Top ten East Asian pop/rock albums of 2020

In a year that I dedicated myself to listening to as many albums in the top ten of various physical and streaming Japanese and Korean charts as I could, I was struck, as usual, by how many of the best albums were those on the periphery, those that just missed out, or never even saw the top thirty. But I was as equally struck, as usual, by how big and fun and all-encompassing pop albums are, as long as you’re willing to dig a little, to slog through the ten or twenty average or terrible albums to unearth the one that reiterates why it’s so important to listen as carefully, and widely, as possible. This year, we all took comfort in the familiar as much as possible, and many of the names on this list reflect that bias. The real surprise this year was how little it mattered, and how good it felt, list-making album or not, to see old favorites step up to the plate and bravely deliver what they were capable of in a year they very well could have sat back and took a well-deserved break. Here, in chronological order, are ten of my favorite. (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.) Thanks for spending the whole week looking back with me!

LatuLatu: Mangekyou ETERNITY
(2020.01.22)

LatuLatu were billed by HMV as a “desktop rock unit” that gained some fame on TikTok in 2019, but Mangekyou ETERNTY, the band’s first mini-album boasts an ambition beyond the boundaries of an office chair. Full of energy and earnestness, this quick shot of high-speed J-rock proves that while hibernating, J-rock is not nearly as listless or dead as any number of Oricon or streaming charts might have you believe. It feels like LatuLatu have the ability to breathe some fresh air into the lungs of a sometimes anemic, sometimes too anime-pop-reliant genre, a challenge that subsequent singles have proven they’re up to.

Sumire Uesaka: NEO PROPAGANDA
(2020.01.22)

For years, Uesaka has cultivated a uniquely gifted hyper-pop sound, one reliant on styles as far-reaching as idol-pop, chiptune, techno, metal, and military marches. Somehow, she makes them all work, creating a world so sonically exciting, it’s practically visual. NEO PROPAGANDA is just another installment in that ultra 4K world of poly-tempos and speed shifts. The album boasts song writers both old and new like Kenji Ohtsuki, Ryohei Shima of The Dresscodes, and MOSAIC.WAV who have imbued the album with all the hallmarks that have defined her sound from rolling Rs and high-pitched shrieks, to gonzo interpretations of Russian culture. So much unpredictability would make it an exhausting trek if it weren’t so much fun.

Reol: Kinjito
(2020.01.22)

Reol may be new to the J-pop scene but her sound is now as old as the first wave of electro-house that hit shores a la Nakata in the mid-00s. In fact, with her vocals turned up to computer glitch, she sounds remarkably like J-pop’s other blink-and-you’ll-miss-her indie-android, MAA, who released Monkey Kingdom exactly ten years ago, signed to a major, and promptly disappeared. One hopes Reol’s bio will read differently; Reol hopes so, too, with the aptly titled Kinjito, the culmination of years presumably learning how to push buttons, and cut and paste, in just the right ways. While the sound itself is nothing unique, Reol brings a charm and warm perspective to a sometimes erratic and jarring genre that can often feel downright arctic. Here’s hoping we see more from this personality than we did from those whose footsteps she’s following.

Shuta Sueyoshi: pret a porter
(2020.02.12)

Sueyoshi has spent the last few years carving a small groove in J-pop for himself, one he can now comfortably afford to dig into as AAA goes on hiatus. Following the release of 2018’s JACK IN THE BOX and last year’s EP WONDER HACK, pret a porter is Sueyoshi on his continual quest for the ever-elusive male solo star label, one coveted by many and achieved by almost none. While pret a porter doesn’t signal a victory, it does point in the right direction, a laid back blend of ironed out R&B and dance-pop-lite that wears its vocalist’s experience more than the desperate, youthful hunger of so many newcomers. It’ll take a bit more oomph to stand out and prove he’s worth sticking out for, but in a year of few direct contenders, pret a porter is a perfectly edible slice of contemporary Avex, with plenty of fun on the side.

