“Never play to the gallery,” David Bowie once said, “Never work for other people in what you do. Always remember that the reason that you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you co-exist with the rest of society… I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfil other people’s expectations.”
Throughout the Arctic Monkeys back catalogue, the band have boldly adhered to this mantra. It would have been so easy for the Sheffield scoundrels to ride the blazing trail of their explosive debut up until the flames fizzled out, but instead, they whisked their creative maelstrom into the studio and moulded it into an unfurling tapestry of different tales and textures. From the swampy shrouded world of Humbug to the moonscape lounge of Tranquillity Base where postmodernist novelistic techniques mingle at the bar with the same acerbic wit Alex Turner has always sported and a sonic martini of range recorded Hamilton Leithauser music shot into space—their trampoline laurels are not for resting on, just rebounding the creative muse into something new.
Lord knows where they are headed next with their imminent new record, but tales and industry tittle-tattle suggest it will be wildly different once more. However, for now, let us focus on the work they have left behind and appraise the highlights of their chronology. Below we have mused over each record and picked a song that the albums simply couldn’t be without—these tracks may not be your own personal favourites, but I can only hope you agree that they are defining in some essential way.
The best song from every Arctic Monkeys album:
‘The View from the Afternoon’ from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
From the very first belting blitzkrieg of Matt Helders’ drums, the Arctic Monkeys debut album burst into life like an incendiary attack on the mainstream; Alex Turner’s lyrics were no different as he grumbled with a wry smile the meta line: “Anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment in evening entertainment but, Tonight there’ll be some love.” Oh, the irony—not a second of disappointment followed as the soundtrack of your youth 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.
Helders’ drumming purred and imparted the message ‘these kids have got the chops to back it up’ with thunderous aplomb. In short, there are masterful songs that you could remove from the record and still have it soar, but, for my money, ‘The View From…’ is the anthem it would miss the most.
‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ from Favourite Worst Nightmare
When Favourite Worst Nightmare was released in 2007, the lads were still only 21/22. Thus, rather than scurry away from youthfulness like cool cats with a point to prove, they thrashed in the mire of it 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. 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 fishnets to nightdresses, 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 ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ of the ‘00s generation once more.
‘Dance Little Liar’ from Humbug
Humbug represented the first major departure of the Arctic Monkeys career. While 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, ‘Crying Lightning’ and ‘Cornerstone’ might prove to be the catchiest and playlist friendly, but ‘Dance Little Liar’ is undoubtedly the most defining epic. 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.
‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’ from Suck it and See
Speaking of fever-pitched finales, ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’ might just be Arctic Monkeys most underrated song yet. With ethereal Johnny Marr 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. 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.
Suck it and See represented a new level of maturity for the band and ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’ is emblematic of that. It never stretches to be anything other than the roaring ditty that it is.
‘Do I Wanna Know?’ from AM
Turner is a songwriter who understands the ways of the world and man, and he has the talent to illuminate these home-truths 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 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.
‘One Point Perspective’ from Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino
“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, as he begins to play with the lyrical form that he helped to create. It is originality like this that has quashed all the broken imitators and detractors under a sauntering heel like a discarded tab end 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 wry side of afar bristles with all-encompassing exactness without ever becoming cynical. What’s more, this literary 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.