The Best Japanese Shoegaze and Dream Pop Releases of 2019

The past few years have seen a steady flow of new and upcoming artists in the Japanese scene.  In 2019, however, the story was more about big name returns and the domestic scene really holding steady with really strong releases from some of its best-known artists.  Tokyo Shoegazer and Coaltar of the Deepers dominated the buzz, we saw a very consistent flow of releases, and the final year of the 2010s felt like a confirmation that few if any genres have been as consistently well-represented as shoegaze in Japanese indie music over the past decade.  It was a really strong year.

Before getting into the best of 2019 lists, there are a couple notes.  First off, once again, this was a really tough year to break down.  Since I crunched the format of these lists into a “best 5” style, it’s been a real challenge.  Sometimes that only applies to the EP portion, but this year all of them gave me trouble.  Also, Tokyo Shoegazer had a massive year, and while their Crystallize reissue deserves all the love it got all over the world, it doesn’t qualify for the list.  Nor does their stealthily released Moondiver album, which was sold on their China tour, but which will likely receive a proper release in 2020.

That about does it.  Here are my best releases of 2019.

 ☆ ★ BEST SINGLE ★ ☆

“Revive” by Tokyo Shoegazer

As I mentioned in the intro, the sudden and surprising return of Tokyo Shoegazer was pretty much the biggest story in Japanese shoegaze in 2019.  Though the Crystallize reissue and Moondiver releases generated more buzz, their “Revive” single featured the band’s first new music in years.  It was an emphatic announcement of their return to activity, highlighted by the epic seven-and-a-half-minute lead track, “Light”.

Indie legends Coaltar of the Deepers had a similar comeback in 2019, which marked the 25th anniversary of the band’s debut The Visitors from Deepspace album.  Having released two new singles in 2018, Deepers’ return wasn’t as big a surprise, but the band teased a new single over the course of their anniversary tour.  The track, titled “HALFLIFE” dropped on digital platforms in early December, and is very much a throwback to the band’s genre-bending shoegaze prime.

From two long-standing veterans of Japanese shoegaze to one of the finest of the latest crop of indie bands to pop up this decade, Luby Sparks followed up a fantastic 2018 with a brand new single in 2019.  “Somewhere” is a gorgeous 4AD-style dream pop tune that jangles along into a super catchy, emotional chorus.  It’s romantic, teenage nostalgia and it’s beautiful.  The single’s B-side is a remix by Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie that really piles on the feels.

Lost in all the big comeback announcements was maybe my personal highlight of 2019, which was Osaka’s Ether Feels getting back together two years after splitting.  With a mostly fresh lineup around band leader Tomo Iwashita, Ether Feels put out its latest single titled “Kowloon Sunset” and got back to gigging.  The band picked up right where it left off with its heart-wrenching brand of melancholic shoegaze pop.

The Earth Earth has been pretty quiet since releasing a single in 2016, gigging sporadically around their home base in Aomori, so their latest single was another pleasant surprise this past year.  While nods to early My Bloody Valentine aren’t exactly rare among shoegaze bands around the world, The Earth Earth is one of the few Japanese bands to have consistently gone that route over the years and the results have been excellent.  “Story is Wrong” is nothing new, but it hits the spot.

I’m taking liberties here by adding one more entry to my singles list.  COLLAPSE‘s latest three-track release, “ENDOGENIC REBIRTHDAY”, was actually at the top of my EP list before I realized the band had labeled it a single.  Their sound continues to sit at the heavier end of the Japanese shoegaze spectrum, and on “RITUAL”, they show off a nice blend of contrasting styles in hardcore and shoegaze that isn’t all that common in Japan.


★ ☆ ★ BEST EP ★ ☆ ★

“EASTOKLAB” by EASTOKLAB

As usual there were a number of EPs vying for the top spot on my year end list, but the one that I listened to and enjoyed the most was the self-titled debut EP from Nagoya’s EASTOKLAB.  Their brand of dream pop is some of the most unique in a scene that has a lot of creative takes on the genre.  From dreamy atmospheres, tight grooves, and the ability to seamlessly transition to big blurry guitar walls, EASTOKLAB possesses a diverse sonic arsenal, and frontman Hayato Hioki’s vocal style is uniquely his.

The Waterfalls’ 2016 self-titled release garnered a lot of attention in the Japanese indie scene, and this past year they put out a double EP release consisting of “In the Blue Lagoon” and “Youthlight”.  There are some subtle differences in style between the two EPs, but overall over the eight tracks that they released they showed more of the outstanding songwriting that we saw on the debut.

My troubled relationship with idol music has been well-documented to this point, but I really enjoyed “Blue”, the debut EP from RAY.  Shortly after ・・・・・・・・・ disbanded, RAY emerged as the new face of shoegaze idol music (under the same management as their predecessors) and promised a highly-anticipated collaboration with Ringo Deathstarr.  They delivered just that on the new EP, the lead single of which, titled “Meteor”, was composed by the Austin shoegaze trio’s Elliot Frazier.  With two more tracks composed by Azusa Suga of For Tracy Hyde and Yusuke Hata of cruyff in the bedroom, RAY’s focus on quality songwriting over gimmicks is a positive sign.

Formerly known simply as kano, Tokyo-based bedroom producer azsakano put out another EP full of whimsical dreamy pop tunes in 2019.  Just like her previous works, “Romantics” features some really nice layering of textures and sweet vocal melodies soaked in reverb and sunken deep within the mix.  Azsakano is an expert at crafting lo-fi dream pop that is simple on the surface but gives the listener a lot to dive into.

On their latest EP, “square”, Nagoya’s mishca do a lot more texturally than they have in the past, while staying true to their very mellow, straightforward approach to songwriting.  If there was one knock on the band in the past it’s that they didn’t develop songs enough to really carry the slow, methodical backbone of their music.  Musically, “square” offers considerably more dynamic range, and the male-female vocals complement each other really well.

 


★ ☆ ★ BEST ALBUM ★ ☆ ★

“New Young City” by For Tracy Hyde

This can’t be much of a shock.  For Tracy Hyde had a lot of competition this year, but their third full length album, New Young City, sits atop this list.  Once again, For Tracy Hyde drew on western shoegaze and dream pop and Japanese pop influences and pieced together an album that is loaded with energy and emotion.  As a body of work, its structure is similar to that of their successful sophomore effort, but New Young City shows the band going even bigger with its sound.  It’s loaded with song of the year contenders.

SPOOL‘s self-titled full length debut seemed like a lock for the album of the year throughout most of 2019, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say it actually was.  It’s a powerful, well-produced album that demonstrates some really versatile songwriting.  SPOOL goes from deep and dreamy to dark and edge, infusing their shoegaze sound with elements of 90s US alternative rock and playful dream pop.  This was the breakout we were waiting for from the four-piece.

Monocism‘s Fukou album was the band’s first proper release since the end of the previous decade, and one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.  Over the past few years, frontman Tomoya Shiono has been working on some wonderful solo material under the moniker 宗凛 (Sourin), and monocism’s new album plays like an extension of that with its stuttering, mathy beats blanketed in thick, dreamy layers of noise and fluttering guitar leads.

Taffy once again had a quietly solid year, highlighted by their fifth studio album, Deep Dark Creep Love.  As is often the case with a Taffy release, there’s nothing groundbreaking about the album, but producing good shoegaze in 2019 is largely based on taking elements of the genre that have been done in the past and working them into something interesting.  That is what Taffy do so well and it’s why their new record is an excellent listen.  Their rendition of Bowie’s “Never Let Me Down” is gorgeous, too.

The final spot on this list was the hardest to decide on.  Cattle, SmokebeesNOAH, and a lot of other bands put out really good albums, and Kiiro Records’ FOREVER SHOEGAZE double release was probably the label’s best compilation to date.  But I’m going with Polly‘s latest release, Flowers.  Produced by The Novembers’ Yusuke Kobayashi, Polly’s third album is gorgeously dark and dreamy with tremendous depth thanks to a combination of airy guitars and synths.

