This Side of Japan: Favorite Japanese Singles of 2018

Some of my favorite Japanese singles of the year from DA PUMP, Chelmico, Cero and more

This column has been titled This Side of Japan to try and write about a specific impression of Japan’s music made by consuming releases solely through YouTube. It’s how I imagine many international fans like myself interact with the country’s music, trying their best to make sense of what’s popular, what’s trending, what’s mainstream and a lot of other details in the process. This relationship is what guides the monthly selections for the column and by extension, my own understanding of new Japanese music.

Sticking to this idea is also a good excuse to explain the lack of coverage of releases from SoundCloud or Bandcamp, both platforms that offer their own distinct look of Japanese music that YouTube can’t cover. The reason for not exploring those platforms is simply because there are just too much music for me to physically sort and organize. From my YouTube consumption alone, I had to dedicate a separate idol-only singles list on top of this general Japanese music portion of my year-end list coverage. It’s only proof that Japanese music spans far and wide, and this list is only a partial survey of the fantastic works out there.

So yes, this list mostly covers songs released on YouTube in some shape or form from an official account. There are no idol songs featured because I made a separate list for that. One upload per artist, sequenced more for musical flow.

This list is available as a playlist on Spotify.

[Universal Music Japan]

The future-bass sound may be relatively new for Perfume, but the trio weaves through the zigzagging wobbles as gracefully as any of its other zany electro-pop production throughout its discography. If anything, “Mugen Mirai” resonates more from just how much it echoes the group’s past works. The single most directly mirrors “Flash” in both background as a Chihayafuru tie-in and its outfitting of the latest dance-pop trends, with stadium EDM swapped for more complex future bass. But it also taps what the three has always done best since “Polyrhythm,” using electro-pop as a vehicle to express the inexplicable sensation of being in love.

Tofubeats: “Fumetsu No Kokoro” [Warner Music Japan]
High-pitched synths and break beats sputter like an electro-pop firecracker as Tofubeats sings his Auto-Tune’d heart out about the power of love.

Sumire Uesaka: “Pop Team Epic” [King]
Twisting synths and chiptune blips fire up in the seiyuu’s chaotic electro-pop frenzy, serving a neon madness of a title track to the off-the-cuff manga-turned-anime.

Shonen Ga Milk: “Eien Ekizokisshu” [Codomomental]
Shonen Ga Milk anoints herself as the dancing queen as she boots up some electro-house with some live-band flavor to let the grooves tune out whatever else is going on tonight.

[Unborde]

A few elements of novelty gave some fresh shine to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s comeback single. There’s her take on rapping (a term used very loosely here) as well as a surprisingly inspired pop production by Yasutaka Nakata after years of gimmicky holiday tie-ins. Yet the real draw of “Kimi No Mikata” was its “I’m on your side” platitudes, backed by a warm sincerity familiar to her best records of the past.

Satellite Young: “Singing Dream” [no label]
Retro synth-pop imagines a story inspired by retro technology: what would karaoke machines dream if they were sentient?

KOTO: “Tiger Fire Cyber Fighter” [Universal Music Japan]
KOTO kicks off her high-energy retro-pop blender of a debut album with this flashy Eurobeat banger.

ORE-SAMA: “Hi-Fi Train” [Lantis]
The duo romanticizes the optimistic not-so-far future while transforming its wide-eyed electronic pop into a mighty, star-chasing vehicle.

[Victor]

For her debut album, Seventeen, teen model-turned-singer Rinne Yoshida split the difference between her street-fashion cool and pop-star ambitions by dabbing in playful rap in one song and stylish dance-pop the next. “Find Me,” meanwhile, recruits SKY-HI to let those two sides meet on one single track. Arguably his best producer work for other artists this year, the AAA member hands Yoshida a rap built to both showcase swagger and pop appeal, and the teen star rides the future-bass-inspired beat smoothly.

Iri: “Corner” [Victor]
Iri sounds as though she can use a vacation from life, and fortunately for the singer/songwriter, a beat stuffed with glazed keys and rubbery horns provide a night scene of a beautifully lit city for her to get lost in.

Airi Suzuki: “Distance” [Zetima]
The former C-ute star did her very best to graduate from an idol to artist in the public’s eyes, and she took a big step forward in her solo career with this dramatic R&B that echoes a newcomer out of Avex Trax.

RIRI: “Keep Up” [Sony]
While the rising young singer got many radio-friendly R&B styles on lock in her self-titled album, she sounds anew tackling the rapid-fire garage-bass beat of “Keep Up.”

(The song starts around 0:45)

[Victor]

The timelessness in Leo Ieiri’s contemporary pop, a very reliable musical standard of acoustic guitars and string arrangements, encases a treasured memory of romance from the singer/songwriter’s golden years, seemingly free from the effects of time. But as precious as she preserves her nostalgia, her sighs are also filled with deep regret as the titular season vividly flashes her back to a bittersweet reminiscence.

Aimyon: “Konya Konomama” [Warner Music Japan]
Aimyon closes out her best year with a peppy folk-pop tribute to those wistful autumn nights.

Sakurako Ohara: “Nakitaikurai” [Victor]
“I can cry,” Sakurako Ohara sings to express just how much she’s in love, and the chorus answers her with a set of strings sweeping as her emotions.

Sakura Fujiwara: “Mata Ashita” [Victor]
Sakura Fujiwara keeps her cool trying not to show her true feelings in her summery acoustic-pop crush song.

[Crown]

Kayoko Yoshizawa put the spotlight on other women for her singles this year, and her muse in, well, “Muse” sounds more like an everyday working woman compared to the fantastical characters of the singer/songwriter’s other sprawling pop fables. Yet “Muse” nonetheless features one heroic central figure, whose fighter spirit inspires Yoshizawa to compose an equally triumphant string-pop to march her along.

Gen Hoshino: “Idea” [Victor]
He’s a current star taking over whatever platform he’s in, so why not stuff that jack-of-all-trades mentality in a song with a live future-bass remix, a change-up to a ballad, and a pivot back to his classic pop shtick — all before the song clocks in at six minutes?

Tatsuro Yamashita: “Mirai No Theme” [Tenderberry & Harvest]
City-pop legend gifts Mamoru Hosoda’s latest film a golden folk-pop with a fun hook fitting more for a children’s song.

Hikaru Utada: “Anata” [Sony]
Remnants of her previous album can be traced in the adult-contemporary pop sound as well as the underlining sense of anxiety, but Utada mostly sounds at peace, delighted even, to embrace newfound love.

[Warner Bros. Japan]

Once people seemed to have figured out the bizarre pop world of Wednesday Campanella, the trio decided to change shape. But the new form brought on the Galapagos EP was also a product of the group growing more ambitious to chase something bigger. Case in point: “Kaguyahime,” a scaled-up single from Wed Camp kicking off the EP. Kenmochi Hidefumi indulges deeper with otherworldly sounds, which he thrust here via gorgeous string arrangements, while Kom_I goes all in on her singing. They’ve gone much more artistically serious this time around, but still evocative and one of a kind.

Mondo Grosso ft. Aina the End: “Itsuwari No Sympathy” [Avex Trax]
Shinichi Osawa recruits BiSH’s key singer for a sultry piano-house R&B that follows up nicely to last year’s dreamy hit “Labyrinth.”

CRCK/LCKS: “No Goodbye” [Apollo Sounds]
Many different pieces of CRCK/LCKS — the synth bits, glossy jazz keys and spiky guitars — all start to slowly crumble from heartbreak, and the band try to give one last jam before it all blows up.

Utae: “Supersonic” [Purre Goohn]
Utae takes her time exploring every detail of the shiny, ethereal bass beat that reveals different forms as the singer observes it from different angles.

[Warner Music Japan]

While Chelmico has been releasing love songs for its last few singles, “Player” from its major-label full-length debut taps into the rap duo’s playful personality. Their fun, childish side is on full display as the two volley raps back and forth: Rachel preaches the three-second rule among other slices of her not-yet-adult life while Mamiko reaches for the broader sentiments about living life at her own pace.

