Archive for December, 2007

[Album] FUNKY MONKEY BABYS – FUNKY MONKEY BABYS 2

『ファンキーモンキーベイビーズ2』FUNKY MONKEY BABYS
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~Tracklist~
01. MOONINGU SHOTTO (モーニングショット)
02. Lovin’ Life
03. Chippoke na Yuuki (ちっぽけな勇気; Tiny Courage)
04. Daijoubu Da Yo (大丈夫だよ)
05. Mou Kimi ga Inai (もう君がいない; You’re Not Here Anymore)
06. LAST HUG
07. Naitte Waratte Yume wo Miteta (泣いて笑って夢を見てた)
08. My Home
09. Yubikiri Gen Man (指きりげんまん)
10. Tenshi to Akuma (天使と悪魔; Angel And Devil)
11. Chou I Love You (超I Love You)

~Album Review~
“FUNKY MONKEY BABYS 2,” released on December 12, 2007, is FUNKY MONKEY BABYS second studio album and first major album. The album debuted at number five on the Oricon charts, selling 59,429 copies its first week. Without a pre-album digital hit, the album experienced only moderate sales, in contrast to the break-out success of two of their singles.

“MOONINGU SHOTTO” is a poppier take on FUNKY MONKEY BABYS, which is an appropriate way to begin their album. The listen gets to take in their distinctive vocals, beat, and over all sound in a more familiar pop environment. The energy on the track is explosive as usual, and the backing music is great.

“Lovin’ Life” is a softer take on FUNKY MONKEY BABYS; it’s their essence embodies in ballad form. A violin and occasional acoustic guitar do well with powerful layered lead vocals. The song is undeniably catchy, with good hooks throughout. “Lovin’ Life” will stick with the listener mainly because it’s so memorable on so many levels.

“Chippoke na Yuuki” is mid-tempo, and continues with strong choruses carrying the song. The verses are Spartan in comparison to the choruses, which sound much fuller, vocally and instrumentally. The strength of the song lies in the repetition of hooks throughout the song; even though the vocals change, from rap to singing, the song still sounds similar. One of the better tracks on the album.

“Daijoubu Da Yo” feels like a ballad that’s been turned more island sounding. That’s the best way to describe it; the background of the song is soft pop. The crescendo of the song is nothing to write home about – but the ending of the choruses are done well, with a string of “la la”’s backed by what sounds like children.

“Mou Kimi ga Inai” is a very strong ballad for FUNKY MONKEY BABYS. They play to their undeniable strength , their sheer numbers, to harmonize during the choruses. Juxtaposed against solo verses, this does well in the song. Also notable are very strong instrumentals that follow this trend quite well. The song ends well, too, making “Mou Kimi ga Inai” a very pleasant listen.

The tracks preceeding “LAST HUG” have all had a redeeming quality that made them strong. “LAST HUG” simply doesn’t have that, and fails to impress. The harmonies present in other songs become discordance, and the polished instrumentals turn into a poppy mess. It sounds like mid-tempo pop, but “LAST HUG” fails at sounding right for FUNKY MONKEY BABYS.

“Naitte Waratte Yume wo Miteta” is mid-tempo pop that FUNKY MONKEY BABYS does well. The group harmonizes well on the chorus and creates clear, catchy choruses. Sadly, the climax of the song isn’t very strong.

“My Home” works off of acoutisc guitar, harmonies, and all of that backed by the repetition of “My Home.” There’s not necessarily anything wrong, but the song doesn’t really soung good until the layering of the final chorus. At that pont, the power attained is too little, too late.

“Yubikiri Gen Man” lacks the vocal layering and harmonies of other FUNKY MONKEY BABY tracks. For the most part, it just doesn’t sound like a cohesive song. Over all, that’s the same problem with “Tenshi to Akuma.” Too much rapping and too many gimmicks equate to a really poor album track, that only really turns around late in the song.

“Chou I Love You “ is a great way to end the FUNKY MONKEY BABYS 2 album. The song is one of the most energetic and happiest, which definitely provides a jumping point for the rest of their music in the future. FUNKY MONKEY BABYS end with one of their strengths: an acoustic track tinged with their distinctive sound.

FUNKY MONKEY BABYS gained success because they sounded novel and different. No one in J-pop has that exact same feel as they do, and listeners hadn’t really seen it done before. Without good looks, the band worked solely off of musical quality, finding variety by changing tempos. However, after listening to the album, it becomes evident that this may not be enough to keep listeners coming back. If FUNKY MONKEY BABYS can bring more diverse sounds and more vocal power along with catchy beats, they can create a hit album. Right here they have the makings of one, they just need to polish their game.

89% B+

[Album] Kobukuro – 5296

『5296』コブクロ
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~Tracklist~
01. Aoku Yasashiku (蒼く 優しく)
02. Coin (コイン)
03. Tsubomi (蕾)
04. Donna Sora Demo (どんな空でも)
05. Kimi to Iu Na no Tsubasa (君という名の翼)
06. WHITE DAYS
07. Kimiiro (君色)
08. Suimen no Chou (水面の蝶)
09. Kaze no Naka wo (風の中を)
10. Gekkou (月光)
11. Kazamidori (風見鶏)
12. Diary
13. Fragile mind

~Album Review~
Kobukuro released their sixth major label album, “5296,” on December 19, 2007. The album debuted at number two, selling 100,000 copies in one day. This album’s chart trajectory may be worthy of keeping watch on; it should be interesting to see how this album’s chart life is. Already, first week sales suggest “5296” will be a staple of the top twenty for many weeks to come.

“Aoku Yasashiku” is an interesting start to the album; it sounds very Kobukuro through and through, but it fails to play to their strong points. What the listener hears in this song is acoustic guitar, violins, and vulnerable vocals that push Kobukuro to the limit. The song sounds emotive, but misses the powerful melodic power of some of their of their other ballads, including “Tsubomi.”

“Coin” sounds much happier than “Aoku Yasahiku.” “Coin Song” is mid-tempo acoustic pop. There is an organ backing the guitar throughout the song; the beauty lies in the simplicity of the song, which lacks background vocals. This song is music, essentially. The harmonica in the extro is a nice touch to this lounge-feeling track.

“Tsubomi” is one of the strongest tracks on the album. The intro alone is beautiful; it sounds like orgel. Most likely, it is keyboards introducing the melody to the song. When lead vocals enter, the song changes to only a guitar backing; the bridge changes into a duet alongside violins and simple beat. The chorus is particularly strong, and the melody of the intro returns, this time with the passion of Kobukoro singing along.

“Donna Sora Demo” is a pretty song that uses a background choir of ordinary voices in the ending portions of the song to set itself apart. As such, this song picks up momentum and energy as the song progresses, becoming a big song that doesn’t end with Kobukuro’s normal grace. Over all, the song has a nice hook, making it a strong album track.

“Kimi to Iu Na no Tsubasa” is another single track, featuring on “ALL SINGLES BEST.” The song is upbeat and passionate. It has some elements of pop to it, but barely. Over all, the piano and the violins sound fast-paced, and lead in to a powerhous chorus. “Kimi to Iu Na no Tsubasa” is a great upbeat song that still has that emotion Kobukuro is known for, but speeds up their music in a great way.

“WHITE DAYS” is another ballad; at this point, it’s starting to become overkill considering the strong tracks that the album has. Thankfully, this song is still strong and more piano based (as opposed to guitar) compared to the last few tracks, but musically it’s not terribly difference. Lyrically (an aspect I don’t have time to research) this song is probably much different.

“Kimiiro” begins with guitar riffs before switching back to more traditional Kobukuro fare. The song is mid-tempo acoustic; it features an interesting basis for its beat, as well as harder guitar. “Kimiiro” is a break from the onslaught of ballads, but not much else.

“Suimen no Chou” marks a power transition for Kobukuro; they finally leave behind acoustic pop rock and head into faster, harder rock (it’s by no means heavy). There’s guitar riffs, Kobukuro’s vocals, and a good drum beat. From “Suimen no Chou,” it looks like Kobukuro could put out some more faster rock – it’s good.

“Kaze no Naka wo” feels kind of country-tinged. It’s definitely giving the album variety with what sounds most like a banjo. Perhaps the best element of the song is the joy in it, something Kobukuro doesn’t often capitilize on. There’s also the English “Hey now!” throughout the song, along with harmonica. This song may have American country roots, but Kobukuro owns it.

