music

The Shibuya-kei Year in Review, part three: Singles of the Year

As Negicco said in their “Idol Bakari Kikanaide”, “normal people don’t buy things like CDs anymore” – so, naturally, CD sales in the present era are mostly accounted for by hardcore idol wotaku, with the “normals” either buying their music off iTunes or, more likely, hopping to their favourite torrent site to fly their pirate flag. As a consequence, most Shibuya-kei artists don’t bother releasing singles on physical media anymore, preferring instead to use videos to promote an album directly. However, there are still some groups that still release singles in the conventional sense, and here are our picks for the three best of these releases (there really weren’t many Shibuya-kei songs released as single CDs in 2014).

MEMORIES OF SHIBUYA’S SINGLES OF 2014:

3. Negicco – “Triple! WONDERLAND”

“N-E-G-I-C-C-O, shake it, do it, make it negi!” the girls of Negicco shout nonsensically over Hiroyasu Yano’s ecstatic slap-bass driven treat of a pop song, and the fact that the group is literally telling you to “make it leek” can’t even begin to matter. It’s inevitable that any Shibuya-kei producer making the jump to idol pop will be compared to Yasutaka Nakata, and the vocoder and synthesizer-heavy “Triple! WONDERLAND” does absolutely nothing to avoid the comparison; however, Yano’s work on this song much more akin to the playful Nakata that made songs like “BEAUTIFUL” for MEG than the capsule producer’s more recent excursions into the angrier side of electronic dance music – or the garish horrors of his endlessly unpleasant work for internet superstar Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Negicco are an idol group from an idealized past that never actually existed, one where the girls are afforded an astonishing amount of control over their own output (unless they’re lying through their teeth in interviews, that is), where they get ahead on the strength of the neo-Shibuya-kei pop music they perform rather than how good they look as Weekly Playboy centerfolds, and where they can be a successful idol group without relying on novelty à la BABYMETAL. Last year’s “Idol Bakari Kikanaide” even found them mocking idol fans as BiS once so defiantly did – before requesting “if you like idols so much, listen to Negicco, OK?” Negicco is every bit as fun as idol music would all be in the wholly-imaginary world where the very presence of idols wasn’t symptomatic of cultural decay and really weird sexual hangups.

2. Nananon – “Nananananonnon”

However, as great as Yano was on “Triple! WONDERLAND”, he’s still the pupil – and Pizzicato Five mastermind Yasuharu Konishi is most definitely the teacher. Propelling Nananon’s debut single forward with raucous drums, a deliciously inane chorus that makes that “make it negi” nonsense sound like high art, and the kitsch synthesizers he made his name on, Konishi is in top form here for absolutely no reason. The two magazine models that make up Nananon, Nozomi Maeda and the obviously pseudonymous Naaboudoufu, are absolutely gorgeous, and doubtless enough people would have bought the single for the pretty faces alone – but he’s Yasuharu Konishi so he gave it his best anyways. Neither of the two girls can sing like Maki Nomiya used to, but Nananon is an excuse for Konishi to get in on some of that sweet, sweet, lucrative idol-group action, so they could have both had nails-on-chalkboard screeches and he’d still have managed to swing an entertaining single out of it. Even better that he made the group’s name patently impossible to forget – the chorus takes the baton from Nakata’s “PONPONPON” and proceeds to run like hell, not even pretending to bother with things like “actual words” in its pursuit of the catchiest hook possible. “Do you like Nananon?”, the video asks, and to this I reply “not particularly, but god damn is this single fun.”

1. Sakanaction – “Sayonara wa Emotion”

Sakanaction didn’t release an album in 2014, but in “Sayonara wa Emotion” and “Eureka” (technically the B-side on the “Goodbye” single, but it got a video and was much better than “Goodbye” so whatever) they had an incredibly strong pair of singles, orphaned or otherwise. With its skittering post-punk drums and stadium-friendly chorus, “Sayonara wa Emotion” finds the band relying less on Emi Okazaki’s keyboard playing than they did on most of their last album, opting for something of a more “rockish” sound, whatever in the world “rock” means in this day and age. Frontman Ichirou Yamaguchi is one of Japanese music’s most consistently gifted arena-rock songwriters, and although his wimpy vocal style hasn’t gotten any less off-putting in the band’s 7 years together, his ear for a crowd-pleaser continues to deliver great single after great single. He may have sold his soul to the devil and written a couple songs for archdaemon Johnny Kitagawa’s boy-band idol group SMAP, but it’s hard to get too bent out of shape about a guy writing songs for a shitty idol group when both of the other selections on this list are from idol groups.

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