10 Japanese Album Covers That Will Rock Your World

Chosen by Syn Tokyo's Alan Mawdsley

I have been into records for as long as I can remember. London is pretty good for records, but Japan is another level! In my 10 years here it has been an incredible journey of discovery exploring the world of Japanese music; with Japan being the second biggest market for recorded music after the U.S., there's an extraordinary amount of records recorded here, and Japanese records have an additional bonus called the Obi, which is a usually paper hoop with information and additional artwork on. For this selection I have chosen 10 albums whose artwork really struck a chord with me, and as a bonus, the music is pretty spectacular too.

The Mystery Kindaichi Band
The Adventure of Kohsuke Kindaichi (1977)

This was the first "grail" for me when I first started to dig for Japanese records many years ago. In-the-know collectors were on the hunt for this album and it was the cover artwork that jumped out at me when I first discovered its existence. The moody background of dark clouds punctuated with lightning bolts, and who was this mysterious devil/Dracula type character adorned with a red rose and skull cufflinks playing the flute?

When I eventually managed to secure a copy, the music contained within didn't disappoint—a glorious mix of sophisticated jazz funk grooves with a tasteful disco edge, featuring the classic '70s instruments of the time such as Fender Rhodes electric piano, Clavinet, Moog synthesizer, mixed with Shakuhachi, Shamisen, Koto and Tsuzumi and female scat vocals, wah wah guitar and snaking basslines—the funk level is set high on this one! Composed by Kentaro Haneda and released in 1977 on King Records, the album was an imaginary soundtrack for a series of detective novels by author Seishi Yokomizo that were very popular at the time.

The players included Haneda on keyboards (check the killer Fender Rhodes solo on Temari, song of the devil), Hideo Yamaki on drums, Hideaki Takebe on bass, Kimio Mizutani on guitar and Corporation Three providing the vocals. Bootlegged, sampled, released as edits and reissued several times, this is one of the top '70s jazz funk disco rare groove albums from here in Japan and an amazing listen all the way through.

Seiji Yokoyama
Tomb of Dracula (1980)

During the boom in the '80s here in Japan there were a lot of anime soundtracks released. Several of these contain some great music with a large number of the good ones released by Columbia Records, so over the years I picked up quite a few, and had at this point gone through most and rarely came across any I hadn't checked out before. One day after visiting my then-girlfriend, now-wife Emi, who had an apartment at the time in Koenji, I stopped off at the now-closed Rare records and in the anime section I pulled this out.

Like an oasis in the driest desert, this album—stashed away in the masses of unwanted and unloved Yamato soundtrack albums—shone through with the striking image of an anime Dracula set in bold red, with blood dripping down on the Obi and the moonlit castle in the background. I had a feeling this was going to be a good one.

A baroque-inspired theme, the opening track starts off with the main motif played on harpsichord and sets the mood perfectly for what's to come. From brilliantly orchestrated tracks that feature strings and harpsichord to sleazy groovy jazz funk with flute and some incredible echoing synth action, this is one of the best anime soundtrack albums ever released. Composed by Seiji Yokoyama and played by the Transylvanian Baroque Ensemble, this was the soundtrack to a one-off TV special based on the U.S. horror comic book series. I guess the movie wasn't well received at the time, so they only released a short run of the album, making it one of the hardest-to-find Columbia Records anime records.

Akira Miyazawa & Soul Leon
Karajishi Botan (1969)

I discovered this album a few years ago in a great little tucked-away spot in the Jimbocho district, nestling in a bunch of average J-pop/rock albums. The cover art is a fantastic psychedelic collage featuring an image of the legendary actor Ken Takakura, with the sun, waves, roses and Kanji Script. Released in 1969, the music is also a fantastic psychedelic collage of late '60s beat-heavy grooves and Japanese melodies featuring sax, flute, vibraphone, sweeping strings and fuzz guitar. Composed by Flutist Akira Miyazawa and based on the popular Yakuza action movie Shôwa zankyô-den: Karajishi Botan starring Ken Takakura. No reissues or even bootlegs yet as this is a pretty difficult album to come across. I imagine not many copies were released at the time, which is a shame as it's a great album.

Jimmy Takeuchi & The Exciters
Drum Drum Drum: Jimmy Takeuchi vs Japanese Folk Music (1969)

Jimmy Takeuchi was a legendary Japanese drummer who played with Nobuo Hara's Sharps & Flats, the Rhythm Aces, and many more before going solo and forming Jimmy Takeuchi and the Exciters. In the late '60s going into the '70s with the Group Sound boom, Jimmy signed a deal with Toshiba Records to record albums of drum-heavy cover versions of popular songs, and so the Drum Drum Drum series was born. 

I have about 30 of these albums, and there may still be more that I haven't found yet ... but this is my favorite. With another fantastic psychedelic cover with a striking choice of colors, including a pink Obi with green text, this was very different from most of the other Drum Drum Drum series that either featured a sexy "cheesecake" cover or Jimmy himself at the kit.

I feel the artwork is a great indication of what musical delights are on this record, where Minyou (Japanese traditional folk songs) are given a lysergic and funky '70s-style treatment, with another fantastic collision of Eastern and Western sensibilities.

Piston Horiuchi
Enchanted Drumming (1979)

From my love of sampling over the years, I have picked up records with solo drum sections (aka, drum breaks), which led me to discover and explore drum tuition records and have a great selection of these from different corners of the globe, including a couple from over here in Japan from Jimmy Takeuchi and Takeshi Inomata. So I was pretty stoked when I came across this album tucked away in a now-closed great little spot in Fuchu, western Tokyo.

