Japanese music buyer’s guide – an introduction to sounds from the far east

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A Getintothis buyer’s guide to Japanese music

It’s the perfect time to discover something new, so Getintothis’ Matty Lear introduces us to the wonderful world of Japanese sounds.

It’s a lot to experience, and some more to get used to.

The surprising obedience to rules. The alarming smallness of loaves. The shoes off, slippers on. The chopstick etiquette. Sleeping on futons. The language, the bowing. The musical toilets and the strictly-stationary eating habits.

And then there’s the sights too. The travel, the temples, the shrines, the bullet trains. The glorious views of snowy mountains, or rice fields, or the sting of Shinjuku’s neon lights. Wherever, whatever, there’s a lot to take in.

So understandably, with eyes on the Land of the Rising Sun ahead of this summer’s – now next year’s – Tokyo Olympics, this has all being increasingly documented and devoured as of lately. 

Documentaries such as James May: Our Man in Japan and Japan with Sue Perkins lead the way in the UK, along with the success of the BBC’s recent thriller Giri/Haji fostering an even greater interest in the nation.

But there seems to be a slightly limited scope; a distinct focus only on the eccentric aspects of Japan and its culture. Either that, or a purely Tokyo-centric focus. And whilst both are incredibly interesting, often cultural commonalities are neglected.

Where I live, pinched rurally between the sea and mountains, it can feel worlds away. Not only from home, but from the Japan shown on British television.

Say Japan, and up pops the robots, the skyscrapers maybe, the flashy face of technology and the untiring salaryman sauntering home in Tokyo’s early hours. Or perhaps the ancient places of worship, old gardens or kimonos.

But there is a middle. Between the seemingly cyberpunk cities and those places steeped in tradition lives a large part of Japan.

Here, in the middle, in the music shops of the coastal countryside, CD’s still surprisingly reign supreme. Leafing through them recently, I found all sorts; discs of Japanese pop sit comfortably alongside Ant & Dec and Coldplay – and this all just really surprised me for some reason.

Seeing this wide range of mediocre 2000s music – a time, itself, neither remarkably old or new – comfortably coexist was somehow comforting. It felt really weird, seeing music presented as what it is rather than what it’s not. And too, like a small celebration of such times and such places stuck in the middle.

So in celebration of the middle, of wider representation, and wondrous transnational music: here is a slice of Japan.

With artists from each of the nation’s islands and not exclusively taking from Tokyo, I’ve linked each with a bunch of more familiar equivalents (‘For Fans Of’) , a ‘Top Track’’ from the album, and a few more similar Japanese artists – ‘Also Check Out’. 

U-zhaan & Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Energy Flo (2018), linked above, is a great introduction with its exquisite showing of ‘tabla hip-hop’. I would recommend checking out Sakamoto’s own work out too – ‘undercooled’ and ‘Amore’ in particular.

I also couldn’t help but mention Shugo Tokumaru when speaking of Japan and of home. Below, his Black XS Live Sound Take Away Show version of Linne (2010) is a tender and comforting Blogotheque-style performance reminding me of more European home comforts.  

 

But alas, the promised slice.

Covering a wide range: from 90’s dub to the ‘Shibuya-kei’ scene; from Okinawan rap to contemporary indie-math rock; from jazz to J-Pop, and even stretching to genuine Tokyo supermarket music from 1984, hopefully you’ll find something to get your teeth into.

So here it is: the list. Twenty Japanese albums, mostly new, to spark your interest. Enjoy:

 

AwichKUJAKU (2020)

FFO: Doja Cat, Iggy Azalea, Charli XCX

KUJAKU is rapper Awich’s (Akiko Urasaki) newest offering: a gorgeous mix of linguistic interlacing, global perspective and stunning pop production with features to match. 

Hailing from Japan’s southernmost main island: Okinawa, this record captures the culture, conflict and diversity of her beloved birthplace, both lyrically and stylistically.

 The prefecture of Okinawa, peppered with U.S. Army Bases and personnel, and its differing dialect from standard Japanese, really does stand out. The continual protest, difference and identity politics belonging to its inhabitants clearly becomes the centerpiece for Awich’s project to explore.

Throughout the album she weaves in and out of punchy, minimalist beats, waxing lyrical in native Okinawan, as well as Japanese and, too, in strong fits of English.

The title, meaning Peacock, and the cover, with its flurry of blue-eyed feathers, very much announces the record from the start as proud, loud and stinking of sheer audacity.  

Track Open It Up encapsulates this all. Bold, feverish and dense, this is a song and an album packed tight and bursting at the seams.

Awich succeeds in combining and confusing Okinawa with Japan, and Japan with America. The battle of language, of culture, and the perfect marrying of it all doused in flamboyance and confidence; this is impressive, affirming and poignant pop music.

TT: Open It Up

ACO: AKLO, DOGMA, JP THE WAVY

 

South Penguin: Y (2019)

FFO: Anderson .Paak, STRFKR, BJ The Chicago Kid

Probably the biggest gem on the list, ‘Y’ is an album five years in the making – a refined debut full of sharp fizz and understated funk 

Early EP’s such as alaska and house gave an inkling of what Toyko outfit South Penguin could be, with some signature scooping bass and flanger-soaked guitar lines already taking control.

The LP surpasses it all though. Searing bouts of dreamy psychedelia cut through every single track, peaking on luscious effort ‘air’. What starts off as somewhat spacious, flowers into a cacophony of superb groove. Some mega STRFKR vibes.

Just a note, too, that the ‘air’ music video from around 1:15 onwards is a piece of punch-dancing joy. Unmissable.  

TT: air

 ACO: mei ehara, Yogee New Wave, never young beach

 

BASI: 切愛(2019)

 FFO: Reijjie Snow, Loyle Carner, Sampa the Great

BASI is undoubtedly one the most exciting contemporary hip-hop artists in Japan right now. Hailing from bustling Osaka, he established his own label ‘BASIC MUSIC’ there back in 2011 and has never looked back.

Released last year, his most recent LP ‘切愛’ was met with critical acclaim and has become his most commercially successful and popular work to date. Definitely worth a listen.

He already has six full-length albums under his belt, but ‘切愛’ is my pick of the lot – current, punchy and slick – lead single ’愛のままに’ shows it all beautifully. A proper earworm of a track, neat and melodic, with a fantastic music video to match – experience it all below.

TT: 愛のままに

ACO: SUSHIBOYS, maco marets, Young Juju

 

KIRINJI: 愛をあるだけ、すべて (2018)

FFO: Hot Chip, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Metronomy

Talking of brilliant music videos, KIRINJI’s ‘時間がない, in particular, is absolutely phenomenal.

Taken from their stunning 2018 LP ‘愛をあるだけ、すべて, this tune, along with the album, is popping with bright disco keys layered over bass grooves to die and dance for. It harks back to the Japanese ‘City Pop’ of the 1980’s – a really special slice of funk-laden nostalgia.

This six-piece from Sakado, Saitama was originally formed by brothers Takaki and Yasuyuki Horigome back in 1996. Nevertheless, they seem to be on their best form in recent years. Tracks like ‘killer tune kills me’ and ‘Almond Eyes’, for example, are some of the band’s strongest, having only been released last year.

But it all comes down to this video, really. It amplifies it all. With superb choreography by Reijiro Kaneko, ‘時間がないbrings salaryman disco dad-dancing to new levels of cool.

And despite the beaming sound of it, the lyrics (translated) are deep and stirring – convincing the listener to move not only to the music, but also to life and to loved ones:

“People only last so long/

It seems like I’ve lost sight of something important/

I’m going to convey my love for you/

All my love is given to you.”

TT: 時間がない 

ACO: ORIGINAL LOVE, TENDRE, Mariya Takeuchi.

 

Ayano Kaneko: 祝祭 (2018)

FFO: PJ Harvey, Soccer Mommy, HAIM

From Yokohama in Kanagawa Prefecture, Ayano Kaneko is an outstanding indie talent, and with six albums in the past five years, she already has a wildly impressive catalogue of music to her name.

With earthy lyricism and direct, often folky arrangements, here is a musician capable of capturing hearts, all of it woven with sentiment and human feeling.

The top track here: 祝日, taken from 2018’s 祝祭, is a stunning piece of existential expression.

This is bubbling, boiling and bruised – an aching voice climbing over thin, tough chords to a moving summit wrought with grief and worry. 

But you don’t need to know the language to understand this; it is so fundamental, so essential, that accessibility is simply never a problem.

The album as a whole keeps to this principle too – track ‘ロマンス宣言’ is another special one, and echoes Red Hot Chili Peppers’ On Mercury with its more uplifting sound and pace.  

TT: 祝日

ACO: Hitsujibungaku, Satoko Shibata, Oh Shu

A Getintothis buyer’s guide to Japanese music

Mondo Grosso: Attune / Detune (2018)

FFO: Tinashe, Dua Lipa, Justine Skye

Record producer, composer and DJ – Japanese track-master Mondo Grosso (Shinichi Osawka) is the globetrotting king of collaborations.

Famous for knitting his own brand of R&B and pulsing acid jazz, and stitching it together with solid house influences, he once again succeeds on this latest album ‘Attune/Detune’.

Characterised by tight, dense production and an array collaborating international vocalists, this release is simply a great mix of eclectic incorporating pop. Each track firmly departs from the last, not in an absent disconnectedness, but rather by means of a journey – eager and pushing in purpose.

Track False Sympathy, ft. AiNA THE END (BiSH), channels this sentiment especially well. Starting sleek and seductive, the beating chorus moulds this track into a different thing entirely, encouraging it with pace and blushing reverberations.

Single ‘ラビリンス’ released in 2017 is really worth checking out too. The video for it is worth it alone – starring Hikari Mitsushima and shot in the beauteous neon of Hong Kong at night – I can’t recommend it enough, both for the sounds and the scenery.

TT: False Sympathy

ACO: Orange Pekoe, Jazztronik, Quasimode

 

Hiromitsu Agatsuma: NuTRAD (2018)

FFO: Yoshida Brothers, Zedd

Somehow this works. No idea how, or why. What should be jarring and contradictory turns out to be anything but.

This is the work of renowned Tsugaru shamisenist Hiromitsu Agatsuma, along with Vocaloid producer Yuyoyuppe (BABYMETAL, DJ’Tekina//Something), fusing shamisen with EDM in his latest project to celebrate both tradition and innovation.

New album NuTRAD unquestionably does so, and though this is certainly not one for the masses, it is special nevertheless to hear the past look forward and the present look back.

Shattering mutual exclusivity and championing cultural coexistence, this is something important. It sums up Japan in a sense, a place where the traditional and futuristic are as famous and important as each other. In what would be a perfect potential feature for the eventual Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony, this is an impeccably married musical anachronism if ever there was one.

TT: AKATSUKI

ACO: Yamato Ensemble, Kiyoshi Yoshida, Kazufumi Miyazawa

 

tricot: Bakuretsu tricot San (2014)

FFO: American Football, Foals, Covet

Technically cheating a bit here as 2014’s Bakuretsu tricot San is only an EP, but it carries all the weight and substance of something much bigger.

Anyhow, tricot are a tremendous math rock band hailing from cultural capital Kyoto. Think classic Midwest emo – American Football, if you will – only flecked with fuzz and a higher-BPM.

The group was formed in 2010 by vocalist Ikumi “Ikkyu” Nakajima, guitarist Motoko Kida and bassist Hiromi “Hirohiro” Sagane, and ‘Bakuretsu tricot San’ was their first substantial effort, instantly announcing themselves in serious style.

Opener ‘Bakuretsu Panie San’ is sprite, springy and suitably angular – a real highlight of the EP only to be upstaged by ‘Anamein’; jagged yet fluid all in one, this is intriguing and infectious, watch them live, waxing lyricless on it below.

This year’s LP ‘真っ黒’it must be mentioned, is also really phenomenal and definitely worthy of your ears.

TT: Anamein

ACO: paranoid void, JYOCHO, LITE

 

Melt-BananaFetch (2013)

FFO: Slipknot, Primus, Hella

Unusually, hardcore punk and noise rock two-piece Melt Banana have found their main success outside of Japan, with their distinctive brand of fast, dynamic grindcore capturing greater European and US attention.

Since forming in 1992 in Tokyo, they have released ten albums, the latest of which is the brilliant ‘Fetch’.

Frenzied, fast and laden with fury, this is nosebleed-inducing. Still it remains utterly fun: “like a bomb going off in a toy shop” metal magazine ‘Louder’ suitably proclaimed.

Every track here writhes with sheer noise and intensity. Gunning opener ‘Candy Gun’ sets the ineffable pace, and is a good introduction, not only for the album, but for newer listeners to find their place too.

TT: ‘Candy Gun’

ACO: Boredoms, Nissennenmondai, OOIO

 

Kyary Pamyu PamyuPamyu Pamyu Revolution (2012)

FFO: hmm

Of course, with a list like this, a bit of J-pop is essential. And though this single pick does not even scratch the surface of that whole world, it’s certainly an interesting, albeit overwhelming introduction to it.

This is J-pop of a certain ilk. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is set on her whole aesthetic: a psychedelic tribute to Japanese kawaisa culture. And the album carries this with every track seeming similarly catchy and kiddish in sound.

Tracks like CANDY CANDY and PONPONPON embody it all; playful melodies and annoyingly irresistible hooks make for a brand of emphatically Japanese pop.

In fact, the latter track was Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s first release, and was met with a ridiculous level of popularity. This debut, with its hallucinogenic Decora music video, was released on YouTube back in 2011 and became an instant viral hit, accumulating over 150 million views as of now.

This is a different, overwhelming pop. This is an acid trip dipped generously in pink.

TT: PONPONPON

ACO: Perfume. CAPSULE, m-flo

 

EGO-WRAPPIN’ AND THE GOSSIP OF JAXX: EGO-WRAPPIN’ AND THE GOSSIP OF JAXX (2009)

FFO: Saskwatch, The Delta Riggs, Too Many Zooz

Some name. Originally composed of vocalist Yoshie Nakano and guitarist Masaki Mori, this Osaka-based jazz and rock duo was formed in 1996 as EGO WRAPPIN’ but expanded temporarily after touring Europe for the first time in 2009.

Inspired by the jazz of the pre-war years, this LP mixes such with jam-rock with shades of cabaret music. Expanding to jumpy pop in places, this album is truly as chaotic as the cover suggests.

Pick of the bunch Go Action sees melodic saxophone and trumpet lines mingle wonderfully with a grooving rhythm section as well as Nakano’s powered vocals. This is one for those who love hanging around at The Bandstand at Glastonbury, gawkping, dancing, cider in hand. A remarkable funk-flecked burst.    

TT: Go Action

 CA: EGO WRAPPIN’, UA, Tokyo Incidents

 

RADWIMPS: Okazu no Gohan (2006)

FFO: Kaiser Chiefs, Jamie T, Feeder

Enormously popular in Japan, RADWIMPS blend rock subgenres superbly well in their 2006 effort ‘Okazu no Gohan’, a name which translates interestingly enough to ‘Rice Side Dish’.

Though they’re now all but a household name in Japan, this LP was the band’s break-through commercial album, and their first to be certified platinum by the Record Industry Association of Japan.

And despite being known more commonly as of late for providing the more subdued and delicate soundtrack to ‘Your Name’ – the highest grossing Japanese animated film history – this album firmly remains a fan favourite.

Song いいんですか?, specifically, is amazingly feel-good in its sound. Mixing indie and ska, as well as bouts of rap, the eventual lofting chorus is then surrounded by impressive changes in dynamic and genre. This makes for a simple and interesting track, uplifting and warming in sentiment.

 TT: いいんですか?

 ACO: ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION, amazarashi, King Gnu

 

OZROSAURUS: ROLLIN’045 (2001)

 FFO: Proof, Snoop Dog, 50 Cent

Old school J-rap. You never knew you needed it till now.

