We try to predict this year’s standout releases 😛
Hello everyone and welcome once again to the J-Music Exchange/Rate! That’s right, Al and I are back for yet another season of album reviews for you guys to check out and (hopefully) enjoy 😀 Kicking the year off with this month’s review in particular, I’ll actually be talking about an album that I knew more or less would be coming my way sooner or later, but before I get into it –
If this is actually your first time coming across this series here on my blog, the Exchange/Rate is the tandem album review series between myself and my good friend and fellow Japanese music enthusiast Al from Omunibasu.Blog wherein each month we pick out and trade each other albums from our respective libraries based on a specific theme that we decide on beforehand. We then listen to the album and subsequently do a review of it in our blogs. I believe I can speak for both of us when I say that this project has been a great way for us not only to broaden our horizons in terms of what we listen to, but I do think that by doing these reviews we discover new ways to appreciate artists, songs, and just music in general. It is our hope that your guys’ experience reading these reviews offers the same level of enjoyment as us making them.
I mentioned that the albums that we choose are all based on a theme and for this month, it was Al’s turn to decide on one. As this is the start of the new year with the whole of 2023 way out ahead of us still, Al thought it’d be interesting if we could talk about albums by Artists Who We Expect To Have A Major Release In 2023. That is to say, we don’t really know if they would be dropping anything this year (lol) just that we expect them to come out with some banger releases this year for some reason or another.
Some of you guys might be aware that one of the awards I give out in the annual Roundup Awards is the award for Band/Artist To Look Out For. I figured it would be fitting to put up an album by last year’s recipient of said award, and is why I went ahead and gave Al ao’s LOOK for him to listen to and review. Al on the other hand went and picked out Hoshino Gen’s highly acclaimed POP VIRUS, as he predicts the double platinum recording artist to once again drop chart-topping album based on the trend of his music activities as of late.
Singer/Musician/Actor Hoshino Gen (星野 源) is a gentleman who I believe needs no further introduction. Now a multiple award-winner and a regular presence in the Oricon Top Charts, Hoshino first entered the world of music as the leader of a purely instrumental Jazz/Folk. Equipped with his musical sensibilities he pursued a solo career, with his debut album dating back to 2010. In the years since then, and over the course of four succeeding studio albums, Hoshino has garnered great success as an artist as well as immense popularity not only in Japan but worldwide.
(＊Spotify link to the full album)
０３・Get a Feel
Ａ ｌ : Being a Hoshino Gen fan for a few years now and having listened to the majority of his discography, I’ve come to develop this belief: if I had to recommend ONE single Hoshino Gen album to someone, and only one, I would always choose POP VIRUS. For a couple of reasons: one, I always had the opinion that this was essentially a ‘transition’ album for Hoshino Gen and his music career. While I’ve enjoyed all the happy, fun-sounding pop hits he has been known for, it was evident that he wanted to change things up a bit, and you could clearly hear his desire to do so in songs like “POP VIRUS” and “Nothing” with its hip-hop influence and inclusion of electronic synths (thanks to STUTS’ beat production). And while it was a bit odd when I first heard those songs, they still sounded great and continued to fit with Hoshino Gen’s overall image. And even with the sudden change of genre/styles in certain parts of this album, Hoshino Gen also maintained the vibe he’s known for, as POP VIRUS features many lovable and hit-worthy songs like “Hada”, “Family Song” and of course, the song of 2016, “Koi”.
Which is a good segue to my second point: POP VIRUS is also a great display and tribute to Hoshino Gen’s past, present and future. You get a taste of his calmer roots when he started as a solo musical artist, the styles that made him one of the most famous Japanese pop stars of today’s generation, as well as his future musical aspirations/goals that he is really starting to embrace (i.e. “Same Thing” in 2019, “FUSHIGI” in 2021). I truly think POP VIRUS is a great place to start if you’re interested in Hoshino Gen’s music and it might make you excited (or at the very least, intrigued) about his next album release, which I hope will be in 2023.
＜Ｓｏｎｇｓ ｏｆ Ｉｎｔｅｒｅｓｔ＞
We’re gonna start this review off by talking about the title track for the album (coincidentally the first track of the album as well) Pop Virus, in large part because of how my initial reaction to this song for the most part ended up being just my overall impression of the album once I got done listening to it. More on that later, but for now I do find it pertinent to tell you first where I’m coming from with this. You might already know this about me if you’ve been taking note of my album picks for the Exchange/Rate or even if you’ve been following the the Monthly Recommendation Roundups here on the blog, but let’s just I’m not really the best person to ask when it comes to J-Pop.
So in line with that, prior to this review, the only real song I know or associate with Hoshino Gen by is Koi. Suffice for it to say, I was kinda just expecting to hear more of that for the rest of the album and not the… Downtempo Chill Pop sort of vibe we have going on in Pop Virus here. Like seriously where did this come from (XD) I’m only half-joking though as this really did catch me by surprise, but this might be more attributable to me not being familiar with Hoshino’s works prior. Not to say I didn’t like it though. If anything, this kind of style actually resonates more to me than if it ended up being more Pop-y in nature. I particularly like the distorted electronic riffs here.
In so far as an album with a very prominent A-side has come my way here in the Exchange/Rate (say for example iri’s Shade which I wrote a review for a while back), my approach in writing the review has since now often tended to be how good is the rest of the album relative to said prominent A-side and can the album stand on its own without it. I was fully prepared to do so here for POP VIRUS knowing just how much of a national phenomenon Koi was for a time with its iconic dance at one point having turned into a viral craze across both Japanese televised media as well as social media, and even making its way into the Just Dance video game.
