1. TAKASHI HIRAYASU / YUU
It’s difficult for me not to be influenced by my personal affection for Takashi Hirayasu having worked with him for many years while I was in Japan and a little bit since too. Takashi has been talking to me about a ‘new album’ for ages and had some quite clear ideas as to what that album would be. This, is a bit different to what he had talked about, and I must admit to feeling slightly nervous when I first put it on. Fortunately though, if anything, it exceeded my expectations. It’s a lot more simple than the original ideas I heard about, but inventive enough to make it stand out as different from anything else from Okinawa. It has quite a variety of sounds from upbeat to slow to traditional. His personality exudes from every track and producer Gerhan Oshima has done a great job too.
2. OKI DUB AINU BAND / UTARHYTHM
Okay, another artist I know well, possibly clouding my judgement, but again this a genuinely great album. Perhaps not their absolute best, yet still full of great ideas; political, angry, pulsating, dynamic. Oki Dub Ainu Band seemed to have cemented their reputation in Japan in the last few years for their brilliant live shows as well as around the world.
3. RYUICHI SAKAMOTO / IKARI
I must admit to finding it difficult to keep up with all the new Ryuichi Sakamoto albums, re-releases, soundtracks etc. This is the best of the bunch, a soundtrack to a film that I would love to see. His trademark sound permeates most of it, and I can’t help but be entranced. Sakamoto has recently been nominated for a Grammy for The Revenant, but I probably prefer this.
4. U TIN / THE MUSIC OF BURMA, BURMESE GUITAR
Last year the same record company put out another album of Burmese guitar and another of Burmese piano. This year’s release is just as good, if not better. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of information in the booklet or online so we are just left with a superb CD and an intriguing You Tube video. Burmese slide guitar, takes its place alongside Vietnamese, Indian, and other slide guitar traditions.
5. E-DO / YEOMINROK
When I lived in Japan there was probably more Korean music in the ‘world music’ sections of record stores than anywhere else in the world. Virtually everywhere else none. Since then the profile of Korean music has significantly increased, not just because of Gangnam Style but also the Korean government putting lots of money into supporting Korean artists performing at festivals and events around the world. One of my favourites is cheolhyeongeum (iron zither) player Yu Kyung Hwa and here she is with a band on what is an extraordinary album.
6. METAFIVE / META
Any band featuring Yukihiro Takashi (YMO), Keigo Oyamada (Cornelius) and Tei Towa could be described as a ‘supergroup’ but it’s the lesser known, Japanese/Swedish, sometimes UK resident Leo Imai who is possibly the most impressive. Tracks range from Takahashi singing electropop to more rock based stuff with Imai on vocal duties. And all the other members are pretty good too.
7. KENGO SAITO / JAPANISTAN
When musicians live in a different country and culture they often think more about their own roots and come up with a new take on it, often influenced by their new surroundings. Such is the case with Kengo Saito, playing the Afghan lute the rubab on an album of Japanese traditional and folk tunes. The Indian and Arabic backing adds to the mix.
8. ARAGEHONZI / NANATSUOTO
I first came across this band when they were featured on a compilation of new Japanese roots music artists. Minyo, folk, bon-odori dances are still part of the Japanese psyche and every now and then someone emerges to take these types of music in new directions. Aragehonzi fit in this category with some clever new arrangements presented in a fresh way.
9. KUNIHIRO IZUMI / MOGARIBUE
Anyone who plays for Shibasashirazu is likely to grab my attention. There are so many great, inventive musicians playing a kind of underground, experimental, improvised, jazz, roots, and frankly unclassifiable music in Japan. Izumi is one of them and this album was quite a big surprise. He also plays guitar, saxophone and some crazy toy instruments. An album of shakuhachi but not as we know it.
10. KAHORU NAKAMURA / YUSURA, PLAYING THE GAKUBIWA
This is one of those strange records that sounded familiar in some ways, but totally unfamiliar in others. Biwa is one of the main traditional instruments in Japan, but I hadn’t heard this style before. Turns out most of the tracks were ancient and long lost compositions which Nakamura has put her interpretation to. At the same time they sounded quite new in their repetitive style, like avant garde music played on a traditional instrument. Intriguing.