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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My biggest problem with most of Nana Mizuki’s singles is that, while the songs are good, they are usually right in the middle of her safe zone. You can always predict what the song is going to sound like to some degree – and at least a few of them have somewhat linked together to form one long, samey track in my mind. Now the first surprise in ages comes from the one place you’d least expect: a mid-winter single.
I try to limit myself to 5 singles a week, but damn, there were many singles by big-name artists released this week! So I hope you’re ready for a ride through these 10 singles:
StarRingChild by Aimer, Labrador Retriever by AKB48, 神様 (Kami-sama / God) by FLOWER FLOWER, Believer’s High by flumpool, Full Drive by KANA-BOON, この惑星のすべて (Kono hoshi no subete / Everybody on this planet) by The Mirraz, I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~ (Anata no hohoemi ni / In your smile) by Seiko Matsuda, NOW & 4EVA by Ayumi Hamasaki, We Don’t Stop by Kana Nishino and Hold Your Hand by Perfume.
To stop this post from being ridiculously long, I will cut it into two parts and only deal with the first five singles today. The rest and the ranking will follow tomorrow.
Aimer is one of those illusive songstresses that let plenty of emotion and personality flow into their music without making it about themselves. Her new single, StarRingChild, contains 3 original songs and an alternate version of the title track.
StarRingChild opens on haunting vocals and individual guitar chords before developing into a more filled out Rock narrative. Aimer creates a solitary atmosphere that reflects the single cover well – both the cover and the song are gorgeous, evoking images of being alone under the night sky, content with life. Amazingly, she still manages to fit the song into a typical Rock structure and make it appealing for casual listening with a high-energy chorus.
A scaled down song between Alternative Rock, Shoegaze, Trip-Hop and Dreampop, Even Heaven creates tension throughout its 8 minute run, accentuated by powerful little details and a controlled vocal performance, that is expertly resolved towards the end, resulting in a fragile, yet fearless piece of Pop magic. This is a song that shouldn’t be missed under any circumstances.
Mine didn’t impress me like the other songs did. It’s a competent ballad, using all the tricks in the book, but doesn’t really do anything for me on a personal level. I don’t feel a connection to the song.
Closing the single is a shorter version of the title track used for the Gundam movie(TV show?). Not much has changed, but I feel like cutting the more atmospheric parts made it a weaker, less interesting song. The movie version is essentially a basic poprock track. I would have liked to link the music video here, but unfortunately couldn’t find an online stream for it. It’s very much what you’d expect, for the biggest part visualizing the mood as children are shown exploring an abandoned building.
While the single does have a drop in quality, it remains a gorgeous, intuitive listen that captivates with strong emotional cues. A glowing recommendation.
I’m not big on idols and especially not on AKB48, but I feel such a cultural phenomenon can’t be ignored. I have an interesting post about their marketing strategies and success coming, but for now let’s look at Version 4 of their new single(the single was released in multiple versions, featuring different B-Sides – I picked one randomly), Labrador Retriever.
A drum-roll and synthy brass are reminiscent of classic idol tracks as the A-Side starts playing. While I find the arrangement rather plastic and the heavily layered vocals – due to the group having so many vocalists – lifeless, I have to give credit where credit is due and admit that this song, while going nowhere melodically, is rather catchy. Have I taken anything away from it? No. But I don’t regret listening to it. I would have liked a shorter version a bit more as there’s no real build-up – the song could have done with one less verse and chorus without losing anything – however, it’s a competent idol single. In a genre characterized by horrible music, that is already enough to make the song appealing.
The B-side that all versions of the single have in common, 今日までのメロディー (Kyou made no merodii / A melody continuing until today) is more soothing, featuring a soft melody performed by fewer vocalists at once. I found it more forgettable, with a rather bland chorus. But once again, it wasn’t annoying or painful to listen to – just boring.
The best song and the one exclusive to Version 4, ハートの脱出ゲーム (Haato no dasshutsu geemu / The Heart’s Escape Game) is the most energetic and fun out of the bunch, with a memorable, catchy melody. It’s the only song on this single I can see myself coming back to – in doses. Essentially, it’s what idol pop should sound like, even if no masterpiece.
