2015 was a particularly strong year for J-pop which saw some old favourites as well as the debuts of some fine talents. Here’s our take of the best songs of the year…
Otsukare Summer – Dempagumi.inc
The arrival of Dempagumi.Inc’s third studio album WWDD brought with it some of the best examples of contemporary idol music. In a period where idol outfits are generally still in the ascendant, it’s always a nice surprise to still see groups raising the bar.
But even with their third album just out of the gate, Dempagumi.inc were still busy with new releases which included the euphoric melodies of ‘Otsukare Summer’. Its breezy tune (and bonkers video) made summer much more interesting. Plus, Dempagumi.inc made an impact at their UK debut for Hyper Japan’s summer event, of which ‘Otsukare Summer’ was a particularly standout moment. Team Dempa took time to guide the audience through a series of moves requiring towels that ends, as Nemu helpfully demonstrated, with casually throwing your towel over your shoulder and adopting a “Cool Face!”. Imagine a wota-heavy audience joining in the towel-twirling fun and you can appreciate the appeal of both Dempagumi.inc and ‘Otsukare Summer’ combined.
Nippon Manju – LADYBABY
2015 packed in some fine moments in J-pop debuts and performances, but one outfit in particular has captured the imagination more than most. LADYBABY managed to combine good tunes with a strong visual image that resulted in the kinetic ‘Nippon Manju’ and stole everyone’s hearts in the process.
They received a rapturous welcome when they made their UK debut at Hyper Japan this year (despite the absence of Rie Kaneko) and Ladybeard demonstrated what a powerhouse of energy and fun the hairy 5-year-old could be.
14-sai byou – BRATS
With LADYBABY enjoying a surge of publicity recently, it might be surprising to learn that LADYBABY’s Rei Kuromiya has also been busy with her other outfit BRATS.
BRATS, which also features Rei’s sister Aya, offer up a much more muscular approach to idol music which is clear from the percussive pop of ’14-sai byou’. The song is a reference to chuunibyou – a condition that apparently affects 2nd year middle-school students who find themselves stuck between childhood and adulthood trying to figure out who they are.
’14-sai byou’ comes with a pedigree as it was penned by URBANGARDE’s Tenma Matsunaga. It’s also perhaps one of the best tunes to emerge this year and might have slipped beneath the radar of many people due to the high profile of LADYBABY.
Hoshi ga Matataku Yoru ni – BiSH
Following the 2014 disbanding of Brand-New Idol Society, BIS manager Watanabe Junnosuke put together a new outfit known as BiSH (Brand-new idol SHiT) for 2015. The new outing is an almost seamless continuation from BIS, albeit with a new line-up.
‘Hoshi ga Matataku Yoru ni’ emerged as something of an introduction for BiSH before the later release of their first proper single OTNK in September. Meanwhile, everything is present and correct with zippy guitars, earnest vocal delivery and a video featuring the girls appearing to roll around in shit.
~A world without you~ – Die Milch
Die Milch have carved out a small but solid catalogue of tunes since 2013’s Metronom album. They’ve kept the quality up for their 2015 follow-up album Imperial in a year which also saw them performing at Hyper Japan as well as a special standalone J-Pop Go concert.
‘~A world without you~’ is pure music confectionery, with its plucked strings and Coco’s impassioned vocals. It also employs subtle but effective electronic treatment on some of the vocal parts of the song, which keeps things interesting and suggests that Die Milch will always be ready to offer up some musical surprises.
Boom Boom – Kelsey Ellison
‘BOOM BOOM’ marks Kelsey Ellison’s second release following on from the hyper-kinetic pop goodness of 2014’s ‘Pom Pom’. The new release is cut from similar cloth, but there’s something much tighter and much more catchy in this latest offering which delivers crunchy electropop rhythms and euphoric choral melodies.
The other crucial point to be noted from this latest tune is that although there’s nods to Japanese pop culture, the songs roots are closer to a western tradition, which isn’t surprising given that Kelsey draws inspiration from the likes of Gwen Stefani and Yolandi Visser.
