Week 15: Thank You | ありがとう

I almost couldn’t escape this country. Hokkaido tried to kill me multiple times, with the final attempt as a savage blizzard assaulting quaint Hakodate, exposed on three sides to the sea. In the floodlights you could see snow streaming sideways, passengers in hurried transit. Yet somehow, just 90 minutes late, a JAL flight landed in the midst of tempest. An hour later, it was my plane to Tokyo, ready to take off.

Hokkaido felt like a somewhat different animal from the rest of Japan. The scope of valleys, forests, mountains, and even the coursing flow of the ocean waves felt grander. A certain Japanese sensibility felt flimsier only in the mundane, practical architecture. The more interesting buildings had an international flair in Hakodate and Sapporo alike, and the snow-capped mountains by the sea beats just about any scenery I’ve witnessed to this point. I’m still angry at Hokkaido for making me miss about two flights and giving me a three-inch-radius bug bite on my thigh, but I’m going to go back some day. The skiing was excellent.

Hokkaido did, however, put me firmly back in the realm of tourist, which I hadn’t been for more than four months. I really did feel like a student living in Japan, for which all credit goes to CJS at Nanzan University and the Light Fellowship. Japan is a special place to me–I think Americans can learn a lot from its culture, history, arts, lifestyle, and manners. On the other hand, I know very well now that Japan is far from a perfect place. The education system, working culture, and political system are all deeply flawed. But to me there really is nothing else in the world like relaxing in an onsen, or walking through a zen garden, or enjoying Japanese hospitality and bottomless beverages at a nice restaurant.

But “Thank You” goes to the people, not the country. Thank you to Mr. Light and the Light Fellowship staff for letting me come back over here. Thanks to all the hard-workers at CJS for helping exchange students live in Japan legally with health insurance and all that important stuff. Huge shout-out to my Japanese teacher, Okada-sensei, who is a wonderful person and helped me improve my Japanese in countless ways. At YKK we also had four elderly Japanese managers of our dorm, who varied in their personal traits (cough cough @ strict af Yamada-san), but all were dedicated to helping us live in an enjoyable and convenient dorm.

And FRIENDS! STRANGERS! Why was everyone at Nanzan so nice? I thought Japanese people were supposed to be formal and impersonal! (I mean sometimes stuff was awkward, but, しょうがなない、ね?) I joined jazz club and jammed with a bunch of first-years who had never spoken to a foreigner before; Japanese students came every week to our class to help us practice and chat about fun topics; a girl named Mariko went out of her way to help me volunteer at an elementary school; Tam and Momo invited me to the club every weekend; Billie-Jack was always hosting cooking parties with delicious food where everyone was welcome; Asuha was always down for some Super Smash Bros; Keelan always had wine to share; Pia laughs like an evil Disney-witch at last turned good; Saho and Sayaka and Haruka and Yukimi were always bright faces to see at Stella at lunch time; the list goes on and on and on and on and… it simply doesn’t stop. To every single person: ありがとう。

To Japan: また、ね。

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The 40 Best Tracks of 2017

Co-written by Gersham Johnson

2017 was a year of confrontations. Some confrontations, to be sure, were red herrings. Did Cardi B confront and best the white supremacist heteropatriarchy, or did she simply write a banger? Did the new Taylor cut down the old Taylor with a katana in a bout of single combat? Did Ed Sheeran have sex one too many times?

In a year in which any sort of struggle towards equality seemed to have degraded into a trenched battle for the very survival of progressive ideals, we’ve often had to search for a silver lining. But only the best music of 2017 dealt with genuine confrontations: confrontations that change the way we think, that spark our creativity and momentum in our lives as well as in society.

Featured on the list, somewhat inevitably, is arguably the greatest artist of the decade: Kendrick Lamar. In his masterful album DAMN., K-Dot generates limitless confrontations: between fear and the self, between nurture and nature, between power and the oppressed, between free will and destiny. Every moment in the album forces a listener into a new perspective from which they can not just see but deeply feel confrontations that we all must face.

But Kendrick is just the tip of the iceberg of confrontations. Japanese producer and underground legend Cornelius returned to write pop music infused with loneliness and the confrontation between the individual and gnomon, the void where something used to be. Camila Cabello went solo from Fifth Harmony to juxtapose Havana and Atlanta, immersing a listener in cultural clashes. Moses Sumney released his first full-length album, a confrontation between a society obsessed with romantic love and an individual that cannot accept such a world.

In terms of genre and stylistic significance, “nu-R&B” rules the present as well as the future. SZA, Kelela, and Sampha delivered other-worldly vocal performances inspired by R&B but otherwise worked to shatter the genre as we know it.  Alternative rock acts like St. Vincent and Grizzly Bear applied the tools and techniques of hip-hop and electronic production, creating brilliant anthems that sound genuinely new.

Meanwhile, rap music’s influence has continued to push popular music further away from the Sheet Music Era of traditionally sung melodies with precisely chosen notes and intervals. Artists such as Oxbow, King Krule, and Gesu no Kiwami Otome have been able to craft great songs while rejecting even explicit rhythmic shapes in their “melodies,” bringing spoken-word into the mix with relative ease.

Perhaps there were few giant “consensus” albums this year because so few of the innovative artists were willing to embrace standard pop forms. Even Lorde, who is somehow vying for title of Queen of Pop despite lacking a single substantial 2017 chart hit, challenged our notions of what pre-choruses should do, how choruses should sound and what it looks like to write about romantic love in a pop song.

These songs toe the lines between music as pleasure and as art, between structural form and innovation, between lyrical familiarity and ingenuity. These are the 40 best tracks of 2017.

(Check out the Spotify playlist here)

Honorable Mentions:

“Pleasure” – Feist

“Attention” Bassline – Charlie Puth

“Fruitflies” – Gabriel Garzón-Montano

The word “shit” on “I Did Something Bad” – Taylor Swift

All of the words in the title of “All the Punks Are Domesticated” – Ron Gallo

Taylor York’s guitar on all of After Laughter – Paramore

 

#40: “Percolator” – Charly Bliss

Album: Guppy

Writers: Charly Bliss

Producers: Charly Bliss and Slick Johnson

Label: Barsuk

Though Taylor Swift managed a more financially successful heist in her “Getaway Car,” it’s Charly Bliss who invite you along for a ride to remember. Turning a few explosive metaphors into surgically precise melodicism, this is power punk at its most vital. The guitars and vocals can barely contain themselves before exploding into new hooks every few bars. If this is the sound of freedom going up in flames, you could scarcely imagine a more satisfying end.

#39: “The Evil Has Landed” – Queens of the Stone Age

Album: Villains

Writers: Queens of the Stone Age

Producer: Mark Ronson

Label: Matador

“Come close” approaches as an ominous drone before Queens of the Stone Age simply do what they do best: rock out. “The Evil Has Landed” is a Led Zeppelin ripoff of the best sort―rock grooves with over-the-top guitar and bass riffs, minimalist lyrics that are more atmosphere than message, and an epic bridge that launches into a musical world of its own. 2017 didn’t yield a lot of good rock music, but Queens of the Stone Age are undoubtedly among the best rockers in recent memory.

#38: “Havana” – Camila Cabello feat. Young Thug

Album: N/A

Writers: Camila Cabello, Starrah, Ali Tamposi, Brian Lee, Andrew Watt, Pharrell Williams, Young Thug, Frank Dukes and Louis Bell

Producer: Frank Dukes

Label: Epic/Syco

While “Despacito” is inarguably the most commercially successful of the Latin crossover smashes, “Havana” lays claim to being the most artistically successful. Havana and East Atlanta collide both musically and lyrically, as classic Cuban piano chords merge with dirty hip-hop sub-bass, percussion and of course Young Thug’s flow. There’s no big poetic message here, but like with “Despacito” the musical language speaks of a multi-cultural universality that we can all understand.

#37: “The Upper” – Oxbow

Album: Thin Black Duke

Writers: Oxbow

Producers: Joe Chiccarelli and Niko Wenner

Label: Hydra Head

Come for the great piano motif, horn section and overall chaos. Stay for the vocal performance, which defies the laws of music in its rejection of melody and rhythm and yet succeeds all the same. And recall a time when guitar-playing was genuinely able to strike fear into the hearts of millions. This is Oxbow’s seventh album, but their refusal to take musical styles on anyone else’s terms but their own is positively contemporary.

“The Upper” begins at 23:55.

#36: “Confessions Pt III” – BadBadNotGood feat. Colin Stetson

Album: N/A

Writers: BadBadNotGood

Producers: BadBadNotGood

Label: Innovative Leisure

“Confessions Pt III” features BadBadNotGood’s first real dive into experimental jazz. Always talented instrumentalists and creative arrangers, the 21st century jazz quartet finally uses their skills to create an utterly unique jazz soundscape. The swirling saxophone resembles planetary bodies orbiting each other in space, pulling on each other within an invisible cosmos across millions of miles. “Confessions Pt III” is this year’s best way to go somewhere you’ve never been before through music alone.

#35: “AMERIKKKAN IDOL” – Joey Bada$$

Album: ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$

Writers: Joey Bada$$, DJ Khalil, Sam Barsh, Dan Seeff and Chin Injeti

Producer: DJ Khalil

Label: Cinematic/Pro Era

Joey Bada$$ is one of the most promising young rappers, with dexterous flow, slick internal rhymes and word-play, a wide-range of emotion in his voice, and an uncompromising willingness to dive into sticky political issues. “AMERIKKKAN IDOL” has the boldest political message of the album, throwing out a furious criticism of the government and criminal justice system that verges on conspiratorial over some brooding, ominous funk. Realistically Bada$$ bites off more than he can chew with the cringey overtness of the lyrics. Still, someone needed to say “Fuck white supremacy” this year. For that we thank Joey.

#34: “No Halo” – Sorority Noise

Album: You’re Not as ____ as You Think

Writers: Sorority Noise

Producer: Mike Sapone

Label: Triple Crown

“Show, don’t tell,” all the English teachers say, and here Sorority Noise achieve their best execution of that idea, evoking the conditions and feelings of depression without recourse to explicit despair in words or music. The rush of rapid and droning sixteenth-note guitar trades off with a desperately half-shouted vocal as the lyrical focus shifts from images of self-neglect to the neglect of a friendship that ended in tragedy. “God called you to fulfill a vacancy/I tried to see why it wasn’t me” is about as heartbreaking as it gets, but the giant hooks and synergy of the band push forward to celebrate a life that could have been and a life that still can be.

#33: “Gwan” – Rostam

Album: Half-Light

Writers: Rostam Batmanglij and Ramesh Srivastava

Producer: Rostam Batmanglij

Label: Nonesuch

It feels a revelation to hear a pop song that feels so thoroughly “composed.” Cello lines twist and turn around each other down below, vocals move in contrapuntal lines high above, and a lone piano strikes out in the middle to define classically inclined chord progressions. Rostam already proved with Vampire Weekend that he was a musician’s songwriter, and now we know that he is a musician’s solo artist as well. Vocal presence aside, the music is as musical as ever.

#32: “勝手な青春劇” (A Selfish Youth Drama) – Gesu No Kiwami Otome

Album: Daruma Ringo

Writer: Enon Kawatani

Producer: Enon Kawatani

Label: Unborde

One of 2017’s rare innovations in indie rock kicks off with the year’s catchiest guitar lick highlighted by creative change-ups and a sticky, math-rock inflected solo, and concludes with mounting pressure on the concept of hedonistic youth that eventually caves in on itself. The most important lyric occurs in the transition towards the bridge: Kawatani sings “もう一回” (One more time). He doesn’t ask us if we want to redo our youth over again, but rather dares us to do so, regardless of how foolish it ultimately might be.

#31: “Call the Police” – LCD Soundsystem

Album: American Dream

Writer: James Murphy and Al Doyle

Producer: James Murphy

Label: Columbia/DFA

LCD Soundsystem capture a sense of recklessness and nostalgia like no other modern band. James Murphy’s crooning spirits each of us into our own most anxious, yearning, joyful moments with four-chord 1980’s grooves that warp into the positively triumphant. It’s easy to get lost in the pummeling bass and drums and want to scream along with Murphy: “Just CALL the police!” Just try to ruin this band’s fun. I dare you. You can’t.

#30: “Symmetry & Black Tar” – Thomas Abban

Album: A Sheik’s Legacy

Writer: Thomas Abban

Producer: Thomas Abban

Label: Deck Night

Thomas Abban is undoubtedly one of the most exciting new faces of 2017, a masked and tattooed guitar virtuoso equal parts gentle and poetic, fierce and grand. “Symmetry & Black Tar” combines all of these qualities into a single song, floating across rapid guitar licks and bare spaces of poetry before Abban fuses it all together into pure rock. His lyrics call back to the sparse, folk-influenced hymns of 1960s psychedelic rock, while his playing style conjures Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix in equal measure. “Symmetry & Black Tar” is the can’t-miss rock song of 2017.

“Symmetry & Black Tar” not available for free online streaming.

#29: “Brassy Sun” – S. Carey

Album: Hundred Acres

Writer: Sean Carey

Producers: Sean Carey, Zach Hanson and Chris Messina

Label: Jagjaguwar

A remarkably spare track that’s even more remarkable for its sheer beauty, “Brassy Sun” is itself a musical sunset. A gorgeously lithe keyboard progression that rolls and recedes like peaceful waves remains a near-constant source of light for the duration of the composition, save for a few moments of transitional dissonance that preface a fade-out into darkness. The atmospherics of the music perfectly mirror the lyrics, also incredibly bare but evocative of an intangible and restless nostalgia. A beautiful reflection on the past that points towards promises of more great things to come from S. Carey.

#28: “Better” – Kelela

Album: Take Me Apart

Writers: Kelela, Mocky and Romy Croft

Producers: Mocky, Bok Bok, Ariel Rechtshaid and Kwes

Label: Warp

Always the inventive songwriter, Kelela really shines when the production largely drops away, allowing her inspired melodies and vocal arrangements to build the story her lyrics sketch out. The dissolution of her relationship is a solo vocal line that floats reticently over an electric keyboard. Six months later they’re trying things again, and reconciliation is a haunting, building choir of harmonies that weave in and out of each other, refusing to fully cadence and signaling the pained incompatibility of irreconcilable differences. Industrial drums then clash and echo against the song’s most mechanical vocals, a concrete acceptance of failure in an astonishingly successful bridge. For Kelela, the music is the message, and we’ve received the memo loud and clear.

“Better” not available for free online streaming.

#27: “Rest” – Leif Vollebekk

Album: Twin Solitude

Writer: Leif Vollebekk

Producer: Leif Vollebekk

Label: Secret City

Rest, in both the everyday world and in the one crafted so delicately by Leif Vollebek, is a beautiful, fragile tension that is held together by solitude. In each verse Vollebekk turns the words “close my eyes” into a mini-religious cadence, ornamenting his lonely melody as the featherweight atmosphere he creates continues to swirl round and round him like an undiscovered galaxy. Each harp string and saxophone in his orbit withholds itself from the release that you know will hit like a giant wave—but then over eight minutes passes by and you’re still left rocking like a rowboat on a calm sea. This is the opposite of maximalist pop, but it’s not quite minimalism either. “Rest” paints the world in giant emotions that stretch all the way to the sky.

#26: “Variations on an Aria” – People Like You

Album: Verse

Writers: People Like You

Producer: Sai Boddupalli

Label: Topshelf

The best proof that horns have been the missing link in contemporary pop music. Just listen to the way the trumpet hugs the gorgeous vocal melody—and also listen to the way it subtly defines both the depth and warmth of the whole track. The music is indeed beautiful, but People Like You are also a band that can play with the best of them. So crisply are the lines executed that each cascading rhythm feels like its own instrument. This is a song just begging to be held close, in summer and winter months alike.

#25: “Till Death” – Japanese Breakfast

Album: Soft Sounds from Another Planet

Writer: Michelle Zauner

Producers: Craig Hendrix and Michelle Zauner

Label: Dead Oceans

Michelle Zauner infuses all of her work with just the right amount of self-aware sarcasm and irony. “Till Death” is no different: as Zauner explains, it’s a song about marriage. From that perspective, the song’s message progresses from entirely pessimistic to entirely optimistic: in spite of everything terrible in this world, in marriage she and her partner are in it together until the end. Japanese Breakfast is also among the best at crafting a uniquely gorgeous musical atmosphere. Zauner delivers simultaneously heavenly and abyssal orchestral beauty through a mere four chords, and that alone is enough to make “Till Death” a must-listen.

