I listened to plenty of non-K-pop this year — enough to make choosing my favorites fairly difficult. Unlike my K-pop lists, I’m not going to do an ordered list here. This is because my pool of good albums to choose from was quite a bit larger than my K-pop one was (and the albums tended to be on the longer side, making listening through them all to choose an order tricky from a time-management perspective); I also find that I feel a bit more out of my depth trying to say something meaningful about a lot of this stuff for whatever reason, and as such there are some albums that were definitely among my favorites that I simply won’t be mentioning below for lack of anything insightful to say (such as Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. or King Krule’s The OOZ — you have the entire Internet at your disposal to pick those apart). Rather, this is an unranked list of noteworthy albums that prompt responses in me that I feel are worth sharing. Hopefully there’ll be something in here that you haven’t heard before — I’d urge you to seek every one of these albums out at one point or another, but in case the stuff on here doesn’t satisfy you, there are more than enough other year end lists that will all be posting the same stuff over and over :) As a concession, though, I will post my 3 favorite albums from 2017, in order, at the end of this post. So, you know, for listheads, I guess you have that at least?
Oh, and no, I’m not doing a list of my favorite non-K-pop songs — I don’t think I have the mental fortitude to try and do that. Just go and crank up Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut To The Feeling”. There weren’t many songs that I liked better than that one this year.
Anyway…here we go!
[Note: I tried to provide a YouTube link to one song per album, just to provide a quick-and-easy reference for what some of this stuff sounds like, however Japan’s recording industry is notoriously backwards and tends to be strict on having their music put online, so for a couple of the Japanese albums below I wasn’t able to find anything…sorry!]
Genre(s): J-pop, Japanese hip hop, electropop, pop
Singer Koumai was recruited for Wednesday Campanella because of the contrast between her voice and the rap music that producer Kenmichi was making at the time they met — an odd recruiting tactic to be sure, but four years and six albums later, and they are the core of one of the most unique and refreshing J-pop groups on the scene right now. Mixing house elements with electropop with hip hop, they have a surprisingly solid discography, but Superman is probably their best release yet. Although it’s fashionable in some pretty obvious ways, it rarely feels like it’s trying to cash in on the current musical trends — mainly because Koumai’s voice is so far removed from what you’d normally find in similar groups in the J-pop or K-pop scenes. She has a very unrefined style — frequently off-key or off-rhythm, she counterbalances the immaculate production in a singular way that I’ve yet to hear from any other pop group.
As for the specifics of the album itself — it’s loaded with catchy bangers and hook-heavy sleeper hits. “坂本龍馬” features no rapping, but a sparkling electronic backing track buttresses Koumai’s idiosyncratic voice and builds the song into something much larger that itself — it turns into an immensely beautiful, dreamy song that is distinct from WC’s more typically rhythmic approach, but ends up being one of the album’s most memorable pieces. “世阿弥” builds for the first a minute into a monolithic wall of stuttering synth distortion; the last lines of the chorus, sung in two English words — “Yes, no! Yes, no!” — end up being one of the catchiest moments in Japanese music all year. The album’s highlight though, and the song I ended up returning to more than any other off of this album, is “チンギス・ハン”; Koumai raps the opening verses like they’re nothing before giving Kenmichi some breathing space with a short piano break, just before launching into a double-time rap over a trap beat that builds to this euphoric release of sunshiney pads. It’s about as close to a perfect pop song as I heard all year, smack dab in the middle of one of the best-constructed pop records from 2017.
Genre(s): Synthpop, sophisti-pop, new wave
The ’80s worship prevalent in pop music over the last several years has finally seemed to die down some as people are recognizing it less and less as an homage and more as the “current” sound, but someone either forgot to get Alex Cameron the memo or (more likely) his use of this style of pop music is an artistic choice. I’m banking on the latter.
Forced Witness is the antithesis of everything this style of music tends to portray — instead of suave, sweet-talking protagonists a la Walk The Moon or Destroyer, we get utter scumbags as our (anti-)heroes; scuzzy, disgusting men with heads full of little more than themselves and sex, who see women as objects and pretty much nothing else. It’s a fascinating perspective that is pretty much never explored in any serious way in pop music, and while a sly wink-and-nod sense of humor definitely pervades this album, it’s bold to make something built around such obviously despicable characters. The good thing is that Cameron never exactly condones anything he sings about, even as he takes on these characters’ personalities for their three-or-so-minute existences within these songs. There’s some biting commentary in here as well, especially on songs like “True Lies”, in which Cameron is a man in a relationship who is cheating with another lady over the Internet. His conscience surfaces here and there throughout the song, but he continues to give in, even knowing it could all be fake (the album’s most hilarious moment happens on this track: “Yeah there’s this woman on the Internet / Even if she’s some Nigerian guy / Yeah well you should read the poetry he speaks to me / I don’t care if they’re just beautiful lies”).
Through the lens of its antagonists and degenerates, Cameron highlights some of society’s biggest issues that we tend to be afraid to face head-on — homelessness, porn addiction, manipulative and abusive relationships — and seems to suggest that, even through the ugly outer shells, maybe these people are victims of something bigger than themselves. Even if they’re not, he contends, they’re flawed humans, like the rest of us. It can be hard to remember that sometimes, and while there’s no redemption for any of his characters in this album, Forced Witness never claims to be the end of the story.
LISTEN: “Runnin’ Outta Luck”
Genre(s): Jazz, jazz pop, piano
In 2014, koducer collaborated with Japanese rapper DAOKO to create a dreamy, breezy EP of breathy Japanese hip hop; while not my favorite album in this style, it was nice enough and so when I found out koducer was releasing an album in 2017, I was expecting something quite different from what I got. Instead of downbeat dream pop, he has instead decided to create an achingly pretty collection of instrumental piano tunes, often jazzy in nature, but just as often more pop-oriented. This is the kind of stuff that would probably be fantastic if set behind some vocals (koducer is a producer, after all, and it shows in the best way here), but it works surprisingly well on its own. This is an unabashedly uplifting album, full of open air and crisp light — “High Sky” stands out as a highlight, a skittering drumbeat punctuating a joyous, lilting piano line. There’s no real pathos to be found here, and it’s wonderful to just bask in the sunlight for once.
This is almost universally the type of music that just kind of bores me to death, so it should say a lot that I adore this album with every ounce of my being. It’s so easy to get swept away in its expansive skies and gorgeous vistas — it’s the aural equivalent of breathing cool air on a clear, cloudless morning with the sun almost blinding you as you look out across the landscape, full of possibility.
LISTEN: “Ascending Scenery”
Genre(s): Pop rock, new wave, synthpop
This album could just be “Don’t Take The Money” 12 times and it’d probably still be on this list. That song is such an exhilarating conglomeration of everything that makes pop songs good — layered vocals, a chant-along pre-chorus, soaring emotion that lifts the whole song to an omniscient vantage point. While nothing else on Gone Now reaches quite those heights, it’s still a remarkably consistent album; according to Jack Antonoff, the album’s lyrics and themes were heavily influenced by the death of his sister, and how that event now acts as a kind of filter through which he views the world. Although not a concept album in the classic sense of the phrase, the album contains lyrical and musical motifs that run through the entire thing — the lyrics “Goodbye to the friends I have / Goodbye to my upstairs neighbor…” (or “Good morning”, depending on which song you’re listening to) repeat throughout the album, reflecting the tension between wanting to move on in a healthy sense vs. wanting to run away from everything. It’s a very bittersweet 40 minutes, to say the least.
