J-Pop queen Utada Hikaru experienced an international breakthrough on March 22, 2002 with the release of Disney’s "Kingdom Hearts" video game. She recorded her single "Hikari" in English as "Simple and Clean" for the soundtrack, which garnered global attention. Since 1999, the New York City-born singer-songwriter was moving albums by the millions in Japan, so next she set her sights on her other homeland, America. 2004’s Exodus marked her major label debut album written and sung in English under the mononym Utada. Five years later, her last Utada album followed, 2009’s This is the One. Both records were sadly overlooked in the U.S. market, but they left us with some great songs. Though she’s most known for her Japanese tunes, in honor of the 15th anniversary of "Simple and Clean," let’s revisit 10 of Utada’s best English-language tracks.
10. "Easy Breezy" – Exodus ’04 (2004)
Following an initial stab at the U.S. market with 1998’s Precious album under the name Cubic U, Hikaru returned as Utada in 2004 with "Easy Breezy." It’s her quirkiest release with a Nokia phone ringtone-like beat backing a sayonara to an ex. "You’re easy breezy and I’m Japanese-y" are still cringe-worthy lyrics, but it’s the sweet finale of "She’s got a new microphone" that made the song a bold break-up anthem.
9. "Fly Me to the Moon" – "Wait and See (Risk)" single (2000)
Hikaru covered the jazz standard "Fly Me to the Moon," once popularized by Frank Sinatra, in 2000 as a B-side on the "Wait and See (Risk)" single. Her version opened on a dreamy note before the R&B beats and strings kicked in, bringing "Moon" into the new millennium. There was a twinkle in Utada’s performance that perfectly captured the awestruck feeling of the song. It was a stunning rendition.
8. "Blow My Whistle" – Rush Hour 2 (2001)
For the soundtrack to 2001’s blockbuster sequel "Rush Hour 2," Hikaru worked with Pharrell Williams’ The Neptunes and rapper Foxy Brown on "Blow My Whistle." Williams and Chad Hugo supplied her with that sleek sound while Utada debated calling time-out on a relationship. Brown’s came through with guest verses that were pure fire. Hikaru held it down for Japan on their hip-hop collaboration.
7. "Sanctuary" – Kingdom Hearts II (2005)
After helping make "Kingdom Hearts" a success in 2002 with "Simple and Clean," Hikaru was invited back for the second installment. She recorded an English version of her 2005 hit "Passion" as "Sanctuary" for the video game soundtrack. Atop ethereal synths and militaristic drums, Utada led the charge into a love revolution. "Sanctuary" was another beautiful deep dive into "Kingdom Hearts."
6. "Come Back to Me" – This is the One (2009)
For her second major label album in English, Hikaru teamed up with Stargate, the duo behind hits by Beyoncé and Rihanna, for "Come Back to Me." Piano and R&B beats backed Utada’s emotional plea to rekindle things with a former flame. "Baby, come back to me / I’ll be everything you need," she sang in a soaring performance. Hikaru’s balladeer side was out in full force on this baby-come-back tune.
5. "Exodus ’04" – Exodus (2004)
Hikaru’s Exodus album was a crossover in every sense of the word: A crossover into the American music market and a literal crossover for a Japanese woman returning to her other homeland. Traditional Japanese music blended with an R&B edge was the soundscape for Utada’s ode to leaving familiarity behind for something foreign. The heartache and memories were masterfully time-stamped into "Exodus ’04."
4. "On and On" – This is the One (2009)
Hikaru shouted out her gay fans and those looking for a good time on This is the One standout "On and On." She co-wrote the club banger with producer Christopher "Tricky" Stewart (Mariah Carey, Britney Spears). Booming beats and a hypeman were Utada’s backdrop as she sang, "Intoxicated, emancipated, unapologetic is what I am today." It’s one of the fiercest and most fabulous moments in her discography.
3. "Devil Inside" – Exodus (2004)
As an Asian woman trying to break the states, Hikaru made herself known with "Devil Inside," which seemingly bucked the crippling model minority stereotype. Instead of appearing submissive, Utada unleashed this sexually-charged slice of electronica. "You don’t know ’cause you’re too busy reading labels / You’re missing all the action underneath my table," she advised. It was a hell of a dance track.
2. "Simple and Clean" – Kingdom Hearts (2002)
Hikaru’s international break came with inclusion of "Simple and Clean" (the English version of "Hikari") in Disney’s "Kingdom Hearts" video game. Galloping beats, sparking synths and Utada’s angelic performance made this ballad majestic, breathtaking and simply irresistible. "Hold me / Whatever lies beyond this morning is a little later on," she sang. Hikaru’s carpe diem anthem cleanly swept the globe.
1. "You Make Me Want to Be a Man" – Exodus (2004)
"You Make Me Want to Be a Man" remains Hikaru’s most personal, experimental and important single. Backed by glitch-y electronica, Utada vented frustrations about gender roles in her dissolving marriage to ex-husband Kazuaki Kiriya. "I really want to tell you something but I can’t / You make me want to be a man," she declared. Hikaru’s feminist message hit like a J-Pop-imbued force of nature.
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