This weekend is a big one for our good friends Pat and Dan of The Black Keys. On Friday, May 13, their eleventh album, Dropout Boogie comes out. It’s their first album of all original material since Let’s Rock came out in 2019, although they also released an excellent collection of blues covers, Delta Kream in 2021. And on top of that, Saturday, May 14 is the twentieth anniversary of the band’s debut album, The Big Come Up.
As far as I know, there’s not much doing for them on Sunday.
Now, given that with Dropout Boogie coming out, the third album the band has produced in a shade under four years, it’s worth noting that for a minute there, the future looked a bit uncertain for the band. After Turn Blue came out in 2014, the band did some touring but they seemed to go their separate ways for a while. Dan Auerbach released a solo album and produced albums for Ray LaMontagne, Cage the Elephant, Lana Del Rey, and The Pretenders. He even contributed some guitar parts on an A$AP Rocky’s At. Long. Last. Asap. while drummer Patrick Carney also spent some time producing, working on albums by Michelle Branch and Karen Jill Ellison.
With each passing year, the fate of The Black Keys grew increasingly murky. With all that Auerbach was getting into during that time especially, it just didn’t seem likely that the band would ever come back, which was a bummer. Sure, Turn Blue wasn’t their best effort. However, it was still better than what a lot of other big-time rock bands were doing, and with rock music seemingly fading from the public consciousness, headlining rock bands were becoming a valuable commodity. Having one of the biggest ones out there lying dormant was just a damn shame.
But then they came back with the blistering Let’s Rock and if not for that pesky pandemic, The Black Keys would be firmly entrenched back in our lives as opposed to hovering on the fringes, ready to take their thrown back. It’ll be interesting to see how things shake down once Dropout Boogie is released and the band hits the road this summer. Will they ascend back to the top of the mountain or not? With the Foo Fighters unfortunately now with an uncertain future of their own, that title of America’s Biggest Rock Band is open for the taking. It could be Pat and Dan’s again if things break the right way for them.
In the meantime though, let’s celebrate 20 years of The Black Keys with a ranking of their 20 best songs. For a ranking of their albums, go here. And for optional musical accompaniment, go here.
Okay then. Let’s get into it.
20. “Gotta Get Away” (2014)
Yes, “Gotta Get Away” is kind of a cheesy rock song. I will not dispute that. However, it is also a damn good cheesy rock song. Think of it as a homage to some of those killer classic rock songs you hear on the radio when you’re driving around and upon hearing them, you turn the dial up a few clicks, roll down the window a few rolls, and live life a little easier for a few moments.
19. “Ten Cent Pistol” (2010)
Brothers is The Black Keys’ swampy, blues rock triumph; an album full of dank, moist tunes that demand the lights be turned down low. For as bright as a song like “Gotta Get Away” is, there’s a dark tune like “Ten Cent Pistol.”
18. (tie) “Heavy Soul” (2002,) “Run Right Back” (2011)
There are ties. I wanted this to be the 20 best songs because of the 20th anniversary of The Big Come Up but in my humble opinion, this list was more than 20 songs long. So there are ties. This isn’t the first time, won’t be the last time, such is life. With that out of the way, “Heavy Soul” is a ramshackle, pots and pans Keys’ number from that first album. It still hits like a wonderful cheap beer on a hot summer day. And as for “Run Right Back,” it’s a good old fashion barn burner and yeah, those are always a good time.
17. “On the Vista” (2009)
Sometime after the release of Attack & Release in 2008, Damon Dash, the former head of Roc-A-Fella, announced that The Black Keys were his favorite band and after meeting them, talked them into going into the studio with rapper Jim Jones. At some point, Mos Def dropped by and ended up appearing on two of the songs that would eventually appear on Blackroc. Both are strong but “On the Vista” gets the nod here. The mere existence of Blackroc though shows what an interesting position The Black Keys were in at the time and how their appeal was far from limited to just basement blues garage rock enthusiasts.
16. “The Only One” (2010)
The Black Keys were the first act to record in the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in nearly 30 years when they set up shop in Alabama in mid-August 2009 to record Brothers. The band recorded the bulk of the album at Muscle Shoals before heading out to California to finish things up. “The Only One” sits right smack in the middle of Brothers and dutifully serves as a solid halfway point for the album. There’s nothing overly complicated about the tune and the general simplicity of it is part of what makes it just a smooth and easy song to get into.
15. (tie) “I Got Mine” (2008,) “Remember When (Side B)” (2008)
Another tie, with this one, features two tracks from the band’s excellent 2008 album Attack & Release. “I Got Mine” is not the album’s opening track even though it definitely feels like it is and “Remember When (Side B)” is the shit-kicking rock side of the two “Remember When” tracks on the album. Attack & Release is noteworthy because it’s the first Black Keys album that wasn’t a homemade endeavor but what’s fun is that songs like these two numbers still bring that can-do, spot & polish vibe with them.
14. “Next Girl” (2010)
Being the drummer in a two-person band can be a tough gig because you kind of need to do more than just keep time or throw a beat down. You need to fill some space, which is what Carney does so well on “Next Girl.” Carney’s playing on “Next Girl” is perfect in how it matches Auerbach’s rhythms and melodies all while at the same time, still providing his signature stomp. In this house, we strongly support and endorse the playing of Pat Carney.
13. “Turn Blue” (2014)
The band’s 2014 album isn’t bad, it’s just different. I remember thinking it felt and sounded like wide open, desert rock, which is never a level I thought the Black Keys could or wanted to get to. They always seemed like a more grounded band to me. Literally. Their sound prior to Turn Blue was the sound of basements and abandoned warehouses and swamps. Deserts and sunlight for that matter just didn’t seem like their bag. Yet while Turn Blue is one of those Keys albums I don’t go back to that often, the title track is a song that has stuck with me. The groove is like nachos – endlessly appealing.
