Ursula Rucker: Supa Sista

Mark Anthony Neal

Ursula Rucker

Supa Sista

Label: !K7
US Release Date: 2001-09-04
UK Release Date: 2001-09-10

No doubt jaws dropped as the poetess proceeded to document the retribution of a young woman who was gang raped. The poem, "The Unlocking" was a lurid and disturbing close to the official "debut" release of The Roots, Do You Want More?!!!??!. The poet, Ursula Rucker would return for two follow-up cameos with The Roots on the tracks "Adventures in Wonderland" (Illidelph Halflife, 1997) and "Return to Innocence" from their most recent studio disc Things Fall Apart (1999). If the East Coast playas thought that the acoustic jazz/funk of The Roots was too soft for their taste, Rucker's cameos proved that the group could get straight gangsta and that those gangstas didn't always possess a penis or some facsimile of one as gangsta raptress Boss exhibited on her 1992 track "Deeper". Gangsta like Rucker's single mom drug don theorizing in "Adventures in Wonderland" that she was the "Modern day vixen vampire slayer / Unauthorized player in the capitalist contest to see who gets . . . money."

Rucker's opportunity to record with The Roots occurred when noted poet and playwright Ntozake Shange declined an invitation to appear on their debut recording. Fittingly Rucker falls firmly within the tradition of Black Arts era poets such as Nikki Giovanni, Camille Yarbrough and Sonia Sanchez, who Rucker also shares faint visual likeness to. What distinguishes Rucker, and many other contemporary spoken word artists such as Saul Williams, Kevin Powell or Sarah Jones, from fore-poets such as the aforementioned Sanchez and Giovanni and others like Amiri Baraka and Haki Madhubuti is the influence of hip-hop on her poetic sensibilities. Giving (gangsta) bitch slaps to the ice brigade (bling, bling baby), wacked out internet racist, failing educational systems while affirming distinct woman-spaces, political resistance, and progressive creativity, Rucker's "debut" Supa Sista is a much welcomed challenge to hip-hop's materialism and posturing and the increasing complacency of the so-called neo-soul revolution.

The title track "Supa Sista" sounds like some funked-up "gangsta folk" music that invokes the flavor of Cassandra Wilson's major label breakthrough Blue Lights 'Till Dawn (1994). Produced by Tim Motzer who Rucker originally worked with on King Britt's Sylk130, the song begins with Rucker's slow big drum chant of "I rose and fell / As he called my name . . . he changed my name / Called my blackness untamed / He put me in chains / He changed my name / Then he changed my names." The song's intro speaks powerfully to the complicated web of racist and sexist oppression -- what Kimberle Crenshaw calls intersectionality -- that black woman have conjured to escape. At its root is a struggle over the naming and defining of black women and black femininity. Hortense Spiller's acknowledges such a struggle in her groundbreaking 1977 essay "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book" where she writes "'Peaches' and 'brown sugar,' 'Sapphire' and 'Earth Mother', . . . I describe a locus of Confounded identities, a meeting ground of investments and privations in the national treasury of rhetorical wealth."

In Rucker's mind, the black woman, the Supa Sistas, are forces of nature: "Angry ghetto-grown whirl-a-girl . . . swirlin' / Twirlin' / Her way through the darkest of days." While Rucker sees the "Supa Sister" project as an effort to "deconstruct . . . preconceived misconceptions," she also envisions a black feminist worldview that transcends specific gender politics and can be extended to efforts to "emerge from the muck and mire" and "set the brainwashed up masses on fire." It is this notion of a tracendent black feminist politics that Joy James identifies in her book Shadowboxing where she identifies black woman such as Mary Church Terrell, Ida B Wells Barnett, and Ella Baker as political insurgents, who were not solely defined by their interests in feminist concerns. According to James, "this emphasis on political militancy and radicalism differs somewhat from the emphases of contemporary black feminisms that focus on cultural politics as isolated from state power and middle-class sensibilities." Rucker echoes this theme as she urges "Supa Sistas" that their "mission is clear / Fear is not even an option / With your son on that frontline / There's no time / Grab your tek9." The songs ends with a nod, albeit forced, to Whodini's classic rap ballad "One Love".

