Every National Album, Ranked From Worst To Best

Ohio based rockers The National have been ever-present in rock music for the better part of two decades: forming in the late 90’s and releasing their self-titled effort in 2001, Matt Berninger and co. have been at the helm of seven records of varying quality, usually finding at least one of their albums in an album of the decade list. Thanks to their arty sombre work, The National have found themselves appealing to people both young and old which have helped them to remain both commercially and critically viable.

Of course, we can’t simply sit idly by and not ask the question: what’s their best record? Well, you won’t have to ponder for much longer as Transistor’s fantastic four Andrew (@weeandreww), Callum (@cal_thornhill), Josh (@jxshadams) and Kieran (@kiercannon) have helped to 100-per-cent-definitively rank their albums – will there be hot takes? Absolutely. Will there be an obvious loser? Probably. Will you be pissed off at us? Most definitely.

Quick disclaimer: This is, like, our opinion or whatever, dude. Disagree? The comments down below will house whatever rage you’re feeling.


7. The National (2001)

Andrew: The National’s self-titled debut actually isn’t as bad as its made out to be. It’s certainly no Pablo Honey in terms of quality, but in a similar manner to Radiohead’s debut, it pales in comparison with the rest of The National’s discography (apart from the sophomore Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers). If I’m honest, this isn’t a record that has stuck with me anywhere near as much as the rest of the band’s discography and I rarely find myself listening to this record.

However, it’s not a complete dud. On tracks like American Mary, you can identify the elements that the band have refined in recent years to make themselves so adored – in Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s interlocking guitar/piano parts, Scott and Bryan Devendorf’s airtight rhythm section and Matt Berninger’s hazy, weary baritone.

Callum: Although this record is being ranked last, it is simply because the others hold more personal and sentimental value. The National’s self-titled debut was, for me anyway, a record I went back to and picked up on vinyl to simply complete my collection. But now, it is a record I dabble in when catching the train or in need of background music. There are some tracks, for example, Theory of Crows that have stuck over the years with the lyrics “I’ll suck off investors, I’ll suck off VCs
I’m losing my posture from time on my knees,” that proved to be the core of The National’s witty and charismatic lyrics. A good foundation of what was to come for the Ohio alt-rockers.

Josh: It has been claimed that the band’s self-titled debut was made simply just because they could, and it shows.  Whilst it undeniably has it charms in cuts like “American Mary” and “29 Years”, it lacks both the punch of their other earlier work and the sophistication of their later albums, opting for an alt-country twinge that never totally sits well with the New York group.  “The National” is the sound of a band searching for their idiosyncrasies, rather than one fully formed and ready to turn heads – not offensively bad, but definitely less than essential.

Kieran: Grammy Award-Winning Band The National are a rare breed – they have yet to release a dud. Although their first two ‘forgotten’ albums (S/T and SSFDL) aren’t quite on the same level as the ones that followed, they’re still enjoyable in their own right. Those who were introduced to The National post-Alligator will be surprised by the Americana-tinged style of the tracks, but there are more parallels to their later material than meets the eye. 29 Years, for example, is essentially a lo-fi draft version of Slow Show, where the same “You know I dreamed about you / For 29 years before I saw you” refrain gets immortalised in its climactic outro. S/T is a solid album, although it’s rather eclipsed by what comes after it.

6. Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers (2003)

Callum: Murder Me Rachael, Available and Sugar Wife. With a fine collection of other The National tracks it could be easy to forget about these gems, but when we reminisce about their 2003 sophomore record we can see exactly why fifteen years later they are continuing to put out tracks that echo the sounds from this sophomore record. Very rarely will you see The National slip a Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, which makes it a more ‘exclusive’ record for those daring to take a punt on them all them years ago.

Josh: There’s not much between their second LP and their debut, other than the permanent arrival of guitarist Bryce Dessner to the fold and a more formidable growl from singer Matt Berninger.  The instrumental palette is widened and the lyrical tone sounds less despondent, and more whiskey-soaked, allowing The National to bear their teeth on what are, not coincidentally, the best tracks here: “Slipping Husband” and “Available” drunkenly shuffle with barely concealed bitterness until the rage erupts in one of Berninger’s trademark screams.  What really lets “Sad Songs…” down though is its production: flat and lifeless, it ruins the good songs and only makes clear the flaws of the bad ones.

Kieran: On their second album, The National start to move away from the country roots of their debut and begin to forge their own brand of indie rock. Containing some of their heaviest bangers to date (Available and Murder Me Rachael) as well as the debut appearance of Matt Berninger’s infamous screaming, SSFDL is significantly more fleshed-out than S/T but it still lacks the polish and songwriting finesse of the subsequent five albums. That being said, it’s the first time Matt’s lyrics really start to demonstrate his dark humour and wry observation – the unique ways in which he discusses life, love, and relationships.

Andrew: Once again, I’ll have to admit that I haven’t listened to this record nearly as much as the rest of The National’s albums since it’s almost a universally agreed fact that the first two National records are almost stepping stones for the greatness that soon followed. However, Sad Songs is undoubtedly a step forward from the self-titled.

It perhaps showcases the heavier side of The National which the band have flirted with throughout their career more than any other studio album, with Berninger’s groan turning into a full-bloodied scream on Slipping Husband, Available and Murder Me Rachael. However, especially on Rachael, it becomes apparent that these tracks deserve better production than they have on the record, and you can’t talk about Sad Songs without mentioning the undisputed-worst-track-ever-recorded-by-Grammy-award-winning-band-The-National – the somehow reggae-infused Sugar Wife. However, it’s on the tracklisting beside tracks as beautiful as closer Lucky You, so, ultimately, Sad Songs shows a band who have potential, but are sadly yet to fully realise it.

5. Alligator (2005)

Josh: This is where The National hit their stride, and it was helped by the fact their backs were against the wall where success had eluded them for years.  The performances are powerful, the lyrics are powerful, and the track listing consistent: from “Secret Meeting” to the absolutely stunning “Mr. November”, it has something for everyone to latch on to and form memories from.  The only reason it’s so low down in the list is that it pales in comparison to the heights the band have gone on to achieve off the back of this record, which in itself is a testament to its quality.

