Best J-Pop/J-Rock Albums of 2020

2020 sure has been a year, huh? Luckily, despite… well, you know, everything, there was some pretty good music to come out of this one, and I actually think I ended up listening to more of it than I have for several years now. As a result, I managed to pull a solid list together for this annual blog series, containing a couple of already-strong contenders as well as a couple of pleasant surprises.

As ever, the following list is arranged in order of release date, and is composed solely of full and original studio albums by a single artist or band (i.e. no covers, re-releases, compilations, EPs, or lives). Enjoy!

Superfly – 0 (January 15)

While this isn’t my favorite Superfly album of all time (what could compare to 2012’s Force, after all?), that’s not to imply 0 is substandard by any means. The album’s main weakness is that it doesn’t start or even end on a particularly high note. On the other hand, whereas many albums start to bore me or feel like the songs all start blending together somewhere around the mid-point, this is where 0 really comes into its own, with tracks 3 to 6 in particular being major standouts. There’s also plenty of variety to be had here, from the light but swinging rock of ‘Gemstone’ and ‘Kukusei’ (the latter of which fools you by starting off like a ballad), to the slightly harder, more funk-rock style of ‘Happy Day’, and my personal favorite of the entire journey, ‘Fall’ – an old-school, 20s/30s-inspired swing-jazz number. Of all the Japanese albums I listened to in 2020, this was the one I enjoyed the most.

SCANDAL – Kiss from the darkness (February 12)

I’ve always enjoyed SCANDAL for their trademark garage rock-like sound – when they release work that does indeed fall into this category. Happily for me, Kiss from the darkness does just that. Make no mistake, this is still a mainstream pop-rock album, and SCANDAL has been a relatively mainstream pop-rock band since at least the 2010s – personally, I think I’ll always prefer their older material better for its raw, somewhat less polished sound. However, there are plenty of tracks here such as ‘Masterpiece’ (my favorite of the lot), ‘Fuzzy’, ‘Saishuu Heiki’, and ‘A.M.D.K.J.’ that are all solid rock songs, and Haruna’s lead vocals are pleasantly strong across the whole album, bringing a fun, less traditional female energy (at least as far as Japanese pop is concerned) that’s hard to dislike.

flumpool – Real (May 20)

I wouldn’t call Real a particular highlight of 2020 in Japanese pop/rock, as this album strikes me as the kind I’d put on and let fade into the background rather than one I’d actively listen to with any major excitement. I’d also say that overall, the first half of the album is a bit weaker than the second. If that sounds damning with faint praise, I don’t intend it to, since I still enjoyed Real quite a bit for its unintrusive and effortless feel. By that, I mean there’s nothing here that feels like it’s trying too hard to impress (in a good way), and nothing too heavy or overly angsty, either – it’s just a fun, reasonably catchy, entirely pleasant album. ‘Never Mind’, ‘Chiisana Hibi’ (which anime fans may recognize from the OP to Kakushigoto), ‘Kunshou’, and ‘Subarashiki Uso’ are my favorite tracks, but ‘Hourensou no Soute’ and ‘HELP’ are also good, and all are strong pieces that make for a very easy pop/light rock listening experience.

Yonezu Kenshi – Stray Sheep (August 05)

I’ll start off with the possibly somewhat controversial opinion that Stray Sheep isn’t a truly excellent album, despite it clearly being good enough for me to include on this list. Of course, that could be because my expectations were too high to begin with – I feel like this album got plenty of hype long before its release date, and god knows a bunch of songs were on constant repeat in Japan when I was still living there, no matter what store or other public establishment I happened to walk into. What I will say is that Stray Sheep is a good step above average nonetheless – and of course, just because certain songs have been repeated so many times I could probably perform them note-perfect in my sleep, that doesn’t make them any less good (‘Lemon’ being the prime example here, which is absolutely one of the major high points of the album). ‘Flamingo’, ‘Machigai Sagashi’, and ‘TEENAGE RIOT’ are likewise all solid tracks, so overall, I’d say Stray Sheep is well worth checking out.

UNISON SQUARE GARDEN – Patrick Vegee (September 30)

Well color me surprised. This is a pretty decent album, and far better than I was expecting given my lackluster reaction to their previous offering of Dr. Izzy I listened to back in 2016 (note that there was also one album in-between that I don’t recall listening to at all). Every single here is plenty solid, so if you’re already familiar with and like UNISON SQUARE GARDEN, you can definitely expect more of the same. On the downside, I’d say the first half of the album is quite a bit stronger than the second, and many of the songs seem to blend into one another as a whole, likely because a lot of them have the same kind of beat and tempo. But hey, at least that also means the work is consistent? In particular, I recommend trying out the likes of ‘Hatch I need’, ‘Mermaid Scandalous’, ‘Catch Up, latency’, ‘Sesshoku Vigilante’, and ‘Haru ga Kite Bokura’.

And as always, here are the albums that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it into the above list – and you know, whatever else 2020 decided to throw at us, there were no major flubs even here. In a weaker year, a couple of these may have even scraped into the main part of this blog post. It’s just that, as luck would have it, they were squeezed out by slightly stronger contenders this time around.

FLOWER FLOWER – Target (March 25)

While not quite strong enough for me to want to buy a physical copy, Target is definitely a much stronger offering than the band’s debut album, Mi, in 2014. I can actually recognize YUI’s voice in this one for a start. It’s probably a step above average, but still only right on the cusp of being good. Try ‘Mitsu’ and ‘Yume’ for some easy-listening pop-rock, ‘Sunahama’ for something a little softer and slower that inches more towards a ballad-type piece, and ‘Ben’ for a more whimsical pop vibe.

Yousei Teikoku – The Age of Villains (March 25)

I probably shouldn’t have included this one on my listening list at all, at least for this blog post, because despite being categorized on many Japanese/English music sites as J-pop, Yousei Teikoku is pretty firmly in the gothic heavy metal camp, at least at this stage of their career. I have a soft spot for some of their older material though (in particular, both their 2007 albums, which sound something like a more whispery Japanese version of Evanescence – try checking out the likes of ‘Wahrheit’, ‘Schwarzer Sarg’, or ‘Senketsu no Chikai’ if you’re curious). But hey, BABYMETAL aside, it’s unusual to hear Japanese female lead singers in the metal genre, so props to these guys for still going strong after more than two decades in the game.

THE ORAL CIGARETTES – SUCK MY WORLD (April 29)

‘Breathe’, ‘Wagamama de Gomakasanaide’ and ‘Shine Holder’ are all decent pop/alternative rock tracks here, though sadly not enough to elevate the rest of SUCK MY WORLD to anything above average at best. This is also a pretty long album, and strangely, one in which the first half is almost entirely hard ‘emo’ rock (and not very good rock at that) – whereas the second half, especially from track 8 onwards, is far more listenable, with a much more easygoing feel. Try it if you dare, I guess.

DAOKO – anima (July 29)

This album is… well, pretty okay, albeit just not really my thing. As a whole, DAOKO’s seventh studio album actually appeals a lot more to me than her previous one, despite a return to her earlier rap style of singing, which isn’t particularly my cup of tea. ‘VOICE’ and ‘Strawberry Moon’ are the only two tracks I wholeheartedly liked, but if nothing else, anima is a genuinely interesting album, so I didn’t mind listening to it – I think long-time DAOKO fans will probably be pleased with what it has to offer.

LiSA – LEO-NiNE (October 14)

What can I say – it’s LiSA. At this point, she’s practically an old hand at this, and if you’re a big fan of her work, I doubt you’ll be disappointed with her latest studio release. Personally, I think it’s… fine. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, and at one time, I likely would’ve really dug the slightly heavier rock-centric pop vibe she has going here. However, there are very few standout tracks for me, and LEO-NiNE doesn’t feel like anything especially interesting or innovative. Still, ‘Gurenge’, ‘cancellation’, and ‘ADAMAS’ (the latter well-known for featuring as the first OP to Sword Art Online: Alicization) are solid tracks in their own right, so give those a try if this sounds like something up your alley.

Takahashi Yu – Personality (October 21)

This one was right on the cusp of the buy-list for me, but didn’t quite make it there in the end. It’s a decent album, albeit a pretty long one, and probably the best studio album I’ve listened to from Takahashi Yu since his 2012 release of Kono Koe. Although it didn’t feature enough standout tracks to make the cut for me, fans of folk J-pop/J-rock may well want to give this one a listen, especially to the likes of ‘Hakkeyoi’, ‘room’, ‘RUN’, ‘DANCE WITH ME’, ‘Honmei’, and ‘Tokyo Unko Aika’.

GARNiDELiA – Kishikaisei (November 25)

There’s absolutely nothing here I outright disliked, and in particular, ‘Secret Party’ with its more unique old-school sound and ‘Yoiyami Kouchou’ with its distinctively Japanese musical stylings both deserve a mention. However, if I hadn’t known I was listening to GARNiDELiA, I would’ve assumed this was just another mainstream pop act like Aoi Eir or LiSA – whereas part of the charm of GARNiDELiA for me in the first place is the duo’s electronic Eurodance vibe. It’s a pity that wasn’t more on display with Kishikaisei, that’s all.

Yanagi Nagi – Emeraro Type (December 09)

Overall, this is a very slow album – too slow for my liking, honestly, although the very ethereal and dreamy vibe works well with Yanagi’s vocal style. Think more heavy breathing than singing for much of the album, particularly in the first half, where she seems to be channeling a combination of Yakushimaru Etsuko and Enya. It’s probably no surprise that my favorite tracks, like ‘Megumi no Ame’, ‘out of the blue’, ‘209415’, and ‘Outside’ are all on the latter half of the album. However, even among these, I’d hesitate to say there are any major standouts.

Note: This will (probably) be my final blog post of the year, so Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, and wishing everyone a great rest of your December. See you in 2021!

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