おはよう！Welcome to my guide to Japanese Alternative Music. The easiest way to navigate through the blog is when you see a video, go ahead and press play and read along. Feel free to jump around, explore and most of all go in with an open mind. First, I’d like to start at the beginning…where it all began…myspace.
My first introduction to Japanese music was on myspace circa 2007. Remember our good old friend Tom? I remember browsing his page out of curiosity and saw that he posted a video about a band he was listening to from Japan. This was that music video:
HOLY SHIT. High energy, colorful as hell, in your face, unapologetic synth rock was blasting through my two tiny DELL speakers on my family computer. It was as if pop synth punk made love to my favorite classic video game and created this song. The video itself still stands unparalleled. I cannot think of another music video that comes close in comparison. Speaks for itself. Check out how much fucking energy the main singer has.
From then on I figured all Japanese music was similar to this high octane synth rock and let that stigma sit until Spring of 2012 when the true beginning of my Japanese music adventure started when I fell deeper and deeper into the “weird part of YouTube” one night and came across this now very popular song/video:
ARE YOU SEEING THIS SHIT RIGHT NOW? HAVE YOU SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS? THIS CATCHY AF, CHEERFUL, CANDY POP?? IS THAT MRS. DOUBTFIRE POP & LOCKIN IN THE BACK? DID THE SINGER JUST VOMIT BATS & EYEBALLS? IT’S ONLY HALF WAY THROUGH THE SONG… HOW DO I ALREADY KNOW THE ENTIRE SONG?
I was floored. I watched this video AT LEAST 30 times in a row upon first discovering it. There’s so much to find and such a trip to watch. This is Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (きゃりーぱみゅぱみゅ) and she is one of the biggest “JPOP” stars in Japan. Her style is “grotesque kawaii” balancing cute objects alongside gruesome ones such as skulls, eyeballs, slime, etc. She’s come a long way since PONPONPON and her other videos are definitely worth checking out.
But we’re here to discover the alternative side of Japan’s music scene – and we’re almost there. We will first start out with one of Japan’s most popular outfits…
GesuNoKiwamiOtome / ゲスの極み乙女
Meaning Girl at the Height of Rudeness. Pop rock driven fun featuring funk and groove. Groovy bass, funky synths, punchy drums, and intricate technical guitar blends together beautifully in each of their songs. Such an enjoyable and masterful band to listen and watch. Here’s my favorite song from the group:
The bassist is my spirit musician, btw. I’ll throw this song on and will find my son humming or singing along to the incredibly catchy chorus. You have to appreciate how well timed, edited and constructed the music video is. It’s so refreshing to watch compared to typical American music videos, IMO.
Another noteworthy music video & track from ゲスの極み乙女 playing with forced perspective. This one titled in English as “Battling”:
The ending of this song S L A P S. The organ like synth, the bassist going OFF accompanied by the drummer going HAM. Did I use enough millennial lingo there? Did you catch the singer singing “Checkmate” at the end? Fun stuff. All of their music videos are so beautiful and a joy to watch – edited so differently from the typical media we are used to stateside.
More notable songs definitely worth checking out:
オトナチック– Watch the third act of this song turn into a rollercoaster of a jam session. Like jazz musicians riffing off each other.
私以外私じゃないの– Addictive as hell opening guitar riff.
frederic / フレデリック
Next, is what I can only describe as the Two Door Cinema Club of Japan. Simple upbeat drums with tight catchy melodic guitar riffs. Beware, this song has a sticky & mesmerizing melody and you’ll have it glued in your head the rest of the week:
My Hair is Bad
Alright, we’re finally to the ALTERNATIVE/POP PUNK part of the blog. My Hair is Bad is arguably the best and worst band name on this list. They are also Japan’s answer to Blink-182. Pop punk, alternative with a sprinkle of emo. With a lyric like “ずっとこのままじゃいられない/Zutto kono mama ja i rarenai” meaning ‘I cannot keep going like this forever’’ – how much more emo can you get?
This next songs sound is reminiscent of blink-182’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket era. The last verse closing out the tune is fucking heavy:
すっと 不安になるんだ Sutto fuan ni naru nda I will be anxious for a long time
きっと 心配はないさ Kitto shinpai wa nai sa There is no worry
ぜったい 終わりは来るんだ Zettai owari wa kuru nda I will definitely come to an end
いつか死んでしまうんだ Itsuka shinda shimau nda Someday, I will die
Just watch this.
*appears behind you* uWu. Guess I should mention one of their very catchy songs was featured as the opening of the popular anime Naruto, but don’t let that stigma hold you back from what they have to offer. Kana-Boon stands as an alternative staple among Japanese bands – and a popular one at that. Still check out that song linked above though, it’s good and I’ve added it to the YouTube Playlist you can check out later. Instead, enjoy this wholesome older song before the runlikenaruto memes took over:
Next, you will notice a trend in the following set of bands. Each features an all or majority female lineup who can fucking rock. I honestly can’t name more than 5 all female bands here in the US which is a shame and holds true to the necessity of sex appeal and stigmas on women in the music industry for becoming successful here.
When I was traveling throughout Japan in late December 2016 into January 2017, me and my friends wandered into a media shop full of CDs, movies, books, stickers and knick knacks in Kyoto. Kinda like a Barnes & Noble meets Hot Topic but cramped inside the size the living room of a one bedroom apartment. Throughout the store they had these small screens playing music videos and highlights of new albums that were just released. One caught my ear with a catchy tune and that is where I discovered the all female trio – Hump Back. Why are they called Hump Back? – No idea. Did I understand everything she was singing? – Not at all. Was it catchy as hell? HELL YEA. Did I buy the album based off that single catchy chorus? BET.
Couldn’t tell you how many times I listened to this song throughout my trip. This next single is off the same debut album and features a soft opening into a heart wrenching jam about missing the last train to see someone you love.
The fashion style of the 90’s is alive and well in Japan and Hump Back is still killing it with new songs. Can’t wait to hear what they have in store and continue to watch them grow. Here’s some of their newer stuff:
Unfortunately, I cannot find any of their music on American Spotify or AppleMusic, so if you do enjoy Hump Back, shoot me a message on Twitter and I’ll be happy to send you a copy of their first album, because it’s honestly great.
After exploring Hump Back’s catalog, I next stumbled upon this all female trio – yonige. Spunky with a splash of emo, this song (titled アボカド “ABOKADO”) is about a break up and an avocado. Just like guac – this song is extra and for all the best reasons. Check this blog out for the English translation breakdown.
NECRY TALKIE / ネクライトーキー
This is probably my NEW favorite band I’ve been following as of late. Their sound can be described almost as controlled chaos. Their performance in their videos showcase how incredibly talented and lively they are. There’s a very technical aspect to their music – almost like a math indie rock fusion. This was the first track I stumbled upon from them:
From then on I was hooked. This band is so fun to watch and to listen to. Something simply uplifting about their music.
Again, I can’t understand all of what they’re saying but this next one is titled ”めっちゃかわいいうた/Meccha Kawaii Uta or loosely translated to the “ultra cute song.”
Need something a little softer? Maybe something more on the indie rock side?
I wish this song was longer :'(
What about math rock? Irregular time signatures paired with complex, dreamlike guitar riffs – tricot (pronounced “tree-co”) are in the same realm as stateside bands like Tera Melos & TTNG. This AudioTree Session is beautiful:
POLKADOT STINGRAY / ポルカドットスティングレイ
Fast paced funk is what Polkadot Stingray provides. I half expected Will Swan of Dance Gavin Dance was bending strings and riffing on the guitar in this next track:
Can’t get through not understanding anything these bands are singing about? Got you covered – the next couple of bands sing in English or blend English lyrics along with Japanese lyrics.
There is a breakdown in this song that begins with the singer saying “FUCK” like “FWUCK” and it is incredible.
In Japan, I was on the hunt to dig through vinyl records in any record shop I could stumble upon. Between stuffing my face with all the festival food and getting lost on the bus route – I found that I was right around the corner from the popular Jet Set Records in Kyoto and decided to wander up the 4 flights of stairs into the cramped store. Flipping through wax, I felt at home. In my element but at the same time no idea what I was looking for. I wanted something I could only get in Japan, so I went up to the counter to ask the clerk in my best broken Japanese if he could recommend something to me – maybe Japanese pop punk? “何かお勧め日本の音楽はありますか? ポップパンク? ” I then handed him my headphones and played “Nerve” by The Story So Far to give him the angsty emo pop punk vibe I was looking for. After a minute of nodding his head and acting genuinely interested in Parker Cannons angry lyrics of: “ITS ALL IN MY HEADDDD THERE’S NOT MUCH I CAN DOOO” he handed back my headphones and softly mumbled something in Japanese and started ROAMing* the store. I followed him as he began sifting through records like a masterful musical librarian knowing exactly what I was yearning for. He then handed me three vinyl records. He pointed to one of the bands, NOT WONK, and told me very gently – “Japanese, but sing in English” I thanked him and began researching what I could on YouTube to find a favorite amongst the three he recommended me. Since the record store clerk, aka my new best friend, made NOT WONK stand out among the others I decided to go with the purchase (also the album cover stood out to me with the outofcontextoldphotograph trend that was popular with emo/pop punk scene) and the fact that they sing in English – an interesting twist.
*really bad TSSF joke
My new best friends recommendation was pretty on point compared to The Story So Far. I felt the angst, I felt the punk but with a little surfer rock twist and funny enough the music videos are similar in style. These guys are still dropping great punk driven tracks. I’ll end this guide with another banger from NOT WONK:
Welp, that’s the guide. You just took a crash course in Japanese Alternative music. I know there’s so much more to explore and I’m trusting you now to go on your own. Don’t be afraid to just click around on random videos and discover new bands, songs and videos. You’ll never know what you will find. 頑張った！
If you’re a little hesitant, no worries. All these videos and more can be found in a Youtube Video Playlist I’ve made. Also check this Spotify playlist featuring some of the songs I could find plus more Japanese artists: