The Shock of the New: Ten Minutes With Dizzee Rascal

Elisabeth Donnelly

Grime's Leading MC is genius enough to deserve respect, and he's got the energy and wit to get it.

Dizzee Rascal, nee Dylan Mills, is 20 years old and kind of a genius. He also has his own Nike sneaker. The press notes for Vice's excellent new grime compilation, Run the Road, which serves as an attempt to define the nascent genre, list Dizzee Rascal as "The boy the scene had to let go". Currently, grime -- a UK version of hip-hop with harder, faster beats, an offshoot of garage, two-step, and dancehall with witty fast-talking MCs -- is receiving a well-deserved critical flowering from music blogs, Vice Magazine, Vice Records, and the fantastic articles by New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones. Dizzee, however, is more skeptical: "The scene's still bubbling, you know? It's at a state where I think labels -- major record labels -- don't know what to do with it. I don't think they fully understand it. They just try and water it down, try and change it and it doesn't work. That's why I'm working on [his label] Dirtee Stank, I got my group Klass A and I think they're really strong. Their album's going to come out later this year."

Dizzee first made a splash in 2002 with his track "I Luv U", where he's a teenager who's grown up too fast, arguing with a blase female and spitting out alternately hilarious and harsh words on relationships while clanging noises and metallic tones clashed in the background. In 2003, he released his first full-length, Boy in Da Corner, and it went on to win the Mercury Music Prize. Much more interesting than past Mercury winners like Gomez, Dizzee's music has something unforgettable. Dizzee sums up the past couple of years by saying that he's most proud of "making two albums. That's crazy. Coming from the underground and getting a record deal. Selling a lot of albums -- I never would've gone gold worldwide. Both of them have gone gold at home. That was crazy for me."

Since Dizzee is the most visible MC to come out of the grime scene so far, you can argue that there's a real shock of the new the first time that you hear his music. For me, it was like discovering a secret -- a friend had salvaged a white label single of "Fix Up Look Sharp", one of his poppier songs that rides that crazy beat sampled from Massachusetts-born metalhead Billy Squier's "The Big Beat". I had no idea how you'd dance to it without looking goofy. The sample's a little off-tempo as to be unexpected and then Dizzee's voice squawks in going "Oi!" while ladies are popping off "Whoo!" and then Dizzee starts rapping; it's this torrent of words that's kind of indecipherable until that part where he goes, "Flushing MCs down the loo, if you don't believe me bring your posse, bring your crew". It's funny, weird, and it's atypical of the rest of his work, which is more anxious, nervy, and menacing and the music is more akin to "robots fighting", in the words of Frere-Jones.

Lyrically, Dizzee's writing his autobiography in a vibrant way. He's got rapper's braggadocio, he can be angry, and his sense of humor is acute and dryly British. (American rappers are simply not as self-deprecating.) Best of all, he has these moments of honesty and insight, like on "Do It!" where he confesses, "If I had the guts to end it all, believe I would" or the accurate observation of "Fickle" and "everybody wants to be ghetto but nobody wants to be poor." His intelligence places him beyond other performers in the UK, and you can draw a line between Dizzee, the realism of the British New Wave films of the 1960s, the oveure of Martin Amis, and Pulp's class warfare in the late '90s.

After the success of Boy in Da Corner, Dizzee went right back into the studio to make Showtime, which came out in the US last September. It's less of a shock than his debut, but subsequent listens reveal it to be just as thrilling and exhilarating: "I think when I made the first album, I understood that Boy in Da Corner was what it was. I knew that the right thing to do wasn't to try and mimic it. I thought about it differently so a lot of tracks on Showtime are bigger as well. The album might be a lot more melodic, it shows versatility and range."

Dizzee's right -- moving on from the character studies and mournful existensialism of Boy, Showtime is more aggressive, responding to the drama of instant celebrity but still managing a balance of anger, humor, and smarts. At the end of "Face", there's a female voice going on, making fun of Raskit: his clothes, his low-budget videos, and concluding "I'd rather see a better video on [MTV] Base or something like Jay-Z or something or Outkast". This goofiness is immediately followed by "Respect Me" where Dizzee's growling, "You people are gonna respect me if it kills you". Lines like "You can say I'm arrogant / You should probably say I'm vain" belly up against the Captain Sensible/Rogers and Hammerstein sampling whimsy of "Dream", but the album reaches its apex with the radical, touching "Imagine" and the anthemic "Fickle". In "Imagine", Dizzee ponders about where the ghetto would be, the fighting and violence, if its residents were rich and white on "country manors", and "Fickle" is a rousing tribute to Dizzee's tenacity.

Of course, with a hit album comes a stream of videos -- which nicely showcase Dizzee's grit and likable persona -- and promotion. Although Dizzee's videos aren't widely shown in the US, Dougal Wilson's puppet-laden video for "Dream" has achieved some notoriety on the web and beyond, at least for its cuteness. According to Dizzee, making the video for "Dream" was fun: "I dreaded it. It was weird a little bit with acting and all that. It was weird because there was nothing to act with, there were just the puppets and all that. It was good, though, it was a learning experience."

Some of Dizzee's myth is centered around the way that he found music (earlier rumors had "I Luv You" being solely the product of a laptop); he started in a music class in school with a caring teacher named Mr. Smith, and this led to pirate radio and producing his own stuff. In regards to his time in the studio, Dizzee says: "The program that I use is Logical, Midi Cables, whatever. As far as sounds, I try and look for something that might -- basically what everyone else wouldn't use. You know what I mean? I'm really gutsy with it ... the important thing is the imagination behind you."

Like any musical sponge, Dizzee can rattle off a whole range of influences: "My favorite rap artist is probably Jay-Z. He's got all that as a rapper. I don't think hip-hop or music has seen anything like him ever. The rapper that got me into hip-hop was Tupac and Bone, Thugs, and Harmony before that. I was into drum and base, hardcore, techno. I really got into crunk, Cash Money, rock. I really like Gun and Roses, Metallica ... Nirvana, and I like things like DJ Assault and the whole ghetto tech thing."

Lingering on Dizzee's favorite influence, we get to chatting about Jay-Z's documentary Fade To Black, and reacting to Jay-Z's legendary lyrical prowess (the man just goes in the studio and rips it), and whether Dizzee's lyrical style is as off the cuff, he says, "Yeeeeah. Wicked! Sometimes it can be like that ... I might've written a load of stuff and just recited it so it's in my head. Sometimes I might go to the studio and there's a beat and I could find something to just go with it quickly, rap and freestyle. Other times I just might have to live with the music, live with the beat for a bit. I might have to take it home and live with it or rap it down in the studio, whether I made it or whether someone else produced it."

He cites the Neptunes, OutKast -- "I really look up to OutKast" -- and Timbaland as other artists that he wants to work with in the future. Talking about the Neptunes track "Drop It Like It's Hot", Dizzee lets out a "Mmmm... That beat's very naughty. They take the piss, they're very important."

While Dizzee's love of music is clear and he'll chat about his influences easily, I wanted to know more about how he developed as an MC. He credits his MC skills to sheer practice, citing live performance and pirate radio: "Even before the record deal, I kind of came up doing a lot of live stuff as well as pirate radio... so I'd be on for two hours at a time and singing straight, doing clubs and raves. I supported Jay-Z when I was 17 at Wembley." On the subject of battle rhyming, Dizzee's reply is emblematic, confident but steely: "I never really liked it, I did it, yeah. I can't ever say I lost, but after awhile it all comes out a waste of time. It's all good, but I enjoy entertaining through a song, I get more kicks out of that."

He'll plenty of chances to entertain this spring, because he's headlining an April U.S. tour where "people will be surprised at the energy. It's just me, a DJ, and a hypeman. It's not a lot of set-up on stage but I'm good at it. Bring the shit to life a lot, I think people get it more at the show, even if they already have the album." He says one of the big differences between his American and English fanbases would be "The people! They're a lot more bubbly. England's quite cold. It's not a thing for people to walk right past you in the street. In America people are more social, I think, and as for the show, people are a lot more free on the show. They're not shy. I've seen them conservative people. People are not afraid to wild out and have a good time."

Of course, hearing that reply, I ask, "But Dizzee, what about Boston? We're Puritans! We were colonized by the British and we're still wicked uptight..." and he replied, "I love it there, that was one of the best shows (last year's tour with the Streets) in Boston. I've got memories from Boston, man. I love The Cheesecake Factory, man."

In regards to people dancing at shows, (his music has an off-kilter tempo and it's hard to dance to) Dizzee explains: "Me dancing? Or from the audience? [Starts singing Terror Squad's 'Lean Back'] 'We don't dance we just pull up our pants and do the rocaway, lean back, lean back' I've seen some mad stuff at festivals, people do some crazy things. It's funny, they ain't got a clue, yeah, and I stop and think they don't care that much. Whatever. And I love it -- it puts a smile on my face. It makes it more worthwhile, yeah."

I reply, "Only in America can we have a number one track about being too fat to dance."

"Aw shit!"

Although Dizzee's recent March brush with the law -- nebulous reports have him getting busted for pot, pepper spray, and a baton -- seemed to put his U.S. tour in question, apparently everything's going on as planned. Funny enough, the brush with the law probably took place after a long day of phone interviews.

Talking to Dizzee on the phone, there's a funny dichotomy between the smart young man and the layers in his music. While he's a pleasure to talk to, an interesting guy, and currently reading The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "a fucked up book", it's clear that he saves his real talking for his music. When I asked him what his favorite thing that he's ever written, I expected that he'd just cite a great couplet or something but he busts into the first verse of "Fickle":

"I find myself in a pickle, this music ain't fickle
Surrounded by big doggs that I consider ickle
As they crash the particle ... the other giants...
I might apply some knowledge and wait for a ripple...
On my shoulder is a chipple
Some love it some hate that I is hustle n publicly thugging,
Squeeze a dollar from a nickle,
My outlook feel free, I'll be dammed if you budge it.
Got my name on my cheque book,
Sole trading, I ain't even old aging,
But my question it my sole fading? I'm maintaining,
Coz I can't say I'm slaving guess I'm raving,
But whose to say I'll make it unless I fake it,
And if I bonafide myself will it bonafide my wealth will it?
This pains staking I got my head aching,
Stressed out coz I let my money rake in."

It makes sense that he cites Showtime's last track. The song ends with a plaintive "tryin' to live the high life but at what cost?" and it's battling with the rousing chorus of "I've got so much to say in so little time ... If I can't find a way around I'll find a way across and if I can't find a way across I'll BORE STRAIGHT THROUGH!" The balance of introspection and determination is an exhilarating tonic, and that's the reason -- beyond the fascinating music and whole "figurehead of a new musical movement thing" -- why people should be listening to Dizzee Rascal. He may never be anything other than a niche artist in the United States, but there's no doubt that his influence is going to have a broad effect on music.

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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