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5 Amazing Japanese Albums You’ve Never Heard Of

Looking to discover more Japanese music? This guide covers some of the core sounds to come out of Japan over the past 50 years.

By 6 min read 6

Do you like Japan but don’t know a thing about Japanese music? Are you looking to expand your iTunes playlist to something more than what you’ve been bombarded with by the entertainment industrial complex and Top 40 charts? Well, this quick guide will have you covered on both of those faster than you can say “I’ve never heard of them.”

Geinoh Yamashirogumi – ­Akira OST (1988)

What is it?

You are likely to have heard these songs if you have seen Akira unless you somehow managed to watch the entire movie on mute. However, few realize how central the soundtrack was to the production of the 1988 cult ­classic that changed the animation industry forever. Geinoh Yamashirogumi scored this soundtrack before Akira was animated and therefore the animators worked around the music. Some of the songs are instantly recognizable, and the ones that aren’t are eerily soothing. Akira’s OST is just about to be reissued on vinyl for the first time, so now is the time to give this a listen before ordering the LP.

In short

It’s a way to deepen your experience of Akira, and a great introduction to ambient Japanese music.

When and where to listen

When you’re riding your modded motorcycle at 3 a.m. on the highways of Neo ­Tokyo just before the 2020 Olympic games.

Best song(s)

“Doll’s Polyphony” and “Kaneda’s Theme.”

Osamu Kitajima – ­Benzaiten (1976)

What is it?

This album is so huge that a short description simply cannot do it justice. Occasionally, an album is released that is so different, so fundamentally exceptional that it takes a good couple of months to really get into. It might even take a few years to fully understand it, if ever. Benzaiten is one of those albums. Kitajima is more than a musician; he later went on to complete a Ph.D. in Music Therapy and in 2004 developed a healing technique called “musicolor therapy”. This is his first album, and although he has made countless albums since and continues to do so today, this is arguably his magnum opus.

Named after the Shinto goddess of music and water, Benzaiten takes on a spiritual tone before you’ve even pressed play. A core sound from this album is the use of a yokobue (transverse flute or fife) throughout the album, which honors the musical traditions of Japan’s past while taking it forward at the same time. Between the yokobue are fuzzy wah­ guitars, followed by funk bass lines and chanting vocals. These elements seem so disconnected, and most attempts at something this eclectic are a mess, but the flow of this album is nothing more than a reflection of Kitajima’s genius and makes Benzaiten a modern masterpiece.

In short

A hidden Japanese treasure and one of the best albums to come out of the country. Ever.

When and where to listen

Through headphones connected to your iPhone as you walk Shikoku’s 88 temple pilgrimage during summer vacation.

Best song(s)

These aren’t songs so much as movements, so it’s not really possible to pick a favorite, but “Tengu” is notable for its jarring juxtaposition between modern and traditional.

Jacks ­- Vacant World (1968)

What is it?

The Jacks were pioneers of Japanese psychedelic rock. While their American counterparts of the time tended to keep things on the lighter side with songs about surfing and love, the Jacks were so gloomy they were banned from the radio. They were solid enough that they could easily have come from any European or American band of the time, and so they are distinguished primarily by their vocalist just happening to sing in Japanese. Glimmers of the Animals, Shadows and even The Doors are apparent on this album, but unfortunately, Vacant World hasn’t aged as well as similar albums. It’s technically a good album for its time but is now more of a historical marker than something worth listening to often.

In short

Historically significant to Japan’s underground psychedelic scene, but not something you would write home about today.

When and where to listen

When you’re scouring through obscure records at the Book-Off to figure out what song your avant-garde, indie shoegaze band should cover.

Best song(s)

“Vacant World”

Mirror Moves – ­ N/A (2016)

What is it?

Mirror Moves is a local four piece rock outfit playing small, hot and loud bars in Tokyo. They’re rockers through and through, fuelled by blue collar sensibilities, a “couple cans of Asahi,” broken hearts, beautiful women and bad decisions. But that doesn’t mean that they make their music sloppily. The guitarist has perfected two note solos, focusing more on phrasing than melodies. The front man has that uncaring attitude you expect from a hard rock outfit, almost like a Japanese Josh Homme — but just because he’s cool it doesn’t mean he doesn’t care: no dead notes or missed cues from him. The rhythm section is tight and driving, keeping the show on the road. They range from blues rock to hard rock to something kind of darker and twisted. Their full set hasn’t been recorded yet and only the bluesier tracks are on their soundcloud, so the moments where Placebo seem to have had a big influence on them are for live shows only.

In short

They’re keeping the spirit of 1980s Tokyo Speedfreak punk alive in a slower, heavier form.

When and where to listen

You’re on a bender in Shinjuku with models and bikers and haven’t slept in two days.

Best song(s)

“Drive­through King”

Jiro Inagaki & Soul Media -­ Funky Stuff (1974)

What is it?

Although this album is absolutely fantastic, neither Jiro Inagaki nor Soul Media seem to have much of a presence in the press. All I can tell you about the former is that he was a saxophonist in and around Tokyo in the ’60s and ’70s, and I can tell you even less about the latter. But, their anonymity adds to the mystique of this album because it’s a surprise that the contributing artists aren’t playing international jazz and funk festivals. Funky Stuff is an instrumental album and ultimately a fusion between funk and jazz but occasional crossovers pop up every now and then, particularly in the horn section. It’s got a very high production value, particularly in light of the year it was recorded. Despite the album’s relative anonymity, it’s clear that the musicians on it are at the top of their game.

In short

Beware of the “jazzy” parts, but stick around for the silky smooth bass lines and outstanding arrangements.

When and where to listen

If you suddenly find yourself working as a loose ­cannon detective around the harbour in 1970s Tokyo and your life becomes a montage as you work to crack the big case.

Best songs

“Painted Paradise” and “Funky Motion”

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  • Kato David Hopkins says:

    You should buy and read Dokkiri! Japanese Indies Music 1976-1989

  • archiel says:

    All of these are meh, if noone has heard them, that’s because there’s nothing to hear.
    I could easily suggest any of the Onoken’s albums and it would be better than anything here…
    Also… Death Note OST >>> Akira OST. Noir and Angel Sanctuary are also pretty good.

    Last two songs are especially weak, nothing special, and don’t showcase any of the quality that Japanese music has.

  • Séamus Johnston says:

    I’d like to add ‘sister freedom tapes’ by Pizzicato 5 to this. Its a wonderful little record.

  • MyDearKyoKun says:

    Thank you so much for these recommendations – really digging what I’ve heard of it so far.
    I would like to add some of my favourite lesser known diamonds of the Japanese music scene to the list, though:
    1) “EGO-WRAPPIN’ AND THE GOSSIP OF JAXX” by EGO-WRAPPIN’ AND THE GOSSIP OF JAXX. Especially the song “だるい” (Darui) is a favourite.
    2) “Montage” by Yen Town Band. Especially the song “愛の歌”/”Swallowtail Butterfly”.
    3) “Mirai” by The Back Horn. The title song is really good and also the soundtrack to an interesting movie about big, glowing jellyfish in the Tokyo sewers (“Bright Future”).

    • Steve Novosel says:

      Ego-Wrappin’ doesn’t get nearly enough love IMO. Great album.

      Montage is strangely forgotten, too – very nice album from an interesting movie.

  • Steve Brand says:

    Thats well written Joker. Grunts like to read stories about how we’re winning the war against vapewave and dad rock. But just one thing…What are they putting in those cans of Ashai?



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