Okay, been leading up to this one for some time.
Believe it or not, I first heard about Morning Musume through Swifty. It was in a fanfic he was doing, where members of the group, apparently a set of young girls, were being brutally murdered for some reason. (Swifty prefers the much more prosaic SPEED to MM; a choice I can't understand). No real mention was made of the group's music, but the alliterative name intrigued me, and a few months later I downloaded some of their tracks on a whim, mostly their early singles.
I was...taken by surprise, to say the least, and not at all sure how to deal with the music I was listening to. It was commercial pop - but beyond that, there was something excessively commercial about it, to the extent where I was compelled to think 'WTF?'. I kept listening though, in a kind of intoxicated disbelief. The music's nigh-psychotic energy overwhelmed me. It felt as though the songs had been written with precise care to be as hooky as possible, but MoMusu weren't just singing those hooks, they were devouring them, wringing them for all they were worth, like watermelons chomped down to the rind. It didn't feel commercial anymore, it felt - in some inexplicable way - as avant-garde as death metal or a noise band.
I downloaded more. I downloaded some of the videos, and was blown away by the insanity I was witnessing. I couldn't recognize anyone; the girls' faces seemed to change from video to video - I was in over my head. I didn't understand that Morning Musume was just one facet of the multi-angled corporate behemoth known as Hello! Project, and that there were at least like 20 other groups involved in this umbrella (Petit Moni, Minimoni, Melon Kinenbi, etc. etc. etc.) whose members had a habit of 'shuffling' and changing, with new subgroups coming into existence all the time. If there was ever a group in need of the simplifying hygiene of a box set it'd be H!P, except that to even get just the singles would probably take about ten discs (okay, probably more...LOTS more). The point is that this is a LOT of music, most of it singles-based: I don't think I've ever listened to an H!P album straight through (except maybe the best of MoMusu collections).
Over the years I've become a lot more cognizant of the Hello! Project 'universe', although I'm nowhere near 'in it' to the extent of the truly hardcore. H!P is like chess or horseriding. Once you get in past a certain depth, you discover there are more levels than you initially dreamed possible, and then...well, you don't come out. I'd say by the time you know every past and present member's background, nickname, personal preferences, and ambiguous layers of feeling towards the other members, you're in over your head (this is like fifty girls). For me, I always drew the line at watching the Hello! Morning show (something like 300 episodes...yeah) and um...paying.Yes, that's right, I haven't actually bought ANY H!P merchandise or CDs. I'm a lightweight, I know. But I still have far, far too much of this music. I still can't tell one girl's voice from the other. It might as well all be the same group to me - I can usually pick out Goto (okay, Gocchin for anyone 'true' reading this - the whole thing is starting to remind me of the authenticity battles over Norwegian Black Metal); that's about it.
Around 2000, Morning Musume were huge - everyone in Japan was paying attention, taken by surprise at the level of flashy, exuberant, delirious insanity. Okay, I just used like three redundant modifiers, but this is what MoMusu, at its best, does: there's just TOO MUCH happening, too many girls screaming, too many hooks, too many incidental sounds and little song-flashes for everything to be understood, so that you're shocked into a state of absorptive, trance-like listening, or - more likely - jumping around the room.
Not surprisingly, it was soon taken over by 'the faithful' - aka, fans, aka, dirty old men. These days in Japan, anything MoMusu or H!P is desperately uncool - saying you're a fan in public is akin to saying something like "I'm a pedophile." You can't even really use irony as an excuse. Give it another ten years and I'm sure the good stuff will get 'rediscovered' - anything 'natsukashii' is a safe bet. Or not.
And although listening to vast quantities of H!P material in a short period of time can produce a 'blurring' effect and the songs can begin to sound generic once you're past the initial shock, there's actually a substantial variety to the material: it veers from straight-up pop to disco to funk to R&B to rap to rock to traditional Japanese music to bizarre (and that's saying something) novelties. A collection of the most disparate tracks would be alienating indeed: it'd be hard to imagine something like the transition from the punked-up big-band brattiness of "Mr. Moonlight" to the dirgelike, chiming, traditional "Shiawase Kyouruu Ondo."
This is not to say that there's 'something for everyone.' If you don't like this sort of thing to begin with, well...if you can't get into their most accessible stuff, the more dense material probably won't be for you. So, I've drawn up a list, a sort of 'best-of' or at least a fairly representative sampling for the casual listener. The sheer prolificness of this music means that at least 60% is going to be unremarkable, and only maybe 20% suitable for completely 'objective' listening, i.e. anyone new to the group or genre. But these songs, I feel, stand on their own. Ideally, you should be able to appreciate them as complete novelties, without having to know anyone's names or watch the videos or understand the lyrics (although all three help, of course).
