26 Essential Songs From The NYC Rock Resurgence
Mainstream American rock music, as you might recall, was in rough shape in the late ’90s. The Alt-Nation era had run out of road for the most part, giving way to legions of awful post-grunge and nu-metal bands soundtracking extreme energy-drink commercials and extreme-sports video games. These were dark times. This was at a time when your local radio station and record store still held some sway. So, sure, there might’ve been some great indie music happening, but it was also fairly likely you couldn’t access it, depending on where you lived and how old you were.
Then, in the early days of the new millennium, a movement that had been percolating for a while started to take form and burst onto the scene in New York City. In a broad sense, you could call it the NYC rock revival, or resurgence, or early-’00s rock boom, or something. At the time, garage-rock revival, retro-rock revival, post-punk revival, and dance-punk were all monikers used liberally, and all were things that fell under the larger umbrella of the movement. As you’ll see from the list below, there were permutations within this, but generally speaking, music history remembers this in some broader terms: a youthful, stylish brand of rock music, with a carefully manicured sense of brooding, and musical touchstones that could basically be summed up by the Velvet Underground and Joy Division and the Ramones and a few other names, primarily from the late ’70s and early ’80s. There was, of course, sometimes much more to it than that, and sometimes not. In a more cynical approach, you could look at this era as the time when a few rich kids co-opted alternative cultures of the past and brought them to masses in a slightly sleeker box.
In hindsight, the NYC rock resurgence has become something of a strange transitional moment in the history of the city, as well as in the narrative of indie music, and perhaps music culture as a whole. The internet is, naturally, the main engine through which our notions of genre and scenes, along with the ways we access and consume music, have been altered. It’s why we can now have the National alongside Christina Aguilera on a Hunger Games soundtrack. But the NYC rock resurgence also played a role in the mainstreaming of indie music. Like a decade before, when bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam brought ’80s underground to the mainstream, the bands who became popular out of the retro rock scene carried with them decades of left-of-the-dial history — combined with decades of not-so-left-of-the-dial history, occasionally — and contributed to a process that led toward this weird no man’s land of indie/pop crossovers we’ve experienced in recent years.
In NYC-specific terms, this was the end of something, and perhaps realistically more like a tribute to something that was already gone. Even if a lot of the bands involved in the scene lived and operated in Brooklyn, there was not yet the notion or stereotype of “Brooklyn” as a scene or a cultural signifier to be commodified. The adopted aesthetic and influences that dominate the way we conceive of the NYC rock revival are ones of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, of CBGB and Talking Heads and Blondie and that whole era. Though it was a little ways off from becoming a total NYU playground, the East Village and LES were also not the scary, grimy places of the ’70s. A lot of the bands in the NYC rock resurgence might’ve played at diffidence and apathy, but one quality that may have been overlooked was the inherent romanticism in what they were doing. This was one last attempt at the Manhattan of old, one last gasp of LES cool. Today, nobody would seriously argue that there’s any sort of concentrated artistic community in Manhattan, compared to Brooklyn.
However, outside the city and maybe in the most important sense, the NYC rock resurgence might be the first music movement to represent the beginning of the culture of nostalgia and recycling that pervades today. Sure, fashions come in cycles and revivals of a particular musical style aren’t uncommon, but the NYC rock resurgence is perceived as being almost entirely predicated on the business of resurrection. Again, the influence of the internet here is paramount. This is around the time where people were just starting to be able to find any music they wanted, for free, and then read about it online, for free. In the terms of the art we consume and make, decades tend to bleed together now as a result. From the NYC’s early-’00s post-punk revival you can walk through the subsequent decade past a disco revival here, an emo revival there, a ’90s revival for good measure. The early ’00s scene in NYC seems to be the first time where the entire premise of a major movement is basically discussed according to what semi-distant past style it’s apparently ripping off or at least aggressively imitating. And this has been at least some part of the musical discourse ever since.
The NYC rock revival is a set of beginnings and endings collapsed into one. These bands were drawing on the mythic history of NYC while reacting to the post-9/11 city that actually surrounded them. Collectively, they offered one last glimpse at what a cohesive rock scene looks like. In a way, the scene feels more important for the transitional moment it represented than for the quality of the music itself. Any scene has its good artists, and the legions of more forgettable ones. The NYC rock resurgence, in particular, featured a few that are still legends around these parts, still important names more than a decade after its apex, and a whole lot of other bands that happened to write one great song. Below is a list of some of the most iconic songs of the movement, listed roughly in order from greatest to least great, most influential and important to least so. Of course, by the second half we get into a whole bunch of bands of similar influence (or lack thereof), and then it just depends on if they actually had many good songs.
There were, of course, a lot of other artists active in NYC during the same years, from Scissor Sisters to Morningwood to A.R.E. Weapons. They aren’t all included here, for a variety of reasons; some of them were just too unrelated musically to the ethos of the rock resurgence, and some of them just sucked. We also defined this particular movement as being something that was an inherently early-’00s phenomenon, despite the fact that many of these bands continued (or still continue) to make music. The cohesiveness, the moment of the rock resurgence, is located in the climate and culture of the early-’00s. Specifically, we decided to end around 2005, when the NYC scene started to move in a different direction in personality, sound, and borough preference. Once you get into the second half of the decade, you’re getting into the zone of being able to discuss LCD Soundsystem or the National or Vampire Weekend. At that point, it’s a different thing, and a subject for another list. So, here’s a look at what came before all that, and in some senses what laid the groundwork for much of the NYC scene in subsequent years.
01. The Strokes – “The Modern Age”
You don’t need me to tell you the whole saga of the Strokes; of course you know all, or at least most, of the Strokes’ story. There’s a solid argument to be made that they were the last great American rock band in the mold of the classic notion of rock stardom. They looked cool, they looked like they partied too much, they did the whole live-fast-and-play-raw-and-see-how-long-we-make-it thing. Almost everyone else involved in NYC’s rock resurgence was chasing the Strokes in some fashion. They were, at least, the commercial pinnacle to chase, the posterboys for the whole thing and the band who became symbolic of a whole new era of NYC culture, for a time. There were also a ton of bands in the scene who chased the Strokes much more literally — they wanted their sound, their look, their cool, their rockstar levels of success. Naturally, part of that might have been the media narrative of the day. In going back and reading old reviews of all these bands for this list, it’s kind of shocking to see the sheer amount of writers who criticized a band by comparing them unfavorably to the Strokes. They are, inescapably, the standard of the whole idea of the NYC rock resurgence. Which, yeah, that’s going to lead to some backlash. Is This It is accepted as a classic and one of the greatest debuts of all time, one of the crucial works of art for 9/11 NYC, and in a larger sense one of the single greatest NYC albums. Room On Fire is generally almost as widely loved. And from there on, things got tricky. The prolonged hiatus, slightly more uneven records. I’d argue there’s also this strange thing with the Strokes where they were the band of this scene precisely because of that lackadaisically cultivated sense of Lower East Side cool, but eventually that stuff just scanned as boredom and cynicism and half-assing it once they continued on as major rockstars beyond the collapse of this scene. Maybe it’s nostalgia for a young band kicking down the gate with a record as perfect as Is This It, or maybe it’s us putting more weight on the Strokes now — if they are the last great American rock band in that mold, maybe those of us even remotely invested in such a notion need something more out of them than what they can give us. What that’s been, recently, was Comedown Machine last year, a record that jumped all over the place but, I’d argue, was better than the preceding two the Strokes had released and was unfairly ignored. Then, this past September, we got Julian Casablancas’ new solo effort with a new backing band, and if you know more than five people who have listened to that thing enthusiastically since September, I’m not sure I feel like meeting the people you hang out with. Still, people love the Strokes — just go to any summer festival where they’re playing and you’ll see that’s very true, and that the love is beginning to span generations. Most importantly, I think there are at least some people who are heavily invested in the idea of the Strokes. We’ll see what currency that might have going forward. Casablancas said earlier this year: “I think the Strokes definitely have more magic in them, so I’ll look forward to that new adventure.” Until then, here’s “The Modern Age,” one of the songs that started it all off.
02. TV On The Radio – “Young Liars”
TV On The Radio are one of the most important bands on this list, while also being sort of tangential. Obviously they’ve been one of the biggest names in indie and in NYC music since they showed up a little more than ten years ago, but they’ve always been on their own trip, too. While so much of the early ’00s NYC rock resurgence revolved around a certain fading-into-legend notion of Manhattan’s Lower East Side (even when bands did live in Brooklyn already) or the revival of scrappy, hard-edged rock music, TV On The Radio sounded like they were from another planet, not just another borough. They were living and working in South Williamsburg when, legend has it, the place was still pretty scary. (I follow one media editor guy on Twitter who is always lamenting the state of Williamsburg vs. ten or fifteen years ago as if this is news, and I kind of always want to reply, “I didn’t move here until five years ago, and even I know the ship has long since sailed. Give up the fight, man.”) In their way, TVOTR foreshadowed the movement of the the NYC scene to Brooklyn, something that was already underway but would become pretty much total within a few more years. Their sound drew on seemingly everything, and there’s still nobody out there who sounds quite like TVOTR, sometimes earning them comparisons as “the American Radiohead.” I’ve ranked TVOTR so high on this list because they come off as having been involved in the early-’00s resurgence while also being entirely beyond it in a way few of its other artists managed — they’re one of the great bands of the last fifteen years, and have remained vital on a level that pretty much no other artist here did. (I’d say maybe the Walkmen did as well, but in a different way.) “Young Liars” is an early standout, from an EP of the same name, and it does sound like it was produced by a place unlike both the LES or the sanitized Williamsburg of today. Part of the reason TVOTR’s stuff has aged so much better than some of these other artists’ is that there’s no sense of put-on NYC cool, no sense of any awareness of that. They sound more cosmic, worried at where their thoughts on much bigger questions might be taking them. The band released their fifth album, Seeds, this week. It continues their streak of never releasing a less-than-excellent album.
