2014, needless to say, was a very strange year in terms of music, myself obviously included. Instead of rambling on with some sort of prelude, let’s just jump straight into the heart of it.

Idols were stagnant

Quite frankly, the idol industry as a whole just seemed to stop in terms of innovation. When a year comes by and the largest most mainstream group happens to be also the most stylistically innovative, you know you’ve got a problem.

By and large, every group essentially maintained whatever status quo they ended 2013 on. The AKS/48 machine churned on, and while they compositionally innovated (or rather, continued to do so, because they haven’t really changed that ever since the beginning of the group), but did so in a way that delivered the exact same overall effect that their singles in 2013 had. In a sense, it would be like cooking the exact same dish, just changing up the recipes a bit. As such, I felt their headline singles were nothing but a callback to earlier songs with the lone exception of Labrador Retriever – and even then, that, too, felt like a weird French Pop take on Ponytail to Shushu. While other groups, like Dempagumi.inc or Negicco, continued to put out great music, it seemed as though the theme of 2014 was a sense of “constrained innovation” – continue to innovate, but not to the point where it changes drastically the sound of whatever direction the group was pointing towards. 2013 might have brought in new breakthroughs, but when the year ended it was like all that creativity and exploration simply vanished.

Some naysayers might suggest that 2014 ushered in idols not as a musical genre but as a medium for other genres, but this begs the question: when has this ever not been the case? Idols have always spanned across musical genres, and nothing really makes this particular year stand out in terms of cross-genre releases.

The current situation is great, if you’re like me and love idol music in all of its forms. But for those who look for innovation and creativity, it’s hard to not look at this situation and see stagnancy. Much of my recommendations, as a result, aren’t the result of what I consider particularly innovative or creative songs as much as they are simply well-made and of a stellar quality. After all, one of the most characteristic qualities of J-pop is its well produced and constructed-ness. However, given the fact that nothing really stood out to me this year, this list shouldn’t be taken as what I thought where the best of the best, but rather a taste of what the field had to offer since no one group stood out more than the rest.

… On the other hand, though, everyone else seemed to make up for it

Almost as if to make up for this stagnancy, the rest of J-pop seemed to step up their game tremendously. All throughout 2014, numerous groups churned out fantastic releases one after another. While the independent, alternative and various subgenres of Japan have always been vibrant, I’d be hard pressed to remember another year where the releases have not just been this consistent but also this plentiful.

One particular artist that I found interesting was Oomori Seiko. It’s hard to determine whether or not I should consider her an idol – countless others have debated and pondered this matter, no doubt more informed than I – but her music undeniably takes what is currently “vogue” in idol-land and mixes it in a way that is undeniably unique. The song that embodies this like no other is Imitation Girl, which takes a variety of different production techniques currently popular amongst the major idol production houses (from 48’s characteristic vocal layering, to Hello! Project’s EDM beats, to Amuse’s usage of autotune) to structure a message that is absolutely the epitome of “anti-idol”.

Oomori, however, is only the tip of the iceberg when it came to how the rest of the Japanese music industry broke out in force through the year. Again, this list is caveated as being not comprehensive, but for a completely different reason – it would simply take too long to list out all of the fantastic offerings put out through this year.

So overall, not bad, 2014. Not bad.