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Why AM is Arctic Monkeys career-defining masterpiece

The Sheffield band's fifth studio album reversed their cultural decline and proved they weren’t just a flash in the pan. Here’s a deep dive into why.

Make no mistake about it, Arctic Monkeys are this century’s most important British band. Ten years ago they released their fifth studio album AM (do you feel old yet?), a record which more than cemented this title. An album which reversed their cultural decline and proved they weren’t just a flash in the pan. Here’s a deep dive into why.

To measure AM’s impact, we need to go back to their early days. High school friends forming a band in the north of England is a story as old as time, but even still the Sheffield boys rise was anything but normal. The hype coincided with the rise of internet file sharing – songs from their 18 track demo Beneath The Boardwalk (2004) circulated quickly across the web and under the noses of the music industry.

The “next big thing” word of mouth buzz spread like wildfire across the UK and soon after signing for Domino Records, their single ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ debuted at number 1 on the UK Singles Chart in October 2005. A few months later, their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006) would, again, crash them into the number 1 spot - with 360,000 copies sold, it’d become the fastest selling debut album in British music history. At this point the world really was their oyster…well not quite yet.

This success didn’t exactly translate too far beyond these shores. While they were being spoken about as the most important band of their generation by the likes of NME, Arctic Monkeys impact in North America (which, over the decades, had been used a barometer of success for British artists) was limited. Where British bands had invaded the US charts in the ‘60s, ‘80s and ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis had taken over the US airwaves in 1995, Arctic Monkeys were barely given a whiff of the same attention. Why not? Well, America is a big place, to say the least, and the proclaimed greatness placed upon UK bands by the British press is often sniffed at Stateside. When only 34,000 copies of their debut album were sold in America, it was further proof that America just didn't believe the hype.

In good Ol’ Blighty though, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006) and Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007) quickly made a household name of the Sheffield boys. A flurry of BRIT Awards and NME Awards demonstrated just how popular and acclaimed Arctic Monkeys were in those initial years. Alex Turner’s tales of “Topshop princesses”, seedy dancefloors and failed romance couldn’t help but hit a chord with the British public and cultural tastemakers alike. Seeing an opportunity to win kudos with the kids, then Chancellor - and future Prime Minister - Gordon Brown even spoke of his love of this overnight sensation (he’d later admit he couldn’t name any of their songs, but the name drop still spoke of their relevancy).

Hit singles, number 1 albums and a 2007 headline slot on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage gave Arctic Monkeys a whirlwind of success the vast majority of British bands could only dream of. Then they decided to try something different. A brave move. In 2009, Arctic Monkeys released Humbug and a backlash began.

Co-produced by Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age, a slower and heavier stoner rock influence had engulfed their work. “This is oval-shaped music” begins a review by Spin Magazine, “circling around the tracks; it’s accomplished, but not particularly infectious.” It would take some time before Humbug would be appreciated as one of the bands best. Suck It And See followed in 2011 and was noticeably weaker in quality than their previous releases. To quote Alex Turner on their most recent single ‘Sculptures of Anything Goes’, had they “punctured their bubble of relatability with their horrible new sound”? Many believed so!

By the early 2010s, excitement levels towards the band were waning. Their latest releases were receiving less and less critical fanfare. Having won the Mercury Prize in 2006 and being nominated again in 2007, their next two records went completely ignored by the same judges and similar ignorance applied to the Brit Awards.

Add to that the changing pop music landscape. By the time Arctic Monkeys third and fourth albums were released, guitar music was rapidly falling out of the mainstream. The garage rock revival era - which began with The Strokes in 2001 – was slowly dying and the appetite for bands from that scene followed close behind. The writing appeared on the wall for Arctic Monkeys in early 2012 when they were reduced to – for the first time - support act status for the Black Keys on their El Camino North American tour.

Thankfully, Arctic Monkeys weren’t just any old band. Alex Turner and co were about to enter a period of their career widely considered their most defining. Another reinvention was on the cards.

It all began a mere 18 months before a record was released. During their tour with the Black Keys, they’d come up with ‘R U Mine’. It was a track which, in February 2012, gave us a clue of their changing direction – rocking hard and marking their most accessible tune in several years. Crucially, the proof was there that Arctic Monkeys still had it. Then it all went quiet on the new music front: but behind the scenes the band were creating an album soon to become their masterpiece: yep, you guessed it, AM.

In June 2013, everything was about to change for the Arctic Monkeys - they dropped ‘Do I Wanna Know?’. At the drop of a hat the hype machine exploded to unimaginable levels for their upcoming sixth album. The sound was bigger, cleaner and sexier than their early work. A clear evolution had taken place, yet it more than captured the imagination of a new generation of young listeners.

On 9 September 2013, AM fell out the sky, crashing down and immediately shooting all expectations out the water. Like Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the critics were quick to proclaim classic status. Ever the ones for hyperbole, NME would call it “absolutely and unarguably the most incredible album of their career… the moment they stopped being defined by genre and instead became artists”.

And frankly on first listen it was hard to argue. Where their debut was one-dimensional, the album mixed ‘60s doo-wop, heavy rock and smooth indie grooves to stunning effect, all the while still maintaining infectiousness and focus. There was even a big Dr Dre influence too, revealing a progression from their crashing guitar origins. Pitchfork would describe AM as “skinny-jean funk…a paranoid, haunted collection that goes beyond the sweaty clubs and furtive flirts into the hotel rooms, after parties, and bad decisions that can follow.Arctic Monkeys were developing their sound to something more playful and anthemic than they’d produced in years.

AM completely reinvented Arctic Monkeys, reversed their “decline” and made them the most sought after band on the planet. The album’s stomping opener ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ became their highest chart single since 2007 – a number 11 hit in June 2013. This was a song which would open their iconic second Glastonbury headline set to hair-raising effect a couple of weeks later. The funk rock, booty call anthem of ‘Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?’ went better, giving Arctic Monkeys a number 8 UK Official Chart hit in August 2013.

Unlike their first couple of records, their new work was slower, more accomplished and universal. Which explains the overwhelming critical acclaim and a number 1 chart positions: not just in the UK, but across Europe and Australasia. The great thing about AM was how contemporary it sounded: the grooves danceable, the drum and bass combo more prominent and Alex Turner's vocals conversational. Their mojo with the music loving public had been regained.

The swooning tales of desire on tracks like ‘No 1 Party Anthem’, ‘Arabella’ and ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ also made sex symbols of Jamie Cook, Matt Helders, Nick O’Malley and Alex Turner, all of whom were nearly decade older than their trackie bottom wearing band beginnings. Inspired by their American settings, the band now dawned leather jackets and slicked back their Teddy boy quiffs to replace their long-haired stoner look. Alex Turner was transformed from reluctant frontman to charismatic showman to complete the evolution.

Pop culture in 2013 had dictated that bands were no longer cool, so the renewed success of Arctic Monkeys put a middle finger up to the guitar haters. Alex Turner did his best to do exactly that at the 2014 BRIT Awards. As Emeli Sande announced AM’s win for British Album Of The Year – which ensured Arctic Monkeys became the first act in BRIT Awards history to win both British Album and British Group three times – Alex Turner walked onto the stage on a mission.

He grabbed the microphone and delivered a rousing speech in defiance of rock music’s place in the mainstream. “Yeah, that rock'n'roll” sneered the frontman to a confused crowd of pop fans, “it seems like it's faded away sometimes, but it will never die. And there's nothing you can do about it”. While Turner faced criticism for his “arrogant” mic drop finish, the speech undoubtedly inspired a new generation of bands to keep at it.

AM finally helped Arctic Monkeys gain a level of success in America the boys probably thought was beyond them. The album landed a number 1 on the US Top Rock Albums Billboard chart and, more significantly, crashed straight into number 6 on the US Billboard 200 - their best chart performance in the US to date. Lead single ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ even became the first Arctic Monkeys song to chart in the Billboard Hit 100 at number 70. Finally, Arctic Monkeys were now one of the biggest bands in America at the fifth time of asking.

Seven years since Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was overlooked Stateside, Arctic Monkeys were suddenly being recognised as a force to be reckoned across the pond. Headline sets at Austin City Limits Festival in October 2013 as well as 75 dates in North America (including a sellout performance at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden in February 2014) on their global AM Tour exposed them to their largest US audiences to date.

AM wasn’t a flash in the pain either. In 2022, the record was the 105th bestselling album of the year in America. US music magazine Rolling Stone even ranked the record 346th in their 2020 edition of their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time - revealing the lasting legacy of the record both in their homeland and further afield.

Their famous fifth record still remains their most popular album and by some distance. On streaming platform Spotify, four of their top five most played tracks are from AM (‘Do I Wanna Know’, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’, ‘Why’d You Only Only Me When You’re High’ and ‘R U Mine’). Three of these tracks have over a billion listens, trumping the streaming numbers of their early tunes.

Except something of the band died during the AM era of Arctic Monkeys. The price of success and their seemingly never ending 18 month AM Tour resulted in an apathy to becoming crowd pleasers again. Nowadays, AM is the reference point many fans hope the band will return to when there’s mention of new music in production. In May 2018, a massive backlash followed when Arctic Monkeys dropped a piano-led record so radically different to AM and, well, anything else they’d ever produced.

Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (TBH&C) is a loose concept album based on a luxury hotel resort on the moon. Gone where the groove-filled bangers about sex and desire, and in came lounge pop songs covering topics as varied as science fiction, politics and technology. Gigwise reviewer Andy Hill described TBH&C as a “very weird album” at the time and he wasn’t wrong. Such weirdness would alienate a large chunk of their existing fanbase on a larger scale than 2009’s Humbug. Things levelled somewhat with October 2022’s The Car, another record nowhere near as crowd-pleasing as their iconic 2013 album. Even on Arctic Monkeys' most recent The Car Tour, tracks from AM would receive more airings (10 songs over the 119 shows to date) than tracks from their most recent album (only eight songs from The Car have been performed).

That’s not to say everyone is a hater of their new material. Today there remains two sides to the coin when new music is released - while many feel unfilled, there’s just as many others who get defensive of any criticism. It’s just that AM was such a monster of a people pleasing record it made a rod for their own backs: anything the band would do after simply wouldn’t meet many fans expectations.

Either way, AM crashed Arctic Monkeys back into the mainstream with a universally loved album, still obsessed over to this day. An epic guitar record which allowed them to “break” America and evolve, winning over swathes of new admirers in the process. Confirmation of Arctic Monkeys status as the best and most iconic band of this century.

As we’ve reached a decade of the record, I guess there’s only one thing left to say. Happy birthday AM, we’re still too busy being yours to fall for somebody new...


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