IDLES' success is nothing short of miraculous. Relative unknowns when they put out debut Brutalism in 2017, within two years they'd managed to sell out nearly every UK date they played since, rising from small clubs to academies and even Alexandra Palace with ease. In an age where rock is often proclaimed dead and loses pride of place as the world's most popular genre, IDLES exploded into the mainstream consciousness with a socially aware sonic smorgasbord that drew on everything from post-punk, soul and indie to hardcore and noise, nabbing a #1 spot in the UK with their third record Ultra Mono and spawning the documentary Don't Go Gentle about their ascent, in the process.
Pinning IDLES to a single genre seems redundant when the band seem as at ease supporting Foo Fighters as they do covering Gang of Four, The Streets or Sharon Van Etten. Even Metallica couldn't avoid being subsumed into the IDLES framework when the band offered their own idiosyncratic take on The God That Failed for the all-star covers album The Metallica Blacklist. With their fourth album Crawler due on November 12th, we dived back into IDLES' back catalogue to pick the ten best songs of their career thus far.
10. Samaritans (2018)
At its most reductionist, criticism of IDLES' lyrical content often points towards the band's aptitude for taking complicated topics like toxic masculinity, rape culture or austerity and using them producing slogans that masquerade as choruses. The rebuttal to that is that of course the band are sloganeering - what use is a chorus if it doesn't grab you by the throat and demand you bark along the second you hear it?
They might balk at the punk tag, but IDLES uphold that genre's ear for brilliant dry wit and pithy observation that cuts through the heart of a conversation to spread a message. In Samaritans, lines like the Kurt Cobain-rebutting 'I love myself and I want to try' and 'This is why you never see your father cry' are vocalist Joe Talbot at his Ian Dury-esque best, deftly navigating the subject of toxic masculinity in a song that, as its parent album attests, offers joy as an act of resistance.
9. Grounds (2020)
IDLES weren't exactly reinventing the sonic wheel when it came to Ultra Mono. Instead, they refined the elements of the sound they had already established on both prior records, while expanding their sonic blueprints enough that sometimes the songs feel as though they come from somewhere entirely removed from the rock/alternative spectrum altogether.
Grounds is this writ large, its core rhythm feeling more like something you might hear in a Dizzee Rascal track. Even so, the clangs and howls of guitar and bass uphold the band's noise-adjacent tendencies that seemed somewhat stripped back on Joy As An Act of Resistance, bringing some Big Black or Mclusky back into the mix. IDLES took on becoming a commercial success not by stripping away the edges, but by cleverly subsuming them into wider pop culture.
8. Never Fight A Man With A Perm (2018)
Aggro as you like, Never Fight A Man With A Perm shows off IDLES' more visceral, venomous side. The band had already mined the topic of violence as an alternative to boredom in the sublime Exeter, but against the more progressive lyrical spins on Joy As An Act Of Resistance, Never Fight A Man With A Perm perfectly captures the tone of reckless destructiveness.
Throwing lyrics out like 'He hates me, I like that/Two arms like big baseball bats' and 'You look like a Topshop tyrant/Even your haircut's violent', the band lace humour with venom in just the right dose to make an effective bounce-along. Powered by an almost needling guitar tone, the song doesn't feel a million miles removed from something you'd hear on a Gallows record.
7. A Hymn (2020)
Quite how A Hymn wasn't the closing track to Ultra Mono we'll never know. By no means IDLES first foray into gentler ballad country, A Hymn smooths away almost all of the abrasion of the band's sound into a melancholic ode to existentialism. Talbot's voice on the opening line 'I want to be loved' is pure post-punk yearning, set somewhere between the moodiness of Joy Division and weightlessness of The Stone Roses' I Wanna Be Adored.
The line 'We made it… shame' feels especially poignant considering that the album was most certainly the marker for the point that IDLES had 'made it'. A Hymn serves as a sober reflection on an album otherwise determined by stabbing, stomping and charging riffs and drumbeats that lend the overall record a visceral physicality.
6. 1049 Gotho (2017)
A Joyful sense of release expressed through a 3:46 punk-adjacent rager, 1049 Gotho builds anticipation before exploding to life with a whoop – exactly the kind of thing that would have any metal band demanding fans split down the middle and clatter each other. Trust IDLES to turn a song about depression into something frantic and fun, completely subverting tone while the lyrics unambiguously address the core topic.
