I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Radio Influences (City Pop/AOR)

Autumn doesn't officially arrive in these parts until 9:54 pm tonight, but it feels like the weather wasn't going to wait around. It was actually quite cool and pleasant after my walk this morning. Y'know, summer is good and all that, but that time between September and December (well, more like November in Toronto) will always be my favourite.

Moving on, I've been thinking about doing this article for about the past week, so I'm happy that I've got this weekend to put it into reality. This is going to be a different Author's Picks since no Japanese songs will be directly placed here although I will be making references to past tunes that I've written on the blog.

In terms of the various genres in Japanese music, enka has been the one genre that can be said to be truly homegrown. However, New Music has been about musicians taking on the American pop stylings and making original songs with Japanese lyrics, while Mood Kayo has all those Latin and jazz influences, and even aidoru music has incorporated things like disco and 50s flavourings.

On a personal level, though, the genres that I've loved in Japanese music have been City Pop and J-AOR so names such as Mariya Takeuchi(竹内まりや), Tatsuro Yamashita(山下達郎), EPO and Yasuhiro Abe(安部恭弘)have often been bandied about. The thing is, though, City Pop and J-AOR were words that I hadn't even known about until about a decade ago although I have been listening to the music for far longer. So, the question for me was how did I get to splash so happily (and this from a guy who doesn't like to swim) in this particular musical sea?

Well, perhaps part of the explanation is the fact that I used to listen to the radio quite a lot as a kid, especially in my high school and university years. I did listen to my goodly sum of 80s dance music on Friday and Saturday nights, but on a daily basis, I was just listening to plain ol' pop radio on the AM and FM stations. And a lot of those stations included pretty easy listening places such CKFM and CHFI on the former, and CKEY on the latter.

The following includes songs that I used to listen to over and over on the radio in the age before I even invested in my first pop record and far before the age of CDs and downloads. You might say that they became the soundtrack of my early life and even the template for how I got into City Pop and the Japanese version of AOR. Furthermore, I'm pretty sure that the artists representing those genres were probably very inspired by these folks in the United States and Canada.

Gino Vannelli -- I Just Wanna Stop (1978)

To this day, I can't listen to one of Vannelli's best without remembering that creamy pink (yes, seriously) SONY radio my family used to have on the dining room table. Musically for me, it's all about that keyboard arrangement (Fender Rhodes, I believe) which can have me swooning for my childhood again in the 1970s. That Fender Rhodes became a beloved part of many a City Pop/J-AOR tune later on.

Nicolette Larson -- The French Waltz (1978)

For the longest time, I had assumed that the late Nicolette Larson was Canadian instead of being born in Montana and raised all over America. I think the reason was this song and her beautiful soft vocals. Larson also sang the cool downtown "Lotta Love" which I also enjoyed on radio, but I will always have a softer spot for "The French Waltz". Perhaps this song was part of the key that finally got me to appreciate Taeko Ohnuki's(大貫妙子)late 70s and early 80s music.

Joni Mitchell -- Help Me (1974)

Sticking with Ohnuki, I had read somewhere in J-Wiki that one of my favourite Japanese singers was inspired by the great Joni Mitchell, and when I think of Mitchell, I always think of "Help Me". Listening to this 1974 single, I could see and hear how Ohnuki's sound developed during her time with Sugar Babe and then her first couple of albums as a solo performer.

Steely Dan -- Peg (1977)

I first heard "Peg" as part of a TV commercial for adult education in Buffalo, New York in which some ballet dancers were doing pirouettes (yes, I do remember the darndest things, don't I?). I thought it was nice but it wouldn't be years later that I really started appreciating this Steely Dan classic from their 1977 album "Aja" that I finally purchased earlier this year. There is a YouTube video where Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker talk about how all of these elements came together to form "Peg"...just goes to show how hard it is to achieve anywhere near perfection. It's often the case that whenever I hear an electric guitar riff or a certain arrangement on a City Pop song, I hear a bit of Steely Dan, and that includes the genre's darling, "Plastic Love".

The Doobie Brothers -- What A Fool Believes (1979)

There is that whimsical and plucky keyboard play on "What A Fool Believes" that has also become a go-to part to put into a number of City Pop/AOR tunes. And this song certainly stamped itself into my consciousness since I heard it tons of time not only that pink SONY but also on the car radio. Basically, that keyboard riff should have been copyrighted by The Doobie Brothers by now.

