Are you a fan of Japanese bands? Visual-kei, J-Rock, J-Indie, J-Ska, J-Punk, J-Pop, J-Pretty-much-everything. It's all out there; thousands of different bands, seemingly releasing a new single every week.
I've been listening to J-Music since 2002, and have heard so many bands over the years, so it's difficult to pinpoint which ones I like the most. It can sometimes be quite difficult trying to keep up with it all too, as there are so many bands, and so many new bands coming along, with so many songs available to listen to; in recent years I may also have been listening more to the K-Pop side of things, but I think I've managed to find a nice balance between everything, and I still love to listen to plenty of Japanese music too, usually listening at least to something Japanese every day.
I'm going to try and focus on bands with the traditional guitar, bass and vocals setup; although I will also add bands that use other instruments too. Sorry, but there won't be any J-Pop idol groups or anything like that; perhaps I'll save that for another day. Obviously it's impossible to know every single band out there, so here's a list of my top ten favourites. Most are older bands from the past, but are generally still active today, and some are newer, having recently released music available for purchase; the Japanese music industry moves ridiculously quickly, and there are new bands coming along all the time.
Let me know in the comments below if you agree (or disagree) with any of them, or want to suggest your Top Ten, or even just some of your favourites. I'm always open to hearing any new music!
Anyway, here's my list:
10. JUDY AND MARY
JUDY AND MARY are a pop-punk rock band from Hokkaido, having formed in 1992 by vocalist Yuki Isoya and bassist Yoshihito Onda. The band also comprised of drummer Kohta Igarashi and guitarist Takuya Asanuma. They are well known for their brand of catchy guitar pop, tinged with a punk edge. Songs such as "Hello! Orange Sunshine", "Sobakasu", and "Over Drive" helped to build their reputation, and become one of the most popular bands in Japan.
JUDY AND MARY's song "Sobakasu" was also featured as the first opening theme to the popular anime TV series Rurouni Kenshin (aka Samurai X), further cementing their success. I first heard them by way of this song on a compilation CD I had purchased randomly, while holidaying in Malaysia, and for me, this was one of the stand out songs on that album. I liked it immediately; partly due to the female vocals, but also because of the noisy intro and catchy chorus.
The band split up in 2001, after which vocalist Yuki embarked on a successful solo career, with singles such as "JOY", "the end of shite", and "Rendezvous".
09. THE BLUE HEARTS
Punk band THE BLUE HEARTS were formed in Tokyo back in 1985. They are considered to be one of the most important and influential bands in Japan, famed for songs such as "Linda Linda", "TRAIN-TRAIN", "Owaranai uta", and "Hito ni yasashiku".
I can't remember how I first heard this band, but I do know that the first song I heard was the classic "Linda Linda". This song has one of the most sing-along-able (is that even a word?!) choruses ever; no need for any knowledge in speaking Japanese; just the words "Linda Linda!" I've had such fun singing this in karaoke in the past; the first time I had a breakthrough with reading Kana was whilst singing along to this at karaoke, which marked the first time that I could read (almost all of) the lyrics on screen and sing at the same time.
In recent years, some of their songs were used in the film Linda Linda Linda (2005), the story of a group of high school girls forming a band, called PARANMAUM (meaning Blue Hearts in Korean), and performing at their end of year culture festival. I loved the PARANMAUM versions of the songs in this film, as I am partial to the female voice, and the accompanying mini album figures highly on my playlists, as do the original versions by THE BLUE HEARTS.
08. ELECTRIC EEL SHOCK
This band were formed in Tokyo, 1997, are heavily influenced by rock and metal from the 70s, and are massive fans of Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath.
I first heard this band after a friend of mine had seen them live, and had reported good things, so I decided to check them out. It sounded oddly familiar, with that 70's classic rock vibe, but equally strange with those vocals with the Japanese accent; the lyrics are sung in English.
I decided to buy a ticket to see them live, as they were on a European tour, and in the UK at that time back in 2006, and I loved it! Their live show is very entertaining and energetic, including banter with the crowd, and for some unknown reason the drummer taking all his clothes off and playing naked, apart from a couple of socks covering his private parts!
