Johnny’s, KinKi Kids, and a Macro Snapshot of J-pop History

KinKi Kids

As one of the most prolific and popular talent agencies in Japan, Johnny’s Jimusho is a household name in the country, boasting a lineup of trainees, juniors, actors, singers, dancers, and even gymnasts. It takes a lot of time and development before an individual is finally chosen to debut, but that’s exactly what Koichi Domoto and Tsuyoshi Domoto of KinKi Kids finally did in July 1997, the first group to premiere under the new Johnny’s Entertainment, Inc. record label (before then, music was released under various second-party labels like Pony Canyon). Needless to say, the sheer market saturation and beloved reputation of a Johnny’s group was enough to propel the duo into overnight success.

Despite music being only a piece of the wider component of a Johnny’s group, it wouldn’t have helped if it was terrible, so it was to the company’s benefit to pay attention to singles by employing skilled writers and producers. As a testament to that commitment, the group teamed up with some of the most iconic, legendary songwriters and producers in Japanese pop history. It was a big, bold statement by the company, and a rare show of power that committed to the group’s, and thus the label’s, importance, boasting of their buying power and influence by uniting the twin conceits of business and art in an astronomical show of money and talent. Three prominent examples of this can be found in the group’s early singles, which were composed by city-pop pioneer Tatsuro Yamashita, gentle disciple and disruptor Koji Makaino, and prolific composer and hit-record holder Kyohei Tsutsumi. By marketing the group with music created by an ascending ladder of Japanese pop royalty already nationally recognized, Johnny’s Jimusho intentionally took its seat at the head of the table, coupling Japanese music history with its future in their own company.

Tatsuro YamashitaGlass no Shounen

The group’s debut single “Glass no Shounen” was written and arranged by none other than recent city-pop celeb/godfather, Tatsuro Yamashita. Now recognized around the world for his hits from as far back as the 70s, he, along with artists like Eiichi Ohtaki, are credited for helping to create, and embodying the quintessential sound of, city-pop, the hybrid of pop, jazz, and soft rock that gained prominence in the “economic miracle” of Japan’s comeback success in the 1980s. It reached #1 on the charts, and is the group’s best-selling single to date with over 1.7 million units sold, though the song itself gives no indication as to why, with its bitter, milquetoast admonishments to a woman who sold out her future for a new love and a shiny ring. Yamashita cropped up again on singles like the Sandals-esque jingles “JETCOASTER ROMANCE” and “Happy Happy Greeting.” This was not a high point for him, though I wonder how much of his work for KinKi Kids was heavily edited under strict boy-band company policy (it’s also worth noting he recorded his own version of the latter that ended up on the Rarities album, and it doesn’t sound much improved). Maybe it’s giving too much credit to the overlords at Johnny’s, but suffice to say, after the resurgence and worldwide respect given to city-pop in the last decade, Yamashita was given a redemption arc to exercise his unique and distinctive sound palette for the label much later, on one of the greatest pop songs in recent memory, Arashi’s “Fukkatsu LOVE.”

Aisareru Yori AishitaiKoji Makaino

Their sophomore single, “Aisareru Yori Aishitai” was written by a personal favorite, Koji Makaino, also a seasoned veteran who began his career in the 70s penning album cuts on the less-popular releases for idols like Megumi Asaoka (“Sayonara no Kawari ni,” “Yuuwaku no Toshigoro“), and who peaked in the Golden Age of the 1980s writing incredible songs for Yu Hayami (“HONEY na Hirusagari“) and magical girl anime like Mahou no Tenshi CREAMY MAMI (all of them, actually, but the ones everyone remembers and loves best, too). Makaino was versatile: despite often being connected with idols and idol culture, he was born into a musical family and also composed countless scores for TV, film, and anime like The Rose of Versailles and Bubblegum Crisis, the latter franchise of whose music comprises what are some of the most definitive 80s-sounding tracks of all time (I imagine the recently remastered box set is a real treat for fans who can afford it!). His contribution here illustrates his adaptability, with a pop song steeped in modern techno, as intricate and robust as its accompanying choreography. It’s a sonically delightful romp for someone as clearly dedicated to craft as he is the modern-day currency of popular sound among teens – the hit might now be as dated as any of the others on the first KinKi Single Selection, but twenty-five years ago it was a boy-band banger to rival the likes of the Euro-influenced Backstreet Boys.

