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Retrospective Music Genres: Northern Soul, Yacht Rock, City Pop

Lately, I've been listening to the neo-yacht rock duo Young Gun Silver Fox, which got me thinking about musical genres that have been rediscovered or redefined long after their creation. All three of the genres I'm writing about today have some roots in American soul music, which might be a testament to its lasting quality and influence worldwide.

Yacht Rock

Yacht rock is an interesting example, because it's a new term for an old group of musicians who were extremely successful in the 1970s, and have continued to be staples of American radio to the present day. The sometimes bizarre Yacht Rock Web series coined and popularized the term in the mid-2000s. Maybe the best way to define it is by looking at Michael McDonald's career and then drawing connections outwards, including to my favorite group in the genre, Steely Dan.

Yacht rock could sometimes be considered a subgenre of album-oriented rock, and for me I discovered it by listening to complete albums. For much of my life, that's how I've preferred to experience music: by listening to whole albums from start to finish, as they were intended.

The other two genres I'll write about here, though, have helped me find music that doesn't fit neatly into albums. These tracks often wasn't originally intended for consumption as LPs, but rather mixed in with others' work.

This yacht rock genre playlist was generated by YouTube.

Northern Soul

Defining northern soul is a perilous endeavor. The Wikipedia article on northern soul is probably smart to define it as a music and dance movement that started in northern England in the late 1960s, peaking in about a decade later. It was not, in itself, about producing new music, but rather about repurposing and repossessing American albums with the Motown sound, primarily made by African-American artists years earlier. The goal was to produce a certain kind of dance party, so it often wasn't the biggest Motown hits that were played. Instead, it might be tracks like Marvin Gaye's Love Starved Heart. There's still northern soul nights -- not only in the UK but even in Japan, where Japanese aficionados dress up like 1970s working-class Britons to dance to 1960s American music.

For me, I mainly appreciate northern soul not only as it has helped me learn more about my own country's musical heritage, but also for how it directed the development of the northern English music scene in the 1970s; it's hard to think that a brilliant soul revival group like Dexy's Midnight Runners would've been successful in a different climate, for instance. Many of the same people participated in the punk movement and the Mod Revival later on. I have to imagine northern soul was an influence on the early years one of my favorite songwriters, Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout, even as he sought levels of smooth studio production perfection more often seen in yacht rock.

It fascinates me, though, to think that a genre of music was defined by people in Manchester and Newcastle listening to old songs from Detroit. Then again, the north of England (and south of Scotland) have played an outsized role in the history of pop music for decades.

This northern soul genre playlist was generated by YouTube.

City Pop

Unlike yacht rock or northern soul, the term シティーポップ - "city pop" - was used contemporaneously. It's a specific kind of Japanese pop that flourished in the 1980s.

In the early 2010s, vaporwave musicians started sampling city pop for use in their songs. Michael Nesmith of the Monkees is a big vaporwave fan, although I'm not.

A few years later, Van Paugam, an American DJ who used to make vaporwave mixes, began creating city pop compilations on YouTube. In a recent interview, he said that "once I started digging up the samples I found that the original music had so much charisma and authenticity that they sounded better to me than the songs that sampled them."

He describes the genre beautifully in this YouTube compilation:

City Pop. The Lost Genre. Music built on the 1980's promise of a bright future, naive optimism, and glamorous lifestyles that would never last. It's not so much a genre as an amalgam of many other styles wrapped up in highly stylized commercial packaging of sugary synths, mystical melodies, laser sharp instrumentation, and catchy English chorus sections that both excite and confuse the unassuming listener. Memories flood your mind when you first hear it. Are they your memories? Who's memories are they? Why does it feel like you've heard these songs before?

Twenty-four hours a day, he streams city pop radio on YouTube.

So, for me, city pop is a genre defined by its compilers -- one DJ in particular. Just like northern soul, it's a collection of artists that have received new life through retrospective attention. In the 1980s, city pop was often heard while driving, in a private, enclosed space where it was curated by radio DJs. It makes sense that it would be rediscovered by Internet users; it's music meant for these private spaces just as northern soul is meant for dance halls.

YouTube constantly suggests Mariya Takeuchi's Plastic Love to me, no matter what it is I'm watching. I'm not the only one who has encountered this phenomenon; for some reason, this video occupies a special place in YouTube's recommendation engine. But I think it was that song that acted as a gateway for me into city pop; once I played it once, YouTube started recommending Van Paugam's mixes to me. Update 10/28: Someone has now recorded an English-language version of Plastic Love.

With sixty years or more of high-definition recorded music out there, we are in an evergreen age where there will always be someone young discovering something old for the first time, and communities don't need to be geographically linked or overwhelmingly popular to flourish. YouTube's algorithms might privilege new material, or they might just privilege material that's new to you. In the end, the difference between those two concepts is changing.

These genres sound as fresh today as ever. I think that's because music is bound to social context. Several years ago, David Byrne gave a TED talk about how architecture changes music -- music written for the acoustics of a punk club like CBGB will sound totally different at Carnegie Hall. What I listen to while browsing the Internet might be similar to what someone would listen to on a night drive in 1980s Japan; some of the same social undercurrents might be there in our thoughts. Our lives might have produced similar musical associations.

Ultimately, there's no accounting for taste. I'm curious to see what I find next.