Probably out of all of the genres in Japanese popular music that I have all enjoyed for the past 35 years, the two genres that have gotten the most scrutiny out of me have been City Pop and J-AOR. And it's not as if I was even aware that these two even existed way back in 1981. Yet, over the decades, I've come to show an affinity for Japanese Urban Contemporary through individual songs, and when I bought the bible "Japanese City Pop" back around 2010, it all just clicked. Then, things got quite ravenous on my part as far as City Pop and J-AOR were concerned.
But why did I get so much into these two genres? Well, for whatever reason, I just got hooked on a big fat bass and a Fender Rhodes piano in my music, thanks to a lot of the songs I was hearing on AM radio back in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. There was Michael Jackson, Al Jarreau, Steely Dan and the like so I was quite happy to discover that the world of kayo kyoku was extremely welcoming of this American funk and mellowness.
Still, like anything that Japan has borrowed from the West, the R&B and AOR rhythms that came over received that Japanese twist...that certain Nihon je ne sais crois (mixing my languages here). At first, I had thought that Japanese City Pop was a direct translation of American AOR but such was not the case in my estimation now. It seems to be that melange of elements from disco, AOR, R&B and other things that I can't quite put my finger on. Plus, for some reason, some but not all of the Japanese variety are songs that I couldn't quite imagine being sung even on the West Coast of the USA, and it's not just because of the Japanese lyrics. Maybe it's for this reason that a number of the songs from the genre have gotten a second life as part of this Future Funk that has become a thing on YouTube at least (I'm no longer sure if Vaporwave is the term to use anymore).
So it's time to put up my list of my favourites that I have agonized over for some time since, and I'm being very biased here, there is a plethora of fun City Pop/J-AOR tunes to choose from. The final trigger, though, was when I put up that list by Tsutomu Mori for his City Pop list and found a lot of his choices puzzling. If it weren't for the fact that his list was on Page 58 of "Japanese City Pop", I would have assumed that he was doing some trolling.
In any case, without babbling on too much longer, here is my list of City Pop/J-AOR. The songs aren't in any particular order and they all have their own articles so I won't say too much about them here. I just want to let you know that these are the ones I've enjoyed over the years.
1. Akira Terao -- Ruby no Yubiwa (1981)
I was surprised that I hadn't actually put down some of my own feelings about this one in the original article, but then again, the article was on the whole album of "Reflections" so perhaps there was some self-induced pressure to keep things a bit short. However, I can say now that "Ruby no Yubiwa"（ルビーの指輪）was one of my touchstone songs when it came to my 1981 trip to Japan, but for some mysterious reason, I didn't add it to one of my more recent Author's Picks list. But it is here on this list now, and it should be since it is the most successful Oricon City Pop song. Whenever I reminisce about 90-yen skinny cans of Coke, game centres with tabletop Space Invaders and corn potage soup at McDonalds, I will also remember their theme song as this cool bass riff accompanied by the velvety-smooth vocals of Akira Terao（寺尾聡）. I always feel like getting a cocktail whenever "Ruby no Yubiwa" comes on and I don't really drink that much!
2. EPO -- Downtown (1980)
I was talking about theme songs for "Ruby no Yubiwa" a paragraph ago. Well, EPO's "Downtown" would be my theme for the hotel district of West Shinjuku. I hear the bouncy melody and the bright vocals of Eiko Sato, and those huge hotels tower up in my mind. It truly is the fun and futuristic downtown. And as I pointed out in the original article for "Downtown", it is because of her debut single that I've dubbed EPO as one of the Princesses of City Pop.
3. Takako Mamiya -- Love Trip (1982)
Takako Mamiya（間宮貴子）is one of the first discoveries that I made in "Japanese City Pop" soon after my purchase of it at Tower Records, and I was delighted that I could find evidence of this rare album on the Net. With that bass and those lovely keyboards in there, I remember acts such as Gino Vanelli and The Manhattan Transfer with the title track from the only album Mamiya released. Rooftop bar at sunset, anyone?
4. Yasuhiro Abe -- Irene (1984)
Yasuhiro Abe（安部恭弘）must have been in a choir group when he was a child with those high-falutin' vocal cords. He was another happy discovery via "Japanese City Pop" and it was all because of the wonderful "Irene" (アイリーン) that I went not just for his BEST compilation at Tacto but also his original album "Slit" that has this song. I can just imagine the lad strutting down Chuo Dori to this tune.
5. Miki Matsubara -- Mayonaka no Door (1979)
The late Miki Matsubara's（松原みき）trademark song which has that alternate title of "Stay With Me" may have been released a couple of years before my trip to Japan, but along with Akira Terao's magnum opus, it is also a theme song of sorts for my adventures in Tokyo. "Mayonaka no Door"（真夜中のドア）may have truly been the door for the Golden Age of City Pop.
6. Makoto Matsushita -- One Hot Love (1981)
Dang that intro still sounds good. Yup, Makoto Matsushita（松下誠）, the veteran musician and arranger, was another "Japanese City Pop" discovery, and "One Hot Love" was my introduction to him. Man, I can hang an entire wardrobe on that guitar hook. My only regret is that I hadn't heard about him earlier but whenever I come across these decades-old songs, I just say "Better late than never".
7. Minako Yoshida -- TOWN (1982)
8. Tatsuro Yamashita -- Amaku Kiken na Kaori (1982)
Tatsuro Yamashita（山下達郎）has put out a lot of mellow and funk as one of the big guys in City Pop but for me, this is my favourite. I guess that "Amaku Kiken na Kaori"（あまく危険な香り）would kinda belong in the sub-genre of Resort Pop since I can envisage the folks from the city heading out to the oceanside resorts just southwest of Tokyo while I'm listening to this.
9. Mariya Takeuchi -- Plastic Love (1984)
Well, if I can get the husband in here, then I have to invite his wife as well. Mrs. Yamashita, aka Mariya Takeuchi（竹内まりや）, came up with a really groovy City Pop-friendly tune in "Plastic Love". Again, I'm a sucker for the horns and drums, and the overall arrangement that just seems to present the perfect reason for taking a night drive all over The Big Sushi.
10. Sing Like Talking -- Mitsumeru Ai de (1995)
My only 90s entry on this list, Sing Like Talking, like Tatsuro Yamashita, has a ton of songs that would easily fit into the City Pop category but "Mitsumeru Ai de"（みつめる愛で）has that feeling of being on the cusp of driving into downtown to have a grand old time with good friends. Mind you, the conveyance most likely wouldn't be a Toyota Corolla...think more of a Cressida or a sports car. In a number of ways, I think this song especially kinda sums up City Pop as a mix of genres...it's got that SLT funk but also some good ol' jazz riffs in there, too.
And that is my list. I've left a lot of other good artists and songs out unfortunately such as Junko Yagami（八神純子）and even Toshiki Kadomatsu（角松敏生）but the above 10 are my favourite picks from the genre.