Best of 2017

Or... a not-top-10 of Japanese music I’ve enjoyed this year

In a break from regular programming, I thought I’d cobble together a list of the Japanese music I particularly enjoyed this year (an apparently simple task that’s ended up taking nearly a month). For the sake of argument, I’ve limited this to musicians who are based in Japan or actively involved in the music scene here. That means that Ryuichi Sakamoto and Jim O’Rourke made the cut, but some exceptionally talented Japanese musicians based overseas didn’t (to whit: Iku Sakan, WaqWaq Kingdom and Masaya Ozaki & Kaito Nakahori). Every year-end listicle I’ve read has alluded to the contrast between the outpouring of great music during 2017 and the otherwise dire state of world affairs, so I won’t dwell on that here, except to say thanks to everyone featured on this list for making life a little sweeter...

These are listed in alphabetical order, though I saved my (predictable) favourite for last. Bandcamp links included when available; Spotify links omitted out of principle.

Update: Since a few people asked, I’ve included a quick list of all the other new/reissued music I’ve enjoyed during 2017 at the bottom. There are already dozens of similar-looking lists out there, so mine feels rather superfluous, but it’s still great music.

Blackphone666 – Accumulation
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The first time I tried to listen to this at home, my partner fought back by doing the hoovering. On his first “official” release after 15+ years on the Tokyo noise scene, Kazuhiro Kajiwara paces the onslaught carefully. “Blaze” balances high-pitched frequencies and simmering bass for 10 minutes before finally letting rip, while “OXD” tempers its eruptions of white noise with stretches of industrial ambience. The accompanying remixes are a draw in themselves, especially Kyoka’s goose-step rework of “OXD.”

Cornelius – Mellow Waves
Warner Music Japan
Keigo Oyamada’s first album in 11 years was his least dazzling, most heartfelt record. “If You’re Here” and “Dear Future Person” – both with lyrics penned by Shintaro Sakamoto – revealed a human presence behind all the studio trickery, and even the more typically Cornelius songs like “Helix / Spiral” felt looser and more spontaneous than in the past. I’m not sure about the Prince comparisons in Neil Kulkarni’s review for The Wire, but he got one thing right: the guitar playing is goddam fantastic.

CRZKNY – Meridian
CRZKNY used to top the list of Japan’s weirdo footwork producers, but with Foodman netting all the international acclaim, he’s had to up the stakes. Meridian is an epic fuck-you: an exhausting 3 CD set, the first disc of which is nigh-on unlistenable. Those in search of dancefloor fodder should skip to the final disc, which hews closest to juke’s template, but the biggest surprise is the second CD, a selection of noisy techno cuts so bloated with distortion they make Actress sound clean-cut.

Daymare Recordings
Back in the day, Endon’s shows were as much about physical as sonic violence. Taichi Nagura no longer bludgeons himself with a microphone, and the group have learned to control their chaos without diluting it. Through the Mirror ricochets between black metal, grindcore, harsh noise and – on closing track “Torch Your House” – lighters-in-the-air stadium rock, all held together by the nightmarish babble of voices that Nagura manages to summon. Incredible.

Friendship – Hatred
Daymare Recordings
It’s telling that the new Boris album was actually one of the least interesting things that Daymare released this year. In addition to Endon, there was this monolithic slab of bleakness, which got an overseas vinyl release on Southern Lord later in the year. A concise 25-minute assault of doom-laden powerviolence, Hatred is the ugliest thing I’ve heard all year, and I mean that as a compliment. Hey: you’d probably be pretty pissed-off if you had to live in Chiba, too.

DJ Krush – Kiseki
ES•U•ES Corporation
This has been a good year for middle-aged musicians reasserting their relevance, and DJ Krush didn’t disappoint. Kiseki featured some of the scruffiest beats he’s put his name to since the glory days of Mo’Wax, and the fact that he’d enlisted some top-flight Japanese MCs (Sibitt, OMSB, Punpee, &c.) to rhyme over the top didn’t hurt. It has the immediacy of a good mixtape, and given Krush’s post-’90s drift into slicker production styles, that was very welcome.

