The Magic of The Strokes’ “Is This It”
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Indie rock has long been plagued by homogeneity: singers repeat the same lyrics, melodies, instrumentals, and vocal styles over and over again. As a result, many artists of a given era, particularly the underground rock bands of the mid-to-late 1990s, have an almost indistinguishable sound. Bands like Pavement ushered in a decade-long trend of crooning vocals, while the prominence of grunge made it hard to get through an album without hearing a distorted guitar riff. But occasionally, an artist is able to take the clichés of a genre and reinvent them into something new. No album is a better example than The Strokes’ 2001 debut project “Is This It.”
The album received immediate acclaim, heralded as both a step forward for rock and a nod to some all-time classics. Critics quickly drew comparisons to the likes of The Velvet Underground and The Rolling Stones. While such extreme praise was controversial, the consensus was overwhelmingly positive. The album’s commercial and critical success launched The Strokes into the spotlight, peaking at 33 on the Billboard 200, where it stayed for 55 weeks.
The band’s origins were far from the heights of their eventual success. They began in an Upper West Side private school in New York City, started by frontman Julian Casablancas and his two friends and fellow classmates guitarist Nick Valensi and drummer Fab Moretti. The bandmates’ elite backgrounds did draw criticism for their contradiction of The Strokes’ iconoclastic lyrics, but not so much so that it weakened the album’s effect to any meaningful degree. The band’s public perception wasn’t instrumental in their success: their work spoke for itself.
“Is This It” draws from a number of its rock predecessors. The Strokes borrowed grunge’s heavy guitar distortion while combining colorful melodies with strained, intense vocals. A standout feature of the album was its use of lethargy, a vocal style popularized by rock bands like The Velvet Underground. Nearly every song on “Is This It” juxtaposes fun, poppy instrumentals with cynical lyrics sung in an unenthusiastic tone. Songs featuring these mellow vocals are interspersed with others that erupt into explosions of energy and passion. These abrupt changes from song to song—even verse to verse—make “Is This It” a thrill ride of an album.
The album also ushered in a new era of garage rock, a style which rejected the glossy production of early 2000s music and embraced a lo-fi aesthetic. The sounds of bands like The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys were heavily influenced by The Strokes’ music, and hints of The Strokes’ sound could also be recognized in other music at the time, like that of Arcade Fire and The National. The first major New York rock band to come out of the 21st century, The Strokes were also able to reenter rock into the mainstream at a time when gangsta rap, pop, and prog rock ruled the charts. Whatever you think of their music itself, their enormous and lasting impact on the music industry is undeniable.
After the release of “Is This It,” The Strokes never produced another album of a comparable caliber. “Room on Fire” (2003) came close, but those songs felt like little more than “Is This It” B-sides and futile attempts at recreating the magic of their debut. As good as many of the songs were, the album lacked the originality and cohesiveness of their first project, trading in the distortion and mania of “Is This It” for a more polished sound. Their 2020 project, “The New Abnormal,” was a promising release after a number of disappointing records, but as reliable as The Strokes’ infectious melodies are, they lose their effect after two decades of little significant improvement. As the band members age and deal with not-so-private personal conflicts, it’s unlikely The Strokes will produce another record that rivals their 2001 masterpiece. Yet, we can always look back to their groundbreaking, unforgettable debut, an album that, after years of listening, has yet to lose its spark.