My Top 10 Japanese Songs of 2020

Another year of Japanese music has concluded! My list for this year took a weird journey. I’ve been adding stuff to a tentative playlist all year in order to keep up with things I liked and have an easy way to listen to them again and again. This list looked very different before December. As I started the refinement process, I ended up throwing out a good chunk of stuff I thought was a lock and adding newer songs instead. Also, nearly every one of those songs that stuck around moved to wildly different positions on the list. This was a hard one to put together, as I almost feel like my sensibilities for what belongs on the Top 10 changed from the beginning of the year until now. In the end, this is what I came up with--a memorable group of songs that had the greatest impact on me in 2020.

10. Haru wo tsugeru - yama

On the surface, yama seemed to me like just another Japanese electronic producer with catchy, but otherwise unremarkable songs. However, Haru wo tsugeru is a song that grew on me steadily over the course of the year. Every time I hear it, I like it a little more, and I have a hard time imagining it not being on my list. This song’s best aspect is its superbly catchy production, with a snappy synth hook that persists throughout the song that rarely lets up from beginning to end. The vocals are punchy, yet smooth, and fit nicely along with the production, but there are also plenty of sections without vocals that allow the production to shine on its own. Haru wo tsugeru is the track that made me start paying attention to yama, and maybe it’ll do the same for you too.

9. Don’t Be Long - Band-Maid

NOTE: There is no music video for this song as of yet, so I've embedded a live video instead. If you want to hear a "clean" version, here's a link to the song on Spotify.

Band-Maid really squeaked into the list this year. After months of not releasing anything new, they finally dropped a couple new singles in December. Their “main” release, Different, is much too cacophonous for my liking, but I do really like the B-side from that release, Don’t Be Long. Interestingly, this is an instrumental track, which sadly means none of Miku or Saiki’s great vocals. On the other hand, it’s neat to see a song where the always fantastic instruments can just go for it a bit more, worrying less about vocal pacing or typical structure. There are some great guitar sections, comprised both of deeply thrumming riffs and intensely energetic strumming, and some of the best drumming I’ve heard from the group yet. My opinion is still a bit fresh on Don’t Be Long, but I do know it should be on this list.

8. Shekebon! - Vickeblanka

I enjoy songs for a variety of reasons--fun production or instrumentation, emotional resonance, creative music videos--but catchiness is probably the most important of all for me. A song that gets stuck in my head again and again is almost assuredly going to become one of my favorites; this is certainly the case for Vickeblanka’s Shekebon!, which has one of the most earwormy choruses of the entire year. It’s a silly, stupid, repetitive chorus, but I love it to death nonetheless, singing it to myself constantly after a fresh listen. The verses are much mellower but still fantastic as the artist shows off his shockingly impressive vocal range. The contrast between the verses and the chorus is strange, almost as if they come from entirely different songs, although, somehow, they work quite well together. Combine that with some straightforward yet memorable instrumentation, and Shekebon! is easily one of the catchiest songs of 2020.

7. 16yrs - Doul

Every so often, there’s a young artist who comes along and blows me away with their raw talent--and Doul is one of those artists. 16yrs is a remarkable display of potential that was unlike anything else I heard this year. She has an amazingly impressive voice for such a young singer, only 17 as of the time of this post. I love how it has this thick, syrupy quality to it that draws out so much emotion from her vocals. The lyrics themselves are powerful too, talking about how younger people are often treated less seriously because of their youth and how their opinions and experiences still matter. 16yrs isn’t a complex song, but it’s a powerful one that left me eagerly waiting to see what Doul can do with a few more years under her belt.

6. Satisfaction - Reverbee

There have been a fair number of retro-esque hip-hop tracks out of Japan in recent years, but Reverbee’s Satisfaction might just be my favorite of them all. This is because it takes that 90s era hip-hop sound and infuses it with elements of upbeat Japanese pop and rock to create an energetic ride that I’ve been hooked on all year long. The most important part of a hip-hop track, in my opinion, is tight flow during the vocals, and the duo kills it here--every verse is smooth and hits perfectly with the beat. The chorus switches to a Japanese pop-rock sound, upbeat and packed to the brim with energy. It’s one of those songs that I just can’t help but bounce along to. Sadly, Reverbee has already disbanded, but at least they left us with Satisfaction.

5. Caught Up in Time - Faith

Faith’s Caught Up in Time is a song I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about in 2020, particularly in regards to this Top 10 list. I went back and forth on its inclusion again and again, wondering if some of its negatives meant it shouldn’t be on the list. In the end, however, it’s still a song I’ve listened to A LOT this year, so I feel like it HAS to be on this list. The first half of the song is my favorite part, a saccharine pop-rock track with unbearably cute vocals and fun lyrics that tell a story about a failed relationship. Halfway through the song, however, it suddenly shifts into something much more powerful, both vocally and instrumentally. Even now, I still somewhat dread this shift when I listen to the song, as I don’t care for the bombastic second half as much as the relaxed first half, even though I know it fits perfectly with what the song is trying to say. It also maybe goes on for a bit longer than it should. Even considering its flaws, Caught Up in Time remains one of the most memorable songs of 2020 for me, across any genre.

4. Time Warp - Perfume

Yes, another Perfume song on my list. Big surprise. While I didn’t feel very strongly one way or another about Time Warp on the first few listens, its charms kept me coming back and, eventually, the song grew on me to the point of making it onto this list. I absolutely love the verses, which feature a nice back-and-forth between the vocals and little production stings. The chorus is the weaker part of the song, as I think it interrupts the nice flow that the verses have, but I do enjoy the steady build to the wonderful instrumental bridge, ending strongly with the memorable “boku no time warp.” There’s another amazing Perfume music video to go along with the song too, making creative use of the time warp idea by constantly rewinding and showing things again. And those outfits are gorgeous! Time Warp is yet another great Perfume song, and I feel like that’s about all I need to say to justify its spot on this list.

3. Voice Memo No. 5 - Chanmina

Chanmina has been busy in 2020, releasing a ton of new videos and a few collaborations, including one with KPOP artist Taeyeon. Out of all of these songs, the one that has left the biggest impression on me was her first video of the year, Voice Memo No. 5. I’m still in love with Chanmina’s voice: smooth and sultry but with a bite too. Her killer flow is on display yet again in this track--every single vocal just feels so fluid and effortless in a way I think few artists can pull off. It pairs well with the simplistic but memorable production, the sparse drums/claps and smooth guitar riffs vibing nicely with Chanmina’s distinct style of singing. Topping it all off is a delightfully strange video packed with stylish cinematography and flashy “clown” costuming. All in all, Voice Memo No. 5 is another Chanmina classic in the making.

2. Monster-san ft. Aimyon - Ken Hirai

Aimyon is an artist I’ve had on my list multiple times before, but this year, my favorite song of hers was actually a featuring she did on a Ken Hirai track, Monster-san. Each of them have incredible voices on their own, but they also work amazingly well together. The verses have a smooth back-and-forth rhythm as each artist takes their turn before throwing it back to the other, and the chorus brings their unique voices together, paired with some neat echo-y effects, to create a fantastic refrain. Everything about this song, even the gorgeously shot and creatively choreographed video, ties into its themes of being stuck with someone you don’t want to be with but are unable to leave. Monster-san was not the Aimyon song I was expecting, but I got something even better, as well as a newfound appreciation for Ken Hirai too.

1. Say So (cover) - Rainych

Say So is a strange inclusion on my list: a cover of an English song (by Doja Cat) by an Indonesian woman, who goes by Rainych, performed in Japanese. I had never heard the original version of the song before hearing this cover, and after going back and listening to it out of curiosity, I can’t imagine any version other than Rainych’s. The production changes are subtle--pitched up a bit and taking a slightly faster pace--but bring additional energy to the song, especially when paired with Rainych’s crisply-delivered vocals. I also just think it sounds so much better in Japanese, especially with the peppier production. It’s impressive that it sounds so good coming from a non-native speaker. Finally, even Rainych’s facial expressions and little body movements in the video are perfectly adorable. For me, this cover is the ideal version of Say So and without a doubt, my favorite Japanese song of 2020.

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