Japanese Indie Pop: The Beginner's Guide to Shibuya-Kei

Shibuya-kei influenced band The Aprils played Meltdown Comics in L.A.
Shibuya-kei influenced band The Aprils played Meltdown Comics in L.A.
Shannon Cottrell

In our recent posts on bands like Anamanaguchi, The Aprils and The Lady Spade, you might have noticed references to Shibuya-kei, the '90s-centric style of indie, almost always electronic, pop that centered around Tokyo's Shibuya ward. Since we're hearing the influence of artists like Cornelius and Pizzicato 5 creeping up in burgeoning bands, we put together this small beginner's guide to the style.

First, a little background. Unlike other Japanese scenes like visual kei, the Shibuya-kei fandom in the U.S. doesn't necessarily crossover with the anime fandom. Instead, the bands tended to hold their strongest appeal to indie pop fans. There are a few good reasons for this. During the mid-to-late '90s, the time in which the scene was most active, many of the bands had albums released in the States through big indie labels like Matador and Grand Royal. Additionally, the '60s-meets-'90s vibe and its corresponding influences-- French pop, bossa nova, house music-- was evident in bands across the globe. Obvious correlations can be found in the work of Momus (who worked with Shibuya-kei artists, particularly Kahimi Karie) and Saint Etienne, but you could draw much subtler comparisons to the French house scene, Thievery Corporation's 18th Street Lounge label and bands like Bis and Belle and Sebastian.

Pizzicato 5

If you're going to start digging around in the Shibuya-kei crates, Pizzicato 5 is the best place to start. Our reasoning for this is simple, out of all the bands that came out of this scene, they came closest to breaking through on a wide scale in the U.S. "Twiggy Twiggy/Twiggy vs. James Bond" actually found some play on radio stations like KROQ in L.A., though this was several years after the song was originally released in Japan. It was also a sizable club hit. The group was quite prolific until disbanding in the early '00s, so there's an ample discography to explore.

Upcoming Events

Recommended Listening: Made in USA

Released on Matador Records, Made in USA is a compilation of Pizzicato 5 tracks that had been previously released in Japan. It essentially serves as a full-length introduction to the band. Songs like "Twiggy Twiggy/Twiggy vs. James Bond," "Baby Love Child" and "This Year's Girl #2" all appear on here.

Cornelius

Cornelius got his start as a member of the band Flipper's Guitar (check them out too, if you were ever into bands like Stone Roses or House of Love, you'll dig them), but went on to an illustrious solo career. He's considered by many to be the king of the Shibuya-kei scene. In addition to his solo work, he has produced and remixed a number of artists. Most recently, he remixed "Make Some Noise" from the forthcoming Beastie Boys album Hot Sauce Committee Part 2. Also out now is the Japanese import CD CM3: Interpretations by Cornelius, which features his remix work for bands like Kings of Convenience, Bloc Party and The Go! Team as well as legends James Brown and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Recommended Listening: Fantasma

Cornelius' 1997 release was a college radio hit in the U.S. Check out the track "The Micro Disneycal World Tour."

Fantastic Plastic Machine

Fantastic Plastic Machine is Tomoyuki Tanaka, a musician who became a DJ who became one of the most beloved producers from the Shibuya-kei scene. He also has the honor of having played the very first Coachella festival.

Tanaka's music as Fantastic Plastic Machine incorporates a variety of styles, primarily of the party variety. It's the kind of music that makes you want to find a mid-century modern home in the hills, decorate it all in white, put some Andy Warhol paintings on the wall and throw a party.

Recommended Listening: The Fantastic Plastic Machine

This is Fantastic Plastic Machine's sort-of self-titled debut, which was released through now-defunct indie label Emperor Norton (who also brought Ladytron to the U.S.). The jam on here is "Dear Mr. Salesman," featuring vocals from Pizzicato 5 singer Maki Nomiya. Seriously, I kind of freaked out a little the first time I heard it back when a promo copy landed at the L.A. college radio station where I once worked. Also, there's a cover of Joe Jackson's early-'80s hit "Steppin' Out." This album isn't on iTunes, but seek it out whichever way you can.

 

Takako Minekawa

Singer-songwriter Takako Minekawa, who happens to be married to Cornelius, released the bulk of her work in the 1990s. Her albums are filled with quirky, experimental-leaning electronic pop with a Krautrock edge that was so popular during the end of that decade. Her work was particularly popular on college radio stations in the U.S. at that time, where it complemented bands like Stereolab, Buffalo Daughter and Broadcast.

Recommended Listening: Roomic Cube

Minekawa worked with members of Buffalo Daughter on this 1997 album. The winning track is "Fantastic Cat." With its repetitive lyrics and blippy melody, it will get stuck in your head. Consider yourself warned.

Buffalo Daughter

Buffalo Daughter is a three-piece group that formed in the early '90s and is still together. They will be performing at the Hollywood Bowl on June 26 with Yellow Magic Orchestra, Cibo Matto and Towa Tei. (The most exciting concert of the year? Possibly.) Their last full-length, The Weapons of Math Destruction, came out last year. More recently, they contributed to a remix album for Japanese band Soutaiseiriron.

Like Cornelius and Takako Minekawa, Buffalo Daughter's sound can be fairly experimental. They aren't afraid to play around with electronic noise and unusual beats. And like Shibuya-kei in general, there's a definite dance floor-friendly sensibility to their work.

Recommended Listening: I

I dates back to 2001 and it's my personal favorite record from the band. It's a diverse album. "Discotheque Du Paradis" is a strange, almost post-punk sort of dance track with a killer rhythm. "Mirror Ball" coincides with the post-rock sound that temporarily took over indie music at the end of the '90s and beginning of the '00s. Like Fantastic Plastic Machine's debut, though, it doesn't appear to be on iTunes. Make Record Store Day your excuse to find it.

Bonus Track: Several years ago, Buffalo Daughter worked with J-pop star Ami Suzuki on the single "O.K. Funky God." It's a pretty cool, and definitely funky track, but make sure you check out the "God Make Dub Joins Buffalo Daughter" mix. It's wild.

Bonus Band: Capsule

Capsule is a little late to be considered Shibuya-kei. The duo of Yasutaka Nakata and Toshiko Koshijima, like The Aprils, who we featured yesterday, didn't release their first album until after 2000. We're including them here, though, because they are a natural progression of the sound that developed in the '90s. Like their predecessors, Capsule has a dance edge and is clearly inspired by early electronic artists like Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra. They are also prone to incorporate a mid-20th century sci-fi look, which they combine with quite modern sounding music, utilizing elements of hip-hop and techno. You'll hear more electro sounds in Capsule's recent work than in the first wave of Shibuya-kei bands.

Nakata is a fairly prolific producer. He was part of the duo Coltemonikha and produces Perfume and Meg. L.A. club kids can typically hear Capsule and related acts at monthly party Tune in Tokyo. Additionally, Capsule has been cited as an influence by Anamanaguchi's Peter Berkman.

Recommended Listening: Player

Capsule is set two release their twelfth album, World of Fantasy, next month. In the meantime, check out their last full-length, Player, which was released in 2010.

Extra Reading: Years ago, Momus wrote eloquently about Shibuya-kei for the Glasgow Herald, which has since been archived online. (Thank you to Michael Cameron of Waterlaso for the tip.)

Follow @lizohanesian on Twitter.

Upcoming Events


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >