Top 10 Japanese Pop (J-pop) Albums
Japanese pop (more commonly referred to as "J-pop") has a long tried and true history spanning over half a century. From the American song cover eras of the 50s and 60s, to the idols era of the 70s and 80s, to the true emergence of a Japanese music economy in the 90s and 21st century, J-pop has dominated most of Asia and even made its way into millions of laptops and MP3 players across the world.
So, where does one begin looking for the best of the best?
The easiest way is to experiment yourself, by listening to hundreds and hundreds of albums based on your own quirks and preferences. Or, for those truly lost, asking for advice from those who have been listening to J-pop for most of their lives.
I began listening to J-pop shortly after first getting the internet in 2002. I began with anime theme songs, purposefully avoiding the "J-pop" genre because it was just so huge and vast and I was scared of dipping my toes into it. That was until a music friend of mine basically forced me to listen to Ayumi Hamasaki's "M" single. The rest, as they say, is history. Since then I have listened to literally thousands of albums and gone through artists like candy. Making this list was next to impossible for a while, but I finally managed to whittle down to THE 10 albums that I feel best represents my love for J-pop. This list is by no means representative of every fan - that would be impossible to create. Instead, unlike my other top 10 lists that strive to balance my preferences with those of the general public's, this list is pure "me". These are my favorite J-pop albums, and the ones you should listen to if you trust in my tastes at all.
I am, however, working off some pretty strict guidelines. First, only one album by any artist or band is posted here, otherwise it would be a very boring list. Second, no best or compilation albums. Third, I'm working only with releases since 1985, which is when "J-pop" as it's known today first started to truly form. That's still over 25 years of music, though!
Without further ado, let's get this party started.
1. Zwei - Pretty Queen (2004)
It goes without saying that an album from my favorite band is probably at the top of this list. Well, it is. And it's the greatest album I've ever heard, even five years after first listening to it on a whim recommendation from a friend.
Bear with me here - I do not use the phrase "best album ever!!" lightly. And indeed, after listening to literally thousands of J-pop albums by now, I should know dang well which one is my favorite. Although this list was hard to make, it was only hard after #3 or so. The first three were easy enough to list, and the first one truly so.
Most of this album's greatness comes from those who made it: the band, Zwei, is unique in themselves as they are a two-woman group (vocalist and bass player) who focus on rock with pop inspiration...they're not idols and they're not visual kei, but instead find a happy medium between Japan's two musical extremes; the producers, Nick Wood and Simon Le Bon, bring their British-poprock sensibilities. The result is an album full of hard riffs (Watashigai no Uta, Find me, Love Land), quiet piano (DNA, Rain), lyrics about doing-the-nasty-the-only-way-women-know-how (Kuchi ~I Love Your Mouth~, Keep Giving) and deep, screeching vocals that never, ever get old. It's kinda rough to say that Zwei peaked at their debut album (which "Pretty Queen" is) but it's true - nothing's really matched this first album, although they have dang well tried.
Stand out tracks include their two singles, Movie Star and Watashigai no Uta (featured at right). Other tracks of note are Keep Giving, a slow, sensual song about love and sex, and Kuchi ~I Love Your Mouth~, a throbbing rock number about...fun things adults can do with phone calls. Ahem.
Oh yeah, the standards are high on this list all right.
2. Ayumi Hamasaki - I am... (2002)
If #1 was an album by my favorite band, then it goes to say that #2 is an album by my favorite artist. "I am..." is often considered the definitive album of Ayumi Hamasaki's career - no small feat, considering she is also considered the Queen of J-pop. It's also no coincidence that this is the first album Hamasaki began composing for. The original theme of the album was to follow a traditional Japanese look before the events of September 11th, after which Hamasaki decided to change the art direction to one promoting peace. This was also the very first J-pop album I bought after getting into it, and there are no regrets.
Above I mentioned that it was Hamasaki's song, "M", that first lured me into proper J-pop. That song is on this album. You know what else is on this album? evolution, my favorite song ever, and a Hamasaki classic. Other fantastic songs are Endless sorrow, a haunting ballad as the name implies; Dearest the other serial classic best known as an ending theme for the hit anime "Inuyasha"; still alone, a tune of despair and mourning; and the titular I am..., a head pounding anthem of the self, which opens up the album with the demand, "Listen to me, because I will keep on screaming until you understand - I've been here, here, here forever." It's quite difficult to sit through the whole album without listening wholeheartedly, for all of Hamasaki's soul and talents are seemingly poured into it until one comes to the realization that, yes, this really is the definition of who she is as a human being and as an artist.
3. capsule - FLASH BACK (2007)
One of the most popular setups in J-pop is a male/female duo, with the man as writer and musician and the woman as vocals (and sometimes writer as well). capsule takes that formula and throws it against the wall until you can't even recognize it anymore. Headed by up-and-coming producer Yasutaka Nakta and his friend vocalist Toshiko Koshijima, capsule began as a "normal" pop duo before progressing to shibuya-kei and finally finding their niche in electro-pop. Nakata is probably most famous outside of capsule for producing the girl-group Perfume, but it's with capsule that he says he can use his full creativity..
"FLASH BACK" is their ninth album overall and their second as a full-fledged electro-pop duo, although it still borrows some themes from their previous shibuya-kei works. There are hard-hitting electronic tracks such as FLASHBACK and MUSiXXX, and lounge-inspired tracks like Electric light moonlight and I'm feeling you. Also not to be forgotten are the totally groovy Get Down and You are the Reason. Overall it's their most cohesive album to date and the best representation of electronic music in Japan. If capsule are electronica staples for a healthy pop diet, then "FLASH BACK" is the fortified vitamins and minerals found inside.
4. Akina Nakamori - Fushigi (1986)
When Akina Nakamori released "Fushigi" back in the mid-80s, all her fans had to do a double take and wonder if they had bought a faulty record - the vocals in all the songs are distorted and nearly incomprehensible, lending a mysterious air and quality unrivaled since. But it was certainly done with purpose.
This release represents the best of the 80's idol era in J-pop music, without even really being "idol music". This was when the idols themselves were branching out and extending their wings, as it were, trying their own ideas and turning cookie-cutter J-pop on its head. Nakamori is already a fantastic vocalist in her own right, and has always presented herself as a mature, somber woman in her work. All that combined makes this a fantastic album that can be enjoyed while doing just about anything: driving, homework, cleaning, relaxing, you name it, you can listen to this album and enjoy its complexity. Particular songs of notes include...well, all of them. To appreciate this album is to appreciate every track on it.
It was followed up, however, with a special album called "Wonder" that included "normal" mixes of some of the songs.
5. MAX - MAXIMUM (1996)
During the 90s two things were completely inescapable in J-pop: the first was the dance craze that swept through the country much as it did in the West, and the second was the subgenre "Eurobeat" that dominated it. It was virtually impossible to go into any nightclub in Japan and not be bombarded with Eurobeat from every angle.
MAX were (are, still around) a four-person idol group that dominated the Eurobeat craze and put out high quality Eurobeat song after another. Their first album, "MAXIMUM", is a 13-song thrill ride in heart pumpin', floor thuddin' beats as their deep harmonies belt out covers of popular Euro-dance songs. Their most popular hits are TORA TORA TORA, GET MY LOVE!, and Seventies, although I also love the beats and vocals of LOVE LOVE FIRE, BECAUSE I NEED YOU, and STRANGER IN THE NIGHT. Overall, this is a great album to explore a very interesting piece of Japanese music with. Just be prepared that there's nothing calm about it: if you listen to it, expect an hour of high energy and passionate singing.
6. Nanase Aikawa - FOXTROT (2000)
After the idol craze of the 80s and early 90s, Japan seemed locked in its love for the "girl next door" image. Top female stars mostly made fans by appearing wholesome, conventionally attractive, and with a clean history.
Then the mid-90s arrived.
One of the first women to completely shatter mainstream Japan's conceptions of "superstar" was Nanase Aikawa, a rough "troublemaker" with a hard past and an uncertain future. (It's claimed that in her youth she was the leader of a gang, the kind of thing that would have ruined careers in the 80s.) She shirked the good-girl image and happy pop songs in exchange for a crude demeanor and a hard-rock sound. After three highly successful albums, her fourth and the first to not reach #1, "FOXTROT", is also her best. It's Nanase at top form in her career, with slick rock songs like "Heat of the Night" and "Second Wind", and crooning, passionate ballads like "China Rose" (featured right) and "Giniro no Fune". Not to be forgotten are the high-energetic rock tunes "COSMIC LOVE" and "Jealousy", with the hit "Sekai wa Kono The no Naka ni" rounding everything out. If straight up pop/dance music isn't your thing, then odds are you'll appreciate a woman like Nanase, who still enjoy rockin' success to this day.
7. Nana Katase - EXTENDED (2004)
If there's one thing Japan is "notorious" for, it's taking their models and actresses and having them record singles and albums of questionable quality in order to make some extra bucks. And yet every once in a while a real piece of gold is found in the piles of rubble surrounding the genre.
