Make Believe Melodies For February 6, 2023
Jersey-fication Moving Faster Than Expected!
SKY-HI — “D.UN.K.
Jersey club inevitably would find its way to J-pop. The community around it in Tokyo, if not beyond, has been strong for over a decade (shout out K BoW), while familiar rhythms and squeaks have already popped up in songs by notable artists. Yet in the 2020s this leans closer to global trends, with a wider array of creators drawing from similarly disparate sources. Late last year, LANA — now tipped as “one to watch” by multiple media outlets and Spotify Japan itself — released a single that now feels just ahead of the curve, though it wasn’t long before a more established act like iri was creeping close to the sound, too (backed by…Kenmochi Hidefumi, who has been playing with it for years).
That embrace sure feels tighter recently. Rising duo Bleecker Chrome embraced the pace (and familiar squeak samples) for new song “one way,” while multiple rappers have brought it into their orbit on new albums, highlighted by LEX and rising name Candee (on an alarm-bells-rining-off song called “Chris Brown,” but it turns out that he’s really burying him for his past abuse). Hell, I’m probably missing a bunch. But it’s clear this sound is bubbling up on the edges, close to overflowing into the mainstream.
SKY-HI offers, to date, the biggest nudge towards, like, a morning show interviewing Bandmanrill. New single “D.U.N.K.” (stands for “Dance Universe Never Killed” sure thing) doesn’t even tease it — this just shoots greyhound-style out the gate, stuttering vocal samples and gunshots and…oh you know it. Part of the fun lies in how giddy SKY-HI and producer Taku Takahashi are to just throw everything in here — having talked to both of them, I know they are both hyper-aware of sonic trends, and “D.U.N.K.” revels in the freedom of jamming Jersey Club up against other contemporary hip-hop touches…to the point where this is almost too much. But the energy holds it all together.
Really though, what I find most intriguing about it — even more so than it inching Jersey Club into J-pop — is how it restructures existing J-pop into a new musical battering ram. The track slices up samples from w-inds’ 2001 single “Paradox,” adding an element of the country’s own musical history into the mix. I’m almost certainly being blinded by the general sample-phobia of major labels here while surely overlooking the power of SKY-HI’s connections, but there’s something thrilling with this re-imagining. No need to be slavish to the past nor to reject it outright…it can be an element all its own while trying to build forward. Listen above.
Gnyonpix — Music Is My Therapy EP
One American-born dance sound that has been thriving in Japan for a while now — juke1, which remains a vital part of the underground electronic scene. Producer Gnyonpix has been ever-present in the country’s community, and new EP Music Is My Therapy via Polish Juke finds him merging the Chicago-born patterns with synthesizer glow and elements of dream pop. Ever imagine what a FLAU / Teklife collaboration might sound like? Get it here.
uami — “Hana”
The Fukuoka pop experimenter has moved into sparser soundscapes as of late, with recent sketches utilizing less electronic elements and making more room for their voice. “Hana” goes to the logical next direction — just piano and singing, letting uami’s natural delivery and approach to instrumentation shine through. Listen above.
House of Tapes — “Trip Sky”
How to do “loud and maximal” well, from a Nagoya creator in love with the crush. Listen above.
Peterparker69 — deadpool
Mostly a collection of existing songs, with “Tours” getting a little more wobbly after the choruses, but otherwise this is more of a chance to catch up with the most exciting young act going in the country. Listen above.
BAILEFUNK KAKEKO And valknee — “Volcanic Emotion”
A sonic pressure release, where valknee proves to work wonders. Listen above.
Lily Fury — Anthology
They got me, they really really got me. Two songs into Anthology, and I thought creator Lily Fury had provided me the perfect background soundtrack to the mindless work I do outside of writing to help pay the bills. The first song was washes of organ, followed up by a 12-minute drone piece that contained cacophony along the edges, but blurred together just right to be almost relaxing2, and which made the final stretch of undeniable prettiness all the more transcendent. Wash over me, Anthology, for I have mindless tasks to complete!
Then the next 12-minute song hit and it was electro drum ‘n’ bass smashing right into alternative rock swagger, the sort of sonic spillover you can’t zone out too because it’s so wild. That’s the beauty of Lily Fury’s first collection — it’s experimentation all the way through, from drones to dance to scuzzy rock on “Brocade” to the fizzy digi-lift of closer “Farewell Dystopia.” It snaps you to attention with every song, revealing a playfulness and excitement worth focusing on (and maybe risking some deadlines for). Listen above.
