Austin, Texas – Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” begins with a catch: “Tastes change, new genres emerge, the history of music keeps being rewritten.”
This year’s list, released last week, marks the second time the iconic music magazine’s canon has been revisited, recompiled and rewritten since its original publication in 2003.
It seems a shame then that Rolling Stone’s musical brain trust of writers and industry contributors — among them the likes of Beyonce, Billie Eilish, The Edge and Stevie Nicks — didn’t take the opportunity to hold up albums from the world’s non-English-speaking artists and bands.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree with a lot of the inclusions on the list. Mine is a problem of semantics. If they’d printed “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time In English,” there’d be no beef between Rolling Stone and me. Without linguistic clarification, however, it’s tantamount to referring to North America’s championship baseball game as the “World Series.” Oh, wait.
So here’s a new pitch for Rolling Stone: Japan has produced some of the world’s greatest musical acts and it’s high time their accomplishments were recognized.
To that end, I submit the following list of 10 Japanese albums that deserve a spot among Rolling Stone’s top 500. Not only do the following albums represent some of Japan’s best, they are all already known worldwide to a growing number of fans — even those who primarily speak English.
Like the Rolling Stone list, I will be including compilation albums where appropriate. Unlike Rolling Stone, these album selections will not come from plugging a vast number of music journalists and industry types into a complicated voting algorithm. No, you’re getting the pure, unadulterated opinion of a guy who now lives in the U.S., has hosted a Japanese music podcast for the better part of a decade, and fell in love with Japanese music by frequenting the venues near Sannomiya Station in Kobe every weekend in the mid-2000s.
Yellow Magic Orchestra, “Solid State Survivor” (1979)
Yellow Magic Orchestra’s pioneering role as progenitors of electronic music too often overshadows the group’s intentions to conquer the world with music uniquely Japanese in nature. In a 1980 Rolling Stone article, YMO founding member Haruomi Hosono said of the band’s origins, “We needed something that would be a bridge to the next pop form and that could be really powerful anywhere — in Japan, in the United States, in England, in Europe.”
“Solid State Survivor” fulfilled that ambition with a number of mega-hits plugged in between instrumental tracks invoking a cyberpunk Tokyo that might have been. These hits included “Rydeen,” inspired by the rhythmic clopping of horse hooves, and “Behind the Mask,” which would be covered by the likes of Eric Claption, Orbital, The Human League and Michael Jackson. In fact, the King of Pop intended to include his cover on “Thriller,” but it wound up on his first posthumous album, “Michael,” in 2010 instead.
“Solid State Survivor” breathed life into the synthpop and techno genres while selling 2 million copies worldwide.
Shonen Knife, “Brand New Knife” (1997)
It took a scant seven years for Osaka-based Shonen Knife to go from playing its first show in front of 36 folks holding ¥100 tickets, to the release of 1989’s “Every Band Has A Shonen Knife Who Loves Them” — a tribute album featuring Western alternative rockers like Red Kross, Sonic Youth and L7. “Brand New Knife” is the fullest expression of Shonen Knife’s ’90s alt-rock pedigree, alternating from bass-heavy rock tunes like “Explosion” and “E.S.P.” to washed-out slower jams “Wind Your Spring” and “Perfect World.” And imprinted on every track is the band’s famously endearing, ultra-kawaii lyrics ranging in subjects from being scared of frogs (“Frogphobia”) to frontwoman Naoko Yamano’s ideal weekly plans (“One Week”): “Monday I go to watch sumo wrestling / It’s an easy day to get a good ticket.!”
The Pillows, “Little Busters” (1998)
For those of us in the West, there’s no extricating The Pillows from Gainax’s “FLCL” anime. Just like the celluloid masterpiece that introduced this rock trio to anime fans, “Little Busters” is part shoegaze self-meditation (“Black Sheep”) and part guitar-driven teenage rebellion (“Blues Drive Monster”) — with a little room for a measured amount of zany antics. All three dimensions culminate in “Hybrid Rainbow” with its at-first-quiet vocals and cartoon-sound-effect guitar flourishes breaking loose into a declarative chorus of youthful angst. The result is an album that sounds exactly like how it feels to shirk your responsibilities, pile into a beat-up car and drive to nowhere special.
Ayumi Hamasaki, “Duty” (2000)
All hail the undisputed empress of J-pop! Ayumi Hamasaki, Japan’s bestselling solo artist of all time, turned the millennium with a bestselling album, “Duty.”
