Over the past two decades, The Strokes have been responsible for a lot. They rejuvenated a tired genre with an instantly iconic debut album. They’ve inspired whole new generations to pick up guitars and try and write their own indie classics. They were at the epicentre of a movement that is now part of a new wave of nostalgia. But, most of all, they’ve given us scores of brilliant songs, from indie disco anthems to forlorn, slightly weird takes. As they prepare to return with sixth album