Kieran: The step-up from SSFDL to Alligator is astonishing. Within two years, their maturity and songcraft multiplied exponentially without losing any of their youthful energy. The best way to describe this album is it’s the pal who comes round to your house with a crate of booze when you’re feeling a bit shit, sits and drinks with you until you’ve forgotten what was wrong in the first place. It’s wild, raucous and (relatively speaking) fairly optimistic but also manages to be hard-hitting when it needs to be (see Val Jester). It’s also massively underrated – so many relatively unknown tracks like Lit Up, Secret Meeting and Geese of Beverly Road deserve to rank among the band’s very best. It’s possibly my favourite National album, and I’ve been searching for any reason to rank it #1 but the margins between Alligator and Boxer really are very fine indeed.

Andrew: Here’s where it gets interesting. Alligator is the first great National record, at the band’s third attempt, and the beginning of the Brooklyn five-piece’s ridiculously consistent run. More than that, Alligator marks the first iteration of what is now The National’s trademark sound. The Dessner’s songwriting is laser-sharp, and its marriage with Berninger’s occasionally hilariously honest songwriting (“Karen put me in a chair, fuck me and make me a drink”) is seamless.

The finger-picked guitar of Secret Meeting is the perfect introduction to the band’s most eclectic record yet. There are tracks as plaintive and stripped back as Daughters of the Soho Riots alongside massive rock songs like Abel, and almost everything in between. What is particularly enjoyable about The National is you can truly pick out each members’ contribution to each track and record and it must be said that drummer Bryan Devendorf is incredible on Alligator, and is the driving force behind some of the record’s best moments – none more so than the incredible closer Mr. November, where the life-affirming chorus is backed up by rapid-fire drumming.

If there is to be one criticism of Alligator, it’s an understandable one – the production isn’t flawless, and on certain tracks, the guitars especially can sound quite tinny – however this can be put down to the fact the band weren’t blessed with a huge recording budget, as this is more than rectified on later attempts.

Callum: All The Wine is as lyrically succulent as The National get and Alligator is the perfect example of Berninger and co.’s turning point. From a cult, nichely appreciated into a majestic, celebrated festival headliner. Teeing up the release of Boxer, the band transition from the delicate to the angsty and the record mirrors how The National construct their live show; just when you are settling into a steady theme of swaying shoulders you’re smacked in the face with fan-favourite Mr. November. Glorious.

 

4. Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

Kieran: This is where the rankings get *really* tough. The beauty of The National, who have consistently matured and adapted over the years, is that the run from Alligator through to Sleep Well Beast is crammed with five records whose individual merits are all sufficient to see them take the #1 spot. Ranking them objectively is incredibly difficult and fans listen to the band for such a wide variety of reasons that an argument could justifiably be made that, perhaps, TWFM deserves to sit at the top. It’s one of their most candid and accessible records, but it certainly isn’t lacking in genius. Matt’s lyrical poetry is in fine form on Graceless as he delivers the line “god loves everybody, don’t remind me” with a hefty dose of sarcasm. There are countless gems to uncover throughout, like the perfectly timed key change on This Is The Last Time, but in my opinion Fireproof and Slipped are comparatively weaker tracks – hence TWFM stays at #4.

Andrew: Anyone at all familiar with The National will know that they’re hardly a band for parties or sunny days at the best of times. This reputation is largely justified – thanks, in no small part – to Trouble…, easily the gloomiest record the band have put out. If you were to assign a mood to this record it would be anxiety, which seems to permeate every kick drum and guitar lick on the record.

This is personified on Don’t Swallow the Cap, arguably the best track the five-piece have ever recorded. The track isn’t heavy, but moves at breakneck pace, with a breathless guitar line propelling Berninger’s frantic, stream-of-consciousness delivery which details a 4am drunken panic attack. The track is backed up by some rapid drumming and a haunting string score, adding up to the kind of track only The National could make.

Personally, when I think of Trouble.., its stunning ballads are the first tracks that come to mind. The five-piece are rarely as stripped back as they are on tracks like Slipped, I Need My Girl and Pink Rabbits, with Berninger’s heart-breaking lyricism taking centre stage with lines as stunning as “I was falling apart / I was a television version of a person with a broken heart”.

Callum: In my opinion, this is where critics realised that The National were far more than an underappreciated, cult-followed, niche band. Some of their most heartfelt tracks feature on this record and have been echoed back all around the world since it dropped in 2013. Kicking things off with, yep you guessed it, a hearty ballad in the form of I Should Live in Salt; what follows is an accumulation of brilliance which makes it extremely difficult to choose just one highlight. Dabbling in the poetic, e.g. Pink Rabbits and I Need My Girl as well as the abstract lyricism of Graceless, this is without a doubt one of the greatest records since the turn of the millennium.

Josh:  “Trouble Will Find Me” is a strange album, and, in a way, arguably the most “National” album of all in their discography.  At first it is an uneven listing, with some of their best tracks ever recorded rubbing shoulders with some of their worst (looking at you, “Don’t Swallow The Cap” and “Fireproof”), and the whole record has a grey, almost lethargic sheen to it; like a fog smothering a skyscraper in the Financial District.  But over time, it grows and opens up, allowing some of Berninger’s most striking lines to cut right to the bone: “You didn’t see me, I was falling apart, I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park” from Pink Rabbits is a personal favourite, and it sums up why this album is so good; because you don’t see it at first.

 

3. Sleep Well Beast (2017)

Andrew: The newest entry in The National’s discography saw a pretty seismic shift in the band’s songwriting. Sleep Well Beast is far more electronic than its predecessors, and for the most part, it is a remarkably subtle record. The National’s 7th LP is characterised by tracks like Walk It Back and Empire Line, subtle tracks that establish a mood and atmosphere and stick with it for their entire run time rather than building to any sort of climax.

This could easily have backfired and come off as boring, but by this point in their career, The National are masters of atmosphere, and these tracks are all the more fascinating for their refusal to build to a crescendo. Walk It Back in particular features a brilliantly piercing guitar line courtesy of Bryce Dessner while a lengthy vocal sample plays in the background.

