In Japan, observation of the seasons is an ingrained cultural trait that not only forms the basis of haiku poetry and many classic works of art, but also marks the calendar for cultural ephemera from special-edition Kit Kats to alcoholic drinks to pop music. Since summer is now at full burn, here are my Top 5 seasonal girl-pop hits from the genre’s golden age:
Chiyo Okumura — “Kitakuni no Aoi Sora (Hokkaido Skies)” (1967): Japan’s pop world never really embraced rock ‘n’ roll or R&B in the way its Western counterparts did, but the kind of clinical, guitar-twanging instrumental music pioneered by groups such as The Shadows, known in Japan as eleki, was nothing short of a phenomenon in the 1960s, and undisputed kings of all they surveyed were The Ventures. This 1967 hit takes a Ventures tune and wraps a proto-enka melody around it, with a raw, sultry edge courtesy of the deep, rich vocals of ’60s-style icon Chiyo Okumura.
Saori Minami — “Natsu no Kanjou” (1974): Okinawan pop goddess Saori Minami’s career was always caught in a struggle between those elements who wanted to make her into a pure idol singer and those, including Minami herself, who wanted her to do something more mature. Fortunately for Minami, her songwriting team of Mieko Arima and Kyohei Tsutsumi were in the latter camp, and together they came up with this magnificent piece of subversively hard-rocking, synth-abusing, R&B-influenced bubblegum.
Momoe Yamaguchi — “Hito Natsu no Keiken” (1974): One of the finest Japanese pop songs ever, “Hito Natsu no Keiken” is not only a pop melody masterclass but also sees lyricist Kazuya Senge channeling Serge Gainsbourg’s partnership with France Gall, feeding the teenage Yamaguchi deliciously risque lines offering, with only the thinnest veil of ambiguity, to give the object of her affections “The thing that is most important to a woman,” and assuring him “It’s OK if you get it dirty, it’s OK if I cry.” Disapprove if you must, but the emotional depth and complexity at work here is undeniable.
Mari Natsuki — “Natsu no Yoake wa Kanashii no” (1976): Dominated by its insistent, driving, almost minimalist bassline, coupled with Natsuki’s coquettish, subtly provocative vocals and a restrained, repetitive melody, this song simmers with understated sexuality and beautifully demonstrates the confidence with which songwriters of the mid-’70s were able to mix new styles such as funk and latin music into mainstream pop. The sound of a time when evolution and change were things to be embraced — not feared.
Candies — “Shochu Omimai Moshiagemasu” (1977): This ’70s idol trio are probably best known for their spring-themed smash “Haru Ichiban,” but this 1977 hit showed they could handle summer with equal aplomb. By modern J-pop standards it’s a daring arrangement, hopping between four different but equally catchy melodies in a way that the current 15-second TV commercial-led pop industry would probably struggle to accommodate.