Ayumi Hamasaki

Next Level

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Holding her place at the top of the Japanese charts, Ayumi Hamasaki's 2009 album takes an interesting line from her previous releases. While she's always been on the forefront of new developments in the pop world, her music has stayed largely based on standard dance and pop tracks over the years, with a large exception being a series of remix albums endorsed after her major studio releases. With the interest taken in those remixes and their heavier electronica bent, Hamasaki went a bit deeper on Next Level, combining with songwriter Yuta Nakano and club DJ CMJK (formerly of Denki Groove) for a thick, somewhat wild release of dance tracks infused with a healthy dose of technology. The album opens innocently enough, introducing bits of electronics as accentuation around the strong focus of her vocals. As it progresses, the beats and rhythm tracks begin to take over, placing Hamasaki herself into a much deeper, thicker set of sounds custom-built to emphasize her stronger points and combine for an outstanding dance set. Hamasaki continues to evolve her sound, and the deeper experimentalism on Next Level only helps to cement her claim to the top. As an added bonus, multiple parallel versions of the release include music video DVDs, concert footage DVDs, and a live concert recording CD.

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