Listening to Japanese Music — 2021 Recommendation Roundup Awards

LTJM-2021AWARDSV2

Folks, it’s that time of the year <3 !

That’s right, we’ve made it through yet another season of Monthly Recommendation Roundups, and now it’s time to take a look back at 2021’s Japanese music offerings, in celebration of this past year’s most memorable features. This makes now our fourth annual Recommendation Roundup Awards ceremony and, to those of you in attendance, do make yourselves comfortable as we will begin momentarily.

The Roundup Awards commemorates what has truly been an awesome year of Japanese music, and we do so here by, of course, giving out awards to songs that have undoubtedly stood out in these last twelve months or so. As a testament to how stacked this year has been in terms of featured tracks, we actually have a record 109 total recommended songs; the most we’ve ever done throughout the history of the Roundup, all of which eligible to take home one of many awards that we’ll be handing out today. In addition, I mentioned in the November 2021 Roundup that for this year we will be introducing a *brand new* category of awards in the form of Album Awards (of which there are three that can be had), to go alongside our two other catogories, which would be our Song Awards and our Artists Awards (both comprising five awards).

All in all, we will be giving away thirteen unique awards, along with their corresponding runners-up this time around (also the most we’ve had to give out for the Roundup Awards), so suffice it to say we have quite a night of festivities to close out the year. A couple of disclaimers before we get started, especially if this is your first time seeing the Roundup Awards; all winners are decided by yours truly so take these outcomes with a grain of salt. I am also only putting up for contention songs that have been featured on the Monthly Recommendation Roundups this year, so there might be times where you don’t see a song or two here that you think deserves a particular award. That said, I would definitely love to hear what songs you guys would give these awards to yourselves, so feel free to do so in the comments section!

Before we start, I would like to thank each and everyone of you have tagged and continue to tag along in this journey of musical discovery with me. The hope is always that the Roundups have been as fun of a listening experience for you as it is for me doing them, so if this year ended up being that, then I can only be happy 🙂

With that, let’s jump to the awards!


<ーーSONG AWARDSーー>

***BEST PV***
対岸の彼女
/taigan no kanojo [August 2021]
by yonige

I think it’s fair to say that at present, music videos being used as a story-telling medium is a lost art for the vast majority of the world, especially out in the West where the emphasis mostly lie more on shock value and product placement. Of course, Japan is not exempt from that, but it can’t be denied that Japanese music PVs remain to this day very much a part of the song’s aesthetic. In that regard, the fact that yonige (and the creative team behind them) chose to devote five whole minutes to properly give proper context to Taigan no Kanojo is just that impressive. The song stands alone by itself just fine, but the additional narrative provided by the PV amplifies the emotions you feel from it tenfold, and by the end of it you’ll be walking away having seen one of the most beautifully tragic depictions of the grief that comes with having lost a loved one.

Runner-Uppray” by Akai Ko-en [January 2021]
The last we’ll see of Tsuno Maisa before her untimely passing

ーー

***BEST LYRIC***
嘘つき
/usotsuki [October 2021]
by あたらよ (atarayo)

In the past three years that we have given out this award, a lot of what went into deciding the eventual winner were in what the lyrics actually meant, whether it was the timely and earnest plea of Make With Music wanting to perform on stage again in front of a live crowd from last year’s awards post, or the witty wordplay employed by Yorushika which won the Best Lyric award in the inaugural Roundup Awards. This year’s awardee for Best Lyric might be the first where we actually consider lyrical structure. I have raved, and will continue to rave, about how Atarayo went and transposed the chorus of 10-gatsu Mukuchi na Kimi wo Wasureru to the song Usotsuki, making both songs effectively two halves of the same narrative and subsequently giving them more depth as a result. I still get goosebumps every time it gets to that part.

Runner-UpBetsu no Hito no Kanojo ni Natta yo” by wacci [February 2021]
Another beautifully written breakup song, funnily enough (XD)

ーー

***BEST INSTRUMENTATION***
pure circle
(Machiya Session) [April 2021]
by JYOCHO x KYOTO

Those of you who were here for the first ever Roundup Awards (or have since gone back and checked it out on your own time at some point) would remember that JYOCHO ended up being the recipient of our award for Best Instrumentation. I said it as much back then, but it really just feels like a wash whenever we get a year of JYOCHO regularly releasing stuff, where it becomes more a matter of which song of theirs I’ll be handing the award to. At the very least the same continues to ring true today as we give it to the Kyoto-based band for a second time in the history of the Roundup for their absolutely beautiful acoustic rendition of pure circle. Nakagawa Daijiro is a madman (in like the best way possible) with his compositions, and it’s always such a treat hearing his creations, especially now that he has fully settled in with JYOCHO.

Runner-Upbrilliant city” by Sokoninaru [September 2021]
These guys really don’t get the credit they deserve

ーー

***BEST VOCALS***
One Last Kiss
[March 2021]
by 宇多田ヒカル (utada hikaru)

If you’ve been following the Roundup for a fair amount of time, you might’ve noticed that there ends up being a lot of emphasis on vocals when it comes to what songs get featured on here. A lot of that is because that’s what I find myself subsconsciously looking for whenever I listen to a song, and it’s mostly the reason why I almost predominantly feature female vocalists. Not to say that male vocals are no good compared to female vocals, just that I enjoy listening to the latter more so than the former. And if we’re talking about female vocals, I feel like I’d be doing myself a disservice in not going with Utada Hikaru’s One Last Kiss this year. There’s a note that she hits around the 52-second mark that to this day I can’t wrap my head around. I gotta give props to J-Pop royalty whenever I can, and timeless talents like Utada are always a safe bet.

Runner-UpHands Up to the Sky” by SawanoHiroyuki[nzk]:Laco [June 2021]
Sawano, yet again, manages to find a diamond in the rough

ーー

***MOST PLAYED SONG OF 2021***
春泥棒
/haru dorobou [January 2021]
by ヨルシカ (yorushika)

In the past there was never really a reliable way of keeping track of which song I actually ended up listening to the most over the course of a year, given how I end up listening to a plethora of songs on a regular basis, as well as my preference of listening to whole albums at a time over singular tracks. This year however marks my first whole year of having a fully-integrated Japan-based Spotify, and as part of the streaming service’s annual wrap-up, I’m being told that the song I listened to the most (at least on Spotify) was Yorushika’s Roujin to Umi… which is a song I never got to feature as part of the Roundup (XD). That being said, while Haru Dorobou is somewhat of a proxy here, do trust that I’ve listened to this song extensively as well, and is a song that I still listen to even as we close out this year despite having come out at the start of it.

Runner-UpSnorkel” by BungeiTengoku [July 2021]
Sometimes I just listen to BungeiTengoku for an inordinate amount of time


<ーーALBUM AWARDSーー>

***FAVORITE SINGLE OF 2021***
初恋
/hatsukoi
by 神はサイコロを振らない × アユニ・D(BiSH/PEDRO) × n-buna
(kami wa saikoro wo furanai x ayuni d x n-buna)

We now make our way to the first of three new awards that we will be giving out as part of under the also newly introduced Album Awards portion of the Roundup Awards. These awards are all going to be very much self explanatory as to what they’re for, with the caveat being that the ‘winners’ have to be releases by artists who have made an appearance in the Roundup this past year. With that out of the way, my Favorite Single Of 2021 has to be, without a doubt, Hatsukoi, born from a collaboration between Japanese indie Alternative Rock band Kami wa Saikoro wo Furanai, Ayuni D of BiSH and PEDRO fame, and of course the one and only N-buna from Yorushika. This track is such a creatively unlikely intersection of musicality that I’m still very much baffled as to how it even came to be, but it’s a thing, and I’m tremendously glad that it is.

Runner-UpCharacter” by ACAね (from ZUTOMAYO), Rin音 & Yaffle
Quite largely for the same reasons as the above

ーー

***FAVORITE EP/MINI-ALBUM OF 2021***
moratorium

by Split end

Split end’s moratorium being my Favorite EP/mini-album is admittedly a choice based entirely on sentiment. I talked about it when I featured Split end’s latest release this year following a period of inactivity as part of the Roundup, but I can’t stress how much of a relief it was seeing the band come out with something new when it seemed as though the band was slowly starting to fade into obscurity. Not only that, the EP itself shows that the band has yet to lose a step with regard to their sound and as such serves as a reminder that Split end is one of the more underappreciated Japanese bands out there right now. The Nara-based four-woman band sound as good as they when the band first started out as modest three-piece, and I would want nothing more in my heart of hearts for them to further succeed after coming off this release.

