The Best Japanese Shoegaze and Dream Pop Releases of 2018

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 NuitNurse17 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.

LUCY’S DRIVE – “pair of sounds”

While all the talk recently has been about the emergence of younger bands in the Japanese scene, 2018 has also been a pretty solid year for comeback releases as well.  Sugar Plant returned with an impressive album before Coaltar of the Deepers put out a long-awaited EP.  But LUCY’S DRIVE – better known as the solo project of ZEPPET STORE bassist Yuichi Nakamura – made perhaps the most dramatic return of the year with TWO new albums this month.  Pair of Sounds marks the bands first proper release since it’s 2007 full-length debut, DEEP SEEKER.  As the name implies, the release was split into a pair of 7-track CDs, unofficially titled “red” and “blue”.

While bits and pieces of Pair of Sounds have been released via limited edition singles over the past couple years, the final product sees all of the material effectively split to create two pretty different vibes.  The red version offers a mellow dream pop feel with a more ethereal backdrop throughout.  The second half is especially dreamy thanks to electronics-driven tracks like “Sometime I Think” and “Ebb Tide”.  The album’s finale “Daybreake” is a really strong gazey pop number.

On the blue version of Pair of Sounds, Nakamura draws on a wide range of 90s UK shoegaze and britpop, from the Loveless-y lead track “Perfect” to the super danceable “Heavy Rain”.  While the red version relies more on softer textures to create its atmosphere, the blue version is much more driven by guitar noise.  “Shining Blue”, the latter’s closer, combines the two styles and could be the best song of the bunch.  LUCY’S DRIVE may not get the love of its late-aughts shoegaze contemporaries, but the quality was there on DEEP SEEKER and eleven years later it might be even higher on Pair of Sounds.

Both versions of Pair of Sounds are available via distro/label Testcard records.  Domestic purchase is available at their site, while international orders can be placed through their Bandcamp page.  LUCY’S DRIVE also contributed a song to the recently released Total Feedback 2018 compilation, which you can also purchase through Testcard.

Below you can listen to the trailers for both red and blue versions of Pair of Sounds.

AND LORELEI – “And Lorelei 0.2”

I regrettably missed the boat on the 2017 debut LP from Matsumoto, Nagano’s And Lorelei.  In retrospect, it probably would have easily made it into my best of the year list.  I’m only about five months late in discovering the band’s follow up EP, “And Lorelei 0.2”, which is yet another showcase of the band’s ability to write stunningly beautiful songs.  The best shoegaze song is the one that you can get lost in, and that is just the sort of sound AND LORELEI consistently produces.  Whether it’s via the sort of blissed out shoegaze you can hear on “Himitsu”, the slowly-evolving, dreamy haze of “Umarekawaru” or “Abraham”, or the minimalist ambient approach found in “Legi”, “And Lorelei 0.2” is a deeply immersive and emotional listening experience.

Both of AND LORELEI’s releases are currently available on iTunes and Apple Music.  The physical release is also available for purchase domestically via TTOS.  Here is a video for “Himitsu”.

plasmaclub – “14011”

It’s been sort of tough to keep up with all of the solid new shoegaze bands that have popped up in Japan in 2018, and the flurry of new releases from promising young artists over the last few months continues.  It’s especially cool to see new representatives from outside the Tokyo area, as is the case with Hamamatsu’s plasmaclub who just released a debut two-track EP titled “14011”.  Shizuoka prefecture’s largest city hasn’t yielded much in the way of shoegaze since the piqnic went more toward drony psych and post punk and changed its name to qujaku.  On “14011” plasmaclub gives a bit of a nod to early piqnic with a heavily-layered dark, moody brand of shoegaze, and not surprisingly the release was also produced by qujaku guitarist Soushi Mizuno.  The soaring guitar lead over hazy walls of guitar noise on lead track “dress” has the dramatic sound to it that was a lot more prominent in the Japanese scene in the early part of the decade.  It’s a straightforward track that relies on heavy textures and dramatic vocal melodies over simple beats.  “Veil of shine/(save me)” is similar, but a dreamier, wafting sort of track, highlighted by a sad, longing chorus.  Both tracks feel like they would be tremendous live.  Add plasmaclub to the ever-growing list of Japanese shoegaze bands to keep an eye out for.

The EP is currently available at Bandcamp.

figure – “Parakalein”

Figure, the solo project of Tottori-based musician Masanobu Hasebe, provided one of the more pleasant discoveries of the year, a new 6-track release titled “Parakalein”.  The EP, which was released in both digital and cassette formats by Kobe indie label, Sauna Cool, is the first release from figure in four years.  It’s a collection of washed out lo-fi indie pop tunes, spread out in layers over a backbone of snappy electronic drums.  “Parakalein” hits the sweet spot where indie pop and shoegaze combine – something that’s been both popular and perhaps a bit contentious among some bands but undoubtedly successful in the Japanese scene.  While there’s not a bad track on the EP, “True Bosom” is the highlight of the release – a blurry mishmash of jangly melodies, synths, and reverb-drenched blaring guitars.  The six-minute “Mary” is a more uptempo, melodic pop song with an ultra-catchy chorus.  It’s some well-written, charmingly-produced dreamy melancholy from an artist that will hopefully get some more attention from here on out.