I had to wade through a lot of chaff to arrive at this list. If you're not in the know, just check this stuff out and be thankful you've never had to listen to 'Chu! Natsu Party', or anything by Viyuuden. Anyway, this is sequenced like a mix-tape, so if you get all these songs and listen in order you should have some idea of the various directions Hello! Project goes in. Check it out, and thank me in the comments section. (most of these songs, especially the shuffles and sub-group ones, can be downloaded from the ever-helpful Channel-Ai blog, just run a search on Hello! Project...or, if you want to download all MoMusu's albums in strict chronological fashion, go here)
1.Morning Musume - LOVE MACHINE - May be the quintessential MM song. Every requisite element is here: the funky disco beat, the "too many girls in the song" vocal overload, the little interjections ('Woo, woo!'), the Engrish, the backing tracks, the crazy over-the-top excitement...and most of all, the moronic, repetitive, and indescribably beautiful and exciting 'Wow wow wow wow' chorus. Silly, catchy, and joyous, especially when seen in conjunction with the video.
2. Morning Musume - Morning Coffee - MoMusu's second single, from back in the day. They weren't flashy or idolized or choreographed yet, they were just a bunch of rejects from a TV show audition trying to hawk their single. This is a lovely midtempo ballad, full of gentle sighs and wistfulness. It's not 'nuts' like the later stuff. Everyone's young and unadorned. The really early stuff like this and 'Ai no Tane' is just pure pop, suitable for anyone. Uncharacteristic (by now) but still essential.
3. Salt 5 - GET UP! Rapper - Middle Eastern guitar-shredding girlpop rap. Mr. Bungle, anyone?
4. Aa! - First Kiss - For a bunch of young teenage girls, this is a surprisingly sophisticated urban/R&B song. It's not even a genre I usually enjoy, but this song is fantastic. Excellent singing, a memorable arrangement, and a hint of nostalgic sadness. H!P doesn't get much more sophisticated than this.
5. Morning Musume Sakuragume - Sakura Mankai - ...okay, except on this. This is, as far as I'm concerned, the most BEAUTIFUL song H!P have yet done. Tsunku busts out the Japanese percussion and strings for this one, and the song's extended length (six and a half minutes, rare for H!P) allows it to build again and again to a genuinely moving (but not at all melodramatic) chorus. I felt like crying. The irony's off for this one, serious.
6. Morning Musume - THE PEACE - "PEACE-UH!" The greatest video ever, besides Love Machine. In the song itself, the uniform, proto-fascist elements of Morning Musume come to the fore, with militaristic chants and preteen squealing in equal measure. The video contains rows of light-up toilets, confessions of passion, and everyone in a sailor suit giving a Hitler-nod to an MM flag before busting out the disco ball. Another quintessential MM mindfuck.
7. Morning Musume - YES! Pocky Girls - It's a commercial for Pocky candy. Yes, and it's also got a jump-out-of-your-seat energetic chorus, great verses, and a surprisingly addictive melody. The shameless commercialism upsets your indie sensibilities; the melody and joy keep you listening. This makes it 'difficult listening', counterintuitive and postmodern. Or something.
8. Berryz Koubou - Piriri to Yukou - Berryz Koubou are the next Morning Musume, a group of talented young girls with an impressive list of singles. This is one of the best, with its Okinawan guitar, catchy beat, and addictive vocals. Pretty stripped down otherwise, but ridiculously catchy with tremendous bounce. It contains a "Wow wow wow yeah yeah yeah" part. That's all you need to know.
9. Aya Matsuura - DOKI DOKI! Love Mail - Had to have at least one of the solo artists to round things out. I can't justify this selection as much though; since everyone has their favorite soloist and it's really a matter of choice. I'm partial to Ayaya, but Goto's great too, and we can't forget Mikitty. Anyway, this is a terrific pop song with a chorus full of continuously-escalating excitement building to a great climax. And, uh, that description makes it sound like an orgasm instead of a song, which is much to the point.
10. Hello! Project All Stars - ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL! - And to close things out...they shoved everyone into one song. It's fifty teenage girls singing at the same time. Do I even need to describe it more? Okay, there's multipart harmonies and shit, and it's upbeat as fuck. Are you even listening? Fifty teenage girls. Singing at the same time. Get it!
Obviously anyone familiar with the discography will probably dispute some of my choices, but what the hell. If you've got any alternative lists or choices, anything you think the novice should hear, don't be shy in mentioning them. As long as it's not anything by W.