With this 2017 Top 10 list, I’ve now done these lists for five years in a row. Man, that is a long time. I’ve had a distant affection for JPOP for a long time, but I really started my deep dive into the genre in 2013. After being pulled into the world of KPOP via the thread here on Giant Bomb, I decided to finally go all in on JPOP as well. Ever since then, I’ve spent a stupid amount of time each year listening to what the genre has to offer and always like to end the year with a summation of what I liked best. I won’t say that 2017 was a bad year for Japanese music, but many of my favorite artists either didn’t put out new material or released songs that didn’t quite live up to their past releases. This year also marks the end of many great groups and artists, such as Reol’s new unit and Charisma.com. Despite these disappointments, there was still a lot to love about 2017’s JPOP offerings, and I found a number of new artists to obsess over as well. Here’s a look at my 10 favorite songs of the year. I hope you enjoy my list and I encourage any criticisms, comments, or sharing of your own favorites!
This year, for the first time, I’ve decided to add this honorable mentions section. These are the songs that were in consideration for the list but didn’t quite make the cut. As such, I wanted to give credit to: Brand New Emo by Towa Tei, Blissful Transistor by Shakalabbits, Return to Zero by Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, On the Line by Tomggg, and All Generations by Hi-Standard. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the main event!
10. Lemon - Inshow-ha
Inshow-ha, a duo of female office workers who first teamed up to make music in 2009, released their biggest album to date this year, . While I wouldn’t call Lemon the best Inshow-ha song, it’s a solid addition to their catalog that reminds me why I first came to like them. The vocal work is as superb as always, featuring their unique style that dances between an almost disaffected tone in the verses and a potent intensity during the chorus. Those vocals are supported by a strong, catchy guitar riff that repeats through almost the entire song. However, my favorite parts are the quieter moments where there’s only a subtle beat and the duo’s singing. The rest of the production is a bit harsh but suits the measured chaos of the song as a whole. As for the video, it’s just as weird as most of Inshow-ha’s videos. There’s some vivid use of yellow and plenty of oddly fascinating visuals. This song is an intense yet enjoyable ride.
9. Boys Seco Men - Chai
Anyone who’s followed my JPOP thread here on Giant Bomb might know that I have an affection for all-female bands. The most notable of these in 2017 for me was Chai, a fascinating new discovery dripping with their own singular style. They debuted last year but put out their first full album, , in October of this year. The highlight of this album is easily Boys Seco Men, a pleasantly strange but inexplicably addictive track. It’s certainly a little abrasive at times, likely to a degree that many will find entirely off-putting. I personally love its chaotic style, though, like how the vocals shift wildly in intensity while remaining wholly confident and enjoyable. My favorite part is the chorus, a rambunctious yet supremely enticing hurrah. The instrumentation is delightfully grungy, a distorted punk-rock esque sound with an addictive flow at its core. The video is playfully bizarre as well, with tons of throwaway vignettes and an odd safety aesthetic for some reason(?). It’s made fun by the undeniable charisma of the group, fully enjoying themselves. I’m very excited to see what Chai comes up with next year.
8. Keep It One Love - Color-Code
I first heard Color-Code 3 years ago when they exploded onto the scene with I Like Dat, an in-your-face electronic song with flashy style and catchy lyrics. They returned this year in force, releasing several singles and three music videos. My favorite of the bunch was Keep It One Love, a much different song than I Like Dat but amazing nonetheless. The vocals are the strongest part of the song, particularly the punchy chorus featuring all three members at once. The verses are a little more subdued but manage to make up for it with solid delivery and plenty of ‘tude. The “main” vocalist in particular has a charismatic presence that really adds a lot to the song as a whole. There’s not much to say about the production because of its minimalist style, although it is perfectly serviceable. I do think the horn section laid under the track works strangely well, though. The video is sadly nowhere near as flashy as I Like Dat’s and includes a weird sponsorship/tie-in (?) to Lay’s for some reason. I do think it’s still an enjoyable video, mostly due to the lively performances of the girls just having fun. This track shows that Color-Code isn’t just a one-trick pony, and I’m curious to see what other styles they tackle.