Stylistically, Jack Antonoff has always worn his influences on his sleeve, and there’s plenty of that here too — the album borrows heavily from ’80s stadium rock like U2 and Bruce Springsteen (and he sounds distinctly like Bruce when he sings the lines “When all your heroes get tired / I’ll be something better yet” on the appropriately-titled “All My Heroes”). The artificial vocal echo on many of these songs may simply confirm his stadium aspirations, but it also makes him sound all the more isolated — a single voice in a huge, empty space doing all he can to make himself feel less lonely. It’s an effective mix of hero worship and catharsis — Antonoff reaching back to happier times, recalling his role models as a way to cope with loss and an unmistakable tinge of alienation, with the result being a modern pop album on a grand scale that feels many times more genuine than most.
LISTEN: “Everybody Lost Somebody”
Genre(s): Emo, indie rock, post-hardcore
It sucks that I have to basically immediately start my thoughts on this album on the defensive — Science Fiction is being blacklisted by many review publications this year due to Jesse Lacey’s alleged sexual misconduct 15 years ago. In a year rife with such allegations, none hit me harder than this one, as I found myself in the position that many people my age who grew up listening to emo music probably did: torn between hating the sin and loving the sinner (and the sinner’s music, in this case). I won’t go off on a whole rant about the toxic mentality that I feel surrounds these kinds of accusations, and the completely unrealistic black-and-white approach that society tends to adopt when confronted with them — made all the worse in this situation given that following the accusation Lacey issued a statement detailing a history of sex addiction, cheating on his wife, and voluntary rehabilitation, none of which is any of our business to begin with. But there’s no room for nuance in the public square, I guess.
Ok, sorry — I won’t go further here but suffice to say, I don’t want to dismiss Lacey or Brand New’s music out of hand because of this, especially because he’s done more to better himself since then, years before any of this came to light, than most people accused of similar things would ever willingly do after the fact. It’s not my place to forgive him (I wasn’t the one wronged, after all), but my love of Brand New’s music hasn’t really been affected, and after waiting eight years for this fricking album to be released, I just want to be able to enjoy it.
And I do. It’s similar in tone to their last two releases, although more reserved than most of the stuff off Daisy. It’s as characteristically dark and brooding as songs like “You Won’t Know” or “Noro” were, with heavy themes centering on spirituality, depression, and a longing to just be done. There are moments of light, though — in “Can’t Get It Out”, Lacey reveals his frustration with exclusively being associated with sadness: “Not just a manic depressive / Toting around my own cloud / I’ve got a positive message / Sometimes I can’t get it out”. These are more than counterbalanced, though, by Brand New’s usual dark shtick, which comprises the bulk of the album. In “Same Logic/Teeth”, Lacey explores the cyclic patterns that drive people deeper into their own heads; “137” mixes religious imagery with the horrors of nuclear war, suggesting that since we discovered how to do so, maybe we’re best just vaporizing ourselves; “Waste” basically documents Lacey’s desire to move on past Brand New, although it’s not clear that where he wants to go is any better. It’s an emo-infused, indie rock goodbye letter in which Lacey and crew get all their final philosophizing out in the open, leaving us with often obscure references to pick apart in the meantime: “Swallow the pitch that flows from the Earth” and “Deader than a Donner daughter” are both lines in “451”, for example. Chew on those for a while.
Brand New have been one of the most important bands in my collection, pretty much since I discovered them. I can’t count the ways that their music has influenced, helped, and spoken to me at various points in my life. I’m not a special case, either — if you do even minimal searching online, you’ll see thousands of people saying pretty much the exact same thing. Science Fiction is a fitting end to the group (as it’s been all but outright stated by the band that they won’t be releasing anything more after this one), but even take away the context and the album stands as one of the finest, most thought-provoking and understated rock records of the year.
LISTEN: “Lit Me Up”
Genre(s): Japanese hip hop, trip hop, downtempo
Izumi Makura’s work is at the extreme end of what I would consider to be acquired taste. Her albums have a super hazy, unfocused feel that permeates every element — her beats are loose, the electronics minimal, and her vocals slip in and out of rhythm and tone with no warning. Her music has a very “bedroom production” feel, as if it was made on her laptop in the middle of the night while she sat in bed with the lights off and her headphones on. There’s something very intimate about her work that is absent in almost every other form of hip hop that I’ve heard. It’s more emotive, quieter, more comforting, not at all confrontational or harsh.
