The Strokes’ dramatic arrival at the start of the millennium was like a gift from the Gods. While British audiences took to the band first – and wholeheartedly – the indie scene that they soon became figureheads of would bring about a new dawn in music. Julian Casablancas and his band of New Yorkers brought rock ‘n’ roll kicking and screaming into the 21st Century with their seminal debut album Is This It.
Their arrival came following the mundane sounds of Coldplay, Embrace, and Travis dominating the musical landscape, all before five guys from the Big Apple helped bring guitar music back from the brink. At the beginning of 2001, The Strokes first made waves in the UK and captured the nation’s hearts and minds even though they were complete unknowns in their home country. After sending their three-track EP, The Modern Age, to the newly reformed legendary British label Rough Trade, the company snapped up the New Yorkers, and quickly they became the most important band on the planet.
Their full-length debut arrived on RCA, earning The Stokes both international commercial success and even more critical acclaim. They then followed up their faultless debut in 2003 in wondrous style with Room on Fire. Their conquering of the 2000s continued with the impressive, First Impressions of Earth, in January 2006, which marked yet another success. From there, The Strokes spent the next few years in the wilderness. However, they finally made their return in 2011 with Angles, a far cry from the band who lit the world on fire a decade prior. Two years later, they delved further down this new-sound with Comedown Machine, another mixed bag by the indie darlings. With troublesome releases spelling a difficult period, the band disappeared for another seven years until they emerged with another full-length project when the Rick Rubin-produced, The New Abnormal, arrived in 2020, a stellar return to form.
In a bid to celebrate one of the most vital bands to emerge over the last 20 years, this feature is taking a look at the ten best songs by The Strokes. With a band that has such a high-output level over their career, picking just ten tracks was a torturous experience and like choosing between your favourite children. Check out the list below.
The 10 best songs by The Strokes
10. ‘Undercover of Darkness’
After five years without a record, Angles was highly-anticipated as fans couldn’t wait to hear another full-length effort from one of the finest bands on the planet. However, devotees ended up feeling flat from the largely disappointing project. The album failed to replicate the greatness of their previous three efforts.
However, ‘Undercover of Darkness’ is one of the greatest tracks that the band has ever created and has everything you’d want from a Strokes effort. It’s full of that energy that only these five New Yorkers could create, and Albert Hammond Jr.’s mouth-watering riffs proved that despite the album being lacklustre, there was still life left in the band.
9. ‘Under Control’
‘Under Control’ is a tender cut from their delicious sophomore album, Room On Fire, and epitomises that spirit of the city the band were birthed in during the early noughties. Many questioned whether the band had the facilities to follow up their debut, which saw them be held up as zeitgeists. They answered those critics with ease as they created another iconic masterpiece.
The fact that ‘Under Control’ was overlooked as a single shines a light on the album’s greatness and how everything The Strokes touched turned to gold. The main reason why ‘Under Control’ snuck its way onto this list is that the track is one of the earliest signs that showed that The Strokes could do much more than meat and veg rock ‘n’ roll. They were a three-dimensional group who had an unquantifiable versatility to their sound, which isn’t celebrated enough.
8. ‘Is This It’
From the moment that the first line from the titular opener kicks in from their faultless 2001 debut, you know that you’re in for a treat of the highest calibre. ‘Is This It’ was the perfect opener into one of the most magnificent sonic journeys that you’ll ever find yourself lost on, and the delicious chorus was somehow a happy accident, according to Julian Casablancas.
The singer explained the song’s title to the NME in 2009: “How it came about is that we had the song and it was done without a chorus, so I was like, ‘I’ll wing it, I’ll figure something out’, and one day I sang that over the chorus and that song was done.”
Producer Gordon Raphael later told The Guardian: “I recorded ‘Is This It’ with one microphone for the voice and one for the snare drum: everything minimal. It wasn’t sonically perfect, but it had some magic and emotion that was missing in the big studio stuff other bands were doing. Julian had so many ideas – and a freakishly controlled concept of rhythm and timing. Even when he’d drunk 13 beers and was asleep on the couch, one eye would open, and he’d go: ‘The hi-hat’s not right.’ He was a master of the cryptic instruction.”
7. ‘Last Nite’
‘Last Nite’ is the most popular track by The Strokes, and for sure, it’s a moment of unadulterated genius, but The Strokes have six even greater songs. The iconic track changed the trajectory of the upstarts’ career, and the raw rock ‘n’ roll spirit of it made Britain fall head over heels for The Strokes. Their arrival came following the mundane sounds of soft rock bands dominating the musical landscape before these five unrelenting guys changed the genre forever.
It’s undoubtedly the most important song that The Strokes ever recorded as it built an unstoppable hype machine up around the band. There is no disputing it’s greatness, but more magic came when they lived up to the hype on a plethora of occasions. The Strokes felt like they were a hark back to when the world of rock ‘n’ roll was a truly exciting place, and ‘Last Nite’ instantly made the world a better place.