You can pick up “Parakalein” via Sauna Cool’s Bandcamp page.  Cassettes are available, but limited to 100 copies.

Acidclank – “Addiction”

When Osaka indie-rock shoegaze band Acidclank popped up in 2015 with its debut album, Inner, the band showed a tremendous versatility in sound. The record essentially felt like a lo-fi exploration of 90s UK indie music, drifting from shoegaze to psych to pop.  On each of the two singles that followed, the band continued to give different looks into its wide range song-writing capabilities.  Acidclank’s latest full-length effort, Addiction, is more of the same, drawing on a variety of influences and styles, but featuring enough consistent elements that it never feels weird or disjointed.

There are some familiar titles in the track list, including a buffed up version of “Clever” from Inner and both of the singles that were released last year.  Just like the first album, Addiction features some very shoegazey tunes, highlighted by “Turning” and the very Loveless-inspired “Sleepwalk”.  On songs like “Wrong” and the aforementioned “Clever” Acidclank delivers some noisy but danceable indie rock, while “Disease” feels like a nod to Death Cab’s Transantlanticism.  Throughout the album, you get a lot of different but high-quality looks, as the band has shown a knack for consistently crafting catchy, well-written songs.  But Addiction really shines when it gets super trippy, particularly on “This Time” and “Overdose”.  The former has a very Dark Side of the Moon vibe to it with a slow-paced, steady groove setting the foundation for layers of spaced out guitars and reverb-soaked vocals.  “Overdose” is pacier, more of a free-form psych track with guitars, atmospheric synths, and harmonized vocals all blanketed over a droning bass line, waxing and waning in intensity.  While the album as a whole is consistently very good, these two tracks are the standouts.

Addiction CD versions can currently be found on Amazon is currently available on most streaming platforms.  You can purchase it via iTunes as well, and an LP version is due out at some point in the next month.  You can also check out some of their earlier work at Bandcamp.

Total Feedback 2018

This past April, Japan’s best-known and by far its longest-running shoegaze event, Total Feedback, celebrated its 10thanniversary.  Since 2008, the event has been synonymous with the Japanese shoegaze scene, showcasing a combination of veteran and up-and-coming bands from all over Japan.  In the spirit of promoting the current players in the scene, the show’s organizer and frontman of quintessential Japanese shoegazers Cruyff in the Bedroom, Yusuke Hata released the Total Feedback compilation on his Only Feedback label on October of the same year.  This week, almost exactly 10 years later, a follow-up comp appropriately titled Total Feedback 2018 will go on sale.

Listening to the original 2008 comp, you can get a feel for where the shoegaze scene and specifically Total Feedback as an event were at the time.  Bands like Luminous Orange, Plastic Girl In Closet, mash, and My Dead Girlfriend were all regular participants at the monthly shoegaze gathering – Luminous Orange and mash also frequently appeared at Yusuke’s Only Feedback event held at CLUB Que years earlier.  Total Feedback 2018 is similarly a well-curated introduction to Japanese shoegaze in 2018, not only providing a good, albeit Tokyo-centric, introduction to Japanese shoegaze, but also showing how it’s branched out internationally over the past ten years.

Total Feedback 2018 is billed as “an Asian shoegaze compilation”, featuring a handful of bands from Taiwan (Doodle, U.TA, and DoZzz) and China (RUBUR).  Based around Total Feedback and fellow Japan-based shoegaze event Kyoto Shoegazer, the domestic scene has crossed over with promoters such as Luuv Label (best-known for organizing the East Asia Shoegaze Festival in Shanghai) and Taiwanese shoegaze promoter extraordinaire Shoegazemania, creating a strong community on the eastern part of the continent (it’s worth noting that Hong Kong, while not represented on the compilation, has also been involved in this cultural shoegaze exchange).

The Japanese lineup on the compilation boasts a good mix of old and new bands.  Cruyff in the Bedroom, broken little sister, and Lucy’s Drive are the veterans of the bunch, while groups like cattle, plant cell, and SPOOL, and Al Van She’s Coming represent the new wave of Total Feedback performers. Polarizing shoegaze idol group dots also have a song on the comp, and while their contribution to the overall scene may be questionable to some, they are without a doubt an important part of its story.

With regard to the music itself, Total Feedback 2018 is unsurprisingly strong start to finish.  The Cruyff track is a banger, and the songs from plant cell, DoZzz, RUBUR, and Doodle are particular standouts.  Cattle’s “Kaleidoscope” is a welcome return to shoegaze from a band who drifted to more of a power pop sound after an excellent debut EP.  Even the dots track is perhaps their “gaziest” yet.  Though you tend to hear quite different styles of shoegaze coming out of different countries – Japan tends to produce a more melody-heavy sound while you often get thicker or more textural shoegaze from Taiwan and China – the flow of the album is very smooth while still showcasing each band’s unique qualities.

