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The Best Japanese Shoegaze and Dream Pop Releases of 2017

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A Global Noise Magazine

The Best Japanese Shoegaze and Dream Pop Releases of 2017

Matthew Bedford

In 2017 things got pretty interesting in the Japanese scene.  The Daydream events took off this year, drawing some more of the focus away from Tokyo and further establishing Kyoto as Japanese shoegaze's "second city".  Elsewhere, Nagoya's local scene got a big bump thanks in large part to releases from local bands and the emergence of some new, young bands.  There were also some long-awaited releases, a shoegaze idol group that blew everyone's minds, and a couple of tragic break ups.  It was a busy year with a few intriguing storylines.  

Release-wise, there was still the "not enough full length releases and too many EPs" problem, but it was more manageable.  The bigger issue this year was the closeness of the contenders.  At least for the LP and EP lists, the top spots were pretty obvious in my mind.  Below that I did a lot of shuffling throughout the year.  So, as is usually the case, I could very easily change this list around in a week or so.  

As is the case everywhere there will be some seemingly notable omissions on this list, but there's a good reason for them.  The most obvious one would be Plant Cell, who re-released Flowergaze? in 2017.  As it's just a re-worked version of a 2016 album, I left it off this year's list.  Then there are bands like Apple Light and Crunch who both released really good music this year (the new Apple Light is seriously so good), but neither falls in the blurry realm of shoegaze or dream pop, even at its blurriest.  Cairophenomenons, Amsterdamned, Kill My 27, Acidclank, and Looprider all released good stuff this year that would have qualified on their own but ultimately didn't feel right in this list.  

With that out of the way, here are my favorite releases of 2017:


★ ☆ ★ BEST SINGLE ★ ☆ ★

"NEO TOKYO" BY YOUTHMEMORY

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At first listen, Neo Tokyo sounds like a pretty big departure from youthmemory's previous material.  This is true in the feel of the music with the usual bouncy rhythm and jangly guitar backdrop replaced by drum machine beats and dense synth pads.  However, the Tokyo band's M.O. of crafting danceable, lush, dreamy pop music remains unchanged.  There's something cold and even a bit gloomy about this release, but it was a great change of pace without ever straying from what had made youthmemory a really enjoyable band.  (Bandcamp)

If this list took live performances into account, Fog Park would be right at the top.  The Saitama-based newcomers put out two demo singles in 2017 - "cigarette punch" in January and then "sleeping cat" in May.  While neither of the demos demonstrates how brutally loud these guys are capable of being, the songs are still really good.  I'm looking forward to their recently announced debut mini album "beautiful blood", that was released on 1/20.  (Currently only available at shows)

The Kansai region consistently produces some of the country's best dream pop acts, and the best of the bunch in 2017 was Mariana in our Heads.  The five-piece put out a single an an EP this year, and while the latter received some consideration before ultimately falling to some strong competition, their "Anemone/Yarn" 7-inch was among my favorite singles.  While I generally favor harder-hitting, noisy chaos, I do occasionally have a soft spot for really warm synth-laden dream pop.  2017 was a good year for that, and Mariana in our Heads nailed it.  (Flake Records)

The most bittersweet entry on this whole list belongs to Ether Feels, whose "moonshine" single would be the last material they released before announcing all of the members would be going their separate ways.  The track actually starts off uncharacteristically peppy before transitioning into the sad but catchy melancholic pop sound that Ether Feels spent years doing so well.  (Bandcamp)

I have mixed feelings about Japan's hottest shoegaze band, ・・・・・・・・・(pronounced "dots").  The idol group's surge in popularity is probably due more to their live gimmicks and cute-but-edgy idol shtick, but their debut single "CD" features some legitimately good music - particulary "Slide" which was written by For Tracy Hyde's Natsu-bot.  I remain skeptical of "alt-idol" acts, but credit where credit is due here.  (Amazon)


★ ☆ ★ BEST EP ★ ☆ ★

"INTO THE DREAM" BY SOFTSURF

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With all due respect to the rest of the bands who released EPs this year, this one was never going to be close.  It's been fun watching softsurf's rise over the last couple years, and "Into the Dream" helped solidify their status as the best shoegaze band going in Japan right now.  I've beaten the Slowdive/Pastel Blue comp into the ground to this point, but it's pretty remarkable since that sound is so rare here.  With their first proper release and a three-city tour in support of it, Softsurf had an incredible year which saw them establish themselves within the national shoegaze scene.  And you'll be hard-pressed to find a better live band in that scene.  (Amazon)

Though Softsurf was in a league of its own in 2017, there were still some really good EP releases in the next tier.  17 Years Old And The Berlin Wall put out their second EP Reflect last year, following up their excellent 2015 debut.  17Berlin's sound pretty much reflects the popular sound in the Japanese shoegaze scene, with male-female vocal harmonies and poppy guitar melodies.  What has set them apart, besides the fact that their songs are really catchy, is the fact that hit a bit harder they're willing to muddy it up a bit and drown some of the sweetness in guitar noise.  (Flake Records)