12. “Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down” (2004)
On their first couple of albums, the band’s influences rode with them. That’s fine. It happens. With a song like “Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down” off of their third album, Rubber Factory, the band hints at an ability to take their influences and really run with them. This is one of those quintessential early Black Keys tunes and they’ll always sound good, especially if played loudly.
11. “Busted” (2002)
This tune is an R.L. Burnside cover but we’re slotting it here because it’s a great cover of a great song and as the opening track on their debut album, it’s something of a mission statement for the band. Also, Auerbach’s guitar playing is some gnarly ass shit and I fucking love it. Excuse my language.
10. “Lo/Hi” (2019)
The Black Keys returned in 2019 and we’re pretty clear about what their intentions were given the title of their “comeback” album was Let’s Rock. The album felt like the album that should have followed El Camino instead of Turn Blue but hey, that’s neither here nor there. What’s important is that even after some time away where both members dabbled in projects not really all that Keys-sounding or feeling, they could come back with a track like “Lo/Hi” that has all the bones and curb appeal of a Keys’ staple.
9. “Howlin’ For You” (2004)
This song sounds like the old Gary Glitter tune but cooler. And you know, it’s amazing how dumb that song is. I just watched a YouTube clip of Glitter performing it and it’s just him dancing like one of those blow-up things that car dealerships have and singing “rock and roll” when the chorus comes. The seventies were weird. Gary Glitter was a creep. “Howlin’ For You” is sweet. The end.
8. “10 A.M. Automatic” (2004)
I remember a buddy of mine saying that this song always sounded like it should be an opening song for a movie or TV show, one where it’s playing over someone driving through a city. This particular friend has been known to say some pretty spot-on things over the years but his thoughts on the on-screen potential of “10 A.M. Automatic” might be his best work ever.
7. “Little Black Submarines” (2011)
On “Little Black Submarines,” The Black Keys flex their arena rock muscles on a tune that has the vibe of some of those big-time, 1970s monsters of rock classics from bands like Led Zeppelin and The Who, specifically with the soft acoustic opening that explodes into electric madness. You write a song like this when you’re done messing around and have decided to push all your chips into the middle of the table, hell-bent on becoming the biggest rock band in the world.
6. “I’ll Be Your Man” (2002)
As far as I know, “10 A.M. Automatic,” despite Chris’ insistence, has never been used as the opening of a show or movie. However, “I’ll Be Your Man” was as it was used as the intro song to Hung, a short-lived HBO show about…uh, something. It doesn’t matter, but you get it though, because “I’ll Be Your Man” also makes perfect sense as a show’s theme song. It’s just a shame it wasn’t for a better show. No, that’s cool. That means it can be used again, hopefully for a better show, because no one remembers Hung and you might not have even known about the existence of the show before reading about it just now. If that’s the case, you’re welcome, friend.
5. “Gold On The Ceiling” (2011)
This is a great song. Case closed. However, would you play this at your wedding? You know, like later, when everyone has had a few drinks and is dancing? When I got married almost ten years ago, I wanted to add it to our list. My wife said no. I tried making a case for the song. She still said no. I dropped it, we got married, and haven’t looked back since. However, in my quiet moments, I still think this song would have worked.
4. “Everlasting Light” (2010)
It’s the beat of this song that does it for me. I love how it hammers away, thumping and bumping in a body-swaying inducing drone-like vibe, but a good drone-like vibe. It’s just damn near impossible to listen to this song and somehow not at the very least bob your head to Pat’s drums. Oh and here at the home office, we love when Auerbach goes for his pseudo-falsetto. The Keys really haven’t been a two-piece in years as they are frequently backed by touring musicians live and get assistance from ringers in the studio and that’s cool. It happens. So with that in mind, I’d love for them to really soul the shit out of this song someday. You know, add some horns, an organ and/or Fender Rhodes, and some backup singers. I think that’d be delightful.
3. “Strange Times” (2008)
Attack & Release is one of those albums where when the first time I listened to it, things clicked and I wondered if maybe the artist had read my dream journal because the sound of it sounded as if it had pulled from my scribbles and bits. Don’t get me wrong, I love the early Keys albums but Attack & Release and a song like “Strange Times” was when our relationship really kicked it up a notch. “Strange Times” is the sound of cruising wildly down the highway or imagining yourself getting into a bar fight. It’s rough and rowdy in all the best ways. I fucking love this song and this time, I’m not apologizing for the profanity.
2. “Tighten Up” (2010)
“Tighten Up” is a song that in hindsight, hints at the weird decade the band was about to embark on. Stylistically, it has good Black Keys bones to it but it also has an ambition deeply rooted in it that drops clues that they’re looking to do more than write electric bursts of blues-drenched rock songs. It just feels like there’s a lot going on in this song and I mean that in a good way. The song covers some serious ground in three and a half minutes, veering left and veering right constantly with the end result being a song that is a high watermark for our boys Dan and Pat.
1. “Lonely Boy” (2011)
It’s fitting that “Lonely Boy” anchors the halfway point of The Black Keys’ career because it’s essentially a bridge between everything that led up to it and everything that would follow. “Lonely Boy” has the drive and rawness of their early material combined with the muscle and expansiveness of their work from decade number two. On top of that, it’s probably one of the better rock songs to be released so far this century, let alone the last decade. Years from now, it’ll be the song people most remember when it comes to not just The Black Keys but that period in rock music.
And I would be remiss to not mention the video for the song.
Equally iconic and equally memorable.
“Lonely Boy” will outlive us all friends. There’s nothing we can do to stop it.
And if you’re wondering, it was played at our wedding and it was perfect.
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