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Music

Good Morning Tycoon: An Interview with The Presidents of the U.S.A.

An unexpected jam led to the Presidents of the United States of America recording an unexpected, crowdfunded album, but according to the band's drummer: "I don't think we have another one in us."


The Presidents of the United States of America

Kudos to You!

Label: Burnside
US Release Date: 2014-02-14
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"We'll be crushed if we fall anywhere short of that."

This is what the voice on the other end of the phone says in a raspy tone. A tone so raspy, in fact, that it kind of sounds like it's coming from a love child between Bruce Dern in Nebraska and Nick Notle's character in the ill-fated HBO series Luck. It's also sarcastic, of course, because the response comes after this sentence is uttered in its direction: "Good luck with the record -- I hope it sells a trillion copies."

The laugh that accompanies such a noise erupts like a scratchy, unrelenting volcano, oozing with cheerful hot lava and filled with a sincere sense of smoke. It doesn't sound jaded and despite its menacing qualities, it also doesn't feel intimidating. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Why? Because the guy from which it emotes just happens to be in one of the most happy-go-lucky acts to ever come from the overtly depressing, it's-always-raining-here Seattle, Washington, rock scene. It's an act that writes odes to peaches, covers the Buggles, and tapes MTV specials in front of Mount Rushmore. It's an act formerly embraced by the mainstream yet universally loved by its extensive, loyal fan base. 

And, maybe most importantly, it's an act that has absolutely no idea if it will ever put out another record again. 

That act is the Presidents of the United States of America, and the voice representing it is Jason Finn, the band's longtime drummer and current de facto Press Secretary, as it were. The album that may or may not sell a trillion copies is Kudos to You!, a crowd-sourced accident of a record (his words) that came to life after his band decided to fool around in the studio for a few days. Those sessions inevitably turned into more sessions. That fooling around inevitably turned into a project. And that project was inevitably completed with help from PUSA's fans who donated to a PledgeMusic campaign the group set up. 

"We decided on PledgeMusic because we were in a hurry," the drummer said in a recent phone interview, stretching the final word with thought. "We didn't have 'make a new record' on the schedule for 2013. [...] Things went a lot faster and a lot more productively than we thought, so we kind of backed ourselves creatively into a corner where a) it was obvious that we needed to make a whole new record, and b) we should probably get it out in February in time for our annual President's Day shows. 

"Which left us with a more conventional problem of, 'Wait a second. We have no record label. We have no management. We have no infrastructure at all, so how do we do this?'" Finn continued. "From there, it became pretty obvious that some sort of, I think the term is 'direct-to-fan' -- that would be the best way. Because we're not really trying to build a worldwide empire or anything. We really just wanted everyone that appreciates us and our core people to be able to find and buy this stuff."

Once the green light was established, the band decided that the plan would be to create and release a record in a mere 12 weeks. The result is classic PUSA. From the opening sounds of Finn's kick-snare-tom pattern that appears on "Slow Slow Fly" to the punk rock ethos of album-ender "She's A Nurse", it's almost unprecedented in the modern day that a set as solid and true as these 13 tracks was birthed and released in barely three months. 

Yet none of it could have been accomplished without the help of their fans. Part of making the formula work, however, was finding stuff to give away with copes of Kudos to You! once pledges were made. In typical Presidents fashion, the options ranged from funny ($3,800 for a full day in Seattle with the band), to neat (300 bucks for the sheet music The Captain from Captain and Tennille wrote out for their song "Volcano"); to practical (a bundle of signed records that includes six of their releases), to odd (a tour laminate still attached to a key that may or may not still open the door to a tour bus they used years ago). 

"It was pretty pain-free," Finn noted when asked about what it was like to revisit a lot of the items they decided to give away as part of the campaign. "Chris, my singer, he's a complicated guy, like most singers. On one hand, he's a little bit of an archivist. He literally has one medium T-shirt of every T-shirt design we've ever done. He just likes to have stuff like that. On the other hand, he's a guy who clears the decks a lot.

"So, for him to have the opportunity to go back through his lyric notebook and have stuff he could dig up and shoot out into the ether was a total win-win for him. And the stuff that he found was wild. So, if it could be said that stuff like this is fun, we actually did have fun with that. The downside is that, while I would love to put out a record every two years through PledgeMusic, I don't know how many rounds of finding weird junk like that we have in us. I was shocked in how interested people were in the odds and ends."

But back to that another-record-in-two-years talk.

As it goes, 2008's These Are The Good Times People was initially supposed to be the final PUSA release. That didn't mean the band would cease to exist, of course -- a sparse touring schedule, along with their aforementioned Presidents Day shows would keep them active -- but it was supposed to imply that without a label, without proper management, and without a burning desire to sit down and write a brand new batch of songs, Finn, along with singer/guitarist Chris Ballew and bassist Andrew McKeag, would pursue other interests. Ballew, for instance, is the mind behind Caspar Babypants, one of the most successful kids-music acts in the Pacific Northwest, while the drummer serves as an investor in a handful of restaurants. 

None of this was designed to be particularly revelatory, considering their past flirtations with retirement. Yet when asked if this most recent collection might be the band's final, no-coming-back-this-time effort, the John Bonham devote sounded resigned and sincere when he off-handedly noted, "I don't think we have another one in us. But who knows -- never say never, right?

