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Music

Alex Turner’s 10 best songs with and without Arctic Monkeys

It started, at least for most of us, roughly 16 years ago with the fateful utterance of: “Don’t believe thee hype.” Since then, there have been songs about red right hand characters who beleaguer women of the night, indicative LEDs on the doors of a taxicab, chasers exchanged for hot chocolates in laments of lost youth, the dangers of manoeuvring another sapiens seat, visions of navel jewellery in the night sky, dower service in diners that stock only the most negative leaflets around, the TripAdvisor scores of lunar retreats, and a slew of other varying subjects often involving leggy supermodels in one way or another… 

Each of these songs seemingly straddling worlds—the realism of the keenly observed everyday, and the singular twisted imaginings of the observer himself. Which leaves only one question: Has any other songwriter connected abundant quality with quite so many people in that same 16-year period? With few defendants springing forward, ladies and germs of the jury I give you Alex Turner, and some of his finest works to date.

On the day that the Sheffield scallywag turned crooning leather-clad Lothario turns 36, we’re delving into the grand mausoleum of song that he has offered up in his relatively rapid-fire roving career so far and picking out the gems to behold. It ain’t easy! Thus, I plead that you see this as more of a celebration of the man himself, because by tomorrow day, even my list may be different. And in a few months’ time, hopefully, it will be joined by a few new classics. Enjoy…

Alex Turner’s 10 best songs to date:

‘The View from the Afternoon’

What better place to start than the beginning? Opening the songbook of the Arctic Monkeys is like pulling the pin on a grenade as Matt Helders pounds the band into the life blitzkrieg befitting of the agile beast moniker he has since acquired through many belting contortion acts. Meanwhile, Alex Turner’s lyrics grumbled with a wry smile at the meta line: “Anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment in evening entertainment but, Tonight there’ll be some love.” Irony soars as not a second of disappointment followed. The soundtrack of a million youths, more than any subsequent rock ‘n’ roll artist has managed, suddenly shook the etch-a-sketch of your muddied iPod clean. The hype was believed, and the hair got longer.  

In a snarling sermon to the ceremony of youth culture, Turner told a twisted tale of drunken texts and the good old days of three trebles for a fiver in a bar where your knackered converse stuck to the carpet like the wrapper to a melted Chewit. That wordplay and weekend capturing wizardry is sustained throughout, but the reason the record stands up like a monolith today when other indie albums of the era have eroded to mere nostalgia indulgences resides in both the sincerity of the work and the magic musicianship.

‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’

You can’t take a call like the ‘greatest debut single of all time’ lightly, and the sweat pouring from my brow attests to that. But in truth, when a single fetches record-breaking sales figures, revives guitar music and retains cultural relevance indefinitely, it is a relatively easy sell despite all the inevitable naysayers who refused to climb aboard the bandwagon as it sailed by last laugh lane in the first place.

Arctic Monkeys burst onto the scene like mainstream bank robbers. They were pockmarked bandits of benevolent intent, and all everybody wanted to know was whether they could believe the hype. In an atom-splitting moment, the band suddenly not only made sense of the working-class adolescence that lay ahead of many fans but coloured it with the fluorescent palette of piled-up passions in a poetic punch-up of visceral rock ‘n’ roll and snarling lyrical introspection. In fact, they achieved all that to such an exacting extent that an entire generation can recite every single lyric; How many songs do you get like that in alternative music these days?

‘Fluorescent Adolescent’

When Favourite Worst Nightmare was released in 2007, the boys in the band were still only 21/22. Rather than scurry away from youthfulness like cool cats up San Francisco alley, they thrashed in the mire of the dirty backstreets once more. Since Sylvia Plath’s days lamenting the bureaucratic steps from youth into adulthood in poems like The Applicant, grabbing the thistle of youths floundering final days has always had an essential presence in pop culture and literature. Turner joyfully crystalises the lost-feeling of bygone fleeting frolics. In recent times, however, it seems to have faded somewhat from music, and with it, the visceral voice of joyful delinquents. 

With ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’, Turner ponders the sorry premature transitioning from daring fun to a dreary malaise, as a former dancefloor explosion now finds herself an indoor sparkle well before a bonfire of vanities was due. Riding on a bassline that gallops with more rhythm than Redrum, the song might currently be in the realm of the tainted overplayed, but in time it will cut like XTC’s ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ of the ‘00s generation once more.

‘My Mistakes Were Made for You’

Quite why The Last Shadow Puppets haven’t been asked to pen a James Bond theme yet is anyone’s guess! The orchestral scope and slicker than a penguin’s back grooves that they offer up purr with suited and booted smoothness, none more so than ‘My Mistakes Were Made For You’. Amid their fresh debut album, this track exhibited the sultry magnitude of everything they had to offer. 

The Last Shadow Puppets always offer more drama than an ITV omnibus while being just about the right side of Serge Gainsbourg level sleaziness. Most importantly, however, it is exceedingly hard to couple strings and rock ‘n’ roll without coming off kitsch and corny, but the beautiful wry underplaying that they achieve makes them soar with true originality. From the very first alluring drumroll on ‘My Mistakes Were Made for You’ that much is clear. 

‘Dance Little Liar’

Humbug represented the first major departure of the Arctic Monkeys career. Although their debut and sophomore might have differed, the realm of desert rock placed the gang literally a world away. It might not have offered up the most immediate joy for many fans, but in time, it is almost the record that a lot of us are most thankful for, as it slinked into the backrooms of the music world and introduced you to more new names than ever before. 

