After counting down my top 100 K-pop songs of the year, it’s finally time for me to visit their neighbours and look at my top 50 J-pop songs to come out in the past year.
2020 was a real stunner of a year for the J-pop industry, giving us two once in a life time masterpieces in the form of Official HIGE DANdism’s Laughter and most importantly, Sexy Zone’s triumphant Run. So 2021 had really big shoes to fill. And while the year didn’t have any track even close to those two aforementioned singles, we still had an incredibly solid slate of releases this year. So without further ado, let’s get into it.
Fantastics – Perfect Magic
Nogizaka46 – Wilderness World
Kitayama Hiromitsu – 灰になる前に (Before It Becomes Ash)
Nakamaru Yuichi – Change Your Mind
Ryokuoushoku Shakai – Zutto Zutto Zutto
99 – FAKY
The Rampage – Call of Justice, Silver Rain
Snow Man – Evolution, Hello Hello
50. Solidemo – Taking Off!!
Solidemo have always been reliable purveyors of great pop music and the anthemic, guitar assisted Taking Off!! is another solid entry into their burgeoning discography. It’s large stadium conquering backing track is a treat and the ascending melody during the pre-chorus is sure to lift spirits around the world.
49. HiHi Jets – Eyes of The Future
A bouncy, chant heavy track from one of Johnny Jr’s most promising prospects, Hi Hi Jets gave us one of the years most joyous throwbacks with the EDM stomper, Eyes Of The Future. Is it objectively good? Probably not. But is it incredibly fun? Hell Yeah!
48. Official HIGE DANdism – Pending Machine
HigeDan might not have had a moment and transcendent as 2020’s Laughter this year but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have their fair share of highlights. Pending Machine throws an exciting and instantly catchy groove over Fujihara’s gorgeous vocals but never forgets the importance of a rousing, emotive melody that the group have become so well known for.
47. KAT-TUN – Roar (review)
KAT-TUN’s long awaited return didn’t harness the kind of unflagging energy of their most iconic work but instead rested on a more mature and restrained sound. And though the verses are a little too restrained for their own good, Roar *roars* back with its soaring, emotive chorus.
46. Misako Uno – Sweet Hug (review)
An irresistibly buoyant explosion of guitar led pop, Sweet Hug instantly wormed its way into my heard with its bouncy instrumental and nostalgic melody. It’s a sound we’ve heard many times before but there’s a reason why it’s still so popular.
45. LiSA -Dawn
When you want a kick ass rock influenced anime opening, you can never go wrong with LiSA. Dawn soundtracked the anime ‘Black Arrow’ and perfectly encapsulated the kind of do or die nature of the show. And while it’s a little too soundalike to some of her other better hits, the take no prisoners chorus is just immense.
44. Nogizaka46 – Boku wa Boku wo Suki ni Naru (I am Starting to Like Myself)
Released at the very start of the year, Boku wa Boku wo Suki ni Naru is an absolutely gorgeous track, Blissfully melodic and incredibly earnest, the entire track unveils like a story beat, accurately reflecting the events of its very creative music video and lifting the spirits of all its listeners.
43. TWICE – Perfect World
A brassy, theatrical beast of a track, Perfect World is the strongest Japanese Twice track since 2019’s Breakthrough. It’s a track that never lets up, pulsing forward on an exhilarating combination of percussion, guitar and most importantly, a truckload of brass. It’s TWICE at their most commanding and opens an entirely new sound that I can’t wait for the girls to pursue in the future.
42. SHINee – Superstar
The other standout J-pop track from Korea comes from non other than the group that completely dominated 2021. Superstar may not be as flawless as their work in Korea but its giddy funk sound is classic SHINee, gliding on an instantly addictive melody that’s elevated by the boys always captivating performance.
41. L’Arc-en-ciel – Mirai
The best J-rock tracks thrive on a sense of real sense of catharsis, something L’Arc-en-ciel’s momentous Mirai knows oh so well. Immaculately produced and gorgeously performed by one of Japan’s most iconic voices, Hyde, Mirai feels more like a musical experience than just a simple listen.
40. My First Story – I’m A Mess
Anchored by and opening with one of the years most gripping hooks, I’m A Mess makes full use of Hiroki Moriuch’s unique, raw vocal tone to craft an excellent track that works great as an OST aswell as standalone single.
39. Ryuji Imaichi – Future Lovers
One of the voices behind last years synth pop masterpiece, Rising Soul, Ryuji Imaichi returned to that sleek, synth sound for his only solo work with the effortlessly cool Future Lovers. Many acts tried their hand at this particular sound in 2021 but Future Lovers feels like a real encapsulation of it, harnessing a production and performance that transports you right into the neon reality of its music video.
38. Toshiya Miyata (Kis-My-Ft2) – Nemophila
Each Kis-My-ft2 member released a solo single this year and though each had its merits, Miyata’s hyper melodic, soundtrack esque Nemophila was the one that connected with me the most. Its reserved verses may initially underwhelm but when the sheer, overwhelming force of the chorus hits, it’s like I’m transported right back into the mid 2000’s.
