I'm usually the guy people go to when they want to get into Japanese music past what one hears in anime openings, so I figured why not start sharing some stuff that might give people a bit of a taste?
This list is not in any way complete, and my taste is heavily biased towards female soloists in any genre, but here are 5 songs from great, influential artists that have stood the test of time - all essentially mainstays of cover albums. I'll make new posts like this every now and then, because ultimately there are hundreds of acts worth exposing to a western audience and I picked a few good ones essentially randomly for this post. These are not my favorite acts or favorite songs, but classics that I'd expect most Japanese people to know.
I'd love if you shared your comments in the replies!
#1 - Matsutoya Yumi (松任谷由実) - Haru yo, Koi (春よ、 来い)
Her thin, nasal voice might need some getting used to, it's certainly an acquired taste, but Matsutoya is an acclaimed singer-songwriter with well over 4 decades of hit singles and legendary albums under her belt. Haru yo, Koi is a popular song from 1994 in which she longs for spring to come. Today, the song is among those most covered by other artists. While she is ultimately a Pop singer, most of her music is somewhat rooted in various Folk styles. This is the case for many famous Japanese singers from the 60s and 70s in particular. Unfortunately, much of her music is hard to find on streaming platforms like youtube, but she is well worth your time.
#2 - Ann Lewis (アン・ルイス) - Roppongi Suicide
If you like your music heavier and more Americanized, Ann Lewis is the one to go for. Being half-American, she is fluent in English and recorded some of her songs in both an English and a Japanese version. This is the English version of her signature song 六本木心中. I personally prefer the Japanese version because it has much better lyrics, but otherwise its the same song. It's not an overstatement to call Lewis the queen of Japanese rock, and it's impossible to image the 80s music scene without her. Her music wasn't incredibly heavy, but it had all the passion and energy one would expect from a Rock legend. Today, she lives in the US and works as an interior designer among other things.
#3 - Inagaki Junichi (稲垣潤一) - Dramatic Rain (ドラマティックレイン)
Inagaki rose to fame as an attractive young singer with a smooth voice in the early 80s, but has since established himself as a respectable artist with a library of emotional and sensual songs. Some of his boyish charm still shines through in performances now. Recently, he has released a string of cover albums featuring a large variety of famous female singers that are well worth a listen.
#4 - Ishikawa Sayuri (石川さゆり) - Amagi Goe (天城越え)
It would be blasphemous to speak of Japanese classics without including any Enka. Enka is a genre that combines the approachable nature of Pop music with traditional Japanese aesthetics, themes and instruments. Usually performed by specifically trained vocalists wearing a kimono, Enka songs tend to deal with strong emotions, nature, of Japan itself, often in a heavily romanticized manner. Ishikawa Sayuri is one of the greats of the genre, and Amagi Goe one of her most popular songs. You can hear both the distinctive vocal style of the genre, with a heavy vibrato and forceful enunciation, as well as a rather typical arrangement in this performance. The genre has recently become more open to experiments, with some famous Enka singers working with metal guitarists or electronic musicians, but is often criticized for being stale and just a bit same-y.
#5 - X Japan - Kurenai (紅)
X Japan basically invented a genre in the late 80s and early 90s before being ripped apart by tragedy after tragedy, including the death of their lead guitarist. Their energetic mix of speed metal, power metal and punk later gave rise to a more symphonic, somewhat ballad-centric sound, and the song I chose to highlight was from that transitory period, featuring a good mix of both styles. In discussions of great Japanese rock and metal albums, their albums BLUE BLOOD and Jealousy are never far. Since getting back together in 2008, they have been consistently touring the world and selling out venues like Madison Square Garden, finally receiving some of the international attention they deserve. A documentary film about them was recently released for the international market, and I strongly recommend watching it. Some famous rock musicians like Marilyn Manson and Gene Simmons were interviewed for it, the latter saying they would be the biggest band in the world if they were American.
Anyways, I hope I was able to introduce some of you to some pretty great musician you've probably never heard before!