This might just be the toughest Rank The Album’s yet. Arcade Fire’s catalogue is concise and largely excellent, but unlike other band’s with a great catalogue, the Montreal stars haven’t developed a narrative. The world hasn’t had long enough to stew on each record to see just how well they hold up, and to understand which albums gather potency with age. Alas we don’t have ten years to wait, so we’re going to dive right in.
3. The Suburbs (2010)
This was a really tough call. The Suburbs is a brilliant album. The kind of heartfelt and utterly terrifying LP that arena sized, festival headlining outfits shouldn’t be allowed to make. From the dainty understated pop of “The Suburbs” to the vicious outburst at their own fans’ expense “Rococo”, The Suburbs is Arcade Fire’s most brazenly commercial release, and in-spite of this, it’s easily their most unsettling. The band feel more unhinged than ever before: isolated (“The People Behind Me They Can’t Understand”) and fatalistic (“I Want A Daugther While I’m Still Young, I Want To Hold Her Hand, Show Her Some Beauty Before This Damage Is Done”).
The Suburbs are a recurring theme at every level of US alternative culture, but rather than confronting them with teenage rebellion, Arcade Fire instead tackle the dislocation of aging and the despair of being forced to move on. They do this so deftly that the album’s standout moments (“Suburban War”) offer a truly transcendent take on the great American dialogue – a worthy, if melodramatic, rival for Springsteen. Unfortunately as an album it’s Arcade Fire’s most bloated, and could have used a judicious editor (“Empty Room” is a b-side at best). Still, when it clicks, The Suburbs is irreproachable; “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” remains a perfect escapist siren call. The bright lights of the city, the thrill of underground, and the despond of routine all immaculately crystalized in five short minutes.
While Neon Bible might have earned its second place finish primarily because it’s concise, as a record it has far more to offer than just a swift run time. It’s willfully theatrical and surprisingly dark. Win Butler is pushed to his most ridiculous extreme mixing vengeance with a foppish vulnerability. The result is preposterous tracks like “Black Mirror” that features some of the band’s worst lyricism (“Mirror, Mirror…”) but their most dynamic playing – few bands get to sound like a hurricane, a bombing raid, a nightmare and a Bond theme all at once. The contrasts are at times surreal; “No Cars Go” and “Keep The Car Running” end up sandwiched between savagely theatrical works.
No matter how comically austere Win becomes the band manage to keep him in check by sounding grandly apocalyptic. “Intervention” soars improbably before crunching, smashing and crashing its weight down upon the listener – the whole record wrenches and cries thrillingly. Win stumbles from place to place attempting, ham-fistedly, to express so much, and it takes him an entire album to finally hit the nail on the head. “Windowsill” is clunky (“I Don’t Want To Fight In A Holy War, I Don’t Want A Sales Man Knocking At My Door”) but it’s brought down to earth with a final believable statement: “I Don’t Want To See It At My Windowsill”. “My Body Is A Cage” is perfect. The geopolitics are removed and Win is free to sound tortured and alone, finally finding a simple sentiment that transcends the album’s more ridiculous moments: “My Body Is A Cage That Keeps Me From Dancing With The One I Love”.
1. Funeral (2004)
Funeral was a clear number one. Unlike its offspring it doesn’t feel laboured. Win doesn’t feel like he’s trying to communicate something that simply beyond his grasp (the war on terror, the emotional divorce of capitalism), and the band aren’t taking on too much (17 tracks of stadium sized avante pop). Funeral is entirely natural, and never taxing; it feels like the work of a collective of six brilliant odd balls; a riotous explosion of joyous light spawned from dark frustrated beginnings. As an album it reconciles all the contrasts that the band should have spent a lifetime trying to master: Win’s crippling pessimism and Regine’s faye freedom – rock’s crunching strictures and theatrical whimsy of classical instrumentation.
Arcade Fire’s subsequent releases have had to refight these battles, but on Funeral it all came together. “Laiki” and “Tunnels” are majestically bruising. The entire LP is odd, disorienting, but undeniably anthemic. Not only is it heartfelt, insular and utterly distinct to these seven odd individuals, but it’s a real barnstormer designed to make crowds of thousands march and cry and one. On one hand it has huge anthems (“Power Out”, “Wake Up”, “Rebellion (Lies)”) and on the other it has a track as crushing and macabre as “Crown Of Love”. All the extremes somehow serve to keep each other in check. The hushed understated charm of “Haiti” counterpoints “Crown Of Love”, just as the small delicacy of “Kettles” takes the stampeding edge off “Power Out”. With seven members and a theatrical sensibility, I’d be stunned in Arcade Fire ever achieve this level of balance again. David Hayter