The Year in (J)Pop 2004

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Prologue: I don’t believe in a cyclical nature of history, so for me, 2004 was the Japanese mainstream music market’s last chance to correct its path before crashing into the Sun. I didn’t need music to be good this year — I needed it to save the world.

Meanwhile, Inside my iPod

Unfortunately, Jpop did not save itself, so I found myself listening to mainly non-Japanese music — mostly catching up on the things I missed in 2003 (The Shins, M83. Manitoba (err… Caribou), etc.). While I managed to actually listen to a couple of albums in real-time (Animal Collective and the Go! Team), I used my commuting time and library-like access at Tsutaya to burrow deeper into my historical cocoon. This is a mixed blessing: I’m sure digging up Kinks records is good for me as a human being, but I don’t know how much listening to The Grass Roots furthers my self-development. 2004 was the year I finally heard the Lancelot Link and the Evolution Revolution album in its entirety and was able to relive my childhood circa 1986-1988. (I pleaded for a couple of days with my label to let me name myself “the Evolution Revolution” and they thankfully declined.) Choice Cocoon Cuts for 2004:

“Hammond Song” — the Roches
“Get on the Line” — the Archies
“Sunshine Superman” — Donovan
“Daddy’s Song” — Harry Nilsson
“Do You Remember Walter?” — the Kinks
“Care of Cell 44” — the Zombies

Back in the Real World

According to my industry sources and the general “vibe” on the streets, the Japanese music industry’s gross sales shrunk further this year with no deus ex machina-type redemption in sight. Not only were sales down, but the offerings were impenetrably awful. Glancing at the Oricon chart here: ballads, ballads, old bands, bad rap-rock, and ballads! Contemporary artists Hirai Ken, Orange Range, and Exile are not going to deliver us from this Foul Year of Bush, and they are barely charting compared with Greatest Hits collections from all sorts of late-mid-career bands like the solidly mediocre Pornograffiti and Mr. Children. I challenge anyone to scour these top 100 lists and find anything that you could stand listening to for more than 30 seconds.

All that melodic punk rock of last year is still around, but has become completely instituionalized. 175R is just the new Glay. Asian Kung-Fu Generation had a big year, but they are perhaps the most underwhelming chart-toppers in recent history. They aren’t glossy idols, nor flamboyant rebels, nor heart-warming nice guys, nor neo-right-wing patriots in ridiculous costume — they’re just dudes from down the block. Not that I need my bands to “look right,” but I need them to do something besides just winning the award for Perfect Attendance.

Rip Slyme had a catchy single in “Galaxy,” but they were just going through the motions. Shiina Ringo‘s Tokyo Jihen only charted #42 on the yearly singles ranking with the relatively awesome “Gunjou Biyori.” Oddly enough, Halcali did not break into the top 100 at all. Looking back, Halcali and Tokyo Jihen’s albums — Ongaku no Susume and Kyoiku, respectively — were pretty good, but not good enough to redeem the entire year. This would have been fine had their been a new set of creative mainstream artists to replace the old ones.

All in all, this was a terrible, God-awful year for anything other than the blandest, stereotypical Jpop. My friend Mr. Snow over at JeansNow.net and I both made the same observation that a year ago we were able to flip through the cable music channels and find something interesting to watch, but now have to go straight to the Discovery Channel for fear of hearing the new Otsuka Ai single.

Of course, America’s pop market isn’t so swell either. I’m not buying a return ticket anytime soon, but at least groups like Outkast and Modest Mouse and that angular Scottish band Ferdinand de Saussure can chart, and since the self-confident Westerners actually have subjective critics’ lists, we can also read what was “good” in addition to what “sold.” In Japan, no one would rave about the Animal Collective or the Johanna Newsom albums unless they sold a billion copies, whereas the New York Times gave both records a spot on their Top Ten lists.

Mainstream music markets everywhere are dying a terribly slow karmic death, but in America, a energetic revival seems to be taking place within the chaotic and fragmented indie scene. Since there are fewer power indie labels, your self-released title can get press at the Gray Lady and the nobodies at Pitchfork Media can push your record worldwide. Japan’s indie scene is sadly just shrinking along with the big boys. There’s no alternate playing field opening up next door.

Under the Radar

2004 was a good year for the Neo-Indie kids in Japan. The old indie sect put out more left-field proclamations of adulthood and said goodbye to their castles (R.I.P. Maximum Joy), but the only album I enjoyed from the over-prolific Escalator Records was the Yukari Rotten electro-punk fiasco Not Dead — “Say When” is A++ and Ex-Citrus T. Emori’s terrible drums on “C.L.I.J.S.T.E.R.S.” will never be forgotten. Kahimi Karie‘s “NANA” was adequately weird, but in a way that seems to make me feel horribly uncool as a consumer.

