2015 saw a ridiculous number of releases, making these lists more difficult than in years past. As is often the case, there were a lot more EPs put out in 2015 so narrowing them all down to the ten best was tough and meant omitting some worthy bands - in particular Wintermute, Group2, haguki, and Thru The Flowers artists Boyfriend's Dead and Honey Mustard Sauce.
The best albums list was also a bit difficult, and while Xinlisupreme and Looprider put out a couple of my favorite albums of the year, in keeping with the "shoegaze albums" theme I decided to leave them off (though I'd argue that "Satellite" from Looprider's My Electric Fantasy was among the best shoegaze tracks in 2015).
I did a lot of swapping of the orders of these lists, and this is where I finally settled, though I could easily change things around and still be happy. All of the links below will lead you to digital and/or physical purchase options (where applicable), and all of the shops that sell physical versions do ship internationally so if you dig what you hear I encourage you to grab a copy for yourself.
Anyway, without further ado, here are my favorite Japanese shoegaze releases of 2015:
10. The Skateboard Kids - Spiritus (Ollie)
These guys burst onto the Nagoya scene this year with the release of their first EP, Spiritus, and have continued to blow away audiences with a live show so tight and dynamic it's hard to believe that they're so young. Spiritus is four tracks of well-written, well-executed, melodic pop music wrapped in atmospheric guitars, and topped with breathy vocals. "Somewhere" is my favorite track on the EP, but the CD's closer "Saihate" is massive when performed live. Skateboard Kids is one to keep an eye on in the future. (buy it here)
9. Whisper Voice Riot - Before The Morning Cleaves Our Night
From one impressive young band to another, Osaka teenage four-piece Whisper Voice Riot was one of the bands on my watch list going into this year. They put out a couple nice tracks toward the end of last year that got them noticed and subsequently booked outside their hometown, and ended up having a very eventful 2015. Another young band whose songwriting ability is beyond their years, Whisper Voice Riot joined forces with fellow Osaka musician, Post Modern Team's Kishida-san, who produced their debut EP Before The Morning Cleaves Our Night. The EP is a really nice blend of shoegaze and indie pop, ranging from the danceable, foot-tapping "LET'S DANCE AND SINK DOWN" to the slower, hazier guitar-deluge that is "Stand on the Moon". (buy it here)
8. Tenkiame - So Sad About Us
One of the most fun bands around right now, Tenkiame just play music that they like. You'll hear a huge Art-School influence in their sound, and that's simply because they want to sound like Art-School. The band, which is something of a Tokyo indie-rock supergroup, formed up earlier this year and hit the ground running, putting out demos seemingly within days and then the debut EP, So Sad About Us. There's not a whole lot to break down musically on the album other than the fact that it's straightforward, fun, noisy, and vocal lines like the one in the chorus of "Candy" will stick to your brain like a parasitic Riki Kinoshita (in a good way). (buy it here)
7. me in grasshopper - New Saturday e.p.
As one of the longstanding representatives of the Nagoya shoegaze scene, it's on me in grasshopper's shoulders to represent the city's local scene well, and they did just that with their most recent EP New Saturday. While "Himawari" is their signature track, their sweet, warm brand of shoegaze is really well represented in my favorite song on the EP, "Extra". There's a sadness to the track that reminds me a bit of Ether Feels, and the male-female vocal harmonies are perfect. On the other side of their sound spectrum are some cute pop tracks. All-in-all it's a lighter-hearted, but nevertheless unique and addictive style of shoegaze. (buy here)
6. Ether Feels - Veils of Brightness
I've always been pretty outspoken about my love of Osaka's Ether Feels. I was a bit curious about the new EP, wondering how the addition of female vocals might effect their sound as I really thought previously full-time frontman Tomo's voice worked perfectly with their nostalgic, melancholy brand of shoegaze. Newcomer to the band, Yoshino, adds a really cool new element to Ether Feels' already deep sound, particularly on the EP's opener "Lightwave". They don't employ the "twin vocals" that are so common in Japanese shoegaze, but use the male and female vocals to compliment each other trading back and forth and harmonizing really well without disturbing the distinctly 'Ether Feels' vibe to their sound. (buy it here)
5. cruyff in the bedroom - Laurelei (Only Feedback)
The proclaimed "Japanese King of Shoegazer" put out two four-track EPs this year, the first of which earned a spot on this list. The title track is an absolutely immense shoegaze track, with a thick, dreamy build up to a huge, swirling finale. The next song is a hook-y change of pace titled "She is a Low", and the second half of the EP features a remix of each - one by fellow Tokyo shoegazers broken little sister and the other by Clubbers. It is classic cruyff in the bedroom, who demonstrated why they are arguably the most noticeable and highly-regarded Japanese shoegaze band around.
