Although I’ve admittedly not listened to as much Japanese music this time around as I have in previous years (or at least, fewer full albums), I still enjoy hearing what’s out there and writing up these annual posts as a result. There’s just something fun about it for me, and taking a break from anime every once in a while to write about other aspects of Japanese pop culture is also something I can get behind.
As ever, the following list is arranged in order of release date, and is comprised purely of full and original studio albums by a single artist or band (i.e. no cover, compilation, EP or live albums).
Aimer – Penny Rain (April 10)
Although there are only a small handful of really standout tracks on here for me, I can’t not put it in this list – Aimer’s vocals are just that good. Being an album comprised almost solely of ballads and other softer, contemplative pieces, I suspect Penny Rain might be a little too slow for some – but those tracks that are standout are genuinely excellent. My favourite of these are ‘I beg you’, ‘Stand By You’, and of course the magnificent ‘Ref:rain’, which some readers may recognize from the ED theme of Koi wa Ameagari no You ni/After the Rain.
Aimer – Sun Dance (April 10)
Since I’m putting Aimer’s other album here, it seems unfair not to put the other, more poppy and uplifting one here as well. It’s a real treat to get not one but two new studio albums from one of my favourite artists in the same year (and released on the same day, in fact) – and although I personally prefer Aimer’s more powerful, angst-ridden ballads in general, and therefore think Penny Rain is the better album, Sun Dance admittedly has a bit more variety. It also has just as many, if not more, catchy tracks, including ‘ONE’, ‘We Two’, ‘Monochrome Syndrome’ and the titular ‘SUN DANCE’.
Ieiri Leo – Duo (April 17)
This is a really strong album, with nearly every track on it being unique or catchy in some way – just what I’d expect from Ieiri, who now feels like a seasoned veteran in the world of J-pop. From upbeat pop songs like ‘Overflow’, ‘Neon Lights’ and ‘Spark’, to quieter and more contemplative tracks such ‘Bouquet and Sakanza’, and even a few beautifully powerful, raw emotional ballads like ‘Prime Numbers’, ‘Moshi Kimi wo Yurusetara’ and ‘Kono Sekai de’, I feel like there’s something here for just about everyone. While I don’t know if Duo is one of Ieiri’s very best albums to date, it absolutely doesn’t disappoint.
Bump of Chicken – Aurora Arc (July 10)
Can Bump of Chicken ever really do any wrong? No matter the album, there’s always a good number of solid tracks on any of their releases, and although Aurora Arc isn’t my favourite of theirs to date, it’s also no exception to the band’s usual very high quality. When angst usually seems like the name of the game with most Japanese mainstream acts that blend pop and rock, this album feels largely positive and upbeat. Even so, it doesn’t lack any depth, and has a nice blend of soft and harder sounds that keep things well-paced without coming across as incohesive in any way. I especially like ‘Answer’ (as featured in the first OP of 3-gatsu no Lion/March Comes in Like a Lion), as well as ‘Kinen Satsuei’, ‘Bouen no March’ and ‘Shinsekai’.
Kimura Kaela – Ichigo (July 31)
Kimura has always fascinated me as an artist because her sound frequently changes so drastically – not just between albums, but often between individual songs on the same album. From incredibly poppy, cutesy beats that wouldn’t sound out of place on a pre-school children’s show to alternative rock tracks to surprisingly soft love ballads, she runs the whole gauntlet. I never quite know what to expect, but that’s definitely part of the charm. Ichigo, while not her strongest album I’ve heard from Kimura, brings all this and more, although my unquestionable favourites are ‘BREAKER’ and ‘Aimai me’, both of which manage to combine cheerful, almost retro-sounding rock alongside a sense of undeniable playfulness.
Of course, I also ended up listening to several albums that, for whatever reason, failed to impress me:
Dean Fujioka – History in the Making (January 30)
This album sounds very pop-urban, like a Japanese version of Craig David. It’s not bad, just bland, and honestly not the kind of power pop I was looking for based on ‘History Maker’, which is the only real standout of the album for me. ‘Fukushima’ and ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ are the only other tracks that I liked even a little. The rest are either forgettable or use conspicuous amounts of autotune, which I’ve never been a fan of.
One Ok Rock – Eye of the Storm (February 13)
This album is a lot more poppy than previous albums, with the harder rock sound seemingly gone altogether for pretty much every song. It also sounds younger, like something any English-speaking, generic pop/rock band might come out with for their debut release. Basically, Eye of the Storm lacks any kind of bite or distinctiveness. ‘Push Back’, ‘Can’t Wait’ and ‘The Last Time’ are the only songs I liked, and even they were only above average for me.
Aoi Eir – Fragment (April 17)
If you’ve heard any Aoi Eir album before then you’ve heard this one. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, and there are definitely some decent tracks here such as ‘SINGULARITY’, ‘Ryuusei’, ‘UNLIMITED’ and ‘FROATIN’. However, none of them sound particularly unique – they could be on just about any album in the same genre and not feel out of place, and coming from Aoi in particular, they’re not in the least surprising or innovative.
Chemistry – Chemistry (September 25)
I honestly expected a lot more from this album – not just because I know what Chemistry is capable of, but because after a 7-year break, I was anticipating something either completely unique and groundbreaking, or so classic Chemistry that I couldn’t help but immediately fall in love with it purely for nostalgia’s sake. This self-titled album delivered neither for me, and I’m sorely disappointed. I found dull, overly slow-paced and lacking in energy. ‘Horizon’ was the only song that appealed to me, and even that would have felt average on any other album of theirs.
Question of the post: Do you have a favourite J-pop/J-rock album of 2019? Were there any major surprises or disappointments for you in terms of Japanese music this year, or anything you’re especially looking forward to in 2020?