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In which we are lucky I don’t review with grades of any sort.

No excuses this time. Fact is, lately blogging hasn’t appealed as much to me. (Probably because I’ve been using up my weekly allotment of bullshitting on English homework.) Which is sad, because as of two (almost three!) Sundays ago, this blog became a year old. A year ago, we opened with a post on AAA’s then-latest PV, Get CHU!. It’s rather belated now (it always is with me), but let’s kick the next year for this blog off with a post on a not-so-recent release that also marks another transition for me.

Welcome back to the Arashi section of Kimitsu’s brain. I know it hasn’t been that long since we came here – in fact, I think we make a trip about every other week. I hope you’re getting comfy – is that seat cushion actually conforming itself to your butt?

With one barrier passed (Step and Go), time to tackle the other one! SAKURA Sake was the first Arashi song I’d ever heard that stuck with me, and so it’s become something of a starting point for me whenever I mentally deal with Arashi. Except now I have to go past that, and tackle what will probably be coming up again soon anyways – a best of/single collection album. In this case, 5×5: THE BEST SELECTION OF 2002←2004.

Normally I’m apprehensive about best of albums. Like a cat. (You see? This is me hissing at it with my hair standing up on end.) Sure, they’re great ways to introduce new fans to a fandom, and for the casual fans they collect the singles of their particular timespan (whether for a few years or for the artist’s full career). They’re also a way to make you pay full album price for what amounts to one to three new tracks. (Just look at the A version of AAA’s ATTACK ALL AROUND. $80+ for… well, nothing new. Maybe the photobook. A photobook is NOT worth $80, dammit. But I still dropped that money and my wallet cries.) And besides, albums usually have at least one gem that ultimately ends up becoming my favorite track from any given artist. (YUI’s How crazy is my favorite track by her, period. Nothing else she’s done or likely will do comes close to it.)

In this case, though, 5×5 may end up being my savior. Perhaps it’s just me and my short attention span, perhaps I’m only symbolic of a majority of J-Pop fans, but no matter how much I love a group or artist, it becomes hard for me to like them any earlier than the period I first knew of them. (As a result, much as I did enjoy SURREAL‘s music video, and though I have the Duty concert on VCD, Hamasaki pre-I am… has never held appeal for me despite the fact that I like that sort of dance music. Likewise with Koda Kumi before love across the ocean.) Of course, everyone has their favorite release periods, but I think in my case it’s sort of a fear to acknowledge that the group was active before I started liking them. (There’s also the fact that I want to finish color-coding the lyrics for their 2005-2007 albums first.) Which, uh, just won’t do. ‘Cause it kind of negates two-thirds of their career and makes it pointless for A-RA-SHI to play and be performed all the time.

SO. (After so many unrelated examples in the above two paragraphs…) I’ve basically been avoiding listening to this album because I didn’t know any of the songs. I’d heard snippets of them from some of Arashi’s older dramas (Minami-kun no Koibito, Kisrazu Cat’s Eye, Yoiko no Mikata) and D no Arashi episodes, but I haven’t watched any of the former long enough for the songs to stick. But with the foundation and first several floors of my Arashi fandom built, and several hours of time alone without a distracting laptop last Friday, what better way to cement the next bunch by overcoming this obstacle? Or so my excuse is.

First, just two things to note. One of the things that’s sustained me through Arashi’s discography thus far is the variety in genres I’ve found in their songs so far. (The same variety I joined the AAA fandom looking for, actually.) If this album is any indication, that same variety was still going on during this phase of their career, though it marks the launch of the J-STORM label. And that’s the great thing about pop – because pop is really “popular music”, it’s not marked by any actual style limitations. (Are you reading this, avex? Now do something about AAA.) It’s admittedly insulting to shuffle songs into a genre so broad, especially if there’s something exceptional about them, but it’s yet another backhanded compliment as so many things seem to be.

Second, there are a LOT of group vocals. 2005 and SAKURA Sake is appaently when the powers that be over at Johnny’s finally decided that perhaps they could afford to spread out vocals more evenly. If I’d thought Ohno vocally dominated before, it’s nothing compared to what’s coming. But that, yet again, is another consequence of going backwards in a discography. I don’t get to see idols improve, only slowly gain more and more fail. Which sort of defeats the purpose of a long career, but then again, there’s always SMAP. Onto the album, then!

o1/ Hero: 4 years ago, this single was released. 4 years ago, the Summer Olympic games were being held in Athens. 4 years ago, this was the song Japan associated with the Olympics thanks to NTV abusing it for its coverage. Well, now it’s 4 years later, time for the Summer Olympics in Beijing, and this time the Japanese Olympic song probably won’t be from Arashi. But I can still use it in that capacity, yes? (If the song comes from Hey!Say!JUMP or KAT-TUN I will cry. It will likely be the former.)

The song that kicks off Arashi’s second best-of album is a single track that wasn’t actually released on a regular album, but it serves as a good opening here. Taken as a whole package, there’s nothing special about it – it’s just another uplifiting boyband song with stronger instrumentation. Approaching its components individually, though, it has the potential to be a pretty amazing song. The music is consistently a combination of light piano and acoustic guitar seguing into an orchestra overlaid with electric guitar chords that heightens the dramatic feeling – in fact, the backing track really adds to the argument for pop idol music being, well, not so pop. Something like this might normally be considered too simplistic for singers who want to add depth to their image, but it’s really sweet. The complete lack of solo lines add an additional, if subtle, power to the vocals along with emphasizing the idea of unity and ensuring Jun’s vocal fallacies can’t ruin the song completely. And the massive echo of “La la la…” flying alongside Arashi’s singing works its job of enhancing the cheering perfectly. You could very well be in Olympic Stadium having the crowd of spectators singing along to you.

So where does it fall flat? I have absolutely no clue. I want to say the vocals, but it was only 2004, and they’re idols so they’re only supposed to look pretty- oh, wait. There goes the fangirl defense mechanism again. Okay, so it’s the vocals. There’s a complete lack of harmonizing, Arashi surprisingly fails to blend, and if it weren’t for the good vocal quality, I feel like I could reproduce it in a karaoke group. But it’d still be an amazing song, natch. I also bet you I don’t have this much to say on the rest of the tracks.

o2/ 瞳の中のGalaxy [Hitomi no Naka no Galaxy]: The companion A-side to the above track, this was also the theme for Nino’s drama Minami-kun no Koibito. Which… I’ll get around to watching eventually. After I finish Mirai Koshi Meguru. I can only handle so much Fukada Kyoko in a season.

On the subject of this song – this was, quite possibly, the worst position it could have been placed in. Hitomi no Naka no Galaxy is like a Bizarro version of Hero, where a light piano opening and yet more actual instruments are used to the exact opposite effect. Right after the uplifting power pop that is Hero, the similarities isn’t going to help this song – a slow pop piece with a folkish ballad effect thanks to a strong acoustic guitar – make anywhere near as strong of an impression. Oh, and there are solo lines. Nino opens up the song with a whole stanza, in fact. (I would swoon and melt except that, again, these are vocals from almost 4 years ago. I found myself thinking Nino’s vocals were a bit strong and distracted myself with a cell phone RPG, it seems.) Taken by itself, though, it’s not a bad track (especially in bed) and fairly unusual for Arashi (or any boyband) as an A-side on a single.

o3/ 途中下車 [Tochuugesha]: If there’s one thing about this song that will stand out, it’s the repeating two-note piano melody. A bit ironic, given that it’s clearly meant to be in the background, supporting both the building guitars and Arashi’s strong group vocals, but it sets both the decent-paced tempo and light mood that makes this song work. It’s as though the entire song was built around that same piano bit, and the end result is a sweet track that’s somewhat stereotypical of a Japanese boyband, but still a pleasure to listen to.

