There was something badass going on in the world of late 90’s/early 2000’s anime soundtracks. A decent amount of anime had these anthemic, sweeping rock songs in their soundtracks. Often, these songs were sung in English and performed by non-Japanese singers. I don’t know if this was because Yoko Kanno was out in full-force during this time period and giving us Steve Conte-fronted goodness, or if more anime studios were going for crossover appeal with Western audiences.
Whatever the case, these songs are all awesome, and the story of how some of these English language songs and collaborations came to be are actually very interesting. Originally, I was just going to do a quick listicle, but I got carried away reading about these various performers. It seemed like a disservice not to share all the fruits of my research, so here is part one of my surprisingly long list of favorite English language anime rock performances.
“Duvet” – Bôa (Serial Experiments Lain, 1998)
I have a soft spot for 90s female fronted rock bands like Letters to Cleo and Veruca Salt, so Bôa’s “Duvet” easily fits into my playlists. It has a mix of soothing acoustic guitar and an occasional violin, yet it still manages to be badass thanks to the guttural vocal bridge and haunting lyrics.
Bôa was a British band formed in 1993, but their first album, Race of the Thousand Camels, was released only in Japan – this was the album that featured “Duvet,” their first single. It was a hit in Japan, and it’s also a hit in my heart. Bôa even performed the song at 2000’s Otakon.
Interestingly enough, after the release of that first album, Bôa switched labels and signed to Pioneer LDC, who later became known as Geneon Universal. You may recognize those names, as this was the company responsible for distributing masterpieces like the Ocean dub of Dragonball Z, and it was the company that eventually licensed Lain in North America.
It’s possible that an English language opening was included in order to appeal to Western audiences. Producer Yasuyuki Ueda didn’t expect American audiences to connect with Serial Experiments Lain – in an Animerica interview, he states that Americans “won’t understand” Lain and even calls it “an attack on American values.”  Perhaps they felt that they needed to bridge this thematic gap by including an English opening song, since the staff assumed the premise and themes were too different for Americans. Ueda believed that the story was intrinsically Japanese, but wanted to know what American audiences would end up taking away from it. Unfortunately for him, American audiences interpreted Serial Experiments Lain pretty much the same way Japanese audiences did. 
“Red Fraction” – Mell (Black Lagoon, 2006)
It makes sense that Black Lagoon would end up having an English language opening. Technically, all the characters in Black Lagoon know English, anyways – I mean, yeah, the actors are performing in Japanese, but we see in the “Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise” episodes that most of the gang don’t actually know Japanese. Plus, you figure that Revy and Dutch are both American, so why not give their series an English-language banger?
“Red Fraction” singer Mell has performed quite a few other badass anime openings, including the opening for RideBack, which is another English-language powerhouse that nearly made this list. She used to be a member of Japanese trance/techno group, I’ve Sound, who are known for doing quite a few openings for Japanese adult games.
According to Wikipedia, the group produced the soundtrack for Please Teacher! while Mell was a member, although I had a hard time actually finding any English language information about the scope of their involvement in other anime productions. I fell into a big hole of clicking through Japanese language sites and trying to Google translate more information about them, but that wasn’t a very successful journey. Anyways.
Mell’s first solo single was actually “Red Fraction,” and to this day is her most successful single. It was eventually included on her 2008 album, Mellscope, which includes the absolute banger and excellently named song, “Virgin’s high!” Her work is worth looking into if you’re a fan of high-octane techno anime openings, just be aware that she’s no longer active due to an unknown illness.
“Lithium Flower” – performed by Scott Matthew (Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, 2002)
Ah, here it is, the first of many Yoko Kanno composed entries to this list. Kanno is known for featuring a diverse group of performers from various backgrounds in her works, and the Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex soundtrack is no different. The series’ first ending, “Lithium Flower,” is performed by Australian singer Scott Matthew, and it’s one of my favorite songs on the entire soundtrack.
Scott Matthew also performed my favorite song on the Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door soundtrack, “Is It Real?” His vocal stylings are melancholic and evocative, and I’m thankful he appeared on these soundtracks, or else I would have never been exposed to his album, There Is an Ocean That Divides and with My Longing I Can Charge It with a Voltage That’s So Violent to Cross It Could Mean Death. An annoyingly long album title, sure, but a fantastic album nonetheless.
The lyrics to “Lithium Flower” were written by frequent Kanno collaborator, Tim Jensen, who it turns out also wrote the lyrics to “Is It Real?”, as well as many other Cowboy Bebop and GiTS songs. He’s also the guy who delivers the sexy, spoken word bit in “Tank!”. Side note – I wish all these song titles didn’t have punctuation in them, because it makes ending these sentences grammatically challenging!!!
“Do You Want To?“ – Franz Ferdinand (Paradise Kiss, 2005)
Paradise Kiss is a stylish and lush series about fashion, love, and coming of age. Created by Ai Yazawa, who also created Nana, Paradise Kiss was greatly influenced by Todd Haynes’s British glam rock film, Velvet Goldmine. In fact, the manga specifically references the film more than once. So then, it makes sense that the anime would choose to have Scottish dance rock group Franz Ferdinand performing its ending theme.
The song fits with the series excellently, and I’ve always imagined the uppity but lovable bisexual George singing the lyrics. They match his pompous yet playful attitude very well, especially this bit: “He’s a friend and we’re so proud of you/your famous friend, well I blew him before you!”
The somewhat Westernized animation style of the ending sequence also complements the song. The ending animation was done by Hiroyuki Imaishi animated the ending, who directed the anime film Dead Leaves and worked on various Gainax productions.
“Tell Me Why” – PENPALS (Berserk, 1997)
Berserk’s soundtrack is amazing in general – composer Susumu Hirasawa knows how to create an eerie but beautiful soundscape using a mix of synth and punk influences. In the case of Berserk’s opening, though, we have J-Rock band PENPALS to thank for its corny awesomeness.
Something about this song is so catchy and oddly uplifting, which is interesting, because Berserk is hardly an uplifting series. There’s a certain tonal whiplash that comes once the theme ends and a bleak episode begins – but I love it. I wish I could find more information in English about WHY this song, but I can’t, so instead I’ll just revel in its seemingly out-of-placeness.
Truth be told, the first time “Tell Me Why” started up on my TV, I wasn’t a fan – the broken English grated on me, and it very much wasn’t the song I was expecting to start the show – but over time, it lodged itself firmly in my brain. It’s a happy little earworm. So put your glasses on/nothing will be wrong…
Ah, geez. I’ve gushed for so many words already, and I’m only halfway through my list. I’ll post part two of my favorite English language anime rock songs later this week, but in the meantime – do you have any favorites?
 Animerica, Vol. 7, No. 9 (1999)
 Anime Jump interview done with Ueda at 2000 Otakon