Once again, we’re at that time during which a lot of people on the internet decide to share their favorite records of the year, along with some thoughts on each of them, which I decided to do again this year. So without further ado, let’s get to this!
20. Monari Wakita — I am ONLY
The list kicks off with Monari’s first album since she left Especia in 2016. Featuring a playful mix of city pop, funk, and a pretty obvious influence of both Japanese and international 80s pop, I am ONLY manages to show different bits of Monari’s identity as a solo artist, while giving her space to develop what seems to be her own post-Especia sound (both in terms of vocal performance and musical influences). Even if nothing about this album seems to have the intention of being a revolutionary, game changing statement (which can be painfully obvious in tracks like Inori no Kotoba), it’s nice to see that, under a little more than a year of solo activities, Monari is gearing up to become a really solid act on her own terms.
19. Taichi Mukai — BLUE
Taichi Mukai’s first full-length album has him departing from the more electronic sound showcased in 24 and going even further down the R&B/pop direction hinted in PLAY. BLUE builds up on a sound that’s heavily influenced by current international pop trends (to the point where most of this record feels like it could be played at any club without it feeling out of place), which results in an album that presents itself as fun and sleekly produced, but not without space for more emotional numbers or a wider variety of sounds. Even though this release represents a departure of the more club oriented sound that initially got me into Mukai’s music, not only does this new sound fit his voice in a really nice way, but it also showcases a more mature and confident performer.
18. Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister — Planetarium
Sufjan Stevens was probably my biggest (and incredibly late) musical discovery of the year, which means I spent a good chunk of 2017 discovering many sides of his extensive work. For this album in particular (which provides studio recordings fora series of tracks that have been performed at different live venues since 2011), Stevens enlists the help of collaborators like Dessner, Muhly, and McAlister in order to create a record that aims to musically represent our solar system, with each track standing in for different planets or space bodies (a feature mainly achieved through mythological references inserted in the lyrics). This concept is approached through a combination of Stevens’ wide and dramatic vocal performance, luxurious orchestral arrangements, and a variety of electronic sounds that seem to exist within the record to evoke a sense of nostalgia for the first years of the so-called space era. One might argue that the duration of some pieces (and of the whole record) might play against it, but I think having so many lengthy pieces in a release about the Solar system makes this release feel as vast as the universe, which is probably the feeling Stevens and company were going for.
17. Satellite Young — Satellite Young
Playful, cheesy, and incredibly catchy. Satellite Young’s first album exists with the self-proclaimed ambition of “bringing the 80’s popular Japanese sound to the future” and it really does deliver on that front. Along its 12 tracks, this undeniably 80s inspired album not only blasts you with an endless array of synths, but it also plays the nostalgia card by appealing to equally cheesy lyrics (Senpai don’t graduate being both a great example of this and a personal favorite of mine), which feel like a really heartfelt callback to previous eras. Another strong point about this record is that while it feels like the whole effort is meant to be taken as a funny, tongue-in-cheek product, you can really feel the commitment the band had to make it so atmospheric and believable, which really makes it stand out among releases of this kind.
16. Toro y Moi — Boo Boo
This album represents my first contact with Toro y Moi in ages (something caused, as embarrassing as this sounds, by the incredible levels of discomfort the Underneath the Pine cover art produce on me), and I couldn’t be more glad I decided to check this one out. Boo Boo is a perfect balance of funky beats and ambient sounds that, combined with a vast usage of synths and autotuned vocals, manages to create an incredibly capturing atmosphere that has Chaz Bundick crooning about love, solitude, and self-pity in a way that never really gets to the point of feeling phony or excessive. I still owe to myself a visit to all the Toro y Moi material I’ve ignored during these recent years, but at the same time I cannot recommend this release enough, it’s an incredibly solid listen from start to finish.
15. Yanakoto Sotto Mute — BUBBLE
Perhaps the best produced idol release of the year, BUBBLE manages to stand out from other rock-oriented idol projects by distancing itself from the usual metal influenced sound adopted by many so groups. Instead of this, what this record offers at first listen are more restrained guitar and drum works (think punk-rock or even grunge), which are accompanied by really solid vocals. None of this might sound particularly outstanding when put into words, but the way this album builds itself alternating between these more traditional numbers and tracks that flow between a more somber and experimental sound (like horoscope, Lily or sputnik note) allows the listener to discover a group with really polished sound, that shines through in their controlled (almost to the point of feeling a bit restrained) performance. All in all, BUBBLE is a great album, one that should be recognized by the refined sounds that make most of it, and by the way this apparently “restrained” record actually adds up to the identity of one of the most unique currently active idol projects.