A Farewell to Kinoko Teikoku

One of the most beloved Japanese alternative bands over the better part of the past decade has called it quits.  Kinoko Teikoku announced today that bassist Shigeaki Taniguchi decided to leave the band and focus on taking over his family’s temple.  Feeling that it wasn’t right to move on with a new bassist, the remaining three members went their own separate ways bringing an end to a twelve year run that saw the band go from indie darlings to major label signees, while also becoming one of the most identifiable Japanese shoegaze acts overseas.

Despite their status abroad as one of the most popular Japanese shoegaze acts – thanks in large part to their spot on Steven Tanaka’s Next Music from Tokyo tour in Canada in 2013 – Kinoko Teikoku was never truly a part of a Japanese shoegaze scene that was taking off on its third and most successful wave, despite a period of activity that aligned perfectly with the domestic shoegaze boom.  Within a year of releasing demo EP, “Yoru ga Aketara”, they signed with Daizawa Records, a subsidiary of launchpad indie label UK Project, and released the best material they would ever put out in “Uzu ni Naru”.  In 2013, the band released its defining debut album, “Eureka”, and fans of Japanese shoegaze had a new favorite artist.  With regard to shoegaze, Kinoko Teikoku’s legacy is centered more around popularizing the domestic scene overseas than any impact they had domestically.  They are often cited in shoegaze communities as the band that introduced people to the Japanese scene, but rarely mentioned within the country when talking about influential artists.

Following the release of the “Long Goodbye” EP in 2013, Kinoko Teikoku’s sound shifted from the harsh, 90s US alternative-infused shoegaze that fans had fallen in love with to a more major label friendly pop rock sound.  It was shortly thereafter that Kinoko Teikoku was signed to EMI, after which they would release an EP and a handful of albums.  The Kinoko Teikoku listening experience shifted from one of anticipation to the hope that the band might roll things back to their past sound. It was never fair, but it was always going to happen.  The band’s popularity was finally soaring domestically, and, save for a few creative nods to earlier material, the major label transition was in full force.  With each new release came more whiny nostalgia – I accept blame for being part of all of that – and that escalated further when frontwoman Chiaki Sato launched her solo project, which just felt like an extension of the whole change.

In a way, the news that Kinoko Teikoku is over provides a section of a fanbase that was never going to be happy with them again with a sense of relief.  The longing for something that was never going to come back is gone. Now we can listen to those first few releases without obnoxiously using them as the standard for future material. And the good news for those devotees who stuck with the band until the very end is that things didn’t end on a sour note.  Comments from the members on the band’s site were all very positive, though of course not without the sadness that is expected from a group of people who had been playing together for 12 years. A reunion may not be likely in the near future, but it’s not out of the question.

Kinoko Teikoku has also meant a lot to this site.  The band was a big focus of Muso Japan when I started it up in late 2011, and has always been a source of fun and thoughtful discussions.  I had the pleasure of seeing them for the first and only time in early 2012 at a small, empty venue in Nagoya, and it will always be one of the most satisfying live experiences in my time in Japan.  At their peak, Kinoko Teikoku’s combination of a furious but gorgeous guitar assault and absolutely heavenly vocals resulted in some of the best shoegaze to ever come out of Japan.  The band will be terribly missed, but their contribution to the Japanese music scene and the connection they were able to make with fans overseas will not be forgotten.

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This is the video that made me fall in love with Kinoko Teikoku for the first time:

Otom – “You Lost Me”

Tokyo-based shoegaze producer Otom is back with his first track of 2019, titled “You Lost Me”.  The new song is a bit more upbeat than the billowy electronic shoegaze he wowed us with last year, though if it’s too poppy for your taste Otom included an edited version that’s more or less a glitchy remix showcasing the track’s textural backdrop.  Otom sits atop a fairly long list of recording-only Japanese music projects that I wish would get a band together and take it to the stage.  His style of music seems like it would translate better than a lot of the lo-fi bedroom pop that also populates my list, but for whatever reason it doesn’t seem like that will be happening.  In the meantime, we’re likely to get quite a few more singles this year, so at least we have that to look forward to.

