Clearly there’s some kind of heathen magic at work here, because every year I listen to more albums than I did the previous one and every year I end up picking exactly six of them for this list regardless. Oh well, at least I have a male band on it this time.
As always, this list only covers full studio albums and not compilations, EPs, covers, or lives. Said albums are listed in order of release date rather than best to worst or vice versa, though I’ve done my best to give them some semblance of ranking as far as my personal commentary is concerned. Feel free to laud or bash my musical tastes in the comments.
KANA-BOON – TIME
Release date: January 21st
I don’t think I’d ever heard of KANA-BOON before the release of ‘Talking’, which is actually their eighth single and used for the OP of anime series Subete ga F ni Naru: The Perfect Insider. This is also the band’s second studio album after 2013’s DOPPEL, which I haven’t yet had time to listen to. As far as this album is concerned, TIME is overall very decent, although I think the first half is stronger than the second. Most songs are rock-based but not overly heavy or intense – the tone and style put me in mind of Bump of Chicken, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. The slower tracks on here are okay but I don’t think the vocals are quite good enough to carry off the ballads, so I mostly prefer the faster or more high-energy material, which luckily makes up the majority of the album. ‘Talking’ wasn’t released until November and so isn’t included here, but I recommend giving ‘Time Out’, ‘LOL’, ‘Terminal’, ‘Full Drive’, and ‘Silhouette’ a listen.
Ieiri Leo – 20
Release date: February 25th
There’s still no replacing Ieiri’s debut album for me which in my mind is basically perfection, but 20 still pretty darn great. I still can’t believe her age sometimes – not because her voice makes her sound older than she is but rather because it’s just that awesome. Ieiri is one of the only artists whose slower-paced songs I like just as much, if not even more, than the faster ones because her vocals are strong enough and emotive enough to pull them off; if you listen to a track like ‘miss you’ or ‘little blue’ then I’m sure you’ll see what I mean. However, this isn’t to say that her more energetic songs are lacking, and ‘Junjou’ remains one of my favourites from the album. The only track I don’t particularly like is ‘Silly’, which for whatever reason just doesn’t work for me in terms of the melody. This is also the single that’s performed the best in sales though, so maybe I’m just missing something.
Haruna Luna – Candy Lips
Release date: March 25th
Well, this is a bit of a surprise. I never bothered listening to Haruna’s first album, Oversky, mostly because I preferred LiSA and Aoi Eir who struck me as incredibly similar in terms of overall musical sound and style. And indeed, some of the songs on Candy Lips are exactly the sort of inoffensive but predictable pop you’d expect from such a singer – if you’ve watched Sword Art Online or Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend then you’ll know probably what I mean by that. However, it also turns out that Haruna has a bit more spirit than I’d anticipated, and there are a number of songs here that have some real attitude to them such as ‘DESSERT’, ‘Otome no Negaigoto’, ‘Sayonara Moratorium’, and ‘Lunatic World’. In general it’s all still a little too cutesy for my tastes but I can’t deny this is a solid album nonetheless, so fans of girly Japanese pop-rock will want to check it out.
Superfly – WHITE
Release date: May 27th
I’ll get this out of the way right now – I’m already huge Superfly fan and basically think Ochi Shiho can do no wrong. She’s also from Ehime, so there could even be some prefectural bias there, but mostly I just love her for her vocals. They’re strong, classy, and down-to-earth; there’s nothing pretentious about them despite Ochi’s distinctive rock-funk sound and often hippie-inspired style, and WHITE is a fantastic album. Not quite as good as Force in 2012, but I’m prepared to admit that such a thing would have been all but impossible, and there are still some superb tracks on here. I’m particularly enamoured of ‘Ai wo Karada ni Fukikonde’ and ‘White Light’, both of which were released as singles in November 2014 and January 2015 respectively, although there are a number of other excellent songs on here including ‘Woman’, ‘Libido ni Tsugu’, ‘Gokusaishiki Heartbeat’, and ‘You You’. It’s difficult not to gush about an album such as this, but let me just say that WHITE is easily the best of the year for me in every way, from sound to cover.
