Japanese music can be potentially quite difficult for English-speaking listeners to get into, and not just because of the language barrier. With the record charts saturated by saccharine-sweet idol units such as AKB48 and their numerous sister groups, and bishounen-heavy boy bands like Arashi and Kis-My-Ft2, the industry might seem off-putting to those wanting something with a little more depth. However, even lovers of mainstream pop might find the comparatively high-pitched and sometimes rather nasal vocal style of many J-pop singers overly harsh on the eardrums – and besides all that, it can simply be tricky to know where exactly to begin.
Needless to say, what does and does not make for a good entry point into the world of contemporary Japanese music depends a great deal on personal taste. So rather than just rattle off a bunch of my personal favourites, the below names are, as the title of this post suggests, a few of the singers or bands that originally got me into J-pop and J-rock. Most of them I discovered purely by coincidence in the early to mid-2000s, and while they’re not necessarily still on my regular playlist, I’ll never forget that they were among the first Japanese performers that led me to actively seek out more. You never know – perhaps one or two of them might encourage other listeners to do the same.
HIGH and MIGHTY COLOR
It saddens me that such a solid Japanese rock group has broken up, particularly since prominent lead female vocalists are a bit harder to come by as far as the Japanese rock industry is concerned. The band called it quits in 2010 citing “musical differences” and “future opportunities” as the reason for their breakup, although following the lead vocalist’s marriage and departure from the band in 2008, this may have been inevitable. However, with a total of five original studio albums released during their time together, there’s still plenty here to like and also a fair bit of a variety, from hard rock and alternative metal to milder pop-rock material. This is backed up by pleasantly strong vocals – somewhat lower-pitched than many other females in the industry tend to be – and makes for a distinctive and compelling combination with the male vocals as well.
Single suggestions: Ichirin no Hana, Days, Pride.
Bluntly put, Hamasaki sometimes seems to lack polish. Her vocal style often comes across as slightly nasal, and she just isn’t the same powerhouse that many other contemporary J-pop artists are and have been. However, with a career that began in 1998, what Hamasaki does have is an enormous scope from which listeners can easily pick and choose depending on their tastes. With sixteen original studio albums as of this writing, not to mention several EPs a myriad of remix albums, Hamasaki continues to change and adapt as an artist. Pop, rock, dance, electronic, and even a little classical have all made their way into her vast repertoire – she’s done everything from peppy summer songs and catchy club numbers to intense emotional ballads and dark symphonic tracks. Hamasaki also pens her own lyrics, composes much of her own music, and sets her own trends with her bold and influential sense of fashion.
Single suggestions: Game, Seasons, Inspire.
Particularly known among fans for those of her songs that have been used in various anime titles over the years such as Fullmetal Alchemist, D.Gray-Man, and the second season of Jigoku Shoujo/Hell Girl, Kitade has also played a significant role in the lolita street fashion scene, regularly appearing within the pages of magazines like Gothic & Lolita Bible and KERA. With a mostly pop/rock repertoire and a hint of punk, Kitade’s vocals are high-pitched and almost fragile-sounding at times, but her songs are usually quite catchy, and many have a lovely dark vibe that compliment her image. Following an announcement in June 2009 that she would be suspending all activities due to illness, Kitade formed a new grunge/rock band, The Teenage Kissers, in 2012, who have now released two EPs and a full studio album of their own.
Single suggestions: Tsukihana, Kesenai Tsumi, Pureness.
My comfortable point between Kitade Nana and the harsher, more rock-heavy ALI PROJECT, this five-member unit, fronted by female vocalist and sometimes voice actress Itsuki Yui, is textbook goth-rock material. Mixing metal, dark wave, and a little electronica, the concept of the band is obvious enough from the name, which translates to ‘Fairy Empire’. Some of their songs are a bit too metal-generic for my tastes, especially since the band seems a little overly fond of stereotypical ominous Latin chanting and gratuitous German. However, I can’t deny that I also like their sometimes very whispery vocals and dramatically ethereal style – atmosphere counts for a lot with me, and Yousei Teikoku has that in spades.
Single suggestions: Wahrheit, Schwarzer Sarg, Senketsu no Chikai.
When I found out that this singer/songwriter studied opera for several years, I wasn’t at all surprised; she has an amazing vocal range and can hold a steady note for a truly impressive amount of time. KOKIA (real name Yoshida Akiko) sometimes puts me a little in mind of Kalafina, as many of her songs have a similar fae-like quality to them, and a lot of her tracks also make heavy use of piano and violin – both of which she plays as well as guitar, and on top of writing and arranging most of her own music. KOKIA has a rather breathy and sometimes understated husky quality to her vocals, but this comes across as a controlled choice rather than a weakness; it’s delicate, but by no means frail, and carries a hefty emotional impact.
Single suggestions: Tatta Hitotsu no Omoi, Ai no Melody, Fate.
