By the mid-‘90s, Japanese pop culture had peaked in global coolness. Anime and video games enthralled kids all over the globe, and author Haruki Murakami was starting to gain traction in the English-language world. And although it might not have been quite as universal as Pokemon, Shibuya-kei music was winning praise from Western listeners. The genre’s mish-mash of sonic references and samples spanning the entire 20th century caught the ears of non-Japanese labels, leading to the ‘60s-swooning of Pizzicato Five and lounge-tronica of Fantastic Plastic Machine seeing widespread release. Nothing captured as much critical attention, however, as Keigo Oyamada’s Cornelius project, whose 1997 album Fantasma came out Stateside one year later via Matador Records. Soon after, the Shibuya-kei movement became oversaturated and its biggest names drifted to new sounds.
Fantasma marked the high point for the movement, and has since been celebrated as the style’s ultimate triumph. The Japanese music media isn’t big on “all-time” lists, but when the mood strikes, Cornelius’ third proper album always winds up in the top ten. All this canonization has the side effect of making Fantasma feel like an artifact, a musical museum devoted to a scene that could never exist outside of ‘90s Tokyo. Portland-based imprint Lefse’s new vinyl reissue—featuring four enjoyable bonus tracks, albeit songs that aren’t on the album for a reason —reminds that what makes this set of songs special hasn’t aged. Like Endtroducing… or Discovery, Fantasma took the (often literal) sounds of the past to create something new and exciting, while also ending up a celebration of the process of finding, listening and creating music.
It’s fitting Shibuya-kei’s finest statement came courtesy of one of the people most central to its emergence. Coming of age during Japan’s economically booming Bubble years, Oyamada had time to play in bands and spend hours exploring Tokyo’s well-stocked record stores. Alongside Kenji Ozawa in the group Flipper’s Guitar, he crafted songs drawing inspiration from all sorts of eclectic sources—the Scottish post-punk of Orange Juice, Madchester, bossa nova, the Monkees’ movie debut Head. Despite a tendency to swipe melodies wholesale, they pushed a slew of new sounds into the Japanese music conscience.
Alongside Pizzicato Five and a few other groups introducing unfamiliar styles, Flipper’s Guitar’s CDs sold extremely well at Shibuya music stores—well enough that they snuck into the nation’s album charts. The media, smelling a trend, called it Shibuya-kei (literally, Shibuya style). From there, new artists emerged, not united by a specific sound but rather an ethos that writer W. David Marx pins as “pastiche and bricolage,” offering an alternative to mainstream J-pop. Oyamada launched a label, Trattoria, sharing music from names such as Kahimi Karie and Hideki Kaji, and started his solo career as Cornelius, releasing two albums that found him caught between singer-songwriter and musical curator. He also starred in a Shibuya-kei-tinged hair mousse ad.
Fantasma, though, promised something different and more daring. Whereas previous Cornelius albums launched right into sunny horn fanfare, “Mic Check” begins with a faint click and a lot of space. Someone puffs a cigarette, a can cracks open, and somebody whistles a portion of Beethoven’s 5th. Early copies of Fantasma came packaged with earphones, and “Mic Check” quickly establishes why—it’s a producer’s album, one where every sound is labored over and plays a role in the greater journey. Oyamada wants the listener to be adequately ready for this—“can you hear me?” he asks in Japanese—so that they don’t miss any detail, before letting a semi-song bloom around them.
From there, Oyamada treats listener to a smörgåsbord of musical thrills. His songs here frequently jump between headphone channels—the dizzying Speak & Spell rock of “Count Five or Six” being a great example of this technique—while going one step further by playing around with the idea of recording music. Side two of the record starts with “Chapter 8 (Seashore and Horizon),” which opens with Robert Schneider and Hilarie Sidney of the Apples in Stereo performing a very Apples-in-Stereo-sounding song. But before a minute can pass, someone hits the stop button on a cassette player, and Oyamada jumps in with his own interpretation of sweetly sung indie-pop, the sort of number that could easily slide into the Elephant 6 catalog. Then the player clicks again, the tape rewinds, and the Apples come back in frame.
