In the Great American Band debate that we have ongoing on the website, I'd like to nominate my personal favorite band, the Black Keys.
Most people know who they are now, but that was not the case when I stumbled upon them in 2002. I was living with my brother at the time and watching an award show on MTV2. This was when MTV stopped showing music videos and only aired reality shows, but MTV2 still showed music videos and the award show I stumbled upon was giving awards to new and unheard of bands. I can't recall the name of the show, but I laid there on the couch watching late into the night and these two guys, one with a bushy beard and shaggy hair named Dan Auerbach and the other, a tall, lanky dorky looking guy named Patrick Carney, introduced me to the concept of a two piece rock band that actually rocked and rocked hard. I couldn't believe that just two guys could make that much sound and make it sound that good. It was like Led Zeppelin came back to perform as a two piece. They're that great.
The next day I immediately went out and purchased their first album, "The Big Come Up". I was in love. These two guys were so very, very awesome. Dan Auerbach is the lead singer and guitarist. He is, by far, the best user of distortion in the history of rock and roll music. The things he did and still does with reverb and distortion is like nothing I've ever heard before. He is a wizard. His voice, while gruff, but in the best possible way early on, has gotten better and better with each album they put out. Patrick Carney has his own make shift drum kit and he smacks the hell out of the skins. I've never seen anyone live that puts as much effort and excellence in their drumming. He's dripping sweat when they get off stage. He's the best drummer alive in my opinion. No one is even a close second.
Back to their debut album. "The Big Come Up" came out in 2002. It has a few originals on it, but about half is covers. Except, they do the covers in their style, and it's awesome. They do the Beatles, "She Said, She Said" like it's an old blues/rock and roll song. Dan Auerbach, once again using his distortion wizardary, crushes the song on guitar and, with the gruff voice, almost makes it a brand new song in the best possible way. Patrick Carney attacks the drums like a machine and I think if Ringo Starr heard his version on the drums, he would be embarrassed by how much better a drummer Carney is. It's a great cover of a great Beatles song. Their version of Junior Kimborough's "Leavin Trunk" is a great homage to one of their biggest influences. It's a great blues song, made better with Carney's excellent drumming. Some of the originals are fantastic. "Heavy Soul" and the "Breaks" are two great introductions for any Black Keys virgins out there. Those two songs will tell you everything you need to know about the band. They're hard rocking, heavily distorted bluesy songs with very, very excellent drumming. My personal favorite Black Keys song is on "The Big Come Up". The song is called "Yearnin" and it's a masterpiece. The distortion, of course, is there but Auerbach's vocals are top notch and I love absolutely everything about this song.
A year later they released their second album, "Thickfreakness". This is my favorite Black Keys record. The story goes, they locked themselves in a studio and recorded the whole album in 14 hours. Holy cow, that's impressive! The opening track, "Thickfreakness" is phenomenal. It starts with a very loud, heavy guitar riff and morphs into a four minute gem of a song. The rest of the album follows suit, with Auerbach excelling on guitar and vocals and Carney rocking out on the drums. There's even two slower songs on the record. They do another Junior Kimborough cover, "Everywhere I Go" and turn it into an even more bluesier tune than I think Mr. Kimborough himself ever thought it could be. It's epic. The last track on the album, "I Cry Alone", has a very slow, repetitive guitar riff and quiet, sleek drums. It's a step in a different direction and it works for them.
The very next year, they released "Rubber Factory". This was the album that I first saw them touring live with. This album was recorded in an old rubber factory in their hometown of Akron Ohio. They started to get a little notice from critics and gained some new fans. Hell, David Cross directed and starred in a music video for the song, "10am Automatic". That is also the first Black Keys song I learned on guitar. It has a simple guitar riff, but there's an epic solo at the end. The drums are immediately noticeable as well. I could pick the song out if I only heard one tom or high hat being hit at the start of the song. "Rubber Factory" features other great songs like, "Girl is on my Mind", "The Lengths" and "Keep Me". Each song is uniquely a Black Keys song and each song shows growth in the band. They also cover The Kinks "Act Nice and Gentle" to perfection. It's a fitting cover to another UK 60's rock band, but the Black Keys still put their spin on it with Auerbach's signature distorted guitar. They also give us their version of an old blues standard, "Stack Shot Billy" with some phenomenal slide guitar being played.
