The culture of Japan is known to many for its… uniqueness, but to just as many, it’s also known for its creative vibrancy and artistic fearlessness, which has turned the small country into a cultural behemoth the world over. Their music is, of course, no exception, from the Hatsune Mikus to the Merzbows, to the more “conventional” acts in-between. The musical legacy of Japan is deep, and buried underneath the obvious crossover successes, sugary J-pop world, and more disturbing oddities, there is some of the best music you can find anywhere.
1. Kinoko Teikoku (Shoegaze, Indie Rock)
Kinoko Teikoku (きのこ帝国 or “Mushroom Empire”) have grown from a small lo-fi indie rock outfit, into one of Japan’s biggest indie exports, and one of the most internationally beloved shoegaze bands working today. Their music is an emotional intense blend of classic indie rock songwriting with massive shoegaze sonics, with undercurrents of post-rock, and experimental rock. Kinoko uses lead singer, and primary songwriter, Chiaki Sato’s raspy and forlorn voice to maximum effect over layers of wailing guitars and punchy guitars, managing to ride that line between experimental, and forward thinking music and a more universal, catchy,m and bombastic songwriting style, creating the kind of music which is fulfilling on both surface glance, and deeper inspection. Kinoko Teikoku are perhaps the absolute pinnacle, or at least the easiest to love, of Japan’s shoegaze scene.
The Essential Albums: Whirlpool and Eureka
2. Cornelius (Indie Pop, Electronic, Shibuya-Kei)
Taking #10 on Rolling Stone Japan’s Best Japanese Albums of All Time, and #15 on HMV Japan’s list of “Top Japanese Pop Artists”, Cornelius is perhaps one of the most influential modern Japanese musicians. An influence which is not limited to just Japan, as Cornelius has enjoyed an incredibly fruitful, decades long relationship with Beck, and has been an incredibly sought after remixer, working for the likes of MGMT, and Blur.
During the mid 90’s, his oddball and experimental approach to production was hailed as the crowning achievement of one of Japan’s biggest indie scenes, shibuya-kei. Along with his contemporaries, he birthed an incredible mixture of electronic textures, classic 70’s samples, and Beach Boys inspired walls of noise. From those scene defining beginnings he carved out a solo career that has constantly transcended “genre”.
His music contains all the markings of “pop music”, from the catchy and sweet refrains, to the vibrant tones, but it somehow manages to still retain a strong sense of identity, with hard stereophonic panning, abstract/challenging sampling, and a deeply playful nature.
The Essential Album: Fantasma
3. Number Girl (Post-Hardcore, Indie Rock, Experimental Rock)
Number Girl have, with time, become one of the most beloved, and influential post-hardcore acts around the world. Their lead vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter Shutoku Mukai took his obsession with Pixies and Hüsker Dü (whom he often mentioned by name in his songs), and combined those harder alt-rock sounds with the kind of nostalgic post hardcore that bands like Sunny Day Real Estate were birthing in the early 90s. Number Girl flipped those somber, and melancholic emotional palettes into blistering melodic hardcore punk riffs, and a tendency towards noise and experimentation, all while becoming one of the most popular and catchy indie rock bands in Japan.
The four piece consisting of Shutoku Mukai (Guitar, Vocals), Hisako Tabuchi (Guitarist), Kentarō Nakao (Bassist), and Ahito Inazawa (Drums) made what could be argued is the best four album run in Japanese music history before their scene shattering disbandment in 2002. (And of course they make an appearance on Rolling Stone Japan’s Best 100 Japanese Albums of All Time too.)
The Essential Album: School Girl Distortion Addict (Poppier) or Sappukei (Darker/Heavier)
4. Kashiwa Daisuke (Post-Rock, Electronic, Classical)
Kashiwa Daisuke (柏大輔) at his best builds massive compositions that seamlessly blend post-rock, glitch, IDM, and modern classical into something incredibly singular. His music is dramatic, and emotionally focused, with huge cathartic string crescendos pitted against sinking electronic lows that feel guttural and aggressive. And the odd intersections that arrive from that blend are where Kashiwa thrives, creating massive songs like the 35 minute long Stella (linked above) which seem to tell intimate stories through their grand emotional gestures.
A perpetual re-inventor though, Kashiwa has tried his hand at electronic pop, classical composition, film scoring (for Makoto Shinkai’s Garden of Words), and experimental/noise rock. He’s a bonafide musical force of nature, one who seems hell bent on carving a little Kashiwa Daisuke sized hole into every musical sphere he can find.
The Essential Album: Program Music 1
5. Ryo Fukui (Modal Jazz, Cool Jazz)
Ryo Fukui (福居良), who unfortunately passed away from a lymphoma in March of 2016, was a self-taught jazz pianist based in Sapporo, Japan. He, like much of Japan, became fascinated with jazz following the end of World War 2, and its associated cultural embargo. Unlike America, which had begun falling out of love with jazz, Ryo would grow up infatuated with the boundary pushing jazz music of musicians like Bill EvansMiles Davis, and John Coltrane.
