Dial-ups, portable CD holders stuffed in the car’s glove compartment, posters that come with your favorite artist’s new album. Music and the way we engage with it has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. While our world is filled with more conveniences than many of us could have imagined, it’s still hard not to look back on that era with warm nostalgia. Since trends tend to repeat themselves, it’s worth delving into the music and technology that was popular at the start of the digital age.
The year 2002 started on a strong and hopeful note. Hamasaki Ayumi released her fourth album I am… the first day of the year; this album was both a sonic and thematic departure for the artist, incorporating heavy rock elements as a backing for lyrics that were decidedly more positive than his previous works. I am…was an incredible hit, selling 1.7 million copies in its first week.
The album was released digitally and on CD – as well as Playbutton. Playbutton is a type of portable album – barely an inch in diameter – that allows the listener to plug in headphones and listen to the album without carrying a CD player. Curiously, Playbuttons are still produced today!
In close competition with Hamasaki was superstar Utada Hikaru, who still dominates the Japanese music charts decades later. Its June 2002 release, Deep River, was the artist’s 3rd studio album and would surpass the success of Hamasaki to become not only the top album of the year, but also ranked eighth in all-time record sales in Japan. .
The album plays across the spectrum of pop genres, including electronic dance, soft rock and even a harpsichord club track – a sound that defines this period in the West. At the end of the year, Hamasaki took No. 1 on the Oricon Singles Chart with “H”, which would appear on his next album rather than I Am…. However, Deep River’s singles “Traveling”, “Sakura Drops” and “Hikari” took second, sixth and tenth place respectively.
Other notable pop releases include Korean star BoA’s Japanese debut album, Listen to My Heart, which ranked 12th at the end of the year and laid the foundation for her successful career in Japan. Girl group Morning Musume released their 4th album, 4th Ikimasshoi!, currently their second best-selling record to date, and MISIA released a greatest hits album with the timeless ballad “Everything.”
While 2002 saw the dominance of female popstars, men made their mark in rock. Known for his mix of rock and rap, Dragon Ash released his 10th single, “Life Goes On”. It came nearly a year after their 4th album LILY OF DA VALLEY and incorporated rock instrumentals, a hip-hop inspired beat (with signature vinyl scratches) and a mix of rap and singing vocals. “Life Goes On” was a hit, placing the track as the 4th best-selling single of 2002. Rock band Glay released their 8th studio album Unity Roots and Family, Away (UR&FA); while the album charted at #1 on the Oricon charts and lead single ‘Way of Difference’ closed the year at #5 on the singles chart, the album received mixed reception. Rock took a back seat, with R&B, traditional Okinawan music and gospel serving as strong influences.
Playbutton wasn’t the only new technology to come out in 2002. Companies all over the world were competing to find inventive ways to get music to more people more efficiently and cost-effectively.
Toshiba’s GIGABEAT hit the scene in June 2002, a portable music player with a screen similar to cell phones of the time and offering the capacity to hold approximately 1,000 songs (5GB) on its moving disk. By adding tracks from his computer to a mobile disk, it was possible to create vast libraries to play on a single device. It lasted 18 hours on a full charge and was the first in a series of GIGABEAT products.
Unfortunately for Toshiba, July 2002 saw the unveiling of the 2nd generation iPod. Not only could the most basic model of iPod hold more than double what the GIGABEAT could hold, but the design was also much sleeker. The iPod did not require changing moving disks to access more content like the Toshiba product did, and used a larger, easier-to-navigate scroll wheel than the GIGABEAT.
But for those who preferred more casual, on-the-go listening, there was another option: the wristwatch. Arguably the precursor to the Apple Watch, many Japanese companies produced watch and MP3 players. In 2002, the Casio G-SHOCK hit the market, allowing 32MB of music storage. It certainly wasn’t the 5GB offered by the GIGABEAT, but enough for commuting.
The days of rushing to the CD store hoping the latest album wasn’t already out of print or looking for an MP3 player that matches the trending aesthetic are long gone, but it’s comforting to reminisce about what which was a less digitally connected world. Many artists from the early 2000s are still making hit records, and the music is even easier to access than ever. What new technologies will enter our lives in the next 20 years?