MICHAEL MCCARTHY'S TOP 20 BEST ALBUMS OF 2012 LIST
I thought I would have a hard time writing a top 20 albums list for Otaku because I've covered so many superb artists that I feared even a top 50 wouldn't give me enough room to include them all. But you have to draw the line somewhere when you write these things and 20 sounded like a reasonable number to me. Besides, you tend to lose credibility when you write gigantic lists because then readers feel like you're just trying to give every artist you've reviewed honorable mention. Plus, if you're doing a top 50 list then the numbers tend to be viewed as arbitrary at some point. (Why is number 34 number 34 and not number 33?) I know the way people view these lists because I've been writing them on and off for over ten years and, more importantly, I always love reading year end lists on my favorite websites and in my favorite magazines.
As noted above, this is a list of the 20 best ALBUMS I've heard this year while writing for Otaku. (There are a couple of albums on this list that I never got around to covering before, since it's hard to get to everything that's released.) I did not include singles and mini-albums, partially because I prefer full-length albums and partially because I wouldn't even know where to start if I tried to review singles and mini-albums since I've literally reviewed hundreds and hundreds of them. Trust me -- it was hard enough just sifting through the albums.
I thought about making a top 40 albums list and including non-Asian music as well but, since I only cover Asian music here on Otaku, it ended up making more sense to simply make a list of Asian music. Now, let's start the countdown, shall we? (As is the standard, number 1 is the best of the 20.)
20. AKB48: 1830M
I don't even know where to begin writing about this double album. It's literally over-flowing with immensely catchy, super fast pop songs that are sure to zap your brain harder than a handful of caffeine pills. The story behind it is that it was released to celebrate the graduation of the super popular member Maeda Atsuko as well as to celebrate their first performance ever at the Tokyo Dome. To that end, the album is called 1830m because that's the distance between the group's Akihabara Theater and the Tokyo Dome. If you've never heard AKB48 before then this would make a perfect introduction as it includes some of their best songs, including "Everyday," "Flying Get," "Kachusha," Kaze wa Fuiteiru" and "Manatsu no Sounds Good." And if you have heard them before then chances are you already adore them and have thus added this to your collection or plan to do so soon. Unless, of course, you're among the portion of the population who gag every time they hear them, in which case you're probably not reading my reviews anyway.
19. SHINHWA: THE RETURN
Finally back together, following mandatory military service for some of its members, Shinhwa truly made The Return of the year with their 10th album, which also happens to be their best in my opinion. The album opens with "On The Road," beginning with some quiet singing over gentle piano. But once it hits the chorus and the guys start harmonizing it's clear that they're back in form if not at the very top of their game. "Hello, hello, hello, hello," they sing and it had their fans welcoming them back with arms wide open. And I certainly don't blame them. It's such a passionate song; it's impossible not to be moved by it. The same could be said of "Hurts," which is more melancholic and full of hip-hop verses while ultimately being a deeply affecting ballad. "Let it hurt, let it hurt so bad," they sing, their voices sounding angelic. This isn't an album full of ballads, however. The synthy "Red Carpet" and dubstep-ish "Venus" are exquisite modern pop diamonds.
18. ANGELA AKI: BLUE
While most Japanese albums feature a bunch of previously released singles with a half dozen or so new songs, there's only one previously-released song on singer/songwriter Angela Aki's Blue, that being "Kokuhaku," which was the outro theme of the TV anime series Uchu Kyodai. I suppose it's also noteworthy that this album was made while Angela was pregnant. Regardless, the album opens with the short but oh-so-sweet ballad " アイウエオ" ("Alphabetical"), which simply consists of Angela's gorgeous voice and some pretty piano. It's followed by "告白" (Google: "Confession"), a super catchy slice of brutally honest pop rock. "Say you love me," Angela sings passionately, wearing her heart on her sleeve throughout the song. In fact, she wears her heart on her sleeve during the whole album. Especially during the ballads, such as the epic "夜明け前の祈り" ("Pre-Dawn Prayer") and touching "Foolish Love."
17. BIGBANG: ALIVE - MONSTER EDITION
Like Girls' Generation, Korean boy band BIGBANG have achieved tremendous success in Japan during recent years. In addition to Japanese versions of some of their previous hits, this "Monster Edition" of their smash album Alive features three brand-new Japanese language tracks, the addictive dance-ballad "MONSTER," the delightful disco-throwback "Still Alive" and the vibrant, rock-flavored "Bingle Bingle." With their gigantic, expertly-produced beats and their glorious harmonizing, BIGBANG definitely get the boy band of the year award from me.
16. TOKYO JIHEN: 東京コレクション [TOKYO COLLECTION]
Many fans, myself included, were disappointed when it was announced that Shiina Ringo's band, Tokyo Jihen, were disbanding earlier this year. (I'm sure some fans were delighted though, as many do prefer her solo work.) Fortunately, they didn't leave us empty-handed, instead releasing Tokyo Collection, which features the very best live performances of their eight year career and the melancholic but wonderful new song "三十二歳の別れ." (Google couldn't seem to translate this title properly, but it apparently contains the word "Farewell," which probably makes it a proper goodbye message to their fans.) Even though this is a live album, it would actually make a good introduction to the band for those who've never heard them. This isn't a live album where you hear the audience or any sort of crowd interaction anyway. It sounds more like a live in studio sort of affair. And some of these songs, such as "禁じられた遊び" ("Forbidden Game") and "復讐" ("Revenge") actually sound sharper and edgier here than they did on the albums they were initially released on.
15. CRYSTAL KAY: VIVID
Crystal Kay is an artist who'd been around for years but had never really impressed me. I always thought that she had a very pretty voice but her songs didn't sound especially original or catchy to my ears. Just one listen to the highly contagious "Forever" and it's crystal clear that she's gunning for a fresh start, apparently born anew now that she's signed to Universal Records. The punchy beats are fierce, the synth is golden and her vocals are full of beauty and sexy confidence. "I can see it in your eyes," she sings, beaming, sounding like a new dance anthem goddess already. And almost every song here is a grade A winner. Check out "Be Mine," which mixes dance pop and dubstep better than anything except for the dubstep-flavored tracks on hitomi's album (appearing elsewhere on this list). To say the least, it makes Cheryl Cole's dubstep tracks sound like bad demos. Meanwhile, "ハルアラシ" -- or Haruarashi -- is a dance-floor filler that rivals Calvin Harris' recent work with Rihanna and Florence + The Machine. (I do love those collaborations. I just happen to like Crystal Kay's record more.)
14. MIU SAKAMOTO: I'M YOURS!
I'm Yours! is Miu's third collaboration with The Shanghai Restoration Project, an American collective specializing in pairing traditional Chinese instruments with modern electronic music. I must admit that I haven't heard their first two collaborations, but I'm head over heels in love with I'm Yours! I think I was already under her spell by the time I finished hearing the album's new age-ish intro track "Eyes (Opening)," which finds Miu singing Enya-style over just a touch of synth and subtle electro-flourishes. It's one of the most dreamy and intoxicating intros you'll ever hear, to be sure. If that doesn't hook you then the album's first proper song, "あなたと私の間にあるもの全て愛と呼ぶ" (Google: "Called love everything that is between you and me") is sure to do so. With its deep, throbbing beat and traditional strings highlighted by synth, piano and electric guitar, it's easily one of the year's most robust and kaleidoscopic songs. Two of my other favorites are "甘い匂い" ("Sweet Smell") and "More Speed, More Light," which are arguably the most electro-pop songs on the album, calling to mind the latest releases by Saint Etienne and Groove Armada.
13. TOMATO N' PINE: PS4U
J-Pop trio Tomato N' Pine, whom their fans affectionately call Tomapai, released one of the year's most solid pop albums. 14 songs -- including all of their singles thus far -- and there truly isn't a bad song in the bunch. The killer opening track "Train Scatting" sets the bar very high with its thick bass and massive dance beat, but, track-after-track, the girls continue to deliver shimmering pop gems and robust dance songs. And this is not an album where all of the songs sound the same. Far from it. For example, "Wanna Dance!" blends colorful horns, funky bass guitar wizardry and slick '70's-inspired disco grooves for one of the most irresistible retro songs of the year. Another standout is "Tabidachi Transfer," which packs some of the album's fastest beats with soaring strings and some of the girls' best, magical harmonizing. And if the '80's are your thing, check out "Pop Song 2 U," which calls to mind first period Kylie Minogue.
