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Best Japanese Albums of 2019

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the best Japanese albums of 2019!

Band-Maid is out to conquer your eardrums, and they largely succeed with their best album to date. Having passed their five-year benchmark this year, the all-girl band embraces a more mature and melodic sensibility in Conqueror, with a better balance between their hard and soft rock pieces. Though some fans may miss the loud rawness of their earlier days, the band now adds edge through sophisticated instrumentation and production. Packed with 15 tracks, all composed by the band and written by Kobato Miku (with the exception of the English-language The Dragon Cries), Conqueror jams seamlessly from the mellow endless story and At the drop of a hat to the all-out rock numbers Blooming and "Reincarnation." Come for the maid cosplay, stay for the music.

Hata Motohiro's first album in four years is exactly what we want from the singer-songwriter – a cosmos-evoking mix of familiarly soothing and thoughtfully fresh. Named after the Renaissance-era thinker who redefined man's understanding of the universe, Copernicus is still filled with those impossibly gentle, soul-piercing guitar-driven ballads that converse with your heart, from Love Letter and Joan to Aru and Hana. But there are also variations to his signature sound in the moody ambience of Lost and the funky danceable beats of Earth Collection. We especially enjoy Raspberry Lover, with its alluring bassline and subtly sensual melody.

We didn't pick this album just because we love the cat on the cover. It's because we love Kaneko Ayano's rich indie pop and unique voice. Sansan shows a delightful variety of arrangements and instrumentation while maintaining a consistent sound. The folksy Hana Hiraku Made ends with clapping and echoing vocals, the whimsical Kamitsukitai features doo-wop harmonization, the soulful Shasou Yori is bathed in dreamy synth, and the upbeat Nuno to Hifu has whistling, brass and guitar breaks. What we love best though is the way Ayano Kaneko sings her heart out in songs like Sansan and Gomenne, which brilliantly trickles and transforms at the most leisurely of pace. Also… love the cat on the cover.

Just so we're clear: this is not the album with Hakujitsu – that comes out next year. King Gnu's major debut album, Sympa, was released in the beginning of 2019, right before they went from rising act to mainstream breakout. The mixture rock band brings a curious, constantly changing symphony of styles and hooks that defies traditional song structure but remains cohesive in sound. From the deliberately showy Slumberland to the throwback banger Flash!!! to the lonely rock ballad The hole, King Gnu plays with funk, hip-hop, pop and rock in a way that feels both fresh and old school. This album has grooviness to spare.

A Sunny Day is within reach even in the winter if you have Leola's second album on play. The underrated artist delivers a bright and uplifting pop record that adds a bounce to your step. The album's first four summery songs in particular – Alright!, Sunshine & Happiness, After the Rain and Sunny Day – lift spirits with easygoing beats, positive lyrics and that LDH pulse on pop music. The talented singer, who has writing credits on all her new songs, shows impressive versatility and depth in her vocal performance, be it in the beautiful high notes of Stay Beautiful and Hikari, or the groovy tone of Magic Clap and her cover of Yamashita Tatsuro's Ride on Time.

2019 has pretty much been the year of Official HIGE DANdism, at least when it comes to streaming. The four-piece band broke out in a big way with their second single Pretender going viral as arguably the biggest hit of the year. Released in May, the song ruled the streaming charts for weeks on end and climbed to the top of Billboard Japan's Hot 100 in October. Besides Pretender, Shukumei and Yesterday have also contributed to HIGEDAN's record-setting reign in streaming. If there's any secret to the band's success, it would be that their hearty piano pop rock numbers are head-bopping breaths of fresh air with high replay value. HIGEDAN's first major album has their famous hits, as well as less pluggable side tracks like Rowan, Fire Ground and Tabi wa Michizure that are well worth discovering.

Suda Masaki is just unfair. As an actor, he's already leapfrogged his peers as the youngest ever Best Actor winner at the Japan Academy Prize. As a singer, he's turned what should be a vanity side project into legitimate bops and chart-toppers. One of the big reasons why the popular actor's music clicks so well is that he clearly has a particular alternative rock sound in mind and works with the right people to realize it. Besides having the golden touch of Yonezu Kenshi for heartfelt hit Machigai Sagashi, LOVE features Long Hope Philia by Akita Hiromu, Clover by Ishizaki Huwie, Kiss Dakede with Aimyon, and Living Dead by the dresscodes' Shima Ryohei. Notably, Suda's own folk rock compositions, like Tsumoru Hanashi and Aitsu to Sonoko, are among the best of the album. His singing – better than the first album, though still lacking in technique – has a directness that works with his image and music style.

One of Japan's most successful bands of the 90s, The Yellow Monkey disbanded in the early 2000s and seemed destined to be another footnote in the history of Japanese rock music. But the band surprisingly regrouped in 2016, and their first album in 19 years arrived in 2019. The Yellow Monkey's sound clearly draws from the hard rock, Brit rock and Japanese pop rock of previous eras, but 9999 isn't an album that coasts on nostalgia. There is a timeless appeal to the updated classic Japanese pop rock of Matryoshka and I don't know, while edgy modern rock offerings Love Homme and Breaking the Hide go hard with mesmerizing melodies and guitar licks. The band's singles of the last few years, like Alright, "Tower of Sand" and Rosana, are also all on the album.

We didn't know we needed a jazz remake of Rancid's Time Bomb until TRI4TH's fiercely fun and spirited rendition popped up. The band's jazz-on-steroids approach in jack-in-the-box is as instrumentally dense and enthusiastic as ever. Opening with the aptly titled Wake Up, the album sends a shot of energy through your day with a restless flurry of brass, bass, piano, percussion and all that swing in hyper-animated pieces like Shot the Ghost, Go Your Way, Stinger and Hasty Rug. Meanwhile, more mellow numbers like Sunny Side, Landscape and Night Dream are smooth, suave and ever so classy.

Yorushika released two excellent albums this year that exemplify the duo's style of upbeat melodies with melancholic lyrics. The two albums connect to tell a continuing story, starting with That's Why I Gave Up On Music released in April. This musical journal, whose entries are dated backwards from August to April, is unfailingly light and peppy in sound, thanks to suis's sweet vocals and n-buna's energetic tunes, but the words tell a different story. "August, Certain Person, Moonlight" cries out "The worst, the worst / Everything about me is the worst" amid lively rock beats; "Poetry and Coffee" chirpily relays the coldness and disillusion of living poor in the city. The piano-laced ending title track delivers the most powerful declaration of weakness in speedy lyrics that pour out anguish, insecurities and hopelessness with acute urgency.

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Published December 30, 2019

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