J-Pop is a four-letter word. The domestic fans devour it like character goods. The institutionalized press’ palms are greased so well that they can’t hold the pencil long enough to write anything critical about it. The “real” rock community in Japan can’t stomach it. The foreign fans are, for the most part, a bunch of air-headed anime geeks. Most of the music — Smap, V6, Kinki Kids, Hamasaki Ayumi, B’z, Globe, MAX, ZARD, Mr. Children, etc. — is just manufactured commodity product created to sell to prefab youth markets. J-Pop’s worldwide reputation of being dreck is almost completely justified.
So what I aim to do in this three-part column will put my credibility at stake with all sorts of music fans: I wish to present three J-Pop albums that actually stand up to critical criteria, three albums that may stand the test of time, if we let them.
Excluded from the running are anything “indie” or “underground” or not intended to be consumed as pop product (sorry, Cornelius). All three of these albums were big hits of their time. Of course, the Japanese media cannot give these albums any kind of acclaim or merit outside of sales ranking, so I hope this small column will bestow a meager amount of “collective permanent value” or whatever in blazes I call it.
So without further ado:
Number Three: Puffy – amiyumi, 1996
Almost a decade before Puffy were stars of their own poorly-animated and inexplicable children’s cartoon in the United States, they were just another two-girl idol group created in the smokey backrooms of the J-Pop industrial complex. Both Ami and Yumi had entered the world of entertainment through the Sony talent agency, which decided to put them together as a group instead of trying for solo careers. At some point, producer Okuda Tamio began to oversee the project. He had been a member of the wildly successful rock band Unicorn, which had originally been put together as a “band boom”-type idol group but soon became a vehicle for Okuda’s innate songwriting talents.
Now 30, Okuda got free reign to make these two pre-idols into his own dreamy ’60s rock creation. The result was amiyumi — a seven-song girl-voiced pop-rock mini-album that shunned all the conventions and traps of the contemporary J-Pop world’s Eurobeat obsession. Tambourines and subtle harmonies abound, as with Hammond organs, flanged-out rock solos, break-beating drums, and the occasional backwards echo. The big single “Ajia no Junshin” recalled E.L.O.-era analog synth work way before Western indie bands picked up a Juno-6 and wrote songs about their girlfriend’s mom having it going on. “Ajia” seems to be a blatant attempt to open up a pan-Asian market for the girls, but it ended up just being a staggeringly well-produced moment of the domestic industry. When else have J-Pop stars attempted to sound like Debbie Harry, backed up by a vocoder?
Clearly, the expectations on this side project were low, so the freedom ran high. Open up the CD booklet and Ami is playing a giant sitar on an Indian rug. There’s also plenty of fish-eye camera work, portraits avec tablas, frizzy pigtails, and hand-drawn bunny signatures. Shibuya-kei influenced? Maybe. But this was 100% major label output and yet musically 100% respectable.
Okuda got even more adventurous with their next single “Kore ga Watashi no Ikiru Michi” (recorded and released in mono!), but Puffy soon became stars and their albums became hastily put-together collections of hit singles and throw-away pastiche tracks. amiyumi has its own unique sound — very Summer of ’96 — a little bit retro, a little bit Alternative. This was the first J-Pop record I ever heard, and I got lucky. This was a rare exception to the rule, and it still sounds good next to the cookie-cutter clutter of today’s blah-blah idle idols.