Taeko Ohnuki – Sunshower [*The* best Japanese City Pop album]

I’ve long held the opinion that when it comes to the very finest, most consistent in City Pop sounds, it comes down to a closely fought fight between two utterly sublime records. On one hand, Taeko Ohnuki’s Sunshower (1977, PANAM) and Tatsuro Yamashita’s For You (1982, BMG Victor).

The timing of these two records is significant. Ohnuki’s coming very much at the dawn of the City Pop sound, where it was still very much in its infancy, still evolving and coalescing into the full sleekness it would find in the 80s. With Yamishita’s record – we’re in the early 80s – spinning it into a kind of apotheosis (and perhaps almost self-pastiche) of the genre as it revelled in the full gloss of the decade’s rampant consumerism aesthetic.

But if I was forced to choose between the two records, I’d come down on the side of Sunshower every time. It really is *the best* – if we can attach such a sobriquet to a record.

There’s something about the cover art – that while it lacks the sky blues so associated with most City Pop sleeves – that presents a quiet, comfortable confidence, resting pretty in a chic, distinctly Japanese minimalism of white. Unadorned style – utterly modernist in outlook, and yet somehow also avante-garde, primitive in its simplicity.

And the sound of the record contains something of this too – shifting between disco strings, brassy horn sections and of course – at the heart of it all – Ohnuki’s remarkable voice; which frequently hits some jaw-dropping high notes amidst a display of vocal agility that speaks of utter free-spiritedness.

Sunshower’s world is one of luche late 70s designer apartments, convertible cars and classy lounge bars that serve up crisp martinis, all decked out in burnt rouge leather sofas and shag carpets. In the midst of the floaty electric piano chords and noodling organ lines, it lays out a playground of musicianship in which Ohnuki can deliver some of the most irresistibly catchy toplines in the City Pop sub-genre.

Like all great pop music, City Pop invariably finds its best moments clustered around singles – the ‘greatest hits’ if you will. But Sunshower really works so utterly well as an album, a consistent listening experience from start to listen.

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Photo Credit – Mostly Retro

I love the mention in the Mostly Retro article that talks about how of all the City Pop records, it’s Sunshower that is invariably the most sought after by collectors (but rather more amusingly, that most of the people looking to buy it are all foreigners). In the Mostly Retro article, they equate the idea of City Pop to as if tourists came to the UK searching through record bargain bins solely for old Kim Wilde records or something.

I can confess to understanding this kind of outlook – Tatsuro Yamashita aside, many of the artists cited as proponents of the City Pop sound drew blank faces when I cited their names to many of my Japanese friends.

But regardless, the fact remains that City Pop stands as a fantastic example of how a genre of music can enjoy a kind of ‘second renaissance’ or rediscovery. Think of the enduring love by collectors for Motown or Northern Soul.

But what really excited me most is that things really seem to be snowballing now – the number of articles and pieces online mentioning City Pop has gone into overdrive over the past 12 months or so, and only seems to be increasing – something that will be driven even further if more Western compilations of the music itself continue.

Right now, City Pop still exists in a kind of quasi-legal ghetto where it can mostly only be accessed via YouTube / Soundcloud uploads. But as more ‘official’ releases get put out in the west, backed by concerted PR campaigns, the Western music press will start to look up; pushing the genre outside of the sole domain of Japan specialists, in the process, turning an understanding of the world music scene in the 1970s and 80s beyond the shores of the West.

2018 Update – Japanese City Pop articles and mentions

Last May (2017) I conducted a general overview of the key pieces detailing that particularly sleek sub-genre of 70s/80s Japanese music, City-Pop – these days forever destined to be known as the origins of countless Vaporwave mix-tapes on YouTube.

Since then, as the internet is wont to do when it cottons on to a good thing, the number of mentions and pieces covering City Pop has expanded greatly (and there was even a Western album released compiling a number of City Pop tracks!) – meaning a timely update was in order…

Bearded Gentlemen Music – JAPANESE ‘CITY POP [シティポップ]’: A DREAMY TRIP BACK TO JAPAN’S CAPITALIST FANTASY OF THE 1980’S

The Vinyl Factory – The women of Japan’s ’80s City Pop scene collected on new compilation

Neogaf – City Pop: The Late 70s-80s Funky-Smooth Japanese Music Phenomenon

City Pop: Big In Japan? | Mostly Retro

Reddit – Playlist — Japanese Citypop/Funk Summer Chill [pop, funk, chill] (2017)

Japanese City Pop Special // Subcity Radio

Bandcamp Daily – Japanese Electronic Producers Look to the ’80s for Inspiration

The Breathless Bliss of City Pop — rikumo journal

City Pop – A smooth jazz funk fusion from 80’s Japan

Tokyo Days & Tokyo Nights: From Protest Folk to J-Boogie

‘For You’ by Tatsuro Yamashita, 1982 – We Are the Mutants

BFM: The Business Radio Station – Ep58: City Pop ピクニック

Electronic Beats – THIS 2XLP COMPILES LAVISH ‘80S DISCO FROM JAPAN’S FEMALE PRODUCERS

Favorite City Pop Albums and Highlights – Rate Your Music

Citypop: A Curious Fool’s Primer — Yacht Rock

Drifting Back to City Pop | STATUS Magazine

There’s More to Japanese Music than J-pop and Enka | Music

Cultures of Soul Records – Pre-order – Toyko Nights: Female J-Pop Boogie Funk – 1981 to 1988

[Mix for Self-Titled] OMG Japan 2: Japanese Pop 1980-1989

A Brief History of シティポップ (2017) – Japanese City Pop music & the pop culture of 70s/80s Japan

City Pop celebrates the Manhattan skyline – Ginkgo Journal

city pop [chat] — Penny Arcade

De Mysteriis Dom Bananas: The Essential City Pop Catalog

Pop Matters – Various Artists: Tokyo Nights: Female J-Pop Boogie Funk – 1981-1988

Fuck Yeah City Pop

Tokyo Nights: Female J-Pop Boogie Funk 81-88 [VINYL]

See also – brief mentions…

The Hidden History of Japan’s Folk-Rock Boom – The New York Times

Falling down an online rabbit hole with Rina Sawayama | Dazed

Scout – Your ‘Terrace House’ favorite stars in UDD’s ‘Sigurado’ MV

The 25 best reissues and retrospectives of 2017 – FACT Magazine

[Album Review] Yogee New Waves Find Happiness By The Beach With Latest Release “Waves”

The Subversive Pop Power of Rina Sawayama – Noisey

Kyodo News

City Pop Radio | Extra Future by Phil Nelson

Books about Japanese Music (in English) – A general overview

This list is an attempt to compile a general overview of the currently available book-length studies on Japanese music written in English. I’ve written previously here about the frustrating lack of decent ‘populist’ material on the subject, particularly in regard to contemporary music – an issue also raised in two excellent articles on the topic in The Guardian and The Japan Times. I have listed titles below in Harvard citation style, sub-divided by decade, in descending order. Volumes that are most likely to be of interest to the more general reader are underlined.

2010s

Nagahara, H., 2017. Tokyo boogie-woogie: Japan’s pop era and its discontents. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Cope, J., 2016. Japrocksampler. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Martin, Ian F., 2016. Quit Your Band! Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground. Awai Books.

Matsue, J. M., 2016. Focus: Music in contemporary Japan. New York, NY ; Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Groemer, G., 2016. Goze: Women, musical performance, and visual disability in traditional Japan. New York: Oxford University Press.

2015. Made in japan: Studies in popular music. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Manabe, N., 2015. The revolution will not be televised: Protest music after Fukushima. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wade, B. C., 2014. Composing Japanese musical modernity. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

Overell, R., 2014. Affective intensities in extreme music scenes: Cases from Australia and Japan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

2013. Music, modernity and locality in prewar Japan: Osaka and beyond. Burlington: Ashgate.

Novak, D., 2013. Japanoise: Music at the edge of circulation. Durham: Duke University Press.

Galliano, L., 2012. The music of Jōji Yuasa. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Gillan, M., 2012. Songs from the edge of Japan: Music-making in Yaeyama and Okinawa. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Bourdaghs, M. K., 2012. Sayonara Amerika, sayonara Nippon: A geopolitical prehistory of J-pop. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bigenho, M., 2012. Intimate distance: Andean music in Japan. Durham: Duke University Press.

Johnson, H. M., 2010. The shamisen: Tradition and diversity. Leiden: Brill.

Malm, W. P., 2010. An Anthology of Nagauta. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan.

2000s

Matsue, J. M., 2008. Making music in Japan’s underground: The Tokyo hardcore scene. New York : London: Routledge.

Ferreira, M. P., 2008. Medieval sacred chant: From Japan to Portugal. Lisboa: Edições Colibri : Centro de Estudos de Sociologia e Estética Musical.

