The second major music-exploration phase I went through this year was discovering a multitude of different Japanese artists. It started with a desire to explore J-pop — a genre that had never really interested me in the least, which as an anime fan was always something of an anomaly. Back when I was first getting into anime and AMVs in the early to mid-2000s, J-pop was really at its zenith in the West, although even then it was still somewhat confined to specific geek subcultures, but I had never really been drawn to it. This year however, my wife got, like, really into K-pop, which I too enjoyed, and ended up fueling my drive to check out other Asian pop music, which started and ended in Japan.
Despite the fact that I had never been actively interested in J-pop, I’d had some exposure to Japanese music — primarily through anime — and even had a couple CDs from some Japanese artists, including The Pillows (thanks FLCL), and Shiina Ringo. In one of those weird cosmic coincidences, the latter entered my life many years ago while I was in college through an impulsive purchase at a Half-Price Books…her album Muzai Moratorium was sitting in the clearance section for $2.00, and I don’t know why I bought it then but I did, and proceeded to not listen to it. A year or so later, a high school friend was visiting me and showing me a bunch of music he wanted to share with me, and made mention of Shiina Ringo…and I proceeded to freak out a bit as I described how I’d purchased one of her CDs completely at random a little while before. The odds of him knowing about a relatively obscure (in America) Japanese noise pop artist that I had stumbled across in the way that I did must have been very long indeed; he gave me what he had and I eventually listened to it, and enjoyed it, but never really pursued it further.
All that said, I started my pursuit of J-pop in earnest, only to be disappointed early on — Spotify is bursting at the seams with K-pop, but J-pop is incredibly difficult to find by comparison, and many of Japan’s biggest idol groups and stars that I was aware of (Morning Musume, Utada Hikaru, Ayumi Hamasaki) are nowhere to be found on the service. Apparently this is due to Japan’s completely backwards music industry, and the way they refuse to embrace streaming and YouTube as viable distribution platforms. As a result, my progress was slow at first, as I couldn’t find the majority of what I was looking for (and I was going by RYM’s top J-pop list to help).
Eventually though, I got fed up with trying and failing to find specific artists, so I decided to use Spotify’s built-in music-finding options, and I came across a metric ton of quality music. After listening through around 100 different albums and mini-albums from all range of Japanese artists, spanning multiple genres and styles, I’ve come to realize — I love the music Japan has to offer. Here are some of my favorite things I listened to this year from our favorite Eastern nation, along with a few observations I made along the way.
(Note, many of the songs that I would normally link to with a YouTube video or whatever are not available, unfortunately, as many of the below artists are simply not known in the West. Most of this stuff is available on Spotify, so if you care enough and you have a Spotify account, you can probably find it there.)
Perfume was the first group I listened to when I started this journey, and they were probably the most like what I was expecting when I had thought of “J-pop” — high-energy dance pop, saccharine and fun and not-too-serious, and with significantly less Engrish than I had anticipated. I enjoyed all of their albums about equally — although I found it odd when I saw that ⊿ is their highest-rated release on RYM, when all five of their albums have a very similar sound/style. In fact, if I had to choose, ⊿ was probably my least favorite of the five.
No matter how I slice it though, these girls are great, and make some of Japan’s best electropop. It’s all incredibly catchy, and while if space_robot_boy’s review is to be believed, the lyrics are highly manufactured, intentionally commercialized and brainless, that’s part of what’s great about listening to music without knowing the language it’s being sung in — I can ignore the fluff and enjoy it for all its other qualities.
Capsule – Wave Runner (2015)
If K-pop has not only overshadowed J-pop, but completely shown it up in every conceivable way from an international popularity standpoint, Capsule’s Wave Runner is the answer to its maximalist tendencies; this is an album of Everest-sized electro pulses and melodic hooks, learning from Korea’s most iconic artists and injecting some Japanese-style insanity. It’s a ridiculously fun album, dancefloor-ready from the opening synth lines, meticulously produced, and relentlessly pop-minded. “Dreamin’ Boy” is probably the best cut, taking all sorts of cues from Japan’s Pacific neighbor and making the best blatantly K-pop hook produced inside or outside of Seoul. Other highlights include “Hero” and “White As Snow”, but really there’s very little about this album that doesn’t shine.
