We talk about some of our favorites from 2021!
What a year it has certainly been; both for the world around of course, but also for the J-Music Exchange/Rate! We’ve gone through yet another year of album reviews as part of this collaborative effort between Al from Omunibasu.Blog and myself, and I believe I speak for the both of us when I say, thank you SO much to those who jave joined and continue to join us in this journey of musical discovery :3
If by chance, this happens to be your first time coming across the J-Music Exchange/Rate – the Exchange/Rate is the monthly tandem album review series that I do alongside my good friend and fellow Japanese music enthusiast Al (whom you can find over at Omunibasu.Blog as I’ve mentioned) wherein each month we go and trade each other an album from our respective libraries based on a specific theme for the other person to go talk about and review in our respective blogs. This project has been, and continues to be, an excellent way for both of us to broaden our horizons in terms of what we listen to, and we can only hope that this series can do the same for those that happen upon it.
As I mentioned earlier, we do decide on a theme whenever we do these and, like with the previous year, we decided it would be fitting for us to just go ahead and talk about some of our Favorite Albums of 2021 to close out this year of reviews, of which there are most certainly A TON between the both of us.
Though I say that, Al was very quick to toss me Kobayashi Aika’s Gradation Collection here, and I in turn also had little to no problem thinking of what the most memorable 2021 release ended up being for me in Atarayo’s Yoake Mae (read Al’s full review here!)
Kobayashi Aika (小林愛香) first made her start back in 2011 as a debutant artist peforming the ending theme for the anime Freezing. In the year following that she would again provide the ending theme for Queen’s Blade Rebellion. It would not be until 2015 when Kobayashi eventually found herself in the fold of the Love Live! School Idol Project Series’ rapidly-growing pool of talents as one of the franchise’s beloved second generation cast members, for being the voice behind the character Tsushima Yoshiko.
０１・NO LIFE CODE
０４・空は誰かのものじゃない/sora wa dareka no mono janai
０８・Please! Please! Please
１３・Can you sing along?
Ａ ｌ : When all of the voice actresses from the Love Live Sunshine idol group, Aqours, started dabbling in their own music careers, Kobayashi Aika’s (the voice of Tsushima Yoshiko) was the one I was looking forward to the most. Being familiar with her incredible vocal performances as Yoshiko, as well as knowing that she’s very passionate about singing, I immediately knew that whenever she decided to pursue her own path in music, it was gonna be good. And after a few singles and a studio album release back in June, in my opinion, I can safely say that I was correct.
I feel like Gradation Collection is, well, a collection of songs that allowed Aikyan to be Aikyan. Maybe it stemmed from her previous experiences within the Aqours discography but she sounded like an absolute natural when performing rock-based tracks such as “NO LIFE CODE”, “Heartbreak soldier”, and “Can you sing along”. Even the songs that I’d consider genre outliers such as the amusing “Tatatambourine Rhythm”, or my personal favorite, “Moonlight Balcony”, Aikyan does a great job changing up the way she sings, if it calls for something different. Her various displays of vocals throughout this album was super intriguing to hear, and most of all, it was just plain fun.
Being able to experience another side of Kobayashi Aika, compared to what I’ve been used to for the past four to five years as a Love Live fan, was something special for me personally. I really enjoyed this album and I would definitely suggest checking it out (especially if you’re a Love Live/Aqours seiyuu fan)!
＜Ｓｏｎｇｓ ｏｆ Ｉｎｔｅｒｅｓｔ＞
０１・NO LIFE CODE
I would like to think that out of all the seiyuu performers that are a part of Aqours, the second generation of Love Live! talents, Kobayashi Aika’s artist debut might one of if not the most anticipated from the bunch (at the very least in my opinion). While of course subjective in a lot of respects, a lot of that too naturally just comes from what fans can see from her singing and her dancing, which would be at the forefront of her idol performances as part of the aforementioned franchise. In addition, and as I mentioned in my brief introduction of her, Kobayashi came into the franchise already having experience singing anison specifically, further setting herself apart from her fellow members.
What you’ll hear from that debut single of hers (which, at the time of writing this review would already be well over a decade since it came out) is still largely what you’ll get to hear from her now; deep, resounding, and powerful vocals – all hallmarks of an anison performer. For some, including myself, it did just feel like a matter of time for Kobayashi to take to the stage as her own artist, especially after some of her Love Live! contemporaries going on ahead of her. NO LIFE CODE was the first glimmer of that hope finally coming to fruition and, despite it being a bit of a departure from the style fans would come to know her by, for the most part it didn’t really disappoint.
０４・空は誰かのものじゃない/sora wa dareka no mono janai
Though I guess that’s a good of a talking point as any to serve as the backdrop for this album review; and that is to talk about varying styles. I’ll talk about this a little bit more later on, but over the course of Gradation Collection you’ll find that there’s a notable emphasis on trying to showcase as many different sounds as possible in terms of both singing and music in general while still following somewhat of a core theme. Sora wa Dareka no Moo Janai here for instance sees Kobayashi take on a more balladic song which, is already vastly different from the tone set by the opening track of the album NO LIFE CODE, a song that as you’ve heard lends itself to being more Pop/Rock.
