ARCTIC MONKEYS AND THE STROKES, WHO'S BETTER?


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Yes, straight off the bat I will admit this question, the very basis of this is reductive, highly subjective and almost impossible to conclude. Yet, allow me to entertain the thought.


Everyone knows that the Monkeys, and Alex Turner especially, idolise The Strokes. Whether it’s adding the occasional cover to their live sets or explicitly stating that they “just wanted to be one of the Strokes” as Turner does on the opening track to their latest album, it’s fair to say they wear their influences on their sleeves. Arctic Monkeys have remained a critical darling ever since their record-breaking debut in 2006, claiming the title of the fastest-selling debut album of all time in British history, whilst the Strokes, their self-proclaimed idols and inspiration for even forming a rock band, seem to have wavered, even losing their identity at points. This begs the question: which band is best?



THE DEBUTS:


"The Monkeys' style and sound was, from the very beginning, very much their own. "

Both bands found near-instant success, ‘Is This It’ and ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ were both commercially successful domestically and received, very deserved, high praise. Both albums are explosive, a violent and fast-paced look into youth culture and early adulthood. Whilst Turner discusses “dirty dance floors” and the “fucking wank” bands of the Sheffield night scene, in a genre the frontman later described as “chip-shop rock’n’roll", Julain Casablancas explores fruitless relationships in ‘Last Nite’ and meaningless sex in the title track there’s a weird universality and continuity between the two albums. Yet they entirely distinct from one another, most likely due to differences between being raised in New York and Sheffield.

The Monkeys very much wear their influences on their sleeves, the loud, fast-paced guitar riffs over Turner’s musings about his love life are certainly Strokes-esque, it would be entirely unfair to say they are anything more than influences: the Monkeys' style and sound was, from the very beginning, very much their own. In truth, both these albums are seminal for a reason. They speak to the life and experiences of two bands from entirely separate cultures and identities, if someone was to read just the lyrics of both albums it would be easy to highlight which originated from the United States and which from the UK, region-based slang aside.

THE FOLLOW UPS:


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"Whilst the Strokes’ second attempt was perhaps somewhat more restrained and defined, their take was darker, heavier and a near-perfect next step"

For both bands, the pressure was immense. After virtually instant success, especially for Arctic Monkeys who had become one of the first bands in history to garner most of their following online, after their first demo tape, later dubbed by fans as ‘Beneath the Boardwalk’, had gone viral. All of this ahead of their debut album which became the fastest-selling debut album in British history, so, it was fair to say, the pressure was immense. Especially for a band comprised of men who had barely just turned twenty. This is not to downplay the expectations laden at the feet of the Strokes in 2003, after a two year wait, fans were gagging for more music from the group that were attributed, by some, as face of [their] generation”.

Incredibly, both bands, despite the overwhelming hype, delivered.


‘Room on Fire’ was described by NME as "refining and tinkering" the Strokes’ sound, it was slightly less explosive than their debut, but still packed full of iconic songs such as ‘Reptilia’, ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’ and ‘Under Control’. Whilst the album is unlikely to be viewed as an improvement on or ‘better’ album than the first, I’d argue it would have been impossible for it to be. Part of the sheer joy and excitement of listening to ‘Is This It’ came, for many, from the excitement of discovering a brand new, up and coming band (coupled with their near worldwide hype before the album had even been released). They were so exceptional out of the box that almost part of their allure had been ‘lost’, I say lost tentatively, and perhaps prematurely, because the talent, and quality of music was still very apparent.

As for the lads from Sheffield, whilst the Strokes’ second attempt was perhaps somewhat more restrained and defined, 'Favourite Worst Nightmare' was darker, heavier and a near-perfect next step. The album opens on the bands most violent and heavy song to date: 'Brianstorm'. The pace remained at hyper speed, only the drums were fuller, Matthew. J. Helders the Third really shows his incredible talent off during this album, and the bass more prominent, perhaps due to the arrival of Nicholas O’Malley, after former bassist Andy Nicholson quit due to fatigue. The album felt, like the Strokes, slightly pop-ier, the choruses were tighter and catchier yet there was a clear evolution in the Monkey’s sound, and Turner’s craft as a writer. Whilst some lyrics are somewhat egregious, see ‘D is for Dangerous’ and ‘The Bad Thing’, tracks like ‘Do Me a Favour’ and ‘505’ are almost poetic. And Turner’s vocals had certainly developed too, this second album featured far less rapid-paced near rhythmic chanting and more vocals which were more like ‘traditional’ singing.

THE PATHS DIVERGE:

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"The album doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t make you feel anything, aside from mild disappointment."

'First Impressions of Earth' is not good. It might even be bad. But, it’s difficult to articulate why, because the signature Strokes’ style is very apparent, but it just doesn’t feel the same. It’s flat, unmemorable and a real blemish on their discography. It does have highlights, ‘You Only Live Once’ is a great album opener, its catchy, high energy and interesting to listen to, everything we’d come to expect from the Strokes.


The rest of the album, however, is relatively dull and sounds uninspired. Songs like ‘Vision of Division’ are almost a pain to listen to, the band attempt to play with song structure and try a new style but it just doesn’t work. It is somewhat ironic as Casablancas drones on about “How long must I wait?”, I couldn’t help but think the same thing. Casablancas even remarks on “Ask Me Anything” “I’ve got nothing to say”, and it's hard to view that as untrue. The album doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t make you feel anything, aside from mild disappointment. It’s no surprise that after this album the band took a five-year break, and you can’t help but wonder if they should’ve taken it sooner.

"Darker and deeper than previous iterations: the Monkeys were really beginning to flex the diversity of sound they could conjure."

Humbug, on the other hand, was another positive step forward for Arctic Monkeys. Queens of the Stone Age frontman, Josh Homme, took them to the desert and produced a slower, more brooding record that further expanded upon the band’s sound. This was their furthest deviation yet from their smash hit debut, and set out the blueprint for their future success: each album would be distinct from its what had become before. Each ‘era’ was a new sound, yet one that could clearly be traced from its predecessor. Humbug expanded upon the new elements Turner introduced in FWN, he became more of a wordsmith, there was greater attention to lyricism rather than straight-forward and honest thoughts of a 19-year-old kid from Sheffield. Turner’s vocals had really developed too, no more apparent than on the fan-favourite track ‘Cornerstone’. Their music could no longer be defined as “chip-shop rock’n’roll”, it was unbridled desert stoner rock. Darker and deeper than previous iterations: the Monkeys were really beginning to flex the diversity of sound they could conjure. That is not to say, however, that the album is without flaws ‘Dangerous Animals’ remains one of the band’s weakest album tracks to date, Turner’s mind-numbing decision to spell out the title of the track letter by letter in a weak excuse of a chorus still baffles. Perhaps the record, then, can be labelled as a little naïve, a new sound and a greater focus on lyrical content was a definite big step, but in some regards the band definitely failed, leaving the album somewhat in the desert, ironically. On the whole, the album was very strong, packed full of memorable, and well-loved to this day, tracks yet, despite the strength of tracklist, it still failed to top their debut, which is perhaps not as strong a critique as that initially sounds.

The problem for both bands is that their debuts were so strong, as subsequent releases that were not quite on the same level had the pressure of the first album looming over them. This is why this sonic diversion the Monkeys undertook perhaps lead to a greater record than the Strokes’ third attempt, Humbug sounded so different to WPSIATWIN, that it was almost impossible to compare. First Impressions of Earth, however, was still in the same sphere as ‘Is This It’, which allowed for more apples to apples comparisons. Comparisons which, unfortunately, were unlikely to look fortunately upon the band’s latest effort.

