Category Archives: Music

Discussing some of the best and worst in music…

Pop Thoughts: Big Hollywood and the War on Independent Journalism (Part One)

Before my rant begins, let me be clear by stating I, in-no-way, consider myself a “professional journalist”.  In fact, I am merely a journalist in the most literal sense of the world in that I am a “person who writes” as an entirely independent commentator and reviewer.  I am more of a “hobbyist journalist” than a paid contributor or a critic contracted to any major media outlet.  To be entirely honest, I will never consider taking such a job without the express condition that I will be absolutely free to offer my own opinion on any product regardless of what others may feel about it.  So, with that capricious disclaimer out of the way, let me express to you why I am so pissed off at, sick of, and downright appalled by the major media both online and in the dying legacy sources…

When I was a kid in the 80’s and 90’s, even at a very young age, I adored watching Siskel & Ebert At the Movies.  They were my first exploration into the world of film criticism and gave me a stronger perspective of how film works on us; How movies should and do affect the audience and how these effects influence our attitudes towards popular culture at large.  Have no illusions, no matter how objective a critic may claim to be, we all have biases that manifest in one form or another.  Take myself, for instance: I really dislike (and often despise) how CGI has affected storytelling in movies and the filmmaking process as a whole.  I find it funny that movies like Avatar and the recent Star Wars movies actually look like video games and, as if it were some Freudian expression, we then get a movie in which Adam Sandler and Peter Dinklage actually battle giant video game characters from the 80’s (regardless of the quality of that film).  That bias does subconsciously affect both my suspension of disbelief and my subjective reaction to special effects as they happen on screen.  My brain processes an 80’s action flick with a real exploding car differently than a massive CGI monstrosity oozing across a screen.  So, when I see most CG special effects I tend to be put off of them and it does change my interpretation of the qualities of the film I am watching.

So, given that I will expect all critics to express their own biases in any report or review they scribe for any site out there.  Even things like political leanings may change one’s interpretation of the content of any media, which is fine as long as these personal determinations are clear to the reader/watcher in some context.  However, where I draw the line is when a reviewer expressly defines to the audience how they should feel about something.  I’m sure I have exercised this fallacy in the past at some point, possibly even recently, and I do appreciate being called out for it whenever possible.  It is important to avoid cognitive dissonance in general, but when you are trying to convey feelings and reactions to media, as trivial as that media may be, if you are unable to provide some objective observation without skewing things to a bent, the factual information provided about the film (basic plot, names of actors, locations, etc.) that may prove useful to the reader or watcher becomes overshadowed with their implicit biases that fire subconsciously during the consumption of said review.

In the past year, we have seen more and more reviews that rely solely on identity politics as qualitative variables to determine the value of a product.  It’s important to accept that all films, video games, TV shows, comic books, and novels are just that: products.  The studios releasing a film do not care about how their product makes you feel, they only want your money.  That’s their job.  Art is subjective and it does act on us whether we want it to or not or even realize it.  This is now apparently being used by major studios and the media to manipulate and even attack potential consumers based solely on their reactions and opinions on something as minuscule in value as a movie trailer.

I hate to say it, but I can’t help but feel like media outlets are using some manipulation tactics to drum up grassroots support for products before their release.  I can’t be certain that is the motivation, but that is certainly happening.  I would say, if you have a movie with a message, that’s fine.  However, a movie that should be accessible, enjoyable and just be entertaining like Ghostbusters or Black Panther being used as a marketing gimmick for studios is not uncommon, but their being brandished as some sort of weapon against potential consumers is unacceptable behavior by a major media company and I do feel this is going to backfire.  This may seem like a new trend, however, these promotional tactics have been used in the past to manipulate audiences into seeing movies.  Sensationalism sells and Hollywood knows it.  This goes back to horror films that were sold as “Banned in ‘x country’!” and “The movie your parents don’t want you to see!”  This isn’t a new tactic and consumers must be wise about how they are being marketed to.

The key to all pop culture is enjoyment.  For every truly awful film, there are fans (I know I have a few bad movies I like) and that’s okay.  It’s just important to remember that not everyone will always share your sentiments towards a particular movie, TV show or game.  This is not going to change in an age where subjective ideals reflected in various mediums are treated dogmatically or even as empirical truths.  So today, Hollywood and major media outlets have begun campaigns to lock out and outright attack independent reviewers for sharing their opinions.  This isn’t exactly a new trend, but it is absolutely obvious why it is being done.  With movies becoming more and more expensive to make, burnout for franchises like Star Wars and various superhero movies at an all-time high and fan cynicism hitting new depths, studios have an incentive to make their movie appear as promising as possible.  If emotional manipulation of consumers is what it will take, then dammit, they’ll do just that.

There is an active campaign by Hollywood to discredit and block reviewers who aren’t part of the mainstream press.  The reasons for this are not entirely transparent, but an obvious point could be they realize that independent pop culture journalists are not beholden to any major corporation or media outlet which shares corporate ownership of, or has some ad deal with, a studio or publisher.  As a result, there is less skin in the game when it comes to liking or disliking a movie, therefore their opinions are likely to be more honest.  If I’m not getting a check from Disney, I have no incentive to write a positive review of one of their films if I do not actually enjoy it.  The same goes for any form of media.  So, it behooves a major corporation to be methodical in how they deal with negative reviews.  For instance, a Rotten Tomatoes score can be called a “snapshot” into the quality of a movie, but it in no way actually provides a sound rating of what critics thought of the movie, only an average of critics who liked or disliked the movie in a thumbs up or thumbs down sort of way.  A movie with a 75% doesn’t mean the movie got 3 out of 4 stars, it only means 75% of critics who reviewed the movie liked it.  It’s also important to note that the site deceptively divides reviews based on “trusted” critics versus everyone else.  As a result, it isn’t uncommon to see a dramatic dichotomy between fans’ and journalists’ respective scores, especially in the case of projects with a lot of money on the line.

Because of this, we are starting to see fan ratings of movies become more and more denigrated and with that so are the independent reviewers who just write a quick blurb on IMDB or run their own blog.  The “fans do not matter” mantra that we know Hollywood has held up for decades has never rung truer.  In the end, most of these big budget movies will make more money on merchandising than overall ticket sales anyway, especially in the case of major brands like Marvel.  It’s doubtful a producer is going to scoff at a bad review of a mediocre MCU flick like Thor: Ragnarok, instead they’ll laugh their brand licensing all the way to the bank.  They already have your money, they certainly do not have to care if you liked it or not.  This is why fans’ scores are becoming more and more important on websites.  A reason a lot of sites are removing comment options and disabling ratings for advertised products is that fan ratings, comments and reviews work.  They are proven to have a significant impact the perception of a film and they do have a natural effect on the way people see the final product, even if it is in retrospect.  A person who liked The Last Jedi in the moment but disliked it more and more upon reflection (such as myself) is less likely to jump on the merchandising bandwagon for the long term, so it is essential that my views on such a product be kept hidden as best as possible to ensure maximum sales returns.

I know all of this may come off as a more than a little jaded but given these past few years of nonstop fan-shaming and vitriol coming from creators, actors, etc, towards detractors of various entertainment products who are merely sharing their own opinions, I do not think this is unwarranted.  I do not agree with every view put out there, but I also do not want anyone to feel like they should be afraid to offer that very view.  This concept that one is not allowed to have an opinion of a product because of entirely arbitrary or superficial reasons is asinine and unacceptable.  It’s time to start treating these little pieces of entertainment as they are, oft-nonsensical distractions that entertain at the moment.  If we allow our tastes to be tied to what major corporate outlets dictate, the public loses its autonomy, and in the end, our choices in what entertainment is out there for us.

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My 15 Favorite Songs by Utada Hikaru

Utada’s earliest US efforts that began in the late 90’s did not see her to any massive success in North America.  It was not until the young Japanese-American artist moved to Japan and recorded her first Japanese language album “First Love” that things really took off for her.  For the uninitiated, Utada is a fairly standard pop artist.  Her style isn’t too far removed from a lot of other popular artists in the genre, especially out of Japan.  What sets her apart is her delivery.  While many modern artists rely on gimmicks like auto-tune, vocoders and caricature-personas, Utada was able to rise to stardom on talent alone.  Her amazing voice, wide vocal range and knack for composing catchy and warm melodies make her a shining example of the pop diva done right.

Here are my fifteen favorite songs by Utada…


15. Wings (Ultra Blue; 2006)

Starting at the back of my list I have a smooth, melodic tune from Ultra Blue, Utada’s sixth album and fourth effort in Japan.  Opening with a blues piano riff leading into a smooth jazz composition, Wings is one of Utada’s best “slow jams”.  The lyrics do not really translate well so it is hard to tell exactly what this song is about, but it seems to reference something or someone that is unattainable or possibly unrequited love.

Listen on Spotify


14. Traveling (Deep River; 2002)

There isn’t much to Traveling.  It’s catchy, so I guess that helps it, but lyrically it really doesn’t convey much.  It is just a fast, bouncy, well-sung pop song; nothing much more to say about it.


13. Sakura Drops (Deep River; 2002)

Arguably one of Utada Hikaru’s most well-known and well-received songs, Sakura Drops is a beautifully-performed song about moving on.  While the it is easily interpreted as a break up tune, it could be made to reference anything.  Something happens, it hurts, but as the seasons change and the cherry blossoms bloom, it could bring a sort of renewal.


12. Beautiful World (Heart Station; 2008)

Heart Station was Utada’s last album in Japan before returning to the US in 2010.  Beautiful World is a love song of boundless admiration for her significant other.  It was the headlining single off the soundtrack for 2007’s Evangelion 1.0: You Are Not Alone, a follow-up movie set in the universe of the popular anime.  It’s upbeat, has some great vocalizations and a very catchy chorus.


11. Colors (Ultra Blue; 2006)

Colors is full of metaphors and innuendo making it hard to decipher.  It was, however, yet another successful single from Ultra Blue.  It’s a great tune from a melodic standpoint, though.  The minor key and building chorus make it one of my favorites just on its musicality.


10. Goodbye Happiness (Singles Collection Vol. 2; 2010)

Goodbye Happiness is arguably one of Utada’s poppiest songs.  It’s a cheery, upbeat and honestly kind of silly song that seems to be about a fleeting summer romance.  This song is exceptionally-catchy though, and has an almost 90’s-esque tone to it.


9. Keep Tryin’ (Ultra Blue; 2006)

Keep Tryin’ is a silly little song about cynicism!  Featuring a catchy chorus and a bridge with one of Utada’s most memorable vocalizations, this song deserves its chart success.


8. Heart Station (Heart Station; 2008)

One of Utada’s more Western-sounding tunes, Heart Station has hip-hop influence and a moody, drifting chorus.  The synth backing and classic urban beat make it one of Utada’s most accessible tunes for those who are unsure about whether or not they would be able to get beyond the language barrier.


7. Flavor of Life (Heart Station; 2008)

One of the top-selling singles in history, worldwide, Flavor of Life is undoubtedly the song that cemented Utada’s legendary status as an international superstar.  The song received two recordings, the single version, which is an upbeat groove and a ballad version that is much softer, having been recorded with a full orchestra.


6. Prisoner of Love (Heart Station; 2008)

In yet another hip-hop, Western-styled turn, Prisoner of Love is one of the more mature-sounding songs from Utada’s final Japanese album before her hiatus.  The fast chorus, the urban beat, the simple-yet-satisfying vocals and the steady build make it yet another accessible song that displays the diva’s American influences.


5. Blue (Ultra Blue; 2006)

As the name implies, this is obviously a song about sadness.  Separation resulting in a feeling of inescapable despondence.  A soft melodic tune builds to a chorus that hits you with a certain emotional intensity.  It still has a calm melody, but the way she sings it, so quickly and intensely on such a high scale, expresses a mood of desperation.  The feeling of any song is rarely conveyed by any artist as well as it is here by Utada Hikaru.

Listen on Spotify 


4. Hikari (Simple and Clean) (Deep River; 2002)

Many Americans were first introduced to Utada by the intro to the hit game Kingdom Hearts.  The opening theme, “Simple and Clean” was a English remix of this song, Hikari.  The Japanese lyrics and entirely different, guitar-pop style make Hikari an entirely different song from the one so many gamers are used to.  I actually feel this original recording is superior to the remix on the grounds that Utada’s voice is so much clearer, not having been synthesized to mix with the fast, electronic beat of the video game theme.

Listen on Spotify 


3. Making Love (Ultra Blue; 2006)

Yep.  It’s another break-up song.  Kind of…  Making Love, a song about separation over a long distance, is one of Utada’s catchiest songs.  Having one of the most perfectly-placed synth riffs I’ve heard in this sort of tune, the chorus is accentuated with a well-timed arpeggio that takes an otherwise standard pop melody and transforms it into a smashing classic.

Listen on Spotify 


2. Take 5 (Heart Station; 2008)

I don’t know what this song is about.  I will assert, however, it is Utada’s best song from a vocalization standpoint.  The back beat vocal melody and minimalist, pounding beat sets Take 5’s pace and gives it a sort of character.  If you break it down to its individual parts it is a very simple song in its composition, but as it comes together it takes a moody turn.

Listen on Spotify 


1. Passion (Ultra Blue; 2008)

Passion was going to take the top spot from the start of my compiling this list.  This theme song from Kingdom Hearts 2 (released as “Sanctuary”) is a giant.  The soaring chorus, synthesized backing vocals and syncopated drum beat offer up a smooth and gripping entry into Utada Hikaru’s stellar library.  Comparing the KH release of Passion versus the remixed Simple & Clean, it isn’t even a contest.  The warm, full, and precisely-mixed composition of “Passion” dwarfs the isolated cold of the electronic tones of the first game’s theme and really showed American audiences just how talented the Japanese American artist really is.


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My 40 Favorite Asian Kung-Fu Generation Songs- The Top Ten!

  1. “Clicking My Heels to Love” (踵で愛を打ち鳴らせ Kakato de Ai o Uchinarase) from Landmark

Another pseudo-inspirational tune from AKFG, “Kakato de Ai o Uchinarase”, describes fleeting emotions then declares they be cast aside to go back out to the world again, regardless of how one may feel in the moment.  I would interpret it as being about moving on and the hope of happiness in the future; with a little effort.  The song opens with a soft, warm melody expanding to yet another trademark Ajikan chorus.  It’s catchy, upbeat and charged with a carefree elation despite how it may appear lyrically.

  1. “To Your Town” (君の街まで, Kimi no Machi Made) from Sol-Fa

I can only interpret “Kimi no Machi Made” as being about there being a distance separating two people and the passing of the seasons each with yet another promise to reunite.  It’s a little hard to tell.  From Ajikans second studio album, the Lydian tone of the song drives it’s mood.  It has a strange tendency to never feel like the chords are going to go where you think they will, but I feel this has more to do with the short lyrical melodic refrains rather than the mode itself.

  1. “Magic Disc” (マジックディスク Majikku Disuku) from Magic Disk

Something is lost in translation in “Magic Disc”.  No matter where I look, the metaphors are mixed.  It definitely discusses the death of CD’s and physical media in-general.  I’m not entirely sure why, but it is a prevalent message in the song.  Outside of that, it goes into a different direction entirely.  Musically, however, this is a masterful rock song.  Mixing backbeat rhythm with simple guitar riffs and a powerful series of shouted, emotional lyrics, it really is one of the best songs to really introduce new fans to AKFG.

  1. “Little Lennon” from Wonder Future

Centering on how art can transcend race and nationality and how it even survives the test of time, “Little Lennon” invokes pop figures like the late-former-Beatle with refrains of “Now imagine, imagine, imagine”, and of famous graffiti artist and cultural revolutionary Banksy (…a side note, if you haven’t seen “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, do yourself a favor and seek it out).  The melody and punk style take things back to AKFG’s early days, as does much of Wonder Future.  The off-notes in the main riff give the song a unique feel and the outstanding chorus is one of their best.

  1. “Rock n’ Roll, Morning Light Falls On You” (転がる岩、君に朝が降る Korogaru Iwa, Kimi ni Asa ga Furu) from World World World

I’m lost on the lyrics to “Kimi ni Asa ga Furu”, but it definitely seems to be about lost love, or at least some sort of separation.  This is a particularly-unique song for Asian Kung-Fu Generation.  It opens with a really light riff and while it does pick up, it never really gets too heavy.  It’s one of the better melodic songs, with a fantastic chorus and some great guitar moments.  I particularly love the guitar outro in this one.

  1. “Blue Sky and a Black Cat” (青空と黒い猫 Aozora to Kuroi Neko) from Magic Disk

References to war and poverty make this one difficult to translate.  The song’s intro strumming guided by the warm bass line and marching beat give it a welcoming tone.  It leads into one of the best choruses the band has and one of my absolute favorites as we round off the top five.

  1. “A Town In Blue” (或る街の群青 Aru Machi no Gunjō) from World World World

“Aru Machi no Gunjō” paints a picture of a person in despair by using colors to describe feelings and moments.  The structure is simple, but has a perfect mix of rock and pop.  It’s bright, and despite its lyrics coming off as a little… emo.., it is an awesome song.  It is also a very accessible tune for them, allowing for new listeners to hear a simple taste of the Ajikan’s melodic side.

