The best parts of being a music fan are the variety and the accessibility. Jazz, death metal, ambient and ’80s pop are all options that I have all the time. I can hop on YouTube or Spotify and awkwardly dance by myself to *NSYNC’s “Pop” or I can have a head-bobbing chill-out to “Desire Lines” by Deerhunter.
For one reason or another, I’ve been coming upon a lot of good Japanese music the past couple months, great stuff I’m sure you all might enjoy given the opportunity to check it out. I’m not talking stuff like about “Gangnam Style,” South Korea’s hit musical export: Like any country, there is variety in music: it’s just hard to find if you’re not a part of the culture.
Luckily, I’ve managed to find a few gems, so now, I present the four best Japan-based groups I’ve been listening to recently:
4. Yonin Bayashi
There’s no mistaking that Yonin Bayashi are a product of Pink Floyd’s influence, which can be a bad thing if the band doesn’t being anything beyond off-the-wall craziness to the table. In their 1974 album, “Ishoku Sokuhatsu,” Yonin Bayashi proves they’ve brought substance onto the bandwagon with them.
“Omatsuri” opens with a slinky keyboard riff and treble heavy guitars that scream ’70s Floyd. All good foreign language should make you forget that you have no idea what the hell they’re saying, which is what happens here. As I’ve written before in this column, this is the time when the voice is to be viewed as an instrument instead of having linguistic value.
The album’s highlights are its two 11-plus-minute tracks: “Ishoku Sokuhatsu” shares the same vibe as The Clientele’s “Bonfires on the Heath” and is largely instrumental, making it easy to get lost in the psychedelic atmosphere. “Ping-Pong Dama no Nageki” is more of a schizophrenic affair, starting like traditional classic rock and morphing into something like a demented Asian carnival.
3. Sugar Plant
Moving forward a few years in the timeline, Sugar Plant’s crowning achievement is their 1998 album, “Happy,” which sounds exactly like it says. The record is actually sung in English, so it’s perhaps more easily digested, but this is a record that benefits a lot from being in a familiar language because in the title track, when they sing, “You know when I’m happy, you should always be happy, because you make me happy, smile again,” singing along is incredibly rewarding.
Sugar Plant does airy dream pop better than most others, so fans of Beach House and M83 will want to check this out.
This pair of brothers is self-described as having a “loose folksy vibe and floating-on-the-sea ambiance,” which shows they have incredible self-awareness because that’s exactly what they sound like. Similarly to Sugar Plant, Kicell creates a silky aural comfort that makes your eyelids heavy, turns your head into a metronome and makes forgetting about that 10-page paper super easy, so use discretion when listening to their 2002 album, “Kin-mirai,” if you want to preserve your good grades.
It also helps that there are vocal similarities to Sigur Ros, one of the most successful foreign language groups of all time in the United States. Kicell shares the ability to create an expansive atmosphere with them, but does so in a less abstract way.
The group at the top of this list is part of a genre called Shibuya-kei, which is less of a genre and more of a geographical grouping: Shibuya is one of the 23 special wards of Tokyo, and kei means “system” or “style,” so Shibuya-kei translates to “Shibuya style.”
Key elements of the genre are usually taken from jazz, pop and electronic music. If that’s the case, then Clammbon is a prime example of Shibuya-kei. Their 2003 album, “Imagination,” is a well-rounded and diverse effort that uses instrument groupings not commonly heard in American music.
Overall, “Imagination” is a fun and upbeat. However, there’s no denying the diverse nature of the album: there are tracks like “Folklore” that would sound great as a hip-hop backing track and “Time Loss,” a frenetic, tempo-changing thriller primarily featuring Japanese spoken word verses.