Now that I’ve counted down my favourite and least favourite K-pop songs of the year, it’s finally time to have a look at some of my absolute favourite J-pop songs of the year. Unlike K-pop, which experienced a strong but rather unspectacular year, Japan had an absolutely incredibly year musically. My countdown here is probably the strongest of the year, far eclipsing the Top 100 K-pop songs and upcoming Top 100 K-pop B-sides of the year lists. My Top 25 especially is home to some of the years most incredible singles and ones that far exceeded what I had expected from them. The quality of tracks was so good in fact, that although it says this is a top 50, I’ve actually extended it to a top 55. That’s because there were 5 other tracks that I thought were just waaaay too good to leave in the honourable mentions.
I know I’ve mentioned this before but since this is a J-pop post, I think I would be better to say it once again. Before I got SUPER into K-pop around mid 2017, I was really into J-pop. Or J-rock to be specific. And as such, I’ve had a much longer history with the Japanese music industry, which translates quite prominently into my tastes for Japanese tracks. And so while my taste in K-pop is quite specific and the tracks that you would expect to make my countdown over there all boast quite a similar soundscape, my taste regarding the Japanese music industry is much more varied.
As such, the types of songs that will appear below are from a hodgepodge of genres and artists of all different origins and sounds. There are of course going to be some sounds that will be ever-present but I actually think this is a much more varied list than my other ones. Last year my top 3 Japanese tracks of the year were:
- Hey! Say! Jump’s Beast and Rose
- Centimillimental’s Kizuato
- The Rampage’s Swag & Pride.
Which song’s will take those positions this year? Let’s find out!
- Any song released commercially between 1st January 2020 – 31st December 2020
- Must be in Japanese or by a group of Japanese origin
- Based upon personal enjoyment rather than chart or commercial success.
- Needs to be a promoted single or have a video.
- This is not a definitive ranking nor is it objective. All of this is my opinion and based on my music tastes alone.
A.B.C-Z – Cheat Time
Da-ice – Phoenix (review)
E-Girls – Bessekai
Eir Aoi – Unreal Trip (review)
JO1 – Shine A Light / Oh-Eh-Oh (review)
Lisa – Homura
Nogizaka46 – Anastasia (review)
ONE N’ ONLY – Shut Up! BREAKER
SixTONES – New Era
Snowman – D.D.
Solidemo – Love Yourself / Tokyo Miracles (review)
The Rampage – Fears
55. Snowman – Stories
As classic of a j-pop melody as you could get, the melodic rock bombast of Stories is as cheesy and over the top as you would expect from a shounen anime opening. But there’s a reason why songs like this remain so prevalent and that’s because this kind of rousing anthemic melody is just so hard to resist.
54. Mamoru Miyano – Zero To Infinity
Mamoru Miyano has always been a reliable of big bombastic pop and Zero To Infinity is another one of those tracks that fits him like a tee. It’s combination of big bombastic guitar riffs and grandiose two part chorus is an absolute treat. He might never top the near flawless nature of tracks like Break It!! But songs like this show that he’s still got he spirit.
53. Tasuku Hatanaka – Promise For The Future
Built upon the kind of trance rock backdrop that characterised much of J-pop legend T.M. Revolution’s earlier work, Promise For The Future bounds forward on incredible energy that perfectly complements Hatanaka’s powerful vocals.
52. Faky – Darling
While I do love me some big bombastic pop, sometimes it’s the softer more delicate melodies that sneak up on you. And that’s exactly where a track like Faky’s Darling succeeds. Its guitar and trap fuelled instrumental lends the track a comforting backdrop that’s only furthered by the lovely central melody.
51. JO1 – GO (review)
A sleek, stylish dance track from JO1, GO benefits from its fantastic production and rousing chorus that just explodes with energy. It’s the groups strongest effort yet and showcases a soundscape that the group would be wise to follow in the future.
50. XOX – Ever After
Sometimes there are melodies that are so instant that you instantly fall in love with the song despite some of its issues. The verses for Ever After are a little too messy for my liking but every time that one in a million chorus roles around, all qualms are forgiven. XOX know this, repeating the gorgeous hook as much as possible for maximum effect.
