TOPArt & CultureMusicEd’s Picks: The 5 Best Japanese Singles of Spring 2021

Ed’s Picks: The 5 Best Japanese Singles of Spring 2021

TW music writer Ed Cunningham reviews the best songs by Japanese artists released so far in 2021

By Ed Cunningham

It’s springtime, and barrel-loads of new Japanese singles have come out over the past few months. Indeed, far too many barrel-loads to reasonably fit into a single introduction; so instead, I’ll dive straight in: here are my top five Japanese singles of spring.

1. Le Makeup, ‘Moon Hit’

(Pure Voyage)

In the video for “Moon Hit”, Osaka-based rapper and producer Le Makeup, lit up by his blue-green hair and traffic cone-orange jacket, wanders through various scenes of solitude and urban sprawl. It’s a beautifully shot video, director Shunsuke Sugiyama beautifully capturing still scenes of everyday tranquillity, and a perfect fit for “Moon Hit,” one of Le Makeup’s more contemplative tracks.

Set to a beat produced in collaboration with Canadian beatmaker Ryan Hemsworth, Le Makeup raps through the big questions: love, memories, the various directions in which life takes you. It’s a solemn, affecting piece of hip hop.

2. Quruli, ‘I Love You’

(Victor)

Quruli have been legends of Japanese indie for over two decades. They’re known for some pretty big hits but, over the years, they’ve also taken some impressive creative risks. The group often flit between genres and styles, both across albums and within single tracks. I’ve not always been a fan, but on “I Love You”, the teaser and opening track of Quruli’s new album, the protean trio hit several sweet spots.

Grounded in plinking marimbas, “I Love You” seeks to capture several different musical styles within its fast-moving – but very serene and smooth – phases. Smatterings of indietronica and a slight groove meet New Age pop, while sullen horn phases weld the track together. There’s even a doom-inspired breakdown somewhere in the middle.

“I Love You” shows the kind of songwriting skill that one would expect of musicians such as Quruli, having spent so many years at the top of the game. But it’s still something of a surprise when they actually pull it off – a gratifyingly expert track.

3. Hirono Nishiyama, ‘Funé’

(Self-released / Friendship)

Hirono Nishiyama doesn’t usually make music under her own name. In fact, she’s only ever put that name to two mini albums and one full-length, 1999’s Yura Yura Yureru. She’s much better known by her long-running (but still solo) project, Gutevolk.

I’m not sure what the significance of “Funé” is with regards to Nishiyama returning to her birth name. It does tentatively link back to the styles of her earlier work; as with Yura Yura Yureru, it’s very influenced by bossa nova and Shibuya-kei – but there, the similarities mostly stop.

Instead, “Funé” is psychedelic and folky. It’s got overlapping vocal harmonies, a creaking upright bass and a full band’s worth of little jumpy, whimsical details. There are enough strange tinges and hidden noises to keep a listener quiet for hours.

4. Mom, ‘Shukujitsu’

(JVCKENWOOD Victor)

It wouldn’t be an ‘Ed’s Picks’ without a new Mom track. The indie hip hopper has consistently been one of my favorite Japanese musicians of recent times, and “Shukujitsu” does little to change that. Mom’s latest track bases itself around a drum pattern that throws back to the lightweight, spitting percussive highs of early ‘00s UK garage, before adding his usual indie electronic sounds and details.

“Shukujitsu” is another stylistic twist from an artist remarkable for his stylistic malleability. Following Mom’s tremendous 2020 release 21st Century Cultboi Ride a Sk8board, here he shows that he’s still got plenty of ideas in reserve. “Shukujitsu” is a tight and tuneful pop tune riddled by the talents of an exceptional, prolific pop songwriter.

5. DiAN, ‘Moonbow Disco’ & ‘Lucky Rain’

(U/M/A/A)

The 1980s always seem to be undergoing some kind of cultural revival, likely because the decade is usually associated with glamorous, particularly marketable kinds of music. City pop, synthpop, New Jack Swing – they’re all easily identified by their flashy, bombastic styles and sounds.

And while plenty of ‘80s revivalism can seem like a cynical cash-in, DiAN do things differently. These two tracks, both released at the end of February, are still glamourous, knowingly saturated with the dramatic glitz of ‘80s synthpop. But both are so polished and expert – so much more polished and expert than they needed to be – that they’re irresistible.

The trio’s distinctive take on ‘80s synthpop/electropop offers a sparkling blaze of strutting orchestral hits, balladeering hooks, dancing basslines and general melodrama. Sung in Japanese, English and Chinese (while two of DiAN’s members, producer A-bee and composer immi, are Japanese, the trio’s vocalist and singer Seidenba Saku was born in Beijing), “Moonbow Disco” and “Lucky Rain” are stratospheric pop tunes.