  1. “Soranin” from Magic Disk

“Soranin” is about giving up.  Essentially.  A relationship that can never work, or something that happened that cannot be overcome, leaves the narrator with nothing left to say but “So, I guess this is ‘goodbye’.”  Here you will find the distinct, Ajikan-upbeat-sound with the more melodic tones of their later work from Magic Disk.  It is one of the best songs of the 2010’s and what makes it so is its warmth.  In a period of cold, lifeless music, “Soranin” is just a classic, inviting rock song.

  1. “Neoteny” (ネオテニー Neotenī) from World World World

This, more-technical-than-usual AKFG song is the best song of theirs’ in a decade.  There is a powerful mood to it.  It constantly builds upwards to a series of choruses that end in a bright 3-note guitar riff that is, for a lack of a better word, resplendent.  “Neoteny” is not just a great song for fans of J-rock, but I would recommend anyone hear this tune at least once.

01.Midwinter Dance (真冬のダンス Mafuyu no Dansu) from Fanclub

That’s right, my favorite Asian Kung-Fu Generation song is an unreleased track from Fanclub.  For all they hype Ajikan has received in the US after most were introduced to them through Anime, the tunes from Fanclub and onward have appealed to me much more.  Not to say the older, more well-known stuff is bad, but “Mafuyu no Dance” is, at least in my mind the perfect type of rock song.  It’s simple, it’s catchy, and it builds to something more than it was at its start.  The final chorus of this short tune is backed by a melodic lead guitar riff that ties everything together.


I hope to do more of these band countdowns in the future but for now I have some game and movie reviews coming around the corner…

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My 40 Favorite Asian Kung-Fu Generation Songs – Part 3 (20-11)

  1. “Senseless” (センスレス Sensuresu) from Fanclub

It’s rare that a song in Japanese can directly translate to English as well as “Senseless”.  The lyrics paint a picture of a world projected to us only through TV screens and signs, never allowing us to feel or see anything for ourselves.  The plea “do not delete me” (roughly), implies an existence so indelibly tied to the digital world that its complete removal is the loss of one’s self.  This song benefits from one of AKFG’s best guitar riffs in their entire catalog;  A bouncing, energetic musical refrain that wraps the song.  It doesn’t have the standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus structure, so having that riff to tie it together makes the whole feel cohesive.  It’s a powerful, relevant message packed in a amazing rock tune.

  1. “All right part2” from Landmark

Another exploration in musical escapism, “All right” is a less-poetic pop song featuring Chatmonchy guitarist and frontwoman Eriko Hashimoto.  It isn’t deep, it’s just deadly-catchy!  This is a song that will never leave you.  If you are prone to madness from having a song stuck in your head for good, you may want to avoid this one!  However, if you want a cheery pop song with a rock edge and a great riff, this jam’s for you.

  1. “Standard” from Wonder Future

Ajikan are masters at crafting simple, steady building verses into powerful, moving choruses.  “Standard” follows your standard three-chorus structure, telling the story of a young, happy girl who captivated a few people in a fleeting moment with careless singing and when she moved on, nobody remembered her.  I do not know exactly what inspired this theme, but the idea that a person so small can impact people, even briefly, then keep going without knowing what, if anything, they left in their wake is an interesting image.  The cheery guitars and triumphant chorus of “Standard” make this newer single one of their best.

  1. “Well Then, See You Again Tomorrow” (それでは、また明日 Sore dewa, Mata Ashita) from Landmark

Taking their sound back to their early days, “Sore dewa, Mata Ashita” keeps a classic AKFG sound with a minor key leading into a wordy, upbeat chorus.  I’m not entirely sure what this song is about from the lyrics, but it is a great rock song in its own right.

  1. “Loop & Loop” (ループ&ループ Rūpu & Rūpu) from Sol-Fa

An endless cycle of separation, sadness and reassurance, “Loop & Loop” is one of the band’s most successful and well-known singles.  Released as an EP not even a year after their debut album, it is one of the first singles that I think really hinted at the sound Ajikan would land on by the time Fanclub would come out two years later.  Catchy, flighty and energetic, “Loop & Loop” is a timeless entry in their repertoire.

  1. “Black Out” (ブラックアウト Burakkuauto) from Fanclub

“Black Out” seems to discuss a continuing separation from reality, but this is not made entirely clear by the lyrical translation.  The song is elevated by an excellent dual-guitar riff melody that, at least for me, will become more timeless with age.  Having the same build-up to an anthemic chorus as a songlike “Standard”, “Black Out” nails it and was really one of the songs from the mid-2000’s that really got me into AKFG.

  1. “Love Song of the New Century” (新世紀のラブソング Shinseiki no Rabu Songu) from Magic Disk

A gripping, emotional music video emphasizing a powerful song about carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders into a new Century, as though we are expected to leave the past behind by some sort of arbitrary demarcation point, “Shinseiki no Rabu Songu” uses shocking imagery to invoke memories of the not-so-distant past.  Musically, this is a very technical song.  From, the warm, haunting guitar riff that guides the song, to the backbeat rhythm and emphasized bass line, it builds on a heavy theme with a powerful and complex choral structure.

  1. “Tightrope” (タイトロープ Taito Rōpu) from Fanclub

Painting a picture of a dream, “Tightrope” is a smooth, two-step-style tune with a peaceful main riff and a hefty build-up.  It is melodically-moving and a masterful way to close out an album as great as Fanclub.

  1. “My World” (マイ・ワールド Mai Wārudo) from Sol-Fa

Despite being hard to decipher, “My World” is a great song.  It has a strong melody and an excellent pre-chorus that really make it stand out.  This is one where it’s really hard to say anything particularly clever, so I say just give it a listen.

