No corner of Japanese music has proven to be more influential both domestically and internationally in the past few years than city pop.
The glitzed-out sounds of the 1980s, when the country was experiencing an economic bubble, never really went away even after the bubble burst, but the popularity of that style — utilizing the then-newest instruments and recording methods to create songs bringing in funk, disco, jazz and fusion among others — has endured even at a time when the present reality can feel bleak.
City pop’s staying power has been impressive. During the past few years in Japan, what started as a branding exercise in 2015 has grown into a celebration of the bubble-era genre, with magazines ranking the top city pop songs of the 1980s and contemporary bands such as Gesu no Kiwami Otome. referencing it in songs. Abroad, boutique labels are reissuing rare records or releasing compilations, though millions have largely experienced city pop through songs such as “Plastic Love” or the seemingly endless playlists backed by anime snippets on YouTube.
On Aug. 8, an event organized by record maker Toyokasei Co., Ltd. called City Pop on Vinyl 2020 takes place online and at stores throughout Japan, such as HMV, Tower Records and Diskunion, as well as smaller record shops. Think of it as a neon-tinged Record Store Day, with dozens of older albums and singles being reissued on vinyl. The event includes a lot of the cornerstones sparking this global curiosity in city pop — releases from Taeko Onuki, Takako Mamiya, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Mai Yamane among others — but adds on more obscure full-lengths, works from the ’90s influenced by the economic good times slowly coming to an end and contemporary artists inspired by the style.
City Pop on Vinyl 2020 functions as a chance to explore what the vocabulary of the genre is at present, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Imitations of city pop — both sonically and visually — have become a bit too familiar, best summed up by this recent video from K-pop artist Yukika. There’s nothing wrong with a splash of nostalgia, but here are a few city pop albums highlighting this genre’s depth — and younger artists finding new takes on it.
Various Artists — New York (1978)
The CBS/Sony Sound Image Series from the late 1970s aimed to bring together prominent Japanese musicians at the time and have them create songs inspired by images. Some of these have become among the most sought after city pop albums, and are being reissued for Vinyl 2020 — including “Seaside Lovers” and “Pacific,” featuring celebrated Japanese artists such as Haruomi Hosono, Tatsuro Yamashita and Hiroshi Sato.
Former Happy End guitarist Shigeru Suzuki is featured on nearly every one of the series’ releases, including the most overlooked. “New York” found Suzuki and seven other Japanese guitarists (with backing help from artists such as Ryuichi Sakamoto) creating songs inspired by the Big Apple, or at least the idea of it. This resulted in an album highlighting a part of city pop’s DNA that’s often forgotten, at least outside of Japan — fusion. “New York” isn’t shy about its jazz leanings, whether on upbeat cuts like Suzuki’s “Kennedy Airport” or slower reflections like Kazumasa Akiyama’s “Central Park” (they did not skimp on the theme). It stands up against any of the other entries in the Sound Image Series, while also offering a welcome reminder of how diverse city pop’s influences are.
Minako Yoshida — “Light’n Up” (1982)
Record Collector’s Magazine recently published a list of the top 100 city pop songs of the 1980s. Only two artists landed more than one song in the top 10, and of those two, pop craftsman Tatsuro Yamashita snagged three spots, which is unsurprising as he is synonymous with the genre both at home and abroad.
The other, Minako Yoshida, doesn’t have quite the same level of clout in the current online-powered city pop revival. She’s had a hand in shaping this type of sound since the early ’70s, though, popping up on albums by Hosono, Yumi Matsutoya and more. She also boasted one of the strongest runs of the genre’s heyday — the bulk of which get the reissue treatment for Vinyl 2020. Her ninth album, “Light’n Up,” would be my pick for her peak, balancing her mellower side (highlighted by Record Collector’s fourth best city pop song of the ’80s, “Hoho ni Yoru no Akari”) with her most effervescent (the title track, which would make it into the top 10 of my personal list).
Great3 — “Richmondo High” (1995)
Don’t let the thrashing garage-rock intro track fool you — trio Great3’s debut album oozes city pop influence throughout, making its inclusion in Vinyl 2020’s lineup a logical one. While the band lacked the finances to have the same sparkling sound found a decade earlier, the actual structure and hooks resemble the early bubble years, just with a more traditional rock foundation. City pop’s golden years were in the 1980s, but its sonic influence leaked into the ’90s, from Shibuya-kei to acts such as this one, showing it’s far more than just a musical museum exhibit, but rather something that Japanese artists continue to play around with.
Polycat — “The Earrings / The Flowers” (2017)
Among the Vinyl 2020 offerings are newer creations from artists hailing from all over the globe, who have absorbed Japanese city pop and put their stamp on it. They include England’s Prep and Taiwan’s Sunset Rollercoaster, but the best comes courtesy of Thailand’s Polycat, who has used the city pop sound to score YouTube hits in its homeland. This 2017 single is Polycat’s nod to city pop’s birthplace, down to its members delivering the lyrics in Japanese. It’s a reminder of how global city pop has become, and how creators anywhere can find their own take on it. With a whole new generation used to seeing “Plastic Love” in their YouTube recommendations, don’t expect it to stop anytime soon.
Kiki Vivi Lily — “Vivid” (2019)
Plenty of Japanese acts over the past decade have done well re-creating the golden days of city pop, but as the years go on those songs feel more like flimsy dioramas of past times. Far better are the younger artists taking cues from this on-point sound, but putting a modern spin on it. Rising musician Kiki Vivi Lily did just that on last year’s “Vivid,” melding bass snaps and synth melodies from that flush-with-cash era with rap-derived vocals and beats. Even when dipping into territory that feels a little too on the nose (“Asian Resort”), she finds a way to make it feel more immediate. She’s just one artist showing city pop won’t be stuck in neon amber as the 2020s move forward.
City Pop on Vinyl 2020 takes place on Aug. 8, online and at stores throughout Japan. For more information, visit https://onvinyl.jp.