It's a great show; really enjoyable, and above all else, THEY ROCK!!
07. Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra
World renowned ska band Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, also affectionately known as Skapara, are another highly influential Japanese band. Drawing influences from Ska, Jazz and Rock, they not only produce some great instrumentals, but also occasionally collaborate with some well known vocalists, including PUFFY, Shiina Ringo and Tamio Okuda.
I got into this band after getting into Japanese ska punk. I was already hit by the J-Music bug, and Japanese ska had really caught my attention at the time. I wanted to find out about as many J-Ska bands as I could; I can't remember which songs I heard first, but their music seemed to stick in my mind. Some of my favourites include the songs "Down Beat Stomp", and the PUFFY collaboration, "Hazumu Rhythm", both of these being energetic songs that made me really want to tap my feet along to the music.
I had the fortune of seeing this band live in 2009, on a visit to Japan, where I saw them at Club Que in Shimokitazawa, near Shibuya, Tokyo. It is quite a small venue; nice and intimate! My friends and I even got to meet the band, as we got chatting to the guy who booked all the bands on the night; he had studied in America, and spoke English fluently.
They are an alternative rock band, who were formed in Yokohama in 1991, and are heavily influenced by 90's American bands, with The Breeders being one of their heroes, among others. Actually they do have some real similarities in their sound to that band, especially on some of their earlier recordings, from the noisy guitars and distorted bass to Yoko's vocal stylings being somewhat similar too. Somehow though, a Japanese vocal in my opinion, seems to complement the music a lot better. I like both bands, but I listen to noodles far more often.
Of course their sound has developed and changed over those two decades; they do have more of their own sound now, more melodic and more tuneful in my opinion, while keeping the guitars loud to the fore!
I don't really want to keep comparing them, as they are a great band in their own right, with some cool sounding songs. It can't be an accident that they've been going for more than twenty years!
In my opinion, Crossfaith are one of the most exciting new bands around at the moment; well, they're pretty new here in the UK anyway, but they've been releasing music since 2008. Loud and exciting; they're metal, but also use synthesizers and electronic sounds to add to their music.
Even though their music is heavy, with loud guitars and screaming vocals, the songs still rely on strong, catchy riffs and hooks other bands can only dream of!
I first heard of them last year, and had heard about this band by name only; there was quite a bit of buzz around their name, and I'd heard them mentioned on the Metal Hammer Podcast. I made a note of their name, but it wasn't until a workmate of mine had downloaded their first studio album The Artificial Theory for the Dramatic Beauty (2009), that I got to hear them. It seemed everyone was saying how exciting the band is, and that their live shows are mental! Unfortunately, I've yet to see them live, but hopefully will do soon, as they seem to be pretty popular in Europe and tend to tour over here quite a bit.
Formed in 1999 and hailing from Nagoya, as I pointed out in a previous post, after the release of their Oh My Princess EP earlier this year, this ska-pop band is one of the most happy and positive sounding bands around; with feel-good lyrics and infectious melodies, it's hard not to smile while listening to them.
I seem to recall that the first song of theirs that I heard, was their cover of Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry, Be Happy. Of course the Yum!Yum!ORANGE version (from their Orange Juice album, 2004) was so much positive sounding than the original; actually I don't think the original sounds anywhere near as happy! This cover version really ramps up the tempo, forgets all the lyrics of the verses, and replaces the original's whistled melody with a firm and loud "LaaaaaLaaDaDaLaaLaaLaLaLaLaLaLaaaaa, LaLaLaLaLaLaLaaaaa, LaLaLaLaLaLaLaaaaa!"
After this, I was hooked; I bought their CDs, a couple of DVDs and they have become one of my favourite bands ever.
03. Shonen Knife
Shonen Knife's brand of pop punk has been entertaining fans for decades; two years ago Shonen Knife celebrated their 30th anniversary as a band. Watching them play live last year, lead singer/guitarist and the only remaining original member Naoko Yamano told the crowd that she likes to write about animals, candy and useful objects. This is kind of a good way to describe them actually. Mix in with that a healthy dose of The Ramones, and you get the picture of what they might sound like. In fact, Shonen Knife are huge fans of The Ramones, and in 2011 they released a covers album, Osaka Ramones, in tribute to their heroes.