Big year for Usagi-Chang Records, who are proving to be the most high-quality Japanese indie label. Mr. Aki Suzuki can’t put out a bad album. We were treated to the new artsy Pine*AM LP Playing Intense Neutral Electronica ad nauseAM, YMCK‘s brilliant 8-bit masterpiece Family Music, the totally underrated Sonic Coaster Pop followup, and the long-awaited Macdonald Duck Eclair debut short short. Buy all of these records if you don’t have them. MDDE also found time to put out an Electoclash album in Italy called The Electronic Tomato. (2005 will hopefully be all erotic indie pop.)

Aprils jumped camp and put out a Neo-Shibuya-kei album on Softly!, but even that was great (I recommend the tracks “Net Surf Rock” and “Pan-da”). Early Bird‘s proper debut Platanus set the stage for the 22 year-old Nac’s eventual pop domination. And Eel‘s brutal and insane Little Prince took the scene to another metaphysical plane.

Plus-Tech Squeeze Box blew minds with their brilliant Disney-meets-McLuhan-meets-Sandoz-meets-Vaudville 10-meter-dash-through-music-history Cartooom!, and somehow found themselves on the Spongebob Square Pants film soundtrack.

But the award for “Best Album of the Year” goes to Shugo Tokumaru‘s Night Piece. My friend Trevor kind of casually mentioned to Shugo late in 2003 that he wanted to put out his demo Fragment as a CDR on Music Related, but we had no idea that we were going to receive this 10-track gift from God. Sublime, personal, highly innovative, unique, listenable, honest — just perfect. I was happier to see his album selling at NYC’s Other Music than my own.

Over the Horizon

Looking forward to: a possible new Petset album, the Kiiiiiii debut, a new Aprils album. I have essentially stopped listening to Jpop (although Other Music calls my album “Jpoptronica”), so I don’t need anyone to “save” it in 2005 — although I will be silently watching for a Christ-like figure out of the corner of my eye to come into the mainstream scene. Until then, I’ll be in the cocoon and supporting tomorrow’s hit-makers here underground.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
January 11, 2005

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

3 Responses

  1. Brad Says:

    These kind of year-end wrap-ups invariably invite the kind of comments I’m about to make. You know, the “hey, you forgot about” kind of thing.

    First though, I’m going to have to disagree with your take on the HALCALI album. I was really looking forward to this album after Bacon and the recent singles. I enjoyed “Marching March” and, to a lesser extent, “Strawberry Chips” and “Baby Blue!”, but this album. Geez. I went back and re-read your original review and my comments now are the same as they were then. Please stop letting other people produce HALCALI. Please let O.T.F. produce the entire next album. The girls are rappers, not pop singers. Let them rap! Stop trying to make them sing! They can’t sing but damn they’ve got skillz when you let them rhyme. Why don’t you let them do this?

    (Of course, the reason is sales, but that’s beside the point.)

    That said, they are probably the 2nd or 3rd group I am dying to see live this year.

    Also, I think I’m going to have to correct your Del tha Funkee Homosapien reference…I assume you’re talking about the “Don’t cry, dry your eyes” line in “Continued”. That’s actually from Slick Rick’s “La di da di”.

    Now about what you forgot. How could you forget a band with not 1, but 2 stellar studio releases? I’m talkin’ about Zazen Boys. Now personally, I would rank the 2nd album a little higher than the first, if only because it seems like they’ve moved farther away from the Number Girl sound in Zazen Boys II. They’ve become something like an original group now.

    That’s all I could think of off the top of my head.

  2. trevor Says:

    i agree that the halcali album is one of the bigger disappointments of the year. beyond that, i can’t believe no one out there, in the great world wide web, has mentioned the kahimi karie’s last album.. did no one like it other then me?
    not only did it make up for the painfully uneven, half bad trapanzie. but is one of the more solid left field pop records i have heard. its just odd, yet. catchy.. wtf? “severely reduced pay for everyone!”

  3. marxy Says:

    Brad,

    Yeah, you’re right. I listened to “Ongaku no Susume” and “BACON” back to back the other day and “BACON” was so much better. I think I wrote that review trying to prove that I don’t hate everything.

    I need to hear more Zazen Boys. They seem good.

    As for Del, I was thinking of his track on the Handsome Boys Modeling School album, where he does sing that.