03. The Walkmen – “The Rat”
There’s a weird paradox with the Walkmen, one I wrote about at length earlier this year. Bows + Arrows is one of the great NYC albums of the last twenty years or so, and the band are often considered one of the great NYC bands of recent times as well. And this was so true for a while: The young Walkmen captured so much of what it’s about to be young and pissed off in New York. But even if they were called a garage band, they mostly didn’t typify the sound most closely associated with the scene, and as they grew older and spread out, their music got more and more worldly, and more detached from the scene that birthed them. Before that, though, they offered up one of the absolute anthems of NYC in the ’00s, “The Rat.” It’s often, more or less rightfully, still held up as the Walkmen’s single greatest composition. That’s deserved. “The Rat” never really gets old, never really fails to affect on a visceral level. The way frontman Hamilton Leithauser delivers the line, “When I used to go out, I would know everyone that I saw/ Now I go out alone if I go out at all” makes it one of the best lines of the whole ’00s NYC rock scene, one of its rallying cries. The Walkmen had a lot of great material after this, but they became older men fast. For a time considered angry young NYC men, their music quickly looked further outwards, adopting a woozier and hazier lope. It became increasingly evident that the frenzied burst of “The Rat” was going to be a relative loner in the band’s catalog. Last year, the band announced they’d be going on a hiatus, and depending on which one of them you talk to that hiatus will be of varying degrees of permanence. This year, three members embarked on solo affairs. Bassist Walter Martin put out a kids record. Organist/guitarist Peter Bauer rechristened himself Peter Matthew Bauer and released Liberation!, while Leithauser gave us Black Hours. So far, solo-era Walkmen has been pretty good, because there’s a lot of really worthwhile stuff on those releases.
04. The Hold Steady – “Most People Are DJs”
It’s sort of shocking to look back and realize that the Hold Steady released Almost Killed Me, Separation Sunday, Boys And Girls In America, and Stay Positive within a four-year span. The consistent strength of that catalog is just plain crazy, and it has to be one of the best four-album runs in recent memory. These guys are, actually, another band that were a bit of an anomaly in the NYC rock scene ten years ago. Craig Finn’s wordiness was a rush of American experience, not just New York experience. And while the scuzzy classic rock of the early Hold Steady albums works very well for walking down Manhattan and Brooklyn streets alike, it also tells different stories when you’re driving down some highway anywhere else in the country. That’s the thing about these guys and the Walkmen and TVOTR — they were all around in NYC, playing music that reflected the city in some way, but were all also able to move beyond it (whether physically or spiritually) and become general indie luminaries as other rock resurgence leaders floundered. So while they all might be something of the exceptions to the scene, that’s also what makes them feel like the greatest artists produced from the era. They might not evoke the exact feeling of NYC circa 2001 or 2002, but they’re the ones who took it a step forward afterwards, who kept it going in other directions when a lot of the bands below totally stalled out or disappeared altogether. Not to say that the Hold Steady’s trajectory has been entirely smooth. After accruing what appeared to be a totally bulletproof critical reputation, the band flagged somewhat with 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever. They released their sixth album, Teeth Dreams, back in March, and while reactions weren’t universally positive, generally it was very well-received, and had some great stuff on it.
05. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
Not only were the Yeah Yeah Yeahs one of the major luminaries of the NYC scene, “Maps” is one of the most popular, recognizable, and immortal songs from the whole movement. It’s the one of the ones that made it into Guitar Hero, after all. All for good reason: The song is gorgeous and totally moving, seemingly no matter how many times you hear it. It was pretty much a total outlier amongst the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ more scathing early output, and something of a unique circumstance amongst many of the other iconic songs of the era. While so many of these bands’ famous songs skewed toward rawer, more dejected air, “Maps” is a heart-render, a brilliant pop song that transcends the specifics of the scene it came out of. It was, of course, also not the only great Yeah Yeah Yeahs song. For a while, these guys seemed pretty much untouchable critically. From 2003 to 2013, they released four albums, and only 2013’s Mosquito was met with a somewhat muted reaction; that was the only album of theirs that nobody seemed to remember come end-of-year list time. Personally, I’m a big fan of the band’s synthier turn on 2009’s It’s Blitz!, but there’s no question that the band’s debut, 2003’s Fever To Tell, lives on as one of the NYC rock resurgence’s most respected albums, and that “Maps,” like “The Rat,” is one of the scene’s anthems. Since Mosquito just came out last year, there’s no word on what’s next for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Back in September, Karen O released a solo record, Crush Songs, composed of songs she’d written several years ago. It was released on Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records.
06. Interpol – “NYC”
Interpol are one of the most iconic artists of the NYC rock resurgence, beloved ever since their 2002 debut, Turn On The Bright Lights. The brooding post-punk aesthetics, the dark suits — Interpol were the band that perhaps best encapsulated this element of the scene’s personality. Over the course of the subsequent twelve years, they’ve been putting out music pretty consistently, and it seems like every time they do, there’s some mixture of “Interpol keep doing more of the same,” “Interpol is always critically acclaimed,” “Interpol have one classic album and a lot of other stuff that’s solid,” and “Why did any of us ever take this band seriously?” Whatever your opinion, there’s no denying that they’re a major fixture of everything we think about when we think about the ’00s rock scene in NYC, or that Turn On The Bright Lights is one of the seminal albums to come out of the scene. The band took some hits along the way. Bassist and founding member Carlos D left in 2010, and after touring in support of U2 on their U2 360 tour, Interpol felt the need to announce a hiatus. Even so, they released another album within a few years. They called it El Pintor, which is Spanish for “the Painter” but is also an anagram of their name, and came out earlier this year. Overall, it has been well-received.
