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 ★ ☆ ★


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.

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.