The 21st birthday of ‘Sweet 19 Blues’, the classic Namie Amuro album about the youthful idol singer – The Breakdown

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Released: July 20, 1996

The 1990s was the best period for Japanese music, in my opinion. The market skyrocketed with timeless releases, sales were at an all-time high, and the amount of up-and-coming musicians were inevitable as it was filled with prosperity. You had artists like Globe, Seiko Matsuda, B’z and Mr. Children who, for example, had claim some of the highest-selling releases that Japan had ever witnessed. But then, as 1995 came straight around the corner, young idol singer Namie Amuro started to play on the playground. 

She was originally part of a group named The Super Monkeys, but the lack of sales saw her moving away and building a career as a solo idol diva, releasing her first solo record, Dance Tracks Vol. 1 with acclaimed business label, Avex Trax. But even though that sold a bulk loads in the Japanese market, I don’t think there is any Japanese record in the 1990s that could ever beat the intoxicating blend of traditional and Western elements like Sweet 19 Blues did, Amuro-chan’s follow-up studio album.

I became a massive Amuro-chan fan around 2010, and because, like many fans, would often tend to listen to their newer catalogue rather than their previous work, I decided to throw many of her older records, like Sweet 19 Blues, right out the window without any chance of listening to them. Then, for some apparent reason, I decided to give it a chance, and after taking a few spins of the record last year, I personally believe Sweet 19 Blues still stands as her most emotional, well-rounded and timeless record since (fun fact, it was released on my birthday, so I guess it was meant to be *sigh* haha). And if anything, it’s probably my first-equal favourite record—only tied to her 2015 effort Genic.

Sweet 19 Blues invested into a wide range of genres that completely separated this from many other J-Pop records during it’s release; it’s primarily a dance record that riddles with the innocent J-Pop tinge, but it also dabs into Western elements like acid house beats, a couple jungle-influenced numbers, the tacky eurodance sound, a few jabs at hip-hop and R&B. But unlike many recent Namie records, Sweet 19 Blues hits with a huge bunch of interlude tracks. Opening with a 4-second “Watch Your Step!” spoken-word message, it then moves to a song called “Motion”, a shimmering instrumental that reigns gospel and synth elements. Then later on, we have a sombre orchestral composition titled “Ocean Way”, a cheesy hip-hop-meets-rap “Joy”, a 1940’s symphonic version to her single “Don’t Wanna Cry”, and chill-out jam “77”, and the nostalgic sounds of the album outro “…soon nineteen”. Ahhhhh, sweet, sweet 19 blues.

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Avex Trax (C) 1996.

But the party only starts after “Motion” with it’s answer track, “Let’s Do the Motion!”, which blends a retro new-jack-swing vibe with a punnet amount of rapping segments, banging English-spoken moments, and gospel realness that completely snatches my edges! It’s a bummer it didn’t get treated as a single, because this would have bloody WIPED the damn Oricon charts! The fascinating thing about Sweet 19 Blues is Amuro’s confidence in channeling particular Western elements and moulding it into a completely refreshing J-pop style that honestly blows many other acts out of the water. Take the songs “I Was a Fool” and “Present” for example, two mid-tempo jazz compositions you would never expect a youthful and innocent idol singer to even dare to try. But in success, Amuro-chan pulled it off.

The remixes to the pre-released singles were also a shocked to many of her fans in Japan too, considering the original versions were filled with J-Pop frills, only to be re-furbished by Mr. Komuro with a contemporary pop edge. “Don’t Wanna Cry” channels a Globe-esque sound that can be easily recognized from just a few opening beats, whereas “Chase the Chance” and “You’re My Sunshine” is a reminisce to the rise of Eurobeat sounds that took the Japanese scene by storm in the mid 1990s. Funnily enough, only the glittering title track is the only pure, understated J-Pop jam here. It’s quite mature yet very quintessential to the youthful idol image.

But for me, it’s the risk factor that Amuro-chan takes on some tracks that really brought me into loving this record. She has always been a front-runner of challenging styles of music that is completely outside her comfort zone, and the acid house recordings “Private”, “Rainy Dance” and “I’ll Jump” are no exceptions. To be quite honest, they are some of her best tracks to this very day. “Private”, out of the entire bunch, is my all-time favourite from her early career; the sultry jungle vibes stands out the most on here, with a bit of calypso traits thrown into it as well to convey an almost oriental-yet-tropical feel. “Rainy Dance”, filled with… well, rain stock sounds, is yet another appealing song that discusses how Amuro-chan thinks the rain won’t stop her from the littlest or biggest of things, whilst the up-tempo HI-NRG adapted “I’ll Jump” brings a whole new oomph to the record’s more subdued sound.

“Everybody wants see the sun
Everybody wants see the moon
we’re the motion
dangerous motion” — “Let’s Do the Motion” by Namie Amuro.

As a music enthusiast, particular with Japanese culture (well I like to think I am haha), I don’t think there is any record from the 1990s that screams fine quality and pristine representation of both traditional J-Pop and contemporary pop than Sweet 19 Blues does. To this very day, Sweet 19 Blues stands alone as one of the most well-rounded Japanese pop albums, and Amuro’s most defined as a youthful girl transitioning into a woman. From the feminine-yet-immature vocals to the dance-filled beats on every track, this is a record which every Japanese pop enthusiast must own. And when you look at her most recent work in comparison to this, you can see that Ms. Thang has definitely been on a magnificent journey.

For an idol singer to finally break that traditional idol image is nothing short of an understatement, because with Sweet 19 Blues, she changed the entire J-Pop game; Sweet 19 Blues was the best-selling record in Japanese history for a brief period—claiming up to more than 4 million units sold alone in Japan—, she gained nationwide and international attention, and, most of all, it remains her most respected amongst her fans. If anything, Sweet 19 Blues is a game-changing and nostalgic trip to memory lane that remains iconic to this day.

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