Make Believe Mailer 41: Solo
Everyone’s talking guitar solos. For most of May, no topic has dominated music-related discourse in Japan. What’s actually being chattered about? Do young people skip them on streaming services when they listen to songs and…gasp…could they possibly not be connecting with a new generation?
Everything started when people started sharing a New York Times’ article mentioning how none of the songs nominated for “the rock song and performance categories” featured a guitar solo. Nevermind that the piece was a celebration of the guitar solo…this factoid jumped out, and the prolific artist Hiroshi Takano tweeted out how there seems to be many young people who skip guitar solos when listening to songs, with distorted guitars being especially out of favor (tweet above). This sparked enough discussion to become a trending topic on Twitter in Japan and inspire online articles, before being picked up by TV morning shows this past week.
It’s sort of a perfect viral debate. The thought that young people might not be interested in guitar solos plays into images of a generation obsessed with TikTok and short-form video emphasizing slices of sound over prolonged fuzz. Those worried that the kids aren’t into rock music anymore could also latch onto this topic. It doubled as a great prompt to share one’s favorite solos from across Japanese music history…which I happily indulged in.
Aimyon — “Marigold” (2018 mega hit, multiple guitar solos)
As much fun as it was to revisit B’z’ bangers on social media, something felt off about all this. Mainly…rock never left Japan. People have hailed the rise of EDM and hip-hop to the mainstream over the last decade, but despite going through the cycle multiple times now, rock remains the core of Japanese popular music. That’s happened while large chunks of the rest of the world seemingly have shifted away from rock, at least from a very surface view of pop trends and charts (and, uhhh, Grammy nominees). But Japan, stubborn in its own beautiful way, clings to the style.
So like…given how many bands and artists dominate charts with what could safely be described as a “rock style,” the young people into them have to be exposed to guitar solos, right? Or has that specific element of the genre actually faded away? I had to turn to an extremely scientific and precise way of figuring it out — listen to a bunch of recent hits and see just how much riffage they have.
I listened to all the songs on Spotify’s “Top 50 — Japan” playlist as of May 20, 2022 for this experiment. I opted for this ranking because it felt the most in tune with “young music fans” — Oricon is ultimately a fandom ranking due to how heavily physical sales remain in determining overall placement, while something like TikTok reflects youth and online culture far more than music, overall1. Young music fans in Japan have come around to subscription streaming, and this Spotify ranking works as a snapshot of where tastes are at as summer approaches. I’m looking for guitar solos, and seeing just how credible their shredding is, leading me to use a hastily assembled “shred cred” system. How does that work exactly? Uhhhh, just go with it.
Also, yes, listeners could just skip the guitar solos — that’s core to the whole online “debate” — but I’m just going to ignore that, because 1. seems like a lot of effort and 2. a good chunk of listeners are either genuinely interested in the songs as a whole, or at least will leave it on while they are working on something.
Let’s go through it in sections of 10, from bottom to the top.
#50 - #41 — A Sign Of Things To Come
The back end of the Top 50 chart offers a preview of what’s to come, which is — guitar solos still have a place in popular Japanese music, but electronic passages are starting to dominate while some rock-centric songs opt for a skippy melody over anything that would allow room to stretch a solo out. It’s also surprising to see where guitar solos pop up — traditional bands such as DISH// and King Gnu could be expected, but post-vocaloid producer MAISONdes and big-hatted troubador HIRAIDAI both make out space for their own (admittedly limp) guitar solos. Meanwhile, one of the biggest arena rockers in the country Official HIGE DANdism only spare room for keyboard theatrics.
Let’s also talk about K-pop while we’re here. Rolling Stone Korea recently ran a story looking at how “Rock walks with K-pop,” pointing to how rock elements have found new life within the Korean pop industry, with groups like TXT and ENHYPHEN being spotlighted. Yet every Korean group appearing in the Japan Top 50 ignores rock entirely, with the ranking dominated by dance-pop girl groups and BTS’ English songs. And that makes sense…the whole point of K-pop in Japan is that it provides something new they can’t find domestically. There is no shortage of rock at home.
Shred Cred Winner — King Gnu, “BOY” (2021)
Fittingly, the group that sprung to mind when I first saw “guitar solo” trending on Twitter while on vacation carry this section, highlighted by a distorted passage subverting the string melodies before it. Though
#40 - #31— Pick Up The Pace
The guitar solo debate also, eventually, roped in “intros” as part of the debate, and to some degree those are way better evidence to point at for changing trends amongst the youth. This ten-song stretch underlines that — while eight of the numbers here feature some prominent “rock” element, most of them blast off, wasting no time getting to the verses. I associate this speediness most with YOASOBI, whose breakthrough hit (coming up, but let’s just lump it in here) wasted no time plunging ahead, and whose two singles here similarly just get into it. That’s clear in most of these songs too, YOASOBI or otherwise.
Though hey, back to the actual topic at hand…not many guitar solos! Though we do hit some borderline calls — YOASOBI’s “Sangenshoku” features acoustic strums, but the only parts constituting a solo are all synthesized sounds, while a much harder decision comes with Vaundy’s “Odoriko.” That one is pure Aughts indie-rock shamble, complete with hushed monotone verses. But the only “solo” comes at the very start…and nobody counts an intro, right? Rock remains ever-present on the charts, but this chunk does make an argument that the solo isn’t always along for the ride.