That is the record’s mood for the most part. However, there is one beautiful outlier in the form of Turtleneck: a track that just scrapes the three minute mark where the band really lets their hair down. Berninger’s ragged vocals fire shots at “another man in shitty suits” currently occupying the White House, but the track’s best moment comes when the Dessner twins trade guitar solos on the ferocious bridge.

Callum: 2017’s dark and enigmatic Sleep Well Beast ties together everything The National has ever released, but with a subtle yet gracious twist. Using samples, electronics and most importantly cutting lyrics to portray love, loss, and desperation; the Ohio outfit delve deep into one’s core and submerges itself in a portion of self-deprecation. In the quieter ballads, for example Carin at the Liquor Store and Guilty Party, we are offered a voyeuristic glimpse of where relationships have faulted – but, the hastier tracks like Turtleneck reminds listeners of their tongue in cheek abilities. Similar to Mr. November in terms of style; Turtleneck, however, refers to Trump as “just another man, in shitty suits, everybody’s cheering for.” Classic.

Josh: Only The National, the musical epitome of the underdog, could provide one of their greatest this late into their career.  The band’s embracing of electronics into their otherwise consistent chamber rock proceedings gives each song an unusual yet captivating flavour, with eerie vocal samples and skittering drum machines bouncing between Berninger’s voice and secret weapon Bryan’s drums, often revealing themselves to be a welcome addition.  Whilst it may stumble off a bit towards the end with one too many slow burners, “Sleep Well Beast” is proof enough that The National still have plenty of fight left in them.

Kieran: Their latest and most experimental album to date, Sleep Well Beast was a radical departure from pretty much everything else they’ve released. Plenty of electronic bleep-bloops, unconventional song structures and – wait – is that a guitar solo?! The sense of freedom is palpable, as the band eschewed the tedious and meticulous sort of recording process they endured for High Violet in favour of a much more freeform and avant-garde approach. The record evokes feelings of winter and hibernation – saying no to the party invitations, closing the windows and shutting out the world until everything makes a bit more sense.

For this reason, it’s melancholic even by Ntl standards, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of tenderness. On album highlight I’ll Still Destroy You, Matt sings about his daughter – “Put your heels against the wall / I swear you got a little bit taller since I saw you” – a bittersweet remark about the downsides of being on the road, missing out on important stages of your kid growing up. It’s an intriguing new direction the Cincinnati sad dads are heading in, and it’ll be fascinating to see how it pans out.

2. Boxer (2007)

Callum: The only record by The National to warrant an official, full-length live recording (Boxer Live in Brussels), so that means something, right?! For me, though, as brilliant as Boxer is, it is an accumulation of banging tunes as opposed to an iconic album as a package. The two year period between Alligator and Boxer allowed The National to develop from a somewhat angst-saddled outfit into a maturer, emotion charging, dinner party band. Of course, you can’t drop Available or Mr November when you’re in red wine territory, but you definitely CAN pull out Guest Room.

Josh: And this is where it becomes controversial.  “Boxer” is often considered to be the point where the band finally broke through and became the sad dads we all know and love today.  Everything about the group that has remained steady well into the present was firmly established here: Berninger’s baritone croon, the lush orchestral arrangements, the driving guitars, the powerful drums.  It all comes together in a glorious mix that nearly lasts the entire LP, with “Squalor Victoria” and “Slow Show” being definite highlights; unfortunately, like most National albums it stumbles towards the end with one too many slow songs after a balanced entrance that contrasts their enthralling energy with their gloomy tendencies.  “Apartment Story”, “Racing Like a Pro” and “Ada” to their best to save a sludge of the second half, but not enough to make it the crème de la crème.

Kieran: This is it. Boxer. The album that arguably defines The National and captures their essence in a way no other album has managed so far. In terms of their progression musically, it’s difficult to exaggerate how important this record is. Its use of lush orchestral arrangements and synths lifts the melodies to new heights – and despite the grandeur on the fanfare at the end of Fake Empire, on other tracks the devil is in the detail. Green Gloves, for example: the keyboard part playing in the background of the final chorus brings the song to a subtle but incredible climax. The genius is that you don’t even notice until you listen to it a few times and really pay attention.

The album’s track order is perfect as well – slower tracks arrive at just the right time to let off some of the pressure built by upbeat, rapid-drumming songs like Apartment Story. The decision to end on three fairly low-key tracks – Racing Like a Pro, Ada and Gospel – could be considered a bold move, but in reality there’s no better way to wind down the album. The explosive nature of Mr November was the ideal way to end Alligator, just as Gospel is a fitting way to reflect on Boxer as a whole. It’s the very definition of a slow burner, but trust me folks – it’s well worth sticking by it.

Andrew: While Alligator was undoubtedly a huge step forward for the band, Boxer was the record when the world really took notice of The National, and for good reason. In 43 incredibly concise minutes, the five-piece announced themselves as the band everyone knew they were capable of becoming. The piano part that opens Fake Empire and the record is now nothing short of legendary, and the track’s politically-infused lyricism is as relevant now as it was in 2007.

Boxer just feels like the trademark National album. From the legitimately threatening Mistaken for Strangers to the brilliantly bullish Apartment Story (“we’ll be alright, we have our looks and perfume on”) this is a band on top of their game.

Perhaps the quintessential National track is Slow Show, a ballad beautifully incorporating acoustic guitar and piano, with Berninger describing his social anxiety at a party and his desire to rush home to his partner, with a vintage lyric “can I get a minute of not being nervous and not thinking of my dick?” If you ever find yourself doubting why The National are such indie royalty, just look at how moving their tracks can be while Berninger sings about his penis.

1. High Violet (2010)

Josh: Here we have the only National album that doesn’t stumble once throughout its 48 minute long run time – the closest the band have ever come and probably ever will to a perfect record.  It’s almost ironic then that it starts tentatively, with an echoing muted guitar strum to test the water before jumping straight into one of their most moving songs, “Terrible Love”, that features a monster of a chorus that feels like it was designed for the larger crowds the group found themselves playing for after “Boxer”.  Nearly every song builds to a climax or a certain moment that takes your breath away: the repeated mantra at the end of “Afraid of Everyone”, or the joyous crescendo of “England”, or the final, reverberating chorus of delicate closer “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”. Everything just works, and works staggeringly well at that. What more could you ask for?