Mars89 – Lucid Dream EP
Bokeh Versions
Mars89 strays further into the ether on his follow-up to last year’s East End Chaos. Released via Bristol dub imprint Bokeh Versions, Lucid Dream offers a selection of crackly transmissions from the outer reaches of grime, gqom and dancehall that sound tailored for late-night headphone sessions rather than dancefloors. While not quite as essential as Bokeh’s Captain Ganja and the Space Patrol reissue (eh, not much is), it’s another strong effort from an extremely promising producer.

Miu Mau – Drawing
Vybe Music
Never the most prolific of bands, art-pop trio Miu Mau took five years to release a follow-up to 2012’s News EP, then filled it with many of the same songs. It helps that they’re such good songs, really – I’ve had a few of them stuck in my head for weeks now, and it’s been rather nice. It’s easy to imagine a hands-on producer attempting to fashion Drawing into a bona fide pop record, but its sparseness works in its favour. Aside from a lacklustre remix tacked on the end, Miu Mau seldom put a foot wrong here.

Jim O’Rourke – Steamroom series
“I just have to make them,” Jim O’Rourke has said of the music he posts on Bandcamp. “It’s like my oxygen.” Personally, I’ve found his Steamroom series to be a panacea for the grinding awfulness of 2017. These longform synthesiser pieces are the exact opposite of the quick-fix endorphin hits that online listening seems to demand, and each is a quiet marvel. Steamroom 32 and 37 were probably my favourites this year, but it’s better to think of this as a continuously growing body of work.

Phew – Voice Hardcore
Phew’s voice has always been her most distinctive instrument, and now she’s given us an album consisting of nothing else. Plunging deeper into the territories explored in 2015’s New World, she layers her vocals into queasy chorales and fever-dream soundscapes, mixed with eerily dead-eyed spoken word. It’s a perfect winter record, like huddling in front of the TV with the ’flu, listening to the sound of daytime chat shows blurring with the voices in your head.

Sapphire Slows – Time
I wasn't much fussed about the muzzy, lo-fi house that Kinuko Hiramatsu used to produce as Sapphire Slows, but the two releases she put out this year were a huge step forward. The Role of Purity EP showcased her talent for luminous ambient instrumentals, while Time featured prominent vocals and a few straight-up songs. It wasn't a craven bid for a wider audience, so much as an attempt to find a place within the underground techno scene for something that could almost pass for pop.

Taiyo Komon Spapan – “Terrorist Trump to Ningen”
(from Taiyo Komon Spapan to Ningen; Towntone)
Taiyo Komon Spapan's prog-kayōkyoku and satirical theatre was a surprise highlight of this year's Fuji Rock. The group didn’t have an album out in 2017, but they released a best-of compilation featuring a pointed tribute to the current POTUS. With its jagged 6/4 riffs, free-jazz breakdowns, refrains of “America, Terrorist” and a discordant rendition of “Star Spangled Banner" midway through, it was a fitting anthem for the year.

Triple Fire – Fire
Active no Kai
The “Joy Division of Takadanobaba” have always been much closer in spirit to 54-71, in the way they don’t let formidable musical chops get in the way of lame gags and shitty judgment. It’s hard to tell what vocalist Yasunao Yoshida is bringing to the table (imagine The Fall if Mark E. Smith was a total fucking idiot), but the rest of the band are on peak form here, all spindly No Wave groove with hints of late-period Beefheart. Just skip the final track, which is dreadful.