07. The Rapture – “House of Jealous Lovers”
Not only is the Rapture the band people immediately refer back to when discussing the rise of the dance-punk movement early last decade, “House Of Jealous Lovers” is the single song to which you could almost attribute the whole thing. Sure, others were doing it both before and at the same time as the Rapture, but when DFA helped them produce this song, and when Echoes was released in 2003, both stood out as a sort of synthesis point for what was going on in NYC at the time, and, in a larger sense, a genesis point for a lot of what would go on in indie music in general over the course of the next decade or so. It’s easy to forget how unhip disco and house music would’ve been to a still rock-oriented indie culture fifteen years ago, and, well, if you’re reading this site chances are you’ve lived through the past ten years and I don’t need to tell you how much that has changed. Of course, it flowered into greater, denser, and more nuanced forms with LCD Soundsystem soon enough, but there’s still no denying that “House Of Jealous Lovers” kicked a certain door down, and has been considered a landmark moment in indie music since its release. Eventually, the band wasn’t shy about this. “That song changed the game, we were the first band of our generation to write a really killer song that incorporated something that you could DJ in a club full stop with a punk vibe,” frontman Luke Jenner reflected via tumblr back in 2012, upon the song’s 10th anniversary. Laden with history, “House Of Jealous Lovers” overshadowed much of what the Rapture did afterward, though later records like Pieces Of The People We Love and In The Grace Of Your Love were still largely well-received. The Rapture were another one of the figures who came back to us in 2014, but in a much different way. While Jules and TV On The Radio and Interpol prepared new albums, word meekly trickled out that the Rapture (might?) have broken up. I say “meekly,” because nobody announced it — there was a press release for a Red Bull Music Academy event that listed Luke Jenner as “formerly of the Rapture.” At which point DFA’s Jonathan Galkin said: “I kept thinking it might blow over, but that might not be the case. Feel free to go to press with this headline: ‘Did the Rapture Break Up and Not Tell Anyone?'” Combined with the strange moves made by some of the era’s other luminaries, and the already drastically different musical climate of 2014, it was another moment that felt like one era had definitively ended, or was at least transitioning into something else altogether.
08. Liars – “Mr Your On Fire Mr”
Liars began as another one of the eminent dance-punk bands of the early ’00s. If you were just introduced to the band now, and you were only played an early track like “Mr Your On Fire Mr,” chances are it’d sound very much of its era, and it wouldn’t be surprising if you were then told they made a total of two or three albums, and after people really loved the first one but saw diminishing returns on its successors, they eventually disbanded. Well, that wasn’t the case with Liars. They’ve been consistently churning out records ever since they came on the scene. No hiatuses or breakups, though there have been lineup changes and, probably most importantly for the purpose of this list, city changes. Many of the bands here started elsewhere, found success in NYC, and spread out to other locations as the years went on. But with Liars’ movement also came severe musical shifts, and there’s a fair argument to be made that, like with the Walkmen, there’s a version of this band that has a lot to do with the NYC rock resurgence, and there’s a version of the band that has nothing to do with it at all. In this case, I prefer the Liars of 2012’s WIXIW, especially the Liars of “No. 1 Against The Rush” — the introspective, bleakly synth-dominated Liars that holed up in a cabin in Southern California. A lot of bands that were a part of this scene flared out entirely. At one point, Liars probably would’ve seemed like a band that could go that route, but they’ve emerged as being surprisingly hard to pin down and built to last. They released Mess, their seventh album, earlier this year.
09. Stellastarr – “My Coco”
Stellastarr — or, slightly more annoyingly, stellastarr* — were percolating all the way back when guitarist/vocalist Shawn Christensen, bassist Amanda Tannen, and drummer Arthur Kremer met while at Pratt in the ’90s, playing together for a time before splitting to pursue day jobs. They later came back together — now with the addition of Philly native Michael Jurin — in 2000 to form Stellastarr, named for “an old purple hearse parked in Poughkeepsie,” Christensen’s hometown. At one point, Stellastarr were one of the bands that seemingly could have risen to the fore of the early-’00s scene in NYC, perhaps becoming one of its breakout names. They’re still one of the more recognizable groups from the era short of the really big guys, but they never did quite blow up — and maybe they should have. Their best stuff had a sweep to it that was more ambitious and interesting than some of the other bands around them. “My Coco” always struck me as a great Britpop song that never happened. In 2009, the band released their third LP, Civilized, via their record label Bloated Wife Records. Since then, they’ve been on an indefinite hiatus, with the respective members pursuing different interests. Christensen has done particularly well, winning an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film last year for Curfew. A full-length adaptation of that short, renamed Before I Disappear, screened at SXSW this past March and is slated for release at the end of the month.
10. Les Savy Fav- “The Sweat Descends”
The origins of Les Savy Fav date quite a while back before the beginning of the NYC rock resurgence, back to 1995 when the group’s founding members were all at the Rhode Island School Of Design together. Not that they were the only art-school kids in the pack, but it served them specifically well when it came to differentiating themselves from the rest of the NYC scene of the time. A high percentage of the other bands on this list could be tied back to the same couple of years in music history, to the same list of bands from twenty to twenty-five years prior to the scene. (Or, at least, they were talked about in this way.) Les Savy Fav came out of noise and hardcore, though, and even when they went more toward that NYC indie sound, they brought their different strains with them. The artsy eccentricities extended elsewhere, too — frontman Tim Harrington was known for bizarre stage antics and outlandish outfits. Also, the dude was big, bald, and bearded when everyone else was trying to look as waifish and leather-jacketed as Julian Casablancas. Looking back on the scene, it’s qualities like these that make Les Savy Fav stand out. Also, they had songs like “The Sweat Descends,” and that’s an awesome song. They released their fifth LP, Root For Ruin, in 2010. Since then, Harrington released a children’s book in 2013, and bassist Syd Butler has continued his work with Frenchkiss Records, the label he started in 1999 and which first signed bands like the Antlers, the Hold Steady, and Passion Pit. Butler and fellow Les Savy Fav member Seth Jabour also play in the house band for Late Night With Seth Meyers, led by Fred Armisen. Bonus fact: An early member of Les Savy Fav was Patrick Mahoney, who would go on to be a major fixture in LCD Soundsystem, one of the kingpins in the next wave of NYC’s music scene.
11. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – “The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth”
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are a NYC band, yes, but more notably, they became symbolic of a turning of the tide ten years ago. In 2005, they rose to prominence despite having no record contract, riding solely on internet buzz and a glowing review of their self-titled debut from Pitchfork, thus becoming the poster child for the blog rock era. It was one of the earliest, clearest examples of the diminishing importance and power of the label system, and the rising power of internet media combined with the growing opportunities for bands to self-release, self-produce, control their own narrative, etc., etc. In a way, the band never quite recovered from the enormous attention placed upon their debut. Whether it’s their ridiculous name feeling like a throwback to a more grating, twee element of mid-’00s indie, or whether their symbolic status rooted them too definitively in that bygone blog rock moment, nothing they’ve done since has earned the same amount of attention and praise as that first record. In a way, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are perhaps symbolic of a turning point in the NYC music world, too. The first time I’d heard their name in years was when the long, slow-burn rise of the National had finally peaked and the band had become one of the eminent indie artists around. They started telling stories of all the demoralizing moments along the way, one of the more striking ones being of the tour where they were headlining and CYHSY was opening; the rooms would be packed for CYHSY, and then they’d empty out for the night’s nominal main attraction. It could be read as a joke — “Oh, man, remember that flash-in-the-pan indie band with the ridiculous name? They were showing up the National! Now history has righted itself.” But after numerous years plagued by breakup rumors, CYHSY are still around, and they actually released an album earlier this year. One of the songs even features Matt Berninger, so there were apparently no hard feelings after all.
12. !!! – “Me And Giuliani Down By The Schoolyard (A True Story)”
By the time !!! released their sophomore album Louden Up Now in 2004, the city and country alike were well past that moment of solidarity immediately post-9/11, and well into the disenchantment and frustration of the Iraq era. With a song like “Me And Giuliani Down By The Schoolyard (A True Story),” you can see the beginning of NYC disenchantment, too. All the New York Times pieces about bohemians (their words, not mine) being forced out of the city, about people fleeing Brooklyn, all the stuff about gentrification, the militarization of the NYPD — some of these things were rooted in a pre-9/11 NYC, but between the visibility of NYC indie in the ’00s and the actual radical changes the city’s undergone in the last decade, songs like “Me And Giuliani” feel like relevant markers in the story. The whole thing’s sort of simple — frontman Nic Offer is urging Giuliani to loosen up and dance. It comes off as sardonically and knowingly silly. So even if it’s not quite as clever or poignant as “New York, I Love But You’re Bringing Me Down,” it’s a worthy, earlier mention in the conversation of how NYC began to change between the first salvo of its early-’00s rock resurgence, and the next era of Brooklyn-dominated indie music that would take over the latter half of the decade. !!! is still around and released their fifth album, THR!!!ER, last year.
13. Radio 4 – “Our Town”
Though they’re not one of the biggest names lingering from the bygone NYC scene, there’s perhaps no other band that so perfectly sums up the contradicting dichotomy at the heart of the rock resurgence. Many of these bands talked about NYC as an indomitable muse, as the only place to live and make music, but you’d also be forgiven for assuming, based on the nature of their music, that they were British, or at least really, really wanted to be British. Radio 4 was clearly enamored with the city around them, naming their sophomore album Gotham!, and writing about issues with the NYPD and post-9/11 NYC. But when Radio 4 released their debut, The New Song & Dance, in 2000, they were regularly cited as a mixture of the Clash and Gang Of Four, and usually as if that was a detriment. Look, again, the derivativeness argument plagued almost every band involved in this scene, and personally I wouldn’t mind a few more bands in the world trying to rip off the Clash. The Clash were one of the best bands ever! Radio 4 went silent for several years after releasing a fourth album, Enemies Like This, in 2006. In 2012, they updated their Facebook page with a lengthy post, detailing the hiatus by saying: “Since 2007 MANY things have happened — label changes, mgmt. changes, inner turmoil, lineup changes, births, deaths and perhaps most significantly, a brutal car wreck on I-95 which destroyed our van, all of our gear, and our will.” They played some shows and were supposedly working on new music, but nothing seems to have come of it yet. Earlier this month, we premiered “Go In The Light,” a song by Orange Cassettes, a new project with Radio 4’s Anton Harmony and former Elefant member the Mod.
14. The Cloud Room – “Hey Now Now”
J Stuart, a California transplant, had some notion of NYC history — the Cloud Room’s name is taken from the Cloud Club, a multi-floor establishment that took up part of the top of the Chrysler Building, founded in the ’30s and featuring a speakeasy during Prohibition. He also, dutifully and like so many others at the time, tipped his hat to bands like the Velvet Underground and the Ramones. All this came after Stuart had moved to the city to work with filmmaker Hal Hartley, but after that fell through and he experienced a health scare involving a false positive HIV test, he turned his attention to music. “Hey Now Now” resulted directly from the experience. You probably remember “Hey Now Now.” I mean, it was used for a Pepsi campaign in 2007. It is, for better or worse, the song that defined the Cloud Room. It’s one of the best songs of the early-’00s NYC scene, one of the most indelible, one of the ones that still sounds pretty damn great all these years later. (It kind of reminds of Pulp as well, which is certainly a plus.) It also wound up confining the Cloud Room to one-hit-wonder status. The strength of the song propelled all of the early attention on the band, and was the engine behind them having to rush a debut album out. (For a more detailed breakdown of the whole saga, look here.) The resulting album didn’t maintain the same magic as “Hey Now Now,” and, accordingly, reactions to the LP were far more muted than they had been to the song. The band never managed to get the momentum right after that, and more misfortune followed, including a fire in Stuart’s apartment building while the band were attempting to record their sophomore release. An EP called Please Don’t Almost Kill Me arrived in 2007, and, somewhat surprisingly, they actually self-released an album called Zither in 2012, though at that point “Hey Now Now” had faded into almost-distant memory of the past era of NYC music.
15. The Bravery – “An Honest Mistake”
When the Bravery issued their self-titled debut in 2005, it was already the tail-end of the peak of NYC’s rock resurgence in its original form. Soon, the wane of that scene would give way entirely to the next guard of NYC-based artists. So not only were the Bravery late to the party, but at this point the formula of hip historical touchstones had been so thoroughly fleshed out and depleted that the band came off as bandwagon jumpers, or fakers. (Just years earlier frontman Sam Endicott and keyboardist John Conway had played in a ska band called Skabba The Hut.) After three albums, the main contribution they made to the scene was putting out “An Honest Mistake,” one of the best singles by the lower-tier bands of the era. They were also symbolic in the fashion of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but in a different sense: The Bravery represented the total saturation and self-parody point of a movement that was already heavily referential. During the band’s time, Endicott also collected a few co-writing credits for Christina Aguilera and Shakira songs (including the latter’s hit, “She Wolf”). The Bravery’s activity ceased around 2011, but official word of the band’s demise came in April of this year, when Endicott posted that there were no plans for the band in the near future. In the meantime, Endicott started a new band, the Mercy Beat, and Conway went off to focus on his vineyard and his wine company. Drummer Anthony Burulcich became Morrissey’s drummer, a fittingly ironic endpoint to this era of NYC music.
16. Longwave – “Tidal Wave”
Longwave were well woven into the NYC scene of the early ’00s. They frequently played at Luna Lounge and released their debut Endsongs via LunaSea Records, which was owned by Rob Sacher, who also owned Luna Lounge. (Sacher would later release a book titled Wake Me When It’s Over, named after a Longwave song.) After garnering more buzz, Longwave signed to RCA, opened for the Strokes, and put out The Strangest Things in 2003. They were considered a bit distinctive in the scene at the time because of some slightly shoegaze-leaning tendencies. The band sort of faded out over time, between constant lineup changes, and a bit of a hiccup when Sony merged with BMG (a period of time in which frontman Steve Schiltz took a break from the band to tour in Albert Hammond, Jr.’s backing band). They released a record, Secrets Are Sinister, in 2008, and seemingly haven’t been very active as Longwave since. For a time, they kept a semi-updated Facebook about all the odds and ends various members were up to around NYC, occasionally indulging in a trip down memory lane (opening for Kasabian in ’05!). Their last post was thanking Kristen Bell for mentioning The Strangest Things in an “On My iPod” feature in Entertainment Weekly .
17. The Fever – “Ladyfingers”
The Fever were another one of those dance-rock bands that proliferated wildly early last decade. They put out a debut, Red Bedroom, in 2004, and it’s one of those things that’d be easy to dismiss as very rooted in its time. But “Ladyfingers” still sounds pretty good these days. It’s predictably spiky, but the way the keyboard line and that riff intertwine is a cool touch, and a slightly different vibe than a lot of the more soundalike bands from that era/on this list. Maybe the band took some of the criticisms to heart, or maybe it was due to the departure of founding member Chris Sanchez in 2005, but when the Fever returned in 2006 with In The City Of Sleep, they seemed dead set on overhauling their sound. It didn’t quite go anywhere, and the band broke up a year later. In subsequent years, former frontman Geremy Jasper co-founded NYC-based production company LEGS, and worked as a music video writer/director with his wife Georgie Greville, on stuff ranging from Selena Gomez to Goldfrapp to Florence + The Machine. They also directed this Target fashion show in 2010 at the Standard Hotel, which won a Cannes Gold Lion and was inducted into MOMA’s permanent collection. So, seems like he’s doing pretty well post-Fever.
18. Calla – “Strangler”
Like a lot of the bands on this list, Calla met/started elsewhere and later flourished here. The two constant members of Calla — Aurelio Valle and Wayne B. Magruder — actually met and played in Texas before relocating to New York City. The thing that makes them outliers in the scene was the kind of music they played. Their self-titled debut is all bleak experimental music built on loops and sampling. Michael Gira was into it, and signed them to his label, Young God Records, on which Calla released Scavengers in 2001. By 2003’s Televise, the band had switched over to Arena Rock Recordings and embraced more conventional song structures. The year before, they’d released a split EP with the Walkmen. Even so, they had little to do with the retro rock or dance-punk that dominated NYC at the time — they always favored a bleary, meditative brand of indie rock that sounded charred around the edges rather than perpetually catching fire, like some of the scene’s more representative artists. Nothing’s really been going on with Calla since they released Strength In Numbers in 2007, but they left behind a lot of gorgeous, sad songs that are a worthwhile tangent when looking back on NYC in the early ’00s.
