Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Sheffield’s finest.
Arctic Monkeys have enjoyed more than a decade-long reign as tastemakers and frontrunners of modern rock and roll. Their energetic guitars, indefatigable drums, and moody bass lines are what first caught our attention, but it was frontman Alex Turner’s writing that made us fall in love with them. Turner’s balance of poetic and picturesque meets blunt and brusque lyrics was a highlight from the first time we heard them as rowdy, North England teenagers.
Thanks to the then-burgeoning world of MySpace and the democratization of music, they were already considered the biggest new band in rock music since Oasis before their first album dropped. We’ve seen them through their early years, when they were passionately jaded and unpolished, all the way to their last album, AM, where they brought us perhaps their most popular songs to date.
Now, with a new album out, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, we’ve reminisced and re-listened to every album (like we ever stopped) in an attempt to make sense of the Sheffield rockers’ remarkable catalog.
06. Humbug (2009)
“Calm, Collected and Commanding” (Mood): Following the accelerated indie-punk of the band’s previous two albums, Arctic Monkeys opt for something calmer and more foreboding. Queen of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Humbug’s producer, is largely responsible for this stark musical change. It was recorded out of Homme’s studio in the desert, and he incorporated a sense of maturity and restraint, two key elements that distinguish Humbug as a historical shift in the band’s sound. Songs are slower and not quite as catchy, but this results in a gradual work. Humbug opens itself to the listener with each listen.
“I Play It on Repeat” (Catchiest Chorus): Humbug isn’t a record laden with instantly recognizable choruses such as “Fake Tales of San Francisco” or “Fluorescent Adolescent”, but its lead single, “Crying Lightning”, is bound to get stuck in your head. Its repetitive drum pattern and Alex Turner’s vocal melody complement each other to make for one of the most memorable choruses from this record.
“Through Curly Straws and Metaphors” (Standout Lyric): “What came first, the chicken or the dickhead?” from “Pretty Visitors”
“Oh, There Ain’t No Love” (Most Underrated Track): Although “Cornerstone” was released as the second single, it still doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. As one of two songs from Humbug written in a major key, “Cornerstone” is a standout among the album’s ominous atmosphere. However, don’t let the joyous instrumentation fool you; this is perhaps the most bleak song on the album. Turner desperately misses his ex-girlfriend and sees her everywhere he goes. He even insinuates the death of his former lover (“Under the warning light/ She was close, close enough to be your ghost”).
“One for the Road” (Best Live Song): “Pretty Visitors”, a song about the band’s immense success and their own live show, is also the most exciting from Humbug to witness live. It’s the most lively song on the album, and Matt Helders’ impressive drum fills infuse the song with a brisk, kinetic energy. The bridge is loud and brazen and slows down into one final sing-along chorus, a necessary element to an engaging performance.
“I Gotta Tell You the Truth” (General Analysis): Humbug is often an overlooked piece in Arctic Monkeys’ discography. Although it’s the weakest album they have released thus far, it’s still an integral part of the band’s style and history. It’s important to recognize what this record did for the band. It was a reinvention of songwriting that paved the path for albums such as Suck It and See and AM. It might not have as many memorable moments compared to their other albums, but this maturation was a necessary step in Arctic Monkeys’ evolution and success.
05. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (2018)
“Calm, Collected, and Commanding”: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino has traded in its guitars for a more textural take on lounging, glam rock. It’s a bit David Bowie-esque during the Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust years. Arctic Monkeys have long incorporated elements of glam rock into their sound. Turner’s rumination on science fiction has led him into the same sonically atmospheric place for this concept album. Many see this as a complete 180-degree turn for the group who put out AM five years ago. It’s an album that feels like it exists best after 2 a.m.