7. Suga Sweet - FAKY
I’ve said this before, but I think FAKY is the most KPOP-feeling Japanese pop group out there right now. Their music constantly tries new things just like many Korean produced tracks, even using sounds not typically found in your average JPOP song. Suga Sweet is another noteworthy example of this, a relaxing song that feels to me like it fell directly out of a Korean summer lineup. The vocals are silky smooth, with each member giving a fantastic performance. The candy-themed lyrics are a tad silly, sure, but they are used sparingly and add a fair amount of catchiness to the song. Production-wise, the plain beat and synth don’t add much to the track. Together with the vocals, however, they create a comforting combination. Finally, the video is a straightforward but beautifully-shot outdoor video that again reminds me of KPOP in its style and choreography. It flawlessly suits the laid-back sound of the song. I recognize that there’s nothing truly special or unique here, but I find this song to be unbelievably charming, overcoming its simple nature through sheer charisma and style.
6. Tumblin’ - Rei
Rei was another new discovery of mine this year. She melds her lifelong love of American blues music with Japanese lyrics and creates something evocative of both cultures. Tumblin’ is her big release from 2017 and I love it. Her voice has an old-school sound to it, calling back to the swing era of music, and flows with excellent rhythm. She lightfully weaves her vocals into the song, effortlessly shifting between slower moments and the upbeat chorus. The swing style extends to the instrumentation, adding an undeniable groove to the entire track. Rei plays both an acoustic and an electric guitar at different parts in the song, each providing a different kind of sound. She even displays some impressive talent with amazing solos for each guitar. I also like the horn work, which adds a good deal of flair to the song. The video’s neat too, an enjoyable romp through a Japanese convenience store. It’s simple, even somewhat amateurish, but the lazy behavior of the girls nicely suits the song’s pleasant feel. If you’re a fan of skillful guitar play, Rei’s catalog is definitely worth a look.
5. Labyrinth - Mondo Grosso
Mondo Grosso, real name Shinichi Osawa, is an incredibly prolific Japanese producer and one of the most famous DJs in Japan. This year, he released an album titled , featuring multiple guest vocalists on tracks he produced. Labyrinth was the first of these I heard, and it’s still my favorite. The production is absurdly good, with a killer beat from beginning to end. Oftentimes, the vocals stop and it’s just the beautiful electronic synth washing over you. Many of these quieter moments are actually the best parts of the song, especially when the gentle yet powerful piano notes are added. The vocals from guest Hikari Mitsushima aren’t always present but add the perfect amount of emotion to the song. I quite like the effect on them, creating an ethereal and echoey sound. It all goes superbly with the video, an absolutely gorgeous experience featuring Mitsushima dancing through a city. Everything is so well done: the long tracking shots, the visual depth in the more stationary shots, the almost overblown cinematography, the sublime choice of locations, and even Mitsushima’s cute outfit. It’s without a doubt the best JPOP video of the year, and a hell of a song to boot.
4. Endless Line - Reol
Last year marked the formation of Reol’s official group under a record label, comprised of herself and longtime collaborators Giga and Okiku. Unfortunately, the group broke up this past October, citing a desire to try new things on their own. We did get one final EP from the group, which includes a couple of noteworthy songs, chief among them Endless Line. Reol is on top of her game as always, demonstrating her elegant flow and fierce utaite style. It’s a robust performance that manages to even top itself at the end when it builds to a crescendo, a nearly overwhelming climax to the track. While I enjoyed last year’s Give Me A Break Stop Now enough to give it a spot on my Top 10 list, I’m glad to see her return to the style that suits her best, the one that made me like her in the first place. Giga’s production is equally excellent, utilizing tons of whimsical synth and a variety of effects that I continue to discover on every new listen. It’s rare to hear a backing track as well-produced as this, as it could easily stand on its own as an EDM track with minor changes. Sadly, there is no video for any of these newer tracks due to the group’s dissolution--although it would admittedly be hard to top last year’s absolute banger. I’m sad to see Reol’s group break up so fast, but I am eager to see what’s next for the talented artist.
