2004 was, more or less, the Year Of The Pretty Boy. Or, if not that, the Year Of The Not That Masculine Dude. The Guy Who Has Lots Of Feelings And Dresses Well. Think about it: Kanye put out his high-fashion, post-gangsta The College Dropout; Arcade Fire got emotional on their cathartic Funeral; Usher sang really high and slow on Confessions; Franz Ferdinand released their oily dance-rock self-titled debut. It was a continuation of the movement away from the brawn and distortion and tough-guy manhood of the past — a sidestep toward dudes who pondered the world and looked fresh and shook their skinny hips.
It’s fitting, then, that 2004 was the year that the Killers dropped their debut LP, Hot Fuss, and rocketed into the limelight. On that sleek, sticky, and all-around stellar first record, the young band of Vegas natives couldn’t get their minds off sex: They suppressed one urge to let the next one loose, sending gender and sexuality into free-float limbo. The tunes were dark and iridescent and painfully fun; Mormon frontman Brandon Flowers careened in guyliner and neon suits; the album put songs about late-night murders and high-school crushes back to back. It was strange, and it was not cool at all, and it was so, so cool.
Then things took a turn. The drummer grew a mustache, Brandon Flowers remembered he was from the Great Wild American West, and suddenly the Killers’ sophomore album, Sam’s Town, came out kicking. It was a frantic attempt to reach Bruce Springsteen highs, a pretty bigheaded and ultimately insubstantial effort no matter how you frame it. For the most part, the weird, anxious, serpentine dance itches were gone — the Killers had left the pretty boys in the dust with a largely empty swing at going masculine.
This origin story provides some important context: The Killers took that turn, and have never really turned back. In their often awesome third record, 2008′s Day & Age, even the candy-wrapped dance-pop production of Stuart Price (Madonna, Kylie Minogue) couldn’t bring those nervous grooves back. Flowers’ lyrics were stuck in the Sierra, waxing rhapsodic about the American dream, casino high-life, and, at their worst, “The World We Live In.” Their latest studio album, 2012′s Battle Born, is (despite what other Stereogum writers have argued) so offensively corny and not-catchy and just a complete dud that I couldn’t find a single song on it to include in this Top 10 list. And the 2007 B-sides and rarities collection Sawdust only served to highlight what was once so great about the Killers, and what still appears, though less and less, in the music they continue to release.
Last year the Killers released a “greatest hits” record called Direct Hits which, when you exclude the new songs, the Battle Born cuts, and the M83 collab, is made up of ten tracks –- their own Top 10, you might say. There’s a bit of overlap with the list you’ll see below, but the differences are telling: The songs on their list that are not on mine represent that grand American visionary thing that they seem to think is their optimal sound.
But it’s just not. The Killers gave the new millennium that perfect, glowing blend of dance-floor sleaze and road-trip splendor. Flowers and co. have had the unique ability to combine the shadowy grooves of guitar-heavy peer acts like Franz Ferdinand with the anthemic stylings of their ’80s forefathers: Their biggest and baddest cuts have let us shout out into the winds while sweating into our shorts. The list below, at least I’d like to think, recognizes the ten songs in which the Killers strike the perfect balance with they want to do and what they’re so inherently good at doing — the tracks where, even when they go big, they can still embrace their goofiness, their strangeness, and their inescapable youth. This list is a showcase of times when the Killers, whether they knew it or not, were doing exactly what they do best.
10. “Andy, You’re A Star” (from Hot Fuss, 2004)
In a record of rapid cityscapes, “Andy, You’re A Star” is a necessary detour: a slow-grinding, blues-nodding, hypertense synth romp. Ostensibly a closeted love-letter to the high school football team captain (from Flowers?), the track captures some of the band’s most jerky, hormonal grasps at teenaged sexuality. Flowers moans, “On the field, I remember, you were incredible/ Hey, shut up/ Hey, shut up,” at his catty and angsty best -– until the song opens up into its massive ballad-like release, male chorus and all.
9. “All These Thing That I’ve Done” (from Hot Fuss, 2004)
Yeah, you’ve heard this one: from the Olympics to the mouths of Bono and Chris Martin, you’ve been chanting along to those notoriously nonsensical words for years now. “I got soul, but I’m not a soldier” — what the hell does that mean? But more importantly, who cares? Clocking in at five minutes, it was a first glimpse at the Killers’ epic side: a seething track full of guitar chugs and gospel vocals, with a yearning balladeer opening, an explosive center, and a drum-roll ending. Steeped in boyish afterglow, this song rocks hard.
8. “Under The Gun” (from Sawdust, 2007)
If you’re one of the many singing along to the likes of “Mr. Brightside” and “When You Were Young,” you probably aren’t familiar with this little treat, but trust me: It’s worth every second of its brisk two and a half minutes. A tongue-in-cheek, fantastical pop-punk melodrama about a young man with a hot (and murderous) date, “Under The Gun” finds the Killers at their absolute catchiest. Hot and full of youthful energy, this rarity from the Hot Fuss sessions is as sweet as it is seriously sharp.
7. “Spaceman” (from Day & Age, 2008)
A welcome return to the synth-heavy narrative style of Hot Fuss, “Spaceman” highlights some of the best things the Killers did with Day & Age: a playful, wonky story about being abducted by aliens; immaculate dance anthem production; “oh-ohs” that cry for a full arena. Flowers is a marvel here with his lyrics, perplexingly endearing as he shouts, “Oh, what a lonely night” about the evening he was stolen from his bed by extraterrestrials. Though its chorus doesn’t fulfill the promise of the huge hooks in its other sections, those four-on-the-floors and that urgent verse are enough to launch the track high in the Killers’ canon.