“Fantasma is a kind of album that only has one entrance and one exit. That is, you can’t listen to if from the middle,” Oyamada told a magazine around the album’s release. As the defining Shibuya-kei full-length, it’s loaded up with references to obscure older music spliced with styles that were, in 1997, fresh—drum ‘n’ bass drills through tropicália on album centerpiece “Star Fruits Surf Rider,” while “Monkey” jams samples sourced from R&B and an old record starring Mr. Magoo to create a playful romp that’s the most stereotypically Shibuya-kei-sounding thing here—but Oyamada wasn’t simply flexing his deep record collection. Sounds reappear frequently across Fantasma, songs referencing one another in subtle ways—early English-language reviews tended to knock Cornelius for having too much going on, but Oyamada knew exactly what he was doing with the rush of noises. Everything ends up in its right place, making for a more cohesive and intimate listen.
And that’s fitting, as Fantasma celebrates the process of discovery and falling in love with music. Shibuya-kei was built on crate-digging discoveries, but oftentimes could come off as simplistic (or, at worst, trying to be too cool with nothing but some obscure records). But only Fantasma peers into the actual act of listening. Half of the songs here feature no coherent lyrics, but when words do come through, they capture the feeling of being at a concert (“Clash”) or shutting out the world via headphones (“New Music Machine”). Sudden shifts in style even make sense within Fantasma’s walls—the twinkling, childhood collage of “The Micro Disneycal World Tour” gives way to the feedback-soaked, adolescent thrash of “New Music Machine.”
Nearly every song title on Fantasma references an existing musical group, obscure or world famous, but it feels like an act of grateful tribute rather than a hip name-check. With Flipper’s Guitar, Oyamada straight-up sampled chunks of the Beach Boys “God Only Knows,” but on his own “God Only Knows” he spends the track’s seven-minute-plus run time weaving an intricate pop production inspired by (but never directly taking from) Brian Wilson (and quoting another Oyamada favorite, the Jesus And Mary Chain). He reveals his intention with the penultimate number, “Thank You For the Music,” which acknowledges all of his musical heroes, along with the listeners who came along for the Fantasma ride, all over a folksy backing track that makes way for a rapid-fire collage of sounds heard over the course of the album...a reminder of the last 50-some minutes.
A lot of Shibuya-kei in 2016 sounds extremely dated, and it’s not totally the fault of the music for this. A big draw of the style was how the artist themselves served as a curator for the audience, funneling the forgotten sounds of yesteryear to a new audience. But the internet has completely changed the concept of curation—anyone can become an expert on niche styles with some focused Wikipedia digging, while the idea of finding a new perspective to old sounds has been replaced with “make me a playlist that sounds best while I’m in the bath.” Not to say there aren’t perks to a digital reality—I downloaded Fantasma off Soulseek in 2005, and it’s easier to find Shibuya-kei deep cuts on YouTube now rather than go to the actual Shibuya neighborhood.
But Fantasma distills the spirit and process of Shibuya-kei down to its purest essence and still sound warm and celebratory today. He imagined musical utopia, where genre lines fade easily and where geographic borders can vanish (in 2016, Japanese artists construct their own imagined versions of albums because of streaming exclusivity). In the ‘90s, Cornelius caught attention for a cool sound that earned him comparisons to Beck, but it’s the sense of sheer joy and excitement running through Fantasma that still makes it an exhilarating listen today.
Between social media streams delivering seemingly endless awful news and the creeping sense that we’ve entered content singularity, it’s pretty easy to feel cynical about the state of the Internet in 2016. That same sense of digital constriction extends to music, a place filled with lukewarm takes and fast food restaurants toddling towards relevance. It’s overwhelming, but not hopeless. Plenty of artists have carved out space online where they can create new communities and explore new sounds. They exist far from the regular churn of the Web, just waiting for like-minded people to find them.
Japan’s “netlabel” scene has offered this escape for nearly 15 years. Online imprints such as Maltine Records and Bunkai-Kei Records gave space for young producers with little way of entering the country’s mainstream music industry to experiment—not to mention provide an alternative to a club culture hampered by laws straight out of Footloose. One of the bigger names to emerge in the Japanese netlabel world recently is Trekkie Trax, a collective launched by a few 20-somethings in 2012 that has put out around 50 releases from a global roster of talent and developed a reputation for energetic in-real-life shows across Tokyo. Trekkie Trax the Best 2012-2015 compiles some of the label’s finest cuts, and serves as a great introduction to one of Japan’s best outfits bubbling up from the Internet.
Trekkie Trax’s emergence parallels the Japanese commercial boom in EDM, and many moments on this compilation feature elements of the genre. It’s natural for the young artists here to be attracted to hard-hitting sounds aimed at listeners their age, but the results end up mixed when they cling too closely to the style. The Best lags when simply trying to replicate a buzzy Skrillex drop or Middle-Eastern-tinged Diplo hook, but shines when a producer finds a new angle to the familiar. Masayashi Iimori’s “Break It” draws from the aggressive stylings of trap all the way down to the air horn samples, but offsets the hyped-up centers with longer passages that ramp up the drama significantly. AMUNOA's “Cinderella Song (VIP)” uses similarly clanging beats and vocal samples to get things going, but dusts them with wispy synthesizer that adds an emotional longing to the track.
Youthfulness ultimately helps the Trekkie Trax crew stand out, the artists appearing on The Best capturing the energy of early adulthood when anything seems possible. They are digital natives, producers who grew up with the Web and are eager to throw as many ideas as possible into their dance tracks. Snail’s House embraces elements evoking Japan’s “kawaii” culture—helium-injected vocals, big colorful keyboard notes—on “Kirara,” while matra magic plunks snippets of Lil Wayne between gloopy synth drips. Kyoto's In the Blue Shirt combines split-second vocal slices with breezy ocarina on “Free Will,” but he engineers this potentially twee patchwork into a bouncy blast of sunshine. These moments come off like personal details woven into high-BPM numbers, a chance to add character to numbers that function best as uptempo club cuts.
For all the wonkiness, the label is at their best when barreling forward. Tokyo’s Carpainter gives UK garage a spin on “Journey to the West,” delivering a woozy number propelled by tribal percussion and opting to slowly reveal new details over a consistently driving tempo rather than build up to a huge moment of release. Even better is duo Lolica Tonica’s “Make Me Feel,” a jittery electro-rush somewhere between breakcore and Jersey Club. On a collection full of songs featuring vocal samples tripping over themselves, “Make Me Feel” is a highlight thanks to pure exuberance, nailing the nervous excitement of just letting loose.
Trekkie Trax didn’t reinvent anything over the last three years—artists in the Maltine Records universe laid down this path years ago, and those in Trekkie Trax point to Maltine as a massive influence on them. Rather, they are shepherding the netlabel spirit to the next generation of Japanese listeners, while also making a greater push internationally by using the net as an amplifier to spread electronic music from artists hailing from places rarely getting the same attention as their Western equals. The Best offers a concise gateway into their world, highlighting the sonic diversity of their crew and their intensity. They found room online to share their energy, and are using the Internet to bring it to anyone looking for an alternative.
Faced with rapidly declining sales, Japanese music labels went niche over the last five years. They catered to very specific demographics rather than listeners at large via "idol pop" groups devoted to subcultures. The best case scenario was a group like Babymetal going viral and reaching a more general audience, but catering to steampunk aficionados or fans of um, "chubbiness" proved just as efficient. Yet no pop group’s identity has been stranger than Especia’s, a five-piece frequently billed as "Japanese vaporwave idols." They’ve embraced the stylings of an Internet subgenre infatuated with pitched-down vocals and old technology, while their primary producer has openly mentioned how influential acts such as Espirit空想 and Saint Pepsi (now Skylar Spence) have been to their sound. The commitment goes deep—they’ve recorded entire live shows onto VHS tape.
Yet Especia is more complicated than simple microgenre imitation. Look beneath the Grecian busts and Windows 95 logos, and you’ll find many vaporwave artists using slowed-down Japanese songs from the 1980s as source material, particularly from a glitzy genre called city pop, indebted to American AOR and funk, that reflected Japan's then-decadent lifestyle. Especia’s actual music leans closer to real-deal city pop, blessed with big hooks and copious saxophone solos, than anything by James Ferraro or Oneohtrix Point Never.
