Toad Style's Guide to Japanese City Pop
By Teddy Bellamy
Emerging in the late 70s and gaining intense popularity during the 80s, City Pop dominated the Japanese popular music scene during its rather extensive tenure. Now, after an unforeseen spike in popularity due to TikTok, the once seemingly forgotten and unknown (in the West, at least) genre has reemerged for new audiences. So what are the best albums to listen to when trying to get into this rather esoteric genre? Look no further because Toad Style's got the answers.
1. Timely! by Anri
Arguably THE quintessential City Pop album, Anri's fifth record is the perfect jumping off point for those looking to delve into the genre. The album is the perfect combination of all the key components a City Pop record should include. There's potently pronounced bass lines that dominate the tracks without overshadowing the other instruments all while, keeping some of the grooviest rhythms you will hear on any record running throughout the whole thing. Upbeat brass instruments blend perfectly with the energetic drums, incredibly 80s string arrangements and the occasional subtle funk-inspired guitar riff. And, of course, Anri's impressive vocals match the vibe of each song perfectly, with her incredible range being displayed in each and every song.
It's got a mix of both immense energy that'll get your body unwillingly grooving and more chill, soulful tracks that you can relax to. There's a reason as to why you'll see this album at/towards the top of lists denoting the greatest City Pop records of all time. All in all, a great place to start.
2. Tokyo Dreaming by Nick Luscombe
Okay, now, we're cheating here ever so slightly with the inclusion of a compilation album as the best way to experience City Pop would be to listen a studio album. However, for those looking for a more casual entrance into the genre via being graced with a variety of different artists with differing styles then this is definitely a great place to begin. Each track has been masterfully selected by DJ Nick Luscombe who utilises his knowledge on the more underground side of Japanese Pop music to collate a wonderful record that dives deeply into the heart of City Pop.
Although, it's not just a random collection of songs under the same genre. Each song was picked specifically from the cult record label Nippon Columbia which, although unknown, has some exceptional artists under its name. Most notably, it contains a track from Ryuichi Sakamoto who would go on to be not only one of the most influential Japanese musicians of all time, but one of the most influential composers in the world.
There's melancholy instrumentals, vibrant funk compositions to get you on the dance floor and so much synth-pop you'll be miming playing synths in your sleep. Plus, for all you Mac DeMarco fans, make sure to check out the final track: 'The Word II' for a pleasant familiarity.
3. Paraiso by Haruomi Hosono
While funk, jazz and synths are certainly the most prominent and recognised aspects of City Pop, elements of yacht and soft rock are also cited as important sounds that make up the City Pop sound. And that's exactly why Paraiso by the superb Haruomi Hosono is featured on this list. Often compared to Paul McCartney, Hosono blends traditional rock guitars and drums with ambient synths and wild instrument combinations that seemingly wouldn't work but do under his masterful control of said instruments.
There's some very stereotypical-Japanese sounding compositions on certain songs that feel like Kyu Sakamoto's Sukiyaki (note the bouncy and jingly instrumentals of track four), absolutely outstanding synth and piano work throughout (instruments Hosono carried over from his Yellow Magic Orchestra days) and the very conservative use of both electric and acoustic guitars which act more like upholders of the rhythm than a lead instrument (a welcome diversion from the classic rock influences). All the while Hosono's deep and smooth vocals glide atop the meticulously layered, Spector-like wall of sound on each song.
Not only is this record an excellent look into the more alternative, soft rock-focused side of City Pop, it's also a necessity for anyone interested in Japanese music as a whole.
4. The Rainbow Goblins by Masayoshi Takanaka
Now, the very stereotypical English narrator who delivers sections from Ul de Rico's classic children's book is likely to put a few people off and, in all fairness, I wouldn't really blame you. Starting almost every song with an excerpt from a children's book about seven goblins stealing a rainbow is certainly strange, although rather wholesome. Once you're past the rather... unique intros of certain songs you will be greeted with some of the best music put to tape and one of City Pop's crowning achievements.
As with all of Takanaka's work, the album is built by instrumentals alone with the only vocals being the aforementioned soft spoken book reading of the titular children's book. These instrumentals are so impeccable, though, that vocals would ultimately take away from their genius.
Takanaka wields his exceptional command over his guitar to create some of the most electrifyingly energetic jazz/funk fusion guitar symphonies you'll ever hear. For fans of Mario Kart, you'll find that the rapidly swelling jazz compositions are akin to certain tracks found within the game franchise. Once again, those integral elements of jazz and funk are ever-present and while the record isn't a conventional City Pop outing due to its distinct lack of vocals, the way those two ingredients are weaved together so seamlessly by Takanaka results in some of the genre's best melodies.
Groovy doesn't quite cut it as an adjective when discussing this record. Prepare for a sea of running basslines, almost god-like guitar playing that'll quite simply blow your mind and tight percussion that compliments the bright and lively riffs Takanaka provides.
5. Mignonne by Taeko Onuki
If you're not going to indulge in the entire album then I implore you to listen to '4:00 AM' from this record. You will be graced with a funk song from the heavens with a choir in the chorus who deliver a spine-tinglingly powerful deliverance of "Lord, give me one more chance." There's brass instruments layered on crafty piano licks, both of which take centre stage over the quiet guitar. That is, until the guitar kicks into full swing as Onuki's vocals die out and the exceptionally crafted instrumental outro allows the dancing guitar to have its time to shine. While you're forced to dance to the music, you'll also be greeted with Onuki's powerful vocal performance that coincides with the extravagant nature of the melody perfectly.
While '4:00 AM' is undoubtedly the explosive centre piece of 'Mignonne' that does not mean the rest of the record is to be ignored. Although still bouncy, the rest of the album takes a more soulful approach to City Pop, often allowing soft jingly pianos and toned-down brass instruments to become the focal point. At certain points the album even nears on ballads with strings playing integral roles to the overall track(s).
Overall, its a tasty collection of gorgeously clean vocals sat atop powerful rhythms that aren't afraid to delve into a variety of musical styles all while simultaneously staying consistently strong. If you like funk, soul, jazz, big orchestral sounding ballads or more tempered relaxed tracks then this album has something for you. As a consequence, it stands as one of the greatest City Pop albums of all time and a great stepping stone for those interested in the genre.