2001 was a strange reactionary time in music. Grunge had long since died out, gone with the detached irony of the early ’90s. After years of banal bickering between Oasis and Blur, Britpop had enjoyed its moment in the sun. Hip hop and R&B were firmly in the ascendancy (which continues to this day); less positively, ghastly collaborative genres like nu-metal and rap-rock had become a mainstream thing to the detriment of the listener’s ears. 

It’s why five unassuming men from New York City called The Strokes were able to hit with the impact that they did, a potent mixture of timing and talent, style and substance. Guitar music always seemed to be on the verge of dying, as claimed by music critics, but here came a little lo-fi garage rock group to salvage it. 

Is This It, their debut album, came out in Australia 20 years ago on July 30th, 2001, before the rest of the world would get their hands on it. Perhaps not since Nirvana had released Bleach had a band enraptured to this level with their first album. Is This It was hailed as the greatest album of the 21st century, just two years into its infancy; The Strokes themselves were cited as the best pure rock ‘n’ roll band since fellow New Yorkers The Velvet Underground

Much of the appeal was as much about aesthetic as it was aural. The quintet – Julian Casablancas, Albert Hammond Jr., Nick Valensi, Nikolai Fraiture, and Fabrizio Moretti – became unexpected style icons: with their double denim looks, tight leather jackets, unkempt hair, and general scruffiness, they were hip but relatable. These were just five guys you’d catch at the bar after a $10 gig one night, smoking Lucky Strikes and swigging from cheap beer bottles. You wanted to be a part of their group and, even better, it felt wholly possible. Casablancas was a magnetic but withdrawn frontman too, exuding charisma without even trying. He mumbled lyrics, he snarled lines with languorous insouciance, coolness personified. 

And what The Strokes sang about was equally relatable. Most of the songs on Is This It are simple tales of late night debauchery, of being young and alive in the big city. Drugs and alcohol, sex and partying; it was simplistic songwriting but it hit the right notes. Everything about The Strokes’s music was aspirational, provoking yearning on the listener’s part to be living the life of Casablancas and co. (perhaps they’ve only been rivalled by their later West Coast counterparts Girls at conjuring this essential romanticised vision of being young and unruly in the city in your 20’s). 

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This is not to diminish the skill in their sound. Valensi and Hammond Jr. were frightening prospects on guitar, duelling with ferocious abandon. Moretti provided an unceasingly solid – and quintessentially garage – base on drums that drove tracks forward. Fraiture’s deceptively melodic bass lines complemented Casablancas’s nonchalant drawl. Is This It was purposefully produced to capture the spirit of the band’s live performances and the record sounds raw without losing any semblance of quality. It places you in that dinghy Lower East Side bar on a Friday night, exactly where this music should be heard. 

“The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band”: this quote, often attributed to Brian Eno, captures what The Strokes went through after 2001. Everyone wanted to be them, every suburban group of friends thought that they could follow in their footsteps. There would be no Libertines or Arctic Monkeys without The Strokes; there would also be a lot less ‘indie landfill’ that swamped the market in the early noughties as record labels eagerly searched for the next The Strokes. 

With such unrelenting hype naturally led to detraction. Even by their next album, 2003’s Room on Fire, The Strokes were stuck in an impossible position: change their winning sound too much and the fans would have pitchforks out; don’t innovate enough and critics would call them one-hit wonders. None of their following five albums have come close to matching the quality of their debut but this says more about the quality of that record more than anything. The Strokes didn’t save guitar music with Is This It – they just reminded us how good rock could be. Guitar music is dead. Long live The Strokes.