A month back, I gave my thoughts on what I consider to be the best K-pop songs of the year so far. Well now, after endless bouts of procrastination I’ve come up with the Japanese equivalent of that list.
Now while this delay may make it seem like I was less enthused to write about the Japanese music scene, it’s actually the opposite. While Korea has been going through one of its weakest musical years in recent memory, Japan have been absolutely thriving. The sheer volume of great music coming out this year has been astonishing and this quality is reflected by the large number of tracks that are mentioned below. In fact, there are so many phenomenal songs that have come out this year that I’ve had to increase the number of standouts from 10 – 14. That alone should indicate how highly I value some of the songs down below.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that if any of the honourable mentions were to be released in Korea, they would all make my favourite K-pop singles of 2020. I don’t know if that’s more telling about the mediocrity of 2020 K-pop or the greatness of 2020 Jpop. But even amongst all these gems I would like to give a special shoutout to Leo Leiri’s Mikansei and Solidemo’s Love Yourself; both of which were incredible tracks but narrowly missed out on the top 14.
One characteristic of the Japanese music industry I would probably attribute my enjoyment of more Japanese singles than Korean would be its adherence to classic song craft over the many current trends plaguing the modern musical landscape. All the songs you’ll see below feel organic and genuinely timeless. And rather than devolve into unnecessary instrumental or momentum sacrificing breakdowns in order to appeal to what is “trendy”, manage to maintain the kind of energy or atmosphere they committed to initially. This makes listening to all these songs immensely satisfying.
And if I had to give props to one entertainment company, it would have to be Johnny’s. Not only have they perfectly coordinated two massive debuts but each and every single one of the singles promoted by their groups have been stunners. SixTONES, Snowman King & Prince, Sexy Zone and Hey! Say! JUMP have all been wonderfully prolific this year with equally strong music to boast.
So without further ado, let’s get to the 14 songs that have defined my year so far!
Arashi – Kite
Da-ice – Pheonix (review)
Kiro Akiyama – Caffeine / Monologue
Leo Leiri – Mikansei (review)
Official HIGE DANdism – I Love
One n’ Only – Shut up! BREAKER
REOL – The Sixth Sense
SixTONES – Navigator
Snowman – D.D
Solidemo – Love Yourself
The Rampage – Invisible Love
Yoasobi – Halzion
Da-ice – Dreamin’ On (review)
A stunner of a single, Dreamin’ On drives forward with the kind of timeless power pop melody that anime soundtracks thrive on. But rather than be a boon, this sense of familiarity is backed by an anthemic melody and brilliant vocal performance that truely transforms it into one of the years standouts.
Genic – Sun Comes Up
With AAA entering an indefinite hiatus at the end of the year, label mates Genic stepped up to fill the hole left by their legendary seniors with the brilliant Sun Comes Up. It’s a fantastic pop song with an equally dynamic hook to boast, driving forward on the kind of larger than life pop sound that I just adore.
Hey! Say! JUMP – I AM / Last Mermaid
Ever since last years outstanding “PARADE” album, Hey! Say! JUMP have been on an absolute roll. Both their 2020 singles, I AM and Last Mermaid are phenomenal and I honestly couldn’t mention one without the other.
I AM is the kind of emotionally tinged anthem that Johnny’s groups excel at and is topped off with an equally gorgeous string section.
Last Mermaid on the other hand is the kind of bold, anime soundtrack esque drama fest that climaxes in one of the years biggest sounding centrepieces. Add onto that some gorgeous eastern influences and a jazzy saxophone solo and I’m completely sold.
*Click picture to see MV.
Picture 1: I AM
Picture 2: Last Mermaid
King & Prince – Mazy Night (review)
After a few disappointing singles and last years surprisingly catchy Koi Wazurai, King & Prince threw down the gauntlet with the fantastic Mazy Night. Rather than follow the many trends currently plaguing modern music, Mazy Night goes for the kind of streamlined dance pop goodness that’s practically become extinct. The results? Their strongest single yet.
Leo Leiri – Answer (review)
A bombastic dance track that melds addictive bursts of interplaying guitar and 80’s synth wave, Leo Leiri’s Answer is one of the years most instant songs. The verses are an enjoyable mix of guitars and percussion but the real star of the show is that show stopping chorus, which soars like a choir of hundreds.
Miyavi – BANG!
After signing with his new label, Miyavi released arguably the best album of his career and it was led by the sensational Bang!. It’s a song that perfectly capitalised on his inhuman talents as a slap guitarist and one that sounds bigger than almost anything else we’ve heard all year. That guitar riff combined with the tracks soaring refrain is freaking fantastic.
Morning Musume – Relationships No way way (review)
One of the years most instantly catchy singles, Relationships No way way bounds forward on one of the years most funk laced instrumentals and proves just how powerful the idea of groove is. Its mile a minute delivery combined with the a wonderful instrumental breakdown (seriously, the turkey in the straw sample is genius) make this my favourite Morning Musume single yet. Sometimes all you need to do is turn off your brain and have some fun.
M!LK – Winding Road (review)
The kind of guitar driven feel good pop that I pretty much grew up on, Winding Road proved that despite going through numerous member configurations, M!LK are here to stay. It’s the sound that I fell in love with when I first got into j-pop and music in general and the bright upbeat tempo is absolutely euphoric.
Official HIGE DANdism – Laughter (review)
Higedan are one of Japans most successful acts and Laughter is a song that shows exactly why. It’s soft rock melody interlaced with that yearning hook are classic song craft at its best and frontman Fujihara’s emotive tone makes every moment of this six minute epic worth it. But it’s Laughter‘s explosion of a bridge that really helps rank it amongst the years biggest musical moments.
Sekai No Owari – Umbrella
Another band that uses sentimentality to their advantage, Umbrella is Sekai No Owari’s strongest single in years. Laid over a sparse instrumental that gradually grows more pronounced, Umbrella manages to act as one of 2020’s most resonant tracks. This is all thanks to Fukase’s otherworldly vocal performance and a chorus that lingers long past the tracks final notes.
Sexy Zone – Far East Dance / RUN (review)
Much like labelmates Hey! Say! JUMP, Sexy Zone have been having an incredible year. Their Pop x Step album was full of highlights and the lead single Far East Dance easily ranks as one of the years most celebratory moments.
But if there was one moment that really made the groups year, it was the release of their modern day masterpiece, RUN. From its triumphant brass and orchestral flourishes to the driving chorus and flawless arrangement, RUN acts as the kind of gargantuan pop moment that defines generations.
Click the links below for mv:
SixTONES – Imitation Rain (review)
Damn Johnny’s have had an excellent first half of 2020. Of the 14 songs that made it past the honourable mentions, 6 of them are by Johnnys groups. That’s got to be one of the most dominant showings from any company on any of my countdowns ever. And honestly given how great their year has been, I guess Imitation Rain was a sign of things to come. This gorgeous stadium ready ballad served as SixTONES official introduction to the Jpop world and as far as debuts go, this was excellent.