Arctic Monkeys

Way back in 2004, when the internet was still a new-ish thing and CD-Rs were still relevant, a specific CD-R filled with loud music spurred from shitty amps was making its way across England. That collection of 18 demos, recorded at the 2Fly Studios in Sheffield, would come to be known as Beneath The Boardwalk, the demo-tape that was file-shared into oblivion and made the Arctic Monkeys famous.

Back then, Alex Turner and co. were 70% youthful energy, 18% musical talent, and 12% alcohol by volume. They were four very English teenagers who played songs about being teenagers in England. Turner’s voice contained the perfect amount of snotty English accent, lazily delivered. Beneath The Boardwalk dealt with such everyday happenings as getting into trouble with the fuzz, trying to pick up girls at clubs, and making up stories about far-off locations to make oneself sound cooler. If the band found their inspiration in the simplicity of everyday life, they found their sound in that same simplicity.

The Arctic Monkeys started out with a likeminded ethos to that of early punk — energy and reckless abandon trump technical skill. It’s a type of attitude that shirks advanced guitar riffs for simpler figures played louder and faster. Their sound was chemically unstable — always seemingly at risk of rushing out of control or shifting slightly out of tune. But rather than signaling ineptitude or inability, the early Arctic Monkeys’ lack of polish became a type of trademark.

Their sound was typified by inexpensive, easily obtainable equipment. Full of fuzz and distortion, it could be recreated by any greasy-haired guitarist with an entry-level amp and a few rambunctious cohorts. Perhaps it was that accessibility, the readily relatable quality of their music, that led their fans to make the Arctic Monkeys one of the very first internet sensations. In addition to the timely convergence of technology and word-of-mouth that spread Beneath The Boardwalk across the internet, the Arctic Monkeys were also one of the first groups to benefit from Myspace.

The band themselves didn’t do a great deal of publicity or advertising. They were one of the first bands whose notoriety came about almost exclusively from the work of their fans and their social-media following (specifically MySpace). By 2005, the Arctic Monkeys had signed with Domino in the UK, and had many people reconsidering the way bands gained popularity in the changing marketplace.

Following the 2006 release of their first studio album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the world was well and truly smitten. The album was a polished and concentrated version of Beneath The Boardwalk, and it became the fastest-selling debut in UK chart history. Four studio albums and eight years after that 2006 introduction to the world at large, the Arctic Monkeys are not the same group of unruly teenagers, and their sound is no longer that same combination of unruly guitar riffs.

The Arctic Monkeys’ best work has always been somewhere between the traditional songwriting prowess of Britpop and the raw energy of punk. As their career has progressed, it’s become harder to find that sweet spot on that spectrum.

Starting with Humbug in 2009, the Arctic Monkeys’ aesthetic began to shift. Maybe the change in sound can be attributed to the maturation of those four teenagers from Sheffield. Experience honed the band’s technical skills, and thus the sonic palette expanded. For Humbug, the band enlisted the help of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme as producer/collaborator. The result was a sound infused with a wider, more forceful timbre. Still the songs were often built around single guitar riffs, but the small and unstable figures were replaced with refined motifs. It was a slight shift, but it was palpable. It moved the band’s aesthetic across the spectrum, further away from the Sex Pistols, closer to a type of self-aware stoner rock. In many ways, the move away from their brazen disregard for shiny production slid them closer to adult contemporary. In Nitsuh Abebe’s 2011 piece for New York Magazine, he classified the genre:

It’s tasteful and subtle and brings a few newish ideas to the middle of the road; it adheres to a classic sense of what rock and American music are, but approaches it from artful enough directions to not seem entirely fusty; a certain type of teenager and a certain type of parent might agree on it.

Although Abebe used those words to describe Wilco and Feist, the same could be said for some of the Arctic Monkeys’ later work. Across Humbug and 2011′s Suck It And See, the Arctic Monkeys seemed to lose the plot, or maybe they hadn’t lost it — maybe they had just grown bored of it.

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with their new sound, there is a surfeit of bands that specialize in that same sound, not the least of them being Homme’s own Queens Of The Stone Age. That’s why the list that follows at least slightly favors Arctic Monkeys’ earlier material. The brutish roughness of their early work is where the band excels, what set them apart, and where their best moments can be found.

