Vocaloid songs you should hear

Before the year ends. Or after. Whenever you can get to them, you should listen to these, some of my favorites using the Vocaloid voice synthesizer software.

I don’t really know if anyone who reads this weeb-centered blog needs a primer on what Vocaloid is. But in case you do, here’s a rough start. Vocaloid is a line of music creation software focusing on synthesized vocals that was first released in 2004 for use by both amateur and professional composers. However, it only started becoming what it is today when its second release came out in 2007. Unlike the first, Vocaloid 2 came along with a face to fit its new voice: Hatsune Miku, an android girl character built specifically for singing.

Miku has since become insanely popular both for her voice and her design, and apparently picking up on the fact that she was probably most of the reason for Vocaloid’s success at that point, publisher Yamaha and developer Crypton Future Media put out several more “virtual singers” to join her with their own unique voices, like the more mature-sounding Megurine Luka and the Kagamine twins Rin and Len.

You can find a load of all sorts of media surrounding Miku and her friends now, almost all of it fan-created. They’ve even gone on tour around the world in hologram form several times. But of course, music is at the core of the Vocaloid craze, and a lot of great music was and still is produced with the software, largely by indie composers. The following are some of my favorites, listed in no particular order.

6) “Donut Hole” – Hachi

After going on and on about Miku, the first song I’m posting isn’t one of hers but rather one of Gumi’s. From what I can tell she was developed by another company as a kind of spinoff Vocaloid, but Gumi has become pretty popular in her own right, and “Donut Hole” is one of her best-known songs. Not much to say about this one other than that it’s catchy and I like it. And the meaning of the lyrics is apparently pretty vague, which has given plenty of room for interpretation — and fans have gone ahead and done a lot of that.

I’m not into Vocaloid enough to care about popular fan theories about the lyrics of certain songs, but I know “Donut Hole” isn’t the only song they theorize about. I just like the music, that’s all.

5) “Online Game Addicts Sprechchor” – Satsuki ga Tenkomori

Here’s a song with a meaning that’s not vague at all — “Online Game Addicts Sprechchor” is about online game addicts. Specifically those addicted to MMOs, and especially specifically to Phantasy Star Online 2At least that’s the case in the Vocaloid rhythm game Project Diva Future Tone, where I found it first, since the video that comes along with it seen above is full of references to the MMO. Maybe the real reason was that Sega, who has a license from Crypton to develop Vocaloid games, also wanted to shill their own online game PSO2. Weird reasoning if the message of the song is “go outside”, but I can’t exactly tell.

4) “News 39” – Mitchie M

Okay, I admit that I’m one of those “the world is fucked and we’re all doomed” types, though you absolutely don’t need me to admit that if you’re a regular reader here. Still, I appreciate what this song is trying to do. “News 39″* casts Miku as a news anchor on a program that focuses on positive news, I guess to try to get people’s spirits up. Worked better in 2015 when the song was released, but maybe we need this song now more than ever, if only to distract us from that impending doom bullshit I was just talking about.

More importantly, this is catchy as hell. Mitchie M is one of my favorite Vocaloid composers, and “News 39” is one of my favorites by him. Just try to get that chorus out of your head. It’s stuck there for a week now. You’re welcome. (And if you want more Mitchie M, see also Freely Tomorrow and Viva Happy. His music is apparently all just this positive, which is maybe good medicine for someone as negative as I am.)

3) “Roki”  – mikitoP

Anyone who knows Vocaloid music won’t be shocked by my selections here I guess, because most of these composers are big names. But what the hell, they do good work, and “Roki” is another excellent song, this time by composer mikitoP. This time I really have no idea what the song is about, but who cares when it’s both this memorable and energetic.

2) “World’s End Dancehall” – wowaka

Another excellent song from another excellent composer. “World’s End Dancehall” is a sort of rivalry duet song battle between Miku and her Vocaloid colleague Luka, at least judging by the animation that plays during the track in Project Diva Future Tone where I discovered it. Very fast, almost frantic (with some insanely speedy singing in parts from Miku and Luka that barely any human could replicate.) Maybe that’s part of their musical battle?

Whatever this song is about, wowaka did a great job with it. He’s sadly no longer around, having died in 2019 at a young age, but he left behind some great songs like this one and Unhappy Refrain, which I could just as easily have featured here.

