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.
- 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.
25. Leo leiri – Mikansei (review)
This is the kind of mid-tempo that I adore, conveying emotional pathos through a streamlined vocal performance and knockout hook. Mikansei’s vaguely electronic soft-rock based instrumentation here is pure cat-nip to my ears and manages to heighten the drama surrounding the performance tenfold. It knows when to pull back and slam back in to provide full musical catharsis with a chorus that soars and a build that snowballs into a majestic finale guaranteed to give you the feels.
24. Toya Takase – All or Nothing
Many tracks this year from around the globe took inspiration from The Weeknd’s smash hit Blinding Lights but few felt as in-debt to it as Toya Takase’s All or Nothing. The best way to describe All or Nothing is that it’s Blinding Lights on speed, traveling forward on a pulsing instrumental that doesn’t let up at all throughout the tracks running time. Its central synth loop is absolutely massive and those warped vocals further contribute to the off-kilter atmosphere established.
23. Kalen Anzai – Secret Love
Kalen Anzai continues to strike gold and the bouncy pop goodness of Secret Love was actually my favourite of her 2020 singles. At its heart, it’s as simple pop fluff as they come but every time that megawatt hook comes around, all bets are off. It’s a gorgeous melody only bettered by the ascending guitar and strings loop that follows. I’m incredibly excited to see where she goes from here.
22. Sexy Zone – Not Found
Sexy Zone capped off their miracle year with the incredible jazz inspired pop of Not Found. As the groups first five member single ages, the track had a lot to live upto and its cinematic, noir esque soundscape was exactly what the doctor ordered. Its playful verses remain some of the years most enjoyable and the production really strikes the perfect balance between the fantastic instrumental and the groups engaging vocal blend.
21. Tasuku Hatanaka – Dying Wish
And the award for the best anime opening of 2020 goes to…..Moriarty the Patriot’s Dying Wish!
Boy, if 2015 or 2016 Arpydarpy would have heard this, he would have put it in the top 10 easily. And while my music tastes have shifted over time, there’s no denying the sheer awesomeness that a track like Tasuku Hatanaka’s Dying Wish exudes. It’s probably one of the most dramatic tracks of the year, throwing almost everything into a blender with a track that ascends to near operatic fervour during its climax. It’s just a massive moment that sounds more like a operatic movement than song.
20. 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. It’s a track that’s in constant evolution, transforming from a stuttered first chorus into a driving final hook that’s as mosh pit worthy as they come.
19. 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. Leo leiri has gone for a few dramatic dance tracks in the past and Answer is right up there with the absolute best of them.
18. Haruma Miura – Night Diver
Released posthumously after Miura’s tragic passing, Night Diver remains an absolute triumph in 2020’s musical landscape. Similar to Leiri’s Answer, Night Diver combines two contrasting soundscapes for verse and chorus to create a final product that feels completely unique in its listening experience. But in this case, I think that Night Diver is the more cohesive of the two, transforming from its more quirky verses into a gorgeous trance-like hook that borders on anthemic. This alongside a finale that brings the two contrasting elements together and you’ve got something quite brilliant. But in the end, it’s Miura’s charismatic vocals and delivery that really set Night Diver apart.
A real loss for both Japan and the entertainment industry. Rest In Peace Haruma.
17. NGT48 – Sherbet Pink (review)
A propulsive guitar and synth driven pop moment, Sherbet Pink seemingly came out of nowhere. But as I’ve said, sometimes the best surprises come from the most unexpected of places and the tracks central guitar loop is one of the years absolute best. It carries a a nostalgic sentiment to it and while there’s much of it that can be linked back to more generic girl group tropes, there’s no turning back once you’ve heard the brilliant, layered chorus and excellent instrumental breakdown.
16. 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.
15. 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. It’s a track that houses some of the years biggest and most rousing moments and was a true moment of star studded greatness from one of Japan’s biggest and most well renowned talents. I only wish I could put it higher but given it’s sheer weight, it isn’t a track most open to being replayed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though!
14. Sekai No Owari – Umbrella
One thing that I can almost always count on Japan to deliver on is fantasic songs with the most depressing of undertones. And Sekai No Owari’s Umbrella was the MVP of that department when it came to 2020’s selection of songs. The bands strongest single in years, Umbrella gradually grows more pronounced, transforming from nothing more than a plea to an all out cry during its finale. It was one of 2020’s most resonant tracks, elevated by Fukase’s otherworldly vocal performance and a chorus that lingers long past the tracks final notes. And while I usually don’t focus on the lyrics as much, Umbrella‘s lyrics only further the emotive nature of the track.