The transition to the next song, “Gekkou,” is somewhat forced, but not horribly (the tempo is at least kept going). “Gekkou” is rock once more, but it sounds much more raw than “Suimen no Chou.” It’s not bad; it has a great crescendo and chorus, but it just doesn’t feel well-produced.

“Kazamidori” feels quite familiar, which really makes it fall into the background on an album filled with ballads. It’s nice, but the instrumentation, vocals and sound have been done before. Nevertheless, the extro of the song is beautiful.

“Diary” seems to encompass the rest of the album quite well. It has pop synthetic elements, more classical elements such as violin, and contemporary acoustic guitar. It’s mid-tempo and nice, over all.

“Fragile Mind” is probably the best album track of all. It combines the rock seen in mid-album tracks with the emotion of “Tsubomi,” creating a passionate, forward looking ending to a great album. What more is there to ask for?

Kobukuro has been at the height of their game ever since the release of “SAKURA.” More recently, their album, “ALL SINGLES BEST,” has become one of the best selling Japanese albums of the new millennia in Japan. With such success, it was imperative to maintain their momentum with “5296.” Not only did Kobukuro have to create a great album (expectations have been high), but they had to mix older feelings and elements found throughout their discography with something new. In the end, Kobukuro largely succeeded on this album. The album is very acoustic, maybe too acoustic. Essentially, if Kobukuro messed up on the album, they only did so minimally. The only other error would be not all tracks came all that close to greatness; some do, others don’t. Otherwise, “5296” is an album that is largely able to transcend its genre. In other words, it’s worth a listen.

94% A
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[Album] Ayumi Hamasaki – GUILTY

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~Tracklist~
1. Mirror
2. (don’t) Leave me alone
3. talkin’ 2 myself
4. decision
5. GUILTY
6. fated
7. Together When…
8. Marionette -prelude-
9. Marionette
10. The Judgement Day
11. glitter
12. MY ALL
13. reBiRTH
14. untitled ~for her~

~Album Review~
Ayumi Hamasaki released her ninth studio album, “GUILTY,” on January 1, 2008. With such a long discography, Ayu’s main job on this album was creating modern, relevant J-pop that sounded different from her earlier music, but did not alienate her earlier listeners.

“Mirror” is the intro for the album. It’s a great note to start the album off on. It starts out with synthetic elements and a jovial keyboard that eventually succumbs to guitar riffs. The riffs accompany a change in Ayu’s voice, a darkness and power that make this track a great listen even if it is short.

“(don’t) Leave me alone” is electronica tinged pop rock. The song has a very distinct flavor, probably most similar to Ayu’s “my name’s WOMEN.” When drawing that comparison between the songs, however, it becomes apparent that “my name’s WOMEN” is superior. Nevertheless, the production of “(don’t) Leave me alone” is solid, and the track sounds great with a chorus that is much fuller than the verses. The crescendo of the song, however, does not have the power Ayu’s songs normally have. For many, this distinct style has made the track a favorite. However, this style must contend with lack of vocal power, especially noticeable during the chorus, in the “(don’t) Leave me alone. The song comes out as sleek rock, but feels like it somehow just missed achieving greatness.

“talkin’ 2 myself” is rockier, edgier, and possibly better than “(don’t) Leave me alone.” Again, the comparison between the two comes down to style versus power. In “talkin’ 2 myself,” the melody of the chorus is much more memorable, and the intermingling of guitar riffs and keyboard effects create a very dark, enjoyable atmosphere. Ayu is very in tune with the instrumentals on this track, which is a definite strength. As the backing of the track grows in speed and intensity, so does Ayu. “talkin’ 2 myself” easily becomes the best rock song on the album because of its pure power and well-done production.

“decision” is another rock song, the B-side to “talkin’ 2 myself” on the single. It’s only suiting, then, that the two songs find themselves next to each other. It’s also fitting that “decision” is the weaker of the two tracks; they’re both rock, and despite a nice effort and nice vocals, the production and power in “decision” aren’t enough to compete with “talkin’ 2 myself.” Here, “decision” is still rock, but it doesn’t feel nearly as polished as “talkin’ 2 myself.” The violins and rock are nice, and Ayu does great singing, especially towards the end, but it’s not enough to make “decision” stand out.

“GUILTY” takes about 48 seconds to begin, and that feels much too long. The instrumentation at the beginning is pretty and builds to the vocals, but the line between beauty and boredom was crossed; the beginning could very well lull you into a slumber. With that long of an intro, the expectation becomes that this song will explode in intensity. Despite a pretty melody and piano element, the song never achieves greatness because it doesn’t climax well, thereby failing to meet the expectations set by the song itself. The song begins and ends as one. The song feels somewhat emotive, but cannot compare to “Together When…” The chorus on “GUILTY” sounds great, but just doesn’t have that much power.

If one track had to be pointed to as the worst song of the album, it may be “fated.” It’s just there as a ballad, which is not something listeners can often say about Ayu’s music. Her music always has that extra “umph” to it, but here on “fated” the music is just so-so, and there is no emotional climax. In the end, the problem with “fated” is that it is just average; average vocals, average lyrics, average intensity and average quality. One thing the song does well, however, is lead into “Together When…”

“Together When…” was an excellent choice for a pre-album digital release. The song is easily the best song Ayu has put out this year, putting her other songs to shame. The song grows well, seamlessly transitioning from a pretty, calm verse, to a powerful, large chorus. The verse itself has well-done lyrics that are both catchy and memorable. That combination, along with an elegant melody, make “Together When…” a top-notch ballad and the star of “GUILTY.” The ending is impressive, as well: as Ayu repeats her choruses twice, she contrasts a soft, emotive whisper with powerful, sorrowful vocals to create a great climax that leads into a great extro. If there was any doubt, it’s cleared up here: Ayu still has that capability to write great lyrics and put out great music.

“Marionette -prelude-” leads the listener right into the next track, “Marionette.” “Marionette” features interesting synthetic instrumentation that revolves around a piano backing. The feeling created is that the music flows as the song progresses. Almost like a stream of flowing water gaining momentum, the song transforms into a rock chorus. The rock of “Marionette” really gives it a lot of power and emotion that contrasts well with the eerie keyboards that both begin and end the track. A different song from Ayu that has style and depth.

If there was a short song that could have been made full-length to improve “GUILTY,” it would be “The Judgement Day” which has a techno beat and electronica feeling all at once. The power and feeling of the track are energetic and catchy. It’s a shame that style was never capitalized on this album, it could have really made a difference and improved “GUILTY.” Instead, the album took an emotional, rock edge, which Ayu has done before.

“glitter” transitions well from “The Judgement Day,” and serves as a great, happy pop rest from the rock on the rest of the album. The song features synthetic keyboard-based background instrumentation, a central beat, and layered background vocals that come together to create a larger than life song. The song is quite summery with its cheer, but doesn’t quite live up to the greatness of previous summer songs, including “BLUE BIRD.”

“My All” is mid-tempo pop that appears to be on the album because, well, there was too much rock. As pop, the song is light and fluffy and just plain catchy. It has a great beat and a good melody to boot. Nothing to complain about here – it’s just mid-tempo, and it might have felt better if it was upbeat. Still, it’s nice to hear something new and pop-centric from Ayu after “glitter.” The vocals are fine here, and the extro is just a bunch of “la la”s. “My All” is guilty pleasure, as it should be.

The tone of the album shift with “reBiRTH,” which transitions into “untitled ~for her~.” “untitled ~for her~” is a soft ballad that begins with violins, and features fairly spartan verses juxtaposed against rockier choruses backed by piano and violins. Over all, this is probably one of the better album tracks on the album; it’s done well and sounds well produced, with background vocals and instrumentation that take the song to the next level.

If you were holding out for the best Ayu album in a long time, then “GUILTY” will be a huge disappointment. It is not of high caliber, especially when compared to albums like “Duty” and “I am…” As such, “GUILTY” falls into the tier of albums occupied by “MY STORY,” making this album her worst since 2005. That doesn’t mean “GUILTY” is bad, it just means it isn’t breath-taking. The problem lies in the rock of the album coupled with weaker album tracks. Most of the album, the songs are there but not impressive, not powerful. When Ayu is on during the course of the album, she is on, putting out some her best music in quite some time. It’s just a shame to see good tracks mixed in with rubbish. Nevertheless, “GUILTY” has redeeming songs that do appeal to a variety of listeners. Often on the album, however, songs that some like completely alienate other fans. Still, for Ayu fans and J-pop fans alike, “GUILTY” is worth a listen, for even if the music isn’t Ayu’s best, it’s still a guilty pleasure to listen to one of J-pop’s best.

84% B

[single] Mizuki Nana – Meikyu Butterfly

Character song release from “Shugo Chara,” the latest release from “Rozen Maiden” hit-makers Peach Pit.
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~Tracklist~
01. Meikyu Butterfly
02. Blue Moon
03. Meikyu Butterfly (Vocal off)
04. Blue Moon (Vocal off)

~Single Review~
Mizuki Nana released “Meikyu Butterfly” on December 19, 2007.

Most of Mizuki Nana’s releases are well polished with great, instrumentals that are well produced, especially for anime and a seiyuu singer. Here in “Meikyu Butterfly” the song is still well done for the most part, although it lacks some of her traditional power. That power change works well, as it is backed by a piano during the first part of the song. The song builds well, becoming very techno sounding towards the end, which is a fairly complete shift from the beginning. For anime fans especially, the son is worth a listen.

“Blue Moon” is a ballad B-side with piano, some percussion, guitar, windchimes, and keyboards. Over all, the song never really attains the power of the last song. It’s beauty isn’t enough to excuse this fact, either; “Blue Moon” ends being solid, but not as anything special.

“Meikyu Butterfly” is the polished anime music we’ve come to expect from Nana Mizuki. It should be worth a listen to fans, but compared to some of her other songs, its not quite as well done.

85% B

[Single] YUKI – Wonder Line

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~Tracklist~
01. Wonder Line
02. Wonder Line (Night Swimming Mix)
03. Biscuit (2007.10.06 Live@Osaka-Jo Hall)

~Single Review~
YUKI released, “Wonder Line” on December 12, 2007. Both “Wonder Line” and “Wonder Line (Night Swimming Mix) were used in FOMA N905i CMs. Upon release, “Wonder Line” peaked at number four on the Oricon weekly chart, selling 23,147 in its first week on the charts.

“Wonder Line” is an interesting song with variety. YUKI’s vocals are very different, even when compared to her J-pop peers. Her voice is high and particularly nasal. Nevertheless, she controls that nasality fairly well in this song, which makes a world of difference in the chorus. It’s catchy and upbeat, with the hook “wonder line.” The surreal instrumentation, orchestrated backing, and strong beat really create an excellent J-pop in the end. YUKI’s experience shines through on this track. The only downside to the song would be that YUKI’s voice is a bit high, and the extro is a bit long. But if you can take those “bits,” “Wonder Line” is a good song.

The “Night Swimming Mix” of “Wonder Line” is much more real in it’s instrumentation, opting for mainly strings and piano and a soft bongo beat. The song sounds very pretty, but doesn’t have the power of the original mix of the “Wonder Line.”

“Biscuit” is more of rock song mixed with piano and violins here. Live, YUKI’s voice gains a welcome bit of depth, and the music feels as if it fills the room. YUKI is a musician and that shines through on “Biscuit” as she performs wonderfully. A nice way to round out a wonder of a single.

Considering YUKI’s music can be too stylistic and nasal to listen to, “Wonder Line” is a welcome step towards the mainstream for YUKI.

89% B+

[Single] The Brilliant Green – Enemy

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~Tracklist~
01. Enemy
02. angel song ~Eve no Hitomi~ (acoustic version)
03. Enemy (original instrumental)

~Single Review~
The Brilliant Green released “Enemy” on December 12, 2007. The single peaked at number 21 on the Oricon weekly chart, selling 5,804 copies its first week on sale.

“Enemy’s” best trait is the haunting quality it has throughout the song. The song does well mixing rock with other elements, including an organ in the final bridge. However, that good production does not cover up the vocal weakness in the song. The song may feel haunting, but the vocals sound weak, and at times, strained.

If the vocals were better, the acoustic version of “angel song” may have sounded better. As is, it’s certainly a decent track, but without the haunting rock of “Enemy,” the song is easily forgettable.

79% C+

[Single] Makihara Noriyuki – Akai Mafura/Ogenki de!

「赤いマフラー」槇原敬之 
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~Tracklist~
01. Akai Mafura (赤いマフラー)
02. Ogenki de! (お元気で!)
03. Akai Mafura (Backing Track)
04. Ogenki de! (Backing Track)

~Single Review~
Makihara Noriyuki closes out his seventeenth year in the Japanese music industry with the single, “Akai Mafura/Ogenki de!,” released December 12, 2007. This single did not match the success of “GREEN DAYS,” only reaching 33 on the Oricon weekly chart when it was released.

“Akai Mufler” is an excellent wintry song with a great variety of instrumentation, from violins to interesting sampled percussion. The track has a nice sound, which makes the song a very pleasant listen.

“Ogenki de!” uses more synth to create a positive song that just sounds happy. The song dings and uses keyboards, but works well mainly because of the mellow vocals. A fun song that isn’t too cutesy by any means. Nary a moment is bland due to the variety in synthetic editing throughout the song.

This single is not as strong as “GREEN DAYS,” but it’s still surprisingly good and well done. If you’re looking for songs that just sound positive, this is the stuff for you. The plus is that Makihara Noriyuki sounds happy without singing in falsetto.

85% B

[Album] BUMP OF CHICKEN – oribital period

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~Tracklist~
01. voyager
02. Hoshi no Tori (星の鳥)
03. Mayday (メーデー)
04. Sainou Hito Ouenka (才悩人応援歌)
05. Planetarium (プラネタリウム)
06. supernova
07. Hammer Song to Itami no Tou (ハンマーソングと痛みの塔)
08. Jikuu Kakurenbo (時空かくれんぼ)
09. Kasabuta Butabu (かさぶたぶたぶ)
10. Hana no Na (花の名)
11. Hitorigoto (ひとりごと)
12. Amedama no Uta (飴玉の唄)
13. Hoshi no Tori reprise (星の鳥)
14. Karma (カルマ)
15. arrows
16. Namida no Furusato (涙のふるさと)
17. flyby

~Album Review~
BUMP OF CHICKEN released their fifth studio album, “oribital period,” on December 19, 2007. On the first day of sales, the album breezed past the competition attaining sales of around 130,000. Powered by the success of the singles “Namida no Furusato,” “Hana no Na,” “Mayday,” “Planetarium, and “supernova/Karma,” “orbital period” is looking to hit the elusive one million sales mark.

“orbital period” starts out with two short intro tracks. The first, “voyager,” features vocals, guitar and the synthetic sound of a “ding.” It’s a nice taste of BUMP OF CHICKEN that leads the listen into the fully instrumental “Hoshi no Tori,” which transitions to the rockier side of BUMP OF CHICKEN mixed with the soaring power of organs and the same celestial synthetic, “ding.” “Hoshi no Tori” does an amazing job of transitioning to “Mayday,” seamlessly flowing into the next song.

BUMP OF CHICKEN’s upbeat songs are quite impressive, and “Mayday” is no exception. If you enjoy upbeat rock, “Mayday” should be the best song on the album for you. The chorus is catchy and the melody is memorable. The vocals sound seasoned and strong, and the rock, despite being quite integral to the song, is never overpowering. The crescendo of the song is beautiful with vocals layered throughout the background creating a great song. The extro is a little prolonged, but then again, the listener does need a cooldown from that hot rock track.

“Sainou Hito Ouenka” is faster, rockier and less poppy. An interesting feature of this fast paced track is the chorus, which features full rock intermingled with a string instrument being played at a frenetic speed. The verse and bridge, while not as full, still feature rock, and move as quick in-betweens for the choruses. The crescendo is most certainly the high point of the song and the ending is nice. “Sainou Hito Ouenka” is a great way to follow up “Mayday” as it maintains momentum, preventing it from being overshadowed.

“Planetarium” is mid-tempo and less rock. Another well done track. The only thing wrong with “Planetarium” would be the feeling that it never quite does anything. The guitar and keyboards sound nice, the beats work, and the melodies memorable enough, but is that enough to make “Planetarium” worth a listen? For acoustic rock listeners, yes.

