As most of my readers probably already know, 2014 was a very strange year for me regarding the idol industry in many ways, so when it came time to start thinking about my year end review, it felt very different from last year. Last year was one of the best years for the idol industry in decades. It was full of unique and high-quality ideas for music from all sides and exciting happenings, with tons of idols traveling around the world to expand their reach far beyond what anyone could have expected. It seemed like everything was right where it needed to be for me.
Just a few months in to 2014, everything seemed to be quickly heading towards mediocrity and not much that was happening was really anywhere near as exciting and compelling as 2013. Many of the idols that soared high in quality for 2013 were releasing lackluster material for the first many months of 2014 and most of the new debuts that I was coming across were terribly disappointing. As the year went on, it started to become clear to me that 2014 was a large winding-down of the industry for me, with not many ideas to keep me interested overall, and I wrote about this in detail in September.
Even though a good amount of the recorded output from the industry was disappointing me in 2014, I had a fantastic year of related event coverage, including meeting some great artists like Vampillia, Zarigani$, HAPPY, Wake Up! Girls, Shonen Knife, Ayane, and even getting a chance to play guitar for a live performance with one of my favorite groups, RYUTist, so I definitely can’t say the year was disappointing overall, as these were some of the coolest experiences of my life.
As far as top releases, this year was obviously quite a bit easier to narrow down top releases, as there were so fewer noteworthy releases in general, so I’ll break this down just like I did last year, with singles having their own category and album releases having a separate one.
Top single-related releases:
Dempagumi.inc – Sakura Appareshon & Denpari Night
After having a legendary year in 2013, I was really looking forward to see if they could keep that streak going in 2014, and with Sakura Appareshon’s release in March, I felt like they had already damn near matched their level of quality from 2013, even if they didn’t release anything else in 2014. It was that impressive. Not only was the main song one of Dempagumi’s best a-sides to date, with a fun, lively, and uniquely wonderful composition and arrangement by Tamaya 2060% (of Wienners,) but the solo b-side songs for each member that were released on the alternate versions are some of the best music produced this year.
The biggest highlights are the solo songs from Furukawa Mirin (“Sorry, Lonely.”) Yumemi Nemu (“Ano ne…Jitsu wa Watashi, Yumemi Nemu nanda…”) and Naruse Eimi (“Tokimeki Succharaka Texas,”) all having some of the most unique and well-crafted arrangements I heard all year. Mirin goes straight into rock star territory, with her song written by the drummer from J-rock band Brahman, while Nemu treads head-first into pure chaotic and cute denpa music, with an insanely high tempo, quirky mechanical sounds, and booming bass backing her up. Eimi belts out another denpa techno/rock song with her offering, written and arranged by Naoto from the legendary Orange Range. Just by these four tracks alone, this single was the best non-album release in terms of quality and quantity this year.
Dempagumi’s release from later in the year, “Denpari Night,” also deserves a mention here, as it was pretty close in quality to “Sakura Appareshon” and also written by the same composer, though the b-sides failed to measure up to those on “Sakura.” Check out the wonderfully crazy composition and arrangement for “Denpari” below, with a vast array of composition elements, instruments and sounds from around the world, all being wrapped into one hyper, melodic denpa package.
Idoling NEO – Sakura Horizon
Idoling NEO, the new Idoling!!! sub-group formed late in 2013 had a great start with their first single, “Mero Mero,” which made my best-of list for last year, and I hoped they would continue to improve from what they had established with their debut. When their second release “Sakura Horizon” was released early in 2014, my wishes were granted. Everything about “Horizon” improved from what “Mero Mero” started last year.
This release called back to the golden age of late 90s idol pop with the stellar writing and production by Izuchi Hiromasa, the man behind legendary idols SPEED and countless other high-profile pop acts throughout the years. This song called back to the classic sound that made SPEED famous in their heyday, but with an updated edge and more modern production. The results are a mix of some slightly nostalgic 90s J-pop with some added idol-ish cuteness in a way we haven’t quite heard in this way for a while.
Aside from the a-side being a great addition to any pop catalog, the b-side, “Tosshin Shoujo,” is a hugely contrasting number with a furiously fast heavy metal arrangement, something I didn’t think such young girls could pull off properly, but the song exceeded my standards in every way.
