At the end of 2001 the band released their self-titled debut EP (often known as Master because of the word’s prominence on the artwork) which was followed by their debut album Fever to Tell in 2003. The album was met with critical acclaim and was ranked amongst the best records of the decade by publications including NME, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.
The band’s second album, Show Your Bones, was released in March 2006 and was nominated for Best Alternative Music Album at the 2007 Grammy Awards. The band set out to make a record very different to their former album, so their sophomore release is a little more indie and alternative than its predecessor, somewhat lacking the art punk elements of Fever to Tell. According to interviews given by the band, the writing and recording process for their second record was quite fraught and almost resulted in a breakup.
It’s Blitz!, the band’s third and, arguably most popular, album was released in 2009. This marked yet another change in direction for the band, who debuted a more alternative dance-oriented sound, featuring elements of disco and synth-pop. Yet again, the band featured on many end of year best album lists, including those of Billboard, The Guardian and Entertainment Weekly. Mosquito, the follow-up to It’s Blitz! was released in 2013. This record introduced some over the top and bombastic to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs canon, and, despite a decent enough reception, for some reason it didn’t have the lasting appeal of It’s Blitz! At the end of 2014 Karen O announced that the band were going on hiatus and haven’t been heard from since. Still, there can be no doubt that throughout their fourteen-year tenure, the female-lead three piece managed to forge a memorable and impressive discography which more than stands the test of time.
# 10 – Skeletons
Whilst the vast majority of the songs on It’s Blitz! are upbeat, high tempo, danceable numbers, Skeleton, the third and final single from the album, bucks this trend completely, reveling instead in a haze of atmospheric synths and ballad-like vocals.
The track begins with some brooding synth pads and a reflective keyboard riff. This instrumental is soon joined by Karen O’s voice, delivering is a far cry from the brash and cocksure vocals we’re used to getting from her. Here she sounds vulnerable and tender, imbuing every syllable with a sincere frankness. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the song’s cryptic lyrics are about, but they seem to be about a love so intense that it has (metaphorically?) killed the protagonist.
Just as the second half of the song begins, the instrumental kicks up a notch, with Brian Chase introducing some light but toe-tapping percussion, before bringing in some more robust, almost Phil Collins-esque bass drum. This deep and heavy drum beat still manages to convey a bleak and tragic atmosphere thanks to the nebulous synth work, sounding like thunderclaps during a heavy snow storm.
Although the track is very different to the band’s usual feisty and gutsy sound, this allows Skeletons to stand out as a moody, melancholic and mercurial black sheep; its uniqueness making it all the more an essential listen.
# 9 – Gold Lion
The first single from the band’s second album, Gold Lion takes a step back from the frantic punk of Fever to Tell and concentrates instead on a more indie/alternative rock sound. The track begins with a measured drum beat, not dissimilar to We Will Rock You, while a gentle acoustic guitar riff – not something usually associated with the band – strums pleasantly along. Don’t think for a second that this means the band have sanitized their sound, though; Karen O’s vocals are just as sharp and spiky as ever, and a somewhat White Stripes-inspired post-chorus guitar solo gives the song an impressive theatricality.
It’s the choruses vocal hook which is the best thing about Gold Lion, though, and it’s surely single-handedly responsible for the track’s consistent use in advertising campaigns. The “ooh ooh” hook, as well as being ridiculously catchy, brings something really wild to the track. There’s something almost tribal and jungle-esque about the hook; which brings to mind a scene where innumerable Amazonian indie goddesses swing in, Tarzan-like, to attack interlopers while triumphantly bellowing the hook like a war-cry. Indeed, at the time it served almost as a warning to the music industry that Yeah Yeah Yeah’s were back and ready to rock.
Despite bringing some new and unexpected elements to the band’s sound, Gold Lion remains a firm favorite among fans, and even the most casual of listeners will recognize its superlative hook.
# 8 – Soft Shock
This dreamy album cut from It’s Blitz! is like a throwback to avant-garde German kraut-rock mixed with the tragic disco glamour of 80’s electronica. If you’ve ever seen the movie Drive, with its ethereal neon-infused-noir soundtrack, then you should have some idea what to expect from Soft Shock. The track is a masterpiece made up of many layers of melodious synth chords. From the haunting, high-pitched alarm-like riff, to the crunchy electro-bass, every element helps build the song’s hazy, shattered disco-ball atmosphere. Even the odd guitar during the chorus is perfectly pitched for the song’s melancholy mood.
Although the song’s first half might trick you into thinking this is a sweet song about the start of a successful relationship, the repeated questions of its second part suggest a crippling insecurity (and perhaps inferiority complex) which prevent the protagonist from finding true happiness. Karen O’s warbled notes at the song’s end are downright heartbreaking, with every excruciating vocal modulation imbued with desperate loneliness. The song’s sudden guitar-heavy outro can only represent the turmoil, anger and pain of the relationship coming to an end, and this is the perfect foil to the song’s earlier romantic and dream-like tone. This track is a beautiful and clever piece, telling a story with its lyrics which is masterfully reflected by the song’s instrumental. Soft Shock is tender, tragic and absolutely unmissable.
# 7 – Y-Control
Released in the summer of 2004, Y-Control was the fifth and final single to be released from Fever to Tell. Since Karen O is one of just a small number of twenty-first-century front women, it seems only right that – despite her always being uncomfortable with the label – this track sees her feminist sensibilities take center stage. The titular Y-Control refers to the Y chromosome, while the song’s pre-chorus seems to reference the fact that in the womb all babies begin life as females, with two X chromosomes, and Karen O laments this biological change.
Musically, the song features fuzzy, frenzied guitar runs and crazed drumming, with chunky riffs during the verses and shrill strained chords as a post-chorus. The garage-rock ethos of the song is echoed by its controversial Spike Jonze-directed music video, which features a blurry VHS home video aesthetic in which a group of kids do all kinds of violent and sadistic things. The video is like a sick children’s party, the perfect accompaniment to this catchy and bouncy, but ultimately wild and savage, art punk anthem.
There’s something very rousing about the track, and listeners will find themselves unable to resist Y-Control’s brutish and rowdy delinquent-feminist vibe. This track was the perfect way to end Fever to Tell’s triumphant album campaign.
# 6 – Mosquito
It was rather brave and, perhaps, misguided, for the band to name their fourth album after this curious and incongruous track since it would usually be the type of song left on the album as a throwaway bit of fun for the hardcore fanbase to enjoy. Still, they were right to be proud of Mosquito, because – odd though it is – it’s genuinely brilliant.
The track begins with a bonkers bongo beat and some growling guitar before Karen O starts to tell the song’s story, which revolves around the life cycle of a mosquito. As you might imagine, the song’s chorus revolves around blood sucking, and when this is coupled with the song’s frenetic punk energy, the song gains a really visceral grungy vibe, recalling underground basement shows with sticky floors and perspiring walls.
Karen O really throws herself into the bizarreness of the song’s subject matter, alternating between operatic trills and heavy rock screaming during the song’s climax, even going as far as to mimic the titular insect’s distinctive buzzing sound at one point. Weird though it is, Mosquito actually works very well, sounding like a deranged and absurdist art-piece. It’s ironic that Yeah Yeah Yeah’s have dedicated so much of their time discussing mosquitos, since this is one band which absolutely does not suck.
# 5 – Maps
Opening with a high-pitched, fourteen-second guitar tremolo, this third single from Fever to Tell is a sweet and ambitious art punk ballad dedicated to Karen O’s boyfriend at the time, Angus Andrew from the band Liars. Given that it’s intended as a heartfelt rumination on the couple’s relationship, it should come as no surprise that the fevered bombast usually associated with the band (especially at this time in their career) is absent here, replaced instead with gentle and adoring vocals, and a guitar which manages to somehow be melodious and spiky at the same time.
Maps has become a mainstay of the band’s live shows, often forming part of the encore, giving couples in attendance the chance to hold each other close and get lost in the guitar-lead romance of the song, which provides a break from the band’s hectic punk elements. The chorus of the track was interpolated by Beyoncé on her album Lemonade, after Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, one of the song’s writers, suggested that the hook might fit into her song Hold Up. This earned Yeah Yeah Yeah’s a writing credit on one of the most talked about pop albums of the decade.
Despite the song’s successful R&B reinterpretation, there’s nothing quite like the original, with its gritty guitar outro perfectly contrasting Karen O’s unusually sweet and personal lyrics. Even after just one listen you will understand why this is one of the band’s best-loved tracks.
# 4 – Zero
The lead single from It’s Blitz, Zero had the task of introducing listeners to Yeah Yeah Yeah’s new sound, a danceable blend of rock, synth and electro pop. Although the band’s trademark grinding guitar chords are not entirely gone, they certainly take a backseat on tracks like Zero which has 80’s style synth-like guitars at its core.
The track begins with a synth chord, before this digital sound is perfectly copied – and somehow improved – by Nick Zinner’s guitar, which is edgy, jagged and danceable. The drums on this track sound very dance-inspired as well, almost as if they’re coming from a loop machine and, as ever, Karen O sounds wonderful, alternately yelping and growling her way through the song’s typically vague lyrics.