  1. “A Lost Dog and the Beats of the Rain” (迷子犬と雨のビート Maigoinu to Ame no Beat) from Magic Disk

Used as the opening for the anime series “Tatami Galaxy”, “Maigoinu to Ame no Beat” is a pretty unique song for Ajikan.  It features a lot of the band’s staples but adds a brass section and a touch of ska to the mix.  It’s experimental for sure but works very well and it ranks high among my favorites, just outside of the top 10!


Maigoinu To Ame No Beat @ Yojouhan Shinwa…

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My 40 Favorite Asian Kung-Fu Generation Songs – Part 2 (30-21)

“After Images of Summer” (夏の日、残像, Natsu no Hi, Zanzō) from Connected to You 5m

A 90’s-style post-punk blankets a song about lost love; a distant summer, what was left after the season’s end, and a tireless pursuit to keep searching for what was lost.  Or… something like that.  That’s the problem with interpreting contextual languages.  However, I can piece together that much from the various translations online.  The lyrical melody is both melodic and aggressive, and has that uniquely-Ajikan catchiness that makes it a loveable track.

 

“A New World” (新しい世界 Atarashii Sekai) from World World World

“Music can change the world” is a very common theme in pop going back to its earliest days.  “Atarashii Sekai” is a sarcastic effort about passing the time away and losing yourself in music, casting aside the worries of the day.  In doing so, you drift away to “a new world”.  The song’s backbeat rhythm, warm melody and belting chorus are a rallying cry for the disenfranchised.  As someone who plays guitar, the images of strumming the A chord to pass the time is quite relatable.

 

“Blue Train”  (ブルートレイン Burū Torein) from Fanclub

Imagery of never being able to move beyond the moment is the theme of “Blue Train”.  “The destination of the streaking blue is the present” is not entirely difficult to understand given the cultural context.  The significance of trains in modern urbana and the prevalence of self-destructive behavior (suicide in-particular) in Japan create a grimly-vivid image of what is going through the head of the subject of the song.  Desperation, hopelessness, and no cares for others in the moment, or even the near future.  It is one of their more musically-technical songs, with syncopated drums, quick breakdowns, fast arpeggios and a varying lyrical melody that doesn’t refrain in quite the same way a typical pop song would.  “Blue Train” is one of Ajikan’s more ambitions recordings.

 

“Goodbye Lost Generation” (さよならロストジェネレイション Sayonara Rosuto Jenerēshon) from Magic Disk

Things were not looking good for the global economy in 2010, and “Sayonara Lost Generation” is an attempt at being somewhat inspirational in a time where it things were looking more and more dire.  Returning to a slight anti-authoritarianism, Ajikan lashes out against a broken globalist system that failed not just the youth in Japan but the youth of the world.  It is a theme that still resonates today.  The moody alternative melody fits with theme which, as mentioned, is something AKFG is quite good at; contrasting a poppy musical tone with serious subjects.

 

“Winner and Loser” from Wonder Future

Singing about the greed of those in power, “Winner and Loser” is a particularly bitter tune.  The chorus is fantastic, though.  It’s upbeat and bouncing and like much of Wonder Future, it brings the sound back to the band’s earlier, edgier days.

 

“Bitter Orange” (橙 Daidai) from Magic Disk

The daidai is a very traditional ingredient in Japanese food, and the imagery in “Bitter Orange” is distinctly cultural, which is why it would require a little context.  Themes of death permeate the track with many references to rainbows, which are a mythological link to the ancestors of one’s family.  My hypothesis is the song is meant to be about the ongoing death and rebirth of tradition in Japan, “Daidai” is a great track that is both upbeat and emotional, with the offkey shift at the end of the first half of the chorus sounding somewhat odd at first, but it is this one chord that makes this song one of Ajikan’s best.

 

“Radio Tower”(電波塔, Denpatō) from Connected to You 5m

About reminiscing on a near-forgotten moment in the singer’s youth that is only slightly described, “Radio Tower” is a charming post-punk anthem from Ajikan’s first studio album.  It has that AKFG beat and a very-western-sounding lyrical melody compared to much of the songs on this album.  It’s accessible, bright and is one of the best rock songs of the 2000’s.

 

“Signal on the Street” from Wonder Future

Another tune for 2015’s Wonder Future that sounds a lot like the older AKFG before World World World, “Signal on the Street’s” lyrics are kind of difficult to decipher.  Images of streetlights and alleys theme at bright, fast chorus that really doesn’t kick in until about halfway through the song.  The first few minutes of “Signal on the Streets” are build up to one of the best choruses of any rock song in the past 5 years.

 

“No. 9” from World World World

If “Signal on the Street’s” lyrics leave questions, “No. 9” offers little room for interpretation.  Critical of war, relentless attacks from major nations, images of explosions, bombings…  Put that under a track that is so cheery that if you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was about falling in love.  “No. 9” is catchy as Hell, though.  It’s “doo-doo-doo-dooo-doo” refrain and distorted sliding guitars leading up to a minor-key, shouted chorus.  It’s one of their best power anthems by far.

 

“E” from Connected to You 5m

“E” is difficult to really interpret lyrically, but it is an excellent song nonetheless.  A fun, energetic chorus leads into a near-screaming shout of “Hirogariyuku mirai he!”.  The breakdown is excellent with a bridge driving right into a brick wall of distant, heavily-distorted strumming.  So, with that we send a hearty “sayonara” to Ajikan’s first album as we head into the top half of my list of favorite AKFG songs!

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My 40 Favorite Asian Kung-Fu Generation Songs – Part 1 (40-31)

  1. “N2” from Landmark

Kicking off this list, we have “N2”, a song that is darker in tone than most of their other songs, especially compared to what you would hear most their more recent albums.  For me, Landmark was somewhat of a disappointment, unable to live up to the high standard set by Magic Disk.  A few great songs stand out, though.  N2, a song about economic destitution, demoralization and anger, it’s a pretty aggressive tune.

