Tag Archives: arcade fire

Best Music of 2013

I have to admit that, in the midst of such a busy year (getting married, launching a new book, new home, etc.), I didn’t stay up on new music as much as I’d like to. I’ve realized in recent years that it’s probably a good thing to not care as much about “staying up” on every genre of media. It can be exhausting. (Side note: I’ve also fallen hopelessly behind on prestige television; it was all I could do to squeeze in Breaking Bad in 2013).

Movies are my biggest passion, so I’m content to focus my increasingly scant free time on “staying up” on those (watch for my “best films” list to post next week). That said, I did enjoy many songs and albums this year. For old time’s sake I’ll share my favorites here, in hopes that you’ll check out the music or share with me something great I haven’t discovered.

My Top 10 Albums:

  1. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City
  2. Arcade Fire, Reflektor
  3. Over the Rhine, Meet Me At the Edge of the World
  4. The National, Trouble Will Find Me
  5. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience (Part One)
  6. James Blake, Overgrown
  7. Jessie Ware, Devotion
  8. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
  9. Pusha T, My Name is My Name
  10. Phosphorescent, Muchacho

Honorable Mention: Disclosure, Settle; Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe; Drake, Nothing Was the Same; Laura Veirs, Warp & Weft; The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars; Polyenso, One Big Particular Loop; Kanye West, Yeezus; Volcano Choir, Repave; Bifrost Arts, He Will Not Cry Out: Anthology of Hymns & Spiritual Songs, Vol. 2.

My Top 100 Songs of 2013: Spotify playlist here.

Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

The Arcade Fire’s new album, The Suburbs, is their Joshua Tree. They are the hipster U2. Of course, this could mean that in another decade or so they’ll be playing stadiums packed with 40somethings while the young hipsters are doing something else. But that’s ok. Things change. Tastes are fickle. Nothing lasts except memories and nostalgia. In the future, we’ll remember the time we saw Arcade Fire play at the Hollywood Bowl in quaint old 2005, when “Wake Up” galvanized us fresh-out-of-college idealists and gave us something to spur us on in our awkward entrance into adult existence. We’ll remember it with laughter and tears, marveling at how fast the world went from there.

The Suburbs—the complicated, nostalgic, thoroughly concept-driven third album from Montreal’s resident indie rock royalty—is a monumental collection of epic songs that after a few listens reveals itself to be undoubtedly the best album of the year so far. It’s an album that embodies growth both as a concept (aging, growing out of certain things) and as an artistic process (the sound of the album, described recently as “stadium glo-fi,” builds on the band’s baroque tendencies, adds some synthesizers, and with every note declares the future of rock to be upon us). Almost all of these songs are of the “arena rock / to the rafters” variety—generational anthems that seethe with passion, anger, regret, and hope. It’s what Arcade Fire does. But this album does it better than ever.

The Suburbs, though not a “concept album” per se, is cohesive and literate in ways few albums are any more. Each of its 16 tracks (neatly divided into two 8-song halves) follows smoothly and deliberately from the previous one, with repeated words and phrases (and ideas) that tie things together. “Modern Man,” a catchy song about the drone-like, waiting-in-line-for-a-number routine of middle class adulthood, is immediately followed by “Rococo,” which describes “modern kids” who loiter downtown and use big words they don’t understand. Thematic phrases like “they built the road then they built the town” or “In the suburbs I learned to drive” are repeated in multiple songs. Images and motifs like cars, highways, pavement, writing letters, bike-riding, World War 3, and the snobby hubris of youth (“Month of May”… Arms folded tight!) give the album its own distinctive voice.

Arcade Fire is a band that always creates music at once personal and universal, capturing resonant emotions and truth even in the most personal, cryptic packaging. With The Suburbs, frontman Win Butler revisits the Texas locales of his youth with brother/bandmate William (they grew up in the suburbs of Houston). There, they take nighttime, Lynchian bikerides through the neighborhoods of their memory, searching for that most elusive bit of Americana: Home.

Arcade Fire knows they are something of an iconic voice for the hipster culture, and with this album they take on that culture (including themselves in it, to be sure) with refreshing honesty. “Rococo” critiques hipsters who go around uttering words like “rococo” just to sound cool (funnily enough, I also used “rococo” in my description of the “dilettante hipster” in my book). “Suburban War” describes suburban kids who grow their hair out, rail against their suburban milieu, bolt for a city, and become music snobs. “Wasted Hours” describes kids on a bus in the suburbs, feeling boxed in an longing to be “anywhere but here. But ultimately Butler recognizes that the “war on suburbia” that characterizes hipster culture (and to some extent his own life) is superficial and fleeting. By the time we abandon the suburbs and move to the city as grown ups, we begin to long for the suburbs again, recognizing that it wasn’t necessarily the hell we felt it to be as adolescents. Our childhood days in the suburbs, before the cities opened our eyes to the world, were not just “wasted hours” but rather days to be cherished. Butler closes the album with this sentiment: If I could have it back / All the time that we wasted / I’d only waste it again.

In many ways, The Suburbs is an album about the very human longing to always be elsewhere. The grass is always greener on the other side. We always want what’s next. The album uses the metaphor of America and its obsession with movement, manifest destiny and “highways before cities” sprawl to get at a deeper cultural (existential?) value: wanting more. Industry. Progress. Development. Real Estate. The album tells a history of growing up in a brutally fast world, the age of computers and Y2K (“Deep Blue”). In “We Used to Wait,” Butler sings about how we used to wait on snail-mail letters to come to the physical mailbox, happy to do so and gleefully unaware that one day we’d call it “snail mail.” Sings Butler: Now our lives are changing fast / Hope that something pure can last.

Here the album’s key tension—between our innate drive to want to build, move, and experience “the new” on one hand and the pesky, ineffable tug of permanence and safety on the other—begins to reveal itself. A key song (and one of the album’s best tracks) is “City With No Children,” which offers a scathing critique of the comforts and protections of suburbia (Never trust a millionaire / Quoting the Sermon on the Mount) but also laments the downsides of urban life (I feel like I’ve been living in a city with no children in it).

Another key song—and the album’s best—is “Half Light II (No Celebration).” Musically, thematically, emotionally… this is the climax of the album.  Following the gorgeous orchestral conclusion of “Half Light I,” its sequel begins with throbbing, warbly synth and white noise, and the apocalyptic line Now that San Francisco’s gone / I guess I’ll just pack it in / Wanna wash away my sins / In the presence of my friends … The song—which includes imagery of driving away from cities crumbling and “paying the cost” of markets crashing—soars to a stunning climax of impassioned lament as Butler sings of the interminable process of change: One day we’ll see it’s long gone / One day we’ll see it’s long gone / One day we’ll see it’s long gone / One day we’ll see it’s long gone.

Not to be outdone, Butler’s wife/bandmate Regine has her own epic moment in the sun with the album’s penultimate song, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” a hopeful, rollicking, roll-down-your-windows-and-turn-up-the-volume jam about seeing the city lights from the suburbs and believing in your dreams. It’s the sort of song that makes you think, “really? 15 songs in and we’re still getting hit with explosive classics like this??”

But The Suburbs is this sort of album. It makes you smile, sing, laugh, cry, and feel part of something. It’s grandiose and intimate, soothing and unsettling, retro and progressive and effortlessly “of the moment.” An album of our times? Yes. One that will resonate in our stadiums in ten years when we are parents and professionals, unsure of what the kids are listening to? Probably. One that will outlive the fads, ephemera, and strip mall superhighways of tomorrow’s industry? Maybe. But I have my doubts. I have my doubts about it.

An Early Summer Arcade Fire Reverie

I always think of memories in terms of seasons. For example, when it’s Christmas, I’m most prone to reflect back on all my favorite Christmas memories. When it’s the first cold day of Autumn, I think about all things Autumnal.

And so it is now, in these first few days of summer. I’ve been thinking back to “early summer” memories like Vacation Bible School, camping trips, mowing the grass twice a week, Memorial Day barbecues, the cold water of early summer pool swimming, seeing Coldplay at Red Rocks in 2003, driving up the Pacific Coast Highway with my parents last June, seeing Jurassic Park one humid afternoon in 1993 after a morning at Bill Self’s basketball camp. And the list goes on.

After reading this amazing post by my friend Laurel, I was pleasantly reminded this week of another early summer memory: seeing Arcade Fire open for David Byrne at the Hollywood Bowl in June 2005.

The concert was amazing. I was with my best friend Ryan, and the two of us had just driven out to California all the way from Chicago for a summer internship in Redlands. We’d also just finished college, and the future was scary and exciting. We were at the Hollywood Bowl listening to Arcade Fire, whose music somehow captured everything about who we were at that moment in time.

We were drinking red wine and some sort of fancy cheese that we’d picked up at Trader Joes. Our friend Tracy was with us—a new friend from work. There were hipsters everywhere. In a month we would be in England.

It was four years ago this month. And so much has happened since then. It’s strange to think I’ve been out of college (undergrad) longer than I was in it. But that night of listening to Arcade Fire at the Bowl remains so clear in my memory, as if it were yesterday.

