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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

#1 Album of the Year: Arcade Fire - "Reflektor"

Rating: 9.8/10

My album of the year is Reflektor by Arcade Fire, a band I dedicated an entire week to in anticipation of this album's release. Big surprise that it got #1 on this year's countdown, right? Seriously though, if you read my first review of the album (which you can do by clicking through that hyper-linked text), you'll know I adored the thing. When you got past all of the empty criticisms and the puzzling anger towards the allegedly over-the-top promotion of the record, what you had was a near-perfect group of songs from a band that have mastered their craft. Reflektor is an Arcade Fire album like no other; drenched in synthesizers, lacking much guitar, and driven by Caribbean-flavored beats, this sounds distinctly removed from the days of Funeral, Neon Bible, or The Suburbs. But then again, the band's identity remains intact. Win Butler's gusty voice and his wife Regine Chassagne's perky vocals are ever-present. The ambition, grandeur, and emotion are all stronger than ever. Most importantly, the pure skill of making great music stays.

Butler & co. are undoubtedly fantastic songwriters and performers, as the songs on Reflektor prove. The title track is one of the year's most universally beloved singles, thanks to an incredibly danceable groove, fluttering pianos, deep-rooted synths, and Butler and Chassagne's vocal trade-offs. The conga beat gives the song a foreign feel as Butler's mysterious lyrics leave the song open to interpretation. The other single off the record (so far) is the absolutely gorgeous "Afterlife," guaranteed to send shivers down your spine. Chassagne's "oh-oh's," the chiming keyboards, and jumpy beat all set the stage for Butler's haunted vocal. "Afterlife/Oh my God/What an awful word," he sings right out of the gate. The accompanying music video is just as wonderful as the song, and drives home the meaning of the song even more, as a father and two sons struggle to cope with the loss of the mother of the family.

As always, Arcade Fire tackle some huge themes with their lyrics. The aforementioned "Afterlife" deals with life after death (hence the title). "We Exist" tells the tale, according to Butler himself, of what it is like growing up gay in a particularly homophobic region. This is not from Win's personal experience, as he currently has a wife (fellow vocalist Regine Chassagne, as stated above), but that makes the song no less sincere. Early on, a son asks his father for his help, as Butler cries, "Daddy it's true/I'm different from you/But tell my why they treat me like this?" Later, the speaker becomes more defiant, exclaiming, "Let 'em stare!/If that's all they can do!/But I'd lose my heart/If I turned away from you." It's a pretty riveting track, and one that probably stems from the band's experience while in Haiti. The sounds behind the story are great as well, as the keys and drums swell up, bursting at the song's pivotal moments.

While the story behind "We Exist" likely came from Haiti, so too did much of the album's music. "Flashbulb Eyes" and "Here Comes the Night Time" play out back-to-back as a sonic representation of Haitian Carnival, with wildly fun conga beats and blaring horns. The latter is particularly superb, a song I found so enjoyable that I named it my favorite song of 2013. A rowdy guitar part kicks off the song as drummer Jeremy Gara plays with flair. The dancefloor-rush soon fades to a slow groove the bubbles up before the adrenaline-pumping "fast part" makes a spectacular return.

I can go on and on about each individual track, but I already did that in my last review. Instead, I'll wrap up the year with a more big-picture look at Reflektor for the rest of this post. This album has indicated a new direction for Arcade Fire, one that's much more LCD Soundsystem (whose main man, James Murphy, produced this LP) and Talking Heads than previous albums. Of course, they could take another sharp turn on their fifth release, whenever that may be.

Much spite was directed towards the band for how the promoted the album, while artists like Daft Punk and Justin Timberlake received no hate, and in some cases praise, despite having exponentially larger campaigns pre-release. They played SNL, including a post-show special in which they debuted several new songs, which I found pretty cool. The group performed other late-night shows, a pretty conventional way to generate buzz. The only really out-there method Arcade Fire used to hype Reflektor was that logo they had drawn everywhere. But in a year when Kanye West quite literally projected his face on buildings across the world, it seems hypocritical to call out Arcade Fire for what was possibly somewhat self-indulgent but nowhere near egregious. Some view the band as very pretentious, another unfounded claim in my eyes. I enjoy getting excited about a release, especially one as big as Reflektor.

Personally, Reflektor is the first Arcade Fire album where the band don't sound young anymore. Funeral was a youthful burst of energy, Neon Bible was a sort of coming-of-age, and The Suburbs felt like saying goodbye to childhood. Reflektor, however, is forwards-looking, dealing with uncertainties about life (and death) in the upcoming future. Nostalgia is swapped for anticipation, love lost exchanged for love to come. It's a logical step, considering that Butler and Chassagne recently became parents, and the band's only gotten bigger in cultural footprint since their last record and subsequent Grammy Album of the Year victory. The musical ideas are more thoroughly developed, too, as every detail was worked on meticulously, a clear sign of maturation of sound.

Reflektor is everything great about music packed into one, albeit lengthy, album. Deep lyrical themes, musical talent, catchy hooks, hypnotizing grooves, and songs that make you want to dance, sing, laugh, cry, and everything in between, sometimes all at the same time. Few bands can pull off having songs which contain the literal sounds of a party on the same record as songs dealing with love, death, and fitting in, but Arcade Fire is one of those bands. 2013 truly was an amazing year for alternative music, and music in general, in my opinion the best since the days of the early 1990's, and certainly the best in almost a decade. Even the mainstream finally started to shift towards higher quality music, as respectable artists like Macklemore and Lorde had smash hits with something to say. Valuable messages of restraint, tolerance, cooperation, and thriftiness left previous pop music ideals like over-indulgence, recklessness, and selfishness behind. People like to say every year that it was a bad year for music, but invariably look back years later and go back on their early words. 2013 is sure to be a year the world remembers as a strong one for music. Don't believe me? Reflektor is all the proof you need.

Key Tracks: "Reflektor," "Here Comes the Night Time," "Normal Person," "Afterlife"

December's been quite the month here on Facts for Whatever, as I published fifteen (!) album reviews in one month. That's almost one every other day! Thanks to everyone who followed along throughout. So, now, I present this month's work in list form. Here are, after long last, my top fifteen albums of 2013, summarized in list form. If you missed any of the full-length reviews, you can click on the album title in the list to jump to the page. Spotify links to the albums & songs of the years playlists will be embedded at the bottom of the post, and the AotY list will include Reflektor (though sadly not MBV - you can listen to that here), so you can hear it there rather than a separate embedment. Here's hoping 2014 gives us as much great music as 2013 has! (And fingers crossed Radiohead put something out!)

Top Fifteen Albums of the Year
1. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
2. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
3. Wavves - Afraid of Heights
4. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork
5. Washed Out - Paracosm
6. The Joy Formidable - Wolf's Law
7. Deafheaven - Sunbather
8. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks
9. The National - Trouble Will Find Me
10. My Bloody Valentine - MBV
11. HAIM - Days Are Gone
12. Lorde - Pure Heroine
13. Local Natives - Hummingbird
14. Mikal Cronin - MCII
15. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

Thanks for reading!

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