Take a form and make it vengeful. Flip meanings to be transgressive, and then pull at evil tendrils.
Pull the form open and let the light come in. Give your medium the freedom to bleed and feel love.
Japanese art is often presented to the foreigner as it’s extremes. The harsh noise music of it’s absurdist underground, or the blissful highs of the country’s melodic purveyors of hyper-joy. The anti-consumerist radical-communists who tore apart their bodies for art, or the artificial intelligence pop stars made to consumerize the very notion of existence.
Japan is an oddity for western gawkers to rationalize their own world as “coherent” and “transcribe-able”. Here in the west our music is a lineage, something that can be followed and understood as a logical progression! Japan is nothing but the absurd and un-heralded! Freaks appear out of thin air to release their Pulse Demons onto the world completely devoid of context and purpose, what dreadful silliness!
Of course no one exists in a vacuum, and to all things there are precursors. I humbly hope that this list might give you that vantage point from which you can understand the world of Japanese music, or at least the stories that lead to their far reaching ends. Without further ado, here are Overblown’s Top 20 Japanese Albums of All Time.
20Flipper’s Guitar – Camera Talk (1990)
At the end of WW2 Japan was a broken state. Their industry and institutions were utterly devastated, and worse yet their very sense of themselves was brought to its knees. But from destitution rose vigor, and through the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s Japan experienced an almost unprecedented rate of economic growth. Growing hand-over-fist until the country stood as one of the world’s most formidable economic players by the mid 80s. Gone were the bombed out neighborhoods and listless feelings of defeat. The nation had regained its feet, but not necessarily its identity. Questions remained of what it meant to be Japanese. Not just in a limited sense, but in the totality of Japanese life, as western culture and multi-nationalism began pouring into the country. Obsessions with jazz music and french ye-ye began to form communities of Japanese urbanites with complex musical palettes and far-out postmodernist notions of Japanese identity.
Eventually, at the end of that long existential struggle in the late 80s, the genre of Shibuya-kei was birthed. Named after the small burrow of Tokyo, the Shibuya district (the name literally means “Shibuya-style”), it fused French ye-ye, jazz, bossa nova, lounge music, funk, and 60’s psychedelic pop into a futuristic retro-pastiche. The inevitable conclusion of Japan’s postmodernist culture carnivores.
And at the height of it’s explosion onto the national scene there was Flipper’s Guitar, a duo consisting of Keigo Oyamada (aka Cornelius), and Kenji Ozawa. Together they became the face of the burgeoning scene. Hit songs like “Young, Alive, In Love” would become the genre’s definitive outings. Filled with blissful youthful energy, and a knack for odd melodic detours inside retro pop structures. Slight manipulations that made them feel sly and groundbreaking, despite their fetishistic aesthetic. The album was a masterwork, and represented the genre at its purest state, before it would slowly grow to encompass the worlds of synth-pop, trip-hop, and house music in the mid-90s. A change which was due in no small part to Flipper’s Guitar themselves as they too grew past these simple origins. But here, in their purity, their greatest joys and the genre’s greatest strengths are most evident.
19Hiroshi Yoshimura – Green (1986)
While Japan’s burgeoning 80s underground pursued the farthest corners of dissonance and dissociation through noise rock and hardcore, Hiroshi Yoshimura was pioneering the tactile. Alongside artists like Haruomi Hosono, Satoshi Ashikawa, and Midori Takada he would push the underground’s fixation on extremities to the farthest opposite end. Erecting humanistic structures of glass and light. Expounding on the minimalism influences of early ambient into something more measured and new age-ey. The simplistic textural structures and emotionally pointed nature of his work almost feels prophetic compared to the more dated work of his Western ambient contemporaries.
With Green he delivered his most cohesive statement on simplicity, combining field recordings and arpeggiated euphoric synth-lines into expansive ambient mini-suites. The almost ambient-techno glide of “Creek” feels especially miraculous. Taking the minimalism influences of ambient to their logical extreme in a way that would take the rest of the world almost a decade to replicate. It’s an album of physical pleasures and an act of auditory tenderness.