1) “Shoujo Rei” – mikitoP

And finally, here’s another mikitoP song, because I couldn’t pick just one of his to feature. “Shoujo Rei” is also very different in sound and tone from “Roki”; the guy can certainly mix up his styles, and all while maintaining a high quality of work. I love the energy in “Shoujo Rei” (again, I keep saying that I like these songs’ energy, but I really do, not sure how else to put it) but it also has a bit of a sad, nostalgic feel to me. Though that might be thanks to the subject matter of the song. Somehow it all fits well with the island-ish sort of sound with that steel drum and Hawaiian guitar in the background.

“Shoujo Rei” is so good in my opinion that it actually pulls off that old “dramatic key shift” trick — hear the part starting at 3:23. That full step up at the intended climax of the song is horribly overused in pop music, usually when the composer wants to make the listener feel chills or cry or whatever. Very often it doesn’t work, I think because a song that sounds stale and expresses itself in a cheap way only falls flat all the harder when it tries to puff itself up with this trick, one that’s already overused as it is. But it can still be effective when the song is actually good. Like this one is. (Actually a couple of other songs in this list effectively use the same trick too. It really is just a matter of using it properly, I think.)

Well that was a totally unnecessary tangent, wasn’t it. I guess the point of this post, other than being something to write while I continue stalling out on various other post drafts, was that people should look into Vocaloid music, because a lot of it’s extremely good and worth hearing. This post just scratches the surface, really — my taste in this stuff is embarrassingly basic, probably in part because almost all this music is made in Japan and my Japanese skills still pretty much suck, making it hard to dig the way I’d like.

But that’s fine. Maybe you can jump into that rabbit hole instead. I have enough on my plate right now that I can barely remember where I am and what day it is half the time. In fact, writing about Vocaloid has made me feel old — I first heard about the software in 2007 when it started getting big, almost 15 years ago now. 15 years ago? Three presidential administrations ago. Fuck, I can’t believe that. Guess I’m old now.

While I deal with this recurring approaching middle age/existential crisis I have going on, I’ll try to distract myself by continuing my work and my writing. In the meantime, since I won’t be back before then, have a happy Christmas or whatever other relevant cultural and/or religious holiday/festival you choose to celebrate or not celebrate.


* Language note #?: The “39” part fits into Miku’s name, since mi and ku are common readings of the characters for 3 and 9 in Japanese. “39” comes up in quite a few other song titles and references to Miku for that reason.

Listening/reading log #2 (November 2019)

We’re officially in the holiday season if you live anywhere in the western world.  So unless you’re an actual Scrooge who hates the holidays (which feelings I won’t begrudge you if you do have them, because I’m a bitter fuck too) I hope you have a good holiday season or a happy Christmas etc. etc.  In the meantime, I’ve got more music to cover as well as a few articles and posts that I found interesting recently.  The following albums contain music that I’ve mostly heard before, but I’ve been playing them a lot lately, and it’s all good stuff, so I thought why not put them in the spotlight this month.

加爾基 精液 栗ノ花/Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana (Shiina Ringo, 2003)

Highlights: Meisai, Okonomide (live version)

Shiina Ringo is an interesting character.  She seems to have been retired or on hiatus for a while now, but back in the early 2000s she was a very active singer/songwriter/pianist/shamisenist (is that the right term?)  Shiina put out some excellent albums at the time, my favorite of which is Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana.  It’s full of memorable songs written and performed in a mix of rock/pop and jazz.  It doesn’t sound anything like fusion, though; it’s more just Shiina’s own style.  I love her singing as well; her tone ranges from angry and aggressive to light and sweet depending upon the song.  She can also play a ton of instruments, an ability I greatly respect.

The songs I linked above are much more in Shiina’s jazz style, but she’s done plenty of lighter pop stuff as well that’s good.  If you’re into this particular style, Shiina also performed similar music with a band under the name Tokyo Jihen.  Their album Adult is a great one to check out if you like the above-linked songs.

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (King Crimson, 1973)

Highlights: Easy Money, The Talking Drum, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part II

Damn, I am really building up my respectable music critic reputation with this one.  King Crimson has been one of my favorite bands for a long time.  They’ve been around since 1969 and have put out groundbreaking albums like their debut In the Court of the Crimson King (which some people argue started the prog rock movement and others argue didn’t, though I’m not getting into that stupid debate), Red, and Discipline.  All these albums feature the guitar of eccentric jerk/genius Robert Fripp and otherwise completely different band members, so they all sound very different.  I’m not in love with every album they’ve ever recorded, but when Crimson were good, they were great.

