Their last effort shocked the world and won Album of the Year; how do they stack up as defending champs?
Remember these days?
If you're an indie rock fan, you remember what it was like when Arcade Fire's The Suburbs shocked the world and won Album of the Year at the 2011 Grammys. You were probably just happy they'd been nominated -- the obligatory rock nod, you might say -- alongside Eminem, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum, getting a pat on the back from the industry and making for a damn good trivia question to look back on. But then again, it wasn't exactly Arcade Fire that shocked the world; we'd known they were capable of writing albums that made indie rock meaningful since 2004's Funeral. When their third album won the biggest Grammy of them all, it was really the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences -- the Grammys themselves -- that turned the world upside-down. Now, four years later with a new studio album, Arcade Fire find themselves in a yet another improbable role: the defending champion.
So how will 2014's Reflektor fare at the 2015 Grammys? The outstanding double-LP was almost unanimously acclaimed, but for Arcade Fire, that's par for the course. As the band's first album receiving major-label distribution (via Universal Music Group) and a radio push from Capitol, Reflektor (still released on indie vet Merge, mind you) was a success, but a moderate one considering the upped ante. The title track became Arcade Fire's first Hot 100 hit, though only at No. 99, and for just one week, coinciding with an SNL performance. They continued their modest alternative radio success, and with 367,000 units sold (according to Nielsen SoundScan) failed to top the sales of 2010's The Suburbs, even though many of those units were moved after the big Grammy win. Reflektor's biggest successes came via the sort of cultural capital that's almost impossible to quantify: studio collaborations with James Murphy, a buzzworthy headlining tour (the fancy/controversial dress code, the alt-rock royalty openers) and, of course, the critical applause.
At worst, Arcade Fire have stayed the course, and that should at least earn them a nomination in the non-televised Best Alternative Album category. Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City, a similarly acclaimed album with no hit songs, won the title last year, and its 505,000 units sold to date is comparable to what Reflektor might have a year from now. The parallel makes sense, so what about the 2015 competition?
Jack White's Lazaretto is almost guaranteed a nomination, the Black Keys' Turn Blue isn't far off, and after that there are really no shoo-ins, making Reflektor an almost surefire nomination. St. Vincent's self-titled album, Jenny Lewis' The Voyager, Spoon's They Want My Soul, and Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence (if they consider her alternative, which they should) are all solid dark-horse picks, which a category veteran like Arcade Fire should trump. The Black Keys' Brothers beat out Funeral in 2011, but since their 2011 follow-up El Camino didn't even get nominated, there are really no guarantees for the Ohio duo. The category will likely be a head-to-head race between Reflektor and Lazaretto.
So what gives? Both albums sold comparably (Lazaretto a little less at 303,000), garnered critical acclaim and had title tracks with modest success on alternative radio ("Lazaretto" peaked at No. 9 on Alternative Songs, “Reflektor” at 17). Lazaretto does get bonus points for all of Jack White’s audiophile theatrics, which helped Lazaretto become a record-setting vinyl-seller. We’re calling this a dead heat in the Alternative category, but for making the greater artistic statement (in our opinion, anyway) with the Murphy-assisted disco grooves and unflinching grandiosity across two LPs, our non-counting vote goes for Reflektor.
As for Album of the Year, Arcade Fire and White could also be vying for the same title, this time, just to get nominated, alongside contenders like U2's Songs Of Innocence, Coldplay's Ghost Stories, and Ed Sheeran's x. Virtually every year, the Grammys ensure one nomination goes towards a rock (or at least guitar-centric) album, so which one gets to (likely) bow down to Beyoncé? History shows the Grammys like to take care of their own, nominating artists they feel they helped "make," which does play into Arcade Fire's favor, though the same can be said for their competitors here. They've got a Hail Mary shot, but there's just too much like-minded competition for Arcade Fire to bank on another Album of the Year nom.
"There is hope!!!" read a rare Kanye West tweet when Arcade Fire shocked the world in 2012. "I feel like we all won when something like this happens! F---ING AWESOME!"
Claiming Album of the Year was a watershed moment for indie rock, capturing a prize typically reserved for pop, classic rock, and adult alternative. That win -- coupled with Bon Iver's Best New Artist title in 2012 -- legitimized indie rock alongside those old standbys and today, Tumblrs answering "Who Is Arcade Fire?" and "Who Is Bon Iver?" have been dormant for months, even years. With Reflektor, they’re still deserving, but there's a sense the revolution has already been televised.