Released: June 29, 2016 (Avex Trax)
So back last year, Ayumi Hamasaki—the queen of J-pop, so to speak—released her 17th studio album Made in Japan… without any hype or announcement… or musical teasers… aka, she’s trying something different for once (in terms of promotion, thank god…). But for me, it wasn’t a so-called surprise release because… well, she releases an album every single damn year, so it’s far from a surprise or a shock. Her going on a musical break would be a shocker (for me, to say the least). But alas, she treats her current fan-base with continuously-around-the-clock album releases.
Made in Japan is, in all fairness, a record that plays to Ayu’s strengths; a bunch of melancholy tracks that blends J-pop sounds with rock arrangements, a couple EDM numbers, and a stray Westernized-pop number. Yup, typical Ayu at her most creative (sigh). But I will say this; Made in Japan was probably her most improved record since Colours back in 2014. When I first heard the intro track on Made in Japan—the oriental-influenced jam “Tasky”—I nearly flipped my F-ing chair back, because this was a damn good introduction. I’ve been waiting for Ayu-chan to dab into a bit of oriental flavours for so long now, that she had finally mastered it on the intro track. And, to much of my excitement, she spread this sound onto the album’s first full-length highlight, “Flower”. Showcasing a hard-rock instrumentation with a ska-inspired beat, “Flower”, without a doubt, is definitely one of her most inspiring and interesting tracks in recent times… and bros and gurls, that’s a damn fact.com.jp. The chorus is strong, harrowing and extremely well-executed.
But when you thought Ayu-chan had finally adapted into a new ground of music… well, you better turn ya booty back to good ol’ J-pop land, because she basically throws her recycled sound she’s been belting out for years on the rest of the album’s tracks *siggghhhhh*. Thankfully, “Mad World” is the first ballad on the record, and it’s probably one of her best compositions in this field; it’s straightforward with it’s arrangement with no ridiculous key shifts or “surprise” breaks. Just a pure and simple ballad that exhibits Ayu’s vocals and songwriting. Another song that follows the same formula is the pretty “Mr. Darling”, an acoustic folk number that leaves a bittersweet feeling in your mouth. It’s cute, sad and very delicate at the same time. As I mentioned on countless Ayumi reviews; I’ve always had a thing for her most stripped ballads, rather than the ones that contain heavy instruments, extremely rich production values and those stupid key changes. Reasoning being is because, well, she’s a brillant artist and songwriter that needs to allow her core skills be the fore-fronting element to the songs, rather than sugar-coat it with the theatrics.
I will say that I’m happy that Ayu included at least two club-cuts on Made in Japan. But as a fan of those specific inclusions, the same thrills and kills are not emmulated well onto these tracks. “Summer Love”, a thumping EDM number with beast-as-hell breakdowns, is completely killed off by the cheap and generic-as-F chorus. I mean, the lyrics; “So I love you?” in repetition? So banal. The album’s closing track, a cover of Globe’s classic jam “Many Classic Moments”, fairs a lil’ better; it’s a lot more cohesive and stronger once it hits the chorus. But if anything, that face-pacing electronic breakdown moment is completely dope; honestly I could just listen to that part of the song all the time, and STILL be happy.
Elsewhere, Ayu does what she does best; offer a few generic J-pop songs that are either basic or completely skippable. “Breakdown” just follows on-suite of Ayu’s typical sound; a bunch of electronics over a solemn rock arrangement. Nothing exciting, but no entirely bad. The same goes to “Today”; I LOVED the real cold electric guitar strums, but that was completely wasted by the pretty crap chorus and key shift (ugggghhhh). Next… The two following tracks are, surprisingly, a certain selection that are actually quite different. The heavy rock anthem “Survivor” actually caught my ear because of its tropical elements, a first for Ms. Ayu. And yes, while “You Are the Only One” features a crappy key shift, it doesn’t happen until the near-end of the song… which basically means majority of it is good… just.
Overall, Made in Japan has a few surprises that might shake-up the Ayu-chan fan-base. The instrumentation is a lot more enticing and relaxed this time round, and her lyrical content, per usual, stays true to her roots. Unfortunately, the record (once again), lacks consistency and innovation. And, givin’ the fact it’s her 17th studio album, I would kinda expect a lot more thought or challenge from her. But nevertheless, it’s a lot better than the rest of her basic J-pop records.
Track list (bold means best tracks):
- FLOWER *Liam’s favourite*
- Mad World
- You are the only one
- Mr. Darling
- Summer Love
- Many Classic Moments