5 J-Pop songs I can’t stop humming this week (and neither will you)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – these past few years have been the best to be fan of Japanese music. Not only is the access something we couldn’t have dreamt of in the past: the music can be obtained through a myriad of ways – YouTube, iTunes, Amazon MP3, Spotify – you can even get a Niconico account these days without living in Japan! – but the quality of the offerings is as high as it was in the best of times. The indie artists are producing a hit after hit, no matter what genre or style you’re after, and they are all great.

In a music culture that’s so focused on neat melody as J-Pop/J-Rock, it’s a given that all the good songs will be perfectly hummable, but sometimes a song comes along that eats its way into your brain and stays there for days, taking over all your vital functions. Recently, I keep stumbling upon dozens of such songs – and here are five that seem to have the strongest hold on my synapses.

5. Gesu no Kiwami Otome – Momoe

“Gesu…” is a new project of Enon Kawatami, lead singer of Indigo La End. His other band is a more mainstream melodic rock production, also with plenty of great songs (truly, the only reason they’re not on this list too is to avoid repetition) – but “Gesu…” is something else. Part jazz, part hip-hop, part crazy bass riffs, and lots of toe-tapping, head-banging funk. “Momoe” is my favourite song of theirs so far, but also one that, sadly, doesn’t have an official video, so here’s some Japanese guy shredding the bass in his basement like a Boss.

4. tofubeats feat. ONOMATOPEDAIJIN – Suisei

Kobe-born Tofubeats (I’ve mentioned him before) is a one-man Japan’s answer to Daft Punk. Like the robot-headed Frenchmen, he uses his autotuned voice as one of the instruments, invites an eclectic mix of talents from all over the music world to assist him, and is generally the king of funk. Not all his songs are hummable – not all are even listenable for long, to be honest – but when he gets things right, he gets things right. “Suisei” is, as far as I can tell, a harrowing tale of trying to be cool young adult in Tokyo… “Cutie” and “Zipper” are fashion magazines read by trendy Shinjuku girls. This is all irrelevant, as the video is shot in Kobe 🙂

If you’re not a fan of autotune, and prefer soft female voice instead, there’s also a version sung by Seira Kariya (the infectiously cheerful girl in the video below).

3. Kana-Boon – Naimononedari

Kana-Boon is, unfortunately, not available on Spotify, and is in general not as popular and well-known as other bands on the list – and, frankly, most of their songs are pretty generic, ska-influenced power-pop, Asian KFG-style; they may be considered a one-hit wonder, but that one hit – and the accompanying brilliant video – is more than enough for the Kana-boon to appear on this list beside their more popular competition.

2. tricot – Last Step

Having opened for the reunited Pixies this year in England, and to rave reviews, tricot are definitely the hottest J-Rock band in years. They are best known for the overwhelming barrage of hard, melodic grunge riffs, math-rock experimentation, jazz-like precision and powerful voice of the lead singer – seriously, there is not a bad song on either of their two records – but in this solo number from their latest album, Ikkyu shows she can give just as haunting performance with nothing but an acoustic guitar and the raging sea behind her.

1. Predawn – Suddenly

If Bob Dylan and Bjork had a baby… well, their sex tape would probably be worth millions. But also, their child would be Miwako Shimizu, better known as Predawn. With a soft, but unwavering, just-accented voice, Predawn would be just another archetypal, folkish, mori “lonely girl with a guitar”, if not for the nigh super-human talent for writing melodies that will stay with you for weeks.

Seriously.

It’s like a tick on your brain.

Space Shower Music Video Awards

space_award[1]MVA.JP BEST VIDEOS

All the videos nominated for Space Shower TV Music Video Awards. Everything that’s been happening in Japanese music in 2013 – from the twee mori-girl new-folk of Ichiko Aoba, through brutal hardcore of BBQ Chickens to sheer mind-fuckery of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

There are some real visual jewels here: the tragi-comic “Dance My Generation”, subtle “Remember Me” and epic “Revelation” are among my favourites so far.

You can vote for your favourite video here.

Japanese Power Pop

ymo1[1]The wikipedia definition states that power pop is “a popular musical genre that draws its inspiration from 1960s British and American pop and rock music. It typically incorporates a combination of musical devices such as strong melodies, crisp vocal harmonies, economical arrangements and prominent guitar riffs. (…) a mixture of hard rock and melodic pop music, power pop tends to be more aggressive than pop rock.”

Power pop exists on that fuzzy boundary between pop and rock, having come to life before the two genres drifted so far apart at the beginning of the 70s. This is what the Beatles played, and the Who (the term was coined by Pete Townshend), the Kinks and the Byrds. As pop’s reputation fell and rock’s grew, “power pop” became almost a derogatory term in the anglophone world of music, confined to a niche of sometime popular, but never respected, well-played melodic bubblegum.

But US and UK are not, contrary to what might seem, the only music-producing nations; in other countries, the history of popular music often meanders into strange lands, creating long-lasting phenomena known only to a handful of fans beyond the respective borders, until by a freak accident they are revealed in all their glory. Italian Prog Rock, Scandinavian Electro-pop, Balkan Turbo-folk are just some of the examples. And Power Pop enjoyed a similar seemingly eternal popularity in Scandinavia (Cardigans, anyone?) and, of all places, Japan.

Having been developed for the best part of twenty years by now, this is not your Beatles-loving dad’s power pop. Like the perfectly engineered matchlock guns of the late Shogunate, this music takes the old schemes and hones them to a flawless sound.

YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA

Not a Power Pop band – obviously, this is 80’s Synth Pop at its best – YMO is a giant shadow looming over any intelligent Japanese pop (it’s enough to note how often the three letters appear in any review of a new record), and it’s possible that the genius that is Ryuichi Sakamoto was single-handedly responsible for the everlasting popularity of synthesizers in J-Pop. Unlike the West, in Japan the keyboards never went out of fashion – and rightly so.

SPITZ

If you know anything about Japanese popular music, you must have heard the name Spitz. Their first album came out in 1991, and they have enjoyed a long-standing career ever since, producing 9 number one albums. They are the starting point from which all of modern power pop stems, and a benchmark to which everything is compared.

NUMBER GIRL

Almost as old as Spitz, Number Girl were a Lo-Fi band in the vein of Pavement and Sonic Youth rather than Power Pop; always a lot heavier, edgier and more complex than their counterparts. Eventually, the lead singer of the band went off to create a stunning math rock outfit, the Zazen Boys.

ASIAN KUNG FU GENERATION

At some point possibly the greatest mega stars of the scene, AKFG are synonymous with Japan’s melodic rock, and well known to many fans in the West through their songs being included as opening and ending themes of popular anime, like Naruto or Full Metal Alchemist.

FUJIFABRIC

Coming into the 2000s now: Fuji Fabric is a more pure Power Pop band, with cheerful harmonies, deceptively simple chords and calm vocals. They recorded a couple popular albums before the untimely death of their lead vocalist in 2010.

SOUTAISEIRINON

I remember being completely mindblown the first time I stumbled on this song. I had no  idea what to think of it; the dreaminess vocals, the precision of the arrangement, the Smiths-like arpeggios. It was as if Johnny Marr turned into a magical girl. Two-three years ago, Soutaiseirinon was my default go-to band for any occasion.

PASSEPIED

My latest discovery, and the reason for this post. The craftsmanship of this band is absolutely stunning: the keyboards would not be out of place in YMO, the drums and lead guitar are of jazz-worthy quality (with just a hint of Jimmy Chamberlin and Billy Corgan in places). Worthy heirs of the Soutais (who hadn’t released anything since 2011), their two albums are now on constant repeat everywhere I go.