MIDDLING MEDIOCRITY:

(perhaps a little harsh that)


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"This album, to me, symbolises an awkward step between Turner’s persona as a cute, long-haired boy... to the slicked haired, sex symbol, rock god he became during the 'AM'."

'Suck It and See' is the low point in the Arctic Monkey’s discography, for me at least. This album, whilst being a near-perfect blend of 'Humbug' and 'AM', and expanding Arctic Monkey’s style to be much groovier, more like US rock, the album ultimately leaves you with very little. This is not to say it is necessarily a bad album, I’m just not sure it’s all that good. It’s the one album in their repertoire I find myself returning to the least, it’s an enjoyable listen but not much else. Several of the tracks, I felt at least, suited a more stripped-back approach; I personally much preferred the 'Submarine' version of ‘Piledriver Waltz’ to the one we hear on this album. I can’t help but feel this same approach to most of the second half of the album would have been beneficial. This album, to me, symbolises an awkward step between Turner’s persona as a cute, long-haired boy who you’d imagine had written many of the songs sat in his bedroom to the slicked haired, sex symbol, rock god he became during the 'AM'. It’s an album that’s essential in the progression of the band, I feel a jump from 'Humbug' to 'AM' would’ve been too harsh, and not one I’m entirely sure would have gone well, but it’s just that: an in-between house. Not quite the fully Monty but still too far away from the familiar.

'Angles' suffers from similar levels of mediocrity, yet for entirely different reasons. It had been over 5 years since their previous album, and 8 years since they’d produced anything good and there was real hesitancy, from almost everyone in the band, to record again. The groups’ side projects had become more of a focus and many of them had suggested to the press their doubts over ever working together again, “I'm not even sure we're going to make a fourth album at this point”, were the words of guitarist Nick Valensi. Perhaps, then, this hesitancy, and almost unwillingness, to record again is reflected within the album. There are definitely ideas within the album, lots of them, most go nowhere, but some we can trace back as the origins for 'The New Abnormal'. The first track, 'Machu Picchu', has a special place in my heart, mainly because it was on a FIFA soundtrack but, sentimental connections aside, its, without doubt, the best and most memorable track from the album, except maybe ‘Life Is Simple In The Moonlight’. It feels like they threw a lot of ideas at the wall, hoping something would stick, and nothing quite did. It’s a relatively inoffensive album but that’s hardly how you’d want your music to be described. Some tracks are enjoyable and certainly slot into a groovy playlist but the album in its entirety doesn’t offer all that much, it doesn’t garner the same joy as their first two attempts. Disappointing may be too strong a word as it’s definitely a step up, and new interesting approach to their sound, compared to 'First Impressions of Earth', but it’s ultimately not all that.

THE DIVIDE ONLY GROWS:

"So whilst this album is certainly not remarkable, it’s definitely memorable"

Wow, in terms of the narrative of this article, it’s hard to find similarities between 'Comedown Machine', an eclectic and real ‘let’s see what works’ album, and the commercial behemoth that is 'AM'. So I’m not really going to try to draw too many parallels as they’ll be tenuous and overly convoluted.

'Comedown Machine' is an album of experimentation: 11 tracks, 11 genres, 11 versions of the Strokes. It’s a welcome and comforting addition to the Strokes’ discography. It feels like an admittance of failure, but a hopeful one. The recognition that they hadn’t, to this point, made a ‘good’ album in a decade but, this, for the first time in a while, felt like they were really trying to. It was almost as if they produced 11 entirely different songs to test the waters, presenting the options they had before themselves to a wider audience and saying “what do you think?’., and, to be honest, I’m kind of here for it. ‘Welcome to Japan’ is one of my favourite Strokes songs, and I don’t think it really fits into the sound of any of their other albums. In fairness, that can be said about a lot of the songs on this album, they don’t have any other home in the Strokes’ discography except in this album of experimentation, ‘50/50’, for example, feels heavily influenced by punk rock from the ’70s, an influence far more prevalent in this track than anything else the band had ever produced. So whilst this album is certainly not remarkable, it’s definitely memorable, which is more than could be said for some of their previous efforts.