Kieran: When I first started dabbling in The National, in all honesty, I wasn’t sold – that is, until I heard the opening drumbeats of Bloodbuzz Ohio. High Violet is the album that got me utterly, utterly hooked on the band. It’s an explosive, cathartic wall of sound and it’s so compelling I still find myself struggling to turn it off without listening to the entire album front-to-back. Terrible Love is the perfect way to start an album (although plenty of debate has raged about whether the alternative version on the extended edition is better) and is a case in point that the band have mastered the art of the opening track.

It’s much more polished and painstakingly produced than Boxer or Alligator, to the point where Lemonworld was rewritten 80 times in order to achieve the perfect sound – although the final version ended up resembling the original demo. I absolutely loved High Violet (still do), and although it got me into The National –  Alligator and Boxer made me stick around.

Andrew: High Violet is a flawless record. As much as I love them, if I was to nit-pick, I could criticise Sleep Well Beast and Boxer, but High Violet is a different beast. There’s not a weak track to be seen in the track listing. Hell, there’s not even a weak chorus, verse or bridge.

To discuss the actual songwriting of High Violet, it’s easily the most cinematic National record. It’s almost the antithesis of Sleep Well Beast in that it is thoroughly anthemic: High Violet is personified by colossal climaxes – such as “it takes an ocean not to break” on Terrible Love, your voice is swallowing my soul” on Afraid of Everyone and the huge wordless crescendo of Bloodbuzz Ohio.  Remarkably on a record with moments this huge – it’s not at all disjointed, the flow is incredibly natural and even the less ambitious songs on the tracklist, such as Little Faith and Lemonworld, serve as small but vital parts of the beautiful canvas.

Arguably the record’s most dynamic track is penultimate number England, which develops from a world-weary piano riff into a colossal emotional epiphany – worthy of closing just about any album. However, what comes after is one of the most beautiful tracks in the band’s discography – Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, a stunning acoustic track which features Berninger singing in an uncharacteristically high octave, seemingly suggesting there’s nothing this band and album can’t do.

Callum: Another accumulation of The National’s musical prowess here. High Violet is home to the commercially wonderful Bloodbuzz Ohio, but it is elsewhere that we find the ripe, unpicked fruit. From front to back, this record oozes powerful emotion and tracks perfect for all aspects of life – predominantly the themes of abandonment (Anyone’s Ghost and Conversation 16) and pining for the second coming of what has gone before (England). Teetering on the magnificent, majestic and all round.

Colour Carnival impress with sophomore EP ‘Panic Sold’

words fae Kieran Cannon (@kiercannon)

Edinburgh-based psych rock outfit Colour Carnival are one of the more eclectic acts to emerge from Leith Recording Company in recent months. Whilst their debut Count The Flies puts out a feast of different sounds for listeners to gorge on, it felt at times that certain elements didn’t quite belong on the plate. Their latest EP, on the other hand, constitutes a significant step forward for the three-piece group in their effort to distill down a myriad of influences into a slicker, more cohesive package. Panic Sold glides between various styles in a manner which is not only effective, but begins to build the foundations of their very own unique sound.

Ready For This kicks off with a blistering drum intro and some neat, intricate clean guitar work before giving way to crashing cymbals and distortion. The rhythm section of Graeme Jarvie and Michael Stuart does a great job of controlling the ebb and flow, especially as the structure is fairly freeform; in fact, none of the tracks on the EP are really your bog standard verse/chorus affair. It’s encouraging to see that Colour Carnival’s songwriting is already fairly accomplished at this early stage of their career, by and large avoiding pitfalls such as repetitive melodies or tired indie rock cliches.

Moral Rachet continues to impress as it begins with jabs of jarring, dissonant guitar and weaving basslines as Simon Anderson takes aim at the hypocrisy of the gun lobby – “hit me with your moral ratchet / candle vigils, thoughts and prayers” – before bursting into life midway with an almost palpable release of tension, providing a wonderful contrast to the anxiety of the first half. It’s a sign that they’re able to experiment and incorporate the odd tastefully deployed guitar solo without giving off the impression it’s been thrown in ‘for the hell of it’.

Penultimate track Run Its Race suddenly takes the EP in a new direction, and is testament to the band’s ability to switch it up. There’s some really nice touches throughout – the guitar hook is pretty damn catchy, plus the seemingly innocuous synths during the verse actually work to great effect. It’s undoubtedly a highlight and you’d be hard pushed to find a better starting point for the curious or the uninitiated.

The step-up from debut to sophomore EP is marked, and if Colour Carnival continue on this trajectory, they’re looking like a very hot prospect indeed. Once they smooth out some of the rough edges production-wise, such as the occasionally muddled vocals, they look more than capable of serving up a slice of brilliance on their next outing.

‘Panic Sold’ is set to be released June 29th. You can listen to it and buy a digital copy here.

Every Arcade Fire Album, Ranked From Worst To Best

Since their first demo back in 2001, up until their critically divisive fifth LP last year, Canadian indie rock outfit Arcade Fire have had a knack for inciting strong reactions from the general public and critics – most of the time positive. Not one to stick to the same bread and butter formula, the Montreal band have constantly changed up their sound which helps to make them one of the most exciting acts the 21st century has provided thus far.

Of course, we can’t simply sit idly by and not ask the question: what’s their best record? Well you won’t have to ponder for much longer as Transistor’s fantastic four Jake (@jjjjaketh), Josh (@jxshadams), Kieran (@kiercannon), and Sarah (@hollowcrown) have helped to 100-per-cent-definitively rank their albums – will there be hot takes? Absolutely. Will there be an obvious loser? Most definitely? Will you be pissed off at us? Probably. Anyway, let’s keep the car running and skrt off to our ranking…

Quick disclaimer: This is, like, our opinion or whatever, dude. Disagree? The comments down below will house whatever rage you’re feeling.


5. Everything Now (2017)

Jake [5th]: While I don’t hate Everything Now with the feverishness that many other people do, there’s absolutely no denying that it’s the black sheep in Arcade Fire’s discography. The promo campaign in the lead up to the album rubbed a LOT of people the wrong way, with the band adopting a satirical über-capitalist facade, and unleashing the Everything Now Corporation on the world.

We’re not here to talk about that, however (though I, amongst many others, have plenty to say on the subject). We’re here to talk about the tunes, and while it’s the weakest Arcade Fire album, there are still bangers to be found here. The title track, for instance, is a natural progression (or regression?) of the sound Arcade Fire adopted on The Suburbs, with a bit of Reflektor thrown in.

Creature Comfort is a barnstormer of a song, with Reginé rocking a FUCKING KEYTAR during live sets, and the undeniably massive sounding Electric Blue gets its funk on. An incredibly divisive album, then. But a quote-unquote “bad” Arcade Fire album is still better than most other records.

Josh [5th]: What is there to say about this record that hasn’t already been said? By and large considered a disappointment except for the few aurally challenged, Arcade Fire’s fifth LP saw them aim for the nosebleed seats of the stadium with infectious pop melodies, danceable grooves, and biting social commentary that was hinted to be a more streamlined version of the group’s last album, “Reflektor”, thanks to its phenomenal lead titular single.

However, their reach went beyond their grasp, and lazy songwriting, embarrassing marketing, and tired performances hampered down their latest, with few highlights scattered amongst the track listing (“Creature Comfort” and “Electric Blue” being amongst them). They may have attained new commercial heights with “Everything Now”, but at the cost of their reputation as critical darlings and one of our generation’s most forward-thinking bands.

Kieran [5th]: Despite generating astronomical levels of hype with a multitude of teasers and visuals of the band marching about in matching EN regalia, Arcade Fire’s latest release ultimately fell rather flat on its face.

The cryptic social media promo campaign had us all hoping for an even bigger, bolder expansion on Reflektor’s avant-garde approach and while some tracks delivered to a certain extent, such as Creature Comfort and ridiculously catchy title track Everything Now, the album’s overriding narrative of subversive consumerist critique felt all too often like a crutch to fall back on; a cover-up for a lack of songwriting ideas.

Chemistry, for example: is it steeped in countless layers of irony, or is it just a bit terrible? Overall, the reason EN languishes so far behind the rest is that, unlike any album they’ve released up to this point, it’s simply not an enjoyable listen from front to back.

Sarah [5th]: Parody-like promotion aside – 2017’s Everything Now fails to deliver the multifaceted creativity explored in Arcade Fire’s previous works. It is clear that the band attempted to push their own boundaries by following a simpler and slightly more abrasive path, however, this shift wasn’t well received for good reason.

There are some listenable tracks from this record, such as Electric Blue, that stray from AF’s sound but still deliver. With a career spanning almost 15 years and a cult following, changing your core characteristics and drawing from completely abstract influences can challenge fan loyalty, as this isn’t the sound they have grown to adore.  

4. Neon Bible (2007)

Josh [4th]: There’s nothing bad per se about “Neon Bible” – the production is a step up from the lo-fi smudge of their debut, the performances are as tight as ever, and it features some of Arcade Fire’s greatest hits. But ultimately it suffers from middle child syndrome, lacking both the shock-of-the-new of “Funeral” and the grand, overblown ambition of “The Suburbs”.

The expansion into Americana is a nice touch, expanding the group’s instrumental palette to include organs and mandolins (see: “Intervention” and “Keep The Car Running”), but it does little to keep certain tracks memorable, especially in the latter of the LP. At least it features their greatest album closer to date, a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “My Body Is A Cage” that is bursting at the seams with teenage tension and adolescent angst before erupting into a heavenly climax that could fill a cathedral.

Kieran [4th]: I feel rotten about Neon Bible ending up in this lowly position, I really do. In fact, it’s the album that got me into Arcade Fire in the first place and it’s arguably the one that propelled them into stadium-filling indie rock stardom. For some reason, though, it’s the only pre-EN album I rarely find myself revisiting.

By most other metrics, it’s a great album. The swelling organs and wonderfully dark lyrics of My Body Is a Cage and Intervention marry together perfectly to create stunning pieces of baroque pop while the intense, upbeat No Cars Go has established itself as a firm fan favourite.

Compared to the sheer single-mindedness of Funeral, for example, Neon Bible has expanded outwards thematically, covering a vast array of topics and incorporating plenty of grandiose instrumentation but it doesn’t quite deliver the same gut-punch as the others.

Sarah [3rd]: A pivotal point in the Arcade Fire discography, Neon Bible is a graduation from their heavily artistic debut but remains stylistically vague – leaving room to play in future albums. Sandwiched between the band’s first studio album and their most refined release, Neon Bible serves as a guide of sorts.

The problem with this album is that the storytelling is somewhat 2D – and with such an emotive album under their belt already, this one feels almost vapid in context. The whole album is frustrating as it fails to deliver any real depth, and we have several examples that Arcade Fire are capable of this on celestial levels.

Jake [3rd]: The darkest of any of their albums, Arcade Fire’s sophomore effort Neon Bible is a bit of a fiddly record to get adjusted to. But when you do, it bloody shines. With song topics ranging from phones and computers taking over THE PEOPLE, MAN! (Black Mirror) to failing religion (Intervention and (Antichrist Television Blues)), the topics are heavy but dealt with with a deft hand.

They didn’t abandon their knack for crafting a bonafide festival classic, however, with Keep the Car Running, No Cars Go and even the ridiculously sad album closer My Body is a Cage being live set mainstays since the album’s release. Neon Bible is another jewel in Arcade Fire’s crown.

3. Reflektor (2013)

Kieran [3rd]: Far be it from Arcade Fire to be accused of resting on their laurels – a trip to Régine Chassagne’s ancestral homeland of Haiti was enough inspiration for the Canadian indie-rock outfit to reinvent themselves, more or less.

Reflektor is a smorgasbord of musical influences spanning Haitian rara to dance-rock, an illustration of the group’s laissez-faire attitude; one which results in their most imaginative and carefree recordings to date, the aural equivalent of letting your hair down and dancing like an absolute bam.

For a band who were previously considered fairly earnest and sombre, they’ve decided to cast off indie-rock conventions and go with the flow – this rhythm-orientated approach is perfectly captured with the syncopated beats of Here Comes The Night Time. It’s loose, it’s unconventional, it’s paranoid and anxious but – crucially – Reflektor is utterly, utterly compelling. The only petty grievance preventing this being a contender for my #1 is its gargantuan 85 minute run time.

Sarah [4th]: Unlike Everything Now, Reflektor breaks the band’s mould while still holding integrity as an Arcade Fire album. Songs like Joan of Arc show a lot of experimentation and exemplifies the bands’ infamous ability to create highly interesting, enjoyable music. Into the records second half we see foreshadowing with Porno – a blunt, steady song – arguably better than anything from Everything Now, but still lays the foundation for that release.

Jake [4th]: Reflektor is very, very, very good. It’s also, to me, a bit scatterbrained (like Everything Now). Reflektor knows what it wants to talk about (namely the rise of technology) and it utilises a smorgasbord or genres to convey its messages.

Reflektor is punky, disco-y, electro…-y(?), glam-y… you name it, Arcade Fire touched on it with this album. And that isn’t really a bad thing, Win sacrificing a cohesive identity allowed Arcade Fire to be as free and as experimental as they wanted, and for the most part, it paid off.

Birthing songs like We Exist, Reflektor, Afterlife and Normal Person. It’s an album that’s simultaneously weighed down and elevated by the fact that it’s so all over the place from a genre perspective, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Josh [2nd]: A controversial pick for a number two spot? Perhaps. A lot of complaints have been levied at the band’s fourth album: it’s too long, over-indulgent, the change in tone and sound too jarring, the stage show and marketing too gimmicky. But this is Arcade Fire at the peak of their ambition, and if there is one thing Win Butler and co. do well, it’s ambition.

Every song might not be mind-blowing, but they’re memorable and unique in the context of the album, and the listener genuinely feels like they have completed a journey by the time they wrap up on the jaw-droppingly gorgeous “Supersymmetry”. The production comes courtesy of James Murphy, so you know it’s going to sound tighter than your grandmother’s attic (and that’s not a euphemism), and the instrumentation has been made even more eclectic to harbour the influence of African, Haitian and Latin music. From start to finish, this is an absolute joy to listen to – just don’t forget to take a deep breath before you begin.

2. Funeral (2004)

Sarah [2nd]: As a debut, Funeral thrust Arcade Fire into the indie mainstream – and almost immediately helped the band make their claim as important figures in the scene. This record perfectly exemplifies their creativity, be it through the actual songs, the titles or the artwork, with each aspect setting them apart from popular alternative music at the time.

What truly makes Funeral special is its inherent ability to pander to people from all walks of life, it sits happily in the middle of the spectrum between too much and too little. Having this as a debut really pulled in a loyal fanbase from the get-go as it was widely spread across societal groups – and this has been fundamental in the bands following successes. Without Funeral, Arcade Fire would perhaps fail to be the grandeur figure we know it as.

Jake [2nd]: It’s still staggering to me to this day that Funeral is Arcade Fire’s first full-length album. Already masters of their craft at this early a stage of their careers, Win and his merry band of misfits set the world of Indie alight with the release of Funeral in 2004. Imagine writing songs like Wake Up, Crown of Love, Power Out and Rebellion on your FIRST. FUCKING. ALBUM. It’s almost unfair. One of the best debut albums ever, unquestionably.

Josh [3rd]: The one that started it all. It’s hard to remember a time when Arcade Fire weren’t considered A Very Big Deal, and it almost seems like that from their inception they weren’t anything less than that – to be fair, when David Bowie buys all your CDs and distributes them to his friends, you aren’t exactly going to be just an overnight sensation.

And so “Funeral” became a landmark indie record, brimming with tunes and earnest that made the world fall in love with the Canadian band. Yet time has not been kind to their debut, with the production seeming at first charming now being utterly grating, and it lacks the slick, rehearsed nature of later records that made them a joy to listen to. But it still packs one hell of a punch, especially on cuts such as “Power Out” and “Rebellion” that will keep arenas and festivals screaming along until the world implodes in a nuclear haze.

Kieran [2nd]: When we compare Funeral, Reflektor and The Suburbs, we’re really looking at the finest of margins. All three are masterpieces in their own right, and a case could easily be made that Funeral deserves to occupy that top spot.

It’s simply staggering that any group – even one as absurdly talented as Arcade Fire – could release a debut as masterful as this. Far from what the title suggests, it’s neither melancholy nor downbeat; in fact, it’s a vibrant, empowering celebration of life and a wise-beyond-their-years contemplation of mortality, which manages to be uniquely relatable no matter your generation or demographic.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that Wake Up is the finest track they’ve ever churned out – in fact, if you’ve ever managed to listen to it without welling up *at all*, consider our friendship terminated.

1. The Suburbs (2010)

Jake [1st]: Who’d of thunk that an album about a fake war in a fake town would be so fucking good? This is Arcade Fire’s masterpiece, a stone-cold classic in every sense of the word that’s only getting better and more relevant as the years go on.

From the understated, yet lavish (Half Light I, Sprawl I), to the utterly gargantuan love mainstays of Sprawl II and Ready to Start, each track compliments the other wonderfully and makes for not only the most cohesive album in AF’s discography but the best.

Josh [1st]: This is the one. Where else in Arcade Fire’s discography do the twin peaks of what attracts fans far and wide to them meet so perfectly? The earnestness of their earlier records combines with the ambitiousness of their later to make a concept album that just about anyone can relate to: growing up.

Win Butler’s lyrics are at the top of their game from start to finish, capturing the simultaneous wondrous and jaded nature of your young adult years, when the world is at your feet but all you can see is your hometown, and the performances feel rehearsed to fall apart at any second, from how energetic they are (“Month of May”) to just how damn emotionally tense the whole band can feel on a track (“Half Light II”).

There’s not a weak moment on the track-listing despite its fifteen song-long runtime, which is not something any of the other band’s albums can say never mind any other band in existence at the moment, and by its end, you’ll want to jump right back to the start. When the dust settles, “The Suburbs” will still be standing.

Kieran [1st]: I’ve always thought of The Suburbs as a grown up, 20-something version of Funeral. It’s been at the booze and the fags for a while too long and it’s a little more world-weary, a tad post-apocalyptic even, but it’s still achingly, endearingly human.