Just as the Total Feedback event has been as important a part of the Japanese shoegaze scene as anything else over the past 10 years, Total Feedback 2018 and the original 2008 compilation act as significant snapshots of the genre’s development in Japan.  The two compilations bookend a decade of change and development in the Japanese scene, while also representing the one event that has consistently remained as its core.

To celebrate the release there will be a three-leg Total Feedback event featuring bands appearing on the compilation, with the first show taking place in Taipei at PIPE on October 14th and the final two shows at Koenji HIGH on October 27th and 28th.  See the flyer below for all of the details.

Total Feedback 2018 comes out on October 10th via Only Feedback Records, and is currently available for pre-order at Amazon(JP)Disk Union, and Testcard Records (Bandcamp).

Here is the official trailer:

Coaltar of the Deepers – “SUMMER GAZER ’92”

Legendary Japanese shoegaze/alternative/metal outfit Coaltar of the Deepers came out of nowhere yesterday at around 7pm with a massive announcement that their first new music in about seven years would be released at midnight.  The news came roughly six months after the band’s core member NARASAKI cryptically Tweeted that he was working on Deepers music again.  The track, titled “SUMMER GAZER ’92”, is the first single off the upcoming “Rabbit E.P.”, which will be out in November.  Both announcements were initially made via NARASAKI’s newly formed label U-desper Records.

The announcement of a new Deepers single a mere five hours prior to its release was pretty jolting considering there was no real reason to believe we’d get any new material from one of Japan’s most well-known and influential cult acts.  NARASAKI has been incredibly active over the years writing and producing for a bunch of different artists while also creating music for various anime.  However, the new  was unsurprisingly well-received, with “SUMMER GAZER ’92” at one point reaching as high as number 2 on the iTunes song charts on the day of its release.

The song itself was initially described by U-desper Records as a (loosely translated) “hot summer tune for summer lovers”,  and with its warm, groovy sound that feels pretty accurate.  “SUMMER GAZER ’92” has something of a mellow, jazzy samba vibe, relying on a dreamy swirl of instrumental and vocal textures and a more subtly developing intensity than the in-your-face chaotic sound that Deepers is perhaps better known for.  Though it might not be what people expect, it’s a really solid return to action for a very important band and a preview of what is easily now the most anticipated Japanese shoegaze release of 2018.

“SUMMER GAZER ’92” is currently available for purchase on iTunes worldwide.  Follow U-desper Records on Twitter for updates regarding the “Rabbit E.P.” release.

The Ambient Sounds of Arptranaus

Tokyo-based singer-songwriter Aya from Fraqsea and the now defunct Shelling has a new ambient project called Arptranaus. Aya’s music has always been characterized by its rich textures, whether used as the thick wash that defined Shelling’s hazy shoegaze sound or the atmosphere behind her solo work as Fraqsea. So it’s no surprise that she’s been able to create some more stunning ethereal tunes under this new name. Over the past few days, Aya has uploaded a series of cryptically named songs, from the light chime-laden “Noouclxz” to the darker, throbbing bass of “Dlivva”. And of course, her breathy vocals are also featured, echoing from deep in the background. Listening to Arptranaus’ music is sort of like listening to a very stripped down version of Shelling and Fraqsea. It’s a more intimate experience with the basic elements that are essential to the deep sounds of those other projects. Turn off the lights and pop your headphones on.

Introducing Nagoya Supergroup I Like Birds

Looking at their lineup, one might expect newly-formed Nagoya quintet I Like Birds would appear to be a shoegaze supergroup.  The band’s lineup is stacked with veterans of the Nagoya shoegaze scene including Kosuke Tozuka (vocals & guitar, Apple Light), Yukie Kawaguchi (vocals & keys, me in grasshopper/mishca), Naoki Magota (guitar, Apple Light), Yutaka Mukouda (bass, softsurf), and Naoki Sogabe (drums, Tokenai Namae).  As if in premeditated response to any assumptions regarding their sound, I Like Birds introduced itself with a Tweet that started off with the words (roughly translated) “a not-shoegaze band by the Nagoya shoegaze team”.

The band’s first demo, “Bus Stop”, confirms its direction away from the gazey side of things, toward a gentler indie pop sound in the vein of Death Cab or perhaps slightly cleaned up Daisies of the Galaxy-era Eels – the latter is maybe more of a stretch based on where I’m assuming they got their name.  Of the bands represented by the individual members, Apple Light’s sound comes through the strongest.  It’s a pleasant track, with the sort of melancholy that feels just right alongside Tozuka’s voice.  Based on the lineup, the expectations are going to be pretty high from the get-go, but it’s hard to imagine this band not being good.  Give I Like Birds a follow on Twitter and stay tuned for more news and music.