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A new DJ mix to capture the best of a vintage Nineties Japanese dance music sound. Think of it as retromania for retromania.
Thanks to the international success of Pizzicato Five, Cornelius, and Towa Tei, the loosely-defined, decade-spanning Nineties indie music movement known as Shibuya-kei has been one of Japan’s most influential cultural exports. The last fifteen years, however, have been unkind to the genre, as the movement’s originators abandoned its signature sound and pleaded for distance from the terminology. No one ever liked being pigeonholed under the dated term “Shibuya-kei” in the first place, but once the trend was over and its cachet depleted, artists wanted a chance to be themselves without all the SK-related baggage.
But here we are nearly 25 years after Shibuya-kei’s birth, and its eclecticism once again stands out on a global stage, this time as an antidote to the globalized factory-made pop monotony of the Twenty-Tens. Yet the musicians’ œuvres are partially buried under the sands of time, and knowledge of the genre’s hidden gems are locked in the heads of obsessive former young people (and in the bargain bins of provincial used record store dumps with pages on Yahoo! Auction). The time has been right for a new mix that showcases, celebrates, and reintroduces the best tracks from Shibuya-kei’s peak years. So here we are: The Best of Shibuya-kei, Volume One.
While many would identify 1993-1995 as Shibuya-kei’s shining moment in the sun — an era where Pizzicato Five’s “Sweet Soul Revue” and Kahimi Karie’s “Good Morning World” were pop chart hits — the genre crystallized as a dance music movement much later in the decade. “The Best of Shibuya-kei, Volume One” prioritizes beats over melodies, and the best beats popped up around 1998-2001 with the emergence of Readymade Records (Pizzicato Five, Fantastic Plastic Machine, Mansfield) and Escalator Records (Cubismo Grafico, Losfeld) as well as later followers in the 21st century such as Halfby. As a nod to deep connections to a wider international movement, the mix also includes a few key foreign artists who were either directly linked to the Shibuya-kei movement (Dimitri from Paris) or otherwise took heavy influence (Ursula 1000). Most dance music genres hover around a specific BPM range, but Shibuya-kei’s ravenous consumption of global rhythms stretches the tracks across the scale, from hip-hop to house to breakbeats all the way up to speedy bossa nova, samba, and drum’n’bass.
The mix, like Shibuya-kei itself, is designed to seamlessly flow through what otherwise would be disparate and discordant sounds. There are symphonic strings, jazz riffs, groovy bass lines, yé-yé rips, Hammond solos, digitally-degraded funk samples, vocoders, saxophones, MiniMoogs, turntable scratches, old-school rap toasts, bongos, acoustic guitar strums, a surprising amount of mambo, Lollapalooza melodies, dinky electro synths, jazz scat, schoolyard chants, whisper raps, Twilight Zone tones, Amen breaks, 909 hats, lyrical references to Jeremy Scott, and samples spanning from Scritti Politti, Sesso Matto, Bobby Valentín, and Buddy Rich, to Hair Goes Latin.
With so much freedom, maybe the better question is, what isn’t Shibuya-kei? The groups employed a punk D.I.Y. attitude but do not sound like “rock.” The electronic elements would never be confused with techno. Shibuya-kei is often “dumb” like Brighton big beat but too subtle and feminine to have been part of that boys club. The genre shares with trip-hop a love of rare samples but is bright and chipper in spirit. Artists dipped their toes into disco, Latin house, and downtempo but never fully subsumed the seriousness. The songs are too cartoonish and hyper to play in boutique hotel lobbies.
One clear thread is retro aesthetics — a love for the sounds of the past. Shibuya-kei was a hyperextension of sampling culture into the pop realm, whether actual stolen loops or simply perfect pastiche layered on top of elements alien to the original songs. The artists mostly looked to the 1960s but stole nearly anything from the past canon of independent music. Pizzicato Five always kept the horns and space-age bachelor pad sweeps but over time moved from house beats to drum’n’bass.
Another trait is the obsession with obscurity. Shibuya-kei artists seemed motivated to make music in order to further distinguish themselves from other music snobs. They worshipped the deepest cratedigging that never sampled or referenced sogs that could be heard accidentally as standard-issue background music. They listened to the Mondo Music catalog cover to cover. Compare them to inferior sub-Shibuya-kei groups in 1990s J-Pop like My Little Lover who took the production techniques but just sampled things we’ve all heard — Michael Jackson, Electric Light Orchestra, the Beatles. Shibuya-kei, at its best, took all of its phrases from “musicians’ musicians” and LPs that would have otherwise been forgotten to the ages.
This love of discovery is perhaps the most attractive element of Shibuya-kei at the moment, when so many young creators — bored with the over-information of the Internet Age — no longer find allure in re-serving lost treasures from the past. So many artists are complacent to go again and again to the same soft-synth preset patches that sound exactly like the year in which we live (and somehow not that different from a decade ago). The specific sounds of 1990s Shibuya-kei can be thrown away but the genre possesses a potentially timeless methodology. There is magic born in a ruthless pursuit of rule-breaking beat-swapping, maniacal one-upsmanship. And this mix, The Best of Shibuya-kei, Volume One attempts to capture that sound.
