Music

The Strokes' 'Is This It' Ten Years Later

Loren Heger

After 9/11, the Strokes offered rock escapism, three minutes at a time and they were not just a rock band, they were a New York rock band.


The Strokes

Is This It

Label: RCA
US Release Date: 2011-10-09
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After 9/11, the world suddenly appeared far more complex. Americans wondered if the best days had passed. Sporting events now had heavy police presences. Airport security was intense. There was a vague sense that more danger was coming and the anthrax attacks did nothing to temper that concern. A new realization that Americans were not sheltered from this sort of danger created a fundamental shift in perception. As Americans sought comfort, some reached for rock dinosaurs like Paul McCartney and Neil Young, who both had hits that focused on the heroism on 9/11. Others turned to country singer Toby Keith, who built a career by feeding the jingoism of the day. For those in the cultural vanguard, the Strokes offered rock escapism, three minutes at a time.

As of the morning of September 11, the Strokes had recently returned home from their first headlining tour. They'd stormed through England in support of their new debut album, Is This It, which had not yet been released in the United States. At the time, the Strokes seemed deeply out of step with the music world when they formed in 2000. A year before the Strokes' debut, Radiohead released Kid A to number one on the Billboard charts. It was that band's most experimental release to date and possibly the most intellectual album to take the top album spot. While boy bands and awful rap-rock comprised a large percentage of the music marketplace in the late '90s, there was a strong undercurrent of experimental music at the same time. Electronic acts like Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers had legitimate hits. Aphex Twin was on MTV. Air was soundtracking movies. However, this golden age of rock intellectualism was fleeting. In rock, it seems for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So when Kid A was catapulting up the charts, the Strokes released "The Modern Age" EP.

The buzz surrounding the Strokes had started to build on the strength of the three-song EP and the English press. In the weeks leading up to the scheduled U.S. release, there was as much murmuring about their privileged backgrounds -- see Swiss boarding schools and fathers in the industry -- than about their raucous live shows. The U.S. release had been delayed several weeks based on concerns over the nudity on the original cover art. The Strokes planned to kick off a promotional tour with an appearance at the CMJ Music Marathon on September 13, then release the album on the 25th.

But after the events of 9/11, what should have been the Strokes' triumphant return concert at CMJ was postponed for a month. They went back to their East Village bunker to record a replacement for the suddenly inappropriate "New York City Cops" and the release of the album was again delayed to October 9. In turn, there was a subtle shift in the buzz surrounding the Strokes. The "Rock and Roll Messiah" angle pushed by the British press had largely dissipated. Instead, the Strokes became the symbol for a reborn New York. To outsiders, the specter of New York has often been viewed pejoratively, its connotations changing from anti-banker sentiment, to anti-Catholicism, to anti-Semitism, to anti-immigrant rhetoric, to homophobia, before settling into some combination of all the above. But for a brief window in the fall of 2001, to love New York was the ultimate patriotic act for Middle America. The New York Yankees became the sentimental favorites to win the World Series, while Americans of all stripes covered themselves with I (Heart) NY shirts and FDNY baseball caps. And many bought the new album from a scrappy band from New York.


Is This It is 36 minutes long and includes 11 songs. It broke no new ground, nor did it take any real risks. Lyrically, it was an urban pastiche filled with willing women and a steady flow of booze. Offered the best recording and engineering RCA's checkbook could cover, they instead opted for recording a basement in the Lower East Side. After all, the Strokes were not just a rock band, they were a New York rock band. In retrospect, the New York angle was far closer to reality to any kind of broad stroke Messiah-dom. Rock and roll has always been about a working class ethos, real or perceived. Rock and roll means Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, or Guns 'N Roses. New York rock has a different connotation and history. New York rock means Lou Reed, Television and Talking Heads. New York rock combined a street edge with a whiff of privilege and intellectualism. Rock and roll is about drinking beer and having a good time; New York rock is about advancing art and maybe doing some coke. The Swiss boarding school insults lost potency with the Strokes: Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell met in boarding school, too.

Despite its shaggy, free-wheeling spirit, Is This It is a conservative album. The band employed a lineup of guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and vocalist. They followed a classic rock hierarchy, with the lead singer serving as the media and branding focus. Each of the songs was built from the bottom up. The bass and metronomic drumming kept a steady groove on which they built jerky, punk melodies. The vocal delivery rarely elevated above a detached deadpan. The punk groove of Television is a clear influence, but there's none of that group's sprawl; only one of the eleven tracks extends beyond the four-minute mark. There are no extended solos, guitar or otherwise. There are no samplers, synths nor drum machines. The songs have catchy choruses and short verses. The lead single "Last Nite" is the type of beery sing-a-long that could have been a hit released any time in the last forty years. The Strokes filled a market need for simple good time music for bad times. Everyone from LES hipsters to Nebraska farmers wanted some escapism in month after 9/11. Is This It offered that distraction from disaster through catchy melodies and sing-along choruses.


The Strokes' sound, though, was largely a dead-end. The "the" bands that often grouped with the Strokes did not share much musically with them, except for a propensity for short, simple songs. Along with the Strokes, bands such as the Hives, the Libertines, and the Vines were marketed as part of a new garage rock revolution. With the new attention on stripped down rock, the White Stripes' third album White Blood Cells, which had been released a few months before the Strokes' LP, broke through to mainstream success. In the years after Is This It, there was a focus on New York's scene unlike anything since the peak of the CBGB. The Strokes' success encouraged record companies to sign bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, and LCD Soundsystem. Ironically, the band that made '90s intellectual rock seem passé created a route for experimental bands to reach mainstream audiences.

But as for the Strokes themselves, their main contribution to this millennial music scene was and continues to be their style. Their hardened urbanite pose served as a template for bands in their wake. Gone were the days of loose pants -- Julian Casablancas and crew were never seen with one inch of wasted fabric. They kept a uniform style with different, but equally fashionable, haircuts. Jeans were skin tight. Leather jackets were tiny. This uniform has stayed largely intact as dozens of micro-genres and musical trends have come and gone. Ten years later, hipster bars from coast to coast are filled with guys who look like a lost Stroke, and their sound is about as dated as it was when they adopted it.

Sustained cultural relevance was at best a long shot for a band whose appeal was based on youthful recklessness and ennui. But the Strokes are still around ten years after their debut, though they are something of an enigma. They have only released two albums over the last eight years; neither was particularly well received critically, but both sold relatively well. The band members are still seen as rock stars, despite living very private lives. And it seems that they’ll be with us for years to come, even if their shining moment will always be representing New York in the months after 9/11.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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