In terms of the last 20 years, no other band has had as big an impact on me as Arcade Fire. The Canadian outfit debuted their first full-length album Funeral in 2004 and their incredible live performances garnered them cult status and critical acclaim. Whilst the world was obsessed with The Killers and Franz Ferdinand, Arcade Fire was quietly doing the best work of the time that would pay off massively down the line.
They followed up with Neon Bible in 2007 and on that tour I managed to catch a live show, and my life was changed forever. Sometimes a band is so good live that seeing them can convert a non-believer into a die-hard, and so I took someone to this show who wasn’t really into them, and they subsequently became perhaps an even bigger fan than I was. Arcade Fire in concert is probably the closest to a religious experience as I have ever had.
The Suburbs was released in 2010 and turned out to be their masterpiece, and their mainstream breakthrough into sold out arena shows. Reflektor followed in 2013, and then Everything Now in 2017, which gave them their first number-one single.
Outside of R.E.M, no other band has hit me on as personal a level as Arcade Fire. Their lyrics are constantly reflective of the times we live in, and thanks to the sheer number of members, the sound they generate is huge, epic and sweepingly cinematic. Breaking down their output into 10 tracks was no easy task. So I had to cut “Power Out”, “No Cars Go”, “The Suburbs”, “Speaking in Tongues”, “Hey Orpheus”, “Afterlife”, “Electric Blue” and of course that number-one single “Everything Now.” Instead I had to attack this on a personal level, and go for the 10 tracks that mean the most to me. For better or worse..here they are.
Track 1: “Rebellion (Lies)”
This was the first Arcade Fire song I ever heard. One lazy summer afternoon I sat watching MTV2, and the lo-fi march of a video comes on. It’s hard now to think back what it was that hit me so hard about this track at the time. Its rhythm was mysterious and full of portent at something dark just below the surface, and it seemed to be some kind of celebration at the same time. It was strange and yet familiar. The length, the instruments used, all hinted at something great hiding with the debut album Funeral and the song remained in my head until I could go buy the CD. Funeral then remained within my ears for the rest of summer 2005, and well into the autumn as the love affair with my new favorite band began.
Track 2: “Wake Up”
Although it has been used to soundtrack movies and trailers very effectively, I don’t think you get the full power of “Wake Up” unless you see it performed live. I’m lucky enough to have seen it played live three times now. Each time it is the last track of their set, and the fact that as crowds leave an Arcade Fire gig they are singing this in unison outside the venue and even during the walk back to the station tells you it all really. “Wake Up” comes at a pivotal moment during the album Funeral, and as much as the album is concerned with death and its effects on the young, “Wake Up” comes to some level of understanding. Death is a part of life, it hurts and grief is always with us, and that’s what “Wake Up” keys in to: acceptance, life moving on, as painful and necessary as that may be.
Track 3: “Haiti”
Another track from Funeral that gets the crowd singing along is this frankly odd and elusive track sung by Regine Chassagne in her specific fashion. Chassange’s mother was Haitian, and the band have spent time there and been influenced by the country’s rara music scene. Big chunks of the lyrics in Funeral are in French, and so is 50% of this song. What is in English takes in dead family members and a country torn apart by war. It presents this real-life atrocity as an almost fairy tale-like lullaby, and is one of the finest tracks from Arcade Fire’s full-length debut.
Track 4: “Intervention”
This epic track from the dark second album Neon Bible is so specific to its era, but is just as powerful as “Wake Up” and still somehow less known. In my mind this song conjures up specific memories of that awkward time in the late ’00s when we all lived in fear of attack and wondered if the “war on terror” was actually something that could be won. With its lyrics “Working for the church while my family dies” the track seems to be from the perspective of a soldier of some kind adjusting to life during the war, or possibly back home. “Intervention” builds and builds into a powerful, tear-jerking finale, and is perhaps Arcade Fire’s most underrated track.
