-->
Books

Socially Valuable Knowledge: An Interview with Louis Menand

Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard Professor Louis Menand diagnoses some of the problems in the American university system and makes some proposals for what can be done, all without the alarmism of many of his colleagues.


The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University

Publisher: Norton
Author: Louis Menand
Amazon

Unlike pretty much everyone else writing about higher education these days, Louis Menand doesn't think academia is in a state of emergency. In the book The Marketplace of Ideas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard Professor diagnoses problems in the American university system without working from the assumption that it is in critical condition, preferring to look at the big picture by taking into account historical context and a longer view of the situation. Menand tackles his subject matter from a refreshingly even-keeled perspective of someone on the inside who isn't afraid to challenge some of the institution's sacred cows. "I don't think American higher education is in crisis. I do think some sectors are having a very difficult time, though. The issues I write about in The Marketplace of Ideas are all endemic to the system, but they were not experienced as issues -- as problems that it was necessary but difficult to address -- until recently."

Published last year, The Marketplace of Ideas comes at a time when many are raising hard questions about the status of an educational system that's supposed to be on the brink of implosion: Tuitions are spiraling out of control even as university budgets and academic services shrink, a college education seems less practical since graduates from even the most prestigious schools are having difficulty finding work, and there aren’t enough jobs within the academy to keep programs vibrant and growing. PopMatters caught up with Professor Menand for an e-mail exchange, asking him about the stakes involved in reimagining higher education and covering a range of the topics from his book.

"Still, I don't think there is a crisis: people want to go to college, and they spend unprecedented amounts of time and money trying to get into a good one," Menand insists. "In economic down times, for some portion of the college-age population there is a trade-off, involving income foregone versus expected marginal increase in income down the road. There is a measurable differential between the value of a college degree (associate's or bachelor's) and the value of a high school diploma. That differential changes. Also, in economic down times, questions are raised about the utility of a college education."

Times like these require those inside and outside the academy to not only know more about the history of the university in the United States, but also to understand that you can only deal with the symptoms emerging now by appreciating where they came from, which might be the main purpose of The Marketplace of Ideas. Writing as a historian, Menand notes in the book that his "emphasis is on the backstory of present problems." Marketplace touches on contentious matters within academia, including why humanities disciplines have a difficult time justifying themselves to an increasingly skeptical public and why professors appear to think alike.

While some of these subjects might appear to be inside baseball to the casual reader, they raise a bigger issue relevant to anyone interested in higher education, namely what the relationship between academic scholarship and the world at-large is. Menand points to the sense of anxiety professors in the humanities feel about their place vis-à-vis society, caught between "the position of privilege that academic professionalism confers on its initiates and about the peculiar position of social disempowerment created by the barrier between academic workers and the larger culture," he writes in Marketplace.

Perhaps the hottest of the hot-button issues Menand raises is the relationship between the university and society, and why it is that they are perceived as being disconnected from one another. "Obviously there are some academic fields about which the public is vaguely hostile or indifferent," Menand grants. "When there are budget problems, these fields can feel a justifiable sense of insecurity, particularly (but not only) in public universities. It's good for people who speak for higher education to speak for the importance of such fields. On the other hand, academic work -- intellectual work in general -- is never going to win any elections. One wants the public to feel that institutions of higher learning are a good social investment. One doesn't need the public to approve everything that gets written or taught. That is counterproductive."

One crucial reason for the sense of detachment between academia and society is that professional intellectuals tend not acknowledge the inconvenient truth that Menand alludes to in the title of the book: the university functions like a marketplace. Menand interrogates the misguided, idealistic notion that the college campus is a refuge from real-life pressures, which can be perpetuated when academics view their research as objective and immune to external forces.

"Academics are socialized (as are all professionals) to think about their work as protected from market forces," Menand explains. "In some senses, it is so protected, but there are rewards and people do compete with one another to acquire them. The personal incentives for doing this are imagined to encourage the production of more or better knowledge, in the same way that the pursuit of economic self-interest is imagined to encourage innovation, efficiency, less expensive goods and so on."

Menand elaborates on his analogy between the economic marketplace and the academic marketplace, describing how ideas compete with one another to gain institutional relevance and to attract financial support, whether scholars are conscious of it or not. "The question in the case of economic reform is often which principles are indispensable and which can be compromised. Academics sometimes have to make similar decisions, but most of us are trained to regard our principles as inviolate: the liberal should never be mixed with the practical, college education should not be presentist or instrumentalist, all professors should have produced a scholarly monograph or the equivalent before they are hired, public recognition should never count in decisions about professional advancement, and so on. Maybe principles like these should be regarded as inviolate. But then we should understand the price we pay in things we can't do well or, in some cases, do at all," Menand says.

The idea that the university is less and less socially pertinent has something to do with the difficulties US higher education has had in keeping up with the times. Part of the problem is how complicated a process it would be to restructure such a vast and unwieldy system. From individuals to institutions, academics to administrators, academia as an industry has a tendency to succumb to inertia and doing things the same way they've always been done, regardless of changing social and economic conditions.

Menand prefers to take a more measured and cautious approach to his subject matter, writing in the book that he favors "reform when it shakes the system, not when it breaks the system." But one of the most provocative points he makes in Marketplace is that "intellectual life should involve taking chances."

"I think academics can be over-cautious about change, that the world will not come to an end if it turns out we made a mistake," Menand explains. "It's like with your children: you don't want to inhibit them from trying things they might fail at. That's how they learn. If you are afraid to be wrong, you're going to have a hard time in life. I am a person who is afraid to be wrong, and so are most academics I know -- that's one reason we're in this business. It attracts perfectionists. But institutionally, we grow by taking risks."

Another topic Menand devotes much attention to in Marketplace is the need to reform the Ph.D. process in the humanities, which provides a good case-in-point of how rethinking business-as-usual in the academy might yield potential benefits. In the book, Menand wonders, practically enough, why it takes three years to train a lawyer, four years a doctor, but six to nine years to produce a college English teacher who has few alternative professional options after completing the degree. Redefining what the Ph.D. means could have far-reaching effects on teaching at the university level, as well as on the kind of knowledge that academic research offers to society.

Even though most involved believe it is common sense to shrink Ph.D. programs due to dwindling resources and a dire academic job market, Menand argues for the opposite, to expand Ph.D. programs and to shorten their duration and requirements. Doing this, he says, might attract more scholars with a wider variety of backgrounds, motivations, and career aspirations. By diversifying and opening up the highest rungs of higher education, a Ph.D. degree could be better appreciated as having value away from the ivory tower.

"The worry is that the narrower the funnel through which people enter a profession, the more self-selected those people will be,” Menand points out. “That may be a benefit in some occupations, but in an intellectual organization, you want diversity of opinion, and the university (unlike a corporation) is actually designed to accommodate conflicting views. It helps people work together by getting them to disagree with one another. I'm aware that there are logistical problems with that policy, but we are already enmeshed in a logistical nightmare."

The goal of broadening the horizons of scholarship within and outside the academy speaks again to the complicated relationship between the university and society. On the one hand, the university needs to better appreciate its connection and responsibilities to society. On the other, it cannot be beholden to the whims of popular opinion, but needs, as Menand writes in Marketplace, "to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn't want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate." So while Menand sees the value of academic research creating, in his words, "socially valuable knowledge," that doesn't mean college curricula and research should be forced to justify themselves in terms of their social utility.

Part of the university's unique mission is to thread the needle between being socially engaged but not necessarily reflective of passing trends. "The deal implied in the principle of academic freedom is that society is best served by allowing professional researchers to govern their work according to norms internal to the profession," Menand suggests. "In return, society can expect to 'net' productive and useful knowledge. We can expect, of course, that society, in whatever guise -- legislators, journalists, alumni -- will pay attention to what is taught and published and make its views known. We can also expect that these views will have some influence on what academics do. What we do not want is to compel every academic practice or product to have to justify itself before the bar of public opinion. That threatens to turn knowledge into the intellectual ratification of the status quo."

If Menand's perspective on such matters is able to represent more sides than is typical, it's because his point-of-view has been shaped by taking a different path from most intellectuals in his position: Awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for The Metaphysical Club, Menand is at once an esteemed scholar and a professional journalist with an audience beyond the academic community, both the holder of an endowed professorship in the Harvard English department and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Menand worked as an editor, staff writer, and columnist for several publications while he was pursuing a career in academia. What he came to realize from his background in journalism was that the editors and writers he worked with were as well read and intellectually curious as the faculty he knew -- it was just that the former "had not gotten Ph.D.s."

"I myself might easily have become solely a magazine editor or writer, and would have if I had not been lucky on the job market the year I got my degree," Menand tells. "But despite this great similarity in background and interests, magazine people and university people think very differently. I was actually a little shocked by the things people said in my first magazine job: I couldn't imagine my academic colleagues talking that way. I eventually got used to the different cultures, but my experience with magazines made me see that the way academic do things is, from another point of view, unusual and even peculiar, and I became interested in finding out why."

Still, Menand dismisses the suggestion that he's a public intellectual, preferring to think of himself in less loaded terms as a writer and historian. However you describe him, though, Louis Menand is a thinker who has tapped into the zeitgeist by exploring issues he's personally interested in that also happen to be ones relevant to a larger public. While Menand himself might not put it this way, a work like The Marketplace of Ideas might just help shape the conversation on the state of American higher education now and in the future, not only helping to make sense of an institution that's not easily explained, but also contributing to the greater good by raising questions of how the system works and how it can work better.

"I'm a historian," says Menand. "I don't predict the future; I predict the present. My assumption is that the higher education system will continue to grow, that new constituencies will enter the system, and that the system will become more variegated. This has been the trend since the 1880s, and I don't see any reason for it to stop."

Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke


69. Arcade Fire - "Creature Comfort"

This is a big, bold statement of intent from Arcade Fire. There is a clear and admirable desire for the band not to spend too long in the same space and to mine their DNA to reinvigorate themselves. The big synths and angular new wave of early '80s the Cure sound fresh and like nothing the band has done before. Despite the retro stylings, the subject matter is refreshingly current as the group deal with the quest for personal validation from family, friends, and strangers, the anxieties of negative body image and the relentless pursuit of fame at the expense of everything else. The band cleverly offer a metaphorical panacea for all of these ills in the form of "Creature Comfort". Something to numb the pain. This is a song that leaves you anything but anesthetized. - Paul Carr


68. Alt-J - "In Cold Blood"

As far as songs about murders at pool parties go, "In Cold Blood" is actually pretty heady. In true alt-J fashion, it's hard to tell what's a red herring and what's actually relevant to the song, but as with the best songs, it doesn't particularly matter when it's this catchy. The random snippets of binary code, the allusion to C.S. Lewis' Caspian, the extended coda of "La la la"s, these are diversions from the subject at hand, perhaps because the gravity of the matter would make for too heavy a song, perhaps because alt-J delights in being obtuse. Still, with imagery as vivid as "Hair the way the sun really wants it to be" and "Lifeless back slaps the surface of the pool", it is still appropriately shocking, and yet morbidly catchy, particularly once the horns kick in. It makes you feel guilty for enjoying it, which is probably just perfect as far as alt-J is concerned. - Mike Schiller


67. The Mynabirds - "Golden Age"

The transition from 2016 to 2017 needed an elegy, an understated anthem of disillusionment and sorrow, and this is it. With its staid piano melody and Laura Burhenn's velvet vocals, the song taps into the sucker-punch trauma of feeling like social progress's trajectory was a bait-and-switch that made the eventual collapse that more crushing. The lyrics read as a litany of topical grief — the deaths of Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, worsening climate change, rampant police brutality, the severing of family ties amid political lines, and, presciently considering when it was written, the emboldening of American Nazism by Donald Trump's presidential election. Dour stuff, to be sure, yet Burhenn isn't ready to seal the mausoleum. Rather, "Golden Age" is the sound of an ideal beaten but unbroken, its swollen eye still focused on the future. It's a rail against complacency and surrender and offers needed comfort and warmth, while still being goosebumps-inducing in its call to arms. It might be a lofty comparison, but "Golden Age" is a spiritual successor to Lennon's "Imagine" in the current climate. - Cole Waterman


