It may have been more than 15 years since I was there, but the memory of a year living in Japan has remained with me through the ensuing years. I was actually there when the killer quake struck Kobe (while still earthshaking, the effects 200 kilometres away weren’t deadly), so the Sendai quake and tsunami certainly brought back vivid memories and spurred messages to old friends.
It also sparked the idea of featuring a brief guide to some great Japanese music — some of it from my time in Japan, and some older or more recent. There’s J-pop, traditional music and even some psych rock.
Spitz — “Robinson” [from Hachimitsu]
Over a decade-and-a-half and this beautiful J-pop gem hasn’t lost its luster. Shimmery guitars, airy vocals and a killer hook. This was a karaoke staple for me.
Kyu Sakamoto — “Sukiyaki” [aka “Ue wo muite arukou”]
Speaking of karaoke staples, here’s one that everyone knows how to sing in Japan. It’s like their “Home For A Rest,” only it has nothing to do with being drunk.
Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso UFO — “Pink Lady Lemonade” [from Pink Lady Lemonade]
Formed in 1996 as a “soul collective,” and with a membership that has swelled to the high single digits at times, Acid Mother Temple took inspiration from countryman Damo Suzuki and his krautrock band Can, as well as prog rock of the seventies in crafting their epic psych rock freakouts.
Kenji Ozawa — “Corolla II Ni Notte”
We’ve all heard of popular songs being licensed for TV commercials, but here’s an anomaly — a song written for a commercial that became a popular song. So popular that it was released as a single that charted.
Kenji Ozawa — “Lovely” [from Life]
Just so you don’t think Kenji Ozawa was an industry hack penning commercials, here’s the hit single from his fantastic 1994 album. More J-pop perfection.
DJ Krush & Toshinori Kondo —
“The Sun Is Shining” [from Ki-Oku]
Krush first came to my attention with his work on the Mo’ Wax label, but his collaboration with trumpeter Toshinori Kondo is his best work. The muted trumpet perfectly complements Krush’s ominous productions creating a spooky, beautiful soundscape.
heRajiKa Tracks – “Shi-gure”
[from Love Universal]
I’m cheating a bit because heRajiKa Tracks are actually based out of Calgary — but their album has only been released in Japan, which is a crime because more people need to hear this piano/turntable duo.
Shonen Knife —
“Top Of The World” [from If I Were A Carpenter]
This all-girl punk act bounced around among indie and major labels in the nineties, but always had fans amongst the likes of Nirvana and Redd Kross, with whom they appeared on this tribute to the Carpenters.
Pizzicato Five — “Sweet Soul Revue” [from Made In USA]
For a while there, Pizzicato Five were the hippest band going. Their music and albums blended Stereolab and Esquivel to kitschy, catchy effect. Compilations released on Matador — including Made In USA — did well enough that they made their first album released simultaneously in Japan and North America with Happy End of the World in 1997.
Ryuichi Sakamoto — “Energy Flow” [from Ryuichi Sakamoto: Back to the Basic]
Sakamoto is a Japanese treasure — whether it’s with Yellow Magic Orchestra, his original composition and remix series for Ninja Tune, his award-winning film score work, or even his film acting, Sakamoto has been a fixture since the late seventies. Here’s one of his beautiful solo works.