Ranked: The Black Keys

A new segment I plan to develop. Bit of a less formal format here and not necessarily like reviews, just my thoughts and opinions on some of my favourite artists and their bodies of work.

First up is garage/blues/indie/alt rock duo The Black Keys. First active in 2001, the Ohio-based duo have released eight studio albums since, with their sound changing significantly over the years. Here is my ranking of their extensive studio album discography.

[8] The Big Come Up (2002)

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Black Keys are one of those artists that sonically, grew progressively better throughout their career. Therefore, their debut LP takes up last place. Its raw and lo-fi aesthetic became a trait of the “do-it-yourself” garage rock revival scene. It has some okay initial ideas in place, yet the execution is a little sloppy.  This album was the result of a talented duo just dipping their toes in and expressing early ideas. At this point in time, The White Stripes were already on their trajectory to major success with 2001’s ‘White Blood Cells’. For the Keys to bring this out a year later was a little old-fashioned and behind the times.

Essential tracks: Do the Rump // Breaks // Leavin’ Trunk

[7] Rubber Factory (2004)

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Widely considered as one of their strongest offerings of their DIY garage blues era, for me it just doesn’t hold much resonance. Keys’ third studio album offers more variety than the slight repetitiveness of its predecessor ‘Thickfreakness’, however cohesively, from beginning to end, it doesn’t hold up as well. Moreover, there’s only a handful of tracks that stick with me therefore rarely gets repeat full listens.

Essential tracks: When the Lights Go Out // 10 A.M. Automatic // The Lengths

[6] Thickfreakness (2003)

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The duo’s sophomore album communicated a huge improvement and development from their debut. They had refined their DIY garage rock sound to create memorable garage blues jams, with frontman Dan Auerbach showcasing his soulful vocal qualities. Towards mid-tracklist, tracks do tend to blend together which questions variety but at this point the Keys were still honing in on their sound. Therefore it’s best to treat the record as an album of consecutive jams, rather than tracks with individual discernible personality. Its a blast to spin the vinyl from time to time if you’d like to treat yourself with forty-minutes of bluesy goodness.

Essential tracks: Thickfreakness // Have Love Will Travel // I Cry Alone

[5] Magic Potion (2006)

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Their fourth LP, ‘Magic Potion’ is the best of the duo’s DIY garage blues era before they refreshed their style with follow-up ‘Attack & Release’. It features one of my favourite Keys tracks ever (You’re the One), with each track possessing discernible personality, something that was generally missing from ‘Thickfreakness’. There’s a good balance of all-out rockers and laid-back ballads, however as you may tell from my essential tracks, it’s the stripped-back ballads that prevail. In essence, a natural progression to the number four spot.

Essential tracks: You’re the One // Strange Desire // The Flame

[4] Attack & Release (2008)

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Keys’ fifth LP could be considered the outlier in their discography. It was a swift departure from the sound they had been pushing since their debut LP, however there were elements of ‘Magic Potion’ that suggested a change like this. ‘Attack & Release’ saw Auerbach’s introduction of alternate instrumentation, namely the banjo in the fantastic ‘Psychotic Girl’, flute in ‘Same Old Thing’ and underlying piano-based melodies noticeable throughout. It was a welcome change for the Akron-boys, a shake-up that refreshed their identity and created some of their most memorable cuts to date.

Essential tracks: Psychotic Girl // Same Old Thing // Oceans & Streams

[3] Turn Blue (2014)

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Their latest (and I really hope isn’t their last) was the nail in the coffin for the boys’ days of raw, stripped back garage rock traits. The album also seemed like a stepping stone for Auerbach’s current side project The Arcs, with its psychedelia-infused aura. ‘Turn Blue’ possesses a unique aesthetic, full of dreamy and spaced out cuts, a far cry from their first four records. David Gilmour-inspired ‘Weight of Love’ is one of my favourite Keys cuts due to Auerbach’s brilliant lead guitar work and the ambient, spacey noises that line the mix. There are some missteps within the tracklist, however for me, it deserves third place.

Essential tracks: Weight of Love // Turn Blue // In Our Prime

[2] El Camino (2011)

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The duo’s most commercially successful record, ‘El Camino’ was a direct attack on mainstream and radio rock. Winning a Grammy for Best Rock Album as well as spurning two hit singles ‘Lonely Boy’ & ‘Gold on the Ceiling’, the album is without a doubt one of their strongest. It works so well because there is no filler, the track-listing is cohesive throughout and there isn’t a “bad” track in sight. From start to finish, the record is brimming with quality & catchy vocal/guitar hooks. It feels like a heavily polished and refined version of the duo’s early records, tuned for the mainstream ear. It’s a belter.

Essential tracks: Dead and Gone // Gold on the Ceiling // Little Black Submarines

[1] Brothers (2010)

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Following the sound departure in ‘Attack & Release’, the duo’s sixth LP was the essential set-up for the huge success of ‘El Camino’. The Keys took some time to refine and decide the direction to take after the experimental ‘Attack & Release’ and the result is this album. Essentially, it was the band’s breakthrough record and subsequently nominated for five Grammy awards. Some may say its bloated and could do with a few less tracks, for me, it’s the quintessential Black Keys record. There are so many high-quality and eternally memorable tracks, the Keys had finally fully realised the sound they had been developing for several records. ‘Too Afraid to Love You’ is probably my favorite ever Keys track, yet there are many on this album alone.

Essential tracks: Everlasting Light // Black Mud // Too Afraid to Love You

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