From dynamic post-punk to brawny stoner-rock to jangly California pop to moonlit glam, Arctic Monkeys' five albums have displayed impressive range. It’s the main reason why they occupy the enviable spot they do in the music world.
Why an Arctic Monkeys top ten list? Part of the motivation came from the recent release of their fifth record, AM. Already a huge fan of the Arctics, I got on a kick and decided to really sink my teeth into their newly augmented body of work. But it’s a body of work that’s made all the more noteworthy by the fact that it exists at all. As I mention in one entry below, Arctic Monkeys easily could’ve been swallowed up by the feverish, messiahs-of-British-rock hype that greeted their debut in 2006. Just ask Pete Doherty and the Libertines about the burden of great expectations. Lifestyle excess is obviously one pitfall to overcome. But even absent that, there’s still the enormous task of consistently delivering the goods and doing so in a way that doesn’t just rehash previous efforts. Creative growth is key. On this count, Arctic Monkeys have been a huge success. From dynamic post-punk to brawny stoner-rock to jangly California pop to moonlit glam, their five albums have displayed impressive range. It’s the main reason why they occupy the enviable spot they do in the music world. They have both mainstream and indie appeal and they move units and satisfy critics. They’re a young band but one with proven staying power. There’s simply a lot to admire about Arctic Monkeys.
A quick note about the list: I deliberately excluded all material from AM. I think it’d be premature to say that any songs so new are already worthy of best-of status. Often (though not always), that process takes time. I’d rather play it safe. But because AM is such a fantastic record, I still wanted to discuss it in some capacity. So below are its five best tracks (in no particular order). They may be top-ten contenders down the road.
1) "Do I Wanna Know?" – A moody stoner-rock cocktail of midnight lust and slow-burning sonics.
2) "R U Mine?" - It’s "Do I Wanna Know?” unchained – more energy, more swagger, more balls.
3) "No. 1 Party Anthem" – Turner expertly channels solo-years Lennon in this big and shimmering ballad.
4) "Mad Sounds" – Rolling Stones-eque R&B + blissed-out "oh-la-las" = a lovely throwback ode to the energizing power of music.
"Knee Socks" – With half of the Monkeys in falsetto Bee Gees mode and guest star Josh Homme doing his best Bowie, it’s (of all things) the backing vocals that distinguish this superb disco-rock thumper.
Buried on Humbug, Arctic Monkeys’ muscular and, at times, hooks-deficient third album, the seductive and darkly lit "Dance Little Liar" is like a Bond theme several shades too threatening. Between Alex Turner’s icily controlled vocal, his musings about "dirt beneath the dirt", and Matt Helders’ heavy backbeat, the air is thick with treachery. It’s all noirish moodiness and down-tempo atmospherics. But be on guard for the ringing guitar solo that blasts through the song’s final act. It feels like a flurry of vengeful gunfire. "Dance Little Liar" = expertly cinematic desert rock.
(Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, 2006)
Turner was a mere teenager when he wrote "When the Sun Goes Down", the aggressive second single from Arctic Monkey's’s smash debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. He could’ve fooled me. The keenly observed details and obvious notes of sympathy that elevate this quasi-successor to "Roxanne" belie Turner’s then-age. When he sings, "I’m sorry love / I’ll have to turn you down," there isn’t a trace of judgment in his voice. It’s just an old soul at work. The rest of the song -- angry guitars and tightly clenched percussion -- tallies with Turner’s disgust toward a "scummy man" on the prowl. From the start, Arctic Monkeys offered far more than just propulsive energy and cheeky attitude. Indeed, Turner’s sharp songwriting has always been the foundation of their success.
(Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, 2006)
The first track that Arctic Monkeys ever recorded may also be their most enjoyably biting. "Fake Tales of San Francisco" is a romping send-up of poseur acts who seem to practice their pretensions as much as they do their songs. It’s clear that this ilk gets Turner’s goat, because his slangy lyrical game is in top form here. Dialed in vocally as well, he lampoons "weekend rock stars" who can be found "in the toilets practicing their lines". He reminds us that there’s a vast distance between the City by the Bay and Hunter’s Bar (a section of Sheffield). With his most memorably barbed line, Turner skewers a fictional lead singer, his misguided squeeze, and wannabe music all at once: "Yeah but his bird said it’s amazing though / So all that’s left / Is the proof that love's not only blind but deaf.” With this string of gems in place, the song’s half-and-half, fast-build structure is just icing on the cake.
It wasn’t inevitable that Turner, with his trenchant wit and flair for vivid word-play, would have a full-on Morrissey moment at any point. Yet its arrival -– in the lilting, strummy form of Humbug’s "Cornerstone" –- certainly rang true. The story: As Turner barhops in search of a past flame, he again and again chances upon lookalikes who won’t abide his desire to call them by her name. He once asks "awfully politely", all to no avail. It’s not until he repairs to the Cornerstone and encounters his ex’s sister, who "couldn’t get much closer" in terms of facial similarity, that his fetish is allowed to achieve expression. “Cornerstone” is nothing more than exaggerated self-pity played for laughs, and it hits the mark again and again. The outcome is AM’s most comic and charming entry. My favorite tossed-off detail is from Turner’s stop at the Parrot’s Beak: the girl he eyes up happens to have a broken arm. It’s a perfect Moz-like touch.