music

The Shibuya-kei Year in Review 2014, part two: Albums of the Year

This was originally supposed to go up tomorrow, but as a Twitter-sharing faux pas led to a false promise of “the albums of the year” being made on the Memories of Shibuya account, we’re jumping the gun and bringing the album post to you ahead of schedule. Enjoy!

MEMORIES OF SHIBUYA’S ALBUMS OF 2014:

5. Various Artists – Why not Clammbon!? ~ Clammbon Tribute

Tribute albums have a reputation for mediocrity that’s been very well-earned, with ephemera like A Bluegrass Tribute to Radiohead devaluing not only the tribute album, but the album as a musical format in general. Synonymous with lazy cash-ins and novelty genre experiments, tribute albums aren’t generally the kind of thing that make it anywhere near a year-end list; but here we are, at the end of 2014, with a tribute album on our “best of” list. The placement might seem like a stunt, but rest assured, it’s actually very well-earned. Featuring contributions from a veritable “who’s-who” of the Japanese alternative scene (including our own artist of the year, Buffalo Daughter), Why Not Clammbon!? finds some of Japan’s most interesting musicians taking songs from the venerable band’s back catalogue and running with them every which way. Every bit as diverse and exciting as the stereotypical tribute album is hacky and uninteresting, genres range from the driving electronic beats of legendary J-pop producer Tetsuya Komuro’s remix of “Vital Sign” to the butter-smooth soul of TOKYO No.1 SOUL SET’s bass-heavy take on “Hanare Banare”, no two songs sounding the same. Why Not Clammbon!? had no real reason to be good, but it wound up great.

4. Hideki KajiICE CREAM MAN

As ludicrous as the idea of being a “Shibuya-kei purist” may be (the genre is built entirely on stylistic thievery, after all), Hideki Kaji most definitely makes albums for Shibuya-kei purists. On this release, as well as on Maki Nomiya Sings Shibuya-kei Standards and Mayumi Kojima’s “On the Road”, Kaji establishes himself as the foremost keeper of the old guard – while his contemporaries such as Takao Tajima and Yasuharu Konishi have gone over to the other side and started to make sparkling pop songs for pre-fabricated idol groups, Kaji is still defiantly making albums that wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming out alongside Three Cheers for Our Side back in ’89. We can all mourn Kenji Ozawa’s absence from the scene and Cornelius’s descent into whatever it is that one could call his recent sound, but as long as Hideki is around to cushion the blow, things really aren’t so bad. ICE CREAM MAN is an album-length tribute to life, love, joy, and unironically wearing straw hats and border shirts in the year 2014, and it’s even more fun than the frozen treat it takes its name from. While T-Palette’s idol groups may be the new face of Shibuya-kei, Hideki Kaji proves that the old hasn’t gone away.

3. Saku – Zombie Morning E.P.

At only 4 songs long, Saku’s sophomore release leaves the listener wanting so much more – but, at the same time, its quartet of perfect Shibuya-kei revival songs make repeated listenings compulsory. Her influences are never any secret – the title track’s synth bass and treble-heavy guitars are taken straight from the Yasutaka Nakata playbook (think “Electro World”), “1st Q&A” lifts its musical approach from early Flipper’s Guitar and its video remakes the “Goodbye, Our Pastels Badges” video shot for shot, “Hashiru Shoujo” is a loving tribute/shameless rip-off of sad-sack ’90s Britpop… you get the picture. She carries on a proud tradition by stealing from the Shibuya-kei musicians of old, who were in turn stealing from everybody they wanted to, even if it meant doing something as heretical as opening an album with a sample from “God Only Knows”. Her squeaky voice, giant smile and guitar make her one of contemporary Shibuya-kei’s most endearing personalities, and even if Shibuya-kei really was dead it seems like she would have made it her mission to bring it back to life all by herself. Granted, her album cover shows her zapping zombies with “GOOD MUSIC!” rather than bringing them to life, but you gotta use a little artistic license with these things.

2. Maki NomiyaMiss Maki Nomiya Sings Shibuya-kei Standards

Want to know what this whole “Shibuya-kei” thing is all about? Miss Maki Nomiya has you covered, if you’ll pardon the pun. Singing a selection of songs from the Shibuya-kei scene (such as Original Love, Cornelius, her own former band Pizzicato Five) as well as songs that inspired the movement (like Burt Bacharach and Yumi Matsutouya) to a light jazz backing, Nomiya finds common musical threads throughout the diversity of sources that inform the Shibuya-kei aesthetic; the genre may be diverse, but not too diverse that you can’t pin down what Shibuya-kei “sounds like.” Indeed, Shibuya-kei sounds like what would happen if you stuck Japanese hipsters from the ’90s, ’80s “city pop”, Burt Bacharach, ’60s film soundtracks and smooth jazz in a blender. Nomiya was 53 years old when this album was recorded and age has taken some of the sparkle out of her beautiful voice, but it’s never enough to truly damage an essential document of a genre from one of its most prominent figures. As an aside: as much as owning physical media is often preferable to digital facsimiles, I highly recommend going digital for this one – packaged in a cardboard sleeve with the disc held in the flimsiest of paper-thin plastic sheathes, I constantly worry my CD copy is going to soon become scratched and unplayable.

1. Buffalo Daughter – Konjac-tion

And the big one. Buffalo Daughter’s first proper full-length since 2010’s Weapons of Math Destruction (they released an odds-and-sods compilation last year, but that doesn’t really count), Konjac-tion found the veteran Shibuya-kei group’s warped dance music sounding every bit as lean and vicious as it always has – “don’t call it a comeback”, as the man says. The band’s trademark assortment of vintage synthesizers, pounding basslines and effects-laden vocals are out in top form with this release, and the guest list of old and new luminaries alike is sure to impress any listener – Kahimi Karie lends her vocals to “Le Cheval Blanc”, Yura Yura Teikoku’s Shintaro Sakamoto lends his assistance on “Love & Food”, and the remix disc features Sean Lennon, Cibo Matto, Denki Groove’s Yoshinori Sunahara and a slew of other names both familiar and unfamiliar. The album concept was said by the band to be that of a Buffalo Daughter block party, and the sound fits like a glove. The presence of Cibo Matto on the remix disc only further highlights the disparity between the two groups; while Hotel Valentine was a concept album about a haunted hotel that barely even seemed to attempt to stick to the concept, Konjac-tion is about a party and sounds like one from beginning to end. Shibuya-kei isn’t dead, and Buffalo Daughter is here to make sure it doesn’t get a chance to die.

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