2018 was not a bad year for Japanese music. There was a steady flow of consistently solid tracks for pretty much the entire year, and I added more songs this year to my giant repository of noteworthy music than any year before it. At the same time, however, fewer songs made a great impact on me in 2018. I had a hard time putting together this list, not because I had too many songs to choose from, but because it was difficult finding ten songs that really stood out to me as being special enough to be defined as one of my favorite of the year. I just don’t have the same passion for these songs that I had for songs on my lists in past years. Nevertheless, I still feel happy with the list I ended up with, as I think each of the ten songs is at least interesting or unique enough to be worth mentioning, with the top half being the ones I actually do feel very strongly towards. It’s a respectable group of songs, each of which I think is absolutely worth hearing at least once. I hope you enjoy my list and I encourage any criticisms, comments, or sharing of your own favorites!
10. Nakunaru watashi - Minna no Kodomo-chan
Minna no Kodomo-chan is an idol duo unlike any other. Their music utilizes a mix of pop, metal, and electronic styles and focuses on intense themes like death. Members Honoka and Cinnamon have a loli-goth aesthetic that nicely fits these themes. Their “gimmick” comes together most notably in Nakunaru watashi, a intensely discordant track with an equally eerie video. The production is harsh and dark and pairs perfectly with stark, haunting vocals from its two members. It also keeps you on your toes, shifting from softer verses to intense, crashing instrumental sections without any warning and remains entirely enthralling from beginning to end, taking you on an aurally mesmerizing journey. The video is the final piece of this uncomfortable creation, with a variety of strange yet colorful visual filters and many lingering shots on “dead” bodies. Nakunaru watashi, and its video, stuck with me this year in a way few songs did.
9. Let Me Know - Perfume
Perfume is a group that needs no introduction. I’ve been a fan of them ever since I first started getting into Japanese music, and they remain one of my favorite groups thanks to their killer production, fantastic aesthetic, and charismatic members. As such, I’m not surprised that another of their tracks, Let Me Know, landed on my Top 10 list for this year. I instantly fell in love with the main hook that opens the song, a unique rippling synth line paired with loud snaps: it’s one of producer Yasutaka Nakata’s best pieces of work in years and is easily my favorite part of the song. The vocals are as solid as ever, perfectly suiting the softer pace and tone of the song while still remaining distinctive to Perfume’s style. The video is also fantastic, if a bit simple, focusing on a small train set but still bringing the typical bright costuming and memorable choreography that are expected of the group. My only real complaint with the song is the somewhat repetitive “chorus,” which could have used a more memorable hook. Even with this shortcoming, Let Me Know is a solid entry in Perfume’s vast catalog.
ALSO: Future Pop
8. New Days - Rei
I first discovered Rei, an Japanese rocker who grew up in New York, last year and was immediately impressed with her guitar abilities and sense of swagger. I kept an ear on her this year and wasn’t surprised when she released multiple enjoyable tracks throughout the last twelve months. My favorite, however, ended up being her first release of 2018, New Days. As with last year’s Tumblin’, the instrumentation here is incredibly slick and tons of fun. It remains fresh throughout the song, with many little riffs thrown in here and there to keep things interesting. The best parts are the pure instrumental sections, such as the guitar solo which clearly reflects Rei’s affection for classic American blues with its retro sound. Rei’s vocals are also killer, bouncing between Japanese and English repeatedly and packed with funny little asides, such as her announcing the upcoming guitar solo. The chorus is where she truly shines, however, channeling the vocal style of Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. New Days is an absolute blast of a song and has become one of my go-tos whenever I need a jolt of energy to pep me up.
ALSO: Lazy Loser
7. Camelia - Mili
Mili is a very strange, unique Japanese group. It’s hard to define exactly what they are because they use elements of pop, rock, and classical music to create their music. One word I can use to define them, however, is talented. They not only have multiple musicians who are extremely good at what they do, but their vocalist/lyricist momocashew writes and performs in three different languages: Japanese, English, and Chinese. One of the best examples of their abilities, and my favorite song of theirs from 2018, is Camelia. It pairs an absolutely breathtaking, classically-styled composition provided by both the core group and many equally-talented guest musicians and the incredibly evocative and gorgeously-sang English vocals from momocashew. I won’t deny that these vocals are a bit clunky in terms of their grammar, but they manage to be remarkably impactful nonetheless. There really isn’t anything quite like this in Japanese music, a track that somehow manages to feel like a pop song and a classical song all at once. I highly recommend checking out more of Mili’s work if you enjoy Camelia, as their catalog is packed with beautiful, thought-provoking songs like this one.
ALSO: Mirror Mirror
6. Zurui Hito - Tetora
Tetora is still a relative newcomer in the Japanese music scene, only forming into their current lineup this past summer. As such, I had zero expectations when I first heard this song, unsure of what they could do. To my surprise, Zurui Hito ended up being one of my favorite songs of 2018. The vocal performance is pretty much the entire reason this ended up on my list, as it’s one of the best I heard all year. Her voice is absolutely exquisite, throaty in a way that few Japanese singers can manage. It’s also packed to the brim with emotion and power; in fact, at times, she sings with so much feeling that her voice seems to crack from the strain. I was blown away by it the first time I heard it, and I’m still impressed by her skill every time I go back to this song. It’s so incredible that the rest of the song is somewhat inconsequential to me. However, I do think the instrumentation, which is light and simple, works perfectly in this case, allowing the focus to remain on the vocals. There really isn’t much else to say about Zurui Hito, as you need to hear its raw power for yourself to understand why I liked it so much.
5. Smoke (Retune) - Mondo Grosso
I first included Mondo Grosso on my list last year, a prolific composer/DJ who constantly puts out killer songs year after year. With this in mind, I wasn’t surprised to find another one of his songs on my list this year. Smoke (Retune) is a delightfully dirty track that I adored from the second I first hit play on it in April. It has a lazy, droning production that I love to just throw on and zone out to, nodding along to the rhythm with a dumb grin on my face. I’ll admit there’s really not a whole lot to it in terms of composition, but it just nails its soporific sound so perfectly that I can’t get enough. It’s worth noting that there are actually two versions of this song. This one, which I prefer, has English vocals from Rhyme, while the other has Japanese vocals from Aco. In my opinion, the softer voice and tighter delivery of Rhyme fit the song so much better. The video is also perfect, with a very ethereal feel and plenty of smoky and/or dark shots that tie into the feel of the song. Smoke (Retune) is a remarkably grungy electronic track that expertly evokes the aesthetic of its title in every way.
4. Kirameki Dancin’ - Bradio
Bradio, which hilariously stands for Break the Rule And Do Image On, is a relatively new Japanese funk/rock band. I had never heard of them before this year but was quickly infatuated with their intense productions and the memorable look of their members, particularly the main vocalist’s absurd afro. The first song of theirs I heard, Kirameki Dancin’, also quickly became my favorite and definitely deserves a spot on my Top 10 list for 2018. It features an incredibly groovy production that feels like a throwback to retro funk, including typical rock instruments and even horns and bongos. This is a super high energy track that never lets up, and it’s a ton of fun from start to finish. The instrumentation is killer across the board, especially the lengthy solo section which features my favorite guitar solo of the year. I also enjoy the main vocalist’s high-pitched voice, which perfectly suits the style of this song. Finally, the video is an absolute blast. It’s packed with tons of people who look like they’re having the time of their lives, and it gives an already vivacious experience even more energy. Without question, Kirameki Dancin’ is one of the most pleasant songs of the year.
ALSO: Boom! Boom! Heaven
3. Harbor - Koutei Camera Girl Drei
I actually included a prior version of this group, Koutei Camera Girl, on my list back in 2015 with their fantastic trance release, Swallow Maze Paraguay. It had seemed like the group vanished into the ether after that, but I was pleasantly surprised to see them return with a new name, Koutei Camera Girl Drei, this year. What’s more, I was ecstatic to learn that their new release, Harbor, was just as good, if not better, than their past release. The key reason I love this song so much, which incidentally was why I loved Swallow Maze Paraguay too, is the absurdly fantastic driving beat that dominates the entire song. This is paired with killer flow from each of the vocalists, hitting so perfectly on the beat that it makes me want to throw my hands in the air in excitement. I can’t put into words why I vibe so well with this song, but it just works so damn perfectly for me in a way that few electronic songs can manage. Everything about it feels so meticulously tuned to fit together that it feels almost like it came about naturally, which I find unbelievably impressive. Every time I listen to it, I get so lost in it that I forget what I was doing because I can’t help but put my full attention on it. If you haven’t listened to Harbor before, do it RIGHT NOW.
ALSO: Slowly World
2. Turn Me On - Band-Maid
Band-Maid has been one of my favorite and most consistent groups for the last several years. Since their explosion of popularity, and my discovery of them, in 2015, they have appeared on every one of my Top 10 lists. Time and time again, they put out fantastic albums packed with top-tier rock songs that I can’t get enough of. This year was no exception; in fact, might be my favorite album of theirs to date. And my favorite song off that album? Turn Me On. The instrumentation is excellent in every Band-Maid song, but I think Turn Me On is one of their absolute best. I love the little back and forth between the bass and guitar prior to the guitar solo. The solo itself is amazing, some of the guitarist’s best work yet, and just keeps building in awesomeness until it finally ends. Best of all, however, are the killer drum fills peppered throughout the song, my favorite being the one that ends the solo with a huge bang. The vocals are equally solid and include some nice harmonizing between the main and backup vocalists. Even after four years, I’m still not tired of Band-Maid because they just keep getting better. Turn Me On is a fantastic song, but I can’t wait to see what comes next from one of the best modern rock groups.
1. Tic - No Buses
I listen to TONS of music every year, but inevitably, songs will fall through the cracks. There’s just too much music and too many artists to listen to even a fraction of everything that comes out each year. As such, I probably tend to miss out on a lot of the smaller stuff. Fortunately for me, and you, No Buses actually got my attention this year. This is the most indie Japanese rock band I’ve ever seen, with a retro style that looks and sounds like it fell out of at least 40 years ago. There’s almost zero chance you have any idea who they are, but you should listen to them, especially their best track, Tic. It’s a pitch-perfect retro indie-rock song that I have been obsessed with for months. Every aspect of it is so delightful and charming. The instrumentation, despite being quite simple, has the catchiest hook I’ve heard all year and a remarkably solid solo. The vocals, despite being mostly incomprehensible, are wonderfully chill and pair up with the instrumentation so damn well. Best of all is the economy of the song, with no pointless filler and a tight 2:22 runtime. There’s even an adorably dorky, low-budget video that again fits perfectly with the tone of this song and the feel of the group. It all comes together into an experience that I find utterly intriguing and have listened to more than any other song this year. As such, I couldn’t give my top spot to any other song than Tic.
ALSO: Cut My Nails