Nov 23, 2020

Genres On Japanese Vinyl: What Is City Pop?

If you are a fan of Japanese vinyl records, you may have heard of “City Pop”.

The term was coined in the early 1980s and is now gaining attention from around the world; the genre of the records longed for by international collectors.

But what is City Pop exactly?

Answering this question is not as easy as it may seem, for there has been no clear definition yet and the genre contains truly different kinds of musical styles and blends such as AOR (Adult Oriented Rock), jazz, soul/funk, disco and rock.

Some say it’s the record jackets with a blue ocean or soaring skyscrapers that indicate City Pop music, others recall lyrics depicting meetings and partings.

Such as but not limited to these. The question you cannot avoid is; what does “city” represent and how it is sung in City Pop music.

Tracing back the genealogy of City Pop

Before City Pop appeared in the early 1980s, the notion of “City Music” had been introduced by the media in the mid 70s, meaning “the new music, which has a big-city atmosphere”.

“A big-city atmosphere” was one significant key word indicating the social trend of the Japanese 70s. The so-called “city boys” were on the rise in urban areas, a fast-living new age crowd, who enjoyed consumerist culture. Instead of listening to “masculine” rock or “straight-forward” folk music, they preferred much more casual, lightheaded artists such as Yumi Arai, Minako Yoshida or Tatsuro Yamashita.

Takashi Matsumoto, the City Music artist who produced and wrote “Matenro no Heroine” (“Heroine of Skyscraper” ) in 1973 stated as follows;

“The title of the record album is ‘Matenro no Heroine (Heroine of Skyscraper)’. The main theme is as ever ‘city’. Here I don’t handle rock, nor jazz, nor classical music. I’m not interested in genres but I always wished to write a love song fit in the wine grass called ‘city’. I’m eager to portray ‘the city dream’’, which is as shiny as the golden era of Hollywood.”

Just like this, people in Tokyo in the 70s were full of dreams of the great metropolitan. The early 70s was the time, when the post-war high economic growth went into the last phase and reached one peak. It was also when everything was commercialized and consumed: good-tasting food, restaurants with a certain atmosphere, nice-style cars or fashionable clothes. It was the breeding ground of City Pop.

In the 1980s, Japan experienced the economic bubble years, changing people’s lifestyles completely. Artists now characterized as City Pop musicians such as Eiichi Eiichi, Haruomi Hosono, Takashi Matsumoto, Taeko Onuki gained popularity among young people in Tokyo.

Their work is often described as a blend of adult oriented rock (AOR), soul/funk, Jazz and disco. Lyrics are also a mixture of Japanese and European languages, which shows no cultural identity.

City Pop may be significant and typeable with its unique artwork of record jackets rather than its musical characteristics, as some say “any album produced in the 1980s with a picture of a pool on its cover jacket should be classified as City Pop.”

A white Beach, the brilliant rays of the sun, highway alongside a sea, swimming pool; these are the most beloved art motifs by illustrators for City Pop cover jackets. Untouched nature is not a theme here, but they represent the ideal leisure environment for exhausted metropolitans.

Why Now?

Interestingly, the term “City Pop” itself was not so well known at its heyday. It was not a musical genre, but merely a commercial label of a group of songs made by certain artists. Through the 1990s the word became obsolete.

It was 2018 when “Plastic Love” by Mariya Takeuchi suddenly gained views from the world on Youtube and won global recognition as the anthem of City Pop. It was nothing more than an unsold and unsuccessful song when it was produced by Tatsuro Yamashita in 1984.

The internet definitely contributed to the unexpected success of City Pop in this digital age, helping the genre find new fans beyond borders.

Mac Demarco, Indie artist, and the hip hop artist Tyler the Creator citing their admiration and even sampling the genre and an American artist Jenevieve’s 2020 track “Baby Powder” sampled Japanese artist Anri’s 1982 song “Last Summer Whisper”.

Yet it is premature to say that Japanese sophisticated music finally won global recognition. The images of “Japan” conjured by City pop music is definitely not the country where we are now living. It is the fictional imagery of a prosperous, affluent big city in the era of “Japan as Number One” in the distant past.

Embedded within uncertainty and economic stagnation worldwide, people may be seeking a little cozy urban oasis we may have found ourselves before in City Pop.