Note for Trainspotters: I cut up and re-edited most of these tracks, some would say with great violence. For the song selection, there is a bit of overlap with some of the era’s best mixes (e.g. Spinout) but I prioritized lining up the most representative and highest quality songs rather than worrying that we’ve heard too much of Montparnasse’s “Hugo.” (Maybe we have, but there is a reason that song is on so many mixes.)
For more on the topic, read our six-part series, The Legacy of Shibuya-kei.
We are not doing an annual look back piece this year, because nothing really happened in Japan. But maybe that is what makes Japan so great right now.
There is much truth to the already clichéd global meme that 2016 was an awful year. But as the time came to put together our annual look-back piece, we came to the question, could the same thing be said about 2016 in Japan? And more generally, could anything be said about Japan at all?
Really, did anything that happened in Japan compare in scope to the Rise of Trumpistan, Brexit, unabated climate change, the non-stop deaths of musical pioneers and celebrities, terror attacks, and police shootings? SMAP breaking up was perhaps the “biggest story” and barely qualifies as news. “PPAP” is basically “Bottom Biting Bug” for a more net-savvy generation. So many things on the political side — the potential abdication of Emperor Akihito, Abenomics, South China Sea tensions — seem to be far from any point of resolution that would engender useful writing. There are optimistic movements towards women achieving greater participation in society and a larger role in the workforce, but it is too early to proclaim any kind of victory.
In the end, Japan had another flat year of slow incremental change (some in the right direction, some in the wrong), but compared to the rest of the planet, these events make for a very boring year-end roundup from a semi-defunct website.
Yet for the same reasons, living in Japan continues to be fantastic. Life is predictable. All the change is slow. In this year of tumultuousness, Japan was a sanctuary for continuity.
And people have noticed. Giant numbers are flocking to Japan, mostly as tourists, but if you read between the lines, Japan is quietly making it much, much easier to immigrate. In Tokyo, there are growing populations of non-Japanese people, and out in the countryside, the factory workers are increasingly non-Japanese. There are still significant barriers to true comfort for immigrants, especially from Asia, but Japan is internationalizing to a conspicuous degree.
So the thing that makes Japan more and more livable is making Japan less interesting for writing year-end roundups. Of course, the other problem is that we barely write on this site at all. We started Néojaponisme in 2007, a year when starting a site like this was obvious because the Internet was the bastion of reasonable, intelligent people who wrote reasonable, intelligent comments underneath long-form essays about serious topics. Néojaponisme rode on that early web utopian hope to collect together all the scattered people around the world interested in the depths of our particular niche. And then websites stopped being destinations, RSS fizzled out, and intelligent comment culture died.
The irony is that I’ve never felt more happy to live in Tokyo, and I remain excited to write about Japan. But all the pressures of life and work are moving us away from a “website” being the primary medium for our work. The truth is that I wrote 11,000 words this year specifically for Néojaponisme — but not for the web. We are working on something else, but I don’t want to reveal more about the project until we can guarantee it will happen. So here comes 2017, a year where, for us and for many, web silence does not equate to true silence.
W. David Marx listened to every single major release from legendary Shibuya-kei band, Pizzicato Five, so you don’t have to. This is part five of a five-part series, covering the band’s final years and post-breakup releases.
|Happy End of You (February 1998)|
|A remix album that never came out in Japan, which perhaps explains the selection of foreign producers. This is mostly a time capsule of late 1990s IDM/electronica, but a few things hold up, namely The Automator and Saint Etienne’s respective remixes of “Love’s Theme” and some of the drum’n’bass. Dimitri from Paris’ “Contact” old school house is fun, but out of place. The rest is, in most cases, literally just noise.|
|(Cswee) — Taking the loungecore out of loungecore|
|Playboy Playgirl (October 1998)|
|Here we begin the final, mature years of Pizzicato Five, a period in which the band finds a unique, yet timeless sound rooted in 1960s analog with the speed of late 1990s electronic music. The album starts with the excellent “La Dépression” — a cheery joke about Japan’s own economic despair. And then we get to Konishi’s great weakness in sequencing his own albums, forcing the least exciting song into the prime #2 spot; in this case, the boring “Rolls Royce” goes on for eight full minutes. The band recovers with “A New Song,” P5’s best use of the moog synthesizer in a bright and shiny Hugo Montenegro pastiche. Other interesting sound experiments include the mega-blown out mixes of “Weekend” and “The Great Invitations,” the Austin Powers trend convergence of “Playboy Playgirl,” and minimal stutter snare of “Such a Beautiful Girl Like You.” If you remove the skits, this is one of the more consistently good efforts and a sound for the ages.|
|(A) — The groovy, moogy Pizzicato Five we should all remember|
|Darlin′ of Discotheque e.p. (April 1999)|
|Is there a more fitting symbol of Konishian excess than an eleven minute version of “Darlin’ of Discotheque”? Except, what if those eleven minutes were incredible? The sampled drum breaks, the foreboding strings, and a strong melody building slowly to justify the time spent? Other songs on this also pay off: “Barbie Dolls” is a classic, and “Tout Tout Ma Cherie” is the Michel Polnareff cover P5 was always poised to tackle.|
|(A-) — The hits keep coming all the way to the finish line|
|Nonstop to Tokyo e.p. (July 1999)|
|A few months later, another EP. “Non-Stop to Tokyo” itself is one of the band’s weaker singles, and “Room Service” sounds too much like an early demo of “20th Century Girl.” The real treasure is “Bossa Nova 3003,” which like “Lesson 3003 (Part 1),” are canon-wide mashups where P5 took the Double Dee and Steinski model and applied it to themselves (a fitting act for a meta-band like Pizzicato Five.) “Mademoiselle” oddly sounds like Sweet Pizzicato Five era house act.|
|(B) — Interesting moments in otherwise excess|
|PIZZICATO FIVE (November 1999)|
|This most certainly should have been the band’s swan song: P5 at its most mature, most adult. Konishi removed almost all explicit synth/dance music references for a relaxed, organic sound based on a treasure box of 1960s jazz and Yé-Yé samples. The result is as if Konishi took revenge upon Couples… and won! (There is even a superior Nomiya “cover” of “Serial Stories.”) “20th Century Girl” is a keeper, and I wish that “Goodbye Baby & Amen” would have been the band’s final musical moments.
