In 2001, The Strokes released Is This It. 15 years later and their debut record still stands the test of time. Believe it or not, much of post-millennial music finds it tough to achieve any kind of cultural longevity, but with their first album, The Strokes have had no such problem. It’s still significant. It’s still important. Though they – like many – have faltered, Is This It has never once looked like going anywhere – and we’re all the better for it. To put it bluntly: it’s simple one of the best albums ever written. We should celebrate it more.
I first came across the band as young guy slowly moving into the lofty realms of *big boy music*. The stuff on the radio was no longer cool, and I was starting to dig a little deeper. It began with the release of Demon Days by Gorillaz and Arctic Monkey’s now-iconic debut Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not. These albums, in all of their mature wonder, opened up a realm of previously-unexplored musical possibility. I wanted to hear new sounds; listen to new stories.
I don’t remember exactly how I was first introduced to The Strokes, but I do know that it began with me watching the video for Last Night, the album’s lead single. ‘Last night / She said …’ – oh my god, it was brilliant. It was so simple. But it worked. I was hooked. So, as I did with all of the music I liked as an early teen, I took my pocket money and went straight to the CD section in my local supermarket. Though at around this time, the band were releasing their third record, I didn’t care. I wanted Is This It. I wanted more of Last Night. When I eventually found the album, I was met with the image of a candidly-shot, fully nude woman on its cover sleeve. Oh my god (x2), it was brilliant. Is still is brilliant. It never won’t be brilliant. Ever. My love affair had begun. I bought it, ran home, put it into my CD player and clicked play.
Though the album celebrates its 15th birthday in 2016, the record has never once threatened to sound dated. Somehow, Is This It manages to transcend the idea of tenses, unfathomably sounding before, of and ahead of its time. There’s the shades-on, middle-finger-up cool of 70s rock, but it’s paired with the industrial grittiness of the 21st century garage band revolution. On top of that, there’s a postmodern kind of construction to the way Julian Casablancas and friends have constructed the 11 songs that make up the record’s running time. You’d be a fool to dismiss Last Night as a booze-soaked ramble on rock and roll lust; rather, it feels as if they seem to know something that we don’t. Much like the near-explicit album artwork, it’s an in-joke that you want more than anything to understand. The track is an exercise in devastating simplicity, which is a model the rest of the album follows.
With Is This It, less is certainly more. Take Soma, too – and The Modern Age. The band are reported to have discarded much of the record’s incarnation, purely because it sounded too clean and complex. The album is minimalist in its sonic makeup, but elaborate in such practice. Much of Is This It’s wonder is founded on the idea of contradiction. The things that shouldn’t work, do – and they do so audaciously. New York City Cops is an urban love story told through a critique of the city’s police force, while Take It Or Leave It is a ferocious closer that starts by keeping its cards close to its chest and concludes by throwing the entire deck into your face from point-blank range. Barely Legal is a repetitive, contemporary pondering, as is the album’s titular opener; both dealing with the idea of rejection with the swagger of the most ardent lothario. It’s one of those rare collections of music where nothing feels out of place, yet every track offers something a little different. It’s magical.
The album is a staple of every incarnation of the Best Of. Best album of 2001, best album of the decade, best ever debut, best rock and roll album, best album of the noughties – etc, etc. There’s no tying it down; it’s insanely good, unshackled music. It’s fifteen years old, but it still feels new and exciting. It’s the only CD I have in my car. I listen to it once a week, without fail. There’ll never be another album like it.
Words by Niall Flynn