There’s two things to keep in mind when reading my thoughts on Ayumi Hamasaki’s latest single(and 50th original single to chart in the top 10): I absolutely adore this woman and the biggest proportion of her output, particularly in the last few years. But as much as I love her, one thing I almost always hated were her winter single releases, of which this is the first in 5 years. So…how does it fare?
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Now that Kouhaku has disappeared from my yearly watchlist, seems like I’ll have more time to spend with Ayumi Hamasaki’s annual New Years’ Eve concert.
Countdown Live 2014-2015, subtitled Cirque de Minuit, is already the 14th such concert, almost all of which have been released on DVD/Blu-Ray and shown on TV. And it may just be the best yet!
Continuing right where I left off yesterday with the 5 singles that are left!
Another relatively young band, The Mirraz exploded onto the Japanese Rock scene circa 2011 when their consistent quality and direct, rough nature left strong impressions at music festivals around Japan. Their new single continues that trend, featuring 3 rather different songs.
この惑星のすべて itself features a distinct Punk influence as the singer places precise, rapid vocals over an equally swift, complex instrumental. Everything comes together perfectly, with every band member pulling his weight and delivering excellent work. The melody had to grow on me for a bit, but I quite love it now.
The highlight of the single is placed right in the middle. らぶりー (Raburii / Lovely) is frantic, dynamic and playful, gently easing its way into your permanent memory with a chorus that just seems all kinds of genius in the way it plays off the guitars. Simple, but incredibly effective.
The only song that I just can’t seem to get into, ステーキを食べに行こう (Suteeki o tabe ni ikou / Let’s go eat Steak) seems rooted in rather classic Rockabilly – which is probably the reason it’s not doing much for me as I never found my way into the genre. There is a unique twist to it, mainly in the rough vocal work, but that’s not enough to convince me.
The common visual theme of this single seems to be an outside look at city life, as the cover features a high contrast black and white photograph of a bustling metropolis and the music video…well…it quite literally features the band members as aliens walking through a city intercut with images of the sky – and, of course, an alien love story. It isn’t what I expected from listening to the song, but I can see the connection. I do not, however, like the way the music video was shot. Shaky, unfocused camera movement is my mortal enemy and I’m not one for the recent “pale” trend in the indie/hipster movement.
この惑星のすべて is a strong rock single with at least two memorable, top tier tracks and a striking, universal visual identity. Is it the strongest single of the week though? We will see.
Look. I don’t hate Perfume. I really don’t. They’re backed by one of the most consistent producers in Electropop and their voices are interchangeable enough for me to not mind that they lack any resemblance of personality. But this single? This single is too much for me. Too sugar-coated, too cute, too annoying. I have no more words. But judge for yourself.
Seiko Matsuda is the type of artist that refuses to ever leave – and Japan will obviously still have her, shown by her continuing success. Her new single continues the trend of looking younger than most people look at age 20 while being in your 50s. Oh, it also includes two songs.
I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~ is a brass-heavy, classic J-Pop idol song. Bright, happy, living in a fantasy Disney world. Seiko does have a more powerful voice than most other Pop idols, capable of controlling herself quite well, and adds a layer of quality to her music that way. It’s a trivial, but fun song. Enjoyable for what it is and less obtrusive than most other Idol Pop – but just a bit embarrassing coming from someone with a 30 year career.
The B-side Free is the ballad equivalent of a fast food Hamburger. It’s not the real thing, doesn’t carry the momentum of the real experience, but recreates enough of it to be appealing for a small bite in between. Well-performed and competently composed, it’s just caught in the endless white space between good and bad.
The covers just leave me surprised – as do most of her covers. It’s always awkward to see an obviously older woman try hard to act young rather than embrace a change of life. Essentially, the same is true of the music video, in which Seiko seems to be getting married, resulting in a choreographed dance performance with her bridesmaids. Now, I do think it’s well-shot from a photography/cinematography standpoint, it’s all well-lighted, the sets are absolutely stunning and the image composition is what you’d expect it to be. It’s al la bit dull and awkward, but that’s just what this single – and Seiko’s career nowadays – is like.
As much as I expected to dislike it, I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~ isn’t a bad single. Every element, from the covers over the songs to the video, is just consistently average – but an average Pop song is a good Idol song, so I’d take Seiko over most others any day.