37. Nissy – Do Do
The most buoyant of Nissy’s three 2021 singles, Do Do just sounds like summer, pulsing forward on a giddy rhythm guitar assisted electronic instrumental which opens up during its fizzy, multipart chorus that perfectly captures the kind of freewheeling laid back nature of summer break.
36. milet – Ordinary Days
Ordinary Days is one of those tracks starts off very unassuming but grows into something absolutely spectacular. Its opening moments are no different to any other keyboard driven ballad, sentimental yet unextraordinary. But when the stop-start pre-chorus hits, the odd eyebrow is raised. Could this be something more? A question that is almost immediately answered when the rousing, hopeful, chorus comes crashing in. A real gem.
35. w-inds. – Strip
Many groups celebrate monumental moments in their career with sentimental balladry or ye’ olde fan song. But in classic Japanese fashion, w-inds. wanted none of that, instead opting for the slinky, groove of Strip to celebrate their 20 (!!) years together. Filled to the brim with glorious disco strings and pulsing bass, it’s a perfect throwback that also feels new and trendy.
34. Stereo Dive Foundation – Story Seeker
As the latest ending to the anime ‘That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime’, Story Seeker brought upon a lighter, funkier sound than what many had expected. And the results were excellent. R・O・N has always been a reliable supplier of over the top pop music but with this track he reeled back the bombast and leaned right into the funk. Resulting in a track that was just the right amount buoyant and nostalgic.
33. Snow Man – Boku no Kanojo ni Natteyo (Be My Girlfriend)
A track that plays out more like musical theatre than a full on single, Boku no Kanojo ni Natteyo unveils itself through a series of slinky verses that play out more like conversation than song. It’s an interesting dynamic and one that gives way to one of the years most catchy hooks. And just when you thought it was done, the track whips out a blistering Thriller sample for its bridge, sending Boku no Kanojo ni Natteyo off on a massive high.
32. Aimer – Zankyou Zanka
Following up the likes of Gurenge is a tall task for almost anybody but when you have someone like Aimer at the helm, you know you’re in good hands. Zankyou Zanka is the second opening for worldwide sensation Demon Slayer and takes a much more celebratory approach to its predecessor. This is Aimer at her most explosive, bringing together a plethora of supporting elements to create an absolute knockout.
31. Sexy Zone – Right Next To You
Another group that celebrated a monumental moment with an absolute banger, Sexy Zone dropped this sleek, garage and house inspired dance track to commemorate their 10th anniversary. It’s a track that never stays the same, constantly experimenting with unique production choices and tempo shifts which initially confuse but get more and more addicting with time.
30. SEVENTEEN – Hitori Janai (Not Alone)
SEVENTEEN’s strongest 2021 single came not from Korea, but from Japan. Hitori Janai is like a breathe of fresh air, uncumbered by modern day trends. It’s a track that feels free, open and one that pulls so much more from the groups debut era sound than anything we’ve heard recently, snowballing from nothing but a low electronic bounce into a gorgeous, pulsing mood lifter.
29. King & Prince – Beating Hearts
King & Prince adopted a weird, all-english approach to some of their singles this year and though many off didn’t do much for me, the potent percussion and rousing chorus of Beating Hearts completely won me over. From the triumphant brass that punctuates the hook to the completely over the top English lyrics, it’s just a great time all around.
28. Daisuke Ono – Kemono Michi
Despite the fact that whenever I hear this song my mind instantly goes to Erwin from Attack On Titan or Jotaro from Jojo’s, there’s no denying that Daisuke Ono knocked it out of the park with Kemono Michi. I have a massive soft spot for these percussive, guitar laced tracks and every single element of Kemono Michi‘s galloping production hones in on and goes right for the jugular.
27. Naniwa Danshi – Ubu Love
Unbelievably saccharine almost to the point of breaking, Ubu Love ushered Naniwa Danshi into the J-pop world in the most Japanese way possible. Bright pink clothing and all. You either love or hate its overbearing optimism but the surprisingly dramatic pre-chorus and sheer head-rush of a chorus are more than enough to get it on the list.
**It’s too much like a junior Cinderella Girl (still one of the greatest j-pop songs ever don’t @ me) for me to really embrace though**
26. IMPACTors – Top Of The World (review)
Another Johnny’s Jr. track that was so much better than it had any right to be, Top Of The World harnessed the kind of classic, rock heavy sound that characterised so much of the agencies brightest moments. And while Top of the World isn’t close to those legends, it’s massive, triumphant chorus is a total winner. Electric guitar and all. If this is any indication of what’s to come, then I’m all ears.
The mv version is a little to compressed for my liking to be sure to check out the (much better) live version which features a fantastic extended version of the track.
25 – 11