These are unprecedented times for 20th century Japanese music in Western culture. Exports in various styles have recently ballooned in popularity, with out-of-print vinyl rarities selling for hundreds of dollars on Discogs and long-forgotten ambient albums racking up millions of views on YouTube. This enthusiasm has been amplified by the team at Light in the Attic, who have spent nearly 20 years reissuing obscurities from around the world on heavily researched compilations packed with hidden gems. Their 2017 compilation Even a Tree Can Shed Tears: Japanese Folk & Rock 1969-1973 explored the way that American musical traditions were received in the island country, with artists like Kenji Endo and Haruomi Hosono taking direct inspiration from Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and the Band. Hosono, whose work with groups like Happy End and Yellow Magic Orchestra established him as a leading figure in Japanese pop music, became a particular source of intrigue for the label’s archivists, who went on to publish essential reissues of his solo material. The diversity of Hosono’s musical output landed him on the label’s ambient and city pop compilations in 2019, and his legacy continues on their latest release, which attempts to close the gap between these disparate genres.
Somewhere Between: Mutant Pop, Electronic Minimalism & Shadow Sounds of Japan 1980-1988 assembles 14 tracks that don’t adhere to the rules of city pop but aren’t quite environmental music either. Where the former style tends to rely on steady funk and disco licks to establish danceable grooves, this “mutant pop” (or, for the real heads, “techno-pop”) is more electronic, using grainy synths and drum machines to create a colder, more robotic feel. Equally distant from the sparse, wintry tones of ambient composers like Hiroshi Yoshimura, the collection is still mostly legible as dance music, even if it never quite erupts into the kaleidoscopic funk jams of city-pop classics like Tatsuro Yamashita’s For You.
The unifying thread for much of the compilation instead comes from Yellow Magic Orchestra, whose members Haruomi Hosono and Hideki Matsutake make appearances on three of the album’s early tracks. “Hikari No Ito Kin No Ito,” Hosono’s collaboration with the pop vocalist Mishio Ogawa, offers the clearest continuation of the YMO template, using the rigid structure of a drum machine as a foundation from which to build its motorik collage. The track’s soft, minor-key synth lines and melismatic vocals echo YMO albums like Technodelic and ×∞ Multiplies, with lyrical asides that recall the latter’s comedy skits. Noriko Miyamoto’s “Arrows & Eyes” features a similar aesthetic palette, with synth arrangements and programming by Matsutake that bear a close resemblance to his work with YMO. Both tracks feel like clear attempts to expand on YMO’s success at the turn of the 1980s, pairing up-and-coming vocalists with backing music that had a proven ability to top the charts.
YMO’s presence on these recordings also demonstrates the Japanese music industry’s willingness to experiment with new, unconventional forms. Hosono notably produced records for acts like Miharu Koshi, Chiemi Manabe, and Sandii & the Sunsetz throughout the 1980s, and his work with Ogawa’s band Chakra on their 1981 album Satekoso remains among the best prog- and psych-inflected new wave to ever grace Tokyo record bins. “Tira-Rin,” Matsutake’s other contribution to the collection, through his work with the percussionist Midori Takada and her Mkwaju Ensemble, is guided by a similar penchant for experimentalism, pairing Takada’s virtuosity as a performer with a thumping electronic kick drum that almost anticipates the rise of minimal techno. Layers of tonal percussion weave tighter and tighter together as the track rises in speed and intensity, and the ensemble becomes a dizzying blur of performers in perfect sync. An outlier on an album otherwise dominated by muted synth pop, the song reflects an encounter between Takada’s foundation in the Western art-music tradition and Matsutake’s more commercial compositions, one that still sounds great amid the compilation’s warbling electronics.
Beyond cataloging Ogawa and Miyamoto’s pop-star aspirations, Somewhere Between also documents the rising prominence in the early ’80s of independent labels and boutique specialty imprints, which played a key role in bringing this experimental spirit to Japanese audiences. Labels like the Nippon Columbia Co., Ltd. subsidiary Better Days and rock critic Yuzuru Agi’s Vanity Records are featured as prominently as their big-budget counterparts, and Agi himself makes an appearance on the compilation through his work with the band R.N.A.-ORGANISM. Taken from their 1980 album R.N.A.O MEETS P.O.P.O., “Weimar 22” channels the noisy experiments of West German conceptualists like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael Koenig into something more approachable, as twinkling chimes and handclaps lighten an otherwise dry composition. The song introduces a stretch of heavier synth tracks that more successfully bridge the gap between noise and pop music, even as it becomes overwhelmingly clear that their creators don’t share the same commitment to genre. Wha Ha Ha’s “Akatere” opens with a chaotic free-jazz breakdown complete with crashing cymbals, saxophone screeches, and babbling water samples before transitioning into a strange piece of dubby electro, while others, like “Hasu No Enishi,” from the Rough Trade and Visible Cloaks-affiliated new-age duo Dip in the Pool, provide the kind of straightforward synth pop that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Ultravox record.
Comparisons to the German experimental tradition feel especially apt in light of the lasting international influence of bands like Neu!, Can, and Kraftwerk. While Japan largely missed out on a comparable global boom beyond the singular success of YMO, these recordings feel like an important attempt to correct the historical record, making space for forgotten artists without resorting to the built-in appeal of familiar genres. While city pop and environmental music thrive in functional settings that immediately translate across cultures, Somewhere Between feels part of a broader refusal to be understood on the same terms, forcing listeners to engage with a history that goes deeper than immediate feeling. Taken together, these are recordings that can’t be reduced to their play counts on streaming platforms or soaring prices in online auctions, with endless mystery—and reward—lurking just beneath the surface.
Buy: Rough Trade
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