Carta, the group’s third album and first for a major label, continues their brand of vaporwave-inspired dabbling—look closely at the straight-out-of-Myst cover art and you’ll see what looks suspiciously like the Enron logo—but offers a mostly straight-ahead set of mellow pop. It’s the outfit’s final release as a quintet, as three members are set to "graduate" shortly after its release, and even though it doesn’t reach the heights of earlier works, it’s a solid snapshot of what Especia has done so well in recent times to stand out on a purely sonic level.
The bulk of Carta leans toward easygoing music punched up by brass sections and bubbly synthesizer, the sort of songs that sound best as the evening is just settling in. The trio Hi-Fi City (featuring Especia’s main producer Schtein&Longer, PellyColo, and saxophonist Yoshiro Nakagawa) handle most of the songwriting and production, bringing a deep knowledge of style that helps Especia’s music rise above simple recycling. "Over Time" and "Sunshower" sway at the pace of Brand New Heavies, while the squiggly bass and saxophone blurts of "Mistake" nail the urban drama of city pop wonderfully. These are solid recreations of retro sounds not hiding their influences—"Rittenhouse Square"'s title reveals the Philadelphia soul approximation before the first horn stab—that at their worst still sound smooth and pleasant.
But Carta works in a smattering of other sounds to keep things moving. Hip-hop plays a prominent role, the members of Especia breaking into rap at various points that channels the same time period the rest of the album does. Less charming—and, positioned as the album opener, a horrible introduction—is "Clover," an arena-sized rock ballad assembled by a trio of older Japanese rockers. It would be cheesy in any decade, but made worse by how unnatural it forces Especia to sing, their voices better suited for mellow than soaring. Also mixed in is one direct embrace of vaporwave sound on "Saudade," produced by Brazilian artist VHS Logos and featuring narcotized recordings of the group’s members playing a game. It’s a nice breather.
Most of Carta registers as simply "solid, if a bit thin." Yet the album—and the current version of Especia—ends on a high, courtesy of the collection’s two big pop moments, the tropical-scented shuffler "Boogie Aroma" and the high-stepping "Aviator," the latter in particularly delivering the album’s most charged-up hook. These instances highlight what have made Especia stand out in Japan even more than the vaporwave wallpaper—catchy earworms every bit as good as the silly videos.
As the 1990s crawled to a close, the Japanese music industry—and the nation as a whole—was at a crossroads. The economy held strong and Japan had fostered a "cool" image globally, reflected in the slick Eurodance-inspired songs being exported across the continent and the jet-setting sampledelica of Shibuya-kei, highlighted by genre heavyweights Cornelius and Pizzicato Five who landed on U.S. imprint Matador Records. Yet as 2000 came into view, the mood started to change, as what many now label the "Lost Decade" came of age and music sales peaked in 1999, in decline ever since.
Amidst all this pre-millennial tension, a quartet reared on distortion called Number Girl landed on major label EMI Music Japan and spiked the nation’s rock scene for good. They played fast and abrasive music prone to sudden tempo changes, with guitarist and lead vocalist Shutoku Mukai’s snarled vocals adding extra force and honesty to their feedback-bludgeoned songs. This wasn’t—and still isn’t—the easiest route to goofy TV interviews and massive festival scream-alongs in Japan, but from 1999 until disbanding in 2002, Number Girl left a deep impression on domestic listeners and carved out a cult following abroad. Universal Music Japan is reissuing the group’s three major-label albums this month, a trio of work still looming large over the country’s rock scene and among the best music to come out of the country in recent memory.
Mukai formed Number Girl in 1995, but his initial lineup dissolved quickly. He reached out to other musicians in Fukuoka—a city resting far south from the glitz of Tokyo—and found guitarist Hisako Tabuchi, bassist Kentaro Nakao, and drummer Ahito Inazawa. The four, all in their early twenties, drew inspiration from 1980s American indie, taking cues from Hüsker Dü and Pixies among others, and sometimes nodded to their influence via lyrics or song titles ("Iggy Pop Fan Club"). Number Girl offered glimpses of what they would become across two self-released cassette tapes and their 1997 indie debut School GirlBye Bye: Mukai’s larynx-ripping singing, Tabuchi’s commanding guitar solos, and a lyrical fixation on adolescence. Yet in these early years, they turned to the records their idols made like CliffsNotes, leaning too much on replication rather than finding their own sound.
After moving to Tokyo in 1998, the band snagged more attention for their live shows, leading to EMI scooping them up in 1999. That summer, they broke through with School Girl Distortional Addict, a frantic 36-minute affair pairing pummeling noise with the catchiest melodies Number Girl ever laid down. Despite major label backing,Distortional Addict sounds raw, several songs opening with tape hiss and screamed countdowns, like they were coming straight from the cramped clubs Number Girl normally played. From opener "Touch"'s pound to "Tenkousei"'s guitar blitz, the songs here hit hard, even before Mukai’s voice tumbled in and added extra unpredictability.
Although Number Girl still wore their sonic influences proudly—the second song here is called "Pixie Dü"—they had evolved from kids imitating their favorite CDs into a group confident enough to get their own voice out into the scrum. Distortional Addict zooms in on the teenage experience the band’s members weren’t far removed from, echoed in the album artwork and the video for lead single/album highlight "Toumei Shoujo." The songs could sound angry, but were never self-loathing or cynical. Rather, they captured the confusion of leaving childhood behind and the uncertainty that follows. The characters roaming these songs grapple with the fear of mortality (on the shrapnel-sharp "Sakura No Dance") to the recurring desire to chase one’s dream (a reflection of Number Girl’s own decision to leave the comforts of Fukuoka for Tokyo). Yet Mukai’s songwriting made room for other viewpoints, too. "Nichijou Ni Ikiru Shoujo" starts as a punk-friendly mosher, but eventually everything stops and it turns into a half-speed meditation on what leading an "everyday life" entails.
Distortional Addict also tapped into pre-millennial anxiety, a tension that popped up frequently in other Japanese pop culture in 1999. It was there in the novel Battle Royale (which, like Distortional Addict, focused on teenagers) and in fellow Fukuoka artist (and deep fan of Tabuchi and her attention-demanding playing) Sheena Ringo’s popular debut album released just before Number Girl's. Distortional Addict, though, captured the vibe better than the rest, balancing anxiety about tomorrow with a sweet nostalgia for the past.
That sweetness all but vanished on the following year’s Sappukei, wherein adulthood’s ugly realities pushed youth away. The band had attracted a large fanbase in Japan, but also caught the ear of longtime Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips producer David Fridmann, who stepped on to produce Number Girl’s much-anticipated follow-up (and their final album). The overall sound didn’t change radically, as the songs still mostly power ahead with a few sudden shifts in speed (and a lot of fierce solos courtesy of Tabuchi), but everything sounds grimier. Fitting, given Mukai’s sudden shift to singing about the ugly parts of urban living. Whatever optimism snuck into their previous material was snuffed out here.
Number Girl could still write a battering number, but Sappukei(translation: "Tastelessness") also found Mukai simply screaming more. When done right, it hit hard, like on the push-pull guitar surge of "Zegen Vs Undercover," but elsewhere it just upped the volume without adding impact. Sappukei found Number Girl experimenting a touch more, but ultimately comes off like a transitional piece for a band starting to get restless with their sound, but not ready to throw caution totally away.
They got weird on 2002’s Num-Heavymetallic, a gleefully confrontational set from a band who easily could have by then coasted on a solid fan base. The title track opens with the sound of Mukai screaming frantically from far away before he switches abruptly into the traditional Japanese enka style of singing, while his bandmates show they can sound just as heavy at a narcotized pace. That’s followed up by "Num-Ami-Dabutz," a lurching number constantly buzz-sawed in half by Tabuchi’s guitar. Mukai breaks into a spoken-word that gave his bleak outlook on urban life a hypnotic quality. It’s a high point in the band’s history, and definitely a favorite when trying to figure out the most bizarre song to ever crash the Japanese singles chart.
Nothing else on the album approached the wildness of those two songs, but the rest of Num-Heavymetallic highlighted the outfit’s growing interest in more fragmentary compositions. Some experiments worked better than others—"Frustration in My Blood" is the point where Number Girl could get too aggro—and overall it doesn’t feel coherent. That was the point though—by 2002, all the artists who had captured the uneasy feeling of the new millennium a few years prior were moving on to new territory. Num-Heavymetallic ended up being Number Girl’s last collection, as bassist Nakao opted to step away, and the other three decided to stop the band rather than replace him. They all went on to new, successful projects, highlighted by Mukai and Matsushita’s Zazen Boys outfit, which continued down the wonky road their final album hinted at.
Ultimately, these vinyl reissues exist to capitalize on Japan’s current LP trend, and the only added feature—a Fridmann remastering of all three—feels unnecessary, as the often hissy sound added to these album’s charm. But they mostly feel strange because Number Girl’s music remains so visible, both in a literal sense (these have already been released as special edition CDs multiple times) and in a more abstract way. Few Japanese bands have proven to be as influential as Number Girl, with festival-headliners such as Asian Kung-Fu Generation and rising groups like tricot claiming them as primary influences. But even more important are the countless bands wailing away in small live houses in Fukuoka and in Tokyo’s Koenji neighborhood and in any small countryside town, because of these four, not to mention the non-Japanese listeners seeking something different, who hunted the group’s material down through Soulseek or shady message boards before YouTube became reliable. They came to prominence at a time when many felt anxious about the future, but Number Girl carried the same torch held by their U.S. indie idols and showed a whole new generation of kids in Japan they could make any music that they wanted.
There was a moment a few years ago when Japan’s independent music scene seemed poised to break out internationally. Between 2011 and mid-2013, artists from all over the nation were making inroads abroad -- shadowy project Jesse Ruins signed to Captured Tracks, while outfits such as Sapphire Slows and Hotel Mexico were regulars on MP3 blogs such as Gorilla Vs. Bear, with many more rising up beneath them. It was during this period that Tokyo’s Moscow Club started sharing their music online, earning attention for their genre-hopping releases. The quartet also saw the potential in front of Japan’s indie community, prompting them to spearhead a compilation in 2012 highlighting unsigned artists. “It is so exciting that there are still so many undiscovered amazing talents creating their own sound somewhere on this little island,” they wrote at the time.
Moscow Club’s second full-length album, Outfit Of The Day, arrives long after the community they championed left the international spotlight. No moment can last forever, and many of the bands from that fruitful span have broken up, changed drastically or simply stopped doing anything (Moscow Club themselves vanished for two years, returning this summer). Outfit features collaborations with many of the artists from that period, and lends the album a feeling of a tribute for a time that slipped away, but also serves as a reminder of the talent that still exists.
Above all else, Moscow Club -- and the artists in the same orbit -- stood out because they knew how to write a solid, catchy song. Outfit starts with “Band Of Outsiders,” a fleet-footed indie-pop song packing every hooky idea it can into just over two minutes. This is the lane where Moscow Club excels, and Outfit features plenty of guitar-anchored tracks skipping towards sticky choruses. They especially shine when glossing up their jangle with synthesizers. The extra twinkle adds an emotional pining central to numbers such as “Carven” and “Celine” (owing to a band-wide interest in fashion, the album boasts a fashion theme, down to the Instagram-born title). The latter -- written by lead singer Kazuro Matsubara after hearing a Tokyo train station melody and featuring backing vocals from Amanda Åkerman of Swedish group Alpaca Sports -- showcases Moscow Club at their best, capable of a chugging number that progressively ups the drama.
Although hazy, melancholic indie-pop is their strength, part of Moscow Club’s appeal has always been their eagerness to branch out, resulting in glistening dance numbers or straight chillwave. Their ambition remains, as one of Outfit’s finest comes on the slow-burning “Tour De Moskow.” The title gives away one key point of inspiration -- though, if you forget, the breathing samples throughout serve as a reminder - but its shuffled beat also pays homage to Frankie Knuckles’ “The Whistle Song” and nods to electro group Telex. It’s a lot to juggle, but Moscow Club balance it all just right. More of a curveball, though, is “Carven (Orchestral),” a four-minute orchestra version of the more straightforward “Carven.” It’s an interesting interlude, albeit one that could have shaved a minute off.
Outfit, as mentioned, isn’t just a Moscow Club creation, but a collaborative effort featuring names central to the Japanese independent scene. Some of them appear on the songs proper -- Eri Nakajima of Osaka indie-poppers Wallflower sings on “Margaret,” while Ryota Komori plays saxophone on “Saint Laurent,” bringing the chaotic edge of his main band Miila and the Geeks to Moscow Club’s world. Two members of Kyoto’s now-defunct Hotel Mexico pop up too, although only lead singer Ryuyu Ishigami appears on track, as former bassist Kai Ito provided words for two songs. Yet the names behind the scenes are just as important, helping to write the lyrics gracing Moscow Club’s music.
It adds up to a very solid collection, and one bringing to mind a time that feels long gone. Western media tends to cover Japanese acts veering to an extreme side, whether that be harsh Japanoise or, in more recent years, cuter and weirder fare rarely taken seriously as music. The embrace of art confirming existing images of the country -- as strange, as colorful, as different -- is a disservice to bands such as Moscow Club, who sing in English and don’t play up being Japanese for just that reason. Outfit Of The Day is a solid collection of indie-pop with some detours, and a reminder of how good the often overlooked indie community in the country can be.
J-pop performer Namie Amuro is one of the best-selling artists in Japanese music history. She helped inspired fashion trends, paved the way for similar solo singers, and—most impressively—outlasted all of her competition, adapting to new styles that helped her stay fresh to the often-fickle Japanese casual music consumer. Beginning her career in the highly goofy group Super Monkey's, she went solo after label higher-ups singled her out, and she rose to prominence through a mix of dance numbers and ballads. Since, she's glided from R&B to poppy hip-hop. She's an unknown entity Stateside—well, at least to those who didn't watch Toonami daily—but huge in Asia. In Japan, at least, she really has nothing left to prove.
This January, Japanese publication Business Journal reported that Amuro bought a house in Los Angeles and is preparing to take a shot at the American market. Her 13th album, _genic, is not quite that bid for American domination: It hasn't been backed by a media blitz or hyped-up collaborations. It isn't even available in the States yet, though the rest of her discography hitting iTunes hints that it eventually will be. Yet the album still implies a shift in approach. Amuro sings mostly in English, and teamed up with a couple well-known Western producers, including David Guetta.
In recent years, she has tacked towards EDM, but where recent attempts have felt like cheap replicas, _genic sounds more inspired and confident. "Time Has Come" sells the drama of wanting to escape "this sleeping town" via sudden tempo changes, while "Stranger" delivers a stuttering hook, adding an element of welcome unease. (At one point, EDM wonderkid Zedd, who provided a song for Amuro's last album, was rumored to be the producer behind the song "Stranger", but his name is nowhere to be found in the notes.)
Amuro stumbles at various points, such as on "Every Woman", a well-intentioned but awkward empowerment anthem, and the love-as-schoolyard whistler "It". The album's big Guetta collaboration, relegated to the bonus track "What I Did for Love", is its most formulaic number. The other big tripping point is Amuro's decision to primarily sing in English, a choice she made three albums ago. Her English-speaking fans tend to mock her relentlessly for this, and at times she slips over pronunciation. Yet her lyrics have never been a high point even in Japanese, and on _genic she delivers her words directly and with a confidence that smooths over any small mistakes.
Then there is "B Who I Want 2 Be", one of the weirder songs to grace a major-label pop album in 2015. Many would glance at the credits and assume it stands out because of PC Music-affiliated producer Sophie. The song boasts his signature artificial fizz, but it's his decision to leave plenty of space for the singers that ends up his best move. That's because "2 B" finds Amuro dueting with singing-synthesizer avatar Hatsune Miku, though the way Vocaloid artist Mitchie M tunes her results in a song where the two singers blur into one digi-voice. There's a definite Uncanny Valley vibe, but everything clicks together just right to create a disorientingly catchy number.
Still, _genic's best moment is its most straightforward. "Golden Touch" breakbeats forward, every few seconds leading to synths that burst like fireworks over the song. It all builds to one of the most joyful choruses of Amuro's career, the sort of hook begging to be blasted by passing cars. It's song-of-the-summer material thanks to its directness, mirrored by an equally lighthearted and effective video. It's great pop because no one involved sounds like they're worrying about how to tailor her music to new audiences. If Amuro ever takes advantage of her new digs and tries to debut properly in the U.S., she should try to hold onto the simplicity of this feeling.
The music Takuji Shibata makes under the name Kosmo Kat aims for deep space, his flurry of synthesizers and programmed beats creating an appropriate soundtrack for a party in some far off nebula. It has been earthly borders, though, that have shaped his sound. Born in Japan, he eventually found his way to Los Angeles during the peak years of the city’s beat scene, when the Low End Theory party was catching attention thanks to regulars such as Flying Lotus and the Gaslamp Killer. Shibata hopped back across the Pacific Ocean last year, and he’s in Tokyo for the release of his debut EP □ (Square, to be exact). It’s a strong introduction to Kosmo Kat’s world, one where he applies the ethos of L.A.’s headier music communities to old and contemporary Japanese styles.
Shibata’s approach doesn’t immediately sound like anything "a bunch of dudes hanging out and bobbing our heads together" would listen to, as Gaslamp Killer described the early days of Low End Theory to LA Weekly. Kosmo Kat embraces pop full on, stacking his songs up with bright electronics that play out at a speed targeting the whole body. His 2013 digital EP An Elegant Punk glistened and zipped ahead, at times resembling the more frantic moments of Cosmogramma with the jazz touches swapped out for disco.
□ sonically doesn’t detour too far from his earlier days. Opener "Aki ga Kinai Kotoba" skitters from the get-go, bursting into a dash come the chorus, as does the throbbing "Nami". They aren’t quite as technicolor as Shibata’s earlier recordings, but unfold at the same up-tempo pace. EP highlight "Pterosaur" veers into dreamier territory, thanks in large part to the hushed singing of Brooklyn-based guest vocalist Trust In Love. Yet as intimate as "Pterosaur" gets, the music itself keeps thumping along, never allowing the song to dissolve into pure pillow talk.
Save for a few short interludes, □ doesn’t recall the actual heady sounds that came to define L.A.’s beat scene. Rather, Shibata seemingly absorbed the idea of taking something familiar to yourself and bending it in new ways. For Kosmo Kat, that’s Japanese pop. Abroad, J-Pop tends to be described as hectic, cute, and generally overwhelming, more or less the same experience of standing near a Dance Dance Revolution machine for several minutes. Yet J-Pop contains multitudes of styles, and Shibata channels several varieties, from the intricate electro-pop of producer Yasutaka Nakata (Capsule, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu) to the tightly constructed stylings of '80s idol pop. He puts his own spin on it, turning it into something all his own.
Shibata’s best touch—and the one major departure from the bulk of Kosmo Kat’s past sounds—is the addition of his own voice. "Aki ga Kinai Kotoba" is a fine bit of heart-skipping electronic music, but his singing, which moves from reserved to nearly shouted come the chorus, adds a drama to the song that gives it extra energy. The same goes for "Nami", which finds Shibata’s voice nearly cracking during the final stretch. Save for Trust In Love’s feature, all the vocals are sung in Japanese, and the way Shibata delivers those words sells the emotion and urgency more than well. Good pop, whether straightforward or warped around the edges, should achieve that.
□ works as a strong first introduction to Kosmo Kat, managing just the right pace over the course of its six songs (closer "Kage no Kimi" is a slow-burning ballad that would normally feel a bit meandering, yet is a welcome breath after the fast-paced tracks before it). Most impressively, it highlights a producer who avoids easy duplication of the sounds he’s been surrounded by during his life in favor of morphing them into a boundary-blurring form he can orbit himself.