They are one of the biggest, most influential bands Canada has ever produced and, really, need no introduction. But in brief: since its sensational 2004 debut, Funeral, Arcade Fire has not only been a force in defining indie music as we know it but has also headlined festivals all over the world, been nominated for an Academy Award, won the Polaris Music Prize, released a horror film, collaborated with the likes of David Bowie and Mavis Staples, recorded a two-disc concert documentary and become the first indie act to win a Grammy Award for album of the year.
It’s an understatement to say that the level of anticipation is high for Arcade Fire's fifth studio album, set to be released July 28 and titled Everything Now.
To celebrate the release, we’ve decided to take a look at the band’s 10 greatest songs — ranging from 2004's Funeral to 2013's Reflektor — as picked by CBC Music editorial staff. Tell us via Twitter: what do you think is the best Arcade Fire song ever?
10. 'Keep the Car Running' (Neon Bible, 2007)
I always think this song belongs on The Suburbs — not that Neon Bible doesn't have its own greatness, but The Suburbs is one of my favourite Arcade Fire records, and the reasons are all the same as to why I love this song: it's a race to an escape, a certainty that everything out of reach is going to be better because the promise is what keeps us going, even if we're wrong when we get there. That's growing up. In the context of Neon Bible, the song can read as darker, more about paranoia and the looming shadow of mental illness, internal and external forces that disrupt safety and concepts of home. But as a stand-alone track, "Keep the Car Running" feels like a nuanced appreciation for all the ways in which "home" can be a cage. "If some night I don't come home/ please don't think I've left you alone" is exactly the kind of lie we tell ourselves when we want to lessen our guilt about the ones we leave behind.
— Andrea Warner (@_AndreaWarner)
9. 'Afterlife' (Reflektor, 2013)
Even though Arcade Fire took on a groovier sound on its fourth album, Reflektor, the band never strayed too far from what it did best: anthemic songs that are driven by equal parts beat and emotion. On album highlight “Afterlife,” Win Butler ponders death and asks where our love goes when we leave the world. “Where does it go?” he repeats, over bongo drums and crashing symbols. It’s a moving disco number where dancing is less nihilistic and more a plea to the universe to ensure that the afterlife isn’t as awful as it sounds.
— Melody Lau (@melodylamb)
8. 'We Used to Wait' (The Suburbs, 2010)
Arcade Fire has a knack for summoning up lyrics that are zeitgeisty but also timeless (see: “Rebellion (Lies)”). This song layers bittersweet nostalgia for growing up in the suburbs with a lament for what it used to be: “We used to wait/ we used to waste hours just walkin' around/ we used to wait/ all those wasted lives in the wilderness downtown.” Who among us cannot remember feeling like that? It is also part of the rather cool experimental interactive project called The Wilderness Downtown, where each viewer can add a further layer of sentiment to the proceedings by programming the video to be set in their own hometown.
— Andrea Gin (@andreagin)
7. 'My Body is a Cage' (Neon Bible, 2007)
This is not one of the band’s best known songs, but it’s definitely one of its best. “My Body is a Cage” was never even released as a single from the criminally underrated Neon Bible, but it holds a unique place in the band’s body of work for a number of reasons. First, it begins with the chorus, a haunting phrase that sets the melody and tone for the rest of the song: “My body is a cage that keeps me from dancing with the one I love, but my mind holds the key.” It’s also not an anthem. And while it does sound amazing live, I’m not sure the band members had crowds in mind when they composed this song, which is, ultimately, best heard alone. Sonically, it falls somewhere between a spiritual and a funeral march, a whirling organ mixed with a ghostly choir and a military snare drum, coupled with Butler’s lyrics that deal with the feeling of being trapped by a crippling social anxiety, the only thing standing in your way being your mind. Arcade Fire is known for its aggressive outwardness, but “My Body is a Cage” shows the band at its most introverted.
— Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@JesseKG)
6. 'Ready to Start' (The Suburbs, 2010)
A sense of momentum in an Arcade Fire song is nothing new, but "Ready to Start" is an anxiety attack in sonic form. It's such a physical track, and intensely evocative. In part, it's the punishing double drums, a relentless blitz that feels like racing up the side of a crumbling mountain, rocks coming loose in your hand as you scramble to safer ground, a sensation that's terrifying and exhilarating all at once. "Step out into the dark/ now I'm ready" — Butler's voice and the song come to a sudden halt, jarring our minds one last time. — AW
5. 'Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)' (Funeral, 2004)
This is the song that introduced many to what would ultimately become the Arcade Fire sound, that quiet-to-loud anthem that propelled the indie band to take over the rock world. At the beginning, we hear a simple but unforgettable ascending riff, repeated on piano, then guitar, slowly added to and stretched out until the entire song transforms into this driving, fervent march that ends with a climax of instruments and a chorus repeating that same melody. All the while, Butler is singing about being young, his hometown, sneaking out of his house to meet a girl where they begin to plan a future, but also the malaise that accompanies the thought that the future can’t exist without the past. It’s the same type of existential exploration that would win the band a Grammy two albums later on The Suburbs, and proof that this is a band that was ready for big things from day one. — JKG
4. 'Rebellion (Lies)' (Funeral, 2004)
The fourth single from Funeral, this song has been the go-to closer for many of Arcade Fire’s shows and it’s easy to see why: it’s a classic arena-rock anthem. Careening piano, guitars, strings, drums and cymbals crash together, slowly building to an impassioned cacophony of sound, infused with a message that still resonates: “Every time you close your eyes lies, lies.” There are countless videos of the band performing this song, but my favourite is their incendiary performance of it at the 2005 MuchMusic Video Awards, which included an introduction by host Devon Soltendieck, who fittingly declared, “They’re changing the way we look at our beloved rock ‘n’ roll.” — AG
3. 'Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)' (Funeral, 2004)
The urgency in Arcade Fire’s early material is best encapsulated on “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out).” Written during an intense ice storm that wiped out power across a significant portion of Canada, the song is bottled frustration waiting to just burst out at its seams as Butler mightily chants, “Look at them go! Look at them go!” When they perform it live, it’s a whirlwind exorcism filled with shouting, accompanied by a flurry of guitars, violins, drums and whatever Butler is doing here with a helmet. It’s easily one of the reasons Arcade Fire earned a reputation for being an amazing live act. (Bonus: This is Lorde’s favourite Arcade Fire song.) — ML
2. 'Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)' (The Suburbs, 2010)
Régine Chassagne is at the centre of the final single from The Suburbs, singing atop a swirling disco beat that would tell the direction of Arcade Fire singles to come. “They heard me singing and they told me to stop/ quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock,” Chassagne sings of her dissatisfaction as, in the song’s video, she sets out from her house, placing large white headphones over her ears while she walks through a faceless sprawl. It’s a place she’s grown out of — “We rode our bikes to the nearest park/ sat under the swings and kissed in the dark,” she reminisces — but can’t get out of, which might be as close to universal as a band can get. The video leaves us with Chassagne dancing on an empty field, wearing a fuschia dress with ribbons hanging off her sleeves, whirling ever closer to the camera — and, presumably, freedom. — Holly Gordon (@hollygowritely)
1. 'Wake Up' (Funeral, 2004)
There is arguably no song in the Arcade Fire canon that so perfectly defines the band as this single. “Wake Up” — spilling over with figurative alarms — opens with Arcade Fire’s collective rallying cry before Butler even starts singing the first lines that fuse you to their cause: “Somethin' filled up/ my heart with nothin'/ someone told me not to cry.” Over that unmistakable guitar chord, the band members demand that you reach through the fog and grab hold of the people around you, shedding whatever's holding you back in life before it’s too late. The song’s build-up tears down all your walls until you’re screaming “I guess we’ll just have to adjust!” — and then you, too, have to decide whether to collapse in a heap on the floor or dance your way back to living. It's a burst of life coupled with nostalgic side-eye, and just the beginning of the Montreal band's challenge to seize what's left. While all of Funeral put Arcade Fire on the map, “Wake Up” is the song that cemented the band’s place in every beating heart. — HG