Although her career was quite short, with a few singles, one album, and a mini-album, Nana Katase (originally a model and then actress) made quite a name for herself with her husky vocals layered over dark electronic music. In 2004 she released a cover album called "EXTENDED" that featured seven songs originally by 80's idols. Each song is carefully arranged to reflect a brand new sound and Nana delivers her usual greatness. I can personally thank this album for getting me into the whole idol era to begin with - I love the songs on it so much that I eventually went out and tracked down the originals and never looked back. This album remains one of my most played to this day.
The greatest songs to listen to in order to fall down the idol rabbit hole are undoubtedly "TANGO NOIR" (original by Akina Nakamori, seen above) and "Samishii Nettaigyo" (original by WINK). Two other near perfect songs are "Kogarashi ni Dakarete" (original by Kyoko Koizumi) and "Kindan no Telepathy" (original by Shizuka Kudo).
8. globe - Relation (1998)
If there was anyone who controlled J-pop in the 90s, it was renowned producer Tetsuya Komuro. He alone produced numerous acts that sold millions and millions of copies and forged his own "TK sound" that is still distinguishable today. His greatest musical love, though, is his own band "globe", which also includes singer KEIKO (to whom he is now married) and rapper Marc Panther. Together globe sold millions of albums through the late 90s and continue to enjoy their legacy today.
Their third album, "Relation", is my favorite. While all of their albums are wonderful, "Relation" in particular has a cohesion unmatched in their earlier albums. It also features two of my absolute favorite songs by them, the disturbing "wanna Be A Dreammaker" and the enchanting "Perfume of Love". Other classic hits include "Sa Yo Na Ra" and "sweet heart". All four of these songs made up a singles project just before the release of this album.
There were no albums quite like "Relation" up until its release, and there have been very few since. TK's unique stamp is all over this album, but it's KEIKO who brings the soulful vocals and Marc who lends his own desperation to some of the more intense songs. While TK could have made this album for anybody, it was globe who made the songs truly shine.
9. ELLEGARDEN - Eleven Fire Crackers (2006)
Clearly by now it must be time for the token "male" album on this list. But it's a fantastic album, of course, representing a punkier side of Japanese pop/rock. ELLEGARDEN was fronted by bilingual vocalist/guitarist Takeshi Hosomi, whose poignant lyrics (in both English and Japanese) and higher vocals make for a great clash between the American punk wave of the early 00s and Japan's classic rock sound.
For some reason I find this album just incredibly inspirational, and I'm not even sure why, or how. But there's nothing beneath the surface in ELLEGARDEN's music - it's upfront rock music that asks the big questions about life and pines for the "one that got away". The best track, and my favorite from them, is the noisy single "Salamander" (featured right). Other greats are "Marie" and "Acropolis", although it's hard to single out most of the tracks on this album. It's a short, cohesive album that represents the best of one of Japan's best bands. Too bad they broke up. (Oh, sorry, "indefinite hiatus".)
10. Mika Nakashima - MUSIC (2005)
The last album on this list is one from an artist I don't even really consider myself a "fan" of, but dang if this album is not just fantastic. Mika Nakashima is an artist who is known for her soft, husky vocals and musical styles that range from classical to jazz-inspired, with some rock and straight up J-pop thrown in. Her first two albums were kinda all over the place and her vocals kinda...yeah. "Unperfected" is probably a good term to use. But her third album, "MUSIC", shows her at top form with a cohesive album that manages to cover traditional ballads (Oborozukiyo Inori) with piano ballads (Sakurairo Maukoro), to rock inspired tracks (Fed up). Overall, just about every arrangement is complex and beautiful, and the compositions are unexpected but fitting. Everything about this album is carefully selected and crafted, and Nakashima really brings her true talents to the table.
Since then she's put out stuff that I would say has never even touched "MUSIC"'s utter perfection. She went with gospel for a while, did a whole rock era when she starred in the movie NANA, and has since tried to reclaim her older sound. She's also never, I feel, recaptured these great vocals that she finally reigned in and controlled in this album. No screeching, no warbling, just smoothness the whole way through. Well, one thing's for sure, when Nakashima meant to put out an album called "MUSIC", she made it count - cause it's great music.
J-pop has come a long way since its infancy in the early 50s. Since the mid-80s especially J-pop has formed its own distinct sound that goes beyond just Japanese lyrics - but of course, since it's the second largest music industry in the world, there are many subgenres and artists to check out. I hope you enjoyed my humble list of top 10 albums to come out in Japan since 1985, and look forward to Part 2!
Do you listen to J-pop? Who is your favorite band/artist? What is your favorite album?