My Top J-Pop Songs countdown continues in its expanded format! We’ve got fifty of the best (mostly idol) tracks Japan had to offer, with many great choices relegated to the honorable mentions. Because I don’t write about all of these songs the way I do for K-pop, this is always a fun countdown to compile.
It was a lop-sided year for J-pop idoldom, with some agencies (Johnny’s) totally owning my playlists and others (LDH) having a more modest string of releases. You’ll see a couple names pop up often, which won’t be too surprising for long-time readers.
As always, I’ll warn that this list tends to be even more biased and focused than my K-pop list. I simply don’t listen to every single J-pop release in the way that I do for K-pop. But song for song, I think I actually prefer these 50 tracks to the 50 Korean releases I wrote about last week. Hopefully you’ll find some new favorites!
Travis Japan – Big Bang Boy
Official HIGE DANdism – Crybaby
Hey! Say! JUMP – Gunjo Runaway
KAT-TUN – We Just Go Hard (ft. AK-69)
SHINee – Superstar
Nissy – Get You Back
Sekai No Owari – Tears
News – To The Future
Hey! Say! JUMP – Negative Fighter
Exit – Superstar
50. Kamenashi Kazuya – Pure Ice
(full music video – youtube link is a short preview of all solo tracks)
I never would’ve expected KAT-TUN’s Kamenashi to tackle a minimalist trap song, nor would I expect to enjoy it so much. But, Pure Ice drips with texture and thrives on its sense of understated cool.
49. HiHi Jets – Eyes Of The Future
I’m patiently waiting for HiHi Jets’ debut, and silly dance tracks like this are part of the reason. It’s big and dumb and wonderful, with some of my favorite random English lyrics of the year. I need “I’m a super, duper zap!” printed on a t-shirt right now. (full review)
48. Takao Sakuma – Trigger
You can never go wrong with an Ultraman theme, especially if you want your pop music to sound as if you’re approaching the Big Boss Level, guns blazing. Adrenaline fuels this boisterous rock/dance hybrid in breathless fashion.
47. BUZZ-ER. – Run
Run is clearly inspired by Sexy Zone’s own 2020 masterpiece, down to its brassy catharsis and wall-of-sound chorus. But if you’re going to copy a J-pop track, it might as well be the best one to come out in years. I’d happily take a hundred of these.
46. SixTONES – Boku ga Boku Janai Mitai da (I Don’t Seem To Be Myself)
I wasn’t always sure what to make of SixTONES’ 2021 output, but Boku ga Boku Janai Mitai da is a straightforward sing-along, thriving on the group’s strong vocals to deliver a potent shot of rousing energy. (full review)
45. Exile x Sandaime J Soul Brothers – Virtual Love
Released just a few days ago, the mighty Exile and Sandaime J Soul Brothers combine their talents for an immensely slick electronic dance track. It’s the best either have sounded for months, paired with an eye-catching music video that’s one of year’s most thrilling.
44. SixTONES – ST
Heralding the release of their first full album, the heavy ST is a great example of SixTONES’ straight-ahead rock sound. Its shout-along chorus is an especially effective purge of emotion. (full review)
43. Capsule – Virtual Freedom
Capsule returned this year and saved their strongest song for December. Virtual Freedom is cool and aloof, but its bright synths conjure a neon fantasy that melds perfectly with Toshiko Koshijima’s icy vocals.
42. Generations – Liberation
The Jr.Exile groups embarked on a cool animated series of videos this spring, kicking off with the high-octane Liberation. It gives Generations the chance to release their most energetic single in some time. Liberation is so slick and satisfying. (full review)
41. Official HIGE DANdism – Pending Machine
Official HIGE DANdism throw down an addictive groove with album highlight Pending Machine. Satoshi Fujihara’s intense vocals always convey emotion, and that quality is especially beguiling when paired with such rhythmic material. This one will work its way under your skin.
40. Kis-My-Ft2 – Luv Bias
After a so-so 2020, Kis-My-Ft2 rebounded in 2021 by embracing a more mature sound. Luv Bias‘s immense chorus is a keeper, proving more and more effective as the months went on. They give you exactly what you want in a pop song. (full review)
39. Solidemo – Taking Off!!
Solidemo’s music has always been hit or miss for me, but they found the perfect companion in Taking Off‘s surging drama. From its stomping verses to that euphoric chorus, the song simply soars. (full review)
38. Snow Man – Boku no Kanojo ni Natteyo (Be My Girlfriend)
My 2021 MVPs make their first appearance with the slick, sinfully catchy Boku no Kanojo ni Natteyo. Brassy breakdowns give way to electro-swing verses and an insistent hook. But, I’m obsessed with the Thriller-esque bridge. Those synths and guitar!!
37. EMPiRE – IZA!!
IZA!! is a tense, prickly wonder. Its verses pulse across a welcome catwalk strut, yet the brash vocals keep the track from feeling too bubblegum. The seesawing chorus is a total winner, even if I’m tempted to hum Shakira’s She-Wolf every time I hear it.
36. Nissy – Say Yes
Ever the showman, Nissy adds constant charisma and warmth to the straightforward Say Yes. The song incorporates so many of the year’s most popular trends, yet always feels indebted to his unmistakable star power. (full review)
35. Snow Man – Namida no Umi wo Koete Ike (Go Over The Sea Of Tears)
As the theme for the first season of their variety show, Namida no Umi wo Koete Ike has been around before 2021. But, it was paired with a full mv (not the youtube version embedded above, unfortunately) early this year. It’s a total rallying cry, with a chorus that opens with a shout and never looks back.
34. Nakamaru Yuichi – Change Your Mind
(music video – youtube link is a short preview of all solo tracks)
KAT-TUN’s solos ended up impressing more than their group work this year, and Nakamaru’s electro-stomper Change Your Mind stands on top of the pack. His processed vocals perfectly merge with the insistent throb of synths, powering the song toward an epic chorus.
33. Nogizaka46 – Wilderness World
Nogizaka46 released a few 2021 songs that nearly made my countdown, but Wilderness World remains my favorite. I love the vocal effects that open the track, matching the breezy — yet intense — drive of the instrumental. The chorus gains strength through its subdued melody, moving a mile a minute but always remaining magically ethereal. (full review)
32. Ryuji Imaichi – Future Lovers
So many acts borrowed from synthwave this year, but Ryuji Imaichi’s Future Lovers gets the sound just right. The instrumental’s driving intensity contrasts with the soft vocals, blooming into a gorgeous call-and-response chorus that’ll have your reaching for your 80’s sunglasses and neon jacket. (full review)
31. Kitayama Hiromitsu – 灰になる前に (Before It Becomes Ash)
Each member of Kis-My-Ft2 released solo material this year in celebration of their tenth anniversary, but it was the eldest Kitayama that stood out most with the dark alt-rock of Before It Becomes Ash. The song fits his voice like a glove, swerving through tricky melodies and bringing the kind of gritty atmosphere we rarely hear from Johnny’s idols.