Japanese Power Pop

ymo1[1]The wikipedia definition states that power pop is “a popular musical genre that draws its inspiration from 1960s British and American pop and rock music. It typically incorporates a combination of musical devices such as strong melodies, crisp vocal harmonies, economical arrangements and prominent guitar riffs. (…) a mixture of hard rock and melodic pop music, power pop tends to be more aggressive than pop rock.”

Power pop exists on that fuzzy boundary between pop and rock, having come to life before the two genres drifted so far apart at the beginning of the 70s. This is what the Beatles played, and the Who (the term was coined by Pete Townshend), the Kinks and the Byrds. As pop’s reputation fell and rock’s grew, “power pop” became almost a derogatory term in the anglophone world of music, confined to a niche of sometime popular, but never respected, well-played melodic bubblegum.

But US and UK are not, contrary to what might seem, the only music-producing nations; in other countries, the history of popular music often meanders into strange lands, creating long-lasting phenomena known only to a handful of fans beyond the respective borders, until by a freak accident they are revealed in all their glory. Italian Prog Rock, Scandinavian Electro-pop, Balkan Turbo-folk are just some of the examples. And Power Pop enjoyed a similar seemingly eternal popularity in Scandinavia (Cardigans, anyone?) and, of all places, Japan.

Having been developed for the best part of twenty years by now, this is not your Beatles-loving dad’s power pop. Like the perfectly engineered matchlock guns of the late Shogunate, this music takes the old schemes and hones them to a flawless sound.

YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA

Not a Power Pop band – obviously, this is 80’s Synth Pop at its best – YMO is a giant shadow looming over any intelligent Japanese pop (it’s enough to note how often the three letters appear in any review of a new record), and it’s possible that the genius that is Ryuichi Sakamoto was single-handedly responsible for the everlasting popularity of synthesizers in J-Pop. Unlike the West, in Japan the keyboards never went out of fashion – and rightly so.

SPITZ

If you know anything about Japanese popular music, you must have heard the name Spitz. Their first album came out in 1991, and they have enjoyed a long-standing career ever since, producing 9 number one albums. They are the starting point from which all of modern power pop stems, and a benchmark to which everything is compared.

NUMBER GIRL

Almost as old as Spitz, Number Girl were a Lo-Fi band in the vein of Pavement and Sonic Youth rather than Power Pop; always a lot heavier, edgier and more complex than their counterparts. Eventually, the lead singer of the band went off to create a stunning math rock outfit, the Zazen Boys.

ASIAN KUNG FU GENERATION

At some point possibly the greatest mega stars of the scene, AKFG are synonymous with Japan’s melodic rock, and well known to many fans in the West through their songs being included as opening and ending themes of popular anime, like Naruto or Full Metal Alchemist.

FUJIFABRIC

Coming into the 2000s now: Fuji Fabric is a more pure Power Pop band, with cheerful harmonies, deceptively simple chords and calm vocals. They recorded a couple popular albums before the untimely death of their lead vocalist in 2010.

SOUTAISEIRINON

I remember being completely mindblown the first time I stumbled on this song. I had no  idea what to think of it; the dreaminess vocals, the precision of the arrangement, the Smiths-like arpeggios. It was as if Johnny Marr turned into a magical girl. Two-three years ago, Soutaiseirinon was my default go-to band for any occasion.

PASSEPIED

My latest discovery, and the reason for this post. The craftsmanship of this band is absolutely stunning: the keyboards would not be out of place in YMO, the drums and lead guitar are of jazz-worthy quality (with just a hint of Jimmy Chamberlin and Billy Corgan in places). Worthy heirs of the Soutais (who hadn’t released anything since 2011), their two albums are now on constant repeat everywhere I go.

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