With its black-and-white image of Piston himself sitting at a pretty impressive kit, adorned in a tux and bow tie, staring contemplatively into the distance, you know this guy means business! There are more great images on the back of the sleeve, with shots of Piston laying down the heat on the kit with some high-tech pre-Photoshop effects of him, stick in hand.

Released in 1979 on the tiny Phoenix Records, this may have been a one-off release, as I haven't ever seen anything else on this label. With nine lessons, including 8 Beat, Shuffle Rhythm and March, Piston lays down some funky drumming with occasional piano accompaniment by Keizon Negi.

Harry Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band
Paraiso (1978)

Haruomi "Harry" Hosono is one of my favorite Japanese artists. This is the album of his that I like the most and another great example of where the artwork gives a good indication of what the music is like. A playful collage with a tropical feel, with a young Hosono rocking an impressive gold jacket on the front. Released in 1978, this was his fourth solo album and the first outing of the Yellow Magic Band, who went on to become the Yellow Magic Orchestra.

With Shigeru Suzuki on guitar and Ryuichi Sakamoto on keys and synthesizers, which were used to brilliant effect on this record and were a precursor to what was to come in their later careers. The laid-back feel-good tropical vibes on this album make it one to always come back to, and if I could take only one LP onto a desert island this would be it, for sure.

Tokihiko Morishita & Shigeru Mizuki
Youkai Gensou

I came across this record while searching through the many boxes stacked high in the tiny and very cramped Time Machine records in Chofu, a suburb of western Tokyo, which was the first place I lived in Japan. This album was a collaboration between pianist, synthesist and composer Tokihiko Morishita and manga artist Mizuki Shigeru and was based around the concept of Youkai, which are famous Japanese spirits. 

Each of the 10 tracks on the album is a musical interpretation of each of the Youkai, and the album comes with a booklet with illustrations and explanations of each of the Youkai. With a lineup of all the classic '70s analog synthesizers from Moog, Oberheim, Korg, Yamaha and Roland, this album is a wonderful exploration in electronic music and soundscapes mixed with Japanese spirituality, and the beautiful artwork is the icing on the cake. Also, the Obi here is pretty special and unique, being a metallic finish in magenta. I later discovered that Mizuki's home for 50 years was Chofu (there are statues throughout the city, including some from his series GeGeGe No Kitaro), so it was a nice touch finding this album in his hometown that I first called my home here.

Minoru Muraoka and New Dimension Group
Yuri Furi Suri (1972)

I think a lot of people outside of Japan would be more familiar with Muraoka's Bamboo album, which itself has an amazing iconic sleeve (and is also one of my favorite Japanese album covers), but I would have to choose this album between the two for the way it captures the essence and mood of this record. Living up to their name, the New Dimension Group open a doorway to another world on this record!

Released in 1972, with an instrumental lineup of traditional Japanese instruments such as Shakuhachi, Shamisen and Shinobu mixed with percussion, electric bass and organ, this album takes this combination and stretches any preconceived notion of how these combinations would sound.

With elements of free jazz, this album is a testament to the ingenuity and creativity of Muraoka and his group. It would have been an incredible experience to watch them perform it live.

Masami Kawahara Y Su Los Rumbelos
Latin Flash

I remember coming across this album in the Ochanomizu Station branch of Disk Union, the dazzling colors set against the yellow background. I love the design of this sleeve, with the playful image of the dancer striking a pose in her pretty awesome costume, the blue and red title font, and the white and sky-blue shade of the Obi.

As you can probably tell from the title, this is a Latin-themed album, a wonderful set of covers played by Masami Kawahara and the Los Rumbelos including Burt Bacharach's "Walk On By' and a killer version of James Brown's "I Got You"—a straight-up dance floor heater!

Masami Kawahara was a master percussionist and arranger who worked on some classic cult albums, including Reiko Ike's Kokotsu no Sekai, Monica Lassen & The Sounds' Woman and with the Exotic Sounds for the Ecstacy album. All of these are definitely worth checking out for their exotic, erotic percussion-led genius!

Mighty Salad Syndicate
Soul On! (1974)

And here's another superb album of covers also with a fantastic cover! S Okada provides a snazzy slice of artwork, with an almost graffiti/street art style—predating the Ultimate Breaks and Beats Series by a decade! 

With a lineup of the top jazz funk session crew of the '70s, including Akira Ishikawa and "Ponta" Murakami on drums, Isao Eto and Akira Okazawa on bass, and arranged by Jun Fukumachi, they play storming versions of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" and "Too High" and a slick take on Edwin Starr's "Funky Horse," which was also released as a 7-inch.

Released as part of the Quad sound boom of the '70s, where surround sound for four-speaker setups were able to be encoded on normal stereo vinyl records, I'm sure this album would sound pretty amazing in Quad surround sound!

Art of the Album is a regular feature looking at the craft of album-cover design. If you'd like to write for the series, or learn more about our Clio Music program, please get in touch.

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Alan Mawdsley
Alan Mawdsley is a music director at Syn Tokyo. A lover of records, analog synths, cats and sunshine, he has produced and mixed albums for Tony Allen, Roots Manuva and The Cinematic Orchestra and before departing the U.K. was part of the team who helped put together DJ Hero, part of the Guitar Hero series of games. Since joining Syn nearly nine years ago, he has helped out on a whole bunch of fantastic projects and is proud to be part of an amazing creative team led by fellow expat Nick Wood.

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