Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Killers and Brandon Flowers Album

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Hot Fuss (2004, Island)

A +

Easily one of the greatest debut albums of the ‘00s, the Killers show no signs here of still being in their infancy, already sounding as tight, confident, and artistically focused as you could ever want a band to be.
Their sound would change quite a bit in later years, but here, they’re a hard-rocking, synth-pop outfit with a heavy debt to the likes of Joy Division/New Order, Duran Duran, and Depeche Mode. Best of all, these guys are amazing songwriters, and you couldn’t ask for a better set of songs to grace your debut album. Technically, the only actual Top 40 hit here is the jealousy-infused dance-rock of the Top Ten hit “Mr. Brightside,” but not a lot of people realize that since so many of the songs here have gone on to remain staples of alternative-rock stations, anyway, including the incredibly fun Duran Duran sound-alike “Somebody Told Me” and the hard-driving gospel-laced rock of “All These Things That I’ve Done.” There’s really not a bad cut here, and virtually every last song has a hook powerful enough to get it lodged into your head for days on end, including the chugging “Change Your Mind,” the innuendo-heavy “On Top,” the spacey “Smile Like You Mean It,” and the gut punch of “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine.” The combination of Brandon Flowers’ synths, Dave Keuning’s guitar crunch, Mark Stoermer’s steady bass and Ronnie Vannucci’s aggressive, muscular drum work throughout makes for as dynamic a rhythm section as modern-rock saw in the ‘00s, and they arguably never sounded better together than they do here.

Sam’s Town (2006, Island)

A +

This album got brutal – absolutely brutal – reviews when it was first released, but it may be that the negative response to the album was simply a reaction to just how radically the group changed its sound since its debut. Brandon Flowers’ synth playing is used only very sporadically here, and the band has ditched the New Order and Duran Duran influences of Hot Fuss to immerse themselves fully in the sound of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band circa Born to Run, so the album is rooted almost entirely in classic-rock and only occasionally in new-wave. Flowers can’t quite belt or scream like Springsteen, so he strains a little in places with his vocals, but when the songs are this good, it’s easy to forgive the album’s overly raw performances. The pile-driving “When You Were Young” was the album’s lone Top 40 hit, but there are other should-have-been hits here, namely the intense “For Reasons Unknown,” which calls to mind the glam-rock of early ‘70s Bowie and Roxy Music, and the brass-laden new-wave of “Bones,” which is the closest thing on here to the ‘80s-influenced dance-rock of Hot Fuss. “Read Your Mind” is the most sedate song here, and it became a minor hit at modern-rock radio, but it’s actually not as catchy as some of the other surrounding cuts, like the Springsteen-esque “This River Is Wild” and the paranoid ELO-like “Why Do I Keep on Counting.” It’s not nearly as danceable an album as the debut, of course, but it’s still quite fun and catchy throughout and deserved a better reception than it got. 

Day & Age (2008, Island)

B

Perhaps in reaction to the negative reviews of its sophomore outing, the Killers retreated to more familiar, new-wave-oriented territory on its third album, but the songwriting isn’t quite as consistently strong this time out, so the concession to the dance floor only goes so far. Still, there’s a handful of good – if not rock-solid – songs to redeem the album, namely the devastatingly pretty synth-heavy single “Human” (“Are we human / or are we dancer?”), which you sadly don’t hear all that often on alternative-rock stations these days but might still hold up as the loveliest melody the Las Vegas band has ever crafted and one of its most underappreciated singles; the fun, brass-laden rock stutter of “Losing Touch”; the insistent marching rhythms of the slightly-world-music-tinged “This Is Your Life”; and the fast, pounding rock of “Spaceman,” which fuses a distinctly Bowie-like lyric to a backing track that would have fit in effortlessly onto Hot Fuss.

Sawdust (2007, Island)

B –

Much like the Smiths’ Louder than Bombs, Sawdust is a B-sides and rarities package collecting all kinds of stray oddities. The Lou Reed collaboration “Tranquilize” doesn’t really work and it’s easy to see why some of the other outtakes didn’t make it onto a proper studio album (cutting “Where the White Boys Dance” from Sam’s Town was definitely a good call), but there are some excellent originals included here (namely the Hot Fuss outtake, “Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll,” “Leave the Bourbon on the Shelf,” and the pounding, vaguely U2-ish “Move Away,” a first-rate Sam’s Town outtake). There are also a few fun covers included here, including a BBC live recording of the band doing a cover of the Kenny Rogers & the First Edition song “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” a studio outtake of the band covering Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet,” and, best of all, a faithful, loving rendition of the Joy Division classic “Shadowplay” that even became a minor radio hit for the band and landed the song onto the Hot 100 for the first time. It’s not an essential purchase, but for an odds-and-ends package, it’s got just enough gems to make it worth repeated listens.

