2018 was an incredibly busy year in the Japanese shoegaze scene. There were exciting comebacks from beloved artists, brand new bands popping up all over the country, compilation albums galore, and lots of crossing over with international artists. It feels like this happens every time there’s news from MBV, but the year was incredibly active.
As a result, the “best of the year” list was an even bigger pain than it normally is. There was a good number of full length releases in 2018, and as usual the EP count was ridiculously high. There are a ton of omissions that I will certainly get panned for, but in particular the EPs from Nuit, Nurse, 17 Years Old and the Berlin Wall, tip top nap, and figure, among others were all really solid and could have easily made the list. On the album side, plant cell‘s Landscape release would have made it, but since the majority of the record is re-released material it didn’t feel right to include it. Also, the Total Feedback 2018 compilation was one of the best albums this year, but as a continent-wide shoegaze comp it didn’t qualify.
Now that that’s out of the way, here are my favorite releases of 2018:
☆ ★ BEST SINGLE ★ ☆
“Without you” by Otom
Tokyo-based ambient shoegaze producer otom has been steadily releasing singles since his last full-length release five years ago. The first of his 2018 releases, “Without You”, was also his strongest. The 6-minute track is a beautiful, blurry dreamscape of sunken vocals and layers upon layers of guitar and electronics. Otom’s catchy rhythm gets the listener’s attention before a crescendo of hissing static opens a portal to his vast world of sounds. “Without You” is gazey ethereal escapism at its finest.
Perhaps the biggest news of the year in this realm was the sudden release of new material from legendary alternative outfit Coaltar of the Deepers, whose “SUMMER GAZER ’92” single was the band’s first new music in 7 years. Though the track itself was a preview of the “Rabbit EP” that would soon follow, it was the only new track on the CD. The dreamy, jazzy number was perhaps more subdued than expected, but it was a really strong return from NARASAKI and Deepers.
Kyoto’s Browned Butter was one of the most pleasant finds of 2018. The young band announced itself with its debut single “Fall”, which was also included on Ano(t)raks’ “Die in Pop” compilation and would later appear as the title track of the band’s debut EP. “Fall” follows the very familiar Japanese shoegaze formula of a blaring guitar lead and twin vocals, but the former isn’t overly relied on and the latter is done exceptionally well. It’s a lovely song that isn’t even the best song on Browned Butter’s EP, which speaks to the quality of the band in its first year of activity.
There isn’t much else to say about otom that I didn’t already say in this post, but his winter-themed “Snowfall” single was yet another of the best singles of the year. If I stretched this list a bit more, he’d have even more music included.
When I wrote about Tokyo newcomers Kiwi recently, I made the comparison to one of the all-time Japanese shoegaze greats, Ether Feels. It’s a small sample, but their debut single “Beautiful Back” was a bit of emotional nostalgia that hit me in a way that few other tracks did this year.
★ ☆ ★ BEST EP ★ ☆ ★
“(I’m) Lost in Sadness” by Luby Sparks
Not too long after the release of their full-length debut in January, Tokyo’s Luby Sparks announced the departure of their singer Emily. Given her role in helping the band establish itself over the past couple years and how seemingly perfect a fit she was for their sound, there might have been some concern moving forward. But new frontwoman Erika absolutely kills it on the new EP, matching up perfectly with the dreamy melancholy of the new music. Luby Sparks picked right up where they left off with another moody effort that fittingly wraps up with a heart-wrenching version of Mazzy Star’s “Look on Down From the Bridge”.
As is the case every year, the EP pool was extremely deep. While there are more releases than I can reasonably fit in this list, COLLAPSE‘s “Delirium Poetry” sat alongside Luby Sparks’ EP on a tier above the rest. COLLAPSE’s noise attack is relentless on both the EP’s slower, brooding numbers and its pacier tunes. “Meadow” is perhaps the best example of what COLLAPSE do as well as anyone with a beautiful balance of heavy, layered guitars and wispy vocals.
Nagano’s AND LORELEI created a gorgeous listening experience with their “And Lorelei 0.2” EP. The songwriting throughout is really good, and the band showed the ability to create deep, breathtaking songs using a variety of methods. “Umarekawaru” and “Himitsu” are two of my standout tracks of the year.
Yuragi took a massive step forward in 2018 with the release of their “Still Dreaming, Still Deafening” EP. The young Shiga outfit has been consistently impressive over the past couple years, but the new music feels bigger and a bit darker than their previous work – you can especially hear this on the reworked version of “bedside”. I noted in my review that the flow of the EP as a whole feels a bit disjointed, but as a collection of individual tracks, “Still Dreaming, Still Deafening” is as good as any release from last year.
I wish I could make this list longer, as it doesn’t feel right to omit some really really good EPs, but that’s just how it goes every year. Taking my final spot in this post was the debut demo EP “In Demonstrationem” from Tokyo’s Yukla Down. “Torture Me (With Your Kiss)” is a delightful nod to My Bloody Valentine, while “If You Only Knew” is an absolute banger.
★ ☆ ★ BEST ALBUM ★ ☆ ★
“Luby Sparks” by Luby Sparks
So, yeah. 2018 was a pretty good year for Luby Sparks. This one was pretty much decided back in January when their self-titled album hit shelves. Luby Sparks is a warm and emotional yet dynamic collection of pop songs that range anywhere from jangly indie pop to lush dream pop to fuzzed-out gazey guitar rock that feels a lot like something off of Supercar’s iconic Three Out Change album. There’s a sort of gloomy nostalgia hanging over the whole record that is extremely satisfying. No album felt better to me in 2018.
While Coaltar of the Deepers and Sugar Plant got a lot of the comeback release attention this year, Lucy’s Drive‘s double CD release, pair of sounds, was arguably the best of the bunch. Split into a red and a blue version, pair of sounds as a whole is an effective nod to 90s UK shoegaze and britpop, with each of the discs having its own unique feel. The atmosphere ZEPPET STORE bassist Yuichi Nakamura creates in his solo project is consistently deep throughout.
Tokyo’s Once Grace Forever announced themselves in a big way, opting to forego the introductory single or short EP release and putting out a self-titled record that was shockingly good. The 8-track album is decently-produced for a self-produced debut effort and the songwriting is quite good. What really pushes this album to my best of the year list is the depth of sound from start to finish as the album drifts from post rock to more textural shoegaze. It’s not as refined as some of the other releases this year, but the quality of the content is really impressive.
Acidclank‘s Addiction album is another genre-hopping effort that once again shows the band’s affinity for 90s UK indie music. Just as on their 2015 debut, Inner, the band covers a lot of ground, but Addiction never manages to feel weird or inconsistent, thanks largely to more consistent production quality this time around. On the record, Acidclank is at their best when belting out textural psych tunes like “Overdose” and “This Time”. It’s another impressive, versatile release from the Osaka band.
Headlightswas the ultra-mellow, dreamy comeback release from Tokyo dream pop outfit Sugar Plant. The band’s first music in 18 years, Headlights throws it back to the band’s old sound, while also managing to keep things fresh on this tripped-out dream pop return.