Exclaim!'s Best of 2013: Top 20 Pop & Rock Albums, Part Two

1. Arcade Fire

It's difficult to remember a time when Arcade Fire were this reviled, but it seems to have less to do with the record they released this year than a perception that their success has clouded their judgment. The promo push for Reflektor as an "event" and their various public appearances (on SNL, their own post-SNL special, The Colbert Report, various live streaming events, etc.) occasionally felt contrived and alienating (theatre camp make-up and costumes plus white-dude-dancing to 'groove' music will do that), spurring enough scorn that people took the supposed 'dress code' of their costly arena tour a little too seriously. Even the band's embargo on the record itself left critics knee-jerking, sussing out its virtues and faults quickly and perhaps without the required contemplation.

In the time since its release, and outside of external behavioural considerations, Reflektor stands up as a fine, ambitious record by a band with frayed grassroots plainly emulating the shape-shifting rock star moves of John Lennon, David Bowie, the Clash, Talking Heads and U2, among others. Audiences had their own perceptions of Arcade Fire established before this record — distinctive, yearning, soaring rock anthems about marginalization within reductive big picture discussions about death, spirituality, how normalcy enhances underground culture, and now, the Internet maybe? — plus they'd won every top music prize out there. So what was next? Like some of their aforementioned heroes, they did the thing where you embrace new sounds and cultures for 'inspiration.'

It's a tack that can be painful to observe — the musician that wants to incorporate far too many foreign musical signifiers into a sound they've become successful with, just to appear even more 'worldly' or 'inclusive.' And when Win Butler talks of the new record and having his musical life altered by witnessing carnival in Haiti, you might rightly wince before putting your copy of Reflektor back on the rack.

But the band is too adept to be overtaken completely by their influences. Under producer James Murphy's watch, Arcade Fire absorbed and filtered more ideas than on any of their previous records and indulged themselves in some instances, sure. It's a double LP with two vastly different sides in terms of mood (playful vs. brooding) and instrumentation (organic vs. synthetic) and that division is bound to lead to, well, divisiveness. Still, there's enough thought and spirit running through the material that Reflektor feels strong and compelling. It is bold by design but ultimately these are, with few exceptions, truly excellent songs. (Vish Khanna)