Monday, 20 December 2010

The Best Of 2010

I’m exceptionally proud to present the return this year of my annual year-end best-of list. Lovingly compiled and painstakingly sequenced by yours truly, this is the definitive selection of the tracks that have been floating my boat this year. As usual, it’s an eclectic, international mix: there’s sweet pop and next-level indie rock from Japan; epic, literate, melancholy metal from the United States; uplifting, euphoric trance from the Netherlands; a tragic tale of heartbreak from the highlands of Scotland; chilling mediaeval industrial from Germany – and more. There’s also the sound of a couple of bands most thought long past their prime coming back with some of their best ever material. In short, there’s something here for everyone with a musically open mind. The selection can be downloaded here. As ever, please feel free to comment!

1. Magnetic Man - "Flying Into Tokyo" from the album "Magnetic Man"
This gorgeous, filmic string instrumental was the most interesting and refreshing track on the dubstep supergroup's debut album.

2. DaizyStripper - "Trigger" from the album "Birth"
The indie visual kei band released not one, but two debut albums on the same day and this uplifting, propulsive pop-rock track is a definite highlight.

3. Kamelot - "Hunter's Season" from the album "Poetry For The Poisoned"
Epic, melancholy metal with amazing, cryptic lyrics which expertly balances melody with brute force.

4. Armin van Buuren & Sophie Ellis-Bextor - "Not Giving Up On Love" from the album "Mirage"
The "Groovejet" star returns after years in the wilderness with this standout cut from the King of Trance's new solo album.

5. School Food Punishment - "Butterfly Swimmer" from the album "Amp-Reflection"
Amazing, futuristic dance-rock from Japan, which sounds programmed but is, astonishingly, all played live.

6. Alan - "Kaze ni Mukau Hana" ("Flower Facing The Wind") from the single of the same name
This huge, Disneyesque ballad, sung by the velvet-voiced Tibetan pop star, is the theme song from an epic samurai movie.

7. Norma Jean - "Falling From The Sky: Day Seven" from the album "Meridional"
More cryptic, literate metal, the mellowest and definitely the most intriguing track from this great band's new album.

8. The Bug - "Skeng (Autechre mix)" from the compilation "Ninja Tune XX"
Futuristic dancehall reworked by the IDM legends into something cold and utterly inhuman, this is one of the most chilling things you are ever likely to hear.

9. Heimataerde - "Gloria Et Morte" from the album "Unwesen"
The Templar-obsessed German mediaeval industrial act return with this dark and haunting track from their new masterpiece.

10. Roger Shah & Signum - "Ancient World (long haul flight mix)" from the compilation "Magic Island Vol.3"
Pumping, hands-in-the-air trance with some of the most euphoric melodies of the year, this will take you right back to the summer.

11. Dàimh - "Mo Mhàili Bheag Òg" ("My Little Young Màili") from the album "Diversions"
This absolutely heartrending song from the Gaelic folk supergroup is narrated by a soldier awaiting trial for the murder of his wife, having accidentally killed her in the mêlée when a squad of soldiers came to arrest him.

12. Ash - "Insects" from the album "A-Z Vol.2"
One of the very best ever songs from the Northern Irish indie rockers, who this year released a new single every fortnight.

13. Korn - "Oildale (Leave Me Alone)" from the album "Korn III: Remember Who You Are"
Another blistering return to form from the Californian nu-metal pioneers, who went back to basics on their raw and cathartic new album.

14. LM.C - "Bokura no Mirai" ("Our Future") from the album "Wonderful Wonderholic"
Wonderful, epic, heartbreaking, beautiful pop-rock from the visual kei duo featuring guitarist Aiji, late of the sorely lamented Pierrot.

15. 9 Goats Black Out - "Heaven" from the album "Tanatos"
One of the most gorgeous, otherworldly visual kei songs ever written, this seven-minute monster captivates from beginning to end.

16. Hans Zimmer, Geoff Zanelli & Blake Neely - "Honor" from the album "The Pacific"
This rousing, deeply emotional piece for brass and strings was the theme for the acclaimed TV series about US operations in the Pacific theatre during WWII.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Some of the many weird things about visual kei

OK, so I've been into this visual kei stuff for quite some time now and I'm still getting my head around some of the really weird things about it.

1. They all look like chicks. The aesthetic is meant to be "androgynous" but to me, that means you can't tell whether they're men or women; you look at these guys and they just look like women. That's not androgyny, people.

2. The concept. Every band has to have a "concept", and all their looks, lyrics and music are supposed to stem from this. Why? Why can't they just play music? Why can't they write about whatever they want, whenever they want?

Everything is released in multiple editions. Now in the West, you'll often see two CD versions of an album, one of which will be more expensive and will usually include a couple of bonus tracks and a DVD featuring a few promo videos and/or live clips. In Japan, it's not just albums, but singles as well - and often there are three different versions. It's not just the majors that do this, either - the indies have got in on the act as well.

Singles still sell in Japan for the simple reason that they are always new material. The idea of releasing tracks as singles that have already been released on an album, like they do in the West, is incomprehensible and anathema to the Japanese. Why would you? (I have to say I'm with them on this one.) So for instance, you'll get a single with two tracks, released in three editions: the first will include a DVD featuring the promo video ("PV") for the lead track; the second will include a DVD with a PV for the other track; and the third ("regular") edition will be CD only, but will have an additional track. So if you're a "real fan" of the band and you want both the videos on DVD (rather than just watching them on YouTube), and the extra track, then you "have to" buy all three versions.

Then they'll do this with the album as well, filming PVs for two non-single album tracks for the DVD versions, and putting an extra track on the third version. And people will buy them all! Me, I don't give two hoots about music videos or bonus DVDs, so I like this arrangement - I just buy the regular edition; it's cheaper and has an extra track.

4. Engrish. Not only will you get single words of English dropped randomly into song titles and lyrics for aesthetic effect, you'll get entire songs written in what is basically gibberish, where the guy has thought it would be über-cool to write a song in English even though he clearly can hardly speak a word of it. Then there are the appalling liberties taken with case and punctuation. Because the Roman alphabet is so novel to the Japanese, they just switch between lower and upper case as they please, inserting random punctuation wherever they feel like it...

5. Tags. Which leads me on to the thing I get most irate about - the absolutism that the fans have about this. They insist on tagging the files in the exact same manner in which the song is written on the sleeve (wonky capital letters and all), and woe betide you if you write it different. The people on Last FM are the worst culprits for this, even going so far as ordering people to retag their files.

6. The major labels. In the West, when a band signs a major label deal, their fans brand them sellouts. In Japan, they rejoice. "Going major" is a cause for celebration and is what every band is working towards from day one - and every indie label, because unlike in the West, the band doesn't leave their old indie label and sign a new contract with the major; they remain signed to the indie, who basically license them to the major label, making a fat fee in the process.

Another weird thing is when a band goes major, their career starts over from scratch; even if they've recorded like five albums, the major label will never make any mention of this - it's like it never happened. Their first album for the major is their "first album", period. And what's more, they make a really big deal out of how many releases the band has had ("Ayu drops her 34th single!"), as though pumping out "product" is the name of the game.

7. The specialist vocabulary. English words take on bizarre new meanings in Japanese. For instance, a gig is known as a "live" (because, presumably, the band plays live). This is a textbook example of wasei-eigo in action. Then, if a band is sufficiently popular, they'll get to play "oneman" lives - where they play without a support act. What gets me is that western fans insist on using this terminology as well. "Live" is not a noun of English, people!

8. Their gigs have names. I can understand a tour having a name, but in Japan, the individual gigs, especially one-off shows, have names as well. Why?