The Black Keys have delivered many incendiary tracks in a career spanning more than two decades.
Singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney emerged from Akron, Ohio shortly after the turn of the millennium, proudly wearing their influences on their sleeves.
By blending of classic rock, garage rock and blues, the Black Keys created a distinctive style all their own. The duo initially toiled in lo-fi DIY world, recording in basements, abandoned factories and anywhere else they could find. After paying their dues, however, the Black Keys reached mainstream success. Grammy Awards, platinum albums and sold-out tours would follow, yet their raw, blue-collar ethos remained.
Below, we’ve selected the best song from each of their albums.
‘The Big Come Up’ (2002): “The Breaks”
Debut albums tend to be raw, especially self-produced, home studio-recorded releases like The Big Come Up. Of course, a lo-fi, DIY style was perfect for the Black Keys’ brand of blues rock. The material on The Big Come Up was sparse, and lacked the lush instrumental layers of the group’s later work. From day one, however, the elements for success were there: namely Auerbach’s soulful, wailing voice, blistering guitar riffs, and Carney’s forceful backbeat. “The Breaks” offered a glimpse at things to come, with a catchy blues guitar line alternating between cool swagger and emphatic noise.
‘Thickfreakness’ (2003): “Hard Row”
A simple but effective guitar progression powered “Hard Row,” the standout track from the Black Keys’ sophomore LP. You could hear the duo getting more comfortable in their musical skin on Thickfreakness: The vocals were crisper, the guitar bolder, the drums louder, yet all without losing that unfiltered energy of their debut effort. “Hard Row” exemplified that evolution, somehow conjuring vibes of Nirvana and ZZ Top at the same time.
‘Rubber Factory’ (2004): “Girl Is on My Mind”
This tune begins with a wailing blues guitar line, before drums and vocals kick in. Like many of the Black Keys’ greatest tracks, “Girl Is on My Mind” feels like it could have been released 40 years prior to its recording. There the essence of Jimi Hendrix within its riffs, while the song’s tone – along with Auerbach’s vocals – harken to early works of the Doors.
‘Magic Potion’ (2006): “Strange Desire”
“Strange Desire” starts with an otherworldly guitar howl before rocking into the rhythmic chug of its opening verse. Auerbach’s vocals on the track are strong, but his guitar work actually steals the show. The riffs echo, twist and turn throughout. At times, they carefully plod through humble progressions; at others, they explode with frenetic energy.
‘Attack & Release’ (2008): “I Got Mine”
This was a transitional album for the Black Keys, a turning point where they began to graduate from lovable indie band to potent rock force. So it’s appropriate that a song about growing up stands as the strongest track on Attack & Release. “I was a movin’ man in my younger days / But I’ve grown out of my ramblin’ ways,” Auerbach sings on the song’s opening lines, his vocals showing the sturdiness of a rock veteran. With its earworm chorus and emphatic guitar, “I Got Mine” foreshadowed the massive mainstream success that was right around the corner.
‘Blakroc’ (2009): “Hard Times”
Quibble if you want to about whether Blakroc belongs in the Black Keys official discography. The album was a collaboration between the band and Roc-a-Fella co-founder Damon Dash. Special guests included a wide range of hip-hop heavyweights like Mos Def, Q-Tip, Ludacris and members of Wu-Tang Clan. The result was a bold blending of genres, and on some tracks the experiment worked far better than others. The crown jewel was “Hard Times,” featuring NOE. The Baltimore rapper handled the verses over an engrossing instrumental groove, while Auerbach sang the chorus.
‘Brothers’ (2010): “Next Girl”
The Black Keys’ hugely successful 2010 album Brothers overflowed with fantastic material. “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ for You” were the mainstream hits, but deeper cuts – like the romantic “Everlasting Light” and the psychedelic instrumental “Black Mud” – showed depth beyond its radio-friendly tracks. Still, “Next Girl” is our favorite, a soulful, swaggering declaration about learning from previous relationship failures.
‘El Camino’ (2011): “Little Black Submarines”
Has any song begun as a soft, acoustic folk song then exploded into a blues-rock hurricane? Well, yes. Most notably, “Stairway to Heaven.” So when the Black Keys delivered “Little Black Submarines,” the Led Zeppelin comparisons naturally followed. Still, this single is more than strong enough to stand outside of any classic tune’s shadow. Its first half is delicate and vulnerable, serves as a musical Trojan horse. Listeners get lulled into believing “Little Black Submarines” is one of the band’s mellow tracks, only to have the song burst into rock glory shortly after the two-minute mark. This yin and yang dynamic makes “Little Black Submarines” one of the most enjoyable songs in the Black Keys’ arsenal.
‘Turn Blue’ (2014): “Fever”
Coming off the strength of two multi-platinum albums, the Black Keysand frequent producer Danger Mouse looked to broaden their musical spectrum. Naturally, the blues still stayed at their core, but the group stretched into soul and psychedelic on Turn Blue, evident on the lead single “Fever.” A groovy synth hook and funky bass line wrap around the Black Keys’ traditional guitar and drums sound, adding further depth. Its final 30 seconds, in which all the musical parts carry the song to a close, presents one of the Black Keys’ trippier moments.
‘Let’s Rock’ (2019): “Shine a Little Light”
The Black Keys were determined to get back to meat-and-potatoes guitar rock on their ninth studio LP, so perhaps it was by design that “Shine a Little Light” was chosen as the opener. A 40-second intro of soaring guitar starts the track, before Auerbach begins with his customary soulful croon. Backing singers add some gorgeous interplay to his vocals, before the intensity is ratcheted up once again during the song’s emphatic chorus.
‘Delta Kream’ (2021): “Crawling Kingsnake”
The Black Keys celebrated hill-country blues with this all-covers release. The gem of Delta Kream is “Crawling Kingsnake,” a tune first recorded in the 1940s whose origins go back to the ‘20s. That a modern band could deliver a faithful new version of a roughly-100 year old tune is impressive, yet unsurprising considering the Black Keys’ resume.
‘Dropout Boogie’ (2022): “It Ain’t Over”
After 11 albums and decades together, the Black Keys proved time hadn’t eroded their funky swagger with Dropout Boogie. “It Ain’t Over” bounces along to a sultry beat, opening up to a broader sound on the chorus. “No one else for you to blame / But when you play that losing game / It ain’t over,” Auerbach belts out on the chorus, his vocals buoyed by luscious backing-singer harmonies. Soulful and emotive, but still rocking at the same time, the tune again encapsulates the balance that makes the Black Keys such an enjoyable act.
Black Keys Albums Ranked
From lo-fi 8-track recordings to multiplatinum hits, a roundup of every studio LP by the blues-rock duo.
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