There are certain artists that I hear for the first time and I immediately feel at home. It’s like they’ve picked my brain for influences and filtered them through my very own soul. This happened sometime in 2004 when I first heard The Black Keys. I listen to just about every genre of music, but I tend to come back to blues, soul and R&B and rock that is influenced by those roots genres. But even that is a wide net when you think about the vast variety that exists in each. So, hearing The Black Keys hit on exactly the types of things I most appreciate about each of those in turn, it was just impossible for me to not love them right away. Over the years, there hasn’t been a period of time that I haven’t been listening to them daily. And in those years, they’ve changed up their style quite a bit. While I still love them just as much as I did at first, I have clear favorites and least favorites. The following is my ranking of their albums, thus far, not including EPs, starting with my least favorite.
Turn Blue (2014): I’m not one to begrudge an artist changing up their style. I’d much rather that happen, than for them to grow stale doing the same thing over and over again. And I tend to get pretty protective of artists I love.This may be why I’ve only really heard this album all the way through a couple of times. I can certainly appreciate the album’s blending of psyche infused pop with the most personal songs the Black Keys have put out to date. This is an album for night driving, with it’s quiet, smooth, trippy post-everything vibe. As a break up album, it’s a bold move, particularly when it ends on such a high note that departs from the rest of the album’s more melancholy and introspective songs with a full on 70s arena rock anthem in “Gotta Get Away.” It’s an interesting album, for sure, but I miss some of the rawness of previous albums and I haven’t yet come to terms with that.
Attack and Release (2008): This album contains several songs I truly love. It’s their first collaboration with Danger Mouse, so it’s much more elaborate than anything before it, yet still nowhere near what was to come. We start to see the psyche influence creep in here as well on all the tracks, but most notably on “Psychotic Girl.” Even the more elaborate songs, like “So He Won’t Break” and “Oceans & Streams” are still very rooted in basic R&B structures. “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be” even calls to mind The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.” But at the end of the day, something about the flow, possibly because of the two “Remember When” tracks that come at the end of side A and the beginning of side B, (or in the middle if you’re not hip to the vinyl) just doesn’t work for me.
El Camino (2011): This is their most straightforward rock album. There’s really nothing wrong with it. I like every song on it, particularly the disco infused “Sister.” I certainly loved it when it was first released. But if I’m being picky, I have to say, as much as I like the songs separately, listening to this album all the way through gets a little numbing. It might be too big.
Magic Potion (2006): Here they push the limits of what is possible to do with just guitar and drums. The songs seem to be demanding more players, more instruments, but I find that this absence only adds to the overall effect. These are big, complex compositions, but stripped down and played in a basement by two guys and I love that.. It’s easy to imagine a song like “Just a Little Heat” being played in a large arena to a huge crowd, but instead we get to really listen to it here and play air guitar along with Dan Auerbach without feeling distant from it. It’s open and inviting in a way that a more elaborate production can’t be. In a lot of ways, this is their heaviest album, with hard rock riffs worthy of Zeppelin throughout. This is a great album, and here we get to a place on this list that’s really quite fluid for me.
Rubber Factory (2004): The first song I ever heard from The Black Keys was “10 A.M. Automatic” and I instantly loved it. Garage rock at it’s best, complete with off mic yelling and the just right amount of euphoric, “that’s it” type, encouragement “yeahs” making you feel like you’re listening to a couple guys just jamming for fun. Digging into the album, I also found some of the most authentic sounding garage blues I’ve ever heard. This was raw and unfiltered and unassuming. And hypnotizing. This wasn’t guitar showboating blues rock. The focus is on the groove.
The Big Come Up (2002): I heard this immediately after I heard Rubber Factory. The two albums, and the next one, are pretty much inseparable in my mind. But everything I loved about Rubber Factory was here in an even more raw state and therefore closer to my heart. It’s dirty and fuzzy and loud. Just listen to that guitar solo that comes in louder than the rest of “Heavy Soul,” like it’s getting plugged in directly to the fusebox of the basement they’re playing in and will overload the whole neighborhood. And it contains, hands down, the best Beatles cover ever with it’s fresh take on “She Said, She Said.” I do have to take points off for the final track, “240 Years Before Your Time” which, with it’s pretentiously kitschy sampled spoken word bit about the Earth comes off as out of place with the rest of the album. I usually just skip it though and pretend it’s not there.
Thickfreakness (2003): Like I said, their first 3 albums are pretty much linked as one for me. But if I had to pick just one of the three, I (might) pick Thickfreakness, today. I don’t know. It’s hard to decide. The flow on this album, though, is just perfect. It’s tight with no time to waste and each song leads to the next. “Have Love Will Travel” has been recorded by a lot of great bands, most notably The Sonics. But this is my version. And “I Cry Alone,” shows that they can get quiet and still be powerful. These early albums have a hunger, a promise and simple intensity to them that tells you these guys will not be content being indie darlings for long. They clearly have big plans.
Brothers (2010): While this album is a long way from what I first loved about the band, it is, in many ways, a culmination of what they have always been about. The fact that they are heavily influenced by early southern soul, particularly from Stax Records, is something they’ve discussed in interviews often. And while the production on this is more elaborate than anything before it, it’s not overdone in any way. The one time I’ve seen them live so far was just before this album was released. That night it was just Dan and Patrick, playing all older songs, except for the first single from this album, the Gary Glitter influenced “Howlin for You.” That show is without a doubt one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. When the album finally came out the following week, I was surprised to hear something so different. But I couldn’t stop listening to it. And to this day, this album feels like their most well put together, best produced piece. They cover the gamut of their influences on here in ways that are pleasantly surprising and refreshing. It’s not overly polished, though. They straddle a line between raw and smooth here that I’m not sure they’ve been able to in the subsequent two albums since. This album has texture. And overall, it delivers on the promise of funk that Dan’s best, most groove focused playing set up from the beginning. It’s amazing that many of the best moments on this album, such as “Too Afraid to Love You,” don’t even involve guitars. So, for now, this is my clear favorite. Who knows what the future brings, but I would like to see The Black Keys come back to this type of material.