Question of the post: Do you listen to any Japanese music? If not, what do you think of the above videos? If so, what acts first introduced you to it, and how did you come across them?
25 thoughts on “5 First J-Pop and J-Pop Acts”
I first listened to Jpop when avex trax had a streaming video channel on their homepage back in the early 2000s. I became a fan of BoA, move, dream, Hamasaki Ayumi, Amuro Namie, globe, MAX, and much overnight thanks to the channel. Over time and thanks to advancements in video and music sites like Youtube and Spotify, I was able to get into more groups and bands.
I am surprised that you didn’t mentioned Amuro Namie, who is more versatile than Hamasaki Ayumi. She is a great artist and a definitely recommendation for people who just got into Jpop, especially those who like more of an urban sound to their music.
I tried out of a lot of other female artists after discovering my love of Ayu, including Amuro Namie, but I just couldn’t get into much of her music. From what I’ve seen of her in interviews and such, I quite like Amuro as a celebrity (and I honestly believe her to be one of the most beautiful women alive), but I have yet to find a single song of hers I really like, other than ‘Wonder Woman’ – which is a collaboration also involving two other singers.
I got into Scandal, whom was surprised didn’t make your list since they are pop/rock, in 2010 and before that I was a Gazette and Dir en Grey fan. After Scandal came One Ok Rock and Pay Money to My Pain. These days I’m getting into more pop stuff with Kyari Paymu Paymu leading that charge. Also, found an awesome metal band called Aldious. And then there’s Babymetal which is just ❤
I love SCANDAL – or at least I did, when they had more of a rock and less of a pop vibe going on – but they weren’t one of the first acts I discovered. ONE OK ROCK is great too, though again, I came across them relatively recently.
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If you’re looking for more rock with strong female vocals, I’d definitely recommend Kinoko Teikoku.
I know I’ve heard that name before, and I think I may have listened to one or two of their songs a little while back. I’ll go check them out again properly, thanks for the rec!
I think my first exposure to Japanese music was “Passion” for Kingdom Hearts 2, by Hikaru Utada; and then attrition of exposure to various anime openers. Sometimes I pass by Japanese music I like and I’ll remember it, but mostly I run into Japanese music I like by accident.
I don’t demand much vocal music in my life, so I get choosy and select songs that strike me both aesthetically and lyrically. I don’t speak Japanese, so I automatically lose a lot of the lyricism. I am really fond of Japanese phonetics though, and sometimes I get drawn to a song purely through sounds.
Kitade Nana -based on sample-, is probably where that language barrier kicks in. Aesthetically this song zeroes for me, so I would need some lyrical meaning to connect me to this song.
High and Mighty Color sounds pretty cool. Hamasaki Ayumi sings a style of music I just don’t care for. Yousei Teikokou -based on sample- interests me stylistically as I like metal + violin/orchestra, but her voice strikes a bit high for me. I might look up some more of that group.
As for KOKIA, just wow-wow-wow. Based on that one song, I love her voice and musical style. I’m looking up her music for sure; so thanks for sharing!
I do speak some Japanese, so I don’t have as much problem when it comes to connecting to a song lyrically, but I definitely get where you’re coming from.
KOKIA isn’t a particularly popular or well-known artist here – you’ll never find any of her work on the mainstream charts – but she’s a great artist and I’m really glad that song appeals to you so much! I hope you manage to find some others that you like as well; I think there’s quite a bit of material to choose from, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble there.
You can never go wrong with KOKIA.
I’m open to any kind of Japanese music and singer, although I find myself partial to J-pop/rock with more urban sounds. Occasionally some side stuff, like Babymetal’s unusual cute metal pairing, and that Momoiro Clover x KISS music video.
I got into J-music from watching Inuyasha, which showcased opening and ending songs from many of the mainstream acts of the time such as the abovementioned Hamasaki Ayumi, Amuro Namie, Do As Infinity, and Tackey and Tsubasa.
Video-wise, they aren’t bad, but I find some dancing performances to lack the polish and gloss of Korean pop. I understand the local crowd prefers cute over cool, but the acts end up looking amateurish when compared to international offerings. It also brings up issues that the local industry may be too inward-looking, and over-control over the music prevents new acts to be promoted online to overseas crowds.
Oh, I didn’t know an Ayu song was featured in Inuyasha. I never did manage to get into that show.
I think the Japanese music industry definitely has a lot of issues, some of which are up for hot debate. That’s perhaps a subject for another time though – it could easily take up a whole article by itself. Or indeed several.
The TV series used the song “Dearest”.
Another song of hers, “No More Words” was featured in the ending of the 1st Inuyasha feature length movie.
Have you listened to either songs before?
Yes, I’ve heard both songs. ‘Dearest’ was a pretty popular single back in the early 2000s, and ‘No More Words’, though not released as a single, was featured “I am…” – a very successful album.
