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!
10. King & Prince – Beating Hearts
Following the disco-funk trend, King & Prince elevate the genre with the punchy Beating Hearts. The song feels like an extravaganza — generous with melody and exuberant brass. It’s also home to my favorite English-language word salad of the year. Just take a look at these amazing highlights:
“Ah, kindle to the kingdom!
Gonna be loved!”
“Baby, why!? can you feel my sexy sugar?
Enemy comes, yeah”
9. Miyavi – New Gravity
Miyavi climbs into the top ten by doing what he does best: offering a blistering rock track powered by layers of distorted guitar and a beat that moves at breakneck speed. New Gravity‘s chorus is perfectly realized, flooding out with anthemic intensity. (full review)
8. Daichi Miura – Backwards
I’ve been waiting years for Daichi Miura to return with a sound that followed his epic 2018 single Be Myself. Backwards isn’t quite as good (few things are), but its hypnotic synth loops and stretched melodies make for a deliriously satisfying effort. (full review)
7. Snow Man – Grandeur
Snow Man turned up the intensity for the clobbering Grandeur. Its hooks move a mile a minute, pushed along by an intense dance beat that incorporates elements of electro swing and abrasive EDM breakdowns. Initially, it was a bit much for me. But, that towering chorus has only proven more addictive with age. (full review)
6. Fantastics – Stop For Nothing
As you’ve probably gathered through the years, I’m a huge fan of energetic “you can do it!” pop tracks. Fantastics wrap their motivational message in a hard-hitting dance-funk instrumental, culminating in a blistering guitar solo that sends the track off on a high. (full review)
5. King & Prince – 恋降る月夜に君想ふ (On The Moonlit Night, When You Fall In Love)
King & Prince’s music went through many iterations this year, but my favorite track hearkens back to their stellar debut Cinderella Girl. On The Moonlit Night, When You Fall In Love is pure idol cheese, bolstered by a fantastic melody that twists and turns with a sense of fairy tale magic. Just try to lodge that chorus from your brain. (full review)
4. Kami Wa Saikoro Wo Furanai – Meguru Meguru
I’m cheating a little bit with this one since it has no official music video. But, the (region-blocked) lyric video could almost qualify, and the song was a CM for TikTok (of all things!). Whatever the case, Meguru Meguru is absolute magic. It’s the exact sort of surging power pop I live for, propelled by a gorgeous melody that makes it feel like the whole world is at your fingertips. (full review)
3. Snow Man – Snow World
First released way back in January 2020, Snow World gained a music video this September to promote the release of the group’s first full album.
If Snow Man starred in a TV sitcom (they should) and it had an opening theme song (it would), Snow World would be the perfect fit. Its throwback pop-rock instrumental echoes classic tunes by groups like The Monkees, but the bounding energy is all Snow Man. Its insistent shot of positivity is the ‘drop everything and dance’ moment in a movie musical, where the whole town suddenly reveals a surprising knack for picking up disco fingers and run-in-place choreography.
I mean, is there anything better than that chorus? It just blooms and blooms and blooms until you’re smiling ear to ear.
2. Naniwa Danshi – Ubu Love
There’s a certain magic that sets Japanese idol pop apart. You either love or hate it, but once a song like Ubu Love has you in its grip there’s no looking back.
Achingly melodic, the track swoops and soars (when it’s not poking and chuckling), fueled by an earnest performance that totally sells the goofy razzle dazzle on display. Johnny’s groups excel at delivering this distinct brand of fizzy headrush, and Ubu Love stands as an incredibly effective example. Pair it with drama Kieta Hatsukoi for maximum appeal.
I can’t wait to see what Naniwa Danshi come up with throughout the remainder of their debut year. (full review)
1. JO1 – Born To Be Wild
For the second year in a row, J-pop is responsible for my favorite song of 2021. Born To Be Wild is such a rush. I almost feel guilty picking it as my top choice since it’s essentially a K-pop track (composed by Korean writers) performed in Japanese. But, the song is too good to ignore.
Born To Be Wild is a conveyor belt of highlights. Even its predictable second-verse drop-out manages to charm (and longtime readers will know how much I complain about second-verse drop-outs!). But, it’s the ultra-rhythmic opening vocal hook that steals the show. This composition feels so alive and potent, racing forward with a confident sense of purpose.
Of course, Born To Be Wild‘s powerful chorus is no slouch either. After a breathless build, the track swerves into a two-part hook. It moves from brisk and breezy to compelling and dominant. Like my favorite K-pop single of the year, Born To Be Wild takes you on an amusement park ride without leaving a moment to catch your breath. By the time everything comes together for its show-stopping climax, the song has already cemented its legendary status. (full review)