Starting from today, this series of Throwback Thursday posts will be shining a spotlight on one of the most successful J-Pop soloists of all time, and my personal favourite, Ayumi Hamasaki.
Beginning her career in 1998, former model Ayumi – Ayu to her fans – would end up storming the charts in the early 2000s with her unique self-penned dance-pop tunes and emotive ballads. While she remains active as an artist today, there’s no doubt that her peak came with the new millennium, and I feel that she’s more than deserving of a loving retrospective from somebody who has been a fan of her releases since my early teenhood.
In this series I’ll be highlighting some of my favourite albums from Ayu’s peak era, and what I consider to be the standout songs from them. If you have any of your own you’d like to share, please do so in the comments below!
I’ve chosen to begin with her 1999 album LOVEppears. While it wasn’t her first release – in fact, it was her second (or third if you’re a hardcore fan) album – but, while her previous releases were successful, I feel that LOVEppears brought us the Ayu we’re so familiar with today. Moreover, the album was written by her personally and benefits strongly from it.
Starting off with a classic Ayu ballad, the slow swell of TO BE immediately reminds me of what I love most about her music. Ayu has composed plenty of gentle songs like this, and it would be easy for them to become samey and bland, but her works of this era all manage to retain a unique aura that sets them apart from her more recent offerings. Many of them remain strong favourites with fans and the general public, and for good reason.
While I wouldn’t go as far to say TO BE is my favourite Ayu ballad, it comfortably sets a precedent for the greatness can expect in the coming years of her career as she quickly became one of Japan’s most successful female soloists. TO BE isn’t a complex song, in fact its production is rather basic and subdued, but it has a warm familiarity that, paired with its wistful lyrics, I find so relaxing.
As I grew up unable to watch any J-Pop PVs for a long time thanks to dial-up internet, I was unfamiliar with any of the videos for Ayu’s songs until much later in her career. Because of this, the strange imagery of Ayu in her wacky aunt outfit and casual hippie garb coupled with an anachronistic European boy seems goofy in comparison to the (in my opinion) more refined mental associations I’ve had with the song so long. I have to admit there’s something soothing about those kaleidoscope psychedelic aesthetics though…
Time for a mood change, and Fly high provides a perfect example of the pop-dance sound Ayu came to build her career around after experimenting with a more rock-based vibe on her previous album, A Song for xx. An energetic and uplifting song, the upfront club vibe of the PV matches it well, for a change.
You can easily hear its appeal for the then-burgeoning new internet generation, with its video game-esque melody and production. So many of my teenage days were spent bopping to this catchy and motivational tune, and it still makes me feel just as good now as it did then.
Something about its mish-mash instrumentation gives it that special quirk you can only find in late 90s, turn-of-the-millennium music that completely dates it, yet I find it difficult to see this as a bad thing. I love every charmingly awkward, outmoded thing about it. Throw in some ambivalent lyrics reflecting the mind of a confused young person along with that unmistakeable synth riff, and you have a song that is so painfully of its time that it’s also timeless.
I don’t really want to say I saved the best for last, because to me, well, all of these songs are the best. However, there’s something special in the atmosphere kanariya manages to conjure that makes it a standout track to me. Sure, it sounds pretty dated – even more so than Boys & Girls – with its prepackaged club beats and Casio keyboard sound bites (and that’s just the Radio Edit – it came in many remixed and reworked forms, as was common for dance-pop singles at the time), but its melancholic melody and vocals stride in with a calm confidence you rarely see in pop music these days.
The insecurity of its lyrics may then come as a surprise, but they also feel perfectly in tune with what felt like the prevailing attitude of society at the time; that we were on the cusp of a new century, filled with excitement for what we all presumed would be a great leap forward to the future, offset by an unspoken uncertainty provoked by the rare closure of what we thought was the modern era. An era we were a little afraid to have to leave behind so soon despite all our hopes and dreams.
Maybe I’m getting a little deep with this, it is just a pop song… maybe. But kanariya takes me right back to the beginning of that new millennium and reminds me of all the collective desires and anxieties we had about it. The PV for kanariya, while obviously very much of its time, perfectly reflects that inner conflict to me; everything is overwhelmingly futuristic (at least futuristic in the way that we imagined “the future” would look like at the time – a lot of grey and black and too many screens), but the atmosphere is sullen and disconcerting, and nobody seems to be comfortable in their ultramodern surroundings.
A young Ayumi, covered in shining jewels and sequins, appears on the viewers’ multiple screens almost as a kind of distraction for them. Ignore the questionable stuff and look at me instead. Shiny modernity vs dystopian future… or maybe they just thought a bejeweled, platform-booted Ayu looked pretty cool on a picture disc.
Either way, not bad for a song that started out as a hidden track at the end of the album.