Even if you don’t understand Japanese and could care less about otaku culture, Japan’s music industry is still worth checking out. This is especially true when it comes to J-Rock bands, many of which are starting to gain fans in the West despite not having any English-language songs. Here are 10 that you might want to check out, and the reasons why:
#1 - Dir En Grey
Formed in 1997, Dir En Grey managed to pump out 8 full-length records and have retained its original members since inception. The band’s genre and visual style have changed so much over the years that it’s hard to pin down a specific genre, though they’ve mostly stayed within rock, metal and its many sub genres. They started out as a visual kei band but have eventually toned down their attire.
Kodou - most fans would point to The Final as the best Dir En Grey introductory song from Withering to Death (their first album to be released in Europe and North America) since it’s a more accessible song, but Kodou is probably the song that showcases the band’s somewhat underrated skills as musicians. Spoken word verses, heavy pounding riffs on an actual melodic chorus, and a short but sweet guitar solo. Top it off with vocalist Kyo screaming his heart out at the bridge.
Cage – arguably the band’s most radio-friendly song to date, and might be the reason why it’s shunned by some purists, but for introducing new listeners to Dir En Grey, Cage is ideal as it shows that the band is not a one-trick pony.
#2 - Radwimps
Formed in 2001 during their high school years, Radwimps debuted in 2003 as an indie J-rock band, but was eventually picked up by major label Toshiba EMI two years later, then achieved great commercial success in 2006.
Dada – debuting at number one on Oricon’s singles charts, Dada is Radwimps most commercially successful single to date. The song features blistering instrumentals with vocalist Yojiro Noda’s fast-talking verses, contrasted with a slightly more melodic but equally aggressive-sounding chorus.
Order Made – another commercially successful single, Order Made is a mid-tempo rock ballad that showcases Noda’s soft singing voice. The song starts out slow and peaceful, with the instruments building up intensity along the way, until it reaches a layered, frantic rock climax.
#3 - Quruli
Quruli originally started in 1996 as a three-piece band with Shigeru Kishida, Masashi Sato, and Noboyuki Mori. Throughout the years, the band has gone through membership changes, with its current incarnation consisting only of Shigeru Kishida and Masashi Sato. The band is influenced by Blues, House, Grunge, Jazz, and Jazz, and has garnered praise from many international artists including Ben Harper and Roger Joseph Manning Jr.
Last Train – the song is a catchy, slightly upbeat song that wouldn’t sound out of place in a road trip mixtape. Mixing Kishida’s smooth vocals with a clean electric backing guitar and a steady drum beat, there’s no doubt that the song will serve as the soundtrack to many lazy afternoon drives.
Everybody Feels the Same – this song contrasts straightforward 4/4 rock with soft bridges and bluesy guitar solos. Cap it off with the presence of a sax interludes and you’ve got yourself a song that makes it hard not to dance along.
Everybody Feels the Same
#4 - Androp
Androp originally debuted in 2011 under Warner Music Japan without any information about the band members’ identities, with their official website not listing the names of the members or their photos. However, their identities were revealed in 2011 when the February issue of music magazine Rockin On’ Japan featured an interview complete with photos. The band’s frontman was revealed to be Uchisawa Takahito, formerly a member of the band Postman.
Voice – this is your typical stadium rock anthem, with pumping drum and bass lines, catchy verses, and enough “whoah-ho-whoa-hoas” to give the audience enough parts to sing along to during live performances.
Amanjoku – notable for featuring an infectious bass solo as its intro, leading to an excellent blend of funky rock that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Primus album, and a sugary-sweet melodic chorus. The contrast between the two styles should be jarring but surprisingly blends well together, thanks to the consistent vocals.
#5 - Bump of Chicken
Bump of Chicken is a J-Rock quartet that hails from Sakura, Chiba that has become famous because many of their songs were featured as theme songs for various movies and TV shows in Japan. Since their inception in 1994, the band has already released 6 albums and 23 singles, with most of their releases charting in the top ten on the Oricon Weekly Charts.
Sailing Day – an upbeat song with a catchy chorus that is singable even if you don’t understand the lyrics. The song highlights BoC’s early Beatles influence.
Zero – BoC’s most popular song overseas, mainly because it was used as the ending theme song for the Japanese version of the videogame Final Fantasy Type-0, which was translated unofficially and released over the internet. The song is a sad ballad that is carried by vocalist Motoo Fujiwara’s emotional delivery.
#6 - Orange Range
A J-rock quintet from Okinawa, Orange Range sports a pop and rock mix of music that comes from blending various influences from Japan and the West, owing to the members growing up in a place that is a well-known station for American military bases.
Asterisk – the song garnered a lot of overseas attention after being used as the opening theme song for the massively popular Bleach anime, the song features crunchy guitar riffs and verses that straddle the line between rap and spoken word.
Viva Rock – another song that garnered a lot of overseas acclaim after being featured in a popular anime, this time for the anime Naruto. Viva Rock is a little bit more radio-friendly and lends itself well to sing alongs, although still containing abrasive guitar tones, angular riffs, and rap verses.
#7 - One OK Rock
One OK Rock is known for sporting a style that fuses emo, metal, and rock. Additionally, the band has a habit of crafting songs with interchangeable English-japanese lyrics, making their songs easier for overseas listeners to adapt to.
Clock Strikes – if you only heard the first few seconds of this song, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that it’s from an American band (some even mistook it for an Incubus song,) until vocalist Taka starts singing in Japanese. Unlike most J-rock artists who sing in English, Taka is not prone to Engrish, showing perfect diction in both languages.
The Beginning – a somewhat slower affair with layered refrains, this is another song that will be accessible to foreigners, mainly because the song is in English, with Japanese lyrics being relegated to a few verses.
#8 - Tsubakiya Quartet
Tsubakiya Quartet (also known as Tsubakiya Shijuso) was originally formed in Sendai in 2000, but moved to Tokyo and found success in 2001. The band’s songs range from jazz flavored rock to slow ballads, though their forte is melodic hard rock.
Wuthering Heights – this is the perfect introduction to Tsubakiya Quartet; slow, melodic rock with distorted guitars and a slow drum beat backing the haunting and desperate vocals of singer/guitarist Yuuji Nakada.
My Revolution – a faster, more upbeat affair, My Revolution is still a good representative of Tsubakiya Quartet, mainly because it showcases the prodigal performances of the members, with each member pulling their own weight and showing their mastery over their instruments.
#9 - Sakanaction
Sakanaction is a Sapporo, Hokkaido-based J-rock band that is known for fusing alt rock with synth pop and new wave styles. The band claims that their name is a portmanteau of sakana (“fish”) and “action,” because they want to be able to move quickly and gracefully like a fish in the water, regardless of changes in the music scene.
Mikazuki Sunset – an excellent example of “easy listening.” Mikazuki Sunset is an electro funk song that frames Ichiro Yamaguchi’s smooth vocals. The song is danceable and singable at the same time.
Slow Motion – a great example of Sakanaction’s range, this sounds like it belongs to a 70s Disco Compilation, but as soon as the song reaches its zenith and devolves into a cacophony of static and synth keyboards, you’ll know that the song is not your grandfather’s.
#10 - Flumpool
Osaka-based J-pop rock band Flumpool has been around since 2007. The name comes from the number of members in the band – F from the first letter of “four” followed by “lump,” which signifies mass, and the word “pool.” While classified as a J-rock, some of their most popular songs are slower affairs punctuated by layered guitarwork.
Mitsumeteitai – a rock ballad that features both acoustic and electric guitars, driven by Ryuta Yamamura’s smooth crooning. There’s Engrish involved, but it’s limited to a single phrase (“every breath”) and should not mar the experience.
Over the Rain – another rock ballad, this one wouldn’t sound out of place in an 80s hair metal band’s repertoire but the song is saved from being too cheesy by Ryuta Yamamura’s adorable singing voice. The song is quite popular because it’s been used by the drama series Bloody Monday.