A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular: Looking Back on Shibuya-kei Reading this article, you’re probably one of those in-the-know folks who listen to vinyl, feel overwhelmed when someone you’ve just met asks you about your taste in music, download albums that have leaked before release and so on... Being such a ‘scholar’, you may feel a bit uncomfortable with liking a chart topping plastic pop hit; unable to take it seriously whilst happily singing along to it. Well, here’s a good deal for you; Shibuya-kei: Japan’s ultra-eclectic 90’s pop scene. Liking these often catchy pop songs can easily be justified with “Well, can you not hear the yé-yé influence?” or “It samples Soft Machine”. These artsy, style-conscious Francophiles were chart toppers in their time and place believe it or not. The term comes from the fact that many of the artists had grouped around the Shibuya area of Tokyo with the suffix “kei” (which you’ve probably heard before in reference to teeny bopper angsty music from Japan) simply meaning ‘style’. The scene was born mainly out of the group Pizzicato Five. They formed in the mid-80’s with an ever changing roster of vocalists to channel their loungey pop. It wasn’t until 1991 with their album This Year’s Girl that everything became clear. Supposedly influenced by De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, the album was laced with samples, showing influences from chanson to acid house. This album proved highly influential in Japan, with jangle pop band, Flipper’s Guitar, releasing their own take on this style of sampladelic pop on their final album; Doctor Head’s World Tower. The album was a kooky Japanese vision of Madchester with bits of shoegaze and retro media samples.
Pizzicato Five – Twiggy Twiggy (1991) Something of a Shibuya-kei anthem.
An explosion of groups followed in their wake; with the VA album Sushi 3003 documenting many of the lesser known artists. The former displays the initial sound of the scene with nods to bossa-nova, Burt Bacharach and Stereolab. Speaking of Stereolab, their own brand of experimental pop with vintage synthesisers, references to space-age pop and kitsch lounge could easily make them a contemporary of the Shibuya-kei scene. I would definitely say there was some backwards and forwards influence here, considering Stereolab didn’t fully embrace kitsch pop until later in their career and also one track from the Sushi 3003 is pretty much a (glorious) rip-off of Stereolab’s ‘Ping Pong’. Stylistically, Shibuya-kei was very ahead of its time in its appreciation of retro (ironically). Watching music videos of Kahimi Karie, it’s hard not to think of 60’s fashion and swinging London. Also, Pizzicato Five’s pop-art style use of sans-serif typography predates a lot of the art/design of the 2000’s. Not only were the aesthetics tastefully conducted, but the production sound of many of the albums in the Shibuya-kei scene sound a lot more like 2003, rather than 1993.
Kahimi Karie – Good Morning World (1995) Perhaps the only #5 chart pop song to sample Soft Machine and reference The Fall at the same time.
In 1998, two years after the release of Sushi 3003, a sequel imaginatively titled Sushi 4004 was released. This displayed the scene’s later stages. If the music on Sushi 3003 is retro-modernist, Sushi 4004 is definitely retro-futurist, showing a less organic sounding and more electronic side to Japanese pop. It was during this time, that what was known as Shibuya-kei was becoming much more experimental and harder to place. For example, Cornelius (ex-Flipper’s Guitar) released the album Fantasma in 1997; a cartoonish and joyous mess of sound collage mixed with pop music, which was much more experimental than the works of his contemporaries in earlier years. Pizzicato Five themselves were still the leaders of the pack, also using experimental techniques over their sing-along pop sound.
Cornelius – Star Fruits Surf Rider (1997) New territory for Japanese pop music.
Besides Pizzicato Five breaking up in 2001 and artists heading in more avant-garde directions, what killed the scene was its transition into electropop. At first this stage was interesting with Takako Minekawa producing songs with vintage Casios, having quirky tendencies to refer to cats, the colour white and Kraftwerk. However, once more conventional-minded groups like Capsule came around with their excessive use of autotune and fairly mainstream sound, it was all over. This – in my opinion, less interesting and quite grating - style of music is now referred to as ‘picopop’, which is still alive and running today. Although don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a bit of Capsule’s stuff, which still nods to the initial themes of Shibuya-kei, but only in a nostalgic way for the nostalgic scene. Get your hands on anything by the artists specifically mentioned here, as well as the Sushi compilations. Here are some more tracks to give you a bigger idea of Shibuya-kei:
Flipper’s Guitar – Groove Tube (1991)
Cornelius – Diamond Bossa (1993)
Oh! Penelope – Lait Au Miel (1997)
Takako Minekawa – Cat House (1998)
Buffalo Daughter – Great Five Lakes (1998)
Pizzicato Five – Darlin’ of the Discotheque (1999)
Header photo Maki Nomiya of Pizzicato Five: Rock’n’roll