In seventh grade I had my half-Japanese friend burn me a CD full of her favorite Japanese music. That CD, full of Japanese boy bands, ballads, technopop, and anime themes, was my first introduction to J-Pop. That music was one of the things that inspired me to learn Japanese, and I still listen to the songs on it today in an old-timey thing known as a “CD Player.”
As an exchange student in Japan though, I realized just how few Japanese songs I was actually able to sing when I went to karaoke for the first time. From then on, I have dedicated a lot of time to discovering, listening to, and learning popular Japanese songs. So now, after a few years of experience and keeping up to date with the Japanese music scene, I come to you with a list of my top ten Japanese musicians. I like to listen to a wide variety of styles, so I tried to keep my list diverse. Enjoy!
My Top 10 J-Pop Artists
Here are my top ten artists. Don’t get mad at me if your favorite doesn’t make it (Who are we kidding, of course you’ll get mad at me)! So, put on some nice headphones, sit back, relax and get ready to listen to some good music, no matter where in the world you live.
YUI is one of the first J-Pop artists that I ever listened to. I have a soft spot for female singer/songwriters, and YUI satisfies that with her mix of cheery pop and acoustic ballads. I think I might have enjoyed YUI more before I started to understand Japanese, though. Her voice can be a little annoying at times, and the way she sings can make it pretty hard to understand her lyrics. But overall, YUI is a very accessible girly pop artist. Think Taylor Swift but with less country.
9. Namie Amuro (安室奈美恵)
Namie Amuro, often called the “Queen of J-Pop,” definitely deserves to be on this list even though I don’t listen to her very much. Mostly an R&B singer, her music is more similar to popular hits in the US than AKB-type musicians. Her career has spanned longer than any other female artist- starting in 1992 she continues to make music today despite controversy as a divorced single mother.
8. FUNKY MONKEY BABYS (ファンキーモンキーベイビーズ)
I first heard FMB when I was part of the brass band club at my high school in Japan. We played a lot of pop song covers, and FMB’s “Namida” was one of them. Since then, I’ve fallen in love with their loose, easy to listen to hip-hoppy/pop sound. One thing that makes them stand out is their use of celebrity’s faces on their album covers.
Imagine you are in a fancy club, and a jazzy woman is playing loose breezy piano and singing away. Aiko is usually what I play for friends who don’t listen to J-Pop. Going strong since 1998, most of her albums have peaked at No.1 on the charts. Her unique voice and unique love songs are easy to listen to even if you don’t catch everything she says. Aiko, like YUI, tends to run her words when singing, making comprehension hard if you’re not used to hearing it.
In terms of boy bands, the 80’s-90’s band SMAP is out of style compared to the more modern and popular boy band, Arashi. But since this is my list, I chose SMAP over Arashi simply because their music is better. SMAP is still active and still getting their singles on the charts, even if they are old. Sing for me, attractive males! Sing!
5. Perfume (パフューム)
Technopop. Technopop with girls. Technopop with three insanely cute girls. Perfume is as bubblegum as it gets. Loud and dancey, Perfume is what I listen to when it is 3 AM and I have an essay due at 8AM. At first just an average singing group, Perfume became what they are today when the genius producer/composer Yasutaka Nakata became their main producer. Nakata has also been responsible for the techno group Capsule and has recently been producing and writing for the ultra-famous Kyary Pamyu Pamyu as well.
4. Mr. Children
Mr. Children (often called ミスチル or “Mischil” for short) may be an old band, but they are a legendary one. In the 90’s they created the “Mischil Phenomenon” by basically taking over the media and showing up everywhere. On the surface they might not seem too different from other pop/rock bands to non-Japanese-speaking J-Pop fans, but if you can understand Japanese lyrics, its easier to appreciate and enjoy Mr. Children for the gem that they are.
3. Angela Aki (アンジェラ・アキ)
My female singer/songwriter bias is showing again, and Angela Aki is my favorite in that genre. A Japanese-American, she was born in Japan, but attended high school in Hawaii and university in Washington DC. She’s released albums in both Japan and the US, but only really took off in Japan. She plays piano for her songs herself (like a Japanese Regina Spektor), and writes superb lyrics.
This rock band is comprised of four members, which is one of the reasons why they have four “e”‘s in their name. The band came together when the men were in dental school, so the e’s also look like a row of teeeeth! In order to keep their music careers separate from their dentistry careers, the members have never revealed their names or faces. So, unlike many other bands or artists with pretty faces attached, you know that it’s GReeeeN’s music that is deserving of the attention they get. GReeeeN’s lyrics tend to be exciting and inspiring, and I have had my share of feels arise from listening to their music.
1. Ikimonogakari (いきものがかり）
Hands down, Ikimonogakari is my favorite Japanese band. Comprised of two male guitarists and one female singer, their songs are surprisingly girl-oriented despite most of their songs being written by Yoshiki Mizuno, one of the male guitarists. The singer, Kiyoe Yoshioka has a voice that is very strong, clear, and never whiny, even when she jumps and runs across the stage while singing at concerts. Ikimonogakari does a fantastic job on their ballads and their up-tempo songs, and have created songs that are both simple and complex at the same time. Oh, Yoshiki Mizuno, sometimes I feel like you understand my feelings better than even my close friends; your lyrics go straight to my heart!
Some of these are here because they deserve to be mentioned, some are very near and dear to me even though they didn’t make it to the top ten, some are culturally impacting, and some are just worth taking a listen to. Here are the scattered remains:
Ai Otsuka (大塚愛)
Ootsuka Ai has stopped producing music lately, but I love her strange, fun, feel-good songs.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (きゃりーぱみゅぱみゅ)
Kyary was very close to making my top ten list, but honestly, I like her for her aesthetics more than her music (although Yasutaka Nakata does a great job composing her sugary tunes).
Kiss-my-ft (pronounced kisu mai futto or just Kiss My Foot) is the most ridiculous Johnny’s band I have ever seen. I don’t know if anyone takes their pretty-boy rollerskating display or effeminate manliness seriously, but they’ve become pretty popular lately (maybe it’s because their music videos are gum commercials?). Watch this video all the way through, you won’t be disappointed.
Goosehouse is a group of singer-songwriters who have gained popularity by posting covers of popular songs on YouTube. Since then, they’ve posted originals and plan on releasing an album this summer. Watching their covers is a great way to discover new songs/artists!
Your Favorite J-Pop Artists
We’re talking about music here… not to mention an ordered Top 10 list. So, you probably have wildly different opinions compared to me. Instead of just saying “what an awful list” I’d love it you shared your top ten list as well, on Twitter. Maybe I’ll discover some new J-Pop favorites along the way! Also, other readers will surely appreciate learning about more J-Pop other than the ones I provided too.
So let’s hear it. What’s your own personal top ten (or top 5, or 3, or whatever I can squeeze from your cold, dead fingers)? Let us know on twitter!