Taking you through the Glow’s list of the catchiest, most innovative and exciting Japanese singles that summarised 2020, as chosen by our writers.
In 2020, the single track format proved just as appropriate for a sub-minute TikTok craze as it was for cramming the essence of an album, a city, or even, as in Tendre’s case, of life itself into a standalone tune.
At times, the list below offers a rather eclectic mix, flitting between huge pop songs and off-kilter experiments – occasionally within the same track. Compiled with the help of our writers, here are the Glow’s single highlights from Japanese music in 2020.
DJ Chari and DJ Tatsuki’s “Goku Vibes” included features from rappers Tohji, Elle Teresa, Uneducated Kid and Futuristic Swaver, as well as production from Zot on the Wave. Becoming a hot topic on TikTok with the #GOKUVIBESCHALLENGE, the track continued trending long after its summer release – and, thanks to the free-distribution of its material, many producers uploaded remixes to SoundCloud and YouTube.
But “Goku Vibes” was more than just a buzz track. It was also highly addictive with a futuristic electronic beat reminiscent of Lil Uzi Vert’s “Futsal Shuffle 2020” and an explosive hook – a quality song. - Minori Yatagai
Phew’s Vertigo KO, a compilation of tracks recorded between 2017 and 2019, was gorgeous and testing in equal measure. On that spectrum, between aesthetic prettiness and abrasive experimentality, “The Very Ears of Morning” erred heavily towards the former.
Opening with ringing analogue synthesisers, “The Very Ears of Morning” glistened and beamed. But its rest was, like much of Phew’s material, ever-shifting and unpredictable. With the track’s uneasy background groans, overlapping voices and high-frequency pulses – this was Phew, just as intense, experimental and expressive as ever. - Ed Cunningham
Since Yuta Orisaka first played “Torch” live, fans have waited patiently for a studio recording – and it finally arrived in 2020. Composed and arranged by Butaji and performed by a gentle band, the melody was sweet and sad and Orisaka’s vocals were typically distinctive. His lyrics were powerful, too, created on the subject of natural disasters (particularly typhoons) – echoing Orisaka’s nature as a socially-minded songwriter.
“Torch” shed light on situations of confusion and solitude – especially in its music video, directed by Keita Yamamoto, which included lyrics in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. – Mutsumi Okazaki
owls is a two-man rap unit of rapper rkemishi and beatmaker Green Assassin Dollar. The remix of “Blessin” was one of the most popular tracks from owls’ second album 24K Purple Mist, and starred guest performances from A-Thug (SCARS) and singer Emi Maria.
The beat of “Blessin” was finished in an R&B style and the hook melodiously sung in a clear voice by Emi Maria. rkemishi’s lyrics were sentimental and emotional, while A-Thug’s verse spelled out his inner weaknesses. It’s as if the beat and Emi Maria’s voice were gently enveloping the two lyricists, flowing directly into their listener’s heart. – Minori
Daichi Yamamoto is a rapper who, after studying at art school in England, is now based in Kyoto. “Blueberry”, produced by QUNIMUNE, was the lead single from Yamamoto’s Elephant In My Room EP.
A painfully realistic track, it’s difficult to name any other rapper that can so vividly and poetically express the possessiveness and loneliness that everyone silently hides – that’s Yamamoto’s strength and the reason why people continue to empathize with him. – Minori
Psychedelic rock legend Shintaro Sakamoto recorded a slow boogie about yearning for nightclubbing during the COVID-19 lockdown and closures. Including bits of lap steel guitar among the usual rock band set-up of guitar, bass, drums and keys, that track, “The Feeling of Love”, recalled a pre-pandemic world.
For Sakamoto, to dance with someone is to show that we care: dancing itself is a feeling of love. Once, we drank, danced and talked with friends in nightclubs. Now, all our memories are fuzzy and obscured – but love for each other is never forgotten. - Toyokazu
On “Zoom”, six rappers of varying vocal tones and styles performed mic relays – and all six colours of personality shined through. As the virus raged, Valknee gathered her crew and, in a colourful web meeting room, they used their words to hunt down their respective problems and suffocations.
Listening to these girls rap about doing what they could in difficult situations, yet still maintaining a positive attitude, I felt like I was breaking through my own sense of entrapment. Japan has a famous mic relay song called “Testimony” but, as Valknee’s verse mentions, “Zoom” is truly “a gal’s testimony” of 2020. - Yu Ogihara
[N.B. A ‘mic relay’ is a Japanese hip hop term, not dissimilar to a ‘posse cut’]
SuiseiNoboAz started out as a rock group produced by Number Girl’s Shutoku Mukai. Now, due to influence from the likes of Los Angeles’ Brainfeeder label, thegroup have intensified the elements of hip hop, jazz and classical music in their sound.
The intro phase of “3020” was sampled from “Wau Bulan”, a traditional Malaysian farewell song but, in the age of COVID-19, it’s given an important new meaning – SuiseiNobuAz will see us again sometime soon. – Toyokazu Mori
Gen Hoshino’s “Dancing on the Inside” has to be one of the signature songs of 2020. Upon releasing the sub-one-minute song via Instagram in April, Hoshino asked: “Can someone please overlay this video with instrumental accompaniments, chorus, and dance?”
Hoshino received collaborations from all over Japan and the world – “Dancing on the Inside” became an instant sensation.
Hoshino’s expressive power is fascinating – referring to "inside" instead of "home", with the intention of including those that couldn’t stay inside the house to enjoy his music during the pandemic. Hoshino’s energy and persona are inspiring, and “Dancing on the Inside” was a fitting celebration of the tenth anniversary of his debut. - Mutsumi
Ayano Kaneko’s songs always feel somewhat talismanic. Her creations are empowering reminders of the beauty that we tend to overlook in our everyday lives. Things like the showering glow of the morning sun, the brightness of roads, the shine of dry skin. Her lyrics are so strong and beautiful that they make you feel a dazzling, warm light. There are plenty of starry-eyed, cool female artists out there, but Kaneko is one of the most deserving of such wide admiration. - Mutsumi
With “Life”, Tendre (Taro Kawahara) attempted his own take on a ‘song of life’. While Kawahara might not have captured the absolute enormities of life within four minutes, he did, at least, manage one of the year’s standout pop tunes.
Lyrically, “Life” was about encounters and farewells, memories and eternity – poetic, sentimental stuff. But its instrumental side was even more affecting. Swooning, retro-filtered horns dominated each phase of the track, wistfully spinning between soloing breakdowns and revelatory choruses. Arguably the highlight of Tendre’s 2020 sophomore album Life Less Lonely, “Life” was an impeccably constructed reminder why Kawahara is one of the most in-demand producers in contemporary Japanese pop. – Ed
Far East Recording continued to deliver its golden supply of deep house with Shinichiro Yokota’s “Detectors”, the A-side of an expertly-crafted double-sided single (the other being “Accelerators”).
Yokota’s typically bouncy deep house bass, airy melodies and captivating chord progressions, meshed over electro-influenced drums, resulted in a modern house track that sounded like an instant classic. Varying textures mingled over one another, yet nothing sounded out of place. Every vocal sample, every snare hit—all perfectly measured and balanced, as though Yokota was trying to soothingly float us through to the end of a torrid year. – Leslie Andrews
Eight years after their dissolution, 2020 finally saw the resurrection of Tokyo Jihen. Composed by Ryosuke Nagaoka and written by Sheena Ringo, “The Lower Classes” was lined with numbing, dystopian lyrics that could be felt as an antithesis to online society. Sung by Nagaoka, Ringo and Izawa Ichiyo, the multiple meanings of “The Lower Classes” are well worth a look in its commentary. It’s also exceptionally catchy – so be careful! - Mutsumi
“Cats and Dogs” was a unique collaboration, a cross-genre track by rapper Kid Fresino and singer-songwriter Ayano Kaneko. But even beyond the two stars, its band members were collaborative too – featuring musicians from Kid Fresino’s 2018 album ai qing as well as Kaneko’s bandmate Takuma Motomura (Gateballers, Yuransen).