Aoi Eir – D’AZUR
Release date: June 24th
Aoir Eir and LiSA have always sounded really similar to me, but I’ve always preferred LiSA in terms of vocals. Having said that, D’AZUR is the better album this year, just as her AUBE was compared to LiSA’s Landspace in 2014. I also think Aoi has shown definite improvement over time – her voice sounds steadier now than it did on her previous albums, so despite D’AZUR feeling markedly stronger in the first half than the second, I’m inclined to view the whole thing as a pretty solid effort. ‘Lapis Lazuli’, which anime viewers may recognise from the first ED to Arslan Senki, is an especially strong track and my favourite of the album, although there are plenty of others including ‘IGNITE’, ‘Yurari’, ‘Cynthia no Hikari’, ‘JUMP!!!’, ‘Tsunagaru Omoi’, and ‘BREAK OUT!’. In fact, I’d say this is probably the strongest album Aoi has produced so far, so I think her work is worth keeping an eye on.
Kalafina – far on the water
Release date: September 16th
If I’m being totally honest, this album isn’t on par with 2013’s Consolation. It starts off very promisingly indeed with ‘into the water’, a haunting intro track that’s more chant than song, but most of the tracks on far on the water simply don’t live up to that expectation. Kalafina being who they are the vocals are lovely as usual, and I get the sense that their harmonies have only strengthened and grown even further in sync over time, but so many of the songs lack that raw emotion and oftentimes dark beauty that are more present on Seventh Heaven, Red Moon, or Consolation. This album seems to have more in common with 2011’s After Eden, in that the good songs are great but the rest are just okay. On the plus side, ‘One Light’, used as the second ED to Arslan Senki, is more than great – it’s quite possibly my favourite single of the entire year – while ‘identify’, ‘heavenly blue’ and ‘believe’ are very strong tracks in their own right as well, and do a lot to help make up for what the rest of far on the water is lacking.
And as par for the course, here are all the albums I listened to over the course of the year that didn’t make the top list:
GARNiDELiA – Linkage Ring and BiRTHiA (January 21st and August 26th)
This duo released both their debut album as well as a follow-up this year. For my money the first is the better of the two; there’s a better dispersion of tracks in terms of pacing and it contains the best two songs, ‘ambiguous’ (which anime fans may recognise from the second OP of Kill la Kill) and ‘grilletto’. That said, it’s still not a particularly interesting album – nothing I’ve not heard before from artists with a very similar pop-rock style. The second album feels even tamer, with a handful of decent tracks but nothing high-energy enough to hold my attention.
ONE OK ROCK – 35xxxv (February 11th)
As a band I like ONE OK ROCK a lot, but this album just isn’t as good as 2013’s Jinsei×Boku=. There aren’t many standout songs, and even those that are (most notably ‘Cry out’ and ‘Mighty Long Fall’, the latter of which was used as the theme song for the second live-action Kenshin film) feel good rather than great. It’s worth a note that this is one of the only Japanese bands that I don’t mind using copious amounts of English in their lyrics, because the pronunciation is spot-on and the words actually make sense. That said, the sound and feel of this album puts me in mind of Linkin Park – and nothing against Linkin Park but I’m no longer an angsty teen writing bad poetry in my bedroom.
Cyntia – Woman (February 18th)
This is Cyntia’s fourth studio album but the first one I was inspired to listen to after hearing ‘Akatsuki no Hana’, which was used as the second OP to the Akatasuki no Yona anime series. Because of that I was hoping for something along the lines of SCANDAL, but despite the rock and heavy metal label (really??), this is basically electro-pop with pretty average vocals. Actually though, my main problem with this album is its title, because if you’re going to name something ‘Woman’ then is sure as hell better be fierce, and there’s absolutely nothing fierce about this.
LiSA – Launcher (March 4th)
This is an okay album – certainly better than the completely lacklustre Landspace released in 2013 – but it feels to me like LiSA is starting to try too hard to be cool and edgy when she just doesn’t have strong enough vocals to pull that off. Her voice wavers around too much and is too cute and peppy to really come across as rock in any case. That said, there are a few decent songs on here so fans will probably be happy enough.