ONEPIXCEL: LIBRE
(2020.02.26)

It’s not easy being a J-pop trio, not when you debut in hopes of drawing upon the same fan pool as Perfume and callme (or kolme, as it were now), and definitely not when you want to transition to the level of a Fairies or GEM or E-girls at a time when all of those groups have or are on the verge of disbanding. But in fact, this makes a group like ONEPIXCEL all the more vital, women singing for other women and girls and themselves, and boys and men, too, if they want, not exclusively for the hearts and pocketbooks of a convenient niche. Backed by an audaciously Avex-pop sophomore album, LIBRE, ONEPIXCEL make their struggle look and sound as fun as it should. As a veritable anomaly I applaud them. And pray.

Gesu no Kiwami Otome.: STREAMING, CD, RECORD
(2020.05.01)

In 2020, we reached peak-Enon Kawatani. With fingers in various pies, all maintaining consistency in brand and sound, and numerous releases flooding the market, we’re just at the beginning of what could be the end. So, with goodwill precarious, but still intact, it’s a good time to celebrate STREAMING, CD, RECORD. While the album doesn’t land the same punches as the group’s early records, it’s by no means a lackluster addition. Whether extensions of his other projects, or leftovers, it’s pure Kawatani, all dandy pianos, studied rap-singing, and audaciously wacky interludes, on par with the seasoned, almost so-easy-it’s-boring vibes Kawatani is giving off. This can easily start to fall into the existential throes of condescension for either his work or his audience, but for now, Kawatani still manages to make it sound easy in the spirit of experience, rather than cynicism.

BBHF: BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-
(2020.09.02)

Across all genres and languages, BBHF’s BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-, an ambitious 2-disc concept album chronicling one man’s emotional journey through a labyrinth of history and emotion set to a wave of poppy 80’s synth rock, is one of the greatest albums of the year. It’s honest and refreshing, a J-rock band refusing to hide behind dour epithets without any genuine emotional anchor behind them. “Apps that I merely touched once and don’t use / I deleted them all, that is the pleasure of getting rid of things,” the opening track opines; “Sooner or later, everything changes / I’m not happy at all / For better or for worse, this country is falling into a depression” they lament in “1988,” folding the twin tragedies of a burst bubble and a broken heart into an excuse to get wasted. During a year we all had to navigate a new world, it was easy to relate to a desire to leave it all behind and start somewhere new. But as the hero discovers for himself, there is no genuine escape, only the boring, unromantic work of dealing with baggage you can never leave behind anywhere you go, today, tomorrow, and every day for the rest of your life.

TAEMIN: Never Gonna Dance Again : Act 1
(2020.09.07)

SHINee-member TAEMIN released two solo EPs this year, and it is the first of the pair that continues to shine, leading with the slinky single “Criminal,” and “2 KIDS.” Unlike the second set, which so desperately needed to balance Never Gonna Dance Again : Act 1‘s darker side and didn’t, Act 1 showcases TAEMIN as man who comes alive in the pageantry of performance with a sound down pat from a lifetime of training and practice. It’s hard to be upset that his team rarely thinks outside of this box when he excels so well inside of it — a TAEMIN playing in his own shadowy sandbox instead of the bright ones his SM peers are often found running amok in is part of what preserves his iconic imagery. It’s a thin line between indulging and wallowing but Act 1 gets it right, incorporating some more uptempo tracks like previous Japanese hit “FAMOUS” to illustrate TAEMIN’s ability to be both artist and pop star, one of the closest living talents we have to the Super Stars of old.

SuperM: SuperOne
(2020.09.25)

SM’s answer to BTS is SuperM, their “Avengers” super group, featuring members hand-picked from groups SHINee, EXO, NCT, and WayV. But while good looks and unique abilities have captured the attention of long-time fans and curious, new eyes, it has been up to the music itself to deliver the final ingredient. For their first full-length album, SM spared no expense in flexing their resources, pouring massive amounts of time and budget into the songwriters who chorus, by verse, by sample, by effect, stitched together a defining statement for the group, one perhaps leaning a bit too heavily on aggressive boy-band energy with typically masculine imagery (fast cars! motorcycles! predatory animals!), but that bares its teeth in the service of catchy hooks and of-the-moment trends nearly pile-driving each other into infinity. Super One nails it: with no expense spared, it sounds just as rich as it cost, and just as good, too, the best pop money can buy. And 2020 is a year we all deserved to splurge.

