When The Strokes first appeared, the rock-music landscape looked very different. Rap-rock artists ruled the charts with Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water one of the best-selling albums of the year. But then came The Strokes, who revived ol’ fashioned rock ’n’ roll. Their first album Is This It, was one of the greatest and most influential albums of the last decade, opening the floodgates for alternative acts like The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys and The Black Keys on the radio. Is This It’s title could be taken as an assessment of the state of rock music at the time, with The Strokes offering something that was clearly missing. With the album’s 10th anniversary this month, here are the twenty best songs by The Strokes.
The Strokes’ second album was lambasted by critics for sounding too much like the debut. But the first single “12:51”, experimented in ways that they band would further explore, making Nick Valenis’s guitar sound like a synth keyboard, perfect for the music video, an homage to Tron.
“Fear of Sleep”, off the bands’ third album First Impression of Earth was another new direction for the band. The lead guitar has a much different sound than usual, and the slow build into an incredible extroverted chorus, especially for Julian Casablancas, has the lead singer screaming “you’re no fun”, while the band seems to be having plenty of it.
Also of their third album, “Heart in a Cage” takes a more aggressive turn for the band, as Casablancas sings about abandonment, feeling trapped and paranoia. Also worth checking out the is the bluegrass version, by Chris Thile that surprisingly works slowed down with a banjo.
“Is This It”, the opening track to the debut album of the same name, opens simply, the calm before the storm. Nikolai Fraiture’s bass line influenced Jared Followill of Kings of Leon, who has stated that when he was 15, was one of the first bass lines he ever learned, and that this album was one of the main reasons he wanted to be in a band.
Regina Spektor added a feminine touch to The Strokes with the B-side “Modern Girls & Old Fashion Men.” Casablancas and Spektor’s back-and-forth is a great change for the band. In fact, the single was delayed because Casablancas believed it should be credited as “Regina Spektor and The Strokes” instead of the other way around.
The third and final single from “Is This It,” “Someday” is a look back at better days past. “When we was young, oh man, did we have fun” seems like a premonition of the future from Casablancas. The video showcases this good time, as the band hangs out with Slash at a bar, intercut with the band playing against Guided By Voices in a game of “Family Feud.”
“I Can’t Win” was the final song on Room on Fire and almost could be seen as a preemptive attack on people worrying about the sophomore slump as the song goes, “Good try, we don’t like it, good try, we won’t take that shit, oh I can’t win.”
“The End Has No End” is a great combination of the garage-rock sound that The Strokes were known for and their future, more ’80s-inspired sound. The song and subsequent video features a man who “wants it easy, he want it relaxed,” yet sometimes things can’t quite be so simple.
“I’ll Try Anything Once” was actually a demo for the opening track to First Impressions of Earth, “What Ever Happened?” The track is bare bones for the band, with only Valensi on keyboard and Casablancas singing. The song’s subtle beauty worked perfectly in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, almost like it was made specifically to fit Coppola’s style.
After a five-year hiatus, The Strokes returned with “Under Cover of Darkness,” their first single from Angles. The song features a huge riff/hook that recalls the band’s earliest days and throws in a slight dig at the song that made them famous, “Last Nite,” when Casablancas sings “everybody’s been singing the same song for 10 years.”
“Ask Me Anything” was the first time on a Strokes album that the band tried a sound completely different from their own. With Valensi on mellotron, the lyrics take a turn for the meta as Casablancas goes “god is trying to talk to you, we could drag it out, but that’s for other bands to do,” and he goes on to declare that he no longer has anything to say.
On “Soma” every member of the band does what they do best. The song is builds slowly, beginning with a haunting yet simplistic guitar part before Fabrizio Moretti’s drums intensify and Casablancas gets more and more aggressive, until the classic dead stop at the end.
“Barely Legal” is a tale of teenage trial and error, as Casablancas wonders if he should have put forward more effort or just given up earlier than he did. He summarizes the ideals of teen angst by with the simple line “to me my life it just don’t make any sense.”
“What Ever Happened?” has the band dealing with a society that wants something new, yet is destined to repeat the same mistakes. As The Strokes have progressed through albums, this dual nature of criticism has always haunted them, but “What Ever Happened?” is a powerhouse of an opening track to Room on Fire.
“You Only Live Once” has Casablancas spouting off advice to the audience and addressing religion, a subject he revisits on “Ask Me Anything.” The title of this song could be the band’s motto: You’ve only got once chance, so live life to its fullest.
“Hard to Explain” was released at The Strokes’ first single and serves as a great primer to the band. The repetitive, tin-biscuit drums, abrupt stops through the song and high-pitched guitar part create a great portrait of what listeners could expect from the rest of Is This It.
“New York City Cops” was one of the best songs on The Strokes’ debut album. Unfortunately American audiences had the song switched out for the less exciting “When It Started.” The lyric, “New York City Cops, they ain’t too smart,” prompted the song’s removal after the September 11 attacks. But the song, with its punk riff and jagged lines, is less structured and has Casablancas playing around more than usual, a welcome change.
The first recorded material from The Strokes, “The Modern Age”, started out much faster than the version that would be heard on Is This It. It also launched a bidding war among record labels. RCA would win the rights and release Is This It, one of the most important albums of the last decade.
Like the video for “Reptilia,” the song showcases the greatest work of each of the members, culminating in the most exciting and pumping song from The Strokes. Albert Hammond Jr.’s fast strumming accentuates the excitement that builds until the final moments when all hell breaks loose as every member gives it their all. “Reptilia” refers to the part of the brain that processes love and hate, and the soft/loud balance throughout the song definitely captures that.
Valensi’s single note repeated over and over again at the beginning of “Last Nite” (an opening lifted from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl”) plays like a call to action. “Last Nite” stood out starkly among the rap-rock and nü metal on the radio in a way that hadn’t been heard since Nirvana’s Nevermind. The Strokes recalled great ’70s New York bands like Television and The Velvet Underground, a refreshing change that was definitely needed.