雪と砂 (Yuki To Suna) feels slightly slicker than her previous albums, but it loses none of its warmth in the process. It retains all of the downbeat atmosphere that defines her best work, although bang in the middle of the album is also one of her most surprising (and best) tracks. “Call It Love” features not only a guest rapper (a first for Izumi), but a towering chorus hook that turns the song into what could almost be called a single, a concept that’s pretty foreign to Izumi’s whole aesthetic. The rest of the album stays in less bombastic territory, but if Izumi is good at anything, it’s demonstrating that whispers just prompt everyone else to shut up and listen closer.
Genre(s): Lo-fi house, outsider house, house, microhouse
There are a lot of opinions out there about lo-fi house; it’s an extremely divisive genre within electronic music, some people praising it for its vintage-worship sound, others claiming that it’s a gimmick that’s run its course. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the talk, or are simply not familiar with the trends in electronic music, lo-fi house is basically house-via-vaporwave — vinyl pops, tape hiss and all. As the name would imply it often sounds like it’s coming from an old radio; the irony that YouTube and digital streaming contributed directly to the rise of lo-fi house artists is certainly not lost on them. Personally, I’m fond of this type of music in small doses. DJ Seinfeld released his first full-length album earlier this year, Time Spent Away From U, and listening through the entire thing made me realize that there is actually a limit to how enjoyable this stuff can be. It’s not a very diverse sound, so short EPs like Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes are typically the best vehicles for delivering it.
The opening track “In An Emergency” is immediately engaging, not bothering to do any slow lead-ins or sound layering, instead starting with a 140 bpm kick, double-time hi-hats and a slightly distorted “Oooh” vocal sample that meanders its way through to the end. The rhythmic switch-ups that RFF constantly throws out through the track’s 5:20 run give this song an off-kilter feel, while the synths envelop the whole thing in a warm, comforting melody. Lo-fi house tends to have a very inviting, intimate aura, and this track represents that in as clear a way as the hazy beats allow. “Crystal Catcher (weed)” is a more chaotic track, with cut-up vocal samples scattered over the subterranean bass drum. There’s a lot going on in this one, and it always feels on the verge of spinning apart — it’s full of tension coming from all directions, a feeling that’s somewhat unique to the genre.
There are no weak tracks here. “XOXOXO” and “Donny Blew It”, the other two, are equally good and solidify this EP as one worth hearing, especially if you have yet to make up your mind about lo-fi house. It’s true that, much like vaporwave, the genre has the potential to become a meme and collapse under the weight of its own ironic approach to music. Nostalgia can only work as a selling point for so long before it’s no longer nostalgic — and when that element disappears, what were once assets become flaws. Lo-fi house probably won’t have much currency in a few years, so soak it in now before it becomes a footnote in the oh-so-storied history of electronic music.
LISTEN: “In An Emergency”
Genre(s): J-pop, J-rock, indie pop, pop rock
A lot of the time, all I ask of Japanese music is to appeal to my weeb fantasies about living in Japan and walking through the suburban streets on a warm summer evening, like in all the slice-of-life anime I love to watch. I’ve found that this is actually harder for most J-pop/J-rock to accomplish than you might imagine, which leads me to believe that maybe there’s something else at play in regards to what I look for with this stuff. All I know is that SHISHAMO are one of the few J-whatever bands who have consistently embodied more or less the exact sound I need when I get the craving to escape into my anime worlds without actually, you know, watching anime.