6. ‘Hard To Explain’
‘Hard To Explain’ is all about the old saying ‘ignorance is bliss’, and sometimes it’s easier in life to just go along with the flow rather than overthinking everything. The thumping drums carry the track to a gritty location, which makes it a perfect anthem for both a dive bar and a festival mainstage, which sums up The Strokes’ charming duality.
Casablancas’ vocals are on another level throughout this effort, and every note cuts through thanks to his raw delivery.
The simplicity of Casablancas’ lyrics made the song a relatable beast, thanks to his intuition to never needlessly over-complicate things. It will never get hold hearing the singer belt out at the top of his lungs, “I missed the last bus, I’ll take the next train, I’ll try but you see, it’s hard to explain, I say the right thing, but act the wrong way, I like it right here, but I cannot stay.”
5. ‘Eternal Summer’
It had been seven years since The Strokes had produced a full-length effort before they unleashed The New Abnormal on the world in 2020. For the first time in their career, it felt like expectations were low for an album, and their 2016 EP Future Present Past didn’t help quell fears of a possible dud being on the cards from the band, but, The New Abnormal was a revelation.
Moments on the record such as ‘Bad Decisions’ feel like a hark to the past, which is no slight. However, ‘Eternal Summer’ felt fresh and like an anthem that was as forward-thinking as anything from the album. It’s a true masterstroke from The Strokes from their best album in fifteen years and proves that the chemistry that they had 20-years ago today hasn’t dissipated one bit.
4. ‘You Only Live Once’
First Impressions Of Earth is undoubtedly the darkest and most dour record that The Strokes have made. Still, that switch to the dark side worked devilishly well on their 2006 effort and ‘You Only Live Once’ is a slice of delectable wizardry that showcases the band’s heavier side.
Casablancas later commented on the track’s grittier sound in contrast with their earlier work: “There’s delay on it. I never liked it, but now it’s sort of everywhere on the record. Not crazy ’80s reverb, just enough to give a lot of the instruments space so it sounds fuller, bigger and louder. What I used to call ‘more professional.’ That ‘more professional’ sound is what we tried when we worked with Nigel Godrich on the first sessions for Room On Fire, but it wasn’t right, y’know. Which is why we went back to Gordon Raphael. Here we did it but we still felt it still sounded gritty and like us.”
‘Reptillia’ is an undisputed moment of genius from The Strokes that attacks the listener from all angles, and there’s an intoxicating charm to the claustrophobic nature of the track. It was louder and more action-packed than anything that featured on their debut album, many would argue that this is The Strokes’ finest hour and, on another day, I’d quite possibly agree, but today isn’t that day.
The only complaint about 2003’s Room On Fire at the time was a discussion about the project arriving as Is This It 2.0, but that’s because they went straight back into the studio, and they were still the same kids that had just cooked up their debut. However, ‘Reptilia’ is picture proof of the band’s growth and a sign of their development. It’s the closest thing The Strokes have made to a proper rock anthem, and they pulled it off with ease.
2. ‘New York City Cops’
‘New York City Cops’ would set a high-water mark for the noughties, the band furiously sticking two fingers firmly in the air at the American regime that is, sadly, even more relevant 20 years later. The political anthem against police brutality was written in response to the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo. The 23-year-old Guinean immigrant was unarmed when he was shot and killed by four plainclothes policemen in New York City who incorrectly thought Diallo was reaching for a gun. The truth, however, was that the innocent man was pulling out his wallet, tragically similar to the death of George Floyd in 2020.
The Strokes’ effort originally featured on their debut album Is This It in the States but removed after the September 11th terror attack because it featured the line “New York City cops ain’t too smart”, a factor which would appear insensitive at the time. Instead, it was replaced by ‘When It Started’ on the US version.
Casablancas spoke with Vulture in 2018 about how the political aspect of The Strokes, noting: “When it was taken off the album after 9/11, the political element got removed from the band’s narrative,” he said. Political isn’t the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of The Strokes, but ‘New York City Cops’ offers a potent reminder of the band being on the right side of history.
In 2001, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher perfectly reflected on the “hype” surrounding The Strokes when he passed on the torch and declared: “Well I got the record, and as luck would have it when we were out in America they were playing at a nightclub about four hours drive away, so when went in a van and we drove to see ’em,” remembers the discerning Britpop monarch. “And there’s only about 50 people there ‘cos no one has ever heard of them in the States, yet.”
He continues with his glowing endorsement, “And I thought, that night, it was the most exciting thing I’d seen since the Stone Roses,” said Noel Gallagher at the time. “I think they’re the most important band right now in the world for what they may inspire other people to do.”
‘Someday’ proved Gallagher’s point to be correct and showed that no other band mattered in the way that The Strokes did, including Oasis. It’s a feelgood anthem that never fails to make you smile unless you’re gifted with a heart of steel and are dead inside. It’s The Strokes at their absolute best and precisely epitomises why they were the rightful voice of a generation.