Why the soundtrack to 1980s Tokyo is also the soundtrack to my life.
What is Citypop?
Japanese citypop evolved in the glitz and glam of 1980s Tokyo. The 80s were a time of economic boom within the country. As cities grew and urban lifestyles developed, a new sound emerged. Citypop draws inspiration from American genres like soft rock, yacht rock, funk, and disco; yet feels totally unique. The genre grew to dominate the Japanese charts in the 80s. A uniquely metropolitan genre, citypop reflects the seemingly endless economic growth that Japan was experiencing by creating lush soundscapes complete with orchestral swing swells and punctuating horn stabs.
Rather than being defined by specific musical features, citypop is the soundtrack to lavish, young, urban, and cosmopolitan living. It brings to mind images of neon lights and concrete jungles. Calling something “citypop” is much more of a broad, vibe classification than a rigid genre category. Artists such as ANRI, Tatsuro Yamashita, Miki Matsubara, and Mariya Takeuchi all sought to reflect urban living in their music, yet they do it in unique ways. Despite these “big four” artists of citypop sounding drastically different from one another, they all very clearly fall under the citypop umbrella. The influence of American soft rock and yacht rock like Steely Dan and Toto is evident, but citypop still retains a sense of uniqueness that makes it worth listening to.
What makes it special?
For me, that uniqueness and freshness comes from the instrumentalists. These drummers, bassists, and guitarists are some of the best musicians I’ve ever heard recorded. The rhythm sections (drums, bass, and rhythm guitar) are tight and in the pocket, and come up with absolutely killer grooves. They often tread the line between funk and disco, incorporating slap bass and intricate hi-hat patterns. They create a rhythm that worms its way into my brain, and inevitably leaves me grooving along. When you go listen to the playlist at the end of this article, pay attention to the drums and bass!
Citypop has seen a modern resurgence, with the internet giving it a way to leave the country it developed in. Citypop’s vast catalog has proven to be an endless source of samples for modern producers, and the styles of vaporwave and future funk have evolved out of citypop.
Where should I start?
Unfortunately, American streaming platforms are noticeably lacking when it comes to citypop. There is still a decent selection on most services, but some songs on one platform might be missing from another. Some artists to explore on your streaming service of choice are those big four I mentioned: ANRI’s album Timely!!, Miki Matsubara and her hit song “Stay With Me”, Tatsuro Yamashita’s song “Silent Screamer” and his album Ride on Time, and Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” (and this particularly impressive live version featuring Tatsuro Yamashita). Additionally, Kingo Hamada and Taeko Onuki are fantastic as well. I’ve also made this playlist of some of my favorite songs.
Japanese citypop just tickles a part of my brain that no other genre does. Despite being written in a language I don’t understand, in a country I’ve never been to, and existing 20 years before I was born, citypop still makes me feel nostalgic. The economic miracle that saved 20th century Japan and the feelings it brought are perfectly encapsulated in citypop. It makes me feel hopeful, optimistic, and enthusiastic about walking blindly into the future.