Runner-UpYoake Mae” by Atarayo
Safe to say the mini-album I listened to the most this year

ーー

***FAVORITE ALBUM OF 2021***
骨格
/kokkaque
by 黒子首 (hockrockb)

There’s a reason why Hockrockb was my most listened-to band this past year, and their first full-length album Kokkaque is a huge part of it. In a lot of ways, this album was something that I had been waiting for ever since I started following the band and subsequently running their first two EPs to the ground by putting them on constant heavy rotation for the better part of 2020. That being said, the actual release took me by surprise, as there was no prior indication that the band was even going to drop an album until they did. Everything about Kokkaque is all I could ever ask for from the band’s debut album, as it really is just more of what I’ve come to know and love about them and their sound. Of course, the hope is that more people find out about them too after this, so that we can then all continue to enjoy Hockrockb for a long long time.

Runner-UpGusare” by ZUTOMAYO
Such a sick album this was


<ーーARTIST AWARDSーー>

***BEST PROSPECT OF 2021***
八木海莉
(yagi kairi)

I’ve been going with my gut in ther past two years that I’ve started giving out this award, and I think it’s pretty fair to say that our previous Roundup Awardees for Best Prospect; namely, adieu and yama, have both gone on to do great things after the fact. Of course, I’d like to keep this streak going if I can help it, and what my gut is telling me now is that Yagi Kairi has all the makings of becoming a breakout star. She has the look, she most certainly has the voice. but perhaps most importantly she has time. She’s a young talent that is slowly but surely coming into her own the more opportunities she’s given to fluorish, and I can’t help but be excited for her and what she’ll be able to do now that the spotlight is on her. As a fan of Yagi Kairi’s back when she was primarily doing covers, I wish her nothing but great things moving forward.

Runner-UpReina
The First Take’s first homegrown talent will undoubtedly make waves

ーー

***MOST IMPROVED BAND/ARTIST OF 2021***
Hump Back

Hump Back is a band that is always at the back of my mind each time when I try to decide on which band/artist had the most improvement in the past year. A lot of it comes from the fact that I found so much promise in the band early on when I first came across them, but it felt as though they were never really able to top what was otherwise one of the most solid debut EPs by any band/artist that I’ve listened to. That said, I do think that now’s the time to finally give this one to Hump Back following the release of their most recent full-length album ACHATTER, which is an album that answers a lot of questions I’ve had for the Osaka-based three-piece and then some. In a lot of ways, this has been a long time coming, both for me and I would like to think for a lot of other fans as well, and I’m happy to once again hear the Hump Back that I know and love.

Runner-Upeill
It’s crazy how much she reinvented herself this past year alone

ーー

***MOST PROLIFIC BAND/ARTIST OF 2021***
楠木ともり
(kusunoki tomori)

While all the other awards that we give out are for the most part picked by me in the weeks leading up to the Roundup Awards, the award for Most Prolific Artist is perhaps the only one that is truly beyond my control. Now, of course, I’m the one choosing which songs to feature on any given month so whoever shows up the most is directly influenced by me, but at the same time I don’t actively keep track of how many times I’ve gone and featured a band/artist. Thus, the winner for this award ends up being a surprise for me each and every time, as is the case with this year’s recipient of the award, Kusunoki Tomori. Granted, I take every opportunity I can to inclide her in the Roundup so this much might be a given, but that also means she’s been constantly active in her own right, totalling five separate appearances here this past year.

Runner-Upculenasm
Last year’s Most Prolific Band, having made four appearances in 2021

ーー

***FAVORITE DISCOVERY OF 2021***
あたらよ
(atarayo)

If you’ve seen any of the previous Roundup Awards posts (all of which are available for you to go read if you haven’t yet on the ’Listening to Japanese Music’ page), you would know that this is my favorite award to give out each year, as I believe that it truly embodies what the Roundup is all about. As I said in my introduction, the Roundups represent an ongoing journey of musical discovery, and as such it’s only right that we celebrate discoveries that end up leaving a more lasting impression over the rest. Atarayo is that band for me, and I’d be remiss to name any other band/artist that I came to know about this year that has impacted me on an emotional level as much as they have with their music. At the very least, I’ve enjoyed every second listening to their songs the moment I came across them, and I haven’t felt any different since.

