Back at the dawn of the 21st century, The Strokes were a big deal.
For starters, The Strokes weren’t merely a rock band. They were a cool rock band. This was a barren period in American pop culture when thoroughly unhip bands like Stained, Lifehouse, and 3 Doors Down reigned on the rock charts.
Then these five tall and handsome New Yorkers crashed the scene. They had names that required unfurling, like Julian Casablancas, Albert Hammond Jr., and Fabrizio Moretti. They sported leather jackets and beat-up Chucks and seemed too busy drinking and smoking ever to properly bathe.
Their critically acclaimed debut, “Is This It,” sounded like The Velvet Underground and the Ramones updated for a new era. The songs were raw, driving, and self-assured. In short, here was a rock band worthy of the name, seemingly dropped into the 2000s via a time machine.
The success of “Is This It” reverberated into the culture, spearheading the garage-rock revival of the early 2000s. Guitar-based music was once again fashionable. If not for The Strokes, similar acts such as The White Stripes may never have gained a foothold in the mainstream. The list of beneficiaries would later expand to include The Killers, Arctic Monkeys, and Kings of Leon.
To make the connection as explicit as possible, Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys once sang, “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes.” He spoke for many. In a short amount of time, The Strokes achieved success, fame, and influence. They seemed primed to dominate the world of rock music.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Nearly 20 years have passed since the release of “Is This It.” What’s transpired in the interim? Just the usual litany of complications and pitfalls for hyped rock bands: exhaustion, addiction, intra-band conflict, and creative dry spells, along with a slew of side projects. It’s a story partially recounted in “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” Lizzy Goodman’s catty but revealing oral history of the New York rock scene from 2001 to 2011.
On the artistic front, The Strokes haven’t managed to recapture the excellence of their debut. “Room on Fire,” their sophomore effort, came awfully close, while “First Impressions of Earth” lies on the opposite end of the spectrum. In between are their two most recent records, “Angles” and “Comedown Machine.” To The Strokes’ credit, their sound has steadily evolved from garage rock, to new wave, to futuristic styles, but with inconsistent outcomes. Even as a huge fan, I’m compelled by reality to acknowledge that their body of work is kind of a mess.
The bigger story, though, is that The Strokes are still together, with new music on the way. Against the odds, they never collapsed under the weight of a tumultuous career. In fact, notwithstanding the likely failure of their preferred presidential candidate, The Strokes seem to be in a positive place right now, especially with their first record in seven years, “The New Abnormal,” set for release this Friday.
To see where The Strokes are heading, check out “At the Door,” “Bad Decisions,” and “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus,” three singles off “The New Abnormal.” To see where they’ve been, explore the songs below. You’ll find all their albums represented. Even a discography as mixed as The Strokes’ still offers plenty to enjoy and admire.
‘Someday’ (‘Is This It’)
“Someday” is perfect on its own: warm, tuneful, and bittersweet, with the busy contrast between lead and rhythm guitar as the centerpiece. It’s the kind of song that can inspire teenagers to unironically pine for their lost youth (“Still miss the good old days”).
But “Someday” becomes sublime when hitched to the official music video, which shows The Strokes joyfully knocking back Heinekens with Slash and other members of GNR at a dive bar in Los Angeles. If that weren’t enough, they later play a round of “Family Feud” against the indie-rock institution Guided by Voices. It’s the stuff dreams are made of.
‘Hard to Explain’ (‘Is This It’)
“Hard to Explain,” The Strokes’ first single, layers propulsive energy on top of poignant emotions in a way that leaves you feeling both pumped-up and reflective. It gets you moving and stings the heart, in a magical effect. The sense of momentum strikes immediately, driven by hyper-compressed drums and guitars that are both bustling and laser-guided.
Once the chorus arrives and Casablancas is breathlessly spitting lines, the song is in a total sprint. Yet there’s an obvious ache in the tone and lyrics too, a feeling of uncertainty and regret. The end result? Arguably the band’s best song.
‘What Ever Happened?’ and ‘Reptilia’ (‘Room on Fire’)
In contrast to “Is This It,” which opens with a superbly sleepy title track, The Strokes come out swinging in “Room on Fire,” delivering an emphatic one-two punch that represents some of their finest work.
First is “What Ever Happened?” a seething, tightly wound ball of aggression that features one of Casablancas’ most gripping vocals. He’s on the warpath, unleashing bitterness and cynicism in all directions.
“Reptilia” follows. The anger has cooled, but there’s no shortage of intensity, the highlight coming with Nick Valensi’s blistering solo. The song is so awash in skill and swagger, it feels like the guys are just showing off.
‘12:51’ (‘Room on Fire’)
Never ones to mask their influences, The Strokes sound like a nonchalant version of The Cars on “12:51,” the first single from “Room on Fire.” The ringing guitars, handclaps, and bright production polish combine to make it one of the band’s most infectious tunes.
Adding to the charm is the tender youthfulness of the scenes and conversations Casablancas depicts. All the talk of parents being gone, weekend parties, and foamy 40-ouncers might transport you back to a fond time and place. (Side-note: “12:51” has only one chorus. I appreciate the efficiency as well as the confidence.)
‘You Only Live Once’ (‘First Impressions of Earth’)
“First Impressions of Earth,” The Strokes’ third LP, is a bruising slog, but you wouldn’t know it from the lead track. While much of the record is bogged down in heavy tones and taxing emotions, “You Only Live Once” opens the show with verve and pop gratification.
The guitar hook that powers the song is as addictive as any in the band’s discography. Especially when compared with what follows, it feels like a burst of light, a loose and lively jolt of energy. Casablancas might sing, “I can’t see the sunshine,” but the sound doesn’t match the words quite yet. Just wait until “Juicebox” starts thumping obnoxiously.
‘Ask Me Anything’ (‘First Impressions of Earth’)
The safe play would be to recommend “Ize of the World,” “Evening Sun,” or another of the more conventionally appealing cuts off “First Impressions of Earth.” But what this list needs is a curveball, maybe even a song that’s divisive among The Strokes’ fans. “Ask Me Anything” fits the bill.
It’s a significant departure from the band’s core aesthetic, due to the hypnotic mellotron pattern that provides the melody. Between the sound and lyrics, “Ask” is somber, soothing, and even a bit eccentric. When Casablancas sings, “Don’t be a coconut, God is trying to talk to you,” you might not know whether to laugh or give it a second thought.
‘Under Cover of Darkness’ (‘Angles’)
After a hiatus following the “First Impressions of Earth” tour, The Strokes returned in 2011 with “Angles,” a colorful but uneven collection that prioritizes variety at the expense of coherence. It’s a true grab-bag, interspersed with new wave, power pop, electronica, quasi-metal, and more.
It’s noteworthy, then, that the standout track — lead single “Under Cover of Darkness” — is the most familiar and straightforward of the bunch. Right out of the gate, you’re hit with the nimble twin-guitar attack of Valensi and Hammond Jr., a Strokes staple, and from there it’s one well-crafted element after another. The song has hooks, heart, melodies, and style.
“Gratisfaction” might be a cheesy imitation of vintage ’70s acts like Thin Lizzy, Queen, and Steely Dan, but who cares when it’s such a blast? You can feel a huge smile coursing through the song, from Casablancas’ spunky vocal flow, to the eruptive chorus, to all the tasty guitar licks.
In fact, the sheer exuberance of “Gratisfaction” sets it apart from everything else in The Strokes’ catalog. Never before or since has the band allowed itself to have such an overtly good time. Oddly enough, The Strokes once shared that joy with the world on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” giving daytime TV viewers a dose of classic-rock energy they could not have been expecting.
‘One Way Trigger’ (‘Comedown Machine’)
By using “One Way Trigger” to introduce the public to “Comedown Machine,” The Strokes sent an unmistakable message: Contrary to the desire of many fans, the band’s “classic” garage-rock sound wasn’t about to reappear. How else to interpret this jittery, new-wave throwback that swipes from A-ha’s “Take on Me” and finds Casablancas baring his heart through an atypical falsetto performance?
It’s a cool mélange of tones and textures and all the more interesting for how distinctly un-Strokes it is. The same holds true elsewhere on “Comedown Machine.” While the record’s not devoid of jams — “Welcome to Japan,” for one — spacey slow-dances like “80’s Comedown Machine” and “Chances” leave a deeper impression. Even “Call It Fate, Call It Karma,” the jazzy rumination that closes shop, earns points for being utterly different and out-of-left-field.