TWICE: Eyes wide open
(2020.10.26)

TWICE continues to defy expectations with their releases, a not always welcome back and forth between otherworldly, next-level pop, and head-scratching hiccups. Like last year’s Feel Special, Eyes wide open is the former, a deliciously indulgent callback to K-pop’s dance roots, with lead track “I CAN’T STOP ME” recalling groups like T-ara and Dal Shabet at their best. The synthy 80’s sound finds further purchase in songs like “UP NO MORE” and “DO WHAT WE LIKE,” stopping only for lower-key vibes on the back half, like “GO HARD” and “HANDLE IT.” The entire album is like a guided tour of the best of the last decade in K-pop girl groups, from 2NE1 to WJSN, all the way up to BLACKPINK, and while this might not say much for TWICE specifically, it makes for a particularly cozy listening experience that surprises and delights with each track.

Honorable Mentions

Mia REGINA: MIAUSEUM -CURATION-
Ayaka Ohashi WINGS
CY8ER: Tokyo
KAI (EXO): KAI
RINGOMUSUME: Cool & Country

Top ten East Asian pop/rock albums of 2019

When Johnny Kitagawa passed away this summer, it was accompanied by a muted, collective sigh of relief, rather than the quiet, mournful sigh at the passing of a legend. I don’t know, maybe people loved this guy, but it seems as if in his last days, Kitagawa was more like the crusty, embarrassing grandpa nobody likes but everyone has to put up with, wielding the iron fist of tradition, opposed to any and all business strategies that might take him and his mega-successful company into the present, let alone the future. On July 9, you could practically see balloons being released into the sky: happy days were here again. Like dominoes, the country’s most successful producer of boy bands began falling into the warm embrace of social media. YouTube accounts sprung up, celebrities appeared on Instagram, wow, album covers weren’t immediately wiped off of the face of the Internet. Meanwhile, Arashi began their Olympic campaign in earnest, uploading videos to YouTube and singles onto the streaming platform Spotify and a member’s nuptials was announced with an eye-roll, merely confirming an open secret.

As far as defining the capabilities and limits of the last decade of J-pop, Johnny Kitagawa’s death is as momentous as any event; it’s sheer lucky coincidence that it happened around the same time the Heisei era ended and the new era, Reiwa, began. Two monoliths passing the torch, one in peace, one fighting the whole way down.

The rest of the musical year has been rather predictable, with the expansion of the 48/46 groups, Gesu no Kiwami no Otome.-clones riding the success of the group’s low-key J-rock, plenty of mediocre solos, and the demise of many more of your favorite idol groups (including E-girls in 2020, which I am not emotionally prepared to discuss at this time). Across the sea, tragedy returned to K-pop once again, claiming the life of more beloved performers, while at the same time, K-pop’s star continued to rise overseas, led by YouTube-trailblazers like BLACKPINK and TWICE, and Billboard-favorites BTS and NCT, while rookies continued to churn out tepid debuts and earnest comebacks. And yet, as always, there was so much music to wade through, that is wasn’t difficult to unearth hidden gems hidden among the tropical-house drops. Like a lot of music released in 2019, I would not necessarily say the year produced many J- or K-pop albums that we’ll still be talking about in a decade or two, but they kept things going moving along nicely, with a few that are worth examining in depth.

LOONA // [x x]
2019.02.19

LOONA could have been nothing more than one of the greatest K-pop marketing campaigns in history, but if so, nobody would be talking about anything more than the process, which isn’t the case. While I’ll never get over the disappointment of the phenomenal pre-debut singles never being collected into a single compilation, the group did release their first original EP, [++], in 2018, which was re-released in 2019 under the title [x x], and included six new songs, all which convey the singular, interstellar space in which LOONA lives, and it is indeed a mood. Unlike TWICE, LOONA comes off as a witchy and wise older sister: check new tracks “Butterfly,” “Curiosity,” and “Where you at,” which build on the older, faster-paced tracks. There’s a subtle brilliance to these songs, an ice-cold chill that benevolently provides as many goosebumps as it does ear worms. We’re all unworthy of a follow-up in 2020, but pray that LOONA chooses to bless us anyway.

