When I lived in Japan (and even before then) I discovered lots of great Japanese music. (And also lots of bad music, but never mind about that.) Here are five of my favourite pop bands. None are particularly new, but maybe I’m just a “classic J-pop” kind of guy. I don’t know if all of these these could even be considered J-Pop — I don’t think all Japanese pop bands are necessarily J-Pop — but maybe J-Pop is more a state of mind than a sound anyway.
I don’t know anything about this band, but I think they are a duo from Shibuya (where I used to live). Their music is high-energy, wall-of-sound pop with synths and trumpets. It’s perfect music to yank you out of bed in the morning so you can bounce off the walls with a maniacal grin on your face.
These guys have been around for ages — at least 15 years. Very nice melodic rock, and I really like the singer’s slightly husky voice. “Hachimitsu” was a big hit album for them a few years back, and it’s packed with great tunes including “Namida ga Kirari”, one of a very few Japanese songs I was (just about) able to sing at karaoke.
There really aren’t enough a capella pop groups around. In fact, Rag Fair are the only one I know of. They sing fun pop songs with layered harmonies over a human beatbox, and it’s hard not to smile and tap your foot. Their odd forays into English-language covers (Elvis, etc.) are exactly that — odd — but their originals are a breath of fresh air. I remember seeing them on a Japanese variety show where they “ambushed” a devoted fan — as she sat in a high-rise office block, Rag Fair slowly appeared behind her outside the window on a window-cleaners’ elevator. Her reaction when she realised where the singing was coming from was priceless.
This is probably the only one of these bands who are well-known in the English-speaking world — many of their albums have been released in the USA and other countries. They play a mix of catchy, energetic dance-pop songs and slightly stranger groovy-jazzy numbers. There’s a fun kitschy retro feel to the whole thing — kind of like a Japanese version of Saint Etienne, with a nod to Austin Powers. But if you really want to know what they sound like, as John Peel used to say, you’ll just have to listen to the records.
The world’s oldest boy band have been doing their boy band thing for many, many years. They’re such an institution that it’s hard to imagine a year going by without SMAP. Their music is light, melodic, catchy boy band stuff, as you’d expect, but they are truly multimedia stars — they have a long-running TV variety show called “SMAP x SMAP” where the band members each cook a dish for their guests, who then vote on which was the best. For pop singers, they seem to be pretty good cooks. Some of their album promotions are pretty creative too — for their “Drink! SMAP!” album, they had vending machines installed throughout Japan that dispensed their own “SMAP” soft dink. I never tried it, but I did buy the album.
After I came up with these five bands, I kept thinking of more. If I had more time I would write about Puffy, United Future Organisation, YMO, Judy and Mary, and many more. Instead, I will put together a list of my favourite Japanese solo pop artists. Coming soon.