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.

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.

Pizzicato Five – Made in USA

pizzicato five

Stopped by Pizzicato Five’s 1994 american debut, Made in USA this morning. it’s a compilation of the better songs that had already been released in japan during the group’s 8 year existence. In fact, combined with the excellent Five by Five ep (released around the same time), this is P5’s first stab at greatness. Pizzicato Five is a group that can take a simple idea and toy with it, remix it, play with it, re-arrange it and reference it in so many divergent ways, but somehow keep it accessible, cohesive and interesting. Plus, the group is so seemingly happy in its approach to chic enthusiastically detached, as i’ve said before, that being cool was never this much fun.

happy end of the world at itunes

tunequest week in review

for the week ending may 20, 2006.

stats: a superlative week here at tunequest. 394 songs played over 25 hours and 40 minutes. a further 5 songs were removed from the library for a net progress of 399, a new record. frankly, i'm surprised by the results. an afternoon braves game and a couple of extented meetings cut into my normal office listening time and i didn't really expect saturday's listening to be able to compensate. not that i'm complaining about it. i'm thrilled.

highlights for the week include sharing the chicago symphony's performance of mahler's no 6 with the neighborhood, revisiting some  grunge and post-grunge rock from nirvana's bleach and soundgarden's down on the upside, appreciating the smooth grooves of the well-pollished idm of to rococo rot's hotel morgen, getting funky with morton steven's very compelling tv score to hawaii five-o (best tv theme song ever!), and finally finally finally finally getting through all those babylon 5 scores* (it took 7 weeks, but i did it), as well as enjoying a host of other really great music.

also mixed in this week were a couple of james bond scores (john barry's diamonds are forever and david arnold's die another day. both excellent) and william shatner's has been. now don't laugh at this, but that shatner album is some powerful stuff. he's got a very engaging spoken-word delivery as well as some respectable collaborators. the result is 11 songs that pack more heartfelt sentiment than all the songs on top 40 radio in the past 10 years combined. i mean that.

it was also apparently "records that time forgot week" here at tunequest. i only covered 7 albums in that short-lived series, and 3 of them managed to pop up this week: can's ege bamyasi, louis and bebe barron's score to forbidden planet and martin denny's space-exotica extravaganza exotic moog. as soon as i track down that file, i'll post it.

see this week's complete list of albums in the extended entry.

*technically, i have one album left, a compilation called 'the best of babylon 5.' it's currently not eligible for play because the tunequest-ipod is into the I's and it's not smart enough to ignore the "the" at the beginning of album names. artists yes, albums no.

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March 28-29 – 120 songs played. 81 removed

i’ve done a fair amount of weeding over the past couple days and probably reduced the tunequest by a day as a result. some early pizzicato five (i like P5, but by her majesty’s request is unlistenable) and some aphrodite (my love affair with drum and bass has largely run its course) didn’t make the cut and were, well, cut. i also made the single largest removal to date: the emerson string quartet’s collection of shostakovich’s string quartets. nothing against the emersons or shostakovich, mind you, but string quartets, as a form of music, have always been a struggle for me to appreciate. i don’t doubt their musical worth, but i can’t get into string quartets. i’ve tried, but i guess i just prefer the power of the orchestra.

as it stands, i would not want to offend the spirit of shotsakovich, so i did especially listen to and enjoy his "waltz #2 from jazz suite" this evening. beautiful beautiful music that is.

forth tunequest:

  • peggy lee & george shearing [beauty and the beat!]
  • beth orton [central reservation]
  • london symphony performing elgar’s enigma variations
  • bjork [bachelorette]single
  • elbow [cast of thousands]
  • silver apples [contact]
  • the evil genius orchestra [cocktails in the cantina]
  • yoko kanno [cowboy bebop 2: no disc]
  • fila brazillia [brazillification]
  • delarosa and asora [agony part 1]

today’s tunequest is quite varied, from the glitch harmonics of scott herron’s delarosa project to peggy lee’s soothing siren song. the evil genius orchestra puts a humorous and swinging spin on everyone’s favorite star wars themes on cocktails in the cantina. personally, i think the the e.g.o.’s version of "princess leia’s theme" rivals the original. in fact, when putting together a list of mellow movie themes to be played as "mingle music" at my wedding reception i choose this version over john williams’. •

fila brazillia’s brazilification is an endurance test of downtempo remixing. it is a mix album, however it is more of a ‘best of’ collection of previously-released mixes, rather than a dj album, so i don’t think my earlier criticism applies. the record is a two disc set that starts off very strong, with excellent remixes of songs by radiohead, moloko, phosphorous, and u.n.k.l.e. but after the first half of the first album, the set begins to fatigue and the beats begin to muddle together.

that’s less a problem with the duo and more a factor of the downtempo genre. while individual tracks can be quite outstanding, over time the inherent form of downtempo puts it at disadvantage for long term active listening. it really is better suited to background music, turned on and tuned out while you work on other projects, only occasionally taking interest in choice musical passages. in that regard, the length of brazilification is its one drawback. still, fila brazillia are excellent at what they do and i can’t recommend this one enough. •

speaking of front-loading, let’s talk beth orton. i was familiar with beth before i got central reservation in 1999 through her collaberations with the chemical brothers. her voice always added an element of humanity to the brothers’ explosive beats. her own music brings her flavor to the forefront, unburied beneath layers of synthesized sound. simple arraingments and addictive melodies highlight her sophmore release. it’s too bad it’s all crammed in the first few songs. the record begins to sound monotonous throughout its second half, tempting me to just get rid of those songs. if it weren’t the strength of the rest of the album (‘sweetest decline’ in particular) i probably would, but i never know when one of those songs will suddenly click with me. •

and silver apples’ contact is quite interesting. i was prepared to dismiss it as yet another indulgence from my experimental youth, but it continues to pique my interest. •