Japanophilia: Four Japanese albums you should have in your collection

This article is also a guest post for Webomatica, who asked me to fill in for a day while he’s in Japan. Appropriately, I think, I dove through my library and pulled out some of my favorite Japanese albums. Enjoy…

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sumum yokota - symbol

Susumu Yokota – Symbol (2005)

Yokota is a musician of the sonic contortionist variety, meticulously sculpting sounds and bending them to his will. Symbol features some delicately constructed mashups of classical music, with passages that are both instantly recognizable and relatively obscure. Lightweight and easy on the ears, this album is sonic bliss that samples predominantly from the western musical heritage. It’s an engagingly mellow aural experience. Read my full review.

Listen to Traveller In The Wonderland:

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Get it on iTunes Get it at Amazon

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cornelius - point

Cornelius – Point (2002)

Similarly, I would also describe Cornelius, who takes his pseudonym from Roddy McDowell’s character in Planet of the Apes, as a meticulous creator of sounds. But high art isn’t his game; his level is clearly that of catchy pop numbers and urban culture. In the early 90s, he came to fame in Japan as part of a mostly straight-ahead pop outfit called Flippers Guitar. Since then, he’s embraced a kind of whiz-bash indie electronic eclecticism, which comes to a head on his magnum opus. This record is the reason I’ve called him Japan’s greatest natural resource.

Listen to Another View Point:

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Another View Point on iTunes point at Amazon

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yoshinori sunahara - sound of the 70s

Yoshinori Sunahara – PAN AM: Sound of the 70s (1999)

This album may have been released in 1999, but as the title suggests, it might as well have been set much earlier. As for the particular sound of the 70s, this isn’t disco, or funk, or classic rock. It’s smooth and jazzy with a retro lounge feel. Sunahara, who is positively obsessed with TWA-era airline travel, pulls out a soulful downtempo groove that will make you feel like you’re waiting to jet off to London from the terminal at JFK.

Listen to Theme from Take-off (Magic Sunset):

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Theme from Take-off on iTunes sound of the 70s at Amazon

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pizzicato 5 - Happy End of the World

Pizzicato 5 – Happy End of the World (1997)

Released at the peak of Tokyo’s so-called Shibuya-kei scene (the emergence of which had parallels with that of American grunge–but that’s another story), P5’s Happy End of the World is filled to the brim with the ultra cute, ultra stylish and ultra smooth vibe with a little tongue-in-cheek mixed in that makes the world created by this music so inviting for American hipsters and hipster wannabes. It also doesn’t hurt that the album is expertly crafted, with wide-ranging musical influences layered on top of some very infectious beats. However, for all the sophistication this album exudes, there’s a certain childlike giddiness to the whole affair. This album ranks among my all-time favorites.

Listen to Love’s Theme:

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Love's Theme on iTunes happy end of the world at Amazon

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Extra credit. Japan for the past 15 years or so has been cranking out some excellent music. Check out the stylings of: Yoko Kanno/Cowboy Bebop, Nobukazu Takemura, Cibo Matto, Fantastic Plastic Machine. Explore them at your leisure.

Susumu Yokota – Symbol: Classical Mashups

Ah, it’s been a while since we actually talked about music here at tunequest, so let’s pick up where we left off: Susumu Yokota. I recently posted about my discovery of his music via an Amazon recommendation for his 2001 exploration of ambient minimalism, Grinning Cat (perhaps a reference to Alice in Wonderland?). Having piqued my interest to the extreme, I started researching the man and his work.

His style is as varied as he is prolific. Indeed, one recurring thread in my reading was that Yokota cannot claim a definitive fan following because, despite his obvious talents and aptitudes, he never sticks around in any particular musical form long enough to create an authoritative body of work, becoming more an admired dabbler than a respected icon.

Yet, from everything I’ve heard, Yokota’s abilities transcend form, appealing to a more fundamental level of music appreciation. No matter what he’s doing, there’s a layer of genius to it that overrides the superficiality of style. It doesn’t matter that each record varies stylistically because the underlying music is simply wonderful. Of course, I say that having listened to only two of his records, but it is an opinion that will inform my reactions as I delve further into his repertoire.

Having previously covered Grinning Cat, I turn my attention to Yokota’s 2005 record, Symbol. Of all the choices in Yokota’s catalogue, I was drawn to this one solely by its album cover: a tightly cropped portion of John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, which happens to be a favorite painting in my house.