Shred Cred Winner — Ryokuoushoku Shakai “Mela!” (2021)
A weird hybrid between post-Vocaloid (see the video), traditional horn-accented J-pop and easy-breezy rock. The guitar solo here teases smoothness before letting a little rough-edged fuzz sneak in, making for some nice tension to the otherwise giddy mood.
#30 - #21 — King Gnu Keeps The Faith
A quick diversion — “STAY” is the only Western song landing on the Top 50. Japan really doesn’t give a shit about English-language pop right now. It’s beautiful!
King Gnu really love guitar solos, and might be keeping the art alive for a new generation of listeners in Japan. They are arguably the most popular group in the country, and that’s partially because they’ve stuck to a type of rock ‘n’ roll that’s long been central to Japanese music trends. They really stand out in 2022, and in this tier we start seeing a new dominant trend emerging — stripped-down acoustic heart-on-sleeve songs, a development in the making since The First Take became a central source of YouTube entertainment during the pandemic2. Those fragile numbers have no time for flashy guitar solos — the emphasis is on the voice, in all its naked glory, even when rock sneaks into the formula. Though…
Shred Cred Winner — Awesome City Club “Wasurena” (2021)
…this song became a surprise blockbuster last year by lining up with all those bare-bones trends, but still features a marquee guitar solo. It earns this honor because said solo is the best part of the entire experience.
#20 - #11 — Old School
How much does the past influence the present state of guitar solos? This portion of the Top 50 offers a compelling argument that it’s “a lot.” The majority of songs here come from groups built for the moment — three international-minded K-pop entries, one international-minded J-pop group via BE:FIRST, and J-pop savant Fujii Kaze. Vaundy tightropes the two, delivering another Brooklyn-indebted rock number but free of any solos.
The three remaining songs? One comes from back number, a long-running ho-hum rock trio who are acting more out of habit than anything else at this point, while Aimer’s entry is the theme song for the latest season of the anime Demon Slayer. TV themes…and especially the ones for anime…lean into rock more so than most, which has been the case for decades.
Shred Cred Winner — Da-iCE “CITRUS” (2020)
This number also served as a theme for a TV show, the drama The Way Of The Househusband. What makes it special, though — beyond being another nice display of distortion still getting a lot of play — is “CITRUS” won the Grand Prix award at last year’s Japan Record Awards. No who still loves a good guitar solo? Selection committees.
#10 - #01 — ??????
What even is the story of J-pop in 2022 at this point? While only a part of a larger puzzle, this top ten really sends the mind reeling. Familiar forces (Sekai No Owari, Kenshi Yonezu, Gen Hoshino) meet new stars in the making (acoustic-loving singer-songwriter Yuuri, jaunty rockers Macaroni Empitsu). Some score hits just on their own name, others benefit from TV / movie tie-ins…and then you have Tani Yuuki topping this ranking (and he’s been here for a bit now) with a song powered almost entirely by TikTok.
What’s consistent is, the very top of this chart features a lot of familiar “rock” but not much in terms of guitar solos. I might be pushing it with two of these inclusions — the part in “Habit” is really brief and buried, while Macaroni Empitsu…whose album from this year is loaded up with guitar solos…offers the briefest dabble into shredding on big hit “Nandemonaiyo.” Spaces in songs that traditionally would have been perfect for a lil’ rockin’ out now get filled with more vocals, piano workouts or electronic flourishes. Even King Gnu — usually reliable for slipping a solo in — eschew it on their biggest 2022 hit, “Chameleon.”
Shred Cred Winner — Saucy Dog “Cinderella Boy” (2021)
Perhaps being traditional holds some value in 2022, too. Saucy Dog have scored one of the big numbers of the year by sounding…a lot like how J-rock always sounds, crescendoing with a guitar solo highlighting dexterity (rare on this chart, where urgency and impact and distortion reign). I don’t hear anything new in “Cinderella Boy” — but given how all over the place other songs sound, maybe that familiarity goes a long way.
TOTAL — 15 out of 50 songs feature a guitar solo
FINAL THOUGHTS: The guitar solo is, indeed, less prevalent…I expected a bit higher number, though not much more than what we land on in this study. Still, I feel safe arguing a majority of songs here are rooted in rock, so there isn’t that much of a industry personality crisis.
Grand sweeping claim to close this out? Something related to an argument I’ve made before — J-pop and Japanese music in general is really interesting right now because of how all over the place it is. The guitar solo might not be a prominent fixture in rock the way it used to be, but that’s not because of a shunning of the genre. Rather, younger creators are just…experimenting more and breaking from formulas. That’s making for a much healthier sounding industry, even if it might clog up the Twitter trend list every once in awhile.
Written by Patrick St. Michel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Twitter — @mbmelodies
Follow the Best of 2022 Spotify Playlist Here! Lolz what if I counted up the guitar solos on this
For example, this delightful Vietnamese pop song recently found life on TikTok in Japan, crashing into “viral” charts. Yet it slipped out just as quickly…people just like the whistle-heavy hook as a tool, though hopefully some people added it to their faves.
Though Aimyon might have actually been out in front on this…but ehhhh let’s save that for another day.