Given the amount of Japan Best Of compilations which have been released over the years, this has got to be the best so far. Missing out all of the punky glam rock era which constituted the band’s first two, slightly dodgy albums, The Very Best of Japan is just that – all of the hits and album tracks that really stand out – all in one place. Plus it’s got a much better cover than the 1985’s Exorcising Ghosts compilation.
Of all the New Romantics and electropop phenomena of the early ’80s, Japan remain one of the most quintessentially iconic bands of that era. Cooler than Duran Duran, and with David Sylvian‘s enigmatic charisma, beautifully coiffered white hair, make up and sartorial elegance, Japan were the band that any self-respecting serious New Romantic should have been into.
Quite right too. For what this compilation proves beyond any shadow of a doubt is quite how influential Japan were. Listen to any track on this Best Of and you will hear the original sound from which scores of subsequent bands have echoed. Examples? Well, listen how 1979’s Quiet Life has hints of Spandau Ballet‘s To Cut a Long Story Short(released in 1981). And how the electro-funk of the Art Of Parties predated any track on Scritti Politti‘s Cupid and Psyche ’85, not to mention Duran Duran’s Notorious.
There’s also that fretless bass sound which was to dominate so much of the ’80s (ok, so the influence wasn’t always good…). And of course, there’s Sylvian’s voice; an exquisite, other-worldly tone; Bryan Ferry-esque in delivery and providing much inspiration for Simon Le Bon’s subsequent career. They were even into the Velvet Underground before everyone else – evident on the excellent cover of All Tomorrow’s Parties.
Apart from the startling and influential originality however, Japan also made some excellent singles. Ghosts is as stark and haunting as atop five selling single could ever hope to be; Quiet Life, Life In Tokyo and European Son are all corking records worthy of any ’80s dance floor and even the cover of soul classic I Second That Emotion works in a way that could never have been predicted on paper. Japan managed to be smooth but edgy, arty but commercial and pretentious without being ridiculous.
It’s not necessarily the case that Japan were better than any of the bands they influenced; more that they got there first. Duran Duran proceeded to be far more prolific and thoroughly deserve their success, but the musical debt they owe Japan is evident on this compilation. It’s incredible to think that the tracks on this Best Of were made pretty much over a period of just three years – from 1979 to 1981 – and ironic to think that Japan didn’t get their success and full recognition until they’d split. And that by the time they did, their influence had helped inspire a whole new movement.
With 7″ versions of many of the singles, this compilation is worth a punt for anyone who’s already got the albums and would like to hear the released versions of the singles. For the uninitiated with just a hint of an interest in electro pop it’s a must in order to truly appreciate what New Romanticism was really about.