Flamingo (2010, Island)

B +

While it doesn’t have any one particular song as strong as Day & Age’s “Human,” Brandon Flowers’ first solo outing is surprisingly arguably a more consistent album from start to finish than Day & Age was. The album’s first single, “Crossfire,” was a dramatic mid-tempo chugger that was more memorable for its over-the-top video (featuring Charlize Theron and several ninja warriors, which, let’s face it, is all you really need in a music video to grab a guy’s attention) than for its actual melody, which is just so-so at best and might lead you to think the album is lacking for catchy songs, but there are some very fine and immediately attention-grabbing tunes here, especially the danceable guitar-rock of “Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts,” the frenetic synth-driven stomp of “Was It Something I Said,” and the addictive album-closing “Swallow It.”

Battle Born (2012, Island)

B –

It’s never actually bad per se – on the contrary, it’s actually pretty good – but it’s still hard not to be disappointed by how lifeless Battle Born seems. Here, they’re neither working in the same synth-pop/dance-rock vein that powered Hot Fuss and, to a lesser extent, Day & Age, nor are they revisiting the Springsteen-esque arena-sized rock sound of Sam’s Town. Instead, they’re just churning out power ballads. Lots and lots of them. Way too many of them, in fact. There’s such an utter lack of up-tempo material on here that you can’t help but scratch your head and wonder if you’re actually listening to the same band that turned out one of the most danceable rock albums of the last fifteen years on its very first try and used to make singles as lively as “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me.” The songs here lack the immediate hooks of old, but they’re not forgettable, either, and most of them do sink in by the second or third listen, particularly the clever and excellent “Miss Atomic Bomb” and “Flesh and Bone” and, to a lesser extent, “The Way It Was” and “Runaways.” Still, only on the acoustic-guitar-driven rock stomp of “From Here on Out” does the band actually ever show any real energy, and you can’t help but feel like the band is just really, really exhausted and just doesn’t want to do anything but ballads anymore. That wouldn’t be so bad if they made great ballads, but it’s unfortunately not the band’s strong suit.

The Desired Effect (2015, Island)

A –

Flowers’ second solo outing is thankfully a lot more fun and playful than the Killers’ last studio outing, and he makes it clear from the album’s very opening cut, the heavily Springsteen-esque dramatic, pounding rock of “Dreams Come True,” that this will be not be as plodding and ballad-heavy as Battle Born. There are still some ballads, naturally, but they’re generally thankfully catchier and more interesting than the Killers’ most recent slow songs; “Between Me and You” even features some lovely piano playing from, incongruously enough, Bruce Hornsby! The synth-driven atmospheric disco of “Lonely Town” is simply chill-inducing, while the breezy rocker “Untangled Love” is the happiest Flowers has sounded in some time, and the insanely catchy “Diggin’ Up the Heart” – the album’s most fun moment – revisits the neo-rockabilly sound of early ‘80s ELO cuts like “Hold on Tight” and “Rock & Roll Is King” to winning results. Let’s hope the next Killers album is much in this same vein, because this is the liveliest and most inspired that either Brandon or his full-time band has sounded on record since Sam’s Town.  

Compilations:

The Killers may seem unlikely candidates to already have a hits disc to their name (not that they’ve lacked for hits, of course, but they, after all, have just released four proper studio albums to date, as well as a B-sides/rarities collection), but the 2013 compilation Direct Hits is a rock-solid best-of package that also sports two new cuts. “Shot at the Night” is unfortunately another power ballad in the vein of Battle Born, but the more up-tempo “Just Another Girl” is pretty good. The anthology portion of the disc is very well-done, thankfully not excluding any major hits (it would have been nice to have the minor hits “Bones” and “Shadowplay” here as well, but the underrated “For Reasons Unknown” is surprisingly included, which nearly makes up for it) and balancing the albums fairly evenly, including four songs from Hot Fuss and three songs each from Sam’s Town, Day & Age, and Battle Born.