Originally gigging around Vegas, the band’s alternative rock sound allowed them to stand out from the nu-metal and rap that was popular at the time, and they soon caught the attention of an A&R rep from Warner Brothers who offered to help them find a record deal, eventually becoming their manager. Despite sending demos out to various US labels, the band remained unsigned until they caught the interest of British indie label Lizard Kill Records.
Following considerable buzz in the UK, the band finally signed to Island Def Jam, and their first album Hot Fuss (2004) was released to international acclaim, spending more weeks than any other record in the UK album charts that decade. Hot Fuss is a unique mix of alternative and indie, with some new wave and post-punk influences. The album, along with Flowers’ eye-lined appearance, was very theatrical and over the top, so it was a surprise when the band’s second album Sam’s Town was more stripped, back with less grandiose synth elements and no auto-tune
Sam’s Town was nowhere near as well received as the band’s debut, so few were surprised when this “authentic” image was dropped for a more playful and colorful aesthetic for the third album Day & Age (2008) which experimented with dance rock, synth pop, and new wave. At the start of 2010, the band announced they were going on a brief hiatus, and each member went on to pursue solo projects. This break lasted a year and a half, and the band’s fourth, most recent, album Battleborn was released in 2012, which saw the band bring all their previous influences onto one album, creating a sound epic in scope, which was met with decent reviews.
There can be no doubt that The Killers reached their plateau with their debut release, but this has not stopped them continually trying to reach these heights again, forging a back catalog full of impressive and memorable hits.
# 10 – Sam’s Town
The titular opening track to The Killers second album, Sam’s Town, named after a Vegas casino, is a biographical track which reflects on Flower’s early life. Although he was born in Henderson, Nevada, and lived there until he was eight, Flower’s family moved to Utah, where he lived for several years before eventually moving to live with his aunt in Las Vegas.
The lyrics of the song see Flowers discuss his life in small-town Utah, where he felt out-of-place and judged by the locals, always knowing that there must be a more exciting life for him in “Sam’s Town.” The song, and, in fact, the entire album, marked a move away from the British influences of Hot Fuss (Bowie, The Cure, New Order) and towards a slower, more stripped back and American sound.
The song begins with a drumroll, as if introducing the listener to this new campaign, before some light – especially compared to the band’s previous work – synth chords begin. These are soon joined by some growling guitar riffs, which then form the heart of the song, with the synth returning mainly as a background element for the rest of the track, as if representing the aforementioned development of the band’s trademark sound. Sam’s Town features fearsome drumming, as well as some longing guitar runs, perhaps symbolizing the conflicting emotions Flowers felt about wanting to leave the town where his close family lived.
The album Sam’s Town, both literally and lyrically, represents a band with the world at their feet, Hot Fuss was such a huge success that everyone was waiting to see what would come next. By looking inward, The Killers may not have released the record fans wanted, but it nonetheless delivered some memorable tracks such as this underrated album cut.
# 9 – Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll
This much-misunderstood track has the questionable accolade of being Flowers’ least favorite Killers track of all time. Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll was released as a promotional single in the UK, and only appears on certain issues of Hot Fuss. Despite its limited release, the song still managed to create quite a backlash, with critics disparaging the song’s lyrics, which describe the relationship between a trendy couple who do stereotypically hipster things like shop in thrift shops. What these critics failed to realize was that the song was intended to be ironic, and is mocking the kind of people described in the track, with Flowers later stating he has never wanted to be seen as “indie rock & roll” at all.
This irony was lost on fans as well, perhaps because Flowers, in all his Las Vegas swagger and bravado, very much represents the type of Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll which teenagers are excited by. Still, despite the misunderstandings about the lyrics, no one can deny that this song isn’t huge. The slight vocal distortion on Flower’s voice is a masterstroke, giving him an appropriately cool detachment from the track, and, the keyboard/guitar led intro, soon joined by some delicious bass riffs is undeniably lush. The crunchy guitars are the perfect match for Flower’s distorted voice, allowing listeners to recreate an epic stadium-like concert in their bedrooms.
While Brandon Flowers may not be a fan of this track, there are many who are, and the song was reintroduced to the band’s live setlist in 2011. It may not have got the response Flowers expected, but, if you give it a chance, Glamourous Indie Rock & Roll manages to lives up to its ironic name.
# 8 – Bones
From the song’s creepy, seemingly unrelated opening, this second single from Sam’s Town has an acutely weird vibe to it. Much of this is down to the sleazy, carnal lyrics of the chorus, which, when juxtaposed with the song’s phenomenal horn instrumental, manage to create a freakishly good track. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The horns are what elevate this song from the rest of the album, being simultaneously effective yet also feeling completely out of place. This gives the song a real otherworldly feel, something which is amplified by the repeated reference to bones.
It’s obvious that the song is about intimacy – the jolly horn-infused synth rock instrumental underlines this – but the band subvert expectations by focusing purely on the bones, the literal, physical objects involved in human contact. The band manage to create an uncanny distance from true human intimacy (as well as a cheeky double entendre) which plays perfectly into the song’s bizarre, uniquely otherworldly soundscape.
The bizarre blend of music (and the skeletal subject matter) brings Tim Burton’s unique aesthetic to mind, and so he was the perfect choice to direct the song’s music video – his directorial debut in the medium. Bones is truly a genius track, taking a clichéd subject matter and turning it inside out, creating a creepy, almost revolting, narrative which works perfectly with the sticky, weird and amazing brass/rock combination.
# 7 – All These Things That I’ve Done
Along with Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie, Brandon Flowers is one of modern rock’s most famous Mormons, and his religious upbringing resonates throughout this gorgeous 2004 track. To a modern listener, the song’s piano note intro recalls My Chemical Romance’s Welcome to The Black Parade and Kanye’s Runaway, but All These Things That I’ve Done actually predates both of these. The stark piano notes soon give way to church organ chords, while Flowers encourages the listener to stay strong and hold on to hope that life will get better.
The song’s chorus is infinitely contagious, but unlike some of the band’s other catchy hooks, there’s a real air of pathos here. Flowers sings in a certain scale that, when coupled with the lyrics – which beg for someone to help him – give the song a feeling of tragic desperation. You can really feel the pain and anguish in Flower’s voice.
Other than its catchy, down tempo chorus, All These Things That I’ve Done is famous for the repeated lyrics of its bridge, in which the band employ a gospel choir to add some church-inspired theatricality to proceedings. The meaning behind the bridge seems to suggest that Brendon does have faith in his religion but feels he is unsuited to take part in his church’s mission. Perhaps this song was some way for Flower’s to make sense of the contradictions within him.
Regardless of the intent behind the song, this atmospheric and dramatic track is one of the many highlights from Hot Fuss, blending emotional lyrics with somehow somber guitar riffs and a great bass line (which the band later admitted to stealing from David Bowie!). If you’re looking for an introspective, beautiful alternative rock song, then look no further than All These Things That I’ve Done.
# 6 – Flesh & Bone
This album track from Battleborn begins with the sound of a digital metronome, which is soon joined by some almost baroque-sounding synth chords. The introduction of these synths cleverly makes the metronome sound like a hospital heart rate monitor, which ties perfectly into the song’s biological title. Flowers’ voice sounds particularly crisp on this track, which is helped by a subtle but noticeable echo effect. In fact, perhaps thanks to the stripped-down instrumental, this is perhaps the best he has ever sounded, with his sweet, deep voice sounding particularly harmonious.
It’s not long until some soaring orchestral strings begin, signaling the start of the song’s central musical hook, which boasts an upbeat, joyous and triumphant 80’s-inspired sound. You can easily imagine this delightful, jubilant track being part of a classic 80’s movie, probably as the credits roll at the end of yet another wacky adventure.
That’s not to say the song isn’t without edge. Growling guitar chords appear during the song’s second verse, and the bridge is a flat-out funk fest, adding some gorgeous bass to proceedings, as well as some plucked orchestral strings, which, along with the way Flowers’ vocals go back and forth, somehow create the image of a cartoon chase scene.
Thanks to its title-dropping vocal hook, there are plenty of opportunities for audience participation on Flesh and Bone, cementing this fun romp of a song as a contemporary not-so-guilty Killers pleasure.
# 5 – When You Were Young
When it was announced that the band would be replacing the neon pop glamour of Hot Fuss’ London with a gritty 1970’s Americana sound for their second album, fans were unsure what to think. Thankfully, When You Were Young, the lead single from the band’s second album, proved that the band’s followers had nothing to worry about.
There is something Springsteen-esque about the track, which attempts to dip into the sonic mythology of a lost America, with the narrative using a relationship to discuss how the expectations of youth compare to adult reality. These attempts to emulate The Boss aren’t entirely unsuccessful, and there is certainly something in the song’s swirling instrumental which brings to mind the seminal Born to Run.
If you listen carefully, you will notice that the song really only features a single chord progression, with just a few variations. This was an intentional choice, as the band were aware that Hot Fuss contained a lot of complicated chords. This more simple, less grandiose sound helps underline the band’s intentional musical and aesthetic progression.
Though you might assume them to have been abandoned, the band’s trademark synths are, in fact, present on When You Were Young. Though not as central as on the previous album, they are used here to give the song a light and airy vitality. Were they to have been omitted the song would have felt far more stoic and intimidating.
This track was a great introduction to the band’s bold change of direction, sounding familiar enough not to put fans off while giving them a taste of the album’s more straight American rock sound.
# 4 – Human
Following the muted critical reception to the dust rock of Sam’s Town, the band went entirely in the other direction for the lead single of their next album’s campaign. Human is a straight up new wave, synth-pop smash. It was co-produced by Stuart Price, also known as Jacques Lu Cont, the man responsible for Madonna’s Abba-sampling Hung Up as well as innumerable tracks by artists like Kylie Minogue, The Pet Shop Boys, and the Scissor Sisters. With a co-producer such as this, it’s no surprise that Human is an infinitely danceable, light pop tune, with luxurious synth pads and pleasant, subtle guitar riffs.
This new cheerful pop sound served the band well, with Human getting significant mainstream attention, not least because of the grammar defying question at the heart of the song’s chorus. This central rhetorical question gave the song a much-deserved buzz, putting the track on everyone’s lips, with people all over the world wondering what on earth Flowers was talking about.
Knowing that there is actual substance behind the song’s peculiar lyric only takes the fun out it, but, apparently, the chorus is a reference to comments made by Hunter S. Thompson about America raising a “generation of dancers.” Perhaps, with that mystery out of the way, we can concentrate on the gorgeous production of the track; it’s dreamy, tranquil atmosphere being the perfect pairing with the song’s abstract lyrics.
Literally no one expected The Killers to ever produce a track like this – rumor has it that not even some of the band members were fully on board – but we should be forever grateful that they took a risk. It certainly paid off.
# 3 – Smile Like You Mean It
Allegedly written in just eight minutes, Smile Like You Mean It was released as the third single from Hot Fuss in the US, and the fourth in the UK. The track features what is arguably the band’s most famous synth riff, a simple but effective tune which soars and sweeps across the track, even forming a key part of the chorus, where it links the repeated vocal hooks.
The synth riff features notes that jump across the scale, alternating between highs and lows. This echoes the bittersweet narrative behind the song, where “smiling like you mean it” suggests putting on a false front and faking happiness when it’s not how you truly feel. This chord progression is a great way to imbue the spirit of a song into its composition.
The bridge of the track features some Daft Punk-style voice effects on alternate lines, something which further creates the impression of a tragic, necessary falseness. It is almost as if Flowers has become so withdrawn that he has allowed a robot to take control of his voice and is speaking on autopilot.
Smile Like You Mean It is a jagged song which manages to be both upbeat and melancholy. Flowers reflects upon his move from childhood to adulthood, a growth which is never easy, and how he is no longer able to express his true emotions, forcing himself to smile despite it all. The mix of this relatable narrative and some truly killer synth and guitar work marks this song as one of The Killer’s best.
# 2 – Somebody Told Me
The band’s second single begins with an immediate and glamorous intro, full of pulsing, glittery synth pads, before Flowers’ starts to sing and some intense, manic strumming and a gritty bass line begins. The song tells the story of a guy spotting a girl in a club and wanting her attention, so it’s only appropriate that Somebody Told Me is one of the band’s most danceable songs. Its chorus is particularly hard to resist thanks to its funky guitar chords and lush drum work. It’s surprising, therefore, that this is not The Killers’ song which seems to get the most club play (see below).
What’s great about this track is the minute attention to detail, it’s as though the band meticulously went through the song to tweak and refine it until every second was pure gold. Examples of this perfectionism include the sizzling electric synth after the first chorus and the one off sultry “ooh” from some female backing singers. Little elements such as this not only mark a band out as musical obsessives but can really make the difference between a good song and a great one. Needless to say, Somebody Told Me is a great song.
This track blends gritty guitar reminiscent of the Las Vegas strip with the 80’s glamour of London new wave, and it should come as no surprise that the Grammy-nominated song appears in many “100 greats songs of the 00’s” list. Truly an alternative dance-rock essential.
# 1 – Mr Brightside
Anyone who’s ever been clubbing in the UK will be intimately familiar with this particular Killers song, as, even in mainstream clubs, you can guarantee it will be played at some point – its light electric guitar riff signaling the start of an inevitable room-filling, stranger-hugging sing-along. In fact, Mr Brightside is so immensely popular in Britain that it recently made the news for having never left the UK Top 100 since its release in 2003.
But just what has made this song so popular? Well, even one listen should give you some idea. From the ever-present twanging guitar chords to the deep throaty bass riffs, there’s something immediately compelling about the song’s instrumental. Meanwhile, the slight distortion on Flowers’ voice gives the vocals an edgy feel, and the slick almost rap-like lyrics of the verse come at you like karate chops, making the song not only easy to learn but also a genuine pleasure to repeat.
The swelling vocals of the chorus couldn’t be different to the harshness of the verses, being anthemic and euphoric and, therefore, perfectly suited to the sing-along ubiquity the track has earned. The soaring synths elevate this already great song to something almost divine, creating something truly – to utilize an appropriate cliche – iconic.
From the low-key intro, Mr Brightside builds to a genuine rock masterpiece, and there could be absolutely no other song to top this Killers countdown. The fact that they were able to create something so accomplished as their debut single demonstrates the undeniable talent of the band.
Since the release of Hot Fuss in 2004, it has always been obvious that there is something genuinely special about this Las Vegas four-piece. Although they’ve never managed to top the superlative quality of their debut, the genre experimentation of their musical journey has been something truly exciting to watch, resulting in a varied and unique discography. The Killers are, quite simply, killer.
Updated March 1 2021
Top 10 Killers Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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