There was a lot of new shoegaze and dream pop coming out of Japan in 2016, and , even more so than in previous years, album releases were way outnumbered by EPs, singles, and mini albums. As a result I was faced with a couple of problems when putting together my annual "best of the year" list. The first is that there weren't ten full-length releases that qualified. Rather than making a numbered list this time around, I've decided to just name my favorite single, EP/mini-album, and album of the year, and then name a few honorable mentions for each category.
It's a completely different feel from what I've put together the last couple years, but it serves the same purpose. Enjoy, discuss, buy some music.
Note: I'd like to preface this whole list by saying that I'm aware of the new releases from Kinoko Teikoku, My Dead Ishikawa, Qujaku, and others, and I really liked a bunch of them. Defining genres is tricky, but I decided not to mess with an already blurry line and include the releases that I felt qualified. The aforementioned did not.
★ ☆ ★ Best Single ★ ☆ ★
"Planet Heaven/Perfect Lies" by Juvenile Juvenile
It's no secret that Juvenile Juvenile is one of my favorite bands in Japan. Their "Our Great Escape" album topped my 2014 list, and the band came back strong with its first recorded material in 2 years. The single was produced by The Bilinda Butcher' Michal Palmer, and further solidified their status as the finest dream pop band in Japan. It's also worth noting that Juvenile Juvenile also submitted a really good cover of "I Wish I Was Skinny" for The Blog That Celebrates Itself's Boo Radleys tribute comp this year.
This was a pretty clear cut winner, but there was some quality in the next group of singles released, headed by Nagoya shoegaze newcomers Softsurf. Their "Blue Swirl/Beautiful Day" single was a really solid debut. If I was doing a "liver performances of the year" list, they'd be right at the top along with Juvenile Juvenile for their performances at Daydream Nagoya.
Saitama's Collapse was another newcomer to the Japanese shoegaze scene, and they put out a couple of releases in 2016, including their super-gazey "Curse/Drop" single. More on them later.
Tokyo's Youthmemory put out perhaps their catchiest track yet on the spring 2016 "April Kisses" release. One of the more underrated bands in Japan walking the line between shoegaze and jangly indie pop.
Yukino Chaos - a band that's established itself as a mainstay of the Japanese shoegaze scene, and one of the best young alternative rock acts in Japan - had a busy 2016 that kicked off with the release of its "Hope for the Future" single. Despite a really positive 2016, the band has unfortunately announced it will be on an indefinite hiatus.
★ ☆ ★ Best EP ★ ☆ ★
"Night Falls" by Magic Love
At this moment, there may not be a better shoegaze band in Japan than Magic Love. The Tokyo band left us wanting more with its 2014 "Dawn" E.P., and after a couple years they delivered. On Night Falls, the band showed that they can deliver big walls of sound and more chilled out dream pop, switching back and forth between male and female vocals flawlessly. "Midnight Baby" has gotten all the love, but "Ghost Novice" was one of the best tracks of the year.
This one wasn't as easy to pick, due in large part to the fact that there was so much quality released in EP format this year. One of the pleasant surprises was that some of the best EP releases of the year were put out by brand new bands. Collapse made the best singles of the year list, and they also appear on the EP list for their self-titled EP, which was released in February. The Saitama band, not unlike a number of newcomers to the Japanese shoegaze scene, doesn't shy away from big wall-ish guitars, citing metal among its genre influences.
Scale is another new band that has made the best EP list, but it's important to note that since the release of its debut EP "Hidden Blue", the band has changed its name to Waterblink. A throwback to the early 2000s shoegaze scene, Scale goes in hard - its founding member also plays in post punk hardcore band Deviation - but also balances things out with some catchy melodies.
Shiga's Yuragi turned a lot of heads with the release of their debut EP "Bedside" earlier in the year. Their "Nightlife" EP, which made it in right at the end of 2016, was a massive next step. The band's second EP had some of the same pop appeal of the first, but also ventured off in a bit more of a darker, more exploratory direction.
One band that's remained a mystery to me over the last couple years is Sapporo, Hokkaido shoegaze outfit Edy Two Arc (formerly known simply as Edy). Confined primarily to their hometown and Koenji's HIGH venue, it's been difficult to access the band from here in Nagoya, but that changed on Christmas Day 2016 with the release of their debut EP "Hide Intention". Released via Only Feedback Records, the EP boasts a perfect balance of blaring, fuzzed out guitars and beautiful, subtle vocals.
★ ☆ ★ Best Album ★ ☆ ★
"Blood Music" by The Florist
Just like Juvenile Juvenile and Magic Love, 2016 saw The Florist release its first material in two years. The band's 2014 debut featured a couple of killer singles, but Blood Music is start to finish a more complete album. In tracks like "Marigold" and "Ghosts" - my personal favorite off the record - Blood Music boasts its own signature tracks, and those weren't even the album's singles. A very emotional eleven-track ride with some excellent guitar work and gorgeous tones.
Picking the best album of the year was tough, as there were three that I felt strongly qualified. The debut full length effort from Tokyo-based indie/dream pop outfit For Tracy Hyde was right there at the top. Film Bleu is the culmination of the band's hard work and development since it's inception in 2012. Featuring a number of tracks previously released on EPs and as demos, Film Bleu showcases some seriously good songwriting in the band's signature sweet pop style. "After" is a song of the year candidate.
Veterans of the Japanese shoegaze scene, and one of the best around, Osaka's Ether Feels released a Greatest Hits album in 2016. The nine-track record consists of two previously released EPs and three newly recorded songs, including a new version of fan-favorite "Annabelle". The melancholy shoegazers continue to pump out heart breaking, nostalgic tunes, with "She's Wanderlust" highlighting the newest batch of music. Toward the end of the year, Ether Feels also collaborated on a split EP with Yukino Chaos.
Last year, Plant Cell released a lot of quality tracks, but did so one track at a time and thus didn't really have any material to qualify for a list of best EPs or albums. This year, however, the band released a couple of demo EPs as well as a full album titled Flowergaze?, so their inclusion this time around is a no-brainer. Some of the more beautiful shoegaze you'll find, Plant Cell's strength is the ability to weave subtle melodies through dreamy layers of synths and guitars. "Snow and Luculia" is the recommended track off this one.