate/Zero special ED] *YT*
I wish Kajiura would do more of this kind of sweeping, sorrowful Kajiura song rather than all that crappy techno-trance shit that FictionJunction produces.

14.Junjou Spectra. Zwei [Robotics;Notes OP] *YT*
Zwei’s ties with 5pb has seen them making some great, underrated songs for the Umineko, Memories Off & Robotics;Notes game franchises and now the duo has finally gotten an anime tie-up. A suitably epic one too.

15.Altair. Hata Motohiro [Sakamichi no Apollon ED] *YT*
The best thing to come out of Sakamichi no Apollon.

16.Kanashimi wa Dare no Negai demo nai. Yuuki Aira [Kyokai Senjo no Horizon II ED] *YT*
I guess you could think of Yuuki as a bit of anisong veteran by now but this is the first of her songs I’ve taken a shining to. Sounds a bit like Kuribayashi Minami did when she was actually making good stuff.

17.Oato ga Yoroshikutte…yo!. Sakura Ayane, Koiwai Kotori, Yamamoto Nozomi, Nanjo Yoshino & Goto Saori [Joshiraku OP] *YT*
There has to be one of these type of songs every year, individually terrible seiyuu singers who somehow manage to sing in tune when put together. The anime was a bomb for me but this song stuck with me like an earworm.

18.DAYS of DASH. Suzuki Konomi [Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo ED] *YT*
Suzuki’s my favourite of the Animax Anisong Grand Prix winners so far. I really like the energy in her voice, it’s perfect for upbeat anime themes like this and her other very nice single CHOIR JAIL.

19.happy endings. Hanazawa Kana [Zetsuen no Tempest ED]
The best thing to come out of Zetsuen no Tempest.

20.Kimi to Boku wa Soko ni Ita. AiRI [Gundam Age IN]
Another one of those instantly catchy songs that harks back to stuff from a decade ago. AiRI’s always been one of my fave doujin/eroge vocalists back when she was known as UR@N so it’s great to see her going ‘mainstream’ now.

Close but no cigar
Vidro Moyou. Yanagi Nagi (Ano Natsu de Matteru ED)
Himekuri. Sadohara Kaori (Upotte!! ED)
Kaze no Naka no Primrose. Ceui (Koi to Senkyo to Chocolate ED)
Zutto. Sakou Tomohisa (Kimi to Boku.2 OP)

Yeah my tastes are very different from most other people. I’m proudly old school!

Some complaints:
・Most of the Shonen Jump shows’ newer songs are awful
・a big NO THANKS to classic English-language rock songs being used in anime (Jojo)
・TK musta been asleep when he wrote abnormalize (Psycho-Pass OP)
・Fujifabric guys (Tsuritama OP)…just. STAHP IT. Retire the name ffs, you’re killing Shimura’s legacy
・Someone needs to shoot whoever decided to remix Okazaki Ritsuko’s Friendship for Sukitte ii na yo. Utterly pointless
・My god Supercell has been absolutely shit this year

That’s it for 2012. May moe die in 2013 (such wishful thinking…)!!!

2012 in Review: Intro

2012 in Review: Intro

Oh dearie me, another year has passed already?

So this is a prelude to my yearly ritual of listing my favourite albums (and this time, I’ll do individual tracks as well) released over the last 12 months. There’ll be quite a few of these posts over the next couple of weeks as I cycle through the three music industries I devote most time to: namely Japan, Korea and the English-speaking world.

Some quick thoughts before I get into the thick of things:

K-indie vs J-indie, Kpop vs Jpop
I think I’m just about reaching saturation point in terms of researching and experimenting with Korean music after a flurry of new discoveries throughout 2011. This is partly down to language limitations, but also because I haven’t really hit across anything that’s wowed me the way people like 10cm, Yi Sung Yol and The Black Skirts did last year, and I’m fast losing interest as a result. Evidently my tastes differ from those of the general Korean rock and indie-loving crowd: I don’t get what is so great about Guckkasten, find Nell’s music dreadfully dull, think Epitone Project is way too sappy and Urban Zakapa..well. They’re just downright embarrassing . And no, I don’t think much of Casker or The KOXX either.