Going off of your KOKIA and High and Mighty Color points, any other singers/groups you’d recommend with (consistently) lower-pitched female vocals? I hear plenty of singers (Chihara Minori comes to mind) who can definitely go low but tend to stay high and it gets a bit frustrating, though still enjoyable.
If you’re looking for some decent J-rock with a more low-pitched female vocalist, I cannot recommend Superfly enough. She’s got a beautiful smooth voice with a bit of funk to it, and is currently my top favourite Japanese singer. Also, if you like KOKIA then I think it’s a decent bet that you’ll also like YUI and Ieiri Leo. The former has a very husky quality to her voice and has this really down-to-earth feel, while the latter, although a bit higher in pitch, has quite a similar vocal style.
Thanks! Incidentally, I’d recommend Aimer along similar lines. (And by YUI, do you mean the musician/singer behind “Rolling Star”? She’s pretty great.)
Thanks! I’ve already listened to a few songs by Aimer before – I quite like her voice, although sometimes I found her actual songs a bit hit and miss.
Yup, that’s right! Her name is often written in all caps like that – I assume in part because Yui’s not an uncommon first name, and there are a number of other singers with the same one.
Speaking of Aimer, I listened to her latest album recently, and came to the conclusion (shared by a friend) that she would make a fantastic lounge / jazz club singer. Now if only we can get that sort of album, haha.
I can totally agree with your selection of KOKIA. For me she’s perfect, with her songs and styles presented.
Oddly enough I first heard her in an ending for a soccer anime xD
But then the next ending for same anime was really different and better and from there I started loving her.
I think to present KOKIA to others I would choose: Fate, Chouwa Oto, U-CHA-CHA, EXEC_REBIRTHIA=PROTOCOL/; New Day, New Life and more…
No doubt about it, KOKIA’s a beautiful (and much missed out on) artist.
I’m into idol music, and have found over the years that trying to appeal with “respectable” acts often doesn’t work. (On that note, the latest NMB48 single has an amazing dance that stands up to Kpop quite easily. Too bad the song is kind of suck.) Instead, hitting them with the most ridiculous songs can be the surprise earworm that hooks them in. There are a large number of metalheads that have been sucked into Jpop this way, where a great melody that was still dressed up in a cutesy arrangement, a nasal vocal delivery, and pink-saturated visuals, triumphed over offerings more in line with western sensibilities. (Look for the idol groups that are produced by former rockers.)
It even happened to me. I was intrigued by the MV visuals of a fancover of a Berryz Koubou song, but the next MV I found was against pretty much all of my aesthetic sensibilities at the time. And yet, something about the song, plus something about the girls, just kept me going back.
But then again, Gesu no Kiwami Otome has apparently captured the actual Japanese mainstream, as well as the acclaim of some western music critics as well. (Shiina Ringo, Sakanaction, and Melt Banana have gotten some western critic love as well) And then FEMM is blatantly avoiding any hint of influence from the homeland. Nakata’s projects in Capsule, Perfume, and Kyary even landed a Pixar movie appearance.
On the rock side of things, I like the punk scene. The likes of DOLL$BOXX, parent band Gacharic Spin, Zarigani$, and Tsushimamire are great. Definitely try to catch one of their lives if possible. In a complete 180 of that, I do love me some Shibuya-kei, and Cymbals delivers. And the Japan EDM scene is always great. Shinichi Osawa ftw, and Charisma.com has gotten some western critic notice.
I’m not going to lie, I don’t like most idol music at all. I think I’ve given it a good go – AKB48 and all their various sister groups, Morning Musume, Berryz Kobo, C-ute, Momoiro Clover Z, Passpo, Babymetal, pretty much every single Johnny’s boy band… every now and again I’ll find a song I don’t mind, but on the whole I guess idol pop just doesn’t appeal to me. Ditto with K-pop, incidentally – it doesn’t matter how great the dance moves are, if I don’t like the actual music then I don’t listen to them.
That said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with idol music in and of itself. I have some issues with the Japanese music industry in general, and I’m admittedly frustrated about how the music scene here seems completely oversaturated with cutesy idol groups that often (not always, but often) seem to be genuinely bad singers. However, I don’t pretend to be an expert on idol groups, and I also think people should listen to whatever they want regardless of what anyone else says. If people like and want to support their favourite idol groups, then more power to them.
I first heard about HIGH and MIGHTY COLOR from Bleach, and had been liking the band since, though I didn’t check out their other songs much. Now that when I think about it, Bleach’s OPs/EDs selection is like a J-rock recommendation list for me, I ended up checking songs from UVERworld, YUI, Aqua Timez and Scandal as well just from Bleach.
I never got into Bleach so other than High and Mighty Color, I didn’t know about the OPs/EDs using songs from those artists. That is indeed an excellent selection though! I also like both YUI and Scandal a lot.