13. Sakurazaka46 – Naze koi wo shitekonakattandarou? (Why didn’t you fall in love?)
Out of all of Sakurazaka46’s newest singles, the guitar driven pop of Naze koi wo shitekonakattandarou? was easily my favourite. It harkened back to the melodic, slightly nostalgic pop sound of some of my favourite Keyakizaka46 singles and the girls give an equally dynamic performance that perfectly suits the message of the track. The brassy undertones are a brilliant touch, lending the track a sense of triumph and perfectly complementing the more standard instrumental choices. It honestly sounds like the rising of a Phoenix from the ashes and the gorgeous multi pronged chorus only helps elevate the track into the strongest Keyakizaka/Sakurazaka song in ages.
12. Yurina Hirate – Reason for Dance
It’s kind of ironic that Yurina Hirate managed to land a spot higher than her former group.
More a battle cry than just a simple pop song, the massive rock opera fervour of Reason For Dance firmly unleashed Yurina Hirate back onto the scene. It’s an unbelievable debut, powering forward on an instrumental that just grows and grows without an end in sight. Hirate spends most of the track growling rather than singing and it’s an aesthetic that pays off in spades, lending the Reason for Dance a sense of unpolished grit that it thrives off. I’m an absolute sucker for marching band percussion and Reason for Dance uses that flourish liberally, unleashing the full brunt of it during the song’s climax when Reason For Dance explodes into a full festival like war cry only bettered by a perfectly timed key change that sends this masterful work soaring into the stratosphere.
11. Arashi – Kite
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more drawn to tracks that harbour a more sentimental backing. And few tracks this year were as sentimental and bittersweet as Arashi’s majestic Kite. Penned by master singer songwriter Kenshi Yonezu, Kite carries all the gorgeous melodic touches expected from his work and attaches it to Arashi’s timeless and instantly iconic vocal blend. The result is a listening experience that feels as momentous and chill enduing as you would expect from a collaboration between two of Japan’s biggest artists, putting a fitting cap on Arashi’s legendary 20 year career.
10. M!LK – Winding Road (review)
That guitar loop man. That god damn guitar loop. There are just some sounds that immediately warrant a reaction from me and the classic guitar driven pop sound of Winding Road is one of those. 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 that bright upbeat tempo is absolutely euphoric. It’s a track that carries the more motivational “you can do it” energy whilst still adhering to a soundscape that helps rekindle past glories. And personally, you can never go wrong with that sense of nostalgia.
9. Hey! Say! JUMP – I am
Hey! Say! JUMP continued their incredibly promising reinvention that began with 2019’s flawless ‘Parade’ album with the surging pop sound of I am. Johnny’s groups always sound incredible while singing in unison and that strength is shown in I am‘s massive hook, which stands as a massive moment in itself. But the track really succeeds on its production, which melds a majestic string and driving guitar instrumental with some rather interesting melodic turns. The completely unexpected strings breakdown is especially potent, acting as a perfect bridge for the tracks memorable climactic chorus.
8. BuZZ – Sun and Love
Sometimes the melody and vocal work are so perfect that it’s hard to ignore. Such is the case with BuZZ’s Sun and Love, which proves that sometimes all you need is a simple but perfect pop melody to really make an impression. The often repeated hook is as perfect they come, evoking a strong sense of nostalgia that resists the urge to become stale thanks to an equally potent electro meets guitar laced instrumental. In an age where tracks seem to be much more focused on noisy electronic drops or needlessly “unique” production choices, a track like Sun and Love is a breathe of fresh air that is great on first listen and only gets better the more you listen to it.
7. Hey! Say! JUMP – Last Mermaid
Sometimes all you need is the perfect chorus to get a win from me and that’s exactly what Last Mermaid has. It’s a truely majestic production, incorporating a healthy dose of strings, driving guitars, erhu samples, operatic background vocals and even a brass breakdown. It thrives on its own sense of drama and for someone who loves when groups go all out, you know I was going to love this right from the first minute. But while I adore the production aspects of the track, Last Mermaid ascends into absolute greatness thanks to that stunner of a chorus which ebbs and flows oh so perfectly. It’s a truely majestic melody that conjures up some truely epic images. The track’s got some real weight to it and the groups mammoth vocal blend only serves to make it even heavier.
6. SixTONES – Imitation Rain (review)
The years best debut came in the form of a song that I honestly never would have expected. Penned by J-rock legend Yoshiki, Imitation Rain tackles a more unique sound than we’ve come to expect from Johnny’s groups. Especially a debut. Its pop-rock sound was as far from an introductory act as you would expect but that’s exactly why I believe it was so successful. And while its lyrics are as edgy as they come, there’s no denying just how gorgeous the final product sounds, nailing the more downbeat and emotional atmosphere it was aiming for. The chorus remains one of the years most iconic and instantly quotable moments and though the group have released many strong singles since, I doubt they’ll be topping this any time soon.