Rucker's hip-hop sensibilities are most expressly represented in her poison and brimstone assault on commercial hip-hop on the track "What???" Backed by the speedball hard bop production of the drum n' bass producer 4Hero, the track seems a direct response to Jay Z's "Can I Get A..." Though the chorus of Jay Z's track begins "can I get a fuck you?", the chorus was changed for radio and video consumption reading instead as "Can I get a What? What?" Rucker gives J-hova his "what?" with her straight challenge "you think you can rhyme over this nigga / You think you can sing over this playa / What . . . you think you can flow over this hustler." Rucker provides the ground rules for the post-millennial MC battle suggesting that participants can not rely on the current ghetto-fab staples as she states, "No Crissy, no thongs . . . and absolutely no platinum or ice / No guns, no lies about your ghetto rep" later adding "so now what you gonna do?" Later in the song Rucker directly references Jigga's "Nigga What, Nigga Who" by asking "So now what you gonna do / Wit your rhyme, wit your flow" which is a revision of Amil's backing vocals on the track ("get your dough, wit you flow").

The brilliance of Rucker's work is in her ability to find value, meaning and elements of resistance in common everyday practices. Such is the case on "Philadelphia Child" where Rucker examines the lives of the "ghetto girls and the barrio boys" who look at the city's historical landmarks and wonder "where do I fit in all-of this?" Rucker's finds the answer to that question in the city's legendary drill teams who are "White-booted / Philly attituded / zooted . . . up . . . on Schuykill Punch / They shout above drum and street-stomp saying / We are here / We are here . . . We are, we live, we matter." The song's power is buttressed by Robert Yancey III's nuanced production, particularly his subtle use of strings which insistently propels the song's narrative forward In another example it is a simple "letter to a sister friend" that allows Rucker to examine a dynamic black feminine identity. Like her fellow Philly-based poet Jill Scott, the track also allows Rucker to introduce listeners to her singing talents as her very capable vocals urgently create a lyrical "Sistaspace" that is malleable, shifting, nurturing, passionate, ethereal and mystical. The lyrics reflect the multiplicity of feminine identities that black woman take on in the role of "Mother, Lover, Sister, and Friend". While such lyrics can be read "naturally" in a heterosexist context, Rucker suggest a more specific notion of woman sharing where her sister friend is "always mother, sometimes lover, sister eternal, friend blessed." The track serves as a reminder to her "sister friend" and presumably other black women to "honor your house (body), fleshy and sacred, artcarved and curvy . . . Offer it . . . never . . . to those unworthy."

On the track "Brown Boy", Rucker walks the fine line between feminist critique, as witnessed on tracks like "What???" and "Supa Sista" and the buttressing of black patriarchy. Rucker's vacillation is likely the product of being a real-life mother struggling to raise young male children in a society that views their lives as "raw sewage". Rucker makes a specific investment in the various mythologies that have accompanied the historical transition of blacks in America from pre-modern African natives to what Cornel West has called "new world Africans". Often this transition, as is the case on "Brown Boy", is reduced to the dichotomies of "chief to slave" and "king to cotton picker", that do nothing to engage the complexities of African survival and resistance in the Americas. Rucker's choice of language here is likely a reflex to criticisms often faced by black feminists within the mainstream black community. As she admitted in an interview with Philadelphia Weekly, "You get so many labels, I don't need more. I don't to pigeonhole my work and say it's feminist work." Often the embrace of a lay Afrocentrism or rather what I'll term the "myth of true African identity" is a response to what Kendall Thomas has called "a crude racialist litmus test to establish true 'blackness'" where those who embrace anti-sexist and anti-homophobic politics, often at the expense of "true identity" myths, are viewed as outside the parameters of "true" blackness and thus the black community proper. In the case of Rucker's "Brown Boy" which suggests that there has been "epic memory stricken with the disease of conditioning," her investment in the "myth of true African identity" and its attendant patriarchy obscures her more principled critiques of the black male condition where they are viewed as "blips on the screen of America . . . Tuskegee Airmen and experimental recruits / Strange fruits and strangers in the village." The last lyric speaks to the forms of oppression -- the practice of lynching and the syphilis experiments on black men in the 1930s -- that are specific to the black male experience. Again Rucker undermines her critique here, by reinforcing the US Constitution's "3/5ths" definition of black bodies ("Black not beautiful, black like oil spillage / Diminished to 3/5 of whole") as a male construct, effectively obliterating the legitimacy of oppressions, particularly sexual violence, specific to black woman.