This is the ultimate representation of 2000s J-pop with its thrall of dance-ready bops and hyper-perfected production values. And yet, “Duty” also contains a darker soul than Hamasaki’s previous work, a reflection of her doubts that she’d fully expressed herself and her image in previous albums. These uneasy feelings manifested in more rock-forward tracks such as “Audience” and “Surreal.” The result is an essential album for anyone seeking to comprehend the ever-evolving landscape of Japanese pop music.
X Japan, “The Last Live” (2001)
Before Japan’s biggest rock band of all time returned to form with new songs, new world tours and a new documentary (“We Are X“), X Japan went out with an emotional bang in one final live show at the Tokyo Dome on New Year’s Eve in 1997. It was the last performance to feature lead guitarist Hide, who died a few months later and is mourned to this day by metalheads the world over. Three years later, fans received “The Last Live,” a perfectly encapsulated playback of that final show with every ounce of ripping speed metal and all the tear-jerking crowd choruses preserved for all time. Part comprehensive collection of X Japan’s greatest hits, part eulogy for one of Japan’s rock greats, “The Last Live” tells the tale of the band’s death when we didn’t know it would one day rise again.
Polysics, “For Young Electric Pop” (2002)
The blend of elation and exhaustion you feel when your clothes are sweat-soaked from hours spent bouncing up and down in a packed rock venue is where the soul of Polysics resides. The band caught the wave originally whipped up by Devo in the 1980s and rode it into a manic punk tsunami. “For Young Electric Pop” attempted to shave off some of Polysics’ punkiest edges and produce a proper pop album. The closest the album gets to this idea is “Black Out Fall Out,” which feels metered and methodical compared to the infectious insanity of “It’s Up To You.” Even the album’s cover of The Knack’s “My Sharona” has a gleeful intensity like it’s never more than a beat or two from ripping apart at the seams. All of this is definitely for the best, as “For Young Electric Pop” succeeds both in being a top-tier Polysics record and an accessible introduction to a band unequaled in their ability to leave you grinning from ear to ear.
Asian Kung-Fu Generation, “Sol-Fa” (2004)
What is a language barrier when presented with an international audience of anime fans? Spurred on by the inclusion of “Rewrite” as a “Fullmetal Alchemist” opening theme tune, anime fans the world over petitioned for an international release of Asian Kung-Fu Generation’s second studio album — and for good reason. “Sol-Fa” further refined the compositionally balanced rock sound Ajikan engineered for its “Houkai Amplifier” EP into an album full of tracks as well produced as they are sonically complex.
GaGaGa SP, “Best Album” (2007)
It’s tempting to define Kobe-based Gagaga SP by its unique blend of punk tempered ever so slightly with folk. While any of the songs on its “Best Album” compilation would play just as well busking in front of Sannomiya Station as they would in a jam-packed venue, it’s the wholesomeness of the band’s music that sets it apart. The album is packed with driving punk tracks that toss aside typical themes of adolescent rebellion against “the man” in favor of awkwardly serious fumblings through teenage romance. Songs “Senkou Hanabi” and “Hajimete Kimi to Shabetta” are anthems of an earnest youth, as applicable in Kansai as they are the world over. While that youthful spirit persists across all of Gagaga SP’s releases, the curated tracks of “Best Album” represent the band at its most special.
Perfume, “Game” (2008)
To say that Perfume’s debut studio album was a mere level up from its indie days would be an understatement. The first Perfume album helmed by human hit machine Yasutaka Nakata, “Game” ushered in a technopop resurgence thanks to four-on-the-floor bops “Chocolate Disco” and “Polyrhythm.” Here is the double-platinum statement that transformed Perfume into a chart-topping sensation beloved in Japan and abroad. Critics may disagree on the best Perfume album overall, but the infectious grooves found on “Game” and the immeasurable impact it left on both J-pop and electronic music make it essential listening for every pop music fan.
Boom Boom Satellites, “Embrace” (2013)
A love letter to anyone who felt their heart activate when exposed to the digital downbeats of industrial rock, Boom Boom Satellites’ penultimate studio album, “Embrace,” is the band’s crowning achievement. Singles “Broken Mirror” and “Another Perfect Day” were already making noise across the globe with anime fans due to their inclusion in “Gundam Unicorn” and “Starship Troopers: Invasion,” respectively. Here, those singles counterbalance more deliberate, introspective jams like “Snow” and title track “Embrace.” The result is a decidedly digital album that washes over you with all the raw soul and emotion that we let ourselves feel when we’re alone.
Jonathan McNamara is the host of Nihongaku Radio, a twice-monthly Japanese music podcast that adheres staunchly to the idea that listening to music in only one language is boring.
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