End-of-year lists are excruciating but such a nice challenge. They are almost never representative of actual favourites of the year, but I’ve made a valiant attempt. This list is mostly my own personal favourites, but I’ve included some songs that I feel have helped to shape the sound of (commercial) J-pop/K-pop/C-pop (although those latter 2 are in tiny doses) in 2013. The list includes both singles and album-only tracks. I’ve put all these songs in an 8tracks playlist that can be listened to in the link above! It’s a pretty eclectic mix. It’s all under the cut~
20. SEKAI NO OWARI – Death Disco (Death Disco single, 30 October 2013)
This was a bit of a last minute inclusion, to be honest. Death Disco was released digitally and it flew under my radar. SekaOwa’s RPG single in April was released to both critical and commercial praise, but there was something off about it – it was missing the preppy, polished piano sound that was so appealing and unique about the Entertainment album. However in Death Disco it was back with a threatening vengeance; there’s not really another sound quite like them in their circles. The lyrics discuss the futility of a belief in god, atheism and questioning such beliefs. All presented in an angry, danceable panic with excellently tuned vocals. [PV]*Warning: flashing imagery.
19. Weather Girls – Koi no Tokimeki Chuuihou (Koi no Tokimeki Chuuihou single, 6 February 2013)
And now for something completely different. It would be completely amiss to leave out a saccharine girl group song, given that they are my literal life-force. Weather Girls are a super cute group from Taiwain currently operating in Japan who dropped their first album this year. This song is almost too sweet. Everything here is agreeable to me: seven cuties, the fact they have a theme (and it’s the weather basically), individual colours, said colours contribute to superhero fancy evocative of sailor moon, happy electro driven pop music… it’s all here. For the first half of 2012 I had this on loop like crazy: it’s not groundbreaking or hard-hitting, but it is fun. [PV]
18. [champagne] – Rise (Me No Do Karate album, 26 June 2013)
[champagne] are an indie group who just keep getting better and better. It’s hard to pinpoint their style, but their earlier work it was definitely influenced in a big way by Britpop of the 90s e.g. Oasis, Blur etc. So this is why this track was so surprising. It’s the opener to their 4th album and has a distinctly more positive sound. Upbeat piano followed by crashing guitars, it has transformed into a much more “American” styled rock approach. The vocalist has a lovely smooth voice and sings in English (fun fact: he spent ages 9 to 14 in Syria). The band have been receiving a fair bit off attention lately from the music press and it’s well-deserved. Their work is varied, tongue-in-cheek but also offers more sincere numbers like this one. The rest of the album is also good, but Rise is the winner for me purely because I expected nothing like it.
17. Laure Shang – 小星星 the star (Graceland EP, 16 October 2013)
Laure Shang is easily my favourite singer from Mainland China. She has a beautiful, engaging deep voice that evokes feelings of Grace Jones influences in her spoken word pieces (which are plentiful), and her singing voice is different and calming. This song, accompanied by a stunning PV (her hair!), is a individualistic and eerie take on the Twinkle Twinkle Little Star nursery rhyme. The repetitive, rhythmic piano gives the song a lullaby-like feel but the strings at the end are exquisite (however the instrumentation is fuller in the English version, which is the one set to the PV). Her Mandarin and English compliment each other so well. One of my favourite things about this song is that I get a huge Soap&Skin vibe from it, a fantastic neoclassical singer from Austria. I was so happy she released this at the end of the year, I’m already eager to see what she she comes up with next. [PV]
16. Brown Eyed Girls – Mystery Survivor (Black Box album, 29 July 2013)
I had no idea this was going to be released, so it was a pleasant surprise. The album as a whole was amazing, but this track stood out in particular. BEG can rip the K-pop playground to shreds, and it’s totally effortless for them. Mystery Survivor has such a slick, dark house/trance sound and Miryo’s rap dominates. I love the instrumental more than the vocal parts and the structure is a little unconventional, but the synth components work so well. Hard and danceable yet glossy and sophisticated. I think I’m in the minority in thinking this was the best track from the album, but ultimately it’s exactly my taste.
15. Oomori Seiko – Koenji (Mahou ga Tsukaenai Nara Shinitai album, 20 March 2013)
Ahh, Oomori-sama. This is certainly a change of pace from the above. It’s 7 minutes and it’s utterly heartbreaking. I chose it for the list because it’s the first Seiko song that really gripped me. I was bracing myself for something – unsure what, but something – when I saw the length, but to be honest I just felt so damn sad. Her voice is so innocent and childlike and the carefree way she handles the guitar is so genuine. I sat transfixed, listening to it, taking it in its entirety. The hazy distortion is reminiscent of lo-fi (only a little though), but the emotion with which she sings is beyond whatever your first impression of her is… this is an impressive piece of music. She is not an artist to love quickly nor easily, but that’s exactly what sets her apart. There’s something about her music that you can leave your mark on, it feels bespoke, like she crafted it for you. If her debut doesn’t fit first time round, I implore you to try again.
14. charisma.com – HATE (I I Syndrome EP, 10 July 2013)
This song is just so much damn fun, and so is the PV too. The duo gained some international press, and rightly so. This song is so misleading – it’s a perfect electro-rap-dance smorgasbord and Itsuka’s clear-cut pronunciation is a pleasure on the ears. But taking off the enticing outer layer reveals an angry, biting song that sets out to ridicule and sneer at girls who blindly follow trends without even believing they find said aesthetic “kawaii” themselves. She acknowledges they make it work – but holds them in contempt for their lack of originality (“You’re cool, but fool“). Anybody who ever considered themselves a bit of a social outcast back in the day will relate to this, I’m just glad we have charisma.com to do it in an almost ironically stylish manner. [PV]
13. KAT-TUN – 楔-kusabi- (楔-kusabi- EP, 27 November 2013)
People who’ve read my previous review might be wondering why I didn’t choose one of the other tracks from the mini, but this song has grown on me like crazy and I love it more every time I see them perform it. I won’t labour on too much about this one, but in a way it feels almost symbolic to me: of them bringing in a new era. Their voices sound so gorgeous and I guess I’m just proud at how they’ve carried themselves through the past couple of months. It has a really laid-back fresh sound for me, it reminds me of Winter and it has an overall confident aura. It works. And naturally being Johnny’s, the existence of the PV on YouTube is harder to find than a high-rated Kamenashi dorama.
12. Amuro Namie – Alive (FEEL album, 10 July 2013)
Jesus, Namie always knows how to open albums – and this is just her first offering on this list. This is one of those tracks that sound like the album cover. It’s dark and haunting; it’s a song that feels like it belongs in the night time. Her English sounds on point here, and the lyrics are quite alternative for a pop track of this ilk. The real genius here is in the build up, which spills into a fuzzy dance euphoria and never backs down for a second. The slinky guitar before the final drop is perfect, and the big clattering finish couldn’t have been done any better. This track is a lesson in pop-EDM fusion. Take note, Koda et al.
11. Kalafina – Signal (Consolation album, 20 March 2013)
Kalafina are a group I forget how much I love. Kajiura Yuki has done so much for them, she’s moulded something so memorable and talented with these three women. As much as I love their slower numbers, letting their voices wash over me, songs like Signal remind me why they’re so special. In the midst of a decent album, Signal sticks out like a sore thumb, but in a good way. It begins with drums, but out of nowhere a synth lead takes charge – it’s powerful and mystical and gets more and more demanding throughout. Wakana’s vocals are just gorgeous. The accordion section is… different (but it was part of Kajiura’s repertoire for this album), but my favourite thing about it is how it gets more chaotic and messy whilst still retaining the poise of a Kalafina-esque track.
Part II to follow soon!