The Strokes
Is This It

It’s funny when you realize you’ve found an artist that you just know is going the change the landscape or rock, indie rock, and maybe music in general from the first time you hear that distinct sound. The Strokes released their debut record, Is This It, fairly under the radar, with the exception of RCA Records knowing they may have the next really big indie band on their label for the foreseeable future. The Strokes released an EP called The Modern Age in early 2001, which sparked an intense bidding war of major labels falling over themselves to earn the trust of the New York City-based rock band. Is This It was recorded then under the tutelage of producer Gordon Raphael (Regina Spektor) and was ultimately released 20 years ago today in Australia, first. The record would then gradually be released in several countries as their tours were being conducted across the world, and the physical version of the CD would hit the states in October (due to a delay after 9/11 and the label decision to exclude “New York City Cops” on the original sequencing. The vinyl version released on 9/11 still continues to have the track in the original tracklisting).

While the commercial appeal was not felt until the band began touring the US that fall, there was no denying the fact that Indie Rock was here to stay, and The Strokes were at the forefront of leading this movement. The Strokes’ Is This It debuted at #74 on the Billboard 200 in the early November charts, and yet the buzz would only continue to grow through multiple radio and TV appearances to spark the “wave of the THE bands.”

The album opens in chaos with a strange and spiraling guitar riff that bleeds away quickly into drummer Fab Moretti’s simplistic beat that allowed for dynamic vocalist Julian Casablancas to tell his story through his now trademark croon. On the second verse of the title track, he explains, “Oh dear, can’t you see? It’s them it’s not me / We’re not enemies; We just disagree / If I was like him all pissed in this bar / He changes his mind, says I went too far / We all disagree / I think we should disagree, yeah,” before casually questioning, “Is this it?”

”The Modern Age” is a raucous follow-up track to the thoughtful opener, and could have easily been the first single on an LP that has plenty of fodder for radio-ready material. Guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. have their fingerprints all over this electric-driven track that explodes with a rip-roaring solo around the 2-minute mark. The starts and stops of “Soma” was an early favorite track of mine as my friends and I in college were sharing MP3s of noteworthy bands that Rolling Stone magazine were deeming the new face of rock n’ roll. I can vividly remember the smile on my face as I got to know the rest of these songs like this track that is filled with vibrant guitars and so much rock bravado.

”Barely Legal” did nothing to remove the smile from my face as I explored the rest of the record that still remains a staple in my record rotation to this date. The guitar groove on this song in particular is perfectly constructed, poppy, and Casablancas’ ability to convey rich emotions through his vocals was nothing short of remarkable.

”Someday” is one of the three (surprisingly!) singles released from the promotion cycle of the album, and it’s clear to see why. It’s perfect ear candy for those who enjoy a good guitar-driven track ready for the mainstream of rock immortality. On the chorus, Casablancas’ shines with, “Oh, Maya says I’m lacking in depth / I will do my best / You say you wanna stay by my side / Darlin’, your head’s not right / See, alone we stand, together we fall apart / Yeah, I think I’ll be alright / I’m working so I won’t have to try so hard / Tables, they turn sometimes / Oh, someday / No, I ain’t wastin’ no more time.” Not to sound like my parents, but they just don’t make songs that sound as crisp and as beautiful as this today.

”Alone, Together” may be the only track on this record that I didn’t really get. It features some great bass lines from Nikolai Fraiture, more intricate guitars from Hammond Jr. and Valensi, but it didn’t really explode out of its comfort zone until the latter stages of the song. The unpredictability of the band’s approach to songwriting was a joy to watch, and I continue to marvel at The Strokes’ ability to not make the same record twice, even at this stage in their career.

”Last Night” is another one of those songs that you hear for the first time and think “this is perfect.” I really don’t know how else to convey the bouncy electric-guitar pop bliss of this bulletproof single that still packs a punch to this day. Had the label released the track as the first single, I would imagine they would’ve seen a much better return on their investment with a higher Billboard charting.

”Hard To Explain” ended up being the first single to be released from the album, and much like it’s title, it’s hard to fathom why this song was selected as the first taste of The Strokes. The song really doesn’t have any faults, but typically when you’re launching a debut band into the stratosphere of rock royalty, you’d want to have that song that’s a sure-fire smash hit. “New York City Cops” is a great slab of abrasive, bratty punk rock, even if the label may have made the right decision to replace it in the sequencing with a better fitting “When It Started.”

The closing duo of the near-ballad “Trying Your Luck” and the set closer, “Take It Or Leave It” made damn sure that The Strokes were a force to be reckoned with, and were going to be making a name for themselves one way or another. The fact that we’re still pointing to Is This It as a turning of the guard of the indie rock movement only speaks to the sheer beauty of this LP that will forever be one of my favorites in this genre, and beyond. I wasn’t sure if The Strokes would ever top Is This It, but they arguably did this on Room On Fire and made the motto of “Is This It?” almost laughable as they won over crowds night after night through one of the most important albums of this century.