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.]