When Arcade Fire won the Album of the Year Grammy for The Suburbs on February 13, 2011, it was legitimately shocking. Sure, the Grammys, as an institution, are known for weird out-of-left-field choices, particularly in the Album of the Year category, where the favorites (either odds-wise or in terms of public or critical sentiment) regularly lose to something a bit more sentimental (think Green Day, Usher, Alicia Keys, and Kanye West all losing to the late Ray Charles in 2005) or maybe just a bit more white (Beyonce’s self-titled smash losing to an unexceptional late-career Beck album in 2015). But The Suburbs was different. There was no precedent for an indie band taking the top prize. A band hadn’t won the award period since U2 and Dixie Chicks won back-to-back in 2006 and 2007. The other contenders were also all gargantuan albums that had spawned at least one ubiquitous, generational hit: Katy Petty’s Teenage Dream, Eminem’s Recovery, Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster, Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now. Arcade Fire weren’t nobodies: they’d made arguably the second most acclaimed album of the 2000s with 2004’s Funeral (the first most acclaimed being Radiohead’s Kid A), and The Suburbs had even debuted at the top of the Billboard 200. But next to a gaggle of mainstream hit machines, the Canadian indie rock band didn’t stand a chance.
Except they did. I remember watching in shock, not quite believing my eyes and ears as The Suburbs was crowned Album of the Year live on television on that Sunday evening in early 2011. Thoroughly ensconced in my holier-than-thou “pop music sucks” phase, I remember thinking earlier that evening that The Suburbs was the only album nominated for the top award that I cared about in the slightest. I’d spent the summer driving around my hometown and listening to this album on repeat, and the fall and winter walking around campus with it playing through my headphones. The albums that had played those roles in the past had never gotten Grammy recognition, so why should Arcade Fire? And yet, here they were, up on the stage accepting the award for all to see, and clearly as shocked as the rest of us were. My thought at the time was something along the lines of, “Well okay, I guess sometimes the good guys win.”
Leaving aside, for a moment, my own clear rockism at this stage of my musical development—and the fact that, if we’re being honest, there was no album that defined 2010 more for more people than Teenage Dream did—that night was still a special moment in the annals of indie rock. When Arcade Fire took the stage to accept the Album of the Year Grammy, it felt like the beginning of something. “Go forth and conquer, ye great defenders of rock ‘n’ roll; soon ye shall rule the kingdom.” The band even played “Ready to Start” to close out the Grammy telecast, as if they were accepting the baton that would symbolize a newfound popularization of rock and indie in an otherwise increasingly popified mainstream. It was like a commencement ceremony, only instead of students bedecked in caps and gowns, we were wishing a Canadian indie rock band bon voyage as they paddled off toward bigger and better things.
In truth, Arcade Fire didn’t redefine rock ‘n’ roll or break pop music, but pop music might have broken Arcade Fire. Win Butler and company did indeed ride forth from the Grammys in triumph, taking a sales bump (and laughing off a meme that questioned their identity) but they didn’t end up conquering anything. Instead, they stumbled over their own newfound visibility and spent the 2010s making subpar music that was too self-conscious, too ironic, and far too preoccupied with the idea of what a “significant band” should be trying to do or say with their art. As of now, The Suburbs remains the last time Arcade Fire lived up to their enormous potential—something that, contradictorily, makes it even more special as it crosses the 10-year mark.