  1. “Planet” (惑星, Wakusei) from World World World

Keeping with Ajikan’s common themes of self-empowerment and anti-authoritarianism, “Planet” calls for everyone to aspire to be more than even you thought you could be.  Inspirational as many of their tunes are, Planet is touched by a punk tone that is very “AKFG”.  The rhythm changes, sudden shift to off-notes and diving bass lines make this one of their more unique tracks.

  1. “Understand” (アンダースタンド Andāsutando) from Connected to You 5m

“Understand” is somewhat cryptic.  It could be lost in the translation but it seems to be about a person who is wracked by an unbearable grief for something that is not entirely their fault and the message is somewhat of comforting empathy.  While I generally like Ajikan’s later stuff a little more, “Understand” is a great modern punk song.

  1. “World Apart” (ワールドアパート Wārudo Apāto) from Fanclub

For me, 2006’s Fanclub was the first time AKFG’s greatness would shine through, and songs from this album will frequent this list.  Having a powerful lyrical melody, there is a force of passion in the vocals that would become a common element in many of AKFG’s more energetic tunes.  The driving drums, guitar solo and heavily distorted guitars give this one a louder edge as well.

  1. “Easter” from Wonder Future

From 2015’s Wonder Future, Easter paints a pretty morbid picture in its lyrics.  Images of death, themes of careless abandon, even gore are scribbled throughout the lyrics.  This one is a little cryptic and it may be a little lost in translation.  There are references to rebirth or resurrection (hence the title), however the rest of the lyrics are more strange than anything else.  “Easter” hearkens back to the sound of their first two albums, the sound that made them famous, and is an interesting return from the more dramatic, alternative sound they had embraced in albums leading up to Wonder Future.

  1. “Bicycle Race” (バイシクルレース Baishikuru Rēsu) from Landmark

Warm, effected guitar, a peaceful sound and a charging lead in an upbeat, almost 90’s-sounding chorus make “Bicycle Race” one of the best tracks on Landmark.  Themes of picking up pieces of something broken, a cheeriness highlights an optimism for a happy end.  Whether it comes is another question…

  1. “After Dark” (アフターダーク “Afutā Dāku”) from World World World

The imagery in “After Dark” implies that something really bad has happened.  Something that isn’t clearly defined.  The lyrics are dichotomous to the upeat song.  Anime fans will know this song as one of the openings to the popular series Bleach.

  1. “Butterfly” (バタフライ Batafurai) from Fanclub

“Butterfly” explores an idea of coming out on the other side of hardship, or just a down period, stronger than before. Showcasing Ajikan’s musicality, this song’s mixing of moods and melodic structures built on a minor key layer well.  Especially in the intro leading into the first chorus.  The funk-inspired bass mixed with the muted guitar make this another winner from Fanclub.

  1. “Eternal Sunshine” from Wonder Future

A musically-moving, driving chorus caps a well-structured alt-rock tune in “Eternal Sunshine”.  A song about lost love and moving on, it features mixed musical tones with a peaceful guitar riff.  These picked, simple-but-melodic riffs are a specialty of Ajikan.  In an era where rock riffs are stale and uninspired they try to write structured guitar tunes that carry very well.  Gotoh’s shaky vocals are the only thing that keep this one out of the top 20.  It’s still a great song.

  1. “Rewrite” (リライト Riraito) from Sol-Fa

One of AKFG’s most famous song thanks to it being featured as an intro on the hit series Fullmetal Alchemist, “Rewrite” is just a great, kickass song.  Utilizing some traditional rock formulas, this song has some distinctly-classic-rock qualities.  The simple guitar riffs layer well and tie the heavy, aggressive chorus together.

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My 25 Favorite Talking Heads Songs

Most people could easily pick their favorite musical artist, but for me it varies depending on my mood.  However, if I were to go to any band as a pick for my favorite, Talking Heads is up there.  A combination of their quirky sound and the experimentation with genres as they changed through the years mixed With David Byrne’s unmistakable personality makes them really unlike anything else of their era.  It’s actually pretty hard to nail down just which genre they belong in.  It’s easy to just say “Alternative” but with their songs blending everything from rock, punk, new wave, reggae and funk, this complicates such an easy categorization.

Now, knowing I’m going to go back into this list probably in the next few weeks and find something out of place, I preface this saying I am fairly settled on the positions of each song, but given the way I can look twice at something, I may feel the need to correct things in the future.  So, consider that a comical form of fair-warning.

Without further ado…

25. “The Lady Don’t Mind” from Little Creatures (1985)

 

Little Creatures (1985; Warner Bros. Records)

The smooth 80’s groove of this tune is one that successfully blends what Talking Heads was at their peak into their more mainstream sound of Little Creatures.  The build up from the almost lounge-music style of the verse into an upbeat energetic pop chorus, complete with a flashy brass section, is seamless.  As Talking Heads creeped up on their 10th Anniversary in the mid-80’s, it was fairly obvious they were getting tired, and Little Creatures, despite having some good songs, definitely reflected the band’s weary pace as they rounded off their final three albums.

 

24. “Perfect World” from Little Creatures (1985)
Little Creatures (1985; Warner Records)

Also from Little Creatures, “Perfect World” blends a poppy blues ballad with a little bit of country and also a somewhat of an early-60’s feel.  It shows some of drummer Chris Frantz’s influence on a few of Talking Heads’ jazzier tunes, but there is also an airy, almost dreamy mood to the song.  Talking Heads aren’t often remembered for their softer, more melodic songs, but Perfect World is one of the best slow grooves of the 80’s, a decade filled with otherwise sleepy, boring pop ballads.

