It’s true, isn’t it? It seems as though
we’re headed for a new century. It’s miraculous:
This is something you can only taste once.
Let’s remember one more time.
On the day we arrived on this Earth
we were somehow happy,
and somehow it hurt.
We were crying
wow yeah wow yeah wow wow yeah
Ayumi Hamasaki – Evolution Thanks to Lyrics Translate
Just as for many of us, music has been entwined with my life story. Being Cuban, my mother would play salsa, merengue, and other Spanish genres while cleaning or on the weekends. Juan Luis Guerra, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Celia Cruz (azucar!), Gloria Estefan, and others blasted through the windows every week. Michael Jackson and other pop artists of the time were mixed in for good measure. But even with these amazing musicians, my ear was more tuned to music from across the Pacific.
J-Pop (Japanese Pop music) appeared in my life as I slowly discovered it. I got a taste through anime and their catchy intro and ending songs, which is how I mainly started to hear different vocalists. Since I’m the type of person who will start digging to find out more, I searched the name of the artists, songs, and albums they released. It wasn’t easy to find these amazing vocalists as there was no Spotify, iTunes, or any other legal digital music platform at the time—I had to do Google searchs and look at websites that had mp3s to download, or software that no longer exists like Kazaam or Napster (oh yeah, I’m going way back!). One time I found and bought an Ayumi Hamasaki CD in a Virgin Records store in their foreign music section, which blew my mind. I bought it immediately and listened to it all the time, among a few other CDs I was able to find in Chinatown in New York City.
Music was beginning to get really foul with the rise of hip hop and pop music often being about drugs, sexual content, and other nonsense. J-Pop was more my style since it was like a secret nobody knew about, so I felt like the only one who was listening to it. I had all this music to myself, and when other people listened to it they were intrigued but also taken aback. How could I listen to music in another language that I didn’t understand? Yet, today K-Pop (Korean Pop) is blowing up in the USA and around the world and barely any of their fans speak Korean. I was ahead of my time!
The lyrics were also important, especially once I gave my life to Christ. I did not want to be listening to music that glorified values I don’t follow, but surprisingly most J-pop isn’t about the typical topics abounding in music today. Vocalists often sing about love, happiness, relationships, or feelings of wanting to push forward. This encouraged me to keep listening and reading the lyrics, which are often very poetic and inspiring.
As I found more artists, there were ones I enjoyed more than others, especially those that had more style to them. I’ve never been into a lot of slow music, so songs that are upbeat always caught my ear. Back then, a style that isn’t used much today was Eurobeat, which became very popular in Japan. Remixes were found in albums of various artists, especially in Dance Dance Revolution, the popular game by Konami which I still enjoy playing sometimes!
The anime series Initial D, based on the manga by Shuichi Shigeno, uses Eurobeat music regularly in its episodes during racing scenes between the characters, and because of this it has come to the attention of some anime fans outside Japan.
In 1998, Bemani, a branch of the video game company Konami, made a hit video dance machine, Dance Dance Revolution. The game acquired Eurobeat songs from the Dancemania compilation series from Toshiba EMI.
It’s funny, because today I don’t listen to as much J-pop or K-pop as I used to (I still listen to most of my old school favorites though!), but I listen to similar styles of music. For example, I really liked M-Flo, a Japanese hip hop duo who still make music today, and I’m a big Christian hip hop fan as well. I listen to a lot of this type of music while working out or driving, since it sounds great but lacks the content I don’t want to hear. Pop music and techno are still some of my favorite genres to listen to, also—Ayumi Hamasaki, Utada Hikaru, Megumi Hayashibara, and BoA, among others, attracted my ear to those sounds.
If you aren’t familiar with several of the artists I’ve mentioned so far, let me share with you some of my favorite songs, why I like that artist, and where you can find their music easily. I am a big user of Spotify, so I will be putting links to the artist page on their name.
- Ayumi Hamasaki – Ayumi was the main J-pop artist I listened to back in the late 90s, early 2000s. She was and still is considered the Queen of J-pop since she rose to stardom so quickly. Her music is very catchy, and her voice is unique and featured in anime and video games. She has a pop phase and a rock phase, so there’s room for you whatever your flavor!
Favorite songs: Evolution, M, Depend on you, And Then, Grateful Days, appears, INSPIRE, STEP you, Trauma
- M-Flo – This duo was funny and cool because they would dress in stereotypical hip-hop fashion, but it was more of a parody to me. They were cool when hip-hop wasn’t in Japan at the time, so they are definitely pioneers in that genre. They would also mix their sound with techno/EDM tracks, especially in their recent BACKTOTHEFUTURE compilation album which I highly recommend.
Favorite songs: come again, the Love Bug, miss you, REEEWIND!, prism (Carpainter Remix), been so long, Astrosexy, MAKE IT BREAK IT
- BoA – A Korean singer who broke out in Japan, this girl is super fun and still makes lots of music today. Her earlier music is very happy and has tunes you can dance to, but she also has a grit that she brings with hip-hop or pop. Today she does more pop and is more popular, I believe, than she was before.
Favorite songs: Double Jack, Green Light, Only One, White Wishes, VALENTI
- Crystal Kay – Crystal is one of the most diverse J-pop artist because of her background. Her mother is Japanese and father African-American, she speaks English and Japanese, and her music varies from pop to emotional tunes. I discovered her after listening to the ED of Fullmetal Alchemist, “Motherland.”
Favorite songs: Step by step, Motherland, REEWIND!, Summer fever, Can’t be stopped, REVOLUTION
- Megumi Hayashibara – Though she hasn’t produced much music lately, Megumi was up there with Ayumi as one of my favorites. Her music was everywhere, in anime and also as a voice actress. Various songs were also used in AMVs when those were popular. Her lyrics are the most consistent and always have something positive to say.
Favorite songs: Give a Reason, Infinity, Don’t be discouraged, Front Breaking, Exit Running, Just Be Conscious, Reflection, Revolution, Plenty of Grit, Lively Motion, Sakura Saku, Breeze, Northern Lights, Get Along,
- Utada Hikaru – I could never leave out Utada, who is still today one of my favorites. Her recent song, “Face My Fears” from Kingdom Hearts III, was a huge hit, along with her other openings for the same series. She’s from NYC, where I am from (Brooklyn!), and was raised in Japan. Her songs are more emotional and touching, but she has some real good pop songs from her earlier work.
Favorite songs: Simple and Clean, Passion, Traveling, Movin’on without you, Don’t Think Twice, Flavor Of Life, Automatic, Wait and See.
Notable Mentions: Kumi Koda – real Emotion, ORANGE RANGE – *Asterisk, Two-Mix – Just Communication, Field of View – Dan Dan Kokoro Hikareteku, and others I can’t remember…
As a Christian, I’m careful about what I listen, watch, read or entertain myself with. I’m glad that J-pop and now K-pop has lots of music that we can just enjoy and dance to.
What are some of your favorite J-pop artists or songs, past and present? Share below, I’m always looking for good music!