The conclusion I’ve drawn is that that much of the Korean indie scene is too mellow for my tastes and lacks the sort of cutting edge that makes its Japanese equivalent brashly experimental and unpredictable. The blurring of the lines between indie and the mainstream in Japan allows acts as weird and diverse as Sakanaction, Ling Tosite Sigure, Shugo Tokumaru and Soutaiseiriron to flourish on the pop charts and in the livehouses, whilst Korean rock bands are rarely seen on the charts or on TV shows, bar Top Band & the occasional guest appearance on Yoo Hee Yeol’s Sketchbook. Of course, I’m looking at a smaller sample size with Japan’s population 2.5 times that of Korea’s as well as the stumbling block of the chaebol-dominated structure of the the latter’s music industry. That still doesn’t excuse the ridiculous amount of coffee table music (yes, that’s referring Urban Zakapas & their ilk) they churn out every year.

That said, there is interesting stuff going on in the Korean waters, one just has to look that much harder especially when you live outside the country. One aspect where Korea really excels for me is in music rooted in the more traditional pop formats of acoustic guitar-based pop, soul and hip-hop, things that the “obsessed with cute teen idols” Japan are notoriously badly at doing and we see how that easily translates to success on the world stage – as fun as Momoiro Clover Z is, they’re just too weird and “Japanesey” to have any hopes of appealing beyond their borders. Yes, that means I fully support Kpop in the Kpop vs Jpop wars..but only when we’re talking about which industry I believe is better geared towards achieving international success.

PB R’n’B
PB R&B, hipster r’n’b, whatever you wanna call it – that unique mesh of soul, garage, rock and everything in between has been my jam for 2012. It was people like James Blake, New Look and the xx, artists that kicked off the trend, making music that transcended genres: thinking out of the box, if you will. My curiosity naturally snowballed from there and along came Miguel and Frank Ocean to seal my interest. Throw in a bit of new soul and blues sensibilities from the guys trailing in Adele’s wake – Lianne La Havas, Michael Kiwanuka and Jessie Ware, and we’ve got a whole new ballgame going on that will hopefully, shape the pop landscape for the future. The Grammies have done well to pick up on the interest, though I continue to be perplexed by the world’s obsession with the folk tragedy that is Mumford and Sons.

Chinese music dulled the wits off me this year. And Jay Chou is an absolute tit.

Let’s get down to it then. Sit back and enjoy, get ready to discover. I’ll post YT links..if I’m not too lazy.

(2012.12.15) Sungha Jung live in Kota Kinabalu

16-year old fingerstyle guitarist Jung Sungha stopped by my hometown for his Borneo tour last night. It was an interesting set where he obviously tried to cater for the rather youthful local crowd with covers of popular Kpop songs and Western chart hits mixed in amongst original material, some of which will appear on his third album due next year. There is a new duets CD coming in a couple of days as well that sees Sungha collaborating with some very talented Japanese guitarists including Tanaka Akihiro, Sumide Masa and Okazaki Rynten, which was available for preorder after the concert.

I skipped out on getting that (prefer to get it on iTunes whenever it’s out), as well as the autograph session (not my thing) but I did enjoy the music itself. As mentioned, the majority of the crowd seemed fairly young; teens and early twenties, so it wasn’t too surprising that the songs that got the biggest cheers on the night were things like G-Dragon’s 그XX and Gangnam Style. I don’t think too many people actually recognized Sejahtera Malaysia or the Mario theme, tunes that were most popular in the early 90s…before Sungha himself was even born, hah!

Personal favourites for me included Nostalgia and Sorry, two new self-composed tracks that’ll be on the new album, and 人生のメリーゴーランド, which is strangely not one of my favourite Hisaishi tunes cos it sounds like everything else he’s ever done, though Sungha’s rearrangement was very easy on the ears indeed. It was cool that he did some quick reworkings of the local classics as well, though his limited language abilities meant he couldn’t remember the titles, leaving the crowd to work it out for themselves.

