Originally Published In Beats Per Minute on 5/29/13
The Black Keys are currently one of the rock biggest bands in the country and have come a long way from ten years ago when guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney were recording bare-bones blues-rock songs in Carney’s basement in Akron, Ohio.
Along with the White Stripes and a host of bands you no longer remember, the Black Keys were among the vanguard of the garage-rock revival scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Surprisingly though, the band survived the 2000s and now prosper today with a sound that stays true to their bluesy roots.
With El Camino and Brothers, the band has gained steady radio play, a string of arena dates, and a wealth of new fans. However, the band’s seven-album history cannot be ignored. Early classics such as Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory represented the band for years and exhibit the duo’s early raw power. Starting with Attack & Release, the band began experimenting with studio wizardry, outside producers, and new instrumentation that changed the direction of the band and sped up their evolution. After Magic Potion, there was a feeling that the band might be stagnant, sticking to the same formula with each song. The Keys righted the ship, tinkered with their sound, and now have a diverse set of records to their name.
With a catalogue as large as the Black Keys, some difficult choices had to be made in selecting their top tracks. Songs such as “Till I Get My Way” and their cover of “Have Love Will Travel” were neglected for simply being too similar to other songs on the list. Magic Potion, the band’s last self-produced album, had a few solid numbers in “Strange Desire” and “Just Got To Be” that also missed the cutoff. These are solid songs that were stuck in that transition period between the band’s great garage-rock and their transformation to modern rock gods. Commercial hits such as “Howlin’ For You” and standout recent cuts such as “Run Right Back,” “Little Black Submarines,” and “Next Girl” were not included for simply not being more influential over earlier numbers.
15: “Your Touch” – Magic Potion
From the goofy guitar intro to the start-and-stop drumbeat and the imperfect time signature, there is something off-kilter throughout. Even so, it is an easy-to-digest rock song that appears in countless commercials, shows, movies, and more. People may mock those artists that heavily license their music but there is nothing wrong about making a song that many audiences can appreciate. The Black Keys do just that time and time again.
14: “Psychotic Girl” – Attack & Release
On Attack & Release, for the first time, the band recorded an album in a studio and hired an outside producer. The Keys teamed up with famed producer Danger Mouse and his influence is heard in the simplified song structure and crisper sound. It’s with Danger Mouse that the band would create their most successful work, “Tighten Up” and El Camino.
On “Psychotic Girl” the band trades in their signature frenzied garage-rock stylings for a hip-hop backbeat, ever-so-slight banjo, and an ethereal ambience. It is a completely new sound for the band, however, they sound as natural playing it as they do their earlier cuts.
13: “I’ll Be Your Man” – The Big Come Up
Compare this track to anything off of El Camino and you would never think that you’re listening to the same band. “I’ll Be Your Man” reminds listeners of how far the band has come from rocking basements in Akron, Ohio. There are fewer hooks and fills than your average Keys song, however, this stripped-down and back-to-the-basics blues-rock exhibits the band’s earliest influences.
12: “When The Lights Go Out” – Rubber Factory
Sparse and ominous, “When The Lights Go Out” is a departure from the standard Black Keys fare on the raucous Rubber Factory. An undulating violin dominates the backline, unsettling listeners and injecting the track with heightened nervousness. Auerbach plays a crisp blues guitar as Carney tempers his drumming.
A tamer track, “When The Lights Go Out” shows that The Black Keys can make quality tracks without delving into the same frantic formula and lays the groundwork for many tracks on Attack and Release and Auerbach’s solo album, Keep It Hid.
11: “I Got Mine” – Attack & Release
“I Got Mine” is classic Black Keys track with its hooky riffs and crash-filled drums, however, transposed within the parameters of a newer sound. At about 2 minutes in, the song changes to a mix of low chanting above spacey sounds—as psychedelic as the band has ever been. Soon after, the band pulls back the reigns and slams the song home with the same intensity that they started with.
If “I Got Mine” were on any of the band’s earlier three albums, it would be about a minute shorter and would have skipped the false ending. “I Got Mine” shows the band experimenting with new sounds and different song structures. By the hysterical reaction of audiences whenever this song is played live, it worked.
10: “Gold on the Ceiling” – El Camino
Like many of the tracks on El Camino, “Gold on The Ceiling” features more keyboard and a tighter song structure than most of the band’s earlier numbers. Carney hits listeners with a body-moving shuffle and handclaps make an elusive appearance. Auerbach unleashes solo upon solo upon listeners; something only a band with confidence could do without seeming gaudy. The band still sounds dirty and bluesy, however, with more studio wizardry than before.
