What We Were Listening To

Daniel Ostrander & Melanie Blankenburg

Jason Isbell succinctly sums up 2017, “last year was a son of a bitch.” Sure, he probably had 2016 in mind when he wrote that, but it still applies. Given the political unrest gripping the world, the ongoing wager on what will kill us and the fact that no one can agree on whether the new Star Wars is good or not (priorities, people!), it’s little wonder we don’t spend most of our days drowning in whatever gives us even a modicum of comfort. As for myself and NAGMAG’s intrepid intern, Melanie, our security blanket of choice is music. So, before the Year of the Dog starts to make a mess on the carpet, we fondly look back on our favorite albums of 2017.


DYGL – Say Goodbye to Memory Den
With their debut album, DYGL prove that they are able to carry the big hopes we have for Japanese Indie on their shoulders. Inspired by the garage rock of The Strokes mashed together with modern British indie, they created a sound all their own. Very far away from what we’re used to in Japanese music, and so very good. Whether on a night out with friends or drinking a beer in your pajamas, this is the soundtrack for you. M.B.


Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
Jason Isbell’s newest outing manages to solidify his place as one of the greatest songwriters. Taking a page from the songbooks of Springsteen and Mellencamp, Jason sings of frustration about the decaying American Dream while simultaneously reaching for hope; sentiments that resonate with both sides of the aisle. And if you can listen to “If We Were Vampires” and not well up even a tiny bit, well, you’re stronger than me. D.O.


Lorde – Melodrama
On the day this album was released, my friends and I talked about it for hours, listening to the songs on full volume, amazed by the composition and how Lorde was able to capture the feelings of a whole generation of women in just one album. Melodrama is honest, dark, female, powerful. Strong beats and her captivating voice tell the unfiltered stories of young women in modern society. Though producer Jack Antonoff deserves some of the accolades, it is Lorde’s brilliance that makes this one of the best albums of the year. M.B.


N.E.R.D – No_One Ever Really Dies
THEY ARE BACK! 7 years have passed since N.E.R.D, one of the most influential alternative Hip Hop bands of the 00’s, released their album Nothing. After that, the only member really active had been Pharrell Williams. And we, the fans, waited. But now, Santa brought us an early Christmas gift. No_One Ever Really Dies is packed with incredible features, deep beats and the same progressive, experimental style that their fans love. No, it is not the old N.E.R.D, and maybe we lost a part of it to the fame. But it is still pretty damn good, and way better than I expected. It even got me to like Rihanna, and that says more than a thousand words. M.B.


The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions 

By far the most pop album I bought this year, Canadian music collective The New Pornographers grabbed my attention right away with the release of single High Ticket Attractions. Chunky guitars, the uplifting harmonies of A.C. Newman and Neko Case and catchy melodies, this is comfortable territory for their longtime fans and a slightly-nostalgic sound that will appeal to first-time listeners. D.O.


the pillows – Nook in the Brain
2017 saw a return to the distinct sound that made the pillows international darlings in 2000. Ōusama Ni Nare and many others here would sound right at home on their seminal album Little Busters. Sawao and Yoshiaki are totally in synch, at times making it hard to distinguish their guitars, while Shinichiro still manages to rock with the energy of a drummer half his age. With 2018 seeing the release of the long-awaited FLCL sequel, which the pillows have created an original soundtrack for, this is the perfect jumping back on point for any Little Busters who have strayed over the years.


Run the Jewels – RTJ3
In a year that should have been full of protest anthems, Run The Jewel’s third studio album were the first of too few shots fired. So, it’s a good thing they brought a clip full of grievances and beats that will blow down some doors. Killer Mike and El-P have never backed down from a fight, but they’ve done away with all ambiguity and press forward fearlessly taking on killer cops, All Lives Matter and the Drumpf in Chief. This album spits the fire of revolution. D.O.


Sunny Day Service – Popcorn Ballads
There is a good reason that サニーダイサービスhave been a part of the Japanese music scene for 25 years: their massive musical spectrum. And with Popcorn Ballads they’ve condensed 25 years of their eclectic sound into a great album. There is nothing new here, and that’s good. The familiar sounds are comforting, but they still manage to surprise with burst of creative energy. For me, their sound has always been linked to my image of Japan. So when it was released, I waited to listen to it until I moved here, just so the first time would be while walking through Tokyo. You can listen to it on Spotify or Apple Music, as there are no physical copies yet. It means a lot to me, and if you’re open for some lighthearted tunes, you’ll understand why. M.B.


Locally Sourced Sounds

Last year was a big one for Nagoya music as well, with several hometown favorites releasing memorable albums. Here is an incomplete list for your listening pleasure.


Building Trees – What Makes Me Blind
A late addition to my collection, the boys of Building Trees managed to do in only 4 tracks what many cannot accomplish in an LP, rock your face off.


Cacti Lights – Junky Cowboy
Jake Shades and co.’s psychedelic approach to country music is like a warm meal around a campfire with a peyote button chaser. In an album of great songs, the vocals of drummer Yuki really shine on closing track ¡Sin Problemas!


Game Over Humans – Insert Coin(s)
This band’s evolution may have started with a name change, but it ended with a more polished sound. The energy of Molotov is still there, but it’s more focused.


The Good Ol’ Boys album
The biggest surprise is not that the 7 members G.O.B. managed to sober up enough to release a full length album, but how good it sounds. Thanks to member Nigel Grover’s deft production skills, this ragtag team of Americana songwriters created one of my favorite Gaijin band albums of all time.


Michael Green – Walking On Gold
Although technically released at the tail end of 2016, Mr. Green’s gorgeous folk music remained one of my most played CDs throughout the year. He also just released his second volume of Strings & Things, a collection of delightful songs for kids.


softsurf – Into The Dream

The debut EP from Nagoya shoegaze band softsurf is a collection of dream-like pop that is as beautiful as it is forlorn.


StarKat – Meiday
Six songs that take an unfiltered look at life as a stranger in a strange land set to a jangle pop beat.


Turning The Sea Into Monsters EP
Their sound and lineup may have evolved a bit from that first E.P., but listening to the raw tracks from the founding members reveals the passion at the foundation of this project.

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