Overall, decent live if a bit too short for my liking – but then again, I am the sort of freak who is used to 5-hour Anisama & SM Town marathons hoho. Also, minus points for the publicity and advertising for this event; a lot of people didn’t even know Sungha was coming to KK, let alone them being aware of the fact that he was doing a meet & greet session in 1Borneo the night before. Relying on Facebook for promo just isn’t good enough these days, resulting in quite a lot of empty seats on the night..which isn’t encouraging for artists, and for this shithole-I-live-in’s live entertainment scene.

2.Payphone (Maroon 5)
3.That XX (G Dragon)
5.Rasa Sayang
6.Sejahtera Malaysia
7.Creep (Radiohead)
8.Theme of Lupin III (Ono Yuji, arr. Tanaka Akihiro)
9.Somebody That I Used to Know (Gotye feat Kimbra)
10.Super Mario theme
11.Christmas medley (Jingle Bells-We Wish You a Merry Christmas-Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer-Silent Night-Feliz Navidad)
12.Gangnam Style (PSY)
14,Jinsei no Merry-go-round (Hisaishi Joe, from Howl’s Moving Castle)
15.Phantom of the Opera (Andrew Lloyd Webber)
16.Guitar Boogie (Arthur Smith, arr. Tommy Emanuel)

My next set of lives should be in Osaka at March-end, to end fourteen long months of not seeing Girls’ Generation! 2013 is gonna be a good, wallet-busting year for us Sone…

Rabbit – Rabito

Supergroups are a dime a dozen in the Japanese rock scene from killing Boy to The Predators to LAMA, but Rabbit has to rank as one of the more curious projects to date. Somehow, a bunch of seasoned musicians from rock bands THEATRE BROOK, Coldfeet and Jagatara have managed to snag (or get themselves saddled with, depending on how you look at it) popstar Otsuka Ai as their frontwoman, which would be a fine coup if she wasn’t such an atrocious singer. Promo song Nikki provided the biggest hint that Otsuka had gotten way in over her head with Rabbit, her shaky vocals being drowned out by Minami Sasuga’s. It’s a shame because there is plenty of good material on Rabito (the kanji for the title is 裸人, literally ‘naked person’) that a more competent vocalist could’ve turned into gold. There is UNLOVE, which is an angry rock song except Otsuka sings it with all the venom of the Easter Bunny. The only times she seems really comfortable are when she’s singing things she composed herself (泡ガール, 半熟たまご) or on vocally-unchallenging pop songs (HoloHolo).

Don’t get me wrong, I really like Otsuka Ai but I just don’t rate her as a ‘serious’ singer. She should stick to the cutesy stuff, or just write songs for other people. Not everyone can be a Shiina Ringo.

Lee Seung Gi – Forest

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I clicked that download button. After all, this CD combines two things I inherently loathe – smarmy Lee Seung Gi and sickly sweet Epitone Project. Surely combining them would lead to a disaster of epic diabetic proportions?

Well, well, well. Colour me surprised, I really like the album. Like everything Epitone Project does, the songs are sweet and sentimental but subtly so, definitely not cheesy in the way that his last album was. 되돌리다 is getting all the plaudits thus far, managing to win Music Bank with Lee not even being there to promote it but the song that really gets me is title track 숲, which Cha wrote especially with him in mind. It’s a fairly typical piano-and-strings ballad but what sells it for me is his delivery, heartfelt and with just the right amount of emotion. It’s the first time I’ve thought ‘Wow, this guy sounds good on CD’. 

I still don’t get what it is that makes housewives & grannies love Seung Gi so and yes, part of me still wants to strangle him for that horrendous performance of Time for Love he did with Yoona but I can just about forgive his past atrocities on the strength of Forest. Maybe I should watch some of his dramas to see if my opinion changes…

Mizuki Nana – Rockbound Neighbors

Mizuki’s first studio album in two-and-a-half years, which is an eternity by fickle Jpop standards. A lot has opened over that period, suffice to say she’s cemented her place in the mainstream with endless appearances on popular TV shows so much so that I sometimes forget that she is a voice actress.

To be honest, I’d always thought that Mizuki’s integration into the Jpop industry would herald a change in style or allow her some creative control: perhaps, she might finally be allowed to indulge her love for enka? Well, one listen to ROCKBOUND NEIGHBORS is enough to render that as pure wishful thinking. Now how do I put this politely? Let’s just say, the album is indulgent and excessive. It panders to the masses. Preaches to the choir. It’s everything a Nana fan would have hoped it to be. And that’s fine, Nana knows that she needs to keep her legion happy. Which isn’t good news for the rest of us, meaning that we’ll have to put up with things like cringeworthy PVs featuring a 32-year old woman prancing about in a cute waitress outfit.

