With Arcade Fire, I have learned to entertain two thoughts simultaneously in my head.
Thought No. 1: “This is one of the most important, most popular, and, at times, best indie-rock bands of the last 20 years.”
Thought No. 2: “Even when I really like this band, they can also be extremely irritating.”
Arcade Fire apparently is in the midst of working on a new album, with writing having “intensified” during the pandemic. In spite of myself, I am interested in hearing this quarantine opus, even though I openly disliked their previous album, 2017’s Everything Now. Arcade Fire is also on my brain lately because the 10th anniversary of their third (and I would argue greatest) album, The Suburbs, is coming up on Aug. 2. That album, like all Arcade Fire LPs, is a mix of breathtaking musical moments and grandiose, eyeroll-inducing thematic gestures. And yet I wouldn’t want Arcade Fire to be any other way. Sometimes they miss in embarrassing fashion, and other times they absolutely crush it. But they always swing big.
For this list of my 20 favorite Arcade Fire songs, I took stock of the crushes while also attempting to understand how and why they miss. What I found, again, is a band with the unique ability to dazzle and annoy me, sometimes in the space of the same verse.
For more on Arcade Fire, please check out Uproxx’s new podcast, Indiecast, hosted by Steven Hyden and Ian Cohen.
20. “Put Your Money On Me” (2017)
Let’s start at the bottom. When I revisited Arcade Fire’s discography for this column, I hoped that the band’s widely acknowledged nadir, Everything Now, might finally grow on me. I was among the many critics who panned it upon release, prompting Win Butler to grouse in The Guardian about how the failure of the public to comprehend the (badly executed) satire of the album’s promotional cycle amounted to an “Orwellian” offense. But after listening to it again recently, it must be reiterated that Everything Now is a frequently ham-fisted, hectoring, clumsy, and all-around bad record … with the exception of “Put Your Money On Me,” Arcade Fire’s sole successful attempt at writing a fake ABBA song (because they essentially just ripped off this song). But even this track, the undisputed peak of Everything Now, looms like a small hill compared with the highlights of previous records.
19.”Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” (2004)
Okay, now let’s go back to an early peak, Arcade Fire’s iconic 2004 debut, Funeral. “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” typifies the band’s original house style: yelping and ecstatic boy/girl vocals, a chugging and bombastic rhythm section, and an expansive musical stew in which slashing guitars cut against shamelessly surging strings. It’s an incredibly audacious stew, given that it was made by a no-name band from Montreal that couldn’t sell out a broom closet in America back in the early aughts. Not since Oasis had a rock band dared to call its own shot as a future arena-rock attraction as Arcade Fire did with Funeral. (Just imagine how ridiculous Funeral would sound if Arcade Fire hadn’t made it.) Win Butler has singled out “Neighborhood #2” as an especially pivotal track early on. “It was the first time I could hit play and say, ‘Yeah, that’s roughly what I’ve been talking about,'” Butler said in 2011. “It sounded like what it was supposed to sound like.” In other words, massive.
18. “Intervention” (2007)
If there’s a single litmus for determining your personal appetite for what Arcade Fire serves, it’s the band’s 2007 performance of “Intervention” on Saturday Night Live. Watching it now, it’s like a demolition derby pile-up of aughts-era signifiers: Dwight from The Office introduces them, looking very 2007 in his horn-rimmed glasses and ironic T-shirt. The song opens with a church-organ drone and some wicked xylophone plunking. The members of the band look like Amish kids after one sip of beer. Nobody, of course, is smiling. Arcade Fire is going to work on this song like true believers drudging away in a field, somberly collecting this season’s bountiful harvest. Win Butler is beating away on his acoustic guitar and shouting sternly about tasting the fear. The red-headed dude to his right — I know his name is Richard Reed Perry, but his red-headed dudeness is what’s pertinent here — is shouting into a megaphone that is pointed directly at a microphone. It is, clearly, a very loud performance. But (and this is where I must shift my tone from mocking to grudging admiration) this video always moves me, even the part where Win finally, famously, smashes his guitar. Rock theater works for me, and Arcade Fire knows how to chew the scenery like Jack Nicholson prancing to Prince songs in the midst of extreme cocaine intoxication in Batman.
