Given that it sparked the entire post-millennial guitar rock revival and towered over the Noughties like a skinny-tied colossus, it’s easy to imagine that The Strokes’ seminal 2001 debut album Is This It is, well, it.
Instead, that 36 minutes of sparking indie punk genius was a launchpad for a sporadic six-album career that has spanned a surprising array of styles and moods, from angry quasi-metal to languid electronica, and most points in between.
Their new album, The New Abnormal, arriving seven years after their last, finds the band almost unrecognisable from the wiry bunch of gutter pop sophisticates of 2001, embracing soul, electronica, psych-rock and – would you believe – Weezer.
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So what better time to revisit the twists and turns of one of the greatest catalogues of the modern age…
20. The Adults Are Talking
Opening new album The New Abnormal with a motoric beat, wire-taut riff and singer Julian Casablancas adopting Beck’s soulful vocal tremble, “The Adults Are Talking” reboots and reimagines the idea of a classic Strokes song as a minimalist nocturnal whisper-to-self.
19. Under Control
The Strokes: not just for the elegantly wasted pogo. You could smooch to them too, most successfully on the premiere glitterball moment from 2003’s second album Room on Fire. Hazy and heartwarming, it made a chilly Manhattan basement sound like martini hour on a bayou.
18. You Talk Way Too Much
“Give me some time, I just need a little time!” yelled a panicked Casablancas, as if not waving but drowning in the flood of attention and acclaim the band were receiving by the time of Room on Fire. Sure enough, when his bandmates slowed their jagged, frenetic pace and allowed him breathing room in the chorus, he found his suave, sensuous footing to deliver a classic Strokes crooner.
17. One Way Trigger
Their raw, under-the-radar fifth album Comedown Machine (2013) could feel a little muddy at times, but the first single bounced into the world of falsetto electropop with an assured gleam, its strident synths pointing The Strokes’ direction of travel.
Out to emulate that past-midnight meeting of glances just before the underwear hits the carpet, the first single from Room On Fire was a gorgeous skip-along of a song, but also a premonition of their electronic future – Nick Valensi went to great lengths to make his guitar sound as synth-like as possible.
15. What Ever Happened?
If ever a band sounded on top of the world, it was The Strokes opening their second album, coasting several thousand feet above their peers on a tune that soared like a chemtrail. Casablancas might have sounded unsure about their position – “whose culture is this and does anybody know?” he asked – but his band were busy affirming their ownership.
With 2006’s third album First Impressions of Earth, The Strokes began kicking at the edges of their box. Hence the album’s semi-opus length, stylistic detours and monster-sized lead single, a slab of Munsters metal that cast Casablancas as a snarling wild child with lust on his mind and “a city to love”.
Their one-off EP Future Present Past (2016) led off with “Drag Queen”, signalling a radical synthetic departure with its Kraftwerk throbs and Peter Hook bassline. It was second track “OBLIVIUS” that reassured us The Strokes were still lurking underneath, though, thanks to a rocketing, roar-along chorus that surely put Casablancas’s vocal chords in mortal jeopardy.
12. Ask Me Anything
As the band ventured out of their garage-pop cage on First Impressions of Earth, one of their most intriguing and promising forays was into electronic chamber balladry. “Ask Me Anything” pictured the band as futuristic court dandies playing a glitchy Bach concerto on laser-stringed violas, and suggested for three sublime minutes that The Strokes might have had their heads turned by Patrick Wolf.
The Strokes’ best work had a freefalling velocity to it, and this highlight of First Impressions of Earth seemed to tumble from the speakers with a deceptive joie de vivre, Casablancas cooing sweet cruelties – “my feelings are more important than yours … drop dead, I don’t care, I won’t worry” – while seemingly rolling smitten down a summer hillside surrounded by zorbing guitars.
10. Under Cover Of Darkness
After a four-year hiatus, 2011’s fourth album Angles was something of a hit-and-miss smorgasbord of new styles for the band, and this attempt at modernist glam boogie was among its firmest hits, thanks to a chorus so stratospheric that you could strap wings on it and start demanding a multibillion-pound bailout package from the UK taxpayer.
9. Trying Your Luck
Such was the raw quality of The Strokes’ 2001 debut Is This It that even forgotten tracks buried towards the end can claim seminal status. Take its most drama-infused tune “Trying Your Luck”, where verses of insouciant romance saunter into the path of cop chase choruses. Like so much of the debut, it snapped your head, but this time like an interrogation.
8. You Only Live Once
A song presumably intended to soundtrack the world’s most pessimistic Bond film, “You Only Live Once” opened First Impressions of Earth on a tropical note, the cult NYC fashionistas cutting their skinny jeans off at the thigh and vacationing in Honolulu rather than Harlem this year. Finally, a Strokes song you wouldn’t feel silly blowing up an inflatable crocodile to.
Portrait of a dislocating relationship, drug trip gone wrong, or sly dig at the press (“‘tell us a story, I know you’re not boring’”)? The second single from Room On Fire beefed up the debut album’s lean gutter pop until The Strokes sounded ready to take on rock’s big guns.
6. New York City Cops
B-side of “Hard to Explain” and left off the US CD version of Is This It after 9/11, street punk rampage “New York City Cops” (“they ain’t too smart”) nonetheless became an anti-establishment anthem, retaining the power to subvert right up to the point when actual NYC cops invaded the stage at a recent Bernie Sanders rally to stop them playing it.
5. The Modern Age
Perfectly titled, stylishly paced and beautifully introduced – “up on a hill, that’s where we begin this little story” – the first track we heard from The Strokes became their signature tune, imagining a world in which The Velvet Underground ever considered an upper.
4. Taken For A Fool
By Angles, The Strokes appeared to be weaning themselves off exuberant guitar pop choruses. But, like Donald Trump blurting out a coronavirus lie during a sponsored silence, the pressure geyser of pyrotechnic riffs and melody that erupts out of the motoric verses of “Taken For A Fool” seems almost instinctive, as though they couldn’t hold it in anymore. The result: concentrated essence of Stroke, and lightning bottled.
And boy, could they jive. A showcase for Albert Hammond Jr’s more hula riffs and the rhythm section’s masterful handling of a “Town Called Malice” bass breakdown, Is This It’s most jubilant tune is a wistful homage to youth from slap bang in its prime.
2. Hard To Explain
Much of The Strokes’ initial appeal came from their subway momentum, and never more so than on their second release, which sounded like the L train to Brooklyn breaking ground near Williamsburg. Casablancas played the heroic late-night streetcrawler reeling wildly home, and a million indie rock party kids dreamt of sounding as suave while missing a night bus.
1. Last Nite
Overplayed in a way that The Killers’ “Mr Brightside” somehow, miraculously, isn’t, The Strokes’ dancefloor destroyer of 2001 is still peerless in their canon. This was where clatter met class, elevating the band above the New York punk polloi, into a culture-defining realm where the Rat Pack went joyriding down Avenue A.
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