After starting this feature in February, I hoped to post a new J-Pop round-up every month or so. But, the Covid-19 pandemic put a halt on Japan’s music industry, with very little material coming out since early April. There just hasn’t been much to write about. So, instead of featuring strong b-sides this time, I’m going to focus on some 2019 gems that I haven’t yet written about.
As K-pop has continued to disappoint in 2020, I’ve been diving deeper into the J-pop world, discovering new artists and learning about those I’ve always wanted to explore. This has resulted in the discovery of many great 2019 songs and albums that I simply didn’t have a chance to listen to before my 2019 end-of-year countdown. Consider this a catch-up, and a look into some artists I’ll likely be writing more about in the future.
Beyooooonds! – The Japanese D.N.A.
Over the past months, I’ve been falling down the wormhole that is Hello! Project. I’ve got a long way to go, but I’ve already been smitten by several of the collective’s groups. And for my money, their best 2019 track came courtesy of new act Beyooooonds. The Japanese D.N.A. is like Japan’s answer to Y.M.C.A – but actually good. Or, to put it in K-pop terms, it’s like the long-lost, high-octane Kara single we never got. This being J-pop, the whole thing is a little ridiculous and frantic at times, but my god that chorus hits hard! When will K-pop give us a chorus like this? It’s just unabashed joy and energy and ridiculousness.
Official Hige Dandism – Pretender
I don’t need to tell you about Pretender. It was Japan’s biggest hit last year, and pretty inescapable even if you knew nothing else about J-pop. I heard it a few times in 2019, but always dismissed it for one reason or another. Then, I watched reality show Ainori Love Wagon: African Journey, which used Official Hige Dandism’s Vintage as its theme song. I slowly fell in love the with the nuance and power of Satoshi Fujihara’s voice. Coming back to Pretender, I finally understood why it was such a slow-burn sleeper hit. There’s a timelessness to its cathartic, anthemic melody, and the same can be said about the entire album. I just adore these guys, and I’m so happy that they’ve become Japan’s “it” band.
Sasuke – J-Pop Never End
This little J-pop urchin is super endearing, from his weirdly addictive dance moves to his youthful exuberance. J-Pop Never End is an odd, kitschy burst of a pop song, hinging on a sense of 80’s nostalgia that far pre-dates Sasuke’s birth. But the more you listen to it, the more addictive it becomes. That brash, electronic freakout of a chorus hits surprisingly hard. He is some kind of wunderkind, for sure.
Prizmax – Dance
It’s a little bittersweet featuring this track, since it was Prizmax’s final release before disbandment. I wish there was a Japanese-language version (I just can’t deal with some of those lame English lyrics), but this crunchy dance rock production hits like a sledgehammer. It reminds me of the era of K-pop I first fell in love with – larger than life and funky and very SHINee-esque. That line about “a virus racing in your body” has not aged well, though…
Morning Musume – Relationships. No Way Way
Okay, I’m cheating a bit here because this actually came out in January. But, it’s too good not to include. Relationships. No Way Way (what a title!) illustrates the importance of arrangement. Morning Musume actually released this same melody on an accompanying song, but Relationships is by far the superior offering due to its incredible groove. The instrumental is just a marvel of funky rhythm. When it briefly segues into a sample of American folk song Turkey in the Straw during its electrifying dance break, I am utterly charmed.
Solidemo – Love Yourself
Another January 2020 cheat, Love Yourself is pure Eurodance cheese. Solidemo have been around for awhile, but their material has never really connected with me. However, I am a fan of this kind of big-chorused pop, as contrived as it may be. Love Yourself has an incredible chorus, chugging with blissful dancefloor energy. In 2020, that’s enough for me.