Should Film Music Stand Alone?

Image from Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

In evaluating what makes a great film score, writers, composers, and listeners must ask themselves if the function of cinematic music limits the form it has to take.

Clint Mansell

The Fountain OST

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2006-11-26
UK Release Date: 2006-11-20

Philip Glass

Koyaanisqatsi OST

Label: Antilles/Island
US Release Date: 1983
UK Release Date: 1983

José Serebrier and the Belgian Radio Symphony Orchestra

Shostakovich: Film Music

Label: Warner Classics
US Release Date: 2011-11-15
UK Release Date: 2009-08-03

In his recent interview with Jose Solís for PopMatters, Owen Pallett made an interesting remark that cuts right to the heart of what it means to write great film music. After Solís complemented his newest album, In Conflict, suggesting that the mood evoked by the music would fit well within an Alfred Hitchcock film. Pallett responded thusly:

[A]lthough I appreciate what you called me and I know it comes from a good place, I work hard to make my songs not cinematic. Movie music is functional, it sets action that goes on in the screen, when I work with film directors I seek to make a good movie with them, not a good score independent of the movie. I have always felt that cinematic music is incomplete, when people use those words to describe instrumental music, it’s disrespectful.

Not but a breath later, Pallett qualifies his remarks, saying, "I also say this coming from a new music background so it’s a lame insult, because film music is great." However, despite that bit of hedging, the opinion he expressed is one that remains fairly popular. Upon reading the interview with Pallett, my mind went to a comment someone wrote on my review of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrianns' score to Enemy, thus far my favorite soundtrack album of 2014. The commenter, using the name Malick Thegreat, writes, "[W]hat makes a soundtrack great is if it ENHANCES [sic] the film. That's the sole criteria for judging this art form. I've never listened to Psycho at home, but that would never detract from its brilliance".

Form and Function

As someone who holds the opposite viewpoint with regards to cinematic music, these comments were odd for me to read. The fact that there exist record labels whose sole purpose is the distribution of film music seems to prove that the opinion expressed by Pallett and Malick Thegreat is simply not the case. Naturally, the film scorer's primary job is to enhance the cinema she is given; there is little contestation on that point. Even when he is at his most bombastic, Hans Zimmer can't overpower the footage that he is providing aural backing to, as tempting as the unbridled power of a horn section might be. However, while form does indeed set limits on the function of a particular piece of music, function is not irreducible to form. Film music necessarily must bolster the cinema it accompanies, but its identity is not entirely bound to that purpose; its function need not limit the form it takes.

Another piece of writing on film music came to my mind as I was letting Pallett's remarks stew in my mind. In Brandon Stosuy's mixed Pitchfork review of Clint Mansell's score for Darren Aronofsky's 2006 meditative sci-fi masterpiece The Fountain, he writes,

But I've concentrated hard on the minor chords, pressed "play" dozens of times, retread the bowing and kneading and bubbling percussion, and it still doesn't do much more than stay perfectly within the lines of the film for which it was composed. It's a good, well-behaved soundtrack full of classicist, string-led flourishes. So, pretty, yes. Reminiscent of summers spent stocking shelves in the music section of Borders and helping old ladies locate the Lawrence of Arabia soundtrack? Hell yes.

Stosuy sums up the thesis of his review after this passage, writing, "What we have is so predetermined, so closed... [sic] so obviously a soundtrack. I prefer soundtracks for the nonexistent, where you're forced to conjure, or otherwise work for the image."

I disagree with Stosuy on the matter of The Fountain OST's excellence; Mansell's incredible music was the subject of this column's first installment of The Great Scores series. However, I appreciate the implicit point underlying his criticism, namely that film scores have the potential to be more than what they were initially commissioned for. Though he personally was not transported by Mansell's minimalist tome, he nonetheless saw in it the possibility to take his mind to places beyond the admittedly expansive confines of Aronofsky's cinematic vision.

Stosuy's remarks are particularly salient in light of John Williams' Oscar-nominated score to the movie adaptation of Markus Zusak's popular novel The Book Thief. Williams' overly emotive cues are instantly recognizable, due in large part to his decades-long collaborative relationship with Steven Spielberg, and The Book Thief is a particularly bad case of those cues overwhelming the score. Listening to the soundtrack on CD, one's mind cannot help but imagine a tear falling down a face, a longing look, or any other physical manifestation of strong emotion. To use Stosuy's words, as of late the scores of Williams feel inescapably "predetermined". However, not all film music need be resigned to that fate.

Labeling music such as Mansell's work on The Fountain "film music" is a necessary move that has unfortunate side effects. Of course, the music would have likely never been were it not for the specific visual images that Mansell got inspired by in creating the score. Unfortunately, the result is that, in contrast to the chamber minimalist pieces of Steve Reich or Philip Glass—which The Fountain OST bears a lot of similarity to—Mansell's work gets relegated purely to the film world, viewed as an achievement only in its cinematic context. This myopic view of film music is one that Mansell himself rejects; in my interview with him for The Great Scores piece, he said, “I have never subscribed to the theory that film music shouldn’t be noticed".

A Symphony or a Score? How About Both?

A name like Glass' is an important one to bring up in this discussion, as he is perhaps the pre-eminent example of a living composer comfortable both in the classical and film music realms. His work for Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy [Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002)] ranks in the upper echelons of film music, especially the score to Koyaanisqatsi. Juxtaposing any of those scores with any of Glass' other work, be it symphonic, chamber, or solo piano, one can see identical compositional traits in each category. While it is the case that Glass must respect the requests of the directors he works with when writing music for film, it is not as if he ceases being the composer he is in doing so. The medium of cinema informs but does not monopolistically control Glass' composition.

This fact is not surprising, given that some of the most legendary film scores are written by composers that did not limit themselves exclusively to that subgenre. With the benefit of having hindsight over the composer's entire career, it can be said that some of Dmitri Shostakovich's best work can be found in his contributions to the cinema. Shostakovich's pieces for piano (his Bach-indebted 24 Preludes and Fugues, his Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor) and symphonies (No. 5 in D Minor) are sterling achievements of 20th century classical music, but so too are his film scores. The range of his film music is impressive, spanning playful dance pieces (the "Folk-Feast" or "Spanish Dance" from The Gadfly) to bombastic numbers that utilize the orchestra to its fullest extent ("Scene" from Pirogov). Certain themes and motifs remain popular to this day, such as The Gadfly’s “Romance”—that film’s “Overture” is also identifiable as the progenitor for many of the grandiloquent themes written by the likes of John Williams (see the music to Star Wars).

Though there are many impressive recordings of these pieces, those interested in diving into the breadth of Shostakovich’s film work ought to listen to the three-disc recording Shostakovich: Film Music, which features José Serebrier conducting the Belgian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The voluminous box set includes both full performances and selected pieces from The Gadfly (1955), Pirogov (1947), Hamlet (1963), King Lear (1970), Five Days, Five Nights (1960), Michurin (1948), The Fall of Berlin (1949), and Golden Mountains (1931). In many of these cases, it is Shostakovich’s music rather than the original movie that has survived longest in cultural memory; The Gadfly, in particular, has not seen a large audience outside of Russia. Shostakovich’s The Gadfly Suite, in contrast, remains one of his most delightful creations.

There are many reasons why, in retrospect, it seems easier to view the scores of Shostakovich as more refined than the scores of the present day. Many of the films at the time when Shostakovich began writing movie music were silent films, which by their nature require music to enhance their mood. (Shostakovich’s most notable works for cinema, however, came well after talkies became commonplace.) One of the most beautiful songs written for a movie in recent memory comes from the score to Michel Hazanavicius' 2011 ode to silent cinema, The Artist, composed by Ludovic Bource. The song, the solo piano piece "Comme une rosée de larmes" ("Like a dew of tears"), plays as the protagonist, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), nostalgically watches some old footage.

Dujardin's excellent performance is compelling in its own right, but with Bource's deft touch the piano piece elevates the scene to even greater emotional heights. Because the score for a silent film has more room to flourish, many of the composers in Shostakovich's time had more room to flush out arrangements. (Similarly, actors in silent movies to the contemporary audience appear to be overemoting because they have to make up for the lack of the ability to speak).

Additionally, the movie industry during Shostakovich's years as a composer is far different than the one composers have to deal with now. Whereas in the present day a revered composer like Glass will write for cinema on occasion, generally speaking tends to be a bifurcation between those composers who work in film music and those who write for the symphony. While this may be beneficial in terms of having a pool of composers who are experts at writing scores, an unintentional side effect of this division is that film scorers rarely get appreciated in the way they ought to. Merely having Best Score awards at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes is simply not enough to recognize the unique achievements made by film music composers. Events like the Tenerife International Film Music Festival have done a fine job in raising the profile of film scorers, but on the whole the field remains a deeply underappreciated one. Yet, oddly enough, orchestras the world over have no problem performing a Shostakovich score, any more than they would his illustrious symphonies. There is a disconnect here, but it's one for which there are many solutions.

A Humble Suggestion

The thesis of this piece is not that symphonies and scores are identical. As stated previously, function does to some degree determine form; it's hard to imagine any film being backed by, say, Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, for the music would certainly overpower in its marvel and bombast. Music whose purpose is adding to the depth of cinematic storytelling does have to fall in line with the requirements of the filmmakers. Moreover, some movies just don't require elaborate music that can be listened to outside of the theatre. While there are exceptions, it is usually the case that big-budget action movies and low-brow comedies aren't accompanied by music that is all that memorable.

What becomes problematic, when one takes a view like Pallett's, is when cinematic music gets reduced merely its function. John Williams may not hold a candle to Beethoven, but it says something that his "Imperial Death March" leitmotif has a grasp on the culture not unlike the similarly portentous notes that open Beethoven's Fifth. When film music reaches majestic heights, as it does more often than its composers are given credit for, the effect can be very much like a great concerto or symphony. Admittedly, this can be easy to miss in the movies, given that the impact of the music is hard to judge out of its visually context. But the benefit of living in an age with numerous record labels devoted to putting out film scores and soundtracks—Milan and Varèse Sarabande are two fine examples—is that listeners have the opportunity to appreciate the music both in and out of its context. It's an opportunity that anyone serious about this kind of music should take as frequently as possible; while there are plenty of scores that feel flat without any celluloid to back it up, there are numerous ones that are successful in standing alone. All these scores and their composers need is the chance to be evaluated on their own terms.

So: should film music stand alone? The answer isn't an easy yes, but nor is it a definite no. Great scores, such as The Gadfly, Koyaanisqatsi, and The Fountain, both enhance the films they were commissioned for and evoke worlds entirely their own. Other scores don't achieve that feat, and in many instances they don't need to. Ultimately, then, it might be ill-advised to expect a score to stand alone; whether or not it should or can do so is entirely dependent on context. Still, even in those cases, it ought not necessarily be the case that the music be merely described as "functional". Even at its most rudimentary, film music does something truly wonderful.

Perhaps, then, the title of this column has the question wrong, for this issue ought to be discussed in potential rather than prescriptive terms. The question is not really, "Should film music stand alone?", but rather, "Can film music stand alone?" Given the tremendous legacy of cinematic music the world has been blessed with, it seems intuitive to me that the answer is yes. Close attention to and better appreciation of film music is an easy and rewarding way of raising the public's attention to those instances where a score leaps from the screen and becomes a compelling work of art in its own right.


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

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