What’s City Pop? What’s Shibuya-kei? What’s the Difference between These Genres of J-Pop?
If you’ve lived in Japan for a certain amount of time, you’ve probably heard “Christmas Eve” by Tatsuro Yamashita at least once. You may also have heard “Boogie Back Tonight” by Kenji Ozawa featuring Scha Dara Parr. Many people will find both songs somewhat fun, stylish, and nostalgic, and may also feel that those tracks have the potential to attract listeners outside of Japan.
1. Tatsuro Yamashita “Christmas Eve”
2. Kenji Ozawa featuring Scha Dara Parr “Boogie Back Tonight (nice vocal)”
Meanwhile, the moods of those songs are slightly different. In fact, “Christmas Eve” is considered a city pop song, and “Boogie Back Tonight” is Shibuya-kei music. And it is hard to imagine any objection to that. But why is that? What’s city pop? What’s Shibuya-kei? What’s the difference between them?
This article will analyze the characteristics of city pop music and those of Shibuya-kei music, and will compare them—in terms of music itself, rather than its historical background.
Characteristics of City Pop
City pop is a Japanese or Japanese-inspired genre of music that (1) has swelling melodies, (2) has a groove, especially in the bass, (3) features reverb on the drums, (4) uses artificial synthesizer sounds, and (5) is supported by sax solos and brass backing. These are sufficient conditions for being city pop.
Characteristic of City Pop 1: Swelling Melodies
3. Minako Yoshida “SHOOTING STAR OF LOVE”
The first feature of city pop is that it has swelling melodies, with a set of long phrases and chord progressions (8 bars, 16 bars, 32 bars, etc.). This is in contrast to the mainstream Western trend of the 2020s, where it’s all about being able to dance in the moment.
Characteristic of City Pop 2: Groove on the Bass
4. Tatsuro Yamashita “Sparkle”
The second feature of city pop is a groove, especially in the bass, which often emphasizes syncopation, creating funky sounds with plenty of overtones.
Characteristic of City Pop 3: Reverb on the Drums
5. Mariya Takeuchi “Plastic Love”
The third feature of city pop is the reverb on the drums. The reverberation of the snare drum and tom-tom sound creates an atmosphere of around 1980. Synth drums are sometimes used, and of course, their reverb is big in those cases as well.
Characteristic of City Pop 4: Artificial Synthesizer Sounds
6. Taeko Ohnuki “City”
The fourth feature of city pop is the use of artificial synthesizer sounds. The synthesizer sounds that had just been introduced at that time remind us of the Tokyo metropolitan area during the period of rapid economic growth in Japan. It differs from Western synthpop in that it is cheerful to an extent and lacks a psychedelic or pessimistic feel.
Characteristic of City Pop 5: Sax Solos and Brass Accompaniment
7. Miki Matsubara “Mayonaka no Door—Stay with Me”
The fifth feature of city pop is that it is supported by the sax solos and brass backing. A typical city pop song accommodates brass accompaniment, such as muted trumpets, and a sax solo in the interlude.
Characteristics of Shibuya-kei
Shibuya-kei is a genre of Japanese or Japanese-inspired music characterized by (1) relaxed vocals, (2) light guitar sounds, (3) cheerful backing vocals, (4) tambourines or handclaps, and (5) intense keyboard or organ playing. These are sufficient conditions for being Shibuya-kei.
Characteristic of Shibuya-kei 1: Relaxed Vocals
8. Kenji Ozawa “Lovely”
The first feature of Shibuya-kei music is the relaxed vocals. Gentle male vocals or charming female ones are often featured.
Characteristic of Shibuya-kei 2: Light Guitar Sounds
9. FLIPPER’S GUITAR “YOUNG, ALIVE, IN LOVE”
The second feature of Shibuya-kei music is the light guitar sound. Throughout the songs, the acoustic or electric guitar strokes are notable but do not interfere with the melodies. In this respect, Shibuya-kei could be called Japanese guitar pop.
Characteristic of Shibuya-kei 3: Cheerful Backing Vocals
10. PIZZICATO FIVE “It’s a Beautiful Day”
The third feature of Shibuya-kei music is the cheerful backing vocals. Such vocals really stand out in some Shibuya-kei songs.
Characteristic of Shibuya-kei 4: Tambourines or Handclaps
11. Hideki Kaji “MUSCAT”
The fourth feature of Shibuya-kei music is the use of the tambourine and handclaps. In addition to hi-hat cymbals, those are introduced to enliven the high notes of the rhythmic section.