 

 

23. “Wild Wild Life” from True Stories (1986)
True Stories (1986; Sigma)

By the time their penultimate album True Stories came around, it was obvious things were slowing down.  The distinctly “Talking Heads” sound was nearly absent, having been lost with age as the quirky, experimental period of the 80’s shifted over into artists’ mostly-failed attempts to make tunes that would outlast their time on the charts.  As a result, True Stories is a distinctly-corporate-sounding album.  It isn’t so much bad as it is forgettable.  Wild Wild Life, however, stands out.  It is a fast, energetic, and just fun track.  1986 was a year plagued by sleeping post-new wave ballads and absurd hair metal in the other extreme.  Hip hop’s growing relevance in the pop charts was edging out a lot of the established artists of the time as well and as the college rock mainliners began the transformation of alternative rock that would manifest in the mainstream by the mid-90’s, it was necessary for Talking Heads to put out a single like this.  It kept many of their past musical ideas far better than most of the other tracks from True Stories and is fun and catchy enough to share chart success.  Wild Wild Life would be one of Talking Heads’ most successful singles as well, and featured an award-winning music video with a pre-fame John Goodman.

22. “Warning Sign” from More Songs About Buildings and Food (1979)
More Songs… (1978; Sire)

The strange and haunting sounds of Warning Sign filled with Tina Weymouth accentuating bass lines give this odd song a smooth feel despite having one of the oddest lyrical melodies of all of Talking Heads’ 70’s tracks, and that’s saying something!  Warning Sign is catchy, though and musically it holds its own for me.

21. “Nothing But (Flowers)” from Naked (1988)

After more than a decade, Talking Heads did not transition well into the late-80’s.  Most of their tracks from Naked fail to resonate however Flowers, with its plucky island sound, has a distinct charm that is a nice alternative to the cheesy dance hip hop, New Jack Swing, and sleepy love ballads of the late-80’s.  It’s a particularly clever perspective on a tired environmental theme as well, as nature reclaims all that was overtaken in the past with a sort of mournful attitude, despite the surface cheer of the track.  Some may know this song from its use as the opening credits theme to Kevin Smith’s “Clerks II”.

 

20. “Road to Nowhere” from Little Creatures (1985)
Little Creatures (1985; Warner Bros. Records)

The unmistakable choral intro to Road to Nowhere leads into a bright track about falling into oblivion.  The march rhythm with the accordion riff and the low vocal key give the song an almost childlike feel, and keeps that distinguishing Talking Heads charm alive nearly a decade after their debut album.

 

19. “Mind” from Fear of Music (1979)

Mind may be one of the best tracks to convey Talking Heads’ stranger sounds to a newcomer.  It’s melodic enough to keep it from being too off-putting and Weymouth is at her best with a catchy bass slide that is distinct in its execution, sounding almost synth-like and fitting the off-kilter vocals perfectly.


 

18. “Don’t Worry About The Government” from Talking Heads: ‘77 (1977)

Easily one of their strangest tunes, this is a fluffy little anthem about absorbing one’s self into modern comforts obliviously; almost selfishly.  The first time I heard it I was captivated by just how odd it was.  It is hands down unlike anything else I had heard before at that time and still today I would have trouble picking a specific song that sounds anything like it.

17. “Take Me To The River” from More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)

The Talking Heads cover of the classic tune by the legendary Al Green (the original of which is considered by many to be one of the greatest songs of all time) is easily one of the best covers ever recorded, standing alongside Nirvana’s rendition of “The Man Who Sold the World” and the Late Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine In Nails’ “Hurt”.  Implementing their funk and rock influences into a version of the song that keeps the soulful tones of the original but adding a new technical musicality that is distinctly their own, Byrne and crew craft a catchy classic that, at least to me, is as good as the original.

16. “Pulled Up” from Talking Heads: ‘77 (1977)

David Byrne’s ode to inspiration from his parents is a cheery pop rock piece that sets a tone for what the band will become by the time Talking Heads would peak in the early-80’s.  Their unique mixing of genres and Byrne’s characteristically-cartoonish vocals are odd, but there is yet something inescapable about the childlike nature of “Pulled Up”.

15. “I Get Wild / Wild Gravity” from Speaking In Tongues (1983)

By the 80’s, the band had already experimented with various genres of music but the Carribean study in “I Get Wild” is both dark and hypnotic.  Tina Weymouth’s aggressive slap bass line dominates as the musical refrain and the culmination of the entire band vocalizing creates a moody, chant-like slow jam.


 

14. “Once In A Lifetime” from Remain In Light (1980)

At the dawn of the MTV era, a few videos come to mind, but few are as odd as the one for “Once In A Lifetime”.  While other videos featured bands in costumes simply miming their performances, this video features David Byrne in his famous over-sized suit, sweating, panting, and gasping out the spoken word lyrics of this synth-pop classic while posing as though he’s taking an oath.  Talking Heads did not do a whole lot of songs in this genre, but the few they did do are definitely unique, and this is one of their best.

13. “And She Was” from Little Creatures (1985)
Little Creatures (1985; Warner Bros. Records)

While many of Talking Heads’ songs are experimental or just plain strange, “And She Was” just may be their most “normal” song.  It doesn’t do too much out of the ordinary and could have been recorded by just about anyone.  For that reason, it doesn’t exactly feel like a Talking Heads song.  Still, it’s excellent; one of my favorites of the decade.  It’s catchy, bright and its story of a young hippie tripping balls on a hillside is told in an almost dreamlike way, as if you could see what she’s seeing.

 

12. “No Compassion” from Talking Heads: ‘77 (1977)

The dreamy opening leading into the upbeat verse then driving straight into an aggressive chorus makes “No Compassion” one of their heaviest songs.  One could imagine this being performed by a more rough-edge rock group and would be a pretty intense drive.  Spoken from the perspective of a person with no sympathy for anyone around them, it takes a pretty nihilistic tone, but is in a way self-critical at the same time.