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Oricon Trail For The Week Of January 23, 2023 To January 29, 2023
Back in the day, the Oricon Music Charts were the go-to path to music stardom in Japan. Acts of all sorts traversed these lands, trying to sell as many CDs as possible in order to land a good ranking on a chart choosing to only count physical sales, even as the Internet came to be and the number of versions offered for sale got ridiculous. Today, with the country finally in on digital, these roads are more barren and only looked at by the most fanatic of supporters needing something to celebrate. Yet every week, a new song sells enough plastic to take the top spot. So let’s take a trip down…the Oricon Trail.
LE SSERAFIM — FEARLESS (222,286 Copies Sold)
A major blow to my theory that “Japanese versions of K-pop songs are not needed anymore” — people love LE SSERAFIM, even when offering up physical copies of a single that has been out since last May. Or maybe Sakura’s AKB roots are helping out a little.
I considered and eventually chickened out on writing a “year in K-pop” post around these parts, but the gist of it would have been “K-pop sounded exhausted in 2022, but a new, younger generation emerged, offering up a needed vibe shift.” Many detours to travel down which is one of the reasons I backed away — the number of music videos shrugging their shoulders and just reusing old motifs! — but central to the “new, younger generation” bit was the hypothesis was that, after nearly half a decade where BLACKPINK provided the blueprint for a successful girl group, the industry realized “wait, what if IZ*ONE was actually the most important group of the late 2010s?”
Welp, they were, at least for whatever generation of K-pop girl groups we’re welcoming now. The US-centric success of a group like BLACKPINK…the sort of chart-topping, fest-headlining they’ve managed…isn’t actually sustainable, so the move is to focus on the continent around you and already in love with you…especially Japan, which appears set to be K-pop’s most important territory once again. That’s IZ*ONE’s mission statement, with LE SSERAFIM carrying it on. Then there’s the whole “why waste youth when we can hurl teens into the fray?” mindset that crystalized during Produce 48 — when Jang Won-young won at the age of 14 — which has become commonplace, with most of the new groups on the frontier boasting a member under the age of 18 (are you ready for the ethical nightmare that is BABYMONSTER?). This was all established within IZ*ONE, and now feels like the moment where that outfit is replicated.
LE SSERAFIM certainly represent these shifts too, though the songs they’ve put out so far that have wowed me capture the exasperated pace of K-pop in the 2020s. Those are…surprisingly…the ballads, with “Sour Grapes” and, especially, “Good Parts (when the quality is bad but I am”) being their finest moments to date. The latter in particular is a showstopper, my personal third-favorite K-pop song of last year3 and a giant exhale featuring literal sighs in confronting the rapid pace of modern life and the industry they find themselves in. A year's mood condensed into two and a half minutes, with a path forward hiding somewhere within.
News And Views
Japanese musician and composer Masa Takumi became the first artist from the country to win the Grammy’s Best Global Music Album award, beating out like Burna Boy to win. He captured it with Sakura, an album created using primarily traditional Japanese instrumentals with a smattering of modern touches. Listen below.
Takumi is also a wildly prolific J-pop producer, having worked with artists such as AAA, EXILE and Daigo throughout the 21st century (plus, KARA!). Congrats to the first Grammy winner to also have worked closely with DA PUMP.
It might be the dead of winter, but summer festivals are taking shape! Fuji Rock announced the first wave of performers for this year’s event, headlined by Foo Fighters, Lizzo and The Strokes. Usually they include one or two Japanese artists, but I think owing to an effort to make Fuji Rock feel “normal” after two years where it certainly wasn’t that, they’ve leaned into “look at all these international acts!”
To celebrate 25 years of CAPSULE, Natalie Music asked a bunch of folks to select their favorite CAPSULE songs / albums.
LOONA, currently caught up in a nightmare situation with Blockberry Creative, could still go on in Japan?
Hey, Idol, Burning sounds pretty interesting!
What the hell is going on in American fast-casual dining
Hello Kitty tackled “Edison”
Written by Patrick St. Michel (email@example.com)
Twitter — @mbmelodies
Speaking of the mainstream intersecting with burgeoning sounds…like a little over a decade ago members of EXILE went to Chicago to take part in footwork competitions, in a documentary aired on NHK. No footage of this appears to exist online, but I remember it happening AND thankfully DJ Fulltono mentioned it going down in this Wired feature from 2014. Now imagine a world where those oiled up LDH boys performed next to Traxman.
This probably says more about my current work load and the exhaustion that comes with it.