Tokita, A., & Hughes, D. W., 2007. The Ashgate research companion to Japanese music. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Burlington, VT, USA: Ashgate.

Stevens, C. S., 2007. Japanese popular music: Culture, authenticity and power. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge.

Blasdel, C. Y., 2005. The single tone: A personal journey into Shakuhachi music. Tōkyō: Printed Matter Press.

Wade, B. C., 2005. Music in Japan: Experiencing music, expressing culture. New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aoyagi, H., 2005. Islands of eight million smiles: Idol performance and symbolic production in contemporary Japan. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: Harvard University Asia Center.

Minor, W., 2004. Jazz journeys to Japan: The heart within. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Keister, J., 2004. Shaped by Japanese music: Kikuoka Hiroaki and Nagauta Shamisen in Tokyo. New York: Routledge.

Potter, J., 2002. The power of Okinawa: Roots music from the Ryukyus. Kobe-shi, Japan: S.U. Press.

De Ferranti, H., & Narazaki, Y., 2002. A way a lone: Writing on Tôru Takemitsu. Tokyo: Academia Music.

Galliano, L., 2002. Yōgaku: Japanese music in the twentieth century. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press.

Stofer, F., Aupetit, C., & Bonvalet, T., 2001. Japanese independent music. Talence: Sonore.

Atkins, E. T., 2001. Blue Nippon: Authenticating jazz in Japan. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press.

Siddons, J., 2001. Toru Takemitsu: A bio-bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Malm, W. P., 2000. Traditional Japanese music and musical instruments (New ed.). Tokyo ; New York: Kodansha International.

1990s

Groemer, G., & Takahashi, C., 1999. The spirit of Tsugaru: Blind musicians, Tsugaru-jamisen, and the folk music of northern Japan. Warren, Mich.: Harmonie Park Press.

Daijō, K., & Suda, N., 1998. The birth of Tsugaru shamisen music: The origin and development of a Japanese folk performing art. Aomori: Aomori University Press.

Lee, R. K., 1998. Yearning for the bell: A study of transmission in the shakuhachi honkyoku tradition.

Kikkawa, E., Yamaguchi, O., & Holvik, L. C., 1997. A history of Japanese koto music and ziuta. Tokyo: Mita Press.

Kubota, H., & Inoue, H., 1996. Tune of the Yakumo-goto: Myth and the Japanese spirit (4th ed., rev. and enl.). Nishinomiya, Japan: Yakumo-goto Reminiscence Society.

Hattori, K., 1996. 36,000 days of Japanese music: The culture of Japan through a look at its music. Southfield, MI: Pacific Vision.

Takemitsu, T., Kakudo, Y., & Glasow, G., 1995. Confronting silence: Selected writings. Lanham, Md. ; Oxford: Scarecrow Press.

Berger, D. P., 1995. Shoka and doyo: Songs of an educational policy and a children’s song movement of Japan, 1910-1926. Ann Arbor: UMI.

Kubota, H., & Inoue, H., 1995. Tune of the Yakumo-goto: Myth and the Japanese spirit (3rd. rev. enl. ed.). Nishinomiya: Yakumo-goto Reminiscence Society.

Eppstein, U., 1994. The beginnings of Western music in Meiji era Japan. Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen.

Kondō, J., & Benítez, J., 1994. Flute and shakuhachi. [Switzerland]: Harwood.

Fish, D. L., 1994. Edo sato kagura: Ritual, drama, farce and music in a pre-modern Shinto theatrical. Ann Arbor: UMI.

Oku, S., 1994. Music education in Japan. Nara, Japan: Neiraku Arts Studies Centre.

Kim, Y., 1994. Songs to make the dust dance: The ryōjin hishō of twelfth-century Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ōtake, N., 1993. Creative sources for the music of Tōru Takemitsu. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Takizawa, T., 1992. Perspectives of music education in Japan and ASEAN countries: Towards a new scope of music education as cultural education. Tokyo: Research Committee for Asian Music Education.

Averbuch, I., 1992. Yamabushi kagura: A study of a traditional ritual dance in contemporary Japan. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.

Ackermann, P., 1990. Kumiuta: traditional songs for certificates: A study of their texts and implications. Bern ; New York: P. Lang.

Kitahara, I., Matsumoto, M., & Matsuda, A., 1990. The shakuhachi. Tokyo: Tokyo Ongskusha [i.e. Ongakusha].

Malm, W. P., 1990. Japanese music and musical instruments (1st pbk. ed.). Rutland, Vt.: C.E. Tuttle.