18Ichiko Aoba – 0 (2013)
“Oh, kind of a new record. Very – very nice Rob. A sly declaration of new classic status slipping into a list of old, safe ones. Very pussy! – Jack Black in High Fidelity (2000)
Every list needs one, though in this particular case I doubt many will object. Ichiko Aoba has, in the relatively short span of her career so far, developed a borderline pantheonic status. From the opening guitar phrase of her 2010 debut album Kamisori Otome, there is a sense of timelessness to her music. Weaving the world of dreams and city-angst into warm and fragile tapestries. Her albums are like visits from faeries, or touches with Narnia. Filled with baroque beauty and the lingering fear of adulthood. But Ichiko Aoba is not a faerie, and with time complexities began to surface.
0 is a focal point for Ichiko Aoba. Where her expanding fascination with studio manipulation and emotional multiplicity met her minimalistic style of fingerpicking earnesty. A meeting ground where a precarious balance was struck. The edge of something new where Ichiko could stand but for a single fleeting moment, before plunging into the studio based avant-garde of 0%, or the sonic density of Mahoroboshiya. And while those albums also represent high-watermarks in Japanese music, it’s this meeting ground that cuts the deepest.
The spacious beauty of the live “いりぐちでぐち”, recorded as Ichiko Aoba wanders through a mountain pass tunnel, or the spry bounce of “We’re Survivors”, capturing the fragile moment of leaving people behind in your memories. It’s a weighty balance of lofty, straightforward emotions and intricate maturity. A tightrope that finds Ichiko Aoba flexing the strongest parts of her artistic oeuvre all at once.
17Quruli – Zukan / Team Rock (2000 / 2001)
You can’t breathe of Quruli without first paying homage to Zukan, their best and clearly most influential album. The capstone of Japan’s alternative rock scene brought to fruition by producer Jim O’Rourke who, lest we forget, brought us Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, Ys, and of course Eureka. It is in all ways rock excellence. Noisy mixes and catchy hooks. Power ballads and swinging rockers. Experimental and comfortable all in one. Home of both “Millenium” and “Byoubugaura”, two of the greatest rock songs ever written. Sure, it’s more safe and considered than the boundary pushing electronic crossover that they would produce in the next few years, but it’s simplicity is it’s defining, surpassing factor.
You can’t breathe of Quruli without first paying homage to Team Rock, their best and clearly most influential album. The capstone of Japan’s alternative scene brought to fruition by producer Jim O’Rourke who, lest we forget, brought us Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, Ys, and of course Eureka. It is in all ways rock excellence. Noisy mixes and catchy hooks. Power ballads and swinging rockers. Experimental and comfortable all in one. Home of both “LV30” and “Team Rock”, two of the greatest alternative songs ever written. Sure, it’s more schizophrenic than the immediately satisfying rock music that they produced in the preceding few years, but it’s complexity is it’s defining, surpassing factor.
16Supercar – Highvision (2002)
At the beginning of the new millennium Supercar put down their guitars to don the new warmth of synthesizers. Giving birth to a pure un-abstracted bliss. Deconstructing pretension and irony entirely.
Sort of an overblown tagline I know, but c’mon, Pitchfork once wrote “Comparing this to other albums is like comparing an aquarium to blue construction paper” about Kid A. There are so few times in one’s life where you can write something so patently absurd, and rock bands discovering electronic music in the early 2000s is one of them. Of course where Kid A pulled on electronic and experimental music to make statements on decay and internet dissociation, Highvisions is… not that. The dream pop electronics of “Strobolights” and “I” are like sunlight peeking around corners, predictions of love and tranquility in the burgeoning millenium. Of course this millenium kinda fucking shit the bed, but that isn’t Supercar’s fault. In fact they gave every little bit they had to make it better. Filling songs with unhindered earnesty, and then beaming them out to a world ready for fresh starts… by way of CD-R.
15The Blue Hearts – The Blue Hearts (1987)
The Blue Hearts’ legendary first single from their debut album, “Linda Linda”, was the namesake for an independent Japanese film ‘Linda Linda Linda’ almost twenty years after its release. The film centers around the main characters performance of the song at their school’s talent show, and is perhaps the greatest testament to Blue Hearts timeless essence. When a potential love interest asks the film’s main character what song they’ll be performing, she responds in that decidedly cool and uninterested way that only film teenagers do, ‘Linda Linda’. He takes a second and responds with the only thing one could say in that moment, ‘cool’. That small moment would be a better review than any two paragraphs I could write.
