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!
2021 YEAR-END MASTERPOST
30. Stereo Dive Foundation – Storyseeker
R・O・N’s music under his Stereo Dive Foundation project is always big and brash, but it’s rarely this dang funky. Storyseeker‘s chorus pulses with an addictively light groove and potent pop melody.
29. Naniwa Danshi – Naniwa’n Way
I love songs that evoke the excitement of setting out on an adventure. The first time I heard Naniwa’n Way I thought it was a bit… much. And, this hasn’t changed. But, that frantic energy quickly established itself as a strength, fueled by the group’s irresistible enthusiasm.
28. Fantastics – Drive Me Crazy
Fantastics had a stellar 2021, and Drive Me Crazy anchored their second full-length with bursts of funky rhythm guitar and bounding spirit. Yagi Yusei and Nakajima Sota lead the charge with their smooth vocals, making this an upbeat summer standout. (full review)
27. Nissy – Do Do
Speaking of summer, it can be hard to recapture the appeal of a summer track in the dead of winter. Nissy’s Do Do is so strongly tied to the season, its hazy electronics and laidback melody conjuring hot afternoons with the AC pumped up. (full review)
26. Mia Regina – Fever Dreamer
I don’t often dip my toes into the vast anisong world, but Fever Dreamer‘s high octane headrush captured my attention immediately. This is my kind of impossibly energetic J-pop, bursting at the seams with propulsive momentum.
25. Kis-My-Ft2 – Fear
Marking an evocative turn for Kisumai, the haunting Fear confidently joins the ranks of their incredible rock-oriented singles and b-sides. Paired with a stark, creepy video, the song gains full charge during its hypnotic chorus. (full review)
24. King & Prince – Magic Touch
King & Prince did an excellent job balancing classic J-idol tropes with more modern, international sounds this year. The English-language Magic Touch slots right into the latter category, standing as their most hip-hop oriented single yet. It’s such an earworm.
23. Watwing – With You
The little-known Watwing scratched my itch for bright boy group fare, offering the infectious, synth-kissed power pop of With You. The song is composed of three distinct segments, each of which is full-realized and supremely catchy. K-pop fans will like this one.
22. Snow Man – Secret Touch
One half of a double-OST for drama Kieta Hatsukoi, Snow Man’s Secret Touch is evocative and gorgeously composed. Its classic melodies sneak up on you, anchored by a lush — yet understated — chorus. It turns out this versatile group is just as successful with mid-tempos as they are hard-hitting dance tracks. (full review)
21. Sexy Zone – Right Next To You
Celebrating their tenth anniversary with a trendy garage-influenced dance song, Sexy Zone took a very modern approach with Right Next To You. Its herky-jerky rhythms and confident performance provided the base for their slickest choreography yet. (full review)
20. Voyz Boy – Galaxy
Making a great pair with that Sexy Zone song, the far-less-known Voyz Boy fully captured my attention with the pounding intensity of Galaxy. It’s very K-pop in execution, but thrives on a series of catchy hooks that compliment the thumping percussion. (full review)
19. King & Prince – Namae Oshiete
Collaborating with 90’s legend Babyface (!), King & Prince played to their strengths with the cool sentimentality of Namae Oshiete. The song may feel overly cheesy at first, but its chorus will occupy your brain for months. The lush backing vocals are gorgeous, especially as we reach the song’s climax. (full review)
18. w-inds. – Strip
It feels like so many J-pop acts were celebrating anniversaries this year, but at twenty years since their debut w-inds. have all the younger groups beat. Strip kicks off a new era with panache, grooving along a sticky bassline and disco strings. It’s a powerful argument for their continued relevance. (full review)
17. Snow Man – Evolution
Promoting Snow Man’s excellent first album, this stormer of a dance track funnels their intensity into a series of clobbering synth and concussive beats. The guys stand at the core of the aural whirlwind, bending it to their will through sheer force of personality. (full review)
16. Sakurazaka46 – Dead End
From the moment Dead End‘s hulking brass riff hits, you know Sakurazaka46 are out for blood. The song grabs you by the collar and sends you spiraling through its unrelenting series of powerful peaks. The girls attack the track, their voices forged together in overwhelming fashion. (full review)
15. IMPACTors – Top Of The World
IMPACTors were only revealed at the end of 2020. They haven’t even debuted yet. But if the turbo-charged Top Of The World is any indication, they’ve got years of great music ahead of them. I’ll always be a sucker for these rock-themed pop tracks, their near-operatic melodies performed with gusto. (full review)
14. Sexy Zone – Let’s Music
While Sexy Zone’s 2021 output didn’t attempt anything as transcendent as last year’s Run, I’m more than happy to hear them have a bit of loose, funky fun. Let’s Music is a ridiculously enjoyable throwback, powered by hearty brass and an ebullient chorus that absolutely slaps. (full review)
13. SPYAIR – Wadachi
SPYAIR’s Wadachi is the kind of chugging sing-along that just makes you feel amazing. It has such a “go, get ’em!” energy, bounding along a sprightly rhythm as it climbs toward its anthemic, multi-part chorus. Music can be such a mood-lifter, and this song is guaranteed to do just that.
12. L’Arc-en-Ciel – ミライ (Mirai)
Rock band L’Arc~en~Ciel have been around for decades, and have long surpassed legendary status within the Japanese music industry. Their sound isn’t always for me, but Mirai is a knock-your-socks-off stunner. It’s one of the most powerful 2021 songs in any genre, with Hyde’s stirring vocals shooting it to the stratosphere.
11. Snow Man – Hello Hello
Hello Hello is undoubtedly Snow Man’s “brightest” single so far, and that approach allows for focus on sweet pop melodies that turn out to be the perfect match for their quirky charm. Eminently hummable, the track’s icy strings and genial beat make way for a robust chorus that may just be the catchiest thing on this whole countdown. (full review)