The trio and producer Nakata break down their best-loved tunes.
Perfume has toured the U.S. twice, and taken an attention-grabbing turn on the stage at Coachella. While the American fan base is still developing, the release of an extensive greatest hits compilation, Perfume the Best: P Cubed (the group's eighth No. 1 album in its home territory), provides a great entry point for anyone who wants to discover why Perfume is such a massive success in Japan, where the Hiroshima-born, Tokyo-based trio has amassed 21 top 10 hits on the Billboard Japan Hot 100, including three chart-toppers. Perfume the Best: P Cubed features 52 tracks, including two new songs and their hit singles from 2005-2018.
The writer/producer behind Perfume's long run of hits is Yasutaka Nakata, a Japanese DJ and recording artist who has guided a-chan, NOCCHi and KASHIYUKA to the top of the charts. While compiling a critic's list of the top 20 Perfume songs, Billboard spoke to Nakata and the three women who have sold out stadiums and sold millions of records in Asia.
"When I started working with Perfume, I was already active with my own project, Capsule," Nakata tells Billboard. "But I had other types of music, different genres from Capsule like new wave and techno pop that I wanted to try outside of my own project. I think the Perfume team liked that and offered me (the chance) to produce Perfume."
Nakata says he has no particular modus operandi for composing songs. "Lyrics and music are inseparable for me. Music is the most important. I can't write a poem but I can write lyrics. Writing lyrics is like playing an instrument." His first composition for Perfume was a song called "Sweet Donuts," released as a single in August 2003. Nakata's music – and thus Perfume's – has matured over the years. "At the beginning, my lack of experience worked in a good way. I wasn't writing songs for other people, not even the listeners nor artists. I don't write songs hoping to reach the mass audience. But by working with Perfume, who is always thinking of ways to bring their music to everyone, my music reached a lot of people. I want to thank them for that. I don't think Perfume's music has ever been the center of mainstream J-Pop but at the same time, I wanted to make sure that mainstream audiences can accept their music. That hasn't changed over the years."
Nakata says he writes each song as if it were the group's debut single. "If someone learns about the artist for the first time with that particular song, that's their debut song. I think (the P-Cubed) album is a good reflection of memories for fans but for the first timers, it'll be a great introduction to Perfume. I've remastered the songs so it's perfect to listen to in 2019. Even if you put together the same playlist with previously released versions, it'll be completely different. Once you listen to this remastered version, you probably won't be able to go back."
In 2015, Pentatonix surprised their Japanese fans with a medley of Perfume songs, including "Spending All My Time," "Pick Me Up," "Chocolate Disco" and "Polyrhythm," paying homage to the trio's techno-pop sound. "I was amazed by their beautiful chorus work," says Nakata. "My chord progression is very Japanese so I think the songs must have been very difficult."
Here are Billboard's critic's picks of Perfume's top 20 songs, counting down from No. 20 to No. 1; chart positions listed after the song title (where applicable) are in reference to the Billboard Japan Hot 100.
20. "Nee" No. 8 (2010)
"I wonder if you're already awake. I start making today's plans for us…"
"Nee" (which translates as "Hey") was the third of five singles from the studio album JPN. The video has all the hallmarks of Perfume videos – fashionable clothes, dancing in high heels, catchy hooks and multiple CGI images of a-chan, NOCHHi and KASHIYUKA. In this case, the clothes are a tie-in to a commercial product. The outfits worn in the video were also for sale on Perfume's website and the song was used in a commercial for Natural Beauty Basic, a Tokyo-based fashion line.
19. "Challenger" (2019)
"…we're challengers who won't stop. Rev up the engine of your heart…"
The first track on the Perfume the Best: P Cubed album, this is both an old and a new song. Nakata explains: "I wrote this song 20 years ago. This is one of the songs that lead me to produce Perfume so this is like a self-cover. This is a new song that we recorded for this best album but as the 'oldest song' on the record, I thought it would be interesting to put this song at the beginning of the album. I purposely didn't arrange it to sound so modern. I wanted to make sure this song leads into 'Linear Motor Girl,' Perfume's major debut single. Theme of this song is 'Perfume begins.'"
On the day P Cubed was released, a-chan, NOCCHi and KASHIYUKA announced a contest, open to anyone, to create a video for "Challenger." The video posted above is one of the entries.
18. "Voice" No. 2 (2010)
"If love that gives me butterflies in my stomach can last like the sparkle of gems…"
"Voice," the second single from the JPN album, was heard in a commercial for Nissan automobiles. Listening to the three women singing "Voice" and watching them dance in the video, you have to believe there was some hand of fate that brought them together on this earth to make people happy.