Track 5: “(Antichrist Television Blues)”
You could hear Bruce Springsteen’s influence on a lot of music in the ’00s and on Neon Bible it was present on a couple of tracks, perhaps most blatantly on this riff on the classic Bob Dylan track “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Like most of Neon Bible, this track is concerned with the frightening world we lived in, and actually still live in. More specifically it might deal with a desperate man who hopes for better for the next generation, fame, and the struggle of making ends meet. This is one track I can point to that actually changed my life. I heard it one morning as I watched the sun come up after a weekend of drunken debauchery, and I was never quite the same person again. Classic lyric: “Now the war is won, how come nothing tastes good?”
Track 6: “City With No Children”
Not a single, not a well-known track by any means, and yet somehow “City With No Children” I find encapsulates much of The Suburbs perfectly in a brief folky pop blast that recalls Green-era R.E.M. It feels political, it feels personal, and if you drive around in the summertime with this track blaring, suddenly it all clicks. As I have grown older, I have realized that this song may well be about corporate greed and responsibility, or it might just be a great three-minute song.
Track 7: “Sprawl II Mountains Beyond Mountains”
When The Suburbs was released, there was much sudden chatter about this penultimate track from Arcade Fire’s mainstream breakthrough. The day of release, all of twitter was abuzz that you just had to hear this song. It’s very rare these days that a final track of any album feels like the perfect ending, but “Mountains Beyond Mountains” sums up all of the themes of The Suburbs and ends the narrative perfectly. It’s a joyous celebration of being stuck and yet never giving up, always dreaming of more. Every time I see this live I break down in tears, and I feel no shame at that. It is one of the best pop songs ever recorded, and after working in a city for 10 years, it hits me on a personal level even now. Also if you are programming a playlist for a party, this is always a great final track choice.
Track 8: “Porno”
Coming after The Suburbs, Reflektor felt like a kind of step down, but then eventually after sitting a while it revealed itself to not be one of those albums. It requires repeat listens in order to appreciate its depth and dark beauty. Each of the tracks had their own moment when they snuck up on me after that initial feeling of disappointment, and I now think that the album is mostly a classic. In recent years, the depth and the message of “Porno” hit me very hard. At first listen, it sounds like a sleazy and dark tale of obsession. As you hear it more and more, you realize what it’s actually about, and observe the way the song changes as it goes on and becomes just as epic as anything they have done except in a low key and cleverer way. “Porno” is a testament to songwriting ability and musicianship. “Kids they learn, some selfish sh*t, until the girl won’t put up with it” we are told as the song becomes less about obsessive love and more prayer with, “You say love is real, a good disease, tell me please, I’m not over it.” “Porno” is a call for simpler times, a yearning for the basic meaning of love in a world of increasing instant gratification.
Track 9: “Here Comes the Night Time”
For all the darkness present in the album Reflektor, “Here Comes the Night Time” is a thankful respite, and a reminder that Arcade Fire also knows how to have fun amongst the doom and commentary on our collapsing society. This takes in ska, reggae and pop influences into a celebration with the reflective lyrics lost amongst the joy. Best listened to drunk, and an uplifting staple of Arcade Fire’s live set.
Track 10: “Creature Comfort”
“Everything Now” is Arcade Fire’s biggest hit single and yet I have a problem with the album as a whole, and only really enjoy fully about four tracks from the record. It could be that it generated a number-one single, it could be that it was apparently a troubled production and that it’s so short. I haven’t really returned to it as much as the others but “Creature Comfort” is a track which really hit me on a personal level when I heard it. At the time I was trying to help someone dealing with a lot of the issues covered by the track, and then later as I researched another project, the themes of the song really resonated with me. “Creature Comfort” is about the current world of internet fame, Instagram celebrity and cancellation culture. It’s an angry song, an anti-suicide snarl at the world, and a great one when performed live. Arcade Fire has always had their finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, and this was perhaps their most prescient slam against the world so far with its cry of “God make me famous! if you can’t just make it painless.”