This feature was originally published in October 2013.
October 20th, 2003: I’m sweating out a fever with my roommate while we wait patiently in the Best Buy parking lot to buy The Strokes’ highly-anticipated sophomore album, Room on Fire. I should be in bed, under the covers, back in our dorm, but instead, I’m sitting shotgun in his red Plymouth Neon, listening to the tail end of Is This It. I’ve heard three songs off Room already; the single “12:51” has been circulating radio for weeks, while “I Can’t Win” and “Meet Me in the Bathroom” are both live cuts from their previous tours, the former just begging for an actual mud-less listen. The clock strikes nine, we grab our album.
It feels like 20 years ago, not 10, since The Strokes impressed their fans with their wiser, rugged older brother of an album, Room on Fire. Maybe it’s because it was one of the last albums I waited patiently for outside the store, something so routine in the ’90s and yet a custom that died off the more we inched into the aughts. Or maybe it’s because the album sounds like something dustier than its contemporaries. In a year that saw Transatlanticism, Elephant, Give Up, Hail to the Thief, and Echoes — Room on Fire just doesn’t really belong.
But in the grand scheme of The Strokes’ rocky mythos, it does, and today, it’s now part of the greater argument of Is This It vs. Room on Fire. Paired together, they’re so similar, but taken apart, you start noticing the strengths and very minor weaknesses of either album. But that’s a debate for the fans; today, we’re celebrating New York’s finest with a roundup of The Strokes’ 10 best songs. Agree, disagree, or just sit back, listen, and wax nostalgic. I certainly don’t mind looking back, fever be damned.
10. “Macchu Pichu”
The Strokes kicked off album number four with a rush of springy guitars that bounce over a reggae-tinged beat, the most dancey sound the band had dabbled with thus far. As Julian Casablancas sings, “I’m just trying to find, a mountain I can climb,” he’s expressing the desire to keep busy, while his bandmates take a page out of Men at Work’s book for a quick trip to the ’80s. It’s an intriguing start to The Strokes’ first full-length release in five years, which marked their biggest leap from the modern garage rock they pioneered a decade prior. –Amanda Koellner
09. “New York City Cops”
Say “New York City cops, they ain’t too smart” around Manhattan today, you’ll likely get a punch to the gut. Say it around September 2001, and you would have had an icebreaker with Mussolini in hell. Which sucks because “New York City Cops” happens to be one of The Strokes’ heaviest tracks, and yet they replaced it on the US cut of Is This It with “When It Started”, a bumbling shuffle that’s forgettable as much as it feels paint-by-numbers for the outfit. On “Cops”, the way the reverb and Fab Moretti thump into the cascading guitar line sounds like Brian Jones having a blast in heaven. This song is why diehard fans imported their debut. –Michael Roffman
08. “What Ever Happened?”