Runner-UpKaeri no Kai
I have very high hopes for this up-and-coming band

ーー

***BAND/ARTIST TO LOOK OUT FOR IN 2022***
yutori

Now, traditionally, our award for Band/Artist to Look Out For is reserved to either bands or artists that have already been performing for a fair bit of time already, whereas our Best Prospect award is exclusively for newcomers that have just made their media debuts in the past year. That said, it’s hard to ignore the amount of momentum that yutori seem to be riding if YouTube viewcounts are anything to go by which, at least in terms of visibility, it typically is. A Japanese band can be actively putting out music for *years* and not get a single one of their videos reach six digits in views, but yutori’s first two songs already have, with their most recent one projected to do the same in two weeks or so. This young Tokyo-based band is about to pop off sooner rather than later I feel, and might just be a name worth remembering come 2022.

Runner-Upriria.
Well overdue for an anison debut in my opinion


There you have it! Thirteen awardees, thirteen runners-up, and what a ceremonious evening for the selection of Japanese music we’ve all had the utmost pleasure of listening to after an entire year of Recommendation Roundups. It’s at this portion of the Roundup Awards where I like to acknowledge our overall ‘winner’ of this event, none other than Atarayo who ends up holding awards in all three of our award categories for this year. Perhaps that in itself is reflective of how the band is my favorite discovery of this past year (XD)

At this time, I would like to give the floor over now to you guys. Which songs, albums, bands/artist and the like do you think are also deserving of any of the awards that we have given out? Let us know in the comments down below!

The Monthly Recommendation Roundup will be back for its fifth run next year so if you haven’t been doing so already, do remember to tune in at the end of every month. Roundups from previous months are also available for you to browse over at the Listening to Japanese Music page of the blog. If you want to listen to Roundup on the go, we also have our ever-growing Spotify playlist, so do give that a follow as well.

Lastly, I would like to give a huge thanks to those of you checked out the monthly album reviews we have over here as part of the J-Music Exchange/Rate. Al and I just wrapped up another year of reviews, capped off by our most recent one where we talk about some of our favorite releases of 2021. I went over Kobayashi Aika’s Gradation Collection whilst Al gives Atarayo’s Yoake Mae a shot over on his end, so do check those out if you haven’t yet and are so inclined.

With that, I wish everyone a Happy and a Blessed New Year! Thank you so much for dropping by (and doubly so for sitting through all this to end! 😀 ).

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Take care, as always.

See you guys in 2022!

10 thoughts on “Listening to Japanese Music — 2021 Recommendation Roundup Awards

  1. Thanks for the awards session, especially for getting me to listen again to BungeiTengoku, who had kinda slipped under my radar/lidar/sonar/wha’evar. Good band.
    I’ve been flipping through other end of year album lists, and found a couple of excellent things. One was from a post made by staff members at bandcamp: Nana Yamato’s ‘Before Sunrise.’ She’s a young home producer, layering simple-seeming indie type songs that do complex and surprising things. A bit of Go! Team sound on some early tracks, mid-period Beatles chords on some later ones.
    The other one was on beehy.pe’s roundup (there’s often a gem or two, though not a lot), ‘State of Mind’ by Yuta Orisaka. I’ve been entertained by a song or two of his before, but never really connected until I listened to the whole album, which is also on bandcamp. The man’s mad, but in a verry innteresting way.
    Happy Year!

    • Likewise, thanks for dropping by Jim!
      I keep falling in love with BungeiTengoku’s music the more I listen to their songs. Really hope drop an album soon.
      Currently checking out Nana Yamato and yeah, you can definitely tell it’s home produced, but something about the simplicity of it all is really charming for some reason. The Beatles influence is a nice catch. I can really hear it on the track “Voyage et Merci” (I really like the clapping here, lol)
      “State of Mind” is a very apt title for this album. Some of the compositions here are insane, lol, but not like in a crazy difficult way but more so with how… unhinged some of the songs sound (XD)
      Happy New Year!

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