We made it! The finish line!
This is MY list of the best songs from Japan in 2021, and let me tell you, it’s been quite the year! I think I’ve become more accustomed to Korean pop music than I have Japanese pop music in recent years, but I still manage to get a lot of music from Japan on my radar. It was actually quite a surprise to have a full list of songs I could actually pick from, because I did a lot of exploring this year and finding a lot of new artists to listen to.
So, will those artists make an appearance on the year-end list for 2021? Will some more veteran artists appear? Will Koda Kumi actually have a song on the list this year? The only way to find out is to read on…
Doughnut by TWICE
from the single “Doughnut”
Kicking off the list is a song from… wow, nearly weeks ago! No, this is NOT ~recency bias~, so then why is this on here, you ask?
TWICE’s “Doughnut” encompasses a fresh concept for the girls, all while still feeling essentially TWICE. Maybe it’s the influence that city-pop has had on the girls’ recent Korean discography (‘Eyes wide open’ certainly had that covered with its spread across the entire album). Whatever the case may be, there’s something special in the wintry midtempo ballad’s 80s-like, Sailor-Moon-esque flair, and perhaps the girls are right in alluding to the shape of a doughnut, because, just like a doughnut, this is on an endless loop in my head. ⬛
こんなハズジャナカッター! by BEYOOOOONDS
from the single “Gekikara LOVE / Now Now Ningen / Konna Hazujanakatta!”
I don’t know; maybe it could be the delivery of their lines in the song, it could be that they really just know how to be a gag group, it could be those amazing verse takes, but BEYOOOOONDS really knows how to catch my attention.
Whether it is mentioning every possible Hello! Project group in the roster, or whether it is mentioning every possible popular idol group that’s in the current mainstream, or even if it is just to somehow meta their debut song into this one, “Konna Hazujanakatta!” might just sound like your average idol pop song, but there’s a certain charm to its lyrics and frantic instrumental that you have to wonder if Tsunku really allowed this madness to happen. Whatever the case is, we are going above and beyooooond with these girls in the future. ⬛
Chopstick by NiziU
from the album “U”
There may be detractors; there may be those that find this cringe; there may even be those that just think this is outright stupid.
But taking a well-known piano melody and immersing it into your Korean pop producer’s production skills, naming it the less-than-subtle title of “Chopsticks“, after said composition piece, and then releasing it as a lead single to your first album… you have to give it to the girls of the Nizi Project, who have taken Japan (and frankly, South Korea) by storm. Their sound might by K-pop, but they at least have the creativity and the nerve to really take us there… and I live. ⬛
キャンディーレーサー by きゃりーぱみゅぱみゅ
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
from the album “Candy Racer”
Sure, she’s not as viral as she used to be. And that’s okay. And sure, her music hadn’t seen as grand of production as it used to have back in 2011 (and this says something about Nakata, her producer). But you can’t deny she had something good up her sleeve in 10 years time.
Presenting “Candy Racer“, the lead single to her most recent album of the same title, a frantic array of instruments that, when all merged together, take you back to some strange 90s-era electronica that somehow also manages to sound uniquely hers. I blame it on her vocal delivery – she sounds like she’s having so much fun, and I can’t deny anyone any fun. And that’s really all this (and its album) is. Pure, sugary, and hyper-dance fun.
I, for one, am glad she’s back. ⬛
HULA HOOP by LOONA
from the single “HULA HOOP / StarSeed ~カクセイ~”
The second of the K-pop groups to make it on this list, of which I was actually trying so hard to avoid; yet, there’s really just no avoiding this one.
Let’s preface it with this: Have you stanned LOONA yet? Because you should, and I can guarantee it’s highly likely you will after listening to the sugary sweet jumping joy that is “HULA HOOP“. The better of two A-sides, it is produced entirely by a K-pop production team, but it somehow still feels so Japanese pop, giving this the perfect, unique hybrid of Japanese and Korean pop that I have been so longing to get from South Korea’s foray into Japan. I’ll be spinning this on rotation, much like a hula hoop. ⬛
give it back by Cö shu Nie
give it back
Cö shu Nie
from the single “give it back”
If you’re an anime fan, like myself, then you’re no stranger to the catalogue of Cö shu Nie. The trio is known to have a particular sound when it comes to their anime tie-ins, and while each song individually has its charms, there was no escaping how similar they all sounded…
Enter “give it back“, one of the ending themes to the popular anime series Jujutsu Kaisen. “give it back” shares similar elements of their other songs, but something is oddly different, and maybe it’s the vocal delivery, maybe it’s the slight change in tone from the darker tie-ins. It doesn’t really matter in the long-run, when all of these elements join together to form something actually really beautiful. So, I take back everything I’ve thought about the trio, and give my love back. ⬛
The Light by FAKY
from the single “The Light”
There’s something so charming about FAKY; even with all the member changes, and the weird inconsistent releases, the girls continue to deliver quality track after quality track.
“The Light” delivers quality and so much more. It is perhaps the most fun I’ve gotten out of a FAKY track, and probably one of the most fun songs of this year. Built around a jazzy instrumental that has tinges of late-00s Japanese pop and R&B embedded into it, “The Light” is an early 2021 track that really set a wholesome tone for the rest of the year, despite everything that’s happened to the world thus far. One can only hope that we can all see The Light in 2022, and I hope FAKY can help take us there. ⬛
BOY by King Gnu
from the single “BOY”
King Gnu is pretty huge in Japan, and I didn’t quite see the appeal for a while. Yet, after watching a quirky, and an essential-watch, anime called Ranking of Kings, I was introduced to one of this year’s best tracks, the second anime tie-in of the list: “BOY”.
As funky as it is loud and filled with power, “BOY” is a powerful pop-rock track that fills you with this feeling of hope and growth. It’s only fair that it ties itself to Ranking of Kings, about a young boy’s journey to rightfully become king after his status as king was taken from him due in part to his lack of any kingly strength and power. And that’s the feeling that’s embodied here.
If this is any indicator of what King Gnu’s catalog is like, then sign this boy up. ⬛
きらり by 藤井風
from the single “Kirari”
There must have been something in Japan’s water during the months of March, April, and May because there’s just a lot here to really appreciate during that time period in 2021.
Having been released right at the start of May, Fujii Kaze’s “Kirari” comes as a surprise. His previous material didn’t quite appeal to me, either, but there was just something really fresh about the pop-funk instrumental that pulses throughout this song, adding to the really soothing whispery vocals that the soloist has to match. It might just be one of the most feel-good songs of the year, and for a year like 2021, I think we needed something quite like “Kirari”. ⬛
Wonderland feat. BONNIE PINK by Night Tempo
Wonderland feat. BONNIE PINK
from the album “Ladies In The City”
Ever been exposed to vaporwave? Familiar with future funk? If you’ve heard city-pop songs, you’ve likely been exposed to these genres in some form or another, which has the artists taking existing tracks and transforming them into tracks highly influenced by 80s and 90s Japanese pop.
Night Tempo is one of these artists, and his growth as an artist has allowed him to expand into the actual Japanese market, and believe me when I say this, I was completely floored by his effort. “Wonderland feat. BONNIE PINK“, which has him collaborating with one of Japan’s amazing singer-songwriters, is a testament to this: a house effort that will have you floating in air with its simple electro-synth melody that feels so 80s yet also recent.
Call yourselves Alice because this will, guaranteed, take you to wonderland. ⬛
美人 by ちゃんみな
from the single “Bijin”
Where are all the women at?
“Bijin” is this year’s best hip-hop track, and one of the best of the releases from 2021.
