So many new albums, so little time. Each year I seem to listen to more than I did the previous one, and whether this year has been a poorer one for Japanese music or whether I’m simply continuing to become pickier, there’s a lot more in my discard pile this time around. Still, that doesn’t mean 2014 has been bereft of good music; as with the last two years, six albums managed to stand out from the rest – albeit every single one of them from a female artist or band.
As always, I’m including only full studio albums here and discounting compilation, EP, cover, best of, and live CDs. The following albums are not listed from best to worst or vice versa, but only in order of release date.
FictionJunction – elemental
Release date: January 22nd
I’ve waited a long time for this one, and thankfully, FictionJunction’s second studio album doesn’t disappoint. elemental comprises the very best of the group’s work to date, and includes four brand new songs (‘elemental’, storytelling’, ‘storm’, and ‘Gaika’) to boot. If many of the other tracks on elemental feel a little old by now – though this isn’t a best of album as such, some of these singles were released back in 2009 – I can look past that in favour of their sheer awesomeness. ‘stone cold’ is still one of my absolute favourite songs of all time, Japanese or otherwise, and there are plenty of other powerful tracks here as well; both ‘elemental’ and ‘storm’ are fantastic, but of course it’s great to finally get ‘Toki no Mukou Maboroshi no Sora’, ‘Parallel Hearts’, and ‘Distance’ all in one place. My one minor complaint is that the most sedate of elemental’s songs, while lovely, are a little boring; FictionJunction has always done better with their more energetic and/or faster-paced material. Luckily, there’s plenty of that here, so this is still one of my top favourite albums of the year.
Aoi Eir – AUBE
Release date: January 29th
Aoi isn’t a particularly good singer, technically speaking. I enjoy her energy a lot, which is why I can overlook her sometimes shoddy vocal work – and it’s that same high energy that has prompted me to put her new album on this list for the second year in a row. There’s a lot of vibrancy to AUBE and a number of very catchy songs, including ‘Sirius’ which anime viewers may recognise from the first Kill la Kill opening. However, ‘Kin Mirai Koukyouku’, ‘nayuta gride’, and ‘KASUMI’ are my favourites of the album, and that last one especially is often at the top of my playlist. I suspect AUBE may be a little too pop for some, and there aren’t really any surprises to be had here; it’s very similar in both sound and style to last year’s BLAU, and in general, Aoi still reminds me a lot of LiSA. Whether these factors are a good or a bad thing depends on your musical tastes, but I personally feel that AUBE is a solid enough piece of work to merit its appearance on this list.
Ieiri Leo – a boy
Release date: February 19th
I don’t like this album as much as I do her debut from 2012, but Ieiri’s vocals are still just as dreamy and just as easy to soak up as ever. In fact, Ieiri is basically Japanese easy listening at its finest – the kind of album I naturally gravitate towards when I feel like dozing in the sun on a lazy Sunday afternoon. If a boy doesn’t quite pop in quite the same way that LEO did, there are still some gorgeous tracks here; ‘Message’, ‘Ijiwaruna Kami-sama’, and ‘Kibou no Chikyuu’ are particularly beautiful, although it’s ‘Taiyou no Megami’, the second single released from this album, that I find irresistible. A pity that ‘Junjou’ was released too late to be included on the album as well, since that’s also one of Ieiri’s best songs to date, but I guess that just means we can look forward to it being released on a future CD. Fans of her music won’t be dissatisfied with this – a boy is relaxing and comes across as glidingly effortless in terms of delivery – which of course just goes to show how much care went into its creation.
SCANDAL – HELLO WORLD
Release date: December 3rd
Now this is a surprise. SCANDAL’s previous couple of albums were mediocre at very best, and I had more or less counted the band out completely since they hadn’t released even a single I’d liked since 2011. Don’t get me wrong, HELLO WORLD isn’t the best album SCANDAL has ever produced, but it’s better by far than both Queens are trumps and Standard. I wish they’d go right back to their slightly harder, vaguely garage rock-infused style – HELLO WORLD still feels a bit more pop-heavy in comparison to some of their older material – but this is far from a bad effort. The first song of the album and their most recent single to be released, ‘Image’, makes for a strong opening, and is followed up by the catchy ‘Your song’. ‘Graduation’, ‘Runners high’, and ‘Oyasumi’ are also easy tracks to jam out to, and my favourite song of the whole piece, ‘Onegai Nabigeshon’, has a bit more of an edge to it. I’m relieved to say that overall, HELLO WORLD finally breathes some new life into a band that I feared I’d never be able to enjoy again. Keep it up, guys!
Yanagi Nagi – Polyomino
Release date: December 10th
I was actually pretty close to putting this one on the reject pile rather than this main list. Not that it’s a bad album, mind – it’s a very decent album in fact, which is why I let generosity sway me. No, Polyomino’s main problem is that it’s a little slow for my tastes, with the majority of the tracks – especially in the album’s second half – being quiet and very deliberately paced. I don’t mind these types of songs per se, but I also need a bit more excitement to break things up every now and again, and while the likes of ‘Rainy veil’ are undoubtedly lovely, I know very well that Yanagi is capable of more. Luckily, there are just enough faster tracks here to satisfy me; ‘Faraway Highway’, ‘Sweet Track’, and ‘landscape’ are pretty good, and ‘Tokohana’, the most recent single from this album and also the most rock-based, is excellent. In the end, while Polyomino is far from the most stirring album on this list, it highlights Yanagi’s vocal abilities very well, and I can’t imagine that fans will have any major complaints.
Kimura Kaela – MIETA
Release date: December 17th
I didn’t realise before looking this up properly after listening to it, but MIETA marks Kimura’s tenth anniversary in the music industry, and as such, I’m doubly glad that it’s such a good offering. Normally I’d say eleven tracks falls a little on the short side, but since I like pretty much every one of them as opposed to my usual half or less, I’m tempted not to really care. Kimura has always straddled that perfect line between pop and rock for me, and MIETA is no different – most of the songs are light and cute enough to appeal to non-rock fans, but hard and cool enough to stand out from the rest of the J-pop crowd. The second half of the album doesn’t feel quite as strong as the first, with ‘one more’, ‘sonic manic’, ‘TODAY IS A NEW DAY’, ‘c’mon’, and my personal favourite track ‘Satisfaction’ all making an earlier appearance, but this is a fantastic CD overall – easily the best along with FictionJunction’s.
And as usual, here are the albums I listened to that I tossed on the discard pile. Most are merely unexceptional, though there are a couple of major letdowns as well.
Hello Sleepwalkers – Masked Monkey Awakening (February 19th)
This album is about average, but as I had such high expectations of it, it’s my biggest disappointment of the year. ‘Goya no Machiawase’ is an amazing song – maybe even my favourite single of 2014 – but unfortunately, not even the better tracks from the album come anywhere close to matching it.
SID – Outsider (March 12th)
An inoffensive but largely dull offering, this album sounds surprisingly mainstream. I usually turn to SID when I want some real J-rock that doesn’t make my ears bleed, but aside from one or two tracks, nothing here catches my attention the way I expected it to, which is a shame.
Nakagawa Shoko – 9lives (April 2nd)
I’m waiting for the day Nakagawa releases a best-of album. As usual, there are some okay songs here but the CD isn’t especially gripping as a whole, and ends up a little too pop-friendly for my tastes.
Hamasaki Ayumi – Colours (July 2nd)
I take no pleasure in saying that this is without a doubt Ayu’s worst studio album to date. Frankly, it sounds trashy – as in, soulless, teen-pop trashy. The first two tracks are about the only bright spots on the album, and even they’re not good in any technical sense, but simply generically catchy. I’m unsurprised that sales have been relatively poor.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – Pika Pika Fantajin (July 9th)
While by no means terrible, this is Kyary’s weakest studio album so far. With no huge break-out hits as with her previous two albums, this sounds, dare I say it, almost subdued by her usual standards. It has a handful of catchy tracks but nothing that really knocks my socks off.
Nothing’s Carved in Stone – Strangers in Heaven (August 6th)
This album is just so… meh. By rights I should like the rock style and I should like the vocals… and I guess I do, yet not a single track from this really stands out to me. A disappointingly average listen overall – maybe ‘Spirit Inspiration’ back in 2012 was their one-hit number.
Takahashi Yu – Ima, Soko ni Aru Meimetsu to Gunjou (August 6th)
Yu’s interesting style of singing way more words than seem possibly able to fit into a single line of verse is vaguely charming at first but gets old fast, even if there’s nothing inherently wrong as such with any of his songs. And maybe it’s just me, but his vocals sound even more nasally this time around, which I find more and more irritating every time I listen.
Hikasa Yoko – Couleur (September 3rd)
‘Utsukushiki Zankyou na Sekai’ is easily the best track on this album, and I’m not even a big Shingeki no Kyojin/Attack on Titan fan. Hikasa should stick to power ballads, where her voice tends to go naturally deeper and has a much more powerful feel. Her lighter songs aren’t bad, but her higher-pitched vocals there sound almost squeaky at times and aren’t as compelling.
Ayane – Base Ten (October 8th)
This entire album sounds like it’s just waiting to be made into a DDR soundtrack, with a very preppy-pop feel and not much attitude. It’s a shame because Ayane actually does dark and moody quite well, but this CD has very little in the way of atmosphere.
Flower Flower – Mi (November 26th)
My other major disappointment of the year, Flower Flower’s debut album sadly doesn’t do much for me. First track aside, I don’t actively like any of the songs, and YUI sounds like she’s all but whispering nearly every word. I have nothing against the edgier tone, but some of these songs feel downright discordant, like the melody and the vocals are working directly against one another. I honestly expected better.
Question of the post: What Japanese albums of 2014 turned out to be your favourites, and were there any big surprises or disappointments? What are you most looking forward to/hoping for in terms of Japanese music during 2015?