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Best Japanese Albums of 2021

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the best Japanese albums of 2021!

An ambient prologue leads into Aimer's most atmospheric album that lines up her many anime and drama theme songs of the past two years. From gentler, lilting pieces like Torches and kiro to the driving rock numbers Stand-Alone and Spark-Again, Aimer's vocals soar effortlessly with every song. Her singing tells stories in the entrancing hollow-mas and Haru wa Yuku, which grandly fuse traditional instrumentals and rock ballad sensibilities with an RPG-worthy aura. The mysterious and rhythmic wonderland especially stands out with Aimer's fiercely pronounced vocals against the song's powerful clash of strings and hard beats. She closes the album with the beautiful, elegiac titular number Walpurgis that brings us into "the forest of the night."

AiNA THE END from BiSH started solo activities this year, and she has been very productive with full albums in February and November plus steady digital releases in between. While alternative elements were sprinkled in her debut THE END, her second album THE ZOMBIE goes even bolder in sound and experimentation. Many of its songs jump out, particularly the wild and husky Kameda Seiji-produced rock number "Blood of Romance," the frenzied, heavy-breathing Who are you? and the lively big band tune ZOKINGDOG, which is co-composed with Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra's Kato Takashi and features howling lyrics written from the perspective of an abandoned dog. The quieter songs, including the child-like electronic blend Sweet Boogie and the lyrical ballad lead track Kamisama, are just as effective.

Awesome City Club - Grower
The consistently awesome Awesome City Club first appeared in our year-end picks back in 2015 when the band made their major debut. This year, they will make their Kohaku debut on the back of breakthrough hit Wasurena, which may well be the weakest song of this wonderfully listenable album. Grower ambles through groovy, easy-going pieces that channel the vibrant, nonchalant vibe of the city while drawing from a range of influences including rock, soul, R&B, disco, new wave and dance music. Grower is typical of the band's style but more focused and structured in sound than previous albums, with a lingering sensuality via tracks like the funky jam Sing out loud, Bring it on down! and the mesmerizing Kioku no Umi.

DISH// - X
Those who follow Japanese entertainment probably know Kitamura Takumi better as a top new-generation actor. The Tokyo Revengers star is also the frontman of DISH// which started out back in 2011 as a teenaged dancing rock band. Just as Kitamura has grown as an actor, DISH// has gradually come into their own as a band in recent years. That growth comes to fruition in the almost surprisingly good X. DISH//'s fourth album declares rebellion with a laid-back yet assertive Loser anthem and fast-paced pop rock jams like "New Normal," rock n roller and Birthday. There are still some youthful dance rock holdovers (Seagull, Not Flunky), but the band now shows their best in the slinky, alternative QQ, the slow and stirring Atarimae and, of course, The First Take version of Neko.

Official HIGE DANdism - Editorial
How could we not love an album titled Editorial? Two years after the band's breakout with Pretender, Official HIGE DANdism's brand of pop rock continues to be a resilient breath of fresh air on the charts – this is the only non-idol release in Oricon's top 15 physical album sellers of 2021. HIGEDAN's earworms aren't just crowd-pleasing but also thoughtful and well crafted. Opening with a same-titled a cappella number, Editorial sees the band adapting and developing their core sound in different directions, from the moving ballad Apoptosis and familiarly funky Universe, to the dramatic performance and majestic flourishes of Tokyo Revengers theme song Cry Baby. It's also a pleasure to discover the emotionally raw gems in the side tracks, like the homey Shower and Bedroom Talk, the wistfully stripped-down Midori no Amayoke and the piercing, falsetto-laced Lost in My Room that closes the album.

Kuwata Keisuke - Gohan Misoshiru Nori Otsukemono Tamagoyaki feat. Umeboshi
Just the title and cover artwork of this EP already give off such a fulfilling feeling! Kuwata Keisuke's warm album is named after six simple dishes that form the heart of Japanese cuisine. Similarly, the tracklist is formed by six songs that are miso soup for the soul. From the folksy, clap-along Soul Cobra Twist ~ Tamashii no Monzetsu and the sultry, bluesy Sasurai no RIDER to the uplifting SMILE ~Harewataru Sora no Yoni~ and the nostalgic Hozuki, the legendary singer-songwriter sweetly and succinctly expresses emotions, memories and moments that are dear to heart and reflective of life.

Bop around like it's 1996 again! Puffy's first album in a decade, THE PUFFY commemorates the iconic duo's 25th anniversary with a return to the infectious, effervescent and quirky pop sound that shot them to global fame. We dare you to not smile while listening to the throwback pop punk and surf rock sounds of ESSAFOSSA, Pathfinder and Susume Nonsense, or the fusion dance pop confections CHOEGOIST and SUNLIT HILL. With rap, synth, ska, jazz, folk and everything in between adding to the album's colorful genre-bending mixture, Puffy is still as unabashedly fun and delightfully strange as ever, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Whether ReN is singing "Run run run to tomorrow" in Running Forward, "Take it easy" in Laid back, or "You'll be fine, I'll be fine" in We'll be fine, this album seems to have just the soothing, reassuring song to sit back and listen to for a moment of inner quiet. The singer-songwriter sets an escapist mood with the opening track City Lights, and then guides the listener through a soulful blend of alternative, acoustic, rock and pop. ReNBRANDT is mostly mellow, grooving gently with easy-listening numbers like the acoustic guitar-driven "Analog Sky" and Ahh-ah, but it has a strong underlying pulse that throbs with emotion and energy. This is apparent in the lighter, rougher Teenage Dreamers and the moody Rainbow, a collaboration with One OK Rock's Taka – their voices sound great together.

STUTS & Matsu Takako with 3exesPresence
Sometimes you only need one great song to make a great album. Hip-hop producer and track maker STUTS collaborates with the Fuji TV drama My Dear Exes for an ending theme that's so much more than just one theme song. Presence is presented in multiple variations with the chorus hook performed by lead actress Matsu Takako, and verses by different featuring artists. Each guest rapper, including Daichi Yamamoto, Kid Fresino, Bim, Nene and T-Pablow, brings their own tone, lyrics and interpretation over the relaxed beats and melody. Matsuda Ryuhei, Okada Masaki and Kakuta Akihiro, who play the protagonist's ex-husbands in the drama, also lend their voices to tracks as the "3exes." This cypher-style approach results in an on-repeat collection of songs with a strong Presence that stays with the listener for a long time.

YOASOBI released two records this year based on their concept of turning novels into music. While the duo's thunderbolt debut THE BOOK with mega hit "Racing Into the Night" is the more obvious choice, it's THE BOOK 2 released in December that makes our list. YOASOBI's second EP expands their musicality and storytelling with a greater range of sounds and sentiments. Tsubame, Sangenshoku and Mou Sukoshi Dake are as catchy and buoyant as any song in their breakout debut. Meanwhile, the more melodic and melancholic Yasashi Suisei and Moshimo Inochiga Egaketara, plus the harder beats and edges of Romance and Beastars opening theme Kaibutsu, bring interesting undulation to this musical book.

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Published December 29, 2021

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