17. "Let Me Know" No. 53 (2018)
"If you continue to be yourself, I'll keep waiting for you…"
The first promotional single sent to radio from Perfume's sixth studio album, Future Pop, "Let Me Know" has a music video evocative of the trio's journey, with three young actors portraying child versions of a-chan, NOCCHi and KASHIYUKA who meet their adult selves while traveling on a bus.
16. "Secret Secret" No. 49 (2008)
"Want to know your true color. I'm dazzled by your sparkle…"
"Secret Secret" is a track on Perfume's first album, Game, and was only released as a promotional single to radio. Like many of Perfume's songs, there is a commercial tie-in, in this instance a brand of ice cream, a product of the Morinaga Milk company. The video opens in the studio of a fictional TV network, PTV. The "P" is not for Perfume, but the Pino brand and the women are seen eating the pine-cone shaped chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bites.
15. "Magic of Love" No. 3 (2013)
"Paint an image of sweet love and make you fall in love with me…"
"Magic of Love" is the fourth and final single from Perfume's fourth studio album, Level3. Peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Japan Hot 100, it is the lowest-charting title of the four. The video is a brightly-colored, multi-patterned affair, featuring multiple duplicates of a-chan, KASHIYUKA and NOCCHi in a display of magical special effects to go along with the theme of magical love.
14. "Sweet Refrain" No. 2 (2013)
"There's so much waiting for me in the future. Emotions speed up. Heart spins like 12,000 times…"
"Sweet Refrain" is the theme song for the TV series Toshi Densetsu no Onna 2, which premiered in Japan on Oct. 11, 2013. The single was released that year and peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Japan Hot 100 but didn't show up on a Perfume album until Cosmic Explorer was released in 2016.
"I remember dancing to this song with Masami Nagasawa, who played the lead role in the drama," says a-chan. "MIKIKO choreographed the chorus having that in mind."
13. "Fake It"
"Even if the result is disappointing, there's no time to be blue…"
At a Perfume concert in Seattle, one Japanese fan started screaming when the trio sang "Fake It" and ran to the front of the crowd, jumping around as if he were listening to some heavy metal head-banging song. And in the pantheon of Perfume songs, "Fake It" is as banger as it gets.
"Fake It" is the B-side of the 2010 single "Nee." The song didn't appear on a Perfume album until the 2012 hits compilation Love the World.
12. "Future Pop" (2018)
"Light Wave Sky Flyway. Fulfill my wish, yes Future Pop."
"I think if I wrote this song a while ago, I would have written English lyrics," Nakata explains. "Spectacular and magnificent imagery was important for this song. It's like capturing (a Formula 1) race with high speed motion capture camera and watching it in slow motion." While the term "future pop" could apply to a lot of Perfume's songs, this video flash forwards to 2030 and also flashes back to scenes from past Perfume videos. "Future Pop" is the title track of the group's sixth studio album and was not released as a single.
11. "One Room Disco" No. 1 (2009)
"In this new place, will everything go smoothly?"
Springtime is a time of renewal, a time when students graduate, find work and sometimes move to a new location. That's the theme of "One Room Disco," Perfume's second No. 1 single on the Billboard Japan Hot 100. The video depicts the three vocalists dancing in their own one-room discos. "This is a song about starting a new life, getting your own place," says Nakata. "When you move to a new place, it takes a while until you know exactly where your shampoo is in the shower. That's what the song is about."
"It's tough to pick my favorite but 'One Room Disco' is a good one," a-chan tells Billboard. "For this one, we wore really expensive costumes. The material was so expensive, like nothing we had ever worn before. I think that was when we knew we had broken through."
10. "Glitter" No. 88 (2011)
"In a glittering dream, the two of us made a promise…"
The fifth and final single from Perfume's 2011 album JPN was "Spice," and while it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Japan Hot 100, many critics said they preferred the uptempo B-side, "Glitter" — but only the single version, which was generally declared superior to the mix that appeared on the album.
9. "Relax in the City" No. 2 (2015)
"Looking at the street far away, under the light filtering through foliage…"
Three decades after Frankie Goes to Hollywood told us to "Relax," the three members of Perfume suggested we "Relax in the City," although the video doesn't show them in an urban setting, but in a cube set down in an unpopulated seaside landscape. This is one half of a two-sided hit single, backed with "Pick Me Up." Both tracks are from the Cosmic Explorer album.