KOKIA – I Found You (March 18th)
This is an interesting album, albeit not one of my favourites of the year. It’s more dynamic than 2013’s Where to go my Love? despite the slower-paced songs once again completely dominating it, and there also seems to be a lot more guitar going on than piano for a change, especially in the album’s first handful of songs. I definitely don’t dislike the album (I mean, who could ever dislike vocals like these?), but unfortunately there aren’t enough standout songs to really bring it to the fore. Of all of them, ‘Recover’ is by far and away my favourite.
Hamasaki Ayumi – A One (April 8th)
This certainly isn’t one of Ayu’s best albums but it’s a million times better than last year’s Colours, so that’s something at least. There are too many ballads here for my liking and only a couple of songs here that really stand out, like the rock-centric ‘WARNING’ and the emotional power ballad ‘Last minute’, but most tracks are at least okay, albeit not enough to lift the album from average to good.
T.M.Revolution – Ten (May 13th)
I’ve come to realise I don’t actually care for T.M.Revolution’s vocal style all that much. Some of his songs are undeniably catchy but most only really seem to work for me when they accompany over-the-top cheesy shounen anime, i.e. Sengoku Basara. This is T.M.Revolution’s first studio album in four years though, so fans may well want to check it out.
angela – ONE WAY (May 20th)
Wow, angela’s eleventh studio album and my first time listening to a single one of them in full. It’s not bad either, although I only really like the tracks that have a strong dance-electronica style to them. The rest don’t seem to suit her warbling vocal style anywhere near as well, and unfortunately this means I only cared for about half the album.
BRADIO – POWER OF LIFE (June 3rd)
This isn’t a terrible album but it’s my biggest disappointment of the year. After the truly fabulous ‘Flyers’, used as the OP to anime series Death Parade, I was expecting a whole album to match, with just as much funk and flair. Unfortunately this is more generic rock than funk, and while there are a small handful of songs that stuck out to me, none except maybe ‘Spicy Madonna’ come anywhere close to matching the awesome that is ‘Flyers’.
Porno Graffitti – RHINOCEROS (August 19th)
I like Porno Graffitii and this isn’t a bad album by any means, but it feels like something’s missing. I can’t quite put my finger on what, but this isn’t quite the retro, easygoing rock I know and love – or if it is, it’s a step below what I’m used to getting from this band, especially compared to 2012’s Panorama Porno. The songs are perfectly decent, but the album as a whole feels weirdly lacking.
Nothing’s Carved in Stone – MAZE (September 16th)
Well, this is definitely a step above last year’s Strangers in Heaven. I actually remember very little of that, which I guess shows just how much it stood out to me overall, but I have the feeling this one uses a lot less English. Generally I prefer this, because if I’m going to listen to a Japanese album then I’d rather hear Japanese lyrics, and while NCiS has great English pronunciation, I’m not convinced they actually have a clue what they’re singing. That said, this album still doesn’t really speak to me on a personal level and the only track that stuck out to me at all was ‘YOUTH city’ – though admittedly this probably has more to do with my personal taste than the quality of the music.
Mizuki Nana – Smashing Anthems (November 11th)
Man, I haven’t listened to a Mizuki Nana album in years. Actually, I don’t think I’ve even listened to one of her singles in years, though I’ve heard bits and pieces from various anime titles and on the radio. Her high-pitched and warbly vocals aren’t really my style, but I liked the beat and energy of some of her earlier singles like ‘Wild Eyes’ and ‘Eternal Blaze’, which mixed well with her electronic-infused pop style. That’s more or less what I was looking for here, and I got it with a couple of the tracks (most notably ‘Kindan no Resistance’ and ‘Exterminate’), but not enough to make me care about the whole album all that much. Again, I’m more than willing to put this down purely to personal taste rather than actual quality though.
Question of the post: What were your own favourites of 2015, and were there any big surprises or disappointments? Is there anything you’re especially looking forward to or hoping for in 2016?