The insanely great songs Apple won't let you hear.
"Killer Tune" is just that: It sounds like the Killers, and it is killer. It's one of the most popular iTunes downloads for the band Straightener—but you haven't heard it.
You can't hear it.
The iTunes Music Store has a secret hiding in plain sight: Log out of your home account in the page's upper-right corner, switch the country setting at the bottom of the page to Japan, and you're dropped down a rabbit hole into a wonderland of great Japanese bands that you've never even heard of. And they're nowhere to be found on iTunes U.S. You can listen to 30-second song teasers on the Japanese site, but if you try purchasing "Killer Tune"—or any other tune—from iTunes Japan with your U.S. credit card, you'll get turned away: Your gaijin money's no good there.
Go to iTMS Japan's Terms of Sale, and the very first three words, which berate you in all caps, are:
JAPAN SALES ONLY
So, what's going on here?
Music labels have a good reason to lift up the drawbridge: iTunes spans 22 countries, often with somewhat uneven pricing between them, and the specter of cross-border music discounting has already been raised by services such as Russia's much-sued allofmp3.com. But in Japan's case, the blockade becomes downright tragic. If your knowledge of Japanese music barely extends beyond the Boredoms, you're in for a shock at iTMS Japan: There are thousands of Japanese bands that play circles around ours—and they're doing it in English.
It hasn't happened overnight. Japan's long been a music geek's paradise, a Valhalla of reverent remasters of American and British albums that time and fashion have passed by in their native lands. Want a CD release of Rick Wakeman's 1976 LP No Earthly Connection? There's no such thing over here—but there is in Japan, and you can even buy it from the Disk Union chain at a downtown Tokyo store dedicated entirely to prog-rock. Like the British invaders of 40 years ago, the Japanese seem to care more about our music than we ourselves do.
The result? Japan's bands are by turns bracingly experimental and jubilantly retro, a land where our own greatest music returns with an alienated majesty. How else can one describe the King Brothers' "100%," a song that could make the Black Crowes eat Humble Pie? Or Syrup16g's Elvis Costello-esque "I Hate Music"? Or "Johnny Depp" by Triceratops, an amp-crunching reanimation of Physical Graffiti-era Zep? And you'd swear that the Pillows' "Degeneration" was a hidden track on Matthew Sweet's Altered Beast. Other bands, less easily categorized, are no less revelatory: The Miceteeth's "Think About Bird's Pillow Case" conjures up a Japanese troupe stranded in a 1930s British music hall, while NICO Touches the Walls' "泥んこドビー" boils Franz Ferdinand over into a waltz.
Next, there's power pop. If ever a song cried to be played on late and lamented The O.C., it's "4645" by the Radwimps. Like many J-pop songs, "4645" is almost entirely sung in English. After pop diva Yumi Matsutoya started mixing bilingual lyrics in the 1970s, bands perfected the art of seamlessly fusing Japanese verses with English choruses. You can mondegreen their songs in the shower for weeks without even realizing it.
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.