8. "Pick Me Up" No. 69 (2015) [B-side of "Relax in the City"]
"More and more our timing overlaps. I feel the destiny…"
Why did the band OK Go make a guest appearance in a Shinjuku shop window in the music video for "Pick Me Up"? Lead singer Damian Kulash simply explains it's because Perfume is "awesome." Also, the two groups collaborated on a 2016 single, "I Don't Understand You," heard as a theme song in the anime film Sushi Police.
7. "Love the World" No. 1 (2008)
"Looking for the first star, even if my hands tremble…"
"Love the World" was Perfume's first No. 1 on the Billboard Japan Hot 100. It was released in July 2008 and was featured on the trio's second studio album, Triangle, which was issued one year later. In 2012, "Love the World" was the title track of a greatest hits compilation.
The video for "Love the World" avoids the bright colors of other Perfume videos, settling for a black-and-white scheme. The song is a perfect example of why listeners who don't speak Japanese can still enjoy the group's technopop sound, as it's possible to sing along with words you don't know or understand.
6. "Star Train" No. 2 (2015)
"We're traveling through the distant universe on a star train…"
The three members of Perfume don't write their own songs, so "Star Train" isn't autobiographical, but Nakata's lyrics certainly seem biographical, as the trio has been riding the star train since their first top 10 hit in 2007. The emotion of their journey shines through the video for this song, even if you don't speak or understand Japanese. "Star Train" served as the theme song for the documentary film of the group's third world tour.
5. "Spring of Life" No. 1 (2012)
"Dance for joy, tears falling down, it's for the sudden miracle starting…"
"The song is a spring song but it's not like I really wanted to write a song about spring season," says Nakata. "I like the sound of words starting with 'sp' so 'Spending All My Time' is another one. That accent is very rare in the Japanese language." "Spring of Life" was the first single from the group's fourth studio album, Level3.
4. "Chocolate Disco" No. 24 (2014)
"I hope my feelings reach you with these sweets that have my heart in them."
"I had the melody first and the phrase 'chocolate disco' came to me. I was repeating that with the melody and the song ended," Nataka laughs. "I want to write songs that people can tell the song title even if you don't know the song very well."
"This is a great Valentine's Day song," a-chan acknowledges to Billboard. "Lyrics are basically all 'chocolate disco' and that's it. It was originally released as a double A-side single with the other song being the proper A-side but this song made it on the best album."
"We hear this song everywhere during the Valentine's Day season," KASHIYUKA adds. "We feel so blessed."
"Chocolate Disco" was sent to radio in 2007 but wasn't released as a commercial single. Looking at the 12-year-old video in 2019, it's a sweet flashback to Perfume: the early years.
3. "Flash" No. 2 (2016)
"…passing through the Flash at the highest lightning speed…"
Seven songs from the Cosmic Explorer album charted on the Billboard Japan Hot 100, including "Flash," the theme song for the live-action adaptation of the manga comic Chihayafuru. "Flash," which received radio airplay but was not released as a commercial single, gives the trio a chance to show off not just their dance moves but their kung fu skills. "There is a phrase in Japanese meaning 'in lightning speed' or 'quick as lightning,'" Nakata explains. "In the movie, people play a Japanese card game called Karuta where they take cards in lightning speed. I wanted to express that with this song."
Watch the video carefully and you'll see that the three women are doing their impressive choreography in high heels. "Dancing to this song in heels is very hard," NOCCHi tells Billboard. "The song takes up so much energy."
2. "Tokyo Girl" No. 2 (2017)
"This city's spinning like a merry-go-round…"
The producers of Tokyo Tarareba Musume, a 2017 live-action TV series based on the manga comic of the same name, considered it a coup to secure Perfume's "Tokyo Girl" as the program's theme song. The first single from the studio album Future Pop, "Tokyo Girl" boasts one of Perfume's most ambitious videos, showcasing the beautiful, light-filled sprawling city of Tokyo.
"There aren't too many song titles with city names in Japan," Nakata says. "There are tons of songs about New York. I was thinking about that when I wrote this song."
Every artist blessed to have longevity has a career arc, and Perfume's is best illustrated by the growth from early hits like "Omajinai Perori" to the much more mature "Tokyo Girl."
1. "1mm" No. 9 (2013)
"Reality goes way above your imagination, not enough determination, 1mm short…"
The song has an impossibly long introduction, with vocals not beginning until almost one minute in, but patience will be rewarded with Nakata's most irresistible hook – just try not singing "Ah, Ah, Ah" once that earworm gets into your head. Add in the trio's sharp dancing skills, colorfully designed outfits and perfectly harmonious vocals and you have Perfume's finest: four minutes and 26 seconds of pure pop joy.