The American-release “Fifth Release from Matador” (note all the overflowing enthusiasm in that album title) is basically identical with some original versions of songs replacing Konishi’s odd remixes.
|(A-) — What should have been P5’s final, grand statement|
|REMIXES 2000 (March 2000)|
|As far as remix albums go, this one may be the strongest, with a gaggle of producers from Konishi’s own lineage: Mansfield, Cubismo Grafico, Comoestas, and Sunaga Tatsuo. There is no weird electronic violence, just Shibuya-kei on Shibuya-kei. Even Iwamura Manabu’s meta-jazz works on “Roma” better than his own work.|
|(B) — The sound of the Shibuya-kei dance pop peak|
|Voyage à Tokyo ep (September 2000)|
|And so begins the end. Here we get You the Rock rapping over Pizzicato Five and a weird mashup on “Les Grandes Vacances.” This is not an important EP but at least holds up compared to the dreck that follows.|
|(B-) — The gruel gets thinner, with a hip-hop influence|
|Çà Et Là Du Japon (January 2001)|
|This record is really, really, really, really terrible. Just complete dreck. I could maybe extract some good quotes from the lyrics of “Fashion People” (Nigo!) for a nonfiction book, and I am partial to the mambo-beats of 1960s cover “In America” but the rest is beyond cheesy — like a “JAPAN COOL” poster hanging in a provincial gift shop selling salty green tea. By taking Japan as a theme, Konishi produces a recursive error, like the scene where John Malkovich goes into his own head. Pizzicato Five throw all taste and class out the window and just go “Kimono” and “Sukiyaki Song” until you want to burn every album in their entire catalog. The only non-arguable bright side is the extension of Happy End’s throwaway “AIEUO” hiragana syllabary ditty into a fully fledged Disney symphonic song for the ages. An ignoble ending for the band, and probably not a coincidence that Nomiya Maki barely appears on the songs.|
|(D) — An Orientalist failure for masters of mukokuseki Internationalism|
|Pizzicato Five in the mix (December 2001)|
|A DJ mix… claimed to be a “live” mix by Sunaga Tatsuo, but sounds computer-edited, and also, doesn’t really sound like a “live DJ mix.” The beginning hits on the house-y, club side of the band, but by the middle we’re on to the remarkably non-danceable “Triste” and a acoustic version of “The Night is Still Young.” For a band in constant need of editing, mixes can be a nice way to enjoy the catalog, but this one is overall unfocused and has no compelling narrative.|
|(C+) — Some random P5 songs in a random order.|
|pizzicato five I love you (March 2006)|
|A DJ mix… of Pizzicato Five’s most mellow songs hand-picked by Konishi? Okay, I admit, I didn’t listen to this album. I confused it with the one below. But looking at the track list, this is a very strange selection from the catalog: drowsy songs that a very tired Konishi perhaps looked back fondly upon in his old age.|
|(C+) — Some random mellow P5 songs that Konishi happens to like|
|pizzicato five we love you (March 2006)|
|A DJ mix… of Pizzicato Five’s most poppy songs? On first listen, I thought this was a waste of time. But as a Greatest Pop Hits — removing all of the band’s more experimental and dance oriented works — the songs shine through. The selection cuts out all the filler and reveals the band to have been masters of songcraft over a full decade.|
|(B+) — Nothing new, but a helpful distillation of the P5 pop sense|
|pizzicato five we dig you (May 2006)|
|A DJ mix… of Japan’s DJs and producers mashing up the best of Pizzicato Five into a non-stop mega-mix in the vein of 2 Many DJs? Yes, please, that would be excellent. But that is not what this is. This is an hour of listening to your favorite three-second fragments of P5 songs linked up stochastically with very few moments of clever blending or recontextualization. Handsomeboy Technique schools everyone at the very end by making a song you actually want to listen to more than zero times.|
|(D) — The best Pizzicato songs mashed into formless oblivion|