Hip-hop outfit OZROSAURUS formed in Yokohama in 1996 and, inspired by the seminal sounds blasting from the States, released ROLLIN’045 five years later.

This, their most commercially successful album, is as American as it is Japanese. More than a nod, this is bumping imitation of original old-school US hip-hop, channeling the likes of Cypress Hill and 2Pac into their own efforts.

AREA AREA and WHOOO are the true highlights of this album, both of them borrowing unapologetically from the golden age of Gansta-Rap, and doing so with serious success.

 This is driving round the city at night music. Windows down music. Speaker up, car bouncing music. This is some retro attitude and imitation in its finest Japanese form.

 TT: AREA AREA

ACO: DABO, K Dub Shine, SEEDA

 

Quruli: Team Rock (2001)

FFO: The Wombats, Moby, Arctic Monkeys

Team Rock is perhaps the most familiar sounding album on the list. Not so far from the noughties’ indie-rock in the U.S. and the U.K., it carries a strange sense of nostalgia.

Speaking to The Japan Times, Quruli’s Kishida himself said:

“Up to around when The Strokes and The Libertines came along, I think there were a lot of people here who were following the American and British scenes — rock bands, like us, and listeners, too.”

 “The music we make now is totally different, but a lot of what we did during the late ’90s and early 2000s was very in tune with contemporary Western sounds.”

He’s certainly not wrong. Superb track ‘ばらの花’, with its steady palm-muted guitar and wistful vocal melodies feels like an old friend, with only the language checking back to reality.

The shortened music video below, too, feels just so UK-ish.

Clad in thick clothes, and against a drab setting of sea and sky, this is surely West Kirby beach, North Wales, Cornwall … But no, it is Japan, only this time in a comfortably familiar form.

TT:  ばらの花 

 ACO: Sunny Day Service, cero, MASS OF THE FERMENTING DREGS

A Getintothis buyer’s guide to Japanese music

Mizuyo KomiyaLullaby (2000)

FFO: Ryuichi Sakamoto, GoGo Penguin

A mixture of traditional compositions, original works, and contemporary music by other composers, Mizuyo Komiya‘s Lullaby utilises the beautiful sounds of a 25-string sou: a modern reinvention of the traditional 13-string traditional Japanese koto.

Though this modern koto is the certainly the focal point of the album, some surreptitious keyboards from Kiyoshi Yoshida and producer Kazumasa Yoshioka provide atmospheric augmentation in spots.

 Sonically speaking, this is serenity manifest. But the tracks, whist on the surface soothing, move with the contextual emotion running beneath.

 The tinkling lines on track A Lullaby of Takeda are seemingly free, but being a popular Japanese cradlesong, one originating in Takeda, Fushimi in Kyoto, there is story and history to be carried too.

Recounting a girl forced work, and who is reminded of her family in looking at the silhouette of the mountains in the direction of her homeland, this arrangement reduces the lyrics to pure soft melody. Quite utterly captivating. 

TT: A Lullaby of Takeda

 ACO: Aiko Hasegawa, Naoyuki Onda

 

Cornelius: Fantasma (1997)

FFO: New Radicals, The Beach Boys, Elbow

Keigo Oyamada, coined stateside as the “Japanese Beck, is the man behind the massively important Cornelius. Fantasma, perhaps his most celebrated LP, is a staple of Tokyo’s once-buzzing Shibuya-kei scene in the 90’s.

 A scene born from the cool and consumerism of the time, and raised in the district of high fashion, brimming nightlife and neon youth culture – the music combined conventional 1980’s Japanese ‘city pop’ with Brian Wilson-style pop production to great effect.

Fantasma’s opener ‘Mic Check’ is fresh and spacious, blooming from silence to an end of glitchy quirks and intriguing excitement. Musically, it echoes the time – of something happening, of newness, and of dreamy dysphoria.

See also the woozy belter that is Chapter 8 “Seashore and Horizon”. Think, if you can, an extremely sunny Elliot Smith with strong of echoes of The Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends.

It’s worth checking out, too, if you get the chance, Shibuya-kei godfathers Pizzicato Five – plenty of pop here too, plenty of soul.

Single ‘The Audrey Hepburn Complex’ is good starting point: a catchy context and grounding for which the rest of the Tokyo kitsch-pop deconstructionists do follow.

TT: ‘Mic Check’

ACO: Buffalo Daughter, Cibo Matto, Rei Harakami

 

Fishmans: Neo Yankees’ Holiday (1993)

FFO: Bob Marley & The Wailers, Mungo’s Hi-Fi, Lee “Scratch” Perry

This is just really lovely, honestly. Soft Japanese dub and dream-pop done beautifully, Neo Yankees’ Holiday is a glorious triumph of band beginning to lift-off.

Despite hailing from oh-so famously built-up Tokyo City, Fishmans’ music conjures more of sweet sea and yellow sand: a summer sound if ever there was one.

いかれたBaby’ was the group’s initial breakout song, receiving a massive amount of radio-play and hugely boosting their popularity for the very first time. For good reason.

The track reflects the album as whole – bright and mellow, lively and undoubtedly smiling in expression – offbeat, this is bottled sunshine.  

TT: ‘いかれたBaby’

 ACO: bonobos, D.A.N.

 

Haruomi Hosono: Watering A Flower (1984)

FFO: Vampire Weekend, Aphex Twin, The Postal Service

An idiosyncratic collection of three ambient tracks by one of the most influential musicians in Japanese pop music history – entirely commissioned by Japanese retail company MUJI, and supposedly released solely on cassette in 1984.

If that doesn’t intrigue you then I genuinely don’t know what will.

Yeah, this is weird one. There’s plenty of discography debate about some change from the original track listing – a discussion made possible from the fact the album is not on any streaming platform whatsoever.

But essentially, it is only in-store background music made to match the minimalist aesthetics of the company, but its cult status, fantastical comment section and eerie weirdness makes this a must listen.

The opener, a fifteen minute simplistic synth repetition: Talking, was sampled only last year on Vampire Weekend’s track ‘2021’, and so despite only being made for 1980’s Japanese shopping aisles, ‘Watering A Flower’ still cuts through to the expansive modern day.

Maybe it’s the longing for such childish simplicity. Or emptiness. Maybe it’s nothing of the sorts. Maybe it’s just likable and basic and pleasant, and everyone’s just cool with that. Make up your own mind.

 TT: Talking

ACO: Mariah, Satoshi & Makoto 

 

Ryo Fukui: Scenery (1976)

FFO: Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Red Garland

Based in Sapporo, the capital of northern island Hokkaidao, Ryo Fukui was a late-blooming jazz pianist known best for his album titled Scenery.  

Deemed by some critics as “the holy grail of Japanese jazz”, it is astonishing to consider that Scenery was his very first release, six years after initially beginning to learn the piano aged twenty-two.

What has been relatively unprecedented though, is his recent spike in popularity in the West. Like Haruomi Hosono’s ‘Watering A Flower’, Fukui’s work has also gained an ilk of YouTube cult status, with samples and recommendations bleeding into popular contemporary lo-fi music.

Track ‘Scenery’ is a real relaxed passage of time, and a great advocate for this gorgeous album as a whole.

TT: Scenery

ACO: Masabumi Kikuchi, Ryo Kawasaki, Masura Imada

 

Hako Yamazaki: Tobimasu (1975)

FFO: Chet Baker, Elis Regina, Ella Fitzgerald

Hailing from Fukuoka Prefecture, Yamazaki released ‘Tobimasu’ when she was only seventeen. Still, this album is an incredible display of maturity and raw talent on her behalf, with oozing aged melancholy and wailing vocals dominating the soundscape.

Right from the very beginning this thing packs punches. Haunting opening track ‘Nostalgia/望郷’ makes way for the stunning  Wandering/さすらい – a sublime piece of slow-seared blues and jazz.

And that start. That howl. Just breathtaking. Check it out below.

TT: Wandering/さすらい

ACO: Yoshiko Sai, Haruka Nakamura, Meiko Kaji

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