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'AM' is a hard album to write about. Upon release it was a critical, commercial and fan favourite, winning awards, and radio playtime, left, right and centre. This, perhaps, is part of its problem. No one would ever claim that at any point Arctic Monkeys were an underground band, they were a commercial phenomenon from the start, with every one of their albums reaching no.1 in the UK charts, yet this time it felt different. Maybe because they broke America, but the lads from Sheffield were now a global superpower: perhaps the face of rock’n’roll. ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ boomed everywhere. Literally everywhere. And for some fans, I myself and guilty of this, a way to seem edgier, a bigger fan of the group was to criticise the album that had opened up the band to global success. Now, I am not trying to claim any criticism of the album is simply an attempt to seem ‘edgy’, but anyone who claims, as some have, that the album is objectively ‘bad’, is downright wrong. Whilst the album ranks low on my personal order of Arctic Monkey’s discography, that is by no means a critique of the album itself, more so praise for the rest of their back catalogue. The R’n’B inspired smooth pop-rock is both incredibly catchy, memorable and, without doubt, iconic. This album defines rock in the 2010s, for better or worse that is the case. It’s an album that compels you to dance, to sing-along to and for that, it should be celebrated. There is a reason a rock album became as successful as it was in an era where pop dominates the charts. There’s something spellbinding about it and it’s so god damn sexy. Yes, we can question the strength of songs such as 'Mad Sounds' and 'Fireside' but there’s no denying the quality of 'Arabella', 'Knee Socks' and perhaps best of them all: 'No.1 Party Anthem'. A song, which in my opinion, is lyrically one of the greatest Turner has produced and it didn’t make the same mistakes as a select few tracks on 'Suck It and See', they stripped things back, allowing Turner’s vocals to really come to the centre. In truth, 'AM' is not perfect but it’s certainly a hell of a lot better than some sections of the Arctic Monkeys’ fanbase give it credit for.

THE BEST YET:


Credit: DIY Mag

"I think if we’d had another ‘AM’... I don’t think we’d have Arctic Monkeys anymore."

‘Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino’ is one of my favourite albums of all time. ‘The New Abnormal’ is currently, still, my favourite album of 2020. The boys clearly have some magic left in them still.

Turner opens the album, Arctic Monkey’s sixth, “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes”, yet, sonically, this album couldn’t be further from the sound of the band he pines to be a part of. It’s an album Turner primarily wrote on the piano, alone. It’s an album as far removed from the chip shop rock’n’roll the band became acclaimed for as we are from a four-star hotel on the moon. It’s an album inspired by 60’s and 70’s cinema, the minds of Stanley Kubrick, Alain Delon and Jean Pierre Melville. And it’s bloody brilliant.

It would have been so easy, after the phenomenal success of ‘AM’ for Turner and the band to rinse and repeat the same, highly effective, formula. Yet, I think, if we’d had another ‘AM’, another colossus of an album all about American rock’n’roll and greased back hair I don’t think we’d have Arctic Monkeys anymore. The AM tour was insane, they headlined festival after festival, headlining both Glastonbury in 2013, and, astoundingly, Reading and Leeds the next summer. It was relentless, and clearly took its toll on the band. Helders went off to work with Iggy Pop on his album ‘Post Pop Depression’ and Turner reunited with Miles Kane to reform the supergroup, the Last Shadow Puppets. They needed a break, essentially.

Coupled with the toll of relentless touring was Turner’s desire to find a *new* sound, he said in an interview with BBC Radio 1, “The guitar had lost its ability to give me ideas. Every time I sat with a guitar I was suspicious of where it was gonna go.” My interpretation of that being: he didn’t want to write another ‘AM’.

