The kings of NYC cool…
I have spoken before about my undying love for Oasis, Nirvana and Weezer. More than any other artists, those three shaped my life in untold ways and they continue to influence me even now. Even with that in mind though, there is a nagging feeling that they were never truly mine. I was 7 in 1994. The year that saw the release of Oasis’ Definitely Maybe, Weezer’s The Blue Album and the tragic suicide of Kurt Cobain. At 7, I was more interested in finding a free transformer in a box of Coco Pops than Kurt Cobain’s shotgun.
I got in on the ground floor with Arctic Monkeys but before Sheffield’s finest there was another band who changed the musical landscape at a time when I was just old enough to appreciate it. The Strokes burst on the scene in early 2001 with the classic single ‘Hard to Explain’ and there was enough buzz about them for the 12 year old me to pick up on. From the moment a friend from school landed me a pirated copy of the Strokes debut album Is This It, I was hooked.
I haven’t stuck with The Strokes in the same way as say Radiohead or Conor Oberst. This is partly due to diminishing returns musically but also because my own music taste have changed. In revisiting The Strokes discography however, I found something satisfying on each of their albums. Here are the results…
5. Comedown Machine (2013)
Key Track: One Way Trigger
What They Said: ‘It was kind of all five of us going back and forth hashing out an album like the good old days’ – Bassist Nikolai Fraiture
Never a band to rest on their laurels, The Strokes released their 5th album Comedown Machine on the back of a media blackout and with little fanfare. What followed was an album that shows no interest whatsoever in history and musical lineage of The Strokes earlier albums. There is no compromise, no nods to the fanbase and nothing to connect Comedown Machine with Is This It or Room On Fire. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if it were a strong collection of songs, sadly it mostly falls flat.
Lead single ‘One Way Trigger’ is the highlight but the song also features the piercing falsetto of Julian Casablancas, something that blights the rest of the album as well. Falsetto rarely adds anything to an indie rock bands sound but then, Comedown Machine gives the impression that The Strokes want to be seen as much more than just an indie rock band. It is an experimental and unique album but aside from ‘One Way Trigger’ and the jerky funk of ‘Welcome to Japan’ there is little to warm to. An album that tries so hard to do something new but ends up being forgettable and samey. Recent EP Future Present Past points at a return to form but they will never recapture the magic dust sprinkled on their first two albums.
4. Angles (2011)
Key Track: Machu Picchu
What They Said: ‘It seems like they want you to slowly kill yourself andwrite the best stuff ever possible, but there comes a point where one just takes away the other one. Living so fast you’re not even doing music any more’ – Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.
The Strokes fourth album was met with kind of a shrug upon release, mainly because it doesn’t meet the standards set by the first three albums. As fourth albums go though it is imaginative, tuneful and consistent, Angles could certainly lay claim to being one of the most underrated album of 2011.
The head nodding stomp of ‘Machu Picchu’ and the sonic party that is ‘Under Cover of Darkness’ stand up with anything off the first three albums and ‘Taken For a Fool’ is perhaps the most underrated Strokes song. The mournful ‘Call Me Back’ and the Steely Dan influenced romp ‘Gratisfaction’ bring a different dimension to the NYC bands sound and hint at the experimentation that would follow on Comedown Machine. That being said, there is no doubting that Angles was a dip in quality in comparison to their previous work but then only a handful of bands are capable of maintaining that level of craftsmanship.
3. First Impressions of Earth (2006)
Key Track: Heart In A Cage
What They Said: ‘Talk about not having fun– that’s the understatement of the year. I was balls-to-the-wall fucked up, so it’s hard for me to judge’ – Albert Hammond Jr.
‘It was difficult to put on a smile everyday. It was a get-the-job-done kind of thing’ – Drummer Fab Moretti
‘I don’t think it was good enough, we didn’t nail it’ – Singer Julian Casablancas
Those quotes stand in stark contrast to a brilliant third record. The paranoid twitching of ‘Juicebox’ and the shifty frustration of ‘Heart In A Cage’ make up two of The Strokes finest singles. The first five songs fly by with Casablancas barely coming up for air and whilst the album tails off a little after that and is at least three songs too long, it is still the sound of a band yet to fall from their creative peak. It is also the most confessional Strokes album with Casablancas sighing ‘I’m tired of everyone’ and lamenting having ‘nothing to say’ on the anti journalistic rant of ‘Ask Me Anything’. Hidden away at track 12 is ‘Ize of the World’, a lost gem that stands as a link between the two different incarnations of The Strokes.
First Impressions Of Earth is not a masterpiece but it is still an album that kept The Strokes firmly at the head of table musically and it contains some of their best songs.
2. Room On Fire (2003)
Key Track: What Ever Happened?
What They Said: ‘Your girlfriend can leave you and your mother will yell at you, but when you start feeling like it’s hurting the music, then it’s a bad mistake.’ – Julian Casablancas on quitting drinking while recording ‘Room On Fire’.
For the first time in the RANKED series, I can’t separate 1 and 2 so this is more like joint first. The fact is if I am listening to Room On Fire then it is my favourite Strokes record but if I am listening to Is This It then that becomes my favourite. It’s all very confusing…
Room On Fire is perfect, from the roared introduction of ‘What Ever Happened’ right through to the jaunty dance-a-long of ‘I Can’t Win’. To start one of the most anticipated albums of all time with the lyric ‘I wanna be forgotten’ is perhaps the thing that most sums up The Strokes. Reluctant, shy, but unable to do anything else. Julian Casablancas said if he wasn’t in a band he would be ‘a bartender trying to be a writer’, even that seems far fetched. Can you picture Albert Hammond Jr. working in a bank? Fab Moretti over at the photocopier in the solicitors? Not a fucking chance. The Strokes were born to play rock ‘n’ roll, whether they want to or not. Room On Fire has been described as Is This It – Part 2, as if this is a bad thing… The truth is it does feel like an extension of their first album but when it’s this good, does it matter?
1. Is This It? (2001)
Key Track: Someday
What They Said: ‘I just wanted to write music that could touch people. As a songwriter, you play a few chords and sing a melody that’s been done a thousand times, and now you’re a singer-songwriter. I think it takes a little more than that to do something that matters’ – Julian Casablancas
In this series I have covered some of the best debut albums ever made in Definitely Maybe, The Blue Album and Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. The Strokes debut album Is This It not only holds it’s own in that list, it might just be the best of the lot. Every song is a classic and not a second is wasted. ‘Someday’, ‘Last Nite’ and ‘Hard To Explain’ will be filling indie dance floors forever, and the title track is beautiful and alien whilst still sounding completely familiar. The Strokes wear their influences on their sleeves but they have made a sound that can only be The Strokes.
Is This It is a rare example of a truly timeless album. It could have been released at any point from about 1971 onwards and it would always be considered a ground breaking classic. The Strokes blew the cobwebs off a stagnant music scene and every poker night, DJ set, BBQ and everything else in between in my life since 2001 has been soundtracked by this album. Still fresh 15 (!) years later, lets call Is This It what it is. A stonewall fucking classic.