In my eyes, Funeral and The Suburbs are both as near as makes no difference perfect, making this an extremely difficult call to make. The latter edges it due to the sheer poeticism of its lyrics. Too numerous are they to list here, but the amount of times I’ve sat in sheer euphoria and appreciation hearing Win Butler’s signature wail on this record is scarcely believable.

Sarah [1st]: The showcase that is The Suburbs is potentially a genre-defining release, and almost definitely a career-defining one for Arcade Fire. With the ongoing support, garnered from the run of Funeral and Neon Bible, the band were absolutely pining for something more impressive, scale and concept wise.

The Suburbs follows a clear path from start to end, is filled with storytelling and is so powerfully emotive it makes the listers hairs stand on end. Ballads like the eponymous The Suburbs, We Used to Wait and Sprawl II propelled the band from venues to arenas, showing the music community that Arcade Fire we far more than just a music group – they were an experience, they are ethereal, atmospheric, creators.

The Suburbs proved them as a timeless band, whose music will provide an escape for anyone who needs, any time.

Preoccupations hit their stride on latest LP ‘New Material’

by kieran cannon (@kiercannon)rating 7

On first impressions, it’s difficult to deny that Preoccupations aren’t particularly creative when it comes to dreaming up album names – after all, their first two full-length records are self-titled. Back when they recorded under the Viet Cong alias, their eponymous debut Viet Cong – while critically acclaimed – courted fairly significant controversy due to its historical and political connotations. After it became abundantly clear their band name was no longer tenable, the group mulled over a new name for several months before announcing they’d henceforth be known as Preoccupations. The album to usher in this new era for the group? Er… Preoccupations.

There’s beauty in simplicity, though. Just as Preoccupations was, in fairness, the perfect descriptor for the compulsive, anxious mood of their sophomore album, New Material is a surprisingly apt title for their third and latest effort. Compared to the nervous energy and angular riffs of previous records, they’ve sanded down the sharp edges. The result? A much more accessible, more nuanced record which transports them further still from their noise rock roots without sacrificing any of their lyrical sincerity or expression.

Lead single Espionage kicks off proceedings with some familiar industrial noise; what follows, however, is much warmer and less abrasive than we’ve come to expect from the Canadian quartet, leaning more heavily towards synths instead of the characteristic razor-sharp stabs of guitar. Whereas before it felt like Matt Flegel’s vocals were screaming, arms outstretched against a tidal wave of sound, now he rides the wave in seemingly greater harmony. This frenzied approach undoubtedly worked a treat on previous recordings, but it seems they’ve now settled down into a more comfortable groove.

With each subsequent album, Preoccupations are undergoing a marked series of changes – some subtle, some more apparent. Despite this willingness to traverse new territory, they certainly don’t seem reluctant to pay homage to post-punk forebearers such as Wire and Joy Division, the latter in particular on tracks like Solace. There’s no mistaking that distinctive Unknown Pleasures-era snare drum sound or the ominous Peter Hook style bass lines, but by no means is this a knock-off, supermarket own brand version. They’re taking cues from classics of a bygone era and using them tastefully as part of their modern, progressive take on the genre, resulting in one the highlights of the album with the thrilling conclusion to Solace.

Since their inception, multi-instrumentalist producer extraordinaire Scott “Monty” Munro has devoted a great deal of effort to achieving a certain aesthetic, ultimately hoping to “make a record where nobody knows what instrument is playing ever,” unleashing the full firepower of his gadget arsenal to this end. With that goal in mind he has been largely successful in creating fascinating and unique soundscapes across the entire recording, ranging from the expansive to the claustrophobic. Very occasionally, though, the sheer wall of sound becomes overbearing; reverb-drenched vocals leave the otherwise punchy Disarray feeling a bit washed out and lacking in oomph. These moments are few and far between, however. By and large, it’s an extremely well-produced and cohesive record.

The topic of the band’s unceremonious rebranding presents a strange paradox – a singer whose lyrics are dystopian, introspective and very often cathartic but who (along with his fellow musicians) seems disinclined towards being taken too seriously or becoming too political. Recognising that perhaps their original choice was ill-judged in nature, the easiest course of action seemed to be a change of identity to prevent it overshadowing their music and distracting people from the real message they’re trying to convey. If that was the major transition between their first two albums, they’ve taken a step further with New Material. By doing away with the 12-minute behemoth tracks, they’ll undoubtedly win over yet more listeners who might’ve found the sheer graft involved with listening to songs like that offputting.

One thing is for certain, though. Preoccupations remain a hot prospect for the future and it’ll be intriguing to see how they continue to forge their own path among their modern post-punk contemporaries. They’re tantalisingly close to greatness and, if we’re all lucky, their pioneering nature will hopefully see them reach those heights with subsequent releases.

Caroline Rose bucks the trend with her third LP ‘LONER’

ALBUM REVIEW

by kieran cannon (@kiercannon)rating 7

Burlington singer-songwriter Caroline Rose is virtually unrecognisable as the same star of the show from I Will Not Be Afraid and America Religious. Turning conventional wisdom on its head, her career progression into 2018 – according to an interview with Rookie Mag – is marked by a hefty dose of ego-dismantling and less of a desire to be taken too seriously, a refreshingly blithe approach which is often overlooked and underappreciated as an artistic quality.

On her latest release, LONER, it’s out with the old and in with the new. Gone are the obvious country/roots-rock sensibilities and in their place – well, near enough everything else. This latest output demonstrates her refusal to conform or stick to one genre for too long and as a result, she has avoided being pigeonholed as simply “another folk singer”. If the album art wasn’t a dead giveaway (smoking an entire pack of cigarettes with a vacant expression, post-workout), you can expect heaps of wry humour and plenty of sardonic mockery.

The title of opening track More of the Same couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s apparent from the opening salvo of staccato organ that this is unlike anything we’ve heard before from Caroline Rose; in fact, the only real indication you’re listening to the same artist is her distinctive, piercing vocals. Here, she mulls over feelings of disillusionment as she loses faith in people, in ideals she once looked up to – as if the rug has been pulled out from under her.

