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Piña coladas on the beach? Your soundtrack has already been written

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

Writing a summer pop tune is easy. Just take an uptempo rhythm, add a catchy chorus, stir in some breezy lyrics and you have the soundtrack to a thousand summer romances and several lifetimes’ worth of wistful reminiscences.

Making a summer album, on the other hand, is a more challenging endeavor. Just repeating the above formula 12 times will leave you with an awkward and unbalanced result. A good summer album should take a more subtle approach, evoking the season in all its differing textures and moods while retaining a coherent overall atmosphere.

Pop music in Japan traditionally worked on a seasonal cycle, with new singles every three months that were often themed according to the time of year, the result of which is that albums would be a kind of annual roundup of loose singles bulked out with some filler. However, the growth of more “serious” pop and rock music since the 1970s and especially the late ’80s mostly killed off that style — outside of the idol scene at least. While the well-worn subject matters of love, friendship and the importance of following your dreams continued to dominate, some acts started thinking a bit more thematically about their albums. The seasons continued to be a theme, but this time were spread out over a wider musical canvas.

Southern All Stars made a career out of producing a new album every summer, and godmother of modern Japanese pop Yumi Matsutoya had a big hit in 1980 with the bi-seasonal album “Surf & Snow”(and more recently with “A Girl in Summer” in 2006). Less well-known but rather more interesting is the work of rock/fusion guitarist Masayoshi Takanaka whose Latin-flavored 1984 album “Natsu-Zen-Kai” saw him flirting with Cuban rhythms and contemporary synth-pop in a smooth, blissed-out sound drowning in piña coladas.

Pop band Psy-S have always had a summery vibe, but it’s on their 1991 album “Holiday” that they went all-out. Opening track “Natsufuku to Skate” kicks the album off on a bright, breezy note, while “Moonshine” recreates the atmosphere of a laid-back summer evening. “Himitsu~Perspective Lovers” brings the album to a close by welcoming in the morning like a gentle breeze on a sun-dappled lawn.

If Psy-S are too mellow for your tastes, and let’s face it, time hasn’t been kind to their ’80s pop-rock style, Natsumen are the opposite extreme. Not satisfied with anything so mundane as a concept album, this instrumental jazz-prog collective are more like a concept band, with a discography packed with titles such as “Kill Your Winter!!!,” “Endless Summer Record” and “Never Wear Out Your Summer xxx !!!.” Of these, the last is perhaps the richest expression of their particular brand of explosive, psychedelic jazz-rock, with tracks like the opening “Newsummerboy” and “Whole Lotta Summer” evoking the thrill of fireworks by the riverside on a sultry August night.

In fact it’s probably in the indie scene that you’ll find the widest range of different takes on the summer album, from the scuzzy, lo-fi beach pop of Teen Runnings to the tropical progressive pop of Fukuoka’s Nontroppo. Often regarded (along with Sunny Day Service) as the “sound of Shimokitazawa” due to their close association with the hip Tokyo neighbourhood, ’90s indie-reggae band Fishmans were also in many ways the definitive sound of the season with their breezy melodies and Shinji Sato’s sweet falsetto vocals. While not exactly a concept album, 1993′s “Neo Yankees’ Holiday” captures much of what made them such a summer band in songs such as “Running Man” and “Smilin’ Days, Summer Holiday” and combined it with an eclectic line of musical experimentation.

But perhaps the greatest Japanese summer album ever, and indeed one of the finest Japanese albums of all time, is former Happy End guitarist Eiichi Ohtaki’s 1980 masterpiece “A Long Vacation”. With sounds ranging from Brian Wilson-style harmonies to modern synths, it’s very much a producer’s album, packed with inventive moments like the chirpy synth effects that leap in as the insanely poppy “FUN×4″ excitedly hops between styles or the way the male and female vocals on “Velvet Motel” unexpectedly jump in and finish each other’s words.

In a country as hyper-conscious of its changing seasons as Japan, it’s inevitable that they’d also grip the imaginations of the nation’s musicians. So as the mercury rises, be thankful that whether you’re nursing an iced tea on an ocean-view terrace, or sipping cocktails on a moonlit Tokyo balcony, someone has already thought to lay down a soundtrack for us.