Vanilla Beans – Watashi Fukoguse
After falling in love with Vanilla Beans’ irresistible charm and great music catalog last year, I couldn’t wait to see what they would do in 2014, and just a few months into the year, they released a great single in their trademark style that rivaled their 2013 music pretty strongly with “Watashi Fukoguse.” This single featured a very strong Motown sound, close to something like The Supremes, with an awesome arrangement full of horns and strings with a steady snare-driven European lounge-pop rhythm, but more adorable and cheerful than anything The Supremes ever did.
Check out the hilarious PV for the song and I hope you have as much of a blast listening and watching this as I do:
Endo Mai – Baby Love
2013 marked the solo debut of previous Idoling!!! leader Endo Mai, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from 2014, and when she released a single early in the year, “Mujina,” it took a while to grow on me and didn’t have a hugely lasting effect after a few months, though it’s still a quite enjoyable song. It wasn’t until her July release with “Baby Love” that she really made a mark on the year for me.
“Baby Love” is a very complex concept overall, with a large and prevalent parody element, between the songwriting, the arrangement, the lyrics, and the PV, it creates a project that is rather mocking of the idol image Mai had previously portrayed during her time in Idoling!!! and before. Though Mai portrayed that image for many years, she always made it clear that she was never terribly happy with it and was only portraying it because it was her job, and would underhandedly mock the general imagery and concept of idols at every chance she got, even during the days of being an idol, always preferring to focus on music and playing instruments.
The song itself is a heavier rock style re-imagining of a Motown sound (similar to the Vanilla Beans song I just previously mentioned) with the arrangement featuring the rock band OKAMOTO’s playing all the instruments in the studio and writing the song with Mai herself. The result is an indie rock take on that Motown type songwriting with some very sarcastic-sounding cutesy vocals by Mai, especially for the main intro part, which is very clearly meant to sound satirical.
More than anything else she’s done since starting her solo career, this song really felt the most “Mai” to me. Everything fits her personality and the attitude I’ve known her to have ever since discovering her many years ago, so it felt great to finally have her create a song and project that fit her so well and did justice to her unique views on the idol image.
Chiaki (from AAA) feat. Chika – Charming Kiss
I’ve never been much of a fan of co-ed J-pop super-group AAA, but this year marked the solo debut of one of their female members named Chiaki, with this digital single called “Charming Kiss” featuring one of the famous vocaloid voices, Chika. This is the best example I’ve ever heard of mixing vocaloid and human voices, and it’s done very cleverly, as if the two were singing a duet, trading off lines as if the vocaloid was a real person, and also having the two harmonize at various parts with great results. Chiaki’s vocal timbre somehow meshes very well with the sound of her vocaloid counterpart without making it sound awkward or jarring, so even if the song wasn’t that good, I could still say the vocal engineers did a fantastic job.
Thankfully, the song actually is very good, bringing back a very smooth and groovy electro-R&B sound that’s reminiscent of famous musician and arranger, AKIRA, who made this style very popular with his frequent collaborations with early 2000s superstars Hello!Project, BoA, Namie Amuro, and Koda Kumi, among many others. I haven’t heard this style done this well for quite a while, since AKIRA’s work has declined in the last few years, so it was great to hear someone else taking up the style he made famous and using it on this great project. It felt like a breath of fresh air to me this year and a cool throwback to a style I’ve loved for well over a decade, so it felt worth a mention, and you can check it out here:
Momoiro Clover Z – Naitemo Iindayo
Sakura Gakuin – Heart no Hoshi
Kikkawa You – Ii Jan
Pink Babies – WANTED
PassCode – KISS no Hanataba
Top album releases:
Idoling!!! – Gold Experience
After losing many of their original production staff at the end of 2013, 2014 turned out to be a pretty strange year for Idoling!!! overall. They lost one of the most popular founding members (and my personal favorite,) Endo Mai, as well as two other very popular members (Goto Kaoru and Kikuchi Ami) and their single releases took a strong turn for the worse. Despite the single releases not turning out so hot this year, they did have one rather good musical offering right at the beginning of 2014, with Gold Experience. This album turned out to be a big variety of material (with 17 songs total) ranging from many re-recordings and re-arrangements of songs from the beginning of their career all the way up through 2013, with a bunch of new songs thrown in as well.
While most of the re-recordings really don’t offer enough new to be noteworthy to long-time Idoling!!! fans, the new songs have a ton of variety and make for a really well-rounded package in the end. Most of the new songs are unit songs where a few members broke from the main group to have their time in the spotlight, making for even more variety in the vocal deliveries, even past the music itself. Some highlights are “Akogare Adoration,” “Kaniko,” “Bon Voyage,” a cover of Sakakibara Ikue’s classic “Natsu no Ojousan,” and “Puri♥Kyun Survival” by Idoling NEO.