Perhaps Zero’s crowing achievement is the lush and sprightly crunch-guitar during the song’s bridge, which is so euphoric and unforgettable that they wouldn’t be out of place on the bonus level of an 80’s video game. NME and Slant both named Zero as the greatest track of 2007, and it’s not hard to see why. The track exploded the band back into the public consciousness, introducing their new, exciting and utterly impossible to ignore synthpop/rock sound.
# 3 – Sacrilege
The only single to be released from the band’s most recent album Mosquito, Sacrilege sees the band return to their art rock roots, although it’s hard to imagine that the garage punk group the band began as ever dreamed they’d produce a track quite as over the top and ostentatious as this.
Sacrilege lives up to its name, with lyrics revolving around Karen O falling in love and then sleeping with an angel. Appropriately, given its subject matter, there’s something very weighty about the song’s instrumental, with deep guitars grinding in the background throughout the song and some of Karen O’s vocals being distorted as if delivered through a loud speaker. This is, of course, nothing compared to the gospel choir that appears during the song’s second half, giving the track a manic, soulful edge which perfectly captures the intense hysterical ecstasy associated with “getting the spirit.” All of these elements combine wonderfully to create a potent and impassioned vibe which allows Sacrilege to truly stand out from the rest of the band’s discography.
Of further note is Nick Zinner’s extraordinary guitar licks during the song’s chorus, which are amongst some of the most intricate and beautiful subtle he has ever produced – further highlighting the band’s extraordinary growth throughout their tenure. Sacrilege is easily one of the band’s most unique and exciting tracks, and it’s a shame that it failed to get the attention it deserved. As the last single released before the band’s hiatus, this could potentially be their last ever single. Still, a track like this would certainly see them go out with a bang.
# 2 – Date With the Night
This first single from Fever to Tell is one of those songs which really needs to be seen live to be believed. Karen O is surely one of the most compelling front (wo)men of the 21st century, and on Date With the Night, in particular, it’s truly an unparalleled treat to see her do what she does best. From her jagged, juddery dance moves to her always pristine makeup – somehow never phased by the inevitable sweat running down her face as she screams her heart out during the song’s climax – she is every inch an indie goddess.
It helps, of course, that Date With the Night is without doubt one of the band’s most immediate and savage songs, with its arresting central guitar riff – which doesn’t stop for even a second – complimented perfectly by a surprisingly complicated drum beat. Not to mention the completely bonkers, almost feral way that Karen O delivers the song’s “Choke” hook.
This modern indie punk rock classic perfectly captures the feel of youthful hedonism, the belief that the world is your oyster and that anything is possible. It’s no surprise that it was a key part of the soundtrack of the seminal British teen drama Skins. The rugged guitar on Date With the Night is the perfect compliment to Karen O’s purred punk vocals, indisputably marking this track as one of the best the band have ever produced.
# 1 – Heads Will Roll
The chorus of this second single from It’s Blitz! features a famous line from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland and, upon first hearing it, listeners will indeed feel like they have been transported “down the rabbit hole.” But rather than mad hatters and talking animals, Heads Will Roll invites you to a world of dangerous disco, where slinky and glittery synths can barely hide their ominous intent.
This is definitely the band’s most lush production, with stirring drum rolls and guitar shreds rubbing uneasily against sparkly synthpop chords and Karen O’s crisp and commanding tones. The song seems to be about rave and clubbing culture, so it’s ironic that the song’s A-Trak remix received considerable club attention after the song’s release. In fact, the song’s instrumental perfectly captures the club experience, with the intro echoing the initial excited nervousness upon first entering, and the introduction of the drum beat suggesting getting caught up in a great track. Similarly, the song’s infectious chorus is easily the band’s most memorable and is perfect for club-like audience participation. Whatever setting you see the song played in, it’s like seeing the crowd willingly sacrificing themselves at the Altar of O.
The violent disco vibe was a particularly clever choice for the band to make, allowing them to experiment with a more electronic/dance sound without alienating fans or being accused of selling out. The track manages to be both uplifting and unnerving at the same time, forming the perfect vibe for this anxious disco rock masterpiece. This is truly the band at their greatest; Heads Will Roll is a transcendent synthpop/dance punk magnum opus.
Since their first release back in 2000 Yeah Yeah Yeah’s have become an important and influential indie band. With a discography spanning genres like indie rock, garage rock, art punk and synthpop, their albums are bursting with exciting and varied sounds and ideas. Despite going on hiatus in 2014, the edgy trio’s presence still resonates in indie circles to this day. Yeah Yeah Yeahs may be gone, but with a back catalog like this, they will never be forgotten.