This bold step had to be met halfway, but once you entered, the depths proved bottomless, and the boon was bountiful. Amid the swirling guizer of desert grooves, ‘Dance Little Liar’ proved to be an era-defining epic for Turner in his most mystic guise, like some sort of shy Jim Morrison. With a crescendo akin to the adrenalised final throes of ‘A Certain Romance’, this swampy Breaking Bad-like tale reaches a fever pitch that few songs can ever match.

‘It’s Hard to Get Around the Wind’

Turner’s use of metaphor is near unrivalled in music. It stretches the depth of his back catalogue and traverses well into B-sides like ‘Catapult’ too. Poetical descriptions seem to be where he feels most at home. They are his natural habitat as a songwriter. Much like his primary lyrical inspiration, John Cooper Clarke, Turner uses kaleidoscopically colourful language to twist the familiar and relatable with an enigmatic and vivid edge.

This wistful gem that he provided for the Submarine soundtrack contains the stunning couplet: “It’s like you’re tryin’ to get to Heaven in a hurry / And the queue was shorter than you thought it would be / And the doorman says, “You need to get a wristband.” It could mean many things, but the feeling of a dream presenting itself before you were ready, or else coming to fruition in a mutated form, is something we can all relate to and, thus, lend it a meaning of our own. It could be a delivery coming before you expected it only to learn you ordered the wrong thing, or it could be wrangling a date only to realise you preferred the thrill of the chase, either way, it is beautifully worded and endlessly evocative.

‘Love is a Laserquest’

Behind all the playfulness, pithy wordplay and occasional societal disdain, there is an almost secret sincerity that often creeps through the murk and into the fore of Turner’s songwriting. It may not be the jarring soul-bearing of a Leonard Cohen or the heart pouring clarity of a Joni Mitchell, but in its own guarded way, it is equally as touching when he croons lines like: “When I’m pipe and slippers and rocking chair / Singing dreadful songs about summer / Will I have found a better method / Of pretending you were just some lover?”

The notion of an older Turner perched on some creaking porch somewhere at a quirky residence he shares with Miles Kane, smoking a pipe and gazing skyward thinking of all his past leggy lovers, is a heart-tugging image. This line might actually be one of the most romantic and poetic views on love-lost ever placed in song, and it achieves it without ever being overbearing. What’s more, it is a mark of Turner’s continued brilliance that this underrated gem might not feature on many lists, but the class is clear to see from the mile off, nevertheless. 

‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’

Speaking of fever-pitched finales, ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’ might just be Arctic Monkeys most underrated song yet. With ethereal Johnny Marr-like tremolo guitar riffs whizzing around your headspace, a bassline that could rattle a filling loose and a sweet butter cutting melody that could have every single one of a centipede’s toes tapping, the song proves to be a musicological masterclass. 

For all Alex Turner’s lyrics and performative ways might be a central tenet of the band, one of the most refreshing things about ‘The Monkeys’ is that they remain an ensemble. It is, without doubt, one of Turner’s greatest attributes as an artist that he isn’t unhinged by his own sense of individualism and is always happy to celebrate the artistic vision of others. In this closing anthem, every member seems to come to the fore in a melee of instrumentation and unified intent. Everything straddles that same paradoxical finely tuned looseness that The Doors achieved before them, proving that hard graft has never sounded more effortless, perhaps it isn’t all that hard when it’s fun anyway.

‘Do I Wanna Know?’

Turner is a songwriter who understands the ways of the world and man, and he has the talent to illuminate these observations in song and cast them in the golden hue of lustrous wordplay. On any given record that he has been part of, there’s a slew of psychological introspections that prick a nodding ear. Quite often, these shrewd observations are about the relationship between a handheld device and alcohol, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that he’s clearly a man with his finger to the pulse.

Constructed sparsely, instruments slow dance in the background as Turner croons hardboiled Raymond Chandler-esque home truths about nights being made to say the things that scuttle away in the gaudy light of day. Sleek and assured, this fresh era welcomed many new fans into their realm with good reason: it had more sex appeal than the History Channel’s view of Cleopatra. Along the way, it proved just how amorphous the great genre-meddling Turner can prove to be. 

‘One Point Perspective’

“Bear with me man, I lost my train of thought,” Turner croons before his literary muse take a few beats to catch up with itself. Thereafter, he begins to play with the lyrical form that he helped to create like a literary scientist. It is originality like this that has quashed all the broken imitators and detractors under a sauntering heel like a discarded cigarette butt from the smoking imagination of a songwriter with words wrapped around his finger like a rock ‘n’ roll Helter Skelter. 

Stanley Kubrick techniques and French New Wave films suddenly enter the mix as Turner shoots off to space and casts his gaze over the modern world. Like some cracking Kurt Vonnegut novel, this satirical look from the sardonic side of space bristles with all-encompassing exactness without ever becoming cynical. What’s more, this postmodern intent meets with the sort of bouncing melody that sits as well with making a coffee in your underpants at dawn as it does with shaking up crisp G&T in your underpants a few hours before said dawn.

Smooth and refined, this is the spotted silken gown of Arctic Monkeys songs, and it knows full well it’s more than capable of holding the room.

The ultimate Alex Turner playlist: