Film and TV soundtracks are often the bastard children of popular music. The best composers in the field, like Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams, are regarded as hacks by the classical community — a rather short-sighted view, given that many of their own favorite composers did many of their best pieces as for-pay hackwork in their time. Fans of more conventional popular music may recognize the names, but rarely seek out the music on its own. The closest most people get to this sort of thing is showtunes, which are fine but terribly limited in scope: it’s a little like narrowing all of rock’n’roll down to only what came from England (or the USA itself).
The choices become all the more esoteric when you leave the United States, or English-speaking territory altogether. Japan has long had one of the most vibrant music scenes of any country, and within the narrow-sounding field of soundtracks for their live-action and animated TV / movie productions there’s a striking amount of activity going on. In that field, one name comes to the fore more than almost any other: Yoko Kanno. Put aside the fact that she’s a woman (even if she’s working in a field that as far as I can tell is predominantly male — in itself no small thing in Japan); put aside the fact that her main forte is soundtracks for animated productions like Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain, Arjuna, Macross Plus, the anthology film Memories, and many others. The one fact that matters: out of all the other musicians in this space, she is the only one I could describe as a genius without flinching. Her work so comfortably spans so many styles and modes of expression, and so well, that I’m not sure any other word will fit. Read more
Once upon a time, a record company was a brand of distinction — you could pick up a Motown record and know to a high degree that you were going to get not just a certain kind of sound (or soul), but you’d be picking up something that was highly reflective of a given person’s taste. Motown is now part of Arista, which is now part of BMG, and likewise many other former “labels of distinction” have been absorbed into the same collective whole and rendered fairly faceless. A great many indies have similarly followed suit — Wax Trax! is now nothing but a marketing logo used by TVT (itself part of Time/Warner) — and the end result has been a lot of extremely bland music with no particular purpose.
There are still a few holdouts, though, and it probably isn’t surprising to hear that at least one of the most important ones is not in the United States. P.S.F. / Modern Music is headquartered in Setagaya, Tokyo, and after having listened to a fair smattering of their catalog over the past decade I don’t flinch when I hear people describe them as “the most aesthetically perfect record label in the world” (Forced Exposure). They’ve earned the label by sheer dint of selecting, publishing and curating one remarkable artist after another, and as a result every time I’ve picked up a P.S.F. disc — even one of their compilation albums — I’ve been at the very least impressed. Typically I’m left speechless. Read more