19. The Star Spangles – “I’m On A High”
Where a lot of the artists associated with the early ’00s NYC rock scene talked up the Lower East Side of legend, and affiliated themselves with various punk lineages, the Star Spangles actually, kind of, sounded like a punk band. The label “derivative” got thrown at a lot of their contemporaries, but for whatever reason one thing that hindered the rise of the Star Spangles was supposed similarities to the Ramones. (This matter might’ve been exacerbated by the fact that they worked with producer Daniel Rey, who had also worked with the Ramones.) I say “for whatever reason” because the band’s sound (and, especially, frontman Ian Wilson’s vocals) really owe more to the Replacements. (Wilson also bore a resemblance to a young Nick Cave, but they definitely didn’t sound like him.) In hindsight, the band’s commitment to gritty LES-version of being the mad, partying rockstars is what kind of comes off as tiresome, if we’re talking derivativeness. After releasing the single “I Can’t Be With You” on the Spanish label Muenster, the band were courted by Capitol, and released their major label debut Bazooka!!! in 2003. This makes them another one of the would-be breakouts of the era. Instead of rock stardom, a split with Capitol followed, before a four year wait ensued until the band released Dirty Bomb in 2007, after which they then promptly broke up the following year. Of all the lesser-remembered bands, it’s kind of a shame that looking back at the Star Spangles can kind of make them look like one of those bad rock jokes — too fixated on the idea of “being rock ‘n’ roll” or something, and gradually imploding. They deserve a bit better; even if their songs were derivative, they’re sharp and infectious.
20. Elefant – “Misfit”
You know the formula by now: a little bit of ’80s indie touchstones, some sleek clothes, and a bunch of angularly brooding if occasionally catchy songs that blend in with a bunch of the other lesser-remembered bands on this list. My memories of Elefant from back in the day are essentially limited to hearing “Uh Oh Hello” a lot after its use in FIFA 07, and thinking they kind of came off as a lower-rent version of the Killers when I saw them open for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (this was likely sometime in late 2005/early 2006). Elefant weren’t one of the more offensive candidates of the scene, but they were among the least memorable, even if their 2003 debut, Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid, was pretty well-received at the time. These days, I don’t mind “Uh Oh Hello” or the chorus of “Lolita,” but it was with the earlier single “Misfit” (from Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid) that the band first saw some success. After their sophomore release, The Black Magic Show, in 2006, Elefant broke up in 2010 and frontman Diego Garcia subsequently started a solo career. He released an album last year.
21. French Kicks – “Trial Of A Century”
You’d sort of assume French Kicks would sound a bit more well, aggressive, considering a lot of the surrounding influence in NYC at the time, but especially considering that three of its founding members grew up in DC and were supposedly enamored with that city’s hardcore scene. French Kicks, rather, were mostly exceedingly pleasant and smooth sounding, which can be good and bad. When the hooks were good enough, they could produce some catchy, welcoming songs. Otherwise, French Kicks are one of the go-to examples for a certain kind of middle-of-the-road indie sound that I’d associate more with the ’00s mainstreaming of indie than with the early-’00s NYC rock scene. They were just as involved as others at the time though, playing at Luna Lounge, touring with the Walkmen, etc., etc. After a series of lineup changes and three albums, things have been pretty quiet in the French Kicks’ camp for the last five or so years. Most of their recent Facebook updates revolve around the members’ other endeavors.
22. The Natural History – “The Right Hand”
Besides having the most annoying name to Google this side of the Star Spangles, the Natural History’s place in the story of NYC’s rock scene is one cemented more by who they hung out with than what they actually did themselves. They recorded at the Walkmen’s studio, Marcata Recordings, in Harlem (as did the French Kicks), and would later go on to tour with the French Kicks, Liars, Radio 4, and Les Savy Fav. Singer Max Tepper was a publicist for Big Hassle, the PR firm that did publicity for Is This It among lots of other things. The band was steadily gaining buzz by hanging around the scene and touring with other related artists, and would soon sign to Startime International to record a debut LP, the same label that at one time was home to the Walkmen and the French Kicks as well. If you don’t remember the band themselves, perhaps the best way you’d know them is from one of their non-NYC pals — Spoon would take the Natural History’s “Don’t You Ever” and turn it into “Don’t You Evah,” a standout on their 2007 release Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, and a mainstay in their setlists. It’s a great song, and so is the Natural History’s original; part of me wonders whether Spoon covered it in an attempt to draw some more attention to their friends’ band. After splitting with Startime in 2005, the Natural History had stalled out, unable to release their sophomore album until 2007, at which point they self-released online. Things had petered out too much by that time, I guess — the band soon broke up, and now live on as a curiosity if you’re ever delving into indie rock degrees of separation.