Key // I Wanna Be
2019.03.04

SHINee just celebrated ten years since their debut last year, so it was only fitting that three of the four surviving members began prepping for their great military-service hiatus, while baby TAEMIN went off to pursue jopping with the other Korean Avengers on Ellen. Luckily, the group left behind treasures to enjoy during the break, including last year’s The Story of Light trilogy. But the greatest was Key’s solo album FACE, released in 2018, and re-packaged this past March as I Wanna Be. The re-package includes three additional tracks, among them the title track, featuring Soyeon of rookie group (G)I-DLE. This album feels like the true successor to 2015’s Married to the Music, an ode to K-pop boy bands and a testament to the pop aesthetic of SM Entertainment in a nutshell, both which are at their strongest together. The number of hooks on this record are stratospheric, and while I’m not convinced that Key is any better on his own than with his band mates, he brings the exact level of vocal enthusiasm these tracks deserve. It’s a hasty prediction, but this album should be enough to keep fans going for the next two years or so.

BAND-MAID // BAND-MAIKO
2019.04.03

Performers in the Japanese and South Korean music business (idols or otherwise) are some of the hardest working in the world, so you’ll have to excuse me if the constant mantra of Ariana Grande releasing two albums over two years doesn’t impress me much when it is has been de rigeur for a group like BAND-MAID to release a new album every year — and two in 2019. Obviously, the sort of work ethic that pushes K-pop idols to train and perform for 14 hours a day is by no means practical, safe, or just. With a group like BAND-MAID, there is also the possibility of not just physical and mental, but creative, burnout. Up until now, BAND-MAID’s releases have been on a strong, upward trajectory with each release topping the last: they have been featured in the top ten albums of the year list here for the last two years. But interestingly, it is not the late-entry CONQUEROR that makes this list, but the shorter EP released in April, BAND-MAIKO. CONQUEROR is a strong album, but it’s the first one that I haven’t been instantly taken by, and while I let that album continue to percolate and work its magic on me, I’ll let BAND-MAIKO speak for itself. As if to preempt a rut, the group changed things up for this special EP by giving a few of their signature metal hits a traditional Japanese sound, complete with taiko drums and shakuhachi flutes piping into every available space left in the production. This idea could have been a silly, ineffectual gimmick (perhaps like being forced to wear maid costumes?), more Wagakki Band-rip off than genuine novelty, but the melting of the two styles are perfect, offsetting, collaborating, and molding themselves into something just as hard and heavy, but with a unique texture. It also gives the band a chance to ditch the maid outfits and don traditional kimonos in music videos for “secret” and “Gion-cho” — I’m not sure they were any more comfortable to shoot in, but they certainly make for stunning visuals (women’s fashion  throughout history, I guess). So far, the EP has been a one-off, but I wouldn’t mind seeing this little side-experiment blossom into a regular gig. It’s a gorgeous, sweeping testament to how adaptable and open the metal genre is, and how hard BAND-MAID work every day to keep innovating and challenging expectations, while proving the band is anything but out of ideas.

Nao Toyama // Gunjou INFINITY
2019.04.03

Seiyuu solo albums are a hard sell when so many can sound nearly identical. This isn’t inherently a bad thing if that’s exactly what you’re looking for, but it can get difficult to distinguish between them all if you listen to a dozen or so a month. “All pop music sounds the same” is easily one of the laziest insults to hurl, but the older you get, the more you realize there’s nothing insulting about stating merely uninformed facts: after all, even the most manufactured idols can create alchemy with the right songwriters that produce potions that keep a cauldron bubbling throughout the year. Gunjou INFINITY seems to have hit upon that very wizardry, taking Toyama’s lithe vocals and peppy guitars to a level beyond what she hinted at on her debut album. There’s not going to be anything here for those who saw the word seiyuu and immediately turned heel, but for those still on the carousel, check the extra synths on “Action,” the traditional instrumentals woven throughout “Tomoshibi no Manimani,” and the frenetic one-two punch of “Living Dying Kissin’” that make an album like this, adrift in a sea of so many like it, stand out. Nao Toyama has been on my radar since Rainbow, but she hasn’t proven herself until now, a woman more than capable of keeping up with the Nana Muzukis of the world, if given half a chance in a fickle, over-saturated market…and several return trips for draughts of that elusive elixir.

