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Illustration: Hiroshi Nagai

The awesome record label Light in the Attic has just released Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1976-1986, a compilation of (mostly) City Pop, the Japanese answer to the American “West Coast” sound of the late 70s and early 80s. It's a bright, fizzy brew of fusion, R&B, disco, AOR, funk, and exotica, tailor-made for cruising the city streets in your sweet Toyota Supra. And bedroom producers take note: this is where the raw materials of vaporwave and future funk come from.

A friend of mine asked me for a primer, so I obliged, and I thought I'd share it with all of you. One note: I didn't leave your favourite album off this list on purpose.

Tatsuro Yamashita, For You (1982) – There's no two ways about it: Tats is the king of City Pop. His first band Sugar Babe laid the groundwork for the genre with their album Songs. His collab with Tin Pan Alley alumni Shigeru Suzuki and Haruomi Hosono (who was also in Yellow Magic Orchestra) called Pacific brought in the sun-kissed exotica haze and the jazz-fusion chops. Dude also really loves old American R&B and the Beach Boys, so you know, hooks for days. For You is breezy and lithe and packed tight with bright melodies, but this slot could have just as well gone to the albums that bookend this one, 1980's Ride on Time and 1983's Melodies.

Makoto Matsushita, First Light (1981) – Matsushita is a hot shit guitar player and founding member of AB'S (who are on the more fusion-y side of the City Pop continuum). His first solo record is some smooth Miami Vice shit; more than any other record here, this sounds how a humid night in the big city feels. Matsushita's solo stuff gets more involved and proggier from here on out, so there's plenty of weird nuggets to discover, but First Light is his best and grooviest record, and maybe the most melancholic piece of work on this list.

Hiroshi Sato featuring Wendy Matthews, Awakening (1982) – Sato is a keyboard wizard, probably best known for his synth-funk-fusion album Orient. Matthews is a Montreal-born Australian singer who was kind of a big deal down under in the early 90s. This album is more in the smooth jazz/adult contemporary corner of the City Pop graph, but it's so weird in places. There's like... a weird vampy blues instrumental and a Beatles cover as well? In any case, this is my favourite Sato album, all Linn drums and slinky arrangements and keyboard flourishes. Imagine if Diamond Life was made in L.A. instead of London, and swap out everything but the electric guitar for synths and drum machines.

Seaside Lovers, Memories in Beach House (1983) – Another Sato project. This was a one-off record with Akira Inoue and Masataka Matsutoya released as part of the CBS/Sony Sound Image Series (as was the aforementioned Pacific and the pretty good fusion album New York). Lots of fluttering melodicas, aqueous piano, and awesome 80s gated drums on this one. Probably the moodiest of the records I have listed here on account of the unique synthetic timbre of the whole thing.

Toshiki Kadomatsu – Weekend Fly to the Sun (1982) – If I'm being honest with myself, any of Kadomatsu's 80s albums could have made the cut here, but this one gets the thumbs up from me because, in addition to being punchy and fun as hell, it's functionally a concept album about looking forward to the end of the work week so you can get away for the weekend. Also “Rush Hour” is one of the best “What a Fool Believes” ripoffs I've ever heard.

Taeko Ohnuki, Mignonne (1978) – Ohnuki was in Sugar Babe with Yamashita, and her output is more in the jazz-pop/sophisti-pop/Steely Dan-lite corner of City Pop. Of all the records here, this is the one I've spent the least amount of time with, so I don't have anything super clever or incisive to say about it. It's just great.

#music #citypop #picksix

[NOTE: I wrote this in May, intending for it to be part of a bigger thing, but that bigger thing never happened, so here it is all by its lonesome.]

You may not be able to place Graham Gouldman's name, but you definitely know his work. Gouldman, who turned 71 on Wednesday, is the co-founder and bassist of 10cc, one of the great British bands of the 1970s. His bandmates Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, the true-blue weirdos of the group, get a lot of the glory, but Gouldman's contributions shouldn't be downplayed. I mean, dude co-wrote the immortal “I'm Not in Love” and played one of my favourite bass lines of all time on the bridge.

One of the pillars of the 10cc sound is pastiche, but they weren't just lampooning or parodying pop music. They were twisting their forms and conventions into weird art-rock shapes. Doo-wop, teen tragedy ballads, 70s boogie, progressive rock, adult contemporary: you name it, 10cc warped it into something unique. In a way, they're the ancestor groups like Ween, albeit a lot less puerile and aggro. Gouldman currently tours with a skeleton of the mighty band that once was, and the group hasn't put out new material in nearly 25 years, but 10cc's initial '73-'76 run is full of treasures, and Gouldman was a core component of them.

#music

AFE l-r: David Gborie, Sean Jordan, Ian Karmel. Photo: Luke DaMommio.

I like a lot of podcasts, but there's a select few whose release I actively anticipate week after week. And at the top of the heap with the Podcast Championship Belt around its waist is All Fantasy Eveyrything, a HeadGum comedy show hosted by Ian Karmel. The concept is simple: Karmel (who you might recognize from his stand-up, his work on Chelsea Lately, or his current gig at The Late Late Show with James Corden) and a rotating panel of guests pick their favourite representatives of a given subject (usually pop culture or food) over the course of a five-round fantasy draft. Shows are dominated by jokes, tangents, and enthusiastic endorsements and/or defences of picks.

