The Black Keys recorded their first four albums in drummer Patrick Carney’s basement with around $3500 worth of scuzzy equipment. It might not have been the ideal setting, but it lent itself to some of the most powerfully visceral blues-rock this side of the 21st century. Ten albums into their career, and the band have upgraded their equipment, moved into an actual studio, and enlisted help from outside producers. Despite the changes, their music is still the same glorious kick to the guts it’s always been. Here, we take a look back at their highs and lows as we rank all ten of the Black Keys albums from worst to best.
10. Attack and Release
Attack and Release, the Black Keys’ fifth studio album, was an album of firsts. It was their first album to be recorded in a professional studio rather than Patrick Carney’s basement, their first album to utilize a professional producer (in this case, Danger Mouse), and coincidentally or not, their first album to go gold in the US. For all that, it’s not their finest moment. While accomplished and a fine showcase for the band’s growing maturity, the songs lack the urgency of their earlier work. They’re good, but they don’t grab the listener in the same way. A very well orchestrated album, maybe, but of all their efforts, the least gripping.
9. Let’s Rock
Let’s Rock, the band’s ninth studio album, was released in June 2019 after a five-year gap between records. Boosted by the success of the preceding singles Eagle Birds, Go, and Li/ Hi (the latter of which became the first song to ever top Billboard’s Mainstream Rock, Adult Alternative Songs, Rock Airplay, and Alternative Songs charts simultaneously), it was a commercial hit, charting at number 4 on the Billboard 200, number 3 in the UK, and in the top 20 across numerous other countries. But while it’s a very accomplished piece, it’s not quite in the same league as the band’s early albums, leaving those hoping for a return to the rough and ready blues-rock of Thickfreakness disappointed.
8. Delta Kream
The Black Keys’ tenth and latest album dropped on May 14, 2021. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, the album was recorded in around 10 hours over two afternoons at the end of the Let’s Rock tour. There was no planning, no advance rehearsals, and yet somehow, it’s still a very decent offering, with a swagger and confidence redolent of the band’s finest work.
7. El Camino
Released on December 6, 2011, the band’s seventh studio album was a commercial and critical triumph, debuting at number 2 on the US Billboard 200, reaching the top 5 in Australia, Canada, Belgium, and New Zealand, and snagging the Grammy for Best Rock Album. With Danger Mouse on hand to sharpen up the melodies and add some cohesion to the band’s raucous blues assault, El Camino is a triumph, dripping with laconic confidence and easy appeal. If you feel your hips begin to twitch, you won’t be alone.
6. Magic Potion
Despite having enjoyed a moderate amount of success with their first three releases, the Black Keys continued to record in Patrick Carney’s basement with the bare minimum of equipment. It lent to the atmospherics, but the lack of studio equipment, and in particular, the lack of a producer, occasionally caused problems. This time around, it led to the album being issued with the bass part missing. The band have expressed disappointment in the finished article, but it’s actually not that big a deal, with the thunderous drums and muscular guitar more than compensating for the missing bass. A raw, urgent record with a deeply satisfying appeal, its vulgar wildness and heartfelt sincerity are impossible to resist.
5. The Big Come Up
If you’re hankering after some visceral, high-impact scuzz-blues that comes on like a wrecking ball, you might want to take The Big Come Up for a whirl. Released in May 2002, the Black Keys’ debut is bristling with beefy guitar lines, room-filling vocals, and harsh riffs. As All Music notes, the problem with most minimal two-man blues-rock outfits is that they’re usually too minimal, with a thin garage sound and a shortage of variety. Suffice to say, the Black Keys don’t have that problem. Loud, raw, and just a little bit raunchy, it was a breath of fresh air in 2002 and still is today.
4. Turn Blue
Keen to capitalize on the commercial success of El Camino, the Black Keys re-enlisted Danger Mouse as both a producer and equal songwriting partner for their eighth studio album, Turn Blue. It proved to be a wise move. Described by Uncut as their “sneakiest, subtlest and most seductive” album yet, the more mature, nuanced nature of the band’s sound didn’t escape notice, and neither did their praiseworthy ability to draw on multiple musical influences without losing themselves in the process. From a commercial perspective, it was massive, becoming their first album to top the charts in the US, Canada, and Australia simultaneously. Key songs to listen out for include the incendiary garage rocker, Gotta Get Away, the foot-stomping Fever, and the lithe title track.
With five critically acclaimed albums already under their belt, the Black Keys finally won their commercial breakthrough with their sixth studio album, Brothers. Released in May 2010, it sold an impressive 73,000 copies in the US in its first week, peaking at number 3 on the Billboard 200 – their highest entry to that point. Its lead single, the Danger Mouse produced Tighten Up, was equally successful, hovering at number one on the Alternative Songs Chart for 10 weeks and becoming their first entry on the Hot 100. Within two years of its release, it had certified platinum in the US, double platinum in Canada, and snagged three Grammys.
2. Rubber Factory
A year after releasing their excellent second album, the Black Keys were back with their third outing, Rubber Factory. Described by Entertainment Weekly as a “lo-fi version of classic-rock boogie—done by utterly earnest indie-rock nerds, and done the right way,” its high impact, heartfelt blend of blues and rock was a critical triumph. Commercial, it was equally successful, becoming the first of the band’s albums to dent the Billboard 200, reaching number 143 in the fall of 2004.
Sophomore recordings are notoriously problematic, but if the Black Keys felt any symptoms of the ‘Difficult Second Album’ syndrome, there’s no sign of it on the triumphant Thickfreakness. Like their debut, it focuses on raw, blues-influenced garage rock, but everything is bigger and better than before. At heart, the Black Keys are a straight-up blues band that could as easily have cut a record in the ’50 as they could today. Dan Auerbach’s beefy guitar and rousing vocals keep things just the right side of the millennium, but essentially, it’s their timelessness that’s a big part of their appeal, and here, they indulge it to the full. Soulful, muscular, and almost primal in its ferocity, it’s a rare treat.