This is a beautifully lush album — guitar pop often backed by live horns set beneath lead singer Miyazaki Asako’s strong vocals. (Seriously, an aside here — she has one of the absolute best voices I’ve heard yet in Japanese music, resting in the range of most female Japanese singers but not nasally or cutesy or gimmicky, and often displaying this really pleasing natural vibrato. She sounds very much like herself, to use a really tacky turn of phrase.) The arrangements are full to bursting, and the result is song after song of catchy, exultant pop tinged at the corners with hints of melancholy. The way Miyazaki stretches out her voice in songs like “Koi” and “Natsuno Koibito” are swoon-worthy counterweights to the more upbeat rock numbers like “Suki Suki!” and “Owari”, but it almost wouldn’t matter — SHISHAMO can really do no wrong no matter the tempo. It all sounds good.
SHISHAMO 4 fits neatly into the band’s discography, and while it doesn’t sound functionally different from pretty much anything else they’ve released thus far, I feel like there might be something to be said for consistency. There’s plenty of risky, weird, and unique Japanese music out there, but SHISHAMO don’t have any need for it. What they craft is some of the coziest and most evocative J-pop on the market, and there’s nothing more I’ll ever ask or want of them.
Genre(s): Wonky, UK bass, glitch hop
You find yourself in a pink-tinted world where the usual laws of reality don’t seem to apply. Exaggerated figures and shapes rush past at such a speed that you can only make out vague imprints before the next thing grabs your attention. Voices invade your consciousness but they don’t say anything that makes sense. You want to scrutinize this place, but it’s always shifting its size and shape, constantly moving and trying to throw off your balance. There are cartoonish characters who flit in and out of the scenery, but none of them seem to notice or care that you’re there. Finding out this is all a bad trip would come as a relief, but no, this is a weird reality that you are now a part of. This is Neō Wax Bloom.
This album sounds like nothing I can say I’ve ever listened to before. It’s the product of a hyperactive imagination cranked up to 11 on 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew. It’s full of weird sounds and pitched-up vocal samples, sped up to 300+% while bass and synths bounce around without any heed for musical structure. According to the Wikipedia entry (an entertaining read in itself), Iglooghost didn’t use any loops when creating this album — and it shows. The album manages to sound cohesive, yet it’s the difference between something feeling manufactured and crafted. This is a lovingly composed work, custom-made and meticulously arranged. Trying to follow its thread can be exhausting as it doubles back around on itself over and over, but half of the fun of experiencing Neō Wax Bloom is untangling those threads.
It’s endlessly replayable and impassively defiant to simple genre classification — pop music put through a meat grinder and then glued back together in an intentionally different pattern than it was before. It’s informed by all sorts of different types of music — wonky, bass, IDM, hip hop, art pop, J-pop — but doesn’t fall neatly into any single category. Even the recognizable elements are immediately fleeting and impressionist. It’s strange and enthralling, exhausting and vaguely unsettling. It’s also some of the most forward-thinking electronic music I’ve heard in recent memory, and something that by its very nature renders it unlikely to be imitated in any meaningful way anytime soon. No other electronic music from this year was as enthralling to me as Neō Wax Bloom.
LISTEN: “Sōlar Blade”
Genre(s): Art pop, J-pop, J-rock, electropop, pop
I fell in love with Seiko Oomori’s work last year as I was going through my J-pop phase; to me it represented everything that made Japanese pop music so interesting and different from Western pop. Sennou still stands as one of the monuments in pop music that may never be toppled — a full-bodied, warped and twisted middle finger to the establishment of tried and true patterns that one can’t escape in mainstream music scenes the world over. It’s sarcastic and confrontational, untamed and subversive, a hard slap in the face to anyone who thinks they have pop music figured out. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Kitixxxgaia continues in the same direction forged by Sennou, but widening out, absorbing more, expanding its sound to dismantle more genres, more classifications and monikers and labels to become something just as abrasive and perhaps even more universal.
