I’ve been writing for The Collegian since the second week of my freshman year, and the greatest portion of the dozens of stories I’ve written for this wonderful rag have been album reviews. I toyed with the idea of a column from my first time in the office but decided on just writing one — sometimes two — album reviews a week without relation to a column. The idea never resurfaced, even during my time as Variety Editor. Only now, with my executive power as Editor-in-Chief, am I forcing myself into a pre-made space within the Variety section. I’d like to discuss prominent albums from the past on or around the anniversaries of their release, specifically their importance to music and to me, in 500-ish words. This is Playback. I hope I can inspire you to listen.
It’s been 15 years since Arcade Fire invented lots-of-people-yelling-for-the-chorus in indie rock and 20 years since American Football revealed that teenage emotions aren’t necessarily surface-deep. Sept. 14 was the 15th anniversary for Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” and the 20th for American Football’s self-titled debut, and the bands have been celebrating appropriately since then. Arcade Fire swamped their social media with old pictures, performances and snippets from the original “Funeral” tour (for example, their first tour bus was a repurposed school bus), and American Football released the “Year One Demos” EP, a collection of unreleased instrumental demos from the “American Football” sessions.
The influence of these two records in their respective genres shouldn’t be understated. I’m not the first to argue that they aren’t unblemished masterpieces — “Haiti” is a notable lowpoint on “Funeral,” and “American Football” is admittedly frontloaded — but they’re still both fantastic albums.
“Funeral” was the impetus for the sound and energy that indie rock would gradually come to embody before the entire genre peaked in 2009 (we’ve been witnessing its swansong in the decade since). Note the word there — “energy.” “Funeral,” despite its macabre title, is nothing if not energetic and packed with passion. Win Butler is certainly an odd duck of a frontman — his singing sounds uneven and tear-choked for the near entirety of “Funeral” — but he’s willing to let it rip vocally, and his roaring, untrained pining throughout the album recalls the vocal qualities of Jeff Mangum, a Merge Records colleague. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t hear him calling “Where’d you go?” every time at the end of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).”
The album is the result of half a dozen Canadian suburbs-dwellers finally unloosing their pent up creativity, and the scenes of the record wind in and out of lamplit houses, snow-trodden neighborhood streets and cozy car interiors. But despite the sleepy source material, the music elevates. Any track that begins with simple piano work ends with a flurry of fuzzy guitar. The emotional dam of “Crown of Love” breaks at the end, and “Rebellion (Lies)” is a constant rush of inertia. The pivotal “Wake Up” just has everyone yelling (though harmonically, and trendsettingly).
“American Football” is another product of young people from nice neighborhoods, though tending a bit more rural (the famous house on the record’s cover confirms this), but frontman Mike Kinsella seems less interested in leaving that part of his life than Arcade Fire does. The record deals with the classic teenage relationship and breakup drama that comes from early emo output, but it balances it with tact and a mature, level-headed look back at the cusp of one’s coming of age. Above all: great instrumentation. The delightful, circular guitar riffs on the opener, “Never Meant,” speak to that.
But if the first song is standing up, then the rest of the record is sitting, sometimes lying down. American Football took emo in a calmer, more downtempo direction in the wake of the burgeoning shoegaze and post-rock scenes. They don’t abandon the genre’s tropes — they undermine them. Guitar riffs give way to somber trumpet solos; Kinsella ridicules his own teenage emotions (on “Honestly”) just to later dredge them back up (“But the Regrets Are Killing Me”). It may be “sad boy hours” and you might be sick of seeing the picture of that house on the cover, but it’s earnest, and a striking release from a group of three Illinois nobodies who quite literally cobbled the record together last-minute and disbanded shortly after. Nothing about it signaled cohesion, yet here we are.
What these two records are to me, most of all, are placeholders in my own musical history. Inspired by a joke from the film “High Fidelity,” I enjoy thinking about how I’d arrange my album collection in order of my discovering them, and the influence they’ve had on my life. These two records would be near the beginning of a period when I began making a concerted effort to develop my own taste, not informed by any of my family.
That said, I don’t return to them frequently. I admit their faults, admire their triumphs and I love them, but I don’t spin them once a week. Even the bands have failed to inspire much interest from me since these releases — I recall writing a poor review of American Football’s second self-released record, the follow-up 17 years in the making, and though Arcade Fire has had “The Suburbs,” I mostly don’t jive with their post-”Funeral” sound. I haven’t even bothered to listen to the most recent release from either band, though I hear one is enjoyable and one is disappointing.
These records are bigger than the bands that recorded them, in my opinion. There is something pure and creative and uncompromising about both of them. They’re full of life, ambition and a distinct lack of experience. As time goes on, I’m beginning to believe that last quality lends itself to the best music.