Here’s a bit of Laurel’s description of the same concert experience:

In the summer after I graduated college, I saw the Arcade Fire perform for the first time… I was full of defiant optimism, at once terrified and yet determined to take this thing called Life and turn it on its head, to beat it into submission. I had yet to work three jobs – three corporate jobs that would eventually leave me for lack of any better term, dazed and utterly confused. I had yet to watch social groups fracture and filigree and form messy veins that skittered across a map of the U.S. and beyond. I had yet to experience loss of any real kind, and I’d certainly yet to sacrifice a third of my paycheck to any government I refused to pledge allegiance to at the time. In other words, I was a real asshat, brimming to the gills with youthful insouciance and I certainly had never been told, “Hey, kid, simmer down. Your self-righteous can-do spirit is on a rampage and it’s headed straight for my patience.”

But that’s the joy of it all! That can-do spirit went and did it and that night at the show, I wanted to jump out of my skin and conquer the world right then and there. And the thing about the Arcade Fire is that you get the sense that Winn Butler & the gang are right there with you, all muscular energy and visceral, blistering pronouncements. In solidarity you spit out the lyrics, fists beating the fevered night air. In revolt you get your body moving, get your hips swaying to that insurgent sound and you really feel like you can take on the world. All the media, the marketing, the agency big-wigs, the monolithic corporate structures – all of it! Piecemeal! Easily bested! “Now here’s the moon, it’s all right (lies! lies!), and every time you close your eyes (lies! lies!)” … (read more)

It was interesting reading this account of the Arcade Fire concert and resonating with so much of it. These were not my memories, but I remember feeling similar things. And I would guess that hundreds of other twentysomethings who were at that show would look back on that event with likeminded thoughts. Funny that four years later, I’m friends with some of those strangers who were in that massive amphitheater that early summer evening. Funny that four years later, Arcade Fire has released only one more album. Funny that I distinctly remember the look of certain hipsters at that concert four years ago, and now I’m writing a book about hipsterdom.

Ah, June. It’s right in the middle of every painful, passing year. But it’s an idealistic month.

My Autumn Playlist

Because “Autumn” in L.A. is negligible at best, I have to live my seasons vicariously through media. I tend to make music playlists, for example, to play in my car or iPod whenever I want to feel like I’m living in some crisp, fall-like place. I do this for other seasons as well. It works fairly well, I think.

Anyway, the following is my “Autumn 2008” playlist. These songs alternate between a sort of shiftless urban malaise and a midwestern harvest-time sturdiness. It will make more sense if you hear the songs (which are mostly available for mp3 purchase, wherever you purchase your tunes!).

“Cold Wind” – Arcade Fire: Songs about cold winds always strike me as quintessentially autumnal.

“Memorial” – Explosions in the Sky: Explosions in the Sky makes music that I will always associate with fall, maybe because I’ll always associate them with Friday Night Lights.

“Victoria’s Secret” – Quiet Village: The schmaltzy, early-80s-nighttime soap vibe of this track has a strangely nostalgic, haunting effect.

“Sonho Dourado” – Daniel Lanois: Truly one of the great instrumental treasures from Daniel “I produced The Joshua Tree” Lanois.

“Guilty Cubicles” – Broken Social Scene: Aptly used in the film Half Nelson, this song has one of the most curiously appropriate titles ever.

“Closing Scene” – The Radio Dept: A fall mix would not be complete without some neo-shoegazer lamentation from The Radio Dept!

“UK” – Burial: My second favorite song for turning up in my car when I’m driving in L.A. late at night.

“Lemon Tree” – Herb Alpert & Thievery Corporation: A truly gorgeous song I recently discovered featuring Thievery Corporation’s treatment of jazz trumpeter Herb Alpert.

“Trials” – Damien Jurado: From his brand new album, this Damien Jurado track finds him sounding remarkably like Nick Drake

“Constants Are Changing” – Boards of Canada: The title says it all.

“Torn Blue Foam Couch” – Grand Archives: I highly suggest this new Sub Pop band. Very easy-listening with a touch of nostalgia.

“Rollercoaster” – M. Ward: My new favorite song from quiet alt-country folkster M. Ward.

“Too Late” – M83: My third favorite song for turning up in my car when I’m driving in L.A. late at night.

“Yardwork in November” – The Actual Tigers: I haven’t heard anything from this obscure band since this song, but I really like it. Sounds kinda like Paul Simon-esque folk.

“Long Nights” – Eddie Vedder: One of many great songs from Vedder’s spectacular Into the Wild soundtrack.

“Family Tree” – TV on the Radio: From their new album; a brilliant, subtle ballad from an increasingly impressive band.

“Peace of Mind” – Mindy Smith: What I listen to on stressful days.

“Ponytails” – Panda Bear: My favorite song for turning up in my car when I’m driving in L.A. late at night.

“Fljótavík” – Sigur Ros: Simple but devastating.

“Meadowlarks” – Fleet Foxes: Can’t get enough of Fleet Foxes’ beautiful Appalachian-inspired tunes, which are thoroughly autumnal.

“Auntie’s Lock/Infinitum” – Flying Lotus: A solemn beaut from hip hop producer Steve Ellison (aka Flying Lotus).