Another great element I picked up on from the album is that it feels a bit like a journey through the last few decades of J-pop music, featuring songs with popular styles from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, as well as their modern singles. It gives an overlying theme or concept to the album instead of just being a ton of songs thrown together, which is much appreciated for me. While this is unfortunately probably their least impressive album to date, it’s still got a number of great songs and a good concept, especially if you aren’t too familiar with the Idoling!!! discography overall, and I’d suggest checking it out if you want a really diverse and generally well-produced pop album.
BiS – WHO KiLLED IDOL?
I’ve always been a bit of a distant fan of BiS throughout their career, with many of their songs being exceptionally well-made and unique, and many others falling completely flat and unenjoyable for me. Their first major label album, IDOL is DEAD was the first point where I felt there was enough good outweighing the mediocre to say I truly enjoyed the release as a whole. I suppose it’s fitting that WHO KiLLED IDOL, their second and final album is the second point where I can say I really enjoyed the release overall. The original songs contained on WHO KiLLED IDOL are pretty exceptional and diverse, while still generally staying within BiS’s style.
The album features all of their a-sides since the previous album (which is a lot) plus a host of new songs, among which many stand out, like the carnival-waltz style of “no regret,” the new wave/disco styled “Magumato,” and the synth-punk style of “MMGK,” among others. The biggest new highlights from the album would be the heavy, djent-inspired metal sound of “ERROR” and the furious speed-punk sound of “nasty face,” both of which are two of the group’s best songs in their entire discography to date and very worth a listen. I saw this as a fitting final bookend to their career with some very worthwhile tracks worth checking out if you like to have more avant-garde or unique styles of music mixed in with your idols.
Yokoyama Rurika – Lapis Lazuli
After releasing two of my favorite singles of 2013, Idoling!!! mainstay Yokoyama Rurika was already on track to great things, then early in 2014, she released her first album, and I wasn’t prepared for how much quality would be represented here. This is the first solo album from an idol in many years that breaks every single perception of what idol performers are. The songs featured here are so masterfully crafted and mature that it puts anything else in recent memory to shame in that respect. This isn’t just another solo idol effort, but a very legitimately mature and well-conceived pop-rock album that would stand well against any of the major mainstream Japanese female vocal performers out there today.
Aside from containing her two fantastic, jazzy singles from 2013, Lapis Lazuli contains over a half-dozen top-notch original album tracks including the fast-paced rock song “Glory Days,” the gorgeous folk-inspired “Color,” the beautiful, soaring “Across the Sky,” produced by mastermind Hyadain, acoustic guitar-heavy and organ-filled songs like “Birth” and “Road,” as well as an emotional ballad, “Kimi ga Ita Kara,” and the lively “Re-Start.” Anyone who enjoys some more adult-contemporary/folk or mature jazz elements to their pop music would look no further than this album to satisfy those tastes. Here’s a superb live performance of “Color,” one of the album tracks:
Goto Mariko – Kowareta Hako ni Rinakkusu
After releasing one of my favorite Japanese albums of 2013, I was fully ensnared by Goto Mariko’s chaotic and wondrous musical mind, so when I learned she was releasing another album late in 2014, to say I was excited would be an understatement. It seems a bit of a stretch putting this album on this list, since Mariko normally has very little to do with idols, musically, but almost every song on this album is arranged or produced by a major idol producer, so I guess it counts.
When the album finally dropped last month, I was not disappointed. I felt the album was worth a full, track-by-track review, so I’ll just let that review speak for itself.
If you don’t want to read the whole review, the TL;DR version is: LISTEN TO THIS ALBUM.
This year was full of major ups and downs for me, but in the end, it turned out to be a great year despite having all the downs regarding the idol industry as a whole. I’m hoping some more great events present themselves in 2015, though it will be hard to top 2014 in that department, but I’m still hopeful for now. I’m also hoping to get back to doing some more music reviews next year, since I didn’t do nearly as many as I would’ve liked. I think the amount of events I covered got in the way of my other writing a bit and exhausted me.
There’s probably not a whole lot else to say between what I covered in writing here and in our recent roundtable podcast we did for the site, so be sure to listen to that to hear more from me and the other writers as well.
If you’ve made your own end of year wrap-up somewhere, shoot me a link on Twitter or in the comments and let me know, I like to read everyone’s thoughts and see if any of my picks came up on anyone else’s list as well. Until next year, see you around!