Is This It remains one of the most celebrated and cherished albums of the 21st century, so I’ll skip the over-sentimental gushing, as it’s almost certainly been done better by somebody else. I will, however, make a claim for it being the greatest debut rock album ever released. That will seem trivial to some people, but I genuinely believe it to be the case.
A group of young guys from New York came together to create sharp, catchy songs about urban adolescence and unreliable human behaviour. These are things that pretty much every listener can relate to, so it’s no surprise the album made such a splash on release. There are catchy guitars riffs and singalong’s aplenty. Gordon Raphael’s production is so damn effective that I’ve never even noticed it until now. Each note of every individual performance is captured and presented perfectly, with the ragged spirit of the band left intact. It’s scruffy yet masterful.
Admittedly, I listen to Is This It with a different pair of ears nowadays. I don’t find it as relentlessly exciting as I once did, though it’s still as listenable as ever. I’m not sure that will ever change. The likes of “Soma” and “Barely Legal” aren’t quite as strong as other tracks here, but they still supply an astounding level of memorable hooks to keep listeners engaged. Since its release, there’s been a running joke regarding the similarity of the songs on Is This It: if you like one song, you’ll like them all. It’s absolutely true though. The album rarely ventures away from the formula, and with such a compact running time, it doesn’t need to either.
Whilst I consider Is This It to be a triumph, I don’t think it’s perfect. Despite featuring a brilliant pre-chorus, I’ve always found “New York City Cops” to be a minor annoyance, perhaps due to the sluggish vocal melody on the chorus itself. That’s where my criticism ends, however. “Someday” and “Last Nite” will forever be indie anthems, whilst “Trying Your Luck” and “Take It Or Leave It” remain two of my favourite rock tracks ever. When The Strokes get it right – as they do so often here – it just sounds so effortlessly good.
Very occasionally you listen to a band and wonder how they ended up with each other. How did they get it right the first time round? As far as debut rock records go, there are barely any as well-conceived and refined as Is This It. It’s not arty, it’s not crushingly heavy, and it certainly didn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s just five young lads writing witty and irresistibly catchy tunes. And thus, they became musical heroes. Magnificent.
9 out of 10
A fair bit of stuff from our youth isn’t nearly as cool as we found it at the time, so it can sometimes feel risky to revisit. I needn’t have worried on this one. Is This It is the James Dean of indie rock. Cigarette perched on lower lip, bloodshot eyes squinting into the middle distance, the album remains the genre’s poster boy - the impossibly cool standard by which all pretenders must be measured and found wanting.
Twenty years on the record still has a swaggering zest to it. What goes on feels almost punk-like in its self-assurance and lack of pretension. Julian Casablancas drawls along like a sloshed downtown Socrates, with riffs fizzing like firecrackers and the rhythm section keeping to the ramped-up tempo of the city. It has the sleaze of a Tom Waits, the pep of Arctic Monkeys, and it all sounds like a million bucks blown over a weekend. Only it wasn’t blown at all. The record is much more controlled than that. The band knew what it wanted to achieve and executed with aplomb.
Is the album a classic with a capital C? I’m not sure, though if not it’s certainly a classic of its kind. A lot of music from the years that followed wished it sounded like Is This It, but none of it really came close. There could only be one. Even if a few tracks (“New York City Cops”, for example) slip into the overly frayed feel of later records, overall it’s a grand young time. It’s been lovely to come back to.
8 out of 10
Is This It has all the hallmarks of a debut done right. Hovering around the half-hour mark, it leaves itself no time to stew, instead fizzing along with peppy drums, solid basslines, and striking riffs that stick with you long after the tracklist has closed.
“Last Nite” and “Someday” continue to be classic indie tracks to this day, and Julian Casablancas’ knack for writing and delivering satisfying, hooky vocals play a large part in their longevity. “The Modern Age” stands out as a track that could’ve been released at any point in the ’00s and still felt fresh, as contemporaries cribbed from the band’s playbook long after this debut release.
When we reviewed First Impressions of Earth, I pointed to inconsistency and length as weak spots in its tracklist. Is This It is almost the polar opposite; short and snappy, it doesn’t hang around, it doesn’t try to dig deep. To pick this tracklist apart is virtually impossible due to its homogeneity. It’s an album that’s greater than the sum of its parts and returning to it as a whole has been a joy, but I’m certainly glad they explored their sound in the albums that followed.
8 out of 10