Happy new year!!!
Hello and welcome back to another J-Music Exchange/Rate review! In case this happens to be the first time checking out one of these posts, this is a segment that I do with my good friend/fellow Japanese music fan Leap250 where we give each other an album to listen to and later review on our respective blogs. It’s a fun thing that we’ve been doing for almost three years now, and is essentially a good way for both of us to expand our tastes and discover new music in the JP scene. We also hope that it gives you the opportunity to find new stuff as well!
That said, Leap and I base our choices on a specific theme each month and for the very first album review of 2023, what better way to celebrate the new year than to be excited about the new albums that may release in the coming months. I was in charge of the theme for January and I figured we talk about artists who we expect to have a major release in 2023. There are a ton of artists that I (and Leap, I’m sure) can think of who could drop something big this year, so this really is just a way for us to be excited/hopeful about said artists lol.
And with that, here are our picks for this month: Leap went ahead and gave me LOOK by prospective singer-songwriter ao, while I tossed over Hoshino Gen’s 2018 album POP VIRUS.
ao (アオ) is a Japanese singer-songwriter, born in 2006. Specializing in desktop produced music (DTM), ao started dabbling in music at the very young age of 12-years-old, writing lyrics and learning how to use the Logic Pro music production program. In September 2020, ao released her first indie single, “no THANKYOU”, and later came out with other tracks like “Tag” and “you too” under a major label. Her already established talent and various song releases were quickly noticed by Spotify Japan, and she was added to the music platform’s “RADAR: Early Noise 2022” playlist: a curated collection of songs from ‘next-gen’ artists who were expected to be active in that year.
Spotify Japan ended up being correct, as ao released her first EP titled LOOK, on March 2nd of 2022. Since then, she’s gained a good amount of popularity due to her superb vocals, meaningful lyricism and solid song production. She currently has released one EP, eight singles, and is scheduled to make appearances at live events in 2023.
(info source: THE FIRST TIMES)
ao – LOOK
- you too
- I know
- with you
- no THANKYOU
- kekka (first recording ver.)
Leap’s Thoughts on LOOK
Every year on the Roundup Awards I give recognition to bands/artists who I think people should be on the look out for the following year because I truly believe they’ll be able to make some waves sooner if not later. So when Al came up with the theme for this month’s Exchange/Rate of [Artists Who We Expect To Have A Major Release In 2023] I thought it would only be fitting for me to then put forward the most recent recipient of the aforementioned award as my pick. ao is, in my personal opinion, right now one of the most promising Japanese Pop artists and given how young this surging singer-songwriter is (17 years old at the time of writing), it’s not hard to imagine why, especially after hearing what she’s able to do here in LOOK.
One of if not the main reason why I think she has potential to be massive breakout star is that her cadence and her delivery when she sings is in a lot ways very much similar to milet who’s already a mainstream artist because of her unique vocals. At the very least that’s how ao’s singing comes across to me, especially after hearing tracks like “you too” and “no THANKYOU” where she does the same kind of low sweeping notes that milet does. There’s also the same twang-y sort of way they both extend their vowels like in “Tag” and “Tsuki” where they make like this “/r/-sound” which gives the note some added flavor. Of course, ao’s voice has yet to really mature like milet’s already has just yet, and you can definitely here the youth in her singing in tracks like “already” and “I know”.
Massive potential all around and, if she does end up dropping something this year, it’s 100% gonna be a banger.
Al’s Thoughts on LOOK
1 ► the superb production and my music listening experiment
Let me first say that I do not listen to electronic pop, the overall genre shown in ao’s music and this EP, all that often. Sure, I’ve recently gotten into the D4DJ franchise, which does express a style of electronic-based music, but I feel like what ao and other related artists do is on a whole different plane of existence compared to the stuff I’m used it. So I do apologize in advance if anything I say in this post is incorrect!
All of the songs on LOOK are great examples of the aforementioned electro-pop genre, and I think ao does a really, really, really fantastic job on the production side of things (I believe she produces her own music since she lists DTM and the Logic Pro music application as one of the instruments she can ‘play’). What’s even better is that a good handful of these songs have various paces and sounds, which makes for a much more interesting overall composition. I loved the fun dance pop feel of “Already”, “I Know” had a great emphasis on percussion (seemingly one of ao’s specialties in her music), and even hearing the small inclusion of a ukulele in the first recording version of “Kekka” was actually pretty rad to listen to. Just by listening to those three tracks, you can tell that ao has an extremely solid grasp and understanding of the overall EDM/pop style. Not only that but the way she is able to include certain elements, some of them being things that I personally never thought would mix well with electro-style music, was very impressive. ESPECIALLY given ao’s age, which we will get to later 😛
And another thing that I wanted to praise about this EP was its really good expression of atmosphere. A lot of electronic songs and artists complement the main beats and melodies with a bit of a toned down and chill backing track (the only example I can personally think of, and one most people will recognize, is Porter Robinson and his music). Having that low synth, etc in the background provides a sense of atmosphere and gives the song A LOT more to enjoy, in my opinion.