11. “Pull Up The Roots” from Speaking In Tongues (1983)

Back to Talking Heads’ funk inspiration, this Parliament-esque jam features some of the best bass and rhythm guitar of any song of its time.  Everything about “Pulled Up The Roots”, from its technical production to the odd shouted, lyrics give it fluidity, but there is still a lot of speculation on the Internet as to what the song is actually about.  It is known that, while they did experiment with drugs, Byrne in-particular always found the effects to be disconcerting or even disturbing by his own admission in an interview, still there is little doubt that drug use and possibly hallucinations inspired the imagery in “Pull Up The Roots”, while alternatively it could be about leaving an old life behind, or having it taken from you.

10. “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” from Speaking In Tongues (1983)

Love songs were not David Byrne’s forte.  He actually kind of hates them.  He’s described typical love songs as “corny” and “lame”.  His personal life reflects this, as does the band’s unceremonious breakup, one that did not end well.  Byrne was described as unsympathetic, not able to share a kinship with the rest of the band.  This isolationism is reflexive in a lot of his songwriting, including in this song.  Another hit from their peak, “This Must Be The Place” intentionally implements a simplistic musical melody over a series of lines which, on their own have a sentimentality, but together do not make a great deal of sense, something Byrne did intentionally.

9. “I Zimbra” from Fear of Music (1979)

As an ode to nonsense, I Zimbra chants the words of Dadaist poet Hugo Ball over an African-inspired musical piece.  The lyrics mean nothing; intentionally nothing.  That is the nature of Dada, a movement from the early 20th Century designed to oppose rigid standards for what could be classified as “art”.  Dadaist artists intentionally chose to make things nonsensical, pointless or even ugly.  As a song, “I Zimbra” may not mean anything, but it sure is catchy.

 

8. “Burning Down The House” from Speaking In Tongues (1983)

Said to be about a sort of “personal rebirth” by some interpreters, this is yet another song by Byrne that is full of lines that stand alone, but mean nothing together; still being characteristic of Byrne’s lyricism.  Not too far removed from much of the college rock of the time, including that of bands like R.E.M., the themes of Burning Down the House are likely more Freudian than objective.  The song itself is a classic, though.  The famous intro that leads into a pop groove is unmistakable as one of the best song intros of all time.

7. “Found A Job” from More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)

It’s yet another disjointed, disconnected examination of relationships from David Byrne; This time centering on a couple whose relationship is being torn apart by something as minor as the content of TV and the picture quality.  Instead, the couple, in-protest, gathers everyone they know to make their own shows that saves their relationship and brightens everyone around them.  The message of “Found A Job” is summed up in the line “If your work isn’t something you love, then something isn’t right”.  If you cannot find satisfaction, and everything feels as though it is stalled, create the thing you are missing as best you can, and you do not have to do it alone.\

6. “Psycho Killer” from Talking Heads: ‘77 (1977)

It’s a pretty straightforward title, isn’t it?  “Psycho Killer” is told from the perspective of a serial killer who is either rejecting the reality he is one, or knows what he is but is trying to cover it up.  The seemingly-random French, according to Byrne, is the killer trying to mask his psychopathy in intelligence.  The first verse could be a confrontation that the killer is having one a person he knows, or even with himself.  He’s warning that he could kill anyone at any time.  This truly ominous single was most people’s introduction to Talking Heads in the late 70’s at the iconic CBGB in New York and had to be more than a little unsettling.  During a period marked by fear and paranoia about serial killers, as it was the era of Ted Bundy and The Son of Sam, “Psycho Killer” resonated despite having actually been performed as far back as 1975 and possibly written even before then.

5. “Girlfriend Is Better” from Speaking In Tongues (1983)

At this point there is a theme, David Byrne is a weird guy.  “Girlfriend Is Better” is incredibly cryptic.  The title and chorus refer to a girlfriend, but nothing in the verse implies such a relationship exists, in fact it seems as though it is written as a response to someone there but it comes off as almost exasperated, even disturbing.  The jumping music sounds like a more traditional funk-inspired Talking Heads track, but there is an eerie, even angry, mood to the music.

4. Crosseyed And Painless from Remain In Light (1980)

Attempting to make sense of a complex world by over-intellectualizing everything, Byrne examines all of the things around him, making him feel very uncomfortable.  This could be another song specifically about drug use, or it could be about a person struggling to function in a confounding world.  This song as awesome!  The fast bass riff, the synth and the falsetto chorus succeed in emphasizing the musical capabilities of the band as a whole.

3. “Making Flippy Floppy” from Speaking In Tongues (1983)

A song about going from youth to adulthood, this one is definitely odd but not entirely cryptic.  “Making Flippy Floppy” features one of Weymouth’s best basslines and the anthemic chorus highlights why Speaking In Tongues is arguably their best album.

 2. “Life During Wartime” from Fear of Music (1979)

Often called their best song, “Life During Wartime” explores desperation in a time of great strife.  When it comes to life or death, none of the things we think we really need can lose all of their value.  Everything we care about can be stripped from us in a moment and the only thing left is the need to survive.  The song’s synth intro and fast jam makes for one of their best upbeat songs and easily one of the best songs of the 70’s.

1. Slippery People from Speaking In Tongues (1980)

My #1 pick is probably their single most underrated track.  “Slippery People” is a funk groove with a cryptic message.  Allusions to religion and possibly hallucinogenic experiences compose an image of some sort of psychotropic awakening.  The line “Turn like a wheel inside a wheel” is a line from Hawthorne’s “The Crucible”, written in inspiration from the Bible, and lines like “Look at his face (the lord won’t mind)” can make one wonder if this is in reference to a misunderstanding of images and ideas of the time as being anti-religious, as this was the heyday of the “Satanic Panic”, an era where cultural iconoclasts were finding hidden Biblical or Satanic messages in everything from rock music to bar codes.  It is possible this is conveying that not everyone or everything is a sign from God, or being of the Devil.  As for the music, just listen to it.  “Slippery People” is so good that even the average non-Talking Heads fan would have to admit that it is a pretty excellent track.

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