As 2013 comes to a close, I’ve started to think about all the things that happened this year in the idol industry and have started to pin down the releases that I thought were the most important and exciting ones that came out this year. After reviewing all 2013 releases from the vast majority of at least somewhat known idol artists out there, I’ve been able to narrow this down to just five single-related releases and five albums that stood above the rest for me and that I think every idol fan should visit sooner or later. I’ll include some thoughts on why these releases stood out and why I think they should be heard by idol fans everywhere.

For the singles, I’ll be grouping some of these together, so as not to be too redundant, since there’s a few artists or groups that had multiple fantastic releases and I don’t feel the need to list them separately.

Top 5 single-related releases:

Vanilla Beans

Vanilla Beans – Muscat Slope Love/Please Me Darlin’

While I’ve known about Vanilla Beans for a few years now through various exposure online and through Tokyo Idol Festival footage, not much of their music had really grabbed me as of early 2013. I had heard a good amount of songs from them by that point, (which I later found out were mostly their older material on their old record label with their old music producers) but it wasn’t until they released these two exceptional singles this year that I finally started to do a deep search of their music library and found out that everything they’ve released since switching labels in 2011 is top-notch European-influenced J-pop, sung by two ridiculously adorable gals.

I think they have a unique position in the industry right now, being one of the few idol duos left and having consistently high-quality music in this particular 60’s-Europe inspired style which most idols usually only touch on every once in a while, if at all. I feel at times they’re a modern continuation of something like Pizzicato Five or Flipper’s Guitar, which doesn’t even seem too far off from reality, since they’ve even worked with P5’s Nomiya Maki before at some live shows and she’s a fan of them. Check out these two releases and I’m sure you’ll see their powerful charm.

Dempagumi Inc.

Dempagumi.inc – W.W.D./Fuyu e to Hashiridasuo

While Dempagumi.inc had arguably the most exciting and successful year of any idol group out there this year and had multiple stellar releases throughout the year, this is the one release that jump-started their career onto a whole new level. The main track is written and arranged by the great Hyadain (Maeyamada Kenichi) and is written as an epic (6 minutes long) autobiographical song for the group, telling about their start as a tiny Akiba-based idol group with barely any fans or recognition and their rise to become the more well-known group their are today. W.W.D. is simply one of the best written and best produced pop songs I’ve heard in years. Everything from the unique, sporadic vocal deliveries, dramatic breakdowns and interludes, powerful build-ups, insightful and powerful lyrics, and the layers upon layers of quirky and beautiful sound that the backing track is comprised of.

The song was so successful, it even got a sequel later in 2013 (W.W.D. II) that continued the story from where the first song left off. The group also did appearances in a half-dozen different countries this year to promote the group world-wide, including here to the U.S. where I got to meet and interview the group and experience their live show for myself. The b-side here, Fuyu e to Hashiridasuo is a cute acoustic guitar-driven pop song with a fun folk-song feel to it, rounding off the release with a completely opposite style from the hectic, energetic style of the main song.

Yokyama Endo

Yokoyama Rurika/Endo Mai – Walk My Way/Today is the Day

This is a combined entry for both of the solo debut releases from Idoling!!! this year, which both proved to me that solo idols can still be relevant and have very powerful music in this market that’s currently over-populated by large groups. Yokoyama’s single was written and arranged by the eclectic Hyadain, who claimed that she was the best vocalist he had ever worked with, and the song was written to fit her character and voice, with the results working out perfectly and reminding me of how idol solo music used to be in the early to mid 2000s before the slew of lackluster AKB soloists took over.

Endo’s single was written by Base Ball Bear front man, Koide Yusuke, and the song also fits her mature character and voice in the same way as Rurika’s debut. They’re both continuing these solo careers steadfastly with more singles already released or on the way from both girls, and its a welcome breath of fresh air compared to the leviathan girl groups that we see at every turn in today’s idol industry. For a more in-depth look at both, check out my full reviews of Walk My Way and Today is the Day.

