The Haiku Project

[Follow the Haiku Project on Instagram for original haiku art in your feed every day.]

About two months ago, we were given an interesting assignment in my translation class.

Translate five poems homophonicallyentirely according to the sound. Pay no attention to the meaning. Simply try to replicate, as closely as you possibly can, the rhythm and rhyme, violence/softness, fastness/slowness, consonance/assonance of the original poem. I picked out three haikus by Matsuo Basho, and the results stunned me.

I didn’t think I did a particularly good job. However, examining haikus from this angle made me realize something.

Americans don’t have a very accurate picture of the Japanese haiku. We either think strictly of 5/7/5, or a super minimalistic poem, thanks to lots of translation like this:

夏草や 兵どもが 夢の跡

Natsukusa ya/ Tsuwamonodomo ga/ Yume no ato

Grasses in summer.

The warriors’ dreams

All that left.

Like, that is awful. It seems like a machine translation. In reality this is a very pretty-sounding poem, but English readers don’t realize that the 5/7/5 also entails a distinct, rather beautiful lilting rhythm, and that all haikus employ dozens of sonic effects. It made me realize. I think beyond 5/7/5 we have the impression of haikus as imagism, thanks to Orientalist poets like Ezra Pound and Kenneth Rexroth, but haikus also imply stories most of the time.

Japanese doesn’t use subjects like “I”, “he”, or “you” often, so many haikus can imply two or three different stories at the same time–but if you translate it directly, it’ll seem like there’s no story at all.

Thanks to that little homophonic haiku project, I stumbled upon a way to translate haikus that I think conveys more than just imagism, and that captures the sound and the story of any good haiku.

Let’s go through my process.

行春や 鳥啼き魚の 目は泪

Yukuharuya   Torinakio-ono         Mewanamida


The passing spring,

Bird-song and fish,

Flowing tears.

Okay, so we’ve got some nice images here. But in reality the flowing “oo” sound is dominant and juxtaposed with “ohs”, and contrasted with the many “ahs” of the final line. Not to mention the flatness of these three lines. “Spring”, “fish” ,and “tears” all end with your pitch going DOWN, which creates a dull impression of finality. Meanwhile the Japanese ends going UP, lilting, like a song. Let’s translate this entirely based on sound.

You cool sparrow, you

Old tree naked pool, oh no,

Me, nostalgia…

Great. Now we know what the poem actually sounds like. Repetitions of “ooh”, with drawn out final syllables at the end of each line to create a formal sense of “nostalgia”–a word that sounds almost exactly like 泪–we’ve got the flow of the original.

But I think we’ve lost too much of the meaning. So let’s modulate just a bit back without losing the rhythm we’ve established.

You song sparrow, you

naked fish and eye’s old tears.

Me, nostalgia…

Not bad. Could be better, but not bad. We’ve got most of the meaning, and most of the sound. Even though we’ve cut out “passing spring”, the Kigo-word that indicates what season the haiku-refers to, the sense of nostalgia instead becomes much more crystallized. We will always have to make sacrifices in translation, and I’m willing to sacrifice the direct meaning in order to convey the poetic sound-qualities of haikus.

But you may be asking…

What is this “Haiku Project”?

I’m so very glad you asked.

I’ve created an instagram account, the Haiku Project, haikuproject365 (yes, haikuproject was taken. I am angry). On this account I will post almost every day artistically arranged original translations of famous Japanese Haiku.

They will look like this:

Haiku1-2Then in the Instagram post description I will give all the proper creds to the offer, what season it refers to, and much more useful and snazzy information. AND THIS POSTING WILL GO ON FOR ONE MONTH, AT LEAST!

So do me a favor. Follow! Check it out! Get a poem in your feed every day. Maybe it’ll get you hype about the coming summer (or for those in New Haven, the recently arrived Spring), just a little bit.


SEASONS OF JAZZ [1]: The Journey Begins

Welcome, friends. Over the next several weeks, we’re going to begin a journey through the distinctly American art form known as Jazz, educating ourselves through a series of weekly Spotify playlists.

I’m going to explore the cultural origins, the musical innovations, and the social significance of five different movements (and five different 12-song Spotify playlists) of Jazz: Blues & Swing [Spring]; Bop [Summer]; The Avant Garde [Autumn]; Fusion and Latin Jazz [all four seasons]; and Jazz since 1980 [Winter].

It’s a route that will condense the most lush, quaint, and popular period of Jazz (roughly 1930-1950) while expanding on the most artistically dense (late 50s to early 70s), culturally expansive forms of Jazz, as well as allowing for a focus on what on earth has been happening in the world of Jazz over the past 40 years (spoiler: more than you might think!)

What qualifies me to write about this topic? I’m definitely not an expert. I studied Jazz piano for 8+ years, and have been a keen listener of Jazz since I started. However, I think the diversity and far-reaching influence of Jazz on American culture and pop music have been traditionally understated. Even though most of us think about Jazz as being an outdated art form, try remembering how often we encounter it in movies, restaurants, or on the street. Clearly something is sticking.

Over the next month or so, let’s figure out what, and let’s discover just how much jazz has to offer us.

This week, enjoy Jazz in 12 Songs.

As impossible as it is to condense jazz into the months of the year, I gave it a shot. By the end of this series, you’ll understand why each of these songs is included. By giving the playlist a quick listen, you will quickly come to realize a few things:

  1. Absurd stylistic diversity: Obviously Charlier Parker and Ella Fitzgerald are Jazz, but so is Robert Glapser’s record from just 5 years ago. One of the most popular and influential jazz records came out of Brazil. One of the main figures responsible for the revival of jazz in modern hip-hop came from Japan. In these 12 songs you’ll find at least 12 moods.
  2. Nonetheless, there is a pattern: This is gonna sound obvious but it’s important. Black men have been by and large responsible for most of the stylistic innovations and long-lasting compositions in Jazz, while many of the singers we remember have been Black women. Naturally, there is a reason for this. (This is not to ignore the stylistic and artistic contributions of women, which will also be explored)
  3. It can fit any mood: Feeling down? Just listen to Fats, Ella, Louis, or Frank. Want to have your mind torn into little tiny pieces? Try Coltrane, or Ornette Coleman, or Pharoah Sanders.
  4. Improvisation and composition go hand in hand: For every standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus pop Sinatra hit, there’s a precisely, maniacally arranged Duke Ellington big-band standard. And for every Ellington standard there’s an understated Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Andrew Hill, or Keith Jarrett tune that relies almost entirely on improvisation. And techniques for jazz improv as well as composition evolve remarkably from decade to decade. And that’s not just the instruments–that’s the singing too. Discovering the different techniques and relishing in every instrument improvising is one of the key steps to really enjoying and appreciating jazz.

So check out the playlist. Explore, in a 12-song flash in the pan, the world of jazz. Come back soon for SPRING: Blues & Swing, 1918-1948.

Hope to be seeing you all soon. Until them, jam out.


Jazz in 12 Songs

  1. Confirmation – Charlie Parker Quintet
  2. Afro Blue – Robert Glasper Experiment & Erykah Badu
  3. Ko-Ko – Duke Ellington
  4. Ain’t Misbehavin’ – Fats Waller
  5. Summertime -Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
  6. Monk’s Dream – Thelonious Monk
  7. The Sign – Nujabes & Pase Rock
  8. Spain – Chick Corea & Return to Forever
  9. Blue in Green – Miles Davis
  10. Corcovado – Joao Gilberto, Stan Getz, & Astrud Gilberto
  11. A Love Supreme, Pt. I – John Coltrane
  12. I’m Beginning to See the Light – Frank Sinatra

In New Haven, Why Can’t I See the Stars?

Goodbye, Stephen Hawking. You made us dream.

A cosmic tower on a hill that

penetrates infinity and keeps

the secrets of the mystic deep in dreaming states—

I sit besides its color,

white, atop a wooden bench,

and I see lavender and rushes

eat the stirring autumn wind and other dark

matter-objects. The sun is yellow and white,

Rigel is blue, and the Milky Way’s a monarch butterfly:

Hold it in your palm.

Feed from the same flower.

Drink from the dark-matter objects that push brighter, quicker things across the sky.


Imagine that our galaxies

are honey-bees, and flit between

colossus oaks near overgrown with roses.

And we, two photons, shot from the dark, alight

the amber on the wing and bound back out

with three times the speed and none of the color, radiant heat.

Before the wing

can close to catch

us we have burst out past the neck and traveled to the lone cloud in the sky.


There the two of us

might sit, dreaming of

the land we left below. We wonder if

there’s anything above the blue

that’s deeper than the sea,

and anything past the liquid of our eyes

that can catch a different source of light and ears

that can hear the other’s breath as light, as dark



When we climb the tower

where will we be?


He casts a shadow over me,

a king black eagle on the wing,

a hung flag smoldering, piercing the tongue.

Embarrassments of Translation

Ginga Tetsudo no Yoru, or as I translate it, Night on the Milky Way Railroad, is one of the most famous, significant, and enduring pieces of early 20th century Japanese literature by one of Japan’s most incredible authors. In it, Kenji Miyazawa walks the line between a child’s fantasy and a complex literary masterpiece with baffling dexterity. He is a commander of the human voice in all its startling range of emotion, an adept inventor of onomatopoeia, and a master juggler of Japanese folklore, western novels and fairy-tales, and Buddhist theology.

And yet the translations that we have–FOUR!, we have FOUR!–fail on many accounts to even hint towards his brilliance.

My title is a bit strong. “Embarrassments” goes too far. It would be more proper to say “Shames”, which would point towards the fact that it is simply a shame that an English reader cannot properly experience Miyazawa.

The premise of the story: Giovanni is a boy from a poor family in early 20th century Italy, plagued by bullies, with an ill mother and a father currently away on business. His only friend, Campanella, keeps him company and gives him sympathy and relief. One day, when Giovanni lies to rest on a hill, he hears the arrival of the Milky Way train to the stars, bound on a fantastic journey for the land of the dead. I’ll go ahead and stop there, and merely drop the hint that the end of the story is brutally sad.

So what goes wrong in translation?

A lot. Miyazawa uses stream-of-consciousness often to represent Giovanni’s thoughts, which few of the translators render in the English. But Miyazawa’s capacity for describing action is near unparalleled, and it’s one moment of description that I’m going to hone in on to describe what exactly an English reader misses in the average translation.

Context? It’s a moment of utter obliteration, of fantastic, transformative change–when Giovanni passes from ‘reality’ into ‘fantasy’, from the real world into the world of the Milky Way Railroad. Let’s take a look at the Japanese, a literal gloss by me, and two translations, one by Roger Pulvers (1991) and one by Sarah Strong (1996), neither of which are bad per se.  They’re just not good.


Then Giovanni saw the weather station pillar right behind him take on the vague shape of a triangular sign, flickering on and off like a firefly. When the blur in his eyes cleared, everything became clear and finely outlined, and the sign with its light soared straight up into the dense cobalt-blue field of the sky…


Giovanni noticed that the pillar of the weather wheel directly behind him had turned into a sort of hazy triangular marker. For a while he watched as it pulsed on and off like a firefly. It gradually grew more and more distinct until at last it stood tall and motionless against the deep steel-blue field of sky. 

Japanese and literal gloss:


soshite jiobani wa sugu ushiro no tenkiten no hashira ga itsuka

And then Giovanni right away the behind weather station wheel at some point


bonyari-shita sankakuhyou no katachi ni natte, shibaraku hotaru no yoh ni

with-vagueness-[sound-effect]-did triangular shape becoming, it at once like a firefly


pekapeka kietari tomotari shite iru no o mimashita.

twinkle-twinkle [sound-effect] turning off and lighting on and so on [it he] watched.


sore wa dandan hakkiri shite, tohtoh rin to ugokanai yoh ni nari, koi kohseishyoku

That bit-by-bit clearly [sound-effect] doing, at last not moving becoming, steel blue


no sora no nohara ni tachimashita.

sky’s field on [it] stood.

In the Japanese passage, sound is absolutely paramount. Not only does it clearly have repetitive qualities of consonance and assonance, but there are a number of onomatopoeia. So Miyazawa is not only inundating a reader with images but also sounds: the sound of fumbling indistinctness (bon-yari), the sound of a faint or dulled glitter (peka-peka), the sound of haziness becoming clarity in a flash (ha-kiri!). Miyazawa’s sonic manipulation defines the moment of Giovanni’s passage between two worlds.

Both Pulvers and Strong attempt to replicate this effect through visual fogginess becoming clarity, but the poetry of the scene is already down the drain. Pulvers accidentally stumbles towards a solution by using “flickering”, a verb charged with visual as well as sonic meaning in the English—but he would need to multiply this sensibility by three or four times before he approaches the sensation of the original.

Ezra Pound’s classification of poetry into melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia comes to mind. In the original, there’s a sort of melopoeia present, where the words are charged with sound that lends deeper symbolic and sensory meaning to the language. Rendered as phanopoeia (a casting of images), a reader sees Giovanni as a static observer of a faint, distant change, rather than a kid actively bombarded by the sensory overload that accompanies ascension into the fantasy of the Milky-Way Railroad.

It’s not that English can’t accomplish this effect. Far from it! In addition to our own onomotopoeia and plentiful literary techniques to incorporate sonic energy in prose, we’ve got also words that function doubly as auditory and visual words: crackle, spark, whip, and so on. Keeping some of these strategies things in mind, let’s attempt a sonically tuned translation.


And then Giovanni saw the weather station wheel right behind him at once turn into a murmuring triangular shape, glittering and flickering on, off and on like a firefly. Clarifying bit by bit and at long last clattering to a halt, it stood on the field of a steel-blue sky.

I try to do a few different things here.

One, I’m not adding concepts or ideas that aren’t in the original (like Pulvers’ blur in Giovanni’s eyes) and I’m sticking more or less to the original syntax.

Two, I’m attempting to replicate sonic and rhythmic effects. There’s a whimsicality in the original (~tari tari suru~ form, for anyone who knows Japanese) that I try to capture with the “on, off and on” rhythm. We get our sonic triangle sign, now faintly murmuring, glittering and flickering (which sound a bit similar), and then clattering. The point isn’t to replicate every sound in the Japanese, but to replicate the generation of auditory energy.

That’s what Miyazawa does brilliantly in the passage–engage all your senses and generate energy through sonic effects. You need to feel his prose in your body, not just in your head. That could be one definition of what poetry is–generative energy that affects the body. Surely my translation isn’t close to a true, faithful, and poetic rendition, but I’ve got my eye focused on the things that I believe matter beyond mere meaning.

You Love It, Don’t You?

You love it, don’t you?

The warmth of two hands wrapped around you tight. The fleeting touch of a finger on your trigger. The black smoke you exhale after a hard hit… It means so much to you, to have a hand holding onto you. Alone you are a stick of steel, but in his hands or in his mouth you rule his world and all others.

You want it.

You need it.

When you let your bullets come out of your mouth, peerless spheres, and his touch keeps you warm, and pale fire runs hot through your tongue, is it power that courses through your bone-cold spine—absolute power…

It’s addicting, isn’t it? It’s like a needle full of cane-sugar in the vein…

And the blood your bullets spill—it’s what makes you great. People spend hundreds, thousands of dollars on your steel feed, delectable copper bread and mouth-watering wax biscuits. They taste like human fingernails and teeth. Yes, when you open your mouth and feel the fire flow, the world is yours.

Whether he holds you loose in a quaking, trembling palm, or squeezes your guts with a murderer’s grip, you are Lord of not only his breathless, wild eyes and palpitating heart but also over many. You are powerless without him, but when he picks you up, you own this Earth.

Yes, you love it, don’t you? The blood they spill confirms your mastery… your power… Bullets one after another gurgle from your gaping mouth; you hound after flesh, you dream of pierced stomachs, and every ounce of you conspires to this aim with supreme efficiency. Your polished chamber, your supple trigger, your magazine that thrusts and slides as you eject scorched shells… once he pulls your trigger you can do no wrong.

You exhale. Coils of smoke rise over the bodies of dead children.

You Lord of America, you! You are the God they worship. They need your power and they grovel at your feet.

And you love it, don’t you?

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。

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$$


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Castle: Unrenovated, hella old, not even that stanky

Effect on your wallet: Surprisingly minimal

#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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


Before you eat: Looks OK

The moment you eat: It’s so GOOOOOOOOOOOD



#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 😦


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.


Sauces: Various and ideal

Flavors: Meaty and ideal

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