“I want to be forgotten/ And I don’t want to be reminded,” Casablancas sings on the first track to follow up the band’s phenomenal 2001 debut. The vocals are soaked in the frontman’s typical fuzz, and that opening line is a snapshot of the times for the five-piece: hot off the heels of a successful tour in support of Is This It yet wracked with pressures from every angle. It’s a killer album opener that summed up the band’s relationship with their critics, complete with a catchy chorus, thwacking guitars, and fantastic time changes. –Amanda Koellner
The Strokes came as a welcome break from the lobotomy-inducing rap-rock and constipated post-grunge that dominated the charts of the time. On “Soma”, they follow the “keep it simple, stupid” principle with an elementary but permeating guitar line and slow but sure buildup to an increasing aggression before abruptly pulling the plug. If garage rock revival was the revolver that took down Limp Bizkit, then “Soma” was one of the bullets. –Frank Mojica
Room on Fire remains The Strokes’ divisive sophomore album, but few would deny the power of “Reptilia”. The only possible conflict of “Reptilia” is in relation to Valensi’s mid-song guitar solo — specifically, are you Team Air Guitar or Team Sing-Along? Besides that blistering solo, “Reptilia” packs a retro chic bass line groove along with an urgent drum onslaught and those signature mumbled-but-infectious vocals. It’s a summary of everything we loved about The Strokes in the first place, summarized in three and a half minutes. –Frank Mojica
05. “You Only Live Once”
What starts out like Sum 41’s “In Too Deep” quickly offshoots into The Strokes’ best album opener yet. Moretti’s character-driven fills really stand out, seconded by Casablancas, who treats the song’s three minutes and nine seconds like a Las Vegas showroom. The two play together well, injecting enough swagger to tread off Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr.’s balmy wake. It’s funny how the song’s about identifying one’s own specialties — “Twenty-nine different attributes, only seven that you like” — as that’s exactly what the First Impressions of Earth single does for each band member here. For a moment, it sounds like a slice off The Doors’ The Soft Parade, and later feels like a future-leaning cut from The Cars’ Candy-O. –Michael Roffman
The cornerstone of Is This It was its sense of effortless but irrepressible cool. It suggested leather jackets that were purchased out of utility rather than fashion, but still managed to fit stylishly. It suggested American Spirits that were bummed rather than bought. But “Someday”, coming in at track five on their debut record, was a sign of playfulness of a band that would later be accused of self-seriousness. It’s the jangliest song on a record of garage gems, and the sunniest jam that the Strokes would ever write. On an album and from a band that trafficked almost exclusively in cool, “Someday” succeeded by giving “cool” absolutely zero thought. –Chris Bosman
03. “Automatic Stop”
So much of The Strokes’ music are about moments, and “Automatic Stop” is full of them. The moody, isolated intro; that massaging guitar melody 46 seconds in; the little arcade breakdown at 1:50, the way Casablancas sounds like he’s singing while slowly sliding into a leather booth at 2:25, or how Valensi, Hammond, Jr., and Nikolai Fraiture do the ol’ boogey stop at the end there. The spacey reggae track comes early in Room on Fire — and after “Reptilia”, no less — which is surprising since it’s such a comedown. It’s like if The Replacements put “Sixteen Blue” after “Favorite Thing” and expected you to go with it. We rolled with “Automatic Stop” because we were already sold on the Strokes and this speaks like their anthem. Casablancas’ lyric of “That’s just a phase, it’s got to pass/ I was a train moving too fast” says pretty much everything about their gasp in the ’00s. –Michael Roffman
02. “The End Has No End”
Room on Fire‘s penultimate track is anchored by a “Sweet Child O’ Mine”-esque riff as Casablancas rips through what feels like two choruses, begging questions like, “Won’t you take a walk outside?” before repeatedly stating, “The end has no end.” As the latter sentiment echoes, it feels as if The Strokes wound up with two final tracks this go-around and decided to give them both a home at the album’s close, with this one appropriately teasing but not delivering the end, leaving the job to “I Can’t Win”. –Amanda Koellner
01. “Hard to Explain”
“Hard to Explain” isn’t much, really. It’s built on a backbone of stately downstrokes. It’s a rhythm guitar that plays every chord it possibly can and a chorused, overdriven lead guitar that finds 15 hooks that fit the key and plays them all. It’s Casablancas writing verses, a pre-chorus, and a pre-pre-chorus that all fight each other for the most instantly recognizable. Then the actual chorus comes, and the drums turn live– those driving splashing cymbals– and suddenly “I missed the last bus/ I’ll take the next train” is seared into your brain.
Ultimately, the song’s genius is that it’s the one everyone wanted to write. It’s the culmination of every band that’s ever practiced on a couple of cheapo Fender amps in someone’s garage or basement, playing some cool drum machine preset they found, broken, in a thrift store, saying “When we find a drummer, man” to each other. In fact, the entire garage revival of the past decade is probably directly indebted to the track. Like an infinite number of monkeys will eventually write Shakespeare, an infinite number of garage bands banging away on Telecasters would have eventually wrote “Hard to Explain”.
The Strokes were just the ones that stumbled into it. –Chris Bosman