Yamenaide, PUREKyohei Tsutsumi

Finally, we have Kyohei Tsutsumi on “Yamenaide, PURE.” Tsutsumi, an absolute song-writing monster, started his career in the 1960s, scoring #1 hits for dozens of artists like Ayumi Ishida (“BLUE LIGHT Yokohama“) and teen idols Hiromi Go and Iyo Matsumoto, up through the 2010s. His catalog runs so deep, that hours-long YouTube videos have been sliced over multiple segments to cover the sheer depth of his songbook (though he did have a noticeable habit of launching artists, sticking around for their peak years, and peace-ing out just before the public lost interest in them). You could spend hours swimming in that sea, so let’s keep it brief: part of what made Tsutsumi so successful is that there is no signature Tsutsumi sound, save one as vague as the definition of pop music itself. If anything, his style, like those already mentioned, was nurtured in an environment that valued colorful melody rather than a good beat, giving him the ability to mold  kaleidoscopic notes to technical developments in modern sound, which has cemented his reputation as an evergreen composer who was still writing hits for kids while in his 60s. At what point this went from genuinely great music, to a silent, assistant-heavy boost by younger arrangers, to respectfully, but maybe sheepishly, kissing the ring, is anyone’s hot take, but needless to say, here at 59, his name is behind the most hip-hop-leaning of the trio thus far, bringing a somewhat old-fashioned melodic approach to an unfortunate JNCO-inspired wardrobe choice.

And so on

Rounding things out, there was Takuro Yoshida (“Zenbu Dakishimete“), who helped an idol group like CANDIES grow up, newly-minted producer HΛL (“FLOWER“), who would go on to establish himself at a little indie label called Avex Trax with rising star Ayumi Hamasaki, and lesser-known names, including member Koichi himself (“Suki ni Natteku Aishiteki“). With a roster like that, it’s easy to see how ambitious and eager the team behind KinKi Kids was, ironically bowing to history and tradition with their forward-looking, modern J-pop duo. It’s no wonder that their first single collection sold so well and remains one of the group’s hallmarks — you are guaranteed to find at least fifteen copies in the KinKi Kids section of any used record store today. Nothing would imitate this run of composers in the group’s career ever again, though they continue to enjoy recognition to this day, regularly releasing singles and albums since, and dutifully make the rounds to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their debut this summer.

The only downside is that despite the names involved, all of these great songwriters were either already considered beyond their best days, or hampered by what I imagine was a strict adherence to the Johnny’s sound. One case in point is that so many of these songs carry the same style and feel to them, like being run under day-one Instagram filters, rather than bearing the distinctive thumbprints of their creators — one imagines Johnny himself popping in at the end of each recording session to remind everyone who was signing the checks. Tsutsumi and Makaino might have always been more flexible in their sound, adapting to the trends and technical capabilities of their current era, but a Tatsuro Yamashita song almost always sounds like a Tatsuro Yamashita song. Or rather, it does now that this is exactly what people want and expect from him.

But from 1997-1999, a more bland and consistent sound with the edges smoothed out was the order of the day, with most of the songs typical of what Make Believe Melodies dubbed the “Johnny’s house style”: upbeat, fluffy pop with heavy influences from disco, Latin styles like samba, and, at least in the last three years of the century, Euro-pop, with its safe major keys and hints of synth cheese. KinKi Kids illustrate that well enough on these slightly blurry debut singles underlining their epic mission by a series of absolute legends, hired to do what they now could do in their sleep, for an agency with more power and pull than most people wanted to believe, for that evergreen institution known as a boy band, at a time when that institution was enjoying the last of the kind of success it would ever see again until the explosion of K-pop.

Notes
[ The banner is an edit of a personal scan from the album KinKi Single Selection. The single covers are from here, here, and here. ]

Top ten East Asian pop/rock albums of 2021

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My listening veered towards the familiar when it came to East Asian pop this year, with many of this year’s top artists making second or third appearances on these year-end lists. This is totally unremarkable, considering that the most pervasive feeling I have had lately is the nagging gloom that 2020 and 2021 have actually just been one very long year, and everything bleeding together makes it hard to distinguish this year’s J-pop from last. Treading water is what you do when you’re trying not to drown, not when the environment is conducive to innovation, and so we saw a lot of trends hanging on throughout 2021, from the lasting impact of The Weeknd’s sizzling synths in “Blinding Lights,” (RYUJI IMAICHI, Lexie Lu) to the last gasps of a certain kind of aggressive dance-pop unique to mid-00s (w-inds.), warm bubble-bath Johnny’s (SixTONES, Snow Man), all the way to a doubling-down of all the familiar tropes of idol- and K- and City-pop (Yufu Terashima, TWICE, YUKIKA). Here are my top ten favorite, in no particular order:

Lexie Liu: GONE GOLD // LatuLatu: Hyakkaryoransen

Morning Musume ’21.: 16th ~ That’s J-POP // YUKIKA: TIMEABOUT,

Yufu Terashima: SURVIVAL LADY // RYUJI IMAICHI: CHAOS CITY

GENIE HIGH: GENIE STAR // TWICE: Formula of Love: O+T=<3

NiziU: U // w-inds.: 20XX “We are”

Honorable Mentions

BANDMAID: Unseen World
Sakurako Ohara: l
FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC VOYAGE
Perfume: POLYGON WAVE EP
Key: Bad Love

Top ten pop/electronic albums of 2021

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Escape continues to be the name of the game, and pop music is always happy to deliver. In particular, as Bandcamp Friday continued to honor artists with well-deserved and actually useful recognition, it was easy to fall into the synthwave spiral again, where labels like New Retro Wave and Timeslave continued to feature the best in throwback nostalgia. There are a number of new artists here, too, like Sergey Lazarev, who continues to be the king of Eurovision-pop, and Nick Jonas, who continues to elude chart success despite my repeated streams of his most ridiculed work. I can’t say great taste is the engine of this particular list, but for a year that continues to be as unsettling as ever, you could do a lot worse. Here are my ten favorite of the year, in no particular order:

Red Soda: Metatron Chronicles // Roosevelt: Polydans

Doja Cat: Planet Her // WILLOW: lately, I feel EVERYTHING

New Arcades: In the Deepest of Dreams // Nick Jonas: Spaceman

Fury Weekend: Signals // Earmake: Comsic Hero 3

Sergey Lazarev: 8 // Khalid: Scenic Drive (The Tape)

Honorable Mentions


Zara Larsson: Poster Girl
Mariah the Scientist: RY RY WORLD
Summer Walker: Still Over It
Selena Gomez: Revelación
Droid Bishop: Into the Abstract

Top ten metal/hard rock albums of 2021

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This list trended more towards hard rock than metal this year, with many bands making their usual appearance. With a year as static as 2021, it’s no surprise that old standbys provided more comfort than newer finds: Legends Chevelle and Evergrey both released fine examples of longevity at its finest, groups like Beast in Black and Greta Van Fleet continued to mine the sounds of yore for their brands of throwback power metal and 70’s dino-rock respectively, and a group like Aephanamer just kept doing whatever incredible spell-casting they do to produce another album both beautiful in sound and sight. It wasn’t the greatest year for the genre by far, but it’s a sign of my enduring trust in it that I could still find ten albums that reminded me why I never give up on metal. In no particular order, here are my ten favorite:

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The Pretty Reckless: Death by Rock and Roll // Evergrey: Escape of the Phoenix

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Chevelle: NIRATIAS // Greta Van Fleet: The Battle at Garden’s Gate

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DIAMANTE: American Dream // Unto Others: Strength

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Angels & Airwaves: Lifeforms // Beast in Black: Dark Connection

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STARSET: Horizons // Aephanemer: A Dream of Wilderness

Honorable Mentions

Khemmis: Deceiver
Dee Gees: Hail Satin
Eastern High: Halo
IOTUNN: Access All Worlds
Orden Ogan: Final Days

Top ten original soundtracks/original scores of 2021

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While films were released in theaters again, a lingering sense of hesitation remained, whether intentional or not (well, until Spider-man, I guess), as if composers are only half-heartedly putting in effort for what they know will be mostly heard piping through standard audio equipment, laptops, and even headphones as many still balk at visits to a crowded hall, preferring to huddle in front of streaming devices at home. It makes for a frustrating listening experience. Nothing feels as big and bold as some of the releases from previous years, and more scores than usual made my disappointing list than in previous years. At the same time, I found myself selecting titles by composers that have never appeared on these lists before, and that’s always a welcome change. Here are my top ten favorite scores of the year, in no particular order:

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Leo Birenberg & Zach Robinson: Cobra Kai Season 3 // Roque Banos: Explota Explota

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Aaron Boudreaux: The Wanting Mare // Inon Zur: Syberia: The World Before (Original Soundtrack)

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Isabella Summers & Brian H. Kim: Panic //  Lorne Balfe: Black Widow

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Bartosz Chajdecki: Mistrz // Richard Jacques: Guardians of the Galaxy (Original Soundtrack)

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Hans Zimmer: No Time to Die // Yoko Kanno: Cowboy Beboy

Honorable Mentions

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Salvinsky: Narita Boy (Original Game Soundtrack)
The Blake Robinson Synthetic Orchestra: Lost in Random, Vol.1 (Original Game Soundtrack)
Mattie Bye: Young Royals (Soundtrack from the Netflix Series)
Chris Wong, et al: Camellia Sisters (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Dmitry S. Silantyev: Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous (Original Soundtrack)

Top ten debut albums of 2021

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2020 was a tough year to debut but 2021 wasn’t much better. The albums on this list represent all of the experiences on the spectrum, from those being carried on a wave bigger than they could imagine, to those taking a calculated risk, to those throwing caution to the wind and just hoping for the best. Some of these albums will cast long shadows, thresholds that will be hard to meet or surpass in the future (Olivia Rodrigo), while others fell just slightly short of the mark but hint at enormous potential (CHUNG HA). But the most important and horrifying thing all of these albums did was show how relentlessly time moves forward, a steady stream of novelty that (thankfully, sometimes regretfully) refuses to ebb.

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Noriko Shibasaki: Follow my heart // Maggie Lindemann: PARANOIA

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Pink Sweat$: PINK PLANET // SG Lewis: times

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Olivia Rodrigo: SOUR // Jay Diggs: Jams

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BALLISTIK BOYZ from EXILE TRIBE: Pass The Mic // Kazaki Morinaka: Gekokujou

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Silk Sonic: An Evening with Silk Sonic // MIRAE: KILLA

Honorable Mentions

MyDearDarlin’: Dearest
Khirki: Κτηνωδία
KOTONE: RESIST
CHUNG HA: QUERENCIA
Spiritbox: Eternal Blue

Top ten remastered/reissued albums of 2021

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It’s always interesting to see what music is chosen to be exhumed by the likes of small vinyl labels, eager to press and preserve any and everything, and large corporate monoliths, eager to milk whatever they can out of streaming numbers. I respect some of these decisions and loathe others – a 25th anniversary edition of the Spice Girls’ debut album is both fun and fair, but if you’re going to re-release the Kimagure ORANGE☆ROAD soundtracks, can you please remaster them first, and include CD and digital versions? Also, how do you even categorize something like the extras from the incredible Wonder Woman 1984 soundtrack? It’s included here as it deserves recognition and fits none of the other thirty categories I’ve dreamed up to avoid just such a nightmare scenario. In any case, where all of these succeeded was in getting me to spend time with music that I hadn’t heard in a while, and to remember why I loved it so much. It also reinforced an appreciation for how the past shapes and informs the endless parade of new, an important part of any deep listener’s musical education. Here are ten of my favorite re-releases from the year, in no particular order:

Hans Zimmer: Wonder Woman 1984 Sketches // Queen Najia: missunderstood…still

Kimagure ORANGEe☆ROAD Original Soundtracks [Vinyl] // Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure? Platinum Pleasure Edition

The Midnight: Endless Summer (5 Year Anniversary) // Metallica: Metallica

Ayumi Hamasaki: Cyber TRANCE presents ayu trance // Spice Girls: Spice 25

Taylor Swift: Red (Taylor’s Version) // Craig Armstrong: Love Actually (Original Soundtrack)

Honorable Mentions

Danny Elfman: Sleepy Hollow (Music from the Motion Picture)
Kylie Minogue: Disco (Guest List Edition)
SPEED: SPEED MUSIC BOX -ALL THE MEMORIES-
Rammstein: Herzeleid XXV Anniversary Edition
SHINee: : Atlantis

