Best J-Rock Albums of 2020
Updated: Feb 15
Top Japanese Rock Albums of 2020 (Hard Rock & Metal)
Did you ever wonder if the J-Rock scene has anything more worthwhile to offer than BabyMetal? Then, this is the J-Rock article you have been waiting for. Here you will find the most exciting Japanese rock bands at the moment. You will even find some of the best J-Rock to be released in the last two decades.
So, who am I to recommend J-Rock to you?
Well, I have been a J-Rock fan ever since I heard my first J-Rock song in 1996. I have worked as a music journalist for 10 years in Norway. First, I worked four years at the biggest live-review web site in the country. Then, I did 6 years of album reviews and artist interviews at the most reputable Metal Magazine in Norway (Scream Magazine).
While working for Scream I did many interviews with Japanese bands, such as Crossfaith, Myproof, Sigh, Ethereal Sin, Elüpia, Shatter Silence, Juno Bloodlust and American expat Marty Friedman (Ex-Megadeth). I also made a tour guide about my favorite rock bars and record shops in Tokyo.
The Making of a J-Rock Fanboy
Getting back to the summer of 1996. I can still remember the excitement I felt when my dad brought home our very first modem. I had heard rumors that it was possible to download something called Mp3s on this thing called the Internet.
My very first online search brought me to a blog about hard and heavy music. The owner had uploaded three songs from new and upcoming bands. Two of these would prove to stay with me for the rest of my life.
Prototype and Symphony X came from America, but the third came from Japan and was the game-changer that made me a J-Rock fan-boy for life. The band was X-Japan, and the song was called «Silent Jealousy».
Getting back on the 2020 J-Rock track
Having spent 24 years exploring J-Rock gives me the confidence to boldly state that one J-Rock-album from 2020 is sensational. Also, the rest on my list are pretty darn good. The scene is immense, and brimful of forgettable acts, but the following six Japanese rock albums moved something inside this seasoned J-Rock fan:
Yôsei Teikoku – The Age of Villains
«The Age of Villains» is not only my favorite J-Rock album of 2020, it is probably one of my top 10 Japanese Rock albums of all time. On the surface, it might sound like just another Japanese female-fronted metal act, but the workmanship that went into this is anything but ordinary.
Yosei Teikoku have been around since the 90s, but the last decade they have really hit their stride. «The Age of Villains» is the perfect example of what Japanese metal is all about. It is a mix of anything from J-Pop, J-Rock and Visual Kei, to Vaudeville, Symphonic Metal and Progressive Metal.
The Age of Villains is an eccentric hodgepodge of an album,
held together by very confident songwriting
Songwriting is the key factor here. Genre mixing, dark flamboyant image, and cute female vocals are staples of J-Rock and Visual Key. Memorable songs that keep growing on you the more you listen, however, is much less common in these genres.
«The Age of Villains» is the best Yosei Teikoku-album to date. It is varied, well-produced, very well-performed and brimful of strong songwriting. Fans of Versailles, Light Bringer, BabyMetal – or even Stolen Babies and Diablo Swing Orchestra – should do themselves a favor and put this album on their playlist today.
Favorite tracks: 獄ノ幻, Iron Rose, Phantom Terror, 或る追憶…
Outrage – Run Riot
My second favorite J-Rock album of 2020 came from the veteran rockers in Outrage. These guys have been around since the 70s, and they sound more vital now than ever. Run Riot is a no-frills, hard-hitting, and entertaining album with no low points.
Outrage anno 2020 sounds like a hybrid of Metallica, Audioslave, Queens of the Stone Age, and Testament. The songwriting is strong, the production is ballsier than most Japanese rock, and the party factor is high when the trio kicks into the groove.
It is kind of inspiring to hear lifetime rockers play as vital now as they ever did. Run Riot might not be groundbreaking, but it is certainly a fun album. These guys still have a lot of punch in them. In addition, it is interesting for new J-Rock fans to meet a band that has kept the Japanese rock-flame burning longer than most of their peers.
