December 3, 2014 by NowhereButPop
I’ll be the first one to tell you that I often mistake the word “best” for “favorite”; with that in mind, I’ll try (and most likely fail) to make an objective list of the 10 best songs by Arcade Fire. I’m sorry Reflektor.
10) “Intervention” (Neon Bible)
From the grand and gothic organ which serves as the introduction, “Intervention” is everything that Neon Bible represents–baroque and gothic tones to go along with pessimistic lyrics of control and escape. “Intervention” is dark and foreboding without ever coming off as threatening. The melancholy of this song is akin to the glum found on Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, and just as Springsteen did on that album, Arcade Fire use that same ominous distress to their advantage.
9) “City with No Children” (The Suburbs)
The Suburbs is one of the most perfect unions of music and lyrics of any album of the past 15 years. “City with No Children” has one of the most memorable melodies on the album with spacy backing vocals, hand clapping, and lyrics that somehow both chide and lament a past girlfriend. As with the rest of The Suburbs, there is such a wide spectrum of emotion within “City with No Children”. The range goes from self-deprecation, “I used to think I was not like them, but I’m beginning to have my doubts”, to scathing lack of forgiveness, “Do you think your righteousness can pay the interest on your debt?”. “City with No Children” is a very human song on a very human album.
8) “The Suburbs/The Suburbs (Cont.)” (The Suburbs)
Although they are two separate songs, in fact they bookend the album, “The Suburbs” and “The Suburbs (Cont.)” are really one musical piece. The first piece introduces us to these selfsame suburbs and everything we’ll need to know going forward as indicated by the line “Sometimes I can’t believe it, I’m moving past the feeling again”. The singer goes back and forth between getting over whatever feelings he has towards the suburbs, only to find them rekindled once more. The opening track is a guided tour of Win Butlers’ conflicted feelings of his suburban upbringing, while the closing track, which is really more of an epilogue, laments over the passing of time, but reveals that if given the chance, he’d only waste that time again. When Butler mutters “I forgot to ask…” only to break off, what’s implied is that he forgot to ask us of our own suburban upbringing. The entire album is a journey into the recesses of Win Butlers’ memories, so it’s automatically selfish and self-referential, which leaves no time for contrasting or supporting opinions. But what can be agreed upon is the universal truth that if any of us could “have it back, all the time that we wasted”, well…we’d all just waste it again, and again.
7) “Haiti” (Funeral)
More than any other song in the band’s catalogue, “Haiti” is multi-instrumentalists’ Regine Chassagne baby. From start to finish, it’s her song about her native country, and she absolutely owns it. The serene flow of the melody, like a placid river flowing on a warm summer afternoon, betrays the truthfully brutal lyrics chronicling the terror and death cultivated by the reign of Duvalier. The music is beautiful and delicate, while the lyrics paint the story of a land that seeks to snuff out any semblance of beauty or innocence. If you’re wondering why they named their debut album Funeral, “Haiti” is a good reason to figure out why.
6) “Rebellion (Lies)” (Funeral)
One of the best things about this song (of which there are many) is the call and response of the chorus. Every time the backing vocals shout “Lies, lies” it adds a level of excitement and energy to the song that would be absent otherwise. The song is really driven by the violin and piano which somehow manages to create a very folk-pop feel. “Rebellion” is not only the most accessible song on Arcade Fire’s debut album, but it’s also the albums’ climax. Granted, the music isn’t as tight, nor is Win Butler’s vocals as refined as they would be on later albums, but “Rebellion” is the beginning of the band coming into their own and perfecting their unique sound.
5) “Reflektor” (Reflektor)
“Will I see you on the other side?” asks lead singer Win Butler on Reflektors’ eponymous album opener. This question is posed right as the song gloriously descends into dance-rock inspired chaos replete with backing vocals by David Bowie. Will we follow this earnest indie-rock band into the realm of electronica inspired rock? Being Arcade Fire’s equivalent to Achtung Baby, Reflektor saw the band add new dimensions by immersing themselves in dance and pop music. Much like U2 back in 1991, many questions arose as to how successful the band would be spearheaded by this new and immensely different sound. “Reflektor” made us want to cross over to the other side, while Reflektor made us glad we did.
