Much like in the U.S., Japan has quite a bit of music released every year. However, even if you play Japanese video games or watch anime, you might have missed out on a lot of it. As a big fan of many Japanese artists, I’ve heard several really excellent songs and albums over the past twelve months. Let’s take a look at some of my favorite Japanese music from 2016.
Note: The biggest question I had for myself as I was writing this was basically “How do I write this?” I never REALLY came up with an answer, so we are just going to go for it a bit here. Enjoy:
Let’s start with an easy category. The most played song of the year. Since this has a pretty straightforward metric, I can give a fairly objective answer here. My most played song of the year *drumroll*:
“Karate” by Babymetal
If you know me, you should not be surprised about this. It was inevitable. Babymetal is not just my favorite Japanese band, but also my favorite band, period. When they first announced their new album last year, I was super excited but also worried because I was extremely hyped and many bands with stellar debuts don’t pull off good sophomore efforts. Fortunately, Metal Resistance was more than a worthy successor to Babymetal.
But before we get into that, let’s talk a little bit about “Karate”, the song in the video. “Karate” was the main hype single that fans could get from pre-purchasing the album about a month or so in advance of the April release. It features some pretty heavy riffs from the very beginning, and very much highlights a sort of transition from the more Metallica-inspired guitar work in latter portion of the first album to a branching musical aesthetic. “Karate” is a very aptly named song, because its strength lies in the controlled force of the tempo, vocals, and choreography. Babymetal is very much a full package deal with each song, and the mimicking of a karate performance in the choreography is excellently designed.
Metal Resistance by Babymetal
Lead vocalist Suzuka Nakamoto’s vocal work is absolutely stellar throughout Metal Resistance. Although the entire Babymetal concept was centered around her powerful vocal abilities (her proven range is from G3 to G#5!), she has really come into her own as an artist over the course of the past few years. This really shows in Metal Resistance. There’s an increased level of control and maturity to her vocal work that is consistently shown off throughout the album. Suffice to say, Metal Resistance is my favorite Japanese album of the year.
However, “Karate”, although it is my most played song of the year, is actually not my favorite. It takes second place to another excellent track:
“Insane Dream” by Aimer
Aimer has always been a consistently good artist, but this year has been my favorite year as an Aimer fan. Aimer had an incredibly prolific year starting in May with “Ninelie”, a collaborative effort with Chelly from EGOIST. Following this, she would go on to release two more singles, an album, and then ANOTHER single. Her second single of the year, “Insane Dream”, is by far my favorite song of hers, and it also wins the award for being my favorite Japanese song of the year. “Insane Dream” has some of the most beautiful instrumentation and vocal work I’ve ever heard. Aimer teamed up with vocalist Taka from One OK Rock, and together they weaved an incredibly powerful and mystical performance. Aimer’s songs generally feature very vibrant and pensive vocal work. “Insane Dream” is an excellent combination of this and the more aggressive style of Taka.
As you might have gathered, what made Aimer stand out this year was the fact that she had an insane quantity of music yet managed to have an equally insane level of quality in each of her performances. An insane dream for the fans, if I do say so myself. Aimer’s album Daydream featured quite a few successful collaborations between herself and other artists, and carried all of what makes the best of her music: engaging vocals, powerful thematic lyrics, and varying instrumentation. Because of all of this, Aimer was my Japanese artist of the year.
Some of you might be wondering right now, “But Protonstorm, not very much of this is in anime! This is an anime site!” You would be right, so far (although a couple of Aimer’s songs were in anime this year). The Japanese music industry and the anime industry are very interconnected, something that I think has greatly benefited both sides. Artists can make extra money and gain more recognition by being attached to anime, and anime can gain a potentially compelling variety of music. So to get more on the topic of anime-specific music, let’s start with my most-played anime theme song of the year:
“Genesis” by STEREO DIVE FOUNDATION (Dimension W)
That’s right, it’s “Genesis” by STEREO DIVE FOUNDATION (yes their name is in all caps, let’s just call them SDF). SDF has always been very good at fast and energetic electronic pieces, and “Genesis” is no exception. In fact, if anything it is the pinnacle of SDF’s style. “Genesis” hits the ground running, and only continues to build up as the song progresses. If you’re a fan of electronic music in general, you might find yourself addicted to this track. I know I did, which is why it is my most played anime song of the year.
While “Genesis” was my most played song of the year, that doesn’t mean it was my favorite. Let’s take a look at some other favorites:
“Sore wa Chiisana Hikari no You na” by Sayuri (Erased)
First up, “Sore wa Chiisana Hikari no You na” by Sayuri. You all might know it as the ending theme to Erased. Sayuri suddenly burst into the big time music scene last year with “Mikazuki”, and she was back at it again this year. The strength of “Sore wa Chiisana Hikari no You na” was in Sayuri’s unique voice and its combination with warped versions of instruments such as the piano with synthetic sounds. Sayuri is known for literally performing herself to tears when she plays live, and her efforts in Erased definitely capture that emotional essence. It’s worth mentioning that the EP the track was in is one of the best EPs out there as well. Sayuri tosses in some excellent additional tracks, including acoustic variations of some of her other songs.
“Redo” by Konomi Suzuki (Re:Zero)
Konomi Suzuki is an artist that tragically writes great music but is often attached to horrible anime. Fortunately, for the first time in two years, she was part of a show I actually liked. Even more fortunately, from an artistic perspective I would argue that “Redo” is her best performance yet. Konomi Suzuki has a very vibrant and full-sounding voice that generally works regardless of the pop song it’s actually a part of, but “Redo” really is a perfect battleground to showcase it in. The instrumentation of the song has a ‘repeat’ kind of vibe to it in that the background music and even sometimes the melody is written in a style that evokes a sense of rewinding. I think it works quite well.
“Knew Day” by (K)NoW_NAME (Grimgar)
This one came totally out of (k)nowhere for me (I’m so funny). (K)NoW_NAME made their big debut with Grimgar’s opening theme (as well as the ending theme and all the insert songs). It was really good. I think this is definitely the case of music that worked really well with the story in that as great as (K)NoW_NAME’s work was, it was made significantly better thanks to the synergy it had with Grimgar. Grimgar was one of the most calm, slice-of-life-y fantasy series I have ever seen, and it was surprisingly emotional as well, in part thanks to (K)NoW_NAME.
“Zen Zen Zense” by RADWIMPS (Your Name.)
RADWIMPS did all the insert songs for the movie Your Name., and they did an excellent job. My personal favorite was “Zen Zen Zense”. RADWIMPS are a pretty popular rock band in Japan, but they managed to eclipse their own fame with their work in Your Name.. It’s less any one unique element that makes this track appealing and more that is just a very high quality performance. If I were to attempt to diagnose myself on this song, however, I’d probably attribute my affliction to the percussive work leading up to the chorus in particular.
“Lay Your Hands on Me” by BOOM BOOM SATELLITES (Kiznaiver)
This song, as it would turn out, was the last hurrah from BOOM BOOM SATELLITES (rip Michiyuki Kawashima). It’s also an amazing song. There’s a certain other-world-y surrealism to the electronic effects accompanying Kawashima’s vocals that make the entire work have an energizing edge to it. It’s also quite long, so the mysterious feelings seem to somehow linger exponentially longer following the song’s conclusion for some reason. At least to me. Either way, give it a listen.
“Button” by Penguin Research (ReLIFE)
Penguin Research’s previous songs have always kind of felt like they were juuuuust on that precipice of greatness, but “Button” finally crossed that line. Their vocalist has a very masterful control of the subtle vibrato he always infuses their tracks with, but the actual instrumentation itself is what really puts this performance above their previous ones. The whole thing reeks of bittersweet vibes despite the forward momentum of the music, and it’s awesome.
“Signal” by TK from Ling Toshite Shigure (91 Days)
Ling Toshite Shigure is already famous for their work on Psycho-Pass, but TK’s solo work on Tokyo Ghoul’s opening theme was quite impressive. Needless to say, I was looking forward to his solo return. “Signal” is an excellent song that features TK’s unique falsetto vocal capabilities to make another engaging performance. It’s also worth mentioning that TK released a solo album soon after which is also excellent.
“S.O.S.” by Weaver (Poco’s Udon World)
Weaver is one of my favorite Japanese bands, and I’ve been hoping that they would do another anime performance for a while now. Thankfully, this wish came true with “S.O.S.”. “S.O.S.” is another excellent performance by vocalist Yuji Sugimoto and features an extremely catchy mixture of electronic effects along with his famous piano-vocal combo.
In the interest of not listing hundreds of good songs from the year, I want to jump to my favorite instrumental soundtrack. You probably have at least a small hint at what it is probably going to be:
Of course it was going to be Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress. Hiroyuki Sawano’s soundtrack work is usually on point, and Kabaneri is definitely one of his best. When the OST first came out, I spent several weeks pondering over the question of what it meant for him as an artist. My general conclusion was that although he has yet to truly move beyond his work on Attack on Titan, Sawano has mastered the style with Kabaneri. It’s definitely an inspired outing. In particular, the insert songs with vocals are quite good and most definitely varied. While I posted the primary theme of the show above, I highly recommend you listen to my personal favorite track of the album, “Grenzlinie”.
