The Anime Playlist — Best Songs of 2021

Dark Aether
Jan 6 · 13 min read

Welcome to the final, final edition of my seasonal Anime Playlist of 2021 — your short guide into some of the best anime openings, endings, and original soundtracks along with some brief anime impressions! Back in 2020, I had put together a compilation list looking back at some of my favorite anime theme songs of the year. With award season currently underway (stay tuned for my posts coming soon!), this time I’m taking a look at 2021, featuring some of the songs and titles previously featured.

Before I get started, just some quick notes on how I run these. Previously, I picked two entries per season, plus two additional picks for the overall best opening and ending of the year, for a total of 10 songs. This time, there is no seasonal cap, so any previous entry that ran on The Anime Playlist in 2021 is fair game. With the exception of the last two, these are organized by the season of their debut.

Song: Shirushi (Mark)

Artist: Sayaka Sasaki

Anime: Kemono Jihen

An underlooked gem this year, Kemono Jihen took me by surprise as an unexpected supernatural series reminiscent of some of my favorite titles growing up. Though this may be the first time you’ve heard of this anime — it’s exclusively on Funimation — its ending theme artist is a name you might be more familiar with. An artist who caught her break in 2009, Sayaka Sasaki (Garo The Animation, Nichijou) performs the paranormal Shonen’s ending theme. Compared to a lot of similar series, Shirushi (Mark) takes a much more symphonic approach with its rock inspired composition. Complementing Sasaki’s high energy vocals, this four-and-a-half-minute song hits just about every mark for this playlist, including one of the best uses of an ending theme in the show’s final episode.

Song: Theme of the NOMAD

Artist: mabanua (Composer)

Anime: Megalo Box 2: Nomad

(I guess 2018 really was the best year of anime, huh?)

Yet another title to unexpectedly receive a sequel, 2018’s Megalo Box was a scrappy underdog that quickly climbed its way into near critical acclaim, including my own personal AOTY (*Note: I started publishing my official anime lists in 2019). An original series loosely based on the famous Ashita no Joe (Tomorrow’s Joe), the show heavily borrows elements from the aforementioned Joe and reimagines them in a much more futuristic setting where boxing is done via mechanical exoskeletons. Though the plot, characters, and setting will be familiar to sport aficionados, its unique sense of art and cinematography coupled with its ease of access to even the most casual of viewers drew many comparisons to titles like Cowboy Bepop.

Or as that one friend you knew in high school calls it, “the anime that doesn’t look like anime!”

Season 2 (Nomad) jumps ahead several years as the once celebrated boxer Gearless Joe finds himself fighting personal demons that I won’t spoil here. Rather than keeping with the traditional underdog to champ storyline, Nomad leans heavier into personal conflicts and broader issues as the story checks in on the old cast and introduces some new faces into Joe’s growing orbit. Whereas season 1 was more straightforward in its story and themes, season 2 takes notable detours that will undoubtedly stir up further discussion, if not controversy. It’s an anime I’ve been thinking of a lot lately and one of the few to comment on global problems, while greatly expanding the world of Megalo Box through one specific element at the start of the series.

For now, I’d like to save those thoughts for another day and move onto the music. Artist mabauna (BNA: Brand New Animal) made a name for himself in anime following his impressive work composing the music for the original Megalo Box. Clocking in at more than an hour, the new soundtrack, like the show’s nomadic subtitle implies, draws inspiration from various Latin American and ethic cultures in addition to the hip hop infused stylings of the first season. Listening to it again while coming up with this piece, it’s hard for me to pinpoint what I would call the “hit single.” Caught in the middle between my Central American roots and my upbringing in the US, it oozes a sense of nostalgia while weaving in a more modern sound — a duality of sorts.

For a traveler without a place to call home, the theme of the NOMAD captures this emotion better than anything I can commit to paper here. Featuring a complete rendition of the first show’s main theme, its soothing acoustics, thumping chants and soft drum work tells a new chapter. Once an underdog prepared to sacrifice his life in pursuit of the ultimate challenge, Nomad punches deeper by asking what happens when the gloves finally come off.

