Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire were founded in Montreal in 2001. The band is centered around the husband and wife duo of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, while Butler’s brother Will was a member until 2021. The current lineup, including touring members, has nine musicians, and they often incorporate unusual instrumentation like accordion and hurdy-gurdy alongside usual rock instrumentation. Win Butler is more charismatic than most indie rock singers, earnest and impassioned like Springsteen.
Arcade Fire have enjoyed critical and commercial success, especially over their first decade. Their 2004 debut Funeral is one of the most acclaimed records of the decade, while 2010’s The Suburbs topped the US charts and won a Grammy for Album of the Year. Arcade Fire have recently released their sixth album, We – how does it stack up compared to the rest of their discography?
Arcade Fire Albums Ranked
#6 Everything Now
Arcade Fire’s fifth album feels directionless – it often follows the dance stylings of Reflektor, but without the grounding in Haitian and Jamaican sounds. They’re left with a pop-oriented record that often feels hollow. The unconventional instrumentation like accordion, xylophone, and recorders that gave their other work a distinctive flavour is largely absent here. There’s a particularly rough stretch in the middle of the record with the plastic soul of ‘Chemistry’ and the trite pun that anchors ‘Infinite Content’.
Butler and Chassagne visited Haiti, the place where Chassagne’s family came from. The sounds of Haiti and Jamaica inspired Arcade Fire’s fourth album. They also worked with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, creating a record that’s much more dance-oriented than anything Arcade Fire had released previously. Butler later told Rolling Stone “we just wanted to make a record that Régine could dance to.” It’s overlong, with a lot of tracks running over six minutes, but it’s an invigorating change of direction when it works – the danceable title track is a particular highlight.
Arcade Fire started working on We before the COVID pandemic, but it feels like a reaction to it, given song titles like ‘Age of Anxiety’. After flirting with dance beats on their previous album, it sounds like a retrenchment of their earlier sound – songs like ‘We’ and ‘The Lightning I’ are as good as anything in their catalogue. It’s also more inconsistent than their earlier work – in particular, ‘End of the Empire IV (Sagittarius A)’ comes across like a bad OK Computer track. Peter Gabriel provides guest vocals on ‘Unconditional II (Rage and Religion)’.
#3 Neon Bible
Having established their career with Funeral, Neon Bible was a commercial success and peaked at #2 on the US charts. It’s not as raw as Funeral – instead, Arcade Fire play a grandiose Americana that recalls Springsteen and Dylan. With Butler’s vocals upfront and surrounded by cavernous echo, Neon Bible feels distant and dystopian. ‘No Cars Go’ is a driving rocker recycled from the band’s debut EP. The Butler brothers were raised Mormon, and there are spiritual overtones on songs like ‘My Body is a Cage’ and ‘The Well and the Lighthouse’.
#2 The Suburbs
The Suburbs marked the peak of Arcade’s Fire success – it topped the Billboard charts and won the 2011 Grammy for Album of the Year. It reflects the upbringing of the Butler siblings in Houston’s suburbs – Win Butler describes it as “a letter from the suburbs”. Musically, The Suburbs reflects the bands that Butler was fascinated by when he was young – a blend of Depeche Mode and Neil Young. Like the suburbs it’s named for, the album is sprawling, running for over an hour. But there are lots of great songs tucked away in its grooves – highlights include the twitchy ‘Modern Man’ and Chassagne’s vocal spotlight on the synth-pop of ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’.
The title of Arcade Fire’s debut is taken from the family deaths that the band members had experienced recently, including the Butlers’ grandfather, big band leader Alvino Rey. In comparison with the $1.6 million cost of recording Reflektor, it took a mere $10,000 to make Funeral. It’s the band at their rawest, with tracks like ‘Neighbourhood 3 (Power Cut)’ and ‘Rebellion (Lies)’. It immediately set the band’s career at a high bar that they’ve never bettered.
Did I underrate your favourite Arcade Fire record?
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