Sugar Babe
Sugar Babe
Sugar Babe / Songs (Niagara/ELEC Records, NAL-0001, released in 1975)

Taeko Ohnuki and Tatsuro Yamashita formed a band named Sugar Babe with other members.

The band had been active from 1973 to 1976, releasing their album Songs in 1975 from the label Niagara Records, established by singer-songwriter and producer Eiichi Ohtaki. Their music was a fine mixture of Yamashita and Ohnuki’s vocals with American style pop music. Songs was the first and only album from the band due to the bankruptcy of Niagara’s parent company ELEC Records in the following year.

Even though they created remarkable music, the band was greatly underappreciated as their album sold poorly.

Nowadays, the 1st pressing of Songs is in high demand, considered to be a Japanese pop masterpiece right before the City Pop era.

Tatsuro Yamashita
Tatsuro Yamashita
Tatsuro Yamashita / Circus Town (RCA, RVL-8004, released in 1976)

The City Pop icon, Tatsuro Yamashita was born in Tokyo in 1953.

He has cited Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys as a key influence, evident throughout Yamashita’s music. He is also known for his love for western soft rock, blue eyed soul, chorus group, soul music, etc.

He has a unique recording style, practically doing everything on his own. From the arrangements, programming, back chorus, instruments (guitar, keyboard, percussion). He would record each sound separately, ultimately gathering them together to form a song.

Yamashita made his debut as a member of Sugar Babe in 1975. After Sugar Babe broke up, he started his solo career with RCA in 1976, releasing his debut album Circus Town. The album was recorded in New York & Los Angeles, musicians who joined the sessions were all American except for Yamashita.

Circus Town remains one of his most famous albums.

His 6th album For You, recorded in 1982, is a City Pop classic. With every fan wanting to own the LP, it's used vinyl record price has risen almost 20 times higher in the past 10 years.


Mariya Takeuchi
Mariya Takeuchi
Mariya Takeuchi / Variety (Moon, MOON-28018, released in 1984)

Mariya Takeuchi is a well-known female singer-songwriter for 2 reasons.

1. Her song “Plastic Love” is the most popular City Pop song of all time.

2. She is married to the “King” of City Pop Tatsuro Yamashita.

Plastic Love is included on her 6th album Variety, released in 1984. Takeuchi wrote each song while Yamashita produced the album. The album is becoming increasingly rare during these past couple of years.

Taeko Ohnuki
Mariya Takeuchi
Taeko Ohnuki / Sunshower (Panam, GW-4029, released in 1977)

Taeko Ohnuki is another important artist in City Pop.

After Sugar Babe disbanded, Ohnuki recorded her first solo album Grey Skies in 1976. In the following year, she released her 2nd album Sunshower.

Sunshower is one of the most in-demand City Pop albums.

Musicians who joined the recording were Ryuichi Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono, Kazumi Watanabe, Tatsuro Yamashita, Chris Parker from the American jazz-fusion band Stuff, etc.

There is an interesting story to this record.

On a famous Japanese TV program in 2017, a British tourist was interviewed for his reason for visiting Japan. His answer was to purchase Ohnuki’s Sunshower on vinyl. This surprised the Japanese audience as not only did they not know the record was known outside of Japan, but they themselves were not aware of the album.

This TV show was talked about greatly among fans, persuading the record company to reissue the LP for the 3rd time that year. With such events, the 1st pressing of Sunshower has been attracting considerable demand, selling for about $200 to $300 in Japan.

Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO)
Yellow Magic Orchestra
Yellow Magic Orchestra / Solid State Survivor (Alfa, ALR-6022, released in 1979)

Yellow Magic Orchestra, also known as YMO, was formed by 3 members, Haruomi Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

YMO released their first official album titled Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978, also issued in the U.S.A. with different artwork by Horizon/A&M Records.

Other popular City Pop artists you will love also...

Minako Yoshida / Tomoko Aran / Anri / Toshiki Kadomatsu / Miki Matsubara / Yumi Matsutoya (Yumi Arai) / Akiko Yano / Takako Mamiya / Masayoshi Takanaka / Junko Yagami

and more…

City Pop is a fascinating music genre. Once you play a record on your turntable, you will surely feel the nostalgia of the 80s, even if you were not even born during that period.

Face Records is a group of experts of Japanese vinyl records and Japanese music. We can recommend you the best of City Pop.

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