In 1993, we dreamed of a future with jetpacks and hover cars. Record companies feared that home taping was killing music, but mix tapes were the magnetic conduit of choice for music geeks who wanted to share their music. Twenty years later, we don’t have jetpacks or hover cars. We have smartphones that we bury our faces in and noise-cancelling headphones we use to drown out the world. The 21st century consumer turns to file sharing and streaming services to find new music. But it was through an outdated medium—so outdated that, like all things, it’s now coming back—that I discovered music that looked to the past and the future, soaking up retro influences and reveling in space age imagery that still soars 20 years later.
I can’t remember how I happened to join the Japanese Pop Music Listserv, but that’s how I started trading tapes with an American living in Tokyo. I sent blank tapes across the ocean and in return got compilations of Japanese pop, including, to my source’s protests, the music of a Japanese hip-hop group called Space Invaders with songs like “I Got the Shits.” It was not as good as it sounds. But it was the Shibuya-kei sound that I really wanted to hear. The Shibuya district of Tokyo was the jumping off point for a subgenre of Japanese pop music that fed on girl groups, French yé-yé music, the Beach Boys, 1960s jazz and whatever American baubles struck their fancy. The best Shibuya-kei artists, such as Flipper’s Guitar and Original Love, built out of these disparate pieces a brilliant pop synthesis. One group, guided by a producer who took his stage name from Planet of the Apes, put their influences together with a musical hunger that made a new joyful noise out of a faraway past.
My dealer enthusiastically sent me one album in its entirety. Pizzicato Five’s Bossa Nova 2001 appeared in Japanese record stores 20 years ago this June. Until the band broke up (coincidentally, in 2001), I ate up the inventive deluxe packaging that grew increasingly more elaborate (and expensive) with each subsequent release. But when I first heard P5 I loved the band based on nothing more than magnetic particles emitted from a hard plastic shell.
Pizzicato Five began in 1985 with a more sedate lounge sound, pleasant but without much soul. They went through a number of vocalists before they reached maximum chemistry with Maki Nomiya. She and Yasuharu Konishi formed the core of the group in their late period. In 1993, producer Oyamada Keigo, who made great J-Pop records under the name Cornelius, led them to their best music, and one of my favorite pop albums.
The music of Pizzicato Five was fueled by an omnivorous love for American pop music that spilled out of their pores. To a Japanese listener who didn’t grow up segregating American pop music into categories, it was all fodder: Motown, psychedelic beats from Dennis Coffey, the work of Italian film composers like Armando Trovajoli, the L.A. soft pop of Roger Nichols. As with the most fertile musical imaginations, anything was fair game. Visually, their all-encompassing love of pop-culture brought in even more influences. Their first Matador collection shared a title with a film by Jean-Luc Godard, whose influence can clearly be seen in the video for “Twiggy Twiggy.”
The music was also framed by spoken word segues in English. The album begins with a studio-ready male voice announcing this “Stereophonic Sound Spectacular,” a recurring tag on their albums. More curious is the use of space pad countdown imagery, which turned up on other J-Pop records of the time. The audio clips suggest the excitement of the 1960s space race, but in a less scientific context: dancing.
The heart of the album is its second track. “Sweet Soul Revue” begins with a capella background singers doot-dooting a variation on “Walk on the Wild Side” or “Bad Girls” (after all these years I can’t put a finger on what it is). After a few unaccompanied doots, the band comes in, from drums to soul horns, strings and finally Maki’s exuberant voice. I always imagined she was singing about getting ready to go out for the night. Everything that the band did before this album comes together on these charts, the way the elements—R&B and lounge music, girl groups and easy listening strings—blend into something that you could not imagine would emerge from those parts. I can’t convey that a seemingly cheesy pop confection with vocal breaks that intone, “Whoah-oh-whoah” can be so beautiful it still makes me cry 20 years later, but it does.
The album doesn’t sustain those heights, but what it does do is traverse a world of completely unashamed aural pleasure. Pizzicato Five landed a U.S. contract with Matador Records. “Sweet Soul Revue” appeared on the Matador compilation Made in USA, which culled and re-sequenced tracks from Bossa Nova 2001 and other Japanese releases, but the sequencing and concept of BN2001 is the way I’ll always hear these songs. Maki and Konishi have released respectable solo albums since the band broke up, but it’s the music of this album that in the future will seduce Martians and keep them from eating us alive.