Best J-Pop/J-Rock Albums of 2021 (Kind Of)

Welp, it’s that time of year again. I guess it really did sneak up on me because I just didn’t have the chance to check out that much new music – I’m not exaggerating when I say that 2021 genuinely was a lot crazier for me than last year (yeah… I’ll just let that sink in for a minute).

So, instead of listing my top albums followed by my (dis)honorable mentions, I’ll just be listing every album I listened to (a grand total of 5), along with my general comments. As always, the following list is arranged solely in order of release date, and is comprised only of full, original studio albums by a single artist/band (i.e. no covers, re-releases, compilations, EPs, or lives). Enjoy!

Ikimonogakari – Who? (March 31)

With only 9 tracks in total, this felt like more of a mini-album, but hey, short doesn’t have to mean bad. Overall, I thought the album was perfectly decent, but neither long enough nor impactful enough to make a major impression on me. I did have a small handful of favorite tracks though. ‘BAKU’ combines a fun rock/jazz kind of sound, and I also love the harmonica country feel paired with the piano riffs of the fun, rollicking ‘Chicken Song’, especially in the opening chords. Finally, ‘Mouichido Sonosakihe’ is a great heartfelt ballad that reminds me nostalgically of the band’s earlier work circa 2008-09.

Aimer – Walpurgis (April 14)

Anyone who knows my taste in music, at least when it comes to J-pop, knows that I expected Walpurgis to be a shoo-in for my top album of the year – and it didn’t disappoint. Aimer has always delivered top-notch ethereal atmosphere (which is why I encourage anyone who enjoyed Kalafina to give her stuff a listen if you haven’t done so already). At the same time, Aimer’s naturally husky vocals and excellent range make her sound far more mature than a lot of other J-pop artists, so even her more average songs are still a nice listen. Of this particular album, by far my favorite tracks are ‘Wonderland’ – which is absolutely not surprising, as the music was composed by the always hauntingly beautiful work of Kajiura Yuki – ‘Haru wa Yuku’ (another fairytale-like Kajiura song, surprise surprise), and ‘Torches’, which is a slow but extremely heartfelt ballad that was used as the first ED for the Vinland Saga anime.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – Candy Racer (October 27)

This is a bit of an odd album (nothing less from Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, I suppose), but one probably worth listening to just for quirkiness’ sake, if nothing else. ‘Candy Racer’ puts me immediately in mind of a lot of late 90s/early to mid-2000s Euro-pop, while ‘Kamaitachi’ is more of a callback to her earlier general style in a fun yet thankfully not overly annoying kind of way. ‘Kimi ga Iine Kuretara’ and ‘Gum Gum Girl’ are likewise fun and playful, with a more distinct Japanese sound to both tracks. Hilariously, much of the rest of the album sounds like something that might have been played in an aerobics class during the 80s, complete with skin-tight neon-colored spandex. Make of that what you will.

GARNiDELiA – Duality Code (November 17)

This album is another decent yet not amazing one. I found myself quite enjoying the darting, building urgency of the piano in ‘Uncertainty’, even if the song itself isn’t otherwise a huge standout. Meanwhile, ‘Milk Caramel’ has a delightful bouncy playfulness to it while not necessarily sounding childish, which I like. ‘Reason’, the final track of the album, is the only one with the same kind of high-energy synthpop/rock blend as her 2018 album G.R.N.D, but at the same time, I can’t be too mad about that because something about Duality Code feels like GARNiDELiA’s most mature album to date, even if that also means it’s not quite as fun a listen.

Otsuka Ai – Love Pop (December 08)

I think the time has come to admit to myself that I’ve outgrown Otsuka Ai. I fondly remember the good old days of the likes of ‘Smiley’ and ‘Planetarium’ in the early and mid-2000s (basically anything from her first three albums, especially those cutesy, happy-go-lucky tracks), but she’s just not for me anymore. Still, anyone who’s a real fan probably won’t find themselves disappointed by Love Pop, since the vocals are still distinctly her while also not sounding dated or stale. I will say that I preferred the first half of the album over the second – most likely because at least the former was somewhat nostalgic for me, while the latter sounded a bit more experimental (and therefore unfamiliar) in sound. As far as standout tracks go, there honestly really weren’t any as far as I was concerned, but that doesn’t mean more dedicated listeners than I won’t find some.

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