The Blue Hearts were always, and have never stopped being, cool. In 1987 they wrote the definitive book on it. The working-class punk look, the grave emotional-intensity of Hiroto Komoto’s voice, that Sex Pistols/Ramones-style sound, everything. To the curious western audiences it may seem derivative at first, but The Blue Hearts were not a band intent on copying anything. Instead, Blue Hearts were a filter. Reinventing punk stereotypes into a distinctly Japanese construction. One which became the new paradigm of “cool” for a half century of disaffected Japanese teenagers.
14Morita Doji – A Boy (1977)
In the short eight years that Morita made music, before retiring resolutely in 1983, she never once revealed her real name or took off the large curly wig and sunglasses which hid her face. Up until her deeply unfortunate death earlier this year, she was an enigma of the highest form. An impossible figure of misery and disinterest. Until reality told us differently it seemed as if she had simply evaporated, giving into the ghosts and hauntings that pulled at her.
And even decades after these bizarre elements of her presentation lose none of their power. Where time has proved most musicians to be all artifice, Morita’s dark retreat suited the music just fine. If Morita presented herself like a spectre lingering on the edges of life then the music was pulled from the otherside. All harrowing strings and needled guitars folding and unfolding like layers of a funeral dirge. It had a supremely supernatural quality to it. Evoking images of retro-horror films and gothic distress, all while somehow never leaving the conventions of folk music. Using simple arrangements and chords structures to manipulate the songs into grave and dismal ends.
13X – Blue Blood (1989)
As tempting as it might be to just plug these albums into spotify and staring cranking away (ignoring all my pointless long-winded ramblings), I will have to recommend you do not listen to Blue Blood. Which is not to say that it is a bad album, because it’s actually quite a fantastic one. No, I simply recommend this course of action because as rewarding as that may be, in some superficial capacity, it is a fundamentally half-assed experience. It lacks the context really needed to place X in your mind, to really understand what X are and continue to be. You can only really listen to X after you watch this.
As the popularizers of Visual-Kei, a Japanese ‘style’ of music almost entirely based on the visual presentation and fashion of the band as opposed to the music itself, it’s difficult to grasp the package without seeing it. Because X are without a doubt, one of the most influential Japanese groups of all time, and more than half of that can be attributed to factors completely unrelated to the music. Visual-kei was a coda:
“Psychedelic Violence-Crime of Visual Shock”
A phrase which would be plastered across the cover of every single copy of Blue Blood. A grab-you-by-the-balls statement that rattles the world to their core and lets them know that… something has… changed… or, something? Look, its nonsense. It’s dangerous sounding words plastered in a nonsensical order to generate a cool factor. Not wholly dissimilar to how the music of X is a plastering of dangerous sub-genres like power metal, glam metal, and heavy metal into a nonsensical order to generate a cool factor. X were the embodiment of cool for cools sake. A bonafide revolution of self-expression that said you didn’t need any sort of tedious “authenticity” to be something, you could just slap on some white make-up and be exactly who the fuck you wanted to be.
12Taeko Ohnuki – Sunshower (1977)
City Pop‘s central balance of folk rock, pop rock, disco and jazz could be described by a casual observer as the auditory equivalent of wallpaper. It’s a genre which has, more than often, been compared to elevator music by unfamiliar listeners here in the west. Listening to the many City Pop albums which land on Rolling Stone Japan’s List of 100 Greatest Japanese Albums can be an exhausting and painful endeavor (something I’m sure Japanese people could relate to after listening to our canonical 80s new wave music). But hidden in it’s sometimes dated sonics is an important core songwriting ideology. One which is incredibly important to an overall understanding of Japanese music. More importantly though, buried between those tomes of tedious genre touchstones, there are works rife with great immediate pleasures. A fact that we here in the west are discovering much too late.
Which is why I have never been able to understand how, in these Japanese tastemakers infinite wisdom, they can canonize the great mountain of second rate City Pop that they do, but ignore the incredible musicianship of Sunshower (which doesn’t even appear of Rolling Stone’s list). Sunshower is the bliss of city pop at its brightest. Shimmering jazz chords float on top of beds of warbly synths, drifting below the shy and tepid voice of Taeko. The perfect singer to bring that necessary touch of humanity to the album’s glossy musicianship. Executively produced by the incomparable Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sunshower features the very best session musicians Japan had to offer. A display of musical talent so rich it feels effortless. Like many a great 70’s pop album, Sunflower feels as if it was jammed out over a single evening, with jazz, funk, and audacious pop music cutting through the studio’s cigarette haze. The sun slowly slinking underneath the horizon.
11Jacks – Vacant World (1968)
As a westerner it feels natural to think of artists from another country in terms of metaphors and similes. This group sounds like this American group, and this groups sounds like that one, ecetera ecetera. It becomes easier to draw the general schema of a band and their place in the world when you do this, and while it can lead to the occasional embarrassing misconception, it generally does work relatively well. I mean c’mon, Kikagaku Moyo is clearly the Japanese King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, and I won’t take any fucking dissent on that fact. But still, some bands just elude you.
I suppose Jacks could be called the Japanese Doors with their heavy, spacious take on psychedelic music. But the Doors are dreadfully serious aren’t they? And Jim Morrison isn’t much of a belter is he, with that drifting baritone. Because Yoshio Hayakawa is a belter, filling out his performances with shrieks and breakdowns that crash against the music like a feverish dog stuck in a cage. Maybe Captain Beefheart’s frantic vocal assaults on Safe As Milk come close, but Jacks weren’t a joke. Jacks were a band that felt grand and considered even in their sly and wacky way. Syd’s Floyd? Jefferson Airplane possibly?
Its simultaneously a credit to their singularity and their place as cultural omnivores that Jacks can’t be placed. Taking the exploding sounds of western psychedelia and reflecting into their own despondent hedonism. Morphing psychedelic blues’ minimalism and apocalyptic sound into a distinctly Japanese operatic melancholy. Leaning on cinematic vibraphones and crackly crooning like they were some sort of fucked Dusty Springfield cover band, until of course they crack the sky open with their pained yelps and drum splintering crescendos.
10Boris – Flood (2000)
In making this list, Overblown (the abstract entity, and definitely not me, Samuel Rosean) was keenly aware of the fact that no Boris album could be chosen which would make everyone happy. No album could be chosen which would make anyone happy really. Fans of Pink may often find that they are Feedbacker fans by morning. And within a day my list has gone from palletablely wrong, to entirely unacceptable. I mean, who are we to say that Feedbacker is better than Pink, or that Akuma no Uta is better than Amplifier Worshiper anyways? I don’t even have a degree in Drone Metal. What the fuck do I know? Boris’ prolific, and storied discography is an embarrassment of riches, and you might as well just throw a fucking dart at the board at some point.
Or, you could just pick their objectively best album like I did.
You can now forward your incorrect disagreements to the Japanese Embassy if you want, but they have no jurisdiction over me. And you just know that the current American administration knows nothing about noise rock. I bet Trump is still listening to Lighting Bolt. Embarrassing. Maybe under Bill Clinton you could have roused a serious defence of Heavy Rocks, but now? I’m the captain.
Flood is the embodiment of everything there is to love about Boris. There is the confronting experimentation of “Flood I”, wherein a simple guitar melody is played over and over for a hypnotic 14 minutes as waves of reverb begin to suck it in. Or the heart wrenching post-rock stylings of “Flood II”, which captures beauty and fragility like insects in amber. All before the absolutely pummeling breakdown of “Flood III” into the sludgiest, heaviest drone metal that anyone had ever produced, now and then. A twenty minute finale that outright demands the twenty minute ambient outro of “Flood IV’. Weaving unsettling soundscapes at a whispers volume to give your brain a nice landing pad to readjust upon. It’s not ready for the passive silence of reality just yet.
9Sheena Ringo – Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana (2003)
As someone fond of writing words about music there is a refreshing challenge presented by the “undescribable” because it has always seemed to me that there was no such thing. All things could be put to words if you stretched them enough. With passion it’s true. But I kind of feel stumped in the face of Sheena Ringo. Truly and wholly. Her music is entirely unboxable, and to put one over her just seems to pop open a hole on the other side. Its like plugging leaks in a quickly sinking ship. Sure you can delay it’s collapse, but the whole paragraph isn’t going anywhere. To say she is the confident rock goddess of “Shukyo” feels stupid and asinine by the time “Doppelganger” rolls around. To say anything at all feels pointless when Sheena isn’t even going to be where those words were planted by the second you’ve said them.
If you take a look at the highest rated albums on user based music rating website rateyourmusic sorted by country of the user, such that only Japanese voters votes will count, you’ll see that Sheena Ringo is the most frequent name of the top forty minus Fishmans. She’s an institution onto herself, but she’s not really an institution of anything in particular. I suppose you could say that jazz and rock are a constantly reappearing bassline of her music, but they don’t always appear together, apart, or even at all as she sometimes turns to chaotic noise-pop and electronic music. You could perhaps take the music writer back-out maneuver of calling her a “relentless experimenter” but her music isn’t really all that experimental sometimes, nor does it feel that experimentally focused. Like all the flourishings don’t feel too absurd or different then her contemporaries if you take them in isolation. Listening to a Sheena Ringo song though, there isn’t a flash of a doubt to who made it. There exists to her music some singular quality which gives it so much life and indescribable charm across it’s many detours and changes in presentation (and changes in presentor).
In all the thousands of words I read on the subject of Sheena Ringo I’ve never seen a description that captured it very well. Well, I suppose the first few words I ever saw written on her did it some justice.
“Listen to this, it’s the best album I’ve ever listened to.” – c. 2013, some truly kind stranger
8Eiichi Ohtaki – A Long Vacation (1981)
Eiichi Ohtaki’s A Long Vacation is not like the many other albums which populate this list. He was not an underground legend, an indie crossover, or even a bonafide pop star. No, Eiichi Ohtaki was, and remains to this day, an icon. Someone who would move units in the platinums (emphasis on the s) instead of the golds. More Freddie Mercury than Ian Curtis. And when the 80s rounded to an end, he would be sitting comfortably in the very top of the decade’s best selling artists.
A Long Vacation is a bonafide cornerstone of the Japanese pop culture pantheon. Combining Brian Wilson pop-harmonies with smooth 80’s pop styling which kept him at the heart of the City-Pop zeitgeist. It had the feeling of a compilation album, presenting pop smash after pop smash, all while never succumbing to the pressures of cheap songwriting and pop cliche.
Similar to his tenure as the primary songwriter of legendary underground band Happy End, Eiichi continued to write songs with a rich emotional timbre, that rise and fell in powerful ways. Manipulating pop styles into something more complex and approachable. Orbiting pure pop ecstasy in that way that only the most refined songwriters could.
7Boredoms – Vision Creation Newsun (1999)
‘Vision! Creation! Newsun!’
What more do you need? I mean, I hope not much more, because Yamatsuka Eye isn’t gonna give you much else for the almost cataclysmic 67 minutes that make up Vision Creation Newsun’s runtime. Sending those words into the same prismatic distortion field that pulls the rest of this album’s sound into some sort of imaginary plane where sound gains an entirely new cartesian dimension. Moving inward and outward through this in-fathomable new directionality until it feels like it encompasses everything and anything all at once.
Or at least this was the approximation of it I made during the highly inadvisable experience of listening to this album after smoking an ungodly amount of weed in the wilderness. A relic of a time in my foolish life were I thought weed would like, “totally make music awesome dude”. A childish notion I left in those woods that day, along with what remained of my desire to do drugs at all. They should just replace all drug prevention campaigns with this album and a joint. Llet the head splitting headaches and dissociative fits run their course.
Which is to say that this album is incredible. An experience that the safe and securely sober mind can sink into, as layers of tribal drumming and boundless guitar phrases reverb and shake through the songs’ fragile constitutions. For songs are human constructions, incapable of handling the otherworldly signals that Yamatsuka and company are beaming in from another universe. Beaming right into my puny head as I shuffle towards a bottle of advil.
6Number Girl – School Girl Distortional Addict (1999)
Number Girls major label debut is one of the definitive texts of post-hardcore. Emerging from the unhinged noise-rock underground of Japan throughout the 80s and 90s, Number Girl prided themselves as much on being listened to, as they did on being unlistenable. But with their debut album, released just two years before, they had also proven themselves to have the kind of genuine pop sensibility that their many contemporaries lacked.
On that debut album’s ‘hit’ single “Memories In My Head”, Number Girl began honing in on a sound that would catapult them into indie stardom. By combining elements of emotional post-hardcore like Sunny Day Real Estate, with the unhinged noisy alternative-rock of bands like The Pixies or Husker Du, Number Girl managed to craft an almost perfect sonic representation of frustrated melancholy.