I really wasn’t ready for another Ayumi single. Not so soon, not without any kind of prior announcement. But there it was: NOW & 4EVA from her upcoming, as of yet untitled, album.
Once you get past the cringe-inducing title, it’s actually a remarkable little song! The structure of the song and the instrumental mix reminds of classic Ayumi, yet at the same time the song features such an uplifting, optimistic melody – it feels completely new in her discography. I believe this is the first time an Ayumi song felt genuinely bright to me, the first time I came out of an Ayumi song with a huge smile on my face. I realize that the lyrics don’t deal with a particularly happy subject, but the song, musically feels extremely powerful in its happiness to me. I adore it – nothing could get me more excited for her upcoming album.
I’ve been ignoring Kana Nishino for the biggest part, she never seemed to add anything of value to the Pop business. But she seems here to stay (for a while) and has a new 3-track single out, so why not give it a chance?
The lead track, We Don’t Stop, is a summery Electropop anthem with some modern EDM elements. I like the composition, it’s a cute, intuitive melody, however, there’s two issues I have with the song. Firstly, the production is horribly compressed, robbing the song of any impact it could have had by keeping it on a rather mushy level throughout. Secondly, Kana Nishino is a capable pop vocalist, but she doesn’t seem to carry her weight in We Don’t Stop, sounding thin and emotionless, never connected to the mood of the song. The issues this track faces remind me of Namie Amuro’s latest album, where the songs themselves were good, but the vocal performance and production issues kept them from becoming bangers.
Happy Birthday is completely unbearable.
The most organic, acoustic song of the single, 25 is a mellow Pop midtempo of the type that is plastered all over the J-Pop business. It’s not particularly good, but I also don’t have any major complaints about it. I couldn’t care about the song’s existence either way.
Both the covers and the music video express similar sentiments to the lead track, yet I can’t help but feel like Kana is trying to play catch-up with K-Pop groups, particularly in the video. She tries to become part of the fierce Dancepop trend, but never seems quite on top of it – she looks lost, like neither the song nor the video are in her comfort zone. Constant expressionless glances both at the camera and away from it make her look utterly confused – Kana is going through the motions.
Essentially, that is how this single is best summed up: It’s a pop singer just going through the motions, making whatever sells right now with no regard to personality or expression. It doesn’t fail entirely – the lead track is catchy – but if you’re going to blatantly follow trends, you should at least put more effort into it.
This has been one hell of a week! 10 singles just barely were enough to deal with all the notable releases, but somehow, I did it! Most of the new material I heard this week was actually pretty good, with only Perfume and Kana Nishino really disappointing.
Have I forgotten any singles? Do you agree or disagree with my views? Leave a comment and take part in the poll at the end of the post! However, please only vote if you’ve heard at least the majority of the singles – I linked at least one song from each in this post – for fairness’ sake.
1. KANA-BOON – Full Drive
2. Aimer – StarRingChild
3. Ayumi Hamasaki – NOW & 4EVA
4. The Mirraz – この惑星のすべて
5. flumpool – Believer’s High
6. FLOWER FLOWER – 神様
7. Seiko Matsuda – I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~
8. AKB48 – Labrador Retriever (Version 4)
9. Kana Nishino – We Don’t Stop
10. Perfume – Hold Your Hand
The Japanese music business is vast and almost impossible to keep track of. Not only are there a plethora of popular genres that coexist on the charts – even if idol groups dominate lately – but most singers and bands also release new material at a pace that would be considered ridiculous outside of Asia, often releasing a new album every year rather than every 3-4 years. I try my best to keep up with the constant influx of new music, hence, this series was born.
Every weekend, I will write about 5 singles that have been released in Japan the prior week. With no constrictions on genre or type of release (digital singles and charity singles, for the sake of simplicity, count – album pre-release tracks, however, do not), I will share some impressions on the songs, cover art, music video – everything associated with it. I am trying to experience the full package, not just one song. Ultimately, the singles will be ranked from my favourite to my least favourite and I invite you to do the same in the comments.
I believe we can help each other discover new music and refine our tastes, so you are welcome to request upcoming singles to be included in the next weeks. If I missed a single you enjoyed this week, feel free to mention that in the comments as well.
This weeks singles are: BUCK-TICK’s 形而上 流星 (Keijikyou Ryuusei/Metaphysical Meteor), THE NOVEMBERS’ 今日も生きたね (Kyou mo Ikitane/Still alive today), Superfly’s Live, Eri Kitamura’s 掌 -show- (Shou – show-) and Ayumi Hamasaki’s Hello new me.
