2019 Album picks! (Part 1)
Another December, another occasion for people to post their favorite albums of the year! In order to make this less of a heavy read, I have decided to split my list into two halves. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
20. GANG PARADE — LAST GANG PARADE/LOVE PARADE
Opening this year’s list is the two-for-one deal that makes up my favorite release by the ever-growing WACK factory. Released at the very beginning of the year, LAST GANG PARADE is the album that (along with the addition of new members) saw founding member Saki Kamiya return as a full-fledged member to the group, bringing with her a refined expertise that, combined, worked in great ways; despite lacking some cohesion, the record still delivers some of the best tracks in their catalog -the infectious Message, or the touching BOND being among the standouts tracks- which makes it a welcome closing chapter to the indies era of a group that overcame a lot of challenges before finding their own unique place in the industry. LOVE PARADE, on the other hand, brandishes a more boastful, triumphant sound that makes the album feel like a lighthearted, sweet listen from start to finish. While this might feel slightly tedious when compared to the dynamism the group is known for, this more heartwarming side of the group ends up feeling cohesive enough to be both convincing and charming (despite the unfortunate exception that is LOVE COMMUNICATION).
By releasing two albums (plus an EP!) this year, GANG PARADE was not only able to prove they are able to put out both good songs and cohesive albums (even if one thing doesn’t necessarily imply the other), but they also managed to share their narrative of growth and success through their music.
19. Weyes Blood — Titanic Rising
Shaped around stream-of-consciousness-like landscapes, Weyes Blood’s fourth album creates a murky yet elegant atmosphere that seems to exist with the purpose of exploring the yearnings and fantasies the songwriter’s heartbreaking reality seems to have left untouched. Starting in a more heartfelt tone -with sounds that range from folk to slightly psychedelic-tinged pop- Titanic Rising’s first half sees its singer openly articulate her fears, but also her faith in a possible change for the better; this is followed by the stunning Movies, which seems to be meant to divide the record into two halves and has singer-songwriter Natalie Mering reach her introspective peak, all while accompanied by layers of synths, strings, and percussion that seem to be aimed at leading the listener towards a musical epiphany. From this point onwards, the album fully embraces its most somber side, with songs like Wild Time and Picture Me Better enveloping the singer’s hopes and dreams in bassier, darker compositions. Daunting and somber while also surprisingly chipper, Titanic Rising stands as a manifest of hope in things that is difficult to be faithful about.
18. OOHYO — Far From the Madding City
Showcasing a more melodic, almost somber, approach to electropop, OOHYO’s latest full-length sees the singer explore the duality of the city as a space that can house both excitement and growth as well as solitude and a lack of direction. From the get-go, the album makes it clear it is all about the conflicting dualities one might come across while navigating a city, with tracks with cheerful synths -such as Tennis, Camera, and the stellar PIZZA- often featuring thoughtful lyrics about loneliness, powerlessness, and burdening depression. All of this is perfectly complemented by OOHYO’s vocals, whose delivery manages to stay convincing and cathartic even when delivering the unfortunate realization of pizza not being appetizing when facing heartbreak. This release might have been built around the idea of facing the city as an entity, but it is clear the biggest exploration on this album comes in the form of self-introspection. Delicate while also intricate, Far From the Madding City reveals an artist that can fully invest herself in delivering great compositions while consistently exploring many sides of a concept.
17. La Casa Azul — La Gran Esfera
Conceived as a transition album that came to form after years of recording sessions (and a first version scrapped in 2013), La Gran Esfera sees project frontman Guille Milkyway fully committed to his labor of engineering pop music that is as party-friendly as it is emotional. Along the album’s ten tracks, the Spanish songwriter trades off the lighthearted twee of previous releases in favor of a more current-day EDM sound, through which he injects life to daunting topics like the end of so-called eternal love, a fear of complicity with tedium, and the terrible fate of inventor-seamstress Franz Reichelt. This idea brings to life a collection of songs that succeed at making personal tragedies sparkly dancefloor hits. Confidently embodying the idea of bringing light to the darkness that is heartbreak, La Gran Esfera often feels like a compilation of concert anthems, which adds a layer of histrionics to what is already an incredibly polished release.
16. Mika — My Name Is Michael Holbrook
Mika’s first full-length in four years approaches the “earnest effort in sharing a personal picture of the artist” idea by ensuring the more intimate topics the singer sought to explore were still presented in the form of fun and polished, but also varied, compositions. From the moment the opener Tiny Love starts playing, the album develops as an exercise in self-reclamation, be it via catchy songs about flirtatiously embracing romance and sexuality, or by means of exposing more daunting moments that see him admit to emotions like the jealousy of no longer being the man he could potentially have turned into. Despite its more vulnerable themes, My Name Is builds from understanding the kind of pop artist Mika is, which means the album employs catchy hooks, grandiose instrumentation, and expressive vocals that can go from saccharine to emotionally evocative within seconds. All of this comes full circle when the album reprises its opener, which evidences both a new layer of wit to Mika’s approach to music-making, as well as a sense of refinement and maturity, one that -fortunately- didn’t come at the expense of his fun sound and unique performance.