My 2017 Rookie of the Year award goes to Kyoto-based newcomers Nurse, who released their debut EP ODD.  Nurse sort of spawned from the very short-lived Hakusen Shikatsu, who released a couple impressive demo tracks earlier in the year and then split.  But the new project is even better and way way noisier.  Hopefully these guys stick around for a bit. (Bandcamp)

Chiba's plant cell may not have been qualified for the album of the year award, but they put out two really good EPs in 2017.  The first, titled Queen of the Nebula - Fairy Lurking In the Thundercloud, was a thematic departure from their usual nature/spirit-based content, but featured their usual dense, dreamy sound.  The second, Cyan, was a collection of new versions of songs previously released on CDs or as singles on Bandcamp.  To be clear, the rebuild version of Flowergaze? wasn't included in the list because it was just a modified version of a previously released album.  Cyan, on the other hand, was recorded from scratch and marked plant cell's first recording as a full band.  The result isn't really all that different, but the live drums add a bit of warmth to some familiar tracks.  For a band that's put out some of the same tracks more than a couple times now, plant cell always manages to keep things interesting.  (Disk Union)

Perhaps better known as half of Hachioji-based alternative band The Weddings, singer-songwriter, kano, has been writing some seriously good dream pop tunes over the last 2 years. Her second EP, Shochuu, is short and sweet, including three whimsical, feel-good tracks with some really pretty textures woven along with gentle, breathy vocals.  The release was fairly low-key, but the release really hits the spot and rose to the top of a very deep list of 2017 EPs.  (File-Under Records


★ ☆ ★ BEST ALBUM ★ ☆ ★

"HE(R)ART" BY FOR TRACY HYDE

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For Tracy Hyde outdid themselves and delivered the most enjoyable album of 2017.  While most bands are putting out singles and EPs, the Tokyo-based dreamy indie pop/shoegaze outfit released an incredibly well-written 17-track album (16 if you don't want to include the intro) that draws on western indie pop influence while conjuring youthful imagery of life in Tokyo.  That imagery is key, as He(r)art is structured like a film, down to the movie poster album cover and "Opening Logo".  It's a nostalgic, playful, and emotional walk through a massive city and impactful relationships made there.  While He(r)art is an extremely cohesive album that is best consumed as presented from start to finish, the individual tracks stand well on their own as well.  "Leica Daydream", "Houbutsusen", and "Teen Flick" are among my personal favorites, while "Ghost Town Polaroids" might be my favorite track of the year.  There are some strong contenders below, but For Tracy Hyde owned 2017. (Amazon)

There's not much to say about Shelling's latest album, Waiting for Mint Shower!!  The Tokyo-based duo gave us another gorgeous album based on the simple-but-effective formula of blanketing everything in a cascade of reverb-soaked guitars, warm synths, and Aya's gentle, breathy vocals.  The way the tracks subtly evolve over the repetitive beats and lulling bass lines is hypnotic.  But you've heard all this before.  (Amazon)

Taffy is an interesting inclusion, because I almost have to remind myself that they're a Japanese band.  More appreciated overseas than in their home country - which is crazy for a band of their quality - Taffy occasionally emerges in the Tokyo scene as they did in 2017 following the release of their Nyctophilia album.  Taffy pushes guitar texture to the foreground, making the deeper lying melodies more subtle and the overall tone of the tracks harsher.  The result is a much different album than most of the releases you find on these lists.  (Amazon)

One of the biggest surprises of the year was the announcement from Nagoya's Tokenai Namae that they'd be returning from their fairly lengthy hiatus with a new album.  On Seifuku Kanro Kurabu the kayo-pop shoegaze band stayed true to their sound with a cute but chaotic blend of bubbly vocals, bouncy synths, crunchy bass, and ear-blasting guitars.  It's pacier than the first, and everything below the synth leads feels like it's been bumped in the mix, making things sound a bit messier.  A really solid release, which is remarkable considering the band was inactive for the better part of 2017.  (File-Under Records)

There are two albums dueling it out for the fifth spot on this best albums list, both of which were fairly long-awaited releases.  Cruyff in the Bedroom's first full-length album in almost 5 years, Hate Me, was probably the most highly-anticipated Japanese shoegaze release coming into 2017.  Caucus' first in four years, Sound of the Air, came later in the year and was fairly low-key in comparison.  Hate Me had higher highs with a few bangers including HATE and my personal favorite Laurelei, but got a bit too clean and rock n roll at times.  Caucus' record had its own hot track in lead single, "What Have You Done", but the album was more consistent start to finish, giving it the nod.  Caucus changes pace well on the album, going from fuzzy pop tunes to slower, more textural tracks like the almost 9-minute "Circles".  Overall it was a more interesting listening experience. (Caucus on Amazon) (Cruyff in the Bedroom on Amazon)