AM, their fifth studio album, and fifth consecutive UK #1, came out in September of last year. It represents yet another turn in style for the band, with the incorporation of hip-hop beats into a heavy ’70s-rock sound. That same clever songwriting remains, but even their fashion has evolved from track jackets and mop-tops to leather bombers and slicked-back greaser-cuts. Amid allegations of tax fraud, they’re full-grown superstar musicians, with a startlingly large catalogue of great music, ripe for list-making.

10. “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” (from AM, 2013)

Coming in at #10 is “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” — a great example of how the Arctic Monkeys managed to capture the pathos of their early work in a wrapper that still fits with their current aesthetic. Like their early work, much of the movement in this track is driven by the plucky bass. Turner is always at his best when describing highly relatable scenarios, and he does it again here, weaving a tale around the all-too-familiar scenario of the drunk (or high) dial. After a night out, the protagonist is trying to get ahold of a certain girl for a late-night rendezvous. The girl sees straight through it, responding, “Why’d you only call me when you’re high?” There’s just enough mystery in the reverb-laden guitar, and just enough apathy in Alex Turner’s croon.

9. “Riot Van” (from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, 2006)

“Riot Van” is a different type of song from just about everything else on this list. It’s a slow, soft, almost saccharine serenade about harassing and being harassed by the cops. Again, Turner frames a common occurrence in teenage British life with some clever songwriting. Lines like “’Have you been drinking, son? You don’t look old enough to me.’/ ’I’m sorry officer, is there a certain age you’re supposed to be? Cos nobody told me’” epitomize the sarcasm and wit that pervade Alex Turner’s songwriting. “Riot Van” is a quiet rebellion in the middle of a storm of English suburban unrest.

8. “Crying Lightning” (from Humbug, 2009)

Turner’s songwriting skills are often at their best when he’s got something to complain about, and here he picks an apt target for scorn: people that cry to get their way. The title is a direct reference to the way smeared mascara looks after a good cry, and Turner uses candy imagery to communicate the immaturity of a girl who enjoys playing a game of “Crying Lightning.” The perky yet perturbed guitar work fits perfectly with Turner’s annoyed phrasing, and you can even hear a bit of Josh Homme’s influence in the sliding guitar solo.

7. “Do I Wanna Know?” (from AM, 2013)

“Do I Wanna Know?”’s intro consists of not much more than drum kicks and handclaps, before its instantly contagious guitar riff cuts through the top. The drums plod along as that guitar and Turner’s vocals take over. It’s a drug trip of a song, and it has worked its way into the larger pop music conversation, has been featured in a Bacardi ad, and comes complete with a great visualizer-style video. “Do I Wanna Know?,” along with the next song on this list, is what happens when the Arctic Monkeys combine hip hop with a heavy-handed ’70s guitar lead.

6. “Don’t Sit Down ’Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” (from Suck It And See, 2011)

The ominous first single from 2011′s Suck It And See signaled yet another turn away from the distinctly English sound that typifies Arctic Monkeys’ early work. “Don’t Sit Down Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair,” while still built from a single guitar riff, is most certainly a drug-addled bit of stoner rock. But that guitar riff is used as a blunt instrument, blasting through the sound you were expecting from the Arctic Monkeys and giving you something you perhaps didn’t expect from the same band that gave you a quiet song about being smart with the cops.

5. “Fake Tales Of San Francisco” (from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, 2006)

“Fake Tales Of San Francisco” was one of Arctic Monkeys’ first recorded songs and videos. Directed by a friend of the band, the video featured footage from early performances. Following the groundswell of popularity from the online dissemination of Beneath The Boardwalk, it eventually made its way onto MTV2 in the UK. It was yet another step on the way to making the Arctic Monkeys who they are today, and “Fake Tales Of San Francisco” tells a tale of something the band is not. Alex Turner complains about an English band that fabricates stories from the United States to up their street cred. “He talks of San Francisco, he’s from Hunter’s Bar/ I don’t quite know the distance, but I’m sure that’s far.” It’s an ode to realness from a band that has prided itself on keeping it real.

4. “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” (from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, 2006)

Still Arctic Monkeys’ biggest hit to date, “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” is filled to the brim with drunken, sex-fueled bravado. The track simply never takes a moment to catch its breath. The guitar speeds along, unbalanced Arctic Monkeys at their best, just on the edge of a severe crash and burn. This is the song that they played on the late-night circuit in support of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, and this is the song that truly caught on for American audiences. If there’s a quintessential Arctic Monkeys track, this is it.

