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Best Japanese Albums of 2017

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the ten best Japanese albums of 2017!

amazarashi reflects on mortality, society, technology and the emptiness in our hearts in the band's fourth full-length album. As he's apt to do, Akita Hiromu gives voice, shape and sound to the darkness, despair, cruelty, vulnerability and desperate dreams of man – and the destruction we wreak on the world, ourselves and each other. Lyrically abstract yet alarmingly specific, the band's emotionally raw musical poetry is expressed over free-flowing rock melodies, throbbing beats and an overwhelming rush of words. From Word Processor's rapid-fire recitation to Philosophy's dissective beat-heavy meditation to Inochi ni Fusawashii's haunting journey of lonely souls, Chiho Toshi no Memento Mori is both sweepingly epic and frighteningly intimate.

Following her 25th anniversary activities, Chara returned this year with a new album that shows she's still one of the most modern and experimental artists in Japanese pop music after all these years. The singer-songwriter applies her airy and evocative style to a delightful array of rhythmic and ambient numbers bathed in synth-pop, electronica, downtempo and funk. The lead song Sympathy is a sweet and sensual ballad that she performs in her distinct child-like vocals. Many of the songs on the album, like Intimacy, Sweet Sunshine and Stars, seduce with the wispily dreamy and richly detailed sound that she's known for. Tiny Dancer adds more of an indie pop vibe with its strumming guitar, soaring strings, water effects and ponderous repeating lyrics by Quruli's Kishida Shigeru. She goes funk in the reverberating English-language Funk and techno in the Kenmochi Hidefumi collaboration Herbie, two of the more conspicuous tracks of the album.

It may just be a concept, but Keyakizaka46's songs of teen angst and discord really are a breath of cold fresh air in the world of idol pop. Since debuting last year with Silent Majority, the group has stood out with knee-length uniforms, unsmiling faces and biting lyrics. With 40 songs spread over three editions, Masshiro na Mono wa Yogoshitakunaru pretty much covers everything released up to this album. Keyakizaka has some wonderfully sweet and wistful songs about love and friendship, like Futari Saison and W-Keyakizaka no Uta, but their best songs fight against the world with rock beats and aggressive outcries airing the discontent, distrust, despondence and self-assertion of being a powerless adolescent. Even those who don't usually listen to idol groups can find a common voice in the unyielding dissonance of Fukyouwaon, the suffocating anger, hurt and helplessness of "Monday Morning, My Skirt was Cut," and the social indictment and self-acceptance of Eccentric. There's also a good variety of songs tucked into the side tracks, like the whimsically arranged Ballet to Shonen and Hirate Yurina's bluesy solo ballad Jibun no Hitsugi, in which she soulfully croons "My coffin, let's prepare."

Kick the can like it's 2002 all over again! The late nineties/early oughties hip-hop crew reunited this year to release Kick! and the album totally sounds like it could have been dropped back in their heyday. From the opening track's repeated calls of "Gather, all members gather" and the suggestive summer vibes of SummerSpot to the 100% old-school sound of lead track "1000%" and the melancholic melodic rapping of "Come Back Again," Kick the Can Crew's new material stays true to the easy-going flow, laid-back beats and intercutting rhymes of their early works. Besides the old-school nostalgia, Kick the Can Crew's feel-good hip-hop sound legitimately still feels and sounds fresh in Kick! With all due respect to Kreva, Little and MCU's solo careers, they really do make better music together.

Kuwata Keisuke takes us back to better times and better music in the way only he can with a brilliant record of hearty and reassuring pop rock numbers that marks the 30th anniversary of his solo debut. The legendary singer lightheartedly references passing times, passing music and singing through it all in Sugisarishi Hibi (Going Down), a quintessential honky-tonk-style bop. When Kuwata sings he's "gonna make you smile," he really does, and not just with this song. Every track is filled with palpable warmth: the reminisces of the old-fashioned lounge number Wakai Hiroba, the heart-racing, clap-along tempo of Oasis to Kajuen, the saucy blues undertone of Ai no Sasakare ~ Nobody loves me, the slow, waltzing sentiments of Haru Mada Tooku, the gentle look back on life of Kimi no Tegami e. Mellow, sage, bittersweet and inspiring, Garakuta is Kuwata Keisuke as usual and at his very best.

LiTTLE DEViL PARADE, the first song of LiSA's same-titled album, opens gently with the question – "Can you hear the crying sound of my heart?" – and then explodes into a flurry of furious beats, loud riffs and free-spirited lyrics. Such is the jolting charm of LiSA's colorful and energetic rock numbers. Much of her fourth album is irresistibly invigorating, especially Catch the Moment, Brave Freak Out and the poetically written Blue Moon, which grows from an emotional ballad to a soaring rock chorus. The playful Soshite Parade Hatsuzuku adds big band to her rock parade with jovial beats and brass flourishes. Only a few songs on LiTTLE DEViL PARADE are anime tie-ins, but pretty much the entire album sounds like it could be part of an anime soundtrack.

For years, Miura Daichi has been one of J-pop's most consistently talented yet consistently underrated singers. The consummate dance pop artist finally generated some much-deserved buzz over the past year and scored his first Kohaku invite. His album Hit is a bop from beginning to end, dancing through R&B, EDM and pop with uplifting uptempo jams like Darkest Before Dawn, Cry & Fight and Excite. Miura also branches out with hidden gems like Darkroom, a velvety R&B ballad disrupted by rock riffs, and Rise Up, a genre-hopping collaboration with jazz group Soil & "Pimp" Sessions.

In 2016, Toy's Factory established a new label called Miya Terrace, so named to indicate the label's intention to be a free gathering place for artists and creators. Among Miya Terrace's very first signed artists is Mukai Taichi, a young singer-songwriter with a distinctly soulful voice and a clean and groovy R&B style. His first album Blue showcases his immense potential and appeal with an easy-breezy playlist of R&B and alternative numbers that reference blues, rock, ambient and electronic elements. Remarkably smooth-flowing and consistent in sound, the album cruises along at a satisfying tempo from the catchy R&B standard Rakuen to the bouncy and bluesy Sora to the playful rock throwback Freer.

Sink into the silky-smooth sounds of acid jazz in Suchmos' sophomore album The Kids, which won Album of the Year at the 59th Japan Record Awards. Rising to mainstream attention and critical acclaim with their relaxing and relevant mix of rock, jazz, soul and funk, the band confidently slinks and slides through up-to-date takes of a nostalgic sound. Funky and mesmeric, Stay Tune's danceable club beats and sharp-witted lyrics keep a finger on the pulse of urban nightlife, while Pinkvibe winds down to the tipsy feel-good aura of saxophone, flitting piano chords and turntable scratches. Hangover anthem Snooze has you covered for the next day with a drowsy melody and looping lyrics about hitting the snooze button after a drunken night.

As Hachi, Yonezu Kenshi was one of the most well-known Vocaloid producers on Nico Nico when the online music scene exploded in popularity. As Yonezu Kenshi, the low-profile singer-songwriter has also gradually built a name in the mainstream music scene, and this year he scored several high-profile hits that are gathered on his fourth album Bootleg. The kinetic rock pop sound of Orion, Peace Sign, Hien and Shunrai is simply infectiously likable and uplifting, producing earworms out of tight beats, smooth melodies and free-wheeling energy. The songs that best show his talent and versatility as a musician and singer, though, are his self-remakes of Uchiage Hanabi, his hit duet with Daoko, and Suna no Wakusei, which was originally released under Hachi and performed by Hatsune Miku. For both songs, his album versions create a different appeal as earthy alternative rock numbers.

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Published December 29, 2017

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