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.
25. Sakurazaka46 – Guuzen no Kotae (The Answer Given by a Coincidence)
These hyper melodic girl group songs always connect with me in a big way and just like last years Naze koi wo shitekonakattandarou?, Sakurazak46 gave us the whole package in the form of Guuzen no Kotae. Buoyed by a gorgeous chorus and serpentine melody that rises and falls at just the right moments, the track is an absolute delight.
24. Snow Man – Snow World
Though released as part of the groups debut in early 2020, Snow World received a music video to promote Snow Man’s first full length album. And while those busy, cluttered verses aren’t always my cup of tea, that soaring, hopeful chorus is like lighting in a bottle. Its freewheeling nature combined with the groups collage of voices create a truly magnificent moment that just keeps growing and growing until it reaches a feverish peak.
23. YOASOBI – Kaibutsu (Monster) (review)
Yoasobi continued to grow their incredibly addictive electronica sound in 2021 but twisted their trademark formula in fresh and exciting ways. Kaibutsu (Monster) was the first of their singles and was by far the strongest, pulsing forward on an invigorating darker electro crunch before blossoming into a classic Yoasobi chorus that you just can not love.
22. BUZZ-ER – Run
You all know how much I love Sexy Zone’s Run and so when I saw that under the radar J-pop group BUZZ-ER were not only returning with a song titled Run but one that sounded very much inspired by that aforementioned masterpiece, my ears were perked. And though incredibly rough around the edges and falling victim to some generic pitfalls, Run is a great pop song that pulses with an incredibly admirable sense of drive and a suitable amount of that “You can do it!” energy that I just adore.
21. Sakurazaka46 – Dead End
Sakurazaka46’s crowning moment of 2021, came not as an emotive, melodic track but instead, as in the form of the propulsive, aggressive Dead End. Many girl groups in Korea have been going for that empowerment / girl crush concept over the past few years but Dead End showed us just how potent the concept can be when attached to a killer song. From its numerous brassy breakdowns to its towering chorus, Dead End grabs onto you from its opening moments and refuses to let go.
20. Miyavi – Imaginary (feat. Kimbra)
While not given the traditional mv treatment, Imaginary was basically promoted as a single from Miyavi’s fantastic full length album of the same name. And while it was the most straightforward pop track from the album, Imaginary’s addictive electronica x guitar led backbone and instantly hummable chorus resulted in it being one of the years most replay-able tracks.
19. Snow Man – Secret Touch
Before Secret Touch, Snow Man were always the loud, performance group to me. More adept at large, brash pieces of dance pop than a touching, pop ballad. But the moment I heard Secret Touch‘s lush, sweeping chorus, I was completely captivated. This is a majestic, classic pop ballad that shines light on the groups surprisingly potent and diverse vocal line and one that carries a melody that manages to be both sorrowful and hopeful all at once. Brilliant.
18. Daichi Miura – Backwards
In 2018, Daichi Miura gave us the transcendent Be Myself, a song that harnessed a triumphant a triumphant synth led sound to great effect. Backwards is the first time he’s returned to that sound since and it’s a complete knockout. Harnessing a hypnotic, percolating synth loop that almost feels as though it’s running in reverse, Backwards‘ drawn out chorus is only the first of many surprises this stunner has within its claustrophobic brew.
17. FAKY – HappyEverAfter
FAKY are constantly exploring different genre’s but they’re at their strongest when they strip it back and focus purely on the melody. And the beautiful HappyEverAfter is all melody. From it’s instantly striking waterfall like synth loop to its ascending chorus, every moment of HappyEverAfter is immaculately produced and performed. One of the years best, emotive mid-tempo’s and my favourite FAKY song yet.
16. Nissy – Say Yes
My favourite J-pop soloist finally released a tonne of material in 2021 and while not all of it was my style, the trop-pop inspired Say Yes was the track that stood high above the rest. Home to one of my absolute favourite opening to a chorus, Say Yes‘ two part hook is its strongest asset, opening with an striking slinky bassline and incredibly catchy melody before exploding into a rousing celebration. Yes it’s all a little tropey and generic but the fact that it works so well is a testament to just great of a performer Nissy is.
15. Kami Wa Saikoro Wo Furanai – Meguru Meguru
A majestic, guitar driven anthem disguised as a TikTok ad, Meguru Meguru is home to some of the years most uplifting and powerful melodies. It’s production follows the always great, ‘snowball effect’, growing and growing throughout its runtime, repeating the same melodic beats each time but upping the ante on each repetition. A choice that makes Meguru Meguru‘s climax a complete stunner.
14. Kis-My-Ft2 – Luv Bias
As generic, overplayed and common as these emotive, Japanese pop-ballads may be, I swear to god that I’m bound to like each and every one to a certain degree. So when a really really good one comes along, I fall absolutely head over heels in love with it. Such is the case with Kis-My-Ft2’s Luv Bias, which takes an otherwise standard production and tacks onto it one of the years biggest, most emotional choruses that just gets better and more effective on each repetition. It just keeps going. And going. And going.
13. King & Prince – 恋降る月夜に君想ふ (On The Moonlit Night, When You Fall In Love)
King & Prince debuted with one of modern J-pop’s greatest ever songs in the form of the hyper melodic and ridiculously campy Cinderella Girl. And though they had seemingly departed from that sound altogether given their recent singles, On The Moonlit Night, When You Fall In Love harkened back to that fantastical whimsy with renewed vigour and a tremendous chorus that perfectly harnessed the magical, aloof nature of the tracks subject matter. This is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea but once that chorus grabs hold of you, it’s near impossible to shake off.
12. Sexy Zone – Let’s Music
Last year’s number 1’s just miss out on the top 10 this year but that doesn’t mean they didn’t peak with an absolute banger. Let’s Music is the ultimate Uptown Funk clone, harnessing the sheer propulsive energy and freewheeling nature of its template and adding an irresistibly fun chorus that starts at a 10 and only gets bigger from then on. But the real star of the show is the sheer personality on show, which elevates Let’s Music from just a simple throwback romp to a full on party.
11. Kis-My-Ft2 – Fear
After hitting a rut within the singles department during 2020, Kis-My-Ft2 returned big time in 2021 with a collection of fantastic singles. Fear was a dark, evocative return to form that took all that was great about the groups brilliant rock infused singles and b-sides to craft a haunting and incredibly unique piece of music that really resonated with the kind of dark, choking feeling that many felt during the second year of the pandemic. Easily the groups strongest single since 2019’s Edge of Days (tied with Luv Bias of course).