The Strokes' Is This It
Yes, it’s the best album of the past decade.
Photograph of the Strokes by Flickr user Mrmatt.
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?’ ”
The opposite of that, it turned out, was to capture a tightly knit musical unit playing live, all in one room, committing it to tape with a fuzzy and nostalgic analog warmth. The Strokes did take after take of each song until they got one in which they all played extraordinarily; they toyed with microphone placements to give the drums the right distorted, almost machinelike feel; they twisted knobs on their guitar amps until each tone was just right. And to the band’s eternal credit, they fought hard to preserve this neo-vintage sound—very much against the wishes of their new bosses at RCA, who thought they were committing career suicide by over-muddling the mix.
Once Is This It finally landed in America (its release here had to be delayed so the band could replace the blistering—and not exactly flattering—“New York City Cops” after 9/11), the response was immediate and seismic. There were plenty of rave reviews, naturally, as critics marveled at the young band’s astonishing confidence and the record’s clockwork efficiency. But more amazing by far was the great rumbling tremor that Is This It sent through the music industry itself, a change so desperately needed that the Strokes should be considered humanitarians. At the time, remember, bands such as (brace yourself) Limp Bizkit, Staind, Slipknot, and Linkin Park—along with a heavy dose of Creed—absolutely dominated the rock charts. With one sweep of their Chuck Taylors, the Strokes kicked the nu-metal blight to the curb, clearing the way for other garage-influenced bands like the White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and spawning many imitators, among them Kings of Leon, Franz Ferdinand, and the Killers.
And just as these groups continue to try to sound like the Strokes, they’re still trying to look like them as well. Whatever you thought of the band’s sound, there was no questioning their effortless cool, and it wasn’t long before admiring designers like Hedi Slimane caught on and began peddling skinny jeans first to rockers and fashionistas, and then to the rest of us. Take a look at the 2001 video for the Strokes tune “Someday”—in which the boys pal around a dive bar in their tight jeans, vintage shirts, and denim jackets—and just try to tell me that it couldn’t double as a documentary about hipsters in 2011.
Yet even if Is This It hadn’t influenced the last decade’s look and sound so profoundly, it would remain that rarest of musical artifacts: a truly great album. Early profiles of the Strokes often noted that the band, in the words of Rolling Stone’s Jenny Eliscu, “display[ed] a loyalty fiercer than that of most lovers,” and this cohesion shines through in every note of Is This It; the album captures the sound of five guys playing as one. For all the griping about the Strokes’ lack of innovation, their emotional commitment was never a question. You can hear it in the mournful urgency of “Trying Your Luck,” the good-time vibes of “Someday,” the heartsick vocal shredding of “Take It or Leave It.” Listening to Is This It feels, to this very day, like sharing a moment of lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance in some dark basement studio with five friends. Well, five extraordinarily good-looking friends who would emasculate you with their galling, starlet-attracting cool—but, still, friends.
Which, incidentally, is why the Strokes’ most recent record, this year’s Angles, is so depressing. The once-inseparable quintet grew so far apart over time that Casablancas didn’t even record his parts with the band (he literally mailed the entire album in), and the end result lacked almost all Strokesean spark—much like 2006’s equally uninspired First Impressions of Earth. Strangely, the best music to come out of these former rock saviors since the underrated Room on Fire in 2003 is the eponymously titled Little Joy, the unexpectedly charming side project of drummer Fabrizio Moretti. Like DJ Shadow, who recently released yet another critically dismissed follow-up to his legendary Endtroducing..., the Strokes seem doomed never to live up to their outstanding debut.
Then again, no one else has made anything as good as Is This It in the last 10 years either. And while a God who loves his creation will surely see to it that young men won’t be wearing skinny jeans and attending Killers concerts another decade from now, they’ll still be listening to—and loving—Is This It. They might mistake the Strokes for a band from the mid-’70s, but they’ll be listening.
Taylor Clark is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. His most recent book is Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool.