Utada’s earliest US efforts that began in the late 90’s did not see her to any massive success in North America. It was not until the young Japanese-American artist moved to Japan and recorded her first Japanese language album “First Love” that things really took off for her. For the uninitiated, Utada is a fairly standard pop artist. Her style isn’t too far removed from a lot of other popular artists in the genre, especially out of Japan. What sets her apart is her delivery. While many modern artists rely on gimmicks like auto-tune, vocoders and caricature-personas, Utada was able to rise to stardom on talent alone. Her amazing voice, wide vocal range and knack for composing catchy and warm melodies make her a shining example of the pop diva done right.
Here are my fifteen favorite songs by Utada…
15. Wings (Ultra Blue; 2006)
Starting at the back of my list I have a smooth, melodic tune from Ultra Blue, Utada’s sixth album and fourth effort in Japan. Opening with a blues piano riff leading into a smooth jazz composition, Wings is one of Utada’s best “slow jams”. The lyrics do not really translate well so it is hard to tell exactly what this song is about, but it seems to reference something or someone that is unattainable or possibly unrequited love.
14. Traveling (Deep River; 2002)
There isn’t much to Traveling. It’s catchy, so I guess that helps it, but lyrically it really doesn’t convey much. It is just a fast, bouncy, well-sung pop song; nothing much more to say about it.
13. Sakura Drops (Deep River; 2002)
Arguably one of Utada Hikaru’s most well-known and well-received songs, Sakura Drops is a beautifully-performed song about moving on. While the it is easily interpreted as a break up tune, it could be made to reference anything. Something happens, it hurts, but as the seasons change and the cherry blossoms bloom, it could bring a sort of renewal.
12. Beautiful World (Heart Station; 2008)
Heart Station was Utada’s last album in Japan before returning to the US in 2010. Beautiful World is a love song of boundless admiration for her significant other. It was the headlining single off the soundtrack for 2007’s Evangelion 1.0: You Are Not Alone, a follow-up movie set in the universe of the popular anime. It’s upbeat, has some great vocalizations and a very catchy chorus.
11. Colors (Ultra Blue; 2006)
Colors is full of metaphors and innuendo making it hard to decipher. It was, however, yet another successful single from Ultra Blue. It’s a great tune from a melodic standpoint, though. The minor key and building chorus make it one of my favorites just on its musicality.
10. Goodbye Happiness (Singles Collection Vol. 2; 2010)
Goodbye Happiness is arguably one of Utada’s poppiest songs. It’s a cheery, upbeat and honestly kind of silly song that seems to be about a fleeting summer romance. This song is exceptionally-catchy though, and has an almost 90’s-esque tone to it.
9. Keep Tryin’ (Ultra Blue; 2006)
Keep Tryin’ is a silly little song about cynicism! Featuring a catchy chorus and a bridge with one of Utada’s most memorable vocalizations, this song deserves its chart success.
8. Heart Station (Heart Station; 2008)
One of Utada’s more Western-sounding tunes, Heart Station has hip-hop influence and a moody, drifting chorus. The synth backing and classic urban beat make it one of Utada’s most accessible tunes for those who are unsure about whether or not they would be able to get beyond the language barrier.
7. Flavor of Life (Heart Station; 2008)
One of the top-selling singles in history, worldwide, Flavor of Life is undoubtedly the song that cemented Utada’s legendary status as an international superstar. The song received two recordings, the single version, which is an upbeat groove and a ballad version that is much softer, having been recorded with a full orchestra.
6. Prisoner of Love (Heart Station; 2008)
In yet another hip-hop, Western-styled turn, Prisoner of Love is one of the more mature-sounding songs from Utada’s final Japanese album before her hiatus. The fast chorus, the urban beat, the simple-yet-satisfying vocals and the steady build make it yet another accessible song that displays the diva’s American influences.
5. Blue (Ultra Blue; 2006)
As the name implies, this is obviously a song about sadness. Separation resulting in a feeling of inescapable despondence. A soft melodic tune builds to a chorus that hits you with a certain emotional intensity. It still has a calm melody, but the way she sings it, so quickly and intensely on such a high scale, expresses a mood of desperation. The feeling of any song is rarely conveyed by any artist as well as it is here by Utada Hikaru.
4. Hikari (Simple and Clean) (Deep River; 2002)
Many Americans were first introduced to Utada by the intro to the hit game Kingdom Hearts. The opening theme, “Simple and Clean” was a English remix of this song, Hikari. The Japanese lyrics and entirely different, guitar-pop style make Hikari an entirely different song from the one so many gamers are used to. I actually feel this original recording is superior to the remix on the grounds that Utada’s voice is so much clearer, not having been synthesized to mix with the fast, electronic beat of the video game theme.
3. Making Love (Ultra Blue; 2006)
Yep. It’s another break-up song. Kind of… Making Love, a song about separation over a long distance, is one of Utada’s catchiest songs. Having one of the most perfectly-placed synth riffs I’ve heard in this sort of tune, the chorus is accentuated with a well-timed arpeggio that takes an otherwise standard pop melody and transforms it into a smashing classic.
2. Take 5 (Heart Station; 2008)
I don’t know what this song is about. I will assert, however, it is Utada’s best song from a vocalization standpoint. The back beat vocal melody and minimalist, pounding beat sets Take 5’s pace and gives it a sort of character. If you break it down to its individual parts it is a very simple song in its composition, but as it comes together it takes a moody turn.
1. Passion (Ultra Blue; 2008)
Passion was going to take the top spot from the start of my compiling this list. This theme song from Kingdom Hearts 2 (released as “Sanctuary”) is a giant. The soaring chorus, synthesized backing vocals and syncopated drum beat offer up a smooth and gripping entry into Utada Hikaru’s stellar library. Comparing the KH release of Passion versus the remixed Simple & Clean, it isn’t even a contest. The warm, full, and precisely-mixed composition of “Passion” dwarfs the isolated cold of the electronic tones of the first game’s theme and really showed American audiences just how talented the Japanese American artist really is.