the best of jpop 2021 so far

I have to admit, this was a harder list for me to create, but can you believe that we’re already at the half-way point for the year in J-pop?!

It’s been quite a few years already, and I’ve noticed big-time how the J-pop scene has changed so vastly during those years. Some of my favorite artists are no longer big names, and newer artists seem to show up every year… I can no longer keep track! That said, I’m still finding more and more through word of mouth and recommendations.

I can only hope these next fifteen tracks are worthy of your listening pleasure, as I consider them the best from what I have heard throughout this first part of the year. Will we share the same opinions? Let’s take a look!

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宇多田ヒカル | One Last Kiss

It’s been 14 years!

Crazy to believe that the Evangelion rebuilds are finally coming to an end, but alas, here we are. With this end comes an end to the collaboration efforts between Utada Hikaru and the series, as well. You may be familiar with Hikki’s works with Kingdom Hearts but if you don’t know about her efforts with Eva… where have you been?! Jokes aside, Utada Hikaru’s work with Eva is one filled with lyrics of love, beauty, and her sound is that of an etherealness that is reminiscent of her works in the mid-00s.

Her final release with the project comes in the form of a mini-album, with one new track, a rehash of an old Eva song, and remasters of all her tie-ins. “One Last Kiss” is the title of the new song and is meant to signify one last effort – but will it be worth it in the end? Is this one last kiss one for the books? Let’s check it out!

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Continuing in the Utada Hikaru series is the single “FINAL DISTANCE”, which was originally meant to be a re-cut single from her second album, formerly titled ‘DISTANCE’.

A little bit of history behind the single itself: the single was made in honor of student Yamashita Rena who was tragically killed in a Japanese school shooting. Rena had won an essay competition with her dreams to be a singer much like Utada, and having heard this, Hikki remade the planned single to pay respect to Rena.

Having the same lyrics as its original counterpart, “FINAL DISTANCE” takes on a new approach; I won’t say anything snarky or pun-like here. Is “FINAL DISTANCE” a beautiful tribute to Rena?

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宇多田ヒカル | 光

Bet you were waiting for this!

Next up in the Utada Hikaru series is a single that Westerners who know of Hikki know all too well. Having the exclusive tie-in to the Square Enix-Disney video game Kingdom Hearts (a formidable video game, at least by my standards), “Hikari” is one of Utada Hikaru’s most-beloved songs and continues to be by the PS2 gaming generation. With this being said, it has been nearly 17 years (holy), and one has to wonder if this song and its single still holds through the test of time. Is it a light enough song that it is still accessible to this day, or has its light flickered out?

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宇多田ヒカル | Addicted To You

Next up in my Hikki series is the hugely-successful single “Addicted To You”, a single that does not even bear an original mix, but two ‘mixes’ with different nostalgic appeals. With this single, Hikki continued to reign, having dominated the Japanese music scene with her fresh R&B sound that was already making waves in the West. Being one of her best-selling singles of all time, Hikki joins forces with famed R&B recording duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who Westerners may be familiar with from the tunes of Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, Usher, and the like.

Here’s the question I pose now: Is this single addicting to you, or is it just a one-time thing?

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宇多田ヒカル | traveling

If you haven’t already figured out, I’ll be reviewing more of Hikki’s older discography.

Next up is another from the album ‘DEEP RIVER’, known as “traveling”, which is the first of Utada Hikaru’s transition into different experimental genres, stepping outside of her usual late 90s-early 00s R&B sound. In fact, this was one of my very first Hikki songs outside of her more well-known songs! Going for a more electronic sound with this release, is this single worth the travel or is it simply a waste of vacation time?

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宇多田ヒカル | SAKURAドロップス / Letters

If you don’t know who Utada Hikaru, one of Japan’s top soloists known to millions as the simple and clean Kingdom Hearts musician, is, you have clearly been on some other planet.

Oddly enough, that’s where Hikki, as her fans lovingly call her, is for her mid-2002 release ‘SAKURA Drops / Letters’. In this single, Hikki goes all-in on her journey through experimentalism, transforming her original R&B sound from her First Love and Distance days to an avant-garde artistic style reminiscent of Björk, albeit less wacky. Does this transition, which she had introduced even as far as ‘traveling’, pay off as the sakura leaves flutter and drop, or is this change similar to a poorly-written letter to her fanbase?

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