I can’t help but wonder how the myth of Hylas relates to these recordings. Perhaps the closely cropped image is itself a symbol. Like the nymphs of lore, these songs are lush, alluring, temptuous; and if one is not careful, one could easily become lost with them. I’ll buy that; this album is nearly bliss.

Artwork aside, like Grinning Cat, this record could hardly get more beautiful, but where the previous record exists to slowly percolate its sound, Symbol fills the air with atmosphere and a subtle aura of exuberance. Each of the thirteen songs on the album is teeming with compositional splendor.

That splendor is due in no small part to Yokota’s generous sampling of classical music, which forms an orchestral underpinning of the entire experience. It is one of the most intriguing things I’ve ever heard. Classical music tends to be in its own world, distinct from the “lowly” place of popular music, so it’s fascinating to hear what are essentially classical music mash ups.

Off the top of my head, there’s Boccherini’s Celebrated Minuet, Debussy’s Clair de Lune (multiple times), Holst’s Jupiter (from The Planets), Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and several brief samples of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee.

Even though I do appreciate the crashing of the classical gate, I also find it interesting that Yokota chose relatively popular works from which to sample. I suppose that with a concept such as this, recognizable pieces lower the barrier of entry for the casual listener, one who’s probably not very familiar with all that classical has to offer. At least there’s no Ode to Joy or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

In the end, Symbol is masterpiece and it excites me even further as I look forward to my next Susumu Yokota record.

For your listening pleasure, the third song from Symbol, Traveller In The Wonderland:

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Bonus points to anyone who can identify all the classical pieces used in it. I’ll get you started: the song opens with Celebrated Minuet.

Susumu Yokota – Grinning Cat: Simply Amazing

Susumu Yokota's Grinning Cat

I came across Susumu Yokota’s Grinning Cat (2001), amazingly enough via Amazon.com. I’ve had an account there for nine years and, before this record, I cannot remember a single time that the store recommended something relevant to me. Over the years, I’ve become fairly adept at glazing over the recs altogether. Maybe it just took that much time for the site to gather enough information about my interests, because when I saw that stark album cover pop up at the top of the page while browsing for xmas presents a month ago, I just had to find out what it was all about.

The effusive praise on the product page led me to check it out for myself at the iTunes Store. Shortly there after I had my very own copy.

Having played through the album through a couple times now, I find that I am completely in its thrall.

This thing is bursting with magnificent brilliance, not for what it sounds like, but for what it does to your head. The music itself is most closely related to ambient (with some glitch overtones), though it is a far cry from the chillout music that has come to be most associated with the style. Rather than being composed, this record feels like its sonic ideas expressed emerge out of the ether, lead a transitory existence, then disappear into the void.

The closest comparison I can think of is the downtempo rhythmics of Porter Ricks’ 1997 self-titled album, but Grinning Cat is far less structured. Positively otherworldly, but never in an alien way. These sounds evoke a kind of immersive metaphysical wonder, as if it the mind is being separated by the body.

I’ve never heard anything like it and, frankly, I can’t remember the last time a piece of music affected me this profoundly.

I’m surprised that I had never come across Yokota’s music before, given the length of his career and the regard with which he is held. I look forward to exploring his music more fully. Until then, I’ll just have to deal with the Grinning Cat clawing its way deeper and deeper into my subconscious.

grinning cat at itunes

grinning cat at amazon

Japan’s Greatest Natural Resource

point by cornelius

Cornelius is more than a man, more than a musician. He is an idea, the result of thousands of years of simian evolution combined with Japanese tech brilliance and flair. Fortunately for the world, he uses his powers for good, spreading grooves and good cheer from the Land of the Rising Sun to all points on this earth.

If there’s any doubt that Cornelius is Japan’s greatest natural resource, here’s the proof. The song is Smoke. The man is Cornelius. The album is Point.

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Cornelius - Point - Smoke

Explore more Cornelius.

Download the song Point of View. It’s glitch-funk artistry at its finest.

Cosmic Wonder: Songs like this are why I can’t decide about Puffy (amiyumi)

PuffySpike.png

Puffy Amiyumi is a very mixed bag musically. Despite the girls’ massive popularity in Japan (and moderate success in the States), I often find myself highly conflicted about their music. I can’t decide whether it’s superficial pop or subtle Japanese brilliance. Some of it is downright annoying and I occasionally consider purging it from the library.

But damn, these girls like to toy with my emotions, and put together something wonderful. With flashes of inspiration like this, I can’t help but give them another chance.

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The song is COSMIC Wonder from the album Spike.

Nobukazu Takemura – sign acappella

Nobukazu Takemura - Sign

Today’s song is the unaccompanied robot/computer vocalist for Nobukazu Takemura’s single Sign (vinyl 12″ version) from his 2001 album Hoshi no Koe.

I first heard the original version of this song at a show in New Orleans in 2001. That show was my first real exposure to glitch music (a form of electronic music that has intentional “errors” in it or is entirely composed of error-like sounds, such as a CD skipping) and it completely blew my mind. I still get chills listening to the vocal part of Sign that starts at the 1:09 mark.

Takemura has since become a kind of legendary figure as far as my iTunes is concerned. And while Sign is a fantastic track, without its attendant beeps and boops, however, it suffers from some unpleasant and awkwardly-long breaks of silence, which cost it some of its gravitas. Still, these artificial vocals manage to convey a kind of staccato emotion, like a robot throwing down some slam poetry.

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Pizzicato Five: Hi guys! Let me teach you – Surprisingly good

I’m on record in the comments as having said Pizzicato Five’s pre-1994 material is of questionable merit. Well, I have to take it back a little, because I forgot completely about 1991’s Hi guys! Let me teach you. It’s an über-smooth instrumental set, with a jazzy groove and a relaxing downtempo lounge feel.

It was recorded as a soundtrack to a japanese tv show and is surprisingly hard to find. so if you run across a copy somewhere, pick it up.

Yoshinori Sunahara – Pan Am: The Sound of the 70s

Yoshinori Sunahara - sound of the 70s

Yoshinori Sunahara drm-free mp3 Yoshinori Sunahara compact disc

I recently had the pleasure of reacquainting myself with a little record called Pan Am: The Sound of the 70s, a dazzling example of late-90s downtempo shibuya-kei from producer Yoshinori Sunahara. Some truly funky beats, lush arrangements, and (surprisingly for an offshoot of electronic music), some engaging songcraft grace this remarkably enjoyable album.

Sunahara, who has an obsessive fascination with air travel demonstrates that fascination with not only the "Pan Am" in the album title but also a track called 747 Dub as well as ambient sound recordings meant to evoke the feeling of an airport terminal.

The album’s subtitle, "The Sound of the 70s" however, is little misleading. This recording may get its iconography and inspiration from the jet-settingly fashionable TWA era, but it’s sound is pure late-90s Japan. You owe it you yourself to check out the album’s standout track: the soulfully reworked bossa version of Sun Song (called Sun Song 70s). I’ve had this album for even years now and have never once been bored with it, despite its low-key persona.

The album itself is out of print and a bit rare (and pricey) these days. So unless you just have to have that tactile quality, digital download is the way to go. Apple has the whole disc in iTunes Plus.

Nobukazu Takemura – For Tomorrow: Downtempo Premonition

For Tomorrow

Bouncing off my recent Mudhoney post, I’d like to bring up Nobukazu Takemura once again. I was recently given the pleasure of listening to his For Tomorrow disc, which like My Brother the Cow, was released in 1995, and is the accompanying single to the album Child’s View. It strikes me that, even though the two records were released around the same time, Takemura’s offering appears to have aged much more respectably in terms of cultural influence.

It’s probably due to the fact that the Mudhoney record represents a waning of a particular style of music, a lingering breath of the fading grunge movement, which despite it’s continued popularity in some circles, can be easily dismissed as fad.

For Tomorrow however, is an early example of a style that’s grown and flourished since its release: future-jazz, which blends elements of american jazz with downtempo electronic music to create a relaxing environment.

Like most people who could be classified as ‘musical geniuses,’ Takemura appears to enjoy working in as many genres as possible; no two projects sound quite the same. For Tomorrow is barely recognizable as the work of the same artist compared to the glitch-inspired material of his later career. This record is both smooth and quite listenable. The female vocalist sings off-key on the title track, yet the backing music manages to compensate to the point where it sounds both disorienting and perfect at the same time.

The sounds and styles employed on this record would be echoed throughout the late 90s and into the 21st century as downtempo music increased in popularity, from the elaborate compositions of Tortoise to the seamless beats of Fila Brazillia, and that puts this record ahead of its time.