#24: “Czech One” – King Krule

Album: The Ooz

Writer: King Krule

Producers: King Krule and Dilip Harris

Label: True Panther/XL

King Krule is an artist who manages to defy conventional pop structures while simultaneously breathing new life into our most significant popular music genres. Jazz-inflected saxophone lines, bluesy piano runs and hip hop-styled keyboard loops come together to form an unclassifiable portrait of alienation and longing. Or is it a love song? Like in many of his songs, the object of his affection is a Third-Person “She” that isn’t defined by melodic verses and choruses but by rap-sung stream-of-consciousness observations. When he pivots from being “impaled forlorn/And thrown into a pile” to describing her eyes as the place “where tiny men have been absorbed/For questioning the sky,” any imagined boundaries—between love and longing, hack poetry and brilliant lyricism, pop music and everything else—dissolve before your eyes.

#23: “The Bus Song” – Jay Som

Album: Everybody Works

Writers: Jay Som

Producer: Jay Som

Labels: Double Denim/Polyvinyl

In a year where alternative rock has evolved towards electronic and hip-hop-inspired production, Jay Som sounds like throwback indie rock with catchy guitar chords, a dreamy chorus, upright piano, swelling horns, and shout-along moments. “The Bus Song” is a story told through one controlled moment—a song about a relationship within the context of a single bus ride. The specificity of a well-told story gives way to lyrics we can pocket and bring home, for a rainy day or a hot shower. Jay Som gives us a song that we can remember at the moment each of us needs something to sing.

#22: “Provider” – Frank Ocean

Album: N/A

Writer: Frank Ocean

Producers: Jarami, Caleb Laven & Vegyn

Label: Blonded

Frank Ocean continues to build his reputation as one of the best lyricists of his generation. Each and every line brings to light a dense array of gorgeous images, ingenious references, and myriad interpretations (try thinking about how much “Sleepin’ on my belly in a loop like a serpent/Talking Heads ripplin’ on the surface” manages to conjure in just two lines). Ocean croons over a skittering jazz-inflected experimental beat, stirring in insecurity and self-doubt in one of the year’s most innovative love songs.

#21: “911 / Mr. Lonely” – Tyler, the Creator

Album: Flower Boy

Writer: Tyler, the Creator, Frank Ocean and Raymond Calhoun

Producer: Tyler, the Creator

Label: Columbia

There’s something simultaneously quirky and disturbing about this medley: the combination of the sixteenth-step delay in the beat, the trippy synths, and the sharp shift between Tyler’s cavern-deep rapping voice and the nasally, airy singing. But for a song about desperation and loneliness, there’s so much that is pleasing to the ears. There are sunny chord progressions lacing the change-ups; vocal layering that walks the line between harmonies and frenzied chanting. Tyler embraces an under-discussed and under-emphasized topic, especially in rap music, and paints a vivid picture of loneliness and everything it entails.

#20: “ELEMENT.” – Kendrick Lamar

Album: DAMN.

Writers: Kendrick Lamar, Sounwave, James Blake and Ricci Riera

Producers: Sounwave, James Blake, Ricci Riera, Tae Beast and Bēkon

Label: Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment

Forget “Bodak Yellow,” this is the year’s best in hip hop braggadocio. Forget “HUMBLE.,” this is the year’s best sinner-saint dichotomy. And forget “XO Tour Llif3,” this is the year’s most relevant drum pattern. Put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this shit, ’cause it’s a crime that we’ve had to hear “DNA.” like ten times as much. But if you’d rather listen to “XXX.” (or maybe even “FEEL.”), we won’t complain.

#19: “Yellow” – Aminé

Album: Good for You

Writers: Aminé, Frank Dukes, Metro Boomin, Murda Beatz, Chester Hansen and Nelly

Producers: Frank Dukes, Metro Boomin and Murda Beatz

Label: CLBN

While so many of the year’s artists have used their music to express insecurities, heartbreak and other personal demons, Aminé is the rare musician who manages to sustain humor, major chords and an unrelenting sense of fun throughout a whole song. Nearly everything about “Yellow” is playful and in bright colors: the over-the-top synth riff, the light buzz of the electric keys and a lazy Sunday morning rap that references Krabby Patties and Cruella de Vil. This feeling of genuine exuberance makes “Yellow” a great party track, but what gives it depth are the subtle nods to overcoming hard times that Aminé places at the beginning of each verse, reminding us that even the most frivolous sense of happiness must be earned.

“Yellow” not available for free online streaming.

#18: “Sleepwalker” – Julie Byrne

Album: Not Even Happiness

Writer: Julie Byrne

Producer: Eric Littman

Label: Ba Da Ding/Basin Rock

Sometimes all an artist needs is a guitar and their voice to capture universal truths and listeners’ hearts in equal measure. Julie Byrne’s vocals and guitar-playing—both ethereal and precise and yet roughly-hewn—combine with astonishing forcefulness on lines like, “Before you, had I ever known love?” Byrne poses this admittedly well-worn but searching question near the beginning of the song, but the turning point from good songwriting to great occurs when she answers: “The one sense of permanence that I came to feel was mine/Only beneath your gaze.” “Sleepwalker” really speaks for itself: a simple soundscape serving up philosophy both profound and poetic.

#17: “New York” – St. Vincent

Album: Masseduction

Writer: St. Vincent

Producers: St. Vincent and Jack Antonoff

Label: Loma Vista

The greatest love song of the year is less a tribute to the Big Apple and more an instantly iconic distillation of all the love and heartbreak the city inspires into a series of slogan-ready, million-dollar lines worthy of a tourist’s T-shirt. Several of music’s biggest names have spent the past year lamenting the loss of our former heroes and idols, but when St. Vincent declares she’d still “do it all again” over a deceptively optimistic set of rising piano chords, she invites us to look beyond New York the Monolith to see the millions of beating hearts that make the city worth living and dying for.

#16: “How Far” – Tei Shi

Album: Crawl Space

Writers: Tei Shi and Gianluca Buccellati

Producer: Gianluca Buccellatti

Label: Downtown/Interscope

A rising star out of Argentina seems an unlikely candidate as the mastermind behind one of the year’s most entertaining jams. Tei Shi takes Tame Impala’s groove and stirs in a greater attention to melody and vocal delivery: her soft but soaring voice contrasts with the bottom-heavy brawl of funky instrumentation. Crawl Space is one of the year’s most enjoyable start-to-finish listens, but “How Far” stands above as a gem that can be listened to over and over again. It’s a song begging to be remixed and played at a club near you.

#15: “Up in Hudson” – Dirty Projectors

Album: Dirty Projectors

Writers: David Longstreth, Ewan MacColl, David Ginyard and Tyondai Braxton

Producers: David Longstreth and Tyondai Braxton

Label: Domino

An orchestral, swelling horn section. A complete tale of forged and fallen love. An extended percussive outro. “Up In Hudson” is the most ambitious work on Dave Longstreth’s 2017 project, and has all the makings of a musical epic. The story of his relationships mixes the banal (“Now I’m listening to Kanye on the Taconic Parkway riding fast”) with the brilliant (“Do the things that lovers do/Slightly domesticate the truth”) and the always admirable dose of Dirty Projectors’ experimental rhythms and sound effects. What makes “Up in Hudson” such a unique song is that the story is so fully crafted and honest that the resulting message verges on the brutal. In the song’s conclusion he reminds us over and over and over again: “Love will burn out/And love will just fade away.” But as he sings that moral over a dizzyingly optimistic melody, love still has a chance, at least in a listener’s mind.

#14: “Third of May / Odaigahara” – Fleet Foxes

Album: Crack-Up

Writer: Robin Pecknold

Producers: Robin Pecknold and Skyler Skjelset

Label: Nonesuch

“Third of May / Odaigahara” puts on display everything that makes Fleet Foxes a special band. The opening verses are babbling streams through a sunny day that turn upwards towards a vast sky in the chorus. The shift halfway through the song sends us over the edge of a waterfall, seizing a listener in a bone-chilling tempest. Fleet Foxes have pinpoint control over their own dynamics, rushing from a cavernous roar to a single drop of sound concentrated in Pecknold’s sigh. Like no other band, Fleet Foxes evokes the natural world in all its beauty as well as its sublime horror, as all their sounds seem to stand as symbols and keys to greater depths of human thought and feeling.

#13: “The Old Shade Tree” – Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau

Album: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau

Writers: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau

Producers: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau

Label: Nonesuch

What else is there to say? Two of the greatest living musicians fuse a folk atmosphere with pop sensibilities and a jazz playing style in one of the best instrumental performances of the year. Chris Thile’s soaring falsetto is only an accent on a masterful duet of at-once dueling and harmonizing piano and mandolin. Thile and Mehldau use primarily a single chord progression to orchestrate a stunning build-up of emotion, noise, and virtuosic flair. Six minutes will pass before you can exhale.

#12: “If You’re Here” – Cornelius

Album: Mellow Waves

Writers: Cornelius and Shintaro Sakamoto

Producer: Cornelius

Label: Warner Music Japan/Rostrum

Cornelius has always been a producer three steps ahead of the game. In the early ‘90s he was spinning his own modern twists on latin jazz and funk, and after a prolonged absence he comes back with an arrhythmic, sparse and thoroughly lonely love song. Cornelius plays with every production tool available to him, sending wiry shivers across his guitars and synths alike. But more importantly he does not forget the old tools of songwriting—evolving reprises, moody solos, key-changes, and a restrained vocal performance—even as he embraces the new. There’s nothing else that sounds quite like Cornelius now, although there undoubtedly will be if you check back this time next year.

#11: “Plastic 100ºC” – Sampha

Album: Process

Writer: Sampha

Producers: Sampha and Rodaidh McDonald

Label: Young Turks

There’s the mesmerizing melancholy of the chords, the sudden soulful vocal bursts that seem to come from the stratosphere, the other-worldly instrumental (featuring a gorgeous kora pattern) that seems to come from all directions at once, and a lyrical double-entendre equating fame and the isolation of outer space. If you were asked to give this amalgam a name, you’d have to call it “Plastic 100ºC,” the standout moment from the standout debut from Sampha. The song can seem almost overwhelming in the way that the vocals and instruments continue to thicken like mist throughout the song, scarcely lifting as gears imperceptibly shift from verse to chorus. The arpeggiated patterns evoke Johanna Warren, and the lyrical conceit recalls Bowie, but the bending of these elements—and their amplification amid a sea of other textures and vocals—results in a cohesive musical moment as unique as it is beautiful.

#10: “Strangest Thing” – The War on Drugs

Album: A Deeper Understanding

Writer: Adam Granduciel

Producer: Adam Granduciel

Label: Atlantic

Adam Granduciel is the latest in a lineage of Wall of Sound-obsessives that includes talents as diverse as Brian Wilson, My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and Bruce Springsteen. Granduciel’s work most frequently draws comparisons with the latter, but his genius has been to take the seeds of sorrow and introspection that lurk underneath some of The Boss’s biggest hits and construct entire monuments to them, using layers of guitars to suggest both space and constriction, distance and familiarity, frigidity and warmth. Each guitar seems processed to its own unique emotion: one axe punctures the soundscape with aggressive rock and roll swagger while another cries above the mix in one of the most memorable solos recorded this year. The lyrics speak of an unknown but shifting sense of loss, which may be Granduciel’s way of reminding us that fashioning a gigantic instrumental presence is only half the battle. The instruments must shift and move to remind us why they’re there in the first place, so that they may take us somewhere entirely new.

#9: “シアワセ林檎” (Happy Apple) – Gesu no Kiwami Otome

Album: Daruma Ringo

Writer: Enon Kawatani

Producer: Enon Kawatani

Label: Unborde

After a year of intense criticism in Japan following the exposure of Enon Kawatani’s extramarital affair with a well-known J-Pop idol, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he wishes he could simply leave his cares behind. As a result we get one of the most entertaining tracks of the year—breakneck pace, catchy chorus, singalong bridge, and rampaging solos all included. Kawatani’s rap-inflected style spits out bitter complaints before launching into dreamy idealism, backed by top-notch talent at guitar, piano and bass. At times Kawatani feels wistful to the point of satire, but the music speaks for itself—this is a song that grasps towards the joy of self-expression in times of trouble. And that’s what music is all about, isn’t it?

#8: “Three Rings” – Grizzly Bear

Album: Painted Ruins

Writers: Grizzly Bear

Producers: Chris Taylor

Label: RCA

Grizzly Bear’s music has always felt like an instructive class in songwriting and instrumentation, and this year’s Painted Ruins added “production” as a new subject at Grizzly Bear Academy. The lyrics are vague enough to conjure a sense of longing and broken-heartedness that perfectly aligns with the explosive drumming and haunted synths that form the basis of what is realistically one of the “pop” songs on the album. “Three Rings” stands out for its brilliant song structure: the vocal harmonies and sing-along chorus fade into a prolonged rhythmic jam with the ambience of swirling winds, lulling the listener into repose. Increasingly violent iterations of the established verse and chorus approach piece by piece with a sense of inevitably, until at once the listener is gripped violently by the throat as Droste shouts the final chorus under a thunderous, melting sky. Grizzly Bear fine-tunes every sound in the track to resounding beauty—the song is truly a master class in crafting musical atmosphere.

#7: “Supermodel” – SZA

Album: Ctrl

Writers: SZA, Pharrell Williams, Tyran Donaldson, Punch and Greg Landfair, Jr.

Producer: Scum

Label: Top Dawg Entertainment/RCA

Though she’d like say differently, SZA’s meteoric rise to pop stardom should come as no surprise. Her voice alone is one of the most unique sounds heard all year. It’s an instrument that in two words can shift from a full-throated and piercing clarity to an unpolished sneer, and in two lines can effortlessly scale an octave, dividing up the interval into subtle rhythmic shifts that move about like a breeze diverted. But “Supermodel” stands above the rest because of strong songwriting that marries a dissonance-drenched guitar progression with lyrics that traverse heartbreak, vengeance and insecurity. But again, it’s her voice that makes even the simplest of lines sound like profound poetry. Though comparisons to Amy Winehouse abound, one cannot help but recall the phrasing of Nina Simone—but seemingly by way of The Beatles’ “Michelle.” Three repetitions of “I need you” somehow manage to say as much as many of her peers’ entire songs. And her voice says even more than that.

#6: “Wreath” – Perfume Genius

Album: No Shape

Writer: Perfume Genius

Producer: Blake Mills

Label: Matador

No Shape finds Perfume Genius embracing spirituality completely on his own terms, and “Wreath” is the album’s greatest emotional and metaphysical release. He rejects all bodily definitions and limitations, declaring at the beginning of the track that “I wanna hover with no shape.” But it’s in the final moments of the song where he defines this declaration. The rising swell of synths, guitar, heartbeat-tuned kick drums and vocals that conclude the song—featuring wordless yodeling straight out of Kate Bush’s “The Big Sky”—move beyond words to a weightless and intangible spiritual climax that only music can provide. In this way, “Wreath” is also the answer to the questions that Bush herself raises on “Running Up That Hill”: perhaps changing bodies with another (or genders, or physical limitations, or anything else) is the only way of inhabiting another’s perspective, but it’s in the shared moments of spirituality that music can provide where we have the best chance at shedding our differences like an old skin.

#5: “Quarrel” – Moses Sumney

Album: Aromanticism

Writers: Moses Sumney, Cam O’bi and Paris Strother

Producers: Moses Sumney, Cam O’bi and Joshua Willing Halpern

Label: Jagjaguwar

“Quarrel” is a mind-bending jazz masterpiece. Sumney’s peerless, soaring falsetto spirits us across a starry soundscape of twisting bass, shimmering harp, and cavernous strings, which eventually devolves into a preposterous gut-twisting jam. Sumney’s Aromanticism features one of the most unique lyrical messages of 2017 as an album exploring the implausibility of romantic love according to society’s expectations. “Quarrel” hones in on the consequences of failing to live up to romantic ideals in relationships, following up “We cannot be lovers/As long as I am the Other” with a climactic fight expressed through expansive timbre and violent rhythm alone. He takes his message to another level by expressing it equally through the content of his lyrics, the texture of his voice, and his elegant song craft. Never before has a lover’s quarrel been more enjoyable.

#4: “The Louvre” – Lorde

Album: Melodrama

Writers: Lorde and Jack Antonoff

Producers: Lorde, Jack Antonoff, Flume and Malay

Label: Republic/Lava

Leave it to Lorde to pen the most cynical chorus for a love song this side of Bob Dylan. But the callousness is borne as much by the music as it is by the words. “Broadcast the boom boom boom boom and make ‘em all dance to it” sits jaggedly atop a marriage of undanceable percussive effects and unidentifiable vocal motifs, defying us to partake in the commodification of something that once may have been sacred. What results is simply the greatest “fuck you” to song structure in any pure “pop” song this year. And that’s not to mention the rest of the song: The musical climax occurs in the pre-chorus and the greatest line and album thesis statement is an aside from Verse 2, where it’s suggested that the tales of young love that she’s been trying to sell are in fact high art. And who knows? Maybe “high art” really is just a convincing lie we all agree to tell each other. In that case, the pop charts are just as worthy a source as any. Funny that Lorde now avoids them like the plague.

#3: “The Story of O.J.” – Jay-Z

Album: 4:44

Writers: Jay-Z, No I.D., Nina Simone, Gene Redd and Jimmy Crosby

Producers: No I.D. and Jay-Z

Label: Roc Nation/UMG

Good luck finding another chorus this year (or from most other years, for that matter) that can better encapsulate the history of classism and racism in America, using just six lines and rap’s most ubiquitous epithet. A master class in irony, “The Story of O.J.” juxtaposes this chorus with observations on how the oppressed and disadvantaged can turn capitalism to their advantage. The fact that he’s encouraging the exploitation of the very system that made writing that chorus necessary is not lost on him. In the final verse, he remarks on the exponential growth in monetary value he achieves from a nameless and authorless piece of artwork, reminding us over a chopped up sample of Nina Simone’s “Four Women” that even as we mine cultures and peoples for entertainment and monetary value, we can’t truly escape the messages or history that they transmit. And don’t let his tricky use of a Jewish stereotype fool you: Hov knows that, when living in a society that endlessly confronts us with a barrage of stereotypes and distortions, sometimes it pays to embrace the ones that can help you the most.

#2: “Dum Surfer” – King Krule

Album: The Ooz

Writer: King Krule

Producers: King Krule and Dilip Harris

Label: True Panther/XL

“Dum Surfer” is not a California surfer groove turned bad acid trip. It’s what happens when you go on that acid trip and end up bleeding, dead, and in a ditch. Rich musically and lyrically in its endless evocations of all five senses and beyond, with chaotic, spine-tingling production fine-tuned with imperfection like singed gossamer, Archy Marshall portrays an internal state of madness, a psychic struggle for survival in the oozing ecosystem of his own mind. Marshall seems to have taken a lesson out of the ambiguity of ancient Japanese and Chinese poetry, wherein a single word has multiple meanings, lending a single poem several completely different readings. Marshall mimics this technique using his inimitable, grating howl, creating overlaps like “dum surfer” with “don’t suffer,” and “we’re mashed” with “we’re matched.” King Krule treats his own voice not as vocals, not as another instrument, but as a mere sound effect, equivalent to ominously stirring background atmospheres, or falling rain. Ambiguity thrives and King Krule converses with himself, conscious and subconscious minds arguing with each other. He mashes a listener’s mind into a muck, a sonic state of horror, in the year’s most innovative track.

#1: “XXX.” – Kendrick Lamar feat. U2

Album: DAMN.

Writers: Kendrick Lamar, Mike Will Made It, DJ Dahi, Sounwave, Top Dawg and U2

Producers: Mike Will Made It, DJ Dahi, Sounwave, Top Dawg and Bēkon

Label: Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment

When the unfinished but implicitly understood question, “Can you help me understand?”, is raised in the opening seconds of “XXX,” Kendrick brings a listener into the desperate mindset appropriate to the most powerful track on the most important album of 2017. Kendrick leaves us craving answers in a constantly devolving chaos, transporting us from a race through hell bombarded by sirens into a dreamy, bass-studded groove, the picture of the American flag wrapped with explosives hanging in a haze. Kendrick hits a listener with personal and political image after idea after story, delivered with an almost unbelievable dexterity and tight control over his own flow. It’s an impeccable montage of issues (education, police brutality, the fear of death) and images (crucified Jesus, borders, reflections) condensed into 4 minutes flat. You could write an essay about this song, or a novel based off it, and the breadth of the world it evokes is suspended in perfect balance with the specificity of the song’s impact. The result? A throbbing urge, a wound numbed by opioids, to move into the future, and perhaps fix it.

Week 14- A Semester in Nagoya in Review

Last week I listed the top foods. This week it’s the top places. I’m talking the GO-TO places in Nagoya. I’m talking the DEFINITIVE list. It’s right here, folks. I’m talking, if you’re in Nagoya, this is your schedule. Take it or leave it.

Honorable Mention: An Aeon Near You

Aeon is more than a mall. It’s a place for friends and family. It’s a place to buy 64 Liter jugs of Jim Bean for 2000 yen. Come for the free samples and stay for the free wifi.

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Inferior Aeon: Aratama-bashi Aeon

Superior Aeon: Yagoto Aeon

Top 3 stores: Stationery store, pet store, 100 yen store

 

#10: Atsuta Shrine

One of the most important shrines in Japan, Atsuta Shrine affords a breath of nature in the city and a chance to experience primordial Japanese architecture.

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The sounds of the chiming bells: Rattly and yet somewhat moving

The sounds of the chirping birds: Notably moving

X-factor: A thousand year old cypress tree

 

#9: A Sento Near You

Sento (銭湯) is a local bath-house. It functions essentially the same way as an Onsen but the water doesn’t actually come from the deep bowels of the earth, which technically means there are fewer health benefits, but unless you’re some kind of Onsen-expert, you won’t be able to tell the difference.

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Ambience: Aesthetic

How it feels: Like heaven

X-factor: Hydration and electrolytes at the many vending machines

 

#8: Higashiyama Park

Featuring a tree-lined pond and the (for some reason) Japan-renowned Higashiayam Zoo, Higashiyama Park is the perfect place to take your Sunday stroll.

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Highlight: Sweet lizards at the zoo

Lowlight: The zoo animals are in small cages and therefore stressed out

X-factor: There are snack stands

 

#7: Hoshigaoka

Hoshigaoka is an atmospheric strip of stylish boutiques and restaurants just twenty minutes out from downtown.

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Ambience: Aesthetic af

Impact on your wallet: Considerably damaging

Added bonus: Western atmosphere if you’re home-sick

 

#6: Fushimi Park

Fushimi Park is itself a gorgeous and spacious park right in the center of Fushimi, a neighborhood famous for its museums and relaxing shopping and dining, a breath of fresh-air from the craze of Sakae.

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Coolest thing: Sandwiched between Art Museum and Science Museum

Lamest thing: The large fountain only occasionally shoots powerful jets

Weirdest thing: The high concentration of tropical plants

 

#5: ID Café

Arguably the best club for foreigners to go to in all of Japan, you can get in before 8:00 for free if you’re a girl and for 1000 yen as a guy. Do you want to be at a club that early? Of course you do. You can watch middle-aged men breakdance for a little bit and then surrender yourself to what inevitably will be an incredible night as young people gradually flux in. There are six floors featuring all different kinds of music.

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Crowd: Young, foreigner-friendly, and generally not-creepy

Bartenders: Willing to befriend you if you put in some effort

Best floors: Floor 1 from 7:00-9:00, Floor 3 from 9-11:00, Floor 6 from 11:00-1:00 (Saturday only)

 

#4: Oosu Kannon Arcade

Kimonos. Pizza. Spunky fashion. Maid-costumes. Kebabs. Used clothes. Collector-edition Bionicles. Used CDs, DVDs, and comic books. People walking around in cosplay and purple mohawks. Oosu Kannon is where you want to be.

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Deals: Excellent

Style: Straight-Up Ninja

Flair: Unmatched

 

#3: Inuyama

Inuyama is technically outside of Nagoya, but it only takes 40 minutes to get there by subway. This is your “ye-ole” Japanese experience in Nagoya, with a castle, amazing street food, and traditional crafts.