4. Whhhy!!!!! - 1st EP
I didn't see this release coming this past spring, but I was really impressed with Whhhy!!!!!'s 1st EP (appropriately titled 1st EP) when I finally got around to hearing it. The 5-piece Tokyo-based band draw on genre icons My Bloody Valentine and Pale Saints while channeling a bit of Supercar, particularly on the opening track. There's some very clear Koji-Miki vocal influence in there as well. While there are no real weak points on the whole EP, the first 3 tracks are the strongest, with "Mouichido" and "Meteor" being personal highlights. (buy it here)
3. Yukino Chaos - Everything Means Nothing To Me
Another band that was on my watch list at the start of 2015, Yukino Chaos came on strong this year with an impressive showing at the January Total Feedback event and released their demo EP Everything Means Nothing To Me in March. My only knock on this EP is that it's only three songs, but as far as demo EPs go this is as good as it gets - the songwriting is fantastic and the sound quality is without any major flaws. The fact that these guys are just getting started is really exciting. Good news: they've got some more new music coming out in early 2016.
2. 17 Years Old and the Berlin Wall - Aspect
I was really surprised by how good this mini-album from 17 Berlin was, thanks in large part to a pretty noticeable step up in production. The result was a much cleaner and more powerful version of their "sparkly shoegaze pop" sound. Just when you think that 17 Berlin is holding it all back in favor of a lighter, poppier sound they let loose on the CD's middle portion - a welcome change from their previously released material. The transition from mediocre demos to high level releases is a theme at the top of this EP list, and a trend that I hope to see continue across the board in the Japanese shoegaze scene. (buy it here)
1. Cattle - Somehow Hear Songs (ZERO COOL/Jigsaw)
As difficult as this list was to put together, figuring out the best EP of 2015 was probably the easiest decision to make. I had it penciled in as such since its release in early July, and it staved off a flurry of stiff competition to stay at the top. Cattle sort of came out of nowhere with this release. It wasn't that their sound wasn't already familiar, as they'd been hanging around in the Japanese shoegaze scene for a while, but with the help of producer Makoto Gomi they quickly went from releasing catchy, if unspectacular, demos to putting out a seriously impressive, brutally loud but melodically sweet EP. It was enough to propel Cattle from a middle-of-the-lineup Total Feedback slot in January to a supporting slot on the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's Japan tour in November, and right to the forefront of the new wave of impressive shoegaze bands in Japan. (buy it here)
10. Gunkei Nakashima - Jyuu-gatsu
Gunkei Nakashima is a bit of a mystery, but this year they've put out a ton of music including an EP, a bunch of individually released songs, and this hard-hitting shoegaze-infused record 13-track album. The guitars on Jyuu-gatsu are brutal and unrelenting right off the bat. Surprisingly the album is better with the use of vocaloid than without, thanks to the blanket of guitar noise that keeps the synthesized vocals at a perfect level in the mix. The album plays like a home studio demo, but there's a nice depth to Gunkei Nakashima's sound and some simple but creative arranging of parts that is really pleasant. (free download here)
9. V/A - FOREVER SHOEGAZE [kiirorecords x JAPAN SHOEGAZER FESTIVAL] (kiirorecords)
Over the last couple of years, arguably no one has done a better job of showcasing the newcomers to the Japanese shoegaze scene than Kiiro Records. Their FOREVER SHOEGAZE comps have been much talked about in shoegaze circles both in Japan and overseas, and the netlabel's free digital release policy has attracted a large audience and brought attention to some of Japan's hidden musical treasures. This year Kiiro released a Japan Shoegazer Festival exclusive CD-R, and it might be their best comp to date with songs from the likes of Cattle, Youthmemory, Group2, AOQ, Yukino Chaos, and more. Unfortunately the CD-R was a very limited release, but Kiiro has made it available for stream on their Bandcamp page. If you've got $1,000USD lying around and are feeling especially charitable you can download it as well.
8. Yudachi - Yoru no Fune ha Shiroku Oritatamarete (indienative)
This could very well be the prettiest album on the list. Yudachi are masters at creating big billowy guitar textures and topping them with whimsical, breathy vocals. The Tokyo band's newest release is more of their ultra-mellow and dreamy brand of music, with "空洞" being my favorite track. It's one of those "put on headphones and close your eyes" albums that you can really get lost in. Probably not the best album to listen to on the train, though (as I can personally attest). (buy it here)
7. My Dead Girlfriend - hades (the nine stages of change at the deceased remains) (n_ingen RECORD)
This is one of those albums where you know what you're going to get, you're not surprised by any of it, and it's really good. Japanese shoegaze mainstays My Dead Girlfriend did what they've always done on hades, with uptempo guitar-slathered pop tunes and super catchy vocal melodies. The synths are maybe a bit more prominent on this album as a whole than on their previous works, but the familiar My Dead Girlfriend vibe remains in tact on what can best be described as a really fun and very tight record. (buy it here)
6. Acidclank - Inner
While I admittedly know next to nothing about Acidclank, I do know that the Osaka outfit's 2015 album Inner went largely under the radar, and I have no idea how. More of an exploration of 90s British indie music than a pure shoegaze band, Acidclank draws on a number of famous artists to put together an album that is heavily influenced but never a shameless copy. After a distinctly shoegaze opening, Acidclank floats wafting layers of guitars over a range of grooves, mellowed out psych, and catchy pop tunes. Easily the most underrated album of the year. (free download here)
5. Tokenai Namae - Time Machine ga Kowareru Mae ni (SODA ROOM)
Nagoya's most well-known shoegaze band put out their debut full length album in 2015 and did not disappoint. The kayou-shoegazers' release, which included all-new material, was a significant step up from their previously released EPs. A point of contention about the band has been how high in the mix the bubbly synth leads have sat, and on Time Machine ga Kowareru Mae ni the balance between their essential pop element and the roaring shoegaze guitars is just right. I'd been looking forward to the album, and it exceeded all of my expectations. My personal favorite track "少女の官能基" is a playful, guitar-drenched pop tune that pretty much sums up why Tokenai Namae's sound is so highly regarded. Also that fuzzy bass tone is so good. (buy it here)
4. The Piqnic - ZyouK (So I Buried)
The Piqnic refer to themselves as a dark shoegaze band, with a focus on 'dark', which is otherwise almost non-existent in a pop-heavy Japanese shoegaze scene. Indeed the first batch of singles released from UK-based So I Buried Records included "hebi", a track more tonally akin to A Place To Bury Strangers than anything in the pop spectrum. Whereas "hebi" and the album's title track highlight a face-melting first half of the album, the Shizuoka four-piece also tones it down a bit on the latter half with tracks like "M-S" in which they veer into the avant garde with a quiet 10-minute exploration evolving into periodic outbursts. Whether by employing fuzzy bass and droning guitars or tripped out cavernous delay over a minimal backdrop, The Piqnic's most redeeming quality is their ability to create intense songs. (buy it here)
3. Sourin - Sourin
Composer Tomoya Matsuura is perhaps best-known by music fans as the frontman of Osaka shoegaze unit Monocism, but he's also an accomplished and award-winning photographer and 3D artist as well. His portfolio is largely focused on nature and similar themes have carried over into his current musical project Sourin. The album is a non stop flurry of guitar and vocal textures layered over each other again and again in a way that creates a sense of chaotic beauty. Highly recommended for fans of Sigur Ros. (buy it here)
2. Cactus Flower - Really Happy To See You
So Cactus Flower may not consider themselves a "shoegaze band" as much as an alternative band with some shoegaze influence, but the effect the genre has had on their sound resulted in one of the best shoegaze albums of the year. There's a sense of heart wrenching nostalgia layered over with non-stop guitar noise and sweet melodies that should especially appeal to fans of Ride. There isn't a weak point on Really Happy To See You, making it one of the most complete and enjoyable releases of the year. (buy it here)
1. Suichuu Zukan - 198X (Rallye Label)
Maybe better described as an alt rock album with shoegaze sensibilities, the band's devotion to thick textures and wall-ish guitar noise - and the fact that it's the best album I've heard this year - not only qualifies 198X for this list but has it seated right at the top. Suichuu Zukan's first EP was great, their single last year was great, and this album is better than both of them. The tone of the guitars and the mastery with which they're woven around a wide range of song styles over the course of the album is the main reason there's no release I've enjoyed more this year. Add to that the fact that the Tokyo foursome (a fivesome until as recently as a couple months ago) does the male-female twin vocal thing better than anyone else. The band's sound has a distinctly Japanese feel to it with a nod to 70s era kayou-kyoku on "櫻の園" and the minimalist chant-turned-psych-turned-post rock explosion of "シーン". 198X is a showcase of some brilliant songwriting and its place atop my list is a no-brainer. (buy it here)