This year has been a curious one in Japanese music: during the first half we’ve seen some great albums getting released, many of them from artists that have been growing more and more in the last years. The second half has been much slower, except for a vibrant and relentless underground Idol scene that has delivered many surprises just as J-pop, including some interesting debuts. It’s safe to say that I liked many more releases this year than in 2016.
Below is a list of 15 Japanese records that stood out the most to me in 2017. It is not a Top 15, meaning that I put all these records on the same level of quality, except for one, which firmly stood above anything else released in Japan this year. So there is a Japanese Album of the Year in this list. There is also a Best Music Video, Best Live Performer, and Best Collaboration.
Please note that this list features both Albums and EPs, as my aim is to recommend the best Japanese music regardless of the release format. Hope you enjoy it!
Hirone Chan – Yume no Yume
2017 is the year Hirone Chan reached her maturity as artist. The singer/songwriter never really had a bad record in her young career, yet the way-too-recurrent comparisons to J-pop phenomenon Seiko Oomori somehow slightly overshadowed her previous releases in some way. This comparison ultimately came to an end this year with the release of Hirone Chan’s second studio album Yume no Yume, a pleasant journey where several influences merge together and take the form of rhythms and melodies that tell of fragile and delicate feelings. This is a very personal album, yet it’s not afraid to delicately borrow elements from several genres: wether it’s a jazz-y rhythm section, an electric guitar riff, a piano solo, or a delicate electronic beat, every element in Yume no Yume merges delicately to create a very focused and classy soundscape. This is a greatly crafted record, that flows seamlessly while successfully delivering highlights that keep the listener engaged throughout this very intimate and personal journey. Surely one of this year’s most surprising albums.
Listen: Omoidasenai Yume Mitai ni
Natsume Mito – Natsumelo
(J-pop / Electronic)
With the beginning of a solo career, a myriad of projects between old and new artists, commercial tie-ins, and even his own music festival to organize and manage, Yasutaka Nakata is a producer that’s probably too busy to even sleep… let alone think about the past. Yet, there’s been one moment this year where the famed producer went full flashback mode, releasing a record that can be seen as a sort of testament to what he did so far in his twenty-years career, a recap that takes the form of Natsumelo, Natsume Mito‘s debut record entirely produced by the Tokyo-based producer. The nature of the project itself immediately reminds of the glorious days of COLTEMONIKHA and Nagisa Cosmetic, and quite surprisingly, it reaches similar levels of quality: in Natsumelo, Nakata finds himself exploring all of his past influences, spacing from his early-days Lounge sound and Chiptune bits to the classic “soothing bass” that permeated the Techno-pop wave in the second half of the 2000s. All of this is delivered through a formula that’s super catchy and fast, sounding fresh and contemporary instead of a mere throwback. Natsume Mito provides fitting vocals for Nakata to play with, and the chemistry between the two delivers a result that’s ultimately amazing. Surely one of the most fun records of the year.
Yurumerumo! (You’ll Melt More!) – YUOTOPIA
(New wave / Pop Rock / Idol)
2017 has been an incredibly busy year for Yurumerumo. These girls literally didn’t stop for a second, with two albums, two EPs, several live performances, and I don’t even know how many Music Videos and singles anymore released throughout the year, working at a pace that would make Tentenko doubt of her productivity. While I’ll take quality over quantity every day, these girls have been surprisingly constant with their music delivery, and the recently released YOUTOPIA is their most remarkable work this year. Few units can sound this crazy yet incredibly careful in every detail, and this album is yet another showcase of the absolutely insane songwriting representing Yurumerumo, a relentless and colorful journey between Dance, Rock, New Wave, Chiptune, Metal, Pop, and pretty much whatever their production team felt like doing, all framed in a catchy and welcoming structure. To make it simple, just look at the record’s cover: that’s probably the most accurate representation of how YUOTOPIA sounds.
・・・・・・・・・ – Tokyo
(Shoegaze / Idol)
Symbolism, mysteries, metaphors, cryptic live performance, daily YouTube videos…・・・・・・・・・ (better known as Dots) is no doubt the most mysterious and interesting project in the Alt Idol scene at the moment. I have talked about the five (or nine?) girls quite a few times during this year, not only for their unique and engaging concept that leaves free space to interpretation, but first and foremost for their music (obviously).
Dots’ main release this year took the form of a CD featuring a 72 minutes-long track titled Tokyo, which is basically a set of three tracks put together, all of them exposing several vibes and moods while keeping Shoegaze and delicate Electronics layers the main core of their sound. What makes these songs even more enjoyable is the way they are structured, with ambient and atmospheric interludes between each number that create a cohesive flow despite being sonically different. It’s an homogeneous experience that progresses seamlessly while exploring different soundscapes, and it’s very enjoyable to listen to. This part of the track, which again is made of the three tracks just described, ends at the 22 minutes mark. The ending kind of took off guard quite a few fans (while someone definitely noticed that something was wrong), as the remaining fifty minutes on the CD are nothing but pure noise. It may sound like a joke at first, and while this approach is surely open to interpretation, I think it hides a clear metaphor which is… intriguing.
MIGMA SHELTER – Amazing Glow
(Psychedelic Trance / Idol)
A new addition to the AqbiRec family, MIGMA SHELTER is easily one of the best debuts in the Alternative Idol scene this year. Detaching themselves from the usual formula of their colleagues, these five girls have a clear and strong influence as their core: Psychedelic Trance. The genre itself is prone to welcome vocals, and this unit clearly takes advantage of this to deliver a fun and entertaining experience, alternating glitchy vocal sections to hard-hitting instrumental outbursts, occasionally merging them together in a surprisingly fitting way. Everything is wrapped up by a remarkable songwriting that’s not afraid to borrow elements from Metal and Rock, and the result is quite unique. While their debut single is nothing to scoff at, Amazing Glow is a more refined and adventurous release, featuring a streak of valid tracks that will undoubtedly entertain both Idol and Electronic music fans.
Listen: Amazing Glow
Youthmemory – Neo Tokyo
Melancholy and nostalgia are feelings that have been kind of trending in the last few years in music, but only few can convey them as good as Youthmemory does. With Neo Tokyo, the Tokyo-based Indie-pop outfit indeed delivers a two-tracks release that explores these feelings with delicacy: the title track conveys uncertainty towards the future and nostalgia for the past with sharp melodies revolving around distant guitar riffs, while the following “City” (possibly the best track in here) features melancholic riffs and airy layers of synths that brings the listener back to the innocence of adolescence and its beautiful carefreeness. Neo Tokyo may only be a two-tracks EP, but in ten minutes it successfully conveys more feelings and quality than a lot of full length records out there.
Listen: Neo Tokyo
Satellite Young – Satellite Young
If the previous act is a representation of melancholy and nostalgia towards the past, Satellite Young are the guys that want you to cherish it and have fun in remembering the good old times. Confining the 80’s Synth-Pop outfit in the Vaporwave category would make no justice to their music: while emulating 80’s pop music is surely far from something original, they do it so well that’s just impossible not to enjoy it. Satellite Young‘s main accomplishment lies not only in the perfect representation of 80’s music between bright synth melodies and flashy guitar solos, but also in the ability of taking the sound of an era and frame it in a modern pattern that makes it perfectly enjoyable today. This record is pure fun, and a well-crafted tribute to a period where Pop music was a bit more heartfelt than it is today. Not to miss.
Listen: Dividual Heart
There There Theres – There’s Something Behind
(Symphonic Rock / Idol)
Previously known as Bellring Girls Heart, the crow-themed Alt Idol unit has been delivering greatly-written Rock music in different forms since its foundation in 2012. This year’s change of name and formation has been an unexpected turn, but nonetheless, great music kept flowing from this project of the AqbiRec family. The now-called There There Theres project released two singles this year, and while Upstairs Down is a trip worth taking only for the beautiful “Pelican”, the latest There’s Something Behind uncovered a side of this unit that’s new and unexpectedly dark, delivering one of the strongest compositions these girls ever released. The dramatic title track highlights nervous rhythm patterns and piano melodies that work as a base for unexpected – but very fitting – symphonic elements, with a structure that slowly progresses in a crescendo of anxiety, leading to a final outburst of desperation highlighted by a remarkable performance from the girls; it’s a pretty dark song, and its particular progression makes it all but instant, but once it clicks it’s hard to stop listening to it. The coupling tracks “IKENIE” and “Metalics” follow the same mood with different patterns, and they all deliver thanks to the trademark songwriting from mastermind Koji Tanaka. There’s Something Behind may not be an easy listen at first, and definitely strays away from the catchiness of past works from this unit, but it shows an emotional value that’s worth exploring. Surely one of the best releases from the world of underground Idols this year.
Listen: There’s Something Behind
Zombie-Chang – GANG!
As proven last year with her remarkable self-titled record, Zombie-Chang‘s main skill lies in her incredible sense for rhythm and melodies. While she rarely strays away too much from her comfort zone, she can deliver so much with so little that’s honestly stunning what she’s achieving with just a keyboard and a DAW. Her second album GANG! generally follows her usual pattern, but also ventures into more Pop-ish fields, with the beautiful leading single “I CAN’T GET TO SLEEP” as prime example (also showing a great improvement in the singing department). Despite being a reasonably short ride, Zombie-Chang’s new record successfully showcases several vibes and combination of sounds, a playground where Meirin feels free to experiment and shyly expand her sound, while also keeping close to the roughness and the vague oppression of her previous record. GANG! is a great example of Zombie-Chang’s skills in music composition, as well as one of the most enjoyable Electro-pop records of the year.
NECRONOMIDOL – DEATHLESS
(Metal / Idol)
All the sacrifice, hard work, and effort NECRONOMIDOL put in their project since their formation have finally paid off in 2017. A well-deserved gift after the struggles they went through in the past, constantly looking for the right formation, but most of all, for the right sound and balance. And they made it. DEATHLESS, Necroma’s second full-length album, is hands-down the best and most mature release from the self-proclaimed Ultradark Idol unit, striking a remarkable balance between extreme Metal influences – mainly Black, Power and Heavy – and ethereal vocals often enriched by synths and catchy hooks, a formula that seamlessly merges distant influences and conveys them through a sound that’s homogenous and crystal clear. DEATHLESS is a strong collection of songs, a various yet cohesive journey through dark vibes and beautiful vocals delivered though a familiar structure: NECRONOMIDOL couldn’t have made a better album than this, and it’s a remarkable achievement worth admiring.
Sora tob sakana – Cocoon EP
(Math Rock / Electronic / Idol)
It’s no secret that sora tob sakana is one of the best Alt Idol units out there, and this year’s Cocoon EP once again delivered amazing music, brought by the ever-growing talent of these girls and the outstanding musicianship of Math Rock maestro and producer Yoshimasa Terui. The link between last year’s outstanding record and Cocoon EP mostly lies in the adaptation of the unit’s trademark Math Rock technique to dreamy Electronic elements, while merging delicate guitar melodies and occasional aggressive riffs in the process. “Ribbon” is easily one of the best (if not the best) compositions sora tob sakana ever released, and the rest of the record masterfully keeps the pace up despite leaning towards a more Electronic direction. Sora tob sakana once again proves to be one of Alt Idol’s best units, and the future for these girls and their talented team is bright. Unmissable.
Seiko Oomori – kitixxxgaia / MUTEKI
(J-pop / Acoustic)
It may sound unfair to feature two albums in a spot, but I really can’t consider Oomori Seiko‘s 2017 without taking both of these great records in consideration, as they’re pretty much two sides of the same coin. Kitixxxgaia is exactly the album everyone was expecting to be, a majestic journey through myriads of influences, from whispers and yells, to full Metal outburst and delicate Electronic beats, all of them wrapped-up by a masterful songwriting; while it may sound a bit less adventurous than last year’s excellent TOKYO BLACK HOLE, kitixxxgaia nonetheless delivers an outstanding experience and once again shows how Seiko puts into music not only what’s in her mind, but most of all what’s in her heart. MUTEKI, a compilation of acoustic self-covers exploring the songwriter’s back catalogue, fully brings out Seiko’s former artistic identity, with only her voice, her acoustic guitar, and some occasional piano layers to grace the listener’s ears; surely a release more aimed at her long-time fans, but nonetheless an heartfelt and tender journey worth taking. Both these records complement each other greatly, and successfully showcase the artistry one of J-pop’s most talented singers/songwriters of the last decade.
Listen: DOGMA MAGMA
Yanakoto Sotto Mute – BUBBLE
(J-Rock / Idol)
I’ve been listening to music and writing about it for most of my life, and if there’s one thing I can tell you for sure, is that “pure” and straight-to-the-point Rock albums bore me to death: if there isn’t something sneaking in, some sort of external influence of whatever nature enriching the sound, I rarely come back to it. Yanakoto Sotto Mute‘s latest record is one of the very rare exceptions to this: BUBBLE is an all-around outstanding album, with variousness, melodies, and masterful songwriting as main highlights, keeping the listener constantly engaged throughout its thirteen tracks. It’s aggressive yet greatly executed, adventurous but cohesive, and ultimately, one of the best records of this year. As if that wasn’t enough, Yanakoto Sotto Mute‘s members are easily the best vocalist of the entire Idol scene, and along a beautiful artistic direction, this record is an all-around must have for those who are looking for both a great Rock album and a very talented Idol unit to follow.
Suiyoubi no Campanella – SUPERMAN
(J-pop / Electronic)
It’s no secret that Suiyoubi no Campanella is currently one of the most beloved groups of the Japanese music scene, and the talent and fresh compositions of this project are starting to reach the western side of the planet as well. After last year’s UMA, a rushed EP that marked Campanella’s uncertain entry to the mainstream world, the trio greatly recovered this year with their new studio album SUPERMAN, which is exactly what everyone needed to hear from this team of talented artists. Various, unpredictable, fun, often aggressively Electronic, SUPERMAN is a festival of melodies, hard-beats, and all sorts of influences, from Funk and 80’s Disco to African music and Pop. This record is yet another testament to Suiyoubi no Campanella‘s outstanding songwriting and dynamic sound, and a genuinely fun and addictive experience. One of J-pop’s absolute best in 2017.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR 2017
For Tracy Hyde – he(r)art
I can write this without hesitation: For Tracy Hyde’s record he(r)art is the Best Japanese album of 2017.
This is exactly what I describe as a masterpiece album, a complete opera all-around, where it’s not about picking up and dissecting each track, but enjoying the album as a unique cohesive experience. Like staring at a painting and admire how each part of it contributes to the overall image, instead of focusing on single elements. It’s a rare gift we don’t get that often in music.
From the beginning to the end, he(r)art delicately tells the tale of a girl and of her feelings, while setting the magic of Tokyo’s vibrant life as background, casting clear images and life experiences in the mind of the listener: the first sight of Shinjuku’s festival of night lights, a walk in Inokashira park during fall, a lonely winter day in Kamakura’s beach, the blinding beauty of Ginza during Christmas time… all these images come to mind while listening to this album, along with millions of feelings that intertwine within Tokyo’s frantic yet silent web of lives, where love, betrayal, insecurity, happiness and sadness all merge together. This is music made by people who lived these melodies and sounds before even writing them, and it’s the reason why it resonates so much with the listener. I could tell you about the complex yet accessible songwriting, the excellent influences that pop up unexpectedly and enrich each track with surprise, the comfortable melancholy and joy of each guitar riff… yet a mere technical description just wouldn’t make justice to this album. The best thing is just to listen to it, and absorb every note of it.
I recommend this record to everyone. While all the great albums listed above deliver amazing experiences and are made by outstanding musicians and artists, there is quite nothing that reaches the depth, the attention to details, and the emotions that For Tracy Hyde conveys with this record. He(r)art is an absolute masterpiece, and the reason why I love music.
Read my review on ARAMA! JAPAN
Best Music Video
Sora Tob Sakana – ribbon
This is the perfect representation of music combining with visuals to create a great artistic experience: the hand-drawn style, the story of a rabbit and a turtle dreaming of different places, the power of music in transporting people to different worlds with the only use of imagination… all of this is represented through this video in such a tender and human way that’s hard not to get moved by it. “Ribbon” is one of the best Japanese songs released this year, but it’s only half of the experience without its music video.
Best Live Performer
Perfume – Fusion (NTT Docomo Future Experiment vol.01)
Techno-pop trio Perfume have always been ahead of… pretty much the entire world when it comes to live performances and cutting edge technology. And this year, they proved once again how they can still deliver jaw-dropping live performances backed by innovative concepts.
For the first time ever, the three girls performed separately, each one on a different side of the planet: A-chan in Tokyo, Kashiyuka in London, Nocchi in New York. They performed the same song and choreography simultaneously while live streaming each location live, with the incredible work of the Rhizomatiks team putting each member together, and adding computer graphic elements and insane camera work on top. Words can’t make justice to this performance, so just put your headphones on and see what happens when some of the best performers in the world meet a team of incredible artists.
Towa Tei with Ano (You’ll Melt More!) – REM
I really wasn’t expecting this, but I guess legendary Electronic artist Towa Tei has an eye for unique personalities, as one of the leading singles from his EMO album features none other than Ano from Idol unit You’ll Melt More! . She’s no outstanding singer, but if you’ve been following her for some time, it’s clear that she definitely has a certain connection to music, and Towa Tei built a perfect song for her whispering voice. The video too is a clear representation of both Towa Tei’s music and Ano’s unique personality, and it’s something not to miss.
They didn’t make it into the list, but these releases are totally worth your time as well.
HAMIDASYSTEM – Semi no Koe, Kogarete Planet (Electronic / Atmospheric / Idol)
Cornelius – Mellow Waves (Electronic / Rock / J-pop )
Maron Hamada – Lady Monochrome (Rock / Jazz)
MINAKEKKE – TINGLES (J-rock / Indie Rock)
Boris – Dear (Metal / Drone)
amiinA – Valkyrie EP (Idol)
CHAI – PINK (J-rock)
CRUNCH – Tenkiame (Indie-Pop)
Task Have Fun – 3WD (Idol)
Keyakizaka46 – Masshiro na Mono wa Yogoshitaku naru (Idol)
I hope you will check out and enjoy these records. Be sure to let me know what you think about it in the comments. Have fun!