Shmilly's Top 10 Japanese Albums/EPs/Singles of 2021

As we get ready to say farewell to year 2 of a global pandemic that has kept most of us at home for a long time, please join me in taking a look at some of my favourite releases this year. Let me know your opinion, if there’s anything you think I missed, and especially if my ramblings helped you discover a new artist you didn’t know about. Thanks and a pre-emptive Merry Christmas from Japan.


10 | millennium parade / THE MILLENNIUM PARADE

Daiki Tsuneta (of King Gnu fame) has brought together an eclectic group of musicians and styles for this slickly produced ride of alt-pop. With such a variety on display, it’s hard not to find something to enjoy here, be that the energetic opening number Fly with me, hip-hop influenced Philip, or chill and atmospheric Plankton. I also want to give a shout-out to their excellent single U with Belle, which served as the theme song to the animated movie which had its Western release under the same title.

09 | RAZOR / 五枚刃

For the longest time I wasn’t a fan of best albums, as being a regular buyer and collector of music from artists I like, they rarely include much in the way of new content. However when recommending new artists to other people, it’s hard to go wrong with a collection of some of their best work. RAZOR not only brings a strong lineup of singles and lead tracks, they also threw in previously live-only NEW WORLD and a solid re-recording of PRIMARY (one of my personal favourites) with a tweaked intro to really get you going just like when they play it live. While RAZOR’s other releases this year were a little lacklustre for me, this best album is a solid recommendation.


I guess this one is kind of a best album too, but it didn’t seem right to send NAZARE off without giving them some credit on this list. I was a fan from the start and while a huge chunk of their discography was live-limited for the longest time, it was great seeing the members improve their live performance over their short career, culminating in an epic final show of 35 songs that I was lucky enough to enjoy thanks, ironically, to the date being pushed back because of the pandemic. BEFORE COMMON ERA is certainly a monster release, spanning two discs and 30 tracks, including remasters, re-recordings and a couple of new tracks to boot. If you haven’t checked them out before, this is the definitive way to do so. Personal favourites include 受難, 無慈悲な蒼空, IDEAL and 駁-baku-.


My God it’s so great to hear HIZUMI’s voice again after D’espairsRay disbanded back in 2011 (can you believe it’s been 10 years already? Makes me feel old!) and somehow despite what he’s been through he’s still got it! Be wary though, NUL.’s sound is quite different from that classic VK style. With Toshiyuki Kishi from abingdon boys school (among others) on board you know you can expect some slickly produced modern rock with electronic influences and grungy guitars courtesy of MASATO (defspiral). While BLACK SWAN is probably the closest thing to old-school D’espa, there’s a lot of fun variety on display here that shows NUL. is trying to craft their own unique sound, not just be appealing to a wider audience, and you can see that they’re having fun on that adventure.

06 | アイナ・ジ・エンド / THE END

One of my favourite artists lately, AiNA THE END from BiSH has launched a very successful solo career no doubt fueled by her intoxicating husky voice and her unique way of singing that makes the most of every breath. Unlike the over-produced pop-rock that BiSH is known for (and I’m not saying that in a negative way), Aina’s solo work is almost entirely composed and written by the woman herself and it’s absolutely dripping with her personality and worldview. Produced by Seiji Kameda who has worked with some of the top artists in the industry (notably Shiina Ringo) I snapped up the deluxe edition of this release and was not disappointed. Not only does the base album boast gorgeous melodies like beautiful opening number 金木犀 and melancholy 死にたい夜にかぎって as well as the unsettling , the limited edition includes a second disc packed with Aina’s extensive collaborative works with artists as varied as MONGO GROSSO, SUGIZO and TeddyLoid, as well as her cover of hide’s Bacteria under moniker SEXFRiEND. It’s hard to imagine a more impressive launch to a solo career that I deeply hope will continue after today’s announcement that BiSH will disband in the near future.

05 | キズ / 仇

It pains me to put this album so low on here because it’s one of the records I’ve listened to the most since I made the investment on picking up the limited edition via Mercari. Ultimately that price point and the fact that it’s yet another best album on my best albums list stops it from getting any higher, but don’t let that put you off. If you’ve been sleeping on キズ, there’s no better time to get into them. They have put out consistently impressive, highly produced single after single and this album packs them all in there for you to enjoy. It’s great to hear a properly mixed version of 平成 after they dabbled in surround production for that single, and there are a nice selection of B-sides in there too. The icing on the cake is the new songs, which after multiple listens have cemented themselves amongst my favourites. (The limited edition has a cheeky unlisted bonus track called 願イ that vocalist Lime first performed live on YouTube earlier in the year too). I could say fairly confidently that キズ is possibly my favourite VK band active in the scene right now, and it wouldn’t be fair not to mention their latest single ストロベリー・ブルー that just came out this month and takes quite a different direction to much of their previous work.