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Castle: Unrenovated, hella old, not even that stanky

Effect on your wallet: Surprisingly minimal

X-factor: SNACKS ON STICKS
#2: Sakae

Sakae is where you want to spend your Thursday-Saturday nights in Nagoya. It has it all: luxury department stores, bargain shopping, tiny back-alleys full of mom-and-pop restaurants, top-notch clubs, seedy bars, a six-floor Don Quixote, Book Off, and food from all around the world.

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Ambience: 21st century urban paradise

Top department stores: Maruzen and Mitsukoshi

Effect on your wallet: Astronomically disastrous

 

#1: Your Local Conbini

Well, it may be anticlimactic, but this is the most important place you will ever go in Nagoya, or all of Japan for that matter.

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Ambience: Just like true home

Products: Always exactly what you need

X-factor: ATM, hot coffee, and bathrooms

A Semester of Food in Review

My time in Nagoya is almost over. For the next two weeks I’ll start to go over some of my most memorable experiences here—this week food, and next week places. Feel free to take these lists as recommendations and inspiration in your own future Japanese travels, or just to get a little taste of abroad from home. Here is four months of Japanese food in review—the ten most delectable delicacies I have eaten while in Japan.

 

Honorable Mention: Ise Udon (¥400)

A local brand of udon wrapped in tofu skin and served in a delicious soy broth.

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Aesthetics: Pleasing

Originality: Mind-boggling

X-factor: A 90-yen side of shrimp cake in broth

 

#10: Fruit Parfait (¥700)

Japanese fruit parfaits are notoriously aesthetic.

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Fruit Variety: Surprisingly high

Fruit to cream ratio: Well-executed

Secret ingredient: Sneaky Japanese tea-bean-stuff

 

#9: Fancy Tofu Dinner (¥???)

When the Light Fellowship takes you out to dinner, you accept.

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Flavor: Subtle

Aesthetics: Wabi-sabi

Conceptual mystery: More plates -> more fun -> ??? -> profit

 

#8: Miso Katu (¥1300)

Nagoya is famous for its miso, and a local store hidden in a winding alley downtown delivered.

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Miso flavor: Spectacular

Pork quality: Seems to be no problem here

X-factor: A fluffy orange egg

 

#7: Soft-Serve Ice-Cream (¥300)

Japanese ice-cream is creamier than American ice-cream. ‘Nuff said.

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Iciness: Top-notch

Creaminess: Top-notch

Secret ingredient: A small crispy slice of bread

 

#6: Homemade Hot-Pot (¥400)

Buy packets of spicy sauce to prepare vast vats of hot-pot with friends. Add only the ingredients that you want to eat (more bean sprouts!). The possibilities are endless!

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Key flavor: Kimchi

Key ingredients: Bean sprouts, regular tofu, tofu skin, the circular tofu thingamabobs, the other kinds of tofu

Added Bonus: The pleasures of social interaction with other human beings

 

#5: Nagano Mushroom Soba (¥800)

Nagano’s soba noodles are renowned throughout Japan, and its best to eat them with their wonderful earthy cousin, the mushroom.

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Nagano soba relative to other soba: Tastier

Nagano mushrooms relative to other mushrooms: Mush tastier

Ambience: Rustic farmside mountain shack

 

#4: Adorable Omelet Rice-Curry (¥1200)

Japan can makes things cute like no other country, and believe it or not, this also applies to omelet rice.

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Omelet: Perfectly scrambled eggs

Rice: Chicken-chunked spiced-up rice

Secret ingredient: Symmetry

 

#3: Kajikken (¥700)

Welcome to the world of abura soba, ramen noodles prepared in pork fat.

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Before you eat: Looks OK

The moment you eat: It’s so GOOOOOOOOOOOD

Much later: SOOO GOOOOOOOOOOOOOD

 

#2: Unagi-Don (¥2200)

Boiled eel on rice is one of Japan’s most famous dishes, and with the ongoing eel shortage (for real), you best get in on this trend before all the eels are gone 😦

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The taste of unagi: Like good fish but buttery and gently charred

How much can you eat before getting sick: A little more than this much

Secret ingredient: A mysterious salty delicious fresh plump tomato as an appetizer

 

#1: Endless Yakiniku (¥3000)

It hurts me to rank something so expensive at number 1, but if the place is any decent, all-you-can-eat Japanese barbecue will send you straight to heaven.

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Sauces: Various and ideal

Flavors: Meaty and ideal

X-factor: You get to participate and cook your own meat!

Week 12- Food Review: Coco’s Curry

Tuesday is Coco’s night at the YKK dorm. Why exactly, I do not remember, but it has become a tradition for a group of guys to go to the local Irinaka branch of the Japan-chain Coco’s Curry on Tuesday. I went for the first time about ten days back, greatly excited because I love curry, and also because there undoubtedly was some reason behind all the love for the Irinaka Coco’s.

“What level are you gonna get?” my friend asked me. According to his explanation, at Coco’s you choose your spice factor from 1 -10. Given it’s Japan (things aren’t very spicy in Japan), I went for a seven, whereas two of my friends boldly went for the 10. The rest went for 一番甘い (sweetest and least spicy possible option).

Now, there are a lot of great things about Coco’s. The rice serving is decently sized, and they have a ton of different options for what you get to put on your curry- any kind of fried meat, hamburger with melted cheese inside, asparagus and tomato and spinach, potatoes and peppers, squid and sausage, shredded cheese. They also provide free honey-sauce to sweeten the load, and delicious daikon in enormous quantities. I go for the cheeseburger-asparagus-tomato combo, and everything is looking just dandy. Six of us at a table, joyfully chatting as the servers deliver fresh and steaming plates of brown pork curry and rice.

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It’s not fancy but it does the job.

Within five minutes, the scene is drastically changed.

Across from me, six-foot-five and looking extremely unhappy, is Kyle. He has eaten no more than 25% of his level 10, eyes watery, and his typically gentle voice is even softer, a scuttling mouse afraid of other mice.

Next to him is DiAndre. DiAndre ordered a level 8. Despite being well-adapted to the chile of his Arizona hometown, he has eaten just two bites and is as red as a strawberry.

Finally, next to me is Rob. Rob ordered level 10 and is furiously eating. He consumes squid and sausage and rice and curry and daikon, more machine than man. His eyes burn with passion (or is that his eyes have turned red?)! Far ahead of the rest of us, he’s eaten nearly half of his order. Suddenly he looks up at me. He says that he can’t feel his hands or arms. His body has gone numb.

Meanwhile, I am doubled over. Fire rages in my stomach as electric pins consume my tongue. I devour heaps of sweet daikon to quell the inferno. I hear the welling of blood circling through my body, rushing in and out of my ears. I have eaten five to six bites.

I turn to my curry. It innocently lays stilly in the white plate, wafting aromatic cumin towards me as if it were an ordinary meal and not the devil incarnate. Nevertheless, I raise my spoon to strike again. I deliver a 3:2 rice to curry ratio into my mouth.

In the midst of the ensuing quasar, I transcend to another plane.

All is peaceful here. White clouds drift through the sky like swans, and verdant, soft grass rolls out in waves beneath my feet. The sun sparks and in the brilliance of the glare I do believe I see a God unfurling there, a black thunderstorm descending on a valley.

Our friends order us milk.

I stop eating the curry.

The pain of Coco’s is neverending. For that I reward them four out of five stars. Coco’s has one purpose: to provide Japanese-style curry that is actually spicy. In this regard, they fulfill their own mission perfectly.

If you do go, simply order the normal level of spice. No need to modify it with this whole 1-10 thing. Just order the curry. It will be perfectly fine as it is.

This week’s photo gallery: Nagano Autumn Colors

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Week 11: A Short Story

Scroll down for English version.

