Each year, I try to delve deeper into the vast world of J-pop. 2018, in particular, rewarded that persistence. J-pop may be difficult to find for international listeners, but it provided a wonderful antidote to some of K-pop’s overused trends.
This countdown is usually littered with Japanese title tracks by Korean groups, but this year only two out of the twenty songs fit within that category. As usual, it’s worth noting that I am MUCH more well-versed in the K-pop industry than the Japanese scene. Whereas I listen to pretty much every new Korean release throughout the year, I tend to only seek out music from certain corners of J-pop’s vast landscape. So, my countdown is by no means a definitive look at Japanese music in 2018, and it obviously tends toward the idol side of things.
It is, however, a dynamite list of twenty tracks that should give you an overview of what I’ve been listening to this year. Japanese music videos are notoriously hard to find online, so if the video is not already embedded, click on the photo to watch.
B1A4 – Until We Meet (Aerumade)
DAY6 – Breaking Down
100% – Song For You
Kis-My-Ft2 – LOVE
BiSH – NON TiE-UP
The mixing is a bit too (intentionally) rough for this to find a way onto my countdown, but NON TiE-UP had one of my favorite music videos of the year and I just love its ballsy energy and symphonic influence.
20. Da Pump – U.S.A.
With its Village People-esque bombast, Da Pump’s U.S.A. took over Japan this year. It’s novelty through and through, but in the best way possible. Hear it once, and you’ll be unable to forget it. (full review)
19. Nissy – Don’t Let Me Go
Dialing back the pace for a gorgeous, lovelorn mid-tempo that focused on his voice, Nissy’s Don’t Let Me Go proved the power of simplicity and emotional heft.
18. Nogizaka46 – Synchronicity
I only occasionally dip my feet into the world of insanely large J-pop girl groups, but Synchronicity was hard to ignore. It’s such a beautiful, classic pop song, evocatively performed by its dozens of layered vocals.
17. Arashi – Summer Wind (Natsu Hayate)
If you’ve heard an Arashi song before, you basically know how Summer Wind will sound already. But, its throwback melody offered a welcome sense of nostalgia to a summer filled with trendy tropical pop. (full review)
16. Sky-Hi – Snatchaway
AAA’s main rapper offered one of his most uptempo solo tracks yet with the brass-splashed Snatchaway. The breakneck verses impressed, but that sledgehammer chorus really sealed the deal. (full review)
15. Kis-My-Ft2 – You, Me (Kimi, Boku.)
Kis-My-Ft2 officially secured their place as my favorite J-pop group this year, but that was mostly due to some incredible b-sides. Their singles were spottier, but this old-school slice of swelling melody and celebratory energy proved to be the best of the bunch. (full review)
14. Johnny’s West – Daybreak (Akatsuki)
More often known for their goofy, hyper-stylized pop, Johnny’s West dialed things back for this surging, synth-driven anthem. The propulsive chorus ranks among their very best.
13. Nissy – The Days
Some songs are so over-the-top jubilant that they just make you smile from the very first beat. If you’re able to resist The Days‘ foot-stomping charms, you’ve got more self-control than me!
12. News – Blue
News’ best work takes full advantage of member Tegoshi’s potent vocals. Blue went above and beyond, drawing out the best from all four of its members. Its rousing chorus is full-on power, perfect for stadiums everywhere. (full review)
11. Bullet Train – A Kind Of Love
After losing a member (one of their two vocalists, no less), it was unclear how Bullet Train would sound in 2018. A Kind Of Love helped calm fans’ worries. Its anthemic melody and boundless energy proved the group was here to stay. (full review)
10. Da-iCE – Fakeshow
A kaleidoscope of fractured strings and vamping vocals, Fakeshow stood as Da-iCE’s best single in some time. It was also one of the most slyly experimental pop tracks that Japan produced in 2018, bolstered by its immense chorus. (full review)
9. Sexy Zone – Unforgettable Flower (Wasurerarenai Hana)
With a name as ridiculous as “Sexy Zone,” you’d expect more beguiling material than the guys usually give us. But, Unforgettable Flower took advantage of their growing maturity, delivering an irresistible funk-pop throwback with style to spare. (full review)
8. M!LK – Over The Storm
M!LK’s past material tended to be hit or miss (especially if you don’t like cute concepts), but by adding members and shifting sounds, the group emerged with their strongest song yet. Over The Storm pulses with Chaser-level energy, featuring one of the most powerful hooks of the year. (full review)
7. KAT-TUN – Ask Yourself
Coming off of a long hiatus, Ask Yourself packed all the musical drama you’d expect from a long-awaited comeback. It’s KAT-TUN at their most sleek and concentrated, positioning a brisk melody over a polished instrumental that gave the guys a deserved kick-start for the next stage in their career. (full review)
6. King & Prince – Cinderella Girl
It’s been awhile since Johnny’s Entertainment debuted a new group, so King & Prince’s success was pretty much secured even before Cinderella Girl debuted. But, the song’s fluffy pop hooks transformed them into a bonafide sensation. It’s as cheesy as can be, but just try dislodging that chorus from your brain. (full review)
5. AAA – Dejavu
AAA roared back with their strongest single in years, pursuing a darker sound that fully utilized each member. Dejavu rockets between the slow-burn drama of its verses and the giddy pop of its chorus, nailing both moods. If you’re on the fence about J-pop, this is a good place to start. (full review)
4. Seventeen – Call Call Call!
Seventeen made their Japanese debut in 2018 with one of their strongest tracks. Call Call Call returned the group to their bombastic funk-pop sound and added a welcome dose of rock guitar for good measure. Its powerful chorus takes advantage of the group’s large configuration, pounding with unflagging energy. (full review)
3. EXO – Electric Kiss
EXO’s best 2018 title track was not released in Korea. Electric Kiss not only eclipsed Tempo and Love Shot, but easily stood as the group’s most potent single since their 2016 work. The blistering rap verses play perfectly with the hard-hitting percussion, building to a hook that feels badass without resorting to lackluster trap breakdowns or overly repetitive cacthphrase hooks. This is the EXO I first fell in love with. (full review)
2. Daichi Miura – Be Myself
Be Myself is a showstopper, and proved as much by earning my highest title track rating in 2018. Its surging, 80’s-informed chorus is among the year’s very best, and stands out even more when contrasted with the song’s subdued verses. More than any other track on this list, Be Myself felt like a Big Pop Moment, securing Miura’s place at the forefront of modern mainstream J-pop. (full review)
1. Nissy – The Eternal Live
The Eternal Live boasts one ingredient that much of music was lacking in 2018: It feels truly alive, unencumbered by programmed loops and samples. Nissy’s rich vocals and inimitable stage presence were made for a towering funk-pop track like this. It resists the urge to settle for Uptown Funk-esque brass samples, bounding instead on a full-throated chorus and robust instrumental that feels as mighty and unencumbered as Nissy’s playful performance. (full review)