3. “Fluorescent Adolescent” (from Favourite Worst Nightmare, 2007)

From the moment that meandering guitar lead clambers into the song, “Fluorescent Adolescent” grabs you. The two guitars churn along, sometimes with interplay, constantly carried forward by the bouncing bass and drums. Alex Turner’s songwriting is at its best, as he tells a story about growing older and the discovery that aging means there’s a bit less fun to be had: “You used to get it in your fishnets/ now you only get in your nightdress/ discarded all the naughty nights for niceness/ landed in a very common crisis.” Turner has always had a knack for getting at the core of something while maintaining a tone of bratty playfulness, and that’s on full display here.

2. “On The Run From The MI5″ (from Beneath The Boardwalk, 2004)

“On The Run From The MI5″ is exactly the type of fun whose loss is being lamented in “Fluorescent Adolescent.” It’s a short, frenetic sprint that burns itself out in under two minutes. This track never made it onto an official album. It’s pre-producers, pre-money, and pre-fame Arctic Monkeys — more potential than polish. But again, that’s what made them stand out in 2006: their penchant for tearing a hole in the side of an amp while singing about running away from either the cops or their own Peter Pan-esque fear of growing up. “On The Run From The MI5″ is a brief scene from Neverland, where you don’t ever have to stop being “a crack dealing crook/ selling lots of rock and roll to the masses.”

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

While touring in support of their first album, the Arctic Monkeys made a stop at SNL. They performed two songs, smash hit “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” and the lesser known “A Certain Romance.” The latter appeared as the final track on their debut album, and it showcases just about everything that the Arctic Monkeys do well. The intro is a stormy freakout, each instrument seeming to tumble over the other on its way to the delicate guitar work that comes in at about 0:40. The bass takes over, agile and buoyant, and from there, Turner points a couple jibes at “chav” culture in England. He makes fun of the way the chavs dress (“They might wear classic Reeboks”) and their likely attitude toward him (“They’d probably like to throw a punch at me”). However, he goes on to say that despite their annoyances, it does no good to try to tell them what they should be. People don’t have to change just because of the way someone else perceives them, which is really what Arctic Monkeys have been about all along. The Arctic Monkeys may not have always been exactly what we wanted them to be, but they’ve never been very interested in that.

[Photo by Zackery Michael.]

Comments (69)
  1. Solid list up and down, though “Fluorescent Adolescent” will always be number 1.

    • It’s probably not deserving of no. 1 because it’s not as iconic as “Romance” but I agree with you that it is the best song they ever released.

  2. Cory McConnell  |   Posted on Aug 21st +14

    Humbug continues to be criminally underrated

    • Agreed. I can’t complain about any specific song on this list because not only are none of them not bad, they’re all great. That being said, if I had to choose my favorites, it would include less WPSIATWIN and more FWN. Also, I can definitively say there aren’t enough B-sides here. My favorites:

      10) Do Me a Favour
      9) No Buses
      8) Despair In The Departure Lounge
      7) From the Ritz to the Rubble
      6) You’re So Dark
      5) If You Were There Beware
      4) Dance Little Liar
      3) Evil Twin
      2) R U Mine?
      1) What If You Were Right The First Time?

  3. I can’t stand people that bitch about lists like this…..that being said.

    How on Earth is “From The Ritz to the Rubble” not on this list? I’m an enormous Arctic Monkeys fan and this has always been my #1.

    That being said…..great list from a great band.

  4. Do Me a Favour is missing. That was the exact moment when I realized these guys were going get better as they got older…

  5. I wonder what NME will say about this list.

  6. I was so ready to come here and get mad because “A Certain Romance” wasn’t number one. And then the list is basically perfect. Well done, from a stranger on the Internet.

  7. Ommissions (but it’s ok cause they have so many good songs):

    Cornerstone
    A View From the Afternoon
    Black Treacle
    Piledriver Waltz
    When the Sun Goes Down
    Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts
    R U Mine

    Still I do like all the songs you picked, ‘Gum.

  8. Everyone’s list is different, but “Love is a Lazerquest” is the one song I felt should have really been on here. I feel like it’s one of their most emotionally evoking songs. Other omissions that I enjoy quite thoroughly:

    Cornerstone
    505
    Suck It and See
    R U Mine?
    Fireside

  9. Gripe time:

    Not enough Favourite Worst Nightmare – that album is killer all the way through.
    Likewise, too much Whatever People Say… – excellent album, but there are plenty of other deserving tracks from subsequent albums.
    Needs more “Pile Driver Waltz,” “505,” and “Snap Out of It.”
    I’ve always thought Humbug and Suck it and See were under appreciated, but I know I’m in the minority there.

    Ok I’m done now.

    • Suck it and See is a great album. I’m with you there. I like Humbug, but if I had to rank their albums, it’s probably still last. Just goes to show how consistent they’ve been.

  10. I know it’s only a b-side but “Stop The World I Wanna Get Off With You” somehow wormed it’s way into one of my favorite Monkeys tunes. “The Hellcat Spangles Shalalala” ain’t too bad either.

  11. ditp  |   Posted on Aug 21st +1

    Two great non-album tracks I’d consider putting in their top 10: “No Buses” and “Leave Before the Lights Come On”

  12. erc  |   Posted on Aug 21st 0

    This is a band that I have a tough time making a list for, because it means leaving songs off the list, and really I pretty much love all of it.

  13. You could probably do a “Ten Best Arctic Monkeys B-Sides” list and it would be ten killer tracks.

    • You could also do a best Last Shadow Puppets list and then just play the whole album. It think that I’ll do that right now.

  14. Brainstorm

  15. great list. I would have 501, and Cornerstone, but great list.

  16. I Wanna Be Yours is not the “correct” choice for #1, but it will forever be my personal #1.

  17. Very glad to see Certain Romance #1 on the list… why do they not play this live anymore??? Crying Lightning is a close 2nd.

    I’ll give some love to “Pretty Visitors” because it hasn’t been mentioned yet in the comments. “Temptation Greets You Like Your Naughty Friend” is a pretty awesome B-side, and I like “Arabella” off the new one. Not to say that any of these were snubbed from the Top 10 list, which are all great. Just that they deserve honorable mention.

  18. Hellcat Spangled Sha La La…

  19. This article is mad repetitive, but I can’t argue with the list.

  20. cast  |   Posted on Aug 21st -1

    I can’t really argue with this list that much because they have so many great songs.

    For a band that was hyped up through the notorious British press, and gained fans through MySpace fad, and seemed very of the moment in the mid 00′s. It is clear to me that Arctic Monkey’s have aged quite well, and have indeed written some timeless songs.

    Would have put in:
    Ritz to the Rubble
    Brianstorm
    505
    Piledriver Waltz
    Arabella (My favorite on AM)

    Honorable Mention: The Bakery

  21. Library Pictures should be on here if only for the “I’m in a vest” line at the beginning, iconic

  22. ga  |   Posted on Aug 21st +1

    I’m a bif fan of Humbug, it’s my favorite of them. It’s the point where they are right in between old and new and discovering new things. They are moving away from the jagged punk but they aren’t at the point of faux machismo of the last 2 albums, especially AM. Humbug takes the great storytelling and lyrics with the slowed down swagger they are just about to delve into with the latter 2 albums.

    I love Cornerstone, that should be on here.

    I wish people didn’t dismiss Humbug, then maybe they’d have the confidence to explore that further. AM is hit and miss, when they’re on it it’s really good, but some of the swagger is extremely contrived and forced and doesn’t feel genuine.

  23. galb  |   Posted on Aug 21st +11

    Great choice for #1
    I’d put Mardy Bum somewhere there too

  24. I’m gonna go the opposite of S-Gum and say their newer stuff > their older stuff. I’d prefer AM over Whatever They say any day of the week. That’s not a slam against their first album, still some good stuff on there, I just think they’ve improved vastly since, and their latest work shows it.

  25. I think excluding From the Ritz to the Rubble at all is a disservice to the Monkeys.

  26. I like “Mad Sounds” from their latest a lot.

  27. “That’s Where You’re Wrong” – fantastic closer for Suck it and See.

  28. “Riot Van” will always be my No. 1. I love how epic “A Certain Romance” is, but Riot Van is a nice slow refreshing song about what Arctic Monkeys write the best songs about, fun troublesome encounters with authority. It’s such a beautiful song to me.

  29. After the new Tame Impala album you have to do a Top 10 Songs list for them.

  30. Hellcat Spangled Shalala needs to be on here.

  31. I consider “Brianstorm”, “cornerstone”, and “R u mine?” the best of their respective albums and while they’re not on this list some b-sides that almost nobody care made the cut? in that case you should have added “leave before the lights come on”, also you’re choosing some of their worst singles in my opinion (why’d you…, don’t sit…), this is your worst top ten by far

  32. Swap out 505, cornerstone and when the sun goes down for mi5, don’t sit down and riot van and you’ve got a decent list

  33. Bang on with #1 but some major omission – namely Mardy Bum, Pretty Visitors, Do Me a Favour, When the Sun Goes Down and If You Were There, Beware.

