Long overlooked by international labels, Japan’s rich musical history has been undergoing thorough excavation over the past few years. Some of the most satisfying archival releases to date have come from Light in the Attic, the U.S. label behind last year’s Haruomi Hosono reissues and the recent “Kankyo Ongaku” collection of 1980s ambient music.
For its latest foray, the label picks a more elusive target: city pop, the slick, cosmopolitan sound of late ’70s and early-’80s Japan. Once dismissed with an uncomplimentary epithet that sounds a lot like “city,” the music from this era has made a comeback recently, assisted by YouTube algorithms, sample-hungry producers and a homegrown revival that was more hype than substance.
Pinning down exactly what “city pop” is turns out to be tricky, though the artists associated with the tag tended to draw on disco, soft rock and jazz fusion.
In some retellings, it was the soundtrack of a country embracing an affluent consumerist lifestyle as it hurtled toward the hubristic heights of the bubble economy. As Mark “Frosty” McNeill, one of three credited compilers, acknowledges in the liner notes to “Pacific Breeze”: “It’s more of a vibe classification than a collective movement.” Most musicians denied the genre even existed.
Though it’s billed as the first compilation of its kind released outside Japan, “Pacific Breeze” shares common ground with recent sets from BGP, Cultures of Soul and the Tokyo-based Studio Mule label. The latter’s “Midnight in Tokyo” series is the place to start if you’re in search of deep cuts, although “Pacific Breeze” has its share of curios.
The opening stretch covers many of the typical hallmarks of city pop. Minako Yoshida’s “Midnight Driver” is a low-slung boogie groove with enough gloss to pass for Donna Summer, while Taeko Onuki’s “Kusuri wo Takusan” supplies lilting, Latin-inflected jazz-pop with unexpected synthesizer accents courtesy of Ryuichi Sakamoto.
The latter track is likely to be familiar to many listeners already, and its inclusion draws attention to what isn’t here. Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” is mercifully absent, but so too are some of the principal architects of the city pop sound, including Eiichi Ohtaki and Tatsuro Yamashita, and it undermines the compilation’s claim to provide a definitive overview in the manner of “Kankyo Ongaku.”
A little more rigor might have helped, too. However broadly you want to define city pop, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t include songs like Hosono’s well-worn “Sports Men” and Yukihiro Takahashi’s “Drip Dry Eyes,” whose sleek synth-pop really belongs elsewhere.
That said, it’s the synthetic textures that distinguish many of these tracks. Daft Punk would doubtless relish Hitomi Tohyama’s vocoder-assisted “Exotic Yokogao” and Hiroshi Sato’s “Say Goodbye,” while Izumi Kobayashi’s “Coffee Rumba” is a delight, all off-kilter drums and synthesizer doodles.
“Pacific Breeze” is best approached as an expertly sequenced mixtape rather than an exercise in musicology, and its arrival just before summer feels perfectly timed. In an inspired touch, Light in the Attic is releasing a deluxe edition that includes a beach towel emblazoned with Hiroshi Nagai’s cover art. Whatever city pop is or isn’t, you couldn’t ask for a better accessory.
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