Kumi Koda

Best: Third Universe & 8th AL Universe [2CD/DVD]

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Kumi Koda has enough hits on her hands to fuel a whole series of greatest-hits compilations. Proving this, Best: Third Universe is actually a companion pair of albums. Best: Third contains the various Oricon chart hits (and a few others) released since her last compilation -- Best: Second. The songs are well-produced, well-performed, perfectly in the realm of Koda's forte. She can slink, she can croon, she can run a massive dance tune with a heavy beat, and all are shown off on Best: Third. More interesting of the pair, though, is the Universe disc. Here, she largely works over live instrumentation (eschewing for the most part the electronic sampling that takes up so much of Japanese pop), stepping away from the edges a bit. The set opens with a massive, thumping dance track in "Step into the World," a bit repetitive but an intriguing and forceful way to start out the disc. "Can We Go Back" stays in the rock arena, but introduces a core melody that could have belonged to a Maroon 5 song just as easily as to Koda. Interestingly, the song is almost entirely in English, a trend that she sticks to for much of the album. Some acoustic pop mixes up the sound in "You're so Beautiful," and a bit of slightly off-tempo pop in "Lick Me" brings Koda back to more standard territory. The album stays in that middle territory of standardized J-pop for the span of a few songs, finally picking up again only with the electro-thump of "Physical Thing," a sultry piece of sticky beat-mongering. "Ecstasy" and "Universe" both share some ideation with Lady Gaga's concepts, mixing sultriness with oddity and playing with the instrumentation and voicings along the way. After a brief chunk of misplaced rock in tandem with Misono, the album ends on a couple of light ballads, softly carrying the listener out. Universe provides a lot of things in its relatively long course, from rock to ballads to electro-funk dance tracks. It's those elements of surprise interest that Koda produces so well that make the album compelling -- the perfect elements of acoustic pop and electronica that aren't overproduced. Definitely worth a few spins.