10. Fantastic Explosion - Sound Track (from Time Evaluation Tactics Hyperion)
Fantastic Explosion's first new full-length album in five or six years more or less validates itself on those merits. Kazunao Nagata's (producer for many, the man behind Transonic Records, ExT Recordings, and owner of Transonic Studios) group is now joined by Tetsuto Yoshida (a Readymade artist) for the soundtrack to an anime film that I have...not seen. Fantastic Explosion's bouncy, technopop influenced sound is back in full swing, with some more mature and glossy elements overshadowing the disjointed, breakier elements of their early work. Playfully programmed drums and meticulous synthesizers are still king. No tracks that pop out at me as much as in the past (Japan As No.1), but on the whole the collection is more than worth your time.
9. This Immortal Coil - The Dark Age of Love
Some lo-fi indie bullshit, weepy chamber covers of Coil songs. But no, wait, that's a good thing! Coming out at the perfect time for me, having just really grown to appreciate and relate to Coil this past year, many of the interpretations play off the ideas of the originals with respect and passion, and are still beautiful in their own right. I'm not really familiar with any of the individual players, but the instrumentation is lush and carefully assembled, with rich tonal interplay between the strings and vocals, especially in tracks like "Teenage Lightning." "Tattooed Man" does an especially harrowing job embodying the spirit of the original: both give me the complete imagery of a dreary, brick paved harbor. Fascinating... Well, worth a listen, and essential for Coil fans.
8. Kaito - Trust
Kaito is one of Japanese techno producer Hiroshi Watanabe's most prolific aliases, and 2009's "Trust" is possibly the high point of what he has set out to achieve with it thus far. Kaito is known for deep, dreamy tech house (the project being dedicated to Watanabe's young son), with layer upon layer of synthesizers and sentimental key melodies. While this is consistently successful in making beautiful music, somehow, on the whole, Trust is much more engaging than the Kaito albums before it. The tracks seem to maintain a more active and tangible energy within themselves, with bouncier drum kicks and tighter rhythms. The payoff during the second half of "rainbow circles" has to be heard to be believed. Part of the way through the album we even switch to a minor key for a low-lit club feel for a little while... The tracks are mostly in the 7-8 minute range, so be prepared for some level of immersion.
7. NEELY - I Suppose / Nothing's Wrong
When I started compiling names for my favorite albums of the year, I actually tried to actively avoid albums released by people I know...but it seems like being aware of this one and not recognizing it would be impossible. This is the debut tape of a very close friend of mine, with the recordings contained therein selected from things he made for himself over the course of several years. Though it could be easily classified as a "noise album," upon a closer look it's not nearly so simple. Many of the pieces are arranged in obsessive and complex concrete music fashions, and are kept grounded by integral loops, rhythms, sometimes repeated musical phrases or bass pulses. Low, fuzzy, implacable sounds come from every direction, as though recorded in the middle of an afternoon nap in a haunted house. Lo-fi electronics, intoning vocals, moments of psychedelic and folk guitar. To be frank I haven't the faintest idea as to how some of the sounds on it were created, or made to sound how they do. But they are all real unto themselves, and the tone of the album overall is not foreboding or creepy as much as touching and, well, spooky. "Ing's Piano," is a personal favorite mind-bender. All in all it's nearly an hour of abstract, murky, and crushingly emotional music, with almost a tangible entity all its own.
6. XXX RESIDENTS - Attack of Killer Black Eye Ball!!!!
Okay this one kind of snuck up on me and is pretty high off the weird charts. As an interesting companion to "The Dark Age Of Love," here we have a hard, tekky tribute to The Residents from Japan. XXX Residents is presumably a producer with ties to two live Residents tribute performance acts, and Killer Eye Ball!!!! has over 40 minutes of driving, progressive club tracks based around pilfered Residents melodies and hooks. Some seriously interesting production in here, covering too much ground to really hold down. The mix takes an even more surreal turn in the last ten minutes, when an intense japanoise track rises out of "Census Taker," orchestrated by Merzbow and featuring some of his more concentrated and psychedelic noise of the decade. Capped off with an almost hokey lounge track, this is mandatory listening for open-minded Residents fans. (Oddly, there's quite a few that aren't...)
5. Fantastic Plastic Machine - FPM
This one blew me out of the water honestly. Tomoyuki Tanaka is obviously a badass producer with a lot of songs and especially remix work that I adore, but full-length Fantastic Plastic Machine albums are usually pretty hit-or-miss within themselves. Don't get me wrong, they have preciously few "bad" songs, but it's a lot of downtime in between the gems. However, barring maybe a couple of grating vocal cuts, 2009's "FPM" is a home run. If the opening track doesn't have you on the merit of how fucking weird it is, skip around a little. The album is buffered on all sides by the slick, house grooves that FPM is known for, maybe with a bit more chrome these days now that all the shibuya kids are putting on electro shades. And at the halfway mark, "Forever Mine (Piano Dub)," we're treated to a series of groovy, leaned back instrumentals with wet, skin-crawling percussion that even lends itself to the clicky side at times. "No Matter What Others Say" is my standout vocal track. Perhaps the best full-length album under the FPM moniker since its debut.
4. The Residents - The UGHS!
As always, The Residents had like fifty fucking releases this year, aided by their embrace of digital distribution to release content that would probably not break even on a physical product, which I think is great. "The UGHS!," however, did get a proper jewelcase CD release. The songs on this release are (supposedly) the product of an alternate band persona ("The UGHS!") The Residents adopted to create freeform musical sketches from which to cull themes for the soundtrack of their audio-only stage production, 2007's "The Voice of Midnight." And while you can hear bits and pieces, leitmotifs and grooves and patterns from VoM in The UGHS!, any self-respecting Residents fanatic/skeptic must question whether the whole thing is a clever reverse engineering... But completely independent from the mythology of it, The UGHS! is a truly unique work in its own right, and one of The Residents' most compelling and downright bizarre releases in years. The plodding, progressive soundscapes are all here, with some soaring strings and jaw-dropping guitar work by "resident" guitarist Nolan Cook. But the entire CD has a sort of sticky, humid, primitive atmosphere: Low end, scenic bass rumblings, ethnic hand percussion, grunting and chanting in non-languages. You can almost see the group recording, naked except for their eyeballs and top hats, squatting around a fire on a tropical riverbank, ingesting nauseating psychedelics and belching in rhythm. The music even descends into a kind of inhuman free jazz at times, before rising back up into hypnotizing grooves. "The Lonely Lotus" in particular is one of the most striking Residents pieces of the decade, while "Rendering the Bacon" just goes to show that they still know how to be completely baffling, in spite of their own brand.
3. Major Lazer - Guns Don't Kill People... Lazers Do
From every indie kid's favorite producers (whose names they know), Switch and Diplo, comes a totally unabashed and self-aware disc packed back-to-back-to-back with bite-sized poppy dancehall bangers that refuse to compromise. There's not a whole lot of substance here, admitted, but there's also not a bad track on the disc. Each one is a thick wax slab of ridiculous booty-shaking reaggaelectro dubs and jahs, balancing the riffs and hollow space within the tracks with infectious vocal hooks and tasteful sprinkles of autotune. Absolutely fucking determined to get white kids to locate and (attempt to) utilize their hips, from the fidgety "Pon De Floor" to the aggressive "When You Hear the Bassline" to the sugar/painkiller coated feel-good anthem of the year "Keep It Goin' Louder." (It's like an inverted "I Gotta Feeling." Like, imagine if that song didn't suck. Amazing, huh?) "Mary Jane" is possibly the most annoying song I've ever heard in my life, and my personal favorite. The only album in recent memory that you could put on at a party and not have to switch CDs after the first four tracks.
2. アーバンギャルド (Urbangarde) - 少女都市計画 (Girl's City Project)
Urbangarde is a self-proclaimed TOKYO VIRGINITY POP group, drawing from post-pop, retro synthpop, shibuya and visual influences to promote traditional Japanese social ideals and preach against the mortal dangers of promiscuous sex to the virgins, otaku and mentally diseased populations of Japan. Yeah... With alternately disturbing/hilarious imagery and a cute, kickin' synthpop sound, their 2006 debut "A Girl Only Lives Twice" was more fun than anyone could possibly ask for. But this year's sophomore followup, "Girl's City Project," raises the bar to a totally new level, with more unconventional song structures and darker, mature and schizophrenic production. For starters, during nearly every instrumental break in the album, where a simple guitar or key solo should go, we're instead treated to an impossible to break down concrete collage of instruments, synth riffing and beeping, guitar thrashing, pulsing chaos. Vocal delivery is theatrical, determined, and sometimes frenzied and hurried. Even the backbones of the tracks have had a tuneup, with the beats on tracks like "Revisionist," "All About The Girl," and especially the lead single "Concretegirl" boasting a degree of demure sophistication, like a well dressed man at a funeral. Perhaps most mind-blowing is "Tokyobirth," which ping-pongs in and out of degrees of delerium before finally rising into a "hyper j-euro" kind of extreme groove that previously only existed within 1:50 long j-pop songs composed for music games, with syncopated piano riffing at methamphetamine fueled BPMs and urgent vocals shouted in boy/girl harmony. Simply put, if you have any affinity for pop music, order yourself a copy of this and prepare to hear it pushed in seriously innovative directions, eschewing the trendy shibuya electropop sound to peer over the fence into something genuinely freaky.
1. Captain Funk - Sunshine
As an unabashed, rabid Tatsuya Oe fanboy, I had pretty high expectations for this album, which were met and then some by what is quite possibly his most teeth-decaying album to date. 2007 saw the release of Captain Funk's sister albums "Heavy Metal" and "Heavy Mellow," both wonderfully sentimental big beat/electro collections, but each of them did seem to have a lot of downtime in between the truely memorable tracks, evenly spread between the vocal and instrumental cuts. With Sunshine, however, Captain Funk hasn't sold himself short in the slightest. A feel-good, funny and sexy groove throughout, and a careful unified balance of themes and rising/falling action over the course of the disc helps cement it as an honest-to-god album, rather than a collection of songs. Vocal duties are tastefully split between Tatsuya himself and guests, and vox anthems like "Just Wanna Get You Tonight" and the bright, shiny, ultra-compressed title track (which also showcases Funk's penchant for rock star aesthetics) are at the heart of the album. Plenty of organic instrumentation and Oe's trademark custom voice synths combine with rolling bass and stinging guitars to create precise, euphoric cuts that are impossible to not dance to. In essence, Sunshine is classy, like seriously fucking classy. We're talking red-velvet lined limousine interior. Ending with the hopelessly melodic eight minute "Summer Nights," albums as concise and successful in their intentions as Sunshine don't come along very often. Definitely one to savor for a long time to come.
(Thanks for reading!)