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.

The Future of Tunequest


Early tunequest page

So I was in the middle of putting together a little write up about a couple pieces of Star Trek music, when two notable events occurred here at tunequest. In progress news, I crossed the sub-1000 songs remaining threshold yesterday while listening to Joe Hisaishi’s score to Spirited Away. Hisaishi has composed music for nearly all of master Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpieces. The beauty and grandeur of those films is matched, if not exceeded by, their music. Always melodious, mysterious, sweeping and haunting, it gives me chills.

Meanwhile, aside from that milestone, tunequest was apparently accepted into the 9rules blogging network, whose stated mission is to advocate and promote top-shelf content and talent. I’ve only recently become familiar with it and, honestly, submitted my entry on a purely “what-the-hell” basis. So to be accepted is a freakin’ huge compliment. To which I simply say, “Aw shucks.” 🙂 and I look forward to contributing.

The thing is, the actual tunequest was always going to be a time-limited endeavor. My goal was to listen to every song in my iTunes library before the end of the year. That’s it. It started as simply a personal journey to acquaint (and re-acquaint) myself with the myriad of tunes that I had collected, but had gone neglected since the advent of the iTunes+iPod paradigm.

Early on, I decided to chronicle this quest, choosing to tell myself and others what all this music means to me. I figured that by this time of the year it would be neat to look back at all I had done and be like, “Yeah, that was cool” and just share some of my thoughts and experiences.

When I started this, I literally had thousands of songs that I’d never played or hadn’t listened to in years. Part of the goal was to really evaluate the music in my possession. Going in, I knew that the ease of digital distribution had led to my acquiring music simply because it was possible. The problem was that the pack rat in me wouldn’t let me get rid of things, particularly the obscure and under-rated things. (I’m a sucker for an underdog).

And you know, under this evaluation, I discovered that most of my music was worth keeping. It turns out I had originally liked it for a reason. Sure, not everything aged well. My affinity for drum-n-bass has waned significantly and there were multiple film scores that I just never got into. Bjork’s Medulla, gone. Kid Koala, gone, as are a handful of “glitch/noise” records whose indie cred of being “difficult but rewarding” wasn’t enough to justify keeping them around. In total, only about 7% of my library has been cut.

But the real surprises came when an album or artist defied my expectations. More often than I would have guessed, the albums that I had pegged as potentials for deletion were actually quite compelling. I was frankly astonished that Franz Waxman’s 1935 score for Bride of Frankenstein perfectly blends my love of both film and classical music. Nobukazu Takemura’s Child’s View and For Tomorrow re-affirmed that the man is a genius. Heck, even The Offspring, who I continue to like against my better judgement, managed to con me into keeping Conspiracy of One around.

But that’s all past and this is supposed to be about the future.

Even though the original tunequest will be drawing to a close soon, music will be around for a long time. Hopefully, I’ll be around a long time to listen to it. I’m sure I’ll have opinions, thoughts and an intensive desire to share.

So, moving forward, I don’t expect much to change around here. Content will take a looser form I suspect, since it won’t be tied to the rigorous listening pattern of my library. And I’ll possibly branch out into other subjects from time to time. I am also toying with the idea of initiating “mini-tunequests,” that is, finding a particular niche of music and exploring it in detail, like all the James Bond scores or something similar.

Format-wise, I plan to continue posting insights and observations about the music in my life, the song of the day though probably not every day and tips and ideas for getting the most out of iTunes and iPods. I’m also hoping to resurrect my long-defunct “Records that time forgot” series.

But if this experience has taught me anything, it is that a tunequest is a life-long journey.

Oh, and feed subscribers will continue to get curated links to free music downloads.