Rucker is much more sophisticated on the project's most affecting piece, the tragic "Song for Billy". The track gives another spin on the crack game/sex games themes found in Rucker's earlier work with The Roots on "The Unlocking" and "Adventures in Wonderland". At its core the song is about sacrifice, namely the sacrifice of a young girl "cast into a fire . . . a sacrifice / For a crystalline god / Offered up by a once goddess / Now mindless / Mother / Fucker of men / Demonic suppliers of her desires." In other words baby girl is tragically offered up to "not even men/ More like / Monsters" so that mama can again hit the pipe. The narrative recalls song's like Paul Lawrence's "Strung Out" ("strung out, left in doubt, f-r-e-e-b-a-s-i-n-g") and Oran "Juice" Jones's "Pipe Dreams" ("inhale now feel the rush . . . the demon has arrived, nightmare begins"). The tragedy is not just the mother's addiction or her insensitivity to her very young daughter, but the men who willingly defile a girl that is "not even a woman yet / Not even an adolescent / Not even a toddler . . . yet." As Rucker more pointedly suggest the young child was an "innocent orifice / Too young to produce woman juice / Still tiny / Still dry and clean / Just weaned off mama's withered, weathered tit." Rucker uses the track to raise more specific questions about female sexuality and male privilege. In the aftermath of the 2000 Puerto Rican Day Parade or the most recent Woodstock travesty (lest we think only black and brown men can't control their urges) her insistence that a woman's vagina ("Her baby hole / Not big enough / But a hole just the same") is "supposed to be/only a confirmation of sex . . . not an invitation to sex" is a forceful reminder. In the end Rucker also points to a process where a child already understands that her own sexuality and the abuse of it by others (including her cracked out mother in this case) is of value in a world that will read no value in her own humanity.


Rucker's debut is only the latest example of a long line of black women poets and spoken word artist that have offered trenchant and necessary critiques of American life and culture, often without the kinds of promotional support that even the most morose rappers get in the current music industry environment. Thirty years ago Nikki Giovanni recorded Truth is on the Way the first of two spoken word recordings in which she collaborated with the New York Community Choir (under the direction of Bennie Diggs) performing "gospelized" versions of her already published poetry. A third recording, The Way I Feel, was done for the Atlantic label in 1975 with the legendary Arif Mardin behind the boards. Giovanni's "major" label debut was reflective of an overall trend in which major labels became interested in signing "black" acts, effectively annexing the remnants of the independent black music industry. It was during this era that Clive Davis' then burgeoning Arista label would sign the mercurial genius Gil Scott-Heron. Many of these recordings have been forgotten, save the hip-hop community's fixation with The Last Poets, who were easily the most bombastic and militant of the most well known spoken word artists/poets of the 1970s.

One of the many important recordings from that era forgotten during the past two decades was Camille Yarbrough's The Iron Pot Cooker which was released on the Vanguard label in 1975. In the linear notes to the recording's 2000 re-issue, Kevin Powell writes, "As a hip-hop journalist, I was keenly aware of the influence of musical wordsmiths like The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron . . . on what is popularly called rap music. Because hip-hop has traditionally been a very male-centered art form, I naively assumed that its forbears, too, had been men. This historical and cultural omission speaks volumes about the continued ignorance and oppression of woman artists in American culture." With tracks like "But It Comes Out Mad", the surreal mega-poem "Dream/Panic/Sonny Boy the Rip-Off Man/Little Sally The Super Sex Star/Taking Care of Business)" and the brilliant "Take Yo' Praise", Yarbrough spoke insightfully to the dynamics and contradictions of black life at the culmination of the civil rights/black power era. The recording is legitimately, as Powell argues, the ground on which the later works of Badu, Lauryn Hill, Me'shell N'degeocello, Jill Scott, and Ursula Rucker's stand. In the linear notes, Powell tells the story of initially finding a vinyl copy of The Iron Pot Cooker in a crate somewhere in New York's East Village. One can only hope that Ursula Rucker's Supa Sista will not endure the similar fate of being obscured, ignored and forgotten.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

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

69. Arcade Fire - "Creature Comfort"

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

68. Alt-J - "In Cold Blood"

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

67. The Mynabirds - "Golden Age"

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

66. Sir Sly - "High"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

62. Animal Collective - "Kinda Bonkers"

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

61. ANOHNI - "Paradise"

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

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

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

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

Keep reading... Show less

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

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

Keep reading... Show less

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

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

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

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