04 | the GazettE / MASS

Did anyone forget that one of the oldest and most respected bands in the VK scene slipped out a new album this year? It might seem a while ago now, and that’s certainly not been helped by the severe reduction in live performances over the past couple of years, but while the GazettE has one of the most volatile fanbases in Western fandom I’m firmly on the supportive side and I think MASS holds up well now that the year is drawing to a close. It has a great flow between the tracks and the runtime has been tightened up, making it much easier to listen through in one sitting than some of their more epic earlier works. While many of the tracks aren’t super standout in their own right, they’re just good GazettE bops and I hardly find myself skipping anything when I listen to this album. There’s still a good mix of hard breakdowns, atmospheric productions with that classic GazettE feel, and more upbeat lighter numbers that I think captures well the style the band has been developing over their last few albums. And speaking of production, just like NINTH before it MASS is top-notch in that regard.

03 | アイナ・ジ・エンド / THE ZOMBIE

This is kind of unprecedented, but I can hardly believe that Aina managed to squeeze out another excellent album in the same year as her first. This sophomore release continues to develop her unique sound, with soulful singing, memorable melodies and catchy choruses (yes, I did just pack alliteration into the rule of three). Dramatic ロマンスの血, breathless 誰誰誰, and beautiful ペチカの夜 are just some of the highlights, but really almost every track speaks for itself. Admittedly as a super fan I picked up most of these songs when they were released as digital EPs and such throughout the year and so was a bit disappointed to see that there was very little new material on the tracklist, but objectively from the standpoint of someone who hasn’t been religiously following this upcoming pop legend’s rise to stardom, this album is more consistently enjoyable and just simply Aina than even her epic debut.


The back end of this year has been ridiculous for amazing releases, and this month in particular has packed in new material from so many of my favourite artists. All-girl hard-rock powerhouse NEMOPHILA finally make their full-album debut (ignoring OIRAN Extended Edition that was just a single collection for overseas fans). The sheer energy their songs exude and the clear pleasure with which they perform them just draws you right in, and you won’t be disappointed with incredible instrumentation all round and one of the best female screamers I’ve heard in vocalist Mayu. Catchy riffs, soaring guitar solos and choruses that stick around in your head long after you’ve finished listening only make you want to go back and click play again on energetic opener REVIVE almost as soon as the re-recording of debut single OIRAN comes to an end. I also wanted to mention that new song HYPNOSIS gives me visual kei vibes with a riff reminiscent of early DELUHI, who remain probably my favourite band to this day.

01 | CVLTE / praystation 2

This one is as much of a surprise to me as anyone else, but CVLTE came out of nowhere this year and wouldn’t get out of my head. An alternative rock unit from Sapporo spearheaded by half-Argentinian vocalist Aviel who produces almost everything himself and has his band perform his compositions live, this album is a highly stylish collection of swanky trap beats and dirty guitar tones, mixed with chill and emotional pop melodies. The phenomenal English vocals and modern lyrics are a nice change from a lot of the (let’s be honest) far from natural efforts we get from many Japanese artists, and there are a ton of collaborations too including my favourite, album closer hellboy. (feat. 釈迦坊主). At a fairly brief 35 minute runtime, this album is perfect for multiple listens and I found myself immediately going back to the start and going through the whole thing again on long commutes without skipping a single track. This style of music might not be for everyone here, but it certainly took me out of my usual listening comfort zone and I can’t recommend it enough. (As an aside, CVLTE also put out a new EP just this month in which Avi experiments with writing in Japanese for the first time, in case that’s more your vibe).



05 | 梟 / 「梟の森」

As a big DADAROMA fan, I was keen to see what Yoshiatsu’s new project would sound like, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not what I expected. Unlike his bandmates who have taken perhaps the easier route to stick with VK in THE MADNA, the crooning vocalist has leaned on his softer side and put together a chill unit comprising piano, bass and drums, and after giving this EP a few listens each track stands out in its own way and shows a great versatility in composition. From the hauntingly atmospheric opener to jazzy lounge music to low-fi urban pop, I grew to enjoy this release a lot more than I initially thought, and I think it’s worth your time too.

04 | 3470.mon / VHS

Not to be outdone by his contemporary, infamously restless vocalist Tenten has another new band and this one is a jazzy outfit called Sayonara Monday. The chill, lighthearted compositions make for easy listening or just great background music, and the short runtime is well-suited to repeat listens. While I still miss the good old days of MY BACTERIA HEAT IsLAND, this new project is my favourite thing Tenten has done since then and his now well-developed vocals suit this kind of music well.

