Japanese Indie Pop: The Beginner's Guide to Shibuya-Kei
Shannon Cottrell Shibuya-kei influenced band The Aprils played Meltdown Comics in L.A.
In our recent posts on bands like Anamanaguchi, The Aprils and The Lady Spade, you might have noticed references to Shibuya-kei, the '90s-centric style of indie, almost always electronic, pop that centered around Tokyo's Shibuya ward. Since we're hearing the influence of artists like Cornelius and Pizzicato 5 creeping up in burgeoning bands, we put together this small beginner's guide to the style.
First, a little background. Unlike other Japanese scenes like visual kei, the Shibuya-kei fandom in the U.S. doesn't necessarily crossover with the anime fandom. Instead, the bands tended to hold their strongest appeal to indie pop fans. There are a few good reasons for this. During the mid-to-late '90s, the time in which the scene was most active, many of the bands had albums released in the States through big indie labels like Matador and Grand Royal. Additionally, the '60s-meets-'90s vibe and its corresponding influences-- French pop, bossa nova, house music-- was evident in bands across the globe. Obvious correlations can be found in the work of Momus (who worked with Shibuya-kei artists, particularly Kahimi Karie) and Saint Etienne, but you could draw much subtler comparisons to the French house scene, Thievery Corporation's 18th Street Lounge label and bands like Bis and Belle and Sebastian.
If you're going to start digging around in the Shibuya-kei crates, Pizzicato 5 is the best place to start. Our reasoning for this is simple, out of all the bands that came out of this scene, they came closest to breaking through on a wide scale in the U.S. "Twiggy Twiggy/Twiggy vs. James Bond" actually found some play on radio stations like KROQ in L.A., though this was several years after the song was originally released in Japan. It was also a sizable club hit. The group was quite prolific until disbanding in the early '00s, so there's an ample discography to explore.
Recommended Listening: Made in USA
Released on Matador Records, Made in USA is a compilation of Pizzicato 5 tracks that had been previously released in Japan. It essentially serves as a full-length introduction to the band. Songs like "Twiggy Twiggy/Twiggy vs. James Bond," "Baby Love Child" and "This Year's Girl #2" all appear on here.
Cornelius got his start as a member of the band Flipper's Guitar (check them out too, if you were ever into bands like Stone Roses or House of Love, you'll dig them), but went on to an illustrious solo career. He's considered by many to be the king of the Shibuya-kei scene. In addition to his solo work, he has produced and remixed a number of artists. Most recently, he remixed "Make Some Noise" from the forthcoming Beastie Boys album Hot Sauce Committee Part 2. Also out now is the Japanese import CD CM3: Interpretations by Cornelius, which features his remix work for bands like Kings of Convenience, Bloc Party and The Go! Team as well as legends James Brown and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Recommended Listening: Fantasma
Cornelius' 1997 release was a college radio hit in the U.S. Check out the track "The Micro Disneycal World Tour."
Fantastic Plastic Machine
Fantastic Plastic Machine is Tomoyuki Tanaka, a musician who became a DJ who became one of the most beloved producers from the Shibuya-kei scene. He also has the honor of having played the very first Coachella festival.
Tanaka's music as Fantastic Plastic Machine incorporates a variety of styles, primarily of the party variety. It's the kind of music that makes you want to find a mid-century modern home in the hills, decorate it all in white, put some Andy Warhol paintings on the wall and throw a party.
Recommended Listening: The Fantastic Plastic Machine
This is Fantastic Plastic Machine's sort-of self-titled debut, which was released through now-defunct indie label Emperor Norton (who also brought Ladytron to the U.S.). The jam on here is "Dear Mr. Salesman," featuring vocals from Pizzicato 5 singer Maki Nomiya. Seriously, I kind of freaked out a little the first time I heard it back when a promo copy landed at the L.A. college radio station where I once worked. Also, there's a cover of Joe Jackson's early-'80s hit "Steppin' Out." This album isn't on iTunes, but seek it out whichever way you can.