It’s been a fairly underwhelming year for Japanese music for me, at least as far as full studio albums are concerned. While plenty of my favourite artists released compilation or best of albums during 2018, far fewer released studio albums; as a result, I listened to only 11 of them total, while just 3 of these made the cut. As always, the following list is arranged in order of release date and comprises only full and original studio albums by a single artist or band – no cover, compilation, EP, or live albums have been included.
Ieiri Leo – TIME
Release date: February 21st
This album is… well, it’s pretty okay. While I only really have one song I personally like a lot from it (‘Relax’), that’s certainly not to say there aren’t other songs on TIME that aren’t good, or are at least interesting. This came as a relief, since when I first started listening, I thought from the first couple of tracks the album would be another fairly dull ‘easy listening’ type experience with nothing to make it stand out. However, there are some interesting sounds going on in tracks like ‘TOKYO’, ‘After Dark’, ‘Fantasy’, and ‘Papa no Tokei’. It’s not my favourite album of the year by a long shot, and honestly also a step down from most of her other work, yet is better by far than Ieiri’s 2016 album release.
GARNiDELiA – G.R.N.D
Release date: March 28th
Your mileage may vary with this one depending on your tolerance for Euro and dance pop, whose genres tend to be GARNiDELiA’s mainstay. That said, there’s a surprisingly wide range of songs on G.R.N.D, both in terms of overall sound type as well as pacing. For example, the titular ‘G.R.N.D’ is a fast-paced electronic pop track, while ‘Jesus’ leans more heavily on an edgier rock sound. ‘Tougen Renka’ is an obviously Europop-influenced song with a traditional Japanese sound mixed in, and ‘Love Swing’ has a wonderfully unexpected old-school jazzy sound to it. ‘Desir’ rounds things off as a more classic pop-rock track that’s slower to start but builds up into a nice power ballad. All of these tracks are among my favourites, and overall this is actually my favourite Japanese album of the whole year.
Ikeda Ayako – Kaze wo Tsumugu
Release date: November 28th
I don’t actually know if I’d call Ikeda Ayako J-pop, strictly speaking. As far as I know, she’s not particularly popular among any one demographic and I never hear her playing on the radio here or anything – in fact, the last song of hers I even listened to prior to this album was 2007’s ‘Prism’, the opening theme to the Dennou Coil anime series. In terms of general sound though, I can’t really think of a reason not to include Kaze wo Tsumugu on this list, so here we are. The album may well not be to everyone’s tastes; very gentle and piano-centric, Ikeda’s vocals sound like something halfway between Ieiri Leo and KOKIA. The piano is occasionally broken up by a nice blend of acoustic guitar and flute, but this is probably the kind of album I’d like to have playing in the background while reading, writing, or daydreaming/napping. As a result, there are few standout tracks, but overall I think Kaze wo Tsumugu is both lovely and unpretentious. For what it’s worth, my favourite songs are the rather ethereal, mysterious ‘Toki no Tabibito’ and the surprisingly jaunty, jazz-infused ‘Hikari no Rashinban’.
And now, the albums of 2018 I listened to which, for one reason or another, failed to impress me. As there were so few that did make the grade this time around, I did my best to explain precisely why these following albums did not.
SCANDAL – Honey (February 14th)
The most I can say about this album is that it’s inoffensive. The music isn’t bad – it’s just sort of there, doing and making me feel nothing in particular. It’s not even that Honey is too poppy for my tastes – there’s an okay mix of pop and rock going on here – but few of the songs are actually interesting. Of this 10-track album, the only songs that stuck out to me in any way at all were ‘Oh! No!’ and ‘Electric Girl’. The rest sounded uniformly dull and unoriginal.
Flower Flower – Spotlight (March 14th)
When I reviewed Flower Flower’s debut album back in 2014, I didn’t have much good to say about it. I barely even recognized YUI’s voice. Spotlight is markedly better, mostly because it doesn’t sound like YUI is trying quite so desperately to be taken as ‘alternative’. That said, I still don’t care for this album much, primarily because YUI’s voice has become so nasally. The fact that she always sounded so husky and down-to-earth in her solo material is why I liked her so much in the first place, and that’s all but gone now. The only song I especially liked from Spotlight was ‘Coffee’. I’m sorry to say that most of the rest of the songs were okay at best, and set my teeth on edge at worst.
Sukima Switch – Shinkukan Algorithm (March 14th)
I think Sukima Switch may be just one of those bands I listen to for the singles, and then only from time to time. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with Shinkukan Algorithm, other than the fact that it simply failed to excite me much. ‘Revival’ is an okay, but as I’ve been hearing this plenty on the radio lately, my ears might just be biased. Otherwise, the only songs I liked especially were ‘Baby good sleep’, ‘Sayonara Escape’, and ‘Realize’ – the final 3 tracks on the album. In general, I tend to lean far more towards Sukima Switch’s easygoing, slower-paced material, which is probably why ‘Baby good sleep’ is easily my favourite track of the lot. Almost everything else, I could take or leave.
ZAQ – Z-ONE (May 16th)
While I honestly thought most of the songs on this album were just okay, there’s still an impressive mix of sounds here, from light pop to rock and electronic, while some tracks even feature a strong jazz or hip-hop flavour. Unfortunately, there just weren’t enough standouts for Z-ONE to make the grade for me, these being ‘Zone’, ‘Last Proof’, ‘ordinary it’, and of course ‘Serendipity’, which I’m sure many anime fans will recognize from 2016’s Flip Flappers OP).
Utada Hikaru – Hatsukoi (June 27th)
Overall, Hatsukoi is unfortunately a much weaker album than her previous release in 2016, with all but perhaps one the best songs not appearing until the second half. Whereas Fantôme had a sense of being classic, almost timeless in parts, Hatsukoi feels a lot more modern and therefore loses much of its impact, as Utada’s vocals alone don’t really carry enough weight to make a lasting impression as far as I’m concerned. ‘Hatsukoi’, ‘Phakchi no Uta’, ‘Ozora de Dakishimete’, ‘Yuunagi’, and ‘Shittosarerubeki Jinsei’ are all decent songs, but even among these there are only a couple of big standouts. The titular track is probably my favourite of the lot.
Perfume – Future Pop (August 15th)
I never thought I’d be saying this about Perfume of all Japanese bands, but this latest album seems to be almost completely lacking in any kind of energy or passion. Let it never be said that Perfume isn’t at least competent at what they do, but that’s about the most I can say about Future Pop, which is remarkably bland and features very few standout tracks. Even my favourite, ‘Let Me Know’, took a while to grow on me, while other tracks like ‘Mugen Mirai’ are decent enough yet neither creative nor even especially catchy.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – Japamyu (September 26th)
While I think any Kary Pamyu Pamyu fan would be fine with Japamyu (even if it’s not a patch on her debut studio album back in 2012), most people will probably find it more inanely annoying than anything else. I actually quite like some of the sounds – as advertised, there are plenty of distinctly Japanese riffs going on here – but on the whole, it leans more towards gimmicky than actually good. Despite a few fun tracks like ‘Harajuku Iyahoi’, ‘Oto no Kuni’, and ‘Chami Chami Charming’, these certainly don’t blow me away and in no way make up for the rest of the album.
DAOKO – Shiteki Ryoko (December 12th)
Despite being Daoko’s sixth studio album, this is the first album of hers I’ve ever listened to in full. Something of a combination between Yakushimaru Etsuko and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Daoko’s vocals are… well, quite interesting actually, albeit not really my cup of tea. They seem designed to give me a headache more than anything else, and I can’t say I felt particularly attracted to any specific tracks from Shiteki Ryoko other than ‘Chouchou ni Natte’ and ‘Uchiage Hanabi’ – the latter of which is nonetheless nowhere near as good without Yonezu Kenshi as featured artist. That said, I have nothing against this album, so people who’ve been listening to Daoko longer than I may well like what it has to offer.
Question of the post: What was your favourite J-pop/J-rock album of 2018? Were there any major surprises or disappointments for you this year?