I Also Recommend: New Type Tokyo
3. Audrey - Suiyoubi no Campanella
Suiyoubi no Campanella (or Wednesday Campanella, if you prefer) took the top spot of my list last year thanks to an utterly insane chain of top-tier tracks. This year, however, I personally didn’t connect as fully with many of their songs, due to their different style and focus. Audrey is the only one I felt strongly enough about to include on my list; thankfully, it’s now one of my favorite Suiyoubi tracks to date. KOM_I’s vocals are as stellar as ever, providing a irresistible hook for the entire song. Her voice slinks playfully amongst the various beats and synth lines, making it sound effortless despite her overwhelming skill. The intense rise near the end of the song is particularly amazing, an emotional climax that hits me every time. I really love the production on this track as well. It has an outstanding beat and some skillful, poppy synth work that gives it a lot of energy and catchiness. The breakdown somehow manages to bring it to another level still, delightfully popping in your ears. Regretfully, this is one of their songs that didn’t get a video this year, but there are still plenty of other Suiyoubi no Campanella videos from 2017 to check out if you’re so inclined. If you still haven’t given Suiyoubi a try, you’re really missing out on one the greatest current acts in JPOP, if not music as a whole.
2. Choose Me - Band-Maid
Band-Maid remains my favorite JROCK band. They just keep getting better every year, and I’m always excited for their newest release. The best song of theirs this year, Choose Me, is a another demonstration of their tight cohesion and superb sound. The vocals are maybe the strongest yet, demanding your attention from minute one. This is most evident in the forceful chorus, an electrifying battle cry that assaults your ears. The verses are equally incredible, however, with a smooth rhythm that perfectly suits the instrumentation. The best section is a quiet part near the end of the song: it’s very short but it has this terrific swagger that leads into the climax of the song with panache. Every other member of the band is equally on point. There are skillful sections from each of them: the always-present-but-never-unwelcome guitar solo, a slick bass line during that quiet vocal section, and tons of great drum work. I don’t think it’s the best showcasing of any of the individual members, but I do think it’s possibly the best amalgamation of their playing to date. The music video is really the only “disappointing” part, a fairly standard video that just shows them playing in a plain room, which they’ve already done before. Its one saving grace is that it does highlight each member’s performance pretty well. Band-Maid is on a hell of a run, and I never want it to stop.
I Also Recommend: Don’t You Tell Me
1. You Don’t Listen to Rock - Aimyon
I first fell in love with Aimyon last year thanks to her wonderful release She Lived, Didn’t She?, which took my number 3 spot. Those affections have only grown this year as I slowly came to appreciate just how good she is. You Don’t Listen to Rock was the pinnacle of this captivation, a triumphant song that is my favorite JPOP song of the year. Most of this is due to her voice, which is now one of my most loved in all of music. I just adore the way it sounds, comfortable and inviting yet breathtaking and emotional. The powerful moments in this song (and her others) send chills down my spine, and the chorus is entirely mind-blowing. It could make even a mediocre song great, and it makes an already great song like this one remarkable. I think the instrumentation is terrific too: a subtle and mellow production that adds nicely to the calming tone of the vocals in the verses and a vibrantly compelling anthem during the intense chorus. I especially like how her acoustic guitar pairs with the backing electric guitar, with each taking center stage during different parts of the song. The video is equally worth praising. It has an old-school music video feel to it, complete with a retro filter for effect. Aimyon’s calm yet sharp stares and movements also feel straight out of twenty years ago but somehow fit perfectly with the song too. Her music evokes feelings in me I haven’t felt since first discovering Yasuha Kominami in 2014, and it will likely continue to be part of my life for years to come.
I Also Recommend: I Want To Convey Love