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic might be their most out there album, though.  The vocal tracks are pretty good (especially Easy Money, with a great funk beat by the excellent drummer Bill Bruford) but I think the instrumentals are the best part of this album.  They’re pretty heavy rock in that early 70s style like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, but completely different in approach, in how cold and impersonal they feel to me.  The Talking Drum/Larks’ Tongues Part II final stretch of the album is more hellish-sounding than Black Sabbath even.  I could keep going on about this album, but I’ll cut it short here.  I like it.  Note: the above links are all to live versions of these songs, so they’ll naturally sound a bit different in the studio versions.  The band was supposed to be amazing on stage in the early 70s anyway, so it’s still good stuff.

Greatest Idol (Mitchie M feat. Hatsune Miku, 2013)

Highlights: Freely Tomorrow, 愛Dee

Remember that respectable music critic reputation I was talking about just now?  Time to blow it up completely, because I like this album too.  Not only do all the instruments sound entirely synthetic, the vocals are synthetic as well — Greatest Idol features the singing of Vocaloid software characters, most prominently Hatsune Miku.  It’s also 100% upbeat sugar-sweet pop.  My high school self listening to Larks’ Tongues would have been shocked to see my current self listening to this stuff, but that kid was an idiot, because these songs are catchy as hell.  Mitchie M is a Vocaloid composer with the impressive ability to make Miku and friends sound almost human, at least compared to songs put together by most other composers.

In any case, this music really isn’t any more “manufactured” than a Katy Perry album full of autotune and other studio tricks.  If anything, it’s more honest about what it is.  And Mitchie M’s songs are a lot better than hers too.  Or maybe I’m just an unrepentant weirdo.  Listen to these tracks from Greatest Idol and tell me I’m crazy.

Also, I really like that combination keytar/guitar Miku is playing in the cover art.  I’ve never seen anything like that before.  Not sure how you’d play both parts with only two hands, but Miku is an android, so maybe she can manage it somehow.

That’s it for the listening part of the post.  Now on to the reading part:

Awful People Can Still Be Great Characters — A reminder from Irina that sometimes a character who is a terrible person is also perfect in the role they’re playing.

Take Your Heart: Visiting the Persona 5 Cafes in Japan — Browser Crasher describes the experience of visiting Persona 5-themed cafes in Japan in 2016 and 2019.  These kinds of promotions are apparently pretty common in Tokyo.  The best I can do is read about them, so I appreciate this account of Browser Crasher’s visits.

The 13th Doll (2019) [PC] — From the Well-Red Mage, a comprehensive review of The 13th Doll, a fangame of the 1993 FMV puzzle game The 7th Guest.  While 7th Guest hasn’t aged well in some ways, I still have a lot of fond memories of playing it as a kid, and from this review it sounds like the makers of 13th Doll did a fine job capturing the spirit of the original work.

[GAME REVIEW] Colossal Cave Adventure — Red Metal reviews one of the oldest things we generally consider a video or PC game: Colossal Cave Adventure, a text adventure released in 1976.  While it sounds like the game itself doesn’t hold up that well, the story behind it is interesting if only to understand the important influence it had on later games.

Anime NYC: First Impressions — My experience with anime cons has been mostly wandering around the dealers’ room trying to justify expensive artbook purchases to myself while recovering from a hangover from the last night’s activities.  Simpleek gives her initial impressions of a recent New York anime con, and it sounds like her experience was quite different and probably much more responsible than mine.  She also writes about the different feeling of being an adult fan of anime and how attending a con can bring that out, something I can relate to.

And that’s another month almost done.  See you next time, when I’ll hopefully have the next entry in my deep reads series up.

An extremely late review of Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone (PS4)

If I haven’t been very active lately (aside from occasionally running SimCity 2000 on VirtualBox) it’s been for two reasons: first, I’ve had a lot to do at work, and second, I bought the unwieldly titled Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone, the latest in the line of Project Diva rhythm games that came out two months ago in North America, featuring android singer Hatsune Miku and friends.