Kid Fresino's crisp, ear-pleasing raps and Kaneko's powerful, gentle singing both appealed directly to something profound in the heart. Both styles were perfectly demonstrated and, on every listen, the track’s mysterious charm got more addictive. Even though these respective artists’ categorised genres were different, they had a common gentleness at their core that brought “Cats and Dogs” closer to people’s lives. – Minori
In Japan, many people still suffer from various kinds of discrimination and exclusion – both consciously and unconsciously, there is widespread ignorance and neglect. On “Teno Hira”, Moment Joon laid himself bare and called for change.
Moment Joon showed that you and I, his audience, are not outsiders to such facts. A soft track, on “Teno Hira” Joon spoke straight and without turbidity or confusion, arguing that together we could change common sense and stand up to fear. Central to this song, which included a gentle and unwavering call to "show me your palms," is our response – and our action. - Yu
There aren’t many styles of music that are louder or more pompous than fanfare, the name given to the annunciatory flurries of brass common to European ceremonial occasions. Yet it was with “Fanfare” that Haru Nemuri chose to open her 2020, a bold statement of intent following the international acclaim of 2018’s Haru to Shura.
But even more impressive than Nemuri’s use of fanfare itself was how impressively she contained it within her usual blend of noisy, arty rock and hip hop. “Fanfare” promised an ambitious pitch and delivered with skilful songwriting and talented arrangements – a triumph with the drama and skill to match its bombastic inspiration. - Ed
Hip hop duo Chelmico became far more widely known for “Easy Breezy”, which was used as a theme song for a TV anime, but they also maintained a unique pop style. As noted by composer Ryo Takahashi, Chelmico’s light and danceable beats showed a variety of influences, from ska to drum ‘n’ bass and rock.
Chelmico’s rap music is friendly, yet also strong and energetic. And, with a loose,smooth word sense and a strong core, Chelmico are particular about what they do. “Easy Breezy” expressed the strength of the duo’s unyielding spirit, a song that will give you the courage to take a bold step forward. - Yu
Singer-songwriter Ichiko Aoba’s 7th album Adan no Kaze was pitched as some kind of soundtrack for a fictional movie. Her previous music consisted simply of singing while playing classic folk guitar – but on this recent album, composer Taro Umebayashi collaborated with Aoba and added horns and orchestral arrangements.
The lead single from Adan no Kaze, "Porcelain" drew a dreamy landscape as if we were on a boat, floating in Japan’s southern seas. Simply by listening to it; anytime, anywhere, “Porcelain” provided a respite from everyday life. - Toyokazu
Within the uniquely alternative sound of “Cult Boi”, Mom sang of human anguish. His lyrics, spoken through a megaphone, were bitter, tense and serious. Oddly sweet phrases about “your smile” and “first love’s crush” appeared in the midst of an alien, disturbing world, brought out in a strange frustration.
The second half of “Cult Boi” took a sharp turn for a calm and folky arrangement ,a shudderingly sudden temperature shift in which Mom twisted to maintain that even if we don't understand each other, let's hold hands and love each other. Such a call to resignation makes us think about the bitterness of a society that has no choice but to submit, and the meaning of believing in something nonetheless. – Yu
On “Tokyo”, Gezan told us to imagine a day and age where the sound of Tokyo is heavy and tribal and where a lack of imagination attacks people. Where words like war, violence and hate are followed by others such as happiness, a homeless old man and the person you love, drawing attention to distracting things in our lives that make us complicit in what happens elsewhere.
Gezan’s lyrics stared at reality and seemed to embody the immense anger and power of those that struggle to live; a battle that begins by and acknowledging disparities and imagining inescapable turmoil. “Tokyo” was performed with high intensities of music, energy and dance: a song that spoke not to politics or the city of Tokyo, but to life. – Yu