When reading the list of Kouhaku nominations, the very first thing that immediately jumped out at me was the dramatic shift from just the year before of being a completely idol-dominated show to one that was now fully a part of the “band boom” that seems to be underway. And in fact, the data coming out of this year fully supports it: after a good 15 years or so, this second “golden era” of idols has finally come to a close.

While other acts also dominated the scene or shared the stage for the last decade and a half or so, the years between 1999 and 2015 will fully be remembered for their headline idol acts: Arashi, Ayumi Hamasaki, SMAP, Koda Kumi, Perfume and AKB48. Of course, labeling someone as an idol is something that is sure to attract controversy, but that’s the topic for another post.

To celebrate, I’ve listed here what I think were some of the most defining songs that truly encapsulate this particular period of idol history.

Ayumi Hamasaki – M

Ayumi’s triumphant rise to the top of the idol crowd at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s really defined what it meant to be an idol during this period – female solo idols that were reminiscent of the Golden Age of Showa idols. Both she and Utada Hikaru turned this particular point in Japanese music into a training ground for dozens of female soloists, most of whom debuted as idols much like Ayumi in order to follow her track to fame.

Of all the songs that came out of this particular era of Japanese idol pop, this would be the one song that I would truly say actually encapsulates the general direction music was going in at the time. The confessional, intimately personal style was closely tied to Ayumi and her particular image, which drove her success towards the top of the crowd at that particular time in J-pop.

Koda Kumi – Cutie Honey / Crazy 4 U

Of all the major ways idols were redefined during this 15 or so year period, this is probably the most important – and quite frankly most controversial – one of them all.

People state that one of the things they hate (or dislike) most about AKB48 is their, to put bluntly, “pandering” to the male masses. What they misplace is that it was never AKB48 that really invented the idea of “sexy cute” idols, but rather something that AKB48 moved towards when they folded Koda Kumi’s “erokakkoii” or “erokawaii” (sexy-cool or sexy-cute) image into their own.

Around late 2003/early 2004, Koda Kumi, who had debuted several years prior as an idol artist, started to shift her image from the traditional teen idol (with songs like 1000 no Kotoba, her famous Square Enix tie-in) to that of a much more sexy, Western pop star. It was when she fully broke into the scene that people fully started attributing the term “ero-kawaii” to her style. These two particular songs show that shift, and also convey what exactly those terms meant at that point in time.

Suzumiya Haruhi (Hirano Aya) – God Knows…

Seiyuu idols have always been a thing. So too have songs that have heavy connections with anime, to the point of featuring particular voice actors or actresses as the primary or lead singer. That being said, 2007 was a big turning point year for the entire anime song (or “anisong”) and 2.5D idol industry.

Firstly, it marked the huge cultural phenomenon that was Suzumiya Haruhi (the anime). Secondly, Nakagawa Shoko was invited to Kouhaku, starting the steady stream of seiyuu idol invites to the major yearly event, culminating in what will be the first “anime corner” this year. Thirdly, and most importantly, it also marked the initial release of the Crypton “Character Vocal Series”, Hatsune Miku, also known as the world’s first “virtual idol”. Which then leads us to…

Hatsune Miku – Senbonzakura

This is neither Hatsune Miku’s first hit, nor is it (hopefully?) her last. That being said, it does serve its purpose as a good place holder for the many various hits ‘she’ and ‘her family’ has had over the years.

It’s hard to say exactly what caused Hatsune Miku to become such a cult phenomenon. Japan has always had a huge ‘doujin’ market for self-produced music, the largest event being the annual Comiket. Several video game franchises have been made completely based on this particular trend of self-produced music. You could almost say that the market conditions were perfect for a program like Crypton’s Character Vocal Series, which enabled composers everywhere the ease of having an always-accessible, perfectly tuned vocalist voice bank. Whatever the drivers were, it is absolutely clear that this ‘virtual idol’ is one that is probably here to stay.

Perfume – Electro World

My opinion has always been that the latest trend of group idol acts truly gained momentum not when AKB48 was first invited to Kouhaku (something that I’ve always felt was very premature) but rather when Perfume became a major mainstream act. Started in 2003, the trio group’s rise to prominence marked the first of many acts to go from simple “akiba-kei” idols to actual mainstream stars, rather than idols of the past that had major backing from inception. Speaking of akiba-kei…

AKB48 – Heavy Rotation

Nowadays, you cannot say the term “idol” in Japan without having the listener immediately make the connection to the massive AKS conglomerate. The one that defined “subculture act that goes mainstream”, it is safe to say that the latest ‘idol boom’ was one that basically rose and declined with the mainstream popularity of this single group.

It’s hard to do justice to exactly what entailed this particular cultural phenomenon in a few short paragraphs, so I’ll save that for another post. That doesn’t mean that their dominance was ever monopolistic – one of their primary fighters during this same time period was the EXILE Tribe, who would then dominate the past two years as AKB48 slowly declined in mainstream popularity.

三代目 J Soul Brothers from EXILE TRIBE – R.Y.U.S.E.I.

One of the most interesting things about different groups of musical styles is how those styles tend to interact and reflect on each other. Sandaime J Soul Brothers is one of these hybrids, basically being the Japanese answer to the “Hallyu” wave that absolutely swept Japan, much like the rest of the world. Other lists do much more justice than I could possibly do in this short space for what songs encapsulate the so-called ‘golden age’ of Korean pop music during this period, so I will focus for now on Japan’s answer to this trend.

Because Avex has always been heavily invested in Korean pop music – they were one of the first and largest investors of SM Entertainment, for example – it comes as no surprise that the majority of the hybrid Kpop-styled Japanese pop groups would come from their label. Their biggest hit by far has been this particular song, which has come to propel Sandaime into wild popularity throughout Japan, even going so far as to threaten Arashi’s claim to ‘most popular male idol act in Japan’.

As 2015 comes to a close, though, it has become blatantly obvious that Sandaime is the last dying breaths as this idol decade (and a half) comes to a close.

While idols will never truly fade into the background, Japanese music is turning slowly towards yet another rock bubble. What this trend will look like in the months to come will be extremely hard to say – will it be just bands? What about some soloists? Will the rise (hopefully!) of groups like METAFIVE lead us in yet another direction? – but whatever the direction, it seems as though idols will revert back to being more of a subculture thing. That’s no reason to lament though – idols have always consistently provided a steady stream of quality music and innovation, and being pushed to the back may only drive them to pursue both quality and innovation ever more.