o4/ RIGHT BACK TO YOU: No, that scratching opening isn’t a mistake. It’s a warning. This is a song with attitude. In fact, the whole point of the song is the attitude, which oozes from Arashi’s vocals. And the R&B dance beat, but mostly the attitude. It gets to the point where it sort of begs comparisons to Western boyband songs around 2000 – especially the sung interruption during Sho’s rap. Speaking of which… I laughed again. It’d been a while, thanks. Does your tone really need to sound like a 14-year-old trying to act manly, Sho? You were, what, 22 when this was recorded? Time to let go of puberty. But Kimi’s a sucker for dance songs of any sort, and other than laughing at Sho’s rap voice, I admit to wholly enjoying the song.

o5/ PIKA★★NCHI DOUBLE: Readers who have stuck with me since I started falling into the Arashi fandom (almost 7 months ago) will remember that I once mentioned having seen a bit of the PIKA★★NCHI DOUBLE: Life is Hard dakara Happy movie during a flight to Shanghai. (Also that there is always the one Arashi song on any album that I need to get over before I can continue with the rest of the review – but that was RIGHT BACK TO YOU. I’m screwed for the Iza, Now! review, I know.) This is the theme song for that movie (but if you couldn’t figure that out from the title, you might have a problem.) Upbeat pop-rock makes its first appearance on the album here, and there’s no denying that both the musical composition (despite the layering and arrangement of the actual piece) and vocal melody is pretty generic, though they both grow on you by the end of the song. The declining stanzas is a nice touch, in contrast to the buildup of the guitars and the skip-along bridge, but it really is something that seems meant to evoke a nostalgic feeling and I’m left with the idea that it’d be more touching if I’d actually watched the whole movie.

And then, oh baby, we hit the interlude after the second chorus. I don’t even know how to describe it, but it was perfect. Sho delivers a series of layered lines (because I really can’t call them a rap) against a choral (also Sho being layered) background – he strains a bit during the higher first three, but it doesn’t sound bad. And immediately follows soft solo lines where everyone (even Jun, to my amazement) sounds good against the growing crescendo of the orchestral strings, and from then on I love the song. Even Sho’s soft ending rap feels in place. And I decide right there and then, I listen to the first half just to get to the second half.

o6/ 言葉より大切なもの [Kotoba Yori Taisetsu na Mono]: Okay, so I sort of knew this song. Just the opening. It was kind of abused in D no Arashi and for a while I would sing “kiritotta MERODII kurikaeshita wasurenai you ni//kotoba yori mo taisetsu na mono koko ni wa aru kara” at random without being able to sing the rest. That’s my excuse since I didn’t watch its actual drama tie-in, Stand Up!!. But knowing that, my urge to rag on Sho for ad-libbing “Everybody stand up” during the chorus diminishes quite a bit. (Boo. Knowledge is half the battle, but takes away half the fun.)

Continuing on the upbeat pop-rock, this next single is considerably more energetic and Arashi reflects as much in their vocals. Ohno opens it up for us, but the rest of the song is again, done in groups. Oh, and there’s another rap from Sho, with more attempts at baritone and breathy layers. His ad-libbing during the ending “wow wow”s of the chorus leads up to it pretty well, and the way the rap lines are set up to echo slows down the pace of the song – even when Sho rushes that one line – and provides a pretty refreshing break from the otherwise constant high tempo of the music.

o7/ ハダシの未来 [HADASHI no Mirai]: The paired A-side to Kotoba yori Taisetsu na Mono, we’re still going upbeat pop-rock, but there’s a touch of the chaotic 80’s pop whine in the vocals and lots of trombones to throw in some flair now. Again done completely as a group, the vocals and music tend to fight for volume dominance, but there’s a refreshingly fun and quirky atmosphere that isn’t found in their more recent tracks. I was also constantly wondering how this would sound sung solo. On one hand, the combination of tone variety in their voices fits – on the other, this would be so much fun as a solo track. But that might have been me being influenced by this being the theme song to Matsumoto’s harassment (using M no Arashi as an excuse) during the D no Arashi Iza, Now! concert special.

o8/ Lucky Man: Oh ho. This song. Sho and I need words over the opening to this song, yes. Fast-paced rap? No problems. Built-in crowd-raising? “When I say ‘lucky’, you say ‘man’! Lucky!” “MAN!” …it grows on you. (Except for the scream bit. I want to slap the person who introduced that.) So what’s my problem? Sho stuck in English and his thick attempt at a MC voice. (“My time’s over; now it’s his turn, heeeeeere is” – except you went back to rapping anyways, Sho. When did you develop a split personality?) Okay, this was from 2003. Knowing that doesn’t make my need to punch something lessen any.