Ryutist

RYUTist – Tetsugaku Suru no Da/Omusubi

While I had heard of RYUTist late in 2012 through some Tokyo Idol Festival buzz and internet links, it wasn’t until the Japan Expo convention in 2013 when I met with one of their promoters and got access to more of their music that I realized the power these girls have. Most of their music is a heavy rock sound with a harder edge than many of the idol groups today who try to do a “rock” sound, but the songwriting and production on RYUTist’s material has a unique, very organic and “indie” kind of sound that’s extremely refreshing to hear in the current mess of over-produced studio idol dreck out there today. These two singles released this year stand out in their discography as I’ve found myself listening to these songs almost every day since I got the CDs months ago.

On top of having great studio music, the girls also have a huge stage presence and will rock your socks off harder than you’d think possible for a group of girls with an average age of 15. They also do all their vocals and even backups and harmonies completely live, which is pretty rare for idol groups nowadays. RYUTist is said to be planning an appearance in the US during Summer time 2014, and I’d be first in line to see these girls rock in a live setting.

Idoling

Idoling!!!/Idoling NEO – Shout!!!/MeroMero

Aside from unleashing two very powerful solo artists onto the scene this year, Idoling!!! also decided to bring back a true sense of self-rivalry within their ranks by splitting the group into two different parts and releasing simultaneous singles from both parts as a contest to see which would sell more. Not only did this hark back to the early 2000s when other same-group rivalries were more frequent, but both of these releases are great from front to back, having a half-dozen different styles between the songs on each release, from heavy metal and electro pop to matsuri-inspired odori music and choral Christmas songs. These releases set a great standard and helped the group return from a slight slump they had earlier in the year with two somewhat lackluster group singles, and they came back stronger than ever for this project. Check out my full review of both singles here.

Runners up include:

BABYMETAL – Ijime, Dame, Zettai

BiS and Dorothy Little Happy – Get You

AeLL – MAGIC ⇔ MUSIC

Sakura Gakuin – My Graduation Toss

THE Possible – Zenryoku Banzai! MY GLORY!

Top 5 idol albums of 2013:

Bunny

YuiKaori – Bunny

I’ve been following YuiKaori since their debut in 2010, and they’ve always stayed consistent with the quality of their music releases, with their newest album Bunny being no exception. Their first album is still one of my favorite idol albums of the last decade, and while this one doesn’t quite reach that level, it doesn’t disappoint, either. While their two singles that released this year weren’t quite strong enough on their own to get them into the best single releases list, both of them put onto this album and combined with a handful of other great songs are enough to easily get this one in the top 5 albums. It contains those two great singles from this year, “Wake Up” and “Shiny Blue” as well as a single from last year, and some b-sides from each.

One of the biggest highlights is the first new album track, “Kimi ga Sekai de Sekai wa Kimi de” written and arranged by Hyadain (who also did the single “Wake Up” and a number of tracks from their first album.) The song is pure fun from start to finish with all the traits I’ve come to love from both the group and Hyadain’s productions. There’s also a seemingly concerted effort to make the vocal production sound a little cleaner than their previous releases, even though it wasn’t needed, it’s nice to see they put in the effort to make it that much better. There’s also “Jumpin’ Bunny Flash!!” a new album track that got a PV and is 6 minutes chock full of crazy fun with many different interludes and parts to the song.

Momoiro Clover Z 5th Dimension

Momoiro Clover Z – 5th Dimension

I’m really not a huge fan of Momoiro Clover Z, since the first few years of their discography really didn’t do much of anything for me, but once they got into the era covered on “5th Dimension,” where the music started to be expanded into other styles and sounds from outside the usual idol spectrum, I started to take notice of them pretty quickly. 5th Dimension includes the two best singles in their entire discography (Moretsu and Saraba,) as well as a handful of arguably the most imaginative, groundbreaking idol songs that were released this year. Songs like “Neo STARGATE” and “Tsuki to Gingami Hikosen” just blew me away like I hadn’t felt for a really long time.