Something that I’ve talked about before at least once in both the Exchange/Rate and the Monthly Recommendation Roundup are compositions that give the singer “room to breathe” so to speak and allow them to fill the air with their singing. Perhaps quite fitting for a song that talks about the freedom that the skies represent, Sora wa Dareka no Mono Janai grants Kobayashi the opportunity to flex her vocal range a bit in a more free and controlled manner, which is an opportunity she otherwise doesn’t really get a whole lot of in her performances as part of Love Live!. In that regard, this was definitely a nice change of pace, and at best even an eye-opener for some.
Speaking of eye-opening, towards the tail end of the album you have Moonlight Balcony here and now, if anyone told me there was gonna be a Jazzy Bossa Nova -esque track in this album prior to me listening to it, I would’ve thought they were just pulling my leg… but here we are (XD). Though I guess, to say that this genre and the manner in which Kobayashi sings this song belies the expectations one might have from artists *like* Kobayashi who are billed more as seiyuu performers sort of brings to light some prejudices as to how they should sing, where more often than not they end up proving a lot of people wrong with songs like this.
Similarly to Sora wa Dareka no Mono Janai above, what this song provides is yet another avenue for Kobayashi adds another layer to her singing, by showing to us that she doesn’t always have to have blow out performances that rely on the power that her vocals possess. Moonlight Balcony shows us that she’s also more than capable of just pulling it back with a sultry and mellower delivery, which is again (and you’ll notice this as a bit of a recurring theme for this review) already much more than she’s ever done in the past. For me personally, it was almost uncanny hearing what it such a familiar voice singing in a way that was not at all how I’m used to hearing her.
All that being said however, in as mind-bogglingly pleasing a track like Moonlight Balcony ends up being, if I had to say my favorite track off of Gradation Collection without a doubt has to be Night Camp for no reason other than that it’s just an incredibly fun-sounding song. Those of you follow the Monthly Recommendation Roundup would know that I’m a huge sucker for stringwork and; the acoustic guitar, the Folk-y bandolin plucking, and the violin – all hit right at home, with the song overall just giving me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside each time I hear it. To be more specific, I feel like I’m in a Slice Of Life anime whenever I play this song (LOL)
In all seriousness though, and in as many different styles and genres Gradation Collection offers to its listeners, Night Camp to me stands out arguably the most out of all the songs on the album. Not that I believe that this kind of song ends up suiting Kobayashi’s the most (rather, there’s an argument to be made that the kind of song that suits Kobayashi best is actually the one that’s absent here, more on that in a bit), but is one that just works amazingly well to a surprising degree. Q-MHz’s Tashiro Tomokazu ltook the helm as the lead composer for the majority of the tracks on Gradation Collection and for the most part he really did a bang up job with his style choices.
＜Ｗｈａｔ Ｉ ｔｈｉｎｋ ｏｆ Ｇｒａｄａｔｉｏｎ Ｃｏｌｌｅｃｔｉｏｎ＞
Whenever we use the word *gradation* in the context of “gradients”, we most often refer to either one of two things; different shades of a color progressing on a linear scale, or the transitioning of one color hue to another. Albeit used interchangeably at times, I’m pretty sure one would have a general idea as to how a shade of red (for instance pink) is different from orange (the adjacent hue to red on the light spectrum). For the purposes of this review, I would like to emphasize this difference in interpretation, and subsequently relate it to my thoughts on Gradation Collection. Specifically, the many shades to Kobayashi Aika present in the album, and a hue that’s notably absent.
If I had to summarizee the overall tone of Gradation Collection in as few words as possible, I’d say that it is bright and vibrant. The mood is constantly that of uplifting cheerfulness and optimism where, even on the album’s more somber tracks such as Border Rain and Sora wa Dareka no Mono Janai, you wouldn’t really describe them as being “dark”. In as many different styles present in Gradation Collection, all the songs share an unmistakeable positive vibe which, in an interview was confirmed as being the focal narrative behind the album. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but this particular decision does ultimately leave something out as a direct consequence.
Fans of the Love Live! franchise who are privy to Kobayashi Aika as being the voice behind the character Tsushima Yoshiko and are familiar to the kinds of songs she sings as part of Aqours would know that she arguably does her best work with darker and “edgier” songs that lets her pop off in one huge crescendo, or EDM dance tracks that utilize her naturally deep vocal register to great effect. Now, going back to our color analogy, while there were multiple “shades” to Kobayashi’s singing being put on display here in Gradation Collection in terms of styles, the “hue” or in this case the mood remains the same, and as such we don’t get to hear these other sounds as a result.
４ ｏｕｔ ｏｆ ５
８.５ ｏｕｔ ｏｆ １０
Of course, there’s nothing stopping anyone from just… listening to her other songs outside of this album (XD), nor should this album be rated based on anything other than its own merits. In the interview I mentioned (translation for anyone interested), both Kobayashi Aika and composer Tashiro Tomokazu both talk about how a lot of the drive behind Gradation Collection is in not wanting seiyuu performers to be stereotyped as only having one kind of sound, hence the marked emphasis on showcasing a multitude of styles, and for the most part the album does that quite well. That said, those hankering for more of her LL! offerings might not find what they’re looking for here.
What did you guys think of Kobayashi Aika’s Gradation Collection?
Lemme know in the comments down below!
Again, don’t forget to check out Al’s review of Atarayo’s Yoake Mae if you haven’t yet, and I’ll see y’all next time 😀