49. SixTONES – Navigator
A track that stands as one of the years most cinematic displays of Japan’s over the top theatrics, Navigator served as a powerful sophomore effort for one of Japan’s biggest and most critically acclaimed rookie acts, SixTONES. Filled to the brim with aggressive rock and symphonic string assisted flourishes, there isn’t a moment to breathe here.
48. Sandaime J Soul Brothers – Movin’ On
A perfect throwback to the light edm driven tracks of the early 2010’s, Movin’ On was a great comeback single from senior act Sandaime J Soul Brothers. It’s a track that feels light on its feet while still retaining the melodic heft of some of the groups strongest efforts.
47. eill – Night D
2020’s retro revival was one of the years brightest spots and Night D remains one of its most underrated offerings. It’s a track that relies more heavily on atmosphere than many other tracks of this style and as such differentiates itself by providing a wholly unique listening experience that doesn’t forget the importance of having some truly addictive melodic shifts.
46. Ayumi Hamasaki – Dreamed a Dream
With Ayumi Hamasaki teaming up with legendary producer Tetsuya Komuro, Dreamed a Dream was going to be brilliant right from the start. And the final product didn’t disappoint, giving us her strongest single in ages with an aggressive dance beat and rousing chorus that refuses to let up.
45. Fantastics – Hey, darlin’
A gorgeous synth driven mid-tempo, Hey darlin’ was an interesting maturation of Fantastics more bright, pop driven sound. And while the boys would return to that sound later in the year, Hey darlin’ made a great case for a more mid-tempo and mature sound for the group. Its stated, driving hook remains one of the years most enjoyable.
44. Hiraidai – Stand By Me, Stand By You
A track that only got better and better with every listen, Stand By Me, Stand By You lives and dies by its great central hook. It’s a great melody, surging in all the right places and transitioning expertly into one of the years most endearing post chorus’.
43. Official HIGE DANdism – I Love…
A buoyant explosion of pop from one of my favourite bands currently working, I Love… stressed the importance of love and being there for each other with a soundscape that just screams optimism. But this wouldn’t be a Higedan track without Fujihara’s incredible, emotive vocals injecting some sense of wistful nostalgia and the tracks standout pre-chorus is the perfect example of this.
42. Bullet Train – Stand Up
Despite Bullet Train having some of my favourite J-pop songs of all time in their back-catalogue, much of their post 2018 work didn’t really connect with me. That was until the m-flo inspired funk of Stand Up, which injected a healthy dose of groove into the groups discography and reinvented the dancers as rappers, bringing a whole new level of depth to the groups now increasingly promising sound.
41. Nogizaka46 – Route 246
Assisted by one of the years most engaging instrumentals, Route 246 was an absolute triumph for Nogizaka46. The tracks unflagging electronic background takes you right back to the glory days of mid 1990’s Japan and producer Tetsuya Komuro’s golden touch transforms an otherwise repetitive hook into one of the years biggest earworms.
40. ARASHI – Whenever You Call
For their final year, ARASHI graced us with a number of English singles and the hyper melodic, Bruno Mars penned, 90’s boy group sound of Whenever You Call was easily their strongest. It’s undeniably cheesy but there’s a reason why this kind of sound was so successful back in the day and remains so all these years later.
39. Reol – The Sixth Sense
A schizophrenic beast of a song, The Sixth Sense saw Reol at the height of her powers, hitting the listener repeatedly with an aggressive electronic backing and production choices that make it feel as though the track is going to spiral out of control any second. Thankfully Reol’s incredibly unique delivery and bouncy hook are there to save the day each and every time it feels like The Sixth Sense is going to lose its way.
38. Masayuki Suzuki & Airi Suzuki – DADDY! DADDY! DO!
One of the years best collaborations, DADDY! DADDY! DO! is an absolute blast from start to finish. The brass kissed instrumental is magnificent but when it comes down to it, it’s Masayuki Suzuki’s velvety smooth vocals that really sell the entire package. This is Japan’s equivalent to When We Disco. Only better.
