2017 marks an important anniversary – it is the 20th anniversary of the formation of Morning Musume. While the group has had many iterations, 13 generations of members, name changes and both waxing and waning popularity over the years, 20 years is a major achievement for a group. This is especially notable given Morning Musume’s recent resurgence in popularity – while Morning Musume has been around for almost 20 years, I can’t see it going away any time soon.
To commemorate this I’ve decided to review all of the main Morning Musume albums through 2017, First Time through 14 Shou ~The Message~ or any Morning Musume album that comes out this year. I won’t be covering the two best of albums nor the updated album. The main goal will be to see just how Morning Musume has evolved over these 20 years.
Released in July 1998, First Time is about as far from the current Morning Musume as you can get. With an emphasis on real instruments and heavy uses of harmonies, First Time sounds much more like an album of a band or an artist rather than an idol group.
1. Good Morning
I don’t understand why this song isn’t performed more as an anthem for Morning Musume, it feels energetic and still pretty fresh today – a pretty amazing feat, considering that this is not quite 19 years old. I think a lot of that has to do with the pace of the song – it’s not hyperactive like some of Morning Musume’s later songs but not a ballad. I think it also has a great arrangement – not much about it feels cheesy or outdated (there’s occasionally a few audio effects that are very 90s, but that’s about it). The acoustic piano sounds wonderful and does a great job in setting the tone. While there are some good harmonies here, they’re more subtle than some of the songs later in the album. Good Morning is a great start to the album – upbeat and cheerful while also having a great arrangement and a classic sound. 8/10
2. Summer Night Town
Summer Night Town is Morning Musume’s second debut single, and an interesting one in that the harmony and melody seem almost completely connected. The harmony is needed to make the melody sound even remotely interesting in some places – for example, the line that ends the chorus is “daikirai daikirai daikirai daisuki.” However, the interest is in the harmony (that goes higher with every repeat) whereas the melody stays on the bottom line, repeating the same three notes for each word. Just the melody line alone is pretty uninteresting, but the harmonies add a lot of interest.
The other thing I find interesting about Summer Night Town (and other songs on this album) are just how much they’re geared towards being performed by a group. Attempting to sing this solo doesn’t sound anywhere near as compelling. The harmonies are too significant, there’s a back and forth during the verses. It’s a group song through and through.
That all being said, Summer Night Town is still a great song. It’s a bit dated – it feels straight out of its era. That’s not a bad thing, though, and stands up as being a great song from 90s idol music. I love the harmonies throughout and how much they matter – all of that is a good thing. The members all do a great job vocally, too – it’s a shame that Fukuda Asuka left the group so early because she’s very talented. Abe Natsumi makes total sense as the front member of the group, and I’m very partial to Ishiguro Aya’s voice and she does very well with what she’s given here. The entire group sounds great, and share a strong level of vocal talent. It’s mostly the arrangement that sounds a little dated, but it works and I especially like how much percussion there is at times.
Summer Night Town is a song that would only really work with this group of members at this point in time, and it’s a great song. 9/10.
3. Dou ni ka Shite Douyoubi
I absolutely don’t know why I don’t listen to this song more because, if you know me, this song is way up my alley. It’s a upbeat disco track in the vein of Dschinghis Khan and is so retro in its stylings. The intro horns are probably my favorite part of the song, but the rest of the arrangement is great, including the strong bass line, the strings and the clapping. The strong brass sound works the best.
The only thing I can say negatively about this song is that it’s a little repetitive and pretty simple in structure – the verses are the same melody repeated twice, so there’s basically two repeats per verse, then the chorus, and then there’s an instrumental bridge. It’s comparatively fairly simple. However, the pieces that are there are so compelling that this doesn’t matter much. Dou ni ka Shite Douyoubi is a great song, and if you like the recent disco revival in idol music you should like this. 9/10
4. Morning Coffee
Much like what I mentioned with my writing about Summer Night Town, Morning Coffee is very much a song that can only be done with a group – it’s full of harmonies and overlapping vocals. While I’d say that Morning Coffee could be done solo more easily than Summer Night Town it would lose much of the flavor,
However, Morning Coffee is a much more easygoing song, much more in the vein of Good Morning but even then more mellow. While it might be easy to say this since it’s Morning Musume’s first major debut single, Morning Coffee has a really classic feel to it. While it has an old-fashioned sound, it doesn’t feel overly 90s or tied to its time period. I wasn’t listening to Morning Musume when Morning Coffee came out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was seen as being a bit old school when it came out.
That said, I really like it – it’s a song I’ve listened to a thousand times since getting into idol music. I love how acoustic the instrumentation is, how mellow it is. It’s perhaps not as exciting or ambitious as Summer Night Town, but it’s a very solid first single and it works. 8/10
5. Yume no Naka
Speaking of feeling dated, this is pretty retro sounding – like more of a 70s/80s classic idol ballad. This is the type of song that gets more interesting the more you pay attention to it. While it’s not necessarily my type of song, there are so many layers to the sound which make it a really rich sound. The back and forth harmonization of the vocals works really well, and so the vocal line is just lovely.
