Japanese Music for the non-J-POP Fan
by Dave Maat
Most Japanese students love J-POP, and knowing the difference between Mr. Children and Hey! Say! Jump!, or being able to say who your favourite member of Arashi is (Sakurai Sho all the way!!) can greatly help you to bond with your students. By all means, learn about J-POP bands. They are part of Japanese pop culture and the more you know about the things that interest your students the easier a time you will have interacting with them.
If you are like me, though, J-POP will not satiate your musical hunger. I have an eclectic taste in music and I enjoy many genres, but Top 40 Pop is not one of them. The bands I discuss here are not hugely popular here in Japan or overseas. These are simply bands that I enjoy listening to and, hopefully, some of them will become bands that you enjoy listening to as well. On a final note, some of the bands sing in English and some sing in Japanese. Personally, I have never had a problem with listening to lyrics I don’t understand, and hey, maybe it will help you with your Japanese listening skills.
The Polysics: The Polysics was one of the few Japanese bands I knew before coming to Japan. After watching a Devo video the singer decided to quit his high school soccer team to form the band. Easily identified by their matching orange boiler suits, The Polysics play a fast paced combination of new wave, pop, and punk, which they call “Technicolour Pogo Punk”. Their music combines shredded guitars with a myriad of synths and hyper fast lyrics sung in English, Japanese, or just plain gibberish. Listening to any of their albums is like listening to musical instruments having an epileptic fit. If you need to feel re-energized The Polysics brand of hyper-spastic, abrasive pop is sure to do the trick.
Recommended albums: “Neu,” “Hey! Bob! My Friend!”
P-Model: Formed in 1979, P-Model was a new wave/techno-pop band and had an influence on later Japanese bands like The Polysics. The band made heavy use of drum machines, synths, and call and response vocals to create rhythmic, pulsing pop songs. The track 美術館で会った人だろ (“Bijutsukan De Atta Hito Daro”) is a prime example, with its steady thumping bass and gurgling, ping-pong synth lines. After the first three albums the band went through numerous member changes before officially disbanding in 1999. The members of P-Model continue to be heavily involved in the Japanese music scene today.
Recommended album: “In A Model Room”
The Plastics: Another P-named new wave/techno-pop band. The Plastics can possibly be seen as similar to The B-52s if the latter sung with Japanese accents, but this a little bit of an oversimplification. Do they have male and female call and response vocals? Check. Bouncy pop tunes perfect for your next live dance party? Yep. Do they know how to have fun? Just listen to their cover of The Monkees’ “Last Train To Clarksville.” However, while The B-52s were all about partying, The Plastics have a serious side, too. The band critiques modern life in such tracks as “Copy,” “Robot,” “Complex,” and “I Am Plastic.”
The Plastics began around the same time as P-Model and, despite existing for only a few years, were also influential on later bands. American new wave bands like The B-52s, Talking Heads, and Devo were all fans of The Plastics and, in fact, the band even appeared on the American sketch comedy SCTV.
Recommended album: “Origato25”
Shugo Tokumaru: Shugo Tokumaru is an artist I discovered shortly after arriving in Japan and he has quickly become my favourite Japanese musician. Although he tours with a band, he plays all the instruments on his albums and records alone. Tokumaru’s indie-folk, Beach Boys-influenced songs are stuffed to the brim with different sounds. A proficient multi-instrumentalist, he has used over a hundred instruments on his recordings from guitar and ukulele to toys and noisemakers. Tokumaru sings exclusively in Japanese using his dreams as subjects for his songs. So far he has released four albums including his most recent work “Port Entropy” this past spring.
Recommended album: “EXIT”
Toe: Toe is a mostly instrumental math-rock band. The band’s music features complex, propulsive drumming, subtle rhythmic shifts, and clean guitars. As the band’s sound has progressed they have slowly added acoustic guitars, rhodes piano, and vibraphone. This is great headphone music and I especially love listening to this band while biking at the gym. It really gets you moving.
Recommended album: “For Long Tomorrow”
Mouse On The Keys: Mouse On The Keys consists of three musicians: two keyboardists/pianists and a drummer. Part of the Machu Picchu label run by Toe, there are some similarities between the two bands. Both are instrumental and both fall vaguely into the post-rock genre. However, Mouse On The Keys draws more influence from jazz, and member Daisuke Miitone used to play drums for funk/hip-hop bands. Also, while Toe has a clean, smooth sound, Mouse On The Keys has a more bombastic, urgent feel to their music. Their first full-length album “An Anxious Object” was released last year.
Recommended album: “An Anxious Object”
Cibo Matto: This is a bit of a cheat. Cibo Matto was a band back in the 90s that consisted of two Japanese women, Yuki Honda and Miho Hatori. However, the band was based out of New York and was never very popular in Japan. Cibo Matto actually means “crazy food” in Italian, and the duo used a combination of jazz, hip-hop, and rock to sing about food in songs with titles like “Know Your Chicken,” “Sugar Water,” and my personal favourite, “Birthday Cake.” After the group broke up, Miho became a member of the group Gorillaz.
Recommended album: “Viva” La Woman”
Boris: An experimental rock band, Boris is a many-headed beast of pummeling noise. This group is known for constantly changing their sound and have released 17 albums of drone metal, noise rock, psychedelia, and more. This is easily the most extreme band on the list and probably the one that the fewest number of people will enjoy. Given their constantly changing sound it is difficult to say where to begin with Boris but their 2005 album “Pink” has received the most positive critical attention.
Recommended album: “Pink”
The Candies: Okay, confession time. While I’m not a fan of current Top 40s Pop, I love 60s pop. I know that smacks of elitism, but I just don’t care. The Candies were an all-girl pop trio and were extremely popular during the 70s. Honeyed harmonies, funky horns, matching outfits and dance moves, these girls had it all. I dare you to not fall in love.
Recommended album: “Golden Best”
Ichi: Ichi is another artist who is difficult to categorize. His one-man band seems to include everything except the kitchen sink, though I may have in fact heard a kitchen sink or two on his CD. The songs are made up of all sorts of sounds, from steel drums (he plays steel drums for a Nagoya band) to tape loops to cats meowing. The CD makes for a good listen, but it is as a live performer that Ichi really excels. The one show I went to began with him dancing around on stilts with noisemakers, only to be followed by a song during which he played a typewriter as a rhythm track and then finished the song by eating the paper. He seems to tour a lot so if you get the chance you should definitely check him out.
Recommended album: “Mono”
A few recommended sites to learn more about the non-J-POP music scene: