Sorting out the R&B-fueled Japanese subgenre called City Pop.
With reissue programs of Yasuaki Shimizu and Haruomi Hosono and comps like the folk-rock survey Even a Tree Can Shed Tears and the forthcoming ambient set Kankyō Ongaku, Light in the Attic and its distributed labels have knocked it out of the park with Japanese pop that have largely eluded American ears. LITA is now distributing Sony Japan’s vinyl reissues of two singers best known for “City Pop,” an ‘80s subgenre of slick, catchy material that has a reputation for me-decade blandness. But Taeko Onuki and Minako Yoshida both have albums that transcend the era and are worth tracking down.
Yoshida is the more soulful and prolific of the two. Her 1973 debut was a singer-songwriter effort that had hints of folk rock, but within a few years she would lean hard into R&B and funk. Sony Japan has reissued five of her albums from this period, the earliest of which, Let’s Do It (1978), her sixth overall, was her first recorded outside of Japan. Produced by Motown’s Gene and Billy Page, the discofied album featured Motown session musicians, but to avoid complete assimilation with a California sound, Yoshida enlisted Ryuichi Sakamoto and Tokyo session men to work on arrangements before she crossed the pond. The result is a lighter funk-pop and a sound that, even in the bright opener “Love Is Here to Stay,” is light on its beats. Despite the anthemic-sounding album title, the tracks are as often as not low-key ballads, such as “Unraveling Love’s Hand,” its horn chart revealing the subtle Asian influence on a melody that would not have sounded out of place on US radio.
Yoshida produced her next record, Monochrome, herself, and continues in the sultry R&B vein but with a smoldering midnight tone. Released in 1980, it features Yasuaki Shimizu on saxophone, but in a more conventional mode than on his eclectic Kakashi. Opener “Tornado” is a deceptively titled exemplar of quiet storm R&B. Yoshida opens up her pipes but is mixed down so her voice isn’t overwhelming—never rising above the strong winds, as it were. Ballads like “Rainy Day” are soulful slow burns, and even the more up-tempo tracks such as “Black Moon” set a mood that fans of Sade will eat up. The musicians may be copping American forms, but they’re copping the best and most sophisticated funk of the era, and as “Sunset” builds to a gradually bursting, gospel-tinged crescendo, you can hear she’s at the top of her form.
Monochrome may be the best of this crop of Yoshida reissues, and once you’re hooked you’ll want to hear what she did next. The self-produced Monsters in Town, from 1981, shifts to a more extroverted R&B, as suits an album whose cover depicts Yoshida, debuting cornrows that invoke both Bo Derek and Stevie Wonder, painting garish colors over a picture window with a view of the New York skyline. She’s a funk monster who brings heavier bass and more aggressive rhythm guitar—and horn charts by Shimizu. “Monster Stomp” is the kind of deep-bottomed gutbucket funk that would have sounded great blasting out of a boom box.
The funky tempo keeps going on Light’n Up (1982), but Yoshida airs out her sound with flutes for a dreamier R&B. Parts of the album were recorded in New York with the Brecker Brothers and David Sanborn, but mellower production tones them down, and the sound at times recalls the cool British funk of Loose Ends. Is this the best in the reissue series? It’s a hard call, but the sunnier if wistful melodies almost beat out Monochrome, even if Sanborn threatens to derail the mood when he takes a solo.
The live career overview In Motion (1983) featured new arrangements of old songs from throughout her career. The rearranged “Monster Stomp,” for instance, slows down the creature’s relentless funk. These recordings are more of interest to those who’ve heard her previous albums—and if you’re still reading, you’ll want to, but you should get to know the others first.
Taeko Onuki (sometimes transliterated Ohnuki) has just three albums in this reissue program, but they’re perhaps more varied than Yoshida’s five. What Onuki lacks in soul she makes up for in quirk—after all, she appears on Haruomi Hosono’s Paraiso. The best of her albums of this era may be the 1977 Sunshower, which featured Hosono on bass and has been reissued several times by the Panam label. That’s not part of this series, which starts with her third album, Mignonne (1978). Arranged by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Juzo Seo, and with Hosono among the featured musicians, Onuki leads a versatile track list that shifts quickly from the dense art-funk of opener “Jajauma Musume” to the soft-shoe pop of “Yokogao.” The genre-jumping is mostly downward: Lush ballad “Tasogarere” is a treacly detour, and while Onuki shifts gears back to arrangements that add a spoonful of medicine to help the sugar go down, fans of LITA’s Hosono reissues may find some of this too saccharine.
Onuki moved on to a trilogy that paid homage to French soundtrack composers. The first two of these, both collaborations with Sakamoto and other members of Yellow Magic Orchestra, are also part of Sony Japan’s reissue program. After the pure pop dives on Mignonne, one might worry that the pivot to French soundtracks would lead to more pronounced cheese, but Romantique (1980) launches with the synth-pop of “Carnaval.” Still, influenced by the conversational delivery of yeh-yeh girls lik Brigitte Fontaine and Françoise Hardy, Onuki is tapping a West that’s less soulful than Yoshida’s R&B precursors. That leads to a cabaret style that’s more dramatic—and more self-conscious—than her label-mate’s dancefloor excursions. Aventure (1981) returns Onuki to a brighter synth-pop with less mannered forays into French soundtrack music, and on tracks such as “Samba de Mar,” she mixes up the light funk with tropical textures that sound dated but reveal a restlessness. Still, Sunshower remains the one to track down from this era.
However intriguing these artists may be, the new reissues are already hard to come by, and are pricey when you can find them. Dig around for sound samples, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself hunting for the physical product, especially of Yoshida’s albums.