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|Discovolante's Best of: 1996 (Japan Edition)|
Although each list, with the exception of the earliest ones, have been 15 entries, this one has 20 simply due to the fact that 1996 was one of the greatest years for music in Japan, bar none.
From the beginning of the year to the end, via the Sputnik release calendar.
Viva! La Woman
Cult trip hop duo Cibo Matto, based out of NYC, was comprised of two Japanese songwriters who moved to the city around the same time, performing in a few groups together before deciding to strike out on their own and forming Cibo Matto. With the release of their first album "Viva! La Woman", the group's knack at creating thick, funky, offbeat tracks with the signature tongue-in-cheek lyrics penned by member Miho Hatori, largely centered around food. An album that struck a nerve in the underground music scene immediately upon release. Probably the only foreign-based entry in the series.
Ulfuls had a very slow rise to superstardom, having literally no commercial success for the first three years of their signing beginning in 1992. In December of 1995, however, Ulfuls released the single "Guts Daze!!", which was not only their first release to break the Oricon top 20, but was also their first to break the Oricon top 10, eventually being certified double platinum and becoming one of their signature tracks. After releasing a full length and an EP, Ulfuls finally hit their groove with the release of their second full length "Banzai", which was their true breakthrough both commercially and critically. It has the brilliant blend of comedic tinges and serious, soulful R&B-esqued elements that would become their trademark, with "Banzai" having some of their best crafted tracks to date, including the aforementioned "Guts Daze!!", as well as the fan favorite "Osaka Strut", as well as the self-titled track which was released as a single that became another signature for them.
Fishmans are one of those rare Japanese bands that managed to take a life of its own and truly connect to foreign audiences in a way that is really impressive. And with their sound that ended up evolving into a perfect half-and-half mixture of dozy dream pop and reggae, it isn't hard to see why they connected like they did to such a large following. 1996 would be their most prolific year as they released two critically adored masterpieces: "Kuuchuu Camp" and "Long Season", so you could take your pick, and most have picked "Long Season" as the better of the two. My vote would have to be for "Kuuchuu Camp", however, primarily because I do not have the attention span to listen to a one-track album, which is essentially what "Long Season" is broken down into 5 parts. Also, "Baby Blue" is such an eternal jam.
|4||Sunny Day Service|
Sunny Day Service were already underground indie pop darlings by the time they released their second full length "Tokyo", although it would prove to be this very album that finally broke the group to a larger audience. Mellow and with a charming slightly oft-kilter melodic element that harks back to the days of 1970s music in Japan, "Tokyo" is to this day regarded as one of Sunny Day Service's finest efforts, and helped position the group to be one of the most influential and well known indie pop bands in Japanese music.
|5||The Space Cowboys|
Children of Distortion
The Space Cowboys made some slight waves in the mainstream world for their unique blend of college rock and glam, and that description literally sums up their brilliant debut "Children of Distortion" perfectly. An album that is nothing like anything else in the Japanese mainstream at the time or since.
With the release of "Orange", electronica masters Denki Groove finally released their true magnum opus that encapsulated the best of their various influences and styles. On here, you've got the traditional rave tracks that became their staple over the prior 3 years, as well as bits of their old electrorap selves ("Dare da!"). Every track is an ecstasy-soaked masterpiece.
Globe made history with the release of their first self-titled album, with it not only temporarily becoming the best-selling album in Japanese music history (with it currently ranked at number 7, selling an astronomical total of over 4 million copies), but also by ushering in a new era of electropop, headed by musical mastermind and main Globe songwriter Tetsuya Komuro. While it may have aged like milk, Globe's first effort is not only a hugely fulfilling listen to those who are into mid 90s dance music, but also a historical feat that introduced one of the country's most dominant pop acts of all time.
|8||Dreams Come True|
Although the previous few albums of Dreams Come True were a bit too poppy and plain for my taste, there is no doubt that they were one of the biggest pop bands in the entire country by the time they released they released their eighth album "Love Unlimited∞", which showed a return to form and back to basics approach that revisited their R&B past in a serious way. Fronted by the singles releases of the bombastic "Romance" as well as the powerhouse "Love Love Love", which would end up being one of their most critically and commercially acclaimed singles to date selling over 2 million copies on its own, the album is also home to some hidden gems like the chilled "Arashi ga Kuru" and the mad funk of "Sweet Revenge". One of the very best Dreams Come True albums, without a doubt, which further cemented their long lasting legacy.
|9||Super Junky Monkey|
Following the dizzying "Screw Up" is the even more dizzying and downright puzzling "Parasitic People", a technical prowess that shows just how incredible Super Junky Monkey were as a band. While it is indeed a work that requires a much wider attention span, the end result is rewarding and after following the brilliant "Screw Up", successfully puts Super Junky Monkey on the top of the avant-garde metal list, in my opinion.
Back in June of 1996, a little known band at the time known as Incense would release their debut "Meteorites", which would later be hailed by shoegaze fans across the globe as one of the greatest albums in the genre that wasn't from one of the big UK names. From the get-go, you are quite literally catapulted into the cosmos with the soaring opener "Aquamarine", and things just naturally bloom from there. A fuzzed out, almost serene experience that can be accurately described to the Japanese "Loveless".
The posterboys for working hard and getting greatly awarded for it, Mr.Children were still on their way to becoming true all-time greats. Quite honestly, all the band needed was just one more album of the same caliber as 1994's "Atomic Heart" to really make a long lasting impression, and in 1996, they filled that position with "Shinkai", an album that was noticeably darker than "Atomic Heart", and as a result excelled at the darker side much more efficiently. This was the album that proved Mr.Children had true chops when it came to songwriting and that they weren't just some flash in the pan, featuring shorter tracks that were more experimental and varied. More concise with no fat at all on the edges, "Shinkai" is one of not only one of Mr.Children's more artistic efforts, but also one of their all-time best as well.