Top ten most disappointing albums of 2021

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It’s best to get the bad news out of the way, so let’s power through some of the worst listening experiences you could have: not the truly awful, but the ones that missed the mark, that ones that just didn’t hit the way you wanted them to, the ones that made you re-consider, even if just for a few minutes, why you called yourself a fan in the first place, the ones that make you question the weeks or months you spent in anticipation, only to be crushed by the weight of mediocre. This list has them all: YG’s much-anticipated new boy band that we haven’t seen or heard from again in the eleven months since THE FIRST STEP : TREASURE EFFECT underwhelmed back in January, maestros dropping the ball when it seemed as if the source material already did half the work (Lady Gaga, Hans Zimmer), and artists whose significant collaborations should have warranted a lot more than their net result (Halsey). And let’s not forget “official” debuts that deserved so, so much more (CL, aespa). Though to be frank, there was nothing more disappointing this year than the ubiquitous, unrelenting, and uninspired appearance of the colon in the titles of K-pop albums. Here are the other ten, in no particular order:

TREASURE: THE FIRST STEP : TREASURE EFFECT // Lady Gaga: Dawn of Chromatica

Hans Zimmer: Dune (Original Soundtrack) // aespa: Savage

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: CANDY RACER // Halsey: If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Nicholas Britell: Cruella (Original Score) // Daniel Pemberton: Being the Ricardos (Original Soundtrack)

CL: Alpha // Red Velvet: Queendom

Top ten 2020-misses of 2021

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Each year, as the previous year’s albums that I’ve listened to for the first time pile up, I’m reminded of how little time any of us really have. All of the newsletters, E-mail blasts, magazines, music writers, YouTubers, TikTokers, and personal recommendations continue to sit impatiently as the never-ending newer releases take precedent. As those at the bottom get pushed farther down, it becomes harder and harder to justify digging down, nor does the mess accruing at the surface always allow for it. But sometimes, those trips back are rewarded, rendering what I thought were iron-clad lists totally moot. As always, I welcome the reminder that best-of lists, even personal ones like these, are only relative to the music we were exposed to and able to hear. In no particular order, here are ten of the best albums released in 2020 that I didn’t discover until 2021, and in some other better, alternate universe, might have made last year’s lists.

Sachika Misawa: I AM ME // Benjamin Grosvenor: Chopin Piano Concertos

NINA: Synthian // Marc Timon Barcelo: San Mao: The Desert Bride (Original Soundtrack)

Neon Nox: Last Stand // Robert Parker: Club 707

IVVY: Awake // Marvel83′: Metropolis

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Natsu Amano: Across The Great Divide // Ryusenkei/Hitomitoi: Talio

Best albums of 2021

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Unlike this past year, we’re going to keep the year-end lists short and sweet. Nothing here should surprise long-time readers of the blog, nor do I expect anyone to see anything that hasn’t appeared on thirty other, much better, lists. Curating these lists was tough, as much that this year had to offer was good, but a lot less was excellent. That doesn’t mean it was all bad, but it was harder to find albums and singles that really impressed and stayed with me — some categories have been fleshed out with work that wouldn’t have made an Honorable Mentions list in previous years.

We’ve got all eight categories this year, including the return of hard rock/metal, which was absent last year. Each category features ten of my favorite albums, followed by five Honorable Mentions where available. The complete list, posting schedule, and further information are as follows (note: this list will be updated with links as the posts go live):

(12/27) Top ten 2020-misses: Any album, in any genre, released in 2020 that I didn’t hear until this year.
(12/28) Top ten most disappointing: Any album, in any genre, that failed to meet expectations.
(12/29) Top ten remasters/reissues: Any remastered or reissued album from anywhere in the world, whether CD, vinyl, box set, etc.
(12/30) Top ten debut albums: Any artist who released an original studio album, or comparable EP, for the first time in 2020 from anywhere in the world.
(12/31) Top ten original soundtracks/original scores: Any original soundtrack or score composed exclusively for film, television, or video game from anywhere in the world.
(01/01) Top ten hard rock/metal: Any hard rock or metal album released by an English-speaking and/or Western band/artist.
(01/02) Top ten pop/electronic: Any pop or electronic album released by an English-speaking and/or Western band/artist.
(01/03) Top ten East Asian pop/rock: Any pop or rock album released in East Asia (especially Japan and South Korea).

Once again, these lists are not meant to be exhaustive, nor absolute: they are simply a reflection of the genres I listened to the most in 2021. In addition, a lot of great songs that never appeared on albums, or that were featured on just-okay ones were released, and I won’t be getting the chance to highlight them in this year’s lists.

Thank you to everyone who continues to visit this tiny corner of the Internet. I appreciate you all sticking with me immensely. I can’t wait to start looking back with you all, and wish everyone the best in what will hopefully be better times for all of us.