Arcade Fire

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.

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Comments (100)
  1. stereogum, I love you but this is a pinch premature. They are still kinda green in their career….. rank the top ten songs of a band that has 40 songs.

    • …they do have 40 songs. 37 on the three full-length studio albums, two on the Hunger Games Soundtrack, two from the deluxe edition of The Suburbs, and that’s not even counting other B-Sides or their first EP.

  2. We agree on only 2t:

    Rococco
    We Used To Wait
    Sprawl II
    Rebellion
    Black Mirror
    The Well and the Lighthouse
    Windowsill

  3. no keep the car running? now you done it

  4. 1. Rebellion (Lies)
    2. Neighborhood 1 (Tunnels)
    3. Keep the Car Running
    4. We Used to Wait
    5. Wake Up
    6. Ready to Start
    7. Neighborhood 3 (Power Out)
    8. Intervention
    9. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
    10. No Cars Go

  5. Only one from Neon Bible? Yikes.

    “My Body Is a Cage” needs to be on here somewhere.

  6. that picture of them amuses me, simply because it doesn’t include the other 438 people in the band.

  7. I’ve always been a sucker for their grand tempo changes in songs like The Well and the Lighthouse and Crown of Love. Also keep the car running and Rebellion (Lies) are just perfect

  8. Keep The Car Running is definitely one of their best songs they’ve ever written. Also, Rococo.

    Dave Grohl says he listens to “Keep the Car Running” every morning when he wakes up. Not sure that should sway the vote, but it’s pretty cool.

  9. 1. The Suburbs
    2. Ready to Start
    3. Suburban War
    4. No Cars Go
    5. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
    6. We Used to Wait
    7. Empty Room
    8. My Body Is A Cage
    9. Wake Up
    10. Windowsill

    With honorable mentions to Rebellion (Lies), The Well and the Lighthouse, and (Antichrist Television Blues).

  10. “Intervention” is an amazingly underrated song. My body shivers when I hear the organ pipes that open the track.

  11. *they bought the church to record “Neon Bible” and recorded “The Suburbs” there as well.

  12. Neighborhood #3 is great (like everything on Funeral), but I wouldn’t have included it. Beyond that, pretty solid with one exception:

    WHERE THE HELL IS ANTICHRIST TELEVISION BLUES???!!!!!

  13. Good list and you got #1 right, also nice to see Ocean of Noise getting some appreciation, it’s always been a favorite of mine. A couple of my other favorites I’d definitely add: Laika, Intervention, Half Light I and Haiti.

  14. I get that lists are interesting to make and generate traffic and they are a feature of the site.

    BUT PLEASE, just retitle them to “Our Top 10 ____ Songs” saying the ten that you choose are the ten best is pretty narcissistic.

    • Naaah no point in that. I see what you’re saying, but it should be pretty much assumed its “their opinion,” right? I mean any music blog/site you get on it should be assumed it’s just their opinion. There’s no such thing as a definitive end-all list, really.

  15. You guys would pick the original “No Cars Go”…

  16. Neon Bible hands down, best song. We Used To Wait is a close second.

  17. I just returned to Neon Bible last week for the first time in a while and it was better than I remember. I’d like to see at least one more song from that record make the cut.

  18. Intervention

  19. Sprawl II is a good song, but it doesn’t make my top 10. I agree with tunnels though, that was the first I Arcade FIre song I listened to and was blown away by it definitely made me love them. Love the love for Neighbourhood #3 too, another favorite, and it is amazing live.

    I like all of the Suburbs and “Suburban War” is a good song, but I wouldn’t say it deserves to be on the top ten. Especially with songs like “Keep the Car Running” left out. Also in my opinion, “Intervention” deserves “Ocean of Noise” spot on the list.

    The top picks aren’t anything I’d argue with though, decent list.

  20. If you’d rather listen to a Spotify playlist, instead of listening to them one at a time, I made a playlist here: http://open.spotify.com/user/jexpo1976/playlist/0tVqWFsOrlpiId2DhRZh6L

  21. No “Modern Man?” Sad.

  22. Keep the Car Running & We Used to Wait for Ocean of Noise & Sprawl II… now it’s perfect!

  23. I can’t believe you left off other songs that are not on this list. I am completely disappointed by how you are bound by the laws of mathematics to not include 25 songs on a list of 10 songs.

  24. Neighborhood #3 is thee absolute best. I always keep it on my hurricane party playlist rotation.

  25. Glad you included ‘Ocean of Noise’ – Bleak in it’s assumptions, but hopeful in resolution. The swell of brass is positively joyous.

  26. Black Mirror, Modern Man, The Well and the Lighthouse

  27. Far too light on Neon Bible, and if we’re going to include a song from the EP “Vampire/Forest Fire” should have been the obvious choice. So.

    • and for what it’s worth:
      10. Vampire/Forest Fire
      09. My Body is a Cage
      08. Haiti
      07. Intervention
      06. Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
      05. Cold Wind
      04. The Suburbs
      03. The Well and the Lighthouse
      02. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
      01. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)

  28. 10. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
    9. Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)
    8. Keep The Car Running
    7. (Antichrist Television Blues)
    6. Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
    5. The Suburbs
    4. Wake Up
    3. Intervention
    2. Une Année Sans Lumière
    1. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)

  29. “Cold Wind” from Six Feet Under S/T is my favorite. also “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” and “Intervention”

  30. I had a chance to hang out back stage and meet Win & Co. when they came through SLC, which kind of felt like crashing a family reunion as the Butler brothers have quite a few relatives out here. He talked about heading to Phoenix after that and how he was going to play basketball with Steve Nash. He wasn’t joking.

    The End

  31. I couldn’t agree more with this list. Finally, my favorite songs of neon bible and the suburbs (ocean of noise, suburban war) get the recognition they deserve

  32. WAY better top 10. No “Keep the Car Running”? C’mahn Stereogum!

  33. Man, really surprised to see My Body is a Cage not on this list.

    • Aw, beat me to it. That’s my favorite Arcade Fire song. The lyrics are just so powerful, and the organs and crescendos are like perfect.

      Has anyone ever seen that video that plays “My Body Is a Cage” over the final shoot out between Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson from “Once Upon a Time in the West”? That video’s probably the best amateur music video I’ve ever seen.

  34. I can’t believe that no one else seems to have an issue with Wake Up so far from #1. I’ll admit I am a sucker for the songs that seem grandiose and epic (eg Lisztomania and A Certain Kind of Romance), but damn it if that song doesn’t feel like a religious experience every time I listen to it. Everything from the theme of it, to the marching pace behind Win’s shouts, to the “look out below” finale feel like the perfect pieces to a song that exemplifies all that is right in music and sound, and therefore the world.

    • I agree. I can’t believe anybody who has seen Arcade Fire live would have “Wake Up” all the way down at number 6.

      • A note on that live.

        I saw Arcade Fire live at a small to mid-sized out door venue when they played Halifax in 2011 and after the concert many people opted to take the ferry to get back to Halifax from Dartmouth (Halifax they are two areas opposite each other along a large harbour). So many people decided to take the ferry that the building got overloaded and the wait ended up being almost two hours. Once we finally got in the final area to wait we were all tired out and everyone was over heating, then all of a sudden everyone, and I mean everyone just started to sing the hook from “Wake Up”, it was a pretty surreal experience (mostly because I was super exhausted having arrived really early to the concert, but still).

        It’s a powerful song.

  35. Where the hell is “In The Backseat”?

  36. “We Used to Wait” took complete hold of me for months after the Suburbs came out. It’s probably my number one, actually, and it would have been nice to see that on this list.

  37. Speaking in Tongues and Cold wind, yo

  38. This might be the toughest list you’ve done, Stereogum. In my opinion, you’re missing a lot! But at the same time, had you included the songs I list below, you’d still be missing a lot. So unfortunately, it’s a lose lose situation. Just one song, I would not have put Ready to Start instead of, say, Haiti.

    For what it’s worth, a few songs that I think should’ve been included: Haiti, The Suburbs, Modern Man, Rococo, Keep the Car Running, and I would’ve linked the two Sprawls together.

  39. 1 Wake Up
    2 My Body Is A Cage
    3 Sprawl 2
    The rest of the 10 in no order: We Used to Wait
    The Suburbs
    Rebellion (Lies)
    Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
    Ready to Start
    Deep Blue
    Neon Bible

  40. I really like this list, even though I don’t agree with a large chunk of it. When I stopped to think about it, I’m actually a bigger sucker for their sophomore effort than I realized ( say “realized” because I generally think of their debut and their third as superior albums, but now I don’t know what to believe). I would put all of these in my top 10:

    Well and the Lighthouse, (Antichrist Television Blues), Keep the Car Running, and No Cars Go…

    Damn. One sec. I’mma revisit that album.

  41. Not enough love for Neon Bible on this list. Might be nostalgia, but it’s my favorite Arcade Fire record.

  42. Don’t disagree with anything on this list by any means but I’ve also always been quite partial to the s/t track from The Suburbs and “My Body Is a Cage” (maybe cause both have great videos).

  43. My weird Rengine-heavy, no-Neon Bible list that nobody’ll like:

    1. Sprawl II
    2. Rebellion (Lies)
    3. Empty Room
    3. Wake Up
    4. Une Annee Sans Lumiere
    5. We Used to Wait
    6. Haiti
    7. City With No Children
    8. Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
    9. Half Light II (No Celebration)
    10. Neighbrohhod #2 (Laika)

  44. Not list-worthy, but “Cars And Telephones” is well-worth finding.

  45. Neon Bible’z my favorite album of theirs. Not a weak track. Antichrist Television Blues would be a welcome addition to this list…

    • I totally agree, Neon Bible is one of the few albums out there, of any artist, that I can listen to without feeling inclined to skip any of the songs. Arcade Fire do not write bad songs, but I seem to be of the minority opinion about Keep the Car Running. That’s actually my least favorite song on Neon Bible, but I never skip it

  46. As long as Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) is no.1 I am happy. I would still have liked to see (Antichrist Television Blues) and Haiti on there somewhere.

  47. In a history of bad lists this has to be the worst.

  48. No Haiti? No Roococo? The Well & The Light House? Une Année Sans Lumière? Antichrist Television Blues? Modern Man? I’m beginning to think you make these lists just to piss off the real fans of the artists in mention.

  49. Ocean of Noise and Crown of Love are very good songs, but Intervention???? Where the heck is INTERVENTION??? and No Antichrist Televsion Blues??? Whaaaaaaa??? Bah.

  50. My Body is a Cage

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