I've spoken briefly about the show elsewhere: I recommended the “Treats” episode once upon a time in a Medium post nobody read. Everything I said there still stands. Nothing beats friends having a podcast because you can't fake that kind of warmth and camaraderie (it's also, as some have pointed out, a competitive advantage). And the format is unique in that it enables everyone involved to get granular and dorky about what they like, which is 100% my jam.

The most recent episode, the excellently-titled “Songs That, When They Come On, You’re Like 90% Ready to Fight Someone” is kind of atypical. It starts off with an extended shout out to the fanbase for helping a fellow AFE listener in Indiana pay for a new wheelchair. It's all quite touching and very, very heartening. Now, Karmel refers to himself and regular guests/fan favourites David Gborie (who has one of the best laughs in podcasting) and Sean Jordan (South Dakota's greatest cultural ambassador) as the Good Vibes Gang, and it's a title they earn. They cultivate them on the show, and they foster them among the fanbase. Their joy is completely devoid of irony. They have introduced me to some ridiculously funny individuals (shout out to “Hawaiian Getaway” Zak Toscani, “Sugar” Shane Torres, Nicole Dyer, Eliza Skinner, Amy Miller, and Mike Mulloy). All Fantasy Everything is a net positive in my day-to-day, and a hilarious, ebullient bright spot in my podcast feed. Long may they run.

And while I'm at it, here are my top five songs that, when they come on, I'm like 90% ready to fight someone:

Actually the first four would all make great ring entrance songs too.

#podcasts #music

Back in 2014, one of my favourite music writers, Steven Hyden, wrote and article for the late, great website Grantland called “The American Band Championship Belt,” in which he anoints a series of groups as the one that towered the highest of all over a series of reigns stretching back to 1964 (inaugural title holders: the Beach Boys).

Now, you may or may not agree with the methodology or ever the titleholders. I mean, sure, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are an “and the” band, but their output transcends their generic moniker and they'd have easily fit in between Talking Heads and R.E.M. And according to at least one person in my office, it was offensive to give Guns N' Roses the belt for four years when Public Enemy was still on the table. But ultimately this is just a fun thought exercise, a way to think about the evolution of popular music through the years.

The last title holders were the Black Keys, whose run started in 2011 and ended when the article was published. Seeing as how Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney haven't put out a record as the Black Keys since then, I think it's safe to say they've vacated the title. But who shall step up and take the mantle? Now, it stands to reason, but what follows is just my own continuation of this lineage, an opinion free from the shackles of rightness and wrongness. That said...

Run the Jewels (36303319652) Photo: The Come Up Show

Run the Jewels, 2015-17

Key music: Run the Jewels 2 (2014), Run the Jewels 3 (2016)

The pairing seems obvious in hindsight. That it took Killer Mike and El-P, two indie rap titans who had been putting in creative, acclaimed work as solo artists since the early 00s, until 20-goddamn-13 to record their first full album together is kind of surprising. What isn't surprising is how great the records they've made as Run the Jewels are; all three so far have been powder kegs of tag-team hip hop fury. If anything, the get this belt because their partnership is so fecund. They bring out the absolute best in each other as performers, and they've been conquering the world, and the charts, since. The title is theirs to hoist here because their records slay, their urgency is timely, and their indie spirit is undimmed.

Photo: Julio Enriquez

The War on Drugs, 2018-

Key music: A Deeper Understanding (2017)

I admit this is kind of a wishful thinking pick. Right now, Run the Jewels are busy touring arenas and being awesome, and I can't imagine any future work is going to dull their prior highs. But I feel like I need to reward the War on Drugs for not only putting out one of the great records of 2017 in A Deeper Understanding after three years in the woods, but for putting a rock record out in the “rock is dead” era that both critics, fans, and the public at large rallied around and embraced. I don't know what this says about the rock music idiom. Maybe Adam Granduciel is onto something. Maybe the way forward is to look back and pick apart the forms of yesteryear and re-examine what makes them work on a technical and emotional level. Or maybe the idea of the world-dominating rock band is just going the way of the dog. As Hyden said at the end of his article:

The last six years are the weakest ever for American bands. It’s not even close, really. There are still good bands, but they don’t matter like the other groups on this list.

And that six years has now become 10.

#music

Continuing in the proud tradition of novelty synth records from the 1960s like Switched-on Rock or Christmas Becomes Electric, the Moog Cookbook was a two-man project consisting of Brian Kehew (on the left, probably best known as a one-time touring keyboardist for the Who and the co-author of Recording the Beatles) and Roger Manning (on the right, probably best known as a founding member of legendary Bay Area band Jellyfish). During their short time together, they released two albums of of irreverent synthy kitsch, covering the hits of the day and yesteryear using a small army of analog synthesizers. Ever wanted to hear a lounged-out version of “Basket Case” that interpolates “What a Fool Believes” or a “Hotel California” that cycles through about a dozen genres in under six and a half minutes? Well then, buddy, you're in luck.

This performance, filmed using delightfully dated camcorder effects, took place on 18 August 1996, three months after their first album dropped. Get a load of those sweet proto-Daft Punk sci-fi B-movie costumes! Look at those chunky-as-fuck keytars! And keep an eye out for the wild-looking synth guitar Kehew brings out for the finale.

Setlist 1. “Black Hole Sun” 2. “Buddy Holly” 3. “Evenflow” 4. “Are You Gonna Go My Way”

(via YouTube/artcoimbra)

#music #synth