It was tough to pass over David Bowie‘s Station To Station today as it is in the running for my all-time favorite Bowie record. However, I’ve already written about him twice this month. On top of that, Arctic Monkeys‘ debut album, released January 23, 2006 is a brilliant choice in its own right. Eleven years ago today, the world was treated to Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not.
This is a bombastic debut set from a group of teens out of Sheffield, England. I didn’t discover them until their second record, but I was hooked straightaway when I heard them. Like nothing else and yet somehow instantly familiar. The record starts off full blast with pounding drums, driving bass, and a wall of guitar. This is music made for cranking the volume up. Twenty seconds in, we get our first taste of Alex Turner‘s voice and everything he says has a sneer in it. The record has elements of the punk attitude, without being a punk album. It’s straight-ahead rock, but too frantic to ever wind up on a classic rock station. It owes some of its sound to the garage tradition, but it also achieves a degree of polish without losing its edge.
In short, it’s a different sound. The closest thing I’ve heard (just to give non-initiates a reference point) would be the debut albums from contemporaries The Wombats and Franz Ferdinand, probably somewhere right in the middle, where The Wombats are a bit more raw, Franz Ferdinand a shade more pop. However it gets described, this album was huge, becoming the fastest selling debut album in British history.
The opening barrage of “The View From The Afternoon” doesn’t let up throughout most of the first half of the record before toning it down for the relatively quieter “Riot Van,” which seems to be about harassing the local constabulary for a lark out of sheer boredom. The tempo and urgency ramp right back up after that and remain cranked up to 11 for the rest of the record with a couple of exceptions (the opening to “When The Sun Goes Down,” by way of example).
The entire record is a 41 minute blast of teenage cynicism which would ring false if Alex Turner’s lyrics weren’t so goddamned clever. When the album was released, one review hailed him as a “master of observation” and he does have a way with the language that paints pictures and sets scenes, where he’s not just singing to maintain the melody, but more to further the message. My favorite line on the album, incidentally, is one of the most cynical: “Over there, there’s broken bones / There’s only music so that there’s new ringtones…” from album closer “A Certain Romance.” This is coming from a nineteen year old breaking into the music business. (For any youngsters reading, there was a brief period of time when the cell phone companies would chop up and repackage the latest hits to use as personalized ringtones on their phones. I don’t think anyone does this anymore. I could be wrong about that.)
A five star record front to back, it’s challenging to select standout tracks when they all stand out in one way or another. If I had to, I’d mention “A Certain Romance,” “Riot Van,” and the lead single, “I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor.” The songs on this album are similar enough that the thing-that-gets-you-hooked keeps you engaged throughout the entire record, but different enough so that you don’t feel like you’re listening to the same song over and over. The music is upbeat and uptempo while many of the lyrics are laced with a cynical fatalism that never slides into the dour or downtrodden.
This album won a ton of awards and sold a ton of copies, but I’d still call it an underrated record in that I rarely hear anyone mention it a decade later. It is a ball of high-energy power pop from start to finish, a lot of fun to turn up loud while driving, head rocking, the heel of your hand banging on the steering wheel in time with the ferocious drums (or maybe I’m the only one who listens to it that way). There may be Arctic Monkeys records that I prefer to this one, but I don’t think any of them capture the raw pulse and drive of their debut.