The most underappreciated Japanese music of the last decade
The last decade was a painful one for the Japanese music industry. The size of the total music market halved, going from ¥678.9 billion in 1999 to ¥361.8 billion in 2008. Idols like AKB48, Morning Musume and the Johnny's Jimusho boy bands dominated the pop charts, stealing mindshare from musicians who actually care about the content of their work. Graying institutions like B'z and Southern All Stars outsold other young rock bands with derivative versions of their previous works.
But there was a lot of good music produced throughout the decade. The problem was the small innovative young bands could not break through the clutter created by the idol music monopoly on TV music shows and the Japanese media's total lack of music criticism.
So to let you know what you may have missed, here are six releases of the '00s that pushed the boundaries of Japanese pop music and created something of lasting value.
(Most of the YouTube videos below are not official releases, but allow readers to sample the song. Please ignore the visuals.)
6. Macdonald Duck Eclair - "The Genesis Songbook" (2005)
Three-piece electropop unit Macdonald Duck Eclair may have offered the most unusual pop combination for the Aughts: machine-gun gabba drums, walls of rock guitar, breathy girl vocals, keening analog synths, John Hughes film soundtrack piano, and quite often, French-influenced bossa nova. They are one part Lio mixed with one part Atari Teenage Riot. Their second album "The Genesis Songbook" took this sound into noisier and darker directions, realizing a symphonic level of artistry that put the entire Western electroclash scene to shame.
5. Uinona - "One More with Feeling" (2003)
Uinona -- pronounced "winona" like the shoplifting actress -- generally worked in the melodic punk-pop sound that dominated Japanese indie music throughout the '00s. But with girl-guy vocal interplay, heart-wrenching melodies and hermetically-tight production, the duo managed to move the tired genre beyond whiny male angst into a bliss more universal. Their 2006 single "Once in a Lifetime" initially captured heavy MTV Japan rotation but never became the pop crossover it deserved to be.
4. Plus-Tech Squeeze Box - "cartooom!" (2004)
Despite the high-pitched girl vocals and pop goofiness, Plus-Tech Squeeze Box were probably the greatest pioneers of electronic music in the '00s indie scene. Producer Tomonari Hayashibe's high-paced sample editing manages to compress the entire history of Western music into three minute songs. The frantic "Starship.6" above uses clipped jungle breakbeats, guitar samples from Steely Dan's "Peg" and a million synth bleeps to aurally construct the 23rd Century Tokyo of the foreign imagination.3. Shugo Tokumaru - "Exit" (2007)
An intrepid songwriter, groundbreaking producer and skilled guitar player, Shugo Tokumaru is probably the best musician Japan has produced in the last ten years. Tokumaru is also one of the few newcomers to win over both domestic audiences and the international indie scene. His 2008 album "Exit" managed to get an 8.0 on Pitchfork Media yet the Japanese music press -- bound by payola -- has yet to rally behind him with equal force. Retailer MUJI and TV station NHK, however, have rewarded his talent by having him do theme music. A new album is due for 2010, so Tokumaru will likely be create one of the best albums of the next decade as well.
2. Shiina Ringo - "Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana" (2003)
Shiina Ringo became famous in the late 1990s as a relatively talented singer-songwriter, but for her third album, she self-produced what is absolutey the most avant-garde, most conceptual, most confrontational and most well-considered album that has ever been released under the J-Pop rubric. Unfortunately, however, her teenybopper fans did not understand the musical and lyrical complexity, and the indie scene refused to believe that such a mainstream singer could offer something truly innovative. The album ultimately fell through the pop cultural cracks but certainly marks the high-water mark for the entire enterprise of Japanese mass market music.
1. Citrus - "Wispy No Mercy" (2000)
Although barely over ten minutes long, Citrus' farewell five-song EP "Wispy, No Mercy" condenses the band's signature sound -- ragged guitar strums, electronic drum box beats, saccharine female vocal melodies and bizarre off-time real drums -- into a joyous celebration of the Japanese indie spirit. There are lots of production intrigues to keep the deep listener entertained, but the true appeal is the raw energy. This is one for the ages.