However, I feel like I can’t really do that here as Koi naturally ends up being a bit of an outlier with how it sounds relative to how the majority of the tracks on POP VIRUS sound. With the exception of maybe one or two tracks much further down into the album, this track is arguably the liveliest and most energetic-sounding, and is truthfully what I was expecting the entirety of POP VIRUS to be. Whether or not that’s a good thing (at least for me personally) actually ties into my overall thoughts on the album which I’ll get to in a bit, but talking about this song on its own, I mean, I’ve known of it, and it’s still admittedly one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard, like, ever.
We’ll skip right on ahead to my favorite song off the album here in Present. For this one I’ll be hearkening back to tracks that I mentioned as being my favorite from previous Exchange/Rates; namely Aida Rikako’s Hikari to Ame from Curtain raise and DUSTY FRUITS CLUB’s Don’t stop the music from Seeds of sound. Now, to be fair, these three songs sound nothing alike (lol), BUT they do do one thing in common which I found interesting and thus worth pointing out, as this one paricular element is what I like the most from each of these tracks respectively. To be specific, it’s in how the songs all incorporate backing vocals into their choruses.
In my review of Curtain raise, I mentioned that as good of a song that I already thought it Hikari to Ame was, if there was one thing that I would change or tweak on it it was in how I would’ve liked the backing vocals to just be bit more forward to give the song that extra pop. Present is a perfect example of how exploding into a chorus with backing vocals can do wonders for a song (…if at least for me and my taste :P) I also really do just like the Jazz-y undertones of the cello and the brass along with like this 90’s style Boom Bap piano and drum beat in the verses. Kinda gives this song a cool Urban/Street sort of vibe to it which I thought was nice.
Despite Hoshino’s generally low singing voice (to which we can probably attribute POP VIRUS’ tonality being on the darker/warmer side), he’s actually fairly comfortable hitting high notes owing to his dynamic vocal range. That being said, because you don’t really hear it come up as much in the middle parts of the album after Koi specifically, something that might get overlooked with regard to his singing is that he does actually hit a clean falsetto every so often. Interestingly enough, from Idea onward he continually does so regularly up until the last track Hello Song. I’d be curious to know if this was supposed to serve some sort of thematic purpose, but I digress.
Idea would be one of the few tracks in the album that actually brings with it the same kind of energy as Koi and I do think that it’s in these kinds of songs where we can truly appreciate Hoshino’s approach to his artistry. He carries himself as a master showman first and foremost, who also just so happens to also possess incredible musical talent, as well as being just a natural peformer overall. Like, take even just the short break at 02:40 to 03:05 of this song for example where he stops this massive ensemble accompaniment so he can then switch over to an acoustic guitar, simply because he can (XD) I mean, the man is just on a different level.
＜Ｗｈａｔ Ｉ ｔｈｉｎｋ ｏｆ ＰＯＰ ＶＩＲＵＳ＞
I’ve been alluding to this since the start of this review, but allow me to start this section off by saying that POP VIRUS is a… misleading album. At the very least, on the whole it’s not the kind of sound that you would expect from Hoshino Gen if, like me, you knew him primarily from Koi, or even Idea as the other prominent A-side inlcuded in the album. Likewise, because the majority of the songs in the album sound the way they do, it doesn’t really feel like an album you’d file under “J-Pop”, and that’s despite the album literally having “Pop” in its title on top of all that. At the extreme you can even say that POP VIRUS is an album that betrays a certain expectation.
That is to say, if, by chance, someone picked this album up because they enjoyed Koi or Idea so much, I think there’s a fair argument to say that they might get disappointed with what they find here, especially because of the more predominant tone of the album. We go over something similar in my review of Kobayashi Aika’s Gradation Collection where, despite Kobayashi being known for darker songs, she puts out something that’s collectively more vibrant and bright. Funnily enough, POP VIRUS almost has the exact inverse of it here where, you’d expect it to have a more Pop-y assortment of tracks but in reality it’s actually more on the somber side.
Moreover, in as varied (impressively so might I add) the styles and instruments are in POP VIRUS, the general mood and approach does kinda remain the same through significant portions of the album and as a result the sounds do kind of begin to homogenize after a certain while. Whenever this comes up I always make it a point to say that I myself don’t think this is something that’s inherently bad, but I can also understand how someone might get put off by it too. However, at the end of the day, and despite my best efforts at seemingly trying to put POP VIRUS down with the things I’m saying about it (LOL), it remains regardless a well put together album.
４.５ ｏｕｔ ｏｆ ５
９ ｏｕｔ ｏｆ １０
Look, if the worst that I can say about the album is that the songs in it, with the exception of maybe one or two, sound just a touch too similar to one another, it all turns to praise when I then say that the the songs are also just good if not great in general (XD) Get a Feel has decently catchy hook, Hada has some pretty fun drum work, Pair Dancer is a vibe, I mean, I can keep going down the tracklist and for each song I can point to something about it that I genuinely find enjoyable. I mean, there’s a reason why this album topped the Oricon Weekly Album Charts for four straight weeks in a row, among the other more prestigious accolades it has since garnered.
What are your guys’ thoughts on Hoshino Gen’s POP VIRUS? Let us know in the comments section down below!
Likewise, tell up who you think will drop a major release this year! 😀
Lastly, be sure to check out Al’s review of ao’s LOOK over at Omunibasu.Blog if you haven’t yet 😛