Kitixxxgaia sounds like a lot of things — the neon electropop of “IDOL SONG”, the jazzy cabaret of “地球最後のふたり”, the epic melodramatic rock of “POSITIVE STRESS” — and yet it’s hard to trace any one of these songs back to a single overriding influence. It’s all fused together into a chaotic mess that pulses and writhes at Seiko’s command. And while she doesn’t have the most, let’s say, appealing voice in the industry, part of what makes Seiko’s music so remarkable is the way she’s able to twist and mold her voice into whatever shape the music happens to take at any given time. She shrieks, she howls, she purrs, she verges on the edge of emotional breakdown — whatever is required of her, she can do, and although it’s always rough and brittle, it keeps her music from becoming too immediately likable — you have to work at this.
As she’s always done, with Kitixxxgaia Seiko Oomori is challenging the notion of “pop”, pushing the boundaries into territories they were probably never meant to go. Depending on your disposition, this may be the most inaccessible album on this list. Seiko doesn’t care about your tastes (the songs rarely fall into simple categories), she doesn’t care about your time (songs often go over the five-minute mark), she doesn’t care about you. Listening to Kitixxxgaia can be a taxing experience, but it’s also one of the most rewarding things I discovered all year.
LISTEN: “ドグマ・マグマ (Dogma・Magma)”
Genre(s): Indie rock, heartland rock
Rock music and I have been on the outs the past few years. It’s nothing personal, really, it’s just that I’ve been much more drawn to more electronic-influenced music — house, techno, J-pop, K-pop, synthpop…probably lots of other “-pops” as well — and it’s become, well, boring, I guess. Indie rock sold out its sound to stadiums years ago, and most current so-called “alternative” music is getting more and more electronic every day. Ironically, the further we move from LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled release, the more James Murphy’s line in “Losing My Edge” seems prophetic: “I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables”. Maybe I’ve just been trying to get ahead of the curve for once in my life, I don’t know.
What I do know is that Go Farther In Lightness is, bar none, the most thrilling rock record I’ve heard in years. So much of the music that I’ve listened to in the realm of rock recently is either lacking in passion or feigning it; with this release, Gang of Youths dole it out in spades. Their style borrows heavily from classic heartland rock — these guys worship Springsteen and don’t bother to hide it, which is obvious from the opening seconds of “Fear and Trembling”, a “Thunder Road” homage if I’ve ever heard one — while making it a wholly 2010s affair, bringing in chamber elements to round out their sound into something extraordinarily rich, and all the more appealing.
This is a long record (clocking in at 77 minutes, this is by far the longest album represented here), and they use the album’s incredible length to explore love, philosophy, spirituality — all perfectly common subjects for anyone with a guitar in their 20s or 30s to write songs about, sure, but Gang of Youths approach these subjects with a deep reverence that transforms their songs into something more than simple 4-minute musical diary entries. They’re loaded with confessional vignettes; lead singer Dave Le’aupepe takes on the role of multiple characters, often in the midst of spiritual or mental crises, and gives them a voice. In “What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out?”, he seeks God but fears silence on the other end as punishment for having lost the passion that he once had in his faith. In “Achilles Come Down” he gets inside the mind of a suicidal Achilles, the song ending with a layered back-and-forth good angel/bad angel dialogue. In “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane” he describes a recurring nightmare he has of having a perfect life and feeling unworthy, drinking it away in his basement while his dream wife and child run out to do some errands and die in a car accident.
The band has this uncanny ability to make every one of these mini-stories feel concrete and larger-than-life. They’re all quite accomplished musicians and the songs are full to bursting with blinding light and lush sound. There’s enough pop sensibility here with songs like “Let Me Down Easy”, which carries a steady, upbeat cadence, strings, and and an incredibly catchy sing-along chorus, to keep this album exhilarating even late in its 16-song run, but this is a rock record to its very core. The difference is that all the drugs and sex in the world wouldn’t keep Le’aupepe and his bandmates from philosophizing on what it’s all for, where we’re going, and why. It’s been a long time, but I think I’m ready to love rock music again.
LISTEN: “Atlas Drowned”