The Best Japanese Shoegaze and Dream Pop Releases of 2019

The past few years have seen a steady flow of new and upcoming artists in the Japanese scene.  In 2019, however, the story was more about big name returns and the domestic scene really holding steady with really strong releases from some of its best-known artists.  Tokyo Shoegazer and Coaltar of the Deepers dominated the buzz, we saw a very consistent flow of releases, and the final year of the 2010s felt like a confirmation that few if any genres have been as consistently well-represented as shoegaze in Japanese indie music over the past decade.  It was a really strong year.

Before getting into the best of 2019 lists, there are a couple notes.  First off, once again, this was a really tough year to break down.  Since I crunched the format of these lists into a “best 5” style, it’s been a real challenge.  Sometimes that only applies to the EP portion, but this year all of them gave me trouble.  Also, Tokyo Shoegazer had a massive year, and while their Crystallize reissue deserves all the love it got all over the world, it doesn’t qualify for the list.  Nor does their stealthily released Moondiver album, which was sold on their China tour, but which will likely receive a proper release in 2020.

That about does it.  Here are my best releases of 2019.

 ☆ ★ BEST SINGLE ★ ☆

“Revive” by Tokyo Shoegazer

As I mentioned in the intro, the sudden and surprising return of Tokyo Shoegazer was pretty much the biggest story in Japanese shoegaze in 2019.  Though the Crystallize reissue and Moondiver releases generated more buzz, their “Revive” single featured the band’s first new music in years.  It was an emphatic announcement of their return to activity, highlighted by the epic seven-and-a-half-minute lead track, “Light”.

Indie legends Coaltar of the Deepers had a similar comeback in 2019, which marked the 25th anniversary of the band’s debut The Visitors from Deepspace album.  Having released two new singles in 2018, Deepers’ return wasn’t as big a surprise, but the band teased a new single over the course of their anniversary tour.  The track, titled “HALFLIFE” dropped on digital platforms in early December, and is very much a throwback to the band’s genre-bending shoegaze prime.

From two long-standing veterans of Japanese shoegaze to one of the finest of the latest crop of indie bands to pop up this decade, Luby Sparks followed up a fantastic 2018 with a brand new single in 2019.  “Somewhere” is a gorgeous 4AD-style dream pop tune that jangles along into a super catchy, emotional chorus.  It’s romantic, teenage nostalgia and it’s beautiful.  The single’s B-side is a remix by Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie that really piles on the feels.

Lost in all the big comeback announcements was maybe my personal highlight of 2019, which was Osaka’s Ether Feels getting back together two years after splitting.  With a mostly fresh lineup around band leader Tomo Iwashita, Ether Feels put out its latest single titled “Kowloon Sunset” and got back to gigging.  The band picked up right where it left off with its heart-wrenching brand of melancholic shoegaze pop.

The Earth Earth has been pretty quiet since releasing a single in 2016, gigging sporadically around their home base in Aomori, so their latest single was another pleasant surprise this past year.  While nods to early My Bloody Valentine aren’t exactly rare among shoegaze bands around the world, The Earth Earth is one of the few Japanese bands to have consistently gone that route over the years and the results have been excellent.  “Story is Wrong” is nothing new, but it hits the spot.

I’m taking liberties here by adding one more entry to my singles list.  COLLAPSE‘s latest three-track release, “ENDOGENIC REBIRTHDAY”, was actually at the top of my EP list before I realized the band had labeled it a single.  Their sound continues to sit at the heavier end of the Japanese shoegaze spectrum, and on “RITUAL”, they show off a nice blend of contrasting styles in hardcore and shoegaze that isn’t all that common in Japan.


★ ☆ ★ BEST EP ★ ☆ ★

“EASTOKLAB” by EASTOKLAB

As usual there were a number of EPs vying for the top spot on my year end list, but the one that I listened to and enjoyed the most was the self-titled debut EP from Nagoya’s EASTOKLAB.  Their brand of dream pop is some of the most unique in a scene that has a lot of creative takes on the genre.  From dreamy atmospheres, tight grooves, and the ability to seamlessly transition to big blurry guitar walls, EASTOKLAB possesses a diverse sonic arsenal, and frontman Hayato Hioki’s vocal style is uniquely his.

The Waterfalls’ 2016 self-titled release garnered a lot of attention in the Japanese indie scene, and this past year they put out a double EP release consisting of “In the Blue Lagoon” and “Youthlight”.  There are some subtle differences in style between the two EPs, but overall over the eight tracks that they released they showed more of the outstanding songwriting that we saw on the debut.

My troubled relationship with idol music has been well-documented to this point, but I really enjoyed “Blue”, the debut EP from RAY.  Shortly after ・・・・・・・・・ disbanded, RAY emerged as the new face of shoegaze idol music (under the same management as their predecessors) and promised a highly-anticipated collaboration with Ringo Deathstarr.  They delivered just that on the new EP, the lead single of which, titled “Meteor”, was composed by the Austin shoegaze trio’s Elliot Frazier.  With two more tracks composed by Azusa Suga of For Tracy Hyde and Yusuke Hata of cruyff in the bedroom, RAY’s focus on quality songwriting over gimmicks is a positive sign.

Formerly known simply as kano, Tokyo-based bedroom producer azsakano put out another EP full of whimsical dreamy pop tunes in 2019.  Just like her previous works, “Romantics” features some really nice layering of textures and sweet vocal melodies soaked in reverb and sunken deep within the mix.  Azsakano is an expert at crafting lo-fi dream pop that is simple on the surface but gives the listener a lot to dive into.

On their latest EP, “square”, Nagoya’s mishca do a lot more texturally than they have in the past, while staying true to their very mellow, straightforward approach to songwriting.  If there was one knock on the band in the past it’s that they didn’t develop songs enough to really carry the slow, methodical backbone of their music.  Musically, “square” offers considerably more dynamic range, and the male-female vocals complement each other really well.

 


★ ☆ ★ BEST ALBUM ★ ☆ ★

“New Young City” by For Tracy Hyde

This can’t be much of a shock.  For Tracy Hyde had a lot of competition this year, but their third full length album, New Young City, sits atop this list.  Once again, For Tracy Hyde drew on western shoegaze and dream pop and Japanese pop influences and pieced together an album that is loaded with energy and emotion.  As a body of work, its structure is similar to that of their successful sophomore effort, but New Young City shows the band going even bigger with its sound.  It’s loaded with song of the year contenders.

SPOOL‘s self-titled full length debut seemed like a lock for the album of the year throughout most of 2019, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say it actually was.  It’s a powerful, well-produced album that demonstrates some really versatile songwriting.  SPOOL goes from deep and dreamy to dark and edge, infusing their shoegaze sound with elements of 90s US alternative rock and playful dream pop.  This was the breakout we were waiting for from the four-piece.

Monocism‘s Fukou album was the band’s first proper release since the end of the previous decade, and one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.  Over the past few years, frontman Tomoya Shiono has been working on some wonderful solo material under the moniker 宗凛 (Sourin), and monocism’s new album plays like an extension of that with its stuttering, mathy beats blanketed in thick, dreamy layers of noise and fluttering guitar leads.

Taffy once again had a quietly solid year, highlighted by their fifth studio album, Deep Dark Creep Love.  As is often the case with a Taffy release, there’s nothing groundbreaking about the album, but producing good shoegaze in 2019 is largely based on taking elements of the genre that have been done in the past and working them into something interesting.  That is what Taffy do so well and it’s why their new record is an excellent listen.  Their rendition of Bowie’s “Never Let Me Down” is gorgeous, too.

The final spot on this list was the hardest to decide on.  Cattle, SmokebeesNOAH, and a lot of other bands put out really good albums, and Kiiro Records’ FOREVER SHOEGAZE double release was probably the label’s best compilation to date.  But I’m going with Polly‘s latest release, Flowers.  Produced by The Novembers’ Yusuke Kobayashi, Polly’s third album is gorgeously dark and dreamy with tremendous depth thanks to a combination of airy guitars and synths.