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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Another day of seemingly non-random iPod

As if to prove my previous post for me, the tunequest-pod offered me these selections today (in order):

  1. pearl jam-live at the fox theatre in atlanta (which i skipped because i had just heard a live show yesterday)
  2. vince guaraldi’s oh good grief (a decent jazz album)
  3. sonic youth experimental jet set trash and no star (my first sonic youth record and, for lack of a better word the group’s most "quirky." to this day, ‘self-obsessed and sexxee’ remains one of my favorite songs.)
  4. tchaikovsky’s symphony 4 (ooo, the lush strings of its marvelous second movement)
  5. spiritual vibes’ newly (more work from the ever-fascinating nobukazu takemura. before tunequest began, i would have named his songs as top candidates for removal from the library, but now i’ve a much renewed and invigorated appreciation for his musical talents.)
  6. john williams’ score for the 70s disaster film earthquake (skipped because i wanted to pay extra attention to it and couldn’t at the time)
  7. a pearl jam single (hail hail, b/w black red and yellow. that one’s a good b-side)
  8. two beck singles, then a beck album (mutations. all of which were skipped because i wasn’t in a beck mood)
  9. two more symphonies i didn’t feeling hearing at the time
  10. finally, the 1992 re-recording of maurice jarre’s lawrence of arabia. (fine stuff there)

So despite the fact that albums by Beck, Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth have only a roughly 10% chance, combined, of being the next one played, we see here that, in fact, said artists account for 6 of 11 “randomly selected” albums for the day, or 55%. My iPod choose them at 5 times the rate I would have expected.

I’m not railing against it, since it doesn’t really bother mean though; just pointing it out.

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.

Nobukazu Takemura – Hoshi no Koe: glitches

The note at the top of the page says that the site layout is currently broken in firefox. It turns out that I royally screwed something up while trying to "Improve" Things around here. As a result, I’ll have to recode the site structure and css from scratch. Until then, sorry firefox users. I commend you for your independent spirit, but for now you’ll have to scroll to the bottom of the page to see the sidebars.

However, that’s not the only type of glitch in these parts lately. I ran across Nobukazu Takemura’s hoshi no koe the other day. Takemura is a guy I was first introduced to in new orleans 5 years ago in june 2001. He was opening for Tortoise and Mouse on Mars at the howlin’ wolf. (by the way, best concert ever. it’s not often you get to see a band at the height of your fandom for them.)

It was my first exposure to both the glitch genre of music and the concept of a ‘laptop performance.’ For 30+ minutes this Japanese guy with a long pony tail sat calmly behind a table, meticulously twisting dials, pushing buttons and manipulating his powerbook, creating a perfect, swirling mess of sounds… And I was mesmerized by it. By the time he was half way through Sign and those dueling artificial voices had finished their seemingly-never-ending chant, I was hooked.

I bought Hoshi no Koe that night after the show and quickly launched an effort to acquire as much Takemura as I could. It was a foolish endeavor; The dude is as prolific as he is obscure (not to mention foreign) and I had a hard enough time tracking down a full discography, let alone much of his music.

Eventually, I gave up on that particular tunequest as it proved nearly impossible. Besides, the thing I came to slowly realize about Takemura’s music is that it’s very dichotomic. It’s either so brilliantly clever that you want to shout "Oh my god, that’s awesome!" Or it’s completely and totally unlistenably abstract, the type of compositions that certain people who want to prove their intellectual mettle listen to. A similar phenomenon occurs throughout the genre. However, lesser composers than Takemura lean distinctively toward the latter opinion.

In the end, despite the short burst of passion, my affair with glitch was short-lived. As I’ve mellowed with age, I’m not as likely to indulge in the less listenable as I find that my musical tastes are for my own enjoyment and not to impress the kids with some kind of street cred.

But Takemura, the man is still fascinating.

Jim O’rourke, Cinematic Orchestra and DJ Krush: Downtempo day

First off today, Jim O'rourke's i'm happy, and i'm singing, and a 1, 2, 3 , 4, which consists of precisely three songs of significant length, one for each of the phrases in the album title. O'rourke is a musical genius and I'm convinced that if he had lived 100 years ago he would have been a master composer.

This album is a bit of departure for him. Principally known for his work in the rock mode (and his sometimes membership in Sonic Youth), this record seems to channel nobukazu takemura and is far more experimental in nature. Droning and glitch-filled, but not harsh. Very mellow and relaxing. It's further evidence that everything he touches turns to musical gold.

Rounding out today: some nice beats and trumpet work from dj krush and the sweeping soulfulness of the cinematic orchestra.