Unfortunately Ryo wouldn’t get to release his music, which heavily drew upon those sounds, until much later, in the mid 1970’s, well after most of his favorite artists had moved onto fusion jazz, or sunk into irrelevancy. And as Jazz was taking it’s last breaths in America, Ryo, by virtue of living in Japan, was free of commercial pressures and artistic ceilings. He could make, what is quite possibly, some of the purest, most authentically passionate jazz albums of the decade, and would unfortunately, be mostly forgotten for it, until a online resurgence brought his music back into the limelight in the late 2000s, thankfully reviving the legend of some of the best modal, and cool jazz Japan ever produced.
The Essential Album: Scenery
6. Happy End (Folk Rock, Psych Rock)
Claiming the #1 on Rolling Stone Japan’s list of best Japanese albums of all time, and holding the fourth most influential Japanese group of all time according to HMV Japan, Happy End (はっぴいえんど) are as entrenched in Japanese musical legacy as any band could be. Though often called “The Japanese Beatles”, Happy End were a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, one whose influence, and importance bears very little similarity to any western band, or any western musician.
Happy End defined a period of music in Japan where the country was coming into its own. Their music both takes from American music tradition, and reinvents it, finding hitherto unexplored intersections and avenues of folk, rock, and psychedelic music. Over their short three album run they would turn Japan’s music on its head, and send the country on a new course of musical excellence.
The Essential Album: 風街ろまん (or Kazemachi Roman)
7. Midori Takada (Ambient, Experimental, Minimalism)
Midori Takada (高田みどり), who currently resides as a professor of Kunitachi College of Music, a notable private university with a pretty impressive alumni (including one famous porn actress), is one of the most prolific percussionists in Japan’s experimental/ambient scene, as well as in Japan’s soundtrack sphere. However, the true gem of her career, was a series of works released under her own name through the 80’s and early 90’s, wherein she crafted a strange, and percussion focused take on ambient and minimalist music. The sounds she played with were otherworldly, and rich, drawing listeners into powerful, and foreign sonic landscapes.
Though her popularity on online music communities has always been high, a recent reissue by We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want Records and Palto Flats has opened Midori to a new world of critical acclaim by publications like Pitchfork, Resident Advisor, and The Guardian. A series of events which only further solidifies her place among the greats of ambient music, and of the electronic pioneers of the 80s.
The Essential Album: Through The Looking Glass
8. Lily Chou-Chou (Dream Pop, Alt Rock, Art Rock)
Although technically Lily Chou Chou is a fictional artist, the music released under her name is some of the best female singer/songwriter material to come out of Japan in the 2000’s. “She” was created for Shunji Iwai’s 2001 film, All About Lily Chou Chou, a film about troubled teens who grow obsessed with the musician Lily Chou-Chou. To create the kind of warm, dreamy music he wanted Lily Chou-Chou to represent, Shunji brought together Takeshi Kobayashi, an incredibly prolific and talented composer for film and TV, and Salyu, a relatively unknown female vocalist who would go on to be a musical figurehead in her own respect. Together they would make an actual album of nine pop songs released by “Lily Chou-Chou”, called Kokyu, or Breath.
It’s an incredible album that swings between Vespertine-esque Bjork, Brian Eno-esque art-rock, and Radiohead inspired alt-rock, all with a haunting, and ethereal edge. In those nine short songs, Salyu pushes her voice to the limit, from earthy growls, to soaring operatic highs, all over richly textured instrumentation that flirts beautifully with both electronic, and analog sounds.
The Essential Album: Breath
9. Lemon’s Chair (Post-Rock, Shoegaze)
Formed in Osaka by Masashi Imanishi and YUKO, both of whom play guitar, Lemon’s Chair is a band known for their progressive fusing of third-wave post-rock and shoegaze. Often the structural influences come from post rock, but the sonic ones come directly from shoegaze like My Bloody Valentine. The main meat of the sound is the reverby dual guitar of Masashi and YUKO, but is generally layered over textural electronics and drumming done by various support drummers, or dusty drum machines.
Lemon’s Chair have been featured on The Guardian, and were part of the infamous Yellow Loveless Project, doing covers of “To Here Knows When”, and “What You Want”, both of which were strange and fantastic, doing more than justice to My Bloody Valentine’s legendary originals. They’re a band who seem equally restless and patient, releasing genre-leaping music that shows a never ceasing creativity, but on a patient timescale that often finds four years between their albums. It’s music that manages to play on both epic and personal scales, building monuments of noise, and then exploring the life that lives between them.
The Essential Album: I Hate? I Hope?
10. Love, Peace & Trance (Ambient Pop, Downtempo, Tribal House)
Formed in 1994, disbanded by 1995, Love, Peace, & Trance was a moment for Japanese music that was as fleeting as it was odd. Centered around three female lead vocalists, Mimori Yusa, Miyako Koda, Mishio Ogawa, and headed by famed Happy End, and YMO member Haruomi Hosono, Love, Peace & Trance was the sort of genre leaping musical experimental that really only made sense in the 1990s. A formless sort of band, they touched on the emerging sounds of downtempo and tribal house while primarily making an odd blend of ambient-electro and “New Age art pop”, though those labels fail to truly capture it. Their sound seemed to drift in the eye of the storm of the 90’s sonic revolutions. Their single self titled album, ran a brisk 52 minutes and would become the sum total of the group’s creative output, but contained within was a cornucopia of ideas which seems to never deplete with every relisten.
The Essential Album: Love, Peace, & Trance