Top 10 Japanese Shoegaze Albums and EPs of 2014

As you may notice, there are some big names missing from the list, namely Luminous Orange who released a really good album titled Soar, Kiss the Moon this year.  Though Luminous Orange is an important name in the history of Japanese shoegaze music, the new album simply isn’t a shoegaze record.

The Albums

As you may notice, there are some big names missing from the list, namely Luminous Orange who released a really good album titled Soar, Kiss the Moon this year.  Though Luminous Orange is an important name in the history of Japanese shoegaze music, the new album simply isn’t a shoegaze record.

Kinoko Teikoku, a band that has been on a massive roll over the past couple years, also distanced itself a bit from the genre with Fake World Wonderland.  The album itself is okay as a pop record, but lacks a certain intensity that I really came to appreciate from their first couple releases.

Finally, I’ve really enjoyed net label Kiiro Records‘ shoegaze compilations this year, but the large number of foreign artists included in the album disqualifies them from the list.  You should still download them though, which you can do here:  https://kiirorecords2.bandcamp.com/.

Enough about the records that didn’t make the list, though.  Here are my favorite ten shoegaze albums from Japan in 2014.

10.  The Novembers – Rhapsody in Beauty

Though The Novembers aren’t strictly a shoegaze band, the record isn’t as experimental nor as diverse as the Luminous Orange release and is chock full of the requisite “wall of sound” guitar noise of a good shoegaze album.  It’s loud as hell and the title track is extremely addictive.

9.  Origami – 113,197.73

This one made it in at the buzzer with a Christmas release.  Origami are a relatively unknown, brand new band based in England and thanks to a timely recommendation via Greg from DKFM I was able to hear this album.  Really nice ambient, textural stuff from the newcomers.

8.  Plastic Girl in Closet – Eye Cue Rew See

More sugary sweet pop music from Plastic Girl in Closet, whose album was their second release of the year (the first being their January mini-album White Loud).

7.  Aysula – Release Me

Another sort of under the radar release this year, Nagoya’s Aysula impressed at the 2013 Japan Shoegazer Festival in their hometown and were invited to this year’s event in Osaka as a result.  Their mini-album Release Me (seven tracks so I threw it on this list) shows off their intense blend of shoegaze and post rock with massive guitars and powerful vocals.

6.  Lemon’s Chair – My Favorite Reverb

As usual, Lemon’s Chair have put out a beautiful instrumental record.  Put on your headphones and jack up the volume, but be careful, as about halfway through the epic 12-minute final track “My Favorite” the band’s trademark guitar eruption kicks in and shit gets real.

5.  Shelling – Aquarium Sympathy

The textures on this album are beautiful, blending guitar noise, thickly layered synths and breathy, sunken vocals.  The electronic beats are super simple and do their job, pacing the listener through a sea of ambient fuzz.

4.  Cigarette in your Bed – Darkness

Cigarette in your Bed’s debut full-length album release marked their emergence from the High Fader ranks, and rightfully so.  They’re arguably the best band on the roster now and their gritty, somewhat grunge brand of shoegaze is a welcome addition to a pop-heavy Japanese shoegaze scene.  My only complaint is that the new version of lead single “Let Me Out” is significantly slower than the original.

3.  The Florist – Dark Entries

I’ve raved about this record a lot since it came out in April, and the replay value has hardly dimished since then.   The album is super “dreamy” and a bit melancholy, and the gently harmonized vocals throughout are a nice touch.  Lead single “Middle of Winter” has gotten a lot of love, and not just in Japan.  Dark Entries is a successful debut and it looks like a follow up is likely at some point in 2015.

2.  Boyish – Sketch for 8000 Days of Moratorium

Boyish entered the conversation a bit late with the November release of Sketch for 8000 Days of Moratorium, but made an emphatic statement with a killer record.  The album is a throwback to the jangly guitar-laden shoegaze sound reminiscent of early Ride and My Bloody Valentine, highlighted by my favorite track “Heartwarm Guitar” (which when translating the phoneticized Japanese reads alarmingly like “Heartworm Guitar”).

