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The curators of Pacific Breeze 2 on their favorite hard-to-find city pop gems

Mark “Frosty” McNeill and Andy Cabic dive into YouTube and take us through some of the slickest hits from Japan’s boom era

May 18, 2020
The curators of <i>Pacific Breeze 2</i> on their favorite hard-to-find city pop gems

The Japanese pop artist Hiroshi Nagai, who painted the cover art for Light In The Attic’s new city pop compilation Pacific Breeze 2, once told Kaput that he was heavily influenced by an ad for a swimming pool cleaner in an old copy of House & Garden. He was gripped by American pop artists after a trip to the United States in 1973, and despite living and working in Tokyo, the arching palm trees and deep block-blue skies that he painted came from the other side of the Pacific Ocean. “The summers in my paintings,” he said, “are still and forever the ones in the United States of America.”

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City pop was the soundtrack to Japan’s postwar boom, a sparkling refraction of funk, soul, and boogie made by and for a generation of thriving urbanites. It was, Dublab founder Mark “Frosty” McNeill wrote in the liner notes to the first installment of Pacific Breeze last year, “sophisticated music mirroring Japan’s punch-drunk prosperity.” But while these songs were inescapably a part of Japan’s economic bubble, they were constantly responding to the United States, conjuring images of cross-Pacific summers, just as Nagai does in his oil paintings. “It is, in a way, a conversation between Tokyo and Los Angeles, Japan and California,” McNeill, who has helped to curate both installments of the series so far, says now over the phone from his home in San Francisco. “There’s this vibe exchange across the sea, this literal breeze floating back and forth.”

That breeze is definitely blowing both ways now, as the city pop architect and all-round Japanese music icon Haruomi Hosono proved last year by selling out his first ever shows in New York and Los Angeles. Part of it can be attributed to the YouTube algorithm, which is surprisingly astute with its Japanese music recommendations, but to really understand the city pop family tree listeners first need to grab on to at least one branch. Andy Cabic, who co-curated Pacific Breeze 2 with McNeill and Yosuke Kitazawa, first learned about the mirror world of Japanese pop when he traveled to Kyoto over a decade ago on tour with Devendra Banhart. It was an unbelievably hot day, he says, and all he could do was sit inside a Tower Records, picking up unfamiliar albums on sight alone. “I walked out of there with a stack of CDs,” he says, one of which was the hugely influential 1973 LP Songs by the short-lived band Sugar Babe. Despite working with LITA on Pacific Breeze, the vastness of city pop means that Cabic still considers himself a “novice.”

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Nagai’s art set the tone for both Pacific Breeze compilations. The first, accompanied by a painting from his Poolside series, was a collection of songs designed to be played in a convertible with the top down on a sweltering summer day. Its sequel, covered by a purple and black nightscape, is the sharp-suited, after-dark cousin. But, as with all compilations, it’s been through dozens of changes, with songs switched out at the last minute and tracks suddenly rearranged. That, McNeill explains, is as much a matter of bureaucracy as taste, with licensing a more complicated process on the other side of the Pacific. “There's a different way of doing business in Japan, whether you're selling washing machines or you're selling albums,” he says. “Sometimes that can solidify things and sometimes it can slow things down.” With that in mind, I asked McNeill and Cabic to pick out a handful of their favorite hard-to-find city pop songs on YouTube.

"Rainy Walk" — Tatsuro Yamashita (Moonglow, 1979)

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Mark "Frosty" McNeill: I found this Tatsuro Yamashita Moonglow album here in L.A. in a bargain bin — it was actually on my home turf that I fully started to understand more about the city pop scene. The artists in Japan were really looking to California, but then they were creating their own music on such a high level over there, in part because they had access to incredible studio spaces. There was this period this Japanese bubble economy, where there were a lot of resources and there was a lot put into building studios, time put into crafting albums, access to incredible home-built synthesizers.

So it was interesting when I started to hear these records almost as echoes of what I already knew, being a record collector and a DJ and collecting disco, boogie, and funk from America and then hearing echoes of those records — but hearing something totally different. So, with Moonglow I was hearing the best pieces of soft rock and funk that I appreciated being a record collector, but hearing it with a specific twist. “Rainy Walk” in particular is this easy-breezy tune that hooks you. It's like you catch the glossy streets and you can feel the footprints and the rain. It was really my window into the city pop world, and [it] sparked my search.

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"Untotooku (真鍋ちえみ - うんととおく)" — Chiemi Manabe (Fushigi Shoujo (不思議・少女), 1982)

McNeill: Manabe went into acting and modeling, but [before that] she was a part of PANSY, a girl group. Hosono was part of this album [credited as the supervisor]. But there's also a lot of incredible people. The tune that I picked out became a standard for DJ sets, and it was written by Akiko Yano, one of the continuing heroes of Japanese music. She was married to [electronic pioneer and YMO co-founder Ryuichi] Sakamoto. She was a part of the YMO band for years. She's a serious jazz musician and just a killer musician in general. She wrote the lyrics and the music was [by] Kenji Omura, who was also part of the YMO band. Most of these albums are the result of killer sessions, and the fact there is money to make up. So I'm sure somebody saw Chiemi and was like, "Okay, perfect blend. Put this pretty girl on the cover, have this amazing synth-pop studio band make their magic,” and suddenly you've got this pretty fun, freaky, tasty pop tune.

