2019 was a pretty damn good year for Japanese music. It started strong and just kept going with solid hit after solid hit from artists both new and old. Even just a few months in, there were so many great songs I was worried I’d have a hard time putting my list together in December. While there were some difficulties, mainly in nailing down the bottom few songs, this year’s list was actually much easier to put together than most year’s lists. Those songs I’d been listening to for months easily nabbed a slot and a few last minute contenders slipped in for the rest. All in all, it’s a solid list that I feel proud of. Hopefully everyone enjoys at least one of my choices and I encourage any comments or sharing of your own favorites!
NOTE: Due to a current issue on Giant Bomb where video embeds are not working for me, I've instead linked to the videos instead of using embedded videos. If/when the issue is resolved, I will update these posts to add the embeds.
I'm A Pop is an impressive show of force from Chanmina, an artist I first discovered last year and found oddly compelling. Every aspect of this song exudes her confidence, from the spitfire vocals to her assertive attitude in the video. She shows off her language skills by singing in both Japanese and Korean and even throws in some English during the chorus, nailing the flow no matter which she’s using. Both the vocals and the production are hypnotic, seducing you with Chanmina’s commanding presence. I’m A Pop isn’t a song I’ll listen to that often, as I don’t really find it that catchy, but I can’t help but appreciate such an audacious, demanding performance.
Despite coming out this year, Bad Reputation is a pop punk song that sounds like it came directly out of the late 90s or early 2000s. The instrumentation is energetic and chord-heavy, with a solid memorable hook. During the verses, the singer nails the rhythm of songs from that era--not quite on-beat and almost laconic. The chorus is lively and fun and begs to be sung along to, thanks to the use of English lyrics. There’s even a terrific solo section that builds up the perfect burst of energy to lead into the song’s over-the-top finale. Bad Reputation is a wild nostalgia trip and one of my favorite punk songs in years.
Despite hearing their music for years, I’ve never connected with any of Sekai no Owari’s music. This year’s Lost, their first attempt at penetrating the Western market by pairing with British electronic group Clean Bandit, somehow managed to resonate with me though. Most likely, it has to do with the stunning vocals, which show off an impressive range from the group’s vocalist. They have a remarkably catchy rhythm to them as well, with a pleasant rising-falling dynamic that fits nicely with the uplifting theme of the lyrics. I love the tight production as well, which stays in the background and smartly puts the focus on the vocals. Lost is a fairly simple, even typical-sounding, song, but all the elements come together in a way that leaves me a little bit breathtaken every time I hear it.
The video for Last Dance is what I first fell in love with, a cute low-budget imitation of various movie scenes. Despite looking very cheap, it’s still an impressive imitation of tons of movies with a surprising eye for detail and I love the performances from the members of the group. As I kept watching the amazing video, I realized I actually really enjoyed the song too. There’s a pleasant rhythm to the verses where it always hits on the beat in a satisfying way. The production is simple but solid, particularly the ridiculously pleasant chorus filled with bubbly synth and the same punchy beat. It all comes together into a song that isn’t particularly noteworthy or impressive but one that I never tire of hearing. Last Dance is happy and upbeat and always manages to bring a smile to my face.
Denkousekka hooked me from the first second--the absurdly catchy guitar riff kicks in immediately and gets even better once the drums and bass start up moments later. This instrumentation creates an enticing energy that powers the entire song, leaving me bouncing along with it. The vocals are equally playful, with lots of little growls and vocal flourishes that add a lot to the song; there’s even a quiet, vocal-only section that leads back into the end of the song that I really dig. Tying it all together is the high-energy chorus that lasts just long enough before hopping back into that killer main riff. Denkousekka is a song that rarely lets up, bombarding you for nearly four minutes with its cheerful energy, and I love every second of it.
No Buses is startlingly good at creating hook-filled, retro-esque indie rock songs that stick in my head for months after hearing them, first with last year’s Tic and again with this year’s Pretty Old Man. It’s a fantastically composed song, filled with multiple catchy guitar riffs, an excellent bass line, and even a playful instrumental-only section. All of it has a warm, slightly echoey sound that again makes it sound very retro to me, like it fell out of the 60s or 70s. There’s also the same simple yet hypnotic vocals from the lead singer. His imperfect English pronunciation somehow fits the tone of their music perfectly, creating songs that are somehow both easy and hard to sing along to at the same time. I don’t think Pretty Old Man is quite to the level of Tic, but it’s still a remarkably memorable song all the same.
I adore every aspect of Zombie-Chang’s style, from her unique visual aesthetic to her oddly compelling vocals. Saredo-Shiawase is one of her catchiest songs yet and almost immediately earned a spot on my Top 10 list from the first time I heard it. The production is superb, mixing an incredible thrumming synth line, straightforward yet catchy beat, and interesting use of various sound effects to create a striking sound--even the almost discordant whine throughout the song manages to add to the overall effect. Zombie-Chang’s vocal style fits this sound perfectly, deep and playful in just the right way. I also can’t stress enough how much I enjoy the way she hits the beat with the verses; it’s just so satisfying for me. Saredo-Shiawase is a song that sounds like nothing else, and I can’t get enough of it.
Here’s an odd pick: a song from a Japan-only rhythm arcade game called Dancerush Stardom. I stumbled into Undercover completely by chance via my Youtube recommendations and immediately fell in love with it. It’s one of those songs that I cannot hear without nodding along, a song that was made to get up and dance to (obviously). The production is extraordinary: a bass line that slaps SO DAMN HARD, an absurdly catchy synth line, and a driving beat to tie it all together. The vocals are perfectly layered over the production, creating a pairing that has been so deeply stuck in my head that I don’t think a day has gone by where I haven’t hummed it at least once. It all comes together into a tight, two-minute long ride that left me speechless the first time I heard it and immediately had me reaching for the replay button. Undercover is my favorite electronic song of the year without question.
Minna no Kodomo-chan's mix of cutesy aesthetic and poppy vocals alongside dark instrumentation and even darker lyrics is a fascinating combination. Songs like The Walls are intense experiences that both chill and excite me. I love the dirty sound to the production, slowly ominous one moment and overwhelmingly intense the next. This is a song that goes in so many different directions that you never know what to expect next, taking you on a wild journey that never lingers long enough for you to get bored. The lyrics are as dark as ever, with the theme of being seen as nothing but a disappointment to everyone around you, and I highly recommend turning on the captions to read them for yourself. Even the creepy lo-fi video, complete with VHS distortion effects, add to the unsettling ambiance of the experience. Despite the depressing tone, The Walls is still remarkably catchy and fun to listen to and has stuck with me for months.
Band-Maid is the most consistent group to feature on my yearly Top 10s, appearing on every list for the past five years. I knew that one of their songs would eventually reach the top spot, and this year’s Blooming certainly earns its place at the apex of my list. As always, the instrumentation is top-notch in every way. There are multiple fantastic guitar riffs, from the smooth riff during the verses to the intense strumming during the chorus, and some impressive tap solos. The drummer bangs the hell out of her kit, providing an intense level of energy to the song via amazing fills and solid transitions. Even the relatively subtle bass adds nicely to the overall sound; it’s just a shame it doesn’t get to shine on its own. The vocals mesh flawlessly with the instrumentation, slickly rhythmic during the verses and relentlessly energetic during the chorus. There’s even a delightful quiet vocal section just after the solo that builds back into the finale of the song with a resounding bang. Blooming is yet another killer song from Band-Maid, and I can’t wait to see how they continue to grow and evolve in 2020.