“supernova” is another slower track with acoustic guitar and drums. The verses are very soft and acoustic, but BUMP OF CHICKEN betrays its identity as a pop group during the choruses, where layered vocals with the backing of many voices enter the scene. The end result is a great song that takes the mid-tempo tracks to the next level.

“Hammer Song to Itami no Tou” is a strong rock track with excellent vocal layering. What sets it apart from the other songs on the album? The track uses interesting elements, such as sampled clapping, to give it a unique feeling. And unlike many of the other tracks, the extro is a strong part of the song, mainly because this track leads into the riffs of “Jikuu Kakurenbo.”

These riffs fade out of the verses and bridges until the chorus, where the song explodes into rock. The rock is overpowering to the vocals, but certainly a nice contrast to the acoustic guitar of the rest of “Jikuu Kakurenbo.” The song climaxes well, and the melody is both memorable and epic. Ending softly, the song transitions well into the next mid-tempo track.

“Kasabuta Butabu” is the first mid-tempo song on the album to use rock guitar riffs throughout the song, replacing the acoustic guitar. The other notable feature of “Kasabuta Butabu” is the singing of a group of voices and the answering by the lead vocalist of BUMP OF CHICKEN. The vocals in the song are notably softer throughout, until the crescendo, where all the vocals merge into one powerful voice.

“Hana no Na” banks off of its vocals and melody; the song feels like it could have been done before a million times. However, BUMP OF CHICKEN does a good job of creating a track that expands throughout its long time. By the time the rock arrives, the melody is in the listeners head, and it makes those final choruses all the sweeter. The ending, while soft, is a nice touch.

“Hitorigoto” is another mid-tempo track that intermingles acoustic and harder rock. The rock choruses are notably better than the verses. Over all, the song is another fine addition to the album, just not great as many of the other tracks.
“Amedama no Uta” has no background vocal layering, and the instrumentation feels bare. This forces one towards the lead vocals, which are strong. Still, this song isn’t as powerful as the other mid-tempo song on the album.

“Hoshi no Tori reprise” is a nice, welcome breather from all of the powerful songs the album has thrown at the listener. But the respite is short-lived. Soon enough, rock riffs come back in with the rock track, “Karma.”

“Karma” is another strong upbeat rock song. The Japanese hook in the song is notably strong, and the melody of the chorus is memorable. The verses keep the pace of the chorus going, while taking a way a lot of the power. The bridges of the song perform well at bridging the gap between the very disparate choruses and verses. At risk of being repetitive, “Karma” ends quite quickly, leaving the listener wanting more.

“arrows” is a decent ballad. Out of all of the songs on the album, “arrows” probably feels the most different, because it is the most acoustic. The choruses sound familiar, however, mainly because they bring back a degree of the layering of the other songs on the “orbital period” album. This expression of diversity in their music is nice, especially since rock music can run the risk of sounding too repetitive, even with lyric and melodic changes. Nevertheless, the song could be stronger.

“Namida no Furusato” feels less pop and much more rock. The vocals edge on screechy rock at some points, but never scream (probably since BUMP OF CHICKEN is mainstream). The song is probably the most powerful mid-tempo rock song on the album and the most stylistic. It successfully keeps the momentum of the album going.

Another welcome interlude, “fly by,” uses acoustic guitar and that celestial “ding” of earlier interludes. It’s a nice lead-in to the final track, “BELIEVE,” if it can be called a track. It’s more of a statement of the album, of its character. There’s no music, and it begins with silence. “BELIEVE” can then be skipped, especially if you don’t understand Japanese.

It’s hard to find a fault with BUMP OF CHICKEN’s “orbital period” because its very well produced, well sung, and well-executed. The only complaint would be that the diversity of the tracks is minimal, which is mainly due to this groups constraint of rock. Considering their genre, they do well at changing things up, although the concentration of mid-tempo tracks is a bit much. This album contains many singles and well done album tracks; in the end, it succeeds at being a well-polished J-rock album that’s surprisingly mainstream.

93% A

[Single] SMAP – Dangan Fighter

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~Tracklist~
1. Dangan Fighter
2. Christmas Night
3. Dangan Figter (Backing Track)
4. Christmas Night (Backing Track)

~Single Review~
This single was released on December 19, 2007 and peaked at number one on the Oricon daily charts. Unlike many other Johnny’s Entertainment releases, “Dangan Fighter” maintained consistent sales its second day, suggesting it may have a potentially long chart life.

“Dangan Fighter” is a very different song for SMAP to sing. The melody is very hard to find and not memorable at all, mainly because the instrumentals are very nontraditional and synth. There is always almost always a beat, but there is never a melody besides the tune that they’re singing. In the end, it doesn’t matter than “Dangan Fighter” has a catchy chorus with the hook “You’re got the power” or “Dangan Fighter-des.” The song ends up as average pop without a feeling a purpose, a definite sub-par A-side from SMAP, as their sales reflect.

“Christmas Night” feels much more traditional for a SMAP song, which is a definite plus. Download sales reflect this, as “Christmas Night” has almost equaled “Dangan Fighter” in download sales on Japan’s leading download store, Chaku-Uta. On the plus side, “Christmas Night” has a melody, even though it is not very memorable. The instrumentation is average, with a piano, guitar, and soft percussion. The bridge leads well into the chorus, which is the well-layered high-light of the song with vocals that push much harder than the rest of the song. Besides a nice, pleasant holiday tune, “Christmas Night” isn’t really much else.

After a stellar year in 2006, SMAP has released only one single in 2007, the lackluster “Dangan Fighter.” It should be noted that despite being well produced, the instrumentals are inadequate. Change is good, but not when it is detioration. SMAP can bank on their popularity carrying this single, but if they release more low-quality music, their sales may greatly suffer.

76% C

[News] Utada Hikaru – Stay Gold Preview (Chaku-Uta)

In one week of downloads, “Stay Gold” was downloaded over 150,000 times, and subsequently topped Chaku-Uta ringtone downloads. The youtube video above features a preview of the track that was created from the Chaku-Uta downloads themselves. The quality is high enough to hear the layering present. This also reveals a new portion of the song: a piano piece with an excellent melody. “Stay Gold” sounds like it will be a worthy addition to Hikki’s library, despite a rough bridge.

[Album] DREAMS COME TRUE – AND I LOVE YOU

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~Tracklist~
01. a little prayer
02. Aishiteru no Sign ~Watashitachi no Mirai Yosouzu~ (ア・イ・シ・テ・ルのサイン ~わたしたちの未来予想図~)
03. Osaka LOVER -ALBUM EDITION- (大阪LOVER)
04. Appeal (アピール)
05. Sayonara 59ers! -ALBUM EDITION- (さよなら59ers!)
06. CARNAVAL ~Subete no Tatakau Hitotachi he~ (CARNAVAL ~すべての戦う人たちへ~)
07. NOCTURNE 001
08. Kimi ni Shika Kikoenai (きみにしか聞こえない)
09. Kyou Dake wa -ALBUM EDITION- (今日だけは)
10. UNPRETTY DAY!
11. Mata ne -ALBUM EDITION- (またね)
12. Moshimo Yuki Nara (もしも雪なら)
13. AND I LOVE YOU

~Album Review~
“AND I LOVE YOU,” DCT’s 14th original studio album, was released December 12, 2007. It reached number two on the Oricon charts, selling 374,000 copies its first week (source: NTV).

“a little prayer” begins the album on an irresistible note: the track uses well-layered vocals intermingled with soft R&B beats to create a great atmosphere. If the song were full length, the repetition of the of some phrases would be a problem, but instead, the song prepares the listener for the variety of the album. A well produced track with a variety of sounds, “a little prayer” is a paradigm of what introductions should be.

“Aishiteru no Sign ~Watashitachi no Mirai Yosouzu~” is a ballad, through and through. If you can’t stand the song being slow and repetitive, despite being very pretty and melodic, this might be a song to skip. True, the song sounds very typical of a ballad, but the chorus somehow makes the song worth a listen among all the powerhouse songs among DCT’s discography. The final chorus of the song is fabulous, working as a climax for the song. “Aishiteru no Sign ~Watashitachi no Mirai Yosouzu~” is never over the top vocally, but feels emotional nonetheless. Despite a prolonged extro that thinks too highly of itself, this song is good.

The transition into “Osaka LOVER -ALBUM EDITION-” is a bit forced because of the huge change in beat and rythym. Nevertheless, it works. “Osaka LOVER -ALBUM EDITION-” is just funky, with an infectious beat, interesting background music, and strong vocals. The memorable music of the chorus and the catchy hooks make this song special, as well. Perhaps the best part of the song is the final bridge and crescendo; the addition of more traditional Japanese sounds and fuller keyboards lead the song into its ending stretch with style. The extro, extended in this album version, is interesting clearly marking this as an album only version of the song.

“Appeal” maintains the funky beat of “Osaka LOVER” but tones the energy level down a few notches. That doesn’t mean the keyboards and vocals aren’t as sweet as ever, however. The choruses boom over the verses, and “Appeal” has one of the best final choruses of the album so far. Yoshida Miwa elevates her voice in noticeable manner, giving this track another special feel. Despite being mid-tempo, “Appeal” manages to maintain the listener’s interest through a variety of sounds. The ending monologue probably isn’t necessary, but it does exemplify the melody nicely.

“Sayonara 59ers! -ALBUM EDITION- (さよなら59ers!)” is a mid-tempo song with funk. Utilizing an acoustic guitar, clapping, and trademark beat, the song. For most of the song, “Sayonara 59ers! -ALBUM EDITION- (さよなら59ers!)” drags along, with very stable vocals and melody. It’s not until the ending, where vocal layering, the guitar, and Yoshida Miwa’s lead vocals all kick it up a notch. It’s too little, too late though – “Sayonara 59ers! -ALBUM EDITION- (さよなら59ers!)” feels like a B-side placed among stronger tracks (which it is). There’s no hiding it.

“CARNAVAL ~Subete no Tatakau Hitotachi he~” is in a similar vein as “Sayonara 59ers!” but has much more energy, perhaps because the theme is “CARNAVAL.” Nevertheless, the keyboards just beam on this track, and the omnipresent choir of everyday background voices really give the song personality. Whistles, and various other instruments don’t feel out of place here, mainly because this song is just a mid-temp party for your ears.

“NOCTURNE 001” starts out with futuristic sounds, before a more traditional piano takes center stage among these beats. This song has much less power than “Aishiteru no Sign ~Watashitachi no Mirai Yosouzu~,” but uses variety in sounds and building power in lead vocals to differentiate. “NOCTURE 001” is very different, and despite dragging at first, ends with the listener satisfied, mainly due to the complexity of the track. Despite a rough start, the ending vocals and melody are very pretty and memorable.

“Kimi ni Shika Kikoenai” is perhaps the most powerful ballad on the album so far. Vocally, Yoshida Miwa really strives for power. Without that power and corresponding increase in background vocals, this track may have sounding like the other two slower songs on this album. However, “Kimi ni Shika Kikoenai” feels different because of the power behind the whole song. An interesting harpsicord like sound (probably manipulated through the keyboard) adds flavor to this track through slow initial verses. The crescendo is well worth the wait, however. The final bridge leads into piano backed lead vocals before they begin to boom in the extro. “Kimi ni Shika Kikoenai” has one of the best extros on the whole album, hands down, mainly because it sounds so wonderful and is easy to sing along to. The piano fringe at the end is wonderful too – the melody will really stick with the listener.

The piano leads right into the next track, “Kyou Dake wa -ALBUM EDITION-” utilizes a melody during the chorus that sounds reminiscent of “Silver Bells.” There’s not much at fault with the song, although it feels a bit less-well rounded compared to some of the other tracks. “Kyou Dake wa -ALBUM EDITION-” has good tempo, and variety in instrumentation, with modern rythym, and traditional beats. The bridge’s tempo certainly mixes the song up a bit, spicing things up. The ending is also very good, although the choruses throughout the song are a bit slow (despite excellent transitions back to the verses). It’s very pretty song with some roughness, but plenty of goodness.

“UNPRETTY DAY!” starts out pretty well, with an orchestra, before a very 90s beat takes over, ruining the ambiance. Luckily, instrumentation comes back, but besides excellent vocals, this funky track is a little too funky at some points. A nice change of pace, but perhaps a little over the top for some.

“Mata ne -ALBUM EDITION-” is a welcome journey back to a comfort zone. Of course, the song uses the cliché of children, although their voices don’t sound as choir-like as we may be used to. Still, the song has power and rhythm. The choruses sound frenetic, but in a good way, upping the pace of the song and imbuing more energy to the song. Of course, “Mata ne” might get a little repetitive after a while, but it is kind of fun to sing along with. This repetition has duality, then, as it acts as both the strength and weakness of “Mata ne -ALBUM EDITION-.”

“Moshimo Yuki Nara” is another ballad, which banks on differentiating itself by sounding wintry. It’s pretty, but it’s not as good or memorable as the other ballads found on the album. It does, however, lead nicely, into the forward-looking “AND I LOVE YOU.” This final track on the album sounds heartfelt and leaves the listener feeling as through the whole album “AND I LOVE YOU” came from the heart. That’s a nice feeling.

“AND I LOVE YOU” is most clearly an album created by a pop group with great ability and capability tempered by experience. However, experience does not make DCT flawless. Often, long-time musical acts may rest on their laurels while still trying to create new music. DCT doesn’t quite do that here, however, the album does feel like the amalgamation of singles put together with some filler tracks. That’s not a bad thing necesarily, as most of these tracks are strong. However, “AND I LOVE YOU” has many tracks that drag on way past their due-date of stopping, seemingly just to fill the album and make it complete. This, along with an initial feeling of blandness, prevent “AND I LOVE YOU” from standing among their best works. However, some songs on their album do stack up well against classics. “AND I LOVE YOU” is a step in the right direction for DCT, but just a baby step. It’s one of the better pop albums out there, but that should be expected, and part of creating a great album is rising above expectations, which DCT doesn’t do to a certain extent.

88% B+

[Album] Ayumi Hamasaki – Secret

~Tracklist~
01. Not yet
02. until that Day…
03. Startin’
04. 1 LOVE
05. It was
06. LABYRINTH
07. JEWEL
08. momentum
09. taskinst
10. Born To Be…
11. Beautiful Fighters
12. BLUE BIRD
13. kiss o’ kill
14. Secret

~Album Review~
This album was released on November 29, 2006, and peaked at number one on the Oricon charts. The album sold 666,396 copies total, and the ballad used to promote the album, “JEWEL,” sold 750,000 ringtones. To put this in perspective, (miss)understood sol 877,000 copies, and each of its single sold at least that many ringtones, with the exception of “Bold & Delicious / Pride.”

“Secret” was a rushed end to 2006; orginally slated to be a mini-album, Avex made Ayu lengthen it to a full studio album. Although “momentum” took the longest out of her career to create, this album was created in perhaps the shortest time in her career. Songs were recycled after not being used for (miss)understood, and some interludes were lengthened. From that description, “Secret” should have felt rushed, sloppy, and poorly designed.

Despite a few flaws, “Secret” does not feel like an album created for a specific date under constraints. Instead, the album performs as sturdy pop that withstands the test of time.

The album begins with the intro, “Not yet,” starting the musical experience out on an high note. This song alone best defines the album as a whole, starting slowly, but gaining momentum and power. The rock and synthetic elements are typical of Ayu rock, as well. Probably most evident in this track is the growing maturity and depth in her voice, why by the climax at the end leaves you wanting more.

“until that Day…” was originally an interlude. It starts out like one, but quickly evolves into an interesting rock track with fast paced and catchy vocals. This is one of the few tracks is of questionable quality on the album, but over all, it’s still very solid. Ayu’s vocals, although they do no do anything spectacular, are quite strong. It starts out as synthetic pop, typical of an interlude, then moves towards rocky, switches to regular guitar, then heads back to rocky for the finale. It’s similar instrumental wise to “Startin'” (but has a different range over all), but is a great lead into the strong pop-track “Startin'”, another standout for this album.

“Startin'” split the Ayu community when it was released, with its PV, message, and difference in composition. Never had Ayu made a track like this before, something very similar to what happened with “Bold & Delicious.” Nevertheless, Ayu rises to the occasion on this powerful pop rock track. The chorus is very catchy with her deep vocals, and the crescendo is certainly strong. The extro is superfluous, but “Startin'” is still one of the best tracks on the album.

