they can’t kill us until they kill us

The last book I read in 2017, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, is also one of the best books I read in 2017… and probably one of the best I’ve read in the last few years, period. From the book’s jacket:

In an age of confusion, fear, and loss, Hanif Abdurraqib’s is a voice that matters. Whether he’s attending a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, or discussing public displays of affection at a Carly Rae Jepsen show, he writes with a poignancy and magnetism that resonates profoundly.

In essays that have been published by the New York Times, MTV, and Pitchfork, among others—along with original, previously unreleased essays—Abdurraqib uses music and culture as a lens through which to view our world, so that we might better understand ourselves, and in so doing proves himself a bellwether for our times.

Wow, you guys. Just wow. I couldn’t put it down and I didn’t want it to end. I extra love that I hadn’t heard anything about They Can’t Kill Us until I randomly saw it at my favorite bookstore and bought it on a whim in November. This collection is full of moving, insightful observations about life, culture, society, and more that touched me deeply. I identified with how clearly and specifically music has impacted Abdurraqib’s life, because it has for me, even if our tastes and the music that shaped us growing up (for me the ’90s, he writes here mostly about ’00s) are slightly different. Doesn’t matter, I’m always down to read and learn about music and life experiences outside of my own experience and comfort zone.

Abdurraqib’s essays use the music fan/listener experience as the impetus to discuss a variety of issues, not least of all is racism in America, of which he has a unique perspective as a black Muslim man. These essays aren’t strictly about politics, religion, and race, though. He also goes into depth on loneliness, grief, loss, and even hope with his own personal stories as examples, like the deaths of his close friends and his mother. And then there’s the writing. Abdurraqib is a poet, and while there aren’t any poems in the traditional sense in this collection, his prose reflects his poetic style:

The world is undoing itself & I must tend to my vast & growing field of fears. In this new country, a nightmare is nothing but a brief rental home for the mind to ransack & leave the sleeping body unharmed. (139, “There Is The Picture Of Michael Jackson Kissing Whitney Houston On The Cheek”)

But our best work is the work of ourselves, our bodies and the people who want us to keep pushing, even if the days are long and miserable and even if there are moments when the wrong side of the bridge beckons you close. (77, “Brief Notes on Staying // No One Is Making Their Best Work When They Want To Die”)

Nina Simone rode away on the troubled ocean, standing on the deck of a black ship, looking back while a whole country burned, swallowing itself. (198, “Nina Simone Was Very Black”)

There are so many pieces I loved in They Can’t Kill Us. The ones that resonated the most with me were those on grief, creativity, heartbreak, and striving for optimism. The ones I learned from most were those of his perspective on racism and religion. The one about Allen Iverson’s crossover hit on Michael Jordan was brilliant, as were so many others. I think if I have one tiny criticism, it’s that I wish there had been more women artists present… the music he filters his topics through is mostly rap and punk, which are, of course, still male dominated genres. Even so, They Can’t Kill Us a near-perfect book. It reminded me a lot of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Read those, and read this.

Read in December 2017.

mini-reviews: ending things, fever dream, white tears, vegetarian

I’m getting more into weird fiction. I love strange, mind-bending stories that have the power to shock me and make me think about them hours (days, weeks) after finishing. I still have quite a lot of wonder to me and an overactive imagination, so OMG twists in books usually manage to surprise me! In 2016 and 2017 I read these four unusual, dark books:

I put Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things on hold before I saw mixed reviews, so I didn’t have high expectations when it finally came through for me from the library. But wow, what a mind fuck! A young couple visit the man’s parents at their rural farmhouse for dinner one night, and the girlfriend is internally ruminating on their relationship and how she might end it soon. Things get progressively creepier and more odd during dinner. On the way home, they are stalled by a snowstorm and end up at a local high school to wait it out… no spoilers! Reid does an effective job creating a menacing atmosphere, and building tension that releases only at the very end. I thought it was a great, short psychological horror! [Read ebook in December 2016.]

Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream was getting tons of raves this year, but unfortunately for me it didn’t quite live up to the hype… but I think maybe it was me—I had a hard time following exactly what was happening, especially towards the end, listening on audiobook. A woman wakes up in a hospital bed with a young boy beside her, and he urges her to recount how she ended up there, what happened to her daughter, and a day she spent with his mother. The boy pushes her to stay focused on what’s important as she searches her memory. “Fever Dream” is a perfect title; it’s surreal and unsettling with a palpable sense of dread and I really, really wish I had been able to get into it. I think maybe in 2018 I’ll try it on paper or ebook. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

Two young men meet in college and bond over their shared love of music and records in Hari Kunzru’s White Tears. One of them explores New York City recording sounds, and one day encounters a blues song being sung by a man playing chess in the park. He and his friend “authenticate” the song, making it sound vintage, give the “artist” a fake name, and list it on record collecting websites. A veteran collector meets up with them and insists the song and singer are real, and at this point the story takes a dark turn sending the boys on a disorienting and disturbing journey to discover the truth. It has some mixed reviews—people either love or hate the new direction in the second half—but I thought it was a good, thought-provoking book on a number of issues including race, privilege, and cultural appropriation and exploitation. Plus a little bit of supernatural mystery/thriller thrown in. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I read this interesting, short book over the course of one day. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is eerie, sad, provocative, and Kafkaesque. Yeong-hye and her husband live a normal, uneventful life. But one day she starts having dark, violent, gory thoughts and nightmares and decides to stop eating meat. After this decision, Yeong-hye’s sanity starts a descent into madness, where she wants to become one with plant life and transition into being a tree. The story is told from three perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband, sister, and brother-in-law. We never actually have an inside glimpse into Yeong-hye’s interior thoughts. The blurb says it’s an allegory for modern-day South Korea… but I admit I can’t speak to that accuracy as I’m not familiar with the country’s social and cultural state at the moment. However, my interpretation of Yeong-hye’s decision to take control of her body on her own terms and the negative, sometimes hostile reactions to her decision from men (and women) in her life smack of the infuriating social construct of beauty standards and the archaic “woman’s place” in patriarchal society. I guess there were issues with the translation from Korean, and I’m not quite sure how to feel about that because it was an impactful and interesting story for me in English anyway. [Read in September 2016.]

favorite albums of 2017

2017 was not a great year. Even though I had some good times, overall it was tough, for myriad reasons that this post is not about. Music, however, is always there for us, something we can always count on to soothe, evoke, and inspire in good and bad times. I was nervous about being in Singapore without my turntable and losing my interest in seeking out new music but luckily that didn’t happen. I know a few of these albums were released in late 2016, but I listened to them a lot this year and it’s my list! It was hard selecting favorite tracks, which can and do change all the time, but I liked challenging myself to choose for the purpose of this list. Here are my favorite albums released (mostly) in 2017, in order by release date:

***Links on album titles take you to the full album stream on Youtube, Bandcamp, or Soundcloud. All these links go to videos or posts uploaded by the artist or their record label. If you like it, buy it! 🙂

Soul Jazz Fridays … Chris Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7
Funky as shit, son. Reminiscent of old-school 1960s–70s soul; it really transports you to that musical era thanks to Hazelton’s phenomenal jazz organ playing and his stellar crew. Bonus: Kansas City! Listening to this makes me feel like I’m at the Green Lady. I really wish I had this on vinyl. Favorite track: “Theme for Theo

• Darkness and Light … John Legend
Smooth and groovy as usual. Legend’s not necessarily the most adventuresome artist, but I’ve been hooked since Get Lifted and his music almost never lets me down. Favorite tracks: “Love Me Now, “Surefire