9: “Set You Free” – Thickfreakness
The loudest the Black Keys have ever sounded, “Set You Free” perfectly encapsulates the band’s earlier days of fast and fuzzy guitar over fill-heavy and loud, pounding, drums. Carney takes full advantage of his unconventional drum set up (he sets the floor tom to the left of his high-hat), enabling him to frantically pound at the instrument. It’s a blitzkrieg that’s over in less than three minutes.
8: “Strange Times” – Attack & Release
Attack & Release is arguably the halfway point in the Black Keys transformation to festival headliners and “Strange Time” points to a good middle point of the band’s existence. Like so many other great Keys tracks before it, it’s a fast and riff-driven song with punchy drums; however, the band begins to experiment with eerie and spacey sounds you can’t make with simply a drum set and guitar.
7: “Everlasting Light” – Brothers
“Everlasting Light” highlights the Black Key’s evolution from garage rockers to polished rock darlings. Gone are Auerbach’s frenzied guitar riffs and Carney’s non-stop filling. Instead, the song features a heavy—crunchy—guitar track and steadier drumming. Auerbach trades in his raspy growl and sings in a smooth falsetto and recruits a few choirgirls to brighten up the track. Yes, the Black Keys still stick to their formula of deriving influences from 1960s and 1970s rock, however, they’ve never sounded this polished and restrained. Ultimately “Everlasting Light” is a sultry number to open Brothers.
6: “The Breaks” – The Big Come Up
After a humorous intro with a hip-hop backbeat, Auerbach lets a sharp —feedback-laden — guitar strum that jolts any listener. Imperfect and raw, “The Breaks” is the band’s finest cut from their debut album. Auerbach’s guitar sounds simultaneously fat and shrill throughout the track, hitting the limits of the band’s DIY lo-fi recording. Even with the muffled mixing there is still so much swagger to this song; if there’s one track you want to hear while strutting down the street, it’s this one.
5: “Girl Is On My Mind” – Rubber Factory
Auerbach pens another million-dollar guitar riff and unleashes a classic double-tracked solo, but it’s Carney’s momentum that drives the track, filling in every possible gap with relentless filling. The song hits a canonical theme; girls are always on Auerbach’s mind and practically half of the band’s catalogue deals with women. The song ends with another trick from the Keys’ playbook as the two play the same notes at much lower decibels until reaching a placid ending. It’s simple, punchy, catchy, and everything that made the Black Keys great.
4: “Lonely Boy” – El Camino
With an earworm organ riff, rockabilly drumming, and an irresistible chorus, The Black Keys surged into a new area of popularity that vaulted them into sold-out arenas nationwide. Their viral music video had everybody doing the Tuggle and brought the band into the home of Ellen fanatics, spoon-playing Aussies, and millions more. Lyrically, the song is more of the same—the Keys have never had a good history with women. Musically, however, this is fresh terrain for the band with dive bomb guitar, a rollicking shuffle on drums, and a loud female choir. Unfortunately with the newfound popularity come people who unjustifiably treat the band as if they are a one-hit-wonder.
3: “Thickfreakness” – Thickfreakness
Feedback and fuzz shouldn’t be a surprise on any Black Keys track and on the band’s most aptly named song, Auerbach runs away with the two. Auerbach sings in a soulful, yet incomprehensible and muffled, voice that sounds as if it were swallowed in his thick beard. Raspy and bluesy, it fits perfectly with the band’s earlier musical aspirations. Even today “Thickfreakness” gets one of the loudest ovations during a live set.
2: “Tighten Up” – Brothers
Before “Lonely Boy” revealed the Black Keys to an even broader demographic, “Tighten Up” brought the band out of the garage and placed them firmly in the modern rock scene.
The Danger Mouse-produced track has crisp production, a smooth whistle intro, shimmering organ, and—of course—a memorable riff that combine to make it the most accessible Keys track yet. Auerbach’s voice is uncharacteristically clear as Carney tempers the volume of his drumming—but not the frequency of his many fills. The song melts into an off-tempo outro that harkens back to the bands earlier days. It’s not a drastic change but it is tighter and cleaner than anything before it, appeasing the garage rockers, indie kids, and MTV watchers alike.
1: “10 A.M. Automatic” – Rubber Factory
“10 A.M. Automatic” is a microcosm of the Black Keys sound as Auerbach plays an irresistibly catchy riff on a thunderous and fuzzed-out guitar while Carney pounds on the drums. Lyrically, it’s just another of their many songs about women troubles but lyrics are never the highlight of any Keys track.
Garnished with meaty hammer-ons. the track is sloppier and less produced than anything the band releases nowadays but it exhibits the band at their best: as a raucous duo completely in sync with each other, simply needing drums and guitar to create a captivating sound.
“10 A.M. Automatic” is the Black Keys sonic formula packaged neatly in a 3-minute number.