Welcome, one and all, to the first annual Memories of Shibuya year in review, where we take an opportunity to look back at what made the year worth celebrating (so, naturally, Shakkin Hensai Idol isn’t going to make the list). In part one we’re going to be covering the artists that got us the most excited this year, with part two focusing on albums, part three on the singles, and our four-part review will conclude with an editorial on the state of Shibuya-kei as we enter the new year. Enough preamble, though, let’s get this party started right!
MEMORIES OF SHIBUYA’S ARTISTS OF 2014:
Tower Records’ guitar-pop idol and Shibuya-kei revivalist extraordinaire, Saku’s output this year was nothing short of fantastic. From the endlessly joyful Flipper’s Guitar homage of “1st Q&A” to the bittersweet Britpop throwback of “Hashiru Shoujo”, her 2014 EP Zombie Morning provides the listener with a Shibuya-kei comfort blanket of pleasingly familiar sounds, made all the more endearing by her boundless enthusiasm. Although yet to release a full album, Saku is an artist with an incredibly bright future ahead of her, a charming personality whose natural magnetism has a way of effortlessly breaking down any attempts at cynicism aimed towards her. Yes, she made a theme song for the winter sale at the record store where she works, and no, that isn’t a strike against her credibility. In the 21st century, precious few musicians can afford not to work day jobs, and so to have an artist so openly acknowledging this fact is incredibly progressive; as the rock-star lifestyle is all but dead, people like Saku represent the fact that the unglamorous reality doesn’t have to be anything to be ashamed of.
4. Hideki Kaji
Although just shy of 50 years old, veteran Shibuya-kei performer Hideki Kaji hasn’t let age slow him down one bit. Putting out his fifteenth solo full-length, Ice Cream Man, as well as playing on Mayumi Kojima’s “On the Road” and touring as a part of Maki Nomiya’s live band (although recorded last year, you can hear him on this year’s Miss Maki Nomiya Sings Shibuya-kei Standards as well), he’s been a busy man in 2014 – and luckily, his work hasn’t suffered for it. Most of the border shirt and straw-hat wearing Occidentalists of Shibuya-kei’s heyday have long since moved on to more current styles, but Hideki’s stubborn, decades-long refusal to change or evolve musically has proven to be an unexpected strength. Yes, he’s been making songs that sound exactly like “Ice Cream Man” since the late ’80s, but even if he became the only person keeping the prehistoric neo-acoustic sound of early Shibuya-kei alive it would still be an asset to music as a whole to have him still doing his thing. Never change, Hideki Kaji.
Who knew that all it took to get people buying Shibuya-kei again was to have an idol group singing songs by members of Original Love and Cymbals? Releasing four singles this year (the Takao Tajima-penned Sunshine Nihonkai and Hikari no Spur, Triple! WONDERLAND by Hiroyasu Yano of Cymbals, and a collaborative release with idol group Especia that barely warrants mentioning), Negicco was easily the most popular Shibuya-kei act this year in terms of sales. Tower Records’ forward-thinking move of bringing idol groups into the future by resurrecting a style from Japanese pop music’s past continues to pay off both artistically and financially (when Especia isn’t involved, naturally). As idol groups are going to dominate the charts for the foreseeable future (the top 50 singles ranking for 2014 included four non-idol acts, each represented only once), Negicco represents the hope that idol groups’ music can sound good, at the very least – only time will tell if the influence of T-Palette’s Shibuya-kei revival will be felt by the mainstream groups, but even if the throwback sounds of songs like “Triple! WONDERLAND” never catch on outside of T-Palette’s roster, at least we have that one label on our side.
2. Takako Minekawa & Dustin Wong
Savage Imagination, the second full-length from multinational duo Takako Minekawa and Dustin Wong (Dustin was born in Hawaii to Chinese-American parents, but grew up in Japan), finds the Shibuya-kei veteran and her musical partner delving into psychedelic euphoria without ever losing their footing and slipping into formless noise – it’s the album that Kahimi Karie’s last four albums all wished they could be. Minekawa never lost her playful spirit, and to say Savage Imagination often feels childlike is actually a compliment; unlike her ex-husband Cornelius and his recent succession of increasingly inscrutable, alienating albums, Minekawa’s latest invites the listener to explore a world of wonder, where one can dive into alternate dimensions and hang out with “dioramasaurs.” Shibuya-kei artists spent most of the ’00s trying to find out what came after the trans-continental lounge pop of the ’90s, and although many different styles were tried with varying degrees of success (Towa Tei found his new direction through co-opting “Akiba-kei” styles, becoming one of the parallel scenes’ few legitimate crossover artists), only Minekawa seems to have found something new without losing touch of her old work’s sensibility. (Also, if your heart doesn’t melt at the photo above, congratulations on having no heart to speak of.)
1. Buffalo Daughter
Yes, this list is disproportionately heavy on the veterans, but when the veterans keep making albums like Konjac-tion it’s hard not to. Bringing their trademark style to Why Not Clammbon!? in addition to their own fantastic album this year, Buffalo Daughter’s unconventional take on a mishmash of genres hasn’t lost any of its edge in the group’s 21 years. While nowhere near as acclaimed as their peers in Cibo Matto’s Hotel Valentine, Buffalo Daughter effortlessly blew that warmed-over comeback out of the water – where Cibo Matto attempted to recapture past glory but wound up coming off like a couple of middle-aged women trying to wear their high school uniforms again, Buffalo Daughter didn’t have to make a comeback because they never left. With Konjac-tion, they made the album Hotel Valentine could have been, and didn’t take 14 years to do so. They even got Kahimi Karie to return to Shibuya-kei, albeit for a single guest spot – giving the top artist nod for 2014 to anyone else would be an insult to a band that’s stayed at the top of their game for longer than most of this list has been making music for. Buffalo Daughter was one of the most important Shibuya-kei groups even back when the genre was enjoying a golden age, and now that so many of the others have moved on, they stand head and shoulders above the rest. Derivative artists like salyu x salyu may have jacked Buffalo Daughter’s style, and sometimes they even make some pretty interesting music with it – but in this case, there’s no beating the originals.