In 2002, the two older Followill brothers, Caleb and Nathan were receiving significant label interest and eventually signed to the label RCA, who suggested the two put a band together. Recruiting their younger brother and cousin, Kings of Leon – named after their grandfather Leon – was born. The band released their first EP Holy Roller Novocaine in early 2003, to a decent enough reception, and released their first album Youth and Young Manhood later that year. The album was extremely well received in the UK but failed to make much of a splash in the US. Britain very much took the band to their hearts, and it wasn’t until the band’s fourth album Only by the Night (2008) that Kings of Leon received similar attention in their home country, going on to win three Grammy awards.
# 10 – Molly’s Chambers
Presumably inspired by a line from the Thin Lizzy song Whiskey in the Jar, Kings of Leon’s debut single is an excellent example of garage rock, a sub-genre from the 1960’s which, as the name suggests, emphasizes a simple, stripped back, “do it yourself” sound.
The innuendo-laced lyrics, beautifully slurred by Caleb, almost take a back seat to the rolling, rousing rhythm guitar riffs. Despite its relatively recent release – in 2003 – there’s something somehow classic about the track, with its Southern rock influences recalling a simpler time, an idea which was underlined by the band’s aesthetic back then, when every member of the band sported long unkempt hair while wearing leather or denim jackets. Perhaps this was key to the band’s early success in the UK, where Southern Rock was not just seen as effortlessly cool, but a throwback to “real” rock music, whatever that may be, and an antidote to the US rap and hip-hop which dominated the charts at the time.
Molly’s Chambers’ catchy chorus is at the heart of the song, and this is complemented by a stirring and capable guitar solo during the bridge. That Kings of Leon were able to craft such a distinctive and emotive sound for their debut single should have signaled to the musical establishment that these four guys from Nashville were not to be ignored.
# 9 – Sex on Fire
It doesn’t seem hugely fair to punish a song for its success, and yet the ubiquity of Sex on Fire did lead to a slight backlash against the track. Still, no one can deny that this isn’t a massive rock anthem.
In the UK, Sex on Fire has joined the likes of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now and The Killer’s Mr Brightside as a mainstream club essential, often being played soon before a club closes, letting revelers end the night on a joyous and rowdy sing-along. From the moment the brooding guitar-lead intro kicks in, you know you’re in for a treat. The band’s previous album campaign Because of the Times (2007) saw the band edge towards a slightly “bigger” arena rock style, and this inevitably resulted in Sex on Fire’s enormous room-filling chorus, with its infectious vocal hook and irresistible chord progression. Caleb’s gorgeous gravelly vocals and some underrated bass work reward multiple listens, showing that the song’s excellence is more than just surface sheen. The reason this song has become so popular is, quite simply, because it’s just that good.
It is always hard for a fan base to learn to share their favorites with the world, and, in many ways, Kings of Leon were the quintessential hipster indie band. Still, the huge success of Sex on Fire should be celebrated rather than maligned, and a track as extraordinary as this deserves as big an audience as it can get.
# 8 – Find Me
This album track from Kings of Leon’s most recent LP WALLS (2016) has already become somewhat of a fan favorite. Perhaps this is because it sounds like a throwback to the band’s roots, being a stripped back, more minimalist sound. Outside of Caleb’s impressively scratchy voice, the Southern rock elements are largely absent from Find Me, but this is still a far more introspective track than we’re used to getting from contemporary Kings of Leon; it is arresting and compelling without being overly sensational and dramatic. This is not a criticism of the track. In fact, the song’s relative simplicity works to its advantage, recalling a simpler time and playing on long time listener’s inevitable nostalgia for the time in their lives associated with the band’s early sound.
The track’s chiming, sultry guitars will stick with you, and some excellent bass work from Jared Followill helps create the song’s undefinable sense of unease, which, along with Caleb’s husky, interrogatory and wistful vocals, are bound to make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. This is not the sound we expected Kings of Leon to be producing in 2016, and perhaps this is why the song was so well received, it gave new fans a taste of what they missed out on, whilst giving old fans a reassuring blast from the past. A clever move from a band who clearly have never forgotten where they came from.
# 7 – Knocked Up
This evocative seven-minute song is the opening track of 2007’s Because of the Times, and it really takes listeners on a journey. Telling the story of a guy and his girlfriend who has got pregnant against the wishes of her family. Knocked Up could very easily be a short film or art piece in itself, with the band having beautifully crafted a believable and compelling narrative set to some spellbindingly subtle rock.
The song begins with a quiet drum beat, slowly getting louder before the bass and some light guitars begin, this is soon joined by an unusually high-pitched guitar riff, sounding somehow reminiscent of a car alarm mixed with the incessant cries of a child. As ever, Caleb’s melodiously growled lyrics are perfectly suited to the song’s intimate setting, and, in places, the agony and helplessness imbued into his voice is truly palpable.
The anger, frustration, and worry that someone in the protagonist’s situation might experience is reflected in the sudden surge of drums and frantic guitars that occur during the second half of the verses, with the drums, exploding in thunder-like claps, accurately reflecting the drama of the situation.
The song could be criticized for being more interested in building a narrative rather than being musically compelling – the chorus, in particular, is nothing to write home about – but it could also be argued that the low-key, Springsteen-esque atmosphere makes the song far more interesting than every other basic rock banger out there. This was a brave and unusual way to start an album and Kings of Leon should be applauded for trying something a bit different.
# 6 – Closer
The opening track of Only By the Night is an intensely atmospheric and creepy song, which, appropriately, is about a lovesick vampire. At the heart of this downtempo, minimalist track is an impressively alien three note bass riff, which sounds like nothing the band have ever produced. The bleak and ominous soundscape, complimented by some ghoulishly grinding background guitars is some of the most avant-garde work that Kings of Leon have ever created, and it set the bar impossibly high for the rest of the album.
For someone who has never visited the American South and wouldn’t be aware of the acute cultural variations of each state, Closer perfectly plays into the tropes surrounding Southern gothic literature, and thematically ties into HBO’s vampiric TV show True Blood that debuted the same year. Similarly, a modern listener can’t help but be reminded of that same network’s gothic horror masterpiece True Detective. That the song brings to mind such visceral cinematic references should give you some idea of how brilliantly the song manages to create an unnerving and, frankly, frightening atmosphere
Closer is one of the bands few genuinely odd songs, playing into a darker image of the South not usually touched on by traditional Southern rock. There’s something truly chilling about this track, with its sinister lyrics and dark instrumental working together to create a forbidding and doom-laden ambiance which is hard to forget.
# 5 – Revelry
Revelry was the third release from Only By the Night, but unlike the singles which proceeded it – Sex on Fire and Use Somebody – which were unmistakable party songs, this track is an introspective and reflective affair.The song sees Caleb, who has always been open about his struggles with drugs and alcohol, look back on a relationship which failed because he paid more attention to his party lifestyle than his girlfriend.
There’s something almost tender about Revelry, with its quiet and contemplative, almost longing, guitars and the uncharacteristically sweet and harmonious background vocals during the chorus. These elements combine to create a dreamy vibe which manages to be both pleasant and melancholy at the same time. It’s not hard to imagine this song going down particularly well in a festival atmosphere, providing the perfect soundtrack to a summer sunset, a precursor to the inevitable madness sure to occur during the band’s more upbeat songs later in the set.
While Sex on Fire and Use Somebody received most of the attention during the Only By the Night album campaign, Revelry remains an underrated, otherworldly song, beloved by the more pensive side of Kings of Leon’s sizeable fan base.
# 4 – Four Kicks
A pure Southern rock banger, Four Kicks effortlessly captures the recklessness and carelessness of youth. This short track, just over two minutes long, is a non-stop jaunt, telling the story of a group of friends who find themselves going to bars and getting into fights, purely because there’s not much else for them to do.
The song is the second single from the band’s second album Aha Shake Heartbreak (2002), and it races along at a rapid pace, with bouncy but spiky guitar licks rubbing against some gorgeous blues-inspired chords. If Closer captures the creepy occult side of the South, then Four Kicks perfectly encapsulates the more gritty and rough stereotypes of the region, of bikers and bar fights.
Quite simply, Four Kicks is an absolute riot of a track; one which you can’t fail to be swept up by. The title and, in fact, elements of the song itself, are reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s Four Sticks, and it seems unlikely that this was a coincidence. Like its (presumed) namesake, this banger of a track is a rowdy and anarchic party essential, and this more fun and rambunctious side to Kings of Leon undoubtedly deserves its place on this list.
# 3 – Fans
Fans, the second single from Because of the Times, is a Kings of Leon track which is particularly popular in the UK. This is not surprising since the track is an homage to British fans who, as mentioned above, have always been the band’s biggest supporters. The song references the bizarreness of the situation – that a band from Tennessee could resonate so profoundly across the pond – whilst expanding their warm thanks to the continued support they’ve received. The band would headline the prestigious Glastonbury festival just under a year after the track’s release.
Given the song’s heartfelt subject matter, the instrumental is appropriately upbeat and joyful, creating a party atmosphere of pure euphoria and glee thanks to the buoyant interplay of guitar and drums. The buzzing electric runs and gentle, almost acoustic-sounding, strums work really well together, building a complicated and layered instrumental which is only improved by the cheerful shouts of the backing vocals. There’s something sweetly ironic about Caleb’s southern drawl sounding particularly pronounced on this track, but, as ever, his superlative voice is simply stunning.
Even if you ignore the sincere fan service of Fans, this engaging and charming song is a real southern rock romp which is truly impossible to resist.
# 2 – Radioactive
There are two contrasting guitar riffs at the heart of this first single from Come Around Sundown (2010), the first brings a deep, robust and crisp sound, whilst the second is turbulent, fluttery and high pitched. These two opposing tones work wonderfully together; the former providing a confident and deep anchor to the song, giving the track a calm and serene vibe which is echoed by the peaceful harmonies of the backing singers, and the latter, more urgent, sound providing the song with just a pinch of danger and intrigue.
Following on from the immense success of the arena-fillers, like Sex on Fire, which populated the band’s previous album was always going to be tough, so, instead, the band went down a slightly different route. Radioactive has a more stripped back, less bombastic sound than its immediate predecessors, with more of a traditional rock (almost pop-rock) vibe. This is not a criticism, in fact, by taking a step back from their previously grandiose sound the band managed to create one of their most memorable choruses to date thanks to Radioactive’s lush and instantly memorable vocal hooks. The lyrics of the song suggest reconnecting with one’s roots, and this is exactly what the band did with this track. It may not have been the follow up to Only by the Night that fans expected, but it was exactly what they needed.
# 1 – Use Somebody
Kings of Leon’s breakthrough track in the United States, Use Something, from Only by the Night, also happens to be, without a doubt, the band’s greatest track. The song deservedly catapulted the band to overnight domestic acclaim, eventually winning three Grammy Awards and becoming one of the best-selling songs of the 21st century.
As with most truly great songs, it’s hard to pinpoint just what it is that marks it out as something so remarkable, as all of the elements fuse together to create an astonishing track. From the yearning growl of Caleb’s voice to the Springsteen-style backing vocals, this power ballad manages to reach the perfect balance between gritty and emotional, tugging at the heart strings without being schmaltzy or cheesy. Despite the song’s bluster and hectic build up, there’s something very earnest about Use Somebody, and it’s nice to see a tender side to the band rather than the boyish bravado displayed on Sex on Fire. Musically, a delicious bass line underscores the song, filling the gaps between verses until the track’s soaring, sing-along post-chorus interlude can sweep listeners up in its heavenly tide of alternative and power pop guitar chords.
As ever with Kings of Leon, there is something undeniably cool about Use Somebody, and it says a lot about the song’s quality that it managed to appeal to indie hipsters and the general public alike, as very few songs are able to generate interest with the masses without alienating the trendsetting elite.
Over the years the band’s music has evolved from spirited southern rock to U2-like stadium fillers and back again, but, as this list as shown, the quality of the band’s output has never diminished. It may have taken them a while to get the recognition they deserved in the US, but having finally done so, Kings of Leon have never looked back, and their continued trajectory to iconic status seems more certain than ever.
Photo: I, ELOdry [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Updated Nov 9, 2020