Discography: Yellow Magic Orchestra — tastemakers (2024)

While electronic music had been around for a while by the 1970s, no act was quite as formative in its evolution as Yellow Magic Orchestra. Also known as YMO, the underappreciated trio of bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Haruomi Hosono, drummer/lead vocalist Yukihiro Takahashi, and keyboardist/vocalist Ryuichi Sakamoto was foundational in the development of techno and hip-hop, and practically invented synthpop. Their relevance is as overt as having been remixed and sampled by the likes of Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, and Jennifer Lopez, but their ingenuity in electronic music has shaped figures from Duran Duran to David Byrne to Arca.

While becoming household names in Japan, YMO was simultaneously the first Japanese group to find success overseas. They defied caricatures of Japanese music –– a sound that had become increasingly imitative of Western styles by the 1970s –– by defining a particularly Japanese voice of electronic innovation that ended up transcending its borders. Perhaps in another zeitgeist their trailblazing innovation would have made them a quintessential boy band, but comprehensively influencing music as we know it and ushering in “the age of the computer programmer as rock star” makes them as significant. Even if eventually collapsing under internal strife and the weight of the trio’s burgeoning solo careers, YMO’s brief but lush discography is one of cutting-edge singularity.

Yellow Magic Orchestra (1978)

With the opening seconds of “コンピューター・ゲーム "サーカスのテーマ" (Computer Game "Theme From the Circus"),” the monumental force of YMO as a fully-fledged band was unleashed upon the world. Its glitchy electronic notes swarm and gush, repeating over slide whistle-esque tones and beats that would belong everywhere from a Pokémon soundtrack to a Kraftwerk record — eventually inspiring both. Yellow Magic Orchestra, and the band as a unit, was formed as a satire of Western Orientalism towards Japan that’s evident in these reinterpreted stereotypical trills of “Computer Game” and throughout the record. YMO encases their own culture in a glittery resin and ships it back across the world — the ephemeral kitsch of “中国女 (La Femme Chinoise)” is an infectious pop tune, but one with a political tilt only three nerdy programmers could pull off so pointedly: “She is the mistress / the scent of the orient.”

Nowhere is this pointed critique of Orientalism as evident as in their debut single and the album’s most significant track, “ファイアー・クラッカー (Fire Cracker).” A cover of Martin Denny’s 1959 exotica song “Firecracker,” the trio reinterpret racist notions of Japaneseness through invented electronic sounds. By combining equipment like the Roland MC-8 microcomposer — the earliest popular music album to do so — and Yamaha drums with synthesizers, YMO concocted some of the first synthpop textures. The result is a melange of production decades ahead of its time and themes deeply rooted in 1978 Japan. “Fire Cracker” itself even charted on the Billboard R&B chart (even from their first release, YMO’s influence extended far beyond what was apparent — their recordings were foundational for hip-hop, being sampled everywhere in the Bronx following the album’s release), while moments like “東 風 (Tong Poo)”’s disco bass has had a far-flung influence on video game music and sound as if they were released yesterday. Yellow Magic Orchestra was timeless in 1978 – and will be timeless for decades to come.

Recommended Tracks: “ファイアー・クラッカー (Fire Cracker),” “東 風 (Tong Poo),” “マッド・ピエロ (Mad Pierrot)”

Solid State Survivor (1979)

With Solid State Survivor, YMO solidified themselves as electronica provocateurs and as some of the most innovative musicians around. Their most commercially successful album, Solid State Survivor is widely regarded as their best work for being future-forward in its unapologetic synthpop. It was much like their debut, albeit with the confidence of now-nationally famous superstars – by 1979, YMO was the biggest band in Japan, often compared to the Beatles as teenage heartthrobs and critical darlings (literally embodying them, YMO covers “Day Tripper” here). The utopian synthpop anthem “Behind the Mask” saw the trio directly influence the international music canon too, with its later Michael Jackson cover validating the group as worthy of mainstream attention.

Much like Yellow Magic Orchestra, Solid State Survivor was a prideful statement of Japanese culture. By the late 1970s, Japan’s international mystique was reduced to a cyper-futurist enterprise of innovative technology, intertwining it with the Western exoticism YMO satirized in their debut. Here, they revel in their nation’s microchip manufacturing prowess, emblazoning the solid state drive as their sophom*ore record’s title while remaining on the cutting edge of the technology Japan was frequently reduced to. By incorporating devices like Pollard Syndrum electronic drums and the Moog III-C, YMO grandfathered techno and was the first to use the term in the intro track “Technopolis.” With glittering synths and towering chords flooding its tracklist – all meticulously arranged and composed from their roomful of the newest tech – Solid State Survivor stands as a bastion of the limitless creativity of the new age of computers.

