Somewhere along the way, the Black Keys sneakily became one of the weirdest bands of the 21st century. Not stylistically, of course — and that’s where a whole lot of the weirdness is rooted. There are still famous rock bands in 2015, but the topic of their decreased relevance is by now its own cliché. And then you have something like the Black Keys — composed of singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney — who began by playing as a scuzzy blues-rock duo, garnering obvious but not always accurate comparisons to the White Stripes and existing in the more amorphous world of the early-’00s rock revival outside New York, one of the satellites off in the ether of Akron, Ohio distantly orbiting the Strokes and their ilk. That’s the best you can do for these guys in terms of context. What this is really about is two men who self-recorded four rough-hewn albums with big sludgy grooves in Ohio. There might be all these quotes out there from either of them, regarding their love of rap, or just how much of a blight Nickelback is, or their rationale behind not putting a record on Spotify. All these quotes do is provide a cognitive dissonance, because otherwise the Black Keys exist almost totally removed from their time and place, making classicist rock music of the most classicist form, but never seemingly with any irony or self-consciousness on the matter. This is just the music they played. And then eventually they became one of the biggest rock bands of the 21st century.
For a band whose work is most often enjoyed best at its surface level, devoid of any larger mission or theme, there is a surprising amount of paradoxes about the Black Keys. The narrative goes now that they toiled for years for a discerning fan base and enthusiastic critics, but mainstream attention eluded them until their real breakthrough five years ago with Brothers. I mean, that’s true, but it’s also difficult to remember a time when, at least if you were paying attention to music publications of any sort, the Black Keys weren’t a perpetual presence. They were furiously prolific — a smattering of EPs and eight albums in the span of 12 years, not accounting for side projects and solo efforts and production gigs, which would up the number considerably. And they were always there, always getting covered, always getting really good — even consistently great — reviews while at the same time existing as this band it seemed easy to write off as kind of the lamest contemporary option if you were going to make a go at defending rock music’s continuing merits.
It’s an impressively stable buzz of critical adoration vs. a gut-punch of very shameful unhipness in admitting you actually like the Black Keys. It’s straightforward rock music vs. the fact that Auerbach and Carney have, against some kind odds, found ways to develop their sound that have essentially turned them into a pop band. It’s ever-increasing popularity (awards, bigger tours, even more licensing) vs. becoming an ever-increasingly easy target of derision. There are those who would celebrate the Black Keys for committing to doing this their way and making it work, for the sheer fact that you can have blues-rock licks written in the ’00s echoing out over a field at 10:30 on a Saturday night during the summer. There are others that would decry them as the cheapest and most banal idol for rockists, the kind of band that would ruin it for everyone else who still cares about guitar solos.
Nothing quite makes sense about how it all happened. Nobody really gets it, even though there were those of us who watched it happen, both incrementally and suddenly. I remember days in high school when the Black Keys were new and cool. The kind of band that’d noisily and scrappily emanate from a senior’s beaten up car as he exited, leather-jacketed, having recently returned to campus after leaving to smoke. (Even just recalling this scene makes me think of how it sounds like a ridiculous movie and the Black Keys kind of feel like a band born in a movie or a cartoon, but more on that in a bit). I paid attention for years, then got bored, then got hooked more than I ever had been when Brothers and El Camino came out so close together. The moment when this band became totally aggravating to people with whom I often share musical taste is the exact moment I actually started to really like them. How could a band this straightforward be a little bit divisive? Again, nothing makes sense with these guys and their career, exacerbated by the fact that there shouldn’t be anything confusing about them to begin with.
As mentioned above, the Black Keys — still somewhat shockingly — have been around for over a decade and have produced eight records. It may require some distance before it’s truly possible to divine the shifting perceptions of these guys and where their legacy stands in the music narrative of the ’00s and ’10s, but a fair starting point is to dig into their own legacy a bit. For the purpose of this list, we stuck with just the Black Keys’ eight studio albums — omitting the EPs, Blackroc, Dan Auerbach’s solo album, etc. If there’s someone out there who thinks Magic Potion is a great innovation for guitar music, make your case in the comments.
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