The notion that every city or time period has a signature sound is more or less lost to laptops. Online communities foster genres and styles regardless of physical geography. New sonic ideas are being conceived and spread all the time. With a readily available source of music from every decade and location, inspiration doesn’t have to adhere to region.
New York City’s rock revival saw this development in its infancy during the early aughts. There was a distinct post-punk garage-rock sound coming out of New York at the time with bands like the Strokes and Interpol as its poster children. Shared regional consciousness endured when the world wide web was a newfangled technology and hit its peak after 9/11. A restlessness ran throughout NYC. Karen O felt it all with a unique energy unlike anything bred in the music scene, untethered to the brooding temperament. She was ferocious, silly, unafraid to put a microphone in her mouth, reckless and raw, standing among the widely male-fronted gamut with her scrappy art-rock band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Karen Orzolek met drummer Brian Chase in the late ’90s at Oberlin College in Ohio. She later transferred to NYU and met guitarist Nick Zinner at a bar. The three joined forces and hype immediately spread via word-of-mouth. Zinner recalled the band’s first miraculous milestone to music journalist Lizzy Goodman: “Our friend Dave was like, ‘Hey, you guys are always talking about your band that no one has ever heard of. Do you want to open up for the White Stripes at Mercury Lounge?'” O debuted her iconic stage presence at that show and their buzz skyrocketed. She took the stage covered in olive oil, wearing a see-through wifebeater and heart-shaped pasties. The angst percolating around New York took form in Karen O as a physical urge. You saw it onstage and you could hear it in recordings.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 2001 self-titled debut EP merged harsh NYC life with the sustained influence of Oberlin’s avant-punk bands. It was a blaring proclamation that demanded to be heard. They followed the record’s release with tours around the US and UK, gaining international recognition and building an audience that was eager to devour their next EP Monster and first studio album, 2003’s Fever To Tell. Yeah Yeah Yeahs was the LP’s thrilling prologue, an introduction to their cathartic remedy for new millennium anxiety. It set the mood — to put it lightly — with O’s screaming, Zinner’s shredding, harsh and evocative lyricism, and a sensitive side.
Fever To Tell unearthed the ideas and aggressions that bubbled beneath the surface of their first two EPs. O leads an emotional rollercoaster, howling and moaning and gasping for air. Sexual tension and vicious desire melt into longing love songs and devastating heartbreak. She speaks to universal emotions with the violence and intensity they incur. This album took the Yeah Yeah Yeahs from underground icons to critically-acclaimed rockstars and remains their most muscular and impressive work to date.
By the time they followed up with Show Your Bones in 2006, New York’s sonic landscape was already changing. It expanded with each passing year. Blog rock had emerged and New York’s signature sound was muddled. Technology improved, Brooklyn became the new Manhattan, and indie rock began to settle within the mainstream. As circumstances shifted, so did the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Show Your Bones was the sensitive and melodic follow-up to Fever To Tell’s softer moments. The next year they somewhat returned to their sexually-charged art-punk beginnings with the Is Is EP. In 2009 they leaned back into the softness with electronic ambitions on their third full-length, It’s Blitz! The critically-regarded work completed the band’s transition into alt-pop territory. Here we meet Karen O the popstar, a role she pulls off remarkably well. But not only that, she sounded happy for the first time, even behind her shaky, tearful voice on “Skeletons.”
It’s tempting to skip over 2013’s Mosquito — their following album and most recent release — when talking about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The album had its fans and it definitely had its critics, but it feels like a mere blip in their history. The beating heart that Karen O ripped out of her chest in the 2000s was drained. It’s possible she and her bandmates just outgrew the project. But that doesn’t mean she can’t channel the rambunctious Fever To Tell vigor, as made clear by the album’s 2017 reissue and subsequent tour, which rolls into New York’s Governors Ball this weekend. As the rock legends prepare to take Randall’s Island, let’s revisit the highlights of their discography.
10. “10 x 10″ (from Is Is, 2007)
Following Show Your Bones’ foray into sweet simplicity, Is Is was nostalgic for something rougher. For the EP they found and recorded songs that were written in 2004, after the boom of Fever To Tell and before the stylistic shift on Show Your Bones. That moment was a sweet spot — their lyrics were gaining a poetic complexity and their energy was still fresh from Fever — which the band tapped into as if they had written the songs yesterday. Dark and slightly twangy, “10 x 10″ calls back to their debut EP. O’s high-pitched shrieks didn’t really find their place on Show Your Bones, nor did Zinner’s aggressive licks, but on “10 x 10″ everything comes back to them like muscle memory.
9. “Art Star” (from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 2001)
O begins the third song on their debut EP with a declaration in rhythmic spoken word: “I’ve been working on a piece that speaks of sex and desperation/ I’ve been screwing on the tracks of abandoned train stations.” Ten seconds later she’s yelling “Art Star” at the top of her lungs along with Zinner’s screeching guitar and Chase’s relentless cymbal-bashing. One might argue that this is their purest, most instinctual work, a mission statement of sorts.
8. “Cheated Hearts” (from Show Your Bones, 2006)
This is where O reaches out a helping hand with a rousing, feel-good song of solidarity. Whereas some earlier Yeah Yeah Yeahs material might’ve felt alienating to some, “Cheated Hearts” is conversely warm and welcoming. She gave us something pithy and encouraging to shout along, “Sometimes I think that I’m bigger than the sound.” The words just feel right. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have spoken about growing up as “underdogs” and bearing that position within the music industry. This song feels like an ode to underdogs everywhere. It’s comforting, bouncy, and impossible to dislike.
7. “Miles Away” (from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 2001)
“Miles Away” follows the feral screams and cacophony on “Art Star” with thrashing and intermittent panting. Although this time it’s more structured, like a fun rock song rather than pure noise. Karen O leans into a Southern affect, “She’s hurt fewer people in a better world / Miles, miles away / Dressed again in the hot water.” Imagery and mood prevail — of dirt roads and gas stations on a hot day — and a concise message is unneeded.
6. “Gold Lion” (from Show Your Bones, 2006)
“Gold Lion” was Show Your Bones’ polished, promising lead single that would go on to become the Yeah Yeahs’ second major hit after “Maps.” O’s vocals work a controlled exasperation over a crisp, soaring guitar riff. The harmony is unmistakable. Something about it captured 2006’s indie-mainstream musical palette. It sounded clean and accessible without losing the band’s signature edge. The indie crossover was on its last genuine legs, and you can hear them hanging on.
5. “Skeletons” (from It’s Blitz!, 2009)
Sparseness was antithetical to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs before they changed their focus on It’s Blitz!. Their early albums were crowded and sticky. It’s Blitz! was sparkly and airy, flourishing with synth-pop and pop-rock potential. “Skeletons” is a sprawling, gorgeous electronic-based track, one of the few times we hear O on the verge of tears: “Love, don’t cry / Skeleton me.” As usual, she manages to say exactly what needs to be said and illustrate our most tender emotions without saying much of anything.
4. “Heads Will Roll” (from It’s Blitz!, 2009)
Chances are you’re sick of this song, but when you first heard those pulsing bursts of synth it was the best sound in the world. Remixes have been made and remade, it’s been sampled and featured countless times, and the original has been played to death, but that contagious beat doesn’t quit. It hasn’t for years. “Off! Off! Off with your head!” — O’s intonation is knowingly theatrical, pop-leaning and even a little calculated, but it works. Freak-disco convulsions envelop you in a surreal house party. It somehow sounds both retro and futuristic, extraterrestrial but earthbound in O’s intensely human voice.
3. “Date With The Night” (from Fever To Tell, 2003)
Karen O came into her own on Fever To Tell, baring sexuality and vulnerability and embodying their inherent bliss and discomfort. The lead single, “Date With The Night,” is an explosive ode to female pleasure. O sneers and yelps, commanding the song as she verbally commands her body: “I got a date with the night / Burnin’ down my finger / Gonna catch the kids dry / Gonna walk on water.”
2. “Pin” (from Fever To Tell, 2003)
“Pin” is about the self-inflicted pain and fleeting joy of reuniting with a former lover. She knows it’s wrong, “pushing in the pin.” But her disposition quickly sways: “We’re gonna go back in / We’re gonna go, go, go.” Thundering vocals and an infectious riff take over and she’s in the thick of it. There’s no turning back.
1. “Maps” (from Fever To Tell, 2003)
As Fever To Tell nears its end, one song sticks out among the rest. You know instantly from its opening drumbeat that “Maps” is one hell of a song, one that would linger in our collective consciousness and continue to take new forms. Its full force was felt in this one line: “Wait! They don’t love you like I love you.” The simple gut-punch of a line has since been repurposed by artists like Beyoncé, Ted Leo, and the Black Eyed Peas. Karen O’s legacy would go on to inform decades of indie rock-influenced, female-fronted vulnerable pop.