During the process of releasing this song, Kelsey’s favour switched to a remixed version which is the take that featured in the official release version, but for our money the original is the superior take.
Yume no Ukiyo ni Saitemina – Momoiro Clover Z
It was always a most unlikely collaboration: in one corner, the colourful idol outfit MOMOIRO CLOVER Z and the other corner, the classic rock outfit KISS. The finished product is ‘Yume No Ukiyo Ni Saitemina’, a song that was penned by Kiss frontman Paul Stanley and Greg Collins (composer and former Kiss producer) along with lyrics by Yuho Iwasato.
BABYMETAL’s surprising success with combining idol music with metal has clearly cast its influence wide. To illustrate how influential the metal trio are, Yuyoyuppe and Narasaki (who both worked on some of the songs for BABYMETAL’s debut album) were brought onboard to provide a new arrangement of Kiss classic ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’ (Legendary guitarist Shinji Wajima of metal outfit Ningen Isu also performs on the song).
The sinister guitar rhythms of ‘Yume No Ukiyo Ni Saitemina’ slot in perfectly with Momoiro’s theatrical vocal style. In fact it’s difficult to think of another rock outfit that could carry this off as well as Kiss who have been doing a spectacular job of combining theatre with rock for 40 years.
Pick Me Up – Perfume
We weren’t completely sold on Perfume’s last studio album LEVEL3 and the single releases following that album were a little hit and miss. ‘Cling Cling’ was serviceable J-pop, but Yasutaka Nakata was capable of much higher calibre tunes (to be fair, 2015 was a busy period for Nakata who had to wrestle Perfume, Kyary and Capsule amongst other projects).
‘Pick Me Up’ is definitely a step in the right direction. It combines those trademark Technopop licks with energetic beats to produce a euphoric slice of J-pop that points towards a healthy post LEVEL3 output. With Perfume marking the end of an era with the release of their documentary, the time seems just right for the outfit to now take the step forward and demonstrate why they’re the Queens of J-pop.
Another World – Capsule
Yasutaka Nakata is a busy man on any day of the week, but 2015 certainly saw the songwriter pushing the limits of what he can achieve. Outside of his production and songwriting duties however, he still finds time to work on his own musical output as part of Capsule.
While Capsule have been on an upward trajectory for a number of years, 2013’s CAPS LOCK didn’t quite deliver a satisfying musical experience. But Nakata made up for that with the impressive tunes contained on WAVE RUNNER. The album featured Nakata’s musical partner in Capsule Toshiko Koshijima on ‘Depth’, which formed the theme of the movie Appleseed Alpha as well as the impressive ‘Another World’. It demonstrates how Nakata can effortlessly conjure up euphoric beats and match it with the impressive visuals of the drone race in the video (care of video-meister Daito Manabe).
Out Of Control – MAN WITH A MISSION×Zebrahead
One of the more interesting rock acts to emerge from Planet Earth in recent years is the group known as MAN WITH A MISSION. Having cultivated a fervent fanbase in Japan and around the world, the rock combo have also been hard at work extending to a global audience.
For the Japanese release of Mad Max Fury Road, director George Miller was struck by MAN WITH A MISSION’s music, which led to the collaboration with the US-based Zebrahead. ‘Out Of Control’ is a petrol bomb of screaming guitars and aggressive vocals which only really delivers its full force in a live setting. Miller himself commented: “I thought it was great when I first heard the song. It captures the spirit of the movie very well.”
Hello Bitches – CL
We’ll close out the list with an honorary K-pop tune courtesy of CL.
Taking time out from her 2NE1 duties, CL delivered this percussive banger that sees her switching between Korean and English for an infectious tune that brags and swags its way to greatness. While J-pop often takes the long way around to winning hearts and minds globally, K-pop in the form of CL’s offering here, just gets straight down to business.