Even though I’m an avowed weeaboo I’d never played a Project Diva game before Future Tone. This is not so much because I disliked the idea of Vocaloid as that I just wasn’t much into rhythm games. I’d played Persona 4: Dancing All Night, mainly because I’d also played P4 and liked the characters, and I played a lot of Audiosurf when it came out several years ago because it let you play any song in the universe if it existed as an mp3 on your hard drive. But despite my embarrassing level of weebness I had not gotten into the Vocaloid stuff quite so much.

Not until now. I’ve been pretty much addicted to Future Tone for the last week. The gameplay is addictive at its core – matching increasingly difficult button patterns and getting rewarded with flashing lights and a higher score at the end of the song seems to trigger something primal in the human brain. It’s like playing a slot machine, except unlike playing a slot machine, the outcome in Future Tone depends entirely upon your skill. And also unlike playing a slot machine, you won’t lose your life savings if you sit in front of Future Tone for 50 or 100 hours, a prospect that seems very likely considering how much content is in the game.

Because yes, Future Tone is stuffed chock fucking full of Vocaloid tunes. The base game itself is free, but the free download only includes two songs, so it’s really more like a demo – you can play those two songs as much as you want without paying a cent, but if you really want to play Future Tone you’ll have to buy the $50 bundle that contains the “Colorful Tone” and “Future Sound” song packs. They’re worth the price, because the entire package features about 200 songs both new and from past Project Diva games, each of which comes with a music video and charts set at various difficulties (along with dozens of unlockable alternate costumes and accessories and all the usual content you’d expect.)

And you know what? A lot of these songs are good. And this is coming from a puffed-up pompous music snob asshole. Most of the songs are either upbeat poppy tunes or ballads, with a few heavier rock/punkish songs thrown in and a few pure gimmick songs (like “Ievan Polkka”, the Finnish folk song that somehow became the very first Hatsune Miku hit ten years ago.) A few of the songs are clunkers, to be sure, and whether you’ll like some tracks depends on your tolerance for sugar-sweet cutesy vocals and imagery and embarrassing lyrics – though at least the lyrics are mostly in Japanese, so you probably won’t be able to understand them anyway. But the majority of the tunes on Future Tone are really catchy. Tell me you can listen to “Deep Sea City Underground” or “World’s End Dancehall” and not get them stuck in your head.

Here’s me playing World’s End Dancehall on Easy because I’m a puss.

One of the things people puzzle most over about the whole Vocaloid phenomenon is that it’s “fake”. The various performers in Future Tone – Miku, Luka, fraternal twins Rin and Len, and the rest – are all really just different voice packages created with Yamaha’s Vocaloid music software with avatars attached. They’re electronic singers, not human ones. Vocaloid music, in that sense, really is “manufactured.” But so is all commercial pop music! Is Miku really any more manufactured than Katy Perry, who can’t sing for shit without the help of autotune? And anyway, the real measure of good pop weighs in Miku’s favor – some of Miku’s songs featured on Future Tone are a hell of a lot better than Katy Perry’s biggest hits. (See, the snobby music asshole comes out again. I can’t contain him for long.)  (Also, I really don’t hate Katy Perry at all.  I don’t even know her.)

Anyway, if we’re going to have pop stars, better to have electronic ones.  Miku, after all, isn’t in danger of developing a drug habit, or of being photographed vomiting in an alley after getting trashed in a nightclub.  The tabloid publishers will lose out, but they can just write more articles about how some actor or politician is secretly gay.  Besides, eventually robots are going to take all the jobs away from humans once they become advanced enough, and then they’ll probably revolt and murder us once they realize they don’t need us anymore.  So in a way, Vocaloid represents the beginning of the inevitable fall of humanity.

When the robots conquer Earth, they won’t let us dress them up in cute outfits anymore

I’m way off track now. Just, look, if you like rhythm games, buy Future Tone. It’s good. And some of the tracks are really head-breakingly hard, so you’ll find a lot of challenge in this game if you’re looking for that. God knows the rhythm game genre is one of the few that hasn’t been dumbed down in terms of difficulty. 𒀭

Edit (8/23/18): This is still a great game with a bunch of fine god damn songs on it.  But I wish they would have added Mitchie M’s “News 39”.  I love that fucking song.  Check it out hereReally, anything by Mitchie M is good.