For all the time and energy her people have ploughed into making Nana’s transition a success, I’m still not 100% convinced that she’s selling records to that many people outside her core wota fanbase. Of course, the good thing is that she has an boatload of those loyal fans who aren’t abandoning her ship any time soon. And so, the material on ROCKBOUND targets these people – all of you who loved all her Nanoha themes, those who melt into a puddle of mess whenever she goes churu churu churu paya pa; there’s plenty of fanservice for you here. Like Discotheque? Try Lovely Fruit! Loved Heart-Shaped Chant? How about STAR ROAD? Which is lovely for longtime fans, but good luck finding new audiences with dreck like the overblown album opener Avalon no Oukan.

It’s hard to see where Nana’s headed in the future. She’s already gone as far as she can in the anisong world; Kohaku, Tokyo Dome, Oricon – she’s conquered them all. The only logical step would be to expand overseas but given Japanese companies’ ineptness in marketing their acts outside their homeland, the best we can hope for is something like a world tour a la L’arc~en~ciel.

Nanba Shiho – Otome Shikkaku.

I really liked Nanba’s last album. It was the perfect balance of bubblegum and quirk, offering something really fresh and different from the dross other girls her age (she turned 19 this year) are churning out. This success of course, was only made possible by the very capable musicians who provided their songwriting services and it is to this core group that Nanba turns to for her follow up. Cymbals drummer Yano Hiroyasu plays chief architect once again, having a hand in composing or arranging 6 of the 11 tracks. Two of his compositions (MUSIC Shojo, Futatabi) seem to hint that he’s been listening to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Perfume a little bit too much for his own good, though he at least he had the sense to leave the autotune button alone. Yano always seems to work best in partnership with his Cymbals bandmate Asako Toki and the two come up with one of my favourite tracks on Otome Shikkaku.Canopus. It’s quite similar in style to Tabun, Seishun from the first album and I like its simplicity, Nanba’s girlish tone allowed to shine against a piano-and-strings backdrop.

Elsewhere, there’s more of the same as what we heard on Mizuiro Generation, kotringo and Miyakawa Dan (formerly of Love Tambourines) the other returning collaborators, whose styles are stamped all over their respective tracks. Your liking of that work depends on how fond you are of eccentric piano ballads or Shibuya-kei music. Of more interest to me are the new names on the guest list: Hata Motohiro’s Kami o Kiru 8 no Riyuu we’ve already heard (here) and two others match his splendid contributions; Suemitsu Atsushi hitting the target yet again with his power pop title track and Kirinji’s Horigome Takaki’s dreamy blues ballad Sayonara Princess. Blues veterans Kirinji seem to be keen supporters of Nanba indeed, younger brother Yasuyuki having written a song for her first album. The outlier here is Isawa Ichiyo’s Barabara Battle. Typical of the former Tokyo Jihen man, it’s raw, abrasive and lacking discernible hooks or melodies. The song might’ve worked better with vocalists made of tougher hide, say Kafka Shishido or Kominami Yasuha. But it’s just not Nanba’s style and marks the one blemish on a remarkable pop album.

I haven’t really looked into why Otome Shikkaku (lit. ‘Maiden Failure’) is titled as such, but it certainly seems fitting in the context of Nanba and her career. Scouted at 12, debuted at 15, turned major at 17 – this looks like the typical female pop idol path. Except Nanba has been fortunate enough to meet and work with the right people, working her way up from playing to uninterested crowds at tiny livehouses in her hometown of Fukuoka to having HALCALI, Base Ball Bear and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu guesting on her THE NANBA SHOW live events. Definitely not your typical cheerful teenage idol. It’ll be interesting to see how Nanba’s career unfolds over the next 10 years in comparison to the Itanos and Kasais of the world, how she’ll further evolve in the entertainment industry (she already does some voice work) and whether she’ll eventually pen her own material.