In 2001, the Strokes released Is This It to great acclaim, kick-starting the garage rock revival of the early 2000s. A lot of other bands followed in their footsteps, including the Hives, the Vines, Jet, and a whole bunch of others I haven’t thought of in 8-10 years. (The White Stripes, who are the exception, I’ll get to later on the countdown.) Is This It is a very good album, one that was under strong consideration for this list, but I ultimately ran out of room for it, so I guess it’ll have to be my first honorable mention. I still remember hearing “Last Nite” on the radio back when I was in 8th grade. It sounded so fresh and unprocessed compared to the post-grunge and nü metal that dominated alternative rock radio back then.
By the time the Arctic Monkeys released their debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not in January of 2006, I was no longer interested in what garage rock had to offer. I had moved on to classic rock, and it had been a long while, in pop culture terms, since the Strokes had put garage rock on the map for my generation. (And really it was never that prominent to begin with.) I remember a friend of mine in high school mentioning the Arctic Monkeys to me, saying, “There’s good music out there, you just have to find it.” I remember thinking that was probably true, but I was too lazy or didn’t know where to look, so I never really tried that hard to keep up with contemporary music. It wasn’t until a few months ago, when I was in the thick of composing this list, that I thought, “You know, I really should listen to that one.”
And so I did. And I loved it. It took the relatively skeletal offerings of Is This It and elevated it to more, well, complicated levels thanks in no small part to the Arctic Monkeys’ manic energy. The music is almost overstuffed with riffs, and they remarkably always seem to come at you from unexpected directions. It’s like they took the textures and colors from Is This It and applied their own jagged, hard edge to them. It’s a loud, breathless album, but it’s always an interesting one, which most noisy albums can’t say. If you’re familiar with Is This It, you’ll hear a lot of that album on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. While critics may side with Is This It as the better album, I find Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not to be much more interesting.
And it’s not like effusive praise hasn’t been heaped upon Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. It was hailed as an instant classic and was named the fifth greatest British album ever by NME in 2006, a ridiculous ranking by anyone’s assessment, considering there are so many great albums by, you know, the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who and the Clash (just to name a few) that should warrant higher consideration than the Arctic Monkeys. (Finishing first was The Stone Roses‘ 1989 self-titled debut, in case you were wondering.)
Part of the reason for this album’s acclaim is its entirely unconventional means of release. Early demos were circulated on the internet and the band managed to cultivate a rabid fanbase before they were even signed to a label. It’s a strategy that aspiring musicians have been attempting to replicate for years now, with little success. But it worked for the Arctic Monkeys, and Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not sold over 360,000 copies in its first week in the UK, the highest number ever for a debut album. Interestingly, they haven’t been nearly as popular here in the United States — at least, not until their fifth LP AM (2013), which eventually went platinum, effectively rebooted their career on both sides of the pond. This had a slingshot effect on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which finally achieved a gold certification (500,000 copies shipped) in 2017.