On The Japanese Side Of Things ...
I'm not even going to pretend like I comprehend the Japanese music scene. I am more baffled by it than any other music scene around. And I don't mean J-Pop ... that's too easy ... J-Pop is one of the most planned and thought-out musical "genres" in the world ... every musician and band, it seems, is carefully created and promoted, so as to push as many CDs and singles as possible. There's a system to it unlike any mainstream pop industry in the world.
When I say the "Japanese music scene," I am mostly referring to the independently released stuff that comes from, predominantly, Tokyo. I know that countless individuals and organizations alike have tried to figure out the Shibuya-kei scene that seems to have died off, but I am more interested in the aftermath of that style, as it is much more unpredictable and harder to classify.
Whereas American independent music tends to be more on the band side of things, and still focused around guitar, bass, and drums, Japanese independent music leans more to the electronic side of music. That is, artists work hard to chose what their sound will be and most of the action occurs in the studio. There aren't too many $5 shows in Tokyo where bands experiment with their new material. Instead, they like to work out of their audience's eye and release new, "perfect" material every couple of years.
I'll point you all in the direction of some of my favorite artists now. First off we've got Yukari Fresh, one of Escalator Records' most important artist. She, like many other Tokyo musicians, fiddles around with cute synthesizer sounds and lounge-era samples. Her music sounds like a combination of jazz, old [French] pop, and easy listening. My favorite album of her's is Erik ... listen to Long Sabotage to get some idea of what she's like. I love her.
Next we've got Vroom Sound, a label that runs in a similar vein to Escalator. I think of Vroom as Japan's original hip-hop label. They seamlessly integrate various types of music into an original and cohesive blend of ... um ... well, you get the idea. If hip-hop was a remixing of funk and soul and R&B, whatever Vroom (and Escalator etc.) are doing is a remixing of the jazz of the 60s, the lounge of a Europe long gone, and the easy listening of the France that Bridget Bardot called home. Vroom is home to Plus-Tech Squeezebox and a new group that I like called Refely (still not sure where these names come from, though).
The weird thing about this Tokyo music scene is that the music tends to be defined by the record label's style. Like, you can sort of predict what new signings will sound like according to which label they're with. abcdefg* Records, for example, has a totally different style. Their bands tend to be like the Japanese equivalent of Sarah Records' bands (i.e. the Sea Urchins). All the groups (or singer/songwriters) cite Orange Juice and Aztec Camera as influences of theirs. The groups all do a good job of dragging out the life of twee pop, so I suppose that's a commendable thing. I dunno (I'm not particularly fond of the label, as you may have noticed). I do sort of like Strawberry Machine, though: a master of twee bedroom pop. I also just discovered that abcdefg* now does podcasts which look interesting.
My hope with writing this post was that I would get at least one person interested in Japan's bizarre music scene. I love just digging deeper and deeper into it as it continues to baffle me. If nothing else, I hope you all have started to love Yukari Fresh because she is great.