SHISHAMO is an indie-pop band that sound a lot like a female version of The Pillows — good old-fashioned guitar pop with infectious melodies and an often-irrepressible optimism that tints everything with a beautiful shade of yellow. As I went through and explored many other Japanese bands of this type, I found myself being overcome with feelings of directionless nostalgia — a wistful sentimentality whose origin I can’t quite identify. SHISHAMO’s music was especially full of this stuff, all helped by soaring vocal hooks that lift these songs into the stratosphere. SHISHAMO 3 is their best release, however nothing these girls put out was ever less than good, and most of it quite a bit better than that. They’re a sleeper Japanese band if ever I’ve heard one, and discovering their music was one of my great joys of the past 12 months.
Momoiro Clover Z – “猛烈宇宙交響曲・第七楽章「無限の愛」” (2013)
Momoiro Clover Z is, apparently, one of the biggest idol groups in Japan, and yet this is pretty simply not what I would picture a group this popular to sound like. They’re schizophrenic, over-the-top, ridiculous in every way. This song’s title, for example, translates to “Violent Space Symphony · The 7th Movement: ‘Infinite Love'”, and to their credit, it sounds every bit like I would expect a song with that title to sound. The album off of which this song comes, 5th Dimension, is equally nuts, blending hard rock riffs with orchestral arrangements, horns with a double-bass drum, frequently punctuating their music with yelps and screeches; none of these elements sound anything like traditional pop music, and yet when it’s all blended together something weirdly catchy comes out the other end. Their music is every bit as epic as they try to make it sound (and boy, do they pursue that aesthetic), and this song is probably the best representation of the kind of insanity that seems to define so much popular Japanese music. They know how to have fun, I’ll tell you that much.
If you’re going to listen to Japanese music, there are some words you should learn:
-Futari (“two people”)
And there you have it, you now know the words to every Japanese song ever.
…Okay, not really, of course, but I found it a little disarming how many times I heard vocalists singing about dreams and the world, although my Japanese knowledge pretty much ends at simple vocabulary. It did make me wonder, though, how different Japanese lyrics are compared to Western artists, especially when you hear songs by certain artists (cough cough Perfume’s “Chocolate Disco”, yes it’s as bad as you think). I can’t help but feel like for the most part, though, knowing the lyrics is secondary, at least for me. When I hear English songs, I can’t help but pay strict attention to what is being sung (when I can clearly make it out), and often this hinders my enjoyment of the music, especially if the lyrics are crummy. On the other side of the coin, good lyrics can propel good or even average songs way beyond what would be possible otherwise.
With Japanese music, I get the benefit of hearing the vocals without any of the lyrical-dissection baggage that entails. It was incredibly refreshing to me, and might explain how even after ~100 albums, I’m not sick of any of it and I want more, to the exclusion of wanting to listen to songs by English-speaking artists. I’m sure that in many cases, the lyrics are incredibly stupid — that’s a universal disability that I guarantee is not unique to Western musicians. But I have the freedom to ignore it and just focus in on the emotion that the vocals and music carry, and I have to say that, at least for now, it’s far more enjoyable this way.
Kindan no Tasuketsu – アラビアの禁断の多数決 (Arabia no kindan no tasūketsu) (2013)
Arabia was one of the most nebulous offerings I heard from Japan; more often than not light and fluffy and hazy, dipping into the well of A Sunny Day In Glasgow-esque dream pop, while occasionally meandering into more experimental or completely unexpected territory — the song “今夜はブギウギナイト” (“Boogie Woogie Night”), for example, sounds like it could be a B-side to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, while “踊れや踊れ” (“Dance and Dance”) features tribal percussion with melodramatic and pronounced vocal work from the band’s male singer…it’s a strange collection of songs, and yet the album never feels inconsistent, or like the band is out of their element. They’re chameleons, able to adapt to different sounds and styles without drama, and make some great music along the way.