4) “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” (The Suburbs)
On an album borne from brothers Win and Will Butler’s upbringing in the suburbs of Texas, Regine Chassagne manages to stake her claim on The Suburbs with the masterful “Sprawl II”, which once again continues the bands’ trend of using the penultimate track as the albums’ climax. From “Sprawl II”, it’s easy to see how the band got to Reflektor as its hypnotic disco beat serve as a precursor to their 2013 follow up to The Suburbs. Dealing with the theme of suburban isolation and rejection, “Sprawl II” does so in a way that after 14 track still seems fresh and exciting. It’s no surprise that when played live, “Sprawl II” gets one of the biggest ovations from the crowd.
3) “My Body is a Cage” (Neon Bible)
The final track on Neon Bible ultimately proves to be the albums’ best as it captures Arcade Fire at their most miserable and operatic. The song constantly progresses, adding more layers until the 2:10 when the full band comes in backed up by a grand orchestra. It’s at that point where the true fury of the song erupts out of its subdued beginning. The best line of the entire album is on this song when Win Butler admits that “Just because you’ve forgotten, doesn’t mean you’re forgiven”. All the music on Neon Bible seems like it was written as part of an 18th century German symphony, instead of a pop album, and “My Body is a Cage” serves as the exclamation point to a wondrously dark, but intimately impersonal album.
2) “Afterlife” (Reflektor)
Similarly to Funeral, the climax of Reflektor comes in the form of its penultimate track: the introspectively groovy “Afterlife”. And what a climax it is! Lyrically, Reflektor pales in comparison to The Suburbs, but “Afterlife” is a very big exception. It poses the existentially terrifying questions of “When love is gone, where does it go?” and “After this, can it last another night?”. “Afterlife” is the culmination of disc twos’ Orpheus and Eurydice (partly inspired by husband and wife duo Win Butler and Regine Chassagne). Sonically, it’s another gleaming example of the band’s mastery to infuse dance beats and electronica while still remaining true to their core. Lyrically, the song paints brilliant and mesmerizing portraits such as “A glimpse of you, like looking through a window or a shallow sea”, which adheres to the idea of reflections, and obstructions that distort the true image, one of the main themes of the album. “Afterlife” brings Reflektor to a stunning and existentially maniacal culmination combining some of Butlers’ best lyrics with personal themes of love and lost love and a beat to dance to. Simply put, this is the best that Reflektor offers.
1) “Suburban War” (The Suburbs)
Bias be damned! I really do think that “Suburban War” is the best song that Arcade Fire has written and recorded. Beyond being the best song on their album, everything about the song is perfect, especially when realized within the full context of the album. The repeating guitar riff which opens the song conveys a wistfully nostalgia that underscores the passing of time and how nothing is left untouched by its machinations, the biggest theme of the album itself. Finding a song by Arcade Fire with better lyrics would be more unlikely than the New York Jets making the playoffs this year, as Win Butler illustrates his entire adolescence right in front of us, detailing the dissolution of friendships, the sinister intent of the suburbs themselves as how others tried to rebel against it. “Let’s go for a drive, see the town tonight, there’s nothing to do, but I don’t mind when I’m with you”, arguably the best line of the entire album opens “Suburban War”. It’s a line that I’m sure holds personal meaning to Win Butler, but it’s also universal enough that we all have a similar memory of driving around aimlessly with a boyfriend or girlfriend, just enjoying his/her company. It’s a part of youth that is specific to all of us. In “Suburban War”, the band makes their own personal stories universal and relatable to our own lives. Making the personal universal is what The Suburbs does best, and on “Suburban War”, it was never done more perfectly.
Leaving out beloved cuts like “Normal Person” and “Half Life II” were infinitely difficult, but I tried to make it as objective as possible. For Arcade Fire, a band that really doesn’t have any “bad” songs, whittling down their best to just 10 is a herculean task in itself. As with all songs, it’s just a matter of what connects, and most importantly when.