A beginner’s guide to J-Pop
From BABYMETAL to Perfume, we’ve got you covered on getting started with Japanese music
By Brett Luft, Web Editor
So you’re interested in Japanese pop music? You’ve picked a pretty expensive hobby since Japanese music is often omitted from streaming services because albums typically retail for $40 CAD.
But luckily YouTube and iTunes have a pretty good selection of music available from Japan. As somebody who has travelled to Tokyo numerous times, I’d like to try to help you make sense of the Japanese music scene.
AKB48: The Idol Army
AKB48 is a really interesting band. I don’t know if I can actually recommend them because their fans are way more dedicated than I will ever be. For example, in 2013 The Verge reported that AKB48 members were banned from dating “so as not to shatter the fantasies of fans.”
This is because the AKB48 brand is founded on the principle that fans can have daily access to their favourite artists in the form of meet-and-greets and concerts. Groups perform in the AKB48 theatre in Akihabara, a district dedicated to anime, manga and video game culture.
But even though I steer away from the band, their music is famously catchy and their success is unrivaled. AKB48 currently has more than 130 members and is one of the highest-earning music performers in Japan. If you’re looking for Idol Pop, AKB48 is where you’ll want to start.
Perfume is one of the first bands that comes to my mind when I think of J-Pop. I learned of Perfume when I was living in Japan as it was often the band most recognized by foreigners and nationals alike.
Their success has carried them internationally without needing to resort to some of the more common wacky tropes (see: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu) or performing exclusively in English.
Unlike AKB48, Perfume sticks to a three-member formula and has a sound best described as electro-pop. Their sound should be pretty familiar to North American audiences, making it one of the easier groups to transition into.
If you’re looking to dive in deep off your first listen, check out “Flash,” “Daijyobanai” and “Star Train.”
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is that artist you found really late at night procrastinating while surfing the “weird part of YouTube.” Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is notorious for ridiculous music videos.
Face swapping, humanoid animals, walking cakes made from hats and Harajuku fashion are familiar images to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu fans. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is best described as Katy Perry with the wacky antics turned up to 11. You thought Left Shark was fun? Check out a polar bear with an afro playing the guitar.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu might not be the best first place to go, but she is one of the more interesting artists in J-Pop. Check out “PONPONPON” for the epitome of weird music videos or “HARAJUKU IYAHOI,” “Yumeno Hajime Ring Ring” and “Invader Invader” for something closer to the norm.
Utada might be the most recognizable name in the list to many Westerners. She’s fully bilingual, and performs and writes music in both English and Japanese. She’s also worked with artists such as Timbaland, Foxy Brown and Ne-Yo in her earlier years.
She also has performed tracks for different forms of media, such as Rush Hour 2 and the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Utada Hikaru also held the record for highest weekly sales in a single region from 2001 until last year, being dethroned by Adele’s 25.
Utada Hikaru’s sound changes from track to track, but usually leans toward pop. Check out “Simple and Clean (Ray of Hope Mix)” and “You Make Me Want to Be a Man” in English or “Passion,” “Ore no Kanojo” and “Hikari.”
RADWIMPS is a name that I only discovered recently after watching Japanese film 君の名は。(your name.) on a flight to Tokyo. But with the success of the film domestically and its pending North American release, it’s a perfect time to start listening to RADWIMPS.
RADWIMPS covers a lot of ground with its music, as they have origins in emo, alt-rock and its more pop-rock sound. And like Utada Hikaru, RADWIMPS manages some fantastic English vocals from time-to-time.
Check out “Nandemonaiya,” “Sparkle” and “Zenzenzense” in both English and Japanese to prepare yourself for the release of the 君の名は。(your name.) next month.
The Best of the Rest
Now that you’ve been introduced to Japanese music, there’s still a lot to check out. MONKEY MAJIK is fantastic bilingual band, with two of its members coming from Canada. Their latest release, southview, is a beautiful mashup between rock, electronic and indie music.
Nishino Kana is an artist with a similar sound to Utada Hikaru, in that she mixes R&B and pop with bilingual lyrics. If you’re a fan of the likes of Mariah Carey, Nishino Kana is a great option.
If you like something a bit more out there BABYMETAL and Crossfaith offer two great alternatives, although both bands are quite different from each other.
Another good option is to talk to your friends who like anime, as mainstream bands are typically responsible for theme songs and closing tracks for popular anime. Other than that, keep exploring, and try not to let fear of a foreign language stop you.