By now, everyone from NPR listeners to Slate readers to, bizarrely enough, Republican presidential debate viewers has heard that this September marked the 20th birthday of Nirvana’s grunge monolith Nevermind, the record that brought alternative rock to the newly flanneled masses. Even a lifelong Nirvana agnostic like me—at age 11, I’ll confess, the anarchic fury of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video had me quaking in my Zubaz—must admit that the attention is deserved. But this tidal wave of tributes threatens to overshadow the 10th anniversary of another towering rock classic, an album that, if not quite as influential as Nevermind, is every bit as dazzling, significant, and stylistically accomplished: the Strokes’ masterly debut Is This It.
Given the Mariana Trench-like depths to which the Strokes’ reputation has plummeted in recent years, this comparison undoubtedly has Nirvana fans struggling to suppress a giant collective gag. After all, at least in the popular imagination, the Strokes are synonymous with an array of decidedly un-Cobain-like qualities: style over substance, unoriginality, excessive hype, sophomore (and junior, and senior) slumping. (Nirvana, it seems safe to assume, never would have lent its image to Ford Sync ads.) Yet despite these black marks, Is This It was a decade-defining record that set the agenda for how rock sounded and even looked throughout the aughts. More importantly, Is This It remains (takes deep breath, steels self for commenter rage) the single best album released in the past 10 years.
Even before the record hit U.S. shelves on Oct. 9, 2001, sensible public opinion was already biased against the Strokes. Lest we should forget, Is This It was the ur-album of the Internet hype era; the buzz around the band was so deafening that the Strokes were famous before they’d ever done anything. As soon as the U.K. label Rough Trade released a three-song EP of the band’s demos, the notoriously excitable music mag NME threw the Strokes on its cover and anointed them rock’s newest saviors. Soon, stories began trickling across the Atlantic of crazed fans paying exorbitant sums to get into London gigs. And even worse was what music fans saw on that NME cover: five preposterously good-looking young men who had met at (gasp!) elite private schools. Drummer Fabrizio Moretti and guitarist Nick Valensi appeared to have been stolen from a Calvin Klein shoot, and lead man Julian Casablancas was actually the son of a modeling mogul.
But as offensive as the hype, the pretty-boy photosets, and the privileged backgrounds were to the rock cognoscenti, the most damning early criticism about the Strokes was that they looked and sounded shockingly derivative. From their skinny jeans and vintage shirts to their punky rhythms and distressed guitar tones, everything about the Strokes seemed like it was lifted from ’60s and ’70s garage rock. It wasn’t just that Casablancas’ stuttery vocal drawl sounded like Lou Reed; it was that the entire song “The Modern Age” was a Velvet Underground song—specifically “I’m Waiting for the Man.” The Strokes themselves openly admitted that their tune “Last Nite” was an outright heist of Tom Petty’s 1977 hit “American Girl.” Casablancas even jokingly sang the “American Girl” lyrics to the music of “Last Nite” during some live shows.
Of course, these knocks against the Strokes would have landed more sharply if the album wasn’t so damn good. To the surprise of those who had called the band talentless, posturing pretty boys, Is This It was nothing less than an 11-song fireball that showed the Strokes to be musicians with a real artistic vision. (And a sense of humor: The record’s title is a nice wink at the staggering hype.) As Casablancas then explained it to the Strokes’ producer Gordon Raphael, “We want to sound like a band from the past that took a time trip into the future to make their record.” Beneath the shaggy haircuts and puppy-dog eyes there lurked an idea for a crisper, more melodic rock album that would radically update the sound of its forebears—one that, crucially, went against the overproduced schlock then infesting the charts. “Everyone was using Pro Tools and digital technology, tripling the snare drum and adding samples to make everything 25 stories tall,” Raphael told Pitchfork. “So I thought, ‘What could be the opposite of that?’ ”