Their songs may exhibit a lyrical naivety, but the melodies get stuck in your brain, and you can't help humming along. Songs about turning into a cat, or simply having a barbecue or riding a bicycle have an innocence and charm that's hard to resist.
The first time I heard Shonen Knife was back in 1991; they had just released their Christmas single, "Space Christmas", and on weekday evenings BBC Radio One had it on their indie music show's playlist. I would hear this in the build up to the Christmas holidays, whilst doing my school homework and listening to the radio; it was so different from all the other stuff being played, that I took notice right away, and was definitely interested in hearing more!
A few months later, they released the album Let's Knife, and I was hooked. I'd have that CD on repeat play; with this album Shonen Knife had won me over, and I was a fan for life!
02. the brilliant green
Formed in Kyoto in 1995, and releasing their major label debut single "Bye Bye Mr. Mug" in 1997, the brilliant green were influenced heavily by British and American rock music of the sixties, and the Britpop scene of the 90's, among others. They are no strangers to catchy guitar progressions, soaring melodies and epic choruses.
Their first couple of singles did little to trouble the Oricon Charts, but the release of their third single "There Will Be Love There" had featured as the theme song of a popular TV drama, and as a result, the song shot to the top of the charts, making them a household name.
I, however, had not heard of them until 2002, after the release of their fourth album The Winter Album, and I had heard their single "Rainy Days Never Stays". I thought the song was really nice and soothing to listen to, and it had instantly struck a chord with me.
So I decided to get on eBay and buy one of their albums second hand (as buying new Japanese CDs and getting them delivered to the UK was somewhat expensive); I ended up winning an auction for their eponymous debut album, and upon receiving it I listened to it several times in succession. I was surprised at how British it sounded, despite knowing it was Japanese, and half of it having Japanese lyrics. This was especially true in their follow up single "Tsumetai Hana", which also made it to the number one spot; the music and instrumentation sounded very similar to Britpop stars Oasis, but with a Japanese female vocalist (Tomoko Kawase) instead. I loved the whole album, and it wasn't long before I had all four of their albums (that had so far been released at the time). They were my number one favourite band for a long time.
Unfortunately, it wasn't long after this time that the band announced their indefinite hiatus. In the meantime, singer Tomoko Kawase embarked on a solo career using the pseudonyms Tommy february6 (a reference to Kawase's birthday) and Tommy heavenly6; the former having an 80's electro pop style, and the latter a harder rock edge.
Guitarist Ryo Matsui started work on his solo project Meister, collaborating with various vocalists from European bands he admired, and then the brilliant green's bassist Shunsaku Okuda and Kawase later announced their marriage.
It wasn't until 2007, five years later, that they returned with a 10th anniversary single, "Stand By Me", shortly followed by another single "Ash Like Snow", and a singles compilation album.
In 2010, guitarist Ryo Matsui left the band, and they released their final album (so far), Blackout.
01. MAXIMUM THE HORMONE
Loud with ridiculously catchy tunes; this band are different to anything you normally listen to. They're influenced by many different styles, bringing in everything, from Punk to Ska to Reggae to Metal to Funk to Rock. There are quiet moments, screamy moments, shouty moments, and straight singing in various styles. The songs change quickly and abruptly, yet come together in a cohesive and structured way; they sound both demented and controlled, but still almost forcing you to nod your head, stomp your foot, or just make you move!
I hadn't heard of this band at all until 2008; my girlfriend at the time was Japanese, and I'd told her that I liked the punk rock band 10-FEET (who very nearly appeared on this Top Ten); she had never heard of them, but had a listen, and then told me that she thought they sounded like this band MAXIMUM THE HORMONE. I laughed at the name, thinking it sounded a little strange and nonsensical.
In some ways, I think she was right; the more punk elements of MTH's songs do indeed have some similarities to 10-FEET, and both bands sometimes have a reggae influenced sound, but MTH chop and change between many different styles, and are so much heavier than 10-FEET, I can't really compare them too much now.
I have to thank her for introducing me to this band though; they're a breath of fresh air, they're exciting and very loud!! I may never have heard them otherwise.