The following artists represent the most gob-smacking, eye-wateringly insane and undeniably brilliant music I could find in my travels around Japan. Some of these songs turned my tiny world upside down and I hope it reveals a little something about popular Japanese music today..
Hopefully you won’t have heard of any of these artists before… unless you are in fact Japanese, in which case you should find something else to read. If this miraculously doesn’t come across as offensive, it will almost certainly be factually wayward.
Japan was an incredible experience for millions of reasons, however one of the most striking cultural differences was not hearing any Western music whatsoever while I was over there.
It’s not that Western bands aren’t popular – Muse are headlining a few Japanese festivals this year, while FKA Twigs and Tame Impala are selling plenty of records – it’s just that with such a massive, vibrant and boundary smashing scene at home, why would they source the bulk of their music from anywhere else?
Best and weirdest music from Japan
Japanese pop music has its roots in a wide variety of influences: 50s era Elvis Presley, jazz music from the early Shōwa period (1926 onwards), the 8-bit sound-effects of early gaming, 60s era Beatles and the otherwise internationally maligned stomp of glam rock. But that’s only skimming the surface. It’s certainly not all J-Pop, nor is it previously-successful-in-their-own-country hair metal bands. Although both of these things are hugely popular. It’s a rich and creatively brimming beast that just keeps getting wilder.
So without any further meandering, let’s introduce a few of my favourites…
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
Although this video is a few years old now, it so perfectly encapsulates the best of Japanese pop music that it’s hard to beat. On the streets of Harajuku (think Camden on a new strain of psychedelic crack) ‘PonPonPon’ is as difficult to avoid as ‘Shake it Off’ and is just as joyously addictive.
To an outsider the video itself perhaps gives a slightly warped impression of mainstream J-Pop. The mixture of kawaii (super-charged cuteness) and gothic horror elements are very much her own invention. Think of Kyary as an equivalent to Bjork or Lady Gaga.
Last year Kyary released the album Pika Pika Fantajin and it’s genuinely one the greatest pop albums to have been released in the last decade, in any country. Her videos thankfully remain so very far from the middle of the road as to be upturned in a ditch.
Some of the most lovely math-rock you’ll ever likely hear comes from this ten-year old five piece from Tokyo. The accompanying video for ‘Dynamics of the Subway’ is gracefully hypnotic.
A fusion of thrash metal and J-Pop, the three-piece teenage girl-group mix together elements of Japan’s ‘idol’ (manufactured pop star) obsession with some eviscerating guitars and head-cracking drums.
Here’s ‘Gimme Chocolate’, which starts off as a fairly run-of-the-mill affair if you’re a thrash fan, but then wins you over with quite the most addictive hook I’ve ever heard. Plus those dance moves are something else entirely.
Gesu No Kiwami Otome
Gesu No Kiwami Otome are a brilliant three-piece using elements of progressive rock, hip-hop, light jazz and wacky time-signatures to create some beautiful pop music.
Maruosa is the Tokyo based master of breakcore and cybergrind.
That opening sentence sounds completely ordinary when compared to the following video that basically looks like 15,000 aneurisms all happening at once.
And with that I’ll leave the final word to the mighty Pamyu Pamyu…