14. Nao Touyama — Rainbow
Seiyuu albums are always a tricky deal, being that they usually feel like collections of anime tie-ins that come with some pretty blatant filler tracks. Luckily, this isn’t the case for Nao Touyama’s full length debut under her own name (the singer had previously released a full character song album for The World God Only Knows). Fitting to its name, Rainbow is a colorful record that has Nao performing a variety of songs that, while generally leaning either towards a friendly electro sound or the standard anison numbers, allow her to showcase her dynamic and playful voice along without it feeling like the whole record is overstaying its welcome. If I had to complain about something on this album it would be the fact that Nao doesn’t use her lower register as much as I expected her to. Other than that, this is a really sweet release that feels like it was planned with a bit more in mind than having all her previously released singles compiled on a single disc, and the result couldn’t have been more charming.
13. MINAKEKKE — TINGLES
From the bright and colorful Rainbow, we move forward to moody and atmospheric TINGLES. This was easily one the most fresh and organic debut records I listened to this year. Every track felt like the layering of vocals and instruments was just right, and just when you’re getting too used to general sound the record’s taking you to, it changes directions to something different. Even if TINGLES isn’t the most original album to ever be recorded (perfectly fitting categories such as pop, shoegaze, and folk), the execution of everything featured on it manages to capture your attention, and leaves you wondering what would happen were Minakekke to explore one the diverse sounds featured on the album more in-depth, and that sense of wonder is probably what makes this record so charming to me.
12. Shinsei Kamattechan — Osanasa wo Nyuin Sasete (2017)
Kamattechan’s latest album finds them at their most balanced sound ever. Whereas Natsu Install (their last year effort) found them pushing a bit more for their original rock sound, this year’s album seems to be an attempt at combining their most recent pop sound with the original rock that brought them into the spotlight, and the result works wonders for them. Most of Osanasa wo is dedicated to creating an evocative sound that combines Kamattechan’s aggressive performance with more emotional numbers, which results in a really melancholic and heartfelt album. Another thing I really dig about this record is how its evocative atmosphere is backed by a lot of elements that feel playful: be it that they use heavily autotuned backing vocals, noko’s trademark dynamic singing or long instrumental endings (or all of them combined), a lot of the songs on this album have an emotional charm of their own, which makes Osanasa wo an incredibly easy record to go through. At this point it might feel a bit far-fetched to expect a full blown return of the old Shinsei Kamattechan, but in my opinion, the newer things they’re doing are nothing to look away from.
11. MONDO GROSSO — Reborn Again and Always Starting New (2017)
MONDO GROSSO (Shinichi Osawa’s alter ego) first album in fourteen years is not only backed by an absolutely impeccable production, but by an incredibly list of guest performers that include Yakushimaru Etsuko, Nogizaka46 member Saito Asuka, INO hidefumi, Mitsushima Hikari, and many more. Each of the tracks featured in Reborn Again is carefully crafted so that the album builds a greatly balanced sound by layering quirky danceable beats with more somber or experimental ones, all this as it also takes into account the different strengths of its different guest collaborators. The result is an exquisite album that manages to showcase different eras and sounds associated to mainstream electronic music while keeping its fresh and unique sound from first to last track, which (in my opinion) makes this record an absolute recommendation, whether you frequently listen to Japanese music or not.
10. Sonic Mania Original Soundtrack (2017)
The return of the Sonic series to its 2D roots meant two things: number one, fans would have an opportunity to revisit what most consider the peak of the series in terms of gameplay, and number two: new Sonic the Hedgehog music. In this aspect, Mania not only appeals to fan nostalgia via revisiting iconic tracks that have spawned through several of the series’ titles, but it also brings forth brand-new songs that truly feel like they were always meant to be part of the series. Not only does each of these new compositions fit what one could consider the essential aesthetic of the series’ music, but all of them feel incredibly colorful and lively on their own. Another one of the biggest charm points of the Mania soundtrack for me is the fact that it was composed by a big fan of the series, who decided to work on new music that would both appeal to old-school fans and attract new people to the series, which makes this whole release even more heartwarming.
09. Iglooghost — Neo Wax Bloom (2017)
Wonky, glitchy, and surprisingly organized inside its own apparent chaos, Iglooghost’s first full-length effort feels as if someone had decided to combine the widest and most colorful variety of sounds imaginable. The result is an impressively ambitious record that manages to build itself as a spiral of fresh and intriguing collection of songs that keep you hooked right from the beginning. Part of an audiovisual narrative that features the characters seen in the album cover art (who are apparently fighting each other), Neo Wax Bloom’s constant sound shifts seem to be meant to be interpreted as the constant changes of pace in a battle. In the middle of this sound representation, the album creates a hyper-colorful, cartoonish landscape that (as it borrows sounds and influences from genres like breakcore and glitchpop) feel like a test to the listener’s attention span. An incredibly fun album from start to finish.