BUCK-TICK – 形而上 流星
BUCK-TICK have been a constant force in the Visual Kei scene and more generally the Rock scene for over 25 years. A diverse 3-track single, 形而上 流星 shows that they still got it after all these years.
I quite like the cover, implying a moody, decadent experience with controlled bursts of emotion. It sums up the single nicely. It evokes images of the 18th and 19th century, of the Industrial Revolution and multiple political revolutions shaking up…well…everything in Europe, really.
The lead track is a melancholic piece that places special emphasis on clean guitar lines and drum work. Once the chorus rolls around I find it a bit lacking, the vocals seem to lose the emotional sincerity that defined the verses and the production gets a bit mushy, adding distortion that seems out of place. It’s not strong enough a contrast to make any form of statement, but feels like an attempt to create a marketable chorus for TV commercials. Still an enjoyable song, I feel like the anticipated pay-off never happened. The music video, showing the band perform the song under expressive, high-contrast lighting, is rather standard Rock fare and has been done to death, but is competent enough.
In the past couple years, mashing together various styles of Rock and Electronica has been a rather popular way of mixing things up, but unlike many other examples of the genre mix, メランコリア -ELECTRIA- (Merankoria -ELECTRIA- / Melancholia – ELECTRIA-) delivers a perfect symbiosis of the styles rather than using Electronica as a loud, obnoxious gimmick. The combination feels natural, a smooth melody caught between Visual Kei and Eurythmics serving as counter to a rough, yet danceable clash of guitars and House and Dubstep beats. Some of the background breakdowns would work equally well in a club banger, it’s amazing like that.
Another complete departure from the sound of the other songs, VICTIMS OF LOVE, a cover of one of their older songs, features Classical Crossover/Chamber Pop twins Kokusyoku Sumire and uses them effectively to create an otherworldly atmosphere. The song exists in the white space between Rock, Gothic Pop, Folk, Blues and…Polka? I’m not even sure. All I know is that I genuinely love VICTIMS OF LOVE. It’s a song that essentially hypnotizes you into submission and keeps a tight hold on you throughout – all while never even once being reductive or melodramatic.
I guess I hit the jackpot, encountering a fantastic single so early! While the lead track has a rather generic sound, the other two songs absolutely make up for it by being delightfully experimental and of highest quality. The single even manages to work as one conceptually, with the cover art and music video being stylistic mirrors of the songs.
THE NOVEMBERS – 今日も生きたね
I first encountered THE NOVEMBERS last year, after the release of their zeitgeist album. A shoegaze/”Indie” band capable of standing out between all the other “soft” Japanese rock bands of recent years, they deliver consistent quality – this single is no exception.
The first thing you will notice, after the beautiful cover, is the length of over 7 minutes, odd enough for a single, but fear not – the time is used well. 今日も生きたね is out to make you dream and fully embrace you. The song takes its time to develop, giving you time to breath and to marvel at the gorgeous composition. I particularly enjoy the way the song develops towards the end, shifting from melancholy to hope. There’s no big, revolutionary ideas here, but it’s gorgeously realized and feels effortless and light – every element playing off each other perfectly. The music video, in all its minimalism and slow-motion beauty, effectively portrays the same feeling, adding to the song.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper Japanese single without a B-Side. ブルックリン最終出口 is a bit less understated, developing a more fleshed out, Alternative Rock sound. There’s a very nice, subtle use of vocoding and guitar pedal effects that adds both to the perceived, cold emotional distance of the song and gives it nice, tangible texture. It’s not as much of an instant favourite, but easy enough to get lost in. It made me long for more, feeling short in comparison to the A-Side.
今日も生きたね is another great release from a very consistent band. THE NOVEMBERS seem to value excellence over experimentation, which some may find off-putting, but as long as their material remains this good, this fragile, I won’t mind.
Superfly – Live
Superfly, the prime 60s and 70s throwback Hippie act of Japan, has been absent for a while, making Live something of an unofficial comeback. I adore some of their more dynamic, energetic songs – so let’s see if this single can give me what I hope for.