Favorite tracks: Blood and Scars, Silver Screen Hero, Cyclops
Daoko – Anima
Strictly speaking, Daoko is not J-Rock at all. But this electro-pop, hip-hop-album is just so delightfully dark and creative that it spoke to my inner rocker. I don’t quite know how to describe Anima, but I’ll try anyway: «Melancholic Electro-Rap, drenched in Japanese Quirk and drizzled with Kawaii».
Granted, some of the songs lean too much towards R&B and Rap for my personal taste. On the other hand, the low key and laidback atmosphere, which colors most of the album, is strangely captivating. Anima might be a challenge for most J-Rock fans, but it might also be the most accessible album on this list for all other music fans.
Favorite tracks: アキレス腱, 愛のスロ, Sorry Sorry
DimLim – Emotions
Even though DimLim is labeled Visual Kei in Japan, they started out as a Metalcore outfit in 2017. They quickly evolved into a strange blend of Extreme Metal, Visual Kei, and Pop, before shedding their metal coating completely in 2020.
Before turning into a modern, funky, pop-band, they released a transitional mini-album called «Emotions». On it you will find four J-Rock/Pop songs that was just crazy enough to catch the attention of yours truly.
DimLim is the J-Rock equivalent to schizophrenia
Out of the four songs, «Joy» and «Sorrow» are the most exciting ones. The compositions are like a car crash, in the sense that I cannot take my ears away from the absurdity of it all.
Crushing djent-riffs and extreme vocals, juxtaposed with funky passages and angelic pop-phrases reminds me why I got into J-Rock in the first place. Even though the melodies in themselves are nothing special, the approach to composition is so inhibited that it becomes interesting. Too bad the following album turned into pure garbage.
PassCode – Strive
No list on J-Rock (or any Japanese popular music for that matter) is complete without an Idol Group. Some of the best-selling bands in Japan are so-called Idol Groups, which is to say lip-synching youngsters who are hired for their looks or dancing skills, rather than musical talent.
PassCode is such a group, tailor-made to hook J-Rock fans of all kinds and ages. At least, these four girls are singing themselves (according to Wikipedia), not that the vocal melodies are much to brag about. So, how did «Strive» make it onto my list of the best J-Rock albums of 2020?
Forget BabyMetal! Forget the girls! Forget Fake Idols!
The appeal of PassCode is the invisible backing band, and what a band it is!
Well, whoever wrote this album is above and beyond anything that is made in the J-Pop business. The instrumental composition is pristine, the performance is flawless, and the production is tight. On top of that, the crossover between Extreme Metal, Electro-Pop and Nintendocore never stops to amuse.
Favorite tracks: Spark Ignition, Seize Approaching – Brand New Era, Starry Sky
Unlucky Morpheus – Unfinished
Visual Kei and Power Metal are probably the most popular metal sub-genres in Japan. Lucky Morpheus is a combination of the two, and in 2020 they took the step up, into the J-Rock-elite.
There are far better Power Metal bands in Japan, like Galneryus, MinstreliX, Light Bringer or Jupiter, but Unlucky Morpheus is not to far behind. «Unfinished» is a fitting title in this sense, since the potential for overtaking the Japanese Visual Kei-throne definitely is present.
As for the songwriting, production and performance, Unlucky Morpheus have more substance than most Visual Kei acts. Don’t get me wrong; the main attraction is still fluff, glam and the visual spectacle. It is just so much more worthwhile when the music carries some weight.
In many ways, Unlucky Morpheus reminds me of Versailles, another Visual Kei band that started out great, but somehow got lost along the way. Let's hope the guys and Girl in Unlucky Morpheus can stay the distance and keep improving their brand. Who knows, with a little luck they might even become the next Nightwish.
Favorite tracks: Unending Sorceress, Make your Choice, Carry on Singing to the Sky
J-Rock 2020 in short
There you have it! These are the best J-Rock album releases of 2020. This list might emphasize Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, but not for a lack of interest in «normal rock».
The Japanese music scene is daunting, and impossible to scour completely for a part-time blogger such as myself. These are the best albums I could find. If I come across some other worthy contenders, I’ll make sure to update the list accordingly.
In sum, and rightful order:
Best J-Rock Albums of 2020
1. Yosei Teikoku – The Age of Villains
2. Outrage – Run Riot
3. Unlucky Morpheus – Unfinished
4. DimLim – Emotions
5. PassCode – Strive