By no means is this markedly melancholic start a reliable indicator, though. The rest of the album benefits from plenty of injections of derisive humour and lightheartedness, particularly on numbers like Money where she fires off consumerist critique to the tune of groovy blues guitar. Same, too, goes for Soul No. 5 – so named because it has been through five different iterations, eventually ending up (after advice from co-producer Paul Butler to just “take the piss out of it“) as an immensely danceable slice of pop-rock.

Since taking over the reins of producing, Rose has managed to merge the tracks together with a cohesive sound which is ultra-slick yet sharp-edged. That being said, one or two tracks – particularly Cry! and Talk – have a tendency to wash over you when you’re listening to the entire record as some of the arrangements begin to teeter on the edge of becoming formulaic.

Worry not, though – your attention will immediately be grabbed again by tracks like Bikini, a fiery blast of feminist punk the likes of which Kathleen Hanna would be proud. It’s very much an emphatic ‘up yours’ to the unrealistic, highly sexualised standards expected of female artists by music executives. Jeannie Becomes a Mom checks out this idea of failing to live up to what society expects of you through a different prism; an amalgamation of stories about her friend’s unintentional pregnancy and her own anxieties.

In many ways, this record encapsulates several different struggles we all undoubtedly face at some point in our lives – feelings of loneliness and anxiety about living up to expectations, but also a certain level of detachment from the world around us. While her previous output has been rightly lauded for its earnestness, it’s a breath of fresh air to see she’s now adopted a much more shoulder-shrugging, defiant approach. It’s not that she doesn’t give a shit anymore – it’s more a case of her discovering new ways of dealing with these problems. Armed with straight-faced sarcasm and a willingness to deploy her vast array of vocal techniques for effect, Caroline Rose simultaneously ridicules and manages to be uniquely relatable. Along the way she stalls once or twice, as would be expected of any artist who takes such a drastic change in creative direction; however, there are more than enough moments of sheer, unadulterated fun on this album to look past it.

EP Review: Belle and Sebastian – How to Solve Our Human Problems (Part 2)

by Kieran Cannon (@kiercannon)rating 7

In their younger days, Belle & Sebastian were famously recluse and shrouded in mystery, developing almost to the point of a cult of personality. Interaction with the press was a rarity and their lyrics – sharp-witted, erudite and often self-depreciating – proved even more complex than the persona they propagated (intentionally or not). In the clutches of middle age, however, they’ve been undergoing something of a change in approach. In many ways they’re now more accessible than ever; whether this is a reaction to or a consequence of the changing landscape of music consumption remains unclear.

To Stuart Murdoch et al., the EP is an artform in its own right. Instead of stuffing such releases with studio outtakes and B-sides, they devote the same amount of love and attention as they would to a full-length album. Following in the footsteps of their late ’90s EP bonanza (Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds Of Light), B&S have committed to another trio of releases under the banner How to Solve Our Human Problems.

As they move onto the second installment of the trilogy, the purpose of this format is ostensibly to divide the tracks into three distinct acts or chapters in order to deliver a certain impact on each outing. On this occasion, their nonchalant demeanor seems to be a coping mechanism for the relentless negativity of the world we live in. Instead of fighting fire with fire, they’ve taken a conciliatory approach. “So let’s consider not being angry”, suggests Murdoch.

Tracks like Show Me The Sun embody this free-spirited attitude, a sort of reckless abandon which is a rarity in the B&S canon. It doesn’t indulge in any unnecessary navel-gazing; instead, it comes flying out the traps with a chorus of ‘na na nas’ before descending into cheery question-and-answer vocals and psychedelic guitars. Cornflakes, too, is nothing short of a riot – crashing cymbals and spacey synths.

The EP’s live and let live philosophy has undoubtedly been a consequence, at least in part, of parenthood. On lead single I’ll Be Your Pilot, Murdoch speaks with an unmistakable paternal tone as he implores his young boy Denny to enjoy his adolescent days while he can. “It’s tough to become a grown-up / Put it off while you can“, he urges. The dialogue plays out like a reassuring chat between father and son; a promise to look out for him, keep him safe. The sentiment is warm and loving, although there is a sense of foreboding when he alludes to the treacherous state of the world, “I tell you that when / You land in the world / It’s like quicksand“.

Part 2 constitutes a solid step forward in the How to Solve Our Human Problems trilogy and, as it happens, represents one of their strongest records in recent times. Despite the lack of characteristic catchy hooks abundant in their earlier material, all five tracks are charming and memorable in their own right. There’s no mistaking their ability to change with the times, though. 22 years on since the release of their debut Tigermilk, they show no signs of running out of ideas yet.

Track Review: Motion – Of The Night

By Kieran Cannon (@kiercannon)

Scotland has something of a pedigree when it comes to post-punk. Two prominent indie labels, Fast Product in the capital and Glasgow’s Postcard Records, formed during the peak years of the movement spanning the late 70’s/early 80’s, not to mention a wealth of acts including Simple Minds and Cocteau Twins. It comes as no surprise, then, that some of the most compelling artists to emerge from the country in recent years happen to fall under that very same banner.

Enter Motion. The Edinburgh-based psych rock outfit proudly wear their influences on their sleeves, bonding over a shared love of The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Stone Roses. Make no mistake though, they’re out to forge their own legacy. Last year’s Motion EP relied rather heavily on the shoegaze template but it demonstrated plenty of promise and featured some solid tracks, particularly Everything – a marriage between Kitchens of Distinction’s wall of sound and the ominous basslines of Peter Hook.

Their latest single Of The Night isn’t a radical departure from the EP; instead, it’s a subtle evolution, one which begins to take them in a new direction. They’ve cleaned up the production, scaled down the reverb and in the process managed to set themselves down the path towards establishing their own sound. The vocal delivery is reserved, perhaps borderline deadpan, yet the guitar is summery and infectiously upbeat, meshing together to create a satisfying contrast of textures.

All three musicians are adept at laying down the foundations of a track, this much has been apparent since last year’s material – engaging melodies and tight drumming. Of The Night signals their first conspicuous effort to go further and introduce more diversity, more developments in between choruses. It always helps to have a killer riff to bounce off, though, and Band’s is truly an earworm; it’s safe to say it will hang around in your memory for a good while. One point worth mentioning is that, although not necessarily a negative, the lyrics are relatively straightforward. With time, though, their songwriting will surely continue to develop and greater expression will follow suit.