静かな場所

アパートから10分歩いて、静かな場所を見つける。木が高いし、木の深紅な葉叢は普通な紅葉より日がささない。木漏れ日ほとんどない、その紅が厚いからな。なんといっても、暗く、静か、秘密のような場所だ。どこにあるかはっきりと言わない。

そこで精神を明るくする。空のように、雲が広がっては薄れて、結局風に溶かされて、青、あるいは白、残る。毎週来る。1、2、3時間までも座って、立って、残る。考えが1度も思いつかなければいい。時々そんな吉あるよ。

目くるめく冬に危なくなる。着くと、一人ではない。もう一人もう立っている、草深さの中に。知らない人でも、知っている感じ。表情は虚ろ。怖くて、静かな場所を逃げる。

二週間後、姉は電話する。何も言わなくて、静かな場所に戻る。姉の結婚式に行くことよく覚える。白い花束がテーブルに置かれた。それは一年間前だと思う。

その二週間の間に仕事を辞めて、アパートを引き払う。新しい場所欲しいかな。思いつくのは、なんで12月の始まりもそんなに寒いか。10月ずっとアタタカクテ、遅くまで留まる夏が息吹いたタイフウずっと暴れ狂っていた。子供の躁鬱。死んでいる人の意志。地球腹が立ったらかな。

頭が迷う。静かな場所に戻る。オジイさんまだいる。前に気づかなかった、お年寄りだったこと。私を分からない人、多分。全ての葉もう落ちた。その特有の紅からもろい茶色。前と同じ、あの人しか残っていない。草深さに立って、顔無表情、ノッペリ、スケルトン。「なんでそこに立ってるの?」と聞くより叫びたい。私のところを盗んだ。

あの夜、前に好きだなと思っていた人のところで寝る。ここまでまだ寝られるのはすごいよね。

次の日、戻る。何も昨日とキチンと同じだ。信じられない。信じたくない。いや、違う!ちょっとだけ変わってきた。これ分かっている。もう少し…なんていうのか…白い?かな。

次の日。夜で雪降った。早いな。静かな。でも木の高さで、雲の厚さで、雪はキラッとしなくて、シラッと眠っている。オジイさん動かなかった。肩で雪がシラッと眠っている。薄い髪でシラッと眠っている。お腹で、恐怖生まれる。ヒヤッとするお腹、シラッと眠る雪、ノッペリとする木、スケルトンとする高い木。明るくしない頭。人まだ動かない。何も動かない。

新しい気持ち。今、姉ちゃんが電話すると、嬉しいみたいな気持ちになるかな。

A Quiet Place

I find a quiet place ten minutes from my apartment. The trees are tall, and the dark red foliage obscures and shadows more so than average autumn leaves. Perhaps that’s because of the deepness of the red. Regardless, the place is dark and silent—it feels like a secret. I won’t say exactly where it is.

I go there, and my mind clears. Like the sky, where clouds expand and fade away, in the end dissolved by the wind. Blue remains, or maybe white. I sit, stand, and remain there for one, two, and three hours. If not even a single thought comes to mind, I consider the visit a success. Sometimes I have that kind of fortune.

The blinding winter is dangerously near. But this time, when I arrive, I am not alone. One other person stands in the middle of a clump of weeds and grass. Even though I do not know him, I feel like I do. His expression is blank. Frightened, I flee the quiet place.

Two weeks later, my sister calls me on the phone. I don’t tell her anything, and return to the quiet place. I remember well going to my sister’s wedding. There was a white bouquet of flowers placed on every table. I think that was one year ago.

In those two weeks, I quit my job and moved out of my apartment. I want a new place, I think. I think, why is it so cold, even in these very first days of December? It was warm all of October, unnaturally warm, kept warm by a summer that stayed until late and breathed out raging hurricanes. The mood swings of a child. The will of a dying man. The earth must be upset.

My mind wanders. I return to the quiet place. The old man is still there. I didn’t realize that before—that he was an old man, someone who wouldn’t understand me, most likely. All of the leaves have fallen. From that characteristic red to brittle brown. The one remaining presence, unchanged from before, is that person. Standing in the clump of weeds and grass, blank, expressionless, a skeleton. More than just asking I want to shout at him, “Why are you standing there?” He stole my quiet place.

That night, I sleep at the place of someone who I used to like. Isn’t it amazing that even now I can still sleep through the night?

The next day, I return. Everything is exactly the same as it was yesterday. I can hardly believe it. I don’t want to believe it. No—it’s changed—just a little. I understand that now. It’s a little more… how should I put it? White? Perhaps.

The next day. It snowed in the night. Early, isn’t it? It’s quiet here, isn’t it? But because of the height of the trees, the thickness of the clouds, the snow doesn’t glitter. It instead sleeps dully. The old man hasn’t moved. The snow sleeps on his shoulders, on the thin hair around his head. Fear stirs in my gut. Fear stirring in my gut, snow sleeping on the old man, the silent trees, the tall, silent, skeleton trees. My mind does not clear. The old man does not move. Nothing moves.

A new feeling. If my sister called me on the phone now, I’d like that, wouldn’t I?

Week 10: A Trip to Ise Shrine

Last weekend, I took a trip to the most sacred shrine in Japan, Ise Grand Shrine. Ise has existed in the same architectural form since time immemorial (or 4 BCE), enshrines the Sun Goddess Amaterasu in a mirror, and is rebuilt identically every 20 years.

This shrine comprises a unique and powerful a statement on history, culture, and identity. For two thousand years, adhering to an essentially primordial set of aesthetics, while the rest of the forest, river, and natural site remains undisturbed, one of two side-by-side plots of land has contained a shrine. Approaching modernism in the simplicity of its design, since photography of the shrine itself is permitted, I am unable to show you the pure white field of stones and the elevated, unfinished wooden structure with a thatched roof that comprises the most significant shrine in Japan.

Think about it for a moment. Out of the deepest bowels of history, something approaching 9 times the length of the history of the United States, people have been building the same shrine over and over again. It represents an act of preservation–preserving values, beliefs, rituals, aesthetics, and morals–through rebuilding and renewal. The original Japanese landscape and the 神 (Gods) present within, at Ise at least, have been maintained straight out of the prehistoric Jomon period.

I’ll post my photos from the trip below. The natural site feels pure to the point of sacredness, with a clarion river and trees as big as the redwoods of California.

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The river at Ise.

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Garden-side stone paved walkway to the entrance of the shrine. Past the first set of Torii gates, three more sets of gates remain.

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Just your average typical thousand-year old Ise tree.

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Shinto architecture.

 

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The entrance to the Inner Shrine. Last spot to take pictures. 

 

Other fun things about Ise: delicious seafood, a massive street of snacks and crafts just a few minutes away, close to the seaside, Onsen pearl baths, reasonable food prices, bordering on hundreds of square kilometers of pure and wild woods.

Week 9: Us Americans Really Like Conflict

Three weeks ago in my Japanese Literature class, we were talking about Mono no aware, an ancient Japanese aesthetic. It was a difficult concept for me to wrap my head around. According to mono no aware, the sparkling evanescent morning dew is of course beautiful, but more importantly, the bitter brevity of human existence symbolized by the dew is also beautiful. This is called 無常 (Mujou) in Japanese- transience, impermanence- and it’s undisputedly a good thing.

In an American perspective, the recognition that the bitter longing for the ephemeral is present in all facets of human existence, far from being important, is deemphasized. Americans tend to focus on optimism and permanence, and longing for the quickly vanished certainly isn’t seen as a positive in American culture. Still, this class left me wondering if, similar to mono no aware, in American culture there existed a similarly trait, commonly perceived as “negative/bad”, that we actually emphasize as an essential part of America.

Before coming to Japan, this thought did not so much as stir in me. But nowadays, I think I have an answer.

After leaving Literature class that day, I walked across campus to go to the gym. It was a clear day, so plenty of Nanzan students were out and about with their friends. While I looked around, something came to mind. I wondered, why was everyone wearing the same type of clothing and even carrying the same type of carefree attitude? If this was America, students would be wearing all sorts of clothes, but more so at a mere glance I could observe the stress, joy, contentedness, frustration, sadness, bitterness, and anxiety on a dozen different faces. If I had to put a label on the typical Japanese character, you could probably say that Japanese people are often so polite and friendly and inclined towards conformity that they work hard to hide their actual feelings and intentions. This “mask” might stem from a will to show consideration towards others, but can nevertheless be strongly felt in Japan.

America’s the opposite. I like to think about the movie The Breakfast Club. In The Breakfast Club you’ve got four characters: the cool jock, the stylish girl, the degenerate, and the smart nerd. Even though they’re completely different, by working together they’re able to help each other solve various personal problems. In fact, it’s exactly because they’re different that they’re able to help each other. A story like this is as American as apple pie.

In American culture, we of course put great emphasis on the individual. But more than that, I’m wondering if you could say that the conflict that arises between people that are different from one each other is necessarily a bad thing. After all, this conflict between different people ultimately leads to reconciliation and societal advancement in America–or at least its supposed to. For example, in America, it’s worse to have no opinion on politics than a poorly formed one, and you’re definitely doing worse for yourself in class by not taking at all than bullshitting a few points–self-assertiveness, especially if it leads to conflict–is by no means a bad thing. On the other hand, in Japan, you’ve got to preserve the wa, the harmony. And in order to preserve the wa, submissiveness and obedience are considered virtues, and an individual acting as the “lone wolf” is thought to inevitably bring about discord. (And what’s loved more than the lone wolf in American culture? Literally think about any movie.) In Japan, consideration and harmony are tops. In America, even if conflict results, individuality and self-assertion are essential. So I’m thinking… us Americans do really like conflict, don’t we?

I say this because nowadays, the heart of America is in conflict with itself. After Trump’s been elected, we’ve been forced to ask ourselves: is America a country for white people?– or a country for all people? But not just nowadays–since the civil rights movements and antiwar protests of the 1960s (and long, long before), up until the woman’s marches of 2017, it seems like we’ve always been fighting with each other.

It was only Japan that really made me realize this. After experiencing a country where harmony is emphasized to the point of inconvenience and sometimes stagnation, I recognized really how different American people are. In that way, when you first visit Japan, and see that it’s easily as developed as America, the cultural differences start off as disguised.

It’s a stretch, but I’m wondering if in the same way mono no aware is an essential part of Japanese culture, the benefit of conflict arising from difference is an essential and viewed as “good” in America.

Tomorrow, I go to Ise Shrine.

日本語の翻訳:

三週間前、日本文学の授業で、もののあわれについて話し合っていた。私のアメリカ人である自分にとって、不思議な概念だと思った。すぐ逃げる夜明けのちかちかする露が美しいのだけではなく、その露が象徴している人間の人生が短く、辛くても美しいという意味そうだ。この「無常」が悪いことではないというわけだ。

アメリカの立場から、そんな感じ方があり得ないほど珍しい。アメリカの価値観が楽天的どころか、辛さや悲しさや失いは全く良いことではない。それでも、アメリカの価値観で、もののあわれと同じような悲観的な大切だと考えられていることがあるのだろうか。

日本に来る前に、これは考えもしなかったけれども、最近、答えが身近ように感じている。

その日、文学の授業は終わってから、トレーニングルームに歩いて行った。天気が晴れていたから、学生さんの皆は喜んで友達と歩いていた。学生達を見ながら、考えを思いついた。なんで皆が同じような服を着て、同じような態度もありそうなのか、と思った。これはアメリカなら、学生達がまちまちな服装をして、一見すると色々な態度が見えるはずだ。日本の空気、雰囲気、日本人の性格について考えたら、どちらかといえば、日本人はそんなに丁寧、優しくて、本音や真意を隠すようにしているかと思う。

アメリカは逆だ。大切なアメリカの高校の映画について考えるとする、「ブレクフアストクラッブ」というの。登場人物が4人だ。一人はクールジョック、一人はシャレなビジン、一人はゲス、一人はカシコイオタク。一人一人が全然違っても、一緒に協力して自分の問題を解決するというストーリーだ。違うからこそ、相手に助けてくれることができるというストーリーだ。こんなストーリーは、英語でいえば、「アズ・アメリカン・アズ・アップルパイ!」、つまり、アメリカらしいことの辞書にある定義だと言えるだろう。

だから、もちろんアメリカで個人が大事だと考えられている。というより、悪いわけではないことは、人々の違いから来る対立ということではないだろうか。アメリカで政治的な意見、過激な意見でも、持っていないのは、「ダメ!」と思われて、授業で間違ってもたくさん話さなくてはいけないのだ。日本とは、逆じゃないのか。日本で、「和」を守るために、服従、忍従は美徳で、一匹狼は人間関係の摩擦を生みると思われているようだ。日本で、配慮、調和、立派だ。アメリカで対立や摩擦の結果があっても、シュタイセイ、ジュヒョウゲン、エッセンシャルだ。何と言っても、アメリカ人が対立が好きだと思っている。

言う理由は、最近、アメリカの心は自分と喧嘩していることだ。アメリカ人は特にトランプさんが大統領になってから、アメリカは白人の国なのか、皆の国なのか、ということについて考えさせられた。だが、それだけではなく、1960年代の公民権法から今年のウーマンパワーのプロテストまで、アメリカ人はズットズット自分とせめぎ合いがあるようだ。

気付かされたのは、日本。調和が重視されている国を経験しなければ、アメリカ人がそんなに人々の意見の違いが好きなのを気がつけない。こういう「対立が良い」ということは、もののあわれの「無情が良い」ということと同じだと言えないまでも、どちらの国でも普通に思われる悪いことは基本的に悪いことではない、と言えるではないだろうか。

Week 8: A Midterm Acrostic + Halloween Photo Gallery

Apparently Japan really likes Halloween, so in addition to Halloween festivities at school and downtown on the 31st there were celebrations going on all weekend. As a result I’ve got a nice little photo gallery that I will share at the bottom of the blog.

Meanwhile, it’s November 3, and I’m just over halfway through my time in Japan this fall. I’d love to share some general thoughts, experiences, observations, worries, and so on and so forth in a mid-point-reflection-blog-post-dealio but to make it more fun, let’s do an acrostic in a weird Japanese/English hybrid! I’ll name a Japanese word that starts with each English letter that explains fun/weird/intriguing stuff about my time here so far this semester. This will be fun.

Aアイデンティティー Identity, for which there isn’t a suitable translation in Japanese, and which I keenly feel as the lone Jew in the city of Nagoya

B美徳 Bitoku (Virtue) Traditional Japanese virtues include 我慢 (patience) and 服従 (obedience)

C地下鉄 Chikatetsu (Subway) The Nagoya subway is clean and beautiful but always costs at least $1.75

D男女別 Danjyobetsu (Separation by gender) Married women in Japan do an average of 25 hours of housework a week, as opposed to an average of 4 hours a week for men

Eエリック Eriku, my Japanese name, I think is pretty cute

FフロリダFlorida, Japanese texting slang for “Ima a bath now so brb”

G型 Gata (type or model) You can buy lunch boxes (bento) online that look like traditional Japanese dolls!

H配慮 Hairyo (Consideration for others), to be distinguished from 考慮, or internal pondering/consideration

I イギリス Igirisu (England) Two students in my Japanese class of 12 are from England

Jジャズセッション Jazz session, which I participate in everyone Wednesday and it’s the same as America but people don’t applaud after every solo (????!)

K紅葉 Kouyou (Fall colors) are just getting started here, and fingers crossed that they will last for two more weeks when I get to travel to the Japanese alps

L ラインLine, the messaging app that everyone uses in Japan

Mもののあわれ Mononoaware, a Japanese aesthetic that admires the beauty and tragedy of the transience of human existence

N握り Nigiri, little delicious snack triangles of sushi that everyone buys at the convenience store

O岡田先生 Okada-sensei (Prof. Okada), my excellent Japanese professor, who makes low-key brutal remarks in the gentlest, airiest, friendliest Japanese you will ever hear

Pペラペラ Perapera (speaking Japanese well), which I may or may not be able to do

R連想別 Rensoubetsu (separation by age) Shockingly, more Japanese young women under 30 want to be housewives than women between 30 and 60

Sスシロー Sushiro, a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant that I have now been to twice and eaten a combined 17 plates of sushi

T太鼓 Taiko, big-old traditional Japanese drums, which I’m playing in a flashmob for the upcoming school festival

U海髪 Ugo (seaweed) The image of the tides drawing seaweed in towards the shore and back out to sea represents lovers meeting in traditional Japanese poetry

V ビクター Victor, a Spanish exchange student and beautiful human being who is really 頑張って-ing (doing his best!) because upon arriving he could barely speak Japanese or English

W和 Wa (Peace, harmony, Japan) One key point about being a foreigner in Japan is to not disturb the wa, or Japanese-style orderly peacefulness

Yヤッホー! Yaho—!, a cute and casual way to say hello

Zざあざあ Zaza, pouring, typhoon-style rain that’s been hitting Nagoya once a week at least this autumn

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