Tokyo, Japan is one of my favorite places on earth. I visited for a four day-weekend back in March 2016 and I’ve spent so much time daydreaming about going back to visit the one city I’ve been to that actually overwhelmed me. (In the best way possible of course, four days is not enough time to really explore Tokyo.) So naturally, when I dove into the musical history of Japan and learned that there was a musical response to the mix of 80s pop music in the West, OF COURSE I was gonna geek out about it. Those are some of my favorite things!
See, in the doom and gloom of January, I found carefree escapism in the genre known as Japanese City Pop.
Combining elements of soft rock, funk, soul, 80s new wave, and 80s pop, Japanese City Pop is the perfect antidote to stressful/hard times. How do I know this? When my brain was basically on fire during January, I spent my work days finding comfort in so many city pop songs whose vibes felt comfortable and familiar but were brand new to me. Something about the familiar combination of city pop sounds and the chaos of my overstimulated mind seemed to marry so well to keep me going. And I’m not the only one who found the dichotomy of “everything’s doomed” and “I’m just grooving to this music without a care in the world” particularly tasty. In January, two of my favorite artists’ new albums drew inspiration from that very combination.
The Weeknd’s new album Dawn FM is a concept album basically about purgatory. When you get to the gorgeous “Out of Time” you realize, as radio announcer Jim Carrey narrates, that the end is near for The Weeknd’s character. That song samples the song “Midnight Pretenders” by Tomoko Aran in such a lush, ethereal way, almost making you forget that there’s a heavy undercurrent of death about the album. Please listen to it in order if you haven’t yet.
Secondly (and you should all expect this sort of shenanigan from me), the new Bad Suns album Apocalypse Whenever drew inspiration from city pop and its aesthetics. Seriously, look at the single cover for “Heaven is a Place in My Head” and Tomoko Aran’s album cover for Fuyu-Kukan and tell me I didn’t find the source material they definitely put on a vision board. Sonically, though, I’m sure that the reason they included a saxophone break in the song “Silently Screaming” was because of Gavin Bennett’s exploration into city pop during the recording process of the album. It pairs so beautifully in an absolute bop talking about struggling to let go of demons.
City pop is familiar to me because it seems to combine genres that I’ve grown up around and have fond memories of. My parents’ affinity for 70s/80s soft rock laid the foundation but as I explored more of the 70s and 80s during high school, I developed my own affinity for the music of that era. So much so that I can easily identify what bands from the West might have dialogued with Japanese City Pop artists. For example, the instrumentation of the Akira Inoue song on this week’s playlist reminds me of Steely Dan’s hypnotic jam session approach and I get lost in it the same way.
Experiencing this musical exchange is one of the coolest things because you see how music really is a universal language. While I don’t understand Japanese, I can still connect to the vibes and sometimes, especially when your brain is on fire, that counts for more than you think.
Shoutout to my city pop-aficionado coworkers Noah, Spencer, Jay, and Patrick for their recs that really helped me fall in love with this genre and build this playlist. Hope you can find some new tunes to groove to.