Over Memorial Day weekend, it was breathlessly announced that Arcade Fire were in the process of mixing their new album. Few other details have been released about the follow-up to 2010’s Grammy Award-winning The Suburbs except that it’s due sometime this year and James Murphy is the producer. And that songwriting husband-and-wife duo Win Butler and Régine Chassagne had a baby boy, but that’s a different story. Or is it?
The lasting effects of childhood have been one of Arcade Fire’s central concerns since the band recorded its first demos in Montreal in 2001. For Butler, kids — whether digging tunnels in the snow, learning how to drive, or observing their parents — are like canaries in a coal mine for the world’s greater ills. It remains to be seen (hopefully not for much longer) whether that perspective will be altered now that he and Chassagne wear the rose-colored glasses of new parenthood. But Butler has always been optimistic enough to inject a little hope into bleak proclamations like “(Antichrist Television Blues),” so their worldview might simply shift toward the former instead of changing entirely.
Whatever happens on their next record, at least Arcade Fire have a history of staying true to themselves. As Butler tells it in Our Noise: The Story Of Merge Records, when Funeral exploded into the popular consciousness in 2004, the band stuck to their guns. They remained with Merge even when offered unfathomable sums of money by major labels, stayed humble in the halo of attention from legends like David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Bono, and stubbornly refused to engage with radio stations’ “bullshit circuit of favors for favors. Payouts, bribes, and Mafia-style bullshit,” i.e., everything the band railed against in 2007’s Neon Bible.
For that record and for The Suburbs, which would pose another sellout challenge to the band in the form of a Grammy many thought they didn’t deserve, they bought a church to record in — the same church they are now trying to sell after downsizing to DFA’s studio in the West Village (needless to say, the sentimental value of materialism has never been important to them) — determined to separate themselves from the hype cycle that has destroyed other bands.
And they did, writing two LPs that evolved from the fiery baroque pop that catapulted Funeral to the top of everyone’s best-of-ever list. Neon Bible was a tempestuous, occasionally overwrought affair that didn’t shy away from pointing out society’s economics- and politics-driven pitfalls. Arcade Fire tempered this thread on The Suburbs, which was also informed and personalized by Butler’s memories of growing up in Houston (e.g. “Rococo,” such an accurate detail of an idea that it could only have come from real life). With that album, they didn’t really hide a certain ambition to become the Bruce Springsteen of my generation.
Now, with three magnum opuses under their belt, another album on the way, and a kid in their arms, Arcade Fire are safely ensconced on the indie-rock throne. As such, there’s no better time for a retrospective, so without further ado, here are the 10 best Arcade Fire songs.
10. “No Cars Go” (from Arcade Fire, 2003)
Originally appearing with different production and instrumentation on Arcade Fire’s 2003 self-titled EP, “No Cars Go” fits the rest of Neon Bible, where automobiles are a metonym for everything that’s wrong with civilization as we know it. The only place to escape from the shrieking violins and pummeling riffs, the highways and the fossil fuels, is the space between sleep and waking. And as the song ramps up to a precipitous close, Butler attempts to bring everyone (“Women and children, let’s go!”) with him.
9. “Ocean Of Noise” (from Neon Bible, 2007)
One of the darkest, loveliest songs Arcade Fire have ever written, “Ocean Of Noise” is also the subtlest on an album filled with grand anti-statements about corporate culture and religion. There are still a lot of frightening ideas here—empty streets, the vulnerability of a half-empty bed—but Butler and his band’s low, deep rumblings rock like a lullaby until the sudden key change, when brassy horns illuminate his optimistic “I’m gonna work it out.”
8. “Crown Of Love” (from Funeral, 2004)
“Crown Of Love” is a love song of Biblical proportions. Crown of thorns connotations aside, Butler’s corporeal references—carving a name across his eyelids, the flowers in his heart—root his pleas in something more profound than the heady rush of first romance. Most of the Roy Orbison-like ballad plods along to the slow waltz of dripping violins, but about a minute from the end, it erupts into an exuberant disco breakdown as if Butler has finally been forgiven.
7. “Suburban War” (from The Suburbs, 2010)
Starting out with a gun-slinging acoustic riff and an electronic guitar line that’s softer along the edges, like sharp and dull edges of a sword, “Suburban War” draws a line in the sand that Butler hesitates to invite you over, questioning his friends and their allegiances in addition to his ideological adversaries. Drummer Jeremy Gara provides the most hair-raising moment of the song, pounding down on his floor toms like he’s leading the doomed charge of a last stand.
6. “Wake Up” (from Funeral, 2004)
Arcade Fire are nothing if not dreamers; you can hear it in their ambitious arrangements, pensive lyrics, and especially on Funeral a fixation on the rituals of sleep and dreaming. It’s no surprise, then, that Spike Jonze listened to the album while writing Where the Wild Things Are and played “Wake Up” on set. The song goes on a journey, real or imagined, from grinding guitars that set off the soaring, wordless chorus to the light-footed swing as Butler playfully warns, “You’d better look out below!”
5. “Ready To Start” (from The Suburbs, 2010)
“Ready To Start” is the thesis statement of Arcade Fire’s third, Grammy-winning, and arguably most ambitious album, which mitigates Neon Bible‘s social commentary with the indelible experience of youth that suffuses Funeral. “Ready to Start” captures the relationship between the two with enough roiling drums and minor chords to question values, even friendships, formerly held dear.
4. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” (from The Suburbs, 2010)
“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” thrives on the tension between sky-scraping synths and the soul-crushing mundanity of hourly wage jobs in “dead shopping malls.” Chassagne’s ringing tone slides between Marilyn Monroe’s breathiness and just shy of shrill, enhancing the eruptive power of the word “sprawl” and the fear of being trapped in there forever. Despite the sense of rising panic in her high pitch, the song itself is enormously anthemic, suggesting hope amidst the sprawl.
3. “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” (from Funeral, 2004)
Inspired by the Great Ice Storm of 1998, which blacked out a rather large portion of Canada and parts of New England, “Neighborhood #3″ was conceived during a week of darkness. It’s fueled by the frustration of not being able to do a goddamn thing about weather or power grids, a feeling of futility that Butler savagely turns on its head (“The power’s out/ In the heart of man/ Take it from your heart/ Put it in your hand”) with a deeply incessant kick drum and revving guitars.
2. “Rebellion (Lies)” (from Funeral, 2004)
Arcade Fire’s iconic concert closer has probably become every hipster kid’s de facto response when their parents tell them to go to bed. And as far as excuses go, it’s a good one. Steady two-note piano chords fortify Win Butler’s fire-and-brimstone pronouncement, “Sleeping is giving in/ No matter what the time is,” addressing those adults who make such arbitrary bedtime rules. Behind it, the chugging rhythm builds to a closing statement that seems to challenge whether you can even sleep when you’re dead.
1. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” (from Funeral, 2004)
“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” is all over the place, but it couldn’t be any other way. One of the best singles of the 2000s, it’s also Arcade Fire’s most classic song, conflagrating from a few delicately ascending piano notes into a raging, fanciful cacophony of pounded chords. The whole thing is barely anchored by Butler’s quaver, which pitches and heaves as if the band has become possessed by something greater than themselves.
Listen to this playlist on Spotify here.