Luckily for me (pun totally unintended), that desire subsists after his opening MC-bit is over and his later rap also fares better. The rest of the song combines lots of brass with a disco beat and a catchy vocal melody for a song that’s so happy and cheesy (because a line like “No.1 hero of new salvation!” is cheesy stuck in a song of any language) it makes even me want to declare it a guilty pleasure. But then again, isn’t that part of the appeal of Japanese Pop? (Wait, that’s a rant in itself.) Bottom line – it’s grating at first (and all can be blamed on Sho), but abusively addictive in its own way. How many songs get you singing “I am so Lucky Man!” even as you inwardly groan, after all?

o9/ Blue: If there is a song, any song at all that I dislike on this album, this is it. (One out of 16 isn’t a bad track record, even for a best-of album. Or should I say, especially for a best-of album?) But that might just be because this is the requisite generic piano-led slow pop song. The vocals aren’t especially great – in fact, Nino, who shut me up about his singing with Niji, made me wince – and this is the sort of song where the vocals make or break it for me. Jun getting a solo stanza didn’t help. The chorus fares better, but as a general rule, I need my slow songs to have sort of interesting hook to make them stick with me. This clearly didn’t.

10/ とまどいながら [Tomadoi Nagara]: Now, see, here’s something interesting. This is a downtempo mellow pop song. The interesting part is that this was a single. Maybe because it was the ending theme to Sho’s drama Yoiko no Mikata, which is one of those meant-to-be-heartwarming shows. But it stands out amidst the faster and more energetic (or deliberately slow) single tracks included on this best-of album, and even their following discography. Both the music and vocals drift along at an easy pace, even though the chorus gains some power from having all five sing at once. Whether you want to read this as the start of the album winding down (though it’s really just going backwards in Arashi’s 2002-2004 career like I am) or pretend there’s no greater significance and enjoy the song for what it is is up to you.

11/ 冬のニオイ [Fuyu no NIOI]: Dear Japanese Pop and my listening habits, OKAY. ENOUGH. I GET IT. IT’S WINTER WHERE I LIVE, THERE WAS SNOW OUTSIDE MY WINDOW WHEN I STARTED WRITING THIS. There is no need to remind me so many times. By the way, I started writing this in late Janurary/early February. Procrastinate much? Why yes, I believe I do.

That rant aside, though, I really have nothing against this song. In fact, I’m surprised it even made it, considering it was originally a B-side on the Tomadoi Nagara single. B-sides pretty much never make it to albums (unless the company’s really lazy or cheap, neither of which is a quality J-Storm possesses when it comes to making money), never mind a best-of album. And I’m beyond glad it did. This is what I want my slow winter pop to sound like, where the dynamics come from the sung (and properly done, thanks to Ohno taking the solo lines) vocals. The chorus has a striking contrast to the stanzas, where both music and vocals attack strongly, and the vocals during the interlude seem a bit misplaced; but it all ensures that the song doesn’t sound too monotone.

12/ PIKA☆NCHI: Life is Hard dakedo Happy. Sound familiar? This is the prequel single (to the attached prequel movie) to the above PIKA★★NCHI DOUBLE. It’s also the closest to being full-out rock Arashi has gotten from what I’ve heard so far. That Sho’s rap becomes a necessary presence might say something about this song, but the rap stanzas are nothing short of perfect for the song and Sho’s rougher voice ws made for the rock genre. The sung portions might be grating at first, and perhaps they always will be if you’re not a fan, especially with the glaringly flat baritone backup mixed in during the bridges. And I still find myself questioning the need for high notes, especially when sung in the way Arashi did. But it’s something different, it’s done interestingly so, and the music is just too much fun. Hurray for guitar riffs.

