The 10 Best Arctic Monkeys Songs

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.

5)

“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.

 

TOP TEN

10) “Dance Little Liar”
(Humbug, 2009)

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.

 

9) “When the Sun Goes Down”
(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.

 

8) “Fake Tales of San Francisco”
(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.

 

7) “Cornerstone”
(Humbug, 2009)

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.

6 – 1

 

6) “Love Is a Laserquest”
(Suck It and See, 2011)

For a band that easily could’ve flamed out after catapulting to stardom (especially under the scrutinizing gaze of the British press), it’s remarkable how well Arctic Monkeys have aged. Exhibit A: 2011’s Suck It and See. Their most balanced and mature collection, Suck It and See is also the record that found Turner baring his heart in sustained fashion for the first time. The results range from hypnotically winsome to devastating. “Love Is a Laserquest”, an echoey, glowing, and downright beautiful ballad about longing and regret, falls into the latter category. “When I’m not being honest / I’ll pretend that you were just some lover,” moans Turner as he tries in vain to forget the past. Elsewhere, he poignantly laments, “I can’t think of anything to dream about.” But neither line compares to his painterly description of old age: “When I’m pipe and slippers and rocking chair/ Singing dreadful songs about summer” (or is it “summat”?). Front to back, “Love Is a Laserquest” may be Turner’s finest lyric.

 

5) “Suck It and See”
(Suck It and See, 2011)

“I poured my aching heart into a pop song / I couldn’t get the hang of poetry / That’s not a skirt, girl / That’s a sawn-off shotgun / And I / Can only hope you’ve got it aimed at me.” And the melody is exquisite.

 

4) “That’s Where You’re Wrong”
(Suck It and See, 2011)

Thus finishes off the striking trio of songs that brings Suck It and See to a close. What sets “That’s Where You’re Wrong” apart? It’s the most complete of the three. Turner can do both “Love Is a Laserquest” and the title cut as solo acoustic numbers, and there’s no drop-off. In fact, they may even be better than the studio versions. Not so with “That’s Where You’re Wrong”. To pull off the track’s spellbinding effect -– it feels like a brisk ocean-side drive rendered in hazy daydream form -– the full-band treatment is necessary. Everyone delivers. The staggered rumble of Helders’ drum-work combined with Nick O’Malley’s insistent bass line tries to keep the arrangement earthbound, while that chiming guitar lick pushes in the opposite direction. It’s a perfect contrast. And as usual, Turner holds up his end of the bargain. His vocal is a model of confident restraint, and the lyric sheet alternates between descriptive enigmas (“Street lamp amber / Wanderlust / Powder in a / Blunderbuss”) and broadly resonant truths. The climactic line: “Don’t take it so personally / You’re not the only one / That time has got it in for, honey/ That’s where you’re wrong.” Who couldn’t relate?

 

3) “Mardy Bum”
(Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, 2006)

At its core, “Mardy Bum” is an intimate and affecting ballad about the nagging struggles that recur in a relationship. There’s no big drama here – no cheating hearts or stormy separations. Instead, Turner focuses on those small sources of conflict: not being on time, certain facial expressions, and mood swings that tend toward the quarrelsome. Considering the rowdy context (Arctic Monkeys’ debut) and, again, Turner’s youth, it’s quite impressive how low-boil and domestic the scenes are. Think of “Mardy Bum” as Oasis’ “Married With Children” but minus the churlish immaturity. In place of “Goodbye / I’m going home,” Turner aims for reconciliation: “Remember cuddles in the kitchen, yeah / To get things off the ground.” The sentiment is sweet, and the motivation seems pure. It’s the stuff of a conventional, even if well-crafted, ballad. Yet, at the same time, “Mardy Bum” deviates from the norm. It is a ballad, but it’s one that moves and grooves and almost wants to be anthemic. There’s a twitchy kick to the sonics, powered mostly by Turner’s spry lead-guitar line, which ebbs and flows at just the right intervals. It allows for both spunky moments and quieter ones. Then in the middle of everything is that booming bridge –- basically the height of Turner’s frustration -– which sets up the solo. For such an unassuming little ditty, “Mardy Bum” delivers in spades. It combines heart and hooks better than anything else in the Arctics’ songbook.

 

2) “505”
(Favourite Worst Nightmare, 2007)

If “Mardy Bum” was Turner’s initial foray into affectionate balladry, then “505” stands as his first love song. The amount of vulnerability and passion that he shows was without precedent when Arctic Monkeys released their second LP, Favourite Worst Nightmare. But part of what makes the album-closing “505” so riveting is the journey to that place of high-stakes urgency. It’s indirect, even impressionistic. Rather than shed much light on the nature of the relationship, Turner supplies evocative and hushed snapshots of desire, tension, and uncertainty. He desperately wants to rendezvous with his lover, but something isn’t quite right. When he sings, “Stop and wait a sec / When you look at me like that my darling / What did you expect?,” we can only speculate about the missing details. Even more vague is the subsequent verse, brimming as it does with compelling, artfully veiled imagery: “Not shy of a spark / A knife twists at the thought / That I might fall short of the mark.” All the while, Turner keeps his vocal at an even-keel, and the rest of the band executes a piece-by-piece escalation of the twilight backdrop. Everything builds gradually out of the opening organ shimmers (sampled from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) until Turner finally goes for broke. “I crumble completely when you cry,” he shouts with naked honesty. It’s a thrilling, cathartic climax – one that finds Turner entirely purged of his too-cool cynicism and after-hours swagger. I suppose Turner’s much like the rest of us: he’s human and needs to be loved.

 

1) “A Certain Romance”
(Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, 2006)

“A Certain Romance”, the concluding cut on Arctic Monkey’s debut, is such a first-rate song because it operates so well on various levels. Most immediately, it’s an incisive state-of-the-generation take on chav subculture. “Though they might wear classic Reeboks / Or knackered Converse / Or tracky bottoms tucked in socks,” sings Turner at the outset, setting the scene with an expert touch. These types aren’t always his favorite –- he describes them as thickheaded and chippy — but his aim is to place their tendencies in context. Why that lifestyle? Turner explains, “The point’s that there ain’t no romance / Around there.” It’s a callback to familiar Britpop themes: the wearying effects of a moribund culture, the dead-end of “cigarettes and alcohol” as a credo, etc.

Crucially, though, Turner doesn’t let himself off the hook. He pleads guilty to practicing a double standard: his friends act like dolts too, but “you just cannot get angry in the same way.” The admission not only adds more humanity to Turner’s perspective but it also elevates “A Certain Romance” out of the parochial and into the universal. Who among us hasn’t experienced that forgiving pull of friendship? Who among us hasn’t echoed this sentiment: “What can I say / I’ve known them for a long, long time”? And yet on another, more implicit level, there’s a sense of “A Certain Romance” as some kind of creation story. This is perhaps why the Arctics formed. It was an escape from stale and unpromising day-to-day lives. A la The Beatles, Oasis, and many other British bands, they had few options, and rock ‘n’ roll seemed like the best one. I could go on, and I’ve yet to even mention the superbly dynamic arrangement, which features a hard-charging fake-out opening, a comedown into tempered ska-rock, and a guitar section near the end that’s at once energetic and contemplative. What can I say, “A Certain Romance” just has a certain perfection.

 

Honorable mention: “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”, “Fluorescent Adolescent”, “Do Me a Favour”, “Crying Lightning”, “Piledriver Waltz”

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