The Black Keys

El Camino (Nonesuch 11) Rating: A
After years plugging away as well-respected journeymen, The Black Keys broke though big time with El Camino, the album that made them legitimate stars and dominated the 55th Grammy Awards (El Camino won Best Rock Album, while "Lonely Boy" won Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song). And believe me, having a big mainstream rock album is no small thing these days, as only Kings Of Leon and perhaps a precious few others have made such a leap in recent years, as ridiculous auto-tuned no-talents continue to dominate the charts (thank God for Spotify, SiriusXM, and my trusted iPod, all of which let me blissfully ignore modern commercial radio). Sure enough, this is a case where success is absolutely justified, as Dan Auerbach (vocals, guitars), Patrick Carney (drums), and de-facto third Key Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton (co-producer, keyboards) have written 11 mostly stellar songs here, highlighted of course by the spectacular 1-2 punch of "Lonely Boy" and "Gold On The Ceiling," two of the most undeniable singles in recent years. But most of the other songs here are also danceable but decidedly rocking, with memorable distorted guitar riffs (and some well-placed solos), groovy jackhammer beats, hooky keyboards, and soulful female backing vocals (Leisa Hans, Heather Rigdon, Ashley Wilcoxson) anchoring plenty of catchy choruses (while we're on the subject of the importance of backup singers, and how they tend to get overlooked, I recommend checking out the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom). Perhaps it starts to sound a bit too chart-mindful and formulaic after a while (aside from the more expansive "Little Black Submarines," which starts as a sparse acoustic but explodes around the halfway mark, almost all of these songs are around the same radio friendly length), but they're mostly excellent nevertheless. In fact, I'm surprised that songs like "Run Right Back" and "Stop Stop" weren't major hits as well, and if forced to name other highlights I'd likely list the majority of the album. I don't know enough about The Black Keys to state whether or not this is their best album, but it's certainly the one that had the most impact, and as such it's the most important Black Keys album, which is why it's the one I'm reviewing. Sure, they probably benefited from the breakup of The White Stripes, much like how Coldplay benefitted from Radiohead getting weird and U2 getting old and disinterested, but that's not their fault (so ease up on the criticisms there Jack, ok?), and the bottom line is that El Camino is an excellent mainstream rock album that's instantly enjoyable and remains so after many listens. 2016 Update: Having since gotten better acquainted with The Black Keys' back catalog, I also highly recommend 2004's Rubber Factory and this album's more stylistically similar predecessor, Brothers (2010). They have several other releases, all of which have their moments, but based on what I've heard those are the three best Black Keys albums.

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