Song Mix Sundays #2: Nihon no Ongaku

August 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

I first discovered Japanese pop/rock in high school when I downloaded an mp3 of Ayumi Hamasaki’s “Forgiveness” from a random music blog. I turned into a Japanophile and never looked back – I started watching anime, I studied the language for 3 semesters in college, and I built a rather impressive personal catalogue of J-pop and J-rock.

While a lot of J-pop sounds as bland as mainstream US radio, there are certian artists that stand out with a unique style, even some of the Western mainstream copy-cat ones. These are 10 of my favorite artists and songs from Japan that I think every music fan should check out:

1. Shuukyou – Shiina Ringo, Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana (2003) Opening this mix with the kind of bang only Shiina Ringo can deliver. Shiina Ringo has a diverse musical style that makes her a genre unto herself. Her albums range from a little bit piano jazz to a little bit alt-rock to a little bit symphonic. The album that this track opens represents some of  her strongest and most musically interesting work. [download]

2. Ash – Gackt, DIABOLOS (2005) Gackt has been a big name in Japanese rock since 1995 when he fronted visual kei rock band Malice Mizer (“visual kei” is essentially Japanese glam rock that got really popular about a decade after it died out in the US. Think KISS only with girlier make-up and frillier costumes). He started his solo career in 1999 with a style that can mostly be classified as alt-rock with some U2, acoustic, and symphonic vibes thrown in. I enjoy “Ash” for its abrupt shifts from a mellow guitar sound to a heavier rock chorus and back again. It’s not what you expect that it’s going to be from the soft opening verse. [download]

3. Never Land – Kimura Kaela, Scratch (2007) Kimura Kaela has an upbeat pop-rock-punk sound. I enjoy this song for its catchy and interesting beat and guitar work. [download]

4. Honjitsu wa Seiten Nari – Do As Infinity, Gates of Heaven (2003) Do As Infinity was another relatively well-known band in Japan before they broke up in 2005 (then reformed in 2008!). Their lyrics focus mostly on positive themes like believing in yourself and caring for the world around you. Need an insanely positive pop-punk anthem to get you going on a dreary morning? This song is better than coffee. “Change the world! Do the best of you!”  [download]

5. The Lucky Star – the brilliant green, Los Angeles (2001) The Brilliant Green (known as BuriGuri to fans) has been around since 1997. They cite The Beatles as their biggest musical influence. They have an upbeat pop-rock style that sometimes leans more towards the pop side but is always catchy. Time magazine listed The Brilliant Green as one of the “10 best bands on planet Earth,” thanks to the Los Angeles album. Check out The Brilliant Green for playful pop/punk/rock styles and lots of English lyrics. I have to agree with Time; the Los Angeles album is their best.  [download]

6. Moments – Ayumi Hamasaki, Moments (2004) Ayumi Hamasaki is the Madonna of Japanese pop, only probably even more popular. She’s been consistently releasing albums since the early 1990s and puts out a new single at least every month or two. Simply put, she’s kind of a big deal. This song stuck out to me for its musical beauty: the strings, the melody, the harmonies on the chorus and the”lalala’s,” and the heart-wrenching sentiments of sacrificial love and devotion expressed in the lyrics. “If my life is transient like a flower / I’ll be in full bloom by your side / And after watching your smile / I’ll fall alone quietly // If I could flutter like a bird / I would fly to you / And offer my wing to your wounded back…”  [download]

7. Gamble – Shiina Ringo, Heisei Fuzoku (2007) Listening to this song feels like eating the richest, most satisfying meal you could imagine. “Gamble” is filled with such savory musical passion that you feel punched in the gut and incapacitated as soon as the full orchestra kicks in. Everything about this song is perfect, down to the last quiet chord that feels like a gentle sigh at the end of a deluxe aural feast. [download]

8. L. Drunk – Kimura Kaela, Scratch (2007) The haphazard sound and energy to this song feels like an aural representation of how my brain functions. [download]

9. Kuki – Shiina Ringo, Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana (2003) Why is Shiina Ringo over-represented in this mix? Because she is a songwriting genius. Where do I start: with the trembling orchestra bass, with the relentless chromatic piano, or with the beat that picks up half-way through and makes me want to tango? Or maybe the part where the dark grunge-symphonic sound dissolves into a major key for a victoriously upbeat finish? I love everything about this song and seem to find something new and fresh about it every time I hear it. [download]

10. Kagaku no Yoru – Do As Infinity, Gates of Heaven (2003) Closing this mix with Do As Infinity’s message of peace for the world. The title translates to “Night of Science,” and describes the sights of the last person living on Earth after a nuclear war disaster: Ash falling from the sky like snow as she whispers wishes of love and peace for a dying Earth. The lyrics are bleak but poetically profound. “For our future, love & peace.” [download]

BONUS TRACK: Moments (Acoustic Piano Version) – Ayumi Hamasaki, Moments (2004) This is a stripped-down version of “Moments,” with acoustic piano accompaniment. I love it for its beautiful simplicity. [download]

Listen to the complete mix on Grooveshark!

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