12. MOUMOON: NO LIGHT LAND
Japanese pop duo moumoon released their third album this year. The title might make it sound like it's going to be a very dark album, but it's actually quite the opposite. Opening track "Chu Chu" couldn't possibly be any more sweet and sunshiny. "You gotta come on, look at me, I want chu chu, kiss me," vocalist Yuka sings. And that's about as heavy as this uplifting and inspired album gets. They pepper "Yes/No Continue?" with a bit of a rock edge, but it's still very bright and vibrant, the sort of song that will have you daydreaming about unicorns and rainbows. Another highpoint is the intoxicating "Jet Coaster," which has a very anthemic vibe and a super catchy chorus that calls to mind Puffy Amiyumi.
11. DAL★SHABET: VOL. 1: BANG BANG
Following four hit mini-albums, girl group Dal★Shabet finally released their first full-length album this year and it's easily one of this year's must-have K-Pop albums. In addition to several new songs, you get all of their biggest hits, including the swing-flavored "Supa Dupa Diva," the synth-tastic "Pink Rocket," the disco-throwback "Bling Bling," and the almighty, crashing "Hit U." Of the new tracks, one of the best is "Mr. Bang Bang," which mixes high-potency synth with a mighty dance beat for a song that demands to be danced to. While the title might make it sound like it's about a womanizer, the lyrics are actually said to be about female empowerment, encouraging girls to pursue the guys for a change. And that's ultimately what this album is all about: GIRL POWER. For further evidence of this, check out "Many Boys," where the girls put scumbags in their place, singing "I won't miss you, go baby... many boys, many boys, I got so many, many more." A little bossy? Sure. A little sassy? Definitely. And these aren't bad things. Not at all.
10. NEMLINO: 100 ORACION
Nemlino formed in 2007 but it wasn't until this year that they released their mind-bending debut 100 Oracion, the translation of which is 100 Prayers. Whether you like dream pop, shoegaze or trippy music in general, 100 Oracion is sure to please you. They're like a cross between Beach House, Mew and Sigur Ros and you know how beloved and well-reviewed all of those artists are. And while I suspect that Nemlino were influenced by each of them, they certainly do not sound like a copycat band. On the contrary, they sound as original and ground-breaking as any of their peers. With many songs over seven minutes long, it's easy to say that they are quote unquote progressive. They clearly don't conform to your typical verse chorus verse sort of songwriting. On the contrary, their songs often start off mellow and dreamy and slowly grow into something astounding and grandiose, taking the listener away on an opium-like journey with them. Songs like "Birthday" and "Onward" begin by putting you into a trance, almost hypnotizing you, but by the time they're over you'll feel wide-awake and, chances are, much more alive than you felt before you listened to them.
09. HITOMI: ∞
∞ -- or Mobius -- is hitomi's 11th album and it's actually the first of her albums that I've ever liked. To my ears, her past music always sounded too out-dated and/or cheesy. That said, I've always liked her voice, but the songs simply failed to impress me. So imagine my surprise when I sat down to listen to ∞ and found myself in love with it just minutes later. Finally, she'd made an album that sounded ultra-modern and occasionally even ahead of its time. For example, "↑ ↓" -- a.k.a. "Up Down" -- blends glitchy beats, heavy doses of dazzling synth and dubstep flourishes splendidly. Her voice sounds slightly auto-tuned, but it's clearly for stylistic reasons, not because she needs it, and somehow it's actually likeable, this coming from someone who generally hates auto-tune and any song that uses it. Other highlights include the glimmering synth-fest that is "ハートリロケーション" ("Heart Relocation") and the EDM-minded "キセキトキセキ" ("Kisekitokiseki"), but, honestly, there isn't a bad -- or even mediocre -- song on the album. All 11 tracks are nothing short of impressive.
