Best Japanese music of 2020

A personal Top 10 Japan albums of the year

Back in January, I paid money to watch Cats at the cinema. In retrospect, it feels like that’s where 2020 all started to go wrong. It’s been a grim year for many, and—compared to friends who’ve lost loved ones or found themselves out of work—I feel like I’ve gotten off lightly. Being slightly under-employed for much of the year has given me plenty of time to listen to music, and I’ve written about over 100 Japanese releases during the past 12 months (if you missed them, you might want to check my Spring, Summer, Mid-Summer, Autumn and Winter round-ups). Much as I fear for the future of the live music scene, here and elsewhere, creativity will apparently never be in short supply. It’s been inspiring to see artists respond to the challenges (and unexpected opportunities) of the COVID era. This is the pick of the stuff I’ve written about this year: albums that I thought were exceptional, or that resonated with me the most.

FUJI||||||||||TA – iki

Hallow Ground
Even before he released an extraordinary duet with a colony of bats last month, it was obvious that Yosuke Fujita is attuned to frequencies that most of us miss. While his first solo album in nearly a decade may have aligned with the current resurgence of organ-based music in experimental circles, iki has a fragility and sense of presence that sets it apart. Fujita’s self-built organ certainly couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. Writing about iki in April, I compared the sound of the instrument’s pedals to a shishi-odoshi in a Japanese garden, which felt a bit pretentious at the time. After revisiting the album throughout the year, I can’t think of a better way to explain the mesmeric quality it has.

Eiko Ishibashi – Hyakki Yagyō

Black Truffle
This was the year that Eiko Ishibashi decisively pulled away from the straitjacket of the “singer-songwriter” tag. The synth-driven music she’s released on Bandcamp during 2020 has been utterly engrossing, but her composer ambitions found their fullest expression in this two-part suite. Picking up where The Dreams My Bones Dream left off, it’s a rich and detailed work, blending electronics, spoken word, acoustic instrumentation and field recordings into a meditation on the evasions of Japanese history. The only voice heard is that of dancer Ryuichi Fujimura, reciting the satirical verses of 15th-century poet Ikkyū Sōjun, but Hyakki Yagyō speaks multitudes.

Mikado Koko – The Japanese Rimbaud

Mixing uncanny (and often downright ghoulish) spoken vocals with ’90s Warp-style electronica, Mikado Koko’s music inhabits the same feverish headspace as Chris Morris’s Blue Jam radio show. It’s been one of my favourite discoveries of the year, with that elusive “WTF?” quality that would have earned it a place on a mixtape for a discerning friend back in the day. This album—based around texts by the early-Showa experimental poet Chuya Nakahara—is the place to start.

Tatsuhisa Yamamoto – Ashioto

Black Truffle
This year has felt at times like being stuck in a parallel timeline, and some musicians have really embraced it. Without studio or live dates to keep him occupied, drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto has come into his own as a sound artist, while amassing a substantial solo discography. To be honest, everything he’s released on Bandcamp is worth hearing (this one is a particular fave). However, the painstakingly crafted Ashioto—and its sister album, Ashiato—is the one that rewards the closest listening: a hypnotic blend of drone, spacious ECM jazz and musique concrete that keeps revealing fresh angles.

Gezan – 狂 (Klue)

There’s no way Gezan could have guessed what the year had in store when they released the career-best Klue back in January, but the album captured the mood of 2020 with remarkable precision. Hovering at a steady 100 BPM throughout, the band cycle through a range of moods, from end-of-days paranoia to cautious optimism, while slipping the occasional alt. rock anthem into a loop-heavy stew of industrial dub and kechak chants.

Sofheso – A RECORD

First Terrace Records
With a new track dropping on his Soundcloud every week, it’s not like you ever have to wait long for fresh dirt from Sofheso. I’m not sure if the fact that this is his first proper album makes much difference in the grander scheme of things (least of all to the man himself), but it’s a tour de force of noise-blasted bass mutations. Everything seems to be in a state of flux in Sofheso’s productions, and they have an unmistakeable mid-fi timbre, like listening to a cassette through blown-out speaker cones. Though I haven’t been clubbing since January, this has kept the fire burning.

Ytamo – Vacant

Lockdown forced a lot of musicians to adopt the kind of working practices that were already second nature to Ytamo. Recorded during 2019 while she was pregnant with her first child, Vacant seems to exist in its own hermetic world, like eavesdropping on someone singing lullabies to herself while sifting through old family photos. The way the intimate, stark piano melodies of the opening tracks give way to impressionistic audio collages later on make it a transportive listen, too. Though it didn’t get much attention when it was released back in June, this would be a good album to snuggle up with over the winter.

Moment Joon – Passport & Garcon

Grow Up Underground Records
Japanese hip-hop doesn’t usually speak to me as directly as this, but then there aren’t many (any?) artists like Moment Joon. On Passport & Garcon, the South Korean-born “immigrant rapper” delivers a conflicted love letter to the country he calls home, with a narrative sweep that shows his early Kendrick Lamar worship was more than just a pose. It’s just been released in a souped-up deluxe edition with added guest spots, tighter production and a new track, ‘Apocalypse’, that offers a caustic assessment of the year gone by. Available here.

Phew – Vertical K.O.

Disciples/Beat Records
It says a lot about Phew’s recent form that a compilation of her offcuts would be better than many artists’ strongest material. Though it features some of the most disarmingly beautiful music she’s released in the past decade, a sense of dread is never far away during Vertical K.O., her layered vocals sounding like nothing so much as the voices echoing in your head. As with some of the other music mentioned here, it tapped into the uneasy mood of 2020, despite predating it.

Carl Stone – Stolen Car

Unseen Worlds
I can’t get enough of Carl Stone’s wickedly playful transmutations of the popular canon, and this might be his strongest collection to date. Whether he’s rewiring Ariana Grande or enka, the results are so scrambled that trying to ID them can feel like playing Charades while very drunk. With a running time worthy of the peak CD era, Stolen Car is exhausting to get through in one sitting—but taken on its own, almost every track here is a highlight.

Honourable mentions

Jim O’Rourke – Steamroom 50
Ichiko Aoba – Adan no Kaze
Ralph – Black Bandana
Hideki Umezawa & Andrew Pekler – Two Views of Amami Ōshima
Yosuke Tokunaga – '''''''
YPY – Compact Disc
You Ishihara – formula