6 Non-2021 Favorite Albums of 2021
Listing the year's favorite new discoveries from Ra Mu, Plus-Tech Squeeze Box and more
This feature is part of This Side of Japan issue #44. You can return to the main newsletter here.
Another year is almost coming to an end, which means it’s about that time to start evaluating all of the great new records that came out in the past 12 or so months. But before we get to list season, I wanted to look back at some of my favorite Japanese music discoveries not from 2021. I try my best for my listen of older albums to not feel like homework, especially as I started to take a peek at older records for research for various sections of this newsletter. This leads more to picks based on my mood then and there, which usually ends up landing on more pop releases—you may be able to pick up on that from my choices. Assuredly, all the titles here have been a delightful new find for me in 2021.
Here are six non-2021 albums I enjoyed this year for the first time:
Thanks Giving by RA MU [VAP, 1988]
After setting aside Adventure for so long, I finally had a good excuse this year to listen to the album as well as other records in Momoko Kikuchi’s catalog as part research for my write-up on “Broken Sunset” for issue #27. I imagine Adventure might already be familiar to some as a city-pop essential thanks to YouTube’s algorithms, so I will instead nudge you to other entries, like her music as Ra Mu, a collaboration with the jazz-fusion band Prism. While the AOR and lite-funk music glistens like the rest of the idol’s ‘80s releases, her partners of the project flesh out a live, analog warmth in comparison to the usual digital sleekness. It’s a shame the effort was treated as novelty at the time given Kikuchi’s reputation as an idol, though if the city pop revival is good at one thing, it’s reappraisal of worthwhile history.
Unbalance+Balance by Akina Nakamori [MCA, 1993]
*Recommended track: “Not Crazy to Me”
The arrangements stamp Unbalance+Balance as a release from a rather overlooked decade of Akina Nakamori’s career. The lavish R&B firmly places the idol out of the Bubble era, her peak time of reign, and into the shifting times of post-crash Heisei. Period-specific as they may seem, she tames liquid house and New Jack Swing as natural developments into her catalog. No matter what style of music, she builds exquisite drama about yearning for company either by flexing her vocal trills (“Aibu”) or letting her smoky sighs evaporate into vapor (“Kagerou”). The music may have simmered down since her golden days, but Nakamori continues to relish in opulence in Unbalance+Balance in ways only Nakamori can.
Feel My Mind by Kumi Koda [Rhythm Zone, 2004]
What inspired me to finally take more of a sample of Kumi Koda’s discography was a viewing of Cutie Honey1, the live-action film in which the singer contributed for its soundtrack. While her 2005 album, Secret, that included the movie’s title track is also a favorite, the previous release Feel My Mind feels more definitive to her success and catalog. The album is very much clued into the hip-hop and R&B production of the time, dipping simultaneously into retro funk-bounce and futuristic skitter—a sound the Avex subsidiary Rhythm Zone would establish itself with in the 2000s. Koda’s deft performance here, meanwhile, rightfully justifies why fans remain vocal about her to this day.
cartooom! by Plus-Tech Squeeze Box [VROOM SOUND, 2004]
Maybe I would’ve been more inclined to dig into Shibuya-kei when I was younger had I been introduced to Plus-Tech Squeeze Box and their second album, cartooom! Like what the title suggests, cartooom! jump cuts through colorful pop sounds and dialogue like a hyperactive animation sequence. The songs are restless as the album goes by fast, clocking in at 28 minutes, but it is effectively succinct: I doubt the everything-at-once experience would seem remotely slight. Their post-genre sensibilities admittedly places them as adjacent acts in the later period of the scene post-Fantasma, but the pure overwhelm from their zany pop-collage brings to me a much more welcome result than the tasteful sophistication of the scene’s central acts.
Kokuhaku by Chatmonchy [Ki/oon, 2009]
Perfume’s A-chan introduced me to Chatmonchy during my early days of Japanese music discovery, though the band’s 2007 LP Seimeiryoku didn’t leave much of a mark on me then. Five years and a listen to the follow-up album, 2009’s Kokuhaku, later, and I’m puzzled as to why the then-three piece failed to click with me. Their big, loud riffs and Eriko Hashimoto’s equally bold, heart-on-sleeve yelps seems exactly like the type of alt rock I usually crave: take the gutsy “Last Love Letter” or the deeply yearning “Somaruyo” with Hashimoto letting her feelings spill over in both. Maybe I had to work in reverse and get acquainted with bands they inspired to start appreciating the music.
Let’s Dream Shogakko by PaiPai Dekami [MY BEST!, 2014]
PaiPai Dekami sports a retro idol look in the cover of Let’s Dream Shogakko, but her debut full-length carries a punk feel in line with the alternative idol scene during the mid-’10s. Sometimes this reveals itself directly, like the stiff, Talking Heads-esque riffs of “Tokimeki Arijigoku” or the feedback-washed guitars of “Ashitakara”; the wild techno freak-out “acid π splash” similarly gets at the aggression if not the actual guitars. But it mostly manifests from the album’s clear lack of polish that becomes its own sense of charm. Sure, the idol fails to hit the right notes, but the amateurish feel to her voice fits as the appropriate mode with the rough-shot, punk-inspired music. The abrupt jump between styles throughout, too, frame the record like an experiment than a statement. PaiPai Dekami works within her own self-contained rules and standards, defining Let’s Dream Shogakko as spiritually punk as it is idol.
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One of my favorite non-2021 watches this year. Others are Love Exposure (Sion Sono, 2008), Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008) and Ride Your Wave (Masaaki Yuasa, 2019).