23. Ambulance LTD – “Stay Where You Are”
Ambulance LTD had a rocky existence, in some ways brief and, in others, quite prolonged. The band had a ton of major lineup changes, the only constant being Marcus Congleton, who wasn’t an original founding member. They put out a debut LP, simply titled LP, with TVT Records in 2004, a dreamier and softer affair than most of what’s normally associated with NYC ten years ago. TVT was a troubled label throughout the ’00s, before finally declaring bankruptcy in 2008, which prevented Ambulance LTD from releasing a sophomore album, and hamstrung any attempts to keep up anyone’s awareness of the group by touring. In 2010, the Village Voice detailed the slow and jagged decline of TVT, interviewing Congleton, who at that point had taken to working “odd-job gigs since moving to L.A.” in order to deal with the “‘financial sodomy’ caused by mounting legal costs.” Who knows what could’ve been; in 2007, Congleton had been working on music with John Cale serving as producer, and none of that has yet to come to fruition in any form. What’s left behind by Ambulance LTD is, in terms of the NYC rock scene of the day, refreshingly not obsessed with faux-grit credentials and refreshingly comfortable with being pretty and spacey, even if that also means some of the music doesn’t leave as much of a mark as what else was left behind by the scene. For the past few years, Congleton has apparently been involved in Drug Cabin, a solo project of Nathan Thelen, who once played in Pretty Girls Make Graves.
24. The Mooney Suzuki – “In A Young Man’s Mind”
When it comes to revivalism, I’ll take a ton of bands quoting Joy Division and the Smiths before bands retreading the more boring or churlish elements of classic rock. The Mooney Suzuki were a bit of an anomaly in the early-’00s NYC scene because they leaned toward the latter. While they might namecheck influences such as the Stooges or MC5 — non-NYC legacy artists that plenty of other early-’00s NYC bands would’ve been cool with, too — they come off sounding like some sort of spoof on classic-rock tropes. You might remember “Alive And Amplified” because it was for some godforsaken reason licensed all over the place after appearing in a commercial for the Suzuki Grand Vitara, and because it’s one of those songs that found the formula for a chorus that is objectively catchy but insidiously so, because it’s also really stupid and annoying. Their earlier record, 2002’s Electric Sweat, has fared a bit better over the years, but even that was enough of a straightforward meat-and-potatoes rock exercise to garner the appreciation of Jack Black. He had a cameo as an enraged British manager in the video for “In a Young Man’s Mind” (the lyrics to which, unsurprisingly, namecheck Hendrix and Jimmy Page), and frontman Sammy James, Jr. would later pen the theme for Black’s ’03 tribute to all things holy classic rock, School Of Rock. The whole thing is a lot less interesting than you might’ve hoped from a band who arrived at their name by combining the surnames of two Can members. Anyway, while their sound might be something of a tangent for early-’00s NYC, they were certainly a part of the scene, palling around with the Strokes, etc. Even so, they sound more like Jet than anything that was going on here in 2002. The band’s been on hiatus since 2008, with various band members playing elsewhere.
25. Robbers On High Street – “Love Underground”
Like the Bravery, Robbers On High Street were a bit late to the NYC rock-boom party. When their debut was released in 2005, they were often dismissed as also-rans who weren’t so much derivative of decades past as they were derivative of the preceding few years. This resulted in easy jokes based on their name, and particularly scathing (although moderately rated?) reviews like this one from Pitchfork. They were, as was the way of the world circa 2005, compared to the Strokes. Their unique wrinkle is that they were also called a Spoon ripoff here and there, and hey, that was a band from Texas! In hindsight, the sheen applied to these songs makes a lot of Robbers’ output come off as sort of anonymous and boilerplate, the kind of stuff that can be (and was) licensed for TV and movies as something of an innocuous indie signifier. Though there have been a few lineup changes over the years, that core partnership of childhood friends/Poughkeepsie natives Steven Mercado and Ben Trokan is still in place, and the band’s still kicking. They even performed as ELO at the Bell House in 2012, in honor of Jeff Lynne’s 65th birthday. Aside from that, they released their third album, Hey There Golden Hair, in 2011 and the Anything Could Happen EP in 2012, so they might be due for another LP soon.
26. The Moldy Peaches – “NYC’s Like A Graveyard”
Primarily the product of the partnership between Adam Green and Kimya Dawson (though the ranks would swell at live shows), the Moldy Peaches had little to do with the rock-boom portion of the early-’00s NYC scene. They considered themselves anti-folk, which presumably would position them as being more arch and sardonic than they come off, which is basically the aural equivalent of Napoleon Dynamite’s visual aesthetic. They were deep in the scene, though, tightly associated with the Strokes: The Moldy Peaches were signed to the same label, had the same management, and toured with the Strokes. In 2003, the Strokes dedicated Room On Fire to Aaron Wilkinson, a former Peaches member who had overdosed and died. Their self-titled album was released on September 11, 2001, eerily containing the track “NYC’s Like A Graveyard,” a garage rock number that actually does fit into the overall aesthetic of a lot of the other bands on this list. Of course, that was coincidence, and the song is about, you know, death of culture and yuppies and stuff, or something — evidence that New Yorkers have been trying to proclaim NYC dead long before Vice started trying to do it all the time while also holding a smoking gun. The band’s been mostly inactive since 2003, at which point Green and Dawson began pursuing solo careers; Green has released a bunch of records since then. Dawson has also been steadily releasing solo albums over the last decade, frequently collaborating with other artists — including, oddly enough, Aesop Rock. The two formed a project called the Uncluded and released an album called Hokey Fright last year. There have been a few reunions scattered along the way, partially in the wake of Juno using “Anyone Else But You” in 2007 and gaining the band a bit more notoriety. In the movie, Michael Cera and Ellen Page actually play the song together.
Listen to this Ultimate Playlist on Spotify.