Japanese music can be potentially quite difficult for English-speaking listeners to get into, and not just because of the language barrier. With the record charts saturated by saccharine-sweet idol units such as AKB48 and their numerous sister groups, and bishounen-heavy boy bands like Arashi and Kis-My-Ft2, the industry might seem off-putting to those wanting something with a little more depth. However, even lovers of mainstream pop might find the comparatively high-pitched and sometimes rather nasal vocal style of many J-pop singers overly harsh on the eardrums – and besides all that, it can simply be tricky to know where exactly to begin.
Needless to say, what does and does not make for a good entry point into the world of contemporary Japanese music depends a great deal on personal taste. So rather than just rattle off a bunch of my personal favourites, the below names are, as the title of this post suggests, a few of the singers or bands that originally got me into J-pop and J-rock. Most of them I discovered purely by coincidence in the early to mid-2000s, and while they’re not necessarily still on my regular playlist, I’ll never forget that they were among the first Japanese performers that led me to actively seek out more. You never know – perhaps one or two of them might encourage other listeners to do the same.
HIGH and MIGHTY COLOR
It saddens me that such a solid Japanese rock group has broken up, particularly since prominent lead female vocalists are a bit harder to come by as far as the Japanese rock industry is concerned. The band called it quits in 2010 citing “musical differences” and “future opportunities” as the reason for their breakup, although following the lead vocalist’s marriage and departure from the band in 2008, this may have been inevitable. However, with a total of five original studio albums released during their time together, there’s still plenty here to like and also a fair bit of a variety, from hard rock and alternative metal to milder pop-rock material. This is backed up by pleasantly strong vocals – somewhat lower-pitched than many other females in the industry tend to be – and makes for a distinctive and compelling combination with the male vocals as well.
Single suggestions: Ichirin no Hana, Days, Pride.
Bluntly put, Hamasaki sometimes seems to lack polish. Her vocal style often comes across as slightly nasal, and she just isn’t the same powerhouse that many other contemporary J-pop artists are and have been. However, with a career that began in 1998, what Hamasaki does have is an enormous scope from which listeners can easily pick and choose depending on their tastes. With sixteen original studio albums as of this writing, not to mention several EPs a myriad of remix albums, Hamasaki continues to change and adapt as an artist. Pop, rock, dance, electronic, and even a little classical have all made their way into her vast repertoire – she’s done everything from peppy summer songs and catchy club numbers to intense emotional ballads and dark symphonic tracks. Hamasaki also pens her own lyrics, composes much of her own music, and sets her own trends with her bold and influential sense of fashion.
Single suggestions: Game, Seasons, Inspire.
Particularly known among fans for those of her songs that have been used in various anime titles over the years such as Fullmetal Alchemist, D.Gray-Man, and the second season of Jigoku Shoujo/Hell Girl, Kitade has also played a significant role in the lolita street fashion scene, regularly appearing within the pages of magazines like Gothic & Lolita Bible and KERA. With a mostly pop/rock repertoire and a hint of punk, Kitade’s vocals are high-pitched and almost fragile-sounding at times, but her songs are usually quite catchy, and many have a lovely dark vibe that compliment her image. Following an announcement in June 2009 that she would be suspending all activities due to illness, Kitade formed a new grunge/rock band, The Teenage Kissers, in 2012, who have now released two EPs and a full studio album of their own.
Single suggestions: Tsukihana, Kesenai Tsumi, Pureness.
My comfortable point between Kitade Nana and the harsher, more rock-heavy ALI PROJECT, this five-member unit, fronted by female vocalist and sometimes voice actress Itsuki Yui, is textbook goth-rock material. Mixing metal, dark wave, and a little electronica, the concept of the band is obvious enough from the name, which translates to ‘Fairy Empire’. Some of their songs are a bit too metal-generic for my tastes, especially since the band seems a little overly fond of stereotypical ominous Latin chanting and gratuitous German. However, I can’t deny that I also like their sometimes very whispery vocals and dramatically ethereal style – atmosphere counts for a lot with me, and Yousei Teikoku has that in spades.
Single suggestions: Wahrheit, Schwarzer Sarg, Senketsu no Chikai.
When I found out that this singer/songwriter studied opera for several years, I wasn’t at all surprised; she has an amazing vocal range and can hold a steady note for a truly impressive amount of time. KOKIA (real name Yoshida Akiko) sometimes puts me a little in mind of Kalafina, as many of her songs have a similar fae-like quality to them, and a lot of her tracks also make heavy use of piano and violin – both of which she plays as well as guitar, and on top of writing and arranging most of her own music. KOKIA has a rather breathy and sometimes understated husky quality to her vocals, but this comes across as a controlled choice rather than a weakness; it’s delicate, but by no means frail, and carries a hefty emotional impact.
Single suggestions: Tatta Hitotsu no Omoi, Ai no Melody, Fate.
Question of the post: Do you listen to any Japanese music? If not, what do you think of the above videos? If so, what acts first introduced you to it, and how did you come across them?