15. Cristina Quesada — Think I Heard A Rumour
Underneath its saccharine exterior, Cristina Quesada’s latest full-length hides a surprisingly well-crafted and cerebral approach to pop music. For her second album, Quesada brings into the table a playful combination of elements, including singing in different languages, tongue-in-cheek lyrics about longing (both for love and for the dancefloor), and influences that range from dreamy Eurodisco beats, KRAFTWERK-inspired spacey anthems, and even cute, catchy tracks that feel like fit right into any Tommy February6 release. Going back and forth between covers and original songs, the record paints its vulnerabilities in starry pastels and invites the listener to overcome hardheartedness and to embrace the clumsiness of a love that might take quite a bit to fully develop. This results in a melancholy- infused synth journey whose promises of a distant discotheque seem to be more about a possible happy future than about trying to relive the past. Fun, breezy, and incredibly articulate, Think I Heard A Rumour shows an incredible level of commitment to the idea of marrying a sound to a concept, thus adding a layer of unexpected thoughtfulness to what might be one of the most lighthearted listens on this list.
14. Hideki Kaji — GOTH ROMANCE
Hideki Kaji’s latest album sees the Shibuya-kei legend bringing together, fittingly to its title, Gothic and Romantic sensitivities in order to conjure a release that takes Kaji’s usual flavor of soft, fun music to a new, more playful level via its almost cinematic charm. As if meant to score a movie, many of the album’s tracks feel like companion pieces to specific scenes, with the equally playful and aggressive Non Non Song, the disco-flavored 5 to 7 Shibuya-kei, and the Broadway-inspired opener French Cinema! standing as some of the album’s more colorful moments. In a welcome twist, almost the entirety of the album is the product of a collaboration between Kaji and a guest musician (from a list including names such as Maki Nomiya, Keigo Oyamada (of Cornelius), Seiichi Nagai (Soutaiseiriron), and even up and coming rock darling non. Each of these performers adds a layer of flavor that solidifies the singer’s attempt of breaking into more diverse sounds. Often regarded as synonymous to the more mellow and relaxing side of summer, Kaji’s music sports newfound energy in GOTH ROMANCE, something that makes it a lasting and welcome addition to his catalog.
13. HALLCA — VILLA
VILLA sees former Especia member Tominaga Haruka show her loyalty to the sound that saw her now-defunct group reach its peak, but it also hints at both her growth and her potential as an artist in her own grounds. Made up of nine original tracks and two remixes, the album weaves Tominaga’s smooth vocals into sleek tracks the cover genres as varied as Lounge, drum-tinted electro, and even the often-lauded-by-Westerns City Pop. Track by track, the album crafts little shining moments -such as the dub-tinted vocal phrasing of Utopia, the almost shoegazey progression of Show the Night, and the lush funky instrumentation of Dreamer- that translate into a mellow but solid listen that is rounded up by HALLCA’s delivery of heartfelt lyrics about longing, nighttime meetings, and inviting a lover to escape into the fun of a one-night utopia. Showing both dedication to an established, well-defined style as well as space for further exploration, VILLA‘s biggest strength comes from its stylish and individual approach to the genres it adopts, each track finding ways to feel clever and updated while still showing a level of understanding of its rich influences.
12. ENGAG.ING — NEO LOVE BIBLE
Home to acts like Dempagumi.inc and Yufu Terashima, Dear Stage has turned into a sort of safe haven for the more colorful, fully invested in their stage persona, type of idols. This seems to work like a charm for heroine-bride unit ENGAG.ING, whose debut full-length serves as a sweet compilation of tracks that heavily borrow influences from different corners and time periods of the Akihabara music scene. With MOSAIC.TUNE on producer duties, the album presents its listeners with catchy, bubbly tunes that, even if slightly tamer in energy than what one can expect from a Dear Stage group, effortlessly carry the atmosphere of fantasy racing games, shopping malls brimming with hobby shops, and even energizing numbers reminiscent of decade-old anime openings. Even if NEO LOVE BIBLE doesn’t exactly subvert any expectations of what an idol album should sound like, the quality of each of the tracks featured on it makes for a pretty solid debut that leaves listeners excited for what the future might hold for the group.
11. ONIGAWARA — Seaside Mirage
Standing in the fine line between idol group and band has given ONIGAWARA a great understanding of many of the -borderline cliche- tropes that have become a fixture within the Japanese pop scene. Instead of taking a satirical approach to those, however, the unit embraces and incorporates them into their music-making process, which often results in songs that are not only charming but also full of witty little references. For their summer-themed EP, the duo took it upon themselves to craft a short release evocative of the idealized fantasies Japanese acts often sing about on their summer releases, which include (but are not limited to) rock festivals, kissing under eternal sunshine, and looking back to nostalgia-tinted romance; for this purpose, members Satifour Takeuchi and Saito Shinya alternate between musical moments such as lively guitars, fun piano melodies, quickly shifting sounds that range from Shibuya-kei to surf rock, and even snare drums consciously reminiscent of Sega Genesis games, to name a few.
Much as it happens with the season it celebrates, Seaside Mirage is charming listen that shows the project’s ability to quickly shift between different shades of the same summery mood, almost as if the release was meant to capture the many things that can happen during a short-lived summer vacation.