On Saturday, Arcade Fire will celebrate the 15th anniversary of its debut album, Funeral. Released on September 14, 2004, Funeral was the big-sounding “little indie record” that could, riding a wave of ecstatic buzz from the blogosphere (back when blogs had real pull) to become one of the defining rock albums of its time. Arriving as the early ’00s New York rock scene crashed and burned, Funeral pulled a 180 from the stripped-back aesthetic of The Strokes, embracing a supremely uplifting and expansive sound that repurposed In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and blew it up to Wagnerian proportions.
Funeral was such a phenomenon in its small corner of the world that even Pitchfork’s rave 9.7 review became indie-famous. (It was recently declared “the single most consequential album review of the past 20 years” — that’s hyperbole, but it’s not hugely hyperbolic.) Even as Arcade Fire has evolved far beyond the sound of Funeral, the record remains the standard against each subsequent Arcade Fire album is judged. Surely that must be frustrating at times for the band, though it’s also a testament to the place that Funeral holds in the hearts of indie fans. If Arcade Fire never makes an album quite as beloved as Funeral, they should be comforted by how rare it is for any band to make an album with Funeral‘s impact.
Then again, has anyone actually proven that Funeral is the best Arcade Fire album? This question warrants a serious investigation. Therefore, let’s walk through the band’s discography and make sure that no other album — not even, cough, The Suburbs, cough — is actually better.
Funeral vs. Everything Now (2017)
Why am I starting in reverse chronological order? For the same reason great college football teams open each season by playing a couple of pushovers. You need to pad the record, get the juices flowing, and build drama for the fans. When it comes to Arcade Fire albums, Everything Now is West Central Vermont Technical College.
It’s possible there is an Arcade Fire fan who thinks Everything Now is better than Funeral. (If this person exists, I will be hearing from them on social media as soon as this column posts.) However, even if you think that Everything Now was unfairly maligned by critics, putting it at the bottom of the band’s discography seems like a cut-and-dried case.
The thing about Everything Now is that it does seem like an organic output of Arcade Fire’s ongoing artistic evolution. In your 20s, you dwell on the big questions of life. You obsess over death at length, because what else are you going to do when you stay up extremely late every night in bars? That’s Funeral. Then, by the time you hit your late 30s, you suddenly become one of those people who gets really upset about how people 15-20 years younger are on social media all of the time. That’s Everything Now.
This was Arcade Fire’s trajectory from 2004 to 2017, and I imagine it’s the same for many of the people who liked indie rock in the mid-’00s and now have two kids and a mortgage. If this process continues, the next Arcade Fire album will be called Triggered.
Funeral vs. Reflektor (2013)
A true yin-and-yang choice. The first three albums represent Arcade Fire 1.0 — maximalist, anthemic, ascendent — whereas Reflektor signifies the beginning of a new, less certain, and reactionary era. With this album, Arcade Fire boldly declared, “Arena-rock jams won us a Grammy … but what we really want to do is dance!”
Along with decisively backing away from their early sound — The Joshua Tree is out, Pop is in — Reflektor is Arcade Fire’s post-fame record, the one where they dig deep into concepts like “the media” and “the nature of persona.” This is always a precarious move for a formerly underground band. For Arcade Fire, it was especially deadly. “You know, I can’t tell if I’m a normal person, it’s true,” Win Butler sings in “Normal Person,” Reflektor‘s nadir. “I think I’m cool enough, but am I cruel enough?” I am sorry to report that you are a total normie, Win.
The paradox of Reflektor is that it attempts to remake Arcade Fire as a sly and sinewy dance-rock band, but it’s actually the most bloated album in the catalogue. It cost $1.6 million to make, and yet they dared to put the most immediate banger, “Afterlife,” as the penultimate track on the second disc. This decadent perversity is so pervasive that it makes me want to love Reflecktor, but I’m not quite there. As to how it compares to Funeral, this album isn’t nearly cool or cruel enough.
Funeral vs. The Suburbs (2010)
Now we’re getting serious. The Suburbs is Arcade Fire’s biggest seller. It famously won the Grammy for Album Of The Year. The excellent support tour established them as one of the most viscerally exciting arena bands of the early 21st century. It is arguably the most conceptually sound album in the band’s discography, besting even Funeral. It felt like an instant classic upon its release, and it has held up well nearly a decade later.
Funeral and The Suburbs are very, very close. The knock against The Suburbs is that it’s a little padded. The bloat that would become overwhelming on Reflektor begins here. You really only need one “Half Light” and one “Sprawl.” (Weirdly, the part “II” is superior in both instances.) On the other hand, one could argue that the expansiveness of The Suburbs only strengthens the power of the concept. This is an album about “the sprawl” of suburbia, after all, so it makes sense that the album itself sprawls.
Even the sentimental vote is split. Funeral is the entry point for many Arcade Fire fans, but many more mainstream listeners didn’t come fully on-board until The Suburbs. That’s somewhat true for me — The Suburbs is the first Arcade Fire record I really, truly loved. Though you can’t deny the number of classics on Funeral. That is the one with “Wake Up,” their defining in-concert staple. Or … is the band’s quintessential live track actually “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”? Again, it’s extremely close.
Let’s think on it for a moment.
Advantage: Temporary draw
Funeral vs. Neon Bible (2007)
A word you never hear in relation to Arcade Fire albums is “slight.” For better or worse, Arcade Fire make self-important and highly orchestrated epics embedded with important and socially relevant messages. Even at their best, there is little about them that is casual or relaxed.
But relative to other Arcade Fire records, Neon Bible does feel the most like “just” a rock album. Yes, the songs are about the hypocrisy of religion and the emptiness of pop culture and the failure of modern democracies to protect citizens from encroaching paranoia and fear. And, of course, it sounds like 27 people are playing on every song. But this is also the Arcade Fire album where the Springsteen influence is most overt, and that’s a good thing — much of Neon Bible feels positively jaunty. “Windowsill” is Nebraska. “(Antichrist Television Blues)” is The River. “My Body Is A Cage” is Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Everything else is extremely Born In The U.S.A. Later in 2007, Springsteen answered by making his Arcade Fire album, Magic.
Good record overall but let’s be real. Funeral isn’t sweating this one.
Climactic rematch: Funeral vs. The Suburbs
Funeral is the more important album. It is one of the four or five most influential and emblematic indie-rock records of the last two decades. Countless lesser bands have ripped it off. It will probably always be the LP that Arcade Fire is most remembered for. If you put it on in a room full of people ages 37 to 45, at least 25 percent of them will immediately start crying.
Nevertheless, I like The Suburbs more.
Advantage: The Suburbs.