Why am I emphasizing this? Well, being someone who doesn’t listen to this type of music a lot, I just noticed that recurring ‘theme’ in EDM-style songs while going through LOOK, and the reason why I noticed it is because of how I listened to this EP. I recently got a new pair of earphones, them being the most recent Apple AirPods Pro release. Call me an ‘iSheep’ if you want (you wouldn’t be wrong lmao) and I’m far from being some sort of audiophile (the fact that I’m mentioning ‘AirPods’ and wireless earphones are probably already red flags to some people lol), but they truly are some fantastic earbuds. And while I do use Spotify for my everyday choice of music streaming service, I wanted to see whether or not listening to ao’s EP on Apple Music was a better experience (since AM has lossless/hi-res audio). And from what I could tell, it was significantly better. It’s mainly because AirPods takes full advantage of Apple Music’s special audio codec and puts out a much better sound quality, which is something you wouldn’t hear when using Spotify.
I know it may seem like it, but the whole point of me talking about AirPods and Apple Music is not because I’m pushing their products or that I suggest you to give a ton of money to Apple instead of another company (I legitimately don’t care about the whole iPhone/Android debate or what not, you do you). But rather, when utilizing the whole ‘connections’ between those two products, I was able to immerse myself and really hear everything ao had to offer in this entire EP. And one great example of ao’s ability to set up a calm and open atmosphere in her songs was in “Tsuki”. Being able to hear the dragging notes of the piano, as well as the really deep and rumbling bass in the back, was so fascinating (on a related note, it honestly reminded me of another great song I’ve been listening to and also has a nice atmospheric feel: “Ghost in the Machine” by American R&B singer/songwriter SZA). It felt so tranquil and almost eerie throughout the entire track and I think it’s incredible that she can display certain ambiences really well in her songs. Same can be heard in some of the other tracks, like “you too” having note sequences that slowly and smoothly escalated in intensity or that prominent and super low synth in “Tag”.
Some of you may be looking at my praises about being able to hear certain musical elements better and going, “yeah no shit, that’s what good headphones and audio quality do”. That is true, but being someone who doesn’t normally notice or care about those things, I think stumbling upon the specific opportunity to listen to this ao EP with some damn good earphones was a new and insightful experience.
2 ► ao’s incredibly impressive vocals
And of course, the vocals. While I always do say great things about the vocals heard in most of the albums I review, this one in particular is kinda crazy. Leap told me in advance (and from his 2022 roundup last year) that ao’s vocals sound similar to another fantastic vocalist, as well as an interesting fact that correlates to her voice. And after listening to this EP, now I know why he emphasized it.
First off, ao’s voice most certainly is reminiscent of another really talented and currently popular artist by the name of milet. I did review an album of milet’s wayyyy back in 2020, and I was genuinely impressed at how strong and low her voice sounded. And I can absolutely say the same about ao. Her lower register sounds smooth as heck, and the way she’s also able to hit high notes at a sufficient level (like in “you too”) was really impressive to hear. But the craziest part is this: ao is listed to have been born in 2006… that means she’s 16 years old (as of this post’s publish date)
First of all, to hear the year 2006 almost makes me feel old (I’m only 21 lol). And secondly, WOW. I wouldn’t have thought that the person singing these songs was only 16. What makes this even crazier: songs like “no THANKYOU” were released back in 2020 (meaning she was 14 when she originally came up with that track) and according to THE FIRST TIMES, she started writing lyrics and learning how to compose desktop music when she was 12! Her voice sounds so refined, and most notably, deep; it’s insanely unusual-yet-cool to find out that someone who’s that young can have really great-sounding vocals like what was shown in LOOK. Especially when it’s paired with some well-produced electronic music.
I apologize if I talked about my fascination with AirPods and Apple Music a lot in this review, but I think taking in account those two variables honestly made the listening experience of LOOK a lot better. Not to say that Spotify is holding my overall Japanese music journey back by having worse sound quality compared to Apple Music, but I feel like in this particular case of me reviewing this particular EP, the switch of music streaming services was actually beneficial. The crisper quality and more dynamic nature of AM truly elevated my enjoyment of LOOK and ao’s vocals, no doubt. Will I do it for future albums Leap gives me… possibly, that’s still to be determined (if anything, this EP genuinely made me consider changing back to Apple Music lmao).
But other than that, the production on these electro-type tracks was really well done throughout the whole EP, ao’s vocals were stunning (especially given her age), and yeah. Just a solid record, all in all, and for her to basically start off her entire music career with this high-quality collection of tracks.. it makes perfect sense that Leap considers her a ‘artist to look out for in 2023’ and one who will (hopefully) make a big splash release this year.
Aaaand that’s all I got for you today!
Hope you enjoyed my write-up for this month; great EP, great artist and I’m looking forward to whatever ao releases next!
Now that you’re done with this review, head on over to Leap’s blog where he talked about the album I gave him for January: Hoshino Gen’s POP VIRUS! That honestly might be one of my favorite albums, period, so definitely go read his thoughts on it!
Thanks for reading!! 😀