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, Smokebees, NOAH, 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.