Earth Wind & Fire -- September (1978)

Hey, it's the right month. And "September" is one of my favourite uptempo tunes, period while Earth, Wind & Fire remains one of the more beloved bands in Japan. Whenever this came on the radio, I didn't hesitate...I dropped everything (pens, texts, notes, etc.) and dialed up the volume. Moreover, with that bass and horn section, I could imagine a number of Japanese singers in City Pop thinking "Yeah, I think we need to have some of that EW&F arrangement in there". Geez, I miss Maurice White.

Al Jarreau -- Breakin' Away (1981)

And I also miss Al Jarreau, too. He had that golden voice and managed to inject that ray of sunlight from the radio even if it were -18 degrees and snowy outside. "Breakin' Away" is only one example of that Jarreau sound with Jay Graydon's production, and I think some of that sound influenced singers across the Pacific including Yumi Matsutoya(松任谷由実)and Takeuchi at around the same time.

Chicago -- Hard Habit to Break (1984)
TOTO -- Rosanna (1983)

I've put Chicago and TOTO together since members from both bands have actually helped out singers in Japan including Takeuchi. Also, one of my favourite bands in the country, Sing Like Talking, has taken on that fusion sound from both of them. Although I had heard of their names for years as a kid, it wasn't until the early 1980s that I finally noticed their work and started listening.

The Manhattan Transfer -- Spice of Life (1983)

The Manhattan Transfer has frequently been referred to as a jazz vocal group, and of course, that they are. However, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they often dabbled in the fusion and pop genres as well, and arguably, their most famous example is the celebratory "Spice of Life" from their "Bodies and Souls" album. This was also another popular song to play on the radio back then, and I think that this was the theme tune for all that was champagne-and-caviar about living life large in the big city. The late 1980s had their champagne-and-caviar tunes in City Pop with one of my favourite examples being Junko Ohashi's(大橋純子)"Nemurenai Diamond"(眠れないダイアモンド). For me, it was this song that got me to buy my first album by the group which was indeed "Bodies and Souls".

Kenny Loggins -- Heart to Heart (1982)

Perhaps a lot of folks may remember Kenny Loggins for "Danger Zone" in "Top Gun" or even the title track from the first version of "Footloose". my case, I will always refer folks to his "Heart to Heart" from a few years earlier. It's my favourite AOR tune of all, and I always imagine being in a Cessna soaring over the Grand Canyon when I hear this, and the beauty of it is that I don't have to be in a real Cessna perhaps on the verge of throwing up!

Before I finish up this long list, I also have to make reference to "Ai no Corrida" by Chaz Jankel and then further popularized by the amazing Quincy Jones, but it already has its own article. The next day, I will follow up with a far shorter list of what YMO and techno kayo influenced me to listen and enjoy in the 1980s.


  1. Some of my all time favorite artists in a single post! Yay!

    Every time I listen to Taeko Ohnuki's "部屋/Heya", it reminds me of Joni Mitchell's "A Case Of You". Compared to Joni's masterpiece, Taeko's 部屋 sounds rather simple and slight, but both songs have painters as their protagonists and the moods they convey are similar, I think.

    Steely Dan! The video with Fagen & Becker talking about the making of Peg that you mention, is from a "video album" that was released a while back chronicling the writing & recording process of Aja. I own a copy of the DVD and it's fascinating to listen to the two talk about the famous guitar solo on Peg.
    I'd always loved the song but after watching the DVD, it made me appreciate the craftsmanship all the more.

    And finally, Kenny Loggins' Heart To Heart!! I must have been in my early teens when the album High Adventure came out. I was listening to a radio program hosted by none other than Yumi Matsutoya where she introduced this new album by Loggins and a song from it that she liked very much. I bought the LP the very next day. What a great tune. You know when Loggins' voice goes into falsetto in the bridge, then it comes back down to the chest voice right before the chorus? It gives me the chill every time!

    1. Hi, Kaz.

      I wasn't quite sure what kind of a reaction I would get to this "Author's Pick" so I'm glad that you chimed in.

      I saw some of that Steely Dan talk on the making of "Peg", and, to be honest, there was some of the technical nitty-gritty that I couldn't quite get, but I fully understood that something so easy and fun to listen to took a lot of effort and talent from everyone in the studio. The whole thing about that Jay Graydon guitar solo was especially fascinating.

      Good to hear that we are in good company with "Heart to Heart". Another song that I would drop everything to hear in its entirety.


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