Here we are again, just like last year, and welcome back everyone. This was a pretty productive year for my writing on the site and I’m happy with how all my articles turned out, even if there were almost no live events for me to cover in comparison to previous years, since the international appearance schedules for most Japanese artists seem to have died down a bit.

In the case of music releases, 2015 turned out to be a not-so-spectacular year in my eyes. This is especially true in the arena of Japanese music, since most of my favorite acts from Japan were winding down, disbanding, or getting into a lazy slump of safe and comfortable releases without much interesting going on in 2015.

The incoming new waves of artists seemed to be mostly copying what someone else had done recently, and usually with much less zeal, ingenuity, and musical success than their predecessors. I had to struggle a lot to come up with a few suggestions of things that stood out among the crowds, but I’m very happy with the few I came up with.

This list seems to get shorter every year, but at least the ones on here are releases I can fully stand behind and thoroughly enjoy, so I can’t say that nothing good came out of it. This year has a few unlikely entries here and I had to stretch the boundaries of music styles I include a little more than I usually do to even come up with this short list, but hopefully you’ll find something new or appreciate some commentary on something you already enjoy. Without further ado, here are my top music releases of 2015.

Maison book girl – bath room

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In the wake of the disbandment of punk/anti-idol group BiS last year, all the members went in different directions, some forming new idol-like groups, some going solo or joining a rock band, etc. In this case, late member Koshoji Megumi joined this new project called Maison book girl with three other girls, and their sound is not quite like anything else we’ve heard from an all-girl J-pop group before. They released their first album this year, and it quickly made its way to the top of my list for this year shortly after listening.

To try to describe all the elements used in their music is pretty tough, but to attempt, it contains things like relaxing folk-y French lounge pop mixed with “Point” era Cornelius experimentation, full of acoustic guitars, airy piano and synths, obscure time signatures and rhythm patterns, a bit of chip-tune tones, and often coquette-ish or soft, somber vocals.

They feel almost like a more experimental and avant-garde version of Vanilla Beans, with the heavy classic European influence. There’s not one song this album that I can’t fully recommend; they’re all great and all manage to stand out against each other while still keeping a similar theme and style running for the whole album.

As far as I’m concerned, this group is by far the most interesting and strong by-product of the BiS disbandment, and this album is easily one of my highlights of Japanese music this year. You can check out their style from these two PVs from the album:

Lyrical School – SPOT

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Lyrical School has been active in their current iteration since 2012 (previously known as Tengal6) but their first two years seemed to be suffering from poor production and lack of direction. As of 2014, they picked up their act quite a lot, with some great singles and a noticeable jump in production value, with more high-profile producers making a presence in their material, like tofubeats (“FRESH!!!,” and “Yume de Aitai ne”) and Takahashi Kosuke (“PRIDE” and “OMG”.)

In 2015, they released their 3rd full length album, and it was the first time they had a truly solid, full-featured release. Besides containing the two best singles in their discography (“brand new day” and “PRIDE,”) the album runs the gamut of various classic hip-hop styles, giving a comprehensive display of the various sub-genres and styles that hip-hop has had to offer over the years, mostly focusing on elements that were prevalent in the late 1980s or 1990s, but not relying on any one of them too heavily.

Unlike many other idol rap groups that rely too much on pop music or cutesy idol cliches infecting their music, the modern Lyrical School has a much more legit hip-hop feel, with tons of samples, mixing in dance beats and audio clips behind the rhymes and lots of solo verses or lines for members.

The album starts with the first 3 tracks being a little harder or fierce before slowing down for the rest of the album, but there never becomes a dull moment, even if the pace changes a bit.

“I.D.O.L.R.A.P.” is the opening track, starting out with a pretty basic drum n’bass beat with an underground feel to it, and a little bit of a harder edge. It’s a nice start to the album, kicking things off a little “old school” without much pop influence here.

Next up is “PRIDE” which highlights a harder style and a strong, dramatic beat, with an awesome progression on the guitar/synths behind the vocals. It switches to a slightly more pop structure with pre-chorus and chorus and a bridge where the beat’s tempo doubles in speed with a new ferocity in the back-beat and the rapping they spit over it. This is easily one of their strongest songs to date.

“OMG” is another track that highlights a heavy synth guitar track backing up the rap, giving a feel something like Run DMC’s cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” some early Beastie Boys tracks, or 90s rock-themed Michael Jackson music with some goofy slap-bass thrown in.

Starting with “FRESH!!!,” the album gets more into slow-jam or R&B style territory, with the tempos and ferocity dropping for the most part and giving the 90s nostalgic feel with lots of drum loops, piano, and flange-y clean guitars. “CAR” is a really well-done homage to the R&B style with a smooth jazz feel including a stand-up bass backing up the piano-filled track.

“brand new day” is a single from last year, and easily one of my favorite tracks from them. It’s more idol-pop than anything else on the album, but the arrangement is really fun dance/funk/pop with synth wind instruments leading the backing melody.

There’s not really a song on the album that I can’t recommend. Even if some aren’t as stand-out great as others, they’re all enjoyable and the album works as a whole and has a nice flow. Definitely check them out if you appreciate 90s hip-hop and Japanese pop music.

You can check out 4 tracks from the album and a digest here:

Sigh – Graveward

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This is definitely an unlikely candidate for coverage on this site and in my writing in general (even though extreme metal is the style of music I listen to the most in my life next to J-pop,) but Sigh is technically a fully Japanese band, even though they sing in English.

This Japanese black metal act started in the late 1980s and has continually and drastically evolved their sound over the following 35 years, despite mostly retaining the same core members for the majority of that time. Their sound has evolved into an eclectic mix of thrash, black, and death metal, with lots of prog metal influence, as well as symphonic and theatrical elements such as orchestras, keyboards, with even pop music arrangements showing up from time to time.

This year’s “Graveward” is easily one of the top 3 albums of their whole career, and easily one of the most enjoyable things to grace my ears in 2015. The songwriting and production on “Graveward” is some of the most unique and varied of anything I heard this year, or in many years. The album contains more amounts of complex sound layering than most things you’ve probably ever heard, with hundreds of separate audio tracks featuring dozens of instruments being mixed into each song.

To describe the album is extremely difficult to do concisely, but I can put together a long list of descriptors that might give you a good idea of the range of sounds you’ll get here.

Things I can say to describe various elements of this album are things like: horror metal, orchestral, choral, power metal, creepy and shrill synthesizers, prog-rock, organs, Moog, jazz, saxophone solo, Middle-Eastern motifs, tapping guitar solos, chaotic, Iron Maiden/Mercyful Fate/King Diamond influence, female operatic vocals, and heavy death metal/black metal, among many others.

The whole album is fantastic, but my personal highlights include “The Tombfiller” with its majestic brass-driven galloping power metal escapades, “The Forlorn,” a masterfully heavy and theatrical tribute to King Diamond with some of the sickest guitar tone I heard this year, and “Back to the Grave” with some of the thrashiest riffs I’ve heard from any band in years.

Even if you’re not big on metal music, Sigh incorporates so many elements into their sound that you might find something to like here. Check it out below if you’re so inclined.

You can listen to the whole album here, the playlist contains all songs:

Wake Up, Girls! – Shoujo Koukyoukyoku/Beyond The Bottom

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This entry is for a combination of two singles released by Wake Up, Girls! this year. While WUG were assembled for an anime project in 2013, they’ve stuck around long past the original anime and also function as a full-time real life idol group, and have musical releases as such.

Among the sea of newer anime-related idol groups that have debuted in the last 3 or 4 years (seriously, there are dozens,) Wake Up, Girls! are by far the strongest group of them all, musically speaking (this doesn’t include Idolm@ster, it’s much older.) Their releases have mostly been solid throughout their short career, but this year had two singles that really showed some consistency in their output that was previously hard to judge just based on their previous two singles and a few character image song singles.

While “Shoujo” and “Beyond” are enjoyable songs on their own, neither are really groundbreaking in their composition or production compared to their previous releases, so the real stars of the show here are the B-sides, “Sugao de KISS ME” and “Chikatetsu Labyrinth.”

These are two of the coolest songs I’ve heard from any idol group this year, and they have vastly different styles from anything they’ve done before, and styles that not enough idol groups delve into, in my opinion.

“Sugao” features a heavy EDM dance style with lots of elements from dubstep and drum n’bass styles,  creating a hard-edge dance sound with a badass demeanor you don’t often hear done well by idols. After the verse, the song bursts into a heavy metal breakdown for the pre-chorus with the girls belting out super dramatic and powerful distorted vocals before blasting back into the strong, bass-driven EDM style for the chorus. Definitely worth a listen and a rare example of EDM done uniquely in J-pop.

“Chikatetsu” is on the opposite end of the spectrum, featuring all organic instruments in a cheerful pop-punk/3rd wave ska sound that isn’t used by idols nearly as much as I think it should be. The track is full of horns, heavy distorted guitars, and strings, mixed with a few traditional idol elements, with a double pre-chorus structure, sounding like equal parts hard rock and idol music, but it only lasts for a few seconds before hitting the cute and layered chorus.

The song plays with rhythm a lot, changing often from mid-paced pop and punk to slowed-down reggae style, an even slower ballad style, then bursting back into a furiously paced heavy ska/punk section in the bridge. It’s quite a rollercoaster ride and has everything I could want out of a complex pop song.

I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing these girls last year, and I had no idea they’d turn out to be such a consistent player in my music selections this year, but I couldn’t be happier. Let’s hope for another good year from them in 2016.

You can buy the “Beyond the Bottom” single on iTunes in the Western world here, and check out previews for all 4 songs below:

Tommy february6/heavenly6 – Tommy’s Halloween Fairy tale

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I reviewed this when it was released almost two months ago, and this mini-album still stands up as one of the most pleasing releases I came across this year. It signaled a great comeback to the classic sound of Tomoko Kawase’s Tommy projects, after some experimentation in the sound of both in the last few years, and also provides a nice soundtrack for this time of the year, since it’s all holiday-themed, including some Halloween songs and even a Christmas-themed track at the end.

You can read my full review here, and see my full thoughts on this memorable release.

Dempagumi.inc – WWDD

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I also reviewed this album earlier in the year when it released, and even though it isn’t the most groundbreaking thing out there and not all the tracks are great, it still has four excellent songs and a few other enjoyable ones. In a stronger musical year, this wouldn’t have made my top list, but since 2015 was slim pickings for the most part, I’m throwing this in because it still has a few of the best songs released on a disc this year.

You can read my full review here, and there’s tons of YouTube links to listen to the songs there.

Conclusion:

While not a very musically strong year, 2015 still had a few remarkable releases, even for someone with as picky of music tastes as myself, and despite having to dig pretty deep and listen to hundreds of new songs to find a short list like this.

Hopefully 2016 will be a little brighter, but like many other people, I can’t stop myself from being curious and digging for the gems in the rough, so I’m sure I’ll do the same next year if I have to.

In any case, I hope you found something new here or enjoyed reading anyway, and until next year, don’t stop the music.