Recommended Tracks: “Rydeen,” “Technopolis,” “Behind the Mask,” “Solid State Survivor”

×∞ Multiplies (1980)

×∞ Multiplies stands out in YMO’s discography through its sheer outlandishness. The mini-album/EP was even more politically engaged than their previous work, interspersing five comedy sketches performed by the Snakeman Show throughout the record. The sketches mock Western racism towards Japanese people, impersonating business interactions between bigoted Westerners and caricatures of Japanese businessmen. YMO’s righteous anger is personified, particularly following an international tour where they constantly faced anti-Asian racism and xenophobia. Much like their music itself, the parody of ×∞ Multiplies is deeply academic and designed to be extremely uncomfortable.

The music of ×∞ Multiplies continued to show YMO’s innovative fervor. They investigate electronic ska in “Multiplies” and feature grooves now-recognizable as funky house in “Tighten Up,” incorporating each through a distinct new wave sound. The EP is bizarre in its content and composition, but through this strangeness YMO remained a singular force in electronic innovation. Their nuance in pulling off two separate interpretations of Archie Bell & The Drells’ “Tighten Up,” where they demonstrate their technical knowledge but intentionally perform everything “incorrectly,” as if to caricaturize the Western perception of Japanese ineptitude, takes cultural savvy. ×∞ Multiplies may not be the most straightforward or even pleasant listen, but it’s a feat of intertwining art and commentary, all while proving YMO’s unparalleled creativity.

Recommended Tracks: “Tighten Up (Japanese Gentlemen Stand Up Please!),” “Multiplies”

BGM (1981)

It’s with BGM, YMO’s third official album, that their joy of electronica became fully realized. Unlike the pessimism of Detroit and bleakness of the Düsseldorf scenes, YMO revels in whimsy and fun, crafting computer textures as a weaver’s hands glide over a loom. The title BGM reflects the humor so integral to their ideology and music — its initial for “background music” is a paradox for the noisiness and activity that consumes the record.

Like their previous releases, BGM explores the possibilities of the most advanced and complex computing available at the time — although now enabled with a post-Solid State Survivor success budget. With an equipment budget of ¥51,250,000, or over $700,000 today, YMO explored the minutiae and complexity of software in ways still trailblazing today, particularly as the first group to record with the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer after its release that same year, popularizing its now ubiquity. Their full list of gear was affectionately grocery-listed on the back of the LP — functionally a customs declaration for touring, but artistically a love letter to the machines that make their music. “Tools are not just objects,” according to Sakamoto; their synthesizers and computers were animated in a sense of interrelated beings, part of the YMO organism.

It’s this affection that makes BGM so iridescent. While not as critically or commercially successful as Solid State Survivor, the record’s impact on music and independent sonic merit are remarkable. From the novel drum programming in “ユーティー (U•T),” to pioneering synthwave in “マス (Mass),” to early electronic rap experimentation in “ラップ現象 (Rap Phenomena),” /BGM/ casts a long shadow on the industry, past and present. Even the two minute-long opening note of ambient closer “来たるべきもの (Loom)” preceded the iconic THX “Deep Note” — it’s as if the trio was checking off a list of art forms to progenerate.

Recommended Tracks: “キュー (Cue),” “千のナイフ (1000 Knives),” “来たるべきもの (Loom)”

Technodelic (1981)

Technodelic, coming a mere 9 months after BGM, was an even deeper venture into the bizarre for YMO. The record’s foundation was laid by a new, and even more exclusive, machine — a LMD-649 digital sampler custom built for the group by a Toshiba engineer. Endless pioneers, Technodelic was the first released album to primarily feature samples and loops, a technique that has spawned countless genres from plunderphonics to hyperpop and is now a fundamental part of the entire industry.

Their joy of creating is less evident sonically here, but still omnipresent with the richness and complexity of their process of making. The trio’s ethos of machines as co-authors is what lead to such a bizarre record; the fusion of samples with vocals through a two-way radio, Prophet-5 synthesizers, and their favorite Roland TR-808 leads to even more unconventional sounds than previously imagined. Gamelan, factory noises, and Indonesian kecak chanting, employed with completely novel techniques, are employed with an intentionality that makes Technodelic so singular. As YMO matured, the record also marked a turning point and the end of a remarkable 5-album run.