Takahashi, T., 1990. Tozan-ryū: An innovation of the shakuhachi tradition from Fuke-shū to secularism.

Ishida, K., 1990. Present condition of Japanese contemporary music. [Tokyo]: Japan Foundation.

Kubota, H., & Inoue, H., 1990. Tune of the Yakumo-goto: Myth and the Japanese spirit. Osaka: The Yakumo-goto Reminiscence Society.

Herd, J. A., 1990. Change and continuity in contemporary Japanese music: A search for a national identity. Ann Arbor: U.M.I..

Asai, S. M., 1990. Music and drama in nōmai of northern Japan. Ann Arbor: U.M.I..

Rann, R. K., 1990. Sometayū ichidaiki: The autobiography of a theatre musician in nineteenth-century Japan. Ann Arbor: U.M.I..

Tsukitani, T., & Yamaguchi, O., 1990. Towards a handbook of syakuhati study : classical syakuhati honkyoku : the past and present. Osaka: Shakuhachi Kenkyūkai.

1980s

Shumway, L. V., 1988. Kibigaku: An analysis of a modern Japanese ritual music. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International.

Read, C. B., 1987. A study of Yamada-ryū sōkyoku and its repertoire. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International.

Fujie, L. K., 1987. Matsuri-bayashi of Tokyo: The role of supporting organizations in traditional music. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International.

Hughes, D. W., 1987. The heart’s home town: Traditional folk song in modern Japan. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International.

Reid, J. L., 1986. The Komagaku repertory of Japanese gagaku (court music): A study of contemporary performance practice. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International.

International Council for Traditional Music. International Colloquium., Tokumaru, Y., & Yamaguchi, O., 1986. The Oral and the literate in music. Tokyo: Academia Music.

Malm, W. P., 1986. Six hidden views of Japanese music. Berkeley ; London: University of California Press.

Tsuge, G., 1983. Anthology of sōkyoku and jiuta song texts. Tokyo: Academia Music.

Markham, E. J., 1983. Saibara: Japanese court songs of the Heian period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kishibe, S., 1982. The traditional music of Japan (2nd ed.). Tokyo: Japan Foundation.

Tamba, A., 1981. The musical structure of Nô. Tokyo: Tokai University Press.

Isaku, P. R., 1981. Mountain storm, pine breeze: Folk song in Japan. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Cage, J., Fukushima, K., & Ota, H., 1981. Sound on paper: Music notation in Japan. New York: Japan Society : Japan House Gallery.

Pre-1980s

Cho, G. J., 1979. Some non-Chinese elements in the ancient Japanese music: An analytical-comparative study. Ann Arbor, Mich. ; London: University Microfilms International.

Obata, Y., 1979. The band in Japan from 1945 to 1970: A study of its history and the factors influencing its growth during this period. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International.

Crihfield, L., 1979. Ko-uta: “little songs” of the geisha world. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle.

Honda, M., 1976. Suzuki changed my life. Evanston, Ill.: Summy-Birchard.

Wade, B. C., 1976. Tegotomono: Music for the Japanese koto. Westport, Conn. ; London: Greenwood Press.

Gutzwiller, A. B., 1975. Shakuhachi: Aspects of history, practice and teaching. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.

Adriaansz, W., 1973. The kumiuta and danmono traditions of Japanese koto music. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Harich-Schneider, E., 1973. A history of Japanese music. London: Oxford University Press.

Kishibe, S., 1966. The traditional music of Japan. Tokyo: Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai.

Harich-Schneider, E., 1965. Rōei: The medieval court songs of Japan. Tokyo: Sophia University Press.

Tanabe, H., 1960. Japanese music (3rd ed.). Tokyo: Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai.

Garfias, R., 1959. Gagaku: The music and dances of the Japanese imperial household. New York: Theatre Arts Books.

Malm, W. P., 1959. Japanese music and musical instruments ([1st ed.].). Tokyo ; Rutland, Vt.,: C.E. Tuttle.

Harich-Schneider, E., 1954. The rhythmical patterns in gagaku and bugaku. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Tsugawa, S., 1949. Japanese folk songs. Tokyo: Ongakuno-tomo-sha.

Tanabe, H., & Sakabe, S., 1936. Japanese music. Tokyo, Japan: Kokusai bunka shinkokai.

Sunaga, K., Matsuhara, I., & Iglehart, E. T., 1936. Japanese music. [Tokyo]: Board of tourist industry, Japanese government railways.