You can pick up all of Otom’s work via Bandcamp.

The Rainy – “Film”

While it’s true that the Nagoya scene has been a bit lacking over the years with regard to shoegaze bands with a reputation outside the city, there’s been a steady flow of alternative bands largely based around Tsurumai live house Daytrip and its sister venue Daytrive.  That section of the Nagoya indie scene is extremely underrated, but it boasts real quality and considerable diversity.  Gloomy post rock outfit, The Rainy, has been one of the bands at the center of the current wave of Nagoya shoegaze-adjacent artists, and they followed up an impressive 2018 with the release of their debut EP, “Film”, at the start of this year.

The Rainy is one of a number of Nagoya bands that identify to some degree as shoegaze, but the way in which they draw on the genre is extremely subtle.  The band’s approach to songwriting is based largely on gradual crescendos from light, often acoustic, intros to deeper emotional finishes.  “Film” is basically a showcase of that style of song development, highlighted by the heart-wrenching fan-favorite that is the EP’s title track.  Though a lot of what The Rainy does is repetitive as a general process, they change it up by feinting and teasing the flows of songs, picking their shots and setting them up effectively.  The placement of “Yulunohi” smack in the middle of the EP creates a nice change of pace with its the piqnic-esque moody intensity.  It might be somewhat difficult to truly appreciate The Rainy without seeing their spectacular live performances, but “Film” is a nice introduction to what the band does.

You can listen to The Rainy’s “Film” EP on most streaming services and purchase it via iTunes.  Physical copies are also available for purchase via File-Under Records.

You can hear the title track below:

Noah – “1st Demo”

The pool of new Japanese shoegaze talent was apparently so deep in 2018 that some managed to slip through the cracks.  That’s the case with Kanazawa’s Noah, who released a 3-track demo, titled “1st demo”, on Bandcamp in October.  As it’s extremely obviously a demo, it’s not the most polished release, but it’s still clean enough to get a good scouting report on Noah.  “Hakuchuumu” is a big slow billowy shoegaze track that reminds me a lot of softsurf.  “Kaitei Kara” has a similar vibe to it with a kicked up tempo, and the balance of the male-female twin vocals is perfect.  “Twilight” feels a bit more like a Japanese shoegaze song with the very up-front lead fluttering over a poppier, more subdued backdrop, but Noah nails the vocal harmonies again here.  For a demo, this is really impressive stuff, and this band should be on any Japanese shoegaze fan’s radar.

You can grab Noah’s demo for whatever you’d like to pay over at Bandcamp.

 

Spool – “Spool”

For years now, Tokyo’s Spool has been readying itself for a breakout.  The all-female four-piece, which has become affectionately referred to as “Japan’s Warpaint”, has been a massive draw in its local scene, garnered attention from music fans overseas, and put out a handful of quality releases both in Japan and internationally.  The announcement late last year of its self-titled debut full-length felt like a statement that Spool was ready to establish itself among the elite of the Japanese indie scene.

The Warpaint comparison almost feels lazy, but it makes sense.  The shoegaze tag fits as well as the various comps to bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, and My Bloody Valentine, but each only to a certain extent.  On the album Spool pulls a bit from the edgier side of 90s US alternative music as well as the dreamy UK melancholy and fuzzy guitar walls that have the band seated comfortably in the Japanese shoegaze scene.  It’s a total throwback to everything that rules about 90s music.  Spool has really keyed in on that general concept and written exceptional songs around it.

There are some familiar songs on the record, with “Springpool” and fan favorite “Sway, fadeaway” joining the stunningly shoegazey lead single “Be My Valentine” in getting beefed up new versions courtesy of producer and magic love drummer Kazuaki Kondo.  Lead track “nightescape” is a dark, dreamy number turned absolute belter that, along with my personal favorite song on the album, “Let Me Down” really showcases frontwoman Ayumi Kobayashi’s range.  The deep, breathy vocals in the verses on the latter, in particular, are teeming with attitude and there’s something quietly powerful about them as they trade off with the sad, raw chorus line.

Overall, the shoegaze influence on the album is perhaps stronger than expected, highlighted by gloomy, thickly textured tracks like “Winter” and “Morphine”.  “Blooming in the Morning” adds a little dream pop into the mix as well, softening a bit of the album’s edge with some bouncy sweetness.  The closer, “No, thank you”, which is a more cleanly mixed version than the one that appeared on last year’s Total Feedback 2018, wraps up the album with a blistering guitar attack and distorted vocals.

Expectations were high coming into the full length debut, and the band delivered.  Though Spool’s influences are by no means unique in the current Japanese scene, the way in which they are able to put them together and really balance their sound over the course of the record is.  The ability for a band to wear its influences on its sleeve without bottle-necking itself and at the same time maintaining some cohesiveness over the course of an album is something to appreciate.  Spool has done it here.

You can pick up Spool’s self-titled album via Testcard Records’ Bandcamp page (overseas) or domestically from the label’s online store.  It’s also available for streaming on Apple Music, though there are some issues due to another band called Spool having released an album called Spool in 1998.

Below you can find the videos for “Be My Valentine” and “Blooming in the Morning”.

Acidclank – “Apache Sound”

Less than six months after releasing its debut full length, “Addiction”, Osaka’s Acidclank is back with a suddenly released follow up titled Apache Sound.  The album, which was released via indie label Ano(t)raks, is the first recorded material since frontman Yota Mori announced that Acidclank will return to being a solo project after a couple years of operating as a full band.

While the majority of Acidclank’s catalog has been a nod to 90s UK indie music, the new record takes a pretty sudden turn into chilled-out electro pop.  True to Mori’s M.O. as a songwriter, Apache Sound is not a straightforward dive into a specific sound, but an exploration of it providing a lot of different looks.  The title track has a mellow city pop vibe to it, with auto-tuned vocals that make the occasional appearance throughout the album.  There’s some hip-hop and R&B infused pop on “Ghost Record” and “Shy”, respectively, while “Funeral” and “Downtime Acid Jam” are more textural electronic pop instrumentals.  “Dubs” is a warm synth track with a super catchy chorus that feels like it could fit comfortably anywhere in Acidclank’s catalog.

From the blippy, ambient lead track “Riot”, though, Apache Sound is an obvious departure from Acidclank’s previous releases.  That is until you get to the album’s closer, “Addict of Daydreaming”.  Perhaps the track’s title is telling of some personal need to go back to hazy, dreamy shoegaze, but when I got to the song I thought I had accidentally queued up an entirely different album.  To be honest, this song’s inclusion is pretty disrupting to the flow of the overall album.  That being said, though, it also might be the best shoegaze song that Mori has written yet.

You can pick up the new album for free via the link to Ano(t)raks’ Bandcamp page below.

土曜日と人鳥とコーヒー – “Parameer 02”

Kobe’s Doyoubi to Jinchou to Kohi (which very awkwardly roughly translates to “Saturday and Penguin and Coffee”) has been a low key fixture of the Kansai shoegaze scene for the past decade.  The three-piece, which has seen a few different member changes around frontman and founding member Yuki Yoshimura, has released a bunch of material and appeared at some of the Kansai area’s largest shoegaze events.  Their latest, a single titled “Parameer 02” – the follow-up to last year’s “Parameer 01” – features more of the dark post rock sound that the band has stuck to over the years.  The lead track, “Meltdown”, slowly evolves from cleanly picked guitars to an explosion of guitar noise, while Yoshimura’s falsettos eventually escalated to emotional moans.  The recording doesn’t quite belt at the level of the band’s live performances, but this is a signature song from the band.  “Ymir” on the other hand doesn’t waste any time building up, kicking off with a blgtz-esque uptempo hook and some very Shota Tamura-esque screams in the chorus.  It feels quite clear where the inspiration for this track came from.  I like the change of pace here.

You can pick up “Parameer 02” on Bandcamp.

