Originally Published In Beats Per Minute on 8/2/12
What makes an essential Arcade Fire track? A strong rhythm section, frenzied guitar and strings, contagious amounts of energy, and a menagerie of instruments are a good start. Lyrically, Arcade Fire’s strongest songs are poignant reflections on the past sung by an angst-ridden Win Butler. With a penchant for stirring the mind, Arcade Fire’s music easily rouses visions of chilly Canadian winters, a post-9/11 America, or dull Houston suburbs.
Led by the husband and wife duo of Butler and Régine Chassagne, Arcade Fire has three albums, one extended play, and various B-sides to their name. While the band has a relatively small catalogue to sort through compared to other indie veterans, picking the band’s fifteen essential tracks is still a difficult task. No algorithm could do it justice and at the end a few excellent songs had to be omitted. The underappreciated “(Antichrist Television Blues),” the delicate “Neon Bible,” and the fiery “Month of May” just missed the cut.
It’s significant to note that six out of the ten tracks on the band’s debut album, Funeral, made the list. Even though The Suburbs won them the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2011, Funeral is still the band’s magnum opus.
15: Intervention – Neon Bible With heavy church organs and even heavier lyrics — “Working for the church as your family dies” — “Intervention” chugs along, gaining steady momentum before transforming into a grandiose call-and-response between Butler and a Chassagne-led choir. It may be too much for some but it takes brazen confidence to write a song of this magnitude.
14: Haiti – FuneralThe first Chassagne-led song on the list, “Haiti,” may sound upbeat at first, but the lyrics reveal a melancholy side: “In the forest we lie hiding, unmarked graves where flowers grow.” Chassagne leads the song — in French and English — with her hazy, dreamlike voice. While Funeral might conjure up a brisk Canadian winter, on “Haiti,” you can feel the sun against your neck. Adding to the warm sound are steel drums that meld perfectly on the track, a shining example of how Arcade Fire can use non-traditional rock instruments while not sounding forced or gimmicky.
13: My Body Is A Cage – Neon BibleThis is as grandiose as Arcade Fire gets. Sinister church organ broods over the track that gets bigger and bigger with each note before crashing in a cacophony of sound. Butler’s lyrics are dark; he utters, “I’m standing on a stage of fear and self-doubt.” Even so, only a confident band could pull of a song of this size. The most telling lyric drips with social commentary: “I’m living in an age that laughs when I’m dancing with the one I love.”
12: We Used To Wait – The SuburbsLed by piano and punctuated by snare hits and discordant guitar, the song gets suddenly vicious as it goes along. Butler shouts the almost meta-lyrics, “We used to wait for it/ Now we’re screaming, ‘Sing the chorus again!’” Less frenzied than anything of the first album, “We Used To Wait” is filled with slight electronic undertones and guitar tremors.
11: Neighborhood #2 (Laika) – Funeral
Add sleigh bells and accordion to the list of instruments that Arcade Fire can successfully toss into a rock song. A chaotic tale of a child going on a death-defying adventure, “Laika” exhibits the unrestrained emotion and nervousness that radiates from every instrument and every lyric that made Funeral so great.
10: Keep The Car Running – Neon BibleA quick-moving number with strong Bruce Springsteen influences and a healthy does of hurdy gurdy. The track contains so much forward momentum that it’s impossible not to move along with every mandolin strum, handclap, or drum hit. “Keep The Car Running” has such a rapport with musicians that Springsteen and Dave Grohl have both covered the song.
9: Headlights Look Like Diamonds – Arcade Fire Off their debut EP, this track showcases the band’s dual vocals as well as the potential of future Chassagne-led songs. The band’s promise emanates off the track, from the song’s lyrical themes of suburbia to its intense flameout ending. What truly makes this track essential Arcade Fire listening is that Win Butler and Régine Chassagne wrote “Headlights” on their first date (cue the collective “aww”), setting the foundation for everything to come.
8: Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) – The SuburbsChassagne leads this track—Arcade Fire’s most electronic number to date. Her voices and bright synths harken back to Cyndi Lauper and a generation of 1980s female singers. While the track is unconventional for the band, the lyrics hit their favorite theme of dreary suburban sprawl with its “dead shopping malls.”
7: Ready To Start – The SuburbsAs Arcade Fire played this song immediately after winning the Grammy for Album of the Year, to many “Ready To Start” serves as a celebratory encore of the triumph of quality music over the Top 40 brain drain. The lyrics are as universal as they get, speaking of the post-relationship awkwardness of exes trying to be “just friends,” one of the few times Arcade Fire sings of love. “Ready To Start” is catchy and accessible done right.
6: Neighborhood # 3 (Power Out) – Funeral“Power Out” blazes like a fire on a chilly winter’s night with a steady—pounding drum beat and frantic guitar. The song’s top moment starts at 2:48 when strings crescendo and spiral uncontrollably before being engulfed back into the song. Butler sings at his most unnerved and his cold shouts jar listeners. “Power Out” proves that there’s beauty in destruction.
5: No Cars Go – Neon BibleWhat started as a promising outline on the EP became a full-fledged showstopper on the band’s second LP. Nervous wavering guitar and shimmering strings hover over a driving rhythm section. The track builds to an epic, choir-driven coda that reaches spectacular heights. Listen closely to hear the band experimenting with some electronic undertones—an element that would become a bigger part of the next album.
4: Rebellion (Lies) – FuneralA rally cry for insomniacs. With a strong rhythm section, robotic drums, a steady bass line, and undulating piano, “Rebellion” shows Arcade Fire’s mastery of the non-melodic. Punctuated shouts rev up the intensity and delicate string arrangements accent the song. The call-back cries of “lies” stay in listeners heads well after the song is over.
3: The Suburbs – The Suburbs“The Suburbs” is a deceptively brilliant song. It hits listeners with a guise of cheeriness, the result of a laidback shuffle, lighthearted piano, bouncing bass, and acoustic guitar. A closer listening reveals darker themes of suburban reflections. Win Butler unleashes his falsetto as well as some of the best lyrics he’s ever written, singing:
“So can you understand?
Why I want a daughter while I’m still young
I wanna hold her hand
And show her some beauty
Before this damage is done
But if it’s too much to ask, it’s too much to ask
Then send me a son”Despite its simplicity, it never drags during its five minutes. Ultimately, “The Suburbs” proves that Arcade Fire can create beautiful and simple melodic tunes.
2: Wake Up – FuneralThe port of entry for most listeners, “Wake Up” was most likely the first Arcade Fire song you ever heard. A huge choir propels the song through distorted guitar and pounding drums. The didactic number is enormous as it is catchy; it is one of those songs that inspires immense camaraderie among listeners, whether singing along at a concert with thousands of others or with your best friends at a party—you can feel the energy surging through the band and listeners.
Appearing in commercials, feature films, and sports games, as well as making excellent fodder for a capella groups around the nation, “Wake Up” is a more indie version of “Seven Nation Army.”
1: Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) – FuneralPerhaps a controversial choice, but “Tunnels” has all the elements of a great Arcade Fire song: a head-bobbing rhythm section, lyrics that harken back to an imperfect past, a seamless blend of instruments, and a cathartic coda.
The first song on the band’s first — and greatest — album, Funeral, begins serene and wintery before trancelike drums grab listeners. A catchy canon played on both piano and guitar stays ever-present in the song. Butler’s voice sounds shrill with emotion throughout, singing some of the band’s best lyrics. “Sometimes we remember our bedrooms and our parents’ bedrooms and the bedrooms of our friends” is a unique twist on a common lyrical theme (reflecting on childhood) and starting the song with “and” speaks to Arcade Fire’s bold confidence.