Run the Jewels 3 … Run the Jewels
RTJ’s third album straddles a line between rage and humor, with commentary on politics, somewhat archaic pop references, and sex jokes. That seems like it wouldn’t work, but Killer Mike and El-P play off each other lyrically so well and the hooks are so memorable that it weirdly does. Great guest spots by Zack de la Rocha and Kamasi Washington. Favorite track: “Down

Fin … Syd
A simultaneously cool and hot, sensual neosoul debut dripping with pleasure and confidence. Syd’s songs here convey the affections of one woman for another, and it’s awesome. Favorite track: “Smile More,” “Got Her Own

Drunk … Thundercat
The whole thing is a genre-defying, idiosyncratic masterpiece. I’m pretty convinced Thundercat is from another planet—this technicolor music seems to exist on another plane and follow zero rules, and I love it. DYING to see him perform live. Favorite tracks: “Uh Oh, “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)

The Mood … Maurice Brown
I found this album randomly on Youtube and kept coming back to it for weeks, finally bought it, and discovered my friend Solomon is the bassist! Brown’s album is a seamless fusion of jazz, blues, and hip hop with impeccable melodic phrasing throughout memorable, soulful tunes. I love the guest appearance by Talib Kweli. Favorite track: “On My Way Home

• DAMN.Kendrick Lamar
Despite declaring “I’m not a politician, I’m not ’bout religion” (“Yah”), this is deeply political, theological, and intimate. It’s scathing critique of conservative news media and racism in America; philosophical and personal; contradictory, conflicted, and complex. The double-play concept is genius. Favorite tracks: “FEEL.,” “LUST.,” “LOVE.,” “FEAR.”

Made in America … Bobby Watson
This makes me feel like I’m home in Kansas City. I love the theme of paying tribute to notable black Americans from history, some well known and some obscure. You know it’ll be good, too, when he collaborates with Curtis Lundy, Lewis Nash, and Stephen Scott. Bobby’s such a gifted composer, and every time I listen to his solos I hear something new. I feel privileged to count Bobby as a friend! Favorite tracks: “The G.O.A.T. (for Sammy Davis, Jr.),” “The Entrepreneur (for Madam C.J. Walker),” “The Real Lone Ranger (for Bass Reeves)”

Voyager … Moonchild
Dreamy, laid-back neosoul in the vein of Sade and even Stevie Wonder. Maybe not the most original music out there or here on my list, but I still played this album a lot when I needed to chill out. Favorite track: “Cure

Live at High Noon … Phat Phunktion
Another great live album on my list! I love all these classic Phat tunes. Live albums can be tricky, but this one manages to make you feel like you were there at the show. It brings up great memories from back home in Madison when I listen to it. Seeing them play live again last month during my visit home was a major highlight of the trip. Favorite tracks: “Untitled (Weekend Special), “Miss Madison

• Binary … Ani DiFranco
Ani’s music is always wise, inspiring, and on point. I’ve enjoyed her more mellow approach to sharing her political and humanitarian messaging in her music the last several years, and this album is no exception. Her signature funk-soul-folk style is here serving as foundation for topics like reproductive rights, nonviolence, and empathy. Maceo Parker and Justin Vernon have welcome supporting cameos. Favorite track: “Play God

Ctrl … SZA
SEXY AF, holy shit. Love and sex and relationships are amazing and messy and complicated. So is feeling like an adult (or not) and sexual freedom and dating in the modern age. Expectations vs. perceptions. Damn. This is a stunning album. Favorite tracks: “Love Galore, “The Weekend,” “Broken Clocks

The Nashville Sound … Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Thanks to Isbell’s deft songwriting on relatable subjects that are both introspective and turn a critical eye on society, this is just the kind of Americana/country rock that hits me right in the feels. I need a whiskey and a good cry after a couple of these songs. Favorite tracks: “Tupelo,” “If We Were Vampires

• 4:44 … Jay-Z
Jay-Z’s response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade (my #1 favorite album from 2016) is perfection and perfectly complementary. His humility and maturity here are revelations, not to mention his sharp commentary on our current sociopolitical and cultural realities. Favorite tracks: “Kill Jay Z,” “The Story of O.J.,” “Family Feud

Royal Mint … The Cash Box Kings
What can I say, I’m a sucker for my hometown bands. The original tunes here are especially good and timely, even cheeky at times. Oscar Wilson (vocals) and Joe Nosek (harp and vocals) are a dynamic pair, backed by several excellent local musicians from Madison and Chicago, including Joel Paterson, Al Falaschi, Alex Hall, Mark Haines, and Mel Ford, among others. Favorite tracks: “Build That Wall,” “Blues for Chi-Raq

• Southern Blood … Gregg Allman
I cried the first time I heard “My Only True Friend,” a meditation on life on the road and mortality written from the perspective of Allman’s late brother, Duane. This isn’t all about death, however. There are several covers due to Gregg’s health, but they’re selected in a way that are meaningful and reflective of his life and experiences. What a poignant, soulful final album for his fans and the world. RIP to a true master. Favorite track: “My Only True Friend

• Masseduction … St. Vincent
Hot hot hot HOT. Her guitar work is not as prominent here as usual—more textural than lead—but the album is full of bold, forward, and personal lyrics on top of awesome, catchy beats. This was solidly on repeat for a long time right after I got it. Favorite tracks: “Hang On Me,” “Masseduction,” “Los Ageless

Soul of a Woman … Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
I was in love with Sharon Jones’s music the moment I first heard it. Vintage-sounding soul at its finest thanks to Sharon’s singular voice, which retains its strength and personality on Soul of a Woman despite her cancer treatments during recording. I feel so fortunate to have seen her perform in Kansas City in 2016. I still can’t believe this is her final album. Rest in power, Queen. Favorite tracks: “Matter of Time,” “Pass Me By,” “Call On God

If All I Was Was Black … Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples is angry about the political unrest and racial climate in our country right now, but her delivery of these songs (by Jeff Tweedy) is patient, compassionate, dignified, and even hopeful. Favorite tracks: “If All I Was Was Black,” “We Go High

Hi-Fi Christmas Guitar … Joel Paterson
I can’t believe I have a holiday album on here. Joel is magical and turns everything he’s involved with to gold. His meticulousness in overdubbing so many flawless guitar parts on each track is staggering to me. Super fresh take on old classics. Favorite tracks: “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Christmas Time is Here”

Honorable Mentions from 2017 (alpha by artist):
Pikes 244–273 … Buckethead
Vignettes … Damu the Fudgemunk
Big Fish Theory … Vince Staples
Far from Over … Vijay Iyer Sextet
Harmony of Difference … Kamasi Washington
One Room Blues … Oscar Wilson

Honorable Mention “Hangovers” from 2016 (alpha by artist):
Coloring Book … Chance the Rapper
“Awaken, My Love!” … Childish Gambino
Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth … Charlie Hunter
Become Zero … Helen Money
The Olympians … The Olympians
Periphery III: Select Difficulty … Periphery

reading recap: september 2017

This year, I swear. I can’t believe it’s October already. In September I read 10 books. (Bear with me while I figure out a new collage system for these posts, the program I was using doesn’t work for me anymore!)

  • ZeroZeroZero (audio) … Roberto Saviano, read by Paul Michael
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies (audio) … John Boyne, read by Stephen Hogan
  • The Butcher (audio) … Philip Carlo, read by Dick Hill
  • Pandemic (audio) … Sonia Shah, read by author
  • Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows … Balli Kaur Jaswal
  • Kill ‘Em and Leave (audio) … James McBride, read by Dominic Hoffman
  • The Bell Jar (audio) … Sylvia Plath, read by Maggie Gyllenhaal
  • Made for Love (audio) … Alissa Nutting, read by Suzanne Elise Freeman
  • The Child Finder (audio) … Rene Denfield, read by Alyssa Bresnahan
  • What Happened … Hillary Rodham Clinton

Still almost everything on audio… I would like to change that starting this month. I was pleased though to read five books published in 2017, plus one classic, plus a couple related to music and the mafia (it’s been a long time!). I’m happy to be in a good routine again with posting short reviews here. I still have a long way to go to catch up but I think if I can keep up this pace and on a schedule I’ll be back on track by the new year.

My favorite non-fiction books I read in September were What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s new memoir about the election, and ZeroZeroZero, Roberto Saviano’s 2013 sophomore book exposing the global cocaine trafficking industry. My favorite fictions were The Heart’s Invisible Furies, my first Boyne, and Made for Love by Alissa Nutting, which was my 75th book read of the year, meeting my Goodreads goal and marking a personal record. Reviews on those coming soon!

I also finished two drawings and got ridiculously excited for football season and my Green Bay Packers during September. All in all though, it was a pretty mellow month. I’m glad it’s October even though I don’t get “fall” here in Singapore. I’m looking forward to seeing Dream Theater in concert next week and watching a ton of scary movies all month!

monthly recap image

mini-reviews: kill ’em and leave and metallica: back to the front

As a musician I always have my eye out for great books on music and other musicians, and two books I read this year on the subject did not disappoint.

I’ve had James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave on my radar ever since it came out last year, and finally decided to get to it this month. It wasn’t a typical biography, and I would have liked more about Brown’s experiences touring and more from/about some of his personal relationships, but this is a great book outlining James Brown as a real man. McBride doesn’t sugarcoat Brown’s flaws, but drives the point home how Brown was a powerful influence on generations of Black Americans and musicians. There was more of McBride present than I expected (he complains about his own divorce as the impetus to taking on this writing project, for example), but it bothered me less as I got further into the book. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2017.]

I read Metallica: Back to the Front by Matt Taylor to get myself amped for Metallica’s January concert here in Singapore, which was amazing and just what I needed at that time. I waited in line for eight hours and got a spot right up front close to the stage. I moshed for the first time in probably 20 years (still got it!) and was sore for three days afterwards. Anyway! This book is definitely a must for die-hard (and probably even cursory) Metallica fans. It reads like an oral history from all the important players (the band, managers, engineers, road crew, family, friends) about the making of and tour for its seminal 1986 album Master of Puppets. It also serves as a poignant tribute to founding bassist Cliff Burton, who tragically died during the tour in a bus accident. The book itself is beautiful, with tons of gorgeous professional and candid photos. I loved it. [Read in January 2017.]

mini-reviews: i’m just a person and mo’ meta blues

Two of my favorite books read in 2016 were celebrity memoirs. I read them both after I left Kansas City, one while I was in Madison for the summer and one after moving to Singapore, but both still stand out to me a year later.

I admit I’m not a die-hard fan of stand-up comedy, but there are a select few comedians that have reached me through their work—Marc Maron, Trevor Noah—and Tig Notaro ranks highly. I watched her great Netflix special Tig in 2015, and have been following her since. While much of the material in i’m just a person is familiar to fans from Tig and her stand-up routines, this raw, personal memoir is still worth a quick read. She talks more about her childhood and 2012, her horrible year battling disease and dealing with a breakup as well as her mother’s death. I was really inspired by her tenacity through tragedy, and how she makes her painful stories and vulnerabilities relatable and entertaining. [Read in July 2016.]

I’ve loved The Roots for a long time and I had been meaning to read this one for a while, and with all my newfound free time in Singapore last year I finally got to it! I found Questlove’s Mo’ Meta Blues just a delight. Questlove is more charming, humble, and thoughtful a human being than I ever realized. He keeps this book light while still deep-diving on certain topics at the same time. His philosophical musings about the states of pop culture, hip-hop, and music criticism are intelligent and spot on. I loved that he started each chapter with a question, and I think my favorite parts were his recollections of certain critical albums in his life. [Read in November 2016.]