17. “Month Of May” (2010)
Speaking of memorable TV moments in Arcade Fire history, who can forget the seizure-inducing performance of “Month Of May” from the 2011 Grammys, which occurred right before the band won the Album Of The Year award for The Suburbs? I’ve searched in vain for video of the performance online and come up empty, so I’m forced to bolster my hazy memory with this contemporaneous account from Pitchfork: “A blistering, strobe-heavy performance marred only by the inexplicable presence of guys on BMX bikes doing tricks onstage.” I guess the fact that this is the hardest rock song from The Suburbs somewhat explicably warranted the inclusion of some (here’s an early ’10s term) totally extreme bikers, as in the context of the Grammys Arcade Fire might have seemed like … a pop-punk band or something? Anyway, even the kids with their arms folded tight had to bob their heads to this one.
16. “Haiti” (2004)
From practically the beginning of Arcade Fire’s ascendence, people were comparing them to U2. (U2 returned the favor by using “Wake Up” as their entrance music during their 2005 tour, perhaps to make people think that it really was a U2 song.) But that’s just how Arcade Fire appeared in the moment. While the U2 comparison would continue to be apt as they haphazardly entered the ’10s and tried twice to make their Achtung Baby, a song like “Haiti” doesn’t so much evoke The Joshua Tree as it does the wave of “hey!” bands that were influenced by Arcade Fire, including everyone from passing fancies like Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeroes to enduringly popular nü-heartland rock groups like The Lumineers and The Heart And The Heart. While U2 had the advantage of their home-field European influences to guide them away from guitar-based rock music, Arcade Fire at heart remains an amalgam of hippie-folk crunchiness and super-sleek corporate rock, like Journey for people who shop at Whole Foods. (I mean this is in the nicest possible way!)
15. “Porno” (2013)
“Arcade Fire still sound like gigantic dorks with boring sex lives” is how the Washington Post panned Reflektor in 2013, adding that “it’s an album with a song called ‘Porno’ that you could play for your parents.” Granted, it’s a little rich for a music critic to accuse somebody else of being a gigantic dork with a boring sex life. If anyone has that market cornered, it’s rock writers. (Butler’s response in Rolling Stone said as much: “I’m not a dork. I’m a fucking rock star.”) However, it is true that Arcade Fire has never been an especially sexy band. (In fact, the very grandness of their music suggests that they have no interest in foreplay and instead head straight to the aggressive thrusting.) But musically speaking, “Porno” is a relatively sultry song, with deep, fat synth blobs that belie rather schoolmarmish lyrics about the dangers of online pornography. It’s like a PG-rated version of “Take My Breath Away.”
14. “(Antichrist Television Blues)” (2007)
This strummy, Springsteen-esque rocker from Neon Bible was supposedly called “Joe Simpson” in an early draft, a dated reference to Jessica Simpson’s overbearing, fame-obsessed father and a symbol of the era’s American Idol-inspired pop music/reality show hybrids. Arcade Fire’s preoccupation with artistic purity and the commercial encroachment of the underground would achieve full flower on The Suburbs, and it’s now one of the most anachronistically Gen X things about them. As is often the case with this band, it’s better to just focus on the rousing music, which draws from the Boss’ Darkness On The Edge Of Town period more effectively than the same album’s homage to The River, “Keep The Car Running,” though not quite as well as some of the other Bruce tributes from Neon Bible. (More on that in a moment.)
13. “Une Année Sans Lumière” (2004)
It means “a year without light,” by the way, which is a very Arcade Fire song title. Weirdly, this is the first song from Funeral I really connected with. It’s still one of the prettiest melodies in the band’s catalogue, and the part at the end where it speeds up and turns into a Clash song is the most underrated adrenaline rush on the whole record.