Recommended Tracks: “新舞踊 (Neue Tanz),” “灯 (Light in Darkness),” “後奏 (Epilogue)”

Naughty Boys (1983)

By 1983, tensions within YMO were high. Hosono and Sakamoto practically hated each other, and Takahashi had to serve as a mediator at all points in the creative and professional process. Whether as a result of Naughty Boys coming after a year break for the trio to explore their solo careers — during which Sakamoto starred in and composed the score for “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” winning him a BAFTA Award — or due to growing creative differences, YMO only stayed together at the begging of their record label, Alfa.

And Alfa’s begging paid off. Naughty Boys topped the Oricon charts (Japan’s Billboard), the last time for the group, and became a sensation within Japan. Their experimental musings are largely gone, replaced with unabashed pop music that, according to Sakamoto, was essentially following the “music industry manual.” Naughty Boys was YMO selling out to the masses of sorts, but not selling out their artistry. While not at the vanguard of electronic music quite like BGM or Technodelic, Naughty Boys perfected pop with the immaculate intricacy present in all of their work. The gleeful vocal melodies and glitzy synths of lead single “君に、胸キュン。浮気なヴァカンス (Kimi ni Mune Kyun)” are less innovative than they are comfortable, but still demonstrate the trademark wackiness and technical expertise of YMO. Their Japaneseness is more legible here, too, with the majority of the tracks being sung in Japanese and largely transcending their earlier critical framework of exotica from the Oriental perspective. Instead, Naughty Boys is unapologetically Japanese, expanding what J-pop could be.

Recommended Tracks: “君に、胸キュン。浮気なヴァカンス (Kimi ni Mune Kyun),” “Focus,” “邂逅 (Kai-Koh)”

Service (1983)

In Service, however, tensions were manifest. Coming less than seven months after Naughty Boys, the record was more of an obligation after its predecessor’s commercial success than an intentional project. YMO wanted to end their career as a group after Naughty Boys, and the success of their solo careers was enough to justify disbanding.

Much like ×∞ Multiplies, Service incorporates comedy sketches, this time performed by Super Eccentric Theater, or S.E.T., although with a much heavier hand. The seven sketches, doubling the album’s length, are less pointed than in ×∞ Multiplies and function to make the overall listen clunky instead of a critical perspective. The music itself is still well-produced and technologically advanced synthpop à la many YMO classics, but it’s evident that their hearts weren’t quite in it anymore. Other than the sublime “Perspective” embodying postmodern defeatism (“In the gleam of a brilliant twilight / I see people torn apart from each other”) and to a lesser extent the new wave funk of “以心電信 (You’ve Got to Help Yourself),” Service fades away in the scope of their more progressive work. After a world tour, Service marked the end of Yellow Magic Orchestra as a full-time group.

Recommended tracks: “以心電信 (You’ve Got to Help Yourself),” “Perspective”

Technodon (1993)

As a one-off reunion album, released under the name YMO as Yellow Magic Orchestra was owned by their former label Alfa, Technodon has been largely written out of the band’s history. It’s easy to understand why — the record’s ambient techno and IDM leanings are a far cry from the technopop fantasies of their most prolific work. But considering the breakneck pace they innovated in their short seven years as an official band, it’s no wonder that their work ten years later is radically different.

YMO are more interested in exploring the minutiae of sound than eclectic electronic compositions on Technodon. Synths warble with anatomical accuracy on “Hi-Tech Hippies”; haunting tones crescendo and crash in “Nostalgia”; otherworldly pockets of samples and vocals fight for space on “Waterford.” Their interests in world music are present throughout their percussion and yields a record more focused on texture than melody.

But by 1993, Technodon was a small moment in the ever-evolving careers of YMO’s members. During their hiatus and since, Sakamoto became an internationally-renowned and Grammy-winning film scorer and continued releasing music on the forefront `of electronic and ambient; Hosorno transcended into the canon of Japanese solo acts through his countless albums; and Takahashi continued collaborating with other artists as one of the most influential drummers in Japan. To a conscientious listener, practically all electronic, ambient, and hip-hop music has remnants of Yellow Magic Orchestra — few contemporary releases haven’t been touched by these three nerdy programmers on the vanguard of music.

Recommended tracks: “Nanga Def?” “Hi-Tech Hippies,” “Nostalgia”

Discography: Yellow Magic Orchestra — tastemakers (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Delena Feil

Last Updated:

Views: 5669

Rating: 4.4 / 5 (45 voted)

Reviews: 92% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Delena Feil

Birthday: 1998-08-29

Address: 747 Lubowitz Run, Sidmouth, HI 90646-5543

Phone: +99513241752844

Job: Design Supervisor

Hobby: Digital arts, Lacemaking, Air sports, Running, Scouting, Shooting, Puzzles

Introduction: My name is Delena Feil, I am a clean, splendid, calm, fancy, jolly, bright, faithful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.