1.  Juvenile Juvenile – Our Great Escape

Our Great Escape is simply the best Japanese record this year.  Every song is good and the production is great thanks in large part to shoegaze producer extraordinaire Kensei Ogata’s hand in the mixing.  It’s hard to say much more, other than this album is excellent.

The EPs

10.  Suichuu Zukan – Nami

Though it’s just a single, Nami deserved a spot on this list as it’s one of the best tracks released in 2014.  I’m extremely hopeful that this is the first step toward a new album.

9.  Grinch/Cattle – Feel Flaw, Lost Girl (split)

Grinch’s “Digitalis” plays like a Coaltar of the Deepers track, and Cattle’s “fluff” is one of my favorite songs this year.  Two really good bands got together and released this split courtesy of Kiiro Records.  Sadly it’s only two tracks.

8.  Uchuu Neko-ko and Lovely Summer-chan – Hibi no Awa

Another project to which the aforementioned Lovely Summer lent her vocal talents.  It’s just two tracks but Hibi no Awa, released via Bandcamp a couple times, had quickly garnered interest from shoegaze communities and bloggers all over the place.

7.  Tokenai Namae – Osiete V Kankaku

While a lot of Japanese shoegaze bands draw on Western influences, Nagoya’s Tokenai Namae’s music goes back the the roots of modern J-Pop with a unique blend of guitar noise and “kayou kyoku”.  The self-proclaimed “kayou-shoegazers” released their second EP in March and gigged alongside Japanese shoegaze heavy hitters Plastic Girl in Closet and Shelling on their respective album release tours this year.

6.  For Tracy Hyde – In Fear of Love

The Tokyo-based indie pop group had a big year in its new incarnation.  Fronted by Lovely Summer – the same Lovely Summer mentioned above – For Tracy Hyde released two new EPs this year as well as a new single (a new version of an older track titled “Shady Lane Sherbet“).  In Fear of Love‘s opening track “First Regrets” is an ultra-catchy pop track, and the rest follows suit.

5.  the city – celebration – Another Osaka entry on the list, the city were newcomers in 2014.  The indie rock/dream pop foursome put out a really impressive, somewhat moody 3-track EP amidst a flurry of gigs in 2014.

4.  Ether Feels – Twilight Dreams 

One of my personal favorite bands and one that I’ve seen live countless times, Ether Feels have released a bunch of material previously, but Twilight Dreams marks the first time they’ve made their music readily available to an overseas audience.  Featuring fan favorite track “Raindrop Sparkle”, Ether Feels’ latest EP is a step up in production value from their previous works.

3.  Al Van She’s Coming – Drop* 

A nice introduction to how a persistent guitar noise attack and Japanese pop vocals work well together.  Hokkaido-based Al Van She’s Coming delivers the requisite loudness of shoegaze with uptempo pop beats while switching back and forth between male and female vocals.  “Mint” is one of the most addictive tracks I’d heard all year.

2.  Oeil – Myrtle 

Though Oeil has been hanging around and gigging sporadically over the last few years, Myrtle marked the band’s first proper release since 2007’s Urban Twilight EP.  Whereas their previous EP was more of an homage to My Bloody Valentine, the new one incorporates those same elements while also mixing in a bit of a new wave sound, namely on the extremely danceable title track.  The release of Myrtle coincided with Oeil’s support of Aerofall and Vibragun on their Japan tour this fall.

1.  Magic Love – Dawn

Magic Love came back from a roughly three-year hiatus and did so emphatically.  The band spent the latter half of 2014 gigging following the release of their Dawn EP, the reaction to which prompted a re-release of their 2011 EP Bright a Scene and a new two-track live sessions CD.  Magic Love’s harsh, screaming guitars contrast the jangly pop-infused sound that is generally more prevalent in the Japanese shoegaze scene these days.