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Various Artists - Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1976-1986 Music Album Reviews

The compilation of extra smooth, funky, and sometimes very odd songs from the heydey of Japan’s technological boom is a broad yet nuanced introduction to the genre of city pop.

Outside of YouTube recommendations and subreddit threads, the most common way for American listeners to discover the loosely defined Japanese genre known as city pop has remained oddly old school: through a pilgrimage to a Japanese record store. In Japan, where the CD still reigns, the Tower Records listening station is alive and well—and nudging visiting Westerners toward city pop classics from the late 1970s and early ’80s, like Tatsuro Yamashita’s For You, Eiichi Ohtaki’s A Long Vacation, Mariya Takeuchi’s Variety, and Taeko Ohnuki’s Sunshower. Though largely sung in Japanese, city pop pulls from many different types of “smooth” American music during that era—from AOR and yacht rock to boogie and jazz fusion—and unites them through meticulous playing and a near-obsessive production sheen. To fall in love with city pop as an American is to find something more interesting in another culture’s souped-up reinterpretation of your own cheesiness.

In the mid-2000s, at a listening station in one of Tokyo’s sprawling Tower stores, Andy Cabic, frontman of folk-rockers Vetiver and one of the curators behind Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1976-1986, first stumbled upon city pop. Nearly a decade and a half later, the moment seems primed for this style of music, which despite a lack of official releases available stateside, spread online and helped inspire the internet-obsessed genre vaporwave. As nameless, faceless, genreless “vibe” muzak proliferate online, city pop might just be a kind of ground zero. But the version of city pop heard on Pacific Breeze plays up its more experimental side, via forays into exotica and cutting-edge electronics.

Part of that has to do with the compilation’s positioning of Haruomi Hosono as city pop’s main guiding force. Many of the songs feature or have ties to this ever-changing titan of Japanese pop music, whether the musicians once played in his Tin Pan Alley collective or later joined him in Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). Hosono has been a big focus for the archival label Light in the Attic, from his pioneering native-tongue folk rock with Happy End to his avant-garde adventures in early sampling technology.

That latter period of Hosono’s career inspired Pacific Breeze’s best track, the synthpop squirmer “Sports Men.” Originally found on 1982’s Philharmony, Hosono’s first solo album following YMO’s rise, the song is fueled by a vaguely flute-y sample that loops in an endless cheerful tootle and the musician’s own sneering anxieties over not being fit enough for a very sporty crush. It’s the one moment on Pacific Breeze where the cracks of the city pop fantasy really start to show—the dark side of a genre associated with, essentially, yuppies in Tokyo. As Japan’s post-war industrialization came to fruition as a full-on tech boom and the country ascended as an economic powerhouse, city pop emerged as the slick soundtrack for young, moneyed urban dwellers. In a way, this music was designed for all those brand new car-stereo tape decks and Walkmans being developed in Japan at the time, the pristine recordings splashing a touch of neon on the passing skyscrapers.

Japan’s burgeoning leisure class made an apt audience not just for West Coast American music, but vague, Americanized versions of tropical sounds as well. You can hear the faint echo of exotica pioneer Martin Denny, whose music was broadcast across American military radio stations in Japan following World War II, in tracks like Suzuki Shigeru’s elegant but goofy “Lady Pink Panther.” It’s moments like these—where the desire to sing in English, oftentimes just on the chorus, ends up giving the song a slight novelty feeling—that Pacific Breeze underscores its intended audience. There are a good deal of songs at least partially in English and many instrumentals scattered across the 16-track compilation, offering a slightly skewed view of city pop.

This perspective also highlights “weirder” tracks as well, instead of the more easy-listening, Japanese Doobie Brothers vibe that much of this style of music embodies. “Bride of Mykonos”—a standout synth instrumental by Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi, Hiroshi Sato (what would have been YMO had Sato accepted Hosono’s invitation)—takes the slingshot echoes of cultural exchange one step further: the piece was commissioned for CBS/Sony’s Sound Image Series, which focused on international locales. In this one composition, you can hear traces of American pop music, Japanese technological innovation, and inspiration from both the Greek peninsula and the outer limits of space.

Pacific Breeze works best as a broad yet nuanced introduction to both Hosono’s mid-career and city pop as a whole. The mere access to this fascinating and prescient style of music fills a real void and at times evokes a surreal glee. The opening notes of honey-voiced singer Nanako Sato’s “Subterranean Futari Bocci” might make you feel as though it’s time to come on down, you’re the next contestant on “The Price Is Right.” “Midnight Driver,” from underrated city pop icon Minako Yoshida, is an amalgamation of Chic, the Isley Brothers, and the score to the SEGA Genesis game ToeJam & Earl, all just jamming out for seven and a half glorious minutes. It sounds simultaneously like the future and the past, Japan and America, the shifts of a culture in flux and the fantasy of something far too shiny to be real.

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