J-pop in 2017 felt more fragmented than ever, but the year’s biggest songs tell the story of the past 12 months quite well. From YouTube rappers to television heartthrobs, here are four tunes that sum it all up:
Daoko and Kenshi Yonezu — “Uchiage Hanabi”
No single song was bigger in 2017 than the surprise hit “Uchiage Hanabi.” Musically, it treads well-worn territory, being a ballad stuffed to the brim with violin swoops and an upward build — which is fitting as it served as the theme to the animated film “Fireworks, Should We See It From the Side or the Bottom?” But the song also brought two musicians who’d made their names online to the attention of the mainstream, demonstrating the power digital platforms now have in the Japanese market.
JP The Wavy — “Cho Wavy de Gomenne”
Japanese hip-hop has been on the cusp of going mainstream for a while but lacks a crossover star (Kohh’s shunning of the spotlight is not helping here). However, in 2017 JP The Wavy gave us the joyfully viral “Cho Wavy de Gomenne,” a masterclass in self-hype that came complete with a video of the MC and his friends simply hanging out. Besides getting attention from established rappers, it inspired dozens of copycats on social media, helping spread the wave further.
Kame to YamaP — “Senakagoshi no Chance”
While the internet now plays a bigger part in breaking acts in Japan, television is still the most powerful influencer. “Senakagoshi no Chance” is a mid-tempo pop song that stars two performers from the Johnny and Associates management stable — Kazuya Kamenashi and Tomohisa Yamashita — and is the theme to a drama that features both of them. Being a part of Johnny’s, that means no online presence. Lucky for them Japanese households are still partial to TVs.
Keyakizaka46 — “Getsuyobi no Asa, Skirt wo Kirareta”
Can an idol group be … woke? Keyakizaka46 isn’t without its problems — the group’s lyrics are written by Yasushi Akimoto, a man who’s approaching 60 — but its realistic and at times probing take on the teenage experience bucked idol cliches and connected with an actual audience of teenage girls. “Getsuyoubi no Asa, Skirt wo Kirareta” is the act’s weightiest cut, a meditation on the stress caused by school, topped off by the protagonist having her skirt sliced by a knife on the train.
Mondo Grosso — “Labyrinth”
A highly fragmented music industry creates a lot of problems, but one major benefit is that the amount of tracks that hover on the edges of the mainstream has increased. This year, none of them beat “Labyrinth,” the highlight of Shinichi Osawa’s return to his pop project Mondo Grosso. Featuring a wispy vocal performance from actress and singer Hikari Mitsushima, it’s as elegant as a fever dream can sound. And it was a hit with listeners, which shows just how interesting the periphery has become.