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!
JO1 – Shine A Light
Boys And Men – Oh Yeah
News – Chincha Umaka
Tomohisa Yamashita – Nights Cold
Sekai No Owari – Umbrella
Juice=Juice – Tell Me That You Like Me
Solidemo – Love Yourself
Kis-My-Ft2 – Endless Summer
XOX – Ever After
A.B.C-Z – Cheat Time
Shuta Sueyoshi – So-Re-Na
50. MeseMoa. – Disorderly Crowd
This group gained a bit of viral fame a couple of years ago for a music video where they all make out with each other, and Disorderly Crowd is adventurous in its own way. It spins its wheels a bit and could stand to be a full minute shorter, but every time that stadium-ready chorus comes around I’m up off my feet cheering along.
49. BXW – Takaiyumeni
One a few off-shoot groups from the first season of Japan’s Produce series, BXW have thus far been eclipsed by acts with bigger budgets, but Takaiyumeni is such propulsive fun that it deserves a wider audience. I adore that aggressive flurry of synth in the chorus.
48. SixTONES – Navigator
The second single from one of the year’s biggest break out acts, Navigator cemented SixTONES’ anime-ready sound, melding rock, EDM and rap with a symphonic flourish that makes it sound absolutely cinematic. (full review)
47. Da-iCE – Dreamin’ On
Da-iCE scores a big One Piece theme song, and Dreamin’ On roars with the singalong intensity you’d expect from such an offering. It gives their usual sound a rockier edge, highlighted by a fist-pumping chorus. (full review)
46. Snow Man – D.D.
Along with the same-day debut of SixTONES, Snow Man proved that Johnny’s Entertainment could still establish mega-successful rookies. High-octane dance track D.D. highlighted the group’s energetic choreo with unrelenting energy. (full review)
45. 7ORDER – Sabãoflower
Speaking of Johnny’s, 7ORDER is the new moniker for longtime junior group Love-tune, now unshackled from the agency and off on their own. Debut single Sabãoflower showcases how to do a beat drop chorus right, injecting the hook with plenty of scuzzy distortion.
44. E-girls – Bessekai (Another World)
Though E-girls would go on to deliver a farewell single before their end-of-year disbandment, Bessekai feels like their rightful swan song. It borrows from many of today’s dance-pop trends, but finds the right balance between lush pop hooks and percolating beat drops.
43. Sexy Zone – Not Found
For their first five-member single in months, Sexy Zone delivered a splashy, cinematic knockout with Not Found. The group has always sounded great on tracks like this, and the song’s jazzy undertones give them a great chance to really show off. (full review)
42. Mamoru Miyano – Zero To Infinity
Anime mainstay Mamoru Miyano does his best T.M.Revolution growl for the anthemic Zero To Infinity. The track’s balance of rock and electronic is just right, anchored by a satisfying, two-part chorus that bounds along sprightly percussion.
41. DAN⇄JYO – Saikyo Target
This new co-ed group is still a little rough around the edges, but I find them (and this song) immensely charming. Saikyo Target, like the album it comes from, is goofy and energetic, buoyed by youthful melodies and funky, synth-fueled rhythms.
40. Exile – Red Phoenix
As they often do, Exile Tribe came together for the heavy metal crunch of Red Phoenix. And as usual, the result is an aural assault, moving from stomping chants to rap-rock bombast without ever feeling the need to be remotely subtle. In other words, it’s just how I like it. (full review)
39. Arashi – Whenever You Call
Written by Bruno Mars, the English-language Whenever You Call attempts to re-create a very specific, late-90’s boy band sound. Thankfully, it nails its target, down to the cheesy lyrics and lilting pop melodies. (full review)
38. Reverbee – Satisfaction
Part Avril Lavigne, part Icona Pop, the punchy energy of Reverbee’s Satisfaction is hard to resist. I love its old-school rap vs rock approach. Paired with the girls’ punky delivery, the track has a teenage angst that feels playfully rambunctious.
37. King & Prince – I Promise
With I Promise, King & Prince return to the lofty pop melodies of their debut, showing off that gorgeous vocal blend with a surging, sentimental chorus. I Promise knows exactly which emotions it’s tugging on, and brings the melodrama without apology. (full review)
36. Stray Kids – TOP
Believe it or not, Stray Kids are the only K-pop act in my top fifty this year. It’s a testament to their individuality that their music sounds distinctly them no matter the language. TOP brings a welcome dose of EDM and symphonic flourishes to their hard-hitting hip-hop sound. (full review)
35. JO1 – Oh-Eh-Oh
Playing upon Japan’s well-worn “yankee” tropes, Oh-Eh-Oh repaints the clean-cut JO1 as well-choreographed street warriors. Pentagon’s Hui supplies a chugging EDM beat, harnessing the same energy that made Wanna One’s Energetic such a treat. (full review)
34. Ayumi Hamasaki – Dreamed A Dream
The J-pop legend returned this summer with fellow legend Tetsuya Komuro in tow. The result is her strongest single in ages, a pounding dance track that leaves just enough room for her signature rock influences. The vocal sounds fantastic, as does Komuro’s thrilling breakdowns. (full review)
33. Arashi – Kite
Written by J-pop ‘it boy’ Kenshi Yonezu, Kite knows just how to use Arashi’s vocal blend to its full potential. The track is ornate and beautiful, feeling more like a musical or symphony than a straightforward pop song. It’s a fitting flourish on their inimitable 20+ year career. (full review)
32. King Of Ping Pong – Fake Motion
Soundtracking the drama of the same title, this is pretty much exactly what I want from an anime-style opener. It’s a whose who of EBiDAN talent, bringing together members from DISH, PrismaX (rip), Bullet Train, M!LK and Super Dragon for a rollicking rock track that indulges in its own ridiculousness.
31. Official HIGE DANdism- I Love…
The world could always do with more love, and that seemed particularly true in 2020. Enter Official HIGE DANdism, with a buoyant song that shouts optimism via Fujihara’s immense vocals and the band’s stomping instrumental. The brassy exclamation that opens the track pretty much sums up how wonderfully affirming this is.