Japanese city pop songs
The 21st-century rebirth of Japanese city pop has pushed lite, groovy tracks from the 70s and 80s back into the limelight. During the post-war economic and technological boom, songs were written by Japanese city people indulging in their new urban and lavish lifestyle. But its influence has since spread far and wide, guiding Korean, English, and even Malay music.
A broad vibe classification for songs that represent an amalgamation of pop, disco, funk, R&B, boogie, and jazz, city pop songs make you want to groove along to the music. Don’t know where to start? Here’s a list of 12 iconic city pop artistes and their songs.
1. Takeuchi Mariya 竹内 まりや
Variety vinyl album cover (1984)
Image credit: @ss.record
Takeuchi Mariya released her first full-length album in 1978, followed by 5 other albums which were partially recorded in Los Angeles, with stars of that era such as David Foster. In 1982, she took a break and got married to artiste Tatsuro Yamashita.
Her most well-known song is Plastic Love (1984). The track gained a second wind in 2017 when a remixed version was picked up by Youtube’s algorithm and actively recommended to electronic music listeners. It quickly gained traction and now has more than 37 million views.
Tatsuro Yamashita (left) and Mariya Takeuchi (right) performing live
Image adapted from: @arban_mag
Till today, Mariya Takeuchi continues to make music. She regularly performs live with her husband, who also produces her songs. Some of her works include Sweetest Music (1980), September (1980), 夢の続き Yume No Tsuzuki (1987), and Oh No Oh Yes (1987).
2. Yamashita Tatsuro 山下 達郎
Publicity poster for Yamashita Tatsuro’s live performances in 2019
Image credit: @lovebomb1970
Yamashita Tatsuro is married to Takeuchi Mariya and was part of a band called Sugar Babe, which disbanded in 1976. He then launched his solo career and 2020 marks his 45th anniversary as a soloist.
Ride On Time vinyl album cover (1980)
Image credit: @sn.kumamoto
Ride On Time (1980) was used as the ending theme song for Tokyo Broadcasting System’s drama Good Luck!! (2003), starring Takuya Kimura. This song and its eponymous album had a hand in pushing city pop back to popularity in the early 80s. Check out some of Tatsuro’s other works, such as Spacy (1977), Love Talkin’ (Honey It’s You) (1982), Christmas Eve (1983), and Merry-Go-Round メリー・ゴー・ラウンド (1983).
3. Anri 杏里
Timely!! vinyl album cover (1983)
Image credit: @rat.rodders.33
Anri debuted in 1978 when she was just 17 years old. Her single, Cat’s Eye (1983), was one of the first Japanese pop songs to be used as an anime theme song. Windy Summer (1983), part of the album Timely!!, has an upbeat and catchy rhythm. Imagine yourself chilling at the beach in summer for ultimate listening pleasure.
Evergreen city pop tunes like Anri’s are commonly sampled by newer and younger artistes. Case in point – Jenevieve, a 22-year-old American artiste, recently sampled Last Summer Whisper (1982) in her new song, Baby Powder.
Other popular works by Anri include Remember Summer Days (1983), Stay By Me (1983), and Happy End (1987).
4. Ohashi Junko 大橋 純子
Simple Love vinyl album cover (1977)
Image credit: @jt_city_pop
Despite debuting in 1974, it was not until 1977 that Junko rose to fame with her single, Simple Love. A brisk and lively tempo, accompanied by her powerful vocals, made the song a disco-friendly number.
She was diagnosed with cancer in 2018 but has since recovered. On 17th December 2019, she held a concert in Tokyo to celebrate her 45th anniversary. For other groovy tunes, check out Return The Key 鍵はかえして! (1974), Telephone Number (1984), I Love You So (1984), and Sweet Love (1995).
5. Happy End はっぴいえんど
A photo of Happy End back in the 70s
Image credit: @manatsumirai
Happy End was a rather short-lived group from the early 70s, but they were credited as the first Japanese rock group to sing in only Japanese. Back then, it was common for Japanese rock groups to sing in English and include at least a few Western song covers in their albums, but Happy End bucked the trend. The members continue to pioneer city pop post-disbandment.
One of their most well-known works is Kaze Wo Atsumete 風をあつめて (1971), which was featured in the film Lost In Translation (2003). The song has a funky rhythm and feel-good vibes, making you want to bob your head along to the song. Despite their short lifespan, the band produced 3 albums and songs such as Hana Ichi Monme 花いちもんめ (1971), Ashita Tenki ni Naare あしたてんきになあれ (1971), and Inakamichi 田舎道 (1973).
6. Matsubara Miki 松原 みき
Stay With Me vinyl single cover (1979)
Image credit: @kmtn_beat
Besides pop, Miki is also known for composing and singing tracks for animes such as Dirty Pair: The Movie and Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory. Her debut song, Stay With Me (1979), is lilting, with polished musical arrangements on the saxophone and bass guitar – no wonder it immediately propelled her to fame.
Unfortunately, Miki passed away from cancer in 2004 at the young age of 44. Pony Canyon, a major publisher in Japan, has produced 4 compilation albums of her songs since her passing. Some of her notable works include Jazzy Night (1980), Run Rabbit Run 気まぐれうさぎ (1980), and Wash (1982).
7. Kadomatsu Toshiki 角松 敏生
After 5 Clash vinyl album cover (1984)
Image credit: @ellarecords
Toshiki is a talented singer-songwriter and producer who also produces tracks for other popular artistes like Anri. He has been dabbling in music since the tender age of 10 and remains active even in 2020, with live performances and album releases.
Toshiki Kadomatsu live performance 2020 poster
Image adapted from: Toshiki Kadomatsu Official Site
If You… (1984) has a steady bassline with well-executed instrumentals and lively vocals. Check out his other songs such as Dancing Shower (1981), Summer Babe (1981), Office Lady (1982), and 52nd Street (1987) for more of his silvery voice.
8. Casiopea カシオペア
Mint Jams vinyl album cover (1982)
Image credit: @ichiroy1969
Casiopea was formed in 1976 and saw multiple changes in band members over the years. The band has produced over 30 albums to date, with the latest album released in 2019.
Midnight Rendezvous (1979) is a song from their first album and it is a comfortable tune with skilful riffs on the guitars and keyboard. What’s unique about Casiopea is that there are no vocals in the songs, making it highly listenable and great as muzak. For more songs to add to your background music playlist, check out Pastel Sea (1980), Asayake (1981), Take Me (1982), and Down Upbeat (1984).
9. Ohnuki Taeko 大貫 妙子
Sunshower vinyl album cover (1977)
Image credit: @koala.1991
Taeko was part of a band called Sugar Babe, along with Yamashita Tatsuro and Muramatsu Kunio, but they disbanded in 1976. After the disbandment, she went solo and released her first album the same year.
Kusuri wo Takusan くすりをたくさん (1977) is a country-style song, with a catchy hook and percussion coming together cleanly. For more of her songs, check out 都会 (1977), Summer Connection サマー.コネクション (1977), Tasogare (1978), and 4:00A.M. (1978).
10. Matsushita Makoto 松下誠
First Light vinyl album cover (1981)
Image credit: @h.a.wave
Makoto is currently part of a band called AB’s, but he was previously active as a soloist. His works tend to be jazzy. First Light (1981), from his album of the same name, is a well-rounded and playful piece, with layered details in the background like bass riffs and echoing vocals.
AB’s vinyl album cover (1983)
Image credit: @ccndekd
AB’s continues to hold live performances and recorded their newest album in March 2020, set to be released in the summer. Other songs by Makoto include This Is All I Have For You (1981) and Just A Rainy Blues (1984).
11. Bread & Butter ブレッド&バター
Image credit: Discogs
Bread & Butter is a sibling duo formed in 1969 by Iwasawa Satsuya 岩沢幸矢 and Iwasawa Fuyumi 岩沢二弓. They have released more than 40 albums over the years and continue to hold live performances in Japan. They have an upcoming album called Light Mellow BREAD&BUTTER in the works.
Japanese Woman (1980) is a listenable and quirky song that showcases their musical flair. Check out their other songs such as Summer Blue (1979), タバコロード20 (1979), and Shonan Girl (1981).
12. Yamane Mai 山根 麻以
Tasogare vinyl album cover (1980)
Image credit: @vinylguyh
Despite debuting in 1979, Mai only gained popularity as an anime singer in 1993 after she sang a total of 9 songs for Cowboy Bebop’s soundtrack. As a solo artiste, Mai has released 16 albums, with the most popular one being Tasogare.
Tasogare (1980), the title track of the album of the same name, is a bluesy and jazzy track that is comforting to listen to. Most of Mai’s songs are mellower than those of other popular city pop artistes. Some of her soothing tunes include Twilight たそがれ (1980), Wave (1980), and I’m Now Alone (1985).
Bonus: Spotify and Youtube Playlists
One of the best ways to explore a genre you’re not familiar with is to check out genre-specific playlists. Youtube and Spotify are both convenient options for newcomers who want to listen to city pop, although the repertoire on Spotify might be limited as not all the artistes are on Spotify or have their songs uploaded.
Image adapted from: aofd3
This city pop playlist on Spotify has the highest number of followers amongst its peers and includes hit songs from Ohashi Junko, Casiopea, Matsubara Miki, and Anri.
This “SUMMER DAY” Youtube playlist has 1.4 million views to date. Ganymede Cafe also has other Japanese city pop playlists once you’re done with this. This particular playlist includes tracks from Anri, Yamashita Tatsuro, Takeuchi Mariya, and Kadomatsu Toshiki.
This “City Pop 80s” playlist contains tracks from Anri, Yamashita Tatsuro, Takeuchi Mariya, Kadomatsu Toshiki, Ohashi Junko, and Matsubara Miki. It has 1.3 million views and the account similarly has other Japanese city pop playlists.
Iconic city pop tracks
City pop is an evergreen genre that remains relevant and listenable regardless of the times. Tracks belonging to this genre are comfortable and pleasant, versatile for different settings – be it studying alone in a library or having a party with your friends. There’s something for everyone, at every time.
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