Various Artists – Throw Away Your CDs Go Out to a Show
Call And Response Records
Full disclosure: this was put together by a friend, but even a disinterested observer would agree that it’s ace. Like a well-compiled mixtape, it’s an introduction to the commercially hopeless end of the Japanese indie spectrum. The default setting is taut, breathless post-punk, but there are some welcome deviations, like Noiseconcrete x 3chi5’s noise-trip-hop and Narcolepsin’s loop-driven Canterbury skronk.

Wednesday Campanella – Superman
Warner Music Japan
It was a relief to hear that Wednesday Campanella won’t be appearing among the establishment acts in this year’s NYE Kōhaku show: they’ve have had a banner year, but they aren’t that big yet. In her videos and live performances, Kom_I gives off the aura of a mischievous sprite let loose in J-pop’s toy factory. Superman bottles that energy into 36 minutes of exuberant electro-pop that’s as light as Kom_I’s breathy vocals. If only more J-pop albums were this much fun (and succinct).

Ryuichi Sakamoto – async
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s well-documented fight against cancer has rendered his comeback album almost impervious to criticism, but make no mistake: async is every bit the masterpiece it aspires to be. Rather than retreat into a comfort zone of Satie-lite mood music (and heaven knows he’s churned out plenty of that over the years), Sakamoto opts for richly textured ambient works, suffused with the weight of memory and mortality. There’s a fragility to the sound here, all crepuscular atmospherics and barely-there melodies that sometimes dissipate into nothing. Stephen Nomura Schible’s accompanying documentary was a mixed bag, but it offered fascinating glimpses of the details woven into the fabric, from iPhone field recordings to samples of a ruined piano that survived the 2011 tsunami. While I’ve often found Sakamoto’s solo work a bit precious, this stood apart: it’s an album of profound beauty and humility that I think I’ll be returning to for years to come.

...and all the other stuff

New Releases

Actress – AZD (Ninja Tune)
Otim Alpha – Gulu City Anthems (Nyege Nyege Tapes)
Arca – Arca (XL Recordings)
BIG|BRAVE – Ardor (Southern Lord)
Bjork – Utopia (One Little Indian)
The Bug vs Earth – Concrete Desert (Ninja Tune)
Kevin Drumm – October(Early Warning) (Bandcamp)
Lawrence English – Cruel Optimism (Room40)
Equiknoxx – Colón Man (DDS)
Errorsmith – Superlative Fatigue (PAN)
Diamanda Galás – All the Way (Intravenal Sound Operations)
Jlin – Black Origami (Planet Mu)
L’Rain – L’Rain (Astro Nautico)
El Mahdy Jr. – Time to Sell the Golden Teeth (Boomarm Nation)
Juana Molina – Halo (Crammed Discs)
Nicola Ratti – The Collection (Room40)
Jana Rush – Pariah (Objects Limited)
Iku Sakan – Human Wave Music (Natural Sciences)
Richard Skelton – Towards a Frontier (Aeolian Editions)
Colin Stetson – All This I Do For Glory (52Hz)
Sudan Archives – Sudan Archives (Stones Throw)


Derek Bailey – Drop Me Off At 96th (Scatter)
Zazou Bikaye – Noir et Blanc (Crammed Discs)
Coil – Time Machines (Dais Records)
Alice Coltrane – World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (Luaka Bop)
Tony Conrad – Music and the Mind of the World (website)
Keiji Haino – Watashi Dake? (Black Editions)
Zabelle Panosian – I Am Servant of Your Voice: April-May, 1917 (Canary Records)
Yasuaki Shimizu – Music for Commercials (Crammed Discs)
Midori Takada – Through the Looking Glass (WRWTFWW)
Tradition – Captain Ganja and the Space Patrol (Bokeh Versions)
Various Artists – Diggin’ in the Carts: A Collection of Pioneering Japanese Video Game Music (Hyperdub)
Various Artists – Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa (Ostinato Records)
Jaap Vink – Jaap Vink (Recollection GRM)

* excluding vinyl reissues of stuff that was already widely available in other formats, because I feel like that’s just cheating