I’ve compiled a “Best of J-pop” list every year since The Bias List started, but it always came from a very narrow point of view. In 2020, one of my personal resolutions was to follow the J-pop industry more broadly and (hopefully) expand my palette in the process. So while those past lists definitely included some epic songs, this is the first one that I feel really satisfied with.
Because of this, I’ve expanded 2020’s countdown to encompass fifty songs — and I could have gone longer. You’ll immediately recognize the genres and sounds I tend to like, though the list is definitely more diverse than past ones. And since Japan releases music in a different way than Korea, my eligibility rules for this list are simple. A song only had to be released since I posted last year’s countdown!
30. Nogizaka46 – Route 246
Though he had previously announced retirement, super-producer Tetsuya Komuro returned this summer with several tracks. On the surface, he’s an odd match for a group like Nogizaka46, but his swirling, repetitive style makes a potent foil for the girls’ chorused vocals. Route 246‘s introductory synth riff will take you right back to the 90’s in the best way possible.
29. Tasuku Hatanaka – Promise For The Future
The bombastic Promise For The Future opens with a descending synth arpeggio reminiscent of T.M.Revolution’s immortal 2003 hit Invoke. And that makes sense, since the entire track is built around the kind of timeless rock tropes that have been used to fuel anime and action films for decades. Hatanaka’s always-powerful vocals are just the cherry on top.
28. Kalen Anzai – Bokura wa Tsuyoku Nareru (We Can Be Strong)
I am a total sucker for the late-90’s Every Little Thing J-pop sound, and getting ELT’s own Mitsuru Igarashi to compose Bokura wa Tsuyoku Nareru ensures that the nostalgia factor is high. Anzai’s icy vocals and the school marching band instrumental give this track a buoyant lightness that felt quite unique in 2020. (full review)
27. Sandaime J Soul Brothers – Movin’ On
Forgoing the heavy EDM or posturing hip-hop of their recent material, Movin’ On paints J Soul Brothers with a gentler brush, harnessing a sprightly drum-and-bass beat and melding it to a light pop melody that goes perfectly with their airy vocal style. (full review)
26. Perfume – Time Warp
Longstanding trio Perfume came roaring back in 2020 with their best single in ages. Time Warp finds the perfect driving 80’s beat, throws some delightful synth loops over the top and flawlessly positions the girls’ quirky vocals. This will be stuck in your head for weeks.
25. Sakurazaka46 – Nobody’s Fault
Keyakizaka46 reinvented themselves in name, if not sound. But, that doesn’t really matter, does it? If it wasn’t broken in the first place, there’s no need to fix it. Nobody’s Fault crystallizes their appeal, tethering their army of voices to a satisfyingly dense rock instrumental with brilliant brass flourishes. (full review)
24. Toya Takase – All Or Nothing
Like Blinding Lights on a bender, the wicked All Or Nothing takes 2020’s synthwave trend and injects it with a driving EDM energy. It’s a single-minded dance track, always circling back to its throbbing, megawatt loop. Even the warped vocals contribute to this swirling, frantic sense of tension.
23. Morning Musume – Relationships. No Way Way
Released in two different versions, Morning Musume’s Relationships. No Way Way benefits greatly from this percolating, brass-kissed arrangement. It’s a deeply funky track, made even more so when it jumps into a fun interpolation of American folk song Turkey in the Straw during its standout breakdown.
22. Bullet Train – Asayake
Although their music has consistently been great, Bullet Train may just have found their niche in retro synth-pop. Asayake’s splashy chorus reveals itself as quite the enduring earworm. Vocalist Takashi’s slightly-brassy tone mixes wonderfully with the icy synth, and the group’s dancers are as ebullient and lovably goofy as always. (full review)
21. Hey! Say! JUMP – Last Mermaid
Hey! Say! JUMP have evolved from teen pop group to something much more interesting. Last Mermaid injects their sound with driving rock guitar, whirling backing vocals and even a sprinkle of jazz piano and saxophone. The song has a stately weight to it, anchored by its gorgeous, multi-pronged chorus. (full review)
20. Reol – The Sixth Sense
Reol brings a punky — almost otherworldly — performance to The Sixth Sense‘s hard-hitting electro base. The result is a tactile experience, as the track slaps you over the head with a listless energy that nearly spins out of control before being pulled back in by that bubbling beat. (full review)
19. The Rampage – Invisible Love
The Rampage don’t often do ‘restrained,’ but Invisible Love makes a strong case for the approach. The song is smooth as butter, underlined by a raindrop-like loop and highlighted by the warped vocal refrain that echoes several of the choruses. It’s a song that sneaks up on you and refuses to let go. (full review)
18. Miyavi – Need For Speed
Miyavi nailed a certain scuzzy, nostalgic rock sound this year, and Need For Speed was one of his many highlights. Over a galloping trip-hop beat, the texture of his vocals and guitar form the backbone to a track that’s at once atmospheric and galvanizing. By the time you reach the blistering guitar solo, the velocity has already been set to overdrive.
17. Deep Squad – Get With You
As keeping with Exile Tribe tradition, new debut Deep Squad tackled New Jack Swing for the instantly addictive Get With You. The song is as amiable as it gets, bounding with warm, singalong melodies and robust vocals. It’s got one of those full-throated choruses I absolutely love. No beat drop catch phrases here! (full review)
16. Bullet Train – Stand Up
I’ve follow Bullet Train for years, but I’ve felt like they’ve been in a bit of a creative funk for the past few releases. Stand Up gets them right back on track, bursting with bright synth riffs and upbeat energy. It was a stroke of genius to reinvent the dancers as rappers, bringing a sense of diversity to the track (and a much-appreciated breather for vocalist Takashi!). (full review)
15. Genic – Sun Comes Up
On the surface, co-ed Genic seem designed to replace Avex’s supergroup AAA, and they draw from much of the same musical DNA. But, the group thrives on their own, anchored by songs like Sun Comes Up. This is straightforward dance pop at its finest, snowballing into a thumping climax that rewards the instrumental’s constant build. (full review)
14. Sexy Zone – Kyokutou Dance (Far East Dance)
The brash, dynamic Kyokutou Dance signified just how amazing Sexy Zone’s 2020 output was going to be. Built upon gritty, distorted textures, the track gives their sound an edgy makeover that never sacrifices big pop melody. The instrumental alone is so immense that you’ll feel it rattling in your bones. (full review)
13. Fantastics – High Fever
J-pop was certainly not immune to the year’s retro trend. Thankfully, LDH’s suite of Exile Tribe groups were already primed for the sound, and junior act Fantastics delivered the perfect earworm with the synth-heavy High Fever. Listener, beware: you won’t extract this hook from your head for months. (full review)
12. Tasuku Hatanaka – Dying Wish
You all know that I like big, bombastic music. Tasuku Hatanaka delivers it on the regular, and Dying Wish is his most dramatic yet. Powerful, operatic vocals? Check. Full-on choirs and symphonic flourishes? Double check. Massive, unrelenting dance beat? Yep, it’s got that too.
11. Miyavi – Bang!
Miyavi’s Bang is well-named, as it hits you like a sucker punch every time he unleashes that furious guitar. Tying it all together is a generous dose of anthemic melody and invigorating percussion. His music has rarely felt more widescreen and alive, and that’s saying something given his incredible back catalog. (full review)