2019 – The Year In Review

The year in J-pop…

2019 saw a mixed year of underground idol action, new releases from established acts and more than a few interesting UK-based events. Here’s J-Pop Go’s review of the year…

The year started off with some sad news when it was announced that Mikio Fujioka, the guitarist for BABYMETAL, had passed away. Fujioka, who was only 36, was part of the Kami Band and had been part of BABYMETAL since 2013. Known to fans as Ko-Gami (“The Little God”), Fujioka had been in a serious condition since falling from an astronomical observation platform in December 2017.

January saw rock outfit Band-Maid return with two new singles ‘Glory’ and ‘Bubble’. Meanwhile, idol group Moso Calibration, one of the Dear Stage groups, sadly disbanded in February.

Dempagumi.inc returned with a new album Wareware wa Dempagumi.inc da. The album heralded the new Dempa team, following the departure of Moga back in 2017 and the addition of new recruits Rin “Perorin” Kaname and Nagi “Nemo” Nemoto (who were pulled in from fellow idol outfit Niji no Conquistador). Nemu Yumemi had also announced plans to leave Dempagumi, which she subsequently did in January this year.

Wareware wa Dempagumi.inc da seemed to be a welcome return to those qualities that make Dempagumi.inc shine brightest, our review concluded, “it eclipses the rather uneven Gogo Dempa and perhaps provides a strong foundation for this new incarnation of Dempagumi going forward.”

We cast our eye over cyberpunk duo Psydoll, with a focus on their Machine Kingdom EPs. Consisting of Nekoi (vocal,keyboard,songs) and Ucchi (guitar,arrangements,computer works), Psydoll offer themselves as a band that make “destructive, sweet sounds” and have been described as “J-Pop for the Nine Inch Nails generation.” They also made a visit to the UK for a special live appearance which included an amazing live rendition of ‘Hector’.

Overall, Psydoll are an outfit that we summed up in glowing terms: “The band continue to deliver a blistering combination of electronics and guitars that’s managed to strike a chord with people for over two decades.”

After a successful event in 2018, promoters Orion Live once again staged a special event showcasing underground idols. Titled Indie, Idol & Infamous, the event featured 2& (Double And), Hanako-san and Garuda.

Of all of these, it was Hanako-san’s performance that was probably the most memorable with her party piece consisting of distributing various food projects around the venue. “Like a human fountain, she showers everyone within striking range – even some of us standing halfway back are not immune. Hanako-san has got an almost supernatural range and accuracy with her mouth and there’s an instant shock as the sticky liquid coats hair, face, skin and anything else not covered up.” She also managed to take out several people with Cadbury’s Crème Eggs in a similar fashion 😮

Nagoya-based new wave band Budo Grape released a trio of rare albums on Spotify, Apple Music, and other digital services. Previously unavailable outside of Japan, the set of early recordings — Koibito wa Kousite Tsukuru (2005), Sokokara Detekinasai (2006), and Otonatachi Kodomotachi (2007) — launched the band’s popularity in the Japanese indies scene, and the catchy riffs and outer-space energy of their music videos brought them to their USA debut at A-Kon in Dallas, Texas in 2008, coupled with a nomination for Best Japanese Pop Artist in Viz Media’s 2008 Shojo Beat Music Awards.

In May, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu returned with new single ‘Kimi ga Iine Kuretara’. The song, used as the ending theme song of the YTV drama Mukai no Bazuru Kazoku, hit all the right marks with a perky melody and a strident electronic foundation.

Momoiro Clover Z also returned with their self-titled fifth studio album, which included ‘Re:Story’, ‘Annta Tobashisugi!’, ‘GODSPEED’ and ‘Sweet Wanderer’. The colourful outfit also released new singles later in the year, including the catchy ‘Odoru Pompokolin’ (complete with its charming anime video).

The summer saw the release of Rie Fu’s latest studio album Places. “There are themes peppered throughout the album that reflect on the idea of your place in the world” our review mused, “The likes of ‘On Track’ and ‘The City’, for instance, have a lyrical element that touches on urban living.” It was an album that displayed Rie’s love of singer-songwriter artists such as Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Karen Carpenter and our review concluded “Places offers a pause for thought and a time for reflection which, given the turmoil of 21st Century life at the moment, is a welcome place to be.”

Rie had also announced her plans to leave the UK, but not before she staged a special showcase for Places at a live performance in London (which also included a new arrangement of the the classic ‘Life Is Like A Boat’).

BABYMETAL offered up ‘PA PA YA!!’, a dynamic composition designed to capture and command your immediate attention. “Its bonkers screeching synth sounds and speedy guitars are matched with classic melodic lifts on the vocals” our review concluded. The addition of Thai rapper Fucking Hero seemed to spur some online moaning from people who forgot that Babymetal’s DNA was built around combining two disparate genres, but as we had seen with Perfume in previous years, some people just want a do-over of ‘Gimme Chocolate!!’ for ever.

Dempagumi.inc followed up their album release earlier in the year with a new single ‘Inochi no Yorokobi’. Adopting a dramatic visual image inspired by the Japanese style of ganguro, Dempa’s latest outing was a true epic clocking in at over 5 minutes. But with their knack for frenetic rhythms and uptempo melodies, it demonstrated that the idol outfit were still at the top of their game.

Shonen Knife bounced back with the raw tunes of Sweet Candy Power, an album which featured the fuzzy delights of “Amai! Amai! Amai!” (The video for which also reunites the whole Shonen Knife family), the widescreen rock of ‘My Independent Country’ and the surf rock appeal of ‘Wave Rock’.

The rock trio also graced these shores as part of their 2019 live tour, a performance which touched on all eras of Team Knife and closed out with dynamic Powerpuff Girls tribute ‘Buttercup (I’m A Super Girl)’.

July marked the passing of Johnny Kitagawa, who had run Johnny & Associates for nearly six decades. One of the most powerful figures in the Japanese entertainment industry who was also responsible for overseeing the careers of Arashi, KAT-TUN, SMAP, Hey! Say! Jump and News among others, Kitagawa was always a controversial figure whose death marked the end of a particular era in Japanese music.

The summer also saw the return of Hyper Japan, another superb weekend celebrating Japanese culture, whose musical guests included Necronomidol, Naomi Suzuki, choco, IJEN KAI and even a K-On! Tribute act. Although everyone put on sterling live performances, it was Necroma who stole the weekend with some amazing choreography and energetic vocals.

We also interviewed Necronomidol to gain insight into the occult idol outfit. Himari summed up the groups success: “Since Necronomidol has been going overseas for several years, over the course of those years we’ve seen other groups near to us also going overseas. The underground idol scene itself has become more of an international expression of Japanese culture similar to anime.”

Necroma also released the excellent Scions Of The Blasted Heath EP, although there was sad news as Kunogi parted ways with Necroma this year as well.

We spoke to Idol Underworld master Derek Vasconi on the challenges of bringing idol merchandise to the world. “I wanted to create a bridge to foreign fans who don’t have access to this” he commented, “who maybe want to hear a group, but they don’t want to go to Tokyo and go to a show or they just can’t for any reason. They can at least get that music and not go through all these weird channels to do it.”

Hyper Japan also introduced us to Hirasawa to Tainaka, the aforementioned musical duo modelling themselves after the K-On! characters of Yui and Ritsu. We also interviewed the pair on the same weekend.

Naomi Suzuki provided some insight into her promotion of the rugby as well as her vital relationship with London’s annual Japan Matsuri. “My aim is always to make a bridge – friendship – between Japan and the UK” she reflected, “because we have a different culture, but I can see English people really enjoying that different culture. You know, the Rugby World Cup, most of the supporters that come from other countries is the British in Japan. So, I think we have a really good relationship between UK and Japan.”

The cast of Love Live! Sunshine!! Dropped into Los Angeles with an interactive concert featuring tunes culled from seasons one and two – and even some songs from the new movie, Love Live! Sunshine!! The School Idol Movie: Over the Rainbow!

Celebrating the 15th anniversary of her debut, J-pop singer-songwriter Ai Otsuka released new song ‘Chime’, chosen as the new opening theme for the 2019 TV anime Fruits Basket.

The curiously-named Zombie-Chang offered up some mesmerising moments on Petit Petit Petit. Weaving in synth-pop elements with bass and percussion, the end result is a collection of crisp tunes that could be viewed as a palate cleanser if you’ve over-indulged in the more sugary end of J-pop.

Meanwhile, techno pop trio Perfume returned with the extensive Perfume the Best: P Cubed. As a compilation album, it featured 52 tracks spanning the group’s career and was released to commemorate the 15th anniversary of their major debut.

Babymetal followed up their earlier single release with new studio album Metal Galaxy, a release which our review concluded: “Their sound is evolving and changing and they’re not afraid to embrace different approaches”.

In October, Naomi Suzuki staged a concert that included performances from James Taylor Quartet, daikagura performer Michiyo Kagami, award-wining comedian Yuriko Kotani and superstar actress and singer Mari Natsuki. This music event tied into the Bridge Together Project, part of the Beyond 2020 programme, designed to create a long-lasting Olympic legacy for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The project aims to introduce the beauty of Japanese culture to a diverse global audience and encourage people from all over the world to visit Japan.

December saw the release of Conqueror, the sixth studio album by Band-Maid. The album also featured the hand of the legendary Tony Visconti, who produced vocals for the track ‘The Dragon Cries’.

With 2019 coming to a close, we can only look forward to the new year to see what J-pop delights 2020 can bring us.