Onitsuka Chihiro: Singles, 2000-2003

Japanese pop releases follow a pretty predictable schedule — three or four singles, then an album. Back in 2003, Onitsuka Chihiro looked like she was following that path, with four single releases after her hastily recorded third album, Sugar High.

Not being a total fan, I was waiting for the album that would collect those four singles. It never came.

Onitsuka ended her contract with her management company, MelodyStar, and in 2004 signed with Sony Music Artists. On the day of releasing her debut single for A&M Records, she announced she was taking a break from the music business. She has since been dropped by Sony Music Artists.

Toshiba-EMI, however, still sees value in Onitsuka’s catalog, and the label released The Ultimate Collection in 2004. The compilation mixed hit singles with some album tracks, but it didn’t include all of those last few “album-less” singles. I decided not to get it.

In 2005, Toshiba-EMI released another collection, Singles, 2000-2003, finally addressing the missing material from The Ultimate Collection. (Now a collection of b-sides would be nice, and I don’t doubt that it may show up one day.)

If there’s one thing that annoyed me about Onitsuka’s albums was her habit of creating slower, sparser “album versions” of perfectly serviceable single tracks.

The album version of “Shine” wasn’t terribly striking, but the more kinetic single version is a lot more interesting, in spite (or because) of the dated arrangement. “Little Beat Rifle” sounds far better with a backbeat than without one.

The rest of the singles show up as they did in their original form, and while listeners can draw an obvious line from Carole King to Onitsuka Chihiro, there’s still something special about Onitsuka’s resonant, fragile voice.

A song like “Infection” traffics in some tired musical gestures, but when Onitsuka reaches the string-laddened climax of the song, it’s still chilling.

The rarer material adds some nice value to the collection. The “summer edit” of “We Can Go” brings out its more inspirational sound, while the fully orchestral “Castle Imitation” is a direction Onitsuka could have explored more deeply.

Onitsuka Chihiro may not have been the most daring songwriter to come out of Japan’s pop machinery, but her hearfelt performances elevated the music she created. Singles, 2000-2003 does a fine job of being comprehensive.