08. Feist — Pleasure (2017)
Feist’s much anticipated return had me wondering if she would move forward with the sound introduced in Metals or if she would go back to something a bit more radio friendly. Although a part of me still kind of longs for more of that pop sound that made her famous, I couldn’t be more satisfied with the things Pleasure brings to the table. This records carries on with Metals’ general sense of soulful melancholy, but it explores said feeling in a more unstructured an experimental way. With most of the album feeling like a 50 minutes long lo-fi jam session that happened to get recorded, Pleasure finds Feist singing about herself in front of nature, about loneliness and unsatisfied longings. This record’s defining feeling, however, is one of isolation. While The Reminder and Metals frequently felt like the music was meant to make Feist’s emotions appealing to an audience, Pleasure seems to be more about introspection, with the singer presenting her emotions to herself, in what almost feels like her way to come to terms with many of her own inner conflicts. Feist’s music hadn’t felt this isolated or introspective, but it hadn’t also reached these levels of maturity before and that one change is more than welcome.
07. Band Ja Naimon! — Kanpeki Shugina Sekai ni Fukan Zenna Ongaku wo
Part of their ambitious “Perfect Year” campaign, Band Ja Naimon’s latest album is one of the best executed examples of idol music I can think of. Kanpeki truly embodies the evolution of Banmon! as an idol group, and judging by how good it sounds you can really tell they’ve evolved a lot. Every track on this really aims to show a different side of the group, and they all shine both production and personality/energy wise. One of the highest point of this album for me is the fact that it really doesn’t feel like Banmon! Are playing it safe with it, there are callbacks to previous songs, rediscovered (and enhanced) sounds, brand new sounds, and so many different things happening that you cannot help but enjoy every single time you listen to this album. This all makes it feel like Banmon! Really gave their all for this year to be as perfect as they planned it to be, and it really makes me look forward to what they’ll offer in the upcoming future.
To send off what’s already been an incredibly year for the group, Banmon! Also released their second minialbum recently. Aptly titled Miniban! this release comes with two group numbers (a new song and a re-recording of Utau Music, originally released during the time the project had only two members) and six solo songs (one for each member) that not only showcase their vocal skills perfectly, but are also incredibly fun on their own. A perfect release both to close the year if you’re a fan or in case you’re curious about Band ja Naimon! and its different members.
06. Paramore — After Laughter
After Laughter represents my first actual contact with this band, and I couldn’t be any happier with that. This album perfectly balances a playful sound (which heavily borrows from 80s pop and new-wave) with a constant feeling of things not being quite right. Every single track on this tackles some issue (be it heartbreak, a recurring sense of pessimism or a general sense of unhappiness), gives it a bright coat of paint and turns it into an easygoing, radio friendly track. All these things combined, really make After Laughter feel, for lack of a better term, like a go-to millennial record: the despondent attitude, the sugar coated depression, the aesthetic callbacks to a generation previous both to the band and their audience, it all makes it feel like the manifest of a generation that doesn’t know how to deal with the fact that they’re not as happy as they are expected to be, and the best thing about it is that all this is achieved in a way that feels both sincere and incredibly fun.
05. BiS — RE:Stupid
BiS’ second album after their reboot was, to many, a mixed bag but I really came to appreciate it for what it is. At the moment of its release, it was the most involved the new members had been with the project, providing lyrics for all of the tracks on the record except for three, and this is the first thing that makes me appreciate the record so much. While I can admit this album isn’t BiS’ best effort musically (being it’s pretty obvious this album is trying to recreate the success of BiSH’s Orchestra by including a bunch of power ballads), the involvement the members had with this record and the evolution in their performances made me go back to it a lot, to the point where it probably was one of my most listened albums during the entire year. One absolutely positive thing I can say about it though, is that it feels incredibly cohesive, which the group hadn’t managed to achieve with an album since the release of iDOL iS DEAD (this is partially achieved because all the songs seem to be about some form of depression or despair, which makes me wonder if they willingly agreed to write all the lyrics about this or something). RE:Stupid might not be remotely close to be the hardest BiS has ever sounded (in any of the group’s many lineups), but it truly feels like the most emotional and vulnerable they’ve been in a while.
04. Various artists — VOCALOID Yumemi NEMU
When Nemu Yumemi of Denpagumi.inc (whose voice had previously been used for the DearStage vocaloid Tone Rion) announced she would provide voice data for a new software modeled after her, I couldn’t help but get really curious, especially because it was also announced there would be an official album to promote the new vocaloid. Backed by an all-star lineup of both vocaloid producers and longtime Denpagumi.inc collaborators, VOCALOID Yumemi NEMU is an incredibly energetic and sparkly record in which human Nemu aims to create a world for NEMU (her software counterpart) to live in, so that she can keep the legacy of Nemu Yumemi alive. The result of this endeavor are 12 incredibly polished and lively tracks that create a minty green world in which both Nemus sing about topics like desserts, love, and most importantly, being sleepy. Even though all the songs on this record are good by their own merit, the fact that so many different producers seemed to work on it with the idea of bringing Yumemi NEMU to life really adds a lot of cohesion and charm to it. This cohesion, combined with the energetic nature of most of all the songs (which you should be familiar with if you like Denpagumi.inc’s music), really makes VOCALOID Yumemi NEMU an addictive record, and one that I cannot stop recommending, be it that you’re a vocaloid fan or that you’re interested in uncovering the world and legend of Nemu Yumemi.