While the group’s vocals can still use a lot of work, the concepts and music they were given transcend the shortcomings of the vocals at every turn and still allow this album to shine. Other than the songs previously mentioned, “5 The Power” and “Hai to Diamond” (the latter also produced by Hyadain…see a trend here?) are the most standout tracks from the album. If you’re into idol music that pushes the musical boundaries, look no further than 5th Dimension.

Stylips

StylipS – The Lightning Celebration

While “The Lightning Celebration” is mostly a collection of all the singles and b-sides the group had released as of early 2013, it’s far from being as simple as it looks at first glance. The album also includes a scattering of great new songs as well as an entire disc of re-arrangements, alternate versions, and solo member versions of songs. Many of the alternate versions and remixes are far better than the original version of the song that was released, and many of the solo versions work even better than the original versions of the songs, which is pretty rare in idol releases for me. Their material has been consistently great since the group came together in 2011 and this is a great showcase of everything they accomplished with their original members.

Unfortunately, on that same token, the album also acts as an “end of an era” collection, since two of the members were replaced soon after this was released (my favorite ones, too…) but it doesn’t stop this from being an enjoyable listen from the beginning of disc one to the end of disc two. StylipS didn’t attempt to break any boundaries with their music, but had a very high level of quality within the bounds of what you might be used to hearing from idols.

Starmarie

Starmarie – Fantasy World 2.5

Early in 2013 I came across this group and heard a few of their songs through some buzz in online circles, and not long after, it was announced that they’d be appearing at Anime Expo in California. I was already set to attend the expo myself, so I got to experience their live show and get more access to their songs while I was there, as well as meet with the girls themselves for an interview. The quality of their music took me by surprise, since the few songs I had heard before actually getting this album didn’t quite paint a clear picture of what they were all about.

While this album is mostly just a collection of previous album songs and singles the group has released, it was made specially for distribution overseas, since they’ve also been doing multiple other overseas appearances in other countries. It’s a pretty great collection from front to back, with some new songs made specially for the album and some going back a few years into their history, but the quality is really consistent throughout with very little slack in the running time. They have a bit of a dark, dramatic rock sound, while still having lots of idol sensibilities here and there, so they’re a bit unique within the idol market, but I find myself throwing this CD on fairly often in the last many months since I got a hold of it, and it hasn’t lost it’s appeal. Highlights besides the videos posted below are “Beautiful Leona’s Portraits” and “My Home in the Nameless Star.”

Sakura Gakuin

Sakura Gakuin – 2012 Nendo ~My Generation~

I’ve been a fan of Sakura Gakuin since late 2011, and I’ve found their music to be some of the most diverse and high-quality stuff out there in the current idol market. The group frequently splits into sub-groups called “clubs” and each one generally focuses on a certain type of music and theme, making for a pretty vast array of different songs all coming from the same set of girls. While “2012” is in the title, this album was released in 2013, though it does recap most of the group’s 2012 releases with a few new songs thrown in as well.

It contains the main group’s two best singles, “Wonderful Journey” and “My Graduation Toss” while also having entries from all the great clubs like Logica, BABYMETAL, Sleepiece, and Mini-Pati. This also marks the final album for mainstay member Nakamoto Suzuka (also known as SU-METAL in the popular BABYMETAL club,) and has a really nice solo song from her here as well. If you’re not familiar with Sakura Gakuin yet, any of their albums are a great introduction to the awesome quality music they produce, and I’d recommend checking them out as soon as possible.

Wrap-up:

Were any of these releases on your year-end list as well? Was there any other particular release not mentioned that you thought was noteworthy? I’m always interested to see other people’s lists and thoughts at the end of the year as well to see if there was anything I missed that year, so I’ll be waiting for some comments and other writers to put their thoughts up soon. Thanks for reading and lets hope 2014 is as great of a year as 2013 turned out to be!