In typical AKB48 fashion, there’s multiple covers and every song has an accompanying music video. The covers are just shots of different girls and groups of girls smiling on the beach and as such rather interchangeable. The Labrador Retriever music video features the girls dancing and singing on the beach, intercut with scenes of a dog just…living his life and trying to find one of the girls. It’s fanservice – nothing more, nothing less. With loving shots of underage swimwear boobs thoughout. The video for 今日までのメロディー opens on a long interview with a member of the group – I assume one about to graduate, I really don’t care enough to pay close attention – before turning into a montage with occasional shots of the girl singing. This seems to be a video made specifically with the fans in mind, so I don’t feel comfortable passing judgement without knowing more background. The final video, ハートの脱出ゲーム shows some of the girls caught in a studio lot after a video shoot. Of course, they decide to sing and perform a choreography. All three videos are competently shot, but of solely promotional manner rather than having any form of artistic merit.
Considering the nature of AKB48, I can’t complain about the single. There’s nothing groundbreaking included and some of the material is rather tiresome, but in the end it’s a fun single clearly made for AKB48 fans – and sold based on the concept of the group rather than the quality of the music. There is no ambitious to be artistic here, but there doesn’t have to be.
Singer-songwriter YUI’s hiatus was cut short when she announced the formation of her new band FLOWER FLOWER just months after putting her solo career on hold. Who would have thought it would take almost a year for the band to release its second song after that?
神様 is heavier, rougher around the edges than most of YUI’s solo work and as such I quite like the direction she is taking. It feels authentic, unprocessed. The presence of an actual band is working wonders in terms of arrangement, making 神様 a very pleasant experience and even the vocal performance is more authentic and expressive than usual. Kudos for trying something different!
There’s not much to be said about cover art and music video. The covert art is just a bit boring and doesn’t seem to really apply to the song’s mood, but it isn’t intruding. And the music video, well, I couldn’t find it!
While not all that memorable as a song, I’m excited to see this band release an album. Hopefully soon. 神様 is exciting enough to build up some hype – let’s wait for them to live up to it!
My first exposure to flumpool was their 2008 song Over the Rain, a mellow, optimistic Pop ballad that I occasionally come back to even today. Since then, they’ve failed to really capture me with any of their material. Since their new best-of is out this week, let’s see if the buzz single Believer’s High can change that!
Believer’s High walks the line between soft Rock ballad and catchy Poprock – successfully. The arrangement is simple, but effective, the production tight and the vocal performance adequate. It’s a plain good Rock track, making up for its lack of substance by just being a fun, inviting listen. Fans of the typical Japanese Poprock sound should enjoy this song – and their best of.
The single cover reveals ties to the new Captain Earth anime and feels more like a purely promotional effort than a genuine representation of the music. The music video, on the other hand, just features plenty scenes of the vocalist staring into the camera like a madman.
It’s a strong enough single – with weak promotional material.
The last single for today comes from KANA-BOON, a popular Rock band that just got signed to a major label last year and managed to place their debut album at #3 upon release.
Full Drive is a clean, classic Rock track. Aggressive, high-energy and full of catchy riffs. The song is full of spirit and raw power, blasting all over the place and just incredibly refreshing in the Japanese Pop business that is usually built around very controlled sounds. By far one of the catchiest, most fun songs I have heard this year so far, if you need some unadulterated, young Rock – this is your song.
The first B-Side, Rapid Siren, is a bit more frantic and feels less realized, but is almost equally entertaining and lively. The mix of fast, complex guitar work and catchy chorus lines is sure to stick around in your head long after the song is done playing.
夜のマーチ (Yoru no maachi / Night’s March) feels almost slow in comparison to the other tracks, even though it would count as upbeat. A heavier emphasis on the drums serves the song well in some sections, but also leads to an overly simplistic and easily irritating chorus melody. A well-crafted song, I can’t find much personal appeal in it.
KANA-BOON understand the value of visuals in selling music and setting mood, using covers that are – quite literally – as “explosive” as the music. And the music video for Full Drive? It’s every bit as over the top, messy and hasty as you’d hope it to be – featuring ridiculous chase and fight scenes in a city and constant movement. It’s hard to imagine a better visual representation of the music.
Even with the third song lacking, Full Drive is a fantastic single and a great package. The cover, the songs, the video – it all ties together incredibly well and works equally well as individual pieces. KANA-BOON are one of the most promising new bands in the market right now – look out for them!
Did you like any of the singles I reviewed today? Don’t forget to check back tomorrow for 5 more single reviews and the weekly ranking! I linked to at least one track from every single in this post, so feel free to play along – listen to the songs and leave your ranking in the comments!