03 | 我儘ラキア / SUPERIORITY

Here’s an idol group with a difference: their music is composed by respected members of the loud rock scene from bands such as NOISEMAKER, MY FIRST STORY and Crystal Lake, who they share a label with. Interested? You should be. Often combining heavy riffs with catchy choruses led by powerful main vocalist Minami Hoshikuma and quick-fire rap from MIRI, this group breaks the mold in more ways than one. To top off another solid EP, the physical release includes a DVD with 6 live songs from their energetic performance in Shimokitazawa SHELTER including my favourite song SURVIVE which you should check out immediately.


As if JMS wasn’t doing enough with their lineup of excellent artists and an idol group that they sometimes write for, here’s an insane mashup of 3 of the hottest hard rock bands they promote: Crystal Lake, NOISEMAKER and SHADOWS. That’s right, members of all of these bands (including all their vocalists) come together for this insane super-unit and boy do they go hard. Somehow perfectly combining Crystal Lake’s chugging guitars and guttural shouts, NOISEMAKER’s alternative rock influences and SHADOWS’ post-hardcore sensibility with an excess of energy and a glorious inclusion of retro gang vocals, this EP is sure to leave you with a grin on your face. You’ll be humming DAWN for the rest of the week, too.

01 DEXCORE / -18-

How could it be anyone else? It’s no secret that DEXCORE is my favourite active band right now, and to top off a year of excellent singles and amazing live performances, they treat us with this early Christmas present. It’s not just more of the same, either: the band has continued to develop – or perhaps I should say define – their sound since settling on their current lineup, and it’s once again vocalist Kagami’s incredible compositions and vocal range that set them apart from their peers and are starting to earn them more international recognition. Brutal opener 18 immediately gets you headbanging and leads into a re-recording of this year’s single Red eye, along with a feature from VICTIM OF DECEPTION vocalist MAKITO on EARTHWORM. Then we suddenly see a spattering of power metal in the opening to Who’s fault? and later a beautiful chorus in One day, a song Kagami composed together with fans through a series of live streams earlier in the year. To wrap things up there’s some experimentation with electronic sounds that we haven’t heard since Two-Dimensional and then a powerful rock anthem in lead track (can I even call it that when it closes out the album?) 20. You can see how excited I am considering this oversized ‘mini-album’ only dropped this week. Do yourself a favour and go check out DEXCORE.



10 | Torenia / 聖者の哀歌

An unfortunately short-lived band that I think showed a lot of promise, this is the only song they officially released and it barely clocks in at two minutes, but I think it deserves a listen.

09 | PROMPTS / Asphyxiate (feat. Ryo Kinoshita)

What could give a boost to an up-and-coming metalcore band from Japan? Oh, that’s right, a collaboration with legendary Crystal Lake vocalist Ryo, who seems to turn every song he features on to gold.

08 | Paledusk / WIND BACK

These guys are just getting more and more nuts with every new release, and I love it. If you don’t dig heavy metalcore riffs combined with trap beats and chaotic electronic sounds, you just might after listening to Paledusk.

07 | ONE OK ROCK / Renegades

The veteran rockers-turned-poppers are still around, and this anthem composed together with Ed Sheeran that serves as the theme song of one of two new live-action Rurouni Kenshin movies this year is one of the better tunes they’ve put out in recent memory.

06 | A_o / BLUE SOULS

A heartfelt and uplifting melody featuring my vocalist of the moment AiNA THE END that started life as a song for sports drink POCARI SWEAT’s TV commercial.


An idol group (?) who recently took a sharp change in direction to try and break out into the international audience. It seems to be working with the members’ unique personalities combined with strong vocals and wacky dance choreography.

04 | Ado / 踊

The breakout vocalist (who presumably remains anonymous because she’s still underage in Japan) took the net by storm with hit song Usseewa but it’s the slick vocal work in this song that makes me love it even more.

03 | milet×Aimer×幾田りら / おもかげ (produced by Vaundy)

It took a genius to combine three top female vocalists for such an upbeat track that will have you tapping your feet all the way through. Aimer’s gorgeous husky tones, milet’s saucy crooning and Ikuta Lilas (of YOASOBI fame)’s instantly recognisable soft but high voice are all on parade here.

02 | Crystal Lake / CURSE

I can’t hide my preference for metalcore even when my single lineup is filled with so many pop artists this year. Crystal Lake’s last effort before a temporary pause in activity due to vocalist Ryo’s health is another heavy but powerful track that builds on the sound they’ve been developing recently.

01 | DEATHNYANN / illumina

Timing may be influencing this one as this song only dropped today (!) on streaming and download, but it’s been stuck in my head since the PV came out a couple of weeks ago and I’m so glad to finally have it on my phone. Wagamama Rakia vocalist Minami Hoshikuma debuts a solo project with a little assistance from Paledusk guitarist DAIDAI. Isn’t it crazy how connected everyone is in this scene?!


Yo, pst, you might wanna add your top 5 to JRO community best of 2021

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I would love it if you did!

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