The Dance for Philosophy // Excelsior
2019.04.05

The Dance for Philosophy have been one of the strongest indie idol-groups since their debut, releasing one quirky, vintage-inspired album after another since 2015. While it was easy to lump them in with the rest of the Tower Records-set alongside Michiru Hoshino, Negicco, and especia, The Dance for Philosophy songwriters took their inspiration from 70’s soul and funk, mixing in just a hint of City Pop for thematic relevance. The result has been adorable, dorky albums, almost too earnest for their own good. This year’s Excelsior tries its hardest to be just a but more slick, a bit more chill, but of course it’s a losing battle, and all the better for it. The group is at their best when they’re at their least cool, breaking out all the horns, cliche sparkle effects and almost-Mickey Mousing sound effects on tracks like “IT’S MY TURN,” and “FREE YOUR FESTA.” But it’s smoother tracks like “PARRHESIA” and “HEURISTIC CITY” that hit the sweet spot in-between, and luckily The Dance for Philosophy spend quite some time in this zone. It might not have all the idol bells-and-whistles of their previous albums, but it’s a more mature, albeit tiny, step forward for the group’s sound that I sincerely look forward to hearing evolve at a pace slower than evolution, all the longer to simmer and enjoy.

TWICE // Feel Special
2019.09.23

TWICE had a better year than any other K-pop girl group in 2019, and that includes Internet phenoms BLACKPINK. While the group has always been hit-or-miss for me, never achieving a level of consistency that precluded enthusiasm for comebacks, they scored three amazing releases this year, including two Korean EPs, and an original Japanese album that hit #1 on the Oricon the week of its release. It’s their second EP, Feel Special, that has stayed on heaviest rotation. From the title track on, it’s a burst of sparkling energy, with the dance-pop glitter parade hitting peak ticker-tape on the stomping triplet “Get Loud,” “Trick It,” and “Love Foolish.” The album winds down with “21:29,” the nostalgic missing piece from Seohyun’s 2017 Don’t Say No. It’s a perfect example of K-pop from a group that has released more than seven original Korean mini-albums since 2015, but who still bring enough innovation, enthusiasm, and need to prove themselves to feel like a rookie group.

BABYMETAL // METAL GALAXY
2019.10.11

BABYMETAL were mired in a bit of controversy this year, the type only surprising to those unfamiliar with the Japanese entertainment industry, but enough to derail the group’s international momentum. When Yuimetal was reported mysteriously missing from live shows, conspiracies abounded until a press release confirmed the usual story: Yui Mizuno would not be returning due to poor health. Betrayed fans punished the withholding of information by insta-damning their newer singles as inferior, lacking in the same quality and depth of their early releases. It seemed the group was doomed to the same recycle bin and sudden irrelevance as other Japanese crossovers. So imagine my surprise when I tuned in to the new album and found myself charmed and impressed. METAL GALAXY, five years removed from the group’s debut album, is their poppiest to date, relying on metal as a production style, rather than a genre. The album still soars with riffs and earnest vocals, but it’s softer, a bit more diffused around the edges, with the endearing addition of a ballad and what can only be aptly described as soaring choruses. Rest assured, there are plenty of cheeky moments sprinkled throughout, like the bubbly rap-interlude on “DA DA DANCE.” There’s a reason this album is wedged into this category and not metal: it’s as laser-focused as any idol group on this list, just with a heart worn on a spikier sleeve than most.