Characteristic of Shibuya-kei 5: Intense Keyboard or Organ Playing
12. Cymbals “Highway Star, Speed Star”
The fifth feature of Shibuya-kei music is the intense keyboard or organ playing. The keyboards or organs are utilized to emphasize the nature of the piano as a percussion instrument and create the rhythm.
Comparing City Pop and Shibuya-kei Songs
Comparing City Pop and Shibuya-kei Songs by Asako Toki
On the one hand, Asako Toki was the vocalist of Cymbals, a band that has been influenced by FLIPPER’S GUITAR and PIZZICATO FIVE and is categorized as Shibuya-kei. On the other hand, her father is Hidefumi Toki, a saxophonist in the Tatsuro Yamashita Band, and after the breakup of Cymbals, she teamed up with EPO, Yo Tomi, and other composers to release neo-city pop songs; thus, she is sometimes called the queen of city pop. So it’s worth comparing her city pop and Shibuya-kei songs.
13. Asako Toki “Gift”
On the one hand, Asako Toki’s “Gift”consists of her long phrasing, the groovy bass with rich overtones, the reverberating tom-tom sound, and the synthesizer with weak attacks. This song is therefore categorized into city pop. It’s composed by EPO, one of the “Three Girls of RCA,” together with Mariya Takeuchi and Taeko Onuki.
14. Cymbals “RALLY”
On the other hand, Cymbals’ “RALLY” consists of Toki’s relaxed vocals, the crash cymbals that reinforce the high notes of the rhythm section, Reiji Okii’s backing vocal, and the keyboard playing with strong attacks. This song is therefore categorized into Shibuya-kei. It’s composed by Reiji Okii (TWEEDEES / ex-Cymbals).
Comparing City Pop and Shibuya-kei Songs by Idol Groups
15. TWICTWICE “SAY SOMETHING”
City pop has been popular in South Korea since the late 2010s, and TWICE―an international K-Pop girl band consisting of five Koreans, three Japanese, and one Taiwanese―recorded “SAY SOMETHING” for their album “Eyes wide open.” That song is characterized by the melodious phrases, the funky bass lines, the snare drum echoes, and the standout sax solo.
16. Negicco “Idol Bakari Kikanaide”
Meanwhile, “Idol Bakari Kikanaide” is a song by Negicco: a talented local idol group that is based in Niigata Prefecture and that has close ties to Shibuya-kei. It was arranged and composed by Yasuharu Konishi from PIZZICATO FIVE, which has an international reputation. That song is characterized by the relaxed singing, the light guitar strumming before the chorus, the sound of tambourine, and the keyboard chords with strong attacks.
Impact of City Pop and Shibuya-kei Music
City pop and Shibuya-kei music have been characterized as follows.
“City pop is a Japanese or Japanese-inspired genre of music that (1) has swelling melodies, (2) has a groove, especially in the bass, (3) features reverb on the drums, (4) uses artificial synthesizer sounds, and (5) is supported by sax solos and brass backing.”
“Shibuya-kei is a genre of Japanese or Japanese-inspired music characterized by (1) relaxed vocals, (2) light guitar sounds, (3) cheerful backing vocals, (4) tambourines or handclaps, and (5) intense keyboard or organ playing.”
Finally, we briefly mention the impact of city pop and Shibuya-kei music.
Impact of City Pop Music
17. YUKIKA “Insomnia”
18. MIYU “Forbidden Game”
One of the industries that seem to be most receptive to city pop around 2020 is the K-pop industry. Japanese singers such as Miyu Takeuchi and Yukika Teramoto have moved to South Korea and are involved in city pop projects there.
The following articles is about Korean city pop.
Impact of Shibuya-kei Music
19. Uduki Shimamuraa, Mio Honda, Rin Shibuya, Nao Kamiya, and Karen Hojo “STORY“
20. Hoshimi Production “The Sun, Moon and Stars“
One of the industries that seem to be most receptive to Shibuya-kei around 2020 is the Japanese anime industry. The song “Story” was arranged and composed by Hidekazu Tanaka, a member of the music production group MONACA. “The Sun, Moon and Stars” was arranged and composed by Reiji Okii (TWEEDEES / ex-Cymbals).
The following articles is about voice actress Kana Hanazawa’s Shibuya-kei songs.