When Arcade Fire arrived on the scene with Funeral, what made them unique and interesting was their sheer reckless abandon. The audacity to even attempt a song like “Wake Up”—something that huge, something that heart-on-the-sleeve honest—was an asset that very, very few bands could have mustered. And while Neon Bible obscured some of its more favorable qualities in “band-makes-lofty-statement” self-importance, its Springsteen-meets-U2 DNA was still just about as massive as any indie band dared to go in the 2000s. But again, The Suburbs was different. It was patient in a way that Arcade Fire’s music hadn’t been in the past. Funeral had begun with a grand romantic anthem about forging a bond with someone amidst tunnels of snow in a blizzard-buried town—an absurdist take on “Thunder Road” that nevertheless struck a chord. Neon Bible, meanwhile, had shackled its ambitions to songs that questioned no one less significant than God themself—or, at least, the concept of organized religion. Comparatively, the setup for The Suburbs seemed almost quaint, especially once the title track—an easygoing Neil Young-esque slice of folk-rock—cut through the speakers. But as The Suburbs unfolds and unspools its loose narratives about growing up in dead-end small-town America, it builds an epic scope that somehow manages to dwarf everything Arcade Fire had accomplished previously. Where Funeral was remarkable because the bursts of emotion and exuberance were so palpable and infectious, The Suburbs is special because of it the creeping dread and cautious joy that populates the corners of its grayscale, mundane snapshots of daily life.
At least, when you hear the title The Suburbs, you imagine something grayscale and mundane. Here, though, Arcade Fire turn suburbia into a battleground for a titanic struggle for the soul. The suburbs are the backdrop for what happens here, their cookie-cutter houses, labyrinthine subdivision streets, colorless cul-de-sacs, and expansive vistas (with no skyscrapers or tall buildings to break the line on the horizon) serving as the scenery. But rather than letting it become something as dull and nondescript as a manufactured housing development, Arcade Fire build this record into a treatise on suburban upbringing that is both wistful and distrustful. It’s an album that hints at both the beauty and the ugliness that is hiding in these corners of the world, where highway signs signal toward cities that are 30 miles in the distance but might as well be lightyears away. The beauty is often in the innocence: of kids and teenagers wasting hours wandering their neighborhoods, getting up to hijinks with friends, bonding over shared musical interests, or falling in love with each other. The ugliness is found elsewhere: in the ignorance of narrow-minded people; in the hopelessness of dead-end jobs; in the hideous eyesores of dying shopping malls; and in the way that friends grow apart as they grow older, until they end up pitted against each other on different sides of some “suburban war.”
Growing up in a suburban area or a small town, you often don’t immediately register the beauty or the ugliness that are inherent in the place you call home. Often, you end up preoccupied with your own boredom, and with glancing toward the edge of town and longing for the freedom of escape. “Wasted hours before we knew/Where to go and what to do,” frontman Win Butler sings on “Wasted Hours,” a song about whiling away a youthful summer in tedium. Years later, you’ll look back on the same summers with nostalgia, finally seeing the splendor in the time of your life when you had no responsibility. But that look back might reveal other things that you missed, too. As you gain a broader worldview, you might just start seeing the seedy underbelly of the place you used to call home: the ignorance, the bigotry, the injustice, the bad things that happened when no one was looking. The Suburbs is expansive and fully-realized in exploring these concepts, both with the wide-eyed charm of youth and the hardened reflection of adulthood. It’s an album that felt prescient in 2010, in the midst of the Great Recession, and one that maybe only feels more relevant now, in Trump’s America.
It’s a shame that, as of yet, Arcade Fire have not made anything worthwhile since. 2013’s Reflektor and 2017’s Everything Now are largely joyless affairs, full of songs that actively forget most of Arcade Fire’s strengths, from their talent for making larger-than-life noise to their ability to blend joy and dread into powerful catharsis. The Suburbs finds its characters on the ground level and uses nuances from those stories to sketch out larger ideas about the album’s core themes. Subsequent Arcade Fire albums ask big questions—about internet-age isolation and dread, or about the dehumanizing aspects of consumerism and commercialization—but fail to find compelling ways of grounding those ideas in anything relatable. They feel like lectures from a Big Rock Band, delivered from behind a veil of cynicism, irony, and obnoxious performance art. Looking back, the natural conclusion to draw is that Arcade Fire learned all the wrong lessons from the Grammy win that welcomed them into pop’s big leagues. The Suburbs earned adoration because it felt lived-in, thematically vibrant, and deeply relatable. By 2013, Arcade Fire were like art house filmmakers who had left their roots behind to make shitty, overly bloated blockbusters. Here’s hoping that, eventually, they find their way back home.