They finally took a year off after releasing three albums in three years and in 2006 they released, "Magic Potion". Some may say that this was a disappointing effort, but I'd kindly disagree. I know every word to every song on this album. There's some great songs on it like, "Your Touch", "Elevator" and the best song on the album, "Goodbye Babylon". "Your Touch" has a cool guitar riff, it's fast and choppy and Carney shines on the drums. "Elevator" reminds me of something that could have been on the album "Thickfreakness". It's a hard driving, Zeppelin esque rock and roll song. It's very good. "Goodbye Babylon" has some of Auerbach's best vocals and the guitar and drums are top notch. It's an excellent song.
The year 2008 marked a big change in the band and they brought in a new producer. Luckily for the fans, that producer happened to be Danger Mouse. He helped them with their fifth album, "Attack and Release". This album showed the band taking big chances, like adding bass and keyboards to their sound, and it really pays off. The opening track, "All You Ever Wanted" is a slow song, accompanied by Danger Mouse on the keyboard. The keyboard is the main instrument on this song. That had never happened on a Black Keys song before, and it took me by surprise how much I loved it. I didn't even think about the guitar until many, many listens later. "I Got Mine" and "Strange Times" are a return to form, with heavy drums and guitar. But then songs like "Oceans and Streams" and "So He Won't Break" and "Psychotic Girl" show the band using bass, keyboards again and even flutes and banjos. "Attack and Release" showed me that the Black Keys still rocked, but they were taking chances and hitting home runs. I was pleased with the growth and the taking of chances.
In 2010, the Black Keys released the album "Brothers" and this was when they became famous. They started winning Grammy's and playing "Saturday Night Live". A younger me would have thought that they were selling out, but "Brothers" is so damn good, I didn't care. They were still doing their style of music, but made it a bit more accessible to all listeners. Check out songs like, "Next Girl", "Tighten Up" or "Howlin For You" and you can see the pop and hip hop influence in their music, but there is still heavily distorted guitars and Carney wailing away on the drums. Other great songs on the album include a slower ode to a brother never met called "Unknown Brother" and "Sinister Kid" that has a heavy hip hop sound with some excellent vocals by Auerbach and a cool drum groove from Carney.
Continuing their assault of great music, a year later the Black Keys returned to their rock roots and released the excellent, straight up rock and roll album, "El Camino". "Lonely Boy", the opening track, has the coolest, most innovative guitar effect I've ever heard. It sounds like the guitar is going in circles. It's so incredibly cool. "Gold on the Ceiling" is a true throwback to rock and roll from the 70's with the Black Keys putting their twist on it. "Little Black Submarines" has a two minute opening that's just Auerbach and an acoustic guitar and then, it turns into a heavy rocker with some of the best solos I've ever heard. "Dead and Gone" is a great singing in the car song on long road trips. It's awesome. The closer, "Mind Eraser", is a classic rock and roll song with expert drumming from Carney. Clearly, working with Danger Mouse opened the band up to trying new things.
Last year, with Danger Mouse once again back in the studio with them, they released their most ambitious album to date. Their eighth album, "Turn Blue" has them taking on an almost Pink Floydian type of sound. The opening track, "Weight of Love" has a trippy, psychedelic three minute instrumental that morphs into a rock and roll song and ends up back at the psychedelic beginning. The title track, "Turn Blue" is a lot like "Weight of Love". The lone exception being, "Turn Blue" has the psychedelic sound of the 70's throughout the entire song. It's spacey and awesome. The Black Keys still have bluesy rockers like "Fever" and "It's Up to You Now", but this record is not like any of their other albums to date. "Waiting on Words", "Bullet in the Brain" and "In our Prime" are all psychedelic rockers with cool bridges and insane solos, both on drums and guitar. I love this new direction they're taking.
As with most great bands, the Black Keys have changed record companies three times. They started at Alive Records, moved up to Fat Possum and are now with the heavy hitters at Nonesuch Records. As you get better, you have to be on bigger labels, that's the music industry. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have worked with other bands and have side projects, but they are best when it's the two of them(also really good with Danger Mouse) doing their thing. I love the Black Keys and will go to bat with them any day. They have a new, yet throwback sound to their music and they just keep getting better and better. All the things I've said should tell you how great of, not just an American band, but just a band, that they are. These dudes rock and will continue to for many years to come.
The Black Keys rule.
Ty is the Pop Culture editor for SeedSing and the co-host of the X Millennial Man Podcast. What he does is called rockin out and you are to old to get it. Follow Ty on twitter @tykulik.