Today is Another Day
By the mid 90s, the enigmatic Zard had carved a huge place in Japanese pop culture, with its hard hitting sound and timely lyrics of the project's focal point Izumi Sakai resonating very strongly with Japanese youth at the time. In 1996, Zard released perhaps its greatest achievement with "Today is Another Day", an album drenched in heavy emotion that still manages to be light. Sakai's vocals haven't sounded as good since Zard's first album "Good-by My Loneliness" all the way back in 1991, and the fact that this was Zard's first album to be entirely produced by Sakai herself, shows that she was not only the project's focal point, by its entire purpose for being. One of Japan's most well done pop albums of the decade, by far, and one of the prime examples as to why Zard was one of Japan's most dominant pop acts.
Something in the Air
Zabadak was in deep trouble when vocalist Yoko Ueno left in 1993. After a year of silence, Zabadak suddenly returned in the fall of 1994 as the solo project of main songwriter Tomohiro Kira, who would also naturally take up vocal duties for the project as well. The first release of the newly relaunched solo Zabadak wasn't... too good, and the project disappeared for much of 1995, before returning in 1996 with two very ambitious albums. In my opinion, the best of the two has to be "Something in the Air", which follows the thematic formula which was what Zabadak was originally known for before becoming the solo project. "Something in the Air", however, is something very different in the project's discography with its modern British-influenced sound. The change in pace is indeed a great breath of fresh air in Zabadak's history, which started off pretty rocky upon becoming Kira's solo project in 1993. "Something in the Air" showed that the project had a very bright future ahead of it.
Following the surprise success of her previous album "Go to the Top", hitomi chose to relish in her new image as a sex symbol of the 90s with much of the themes of "By Myself" showing a strong confidence boost in the artist's music. While "Go to the Top" was more timid and coy in its approach, "By Myself" is far more direct and upfront, with wizard Tetsuya Komuro's slick production making the perfect backdrop for the aggressive hitomi. Although not as much of a visible influence as some other albums on this list, "By Myself" certainly helped kick down many barriers in terms of making JPop a bit more raunchy and fun, unknowingly opening the doors for the likes of Ayumi Hamasaki and Koda Kumi.
In 1996, the eccentric Tomoe Shinohara made her album debut with "Super Model", an album that is so wild, colorful and insane that nothing else compares, not even Shinohara's later material. Produced by the aforementioned electronica duo Denki Groove, their deranged vision pops in technicolor with Shinohara's childish vocals mainly screeching over them, although at times she does an impressive job at actually singing subdued, as shown on the spacey, glitched out "I Love You, De Ja Vu". The animated chaos that is "Super Model" is something that one must experience on their own to fully grasp.
Hot off of a remarkable debut year, Yuki Uchida was rolling high as one of Japan's most beloved idols. Seemingly not content with her cushy role as one of the country's most adored tomboys and singing bubblegum electropop earworms, Uchida did a huge 180 that ultimately cost her her career as a pop singer. In 1996, she released two albums: "Ai no Baka" and "Nakitakunalu", both of which were radically different from her year as a bubblegum sweetheart. Featuring a stripped down and intimate production, both albums, specifically "Nakitakunalu", were an antithesis to her 1995 golden year. And they were both amazing efforts that absolutely trumped anything she did the year before. The masses failed to see it at the time, however, and Uchida then retired from pop music by the end of the decade and became a respected actress instead.
R&B/art pop legend UA (pronounced oowaah) made her full length debut in October of 1996 with the release of "11", an album credited with introducing the new-and-improved modernized R&B sound, alongside Aco. The down-to-earth and laid-back vocals of UA are impressive on their own merit, combined with the crisp production of "11" which add a new level of awesomeness.
Frontman of long-running visual band Penicillin, Hakuei, did a ballsy move when he released his first solo album in 1996, the same year his band was burning up the charts and still relatively new at the time. While it was a move that risked overexposure, it turned out to be quite a beneficial move commercially, with the album breaking the Oricon top 10, becoming one of the best-selling solo visual kei albums of all time not released by hide, Gackt or Hyde. "Angel Trip" is an album that is far different from Penicillin, who were still a gothy band at the time, and instead features breathtaking synthesized pop tracks with a sound that is practically indescribable. A sense of strong nostalgia and melancholy lingers, like the end of summer when you're a kid. An album that unexpectedly hits all the checkmarks, and I would argue is better than any Penicillin album.
In 1996, guitarist and singer Koji Kurumatani had ended a run with two very successful bands back-to-back: first with Baku, then with Shibuya-kei Spiral Life. Kurumatani then decided to start his own solo project, which would be called Air, and that year, the project released its first two albums, with the edge in my opinion going to the latter, "Wear Off". Kurumatani has always been one to evolve musically with each project, and Air is no different, with "Wear Off" having a lo-fi sound that borrows elements from shoegaze and grunge. The noisiness of the album can be blistering at times, specifically on the track "Under the Sun", which has a chorus that starts off eerily similar to "Epic" by Faith No More, with the bridge giving up the vagueness and straight up plagiarizing. The highlight of the album is undoubtedly the epic "Hair Do", which is a hallucinogenic shoegaze fever dream of a ride. A fantastically well done beginning to one of Japan's greatest alt rock solo artists.