Taeko Ohnuki

All I want to do in the days after my annual Christmas music binge is run as far away from Western traditions and tropes as I can, and it's for this reason I find myself returning to Taeko Ohnuki (大貫 妙子) today, possibly my favorite Japanese female vocalist next to Pizzicato Five's Maki Nomiya (野宮 真貴). (More on P5 later.) Pure and full yet crystalline, aqueous.

Ohnuki began her career as a singer and keyboardist in Sugar Babe, a soft rock group from the 70s fronted by Tatsuro Yamashita (山下 達郎) and filled out by Yutaka Uehara (上原 裕), Ginji Ito (伊藤 銀次), Jiro Terao (寺尾 次郎), and Kunio Muramatsu (村松 邦男), all of whom had successful careers post-dissolution, though none more so than Yamashita. (Now that I think about it, there is a roundabout Christmas connection here! When I lived in Japan, I heard Yamashita's sappy, saccharine 1983 hit "Christmas Eve" constantly in December. It's one of his biggest numbers and is still burned into my brain. Somehow, I managed to miss it this holiday season.)

Sugar Babe released only one LP, 1975's Songs, which sounds like it was and ghostwritten and -produced by Todd Rundgren. Case in point: "At the End of Summer" (『夏の終わりに』), which has distinct echoes of "I Saw the Light," no?

Sugar Babe last for about three years—'73 to '76—and released on Niagara Records, a label run by Eiichi Ohtaki (大瀧 栄一), a former bandmate of Haruomi Hosono (細野 晴臣); they were both in Happy End. (I'll get into both Ohtaki and his label later on, too.)

But it's Ohnuki we're here to talk about! After Sugar Babe split, she almost immediately began releasing stuff under her own name. There was 1976's Grey Skies, 1977's Sunshower, 1978's Mignonne, and a whole grip of full-lengths throughout the 80s. It's that 70s material—and a few choice pieces from the 80s—that really gets me going, perhaps because Ryuichi Sakamoto (坂本 龍一) had a hand in much of it.

Mignonne is maybe her best-known record, at least here in the U.S., partially because some YouTube algorithm started pushing its strongest song, "4:00 A.M.," to people a few years back.

Tightly produced and smoothly finished pop with a certain folkiness at its heart. And a certain baroqueness you'd be likely to find in Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson arrangements.

While Sakamoto didn't produce Grey Skies, he was all over it, as was Hosono and Yamashita. Hosono and Sakamoto mostly appeared together, in fact.

Seriously, everything is well worth checking out, but I'll leave you with 1982's Cliché, a particularly synth-heavy and melodramatic effort.

And 1985's "Les Aventures De Tintin," a chunkier and more uptempo cut that's got these Was (Not Was) vibes.