Issue #29: Cover Girl Wears Villa
Exploring Hallkarimaako's new album and their individual works, H Jungle with T, and 5 J-pop songs from the 2010s for KanJam's consideration
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For its March 3 episode, music program KanJam counted down a list of the 30 best J-pop songs from 2000-2020, put together from a poll of 48 professional musicians. (Arama! Japan has the full 30, and you can also see 31-50 in the comments section.) The final selection understandably skewed populist in taste, but the general picture of the two decades in J-pop as observed by the list overall looked respectable.
The boldest claim may be its number-one pick, “Pretender” by Official Hige Dandism. The 2019 pop smash won out legacy names like Hikaru Utada, Shiina Ringo and SMAP among others. The band wasn’t the only current act in the top ranks, with King Gnu, Foorin and YOASOBI hanging out in the top 10. “The fact a song from 2019 is number one give a kind of hope,” said Yoshiki Mizuno of Ikimonogakari, one of the guests for the night. “It’s not just about looking back but there’s more that will be made. I feel optimistic looking at this list.”
Twenty-plus of the polled musicians chose “Pretender” somewhere in their votes with more than a few praising its lyrics and arrangements. Me? I would not have a single song from the band in my list, and even if I did, “Pretender” wouldn’t be my choice Hige Dan song (that would be “I Love…”). There are other picks that highlight the many exciting forms J-pop have taken in the past 20 years, though I also can’t deny “Pretender” is definitively J-pop in the sense that it represents the sound of what’s commercially popular in the country.
Upon the reveal of KanJam’s list, many J-pop fans on the internet shared what they thought was a glaring omission. Where is Ayumi Hamasaki for instance? (An awesome read related to the omissions is “The Lost Decade in J-pop: 2006 - 2015,” written in Japanese by Soichiro Matsutani for Yahoo! and translated to English by Ronald Taylor for Arama! Japan.) It’s fun brainstorming what was not on the list as much as appreciating what did make it, so I decided to participate and provide five picks as my own write-ins for this list of best J-pop songs 2000-2020. I focused on the 2010s because songs from that decade came to me easier than the other.
Here are the five:
“Nerve” by BiS [Tsubasa, 2011]
What would the decade in idol look like if BiS didn’t exist? The group’s influence doesn’t register in the slightest in the KanJam list; not even their successor BiSH makes an appearance. The mainstream best remembers them for the infamous “my lxxx” music video and hardly as a proper pop act than a has-been controversy. But within its respective subculture, they paved a way for an entire generation of groups that would later be categorized as “alt-idols” by presenting new ways in which idols can sound, look and simply be.
All that said, the group’s most iconic single ironically sounds contemporaneous with idols they are supposedly in contrast with. It’s a synth-pop tune with the brightest keyboard riff. The idols sing about their frustrations with a crush fully oblivious of the advances they make. The choreography takes inspiration from—parodies?—another popular idol dance. The reputation of BiS is told less through song in “Nerve” than word of mouth. Though, rest assured, they left a craze that united all fans as well as other idol groups plus something they can call a legacy.
We got a meatier newsletter for this issue with the above list but also our Album of the Week, which comes with additional album recommendations because I love the spotlighted group that much. Hey, more music for you! The other sections meanwhile carry on as usual. For anyone reading this from your e-mail, sorry this issue will be cut off after a certain point due to it being too long.
Album of the Week
Terminal by Hallkarimaako [HKM Project]
Though last spring’s nationwide lockdown didn’t exactly birth Hallkarimaako, the trio cite the quarantine as what deepened their friendship. “We were planning to do a show with the three of us to wrap up the tour, but COVID happened,” explained Amamiya Maako, who brought HALLCA and Seira Kariya with her for shows promoting her then-new album, Wear. “Not to be like, ‘the more farther we got…’ but we actually got a lot closer, and then we got to talking about making a song together.”
The resulting track was “Glitter,” included in their new Terminal EP. While the rubbery funk echoed the Bubble-era-inspired pop of HALLCA’s solo project, Amamiya’s sleek, meticulous production moved dynamic enough to compete with Seira’s more modern, contemporary dance-pop. The track glowed with a nostalgic sheen, but the three focused on making the best of today in the lyrics perhaps for their own sake: “‘cause you’re the Glitter woman,” they sing in the chorus. “You can shine better tomorrow, so let’s not lose right now.”
Terminal expands on the themes and sensibilities gestured in “Glitter.” “We are all headed our own direction, but we can all meet at this ‘station,’” Amamiya said about the concept behind the title of the EP. Terminal also serves as a great metaphor to break down Hallkarimaako musically. Amamiya’s own music already represented a good halfway point between HALLCA and Kariya, though Terminal sees her as a producer more conscious of the others involved in the group. It’s more apparent when she tailors the song for its chief lyricist. The summer groove of “Nettai No Citronade” leans more retro to suit HALLCA while the heroic future-R&B of “Brand New Day” hypes up optimism in par with Kariya’s Cover Girl.
True to its intent, the titular single best showcases the trio’s ambitions together as Hallkarimaako. Amamiya blends everyone’s influences to mine a unique brand of stylish midnight R&B. And like “Glitter,” they bestow a message of strength to get through the present despite its slight brushes with the retro in the production. “Welcome to HKM,” they invite in the chorus. Through Terminal, Hallkarimaako isn’t just a meeting place for the three but also a safe space for any lost soul tuning in.
If all the lanes connect at the Terminal, so to speak, then it can also depart you to separate tracks. If the music of Hallkarimaako satisfies you, you also can’t go wrong taking a ride down each of their solo works. Here are three recent records of theirs to get you started:
Wear by Amamiya Maako [MAXPEC, 2019]
While her and Kariya point to the more extroverted HALLCA for helping them get closer as friends, Amamiya is musically the glue of the trio’s collaborative work. For one, she arranged all five tracks of Terminal with a few fine-tuned to specifically suit one of her members. And like I noted above, the pop songs collected in Wear sits at a good center between the music of her two peers. While the lyrics of “City Magic” complicate the sentimental mood established by the retro-pop palette, she shows she’s not particularly tied to a specific genre by grabbing at styles like hip hop and R&B to deepen her sound.
Villa by HALLCA [Magellan-Blue, 2019]
Her time in the idol group Especia got HALLCA first interested in both Bubble-era pop and music nostalgic for that time in culture, and it’s the type of sound she has carried over to her solo work. The glossy bliss of “Milky Way,” the glittered disco of “Wanna Dance!,” the luxurious glide of “Complex City”—her 2019 full-length Villa got it all for those in love with city-pop-adjacent works. That said, the record also hints at possibilities for the singer to branch out into more distant influences, like the Southern-bass-channeling “Utopia.” For all that it celebrates the romantic days of the past, Villa reminds the future looks bright for HALLCA.
Cover Girl EP by Seira Kariya [PUMP!, 2019]
The optimism inherent in Hallkarimaako can be largely traced in the releases by Seira Kariya. Cover Girl EP marks the singer’s second tie-up for the web show, Popteen Cover Girl Wars. (Her first, 2016’s Colorful World, is also worth checking out, BTW.) And she hands in fresh, upbeat pop anthems tapping into the theme of resilience as inspired by the competition program. A highlight is “Zawa Make It” with its bursts of future-bass beats and its fearless outlook towards the future. If her mates helps find escape from today, Kariya assures there’s nothing to worry about while riding the wave of the present.
“Create” by Gen Hoshino [Victor]
For the 35th anniversary of the Super Mario series, Nintendo called up Gen Hoshino to write an honorary tune for the legacy franchise. The singer/songwriter approaches his big task in a similar way as his other tribute to a Japanese media touchstone. “Create” recalls his 2018 single “Doraemon” in ambition, writing around the titular subject but still distilling its essence. Hoshino dedicates this new one, however, not just to Mario but video games in general. “Let’s take / something out of nothing / out of the ordinary / breaking rules to create our own way,” he opens the song, and the synth-pop track constantly changes shape while folding in many, many references to Nintendo as if to show you the creative process firsthand. “Create” at every turn lets you feel the very thrill of playing a video game—the colors, the immersion, the mental stimulation—and it makes for one of the best pop songs of the year so far.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“Transition” by I.P.U [PURRE GOOHN]
The wistful sonar pulse of I.P.U’s “Transition” sticks out from the collection of soft ambient tracks featured in PURRE GOOHN’s new album, Per Capita. The bashful synths light up like call and response amid the skittering static and a light wash of drone, flickering like lonely satellites keeping distant communication with another. There’s more of that tranquil glow present in I.P.U’s other records—one of the several pleasant works introduced by the Tokyo label’s new compilation.