Song: Imperfect

Artist: Masayoshi Oishi

Anime: SSSS.Dynazenon

Another sequel from 2018, SSSS.Dynazenon is worthy follow up to the underappreciated SSSS.Gridman, a celebration of the kaiju genre and best of all, a fantastic showcase of the medium in a season already filled to the brim with future AOTY contenders. Technically functioning as a sequel with some connective ties to its predecessor, Dynazenon (as I’ll be calling it) is its own original story, set in a new world with its own set of unique rules that govern its populace.

Those of you familiar with Gridman will no doubt be well acquainted with the general premise, but for those with no passing knowledge, Dynazenon is less of a monster mash story than its cover leads on, preferring to dabble in heavier and psychological themes as our rag tag team of students and adults navigate their inner conflicts through the background of its destructible city when the Kaiju come knocking. Despite sharing similarities, Dynazenon is its own (robotic) beast as the story pivots in a different direction while weaving new mysteries in the ongoing Gridman Universe, all while keeping with the larger theme of what it means to be alive.

While those mysteries are best left to discover independently, I don’t mind revealing the secret behind Dynazenon’s amazing soundtrack. In addition to SSSS.Gridman composer Shiro Sagisu own thematic score highlighting the larger than life Kaiju battles, the mid-summer slice of life scenes and dynamic transformations of its namesake, OxT vocalist Masayoshi Oishi (Overlord) returns to perform the show’s main opening. Mixing the look and feel of a Saturday morning cartoon with a sweeping orchestra, the self-titled Imperfect is a collective harmony of rock and electronic beats delivered with a heightened sense of urgency through Oishi’s vocals.

Though I can’t decide yet which series or opening I preferred (too close to call!), SSSS.Dynazenon’s bold new take marks a triumphant return to Trigger’s continuing adaption of the Hyper Agent, and a peek at its future.

Song: Sing My Pleasure

Artist: Vivy (Kairi Yagi)

Anime: Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song

The sci-fi time travel and musically charged brainchild of Tappei Nagatsuki, Eiji Umehara and Wit Studio, Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song told a century long epic of Androids and the impending cyber apocalypse. Rather than focus on the destination, Vivy is all about the journey towards that singular endpoint as the titular AI finds herself caught up in a seemingly interconnected web of events that ultimately seal humanity’s fate in one reality. But as time moves forward in real time, the songstress soon finds her own future clouded in doubt and hesitation.

To cut things short, it’s a uniquely complex and mind bending story that picks apart the self-existential dread of autonomous machines and purpose. And while it can be argued that some of this will feel vaguely familiar to those with even the slightest affinity for science fiction, its slick presentation, well written characters and carefully threaded mysteries carry the narrative to its logical conclusion. I do have some minor quibbles with some of the late endgame materials, but overall, an excellent showcase from the studio that’s clearly aiming for a third award from yours truly!

Of course, no discussion of anime music this year would be complete without mentioning the superb work of composer Satoru Kōsaki. Blurring the line between sci-fi, fantasy, and Jpop, almost every episode begins or ends on some extravagant performance. I fathom to think what this show’s production costs look like, yet what intrigues me most are the vocal performances featured throughout, with Kairi Yagi lending her talent as Vivy’s singing voice (*Note: Atsumi Tanezaki voices the character’s regular dialogue).

As much as I’d like to pick through some of the later tracks, the show’s main theme Sing My Pleasure also doubles as the show’s opening, and is used periodically to great effect from one transition to the next. From its distinguished opening line to its dramatic buildup leading up to its climax, this nearly five minute song intensifies as the main orchestra and Yagi’s vocals give way to an emotional reprise — but not before culminating into my very own guilty pleasure or “eargasm” at the 3:08 mark.

Song: ODDTAXI

Artist: Skirt and DJ PUNPEE

Anime: ODDTAXI

I previously covered Odd Taxi in AniTAY’s Spring 2021 collab, so I’ll point you in that direction for a more comprehensive breakdown. Simply put, it’s the best original anime Crunchyroll has put out despite not actually being an official Original, and arguably made better for it given their already shaky track record.

