The Best Japanese Shoegaze and Dream Pop Releases of 2016

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.

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.

A Guide to Japanese Shoegaze in 2016

The first month of 2016 has come and gone and I’m finally getting around to posting about some of the year’s potential story lines and some things that fans may want to keep their eyes and ears open for. 

The first month of 2016 has come and gone and I’m finally getting around to posting about some of the year’s potential story lines and some things that fans may want to keep their eyes and ears open for.  Fortunately, January didn’t really see a whole lot of action on the Japanese shoegaze front, with the most noteworthy release being a full-length release from Tokyo’s 7eyes40days.  It’s been a slow start, but recent years have seen a significant growth of the Japanese scene and there’s no reason to think that 2016 will be any exception.  

1.  New bands to watch out for in 2016…

One of last year’s most impressive newcomers Plant Cell can hardly be considered a new band, but 2015 served as sort of a warm-up year during which the Chiba outfit recorded a bunch of music, solidified its lineup, and even squeezed in a couple gigs right before the end of the year.  They go into 2016 poised to do big things, and we can only assume that there will be a lot more music to be heard in the coming year.  Their sound is deep, thickly-layered, and raw and they’re right at the forefront of new Japanese bands balancing out the country’s pop-heavy scene with a heavy dose of swirling noise.

Citrus Nowhere is another band whose noisy approach to pop music is extremely welcome to the Japanese scene.  The mysterious Tokyo-based band released a self-titled EP just before Christmas after putting out some extremely unrefined – yet quite satisfying – demos throughout the year.  They’ll be releasing some new material at a special Nagoya-only (yes!) event at the end of February alongside one of last year’s ‘bands to watch out for’, Yukino Chaos.  

From Tokyo to nearby Kanagawa-prefecture, Kawasaki’s Spicy Ground Floor are another new band that wasted no time getting to the studio and pumping out demo tracks.  They’re still a bit raw, but it’s early days for a band whose Soundcloud page has filled up quickly, and their swaying gently between bouncy pop-driven verses found in their single “Chili Chili” and the steadily marching, guitar driven style of “Flood”.  It’s not perfect just yet, but these guys are on the right track.  

As a resident of Nagoya, there are two local bands who got started last year whose progress I’ll be monitoring closely in 2016.  The first loosely qualifies for this list, but The Skateboard Kids essentially do everything you could ask of a shoegaze band with bouts of thunderous guitar noise exploding out from their sweetly melancholic, occasionally playful pop verses.  The other is haguki, a three-piece shoegaze band hailing from Anjo-city, about a half hour outside Nagoya.  Their three-track EP tobira gets a bit math-y at times, and there’s also a bit of a post rock influence that reminds me of prefecture-mates Aysula.  The EP was a short but sweet sampler of their music that has me really interested to see which direction they ultimately decide to head.  

A band that’ll be getting things going this year, though one whose principle member needs no introduction is Tokyo’s Flaria.  Kensei Ogata – who is perhaps best known among foreign shoegaze fans as the man behind Tatuki Seksu – announced late last year that his band, talk, would be going on an indefinite hiatus and his focus would be shifting to his new Tokyo-based project.  Flaria played its first gig on January 15th and it probably won’t be too long before we get to hear what Mr. Ogata’s new project sounds like.  

2.  New releases to watch out for in 2016…

Hands down the most exciting release of the year will come from Aomori’s The Earth Earth, who promised us a new EP and then finally gave us some new music in the form of their single, “n e a r”.  There’s no real timetable for the release of the EP, but I’ll just be really optimistic that the rest of the EP is in the production phase right now and will be out sooner or later.  

Something I’ve been waiting for for a while now is new music from another of Japan’s best shoegaze bands, dive.  The band’s activity has been pretty slow in recent years, but there was word that Sasaoka and company would be putting out some new music in the fall of 2015.  Here we are almost a month into 2016 and there’s been no music, but one gig in the books so far this year and another coming up in March (a flurry of live activity by dive standards) might be an indication that they have the time to record some new music.  I’m not holding my breath, but if both dive and The Earth Earth were to put out new music in the same year there isn’t much else I’d need.

I may not have been paying enough attention when the project was initially announced, but one release that makes this list based solely on reputation is the solo album from My Dead Girlfriend‘s Yuki Ishikawa.  The quirky frontman is currently recording the album which features a ton of guest musicians, including the aforementioned Kensei Ogata.  There’s not a whole lot known about the direction of the album, but given the cast of contributors and the reputation of the man whose name will be on the cover, it’s at least worth checking out.

The Florist, whose 2014 album Middle of Winter was one of the best of the year, have been writing a bunch of new material and now appear set to record a new album over the next two months.  With the band collectively drawing on such a wide range of influences, it will be interesting to see if they decide to approach the follow-up effort differently or if they ride the same formula that produced their memorable debut full-length.  

3.  The festivals!

2015 was a pretty spectacular year for gig-going shoegaze fans in Japan, with Astrobrite’s Japan tour and all of the festivities surrounding it kicking off something of a flurry of resurgent 90s shoegaze acts touring the country.  This year probably won’t be as intense in that respect – though I’m sure we can count on a Lush appearance at some point in 2016 – so the focus shifts back to Japan’s domestic shoegaze events.  Since it’s inception six years ago, the Japan Shoegazer Festival has been the country’s most identifiable shoegaze showcase, and the Tokyo leg of what has mostly been a two-city event is generally more stacked and given more attention than its little brother counterpart in Osaka.  Tokyo is the shoegaze capital of Japan, as it seems to be for most genres, and events like the monthly Total Feedback at Koenji HIGH further solidify its reputation as such.  The first Japanese Shoegazer Festival of the year will be held in Tokyo in early March and while it looks like details won’t be out for another week or so, what we currently know is that Cruyff in the Bedroom will be appearing and we can assume that Lemon’s Chair will be joining them on the back end of the bill.  

The event that’s been slowly overtaking the Japan Shoegazer Festival as the premier shoegaze fest in Japan is the Kyoto Shoegazer/Noisy Pop event run by AOQ (pronounced ‘aoku’) frontman Katayama.  2016 will see the fourth installment of the event, which will be expanding from its previous two-day format to three days spanning two weekends this April.  The first show will double as the first leg of the Japanese tour of Taiwan’s Doodle, and the rest of the lineup should be excellent as the organizers have shown a tremendous ability to bring in talent from all over the country despite the not-so-prime location of the tour.  This show is also a great opportunity to get out to Japan’s most attractive city, take in some of the sights in the early afternoon, and then hop over to Nano for a long but satisfying evening of music.  

4.  The genre outside of Tokyo

It’s no secret that the Japanese shoegaze scene basically funnels its way to Tokyo, and understandably so.  There are a ton of people, a lot of great bands, and it’s really the best place for bands to attach themselves to scene as run by the elder statesmen of the genre.  It’s also no secret that I’d love to see the control of the shoegaze scene in Japan shift from the controlling hands of older bands in Tokyo and spread more evenly throughout the rest of the country.  I know this goes against the whole hierarchical nature of Japanese music as a microcosm of everyday social structure, but I also think it’s best for development.  I like the Kyoto Shoegazer model, and while this year that is sort of the main story outside of Tokyo, efforts to expand the event to other cities such as Nagoya and Osaka appear to be in the works.  I’d just like to see the endgame much less defined by one group and more molded by a generation of cocky young bands with the freedom to create and mold the genre as they see fit.