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.
10. Snowman – Grandeur (review)
After a so-so debut year, Snowman fully came into their own during 2021 and the boisterous Grandeur was the track that kicked it all off. It’s one of the most fast pace songs we’ve heard all year, moving at a break neck pace on a propulsive electro swing beat that simply refuses to let up even when you think it will slow down. And while the numerous clobbering EDM breakdowns and incredibly stuffed production may prevent Grandeur from being on repeat, its massive, celebratory chorus is one of the years most musically satisfying moments.
9. Fantastics – Drive Me Crazy
Fantastics are (probably) my favourite current J-pop group and their foray into synthwave and other synth laden productions has resulted in many (fantastic) singles and b-sides alike. Drive Me Crazy is the latest funky, synth driven single from the boys and it’s a complete knockout. After a disorientating opening few seconds, Drive Me Crazy quickly wisps the listener into deliriously funky, rhythm guitar assisted wonderland that’s probably the strongest opening verse of the year. It’s just one catchy hook after another, culminating in a standout chorus that shifts from slinky to soaring with total ease.
8. Spyair – Wadachi (review)
At a time where the world is littered with doom and gloom, what many people are really holding out for is a glimmer of hope. Something to bring them out of the deep, dark hole that they seem stuck in. Something to inspire them, to guide them, to elevate them. And that’s exactly what Spyair’s momentous Wadachi aims to do. With a production that isn’t afraid to really go all out, Wadachi rests its claim on being the years biggest and best mood lifter, delving right into an optimistic, strings and band assisted instrumental that just makes you feel alive. It’s a track that just grows and grows, refuelled by the immense strength of its rousing, two part chorus that just soars into the stratosphere courtesy of Ike’s fantastic vocals.
7. DISH// – Birthday
Another track that stakes its claim on being the years biggest and best mood lifter, Birthday and Wadachi are like two peas in a pod. Perfectly complementing each others uplifting nature to create one of the years most formidable combinations. Where Wadachi goes for the “you’ll be ok” route, Birthday is an anthem, urging you to go and grab your dreams and aspirations with both hands.
A message perfectly conveyed through its fantastic strings heavy production that just swirls with a real sense of grandeur and drive, never once letting up in its pursuit of greatness. Something it aches during its shout to the stars, ascending chorus, which main vocalist Tachibana absolutely attacks, resulting in one of the years most glorious centrepieces. Birthday puts melody at the forefront and as such, manages to perfectly skirt the line between new and nostalgic.
6. Miyavi – New Gravity
A track that perfectly encapsulates the kind of distorted, electronica rock hybrid style of music that Miyavi absolutely thrives in, New Gravity led Miyavi’s fantastic new album to great effect. I know I’ve been harping on about the same thing for like 3 of the four tracks that I’ve already mentioned but New Gravity is another track that doesn’t know how to take a breath. There isn’t a single moment in the tracks aggressive brew that slows down, powering forward on one of the years most invigorating instrumental backbones and a distorted, seesawing post chorus drop that grabs your attention immediately and only gets more and more thrilling throughout New Gravity’s near 4 minute run time. And as usually, the entire package is topped off with a thrilling, instantly memorable chorus.
5. SixTONES – Boku Ga Boku Janai Mitai Da (I Don’t Seem To Be Myself)
SixTones’ sound has firmly been in the aggressive, rock realm since their debut but with the hyper melodic Boku Ga Boku Janai Mitai Da it goes to show that sometimes, departing from a tried and true formula is the best thing you can do to your sound. In a year where the groups output did little to excite me, Boku Ga Boku Janai Mitai Da shone even brighter than its surrounding releases, fuelled by a gorgeous melodic backbone that highlighted the groups often underestimated vocal line, who hadn’t sounded this good since Imitation Rain.
The brassy exclamations and the assisting keyboard create a surprisingly emotive soundscape, one that perfectly frames the tracks chorus, which goes straight for the jugular, radiating with a real sense of emotional urgency that reaches a feverish high during the standout bridge and blistering guitar solo that leads the track into its standout finale.
4. JO1 – Born To Be Wild
A rhythmic beast of a track, Born To Be Wild came out of nowhere and completely stole the show, all the while displaying the immense talent hidden within JO1’s ranks. It’s a track that truly broke the group into the stratosphere musically, bringing out layers upon layers of melody that effortlessly complement the pulsing beat that underlines much of the tracks short but sweet run time.
And while it wears its Korean influences on its sleeve (the second verse trap breakdown of course) it never gets bogged down in its own pursuit, instead using this otherwise potentially derailing moment as a refuelling station before the entire package breaks free from its shackles to give us the years most freewheeling blast of funk. The second pre-chorus is such undiluted blast, pulsing with a new found sense of urgency that feels unhinged and loose before that soaring repetition of the title ushers us into the tracks irresistible clean chorus. One that comes with everything you could ask for including sporadic blasts of triumphant brass!
And just when you think it’s expended all its resources, Born To Be Wild hits you with its trump card. The incredibly sticky hook previewed at the start of the track returns in its full glory, punctuating the bridge and climax and giving an already great song the kind of completeness that’s reserved for legends. A perfectly calibrated pop track.
3. Hikaru Utada – One Last Kiss (review)
A sense of growth is something that’s not really talked about or focused on in many modern day tracks. They kind of start, build during the pre-chorus, reach a peak during the chorus and then kind of just repeat the cycle all over again. This means that there usually isn’t really a sense of notable progression throughout the track, resulting in a listening experience that has you most of the time longing for the next chorus rather than enjoying the entire package. However, there are songs that structure themselves around the idea of growth, bringing in additional elements throughout its runtime before expending them on a knockout climax.
This ‘snowball’ effect as many like to put it can really elevate a good song into something great. And that’s why One Last Kiss stands out so much. As Utada Hikaru’s first anime OST in years AND that too being the soundtrack to the finale of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the track had a lot to live up to. And though it didn’t initially seem like much, repeated listens allowed me to fully appreciate the greatness of One Last Kiss. Its psychedelic, drum pad assisted instrumental is just gorgeous, growing from a slight bounce to a euphoric climax that is bound to leave both awestruck and oddly emotional.
But as great as the production is, Utada’s performance helps transforms One Last Kiss into the kind of transcendent listening experience it really is. She imbues each and every note with a real sense of emotion and pathos, something that works wonders along side the tugging adlibs that support each repetition of the gorgeous chorus.
2. Shinsei Kamattechan – My War (review)
Previewed with its shortened ‘anime version’ in December of 2020 and eventually released in its entirety in late February of this year Shinsei Kamattechan’s My War is one of those tracks that just leaves you in awe after each and every listen. It’s one of the years most experimental efforts bringing together elements of classic opera, symphonic rock, modern pop and shoegaze to create a surreal listening experience that feels almost unlike anything else that we’ve heard all year.
As a song, it’s better to consider My War as a song in two parts rather than as a whole. Its second half diverges so heavily from its opening 2 and a half minutes that I wouldn’t blame you if you thought it were a different song all together. It’s a combination that really shouldn’t work but does thanks to a flawless production and a striking performance from vocals Noko who stretches his voice to places I didn’t even know a male voice could go. And I think that’s the perfect description for My War as a whole. It’s a track that doesn’t ever, not even for single moment, adhere to whatever preconceived notion a listener may have before coming in fresh.
It’s utterly gripping, somehow managing to perfectly covey the dark, clausterphobic nature of the show it’s soundtracking whilst still sounding equally as if not better as a standalone single. Something that can’t really be said for many soundtrack turned singles. And much of that has to do with the tracks overall arrangement, which remains one of the years best and the key factor that makes My War such a delight. Its final two minutes remain the years strongest and most striking, flawlessly turning the entire track on its head without sacrificing any of the momentum it had built up until this point. And so by the time each of these elements come together to craft My War‘s immense finale, the best ‘anti war’ war anthem in recent memory has you sitting back in your chair, mouth wide open in awe, and a single tear falling down your left cheek.
1. Fantastics – Stop For Nothing (review)
So, I bet you’re wondering. What could possibly beat the likes of One Last Kiss and My War. Two of the years most experimental, most emotionally effecting (albeit in completely opposite ways) and most impactful tracks? Well, for me, it would be the years biggest and best “You Can Do It!!” moment. One that closely mirrors my favourite J-pop song of 2020 and one that I consider to be an absolutely perfect pop song. And that song of course, is Fantastics’ hard hitting dance funk masterwork, Stop For Nothing.
Opening with its most commanding and instantly gripping moment, Stop For Nothing introduces itself to the listener at full force with its massive, twisted synth loop. This is it. This is the moment. Instantly confident. Instantly commanding. Not afraid to start with a loud, triumphant bang! Every single moment of Stop For Nothing feels as though it’s in ascent, moving at a blisteringly fast pace that symbolises the tracks encouraging lyrics and unflagging commitment to making you, the listener, feel like the world is at your finger tips. And in a year where it felt as though almost everything was going to shit, a song like this helped fill me with a sense of optimism. A feeling that despite all the craziness, all the hardship, if I really “stop for nothing” then I’ll eventually, get to my goal.
And none of this would have worked had it not been for Yusei and Sota’s “fantastic” vocal performance. Fantastics have always opted for a fun, playful vibe but Stop For Nothing‘s opening, oft repeated synth loop and pulsing chorus pointed towards a more self serious side to the group. Not in the cringey, “Back in the game son” kind of way but the kind of self seriousness that feels mature and reflects a sense of genuine growth. Something that paid off in spades given just how the groups two vocalists just attack the song. Its an absolutely electric performance that perfectly captures the sense of desperation that those who chase their dream feel alongside the blind optimism of their supporters. And just when the track hits its emotional low during the emotional, melodic bridge, the blistering guitar solo rips through the silence, catapulting Stop For Nothing towards its breathless, near euphoric climax. One that caps the track off the same way it started. With that triumphant synth loop.