The masterful aggressiveness and suspense of Sawano is back, and many of his signature moves are as well. Both of the tracks I’ve given feature at least a partial version of what I call the Sawano Switch, where Sawano abruptly shifts the tempo and mood of the track around halfway through. And as I mentioned, although this album doesn’t really do much NEW, it does take the old and do it better. This made it by far my favorite OST of the year. My favorite OST are albums that have play-ability outside of the specific series they are attached to, and Kabaneri’s OST definitely fits this role.
Last but certainly not least, I want to jump back to something I briefly discussed towards the beginning of the article. Namely, albums. While a lot of Japanese artists perform for anime, many western anime fans miss out on really experiencing excellent artists because they don’t explore beyond the anime they were featured in. But fear not! Let’s take a look at some other albums (besides Metal Resistance and Daydream, which I’ve already discussed).
What a Wonderful World Line by fhana
fhana is one of my favorite bands. Despite having only dropped their debut album last year, they released their sophomore effort this year. fhana has an interesting compositional team in that the group is made up of three composers and one vocalist. Towana, the vocalist, has a very smooth and flowing voice that works well with the mixture of songs the group creates. fhana has been a very prolific anime performance band since their debut in 2013, and have been featured in 2-3 different series a year ever since. This album features several excellent tracks, including anime songs such as Comet Lucifer’s opening and album-exclusive tracks such as the one in the video above.
Colors by NoisyCell
You might know NoisyCell from the Barakamon ED or the Death Parade ED, but you probably haven’t heard their new mini album that released in October. It’s really, really good. Within 6 songs, NoisyCell manages to make the mini album feel twice its size with the diversity and general quality of tracks. The above song is the first track (the second is my favorite, but it’s not on Youtube!). If you were a fan of their work in anime, then you will definitely enjoy this album as it has the same level of quality and epicness of their previous music.
Love Me Do by Scandal
Scandal has already released seven studio albums over the course of the past ten or so years, and their latest entry is some of their best work yet. The album features Haruna Ono’s vocal work through a mixture of rock and more alternative music, and has a consistent level of quality and cohesiveness that proves Scandal’s experience and maturity in song writing.
Planless Perfection by Hello Sleepwalkers
You might know Hello Sleepwalkers from Noragami’s first opening theme. However, as great as that song was, it really doesn’t encapsulate the full greatness of the group like Planless Perfection does. Hello Sleepwalkers actually has two vocalists, a male and a female. Their voices are extremely different from each other, but this suits Hello Sleepwalkers perfectly as they highlight the differences in their voices by switching between vocalists at different moments in their songs. Hello Sleepwalkers is a “math rock” band, which means that the tempos in their songs are irregular and frequently change over the course of each track. The combination of vocal transitions and tempo swaps create crazy yet oddly coherent songs, and Planless Perfection manages to string them together to make an excellent addition to your music library.
Fixion by The Oral Cigarettes
Much like Hello Sleepwalkers, The Oral Cigarettes performed an opening them for Noragami. In fact, that’s actually one of the tracks in this album! However, if you haven’t heard the rest of their work then you’re missing out. Takuya Yamanaka, the vocalist, has a very Japanese type 2 vocal style (imagine like FLOW or GRANRODEO’s vocalists). However, what makes the band stick out is that much like Hello Sleepwalkers their music has a chaotic rhythm to it. A lot of their music is surprisingly catch-y and/or contains a surprising transitional melody in it.
27 by SUPER BEAVER
SUPER BEAVER is a consistently good alternative rock band. They performed Barakamon’s opening theme, but some of my favorite songs by them are in their new album from this year, 27. There’s a mix of slower, reflective songs, energetic and hopeful songs, and really anything you might expect as a SUPER BEAVER fan. If you don’t know them very well/at all but are into alternative rock, then you might stumble on something you like.
ANTITHESE by MY FIRST STORY
MY FIRST STORY is probably not very well known around these parts. However, on the off chance you watched Nobunaga Concerto in 2014 or read my article from that summer, you might recognize this group. If you don’t, then you might be surprised to learn that Taka from One OK Rock has a younger brother named Hiroki. This is Hiroki’s band. Hiroki does many things similarly to Taka, such as mixing English and Japanese lyrics. And while he isn’t at the same level as his brother’s vocals, Hiroki and MY FIRST STORY put together a pretty sweet album with ANITITHESE. You should give it a listen.
Needless to say, there was quite a bit of excellent Japanese music this year both in anime and not. Although I tried to include a lot of it in this article, there was quite a bit that JUST missed the cut. There might also have been some excellent stuff that I didn’t even consider! Either way, I hope you enjoy the music. Let me know what you like in the comments!
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