But while the debut album often stumbled and struggled to continually capture that sound, the sequel was as confident as the brazen sound demanded. School Girl Distortional Addict was the pinnacle of honed and purposeful chaos. Riding songs right on the edge of falling apart, and then pushing them to explosive, crunchy finales. And while Number Girl would continue to develop their sound up until their breakup in 2002, exploring the darker corners of their melancholic psyche on equally essential releases, it was the conflicted balance of School Girl Distortional Addict that made them epochal.
5Fushitsusha – 1st (1989)
Considering Japan’s long-standing reputation as the country for noise music. It becomes hard to look at the genre as a singularity and pull out the ‘best’, or the most influential from it. Because in reality the noise scene divides and congeals into massively distinct submovements. Movements that can often have nothing to do with those right next to them. Do you pick an early noise rock influencer like Les Rallizes denudes, or someone at the very edge of the harsh noise wall scene like Merzbow? Or possibly you just throw in the towel entirely and give the inevitable “noise pick” to big crossover successes like Boredoms or Melt-Banana as every American critic has done for the past 20 years and then call it a wrap.
Or, alternatively, you could simply pick an album like Fushitsusha’s 1st. Taken from the band’s many live performances (some of which were possibly a decade old by the time of this albums release), 1st is an immense double album. A behemoth which orbits between so many different elements of the Japanese rock world that it seems to capture them all, at least in spirit.
From it’s free improvisational sections to it’s lo-fi presentation and harsh noise explosions which captured the Japanese noise-rock world as it was up until 1989, to the intense and beautiful highs of songs like “すきにやればいい” which represent all that Japanese rock would come to be. Predicting not just the nations post-rock flirtations, but also the slow conversion of noise into transcendent optimism. A shift that would define the genre in the decade to come.
1st is more than an influential text though, it is also one of the most pummeling and confrontational albums ever made. Retaining every last smidgen of its bite and snarl in the thirty years since its release.
4Cornelius – Fantasma (1997)
Fantasma has become one of the great crossover successes of Japanese music. Searing across the western music culture of 1998 like a misfired bottlerocket. Tearing through without an ounce of regard to the careful curation of the indie scene at the time. Demanding attention as a work of patent absurdity and auteur-ship.
But despite its positive tone, that initial western reception almost seemed derisive in hindsight. Fantasma was a “silly foreign curiosity” for American culture critics to point and giggle at. Not a work of serious musical significance. Clearly, Fantasma would prove them to be weak analysts of culture. Sidestepping the treatment so many curiosities receive at the hands of fickle American audiences, a militant fan-base of both Fantasma and Cornelius grows with each passing year, pushing it’s legacy in the west far beyond the throwaway assessment that it received in 1998. Demanding, by pure retention value, glowing reviews for its 20 year re-issue earlier back in 2017.
But it’s hard to blame critics for giving Fantasma those initial, tepidly-positive responses. At first glance, it’s an album of surface pleasures, overflowing with sugary treats and dazzling production tricks. It’s only with time that the true nature of Fantasma could unfold. An album of truly life affirming pop music that morphs and changes with every listen. Slowly growing richer, and richer, and richer.
3Yellow Magic Orchestra – Solid State Survivior (1979)
Yellow Magic Orchestra did not invent synth-pop, but they certainly invented it’s attitude. The sunshine-ridden romanticism of electro-pop music which defined the 80s really began with this, a hidden document from across the Pacific. And while many point to Kraftwerk’s landmark synth-pop albums in the late 70s as the genre’s sole prodiginator, it’s hard to see how such an emotive, pop-focused genre originated from such steely-eyed Germans. The epic, and precise rhythms of songs like “Spacelab” just don’t evoke those images of bright primary colors we associate with the 80s. When you listen to bright absurdity of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Technopolis” or “Day Tripper” however, the image comes naturally.
Don’t believe me? Just listen to Michael Jackson’s cover of Solid State Survivor’s “Behind The Mask” which was supposed to appear on Thriller. The way vocoder is used to fill out the chorus, or the way that repetitive, thick proto-techno bassline builds the song from the ground up. Yellow Magic Orchestra had written the definitive template for what a sugary sweet synth-pop song could be. And from that template a decade of artists would craft their own work, perhaps completely unaware of the deep debt it owed to three Japanese men.
Solid State Survivor would go on to deeply inspire the rise of genres like Detroit Techno, Shibuya-kei, and modern J-Pop, spreading the band’s tendrils across the world. But perhaps so much talk of inspiration and historical value distracts from the simple pleasure of an album like Solid State Survivor. While it’s sounds are certainly dated, and its compositions are highly simplistic compared to the elaborate electronic soundscapes we listen to on a daily basis nowadays, it retains all of its charm and overflowing creative spirit. Reinventing simplistic gestures into body knocks that can make a room bloom.
2Fishmans – Long Season (1996)
Fishmans were a band entirely alone. Sure Japan had dub bands before and after them, and more dream pop bands than you could ever bother to listen to, but not a single one, in the twenty years since Long Season, could capture an iota of Fishmans’ magic. With their final three albums, before the untimely death of lead singer Shinji Sato, Fishmans created the definitive text of modern dub, progressive pop, and dream pop. A text which has only grown in its inscrutability and sacrosanct nature with time. And in the middle of that unprecedented genre-defining streak was this, Long Season. A single thirty five minute song, presented alongside a minimalistic cover bearing no indication of the life which lies within.
Long Season was Fishmans definitive step into the world of dream pop and progressive pop, converting their dub music origins into subtle trimmings around their methodical and dense arrangements. Instead of the shuffling bass rhythms fans had come to expect, Long Season is rich with reverdy guitar solos, and aching organ lines. Between the more structured song centers are expansive interludes, where field recordings, strings, and layered drones blend into dense ambient soundscapes. The vocal balance of melancholy and childlike wonder which Shinji Sato nurtured over their first five albums crumbles, as he begs and pleads with the world at the conclusion of “Part 4”. Long Season is creativity and musicianship flowing so naturally it feels inhuman. Heaven-clawing grooves and melancholic swirls push upward and upward relentlessly, much to the displeasure of any band that thought they were doing anything of value in 1996, or 1997, or…
1Happy End – Kazemachi Roman (1971)
Kazemachi Roman has the untouchable honor of receiving Rolling Stone Japan’s best Japanese album of all time (in a list made by the contributing editor Kawaski Dasuke). Something which inherently lobs it into the great pantheon of “important” albums like Sgt. Pepper or Highway 61 which would top our own Rolling Stones list. And while it’s probably quite unfair to do that to any album, the question has to be asked, does it stack up?
To understand such a placement, you really have to look at the larger picture of Japanese music before and after Happy End. They were, as all truly great bands are, both the beginning and the end all wrapped into one. Succumbing into international homogeneity while also becoming the first distinctly Japanese band, bringing life to the multinational/hyper-nationalistic existence that defined the Japanese zeitgeist in the 20th century. But let’s walk it back for a second.
After the unpredicted commercial success of their debut album, a psych-rock/folk-rock masterpiece in it’s own right, the band began turning their eye to the state of Japan as a whole. Happy End were, at the time, involved in one of Japan’s biggest musical growing-pains called the “Japanese-Language Rock Controversy”. A debate which saw Happy End pitted against other prominent Japanese rock bands, primarily the Flower Travellin’ Band, about what language rock and roll should be sung in. Many on the English side even posited that the Japanese language would never work with rock and roll rhythms as well as the English language, and would prevent Japanese music from having a cultural impact outside Japan. A decidedly complex argument that was tied to the fractured mentality of Japan in the decades following WW2.
With the mounting outward and inward pressure of Japanese identity looming over Happy End’s heads, along with the mounting commercial pressure they were now under, they headed into the studio to record what would become Kazemachi Roman, or Wind City Romance.
The album was a concept project, one which captured Tokyo during the 1964 Summer Olympics, a populist turning point for the country, as Japan re-entered the world stage after the tough post-WW2 years. The music was warmer and less prone to experimentation and harsh detours than their previous work, but the songwriting and playing had reached a level of refinement that transcended. Playing not towards international and bodily ends, but to the subtle perversions of dysphoria that plagued their home. The mix is beautifully sparse, with each instrument clearly sitting in their own space. All ephemeral drumlines and weightless guitar melodies which seem to drift in on a whim through the breeze of a window. It was a towering testament to a country’s dreamy melancholy. A feeling of nostalgia set aside with care as they pushed on to forge a new path.
If you’re looking for more Japanese music try this ‘Further Reading’ list by us for twenty more albums to continue your journey.
If you’re looking for more modern Japanese music try our list of 2018’s best Japanese albums so far.