"Sugar" — Sugar Babe (Songs, 1973)

Cabic: I took to it because the production is really cool. It reminds me of a lot of stuff I like in America around the same time or a little earlier, and the arrangements are awesome, the time signatures are cool, the melodies are inventive. They had it all. I'm always fascinated by groups that just do one album, and I love any song where essentially the name of the band is the name of the song. That's always a bad faux pas that no one can really quite pull off that well. If you achieve that alone, cheers to you for that. And there are so many details of that song that are amazing: the way the tambourine comes at the end, the way they mute the faders during the instrumental, just for about a bar, the way it breaks down. It has almost a Stereolab-y break before the solo. It's the way the guy says "babe" really low after they say “sugar.” It sounds like a lost Todd Rundgren song.

McNeill: I love that Light in the Attic have bookended the compilations. Ours is ‘72 to ‘86, and that Bread & Butter tune “Pink Shadow” that we start the comp with, that's the earliest tune. Tatsu Yamashita had covered that, so it's very much a continuation of what was happening in [the influential, Hosono-founded rock band] Happy End, but you've got these studio whizzes and studio bands, and often these solo city pop artists projects as a solo artist would be like a basis for one band or like the guitarist of another band would suddenly break out and do a solo album. So a lot of them are also looking at the Laurel Canyon scene in L.A. and the Topanga scene looking at Crosby, Stills, Nash and Little Feat and all these folks. Sugar Babe were direct descendants of Laurel Canyon rock.

"Pub Casablanca" — Osamu Shoji (Night Flight, 1979)

McNeill: This is early, around the same time as the Tatsu Yamashita [album]. There's an album called Pacific [credited to Hosono, Yamashita, and Shigeru Suzuki, released in 1973]. We put a tune from it on the first volume of Pacific Breeze, and it is essentially Japanese library music. Again, you've got killer session musicians who have these studio spaces and they have the funding to just be in the studio crafting other worlds, in very much in line with [Mexican lounge composer Juan García] Esquivel. Yellow Magic Orchestra was a huge fan of Esquivel and all the lounge acts that came out in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Yellow Magic Orchestra covered Martin Denny’s “Firecracker,” and it's a continuation of exotica.

That's really a lot of what city pop is about — projecting a vibe, projecting a fantasy. So it fits really well within this idea of library music and production music. There were several albums this CBS/Sony Sound Image series [of which Pacific was a part] that are incredible. Isao Tomita was also a part of it. He was doing all of these synth versions of classical music, and it was very much like the Wendy Carlos Switched-On Bach world that was popular even earlier. So it was like a mid-’70s synth wave thing that began with a lot of covers of classical music and standards. Osamu Shoji did a whole Bee Gees cover. He did covers of “Moon River,” really schlocky tunes. To me, city pop is one thing, but it's like a cousin to production music and library music, and some of the same characters would play on it.

The album cover is completely beautiful. And you immediately get this exotic travel vibe from it. Exotic maybe in his case is going to the moon.

"Zyohanasubargu" — Junko Yagami (Communication, 1985)

Andy: It's weird. It's like some space-y kind of reggae. My introduction to Japanese music would have been back when I was in college and hearing Pizzicato Five [and] Flipper’s Guitar. There's some aspect of this that resonates with that. It sounds pretty futuristic for '85. It's pretty clean and assured. It sounds like it is achieving what it wants to achieve pretty clearly.

Mark: That one we started passing around on YouTube dives. I love that song. But it starts to flip your mind. South African music became very popular around the world, you had the moments where it was coming to the forefront, you have the anti-Apartheid movement. Maybe that was in the air in Japan. She's another artist who has a long career.

"Step Into The Light" — Toshiki Kadomatsu (After 5 Clash, 1984)

McNeill: Hip-hop was happening a bit [in city pop]. You would see some stuff that was happening on Yen Records [YMO’s home], some electro and hip hop. That’s an easy bridge from boogie. And there were a lot of really cool funk-soul-boogie tunes that came out. And on the first Pacific Breeze comp we put out the song “L.A. Night” [by Yasuko Agawa]. That's a very boogie-vibe tune. And of course hip-hop was in the air. It very quickly became popular. It's like in the late-’60s, every record suddenly had to have paisley on it and look psychedelic, even if it was the most schlocky record. Suddenly everybody wanted to package their records to look a certain way and to appeal to a certain crowd.

People in New York were still trying to figure out how to rap, so the fact that somebody in Japan can't rap that good is not surprising. But it reminds me really a lot of [early-’80s Italo disco star] Pino D'Angiò. He put out a tune in 1980 [called "Ma Quale Idea"], it was a huge hit. And it's not a rap tune, it's maybe a poorly sung disco song, but it's so good. To me, some of the best music in the world is also slightly off, and to a lot of city pop was people trying to copy something, or yearning to achieve a specific sound. But because of their own cultural identity or where they're coming from in the world, it mutates it. That mutation to me is the core of some of the best music of all time.

Look at South African bubblegum music, it's shooting for something else. It's shooting for boogie and funk and hip-hop And all these things. To me, the conversations of music around the world are fascinating. And I love the fact that somebody's interpretation of a sound or a vibrant idea gets twisted and flipped but it breeds something you could have never created otherwise.

The curators of Pacific Breeze 2 on their favorite hard-to-find city pop gems