12. “Suburban War” (2010)
Here’s another track that has connected with me deeply, perhaps more than any other Arcade Fire song. Though, again, the tribalism described in the lyrics — flanked mournfully by Byrds-ian “Turn, Turn, Turn” guitar jangle — seems like such an inherently Gen X phenomenon that I wonder if anyone under the age of 35 will understand it. “The music divides us into tribes” describes my ’90s-era high school, but does it really resonate for someone born on the internet and raised on Spotify? It’s a reminder that The Suburbs dropped right before social media truly took over the internet. Listening to “Suburban War” is like watching a movie before cellphones existed. It’s as much a period piece as Downton Abbey.
11. “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” (2004)
“Neighborhood #3” is the No. 2 Arcade Fire “Neighborhood” track in my heart. It’s also among the most aggressive tracks in Arcade Fire’s early repertoire, speaking to the band’s confrontational spirit at the time. The degree to which anger and competition — both of which stem largely from the jock-ish Win Butler — fueled Arcade Fire in the mid-aughts has since been underplayed, but it’s really evident on this track, which hits the system like a full-court press from the 2004 Detroit Pistons. “It was a lot more confrontational with the audience because we felt like people in Montreal were expecting certain music from us,” Butler observed in 2006, “and we were like, ‘Fuck that, we want to play louder music right now.’” In some ways, that anger has never left Arcade Fire. The troll-ish aspects of Everything Now are more understandable when viewed through that lens.
10. “Afterlife” (2013)
The triumph of The Suburbs, which in retrospect seems like the culmination of Arcade Fire’s better regarded 1.0 era, was that this band had seemingly won the backing of a critical mass of indie fans. Even conflicted listeners like me, who had mixed feelings about Funeral and Neon Bible, at the very least accepted the idea of Arcade Fire taking over the world. They’ve always been polarizing, but they could at least come up with one song per album — like “Wake Up” or “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” — that even Arcade Fire agnostics could get behind. “Afterlife” might very well be the last Arcade Fire song in that mold, an undeniable single from a deeply polarizing LP, Reflektor, that even those who disliked the album overall couldn’t help but like. Though, when I think about it, putting Greta Gerwig in a viral performance of “Afterlife” might have stacked the deck a bit. Who doesn’t imagine themselves as Greta when this song comes on, dancing away heartache with a battery of child dancers at a hackneyed awards show?
9. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” (2004)
This song is “Thunder Road” set about 600 miles to the north of New Jersey, in a snow-covered wasteland where the protagonist asks his Mary to escape with him into an underground society beneath the snow. Appropriately, it’s positioned at the start of Funeral, so the band knows that this song must work or else their career is finished. And so Arcade Fire commit to all of their bits — Win Butler’s vocal is so impassioned it sounds like he’s fighting back tears, and the orchestral swell builds and builds and BUILDS — with do-or-die abandon. Incredibly, they had enough left in the tank to make nine more songs after this.
8. “Windowsill” (2007)
The Arcade Fire formula — start on a big emotional note and end on an even more ginormous emotional peak — was already firmly established by the band’s second record, which makes “Windowsill” a bit of a curveball. The song doesn’t explode, it smolders, expressing a rage — against America, American pop culture, and (in another nod to Springsteen) fathers — that is plainly stated but never fully acted upon. Of all the tracks on Neon Bible, “Windowsill” feels the most rooted in the final stages of the Bush administration, when the United States was mired in multiple wars and about to enter a major economic downturn. Though, because this is an Arcade Fire tune, there’s just enough hope (“save my soul, set me free,” Butler prays) to keep the bleakness temporarily at bay.
7. “No Cars Go” (2007)
This song repeats the same dozen or so words several times. Here are some other words they could have used that mean the same thing: “I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside, I want to reach out and touch the flame, where the streets have no name.”
