Ayumi Hamasaki, Empress of J-Pop: The Essential Playlist
Throughout Asia, she is referred to as the "Empress of J-pop." To her fans, she is simply Ayu: artist, performer, businesswoman, fashion icon and idol.
Over the span of nearly two decades, Japanese pop star Ayumi Hamasaki has not only remained a staple of the music industry—she's helped shape the very fabric of it. From her cinematic music videos to her ever-adapting sound and chameleon-like sartorial style, Ayu-chan has influenced everything from fashion trends to what it means to be a modern J-pop star, inspiring millions of fans and dozens of contemporaries alike in the process.
In celebration of this iconic global performer's entire discography now being available on Spotify and Apple Music, we've rounded up Ayu's best career-spanning tracks to curate an essential listening playlist, below.
"M": A sweeping, twinkling electro ballad with complex spiritual undertones, many fans consider this hit 2000 single—which was also composed by Hamasaki under the pen name Crea—the artist's magnum opus.
"Boys & Girls": Released in 1999 off Hamasaki's Loveppears, this electric guitar-assisted dance anthem became the singer's first single to sell over one million copies.
"Evolution": An aggressive, hard-driving pop rock track with flourishes of late '90s techno, "Evolution" displays the singer's signature early '00s infectious, energy-drenched trance-pop sound.
"Dearest": Off the artist's 2002 record I Am..., "Dearest" is a sparkling mid-tempo love ballad that glitters thanks to Hamasaki's bittersweet lyricism.
"My Name's Women": A sort of feminist mission statement from the J-pop star, this melodic pop rock track touts feminine strength and lyrically rejects sexist assumptions about women. (Girl power!)
"Surreal": One of Hamasaki's greatest hits, this 2000 single opens with an instantly catchy piano-driven melody before surrendering to the track's frenetic core electronic rock production.
"Startin'": Aggressive and sexually charged, "Startin'" expresses the harder, considerably more urban, pop and rock-influenced sound the artist explored on her 2006 album, Secret.
"Real Me": Off Hamasaki's 2002 album Rainbow, this trip hop-infused R&B women's empowerment jam was compared by some critics to the work of Aaliyah, particularly her self-titled 2001 record.
"Ourselves": Released off &, the singer's 2003 EP, "Ourselves" is fizzy R&B-pop jam featuring light trap beats, shimmery synths and brief hints of late '90s Western bubblegum pop.
"WHATEVER": The frenzied 1999 Dub's Remix version of this dance track represents peak turn-of-the-century J-pop: progressive trance beats, sugary, soaring vocals and a surplus of DDR-friendly manic energy.
"Fairyland": One of the major singles off Hamasaki's seventh studio album, (Miss)understood, "Fairyland" is a shimmering, magical slice of upbeat, summery electronic pop—and also boasts one of the most expensive music videos in the world.
"Blue Bird": The final single released off 2006's Secret, the sales from this whimsical, humid electro-pop track made Hamasaki the first Japanese solo artist to sell over 20 million singles.
"Moments": Released off the artist's famously autobiographical 2004 album My Story, "Moments" is a breathtaking, effervescent pop rock ballad that displays Hamasaki's effortless emotional and lyrical depth.
"Voyage": A beloved mid-'00s Hamasaki ballad—and the star's longest-charting single ever—this Rainbow single features swaths of opulent orchestral strings, twinkling piano flourishes and sweeping, melodic production.
"Step by Step": One of the J-pop star's more recent offerings, the opening track off her 2015 EP Sixxxxxx is an uplifting pop-rock bop which features a subtle (but appreciated) key change.
"FLOWER": The lead single off the J-pop icon's most recent studio album, 2016's surprisingly fresh Made in Japan, "FLOWER" is nowhere near the fragile ballad its title may suggest. Instead, the track opens with twinkling traditional Japanese koto instrumentation before blossoming into a passionate, unexpectedly unhinged rock anthem.
"Audience": Upbeat and energetic, this Duty single sounds like something you might hear the DJ play at a post-apocalyptic discotheque thanks to its Hi-NRG production, four-on-the-floor beats and swirling disco synths.
"Feel the Love": This pulsating dance-pop banger was released as the lead single off 2014's Colours, which saw the performer dabble with music for the dance floor. (The record also marked the first time Hamasaki would collaborate with notable Western EDM producers.)
"Depend on You": Thanks to its memorable hook, bouncy, retro production and super-charged electric guitar-driven breakdown, this jazzy early single off her debut 1999 album, A Song for xx, remains a classic.
"INSPIRE": Featuring hip hop-influenced production and a big, punchy chorus, 2004's "INSPIRE" is one of Hamasaki's most intoxicating and aggressive singles.
"Talkin' 2 Myself": This 2008 Guilty single is an intense progressive rock track that plays with the dichotomy between the song's sharp sonic edge and the singer-songwriter's flowery vocals.
"Unite!": One of Hamasaki's most Hi-NRG tracks, "Unite!" is an invigorating techno-rock anthem. Though the deliciously chaotic production takes center stage over the artist's delicate vocals, it's the song's frantic energy which is (rightfully) the focal point here.
"Vogue": The lead single off 2000's best-selling Duty, "Vogue" finds the artist experimenting with Latin music, resulting in a hypnotic fusion of upbeat Spanish guitar-driven J-pop that remains a fan favorite to this day.
"A Song Is Born": Reportedly written in response to the 9/11 attacks, this dreamy mid-tempo pop tune showcases the softer side of Hamasaki, with peaceful, airy production (including a twinkly music box intro), earnest, optimistic vocals and lyrics about hope for the future.
"LOVE~Destiny~": While there are technically three versions of this Loveppears-era single, the "dance" refrain found on the actual album is a dreamy fusion of 89 BPM trip hop and lush late-'90s R&B balladry, a combination that creates a luxurious soundscape for the songwriter's plush vocals to shine effortlessly.
Meet the Queens of J-Pop: