So…I haven’t been the most up-to-date with the Japanese segment of the blog. Hopefully, I’ll be able to change that in 2021. Therefore to kick things off, I’m gonna list out my top 5 Japanese albums of 2020.
It’s a short list because I haven’t been able to listen to as much of the country’s music as I would like. Still, these records have left a lasting impression on me that I would very much like to share with you.
[BONUS] Dos Monos – Dos Siki (EP)
As you can see, this isn’t an album but I’d very much like to shine a light on it anyway.
An experimental hip-hop group from Tokyo, Dos Monos broke into the Western underground music scene with 2019’s Dos City. It was an abrasive jazz-fusion record that…wasn’t really my cup of tea. The clanging production and the group’s eccentric rapping just failed to gel with me.
Dos Siki, however, I find to be way more accessible. Trading in jazz for 90s boom bap (though there’s still flashes of experimentation too), Dos Monos’ charismatic performances become much more pronounced and gave me a newfound appreciation for their craft. It’s a wonderous look at the versatility that the group holds.
5. Rei – HONEY
Genre: Rock, Pop
I’ve been riding for Rei’s music ever since I discovered her on “My Name Is Rei”. An expressive horn-backed pop rock banger that, like its name suggests, is representative of what her sound is – loud and fun.
HONEY encompasses these elements and dials them up to 11. Tracks like “COLORS”, “What Do You Want?” and “Lonely Dance Club” are blitzing guitar-backed anthems that have a much stronger country-tinge than her previous releases. They’re energetic cuts that provide a nice contrast to the toned-down songs like the incredible “Categorizing Me”.
It might not be her best album but it is her most stylistically varied thus far.
4. Helsinki Lambda Club – Eleven plus two / Twelve plus one
Genre: Rock, Indie
I wasn’t too hot on this album when I first covered it, but after time its reduced reliance on soaring melodies slowly warmed up to me and now stands toe-to-toe with my introductory record to them – Tourist.
There’s a more delicate balance between the instrumentals and vocals on EPT/TPO, as the vocals often take a backseat on a lot of tracks to give the music room to breathe (though that’s not saying there aren’t any stunners on here – “午時葵”). It’s an album that feels mature, knowing that it doesn’t need to get caught up in the excitement of loud choruses to keep your attention; making it a record that’s worth repeat listening.
3. Ryusenkei & HITOMITOI – Talio
Genre: City Pop, Jazz
Ryusenkei’s first release in 11 years, Talio is the accompanying soundtrack for the TV series “Talio Fukushu Daiko no Futari”. Once again teaming up with Hitomitoi, the band returns to their tried-and-true city pop sound that I loved during my first encounter with the band on TOKYO SNIPER.
The show’s opening theme “Kinyoubi no Venus” is the star of the show with its bright horns and delightfully tranquil vocals from Horigome Yasuyuki. It’s an accessible track that eases us into its largely instrumental tracklist. Now, I’ve never seen the show so I don’t know of the narrative behind each of these songs.
However, everything here is so well arranged that the record feels like its telling a story of its own. From its dazzling openers, to a lounging 2nd act that’s proof of the group’s tight chemistry, to its final stretch that’s the perfect unwind after 15 tracks that came before. Talio might just be one of my favourite soundtracks ever (and I still haven’t watched the show).
2. Awich – Partition
I covered Awich a long time ago on the blog when I first started writing about Japanese music. Since then, the Okinawan rapper dropped two projects in 2020 – KUJAKU and Partition. The former, which feels like a spiritual sequel to her first album (given its cover art), is a good representation of her strengths – bombastic rapping and catchy pop rap sensibilities. However, the bloated tracklist keeps it from being an engaging listen.
Partition, on the other hand, trims the fat with only half of KUJAKU‘s runtime. It also prioritises Awich’s more aggressive side as she hops onto trap and drill(!) production, giving the album an urgency that I’ve never felt from her previous material. The conciseness of the record is what keeps it exciting, easily perching Partition as Awich’s best yet.
1. iri – Sparkle
Genre: Pop, Dance
My #12 album of the year, iri’s Sparkle is a masterclass in genre bending. Using the sounds of trip hop, pop, dance and rock, Sparkle improves upon nearly every aspect of iri’s last album Shade, which I already loved.
There’s an effortless feeling to iri’s music. Her deep vocals glide over any production she hops on, regardless of whether she’s rapping or singing. Her strongest feature however, is how she’s able to bring together all these different elements yet keeping Sparkle on a singular sound.
Never one to be overshadowed by the production, iri’s vocals are commanding and captivating enough for each element to gravitate around her – serving as supplementary aspects of her music that brings out the uniqueness of her voice.