Seiko Oomori – Sennou (2014)
I listened to a lot of J-pop and J-rock and J-[insert genre here], and of it all, Sennou is probably my takeaway album, the one that I would use to gauge an average person’s interest in modern Japanese music. This is, partly, because it’s probably the best album I’ve heard in a long time, but more to the point, I feel like Sennou accurately and unapologetically displays the total insanity that seems to define a lot of J-pop and J-rock. Maybe I’ve become numb or bored with American mainstream music and I’m not looking deep enough to find the weird (but still enjoyable) stuff that’s out there, but as I dove into the J-music scene I found that, more often than not, these bands were just a liiiittle crazy, often fusing disparate genres together to create something totally left-field, somehow without sacrificing hooks or melodies along the way. There’s a lot of other stuff like this on this list, but Sennou took the cake.
I’ve seen Seiko Oomori described as a kind of “anti-idol”, an artist who appropriates a lot of the J-pop idol cliches and then tears them apart to make music that is both catchy and violent and which sounds like nothing else — she’s describes the sound of her music as “Disneyland in Hell”, and that’s not far off. (To give you an idea of the kind of crazy we’re dealing with here, in that same interview I just linked, she described a Hello Kitty cake she made on a YouTube video this way: “It was delicious! I’m a good cook. It tasted like blood.”) Her approach to music on Sennou has a very punk aesthetic, even if the music itself tends to be more in the art-pop camp. But take the song “私は面白い絶対面白いたぶん” (“I Am Interesting and Definitely Funny”) as the perfect example of the kind of stuff that makes Sennou (and, indeed, lots of other J-pop like it) so great. It’s a song of failed ideas — multiple songs, actually, it would seem — all mashed together into a four-minute epic (the linked video is a shortened version). You never know where it’s going to go because it switches styles and tempos at light speed — the Space Mountain of the Disneyland in Hell. It’s breathless and wonderful and totally indicative of the way the Japanese tend to approach pop music — throw stuff at a wall, see what sticks, and then mix everything together anyway. I love it.
BiS – Brand-new Idol Society (2011)
If Seikoo Oomori’s attack on traditional pop-ism is more subversive, BiS’s is a full-frontal assault, shamelessly mixing pop punk with hard rock with auto-tune and a drum machine, sprinkling conventional J-pop next to trumpets and saxophones, creating a Frankenstein’s Monster of pop music that’s just about some of the most exhilarating music Japan has to offer for its sheer brashness. Take the first two tracks, either of which could soundtrack the most epic anime opening ever, or the Muse-esque “Paprika” as examples of BiS’s arena-rock anthems. And then you have “teen age flavor”, which is arguably the album’s best song: a loungy, laid-back track that features spoken word verses, irresistible vocal melodies on the bridge, and what sounds like a majorly edited sample from Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” (but I can’t prove that). It’s the most striking track on the album considering what it’s surrounded by, and is yet another perfect example of Japan’s willingness to create haphazard montages of styles and genres that somehow fit together to make completely unique and fulfilling art. Listening to this was a lot like what it felt like to hear Sleigh Bells for the first time — totally in-your-face, full of sonic contradictions, and hopelessly addictive.
TsuShiMaMiRe – “Obachan’s Brassier” (2010)
As I plumbed the depths of Japanese Weird, I came across a lot of odd music — but arguably no song I heard made me go “Wait, what?” quite the way this one did. TsuShiMaMiRe’s music, in general, is not that hard for a Westerner to get behind — they’re a force-of-nature Riot Grrrl punk band, and the album off of which this song comes (Sex on the Beach) could be the manifesto for the female teenage rebel in Japan. All that said, “Obachan’s Brassier” (in English, “Grandma’s Bra”) is about as disarming as anything else I heard across all of the Japanese albums I listened through — it’s a heavy, coda-riddled sound-off with a chorus that consists of lead singer Mari screaming “Niiice body obachan!” behind noise-rock riffs that fill to bursting whatever volume you happen to play this song in. Maybe it’s just the subject matter that makes this song so memorable, but few songs stuck with me the way this one did. Don’t let the Weird turn you away from this one — it’s seriously good, screamy fun. (In the above video, skip to about the 7:00 mark to hear the song in question — this was the best quality I could find. If you want to hear a pretty hilarious explanation of the song, start at around 5:40 instead).
passepied – “CHINA TOWN” (2011)
passepied were the first of the several indie-pop-type Japanese bands I discovered as I explored Japan’s offerings, and remain one of my favorites from the many I listened to. Instead of trying to choose from among their albums to talk about (listen — they’re all good), I figured I’d just highlight one of their better cuts. “CHINA TOWN” is a lovely little song — an urgent, peppy anthem, the kind of song most bands of this ilk would love to be known for. If it ever gets buried under contextless optimism, it is always pulled back by the longing tone of the chorus, an obliquely anxious melody that keeps one’s exuberance at arm’s length, all the while dragging you along its hook-heavy pop hallways. And that guitar solo near the end, landing somewhere between ’70s psychedelia and ’80s cheese, manages to glue everything together into the song a band plays to stadium crowds in foreign cities in the middle of their sets to get the crowd pumped for the second half of the show. Sadly, passepied will probably never reach those heights — but it’s good to know they have a song like this in their back pocket, in case they ever do.
Seiko Oomori – 魔法が使えないなら死にたい (Mahou ga tsukaenainara shinitai) (2013)
Seiko Oomori is absolutely one of my favorite artists I’ve discovered, Japanese or otherwise, over the past year. Sennou is a phenomenal album of anti-pop pop songs, but it’s a far cry from where Oomori started. Her first album (which roughly translates to “If I Can’t Use Magic I Want To Die”), in contrast to Sennou‘s more kitchen-sink approach, is little more than Oomori and a guitar, and occasionally a piano or drum kit.
Even so, this album never feels like anything less than the genesis of Oomori’s later uncompromising attitude. It’s a stark, naked album, difficult to listen to at the best of times, indigestible and harsh. Oomori often sounds like she’s going to tear a hole in her throat while completely destroying the strings on her guitar — it’s glorious destructionism in the form of minimalist rock and folk. Some of her absolute best work is on this album, as well — the three song stretch of “背中のジッパー” (“Back Zipper”), “最終公演” (“Final Performance”), and “I Love You” is perhaps the best 12 minutes of music she’s ever performed, and some of the most absolute heartwrenching stuff I’ve ever heard out of a girl with a guitar. These are songs that are so packed full of obvious emotion that I didn’t even need lyrics to understand them — some things just transcend language and speak to the heart in ways that defy explanation, and Oomori’s performance on those three tracks (and throughout this album) exemplifies this.
Still, it must be reiterated that this is not an easy album to digest. For all its emotion, for all its rawness and honesty and repulsive beauty, it remains something that carries all the subtlety of a punch to the face, as is Oomori’s M.O. Here, though, it’s jagged and unrefined in very pointed ways, and is just not as easy to listen to, plain and simple. When it comes down to it, it’s a lot like stepping out into sub-zero temperatures early in the morning — horrific and refreshing all at once, reminding you that you’re alive while wishing to be furthest from the thing making you feel that way as possible.
andymori – “1984” (2010)
andymori are basically the male equivalent of SHISHAMO or passepied — guitar-driven indie-pop that doesn’t exactly break any new ground but manages to be so solidly constructed that it’s really hard not to like. “1984” is andymori’s sepia-tinted, understated masterpiece, a breezy nod backwards to simpler times, and man, when frontman Souhei Oyamada’s falsetto kicks in on the chorus, it’s really hard to think of anything else you’d rather be doing than getting lost in this melancholy, nostalgic world.
Chiaki Ishikawa – 物語の最初と最後はいらない (Monogatari no Saisho to Saigo wa Iranai) (2015)
Pretty much all the female singers I came across in the Japanese music I listened to found themselves in a similar vocal range as one another — high and varying degrees of nasally. This wasn’t something that was bad, but maybe that’s just my taste — and I can easily see where plenty of people would be turned off by this. The answer, then, might just be Chiaki Ishikawa, whose voice is comparatively deeper and much more distinct than most other vocalists I heard. Her music, though, is quite different from the rest of the stuff on this list — a mix of orchestral and pop, probably best described as “classical crossover”. In fact, she sounds very much like a Japanese Kate Bush, and makes similar music. It gets into weird, artsy territory occasionally — take the second cut from this album, “Aniimouto”, which starts out with a pitched-up vocal thread that bobs and weaves before the song settles into more familiar J-pop territory, with Ishikawa’s voice grounding the rest of the song (except for when she lilts it back into the atmosphere before the choruses). This is the pattern for the entire album, and Ishikawa’s voice is like few others — both operatic and pop-minded, mediating between the two extremes by making a singular album that exists in its own world, while remaining completely accessible to ours.