This is the third article in a three-part series celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Below are my top 4 favorite albums from Asian and Asian American musicians. In the characteristically white American music industry landscape, it is crucial, now more than ever, to recognize artists that struggle against the forces preventing Asian American and, perhaps even more so, Asian-origin albums from garnering international attention and acclaim. Please consider supporting these artists by directly purchasing their music during this pandemic.
#4: “To See the Next Part of the Dream” (2021) by Parannoul
This album is constantly recommended to me via various internet music forums. Why? I mainly listen to what white guys like. But it turns out white guys like this — a Korean artist that none of my Korean friends have ever heard of.
On the artist’s Bandcamp page, Parannoul anonymously professes to be a teenage, daft and rebellious person living in Seoul, Korea. They call themselves a loser, say they are not popular, known or significant, and that they should rightfully stay unknown. And throughout their loser kingdom, they will continue making music.
Parannoul admits that all of his sounds come from computers — they emphasize that their instruments are all just plugged into a computer to sound that way. It’s bittersweet to see the next generation repeat the same mistakes we have made: to underestimate ourselves continually without ever shying away from making art to cease it all. The name of the game for Parannoul is home-produced shoegaze, digital plugins for guitar effects and a massive avalanche of sound — a combination of piano, acoustic guitar, fuzzy warbles in electric guitar tone and a mid-range, amateur voice that sounds like a close friend telling you their every insecurity, everything in the world. Everything is distorted 20% more than usual, and the vocal tracks begin to grow tails and scratch their eyelids, for the pain and pure emotion. What else could you ask for? The English title of the last track on the album is “I Can Feel My Heart Touching You.” Enough said.
The album’s strange cover shows a chimney breathing out smoke into the blue sky, where a few birds fly overhead: it’s a callback to “All About Lily Chou-Choi,” a film about Japanese teenagers lost in angst and love for a fictional musician far away. Parannoul is a Korean person after my own soul, my Korean-American soul, and, like I said in my previous article, “I never thought I’d see my reflection; it hurts to look at him, and I feel like it should be simple.”
#3: “Bury Me at Makeout Creek” (2014) by Mitski
The cultural impact of this album is very difficult to underestimate. Mitski performed in an NPR Tiny Desk concert and screamed into her guitar a song that is normally played over piano. It was important that the harmonics of her voice resonated with the individual notes of her guitar’s strings so they could vibrate and be sensed by the electric pickups, mere electromagnets disturbed by vibrations in the air. In my ears, Mitski broke out singing about the moment you leave me, how I’m going to leave myself in the wake of all of the screaming, how I’m going to leave you, me, my mother, my father, and where were you when I left all of this for myself? “Texas is a landlocked state,” Mitski sings.
Texas is a landlocked state. When we grow up, we’ll believe that the places where we live are far away from where our parents want us to be, but for now, we are trapped forever in between those landlocked states. When Mitski tells us on “Townie” that the “boys boys boys” keep coming on for “more more more”, and her head voice swirls upstream and flutters about over seared and distorted guitars, it feels like this moment will never end, like our bodies will themselves swirl into concrete anthems and foot taps and sex with people we will never see again.
Somehow, the way that she sings in harmony with a male voice on “First Love / Late Spring” seems more nonchalant in comparison. It’s a song so affecting and important that I listened to it forever on repeat when I was a freshman in Burbank. My repeated streaming of it eventually made my neighbor complain. That’s how I felt when I was a freshman: I wanted to love so much that I would welcome the day that everything would distort to the tune of Mitski singing in Japanese over the thumping tom toms and bass.
#2: “Crumbling” (2016) by Mid-Air Thief
On the other hand, we have Mid-Air Thief, who initially went by the name Gongjoong Doduk, a phrase roughly meaning Public Morality. Like Parannoul, Mid-Air Thief remains anonymous, despite interviews and success selling records on vinyl through Bandcamp. We all respect that because his music is too powerful to require a name stamped on it.
The music on “Crumbling” is a rock-electronic hybrid mastered via cassette tape, a sinking droning of jarring electronic melodies that sit alongside acoustic guitars and synth chimes. On the track “Gameun Deut” (“Like Closing Your Eyes”), we hear Mid-Air Thief and the backing vocalist Summer Soul sing about sand gushing over an hourglass, nights singly spending away and the empty burning in the sky. At the end of the song, when he declares that memories and melodies flow far away (spilling, sinking) one can’t help but wonder how the wild synth melodies over the impassioned sung “흘러” (“heul-loh”) will make us feel once again in the future, when we are, ourselves, falling over the corner of the table, spilling onto the floor, swirling, sinking, spinning. And then, the song ends unresolved, returning to the key phrase “여긴 시계 넘어로” (“yeo-geen shee-gae num-uh-roh”) (or “here, time falls…”) and never telling us more.
#1: “0” (2013) by Ichiko Aoba
Yes, the album “0,” an album whose Japanese lyrics I cannot understand at all, is my favorite album from Asian and Asian American musicians since 2010. I can only infer what ingenious guitarist and singer/songwriter Ichiko Aoba might be singing. Perhaps the track title “i am POD(0%)” gives a hint, and I can at least find a translation for that song’s lyrics. The translation reveals a person like ourselves, a tortured soul who wishes to eat their own memories of eating meals with a beloved, trying so desperately to love herself as much as she loved another.
Under this, we hear perfect tones of acoustic guitar: melancholy chords that ring out over the picked strum, the plectrum almost invisible as the notes float out into the open. We are subject to these pleasing sounds, but also subject to the emptiness of 9 minute-plus tracks where many minutes are spent hearing the passing of cars over a nearby highway under dissonant chromatic melodies. One might imagine Aoba sitting at a bench, eating ice cream, wondering about death and regrets once more as she picks up the guitar to tell us something new and terrible.
We must hear this in our chests and sing along to Japanese words we can never fully understand, translation notwithstanding. We must understand the desire that drives us to hear silence protracted with tires and the doppler effect of engines and headlights. We must understand where we will be after all of this, dropped into the great mirror once again, seeing ourselves in her soul. This is why this is my favorite Asian and Asian American album ever, and the rest of Aoba’s oeuvre is just as promising. Please listen: you will not regret the experience.