08. KIMBERLY CHEN: KIMBERLY CHEN
After spending years training around the globe -- and almost becoming a K-Pop star at one point -- China's Kimberly Chen finally returned home and recorded her self-titled debut album, the unbelievable thing being that she's only 17. "I'm on top of the world, I feel like a satellite," she sings during the dreamy, trip-hop flavored ballad "Satellite," one of the album's English language songs; half of the album being in English, the other half being in Mandarin. The album's opening track, “愛你 (Love You),” another ballad, which has six million views on Youtube, starts off quite mellow but grows in intensity as it goes on, Kimberly revealing more and more of her wide range as it does so. Whether she's singing softly, almost whispering, or hitting impressive high notes, her charismatic voice never fails to hold your attention. And she does a lot more than sing ballads. "星際旅行" ("Interstellar Travel") has a thick, thudding pop beat and some spit-fire hip-hop verses courtesy of Tai Ai Ling, while she reveals her sense of humor during "So Good," delivering the lines, "You see I'm loving commercial, I'm all about mainstream, money from Billboard, I spent it on your dog." To that end, the lyrics often reveal her age, but they're also very well-written, full of keen observations about life and love. Besides, it's refreshing to year a 17 year old actually sound her age as opposed to painting herself as some kind of sexpot or an overly-confident diva.
07. JOLIN TSAI: MUSE
Mandopop artist Jolin Tsai sought out the world's best writers and producers to collaborate on Muse, wanting it to have a truly international sound and the results are nothing short of astounding. From the unyielding beats of opening track "大藝術家 The Great Artist," to the candied synth fest that is "Dr. Jolin," to the gorgeous power ballad "彩色相片 Color Photos," the album is full of uplifting, truly inspiring gems, never failing to live up to its name. Instead of measuring up to international trends, what Jolin has done here is raise the bar, creating a magnificent album that other writers and producers around the globe will now have to try to live up to. Not that it's possible to make another Muse. This is a pop juggernaut on par with Madonna's Like A Virgin and The Fame by Lady Gaga.
06. GIRLS' GENERATION - GIRLS' GENERATION II ~GIRLS & PEACE~
Girls' Generation's attempt to take over the U.S. didn't even make them one tenth as popular as Psy, but their attempts to win over Japan have succeeded on a massive scale. (It's rumored that they even have more fans in Japan than in Korea at this point, if you can believe that.) Their first Japanese language album was a huge hit, so they continued releasing singles there, scoring hit after hit with uber-catchy singles like "Oh!," "All My Love Is For You" and "Paparazzi," the later being on of the year's best singles by any artist. All of these hits have been compiled here with new Japanese versions of some of their other songs and the highly infectious new single "Flower Power." At first listen, most of these songs might sound like bubble gum pop, but the funny thing is that they never lose their flavor, no matter how many times you listen to them. On the contrary, they become more and more addictive. Multiple listens also reveal subtle details to their extremely well-produced songs, like layers and layers of synth and loops galore.
05. TOMMY FEBRUARY6 AND TOMMY HEAVENLY6: FEBRUARY & HEAVENLY
Tommy February6 and Tommy Heavenly6 are alter-egos of Japanese singer Tomoko Kawase of The Brilliant Green fame, The Brilliant Green being one of Japan's most successful pop/rock groups of all-time. Wanting to try new things, Tomoko first created Tommy February6 to do '80's inspired synth pop. But then she wanted to do something darker, so she created her second alter-ego, Tommy Heavenly6. Both of these alter-egos have scored Tomoko many hit singles and fans would not let her put them to rest even after The Brilliant Green returned from a hiatus. And so Tomoko decided to make new mini-albums as both alter-egos and release them together. The February6 tracks were nothing short of contagious. Bright, synthy gems sure to satisfy artistic pop fans as well as cheesy pop fans. The Malibu Convertible-produced "Hot Chocolat" alone makes this a must-have, but you also get the glittery "Gimme Gimme Gimme" and the post power ballad "Last Slow Dance," among other treasures. As for the Heavenly6 tracks, well, they're arguably her darkest material yet. "Call Me Princess" is like the love child of Marilyn Manson and Lady Gaga. "I'm gonna make you mad about me," she threatens. Other tracks like "Hate Your Lies" and "I'm Your Devil" are just as heavy and call to mind Evanescence and Lacuna Coil.