TAEYEON // Purpose
2019.10.28

The slow demise of Girls’ Generation, from down-one-member, to down-a-couple-members, to let’s-just-give-them-all-solos, to hmm-how-about-this-pointless-subunit is one of K-pop’s saddest horror stories. This is not to say anything of the solo releases, which for those who have opted to stay with SM Entertainment, are as top-quality as ever, and some, in fact, being astonishingly good. TAEYEON, as one of the three biggest vocal powerhouses of the group, and now the highest-selling female artist in K-pop, has been given solo opportunities since 2010, and official solo albums since 2015, when the albums started to come in earnest. Of all of these, 2017’s Voice has been the strongest collection, but Purpose has blown that album out of the water. While it doesn’t necessarily showcase TAEYEON’s vocals so much as use them in the best, and holiest, way possible, it’s a chance for TAEYEON to get some great pop songs under her belt, by way of the usual overseas heavy-weights like LDN Noise, and Dsign Music who have been behind your favorite East Asian pop songs since 2013. As usual, the music is a mix of glossy R&B influences coating sultry pop (“Ha Ha Ha (LOL)“), and the type of sad song you play on the way home from a long day of work after your exhaustion has got you brooding (“Wine“). TAEYEON is an expert at this point, ringing emotion out of every last note, and so the album feels effortless. TAEYEON might be portrayed as a bit of an ice-queen in the media, but Purpose, both cool and confident, is surprisingly warm.

Hey! Say! JUMP // PARADE
2019.10.30

It will be interesting to see how Johnny’s entertainment will grow, mature, and respond to their musical competition, now that Kitagawa has passed and the handcuffs have come off. As mentioned above, there are already massive steps being taken to join the rest of the entertainment industry in 2020, and it bodes well for the years ahead. There will surely be many great, successful, working things the company will want to hold on to as it moves forward, and one only hopes that one of those things is a rich musical history. It has taken me nearly all of the last decade to truly appreciate the particular style of J-pop that Johnny’s produces, and though I would not call myself a super-fan, and remain skeptical of most of their performing groups, it’s been a wild ride to slow down, and carefully study, understand, and appreciate what these groups offer to the genre. At its worst, they indulge in the sort of outdated, saccharine idol-pop you’d find as filler content on a CD produced in 1978 from the clearance section of Half-Price Books. At its best, it fuses vintage styles with modern production to create something fizzier and more nuanced than the individual pieces, as do one of Johnny’s most successful modern groups Hey! Say! JUMP, whose name alone now endearingly dates them. They’re all set to take over once Arashi vacates the top spot, and aside from drama with a former member who was swiftly and quietly put to sleep like a rabid dog, they seem more than capable of carrying the torch. PARADE is Johnny’s at its best: long, winding choruses, slightly-awkward rap breaks tempered by pleasing disco strings, Western-pop and EDM pop-ups, individual vocals twining into the distinctively joyous group singalongs. It can’t possibly be less-than-average compared to the intellectual records littering year-end lists over at The Ringer or Pitchfork, and it won’t win any awards for bringing anything innovative to the table, but in that way, it’s like Johnny’s itself, leaning so heavily on the personality and charisma of its stars. Perhaps that’s why so many continue to draw from this particular well, year after year, and who’s comparing it to those stuffy lists anyway?

Cosmic Girls (WJSN) // As You Wish
2019.11.19

Like TWICE, Cosmic Girls had two above-average EPs to choose from this year: the frothy soap bubbles of For the summer, a giant, shimmering, sunshine-in-a-bag collection of K-pop, tailor-made for what is still the one season of the year most likely to have you throwing caution to the wind and, if you are unlucky enough to work a 9-to-5 like the rest of us, playing hooky or gazing out the window, wishing you had the guts to do so. But it is As You Wish, their autumn entry, that brings a bit of levity to the songs that showcase how great WJSN is when they are less gimmicky, and focus on what makes them work so well as a group. Some of the same songwriters appear on these tracks, such as FULL8LOOM, but the addition of newcomers KZ, Nthonius, and B.O. add some much-needed gravity to the parade of hooks on tracks like “Iruri (As Your Wish),” “Luckitty-Cat,” and the album’s strongest banger “Badaboom,” which veers into beloved T-ara territory with its catchy, repetition of “Badabing-badabing-badaboom-yeah.” WJSN and TWICE have had a similar musical evolution, and both groups have released work this year that reflects their status as worthy contenders beyond their beginning as SNSD-clones, but WJSN has the added benefit of being the type of group you can always count on to deliver consistency in great songs and great visuals.

Honorable Mentions


Wa-suta: Cat’ch The World
TAEMIN: FAMOUS
OH MY GIRL: Fall in Love
Flower: F
SUPER☆DRAGON: 3rd Identity