The insanely great songs Apple won't let you hear.

Songs you've got to hear.
Jan. 23 2007 12:48 PM

jTunes

The insanely great songs Apple won't let you hear.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

"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.

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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.

So, what happens when this irresistible rock encounters immoveable corporations? Inevitably, Straightener's "Killer Tune" has shown up in its entirety on YouTube, where the band amuses themselves in an exuberantly goofy lip-sync. With YouTube sporting the clever animated video for the blistering follow-up "Berserker Tune," American fans might get the Straightener they need after all.

Meanwhile, a back door has appeared in the Music Store itself: While iTunes Japan pegs foreign undesirables from their credit card numbers, it can't screen fake Japanese addresses provided by prepaid iTunes Card users. There's a small but ardent underground economy among Americans in dummy addresses and e-mailed scans of Japanese iTunes Cards, picked up by friends in Tokyo convenience stores or openly sold online.

It certainly beats buying CDs. Import shops and Amazon.com lack most Japanese bands, and while Amazon.co.jp maintains a somewhat-English-language version, you may find yourself plunged into hair-raisingly incomprehensible pages while entering credit card information. If, for instance, this audio clip of the math-rock single "Japanistan" by the band Stan sends you running for their album Stan II, you'll find nothing at U.S. Amazon. Buying it from Amazon Japan costs 3,090 yen ($25) with international shipping. And, since Amazon Japan pages often lack audio samples, you have to already know what you're looking for. If you didn't catch that Stan video on NHK while jet-lagged in a Shinjuku hotel, you're out of luck.

iTunes United States maintains its own hamstrung Japanese Music playlist, where a few bands have broken into our realm of 99-cent downloads. Listen to the Rodeo Carburettor's head-rattling "R.B.B. (Rude Boy Bob)," the stuttering art-punk of the Emeralds' "Surfing Baby," and the propulsive stop-time of "Riff Man" by the Zazen Boys—a room-clearing roar of gloriously unhinged vocals—and you start to sense what's maddeningly out of reach across the Pacific.

And there are 20 more countries where iTunes users can lurk among the samples, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Greece, and Australia. They won't let you buy their songs, either. You can find an EP of Scottish sensations the Fratellis at iTunes United States, for instance, but their hit glam singalong "Chelsea Dagger" is in nearly every country except the United States. (Their randy burlesque video for it, naturally, is all over YouTube.)

Even so, window-shopping in the Japan store remains particularly instructive. Why? Because variable pricing—a label demand that Apple loudly and successfully fought off in other countries—has quietly appeared there in the form of 150- and 200-yen songs. Whether "Killer Tune" gets the success it deserves or not, someday we might all be turning Japanese.

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Log on to iTMS for Slate's "jTunes iMix" playlists: one at iTunes Japan of Japan-only songs, including those mentioned in this article (foreign users can sample, but not purchase, them), and this domestic Slate jTunes iMix of songs available for purchase by U.S. users. U.S. iTMS users must log out of their account and switch countries at the bottom of their screen before accessing the Japanese iMix.

Note: Occasionally iTMS Netherlands refuses to allow you to change countries from the bottom of the home page. Simply click any song's "Buy" button, and a prompt asking if you're from abroad will get you to the Country Selection menu.

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.

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