It’s only five months overdue, but better late than never right? Musically-speaking, I still have about as much respect for the likes of AKB48 and Arashi as I did when I first started really getting into Japanese music a few years back but despite the usual predictable chart-toppers, 2012 saw some excellent J-pop and J-rock albums released, so I’ll be going over a few of what I consider to be the best of them. For the sake of originality and fairness, I’ll be counting full studio albums only and excluding any best of and compilation albums.
Chemistry – Trinity
Release date: January 25th
This may be the final album from Chemistry we see in a while, since the duo have announced they’ll be going solo for a bit in order to pursue their own projects. Thankfully, Trinity is another solid album that manages to do exactly what they’ve done in the past: put together a number of tracks that blend pop and R&B into something smooth and cool without sounding pretentious or over-produced. In total there are 15 songs making up the album, with 5 solo tracks from each vocalist and 5 from the pair as a unit. Nearly all of them are good, making it difficult for me to cherry-pick favourites – although at the moment, ‘Trinity’, ‘Lucid Dream’, and ‘Kanashimi Shower’ strike me as being particularly outstanding.
LiSA – Lover”s”mile
Release date: February 22nd
This is about as pop as I tend to go, but there’s something catchy enough about nearly every track on this album to make me want to keep playing it. Fans will no doubt recall that LiSA made up one half of the band Girls Dead Monster in the Angel Beats! anime, and while I have a lot of love for that series as well as the band (despite it being a fictional one), I have to admit that LiSA seems to have come a long way over the last couple of years. Her voice sounds steadier and more refined but has lost none of its impact or individuality, and wisely, nearly every song on Lover”s”mile is fast-paced and upbeat. Her newest single ‘Crossing Fields’, which anime viewers may recognise from the first Sword Art Online opening, is unfortunately not on the album (I assume because it was produced after the album was), but there are plenty of other appealing tracks including my favourites ‘now and future’, ‘ROCK-mode’, and ‘Unfill’.
Takahashi Yu – Kono Koe
Release date: March 14th
You know, I’ve never paid much attention to Takahashi Yu before. I’ve known about him for a while, I’d caught some of his singles, but until Kono Koe I’d just never really cared that much. There’s something undeniably compelling about this latest album though, and despite the fact that his voice sometimes pushes the boundaries of what I’d consider attractive, there’s an intensity about it here that draws me in – not to mention some great guitar riffs (which is apparently what you get when you mix J-pop with folk music. Who knew?). If you’re curious, ‘Hotaru’, ‘Zattou no Katasumi de’, ‘Anata to Dakara Ayumeru Michi’, and ‘Zecchou ha Ima’ are all good examples of what I mean. I’m only sad that ‘Hi wa Mata Noboru’, my favourite song from Takahashi to date, was released too late to make it onto the album.
Porno Graffitti – Panorama Porno
Release date: March 28th
It’s great to see a band that’s been active in Japan since the mid-90s still pushing out solid material, so I’m pleased to include Porno Graffitti’s latest album to this list. Panorama Porno isn’t anything too different from what the duo have done in the past but in this case I consider that a good thing. This is the band’s ninth original studio album, and it takes me right back to Romantist Egoist with that suave pop/rock balance that manages to sit perfectly in the background. I especially recommend ‘Measure’, ‘One More Time’, and ‘Kimi ha 100%’ for those that are looking for something with a bit of funk that’s not too intense.
Superfly – Force
Release date: September 19th
By far my favourite release of the year. While Superfly have been around since early 2007, their/her fourth album Force is by far the best one to date, with songs that are more rock-based than some of their earlier tracks yet also come with a very chilled out vibe. Vocalist Ochi Shiho has a style that lends her songs a matured air and seem almost surprising when you realise she’s still only in her 20s. What’s not surprising is that Force sold 119 thousand copies within its first week, placing Ochi alongside the likes of Utada Hikaru and Amuro Namie as a female soloist who has achieved five consecutive number 1 album releases. The first and titular track ‘Force’ sets the perfect high-energy tone for the rest of the album, and is immediately followed up by my favourite song of the lot, ‘Nitty Gritty’. ‘Ai no Kurae’ is another excellent, if lower-key tune, although the entire album is worth every yen I paid for it and more.
Ieiri Leo – LEO
Release date: October 24th
Last but certainly not least, 2012 also saw the debut of a singer I’m convinced will charm many a listener. Just seventeen years old at the time of this release, Ieiri should not be mistaken for just another teen pop star by any means – her voice doesn’t reflect the current high-pitched and slightly squeaky female soloist trend, but instead is mellow and easy on the ears, with a husky quality not unlike the style of well-known singer/songwriter YUI. Indeed, Ieiri’s current producer Nishio Yoshihiko is also responsible for other popular artists including YUI, making it easy for fans to make the comparison. However, this does not stop LEO from being a highly distinctive album and a joy to listen to. The songs range from the upbeat and extremely catchy ‘Sabrina’, ‘Second Dream’ and ‘Bless You’, to the slower-paced but just as excellent ‘Kimi Dake’ and ‘Lady Mary’.
Some other albums that I briefly considered putting on this list but then discarded:
Kawase Tomoko – february & heavenly (February 29th).
If you like both the February and Heavenly personas then you’re in luck, but since I’ve always been more of a Heavenly girl, the first half of the album is mostly just filler as far as I’m concerned. While there are a couple of catchy tracks from both halves, there simply aren’t enough of them to compel me to make a purchase.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – Pamyu Pamyu Revolution (May 23rd).
I actually have a bit of a weakness for Japanese electro-pop these days, but aside from the ridiculously addictive ‘PonPonPon’ and one or two other tracks, the majority of the songs on this album just end up grating on my eardrums.
SID – M&W (August 1st).
I actually quite like this album because most of the tracks are a fun listen and rarely go over the-top, as I think the visual kei style often encourages. That said, there just isn’t quite enough emotional impact here to really sell it for me, although I doubt the hardcore fans will be left wanting.
SCANDAL – Queens Are Trumps: Kirifuda wa Queen (September 26th).
I don’t have a problem with most of the songs on SCANDAL’s latest album and I really want to like it, but unfortunately only a small handful of the tracks stand out in any way. The rest are disappointingly average and seem to lack that edgy feel I’ve become accustomed to from this group – a big disappointment for me.
Question of the post: Who is your favourite Japanese band/artist, and did they release an album in 2012? If so, did the album live up to your expectations?