Per Capita is out now. Listen to it on Bandcamp.
See also: “Covert” by Shinji Wakasa
“NOKINAMI” by Rei(c)hi [Sonic Groove]
Rei(c)hi begins “NOKINAMI” by laying down a free-associative flow in sync with a stoned-out boom-bap beat—a true-school vibe practically inverse to her pop-oriented debut album, TWEMPTY. But the mood change turns out to be fake-out as she charges through a marathon of raps once a thunderous bass-and-drum assault cracks the track open. “Like Nicki / like Missy / bad pussy power, I throw it on this verse,” she declares at one point, and she indeed channels her battle-rap past to prove her worth in the three-minute run of “NOKINAMI.”
Listen to it on Spotify.
This Week in 1995…
“Wow War Tonight ~Toki Ni Wa Okoseyo Movement” by H Jungle with T [Avex Trax, 1995]
No. 1 during the weeks of March 27 - May 8, 1995 | Listen to it on Youtube
A video clip I like to revisit is the 1995 Kouhaku Utagassen performance of “Wow War Tonight ~Toki Ni Wa Okoseyo Movement,” specifically for the segment in the song between the reggae riff and the full jungle break. A mass of people suddenly all crowd around comedian Masatoshi Hamada and supporting musician Tetsuya Komuro, rushing to the stage as if their favorite song is about to drop on the dance floor. The DJ scratches in the Amen break, the mob have their hands in the air, and they yell “booyaka! Booyaka!” in unison.
For someone like me who sees rave culture and jungle music as a piece of the ‘90s U.K. underground, watching a small caricature of it reenacted in Japan’s most viewed year-end TV special is bizarre as it comes. But the whole scene just speaks to the amount of influence Komuro had in 1995. He successfully imported a variety of Eurodance music—Eurobeat, jungle, trance, and whatever else pumped out of the famed club Julianna’s Tokyo—to the top of the charts first through his dance-pop group TRF. That unit is impressive in itself with them refitting hardcore techno into anthems so accessible to the general public, one of their early singles begat popular workout tapes.
Komuro would also help turn a number of idols into superstars throughout the ‘90s, with the collective later dubbed the Komuro Family, which included Namie Amuro and Tomomi Kahara. Based on such a rep, it wouldn’t seem to be at all difficult for the producer to get a hit out of Hamada. The comedian, too, probably could’ve got a decent Oricon smash no matter who he worked with for he was a superstar himself as one half of Downtown, one of the biggest comedian duos since the start of Heisei.
But who knows if any other pair-up would inspire such daring moves? The shout of patois, the six-minute running time, the withholding of the advertised jungle beats until half way in—“Wow War Tonight” is strange in its structure as much as its personnel. The track is self-aware of its own novelty: before he spells out Hamada’s name as the DJ lays down the scratches, his partner Hitoshi Matsumoto recites “B-U-S-A-I-K-U,” or “ugly” in Japanese. But it mostly attempts to be sincere in its ambitions with the comedian singing a bittersweet ode to life passing by.
While Hamada sounds lonely singing ruminative lyrics during its first half, “Wow War Tonight” ultimately strives to be an all-uniting anthem. The titular “whoa, whoa whoa” hook is the most obvious crowd-gathering gesture, and the comedian feeds into the spirit of camaraderie by directly commanding to huddle around like family. “And let’s be shoulder to shoulder and drink some time,” he roars in the climactic verse. You could imagine him getting on stage with liquid courage, swaying to the lilting beat while shouting earnest advice: life can seem dumb and pointless, but life is also short, so let’s just sing the night away so we can feel all better.
This is what people remember about H Jungle with T. The TK generation doesn’t think so much about jungle or reggae, where those sounds come from or how Komuro used them. They instead think fondly at Hamada trying his hand at pop music and ending up with an anthem to perhaps pull out of the bag during karaoke when the room is peaking with communal high. This experience is one of the many things that fascinate me most as the legacy of Tetsuya Komuro—how he primed and embedded outside genres like jungle to the country’s musical nostalgia as pure pop. Some group of ara-four friends are out there fumbling over an Amen break in a karaoke room for memory’s sake. How wonderful is that?
The next issue of This Side of Japan is out April 7. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.
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