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.
Check out the other songs that made the top 50!
5. King & Prince – Mazy Night (review)
After a string of strong but rather forgettable singles, King & Prince came roaring back with the aggressive dance pop of Mazy Night. With a relentless dance beat that accounts for multiple different yet perfectly timed instrumental breakdowns, Mazy Night harkens back to the take no prisoners dance pop sound that characterised much of early 2010’s pop, a personal soft spot and a sound that group absolutely excel at. But it’s the track’s momentous chorus that really hits home, driving forward on a rousing, yet slick melody that just erupts during the anthemic post chorus refrain. It’s absolutely majestic and easily one of the years most perfect dance tracks.
4. Sandaime J Soul Brothers – Rising Soul
Best experienced alongside its excellent music video, Rising Soul was a masterful effort from the ever consistent Sandaime J Soul Brothers. Inspired once again by the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights, the icy synth riff that anchors most of Rising Soul is one of the years most inspired productions, powering forward with an energy that harbours a more youthful vibe yet has touches of the more classic song craft associated with an act of such stature. Much of that can be attributed to the brilliant inclusion of crunchy guitar riffs into the mix, which gives Rising Soul an added layer of grit most often not found in tracks of this style. This alongside actual great use of vocoder transforms what could have otherwise been just another dance track into easily the years strongest performance piece. Yes it’s a little over the top sometimes but that’s point. Now just give into the groove.
3. Fantastics – High Fever
I think it’s become quite obvious by now just how much I’ve come to adore 2020’s synth pop revival. And while it lent the K-pop industry a much needed boost out of the creative rut it had reached, it only elevated the already solid slate of releases we were getting out of Japan. And High Fever was the very pinnacle of that particular trend, distilling all my favourite aspects into one tight, incredibly catchy and endlessly repayable package.
As simple as it may sound on first listen, High Fever is simply the perfect synth pop song. It’s home to a synth loop that remains ever-present without overpowering or overstaying its welcome, perfectly complementing the tracks more atmospheric verses through its more subtle influence before coming around full circle for that absolute earworm of a hook, which remains likely my favourite chorus of the year. It isn’t all pop fluff either, housing enough rhythmic variation and icy synth flourishes to create a rather sinister atmosphere during its verses. For those familiar with k-pop, think Twice’s Fancy. More mature driving verses with a bright, instantly catchy chorus.
But for as much as I love High Fever for what it does, what truly catapults it into my top 3 is actually its simplicity. In an age where experimentation and jarring instrumental and melodic shifts is encouraged, it’s incredibly refreshing to see a song that knows exactly what it wants to be and sticks to it all the way through. And that’s what makes High Fever‘s synth driven goodness so god damn irresistible.
2. Official HIGE DANdism – Laughter (review)
Some of my favourite songs of all time evoke some real sense of emotion from me. And if anything, Laughter was the song that got the greatest reaction out of me. Both on first listen and on many subsequent more. There’s just something special about a track like this, and its ability to completely entrance me remains second to none.
More than a simple song, Laughter is more an experience, stretching its emotive soft rock sound over 6 minutes to create a near unparalleled listen that few if any tracks have ever given me. It’s not a song that will hit you right off the bat but rather functions as a slow burn, unveiling its many charms over the course of its long, yet well warranted runtime. I’ve said this once and I’ll say it again but one thing about the Japanese music industry that truely sets it apart from others is just how well the artists are able to emote. And when it comes down to it, Higedan’s Fujihara is the king of emoting. He imbues Laughter with so much emotional pathos that I can’t imagine anyone else ever even touching the song. His magnificent vocals perfectly convey the gorgeous, near poetic nature of the lyrics and the nature of his vocals grow in perfect unison with the progression of the track.
But as with every great song, there’s always one moment that stands above the rest. And in terms of Laughter, it’s the utterly transcendent bridge, which stands as my absolute favourite musical moment of the year. The combination of Fujihara’s chill inducing sustained high note and the breathtaking choir coupled with that soaring instrumental is just pure perfection, bringing a notable end to one of the years most majestic and utterly beautiful musical moments. And the fact that this missed out on the top spot should really show just how I highly I rate the song that’s coming next.
1. Sexy Zone – RUN (review)
There were many songs this year that excelled at one specific element. Laughter in terms of evoking emotion, High Fever in terms of hooks and Rising Soul in terms of production. But the very best songs are able to succeed on all fronts, break all possible barriers to become truly transcendent in every way shape and form. And that’s exactly what Sexy Zone’s modern day masterpiece, Run, achieves.
I honestly never thought I would ever come across a song like this, let alone during the first year of my blog and the fact that Run just popped up out of nowhere is kind of a minor miracle. Especially in a year as downbeat as 2020. But this is the kind of once in a generation masterpiece that few are fortunate to witness And I’m so glad that I was there to experience its release in all of its glory. From the opening splashes of brass to the rousing central refrain and incredibly cathartic climax, there isn’t a single moment where Run even comes close to faltering. It’s the perfect pop song, taking everything I adore about pop music and distilling it into a taut, 4 minute masterwork that feels utterly majestic each and every single time I listen to it.
But when it comes down to it, as perfectly calibrated as a song might be, it first and foremost needs to make me feel something. And Run, alongside the aforementioned Laugher were the two tracks that nearly brought me to tears. And while a track as grandiose as Run is not something you would typically expect to evoke such a reaction, the combination of triumphant brass and driving guitar is a combination that just flicks a switch inside me. It’s such a powerful sound, acting as the perfect musical equivalent to the exclamation, “you can do it!” whilst still carrying a real celebratory atmosphere. Run is a true masterwork, encapsulating the greatness of everything in the world and proving that there are endless possibilities for us in the future. It’s easily my favourite song of 2020 and might just be the best thing I’ve heard in the past 5 years.