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  35. Completely agree with the assessment of the band’s comparatively lackluster new sound and albums from “Humbug” on. And a darn fine Top 10 list, if for no reason other than the fact it includes the all-time great “Riot Van” made the list. Bravo!

  36. I’ll agree that their first couple albums are their best, but we I’m glad they grew out of that sound.
    Do we really want 30 year old guys who’ve been in the business a decade, 5 albums deep, talking about and sounding like the stuff on Beneath the Boardwalk? That’d probably just be sad.
    That said, Cornerstone is the only album of theirs that I don’t adore, and I still like it. I could maybe have gotten this list down to 30 songs before I gave up because they’ve got too many great tracks.

  37. Awesome titles their songs have huh? And ‘a certain romance’ deserves first also on that. If anyone writes a book you should name it like that, it doesn’t matter the plot, that title fits all.

  38. No one has mentioned it, so I’ll give a shout-out to “D is for Dangerous,” my favorite Monkeys tune. So short and sweet.

  39. Not too sure about the inclusion of Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I Moved Your Chair. Would probably get rid of that in favour of Fire and the Thud or Do Me a Favour as others have said. A top ten for a band with as diverse a catalogue as the Arctic Monkeys will never be perfect, but I’d say this is a good crack.

  40. No complaints with the list. Of course there are some glaring omissions, but to include them would probably mean creating more glaring omissions by cutting some of these songs out. I’ve tried to work out my own top ten and right now it looks like this:

    1. A Certain Romance
    2. Fluorescent Adolescent
    3. From The Ritz to the Rubble
    4. Cornerstone
    5. When The Sun Goes Down
    6. Do I Wanna Know?
    7. That’s Where You’re Wrong
    8. Brianstorm
    9. Reckless Serenade
    10. I Bet That You’d Look Good on the Dance Floor

    • Damn, I forgot “Secret Door”. Don’t know what I’d replace but that one needs to be on there. Easily their most under appreciated song imo. Man, I forgot how much I really do love the Arctic Monkeys. It’s become easy to be dismissive of them lately, especially with the fancy new haircuts and the fact that Alex Turner seems to have been possessed by the ghost of a Las Vegas Elvis impersonator. When it comes down to it though, they’re a damn fine band who have yet to release a bad album and are still young enough to have a very exciting future ahead of them.

  41. Am I the only one that LOVES 505?

  42. On The Run From The MI5 sounds like a fucking libetines song :v

  43. I feel like “Piledriver Waltz” should at least get a mention, and I’m glad to see it’s gotten quite a few in the comments. To me, that song defined Suck It and See and really showcased Alex’s versatility as a songwriter (as did the entire Submarine soundtrack). I’d probably also include “Brianstorm”, “Secret Door”, and “Library Pictures” in my personal top 10. In fact, here you go:

    1. A Certain Romance (completely agree with this as #1)
    2. Fluorescent Adolescent
    3. Piledriver Waltz
    4. Crying Lightning
    5. I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor
    6. Brianstorm
    7. Secret Door
    8. R U Mine?
    9. Fake Tales of San Francisco
    10. Library Pictures

    It’s REALLY hard not to include others, though, especially “Cornerstone” and “Mardy Bum”. They have so many good songs…

  44. Where is “Knee Socks”??

  45. The Jeweller’s Hands

  46. UMMMMM…. “Perhaps Vampires Is a Bit STrong, But…”

    come on!

    “You’d better give me some pointers / cause you are the big rocket launcher and I’m just the shotgun,” might be my fav lyric in their discog.

  47. Mardy bum? when the sun goes down? cornerstone? 505? brianstorm? No. 1 party anthem? balaclava? TEDDY PICKER?

  48. you left out a ton! if i had to choose it would go: (i know it’s not 10 but it’s just all my faves)

    i had to leave out these even though they would be next: Snap out of it Cornerstone R U Mine? balaclava Old Yellow Bricks Dance Little Liar Mardy Bum Piledriver Waltz Braintstorm reckless saranade ibylgotd ect (all of their songs are just sooo good)

    10.Suck it and See
    9.Despair in the Departure Lounge
    8.No.1 Party Anthem
    7,Evil Twin
    6.Fluorescent Adolescent
    5,No Buses
    4.When the sun goes down
    3.Leave Before the Lights come On
    2.Love is a Lazerquest
    1.505

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