The instrumentation is beautiful as well – the strings sound old fashioned and romantic, the horns work really well too. Everything meshes well together – there’s never a part where the instrumentation sounds empty, nor does it ever sound too busy. There are a lot of things at play but it never feels overdone. It all works really well.
I’m not a big ballad person so Yume no Naka isn’t really a song that I’d gravitate to normally. But all the elements of this song work really well and the product is just lovely. 9/10
6. Ai no Tane
Ai no Tane is Morning Musume’s only indie single, the single they had to sell 50,000 copies of in five days before being a group. It’s bright, upbeat and a very peppy song – not a bad song to start a group out with. I find it kind of interesting, though – most of the songs on First Time so far have had a lot of focus on singing as a group and harmonies, whereas Ai no Tane is almost more similar to current Morning Musume songs – the verses are mostly solo lines and the chorus is mostly sung in unison.
Ai no Tane isn’t a bad song, far from it. It’s a really solid pop song with a great melody, solid production. However it’s a lot less ambitious than the other songs on this album. It’s a very good song, but not particularly interesting. 7/10
The two things that stick out to me about Wagamama more than anything else are how mature the vocals are and how much this sounds like an indie pop song rather than a major pop group. The vocals in this sound great, deeper than what I’m used to with Morning Musume. The instrumentation is very drum and electric heavy, which contributes to it sounding very indie rock. In fact, some of the electric guitar really reminds me of Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space album, which is a good thing for me.
Wagamama is more laid-back than a lot of the songs on this album and it’s not immediately my favorite. However, I love the guitar and vocals and the song works well. It’s not a song I come back to very often, but when I do I always enjoy it. 7/10
8. Mirai no Tobira
This is probably the album song off of First Time I listen to the most, and for good reason – it’s just a great song. It’s also one of the most upbeat, fun songs off the album – this is probably the closest to current Morning Musume we get on this album.
One thing I really love about Mirai no Tobira is the contrast between the verses and the chorus. The entire song is upbeat, but the verse has a laid back feel that transitions to a very different chorus perfectly. The lyrics are also performed in a silly, kind of laid back way – this isn’t beautiful in the way that Yume no Naka is beautiful, but this is fun and silly.
While this doesn’t have the elements that I’ve been praising First Time for as a whole (harmonies, lush instrumentation) it’s still probably my favorite track off this album. It’s just pure fun, happy disco music and I love that. 9/10
9. Usotsuki Anta
Now it’s back to more of the standard upbeat, heavy harmony songs, but I love this one too. The electric guitar in the instrumentation works really well, and the harmonies work really well. The phrasing of the solo lines is also pretty great – the melody and lyrics work well together in a way that is not something I hear a lot in idol music.
Really, Usotsuki Anta is in many ways more of the same with this album. That being said, it is its own song, and there’s nothing wrong with having more of the same when the same is this good. Usotsuki Anta is great. 8/10
10. Samishii Hi
I haven’t focused a whole lot on the composition of the album so far, but Samishii Hi seems like a bit of an odd choice for the last song on the album. Samishii Hi is one of the slowest songs on the album, a ballad with the backing being primarily an acoustic piano. Ballads can work as the last song on an album – Momoiro Clover Z’s album 5th Dimension ends with the fabulous Hai to Diamond and that’s a pretty perfect ending. That said, Samishii Hi is a weird place to leave off on. This is a song I’d most likely put in the middle of the album, after something particularly upbeat (Mirai no Tobira?) and end the album with something more upbeat and on a happier note (Ai no Tane maybe?).
Samishii Hi is a pretty good song – it’s a pretty standard ballad with a pretty melody, the acoustic piano works well, and I like the background vocals a lot. There’s a lot to like about Samishii Hi, and I think having a song this slow works well. However, I think this is a really odd place to leave the album, especially when it doesn’t feel representative of the album of a whole. 7/10
Overall: My scoring of songs is pretty arbitrary and mostly serves to be a guidepost to show how much I prefer certain songs to others. However, the ratings are all pretty high here because First Time is a flat out great album. All of the songs are well-written and well-arranged, using lots of varied, real instruments. Everything about this album works pretty well. Not all the songs are perfect, and I’d rearrange the album some if I was given a say. But the emphasis on harmonies, quality vocals, and quality arrangements makes First Time a treat. It’s wildly different from the Morning Musume of today, but that’s part of what makes First Time so fun. It’s the type of album I’d share with non-idol fans, I think it’s that well made and produced. I only wish Morning Musume of today could pull of this kind of music! 9/10