For that reason, the album sounds entirely different. If past albums had a clear progression from album to album, this is a jump to hyperspace. Turner almost narrates to us, in a form of sing-speak so removed from the falsetto we associated with ‘AM’. It’s an album closer to lounge than rock at points, a perfect score for a 70’s sci-fi set on the moon. In truth, it’s their best album yet.

"[The New Abnormal] feels like a perfect conclusion to the story of the Strokes so far."

‘The New Abnormal’ is everything the Strokes have been trying to be since ‘First Impressions of Earth’. We see years and years of failed experimentation come together to give us their best album yet. It’s depressing, melancholic and yet such a joy to listen to. The band sound energised, they sound like they actually care, and my god when they try, they succeed. The Strokes have finally delivered on all the potential they showed as 20 something’s at in their early 40’s. Casablancas’ vocals are superb on this album, it’s mellowed slightly from the shoutier tones we heard on ‘Is This It’ to a more controlled, almost delicate cadence, he sounds equally comfortable singing from his chest as he does in his falsetto. The rhythm and lead guitar are captivating, their clash with the drums and bass on the opening track “The Adults Are Talking” create an incredible audible metaphor for a rowing set of parents. The whole sound of this album is something I adore; it feels like a perfect conclusion to the story of the Strokes so far. “Bad Decisions” feels as equally at home on this album as it would on ‘Is This It’, ‘Why Are Sundays So Depressing’ is like something off ‘Room On Fire’, and ‘Ode to the Mets’ feels like a more successful experimental track from ‘Comedown Machine’. Yet, despite many tracks sounding like a homage to what has come before it all feels new, refreshing and better than anything else that we’ve heard from the band. They sound like a band with almost 20 years more experience, they’re more refined in their craft, more complete. If this was the last ever album we got from the band, I couldn’t think of a more perfect ending. This album was worth the wait. Worth going through those years of mediocrity. Worth going through those years where the Strokes themselves didn’t know who they were. However, it could also be the start of a new Golden Age for the band; only time will tell what this album turns out to be: a perfect goodbye or the new blueprint for the band’s future success.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS:

"For two bands whom, on the surface level, are so seemingly intertwined, perhaps even near-perfect parallels of one another, for a period of time they seemed to be taking very different paths."

In 2018, it was perhaps easier to understand why Alex Turner “wanted to be one of the Strokes”, (emphasis on the past tense) a band, once almost universally renowned, were fading into mediocrity, only really loved for one album, maybe two at a push. For two bands whom, on the surface level, are so seemingly intertwined, perhaps even near-perfect parallels of one another, for a period of time they seemed to be taking very different paths. Arctic Monkeys were going from strength to strength, whilst the Strokes appeared to be faltering.

In 2020, the two bands have co-aligned again. They both appear to be working at their highest level to date, more refined and complete than ever before. So, to the big question: who’s better?

Here comes the cop-out; there isn’t really an answer. It depends on your definition of ‘best’. In terms of which band has been the best across the entirety of their career’s, then Arctic Monkeys are the clear winners. Out of their six studio albums, I’d argue only one dips below a 7/10, the same cannot be said for the Strokes. However, you can also make the argument that the Strokes have had the higher peaks, ‘Is This It’, in my opinion, is better than ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’, and ‘The New Abnormal’ and ‘Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino’ are too tightly level to call, giving a “net lead” to the Americans. It must also be acknowledged that without the Strokes I don’t think you get Arctic Monkeys. They were, after all, the very group that inspired four lads from Sheffield to pick up instruments and learn to play, so their influence is undeniable.

So, unsatisfying endings aside, I don’t think this question has an answer. Despite all the parallels you can draw, all the connections you can find, in truth these bands are two generational talents, talents we should admire and appreciate, rather than bicker over who’s better than who.

(Yes, I am entirely aware this entire article was set up in answer that premise but allow me to have my cake and eat it)