13/ 眠らないカラダ [Nemuranai KARADA]: For lack of a better description, this could’ve been pulled out of Cowboy Bebop. Easy guitar and jazzy blues combine with with low-key vocals to set a 60’s spy (or am I thinking 70’s?) mood that turns addictive. There’s no rap (smart move, J-Storm), but the vocal section before the instrumental break works better than any rap could’ve. Sure, the vocals could use work, whether solo or group (some sections have a jarring lack of blending) but they go well with the song. Not the smoothest execution, but seductive enough.

14/ ナイスな心意気 [NICE na Kokoroiki]: Arashi has no masculinity to their name. They tried to cover it up on this single by dressing all the members in suits and then added a very dorky look with slicked hair and glasses… but this song is a brassy pop piece that sounds like it should be sung by a female idol. (Tamaki Nami and Morning Musume immediately came to mind as artists who could pull it off. Especially the former.) Oh, and somewhat cutesy, too, but that mostly comes from the vocal melody. The “NANANA”s are a nice touch, and the whisper before the final chorus makes me go starry-eyed, but the higher notes seem like a bit of jump. I still adore this song because it gives me crack visions of Arashi walking about town crossdressed. I know it already has its own video, being a single and all, but I think my vision would come out so much better. Jun is totally getting the slinky evening gown with the wide-brimmed flowery hat.

15/ a Day in Our Life: And the album rounds down the already-released songs with full out hip-hop. It’s almost stereotypical in its execution. I wonder if they caved in to Sho’s demands on this one, since he’s totally leading it with his rap and it’s also the ending theme for Kisarazu Cat’s Eye, his drama with V6’s Okada Junichi. When the rap’s hitting you full force like it is here (the rest of Arashi singing takes an obvious backseat), it’s not so jarring as it is when it pops out in the middle of an interlude. And the chorus (or what passes for it) catches quickly. Perhaps my biggest problem is with the way the music – which takes an even bigger backseat than Arashi singing to Sho’s rapping – gets quickly annoying with its stereotypes and its abrupt ending. But considering I find it grating, perhaps it’s all the better that it ends so quickly. Less time before the next song.

16/ La tormenta 2004: Would it be extremely demeaning to the rest of the album to say, at this point, that I sat through the entire album waiting for this one song alone? Not to say that the album wasn’t worth listening to – in fact, unlike most, it rarely got tiring – but this was the sole song that I knew rather well before listening to this album, and it’s become one of the highlights of being an Arashi fan for many fans. Sure, KAT-TUN and NEWS now have introduction raps, but Arashi started it. Or so I think. I can’t quite proudly say that – not as proudly as I can say I have limited KAT-TUN knowledge, at least.

Arashi was rapping before COOL & SOUL – this song is your proof. It’s also genius in the way it jumps from musical variations while remaining seamless. The opening starts with a guitar-backed dance beat, which also seems to serve as the theme for when Sho introduces Jun. Then it abruptly slows down to a bare-boned repeated chord as Jun introduces Aiba, and just as quickly switches into hardcore drums and bursts of guitar for Aiba’s introduction of Nino. Next is a quick beat and playful Latin piano for Nino’s turn with Ohno, afterwards a disco/dance (riddled with that tropical-ish synth melody that seems prevalent in any island-set sidescrolling video game) theme for Ohno introducing Sho, and lastly we jump back into the opening sung part once more. While Arashi is undeniably not a band of rappers, the variety in tones help keep this fun and never tiring. Perhaps the day when I’ll stop regretting that this song ends will never come.

So, album’s done. After having put it off for so long, where does that leave me? Well, on one hand, I’m thinking perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing to go backwards in their discography if Arashi’s best-of albums leave me as excited about release periods as this one did. On the other hand, I’m already trying to figure out which songs might pop up in the next best-of release (because it’s about time), and finding it really hard to not be biased about the solo tracks. But my final decision on that will probably be made when Dream “A”live drops. (Hey, J-Storm. Want to send me a free copy of the limited version to review? Hint, hint.)

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