37. 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
36. Deep Squad – Get With You
EXILE Tribe’s newest debuting unit did so with the addictive new jack swing of Get With You. And while its overall sound isn’t too different or groundbreaking, the funk laced buildup and soaring anthemic chorus are enough to get this track firmly within the top 50. I love it when tracks focus on melody while not forgetting the strength of a strong groove and a track like Get With You does exactly that.
35. YOASOBI – Halzion
YOASOBI was 2020’s big commercial breakthrough and while Racing Into The Night doesn’t quite qualify for this list since it was released in November 2019, followup Halzion does much to reignite that same flame. Its bouncy electro-pop and acoustic guitar base is as addictive as they come but its those serpentine vocal melodies at the tracks core that really send Halzion soaring.
34. The Rampage – Invisible Love
Billed as The Rampage’s first “ballad”, the hypnotic mid-tempo bounce of Invisible Love isn’t quite that but its more restrained sound was definitely something new for the group. Thankfully, the track is an absolute triumph, circulating around an addictive warped vocal sample and an incredibly slick chorus that only gets more and more engaging the longer you listen.
33. Sakurazaka46 – Nobody’s Fault
After their rebranding, Sakurazaka46 hit us with a number of great singles. Nobody’s Fault was probably the most instant callback to their previous sound, bounding forward with an insanely engaging rock and brass infused instrumental that acts as the perfect complement to the groups layered vocals.
32. Kalen Anzai – Bokura wa Tsuyoku Nareru (We Can Be Strong)
Kalen Anzai continues to give us great single after great single and the marching band assisted Bokura wa Tsuyoku Nareru continued that trend. Its unique instrumental approach felt like a breath of fresh air in 2020 and the more classic melodic touches felt as though they would be right at home during Japan’s late 90’s techo phase.
31. Bullet Train – Asayake
Easily my favourite Bullet Train single in years, the incredibly buoyant disco funk of Asayake felt like a full realisation of the sound that the group ventured into during Stand Up. The track’s instrumental is pure bliss, accented by some supremely joyful ice synths. But it’s that hyper melodic and incredibly fun chorus that really gets the job done, acting as one of the years most endearing hooks.
30. Novelbright – Evening Primrose
A gorgeous ballad from band Novelbright, Evening Primrose is a listening experience not to be missed. Opening with nothing more than vocalist Takenaka’s husky voice and a delicate piano and strings backing, the track transforms into a soaring anthem during its final minutes. The entire package is just beautiful and perfectly lives up to the more sophisticated title. But it’s the sheer amount of emotion exuded from Takanaka’s powerful vocals that really drives this song home.
29. Stray Kids – TOP
The strongest original Japanese single by a K-pop group in 2020, TOP‘s combination of hard hitting rap verses and shifting EDM samples is Stray Kids through and through and proves that the group have carved an identity all for themselves. If there’s any group that knows how to use an instrumental drop to their advantage, it’s Stray Kids.
28. Sexy Zone – Far East Dance
Sexy Zone had their strongest year yet and the gritty yet celebratory dance assault of Far East Dance acted as the perfect sneak peak of what was to come. The distorted soundscape is an absolute treat and the skuzzy makeover given here really brings a whole new dynamic to the groups already potent vocal blend. It was meant to act as a soundtrack to the Tokyo Olympics and given just how massive it sounds, that’s no surprise.
27. King & Prince – I Promise
The kind of sentimental winter single that transcends both season and time, I Promise is home to one of the years biggest and most emotive chorus’. Its surging pop melody is what the group debuted with and it’s so refreshing to see them finally return to this kind of timeless pop sound. You’ll only get tracks like this out of Japan and that’s exactly why I’ve come to love it so, so much.
26. Miyavi – Need For Speed
Miyavi’s ‘Holy Nights’ album was one 2020’s biggest surprises and the singles choices were even better. Need For Speed tackles a very specific trip-hop tron-esque sound and nails it right down to the filtered vocals and unflagging beat. There isn’t a single moment to breathe throughout the tracks three minute runtime and just when you think it can’t get any bigger, the propulsive guitar driven bridge comes in to sweep you off your feet for a supremely dynamic finale.