J-pop K-pop Playlist – A starter on popular music across the Pacific
By Daniel Steele
Viewed as an ocean, the music world is teaming with swarms of pop. The ubiquitous fish range from catchy but fleeting, to plain, to downright mesmerizing. They might dart from thrashing rock sharks or sail with self-important jazz whales, but one thing's for certain to those vigilantly clued in to their radars: we're drowning in them. Those who follow the latest music scene may feel they have heard much of what there is to hear from pop, even if they still enjoy it, but how about we venture to areas some, or many of us, haven't? That is, the popular music across the Pacific: J-pop and K-pop. And don't worry, our ol' familiar American tunes will still be there when we get back.
J-pop, or Japanese pop, actually spans the whole lot of genres within Japanese popular music otherwise not considered "pop," with the exception of traditional music, such as Enka. But to stick with the spirit of pop for starters, let's look at a very popular and very beautiful electropop trio called Perfume. The Hiroshima based group got its start in 2000 with its teenage members singing to simple electronic tracks, but when they teamed up with highly talented DJ and music producer Yasutaka Nakata in 2003, it was clear they were a special combination.
Since Perfume's breakthrough song "Polyrythm" in 2007, the group has frequently hovered at the top of the charts with its futuristic, catchy-as-hell dance pop, backed with the airy sweet harmonies of singers Ayano Omoto (Nocchi, center), Yuka Kashino (Kashiyuka, right) and Ayaka Nishiwaki (A-chan, left).
Much of their releases after the album "Game" are electropop gold, but standouts are relentless foot-tap inducing "Love the World" and "Dream Fighter" from their album "Triangle." Equally worth checking out are "Clockwork" and "Magic of Love" from "Level 3," an album that beautifully blends their signature futuristic sound with subtly house-influenced beats.
The great appeal of Perfume is the clash between the delicate voices and sonic, buzzing pulse of Nakata's tracks, but the group doesn't stray too far into the likes of other pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, famous for her highly cutesy sound known as bubblegum pop. There's surely something for any EDM fan within Perfume's discography. Just be sure to keep this pop catch above water. After all, this one's electronic.
Deeper below the surface lies the lesser-known rock band Ecosystem. This energetic group formed in 2007 and remained solely in the indie scene until their single "Dilemma" saw wider attention after appearing in an anime. They've released only two albums and four singles before disbanding in 2014, but their are no duds to be found from their 2013 album "Ushiro no Shoumen," meaning "Front of the Back."
The catchy guitar riffs and raw voice from lead singer Megumi Tsubosaka make for exciting, fun tracks, such as "Tsukiya no Net," the single "Catharsis" and the silly food song "Itadakimasu." But the band also delves into softer, slower ballads such as "Taitei no Sutori," meaning "Mostly Story." They even break into casual rap rock in a couple songs, which keeps the album varied and interesting. There's a joke somewhere with the name Ecosystem and my ocean analogy, but I'll just let it rest... in Davy Jone's locker. Oops.
"Tsurezure Monochrome" - This catchy rock track from Fujifabric starts as if a rocket ship were preparing to take off, before launching into a keyboard and drum segment that follows each break between lyrics. The stop-and-start guitar riffs compliment the syllabic nature of Japanese well, hooking the listener in with every subsequent strum.
"Shiki no Uta" - Meaning "Song of Four Seasons," this song by Nujabes, featuring R&B singer MINMI, was the ending theme for the popular anime "Samurai Champloo." Nujabes is known for his great hip-hop beats, and this one is no exception. A sleek, jazzy guitar and saxophone slide around a trotting drumbeat as MINMI contributes her smooth double-tracked voice.
South Korea's pop is a staggeringly lucrative multi-billion dollar industry. It is filled with boy and girl bands dripping with a sex appeal that puts Boyz II Men and The Pussycat Dolls to shame. Many groups come from the same major agencies and for this reason have been rightly criticized for being samey and "plastic," but there's plenty of extremely talented and unique artists if one looks well enough.
The typical tone of most K-pop groups is sexy, but five-member group Crayon Pop opts for cute and goofy. Their odd costumes, quirky dance moves and light-hearted sound truly set them apart from the rest. They pay homage to Power Rangers in "FM" and Super Mario in "Dancing All Night." They dance with bike helmets in "Bar Bar Bar" and traditional head scarves in their weirdly infectious "Uh Ee."
Their catchiest song by far is "Ra Ri Ru Re" thanks to its great chorus, which chants the title as it alternates its notes. An older noteworthy one is "Saturday Night," which adds a bit of dubstep and rap, but not too much, to its regular formula.
Crayon Pop sets its own trends and doesn't care who follows it. The best way to appreciate Crayon Pop's bizarre but adorable nature, and all K-pop for that matter, is through its music videos.
While much of K-pop is hip-hop and R&B focused, there is a whole layer of indie artists who span many genres. Neon Bunny is a standout among these for her groovy French inspired synth and somewhat ethereal vocals.
Neon Bunny is the stage name for Im Yujin, who produced her first solo album called "Seoulight" in 2011. This album had a more traditional pop sound, but she hit full stride with her mini electropop album "Happy Ending" in 2012. This EP debuted the groovy dance pop she is known for with the addicting "Bubbles" and "Oh My Prince."
Her following singles "It's You" and "Romance in Seoul" are more sedated but no less seductive to those funny head-holes we call ears. The latter song in particular is uniquely appealing in Yujin's use of traditional Korean string instruments and ambient noise.
"Loser" - The highly popular boy band Big Bang is known for its bombastic hip-hop, so its slow rolling 2015 single "Loser" was a surprise hit. It's simple drum beat and straightforward rap are perfect for a slow Sunday drive.
"Vibrato" - If the title is any indication, this song is very sexual. Girl group Stellar cranks its sexual suggestiveness up to ten in its music video, spreading erotic imagery in every place it can. Emphasis on spreading. The single has a fun, high-energy groove to it with its constant use of saxophone. The audio form is enticing enough, but the video package is really something else.