"I'll say this," he explained, "every time we do a five-year plan, it's our last five-year plan, and I think we're on our third, perhaps our fourth last five-year plan. When we broke up in 1999 ... we did that because we felt like that's what you were supposed to do. We were still thinking in old music industry terms. In reality, you don't have to break up; just stop workin' for a while. Just take a break. And I think we're not the only ones who got back together. I think just about everybody has. I mean, Jesus. If Soundgarden does ... you know it's ... it's an out-of-date term, breaking up.

"I see us now -- we're sort of skating into the sunset," Finn continued. "We're at a gentle glide. Unassisted by engines. But we've got a nice draft, should we choose to use it."

It's been a fairly successful ride so far, despite bumps that included the departure of founding member Dave Dederer in 2003. The move was a truly amicable one -- as the trio was getting ready to ramp up again, the "guitbass" player simply didn't have much desire to keep a career in music and eventually landed at Amazon, where he does "something interesting and top secret there that he can't talk about" as Finn playfully noted. Yet even though such a reality could have marked the end of the band as they knew it, McKeag has appeared to fit into the PUSA family seamlessly.  

Another moment of turbulence during that trip, however, was the group's relationship with their early record label, Columbia Records. On the heels of a particularly successful appearance at South By Southwest, the trio rode the wave of popularity that the music scene in Seattle was enjoying during the early 1990s and landed a contract, which, in turn, led to a self-titled debut album that achieved platinum status while spawning two of the decade's most endearing hits, "Lump" and "Peaches". These days, the drummer continues to refer to that set as "The Popular Record" in such a sincerely humble and gracious, self-aware manner that you almost have to believe every single other thing the guy says, even if he tries to tell you the sky is green (which, it should be noted, he doesn't). It's the perfect combination of knowing how lucky he was to land success in the music industry and having no discernible interest in dwelling on a time that is nearly two decades gone.

But that doesn't mean his band's relationship with their former record label wasn't always ... well ... peachy (sorry). 

"It was kind of a tussle getting released," Finn said. "We were able to convince them that we were breaking up for good and that they should release us completely. And looking back ..."

Pause.

"I guess we were lying to them," he added with a small laugh. "We didn't know it at the time, of course, but is it something I'm going to apologize for? Nooooo. Because these guys -- they're evil and I think we were kind of able to ... ahhh ... I don't know ... ahhh ... put one over on them."

None of this is said without at least the tinniest bit of innocence best found on the face of an adorable toddler who just spilled milk. Or, in other words, PUSA weren't deliberately trying to put the screws to Columbia. It just so happened that history will forever let the record show that at the end of the day, the good guys, if only for this one time, walked away with the victory. No Big Machine bullshit. No greedy executives still getting rich off a band's yesteryear success (the rights to "The Popular Record" eventually reverted back to the band after so long). 

"Overall, our relationship with Sony, Columbia, Whatever We're Calling It This Week, I'd say overall, it was positive," Finn eventually pointed out. "I can't get anyone on the phone when I have a question, but I don't think anyone in any of the other bands can either. Who needs the headache? They've circled the wagons. They put all their money into their four or five things and that works for them and God bless 'em. I do know that what they spend even on their biggest artists now -- what they spend on full campaigns is less than what they used to spend for lunch every day."

As for the current day, the drummer said he couldn't be happier with where the band is at. Working at any pace they ultimately choose, the Presidents of the United States of America essentially control their own destiny now. In addition to Kudos, the band simultaneously put out Thanks for the Feedback, a live album taken from their 2011 PUSAFEST performance. It's something Finn says he'd like to do again -- maybe once every year -- even if another studio set isn't the cards. 

Recently back from a quick, mini European tour, he maintained the position that long stretches of being on The Road simply aren't going to happen anymore. It's for the best, he says, and who can blame him? With more than 20 years of existence behind them, the group has earned the right to dictate how they want to operate their tiny business, and if that entails personally sending out old sheet music to die-hard fans on a Wednesday in March while "accidentally" penning records every now and then ... well, to use the drummer's well-parsed phrase, "God bless 'em."

"We have three little windows during the summer where we're going to do U.S. dates, and we'll also be back to Europe to do some festivals in July, but that will probably be it," Finn answered when asked about what's next for his band. "We're not doing a bunch of extra touring because there's a record. We deny that part of the paradigm, that when you have a new record out, you must promote it.

"These are not big numbers were are talking about here," the drummer added after relaying a story about sending out his final shipment of orders for Kudos. "But I'm encouraged that people all over the world who are into us were able to sort of hear about it and find an advance if they want or wait. ... I think we're doing a pretty good job of impersonating a younger, newer band."

Or, well, unless your name is One Direction, that is.

"This is the way it's going to work from now on, right?" he asked rhetorically before possibly hinting at his age in a more subliminal manner. "I mean unless you're New Direction, who needs all that extra infrastructure, middle-men, other people taking the money, etcetera, what-have-you."

A moment of silence before one last self-deprecating reminder of who again is on the other end of the line.

"We're very lucky," the drummer notes, "to have a smattering of folks all over the planet who have kind of stuck with us through the years."

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

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