04. KYARY PAMYU PAMYU: ぱみゅぱみゅレボリューション [Pamyu Pamyu Revolution]
Kyary got her first taste of fame during her days as a hugely popular fashion blogger. From there, she wound up doing some modeling and became one of Japan's most sought after models. But these things didn't satisfy her creativity entirely, or so it would seem, because she put those things aside -- at least temporarily -- to become a singer. Collaborating with Capsule's amazing producer/programmer Yasutaka Nakata, the new pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu became something of an overnight sensation with hit singles like "PONPONPON" and "Candy Candy," which both featured insane and unforgettable videos. And, since they were clearly onto something, it was decided that Yasutaka would work with Kyary on her entire debut album, which would also include those hit singles. Other highlights include the thumping "みんなのうた" and the '70's disco throwback "Drinker."
03. LEO IEIRI: LEO
Japanese pop/rock artist Leo Ieiri is only seventeen but that didn't stop her from writing her entire debut album. Just one listen to the energetic opening track "Sabrina" ("サブリナ") should be enough to win you over. It's truly that irresistible. Leo's unmistakable voice -- pretty but with a hint of grit -- pairs perfectly with her catchy guitar hooks and highly addictive melodies. It should also be said that Leo's voice sounds much more mature than your average seventeen year old's. Likewise, her songs are certainly not teeny bopper music either, though she does have a seemingly infinite number of well-deserved young fans. If Taylor Swift was a Japanese pop/rock star, this is what she'd sound like. For evidence of that, check out the tender piano ballad "キミだけ" ("Only You"), which finds Leo singing with a precious vulnerability in her voice, or the confident "Say Goodbye," during which she sings, "I want to say goodbye, I don't need you."
02. SANDY LAM: GAIA
Sandy started off her career as a mainstream Chinese pop star and she never really felt right with it. Six years ago she put her career on hold, not wanting to make any more "safely bland" music. After four years of not making music, she finally began work on Gaia, which took two years to complete. I can understand if some of her longtime fans are upset that they waited six years for an album and then it turned out to be nothing like her earlier work. That said, I'm obviously quite happy with her current sound, hence Gaia placing so high on my list. Musically, Gaia mixes a wide array of electro sounds and live instruments for an album where no two songs sound even remotely alike. Much of the album is dark as nightfall -- it begins with monks chanting in a creepy fashion -- but it's also remarkably beautiful, a perfect mix of Bjork and Emilie Simon with just a dash of Massive Attack. "無言歌" ("Speechless Song") is sure to send chills through your spine, while "枯榮" ("Impermanence") is one of the year's most enchanting songs.
01. LAURE SHANG: ODE TO THE DOOM
Laure started out her career by doing singing competitions. She won one in China and one in France. From there, she seemed to follow the typical route contest winners do, making albums that were written and produced by others. And she was successful at that. But was she very happy? Probably not. With Ode To The Doom, she finally took full control of her music. She wrote the music and lyrics for every song on the album and produced or co-produced all of the tracks herself as well. To that end, Ode To The Doom is a radical departure and a brilliant one at that. Gone are the mainstream pop songs in favor of dark and melancholic songs that are sure to haunt anyone who listens to them for a long, long time. And, while it's largely a gloomy affair, the songs are actually quite diverse. First of all, she sings in Cantonese, Mandarin, English and French. Secondly, she also does spoken word, apparently not content to merely sing, which is a good thing because her lyrics are very poetic and fit spoken word perfectly. Here are some lyrics from the title track: "Pardon me, I realize the sun has gone away, I've been sitting here all day now everything left inside me is hate 'cause all I do is take and take and take." If that intrigues you, you're sure to love this album. If it scares you, well, you should still check it out because I often find that I end up loving music that initially rubs me the wrong way.
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