03. Passion Pit — Tremendous Sea of Love
One of the most interesting things about Passion Pit’s fourth LP is the fact that it took things in directions that greatly differ from what I’m used to expect from Michael Angelakos’ project. Starting with the fact that it was released for free on twitter (with the only condition to get it being to retweet and engage in a debate about the need for scientific research focused on mental health), TSOL presents a more stripped down approach to music making than the project’s previous two albums. Instead of the usual hyper-polished indie pop that’s made Passion Pit famous, this new record (if you can call it that, as opposed to a collection of demos, which probably fits more with the idea that Angelako’s had in mind for these songs) finds the project at its most honest and raw levels, with tracks that, though still fronted by synths and Angelakos’ falsetto, vary in extension, arrangements, and post-production revisions. In a lot of senses TSOL feels like Angelako’s love letter to himself, to his humanity and his flaws, to his fans, and to the idea that you’re always good enough. One of the things that make this album stand out so much to me is the fact that there’s a lot of human emotion behind it (which you can read about both in the letter and the essay written as companion pieces to the release), emotion that it’s perfectly showcased without Passion Pit having to change their distinctive sound, and without having to resort to “emotional” musical clichés like stripped down versions, acoustic sounds or forced ballads.
02. GANG PARADE — GANG PARADE take themselves higher!!!
GANG PARADE’s third full-length album (and their first one with the current seven member lineup) feels both like a natural and a massive progress from where the previous one left off. Released in the middle of a rental trade (now apparently set to finish come March next year) that swapped founding member Kamiya Saki for BiS’ Aya Eight Prince, take themselves higher showcases a renewed and recharged GANG PARADE that, while still tackling different sounds and genres, now also relies on more varied and improved vocal performances. The combination of these two factors results in an energetic record that –in its 38 minutes spawn– easily shuffles from catchy and playful tracks like Are you kidding?, going through more mellow numbers like Futsuu no Nichijou (which has the merit of being the first track composed by a member, specifically Yumeno Yua), to more anthem-like songs like FOUL or CAR RADIO. What I like the most about this record is that I truly think that, out of all the musical efforts released by WACK this year, GPTTH!!! really embodies that “playful with an edge“ spirit that all the WACK groups seem to share, which makes me look forward to seeing how they take themselves even higher.
01. Shiina Ringo — Reimport Vol 2. Civil Aviation Bureau
Probably the most unexpected and welcomed surprise of 2017 (both in terms of being announced, and because it was announced on an incredibly short notice). Similar to the first Reimport album, this new record features new, Shiina Ringo fronted versions of songs originally written for artists like Tomosaka Rie, Ishikawa Sayuri, SMAP, Megumi Hayashibara, and many more. However, instead of recruiting guest musicians to take care of the new arrangements, like she did for the first Reimport, the arrangements for this new record are in charge of people she’s frequently worked with over the past few years, with the results being pretty close to some of the rearrangements these songs have received for the past two or three Ringo live tours.
The first thing that comes to mind when trying to talk about this album is how refined and varied it is. Be it that Ringo is performing seasoned rock numbers like Heavy metallic girl or the mellancholic, lo-fi number Yasei no Doumei, that she’s bringing more playful sounds to the mix like in Naute no Doroboneko or Kareinaru Gyakushuu, or that’s she’s going all-out on gorgeous showtunes like Jinsei wa Yumedarake, you can tell that there’s a lot of diversity to Reimport 2. Varied as this album is however, there’s a really firm sense of identity to it. Everything included on it has a trademark Shiina Ringo sound to it, and every single track on it really shows how much Ringo has matured both as an artist and as a person, with every sound, every instrument, and every line feeling like its pressence on the record was meticulously planned.
In short, the second volume of Reimport feels like a continuation of Shiina Ringo’s celebration of her own artistry (which she has been doing for the past five years, since the concerts meant to celebrate her 15th anniversary as an artist), a showcase of both the diverse work she’s done for others and of the different genres she’s covered over the years. An impeccable and incredibly mature record from start to finish, one can only wonder if this will lead to more releases on Ringo’s part, and if this is a signal that a (much awaited) new original album is finally on its way.
So there you have it! 20 records that really stood out for me this year. As it happens around this month every year, there are some things I’m already looking forward about next year (namely new albums by Terashima Yufu and CY8ER). Let’s hope 2018 brings a lot of amazing new music!