6. “The Suburbs” (2010)
Win Butler’s description of The Suburbs as “a mix of Depeche Mode and Neil Young” feels most apt for the album’s opening title track, which really does sound like an attempt to meld the plaintive balladry of After The Gold Rush with the gothic stadium synth-pop of Violator. In a way, “The Suburbs” writes a check that the rest of the album can’t quite cash — it so perfectly states the themes and distills the mood that many of the other songs feel redundant. That might even be true for Arcade Fire’s subsequent career. “Sometimes I can’t believe it / I’m moving past the feeling” sums up their trajectory in the ’10s.
5. “Ready To Start” (2010)
Circling back to Arcade Fire’s Grammy win for The Suburbs, it really did seem in the moment that Arcade Fire was about to lead indie rock’s hostile takeover of the mainstream. You could feel that enthusiasm bounding through the band as they awkwardly accepted their Album Of The Year trophy, and then played “Ready To Start,” the song with the snarky lyrics about businessmen “drinking my blood / Like the kids in art school said they would.” The irony couldn’t be any clearer! Now, obviously, Arcade Fire absolutely did not lead an indie-rock revolution in the new decade. The Suburbs was not the beginning of the ’10s, it marked the end of the aughts. Arcade Fire was ready for stasis.
4. “My Body Is A Cage” (2007)
I don’t know who the genius was back in 2007 who connected Arcade Fire to Ennio Morricone, but whenever I hear this song I think about Charles Bronson murdering Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time In The West and feel stirred once again,
3. “Rebellion (Lies)” (2004)
Arcade Fire, at their best, is about experiencing the overwhelming sensation of forward motion. They do not appeal to your brain; they drive your body forward and send your heart shooting out of your chest. “Rebellion (Lies)” is a perfect example — the bassline hooks you in immediately, like a trailer hitching to a runaway semi-truck. And then they step on the gas hard. The centrifugal force is so powerful that you don’t have the time or desire to catch your bearings. If you did, you would notice that that the lyrics are about … how sleep is bad for you. (Sleep is generally frowned upon on Funeral, as we will see again shortly.)
2. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” (2010)
Is Régine Chassagne a good singer? She reminds me of a Muppet baby version of Bjork, a description I make without judgment. In Arcade Fire songs, her voice is applied sparingly, like a sweet but pungent spice that can easily overwhelm the entire dish if given one too many shakes. But what about a dish as vast as “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” the greatest pop song in the Arcade Fire arsenal? The song is so outsized that not even Régine’s spritely warble can overwhelm it. Instead, her aspirational squeak is downright uplifting amid those sky-high synths, an ideal vehicle for the lyrics about fighting to keep from drowning in a sea of mini-malls and fast-food restaurants. This is an adolescent song about adolescent feelings, and even a smidgen of guile would completely derail it. But Régine, mercifully, keeps all guile at bay.
1. “Wake Up” (2004)
I don’t know if this is a great song, per se. (The beat is taken from “We Will Rock You” and the mock-operatic chorus is a lift from “We Are The Champions.” It’s a Jock Jams Frankenstein.) But it is a great performance and a generous invitation to feel part of something bigger than yourself. Arcade Fire is an easy band to mock because of their pomposity and haphazard sense of humor and total lack of subtlety. But that’s only when they fail. When they actually achieve what they set out to do, Arcade Fire makes you forget about Arcade Fire, and instead points out the people that surround you. Put on “Wake Up” in a public space. (I mean, imagine putting on “Wake Up” in a public space.) You feel an electric current connecting thousands upon thousands of strangers. You can’t help but shout along with that incredible wave of whoaaaaaa! coming at you. Well, actually, I suppose it’s possible that you can help it, but why would you want to? Don’t you want to be lifted up? Isn’t it great to feel part of a community? We all yearn to be present, right now, fully awake to the world and its possibilities, don’t we? This song can put you there.
Arcade Fire can be a silly, maddening band, but the spirit “Wake Up” conjures when it’s really working are definitely not those things. From the vantage point of our shut-in existence, they seem like lofty, life-affirming fantasies.