Live is a bit more laid back than I expected, something I should have probably anticipated from the single cover. While well-performed and unoffensive, I fail to see anything of particular value in the song. It’s pretty, something nice to leave running in the background, but rather tasteless and forgotten the moment it’s over. The music video and single cover both have a similar problem: they are pretty, but just lacking substance, anything that sets them apart. And they are simply not good enough to make their plain nature work for them.
万華鏡と蝶(Mangekyou to chou/Butterfly and Kaleidoscope) is giving me some Hardrock vibes, at times resembling The Scorpions(Rock Me Like A Hurricane, anyone?) or AC/DC, but hinges on to a shred of Pop aesthetics. It delivers much of what I hoped for on this single, but features a slightly underwhelming chorus that, I feel, could have used some more harmonies to create a fuller, less epileptic sound. In the current form, the chorus can be a bit grating, especially on tremble-heavy headphones. That won’t stop the song from getting caught in your head though.
I honestly got nothing on The Long Way Home, the final track on the single. It takes the problems Live already faced and amplifies them for a cookie-cutter, boring example of how not to record an “emotionally charged ballad”. I’ve heard worse, but I sure as hell have heard much, much better.
At her best, Superfly is tons of fun and helps us relive times long past through her music – but there’s a tendency to release melodramatic, bland Rock ballads in her work that Live is especially guilty of. 万華鏡と蝶, while not without flaws, is catchy and engaging – the rest of the single? Fairly forgettable.
Eri Kitamura – 掌 -show-
I haven’t paid much attention to Eri Kitamura, a rising star in the Anison genre, yet. but the compulsion to grab her new single was there – even with that horrible “just wear random clothes in a random spot and we’ll take a bad picture” single cover that is fetish-fuel for otaku or an outfit idea for a cosplayer at best.
The music itself isn’t all bad, 掌 -show- is a catchy Anison Rock track, presenting to us the same mix of Metal riffs, synths and strings we get from many singers in the genre. It’s messy and trying too hard to be dynamic and to create urgency, but within the realms of a generic song does its job well. A bit gimmicky, but not bad. The music video, on the other hand, is suffering from a plethora of problems, including but not limited to an unskilled director and/or editor with little to no experience shooting the style of the video, a (visibly) low budget and lipsynching that is rather off.
Suffering from aimless production and trying to do too many things at the same time, Greedy;(cry) comes off as ambitious but misguided. The song seems to be stepping around in one, mushy, confused place for the entire 6 minute run, never developing into anything more appealing or interesting. It feels a bit like it was meant to “prove” artistic integrity by being quite weird and mashing many genres together – but ultimately doesn’t prove anything.
掌 -show- is a decent enough single for genre fans, there’s plenty of worse material out there, however, to me it feels entirely replaceable and overly gimmicky. The entire thing, from the messy production and composition over the tacky single covers to the laughable music video, is just surrounded by an aura of amateurs. Ambitious, well-meaning amateurs, but amateurs. Much like Lady Gaga.
Ayumi Hamasaki – Hello new me
Nothing gets me excited like a new Ayumi single. And nothing pulls me down as hard as a bad Ayumi single. Unfortunately, Hello new me is bad all the way.
Contrary to the gorgeous, fashion shoot cover, the song itself is a basic, by the books Japanese pop midtempo. A gentle ballad about just how great life is. While it does feel honest(because Ayumi just has the power to make anything feel honest. If she sang about the dangers of taking her dogs to a pool party and the ways it made her depressed, it would seem honest), I can’t help but assume the main reason behind the creation of this song is needing a tacky, generic theme song for the TV drama it’s being used for. There’s no substance, absolutely no element in the song that is interesting or even just good. Instead, Ayumi treats us to an annoying, nasal melody that just keeps repeating the most obnoxious phrases since “What’s a beautiful day…what’s a beautiful day…”. I don’t think I’ll ever need to encounter this song again. It’s a lowest common denominator cash cow song of the type that I thought Ayumi had outgrown – and I sincerely hope that it’s the only song of the kind on the album.
This week has delivered two great singles, two acceptable ones and one that, even though it came from my favourite Pop singer, is one of the biggest disappointments of late. Ranking them was rather easy in the end.
1. THE NOVEMBERS – 今日も生きたね
2. BUCK-TICK – 形而上 流星
3. Superfly – Live
4. Eri Kitamura – 掌 -show-
5. Ayumi Hamasaki – Hello new me
What do you think? Did I horribly misjudge some of the songs or was I correct in my ranking? Share your thoughts in the comments!