The growth of The Black Keys from underground indie darling to alt-mainstream rock radio single purveyors belies a really incredible work ethic and artistic influence that I know I didn?t truly appreciate until researching for this piece. The Black Keys have been mainstays of my playlists since I, like so many others, encountered them in the wake of the release of BROTHERS, far and away their biggest commercial hit at the time. Listening to the work that led them there yielded rawer blues sound. I must admit I was a little shortsighted in feeling that The Black Keys made a lot of same-y records; the concerted effort to make garage rock/blues hybrids seemed to bleed together over time. In retrospect, each of The Black Keys? ten albums (so far) bring something singular to their greater artistic mission. So here are those albums ranked.
#10 ? THICKFREAKNESS (2003)
Favorite track: ?Set You Free?
The swift follow up to The Black Keys? debut THE BIG COME UP continues the ?blues-rock-recorded-in-a-basement? sound that declared their presence on the indie scene the year prior. But somehow, none of the songs resonate with me. They bleed together a bit much. THICKFREAKNESS is still a quick, fun listen though.
#9 ? RUBBER FACTORY (2004)
Favorite track: ?The Lengths?
RUBBER FACTORY moved the duo away from recording in drummer Patrick Carney?s basement and into?well, an abandoned rubber factory. So all the raw production is still present on RUBBER FACTORY, but the guys put together songs with a little bit more pop hook chops, which would account for the record?s relative commercial success and their consistent rise. And a song like ?The Lengths,? probably their calmest to that date, indicates the kind of soulfulness The Black Keys would infuse into their later work. Singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach employs more sweetness in his voice and riffs.
#8 ? TURN BLUE (2014)
Favorite track: ?Gotta Get Away?
TURN BLUE was/is part of The Black Keys? more ?produced? career, which is to say their albums are now made in studios. Not only are they made in the studios, they?re also often made with producer Danger Mouse, and TURN BLUE is one of those records. It is perhaps the duo?s most different record, with a greater emphasis on low key riffs, psychedelic sound and imagery, and a general polish not found elsewhere in The Black Keys? discography. It still carries their blues rock ethos, but it?s enriched by some different philosophies. They just don?t happen to enrich it to incredible heights.
#7 ? MAGIC POTION (2006)
Favorite track: ?Your Touch?
MAGIC POTION is probably The Black Keys? first cohesive album. Its 40 minutes run together so easily and enjoyably. It was still recorded in a basement, and it?s kind of raw because of that, but those pop hook chops I mentioned for RUBBER FACTORY were refined even further on MAGIC POTION.
#6 ? ATTACK & RELEASE (2008)
Favorite track: ?So He Won?t Break?
This album marked the duo?s embrace of the studio, and Danger Mouse. ATTACK & RELEASE continues the feeling of cohesion that defined MAGIC POTION while capitalizing on some of the aforementioned soulfulness on RUBBER FACTORY. Songs like ?So He Won?t Break? and ?Things Ain?t Like They Used to Be? are emotional, and sit among more powerful tracks like ?I Got Mine? and ?Psychotic Girl.?
#5 ? EL CAMINO (2011)
Favorite track: ?Lonely Boy?
EL CAMINO was the follow up to the absolute commercial and critical smash that was BROTHERS, and so it had a lot to live up to. And it did, receiving even greater success in both camps. But unlike BROTHERS, which continued the increasing blend of The Black Keys? conventional, no-holds-barred rawness with new low-down soul, EL CAMINO leans harder into the band?s roots. That is certainly not a bad thing, as the album starts with its best track (?Lonely Boy?) and never really lets up on the gas. It just doesn?t feel as special an experience, however, as the records above it on this list.
#4 ? BLAKROC (2009)
Favorite track: ?Hard Times?
Speaking of special: the idea of The Black Keys providing instrumentation for some of the best rappers in the game is an incredible idea. And thankfully it came to pass with BLAKROC, a crossover album that still, in hindsight, boggles the mind. It?s an incredible record, especially wedged in an incredibly prolific and increasingly diverse period of The Black Keys? release schedule. And apparently, when you get Mos Def, RZA, Q-Tip, and more rapping over new Black Keys tracks (which skew closer to the ?soulfulness? I somewhat annoyingly keep referring to because I can?t think of another word to describe the music), you get something real good.
#3 ? LET?S ROCK (2019)
Favorite track: ?Tell Me Lies?
Look, recency bias for me is usually a negative one. It often takes newer things a while to integrate into my tastes or move higher up lists such as these. But in this case, who knows, the proximity of LET?S ROCK may be raising my esteem for it. I don?t think it?s entirely out of bounds from its actual merits though, because the album (the band?s first in five years, their longest hiatus between releases), well, rocks. But it?s a little bit cleaner, a little bit?quirkier. It?s not quite as ?light? as TURN BLUE but it?s not THE BIG COME UP either. LET?S ROCK is The Black Keys? most decidedly pop rock album, and that is A-OK in my book.
#2 ? THE BIG COME UP (2002)
Favorite track: ?She Said, She Said?
Speaking of THE BIG COME UP: The Black Keys? debut is incredible. Although I have somewhat expressed a preference for a cleaner production sound and more straightforward pop hooks, THE BIG COME UP?s rawness does not overgrow the sheer attraction of its songwriting. And of course, it in fact enhances it. It helps that covers like The Beatles? ?She Said, She Said? are rendered in such cool new ways, but the band?s own songs, like ?I?ll Be Your Man,? indicate the emergence of a new talent coming on the heels of the garage rock of the late ?90s and early 2000s.
#1 ? BROTHERS (2010)
Favorite track: ?The Only One?
All that being said, the amount of refinement that led to BROTHERS allowed The Black Keys? to make a 15-track album without any filler, a rare feat. Every track on the record is a banger, not a single one goes by without feeling properly placed. It?s the ultimate culmination of the blend of styles I?ve been referring to this whole piece. And this is, of course, the era of The Black Keys that I stepped into, as many did. And although I have never expressed being a superfan, I remember listening to BROTHERS over and over and over again in 2010. Perhaps that is why I?ve set some distance between me and the duo?s music since, but nevertheless, what they produced on this album alone would cement a soft spot in my playlists for them. It?s cool, though, that they also produced nine other albums that are definitely worth listening to.