“I Play It on Repeat”: “Four Out of Five”, with all its sci-fi leanings, has a way of burrowing itself into the back of your mind after listening to it. It is part commentary on the amount of information we have at our fingertips while also entertaining the idea of a fictional taqueria on the roof of a hotel with “unheard of” ratings. It’s self aware if not a bit sarcastic – so classic Arctic Monkeys. Before you know it, you’ll be humming to yourself about gentrification and a well-reviewed dinner spot. It embraces its glam rock roots as it tips into the more eclectic.
“Through Curly Straws and Metaphors”: “Don’t you know an apparition is a cheap date?” from “Star Treatment”
“Oh, There Ain’t No Love”: There is something magical about the quality of Turner’s voice when it’s set to a lilting waltz. “The Ultracheese” is cinematic and introspective in the way that “Piledriver Waltz” is from Suck It and See, and it’s not just because they both utilize a shifting time signature. In each song, Turner sings about being in the back booth at a restaurant or bar. The difference is that this time he is the one in the booth. The song indulges in retrospection as if it had nowhere else to go for the night. For a fleeting moment in the final chorus, you hear Turner break from his gentle crooning into an impassioned phrase that makes you miss a memory you never experienced.
“One for the Road”: The album begins with one of its most entrancing songs, “Star Treatment”. Simple in its setup, the opening track tells the fictional story of an intergalactic, has-been rocker discontentedly playing for cosmic barflies. It has a jam band vibe, often leaving room for embellishments, but at the same time, it has a very open and – pardon the pun – atmospheric quality capable of filling up space. You might not open a set with it, but it would certainly make a mesmerizing addition.
“I Gotta Tell You the Truth”: Five years after the release of AM, Arctic Monkeys are back with a new and different sound. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino poses a shift in the band’s style, which will leave many fans wondering where all the guitars from an historically guitar-driven band have gone. In an interview with BBC’s Annie Mac, Alex Turner mentioned a significant change to his writing process. Instead of writing from a guitar, he wrote the majority of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino from a Steinway Vertegrand piano. It feels like Velvet Goldmine meets Lou Reed at points. Vocally, the Arctic Monkeys frontman has taken queues from the “Space Oddity” mastermind. This change in perspective must have tapped into a new part of the songwriter’s mind, because the overall mood of the album is one unheard in any previous Arctic Monkeys album.
04. Suck It and See (2011)
“Calm, Collected and Commanding”: Arctic Monkeys take their place as frontiersmen of the Wild West of melancholy surf rock. They have blazed their trail and have created a homestead as one of the cornerstones of the genre. Beneath the shroud of metaphor, the album is thoughtful and mature. While remnants of riotousness from early records remain in songs like “She’s Thunderstorms”, “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair”, and “Library Pictures”, a distinct polish can be heard, which we would see in full two years later on AM.
“I Play It on Repeat”: “Black Treacle”, molasses for those of us that didn’t grow up with the term, is equal parts surf and glittery indie rock. Like its name would imply, the chorus coats every corner as it slowly leaves your mind. Turner’s writing is at its most vivid while painting memorable lines like “The sky looks sticky/ More like black treacle than tar.” The chorus’ subtleties are part of what makes it most memorable. The choral oohs and ahhs throughout, along with the accented, wailing guitar at the end, act as some of the chorus’ most noteworthy characteristics and only present themselves the more you listen. The more you listen, the more small details you come to appreciate, which, in turn, makes you listen even more.
“Through Curly Straws and Metaphors”: “You look like you’ve been for breakfast at the heartbreak hotel” from “Piledriver Waltz”
“Oh, There Ain’t No Love”: As one of the few Arctic Monkeys tracks that experiments with a time signature change mid-song, “Piledriver Waltz” captures the feelings of realization that come from a hazy, dreamlike state. Two final versions exist of this song. One on Suck It and See and one for the 2010 film Submarine (an arguably underrated film in its own right). The track features some of Alex Turner’s most vivid and abstract metaphors to date. While the preceding film features a more cinematic mix, complete with piano and whirring synthesizers, the song sounds most true to form as the guitar-driven, tightly percussive B-side on the album.
“One for the Road”: The driving drums and explosive chorus of “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala” make it an indelible addition to a set list. This track ticks every box for a great live experience. Reverberating guitar, a growing energy that invites the listener to let loose, and a simple chorus fans packed in an arena can yell-sing along.
“I Gotta Tell You the Truth”: Suck It and See is playful and poignant in its use of wordplay and myriad of sonic influences. The title alone would give the impression it was meant to provoke, but the double entendre is more accurately interpreted as British slang for “give it a try.” This is exactly what Arctic Monkeys did with their 2011 album. Their styles range from pure and driving indie to heavy distortion to their own interpretation of glam rock. While experimental, it’s a distillation of their previous works, emerging stylistically confident in their choices.
03. Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007)
“Calm, Collected and Commanding”: With their sophomore effort, the Sheffield indie rockers stick to the unabashed speed and dexterity of their debut. Favourite Worst Nightmare was released only a year after their first album, but there are occasional signs of expansion and growth. Turner and crew turn somber and soft on closer “505” and completely omit the rhythm section on “Only Ones Who Know”. In between their first record and Favourite Worst Nightmare, the young quartet toured and saw new places, consequently creating a work that embraces their origins while letting a few new tricks filter through.
“I Play It on Repeat”: “Fluorescent Adolescent” is one of Arctic Monkeys’ most popular songs for a reason. It simultaneously captures cheeriness and dejection and acts as one of the record’s many highlights. Turner sings of a woman longing for non-existent youth as the instrumentation adheres to a playfulness well-suited for festivals and summer car rides.
“Through Curly Straws and Metaphors”: “They’ve sped up to the point where they provoke/ The punchline before they have told the joke” from “Teddy Picker”
“Oh, There Ain’t No Love”: “505” is unequivocally one of the best album closers in Arctic Monkeys’ discography. It differentiates itself from the brashness of Favourite Worst Nightmare in how it swells and builds instead of hitting the listener with an instantaneous adrenaline rush. The song starts with a soft keyboard and Turner’s hushed vocals and ends with guitar noise and booming drums. It all makes for a perfect ending to an impressive sophomore record.
“One for the Road”: “Brianstorm”, the album’s opening track, hurls the listener into immediate chaos, and it’s Favourite Worst Nightmare’s best live cut because of it. The thunderous percussion and roaring bass catapult the song forward until it comes to a sudden halt of silence toward the end. Matt Helders cues the rest of the band back in to play a handful of measures, and the blissful disarray comes to a swift ending. The quick-paced energy and tension-and-release make for a wonderful track to hear live.
“I Gotta Tell You the Truth”: Favourite Worst Nightmare is the last album in which Arctic Monkeys embrace the unapologetic impetuousness of youth, but there lay a few hints of maturity in the band’s slightly different approach to songwriting on this record. Although this album is typically a high-speed kick into syncopated euphoria, it also has mellow moments that incorporate different ideas and suggest a new direction for the quartet. It’s a bridge between their 2006 debut and Humbug, and while it might be much more similar to the former, it’s a subtle transition into a brand-new Arctic Monkeys.
02. AM (2013)
“Calm, Collected and Commanding”: Out of the entirety of Arctic Monkeys’ catalog, AM’s mood is, well, the moodiest. Thematically, it centers on the sadness that love yields, but it does so with a leather-jacket-clad coolness. The simple black-and-white album artwork accurately represents the album’s collective sound. It’s simple songwriting with a dramatic effect, and it’s this perfect combination of limitation and impact that makes AM one of Arctic Monkeys’ best albums to date.
“I Play It on Repeat”: Prior to AM’s release, Arctic Monkeys made a grandiose return with “Do I Wanna Know?”, perhaps the band’s most popular song thus far. The boom-clap percussion is a flawless backdrop for the lead guitar hook, one of the most memorable melodies the band has ever written. In the chorus, Turner delivers the same vocal melody on top of the guitar, and it culminates into one of Arctic Monkeys’ most entrancing tunes.
