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.

Kinoko Teikoku – “Ai no Yukue”

Well, it’s finally arrived.  The new Kinoko Teikoku album – the second since signing their major label deal with EMI – is here, and fans finally get to find out if the band is continuing on their major label J-pop trajectory or veering back toward the noisy alt rock we fell in love with years ago.  While “Neko to Allergy” had listeners resigned to the former, there were a couple of encouraging signs leading up to “Ai no Yukue” that there might be a little more balance this time around.

Well, it’s finally arrived.  The new Kinoko Teikoku album – the second since signing their major label deal with EMI – is here, and fans finally get to find out if the band is continuing on their major label J-pop trajectory or veering back toward the noisy alt rock we fell in love with years ago.  While “Neko to Allergy” had listeners resigned to the former, there were a couple of encouraging signs leading up to “Ai no Yukue” that there might be a little more balance this time around.  There was the impressive lead single, “Crybaby”, a new version of a track from one of their earlier demo EPs, and a brief but impressive glimpse at the album’s title track in the trailer for a new Japanese film.  Small sample it may have been, but it was enough to get doubters interested again.

I’ll be honest.  I expected to have a lot to say about this album, but I really don’t.  It’s really good.  It’s not mind-blowing, and it’s certainly not a shoegaze album (some people will have stopped reading at this point).  Let’s be real, though.  Kinoko Teikoku is a handful of releases removed from that sound.  Their final release from UK Project’s Daizawa label, Fake World Wonderland, was the first step toward creative control of the band shifting toward those who favor clean pop tracks to harsh roaring guitars.  Well that was two years ago, so it should come as no surprise that Ai no Yukue as a whole is a pop record.  But what’s different this time is that they seem to have been willing to meet fans of the old stuff halfway.  

The title track is a really good start to the album.  It has it all:  a gloomy intro, an explosive lead-driven hook, and reverb soaked vocals.  It never quite takes off as massively as it feels like it will at times, but that’s sort of a theme for this release.  The album’s closer and lead single, “Crybaby” is similar, though a bit more toward the pop end of the spectrum.  These are the two best songs on the album, and each showcases an enjoyable balance between the old and the new.  

Not far behind them in terms of quality is “Moon Walk”.  Kinoko Teikoku haven’t completely strayed from the melancholy sound that works so perfectly with Chiaki Sato’s gorgeous vocals, but when they’ve gone that route recently it’s been far too clean for my taste.  “Moon Walk” muddies it up a little bit, specifically in the chorus, and about halfway in fades into a nice tripped out portion through to the finale.  

One big surprise when the album’s tracklist was first published was the inclusion of “Azemichi de”, which first appeared on the band’s second demo EP “Yoru ga Aketara”.  As expected we basically get a cleaner version of the original.  Some of the edge in the chorus has been toned down a bit, but otherwise it’s very similar.  

The rest of the album is fine.  “Natsu no Kage”, as I mentioned in my previous review, is a Fishmans-esque dubgaze track, while “Last Dance” and “Ame-agari” are both really catchy pop tunes.  “Shi ga futari wo wakatsu made” is the only track I couldn’t really get into on the album.  These songs are the ones that fans hoping for the old Kinoko Teikoku may scoff at, though percentage-wise it’s a lot less than in recent memory.  

I think Ai no Yukue has a lot of really good stuff going on.  I like feeling like A-chan is being given more creative freedom, whether or not that’s actually true.  We know that Kinoko Teikoku are far removed from their days as one of Japan’s finest alt rock bands, and dwelling on the fact that we’re not going to get another Uzu ni Naru is sort of pointless.  But the band taking a step back and mixing in a bit of the old stuff with the new is welcome, and the result is a positive one.  We get a very solid pop record with a little bit of the grit and emotion that made us fall in love with the band in the first place.  For whatever my opinion is worth, Ai no Yukue was a success.  

The Return of Muso Planet (English/日本語)

After a fairly lengthy absence that started right around the time of my wedding, Muso Planet is going to be back, and it’ll be a little different this time.  Putting together the zine involved a lot of interviewing bands, translating (English, Japanese, AND Spanish), signing contracts with record labels all over the world, editing, doing minor graphic work (which I’m shit at, by the way), etc.  It was a lot of fun, but I got away from my original goal of discussing Japanese music.

After a fairly lengthy absence that started right around the time of my wedding, Muso Planet is going to be back, and it’ll be a little different this time.  Putting together the zine involved a lot of interviewing bands, translating (English, Japanese, AND Spanish), signing contracts with record labels all over the world, editing, doing minor graphic work (which I’m shit at, by the way), etc.  It was a lot of fun, but I got away from my original goal of discussing Japanese music.  Now with the blog re-focused on Japan and a somewhat regular radio show – as well as some other fun projects this year – I can’t go all out on the zine, but I can still effectively run Muso Planet in the form of a blog.  I’ve admittedly lost some touch with music outside Japan over the last year plus, so this will be a great opportunity for me to dive right back in.  This time, I’ll be focusing on reviewing material from overseas in both English and Japanese.  While it may not be as thorough as the zine was, I’m hoping that the blog will serve the same purpose effectively while also being a little more accessible with no downloads and everything embedded.  Anyway, it should be getting under way soon.  

Muso Planetという世界的なウェブジンは久しぶりに再開する!でも今回はちょっと違う形となる。ウェブジンを作るためにインタビュー、翻訳(英語、日本語、スペイン語)、世界中のレーベルとの契約、編集、レイアウト等をほとんど1人でやっていて、各号に沢山の力を入れていました。楽しくて、毎号完成後は満足していたが、このブログを作る目標「日本の良い音楽を海外の方に伝えること」からちょっと離れていた。この1年間半逆に日本の音楽に集中していて、日本、アジアのシューゲイザーラジオ番組をアメリカのDKFMでやっているため、以前のようにMuso Planetを一生懸命やる時間がないけど、ブログの形で出来そうだと思った。ということで、これからMuso Planetブログで海外のシューゲイザー、ノイズ等のアーティストの作品をバイリンガル(英日)でショーケースしていく。ウェブジンのように徹底的なプロジェクトではないだろうが、良いバンドを紹介する目的は変わらないし、ダウンロードする手間のないもっと便利な形になると思います。もうすぐ始まる。

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.