New Yorkers like to think of New York as the center of the universe, or at least the center of gravity where cool is concerned. And, dammit, no matter how thoroughly and vigorously landlocked dolts like me detail the cultural contributions of our home turf, there’s really no denying the wealth of music that has spilled from the five boroughs, nor that music’s incomparable influence. (Crotchety aside: It helps when you’re importing most of the best talent from other markets, Yankees-style.) Let’s not be too reductive here, because the city’s musical history is far richer and more multifaceted than the exceptionally trendy output of a few adjacent neighborhoods, BUT: Among the antecedents of Stereogum’s post-indie rock wheelhouse, Lower Manhattan was the place to be for decades. The hegemony stretched from Dylan to the Velvets to CBGB to the Roxy to Sonic Youth until, around the turn of the millennium, the axis of influence finally shifted to Brooklyn, where it remains to this day. But first, the Lower East Side would birth one last seminal rock band.
The Strokes seemed to have rolled together so many of the great Manhattan bands before them with a pop touch that outstripped them all. In a sense, they were the logical endpoint of the gentrification that chased the starving artists out of one neighborhood after another until they had no choice but to flee across the Williamsburg Bridge. (Of course, that same gentrification eventually followed them to Brooklyn too, as foretold by the great prophet Thomas Frank). This was five rich kids repackaging decades of hip, high-minded New York music in rumpled bubblegum wrappers. It wasn’t nearly as devious as people seemed to think back then; their wealthy pedigree and pointed embrace of telephone-quality vocal production set off innumerable screeds about authenticity, but they never seemed to give a shit about anything beyond being cool, getting drunk and winning over the other guy’s girl.
Their chosen vehicle for such maneuvers happened to be a polished, populist update on traditionally grimy, occasionally elitist music. And wow were they good at it — good enough to make the contrived “Return of the rock!” movement seem viable and exciting, hype fiends and teeny-boppers though they may have been. Their 2001 debut Is This It was a machine with every cog functioning to perfection: the swaggering bellow; the impossibly punchy guitar tandem; the metronome-precise rhythm section; the songs! It’s a masterpiece. When you think of the Strokes, the impossibly cool Is This It iteration is what inevitably comes to mind, as it should. It’s the band’s sacred text and only suitable entry point.
For sheltered teens like myself, Is This It was also an ideal tour guide to decades of rock history. I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to discover Marquee Moon without following the threads back from “Trying Your Luck”; a primitivist surge like “The Modern Age” was necessary to acclimate my pedestrian palate to the sounds of The Velvet Underground and Nico. It’s not like I ever left the Strokes behind, though. Is This It still means more to me than any of the landmark albums that informed it. This music was youth distilled and carbonated, the perfect soundtrack to senior year of high school. Even driving to take the SAT on a frigid Saturday morning felt exhilarating with Is This It blaring. The dense poof atop my head in my Ohio University student ID can be traced directly back to that album’s influence. Its tracklist was the source material for one of the most exciting concerts I ever saw, a road trip to Cleveland well worth lying to my parents about (an appropriately minor rebellion for a band that embodied feigned danger). I didn’t understand much of the context back then, but a dozen years and thousands of albums later, Is This It is still easily one of the best debuts of all time. In fact, the Strokes have never been able to escape its exceptionally long shadow. They emerged fully formed with nowhere to go but down, their power steadily evaporating along with the fleeting enchantment of youth.
With their fifth album now here, I’ve been thinking about the whole of their recorded output, and frankly, it hasn’t been pretty. This article is about their 10 best songs; I could just rattle off the the tracklist from Is This It minus one, and it would be hard to argue with me. But that would be reductive, and we aren’t being reductive here, remember? The Strokes’ debut is indisputably superior to their next four records — a study in diminishing returns if there ever was one — but it’s not like these guys never recorded another great song after “Take It Or Leave It.” Despite my hopes that they’d release a second album called This Is It and retire as legends, 2003’s Room On Fire otherwise lived up to all reasonable expectations, milking the template for almost as many classic tracks as its predecessor. (Rest assured, many of those songs were on the bubble here.) As for 2006’s bloated, under-edited First Impressions Of Earth and 2011’s excruciatingly overworked Angles: mostly forgettable, but not without their (not gonna do it… OK, gonna do it) strokes of genius. Even the solo albums from Julian Casablancas and Albert Hammond Jr. yielded surprisingly satisfying returns.
And now there’s Comedown Machine, an album that proves, against all odds, that following rabbit trails isn’t such a bad look for the Strokes when they find the right ones to follow. It’s not a game-changer where their legacy is concerned, but it’s still fresh; after living with these songs for a month or a year or a decade, this list might be shaken up considerably. (But after going back and listening to those first two records … probably not.) In the meantime, Comedown Machine confirms the notion that this band still has something left to offer, if only in spurts. Just as fading late-period sitcoms have been known to crank out a brilliant episode now and then to remind us why we started watching in the first place, even the latter-day Strokes occasionally recapture the magic.
Here’s our list of the Strokes’ 10 best songs. Show us yours in the comments.
10. “You Only Live Once” from First Impressions of Earth (2006)
Did you know the Strokes invented YOLO almost six years before Aubrey Graham made it his motto? Well, not exactly, but they did invent Free Energy, as much as a band formed two decades after 1978 could be credited with inventing Free Energy.
9. “Someday” from Is This It (2001)
“Last Nite” is better than any Tom Petty/Swing Kids hybrid deserves to be, but among Is This It’s finger-snappin’ sock-hop hits, “Someday” reigns supreme. Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. made their guitars intersect in extremely complicated ways across the band’s catalog, and it was always beautiful, but the simple chiming vs. chugging that guides “Someday” might be their crowning achievement.
8. “Tap Out” from Comedown Machine (2013)
One critical line on Comedown Machine that has already become gospel is that it sounds like Phoenix, particularly the It’s Never Been Like That era when Phoenix was trying to sound like the Strokes. That comparison stems directly from the ’80s-inspired, falsetto-infused “Tap Out,” a song that trumps anything on Bankrupt! the same way It’s Never Been Like That far outstripped First Impressions Of Earth. That’s one strange, luxurious, emotionally detached hall of mirrors these bands inhabit. Anyhow — breathy, melancholic robo-pop doesn’t come better than this.
7. “Barely Legal” from Is This It (2001)
“I didn’t take no shortcuts/ I spent the money that I saved up” sounds pretty defensive coming from the heir to the John Casablancas modeling empire, but that’s just one of many memorable lyrics young Julian coughed up while riding high on his bandmates’ motorbike rumble. As such, “Barely Legal” is better than your average rich kid’s kiss-off. (Azealia knows what I’m talking about.) No song sums up this band’s early M.O. more effectively than this spun-out screed about sex, lies, and trenchcoats. Idiot savant guitar figures plus disaffected pre-Paul Banks nonsensical blather: All together, it went well.
6. “The End Has No End” from Room On Fire (2003)
Closing numbers take many shapes — building tension to the breaking point or gliding to a soft landing; riding into the sunset or fading into the darkness — but you know one when you hear one. The Room On Fire sessions birthed at least two big finishers, and rather than misplace one of them in the tracklist or relegate one to B-side status, the Strokes beat The Return Of The King to the punch by a couple months and just stacked the endings on top of each other. Thus, “The End Has No End,” as surefire a closer as there ever was, got the penultimate slot while the more freewheeling “I Can’t Win” capped off the album. Both songs rule, but this one gets the nod for somehow bridging the past (the Cars) and the future (Phoenix) by way of the more distant past (the Velvet Underground). The end has no end, indeed.
5. “The Modern Age” from Is This It (2001)
Never have those accusations of pilfering from Lou Reed been more warranted, but rock songs as great as “The Modern Age” are almost always the product of thievery. The most elemental swath of sound in this band’s discography is punctuated by syncopated octaves (an underrated weapon in the garage rock arsenal, also used to wonderful effect on “Trying Your Luck”) and an appropriately wanton guitar solo, thudding and bashing along until a glorious arching chorus breaks free from the clatter. This is what working hard but saying it’s easy sounds like.
4. “Take It Or Leave It” from Is This It (2001)
At first, Casablancas delivers “Take It Or Leave It” as some sort of jumbled treatise on romantic politics, but eventually he lays down his hand and reveals the burning jealousy behind all the flimsy philosophizing: “He’s gonna lllleeeetttt yooooouuuuuu doooooowwwwwwnnn!” The band is at its angriest, skillfully building up the tension to match their singer’s rising blood pressure. It hits harder than any other Strokes song, which is extra impressive given the cornball showtune melody Casablancas rides to the finish. If he wasn’t so dispassionate, you could almost imagine him doing the splits at the end of this one.
3. “New York City Cops” from Is This It (2001)
“New York City Cops” is a whimsical dismissal of the hapless NYPD with a chorus that goes like this: “New York City cops/ They ain’t too smart!” In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, such sentiments seemed more than a little crass, so the song was removed from the U.S. version of Is This It as a gesture of good faith. That was probably the right thing to do, but you’d be wise to pick up the U.K. version and enjoy Is This It the way it was meant to be. Pinch-hitter “When It Started” isn’t cut out for the big leagues (actually, it predicts a lot of the cartoonish missteps of the band’s later career), and it’s a serious momentum killer where this magnificent joyride was supposed to be. The shift from minor-key mischief to major-key revelry at the chorus is so dumbfoundingly effective it belongs in rock ’n’ roll textbooks.
2. “Reptilia” from Room on Fire (2003)
Like all the best Strokes songs, there are so many awesome moving pieces in “Reptilia” — Fab Moretti’s drumroll into creeping feedback, the guitar daggers that carry the intro into the verses, Casablancas raving “The room is on fire as she’s fixing her hair!” — and the song is expertly designed to showcase each one of them. But they all take a backseat to the ping-ponging high-register guitar riff that forms the backbone of the chorus. It’s the kind of riff a teenager would write then discard based on a wrongful belief that it’s too much of a lark to be taken seriously; or, like, any of the countless (mostly British) bands that formed in the wake of Strokesmania would write it and build a terrible song around it. The Strokes did not discard it, nor did they write a terrible song around it. They used it to construct arguably the Strokesiest Strokes single ever, a feat we can all be thankful for.
1. “Hard To Explain” from Is This It (2001)
The Strokes have always been machine-like in their deployment of typically rabid rock tropes, but only here do they sound like an all-consuming army of machines closing in from all sides, Chuck E. Cheese style. You’d think “animatronic garage band” would be a bad look for these guys — kind of, I don’t know, dinky? — but “Hard to Explain” is humongous in all the best ways. It feels thick even when its component parts seem paper thin. It sounds loud even when you turn it down. It surges forward with unstoppable momentum until, without warning, it halts instantly. And like every great Strokes single, it shrouds its narrative’s discernable reference points in garbled, punch-drunk imagery, encapsulating the sensory overload of restless, hedonistic youth and dissolving it into a perfect pop song.
Listen to this playlist on Spotify.