Pinoko: “Tabako” [Chilly Source]
Pinoko’s head space is a rather gloomy one despite the smooth, acoustic guitar-driven hip-hop beat, and she drowns out her bad days over a smoke and drinks.

Haruru Inu Love Dog Tenshi ft. Yungyu: “Machi Made” [Ourlanguage]
The warm, quiet synth-pop beat sets an intimate scene for rappers Haruru and Yungyu, both hotly anticipating a meet-up with a significant other in solitude.

Tsubame ft. Emi Okamoto & Rachel: “Good Night” [Omake Club]
For the debut solo single outside of his group Tokyo Health Club, the producer recruits Friends’ member Emi Okamoto and Rachel from Chelmico for a chill hip-hop record perfect for the after hours.

[Being, Inc.]

Mico nicely captures the emotional comedown from the summer season in the newest She Is Summer mini album, Hair Salon, fittingly released during the tail end of the period. She hurries to not let time go to waste in her other songs, committing to last chances to hopefully woo her crushes. But this early acceptance of defeat rings the most poignant from the record as she fills this burnt-out pop-funk with all of her romantic wishes gone unfulfilled.

Monari Wakita: “Gozigen Lover-Joi” [Vivid Sound/High Contrast]
The former idol continues her hot pop-funk streak with a more mature throwback, grooving to a thick, edgy bass line.

HALLCA: Milky Way” [Waveridge]
Former Especia member finds impressive results tackling rich, flashy city-pop that her old idol group used to source as inspiration.

Asako Toki: “Black Savanna” [Avex Trax]
City-pop veteran spins a Tokyo in construction into a surreal scene for a sweet, dazed pop-funk single.

[Avex Trax]

Media coverage on Daichi Miura has focused a lot on the singer/dancer’s Michael Jackson worship, and the slap-bass funk being spliced into atoms in “Dive!” channels his hero’s slick R&B as well as his grasp of percussion. Yet the machine-drum chunkiness and the angular cuts of the production recalls more of the materials used by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for Janet. Personally, I think it bears resemblance most to Night Slugs boss Bok Bok’s songs on Your Charizmatic Self EP — a record inspired by Jam and Lewis, according to the producer.

W-inds: “Dirty Talk” [Pony Canyon]
After riding the post-Purpose water-drop R&B sound to a surprising level of success, the trio now taps into the current trend of New Jack Swing nostalgia to solid results.

Chotokkyu: “Need You” [SDR]
The boy group’s album opener changes shapes from elegant piano pop to stabbing rave to finally a future-bass drop that chops the previous styles into smithereens.

DA PUMP: “U.S.A.” [Avex Trax]
A shameless piece of borrowed pop, a surprise hit, an inescapable meme, a memorable story, an inspiration to us all: what was 2018 if not the year of DA PUMP?

[Toy’s Factory]

Taichi Mukai already traversed through a variety of styles from retro machine-funk to throwback R&B in his summer EP, a loosely conceptual record exploring the outgrowth of love. While he returned to the theme of broken harts in Pure, his late-year full-length, he found even more pop sounds to play with. And out of the collection, “Break Up” pops out immediately thanks to its choppy, garage-influenced R&B sound.

Nariaki Obukuro ft. Hikaru Utada: “Lonely One” [Epic]
The minimal R&B beat squarely plays into expectations, but the singer unpacks anxiety as well as emptiness as he explores loneliness in his collaboration with producer Hikaru Utada.

FNCY: “Aoi Yoru” [King]
Rappers Zen-La-Rock and Chinza Dopeness team up with singer G.Rina as FNCY, and the trio’s first outing is a glossy, retro funk-pop number produced by G.Rina.

TENDRE: Document” [RALLYE]
Dusty boom-bap drums and glossy Rhodes keys awaken Taro Kawahara’s bittersweet memories of an old love in this smooth R&B.

[Kabukarhythm]

A whirring synth loop in “Sakana No Hone, Tori No Hane” boots up Cero’s jazz-band session in the group’s sprawling album, Poly Life Multi Soul. The band starts to lock in place from there: a chorus of playful hums, dancing keys and a wandering bass lines join to chase a high while Shohei Takagi’s voice slowly breaks down in rapture. Cero’s upward direction splinters into all sorts of places and moods from here, but what a kicker to begin the journey.

Yahyel: “TAO” [Beat]
After a series of smooth grooves, Yahyel turning its bass rougher and electronics darker to draw out the menace from the song’s slow, lurching crawl.

Tempalay: “Doooshiyoooo!!” [Space Shower]
“Fizzy, fizzy, in the midst dream,” goes a part in the chorus of this jazz-rock hallucination with the trio’s psychedelic funk sinking deeper and deeper into the subconscious.

PAELLAS: “Orange” [Space Shower]
PAELLAS changes up its tempo from mellow rock to a more popping R&B, perhaps inspired by the impassioned romance driving the glowing single.

[Perfect Music]

Haru Nemuri never loosens her grip for one moment in Haru To Shura, only because she can’t rest easy without dispelling any bit of cynicism that might convince you life just isn’t worth it. This selfless line of thinking inspires the album’s best moment, found in “Sekai Wo Torikaeshite Okure.” As the anthemic chorus leads into the bridge, she rapidly crams the song’s core message — “please shout it out that you’re alive right here, right now,” she anxiously screams— like a last-ditch effort to save someone from slipping into the dark. A slight feeling lingers that it might be too late.

Co Shu Nie: “Asphyxia” [Sony]
The alt-rock band rebels against a static life by bashing piano keys and scrawling jagged guitar riffs with hope that the ruckus will spark something new.

Genie High: “Katame De Ijou Ni Koishiteru” [Warner Music Japan]
For his odd gang of entertainers, Enon Kawatani writes a surprisingly sincere rock song with a chorus blushing from failing to keep his feelings secret.

Polkadot Stingray: “Himitsu” [Universal Sigma]
The more desperate Polkadot Stingray gets to pump some blood into a fading relationship, the more intense and jagged the band’s angular alt-rock becomes.

[Warner Music Japan]

While this fall’s House EP found Yonige mostly make peace with a mundane lifestyle, “Revolver” captured the restlessness from confronting a summer full of stillness. The break-up song recounts habits adopted from a past relationship in a gentle pace of someone explaining their morning routine, and the epiphany hits just as casual. Arisa Ushimaru’s delivery lets the lyrics seem like throwaway lines, but chorus is rather realistic in the way such thoughts unfold: the most mundane activity sometimes triggers you into your most repressed memory.

Ayutthaya: “Kimi Nara” [self-released]
Ayutthaya exposes its weakness in comparison to a much braver partner over an equally fragile alt-rock.

Homecomings: “Blue Hour” [Felicity]
Ayaka Tatamino fills the mellow, suburban indie-rock with melancholy musings pondered while staring at the cold night sky.

Hitsuji Bungaku: “Drama” [Felicity]
The stillness in Hitsuji Bungaku’s indie rock brings out a wall of noise, overwhelming as the band’s harbored anxiety.

[Avex Trax]

Unlike the other members who earned an opportunity to cut a solo single, a rock band led by BiSH’s Ayuni D was an unexpected solo venture even without the guerrilla release of its debut record, Zoozoosea. Kenta Matsukuma insisted on keeping the scrappy, amateurish feel to the project, and it hits like a breath of fresh air particularly since her main group’s singles have been getting the major-label polish to them. PEDRO also stands as proof to what some seisoins already suspected: with emotionally intense lyrics and an increased vocal spots, Ayuni has been growing into one of the strongest members of BiSH.

CHAI: “I’m Me” [Warner Music Japan]
The rock group’s neo-kawaii movement spread far wide this year, and this ambitious single about self-love stands tall as the band’s leading anthem.

Seiko Oomori: “ZOC Kenkyushitsu” [Avex Trax]
The bulldozing rock track from Seiko Oomori’s latest album, Kusokawa Party, turned out to be a showcase song for her new idol group ZOC.

BRATS: “Doudatte Yokatta” [Office Fem, Inc.]
While she left Ladybaby for good, Rei Kuromiya spent her year knocking out hard-hitting grunge-rock tracks for the full-length record of her band BRATS.

music, etc.