66. Sir Sly - "High"

The premise isn't too groundbreaking: a group of young indie poppers with hip haircuts singing about getting high. What sets Sir Sly's take on getting high apart from many others is how current it is. Sir Sly's "High" nails the mindset of many a millennial as the group sings about "wondering what peace would be like" - drugs as a means of escape from this very specific wave of global turmoil. On top of that, the chorus is mind-blowingly catchy, the beats enticing. This is a social statement you can dance to, an escapist earworm and a party anthem for our times. - Adriane Pontecorvo


65. Taylor Swift - "...Ready For It?"

The essence of pop music is saying the same things over and over again in slightly different ways. This is how life works too. We settle into routines and measure our lives by the degree to which those routines shift or are disrupted over time. Most of Taylor Swift's songs are about what happens when you think about romance the way songs and movies tell us to, but she never seems to run out of new ways to frame that experience.

Usually, it's a matter of melodies or words, but sometimes, it's also a matter of sound, of putting her compositions in an environment that's a little unstable. She does this on "...Ready for It?," which is the most sonically mischievous and audacious song she's released. Over a harsh, sneering rhythm track, Swift covers familiar ground--the rush of new love, the relationship between reality and fantasy--but it doesn't feel that way because the song has a few clever ideas it gets just right: a trio of distorted bass notes that begin and repeat throughout the song; and low-pitched, synthetic brass notes that hit during the pre-chorus. Both signal that something is different, that no matter how many times we fall in love, it will always feel new. - Mark Matousek


64. Carly Rae Jepsen - "Cut to the Feeling"

Nobody has cornered the effervescent side of North American pop music quite like Carly Rae Jepsen has in the past couple years. Arriving on the heels of 2015's triumphant Emotion, "Cut to the Feeling" continues that soaring momentum. Not a whit of the song is particularly groundbreaking; instead it is a classic formula executed to perfection, building from tense verses to a chorus that explodes like fireworks. Nolan Lambroza's production is shimmering and radiant, the perfect backdrop for Ms. Jepsen, who conveys the song's feeling of euphoria with her trademark charisma. It's the type of pop music that puts a smile on your face. - Adrien Begrand


63. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile - "Continental Breakfast"

At one point in "Continental Breakfast", Courtney holds up a video of "Kurt and Courtney", the chronicling of the relationship of lead singers Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, two of rock's greatest misfits. The synergy between Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett is less fraught; it's downright amicable. It's not difficult to fall in love with both songwriters as they bounce around their domestic lives, interacting with babies, children, and elders alike, with smiles the whole way through. If you don't find this video endearing, you probably don't have a soul. - Tristan Kneschke


62. Animal Collective - "Kinda Bonkers"

Animal Collective follow up last year's Painting With album with more of the same on new EP The Painters. Like much of their best work, "Kinda Bonkers" is bursting with ideas. Built on tabla percussion, see-saw keyboards and parallel vocals that bounce, ping and collide, the band throw everything they can in to see what cooks. All of these different ingredients are whipped up into a customary, trippy, psychedelic sponge. The whole thing is as irrepressible and energetic as you would expect, but it somehow feels more rounded. More straightforward and undemanding, never feeling like it might collapse under the weight of the hooks and melodies the band has crammed on every tier. - Paul Carr


61. ANOHNI - "Paradise"

ANOHNI's inimitable vocals are like a fixed quantity in her music, ensuring that most anything she sings retains an element of pained, graceful beauty no matter how harrowing or grisly the topic. "Paradise", another collaboration with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never following last year's HOPELESSNESS, pushes this principle to its limit. The track is a tortured dirge barely disguised as bass-heavy synthpop, a veil disintegrating at the seams. ANOHNI sings as one caught between global concerns and her own personal, particular pain, lamenting the solipsistic confines of being but a single "point of consciousness". Perhaps the paradise she evokes, a "world without end", is one where the boundaries of the self are dissolved altogether, opening the way for empathy. And yet any clear vision of that utopia is clouded amid the wailing electronics, making it clear that we'll have to contend with our own kaleidoscopes of pain for some time to come. - Andrew Dorsett

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less
7

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image