Well, another year bites the dust I guess. It was honestly a bit of a flop in terms of anime (if you go strictly by the numbers, anyway), but you know what, that’s fine by me. I find myself with less and less time to watch stuff in general, and I think on the whole, I’d rather spend that time watching the few really good shows and feeling not guilty in the least about skipping everything else. Oh yeah, and it gives me time to listen to stuff too.
Speaking of which, I ended up listening to 11 new Japanese studio albums in total this year, so after 2021, I’m back to listing my top picks for my annual music post, followed by my honorable and/or not-so-great mentions. As always, the following is arranged purely in order of release date and excludes anything that wasn’t a full original studio album by a single artist or band (i.e. a cover album, re-release, compilation album, EP, or live album). Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy!
Utada Hikaru – BAD Mode (February 23)
This is one of those albums that sounds super dreamy and reflective. Not all the songs are down-tempo, but they all feel contemplative to some degree, if that makes sense. I don’t think this album is as ‘seductive’ music-wise as, say, 2016’s Fantôme, but it’s perfectly nice and well-rounded nonetheless. My favorite tracks are “One Last Kiss,” “Not in the Mood,” and “Face My Fears (Japanese Version),” all of which sound lo-fi hip-hop-inspired in that engaging but very calming way – highly atmospheric yet non-invasive, which makes it a great ‘background’-type album for me.
KANA-BOON – Honey & Darling (March 30)
Unlike flumpool’s 2022 offering (see the list further below), this album was much more my speed and will likely appeal to fans of male J-rock who understand that yes, rock can in fact still be relatively lighthearted and cheerful-sounding. There’s nothing worse than rock that tries way too hard to be… well, hard, and I feel like KANA-BOON has always largely avoided that thanks to their clear, easygoing vocals paired with their generally fun, fast-tempo songs. “Re: Pray,” “Torch of Liberty,” and especially “My Stage” are all great examples of this. This is a feel-good rock album, if you will, and a very solid offering all-around.
Porno Graffitti – Akatsuki (August 03)
These guys have been around even longer than ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION – 28 years, I believe. They’re the old faithful in terms of Japanese indie/alternative rock, in that I’m never particularly surprised by their material yet also never particularly disappointed. For what it’s worth, Akatsuki is a pretty solid album, with “Akatsuki,” “Akuryo Shoujo,” and “Zombies are standing out” (really channeling some ONE OK ROCK vibes there) being the standout tracks. The back half of the album is a bit too slow for my tastes – I could do without most of their power ballad stuff, which sounds like the generic Japanese version of Harry Styles or something – but when they’re on, they’re on.
Sayuri – Sanketsu Shojo (August 10)
This was easily one of my most-anticipated Japanese albums dropping this year, and it didn’t disappoint. Sayuri is probably too high-pitched and frenetic-sounding for some, but I think she has great range (and personally, even if I was much of a singer to begin with, I just can’t get to that upper scale). There are no dud songs here, but if I had to narrow it right down, my personal favorites are “Sanketsu Shoujo,” “Tsuki to Hanataba,” “summer bug,” and “Reimei.” If I had to give any one criticism, it’s that I didn’t get quite the same level of energy from this album as in her debut Mikazuki no Koukai, but it’s very engaging nonetheless.
That’s it for my top picks, but below you can find my general comments on the other 7 Japanese albums I listened to this year.
SCANDAL – MIRROR (January 26)
SCANDAL seems to have a more mature sound at this point, by which I mean their vocals make them sound like actual adults rather than teens now – probably a good thing, even if that means their older high-energy performances have been tempered a bit. There’s also a bit more electronic rather than rock influence in some of these songs, and quite a few more slower-tempo, sentimental-sounding songs than expected as well. MIRROR is by no means a bad album, but it’s not necessarily a memorable one either. The only real stand-out songs for me were the very first track, “Mirror,” and the final bonus track, “SPICE.” The former is a nice mid-tempo track with a catchy refrain, and the latter sounds like more of a throwback to their earlier, more rock-heavy days.
Flumpool – A Spring Breath (March 16)
Sadly, I didn’t particularly like this album. The entire thing just sounded very bland to me, like a sanitized, easy-listening pop version of the band. The songs aren’t terrible, they’re just very boring. “Hydrangea” was about as exciting as it got, and even then, the song is more nice than interesting per se. If you’re here looking for the alternative rock version of flumpool, sorry to disappoint, but this is decidedly not it.
ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION – Planet Folks (March 30)
Fun fact: these guys have now been around for 25 years. How they’ve remained relevant in the Japanese music industry this long, I will never know (and yes, that’s definitely a compliment, not an insult). I do prefer these guys with a classic rock-inspired sound rather than a more contemporary, trendy power pop one, but I get the need to appeal to a more mainstream Japanese audience. No prizes then for guessing my favorite tracks – “Dororo” and “De Arriba.” Overall, this album is just kinda there for me, but hey, there’s some pretty nice guitar riffs going on if you’re here for that.
Perfume – PLASMA (July 27)
I feel like Perfume is the kind of band that never really changes. Sure, their music style might change a bit over time, but somehow, you still always know exactly what to expect. PLASMA is no different in that regard. Personally, I think this album lacked any major head-boppers, and I seem to remember thinking much the same about their previous album in 2018, Future Pop, as well. I don’t think this offering will disappoint any hardcore fans, but I just found it a bit blah. “Time Warp” and “Android &” were the most fun to me, but idk, even those didn’t seem like anything amazing. Possibly I’ve just outgrown these guys, as awesome and quirky as I find them?
Yama – Versus the night (August 31)
This was my other most-looked-forward-to album of the year, and it was… honestly not what I expected. It’s certainly not bad, but from what I’d heard previously, I expected less fun pop and more heartfelt power ballads – both Yama’s vocals and overall style reminded me quite strongly of Aimer, who y’all know I absolutely adore. This is definitely more cheery and energetic than that, although again, not necessarily in a bad way. Rather than Aimer, I’m now getting stronger easy-listening pop Ieiri Leo vibes, if that makes sense. All of the songs on Versus the night are perfectly decent, but predictably, it’s “Oz” that still gets me every time. Goddammit, Ranking of Kings, I’m not crying, you’re crying! “Soredemo bokuwa” is also pretty good for those looking for something a touch more up-tempo.
LiSA – LANDER (November 16)
You lot probably know the drill by now. I like LiSA’s more rock-inspired stuff and am politely bored by her pop-heavier material. On this album, that’s “Shampoo Song,” “Akeboshi” and “Shirogane” (both of which are super atmospheric and sound almost like something Kalafina might have done back in the day), “Akujono Okite,” and “dawn.” All the other songs are okay but nothing special, and fairly forgettable in the long run. LiSA fans will probably still enjoy this album, but I don’t think it’s one of her best. I am, however, extremely excited for Girls Dead Monster (LiSA making up one half of this delightful fictional band from Angel Beats), which is apparently gracing us with a brand-new album in 2023! Japan can probably hear my fangirl squeeing all the way from here.
Kimura Kaela – Magnetic (December 14)
I tend to like Kimura’s music and her general persona a lot. She’s just that right side of cute-fun-quirky, and that’s always reflected fairly well in her tracks. This album is honestly a little slow-paced for my tastes, especially around the middle, so it’s not one of my favorites of the year, but the first couple of songs, “Ware Ware Wa?” and “MAGNETIC” (featuring AI) are pretty decent, and I’m sure the more hardcore Kimura fans will find plenty to like here.
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