6. “When You Were Young” (from Sam’s Town, 2006)
As sort-of-awful as these lyrics are, as cheeseball as the Springsteen-esque, wall-of-sound guitar production sounds, there is something inescapably awesome about “When You Were Young.” This is maybe the only one of a few times that the Killers’ experiment in rugged Americana has actually come out exactly as they’d planned: a thundering, colossal track meant for screaming along with out of rolled-down windows in a speeding car down a road in the heartland. I tried to hate it, I read lines like “Burning down the highway skyline on the back of a hurricane” on paper over and over to see how stupid they were, and you know what? I fought the Killers, and the Killers won. “Can we climb this mountain?” Flowers asks in a trembling Boss impersonation. Yes, you sure can.
5. “Human” (from Day & Age, 2008)
In another instance of catchy lyrics that don’t make much sense, the Killers use “Human” to ask the ever-pressing question: “Are we human, or are dancer?” I don’t know if anyone will really be able to answer that, but if producer Stuart Price has his way, “Human” can make a dancer out of all of us. With a Dr. Luke-esque synth-pop beat that’s both mammoth and sweet, and with a yearning chorus as expansive as they come, this ear-worm of a track is nearly unstoppable. Vastly underrated at the time of its release and over-criticized for self-importance, “Human” is a later-career track that in a different context (say, on Hot Fuss) I’m convinced would have come across as gleefully silly. It’s a Top 40 confection on the caliber of some of Katy Perry’s best.
4. “Bones” (from Sam’s Town, 2006)
Finally: a moment on Sam’s Town as creepy, kooky, lusty, slimy, and unequivocally fun as the best of the Killers’ canon. “Bones” is the kind of track these mustachioed dance-rockers were born to write: a grossly sexual and irresistibly catchy hook; hilariously melodramatic background vocals and Bruce Springsteen instrumentation that can only be self-parody (and a great one at that); and the dumbest, hottest horns on the market. Flowers is sharp here, juxtaposing corny American gothic lyrics with odd punches at some poor woman, to whom he sings, “I don’t really like you” — which, of course, makes the grimy hook “Don’t you wanna feel my bones on your bones?/ It’s only natural” all the more witty, immature, and desperate. If the Killers had to head in a Western direction, this was the right way to go.
3. “Read My Mind” (from Sam’s Town, 2006)
The biggest irony of having “Read My Mind” so high up is that it maybe has the worst lyrics of any track on this list: Flowers goes on about “main street” and “breakin’ out of this two-star town” and “the honest man” ad nauseum. But that’s just about the only irony. “Read My Mind” is a real stunner — a chilly, washed out mid-tempo track with hot blood in its veins. It’s a song that places just the right smoldering synth pads over just the right jangling guitars (a slowed-down spillover from “Mr. Brightside,” maybe), one that locks you into a special place in your head you might not normally have access to, where you are calm and collected and bursting with spirit all at once. It’s easily one of the most carefully produced songs the Killers have ever put out, and its qualities are undeniable: a surprisingly melodic and impressive guitar solo, a fragile and volcanic chorus, and a sonic palate that for me has always come closest to the aesthetics of the incredible Hot Fuss album cover.
2. “Mr. Brightside” (from Hot Fuss, 2004)
When I was in tenth grade, the day after we’d talked on the bus ride to a math class field trip, I found out that my crush had a boyfriend who was a huge jerk. As soon as I got home, I went to my bedroom and turned on the Killers. “…CHOKING ON YOUR ALIBIS,” I screamed into my pillow, barely sobbing out “BUT IT’S JUST THE PRICE I PAY” before my mom came in and asked me what was wrong. And I was not alone, not by a long shot: “Mr. Brightside” was the dark, dangerous power anthem for all romantically mistreated teens in the mid-2000s — a drone of a track that’s just as good to cry along with and bite your nails to in the car by yourself as it is to shout from the pit of a packed concert hall while the boys play it live. Though it’s not the best example of the Killers’ melodic brand of synthy eccentricity (which is why it’s not No. 1 on this list), it’s a brilliant case of tying internal angst with expressive, open-air rage; a semi-tragic but gloriously triumphant guitar-heavy song that got the emo kids jumping up and down.
1. “Somebody Told Me” (from Hot Fuss, 2004)
From its very beginning, which crashes and crescendos like a whole club waking up after doing a line, it’s obvious that “Somebody Told Me” is a bona fide hit. This is the Killers playing to the very best of their theatrical instincts, gravely chugging through the verse, yelping and whining through the bridge. It’s melodic, too: Flowers’ voice nimbly works through a classically disco chord progression in a pop vocal line smart enough to compete with his Top 40 influences. Nothing is missing, not a synth line or a fuzzy guitar lick — and damn, damn that chorus. “Somebody told me/ You had a boyfriend/ Who looked like a girlfriend/ That I had in February of last year,” Flowers croons. Connect the dots with me: He’s singing about i.) A jealous rumor; ii.). about an ex; iii.) dating somebody androgynous; iv.) that brings back memories of a lover; v.) in an arbitrary and pretty goofily-worded past time. It’s everything and more, the hushed secrecy, the cheap accusations, the sexual curiosity — the band at its most essential. With one hook, the Killers defined a sound, guns blazing. And, as far as that goes, I don’t know if I’ll ever get enough.