Friday, 10 August 2007

Top 5 of Good Japanese Music

I don't much care for J-pop. I know that it isn't very fair or reasonable to call an entire genre "largely rubbish", but believe me. After four years in Japan spent listening to sub-Celine Dion melodramatic codswallop, faux- Will Smith rap-pop, and The Bends-era Radiohead without the tunes, riffs or lyrics, I feel I'm qualified to make that call.

But then again, a lot of Western pop music these days is rubbish too. That doesn't stop us finding bands which we like. And the same is naturally also true of the Japanese music scene. So here (drum roll) is my list of the Top 5 Japanese Bands Wot I Reckon You Should Check Out:

1. Elephant Kashimashi. A group of 80s survivors who've changed their style considerably over the years (and improved a lot: in 1988, when their first album was released, they were pretty awful). The singer, Miyamoto Hiroji, has one of the Great Rock Voices; a sort of throaty, bluesy version of Bono, but infinitely more expressive and tuneful than that, and the band are tight and somewhat experimental at the same time. More importantly, Miyamoto is one of the few Japanese leads to actually sing about interesting things and put an individual 'take' on them. (Japanese bands' lyrics tend to swing from one extreme to another - mindless 'I love you baby' drivel on the one hand, bizarre dadaist gibberish on the other.) That might not mean anything if you don't speak Japanese, but even you will be able to appreciate the fact that Miyamoto doesn't liberally sprinkle his songs with snippets of crushingly inappropriate and jarring English.

2. Jazztronik. I don't know about you, but I think the world needs more Music That Makes You Happy. And Jazztronik consistently manage that, without ever seeming like meaning to. That's just what the way the music comes out - you can actually hear the joy in it, like an extra instrument. I don't know whether J-jazz-funk-pop is a genre, but if it is, it's definitely my favourite.

3. Thee Michelle Gun Elephant. Do you remember the early 2000s Garage Rock renaissance? The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Vines, The Hives, Von Bondies, The Dirtbombs...well, Thee Michelle Gun Elephant had already revived it five or six years before, and are probably the only example of a Japanese band actually setting a trend rather than following one. What's more, they were also brilliant: loud, choppy guitars, gravelly but tuneful vocals, and a nice recognition that nothing else matters if you've got a really good riff.

4. I hate sounding like a sell-out, but I do really like Spitz, a band who formed in 1987 and are absolutely massive in Japan. Sometimes they sound too poppy for their own good (you know how some pretentious idiot musicians talk about "retaining their pop sensibilities"? well Spitz wouldn't have had that conversation because all they are is a bundle of pop sensibilities) but hooks like theirs are impossible to resist. Secret weapon is Kusano Masamune, the vocalist, whose eerily beautiful voice really doesn't sound like anything of this earth.

5. It's a bit of a cheat to include Oki, because his music is that of the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido (Japan's northernmost island). But I'll do it anyway, because I'm evangelical about how good Ainu music is/was. Even if you don't like 'world' music (I don't), it's worth listening to, and it'll surprise you firstly by how much it reminds you of the Blues (in the way it revolves around cyclical segments of rhythm) and secondly by how much you can hear the sound of Hokkaido - frozen lakes, pine forests, seal-hunting - in it, even if you've never been there. It's like the gateway to a subarctic world, right there on your ipod.


zero_zero_one said...

I've heard some Elephant Kashimashi before, and also some Thee Michelle Gun Elephant. Do you have some Jazztronik that I could borrow?

mattiecore said...

I really like Electric Eel Shock's older stuff. They're pretty much straight up rock (though they're experimenting with new sounds nowadays, it seems), and their guitarist is pretty ace.

For more straight up experimental music, check out Cornelius.