CHANMINA has such a fabulous fire in her songs, and this one is no different. This one, in fact, has a lot of bite, and with its powerful lyrics of women and the standards beauty, it is a message that is in-your-face but in the best way possible. Featuring a darkly hip-hop instrumental that will have you feeling your most badass, give it up to CHANMINA and all the most badass of women. You’re fucking beautiful. ⬛
U by millennium parade × Belle
millennium parade × Belle
from the single “U”
2021 really said let’s make all anime tie-ins worthy of listen, because we’ve got another one to the list (and this isn’t even the best one).
“U“, a song from the 2021 anime film Belle, which is an alternate take on the story of Beauty and the Beast, is a tour de force of an anime song. With an instrumental that merges an instrument orchestra with the booming bass and synth of electronica music, “U” is a powerful song. Vocals are provided by Belle’s seiyuu, Nakamura Kaho, who gives the song’s amazing instrumental the much-needed vocal prowess, delivering it with the emotion that you can just feel belongs to the film’s character.
While I haven’t seen Belle, “U”, one of the year’s best anime tracks and songs of the year, has gotten me itching to see it when it comes to the West. ⬛
踊 by Ado
from the single “Odo”
There has to be that one song that really surprises me and throws me for a complete loop…
That’s the case with “Odo“, a track from the insanely popular Ado, who released the viral track “Usseewa” just a year prior. Now, I’m not 100% on this, but this track was also produced in collaboration with famed electronica producer TeddyLoid, which only amplifies how fantastic this gritty, powerful dance track is. There’s an edge that feels like I can only ever hear this from Ado, and frankly, I can’t get enough.
If this song wants me to dance as bad as it wants, then there’s no question, I will. ⬛
しわあわせ by Vaundy
from the single “Shiwaawase”
We’re nearing number one! It was a close one for the top two, so it really could have been either or (but as I’ll say later, there really was no other option). Either way, both tracks are stellar works. And so, without further ado…
“Shiwaawase“, by Vaundy, who has taken Japan by storm with his songs that feature lyrics with deeper meanings, visuals that portray them, and a prowess for songwriting talent at such a young age (he’s only 21), is an example of a song that gives you that feeling… that tingly feeling filled with goosebumps and a breeze of air that hits you head on. Delivered with such power on top of an instrumental that builds and oozes emotion, its lyrics speak on being together through an impending end; it’s sad, but there’s also a glimmer of some hope that’s felt in the song.
On the day I discovered this song, I became a Vaundy stan, and I bet once you’ve taken a go, you will be too. ⬛
One Last Kiss by 宇多田ヒカル
One Last Kiss
from the mini-album “One Last Kiss”
There really was no other option.
“One Last Kiss“, released by one of Japan’s prolific musicians, Utada Hikaru, is that song. The last of the anime tie-in songs on the list, having its song play the ending of the final Evangelion rebuild films… and really, it’s only fair. I haven’t seen the movie itself, but if my partner can attest that this is the perfect song to end the series, then I have no qualms.
But it’s not even that that makes this song so inherently beautiful (and beautifully bittersweet). It’s the lyrics, the amazing A.G. Cook production (and how, frankly!), the toned-down vocal delivery… it’s everything all in one. It’s a perfect production, a perfect song about reminiscing, a perfect ender, a perfect portrayal of beauty. I get chills talking about it, because it is now one of my all-time favorite songs.
It is the best song of the year. ⬛
And that is it for 2021!
I will be coming back with more material in the new year because I will have officially finished my schooling, and now, I’ll have way more time to be nitpicky with 2022’s songs.
But of course, 2021’s Japanese pop roster was a delightful mix of fun, emotional, and full of anime tie-ins. I bet this will be the same case for next year, but if not, at least I didn’t bet any money (lol). That said, I’m hoping to find some more new artists next year, as well as take a look into more tracks from some of the artists in this list (if I haven’t already done so).
I hope you enjoyed this list, but I’d definitely love to hear what your top 15 of the year might be, so feel free to comment below. Otherwise, see you next year!