A Eulogy to Dots

Sudden announcements have apparently become a thing in the Japanese shoegaze scene.  Late last night, polarizing Japanese shoegaze idol group Dots (・・・・・・・・・) announced via Twitter that its final one-man live will be held in March, eliciting a wide range of responses from its substantial fan base.  The reasons for the breakup – or perhaps more appropriately, indefinite hiatus – aren’t totally clear at this point.  Since forming a little less than three years ago, Dots has emerged as one of the most popular bands in Japanese shoegaze, thanks in large part to its over-the-top live performances.


I first heard of Dots around the fall of 2016 when kiiro records boss Tsuji was getting ready for his first Chiba Shoegazer event.  None of our group of event organizers had ever heard of them, and the mini festival would be their official launching point.  The idea of a 9-person shoegaze idol group was a complicated one.  One one hand idol music has a very deserving reputation as exploitative and creepy – the Maho Yamaguchi story is just the most recent reminder of the dark side of the industry.  The idea of it infiltrating a scene that I had grown so close to was honestly a little troubling.  Dots wasn’t the first idol group to cross over into the genre, but it was the first to make that crossover its central theme.

On the other hand, there was some intrigue as the group was getting ready to get rolling.  The group was mysterious.  Each member took the stage wearing a visor, dressed in white dresses, and dancing almost intentionally awkwardly over blaring gazey pop tunes.  Again, the whole “alt idol” (eh…) thing was well-established by this point, but there was at least something consistent about what Dots was doing.  And as if the whole concept of a shoegaze idol group wasn’t weird enough on its own, the stretches of harsh noise and random cutting and eating of cabbage mid-set gave Dots the “weird Japan” push that would attract a sizable crowd of Japanophiles overseas, making Dots possibly the most popular Japanese shoegaze act on the planet.

I’ve been able to see Dots live a few times, and there’s always been this sense of conflict.  The music is actually pretty good, all things considered.  For Tracy Hyde’s Azusa Suga, who for my money is one of the best songwriters in the Japanese indie music scene right now, has contributed a number of songs – not surprisingly, Dots’ best material.  While there music is at times the sort of paper thin, overly cute stuff you might expect from an idol group, enough of their catalog is well-written and fun.  The group’s live performances are outrageous and the energy is always high, credit for which is due to Dots’ loyal, seemingly entirely male fanbase that travels well and has each song’s choreography and call and response interjection’s down to a T.  The performances are incredibly entertaining spectacles that make you forget momentarily that idol groups are essentially collections of cute, young girls controlled by men for the sake of men.

Despite my apprehension about idol culture, the industry is an important, albeit tragic, part of Japanese music culture.  This has been the strongest half-decade in the history of Japanese shoegaze and Dots has been a significant part of the scene’s canon.  The girls themselves have simply been doing what they want to do, and while we can look to deeper statements that may make about Japanese society, if we come at this from a purely musical or entertainment standpoint, the group has been a success and has gotten shoegaze gig-goers in the country to stop just standing there.

Whether this breakup is a long-term thing remains to be seen.  The announcement was followed up by a super vague blog post that didn’t do much to shed any light on the situation.  Dots has a Total Feedback appearance at the end of this month that will almost certainly be packed – Spool and Dots have been two of the event’s largest draws in recent years – and then the aforementioned final one-man in March.  If I was interested in betting, I’d wager that we’ll see more from Dots in the future.  The whole thing has gone way too well to this point, and even if Dots doesn’t eventually come back, they’ve shown that the idea of a shoegaze idol group can be successful.

 

Tokyo Shoegazer is Back

After being inactive for the past 5 years, Tokyo Shoegazer came out of nowhere today with the announcement that the band is getting back together.  The new lineup consists of three original members – guitarists Kiyomi Watanabe and Yoshitaka Sugahara, and drummer Hiroshi Sasabuchi – and vocalist Kiyomi Watanabe of pop unit Cuon.  It’s not sure to what extent the band will be active, but news of the Tokyo Shoegazer revival was accompanied by an announcement of a one-man show in April, where downy’s Kazuhiro Nakamata will join them on bass.

It’s a lot to process and we’ll see how it plays out (and what it means for CQ).  You can follow the band via the Twitter account linked below.