If you’re a regular reader, chances are good you’ve heard this title pop up once or twice, with comparisons ranging to everything from Beastars to Durarara!!, and yet as I was preparing the previous collab entry and having since finished the show as of this writing, I find those descriptors to be somewhat inaccurate. In fact, I’d argue it’s a show that defies conventional categorization, despite sharing some surface level elements in storytelling and narration. Sure, there’s talking animals, interconnected stories and various narrators, and even some intentional misdirection, but Odd Taxi’s flavor of murder mystery isn’t so much a vehicle to weigh in on societal ills as it is a character examination of its quirky cast of down-on-their luck citizens who got mixed up with the wrong crowd.

To say anymore would be a disservice to the narrative, so I’d encourage you to check it out on your own time — as I’m sure I’ll be talking about in the not too distant future! Yet for all this focus on the show’s story and writing, I haven’t even addressed the oddest portion of this mix — the unlikely trio of OMSB, PUNPEE and VaVa who worked on the show’s music. Odd Taxi’s bizarre blend of everything from lo-fi and industrial sounds to hip hop and idol music broadcasts the range and talent brought in to bring this colorful night lit cityscape and its denizens to life. It’s the kind of score I can see myself pulling up on a busy day in the office or to add some background noise whenever I’m working on a more focused topic here on this blog.

Speaking of bizarre, the self-titled opening bearing the show’s name is its own animal defying conventional openings. Performed by singer-songwriter Skirt (Wataru Sawabe) and rap artist DJ PUNPEE, the duo’s unlikely pairing becomes even stranger in their four minute music video. Riding in a familiar taxi, the video takes a few narrative cues and visuals from the anime, letting on more than it seems at first glance. But even with no knowledge of those narrative winks, ODDTAXI’s handcrafted visuals in the anime’s opening combined with the artist’s easygoing vocals and tranquil beats make for one incredibly smooth listening experience.

(*jazz sounds go here*)

Song: Hoshi no Tabibito (Stellar Traveler)

Artist: Sayaka Senbongi, Yumiri Hanamori

Anime: Kageki Shoujo!!

Performing the ending theme as their respective characters Sarasa Watanabe and Ai Narata, Sayaka Senbongi (Mumei in Kabeneri of the Iron Fortress, Haru in Beastars) and Yumiri Hanamori (Kon in Kemono Jihen, Ryuji Ayukawa in Blue Period) deliver a captivating duet as their characters reach their coveted destination in the spotlight. Hoshi no Tabibito (Stellar Traveler) is emblematic of this in what I can only call a serenade of hopes and dreams. While I’m quite fond of the ending visuals, the shortened version only captures a small fragment of the full version’s symphony and the two leads more evocative moments in the song’s latter half.

At first, I thought it may be hyperbole to call this the best show of the season, but I can happily say I was proven wrong. There’s no better way to say this, so I’ll say it anyways — Kageki Shoujo!! is one hell of a performance.

Song: BOY

Artist: King Gnu

Anime: Ranking of Kings

There are only two possible choices here: you’re either watching Ranking of Kings or you’re not watching Ranking of Kings, and if you’re not watching, stop whatever you are doing right now and go watch it. It’s not very often a show manages to reach near critical acclaim within the short span of a few weeks, but Ranking of Kings is the rare kind of show that not only manages to live up its pedigree, it stands apart from many of its fantasy contemporaries this year — no doubt in part due to Studio Wit’s stunning animation and author Sōsuke Tōka’s unique storytelling. At a time when much of the industry has shifted away from traditional fantasy in favor of isekais and titles with overly complex names, it’s refreshing to see a show that bucks both of these trends, while delivering a provocative and heart-warming tale about a disabled prince who sets out on a journey of self-discovery. Though it pains me that it does not qualify for my annual AOTY awards coming up (it will conclude in 2022), I have very high hopes for the show in the future, with a possible script I am currently mulling over for some time next year.

A relative newcomer in the anisong department, King Gnu (Banana Fish) has been riding a wave of success with the recent Jujutsu Kaisen 0 having served as their most recent contribution. What’s interesting about “BOY,” like the show its covering, is how unorthodox it is both musically and thematically. If I had to make a direct comparison, the closest thing that comes to mind is Super Mario more than any traditional fantasy title I know of. Both of these series are fairly whimsical and lighthearted while also tapping into that nostalgia center of my brain with something uniquely personal — a calling card, if you will. Though the opening channels that classical folklore look and feel, the full song takes it a step further incorporating other instrumentation and beats coupled with the vocalist’s soft-spoken lyrics. As tongue-in-cheek as this will sound, I guess you could say it’s a song fit for a king.

Song: Kokotsu Labyrinth

Artist: Masaaki Endoh

Anime: Sakugan

Continuing the trend of shows I absolutely adored, the underground misadventures of Sakugan’s Gagumber and Memenpu quickly went up to the top of my radar after an impressive display in its first set of episodes. Although the story quickly loses some steam in its overall direction, its characters work and dynamic relationships elevate what would otherwise be a standard labyrinthine sci-fi story. It shares a bit of that special chemistry found in titles like Decadence and (of all things) Garo: Vanishing Line, and while its main plot doesn’t break new ground, it captures the sometimes messy and heartfelt moments of what it is like to be in a family. Sure, it can be a thankless job with too much unpaid overtime and never enough time for other things, but like Sakugan, it’s a rewarding one that I wouldn’t give up anytime soon.

Another artist best known for their associated musical acts, JAM Project’s Masaaki Endoh has been a frequent entry on The Anime Playlist (One Punch Man, Garo: Vanishing Line [see, I told you there was a connection!]), but this will be the first time I’ve featured the artist individually. Regardless, Kokotsu Labyrinth encompasses everything I’ve come to adore with each subsequent entry. High octane vocals and catchy lyrics, killer guitar work and Endoh’s own flair for showmanship, I dare anyone to listen to this and not have it stuck in your head for a period of time. On that note:

“NO MATTER WHAT THEY SAY! NO MATTER WHAT THEY SAY!”

Best Opening of 2021

Song: Paradise

Artist: Rude-α

Anime: SK8 the Infinity

Making both their second anisong contribution and another bombastic entry on my seasonal playlists, Rude-α returns with their first major opening for an anime. Trading the hot sands and abundant vegetation of Dr. Stone for the cool tricks and mean streets of SK8 the Infinity, Paradise is a rebellious banger of an opening befitting its subject. Opening with a mad tour of the area beneath the colorful backdrop of the city, Rude-α’s rhythmic vocals and beats complements the flashy visuals and character introductions. Day or night, SK8’s main theme runs wild, easily making it one of the best new openings of the season — and screw it, the year!

Best Ending of 2021

Song: Oz.

Artist: yama

Anime: Ranking of Kings

Not content to just dominate the top of my Fall list, Ranking of Kings’s ending theme earns the final slot of the playlist. I couldn’t find much info on yama, but her passionate performance rings clearly, even greater in the show’s overarching narrative. Episode 2, in particular, benefits greatly after a story of tragedy and redemption regarding a specific character that I won’t even name as doing so would be a great disservice. A musical ballad and a wonderful tribute to the storybook setting, Oz isn’t just the best anime ending of the season — it’s the best of the year.

There you have it, the 10 best anime songs of 2021. Apologies for the word and length discrepancies, I left these mostly unaltered from their original publications (some of these were written as a pair). If your favorite is not on here, check out my previous posts for their respective seasons below. There is a pretty good chance I covered it already or you can leave a nice comment, I suppose!

Dark Aether is a writer/contributor for TAY and AniTAY. You can check his previous writings on TAY2, Medium, or follow him on Twitter @TheGrimAether. Not Dead Yet.

The Anime Playlists of 2021:

AniTAY-Official

Everything Anime and Beyond