“Startin'” leads into “1LOVE” which sure to be a fan-favorite. Ayu dabbled in rock back when she sang “I Am…”, mixing her high pitched vocals and fast beats to create irresistible rock. The song uses her deeper range to better mix with the dark rock, creating a very sharp ambience with power. The chorus lets Ayu’s voice go low and fast, and just sounds amazing. It’s catchy and great sounding all in one. Ayu’s English is near its best with “Just one love,” another catchy element of the song, besides the flowing chorus. The climax into the end is also very strong, as it rolls into the chorus and snowballs to end the song. Bravo on this one!

“It was” is a mellow track, that continues to be soft-spoken as even during the rock chorus. This song is nowhere near the rock powerhouse that “1LOVE” is, but nevertheless, the vocals attempt to show, and to a certain extent, contain a bit of emotion. This song may also be a favorite to people who enjoy her higher register, as Ayu avoids singing in her low throaty voice, even during the chorus. In the end, “It was” serves its job as a transition, but beyond that, not much else; it lacks the extra push the other songs had. However, Ayu’s vocals and emotions do propel it a ways above mediocrity at least.

“LABRYNTH” is fairly well created, with complexity in instrumentation to keep the listener, well, listening. It helps ease the transition into “JEWEL.”

Ayu has an undeniable gift when it comes to ballads. Year after year, she creates a new song that feels different and familiar all at once. “JEWEL” fits into that category and is easily one of the stand-out tracks of the album. It’s a great ballad featuring the piano, a bit of some synth beats, and a whole lot of emotion in Ayu’s voice. It’s strength lies in the lack of grand instrumentation. Opting for a spartan atmosphere, Ayu is backed by only a piano, her background vocals, and various background beats. Somehow, that sounds very full during the choruses, making “JEWEL” another must listen.

“momentum” is “M” reincarnated. Almost. Ayu’s vocals continue to be mature in this song, but aim on the higher end of the register. The violin is just great as it accompanies Ayu’s voice alongside a wintry synth atmosphere and piano intermingled with keyboards. The “M” comparisons are well deserved: “momentum” has the sweeping elements and emotion, then moves into the rock choruses. Once more, “Secret” impresses its depth upon the listener. The final bridge is just great and leads up into the finale that defines this song.

Another interlude so soon? “Taskint” is avoidable, as far as interludes go; it lacks complexity besides rough rock and bare keyboard elements. The track makes the album feel like it’s being stretched, which it is.

“Taskint” is really just the transition between the rock on “Secret” and the pop tracks featured on her singles. Right here, we shall see all cohesion in theme thrown out the window; these three songs do not belong with the songs we’ve just heard, mainly because they feel forced without adequate accompaniment on the album.

“Born to Be…” is a huge, grandstanding song that fills the room with lifting vocals, with Ayu backed by a whole choir. The instrumentation, highly based off of drumming, keyboards, samples of an audience, rock guitar and synthetic elements, is fast-paced. The song is a huge atmosphere and presence to contend with, created by the amalgam of vocals, background singing (very (miss)understood-esque), and instrumentation. It just feels bigger than just Ayu, something the chorus of “Born to Be…” gets across, while being quite catchy.

The pop slippery slope (which is quite enjoyable) continues as the album slides into “Beautiful Fighters” which is entirely synthetic, down to the editing of Ayu’s voice. The downside in the end is the lack of power and range of Ayu’s voice in the song; when the best part of her vocals in the song are the edited ones, it’s bad. Still, the song, although it’s completely a B-side, is another evolution of Ayu’s music.

“BLUE BIRD” is just good pop, best described as a faster version of “fairyland.” It has great synth, and harks back to older days in Ayu’s vocals. She sings in her upper register here, which probably made this song the most popular single of the year for Ayu.

“Kiss o’ Kill” features organs. And it kicks some serious booty doing so. As you get into the finale, you hear people screaming in the background (or cheering) and the instrumentals start switching back and forth between organs and rock. The finale has some great rock riffs as well. Kiss o’ Kill helps define this album. Listening the background people singing is interesting as well. It’s like a crowd of people. This song can be ecstasy at points due to the combination of power in organs and rock elements, alongside soaring vocals that are well backed.

“Secret.” The end as we know it. It features some strings that sound markedly like guitars. Perhaps this song comes closest to “JEWEL”‘s emotion (or even surpasses it). Both feature different kinds of simplicity, but yield an excellent ballad in doing so. “Secret” opts to build up as it moves along, crescendoing much more effectively than “JEWEL.” The orchestrated components along with the simple guitar and Ayu’s soft voice make an emotional ambience. It’s a bit of a bittersweet ending to the album, but still a great ending nonetheless.

This album finds itself in the tried and true territory of both “MY STORY” and “(miss)understood.” “Secret” has an abundance of strong album tracks that impress themselves on the listener, which while good, is not enough; none of the tracks are quite amazing to the point where some of the ones in her earlier career were. However, while “(miss)understood” was a strong album that displayed growth the likes of which we had never seen in Ayu’s music before, it was growth that relied on the crutch of Sweetbox, which hurt the album as a whole. At points, it came off a little bland or even worse, oddly. “MY STORY” did not fall into that trap, but not all of its tracks were as strong as “Secret”‘s. Sure, the single tracks stood out, as did a few notable album tracks, but there were quite a few boring tracks that served their role as filler. Secret may be better because it is both more mature than “(miss)understood” without Sweetbox and nary a moment is bland, but it cannot achieve the strength of her albums “Duty,” “Memorial Address,” “LOVEppears,” and “I Am…” because it lacks those pure hit songs.

Ayu is certainly the queen of J-pop. She has created yet another album worthy of being repeated into oblivion.

88% B+

[News] Ayumi Hamasaki – Album Preview “GUILTY”

~Thoughts~
To be honest, my heart dropped when I heard these previews. There is one pop track on the album, besides “glitter,” and that’s “My All,” which doesn’t sound that good. I like Ayu’s rock, but I sincerely believe she needs to move away from it to get to the next level of her music, or her popularity will dwindle. I hope to see this album outsell “Secret,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t. This album is rock and feels like “Secret” all over again, down to the glitter – My All vs. BLUE BIRD – Beautiful Fighters comparison. Then again, there’s some hope left; we haven’t heard the full album yet. I hope there’s more to these tracks then this. I really do.

[Single] Stephanie – Winter Gold

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~Tracklist~
01. Winter Gold
02. Life
03. Kimi ga Iru Kagiri (Acoustic Version)

~Single Review~
This is Stephanie’s 3rd single and first non-ballad single. She released this single on December 12, 2007, and “Winter Gold” peaked at number 37 on the Oricon daily charts before falling out of the top fifty.

“Winter Gold” is a fun pop song written about first love and the trouble in expressing yourself to the other person. Stephanie’s vocals and production aren’t necessarily anything special – unless you adore the fact that she can hit that envious whistle note. Nevertheless, “Winter Gold” seems to realize this and not take itself too seriously. As a fun song, nothing more, “Winter Gold succeeds.” The song has a memorable melody, despite sounding like an anime song out of a run of the mill show. The song has a catchy hook, despite not being anything special lyrically. Once you get past the fact that the song is just pop, it should be very enjoyable. If you’re looking for depth, unique production, or stellar vocals, look elsewhere, because frankly, Stephanie has none of them. But if you’re looking for a song that’s just plain enjoyable, look no further. Defying explanation, “Winter Gold” will stick with you.

“Life” is the incarnation of the rock B-side Stephanie has included on all of her singles. She sounds like she’s enjoying the different sound, but rock isn’t really her strength. These songs are really just testing the waters in my mind. The choruses are decently catchy, but undeniably powerful. Stephanie puts herself behind her voice, and the background vocalists give her footing. Besides a piano bridge that shakes things up a bit, this song really isn’t very notable and ends the same way it came in.

Oftentimes, a song’s true strength will be revealed when it is turned into an acoustic version. Without production covering the singer, they’re left exposed, ready for the listener to judge. “Kimi ga Iru Kagiri -Acoustic Version-” doesn’t completely strip of background vocals. Stephanie sounds pretty fantastic, even with those whistle notes that drive many away. However, the choice of instrumentation hurts the song a bit. “Kimi ga Iru Kagiri” is not meant to be sung with a guitar at that temp. It sounds hearing a gospel-sounding song sung with acoustic guitar. A nice listen in the end that shows Stephanie can sing.

85% B

[Single] Jordin Sparks – Tattoo

American Music Spotlight: Jordin Sparks
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~Tracklist~
01. Tattoo
02. Tattoo (Instrumental)
03. Tattoo (Acapella)

~Single Review~
“Tattoo” was released to American radio on August 27, 2007, but did not become available for download until September 25, 2007. The song did not gain mainstream popularity until much later as radio play gradually ramped up.

“Tattoo” features a beat reminiscent of Beyonce’s 2007 hit, “Irreplaceable,” but sounds altogether different. The intro to the song is slightly prolonged, but adequately prepares the listener for the backing of the remainder of the song. The verses are passable, but when Sparks reaches her chorus, the catchy hook enters front and center. What helps the chorus really enter a level above the rest of the song are the background vocals alongside fuller instrumentation. Sparks’s vocals take a leap upwards at the crescendo of the song, as well. She demonstrates that she can sing on this mid-tempo pop track. The only downfalls of the song are the cheesy lyrics (which really leave a lot of emotion to be desired) and the verses. Nevertheless, the choruses are more than enough to make up for those flaws.

Now, “don’t look back,” Sparks: if she can continue to produce refined pop like “Tattoo,” she could certainly be the next Kelly Clarkson – with a pop edge.

All at once, Jordin Sparks’s latest sounds familiar and new. It is often these tracks reminiscent of music we’ve heard before that resonate the most with listeners. Because Jordin Sparks combines familiarity and a new, modern feeling to her song, “Tattoo,” she’s created a pop hit.

90% A-

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[Single] Koda Kumi – Yume No Uta / Futari De…

『夢のうた / ふたりで…』 倖田來未

~Tracklist~
01. Yume no Uta (夢のうた; Dream Song)
02. Futari de… (ふたりで…; Together…)
03. Yume no Uta ~Quartet version~ (夢のうた; Dream Song)
04. Futari de… ~WHOOSH MIX~ (ふたりで…; Together…)
05. Yume no Uta (instrumental) (夢のうた; Dream Song)
06. Futari de… (instrumental) (ふたりで…; Together…)

~Single Review~
“Yume no Uta / Futari De…” was released on October 18, 2006 and reached number one, selling 301,169 copies in total. This single was based off of the idea of using the same melody in both of the A-sides. Which of the songs is better?

“Yume no Uta” is far superior, there is no doubt. “Yume no Uta” is exactly the song that 2006 built up to, especially following the upbeat powerhouse that was 4 hot wave. “Yume no Uta” has excellent instrumentation, starting with piano-based verses and moving towards grander instrumentation as the song progresses into the chorus. Compared to her 2007 releases, “Yume no Uta” is bigger, better, and altogether more emotive. This single was written by Koda Kumi, as well, giving it a personality that the listener doesn’t see in a lot of her songs. In the end, the instrumentation creates an excellent ambience for Koda Kumi’s voice.

“futari de…” is a much softer version of “Yume no Uta” with different lyrics. As such, it was probably better suited to be a B-side on this single rather than second A-side. Still, the song is a pleasant listen, it’s just nowhere near as powerful with it’s keyboard backing among synth.

The two mixes on this single do not work very well. The quartet version of “Yume no Uta” is too bare and sweeps away all traces of being epic from “Yume no Uta.” The whoosh mix of “Futari de…” is even worse, it ruins the song completely. One other thing worth noting – the instrumental for “Yume no Uta” is very pretty and might be worth a listen.

88% B+

[Single] V6 – way of life

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~Tracklist~
01. way of life
02. Risk (risuku or リスク)
03. You know?

~Single Review~
V6 released “way of life,” their 36th single, on December 12, 2007. The song is the ending theme for the drama SP. The single debuted at number one on the Oricon daily chart, and should remain there for the week.

“way of life” is a departure from V6’s traditional strength of fast-paced, catchy pop. “way of life” is still pop, yes, but it is much slower. V6 uses their harmonies to carry the song throughout the dark atmosphere of strings, piano, and synthetic elements. The choruses are powerful, but far from powerfully catchy. The song is very pretty and dark with a very memorable melody, but the fact remains that V6 is trying to be something they’re not. That really comes through on this track, and on the many versions of their cover art. It’s a step up from “Jasmine” on their last single, but not their best.

“Risk” is a powerful pop track with strong techno flavor. It doesn’t have the traditional hook of V6’s lead A-sides, and it much too techno to be the pop they’re expected to put out. However, the track is very dark like “way of life” and has a lot more of the energy their fans like to see. The choruses aren’t extraordinary, but over all, it’s one of their better B-sides in a long time.

“You Know?” is too rocky for V6. Their voices are overpowered by the rock and don’t have the style to handle being on a rock track. It doesn’t sound right. Essentially, it’s a weak filler for the single that really pales when compared to the other tracks.

Both “risk” and “way of life” are good tracks from V6 that are probably worth a listen for boy band fans. They’re both different fare for V6, which is nice for the rest of the listeners of J-pop. It’s a nice single, but it’s not quite amazing. It’s just missing something. That intangible thing is what keeps “Risk” and “way of life” from being extraordinary, although both have the potential to be it.

88% B

[Album] EXILE – EXILE LOVE

exile.jpg

~Tracklist~
01. What Is Love
02. I Believe
03. Beautiful
04. Hibiki
05. Kimi Ga Iru Kara
06. Make Love
07. SUMMER TIME LOVE
08. Sora Kara Ochitekuru JAZZ
09. love
10. sayonara
11. Kawaranai Mono
12. Toki No Kakera
13. Touch The Sky feat. Bach Logic (CD+2DVD-Only Bonus)
14. 24karats -type EX- (Sowelu, EXILE, DOBERMAN INC) (CD+2DVD-Only Bonus)
15. Lovers Again -Orchestra Version- (CD-Only Bonus)

~Album Review~
EXILE released their sixth album, “EXILE LOVE” on December 12, 2007. Their album achieved astounding first day sales – the second highest recorded since daily sales indicators were added in February of 2007. Their firs day sales of 210,000 are second to only Mr. Children’s first day sales for HOME.

The album starts out strongly with a great sounding track, “What is Love.” It features vocals the fade in and out amongst the fast strings and synth sounds. It’s not until the first chorus where EXILE’s R&B comes front and center. Even then, the instrumentation is one of the tracks strengths. On the other hand, the song’s use of “What is L O V E?” doesn’t sound very good, mainly because of the trouble in pronunciation of the word. It’s quite detrimental to the track, despite excellent English elsewhere. Considering its the hook of the song, good pronunciation should have been emphasized. The extro more than makes up for the chorus, with EXILE’s lead vocals accompanied by frenetic strings. Over all, a solid introduction to the album.

“I Believe” was released as a winter single preceding the release of the this album. It doesn’t have the great production and layering of the previous track, but it’s still of good quality. The song is pretty low-key, with decent vocals that don’t really push the envelope. The melody is probably the track’s strengths, but the instrumentation doesn’t help carry that strength across to the listener very well, nor do the lead vocals. As a single, “I Believe” was lacking, and if you’ve heard it before, it can easily be skipped without hurting your listening experience.

“Beautiful” makes a good transition from “I Believe;” the song is mid-tempo R&B with a so-so hook. The track doesn’t sound very impressive in the verses at all. In fact, the verses are very spartan, which does not accompany weak lead vocals well. However, the chorus cues the start of a fuller instrumentation that helps lift the song up. The crescendo is also a great part of the song, but the extro sounds plain awful and Engrishy. “Beautiful” is the weakest of the first three tracks, but it’s a far cry from terrible.

“Hibiki” is the B-side to the “SUMMER TIME LOVE” single; it’s a ballad powered by violins and an R&B beat. It’s a typical ballad filler for a J-pop album. However, this song is weak compared to many of EXILE’s other album tracks, mainly because of the lack of full layering of background vocals. Background vocals are present, but they’re not out in full force. The end effect is a mild ballad the ends up feeling bland. EXILE is capable of better, so this track really falls into the background of the album.