“Through Curly Straws and Metaphors”: “It’s much less picturesque without her catching the light/ The horizon tries, but it’s just not as kind on the eyes” from “Arabella”
“Oh, There Ain’t No Love”: “I Wanna Be Yours,” AM’s closer, is the most haunting and beautiful track on the album, but it is also the most underrated. It’s a song that’s frequently overshadowed by the album’s beginning material, but it deserves its recognition as one of Arctic Monkeys’ best love songs. The reverberated guitars and poignant ambiance make for a mesmerizing framework for Turner’s pleas for love.
“One for the Road”: “R U Mine?” was the typical set closer for Arctic Monkeys’ AM tour. Its opening drum fill and falsetto background vocals are well-suited for a concert environment, which are just a couple of reasons that make it the best live cut off of AM. The main guitar hook was meant to roar through stadiums. And the breaks in the bridge with call-and-response guitars and Turner’s isolated vocals are a nice antidote to the overall heaviness of the track.
“I Gotta Tell You the Truth”: AM is indisputably one of the most important works in the band’s discography. It’s the record that launched them from theaters to arenas and garnered Arctic Monkeys an even larger fanbase. It includes some of their most popular songs, such as “Do I Wanna Know?”, “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”, and “Arabella”. They managed to establish themselves as an indie rock staple, going on to headline festivals such as Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. Whether AM is your favorite record from them or not, they wouldn’t be where they are today without it.
01. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006)
“Calm, Collected and Commanding”: Arctic Monkeys’ debut album is angst ridden, quick witted, and at times petulant. Their youthfulness emblazons every song with a sense of urgency and purpose but not without a touch of cynicism. When you’re young, everything is important and means something. This album captures that. Each song commands attention because it is played as though it is the most important thing happening. It’s as if the band knew that once they got our attention, they’d have it for good.
“I Play It on Repeat”: It’s a thrashing chorus that is guaranteed to get aggressively lodged in your brain, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” is simple yet one of the highlights of the band’s debut album. What we would come to love about Arctic Monkeys is encapsulated in a short few phrases. Alex Turner manages to write lyrics that are both bluntly to the point yet eloquently cryptic. Even as the band continued with strong album after strong album, this chorus remains a hallmark of their success and style as a band.
“Through Curly Straws and Metaphors”: “Your name isn’t Rio, but I don’t care for sand” from “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
“Oh, There Ain’t No Love”: “Riot Van” is the quiet note of the album, offering a glimpse of the more melancholy side of the Arctic Monkeys that we would come to know and love. Filled with jazzier chords and a penchant for minor sevenths, Turner sings about a night out gone wrong, which results in attempting to dodge the cops before eventually being arrested. The arrangement is uncomplicated and paired down. It’s in songs like this that you can hear the age of the band. They were young, bored, and likely to get into trouble doing things “just for the laugh.”
“One for the Road” (Best Live Song): “Mardy Bum” is positively rhythmic and upbeat for a song about your partner being moody and no fun anymore. Never before have I heard a more danceable song about feeling like you can’t catch a break and wishing for simpler times with the person you care about. But for all its somber lyrics, it offers a light and syncopated break that, once heard, cannot be dislodged from the forefront of your mind that easily. While many of the songs on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not are more sonically combative, “Mardy Bum” is sanguine and lighthearted, which is a great mood to touch on at a show.
“I Gotta Tell You the Truth”: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not is Arctic Monkeys’ debut album and first introduction to the world. Unsurprisingly, it is their most unpolished album, but the components of what came to make them the arena-packing, festival-headlining act we know them as today are all there. At the time, these Sheffield teens were singing about nights out, club bouncers, and their schoolmates. This alone wouldn’t necessarily grab your attention. What set them apart was the way they sang about them. Turner’s lyrical prowess is proved from the very beginning, cementing his words as a highlight of the first album and all that would come.