While IDLES haven't particularly lived under the punk umbrella, this song feels as close to the classic punk formula as they get, structural simplicity concealing a keen wit just beneath the surface. That it bears more hooks than a fisherman's tacklebox is further testament to IDLES ability to subvert even the darkest topics into a communal exorcism.
5. Divide & Conquer (2017)
IDLES most menacing track, Divide & Conquer sees the band stomp their way firmly towards noise rock territory as discordant guitars wail away. Anchored by a stomping drumbeat that would do John Bonham proud, the song stalks with all the predatory pace and unstoppability of an 80s slasher villain.
Talbot's mocking laughter and harsh bark is put to full use as the band lunge into a song about the privatisation of the NHS, drawing on Talbot's own experiences caring for his mother and feeling that her life had been shortened by cuts to the health service. IDLES fury is turned into a hateful inferno, barely contained for most of the track before exploding in the final 40 seconds into a whirlwind of gnashing teeth and scorching, metallic guitars.
4. Danny Nedelko (2018)
Perhaps the ultimate testament to IDLES' ability to evoke a sense of community and unity, Danny Nedelko features perhaps one of the band's catchiest choruses in a track that oozes love and positivity. Named for the frontman of Bristol punks Heavy Lungs, the song is a joyous ode to immigrants that removes any sense of hot-button political posturing and instead restores a sense of humanity that gets robbed whenever the topic is raised in media.
Defiantly opening on the line 'My blood brother is an immigrant - a beautiful immigrant', IDLES made absolutely no secret of their distaste for xenophobia whilst creating a massive anthem of inclusivity in the process.
3. June (2018)
Tragedy haunted the lyrical content of IDLES' first two records. June is a painful ballad even on first listen, but with the added context that the song was written in tribute to Talbot's daughter Agatha, who was born stillborn in June 2017. The lyrical content swings between agonisingly poignant and hopelessly forlorn, buried beneath a blanket of ever-present noise.
Drawing on personal tragedy, IDLES still manage to craft a song which feels enormously cathartic, putting shape and form to feelings and scenarios that are almost unfathomably difficult. June simultaneously raises the hackles and brings tears to the eye, so emotionally candid and brittle that it inhabits a space of personal pain so rare it's only contemporaries are in the diverse likes of Korn on Daddy or Lingua Ignota's Caligula.
2. Well Done (2017)
Speaking to Hammer in 2017, IDLES frontman Joe Talbot admitted that Well Done had originally been written as a grime song, but "by the time it churned through the IDLES engine it sounded nothing like a grime song." The track still bears the grime spirit that gave birth to it however, particularly in the jabbing guitars (described by Talbot as "*kchang kchang* guitars") and repeated vocal hooks that latch in deep.
Though Well Done doesn't come out sounding entirely like grime, it does have the advantage of feeling as though it could have spawned from the same genetic material as Jesus Lizard or Washington hardcore, all sharp angles and jutting beats. First released as a single back in 2016, this song was a portent of things to come, IDLES announcing themselves to the world with a boot to the face.
1. Mother (2017)
'The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich'. IDLES weren't pulling any punches with this single, the vitriol poured out in their debut Brutalism given a very explicit target just two songs into the record. With a shriek of 'No surrender!' on album opener Heel/Heal, IDLES had announced themselves to the world with an album that laced addictive hooks with cyanide and cynicism; while the band would eventually move on to brighter tones and outlooks, their first record had the bleakness of a band aware that nothing was going to change.
Except, change did come - perhaps not for wider society, but for the band's lot in life as they went from the underground to cult sensation and eventual conquering force in a heartbeat. It's not hard to track that trajectory when listening to songs like Mother, with clever turns of phrase mixed in with righteous anger and social commentary. Tackling rape culture on the line 'Sexual violence doesn't start and end with rape/It starts in our books and behind our school gates', IDLES drew on social and political discourse to fuel their ire, dispelling the myth that an artist must be apolitical to achieve mainstream success. Mother is the foundation for the rest of IDLES' career to date – sonically distinct, lyrically aware and defiant enough to claw their way right to the top.
Crawler is out November 12 via Partisan Records