Last year, before the good folk at the third-rate hosting company I was using went and deleted this site (oh, I’m not bitter), there was a rather detailed and well-researched article there about music. Anyway, after coming back online, I made some vague promises about posting band-by-band articles on Japanese music. Unfortunately, I kept hemming, hawing and stumbling about just how to organize it; things were at an impasse. In the end, the best thing to do seemed to be to just list them out.
So here it is, a list of the Japanese bands that I like and that I think you will like; I hope my tastes are as universal as I’m assuming, but…whatever ;). Many of these bands are hip-hop or hip-hop-based, but there are other genres listed, too. Where the bands have an English-language equivalent of sorts, I’ve noted it. Enjoy the list, and good luck replacing all your music with Japanese music.
- Rip Slyme
- Rip Slyme are practically in a class of their own. They consistently produce rap music that is both enjoyable and innovative; you always keep wondering what they’re going to come up with next. No matter what kind of music you are into, you will enjoy them. They are the only band I have ever listened to where I’ve liked every single song on the albums, specifically Masterpiece and Epoch.
- Kreva is actually an alumnus of Kick The Can Crew, a rap trio that went their separate ways on January 1, 2005. He’s also an alumnus of a now-defunct duo made up of him and another rapper (Cue Zero), aptly named By Phar The Dopest. He’s kind of remade himself in a heartthrob image, but not so heart-throbbing that it will make you difficult to enjoy him if you’re a guy. He continues to produce fun and interesting music, and he always has cool hairstyles. Another unique thing about Kreva is that his percussion often sounds distinctly African, not African-American, but straight up African. Very cool.
- Kick the Can Crew
- Long-running hip-hop trio made up of DJ Little, MCU and Kreva. Tons of good music, including their last album, Good Music.
- If university disserations had to be given as raps, then Rhymester would have PhDs from every college in the world. It’s rap music for the literati. Check it out.
- With a sound and image similar to the Gorillaz, Midicronica first came to most people’s attention with the track San Francisco off the album #501; it was a simultaneously poignant and bouncy piece that was featured on the closing credits of the last episode of an equally poignant-yet-bouncy anime, Samurai Champloo. Whatever the opposite of “disappoint” is (appoint?), Midicronica keep doing that.
- Dragon Ash
- They sound like a cross between G. Love & Special Sauce and Limp Bizkit…but even if you’re “not into Limp”, you’ll like them; between you and me, I bet you are into Limp Bizkit, but, I mean, let’s face it, we all have to fake hating them otherwise our friends would mock us to pieces. Dragon Ash were originally a punk band, but frontman/lead singer Kenji was exposed to the gospel of hip-hop and was instantly converted, taking his entire band with him intact into the illustrious trade of doing rap with guitars.
- Halcali (ハルカリ)
- This is stretching the typical definition of hip-hop, but these high-school girls are produced by Rip-Slyme members, and they do rap on some of their tracks, so here they are! They’re fun. Try them.
- If DMX were Japanese, he would be Zeebra.
- Rappagariya (ラッパ我リヤ）
- Grandfathers of Japanese hip-hop, these guys have been around since back in the day. A definite samurai machismo pervades their work.
- DJ Oasis
- DJ Oasis makes good music and continues to defy those who had once said that it wouldn’t be possible to rap in Japanese (yes, there was such a theory making the rounds). Good for them. Good for you.
- Nitro Microphone Underground
- I don’t know how to explain it. “Their beats are fresh and off the heezy”? Quality music. Go listen.
- Buddha Brand
- Two words: God Bird. ‘Nuff said.
- Perhaps best-known for their song 白いヤミの中(しろい・やみ・の・なか), which an enterprising anime fan used to make an AMV (anime music video) that elegantly combined footage Cowboy Bebop and Trigun. The rest of their music is equally excellent.
- A lot of Japanese hip-hoppers, especially in the “thugging hip-hop” category, have an old-skool aesthetic. As such, their influences predate the wave of bombastic, energetic, rhythmic Southern U.S. hip-hop that gathered energy from the mid-lateish-1990s onward; thus, their music can sometimes lack the polish you may have come to expect in hip-hop. M-Flo have raised the Japanese game in that respect. But they’re not just pretenders, M(ediarite)-Flo have a very unique sound all their own, due in no small part to their unique band structure — a trio of rapper Verbal, DJ Taku and female vocalist Lisa. But then Lisa left (WHY!!!??? WHY DO PEOPLE THINK THEY CAN DO IT BETTER ON THEIR OWN? WHAT MADE M-FLO GREAT WAS THE UNIQUE COMBINATION!!! THE WHOLE WAS GREATER THAN THE SUM OF THE PARTS!!). I am bitter. Since then, M-Flo have collaborated with practically every major female vocal artist in Japan, including (ironically) the reincarnated, solo Lisa and especially Crystal Kay. The ony real problem with M-Flo from a Japanese learner’s perspective is that they do sometimes overuse English.
- Amuro Namie (安室奈美恵[あ・むろ・な・み・え])
- You know, her name, for some reason, is easy to confuse with that of Hamasaki Ayumi (浜崎あゆみ[はま・さき・あゆみ]), at least for me. But there is a huge difference between the two. You see, Amuro Namie is good. Hooooooo. Ouch. Amuro is from Okinawa and it shows — she has rhythm, she uses beats, and she can dance it up! Like bathing with L’Oreal products, get her stuff because you’re worth it.
- Bennie K
- Two women. One raps. One sings. And it is good.
- Mostly R&B, almost pop. BoA is actually Korean, but has been singing in Japanese since back before she could actually speak Japanese. If that isn’t heroic, I don’t know what is.
- Crystal Kay
- I remember when I first saw her on a music video, singing in Japanese, and I was like “Dude! That’s girl’s black!”. Now, the thing is, I tend to think everyone I like is black (James Heisig? Spiderman? Rocky? All black), and a lot of Japanese artists who make what some people might call “black music” tend to tan themselves and wear cornrows etc. (please stand up, Kreva and Zeebra), so I actually had to check afterwards to make sure it wasn’t just my natural bias at work. The word is in: Crystal Kay was born in Japan, raised in Yokohama (横浜[よこ・はま]) is half Japanese-Korean, half African-American, and all talent. Tell her Khatzumoto sent you.
Good (not sucky) J-Pop
- Bonnie Pink
- Bonnie Pink walks on the boundary between R&B and straight pop, and she OWNS. Ooo, that silky, hypnotic voice! Eeeeee! She’s everything a female vocalist should be: good to the ears, smart in the brain and…clothed on the body? Anyway, listen to her, you will thank me for it. Unfortunately, like M-Flo, Bonnie Pink sometimes has too much English in her work, but she has plenty of Japanese songs, too. So, go for it!
- Sakamoto Maaya (坂本真綾[さか・もと・ま・あや])
- Perhaps most famous for her work singing anime theme songs (including, but not limited to, the opening theme to 天空のエスカフローネ[てん・くう・の・えすかふろーね, The Vision of Escaflowne]). She has worked extensively with composer Kanno Yoko (菅野ようこ[かん・の・ようこ]) of Cowboy Bebop fame. She has a beautiful voice and great diction.
- A female soloist singer-songwriter fresh out of her teens who keeps her clothes on (this is significant because, apparently, Kouda Kumi (幸田 來未) didn’t get that memo…zing!), she is essentially the Japanese version of Michelle Branch or Vanessa Carlton. Very good stuff. Top songs include, but are not limited to, Feel My Soul (2005) and CHE.R.RY (2007).
- Love Psychedelico
- I found out about Love Psychedelico through Momoko. The vocals have a sound similar to Sheryl Crow crossing musical DNA with The Beatles. What more do you need to know?!
- You know, sometimes, you just need your Björk fix. But Björk doesn’t sing in Japanese, so Chara to the rescue! When I heard her on the soundtrack to the recent Tsuchiya Anna (土屋アンナ[つち・や・あんな]) movie, さくらん, I knew she had to join my music collection.
- Fukuyama Masaharu (福山雅治[ふく・やま・まさ・はる]）
- Where Sakamoto Maaya has made a career of singing good anime theme songs, Fukuyama Masaharu seems to have quite his share of drama (ドラマ)/soap opera themes under the old belt; or maybe he only did one and I keep hearing it. Anyway, like Sakamoto, he has great diction and a pleasant voice.
- Asian Kung-Fu Generation
- Someone on a message board somewhere once praised them for having a name suitable for a Japanese band or something like that. It seems “Bump of Chicken” was too weird for him, and he wanted names that were more “Asian”, like “Sushi Chopstick Federation” or “Dave Toyoto Honda Samsung Matthews Band”. Whatever. Either way, it is a cool name for a cool band that sound like Jimmy Eat World (or, “Caucasian European-Ancestry Musical Association”).
- Maximum The Hormone (マキシマム ザ ホルモン)
- Their sound is perhaps best described as KoRn meets The Used. For music that is loud, fast, raging and that will, quite literally, max out your hormones, perhaps none better can be had than ＭＴＨ. I’m still shaking from the last time I listened to them. Having read the lyrics, yes, that is Japanese that they’re singing and rapping, only it’s at about 5 million BPM and very high-pitched.
- Rather like No Doubt, in that it’s a ska-ish/ska-influenced band centered around a cute girl. The sound is a bit different, but it’s still makes for das gut listening.
There you have it. When you’re new to a language, just finding out the names of the bands can be challenging, so hopefully (?) this list has been especially helpful to you beginners out there. Whether or not it has, as always, your own additions, recommendations and comments are welcome ;).
Disclaimer: If you are Kouda Kumi, Lisa from M-Flo or Hamasaki Ayumi and you’re reading this, I was just showing off to people on the Internet buddies and trying to be cool; I take it all back — please be my friend!