“Kimi Ga Iru Kara” is a B-side from wintry “I Believe” single, and the song ends up sounding wintry as well. “Kimi Ga Iru Kara” has a better variety of instrumentation than “Hibiki,” but is not as good as “I Believe.” These three songs feel so close in nature, and are very slow; it’s hard to recommend listening to all of them. “I Believe” is probably the best choice to listen to, the other two aren’t quite up to par for EXILE.

The album has lost a lot of its initial momentum by this point, as well as a sizable fraction of its starting quality. “Make Love” forces an awkward transition to a dance track that edits the vocals to a large extent. The album gains back momentum, but the track really isn’t that good. It feels over powered. It has a good hook chorus and great vocals, but the synth instrumentation is too much. The song ends up feeling like an extended interlude. In context of the album, the song may be listenable, but the track would have trouble standing alone.

“SUMMER TIME LOVE” is the best song on the album, and the best single released during this era of EXILE. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, you’re probably wondering why I dared make such a statement. I’m sure many people will have a variety of favorites from the album, but this song has the most power, a great hook that lacks detrimental Engrish, excellent instrumentation, a semi-present beat that doesn’t overpower the song, and a fabulous chorus. The song sounds full and upbeat, which are two of EXILE’s strengths. The crescendo and the final chorus are simply cherries on top of the thickly layered icing; the song not only starts out strong, but finishes with a large bang. Unless you can only listen to EXILE’s ballads, SUMMER TIME LOVE is a must listen.

“Sora Kara Ochitekuru JAZZ” slows the album back down to mid-tempo from the last powerhouse track. This song is definitely jazzy, it feels a lot different from many of the album’s other tracks mainly because it lacks a powerful R&B beat. However, jazz is most definitely not EXILE’s strength. The lead singer does pull off the song nicely, but the song can’t help but feel a little sparse and bland compared to other album tracks.

“love” is the album’s full blown mid-tempo R&B ballad. How to describe the flaw with this track? It’s almost intangible; the song sounds fine, but it feels like it could have easily been so much more than just fine. At times, it feels like the vocals and the instrumentation are on the verge of surprising the listener, but there is no surprise in store. The track sounds very typical of EXILE. Considering that they’ve done better ballads, this song really isn’t worth a listen outside of the album.

“sayonara” is, well, you guessed it… ANOTHER BALLAD! By this point the album has inundated the listener in ballads. The best ballad, “I Believe” wasn’t even that good, but nevertheless, EXILE is trying to cater to their fans, who they believe love their ballads. “sayonara” sounds too soft compared to the other ballads, despite at least sounding different. Rule of thumb: EXILE does pop, not acoustic. The vocals aren’t strong enough for acoustic songs, and lack true personality. That means “sayonara” really does not sit well with the rest of the album.

“Kawaranai Mono” is another ballad. I’ve said all I want to say about EXILE’s ballads. At this point, they’ve beaten out all interest the listener has in their ballads. This is really hurting the variety of their album. I can understand an emphasis on ballads on an album about love, but this is over kill. The goal of pop music is to reach out to a variety of listeners in order to attain a large fanbase, and this album is not doing so at all. It’s floundering, in fact.

“Toki No Kakera” is at least upbeat, but as the B-side on “24karats -type EX-,” it is not amazing. The production is noticeably lacking in this mid-tempo track, and the vocals don’t sound perfected. The song is just okay.

“Touch The Sky feat. Bach Logic” is a bonus track, and rightfully so. It’s too R&B and too out of place among EXILE’s other tracks. It’s certainly variety, but it’s variety that’s created at expense of the quality of the music. It’s not really pop at all.

“24karats -type EX-” is dancey and dark with diverse vocals, rapping, and interesting instrumentation. It’s a great way to round out the CD + 2DVD version of the album because it ends the album with power, on a high note. Sowelu gives the track flavor that really helps give the album flavor.

Now, here is where EXILE’s album-selling gimmick comes into play. One album version had two extra songs and the DVDs. However, the other version has the fan favorite and recent heavy download seller, “Lovers Again.” This orchestra version of “Lovers Again” has quite probably helped EXILE move a significantly greater number of albums. It’s that popular. And the song is probably worth your listen in its latest reincarnation.

After listening to the album in its entirety, you may realize how much you have just listened to TAKAHIRO’s lead vocals. The pure concentration of his voice on this album is staggering. He’s leading the song’s, and pretty much unabashedly backing himself up. The problem with this is that his voice, although pretty, soothing, and great for R&B, does not have a great deal of power or range. True, this album strives to differentiate the tracks and give them unique renditions of TAKAHIRO’s vocals by changing up the pace, but oftentimes, this fails. Some tracks, such as “SUMMER TIME LOVE” are excellently produced, and transcend this inherent flaw, while others simply succumb, falling into the abyss of EXILE’s many, many songs in its discography. These vocals are the one main flaw worth noting on this album (other than the flooding of ballads). Over all, it’s a step up from their last studio effort and a decent J-pop release.

84% B

[Single] BoA – LOSE YOUR MIND feat.Yutaka Furukawa from DOPING PANDA

boa.jpg

~Tracklist~
01. LOSE YOUR MIND feat.Yutaka Furukawa from DOPING PANDA
02. Smile again
03. LOSE YOUR MIND (instrumental)
04. Smile again (instrumental)

~Single Review~
BoA released her 25th Japanese single, “LOSE YOUR MIND,” on December 12, 2007, where it debuted on the Oricon daily charts at number six. The song was used in the Japanese drama, “Doyo Wide Gekijo.”

“LOSE YOUR MIND” has excellent pop production. It starts out with BoA ad-libbing in a relatively controlled manner with a great guitar riff and infectious beat that carries over into the power driven chorus, which has to wind down just to re-enter another verse. The chorus is very catchy, with the memorable hook, “Lose your mind,” but by the second chorus, the repetition of the hook becomes repetitive, shifting the song from great pop to good pop. There’s just too little variety in the song, as the beginning sounds no different from the beginning. And let’s face it, the repetition in the song, if put on repeat for long enough, could make you “lose your mind” too! That repetition really cuts away any chance of playing and enjoying the track more than a few times. Better than a lot of her other recent efforts, but not as good as her last single, or last Korean single with AnyBand.

“Smile Again” fills that cherished position of winter ballad for BoA, this year I guess. Considering it’s a B-side, it’s not all that bad, but compared to her other winter ballads, it’s not very powerful. Especially since it’s coupled with such a powerful song, Smile Again feels a bit weak. It’s got a decent hook, but it just feels blander and less polished than BoA’s other songs. “Smile Again” does show that BoA can sing ballads, well, however.

The instrumentals are pretty good; “Smile Again”‘s is easily ignored, but “Lose My Mind”‘s is interesting to listen to because of the complexity of the instrumentation.

BoA has a great deal of untapped vocal power that she dare not use in this single. Had she used her voice to mix both of these songs up a bit, this single could have easily been improved by leaps and bounds. As it stands, her voice and production team are still very polished, but not the best.

83% B

[Single] Kaori Natori – subete ga aru basho

『すべてがある場所』名取香り

kaori.jpg
~Tracklist~
1. subete ga aru basho (すべてがある場所)
2. tenki u sugire ba (天気雨すぎれば)

~Single Review~
First off, I’ve searched high and low for large cover art, this is the largest one I was able to find. Such is life. Secondly… this single was released December 5, 2007 and failed to chart within the Oricon top thirty.

“subete ga aru basho” is a sweeping ballad that mainly features a piano backed by elegant strings and accompanied by synth elements that give the track a very cosmic sound, especially throughout the verses. The song has a very pleasant, memorable melody, but Kaori Natori’s voice does not do the song justice. She sounds strained throughout the chorus and the crescendo of the song, really working to hit that note. This strain comes across as unprofessional, demonstrating what sounds like lack of vocal training, and hurts the song in the end. Her voice doesn’t sound very emotive. It sounds like she’s struggling and singing nasally.

“tenki u sugire ba” features less nasal vocals, which helps the mid-tempo, happy track a bit. Still, despite nice strings, the song definitely lacks the power to be anything more than a B-side. It’s nice, but the chorus is nothing special.

Over all, Kaori Natori ensures this single will be forgotten in the snows of winter. There’s little redeeming value of this single, and I can’t really recommend a listen.

73% C


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