Before Yeah Yeah Yeahs released their debut album, people were distracted. Frontwoman Karen O, drummer Brian Chase, and guitarist Nick Zinner had hit New York’s reviving rock scene with their self-titled EP two years earlier, driving some to crown them “the next big thing” while others attempted to counter the hype by bringing up O’s “beer-soaked minidresses” in their album reviews. But when they dropped bold debut ‘Fever To Tell’ in 2003, the focus started to shift. There was no doubt the band could not only square up to their city-grown counterparts but even land a stronger punch.
The years following their debut were punctuated by solo projects, O’s move to Los Angeles, and a central spot in Meet Me In The Bathroom, an oral history of the early 2000s which details the trio’s heyday. Many acts would’ve spent that time pumping out the hits and riding the wave of their critically acclaimed debut. Yeah Yeah Yeahs took a different approach, taking their time to curate an anthology that was less aimed at garnering rave reviews and more focused on pleasing themselves and pushing their artistry. The Brooklyn band’s rippling impact, from inspiring fresh acts like Japanese Breakfast and The Linda Lindas to surviving in an industry riddled with sexism and naysayers while also brazenly experimenting with their sound, proves that in some cases you really can believe the hype.
In celebration of their newest release, the Grammy-nominated ‘Cool It Down’, NME presents a ranking of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs studio efforts, from their scorching and raucous debut to the chill bite of their latest album and all the ingenuity and warmth in-between.
‘Mosquito’ was released almost exactly 10 years after ‘Fever To Tell’, which may explain why most conversation around the album centred on how different it was from the feral sound Yeah Yeah Yeahs debuted with. Scattered with disorienting atmospherics, lyrical mood swings, and even a track about begging to be abducted by aliens (‘Area 52’), it was a far cry from the subject matter and sound of the rest of the band’s discography. Still, their roots were there. According to O, the band returned to a “shitty little downtown studio” in New York City to record their fourth album, and though she traded in her iconic dark bowl cut for bright bleached blond hair, her signature raspy howl never left, emboldening even the most subdued moments of songs like ‘Sacrilege’.
Fans and critics were surprised and confused by the album and reviews were mixed. Meanwhile, the band was thrilled to play around and experiment after a decade of making music together, trying their hand at something new because, as Zinner said during the lead-up to the album: “Fuck it, we’re going to do what we want, who gives a shit!”
4‘Show Your Bones’ (2006)
The slow-building and echoing, ‘Gold Lion’ kicks off the band’s second album, ‘Show Your Bones’, with Zinner and Chase playing at a marching pace as O sings, “We’ll build a fire in your eyes”. It’s a bold first taste of a collection of some of the most delicious Yeah Yeah Yeah tracks. The path to ‘Show Your Bones’ involved the band scrapping everything they’d recorded after their debut and starting from scratch. “We’re not interested in making ‘Fever To Tell Part 2’”, O told NME at the time, adding that it was in their “best interests to try and explore other directions.”
Despite that admission, there was an outcry from some critics that the album was too similar to their debut, with others saying it wasn’t brash and weird enough this go round. But dancefloor-worthy tracks like ‘Honeybear’ and melancholy moments like the heart-open crackling ‘Warrior’, with its reflections of the harsh reality of life on the road, were clear and compelling evidence that this was a forward-looking evolution of the band’s sound.
3‘It’s Blitz!’ (2009)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs closed out the decade with a 10-track dance party, with each song proving the exclamation point punctuating the album’s name was there for a reason. ‘It’s Blitz!’ is brimming with electric magnetism from the moment it launches, with O leaning into her full vocal range in ‘Zero’. Even the album’s cover art, a single hand bursting an egg by holding it too tight, has become synonymous with the signature sinister pop-rock sound the album embodies. The best moment of ‘It’s Blitz!’ comes by way of electro jaunt, ‘Heads Will Roll’, a gleeful threat that reminded listeners the band was not even slightly running out of creative brilliance six years after their debut.
2‘Cool It Down’ (2022)
Following nearly a decade of silence, Yeah Yeah Yeahs made an audacious return with one of their most poignant, polished and inventive albums yet. The band could’ve taken advantage of the recent push for nostalgia and indie sleaze by sifting through their back catalogue for inspiration. Instead, they journeyed elsewhere, sinking into new sonic depths and letting their creativity lead them into uncharted territory.
‘Cool It Down‘ harnesses O, Zinner, and Chase’s full imagination, interloping disco hits into ‘Wolf’, collaborating with Perfume Genius for soaring lead single, ‘Spitting Of The Edge Of The World’, and even ending the album on spoken word track, ‘Mars’. Their fifth record is the type of album a band could only make after witnessing every version of themselves and deciding, regardless of reception, who they want to be from now on.
1‘Fever To Tell’ (2003)
Hazards of love, thrills of love, the ecstasy of love and the whiplash stupor of a love that hits too fast. These are the threads tying together ‘Fever To Tell’, one of the best albums of the ’00s and arguably all time. There’s an urgency pushing ‘Fever…’ forward, one that’s even present in the steady, tear-in-throat ballad ‘Maps’, as O beckons to her love “they don’t love you like I love you”. The quick rate of change happening in the world Yeah Yeah Yeahs existed in at the start of the millennium can also be heard in the album’s blistering undertone, a palpable bombast you can feel in the quick percussion of ‘Date With The Night’, and in the pulsating acknowledgement, “we’re all gonna burn in hell” in ‘Man’. There’s also petulance pouring out of O as she moans, howls, and gasps throughout each track and a youthful chaos in her delivery of lyrics like, “Boy you just a stupid bitch / And girl you just a no good dick” in ‘Black Tongue’.
‘Fever To Tell’ made an indelible mark on indie rock, one that led to more devil may care frontwoman and an abundance of rule-breaking by those seeking post-punk creativity. It’s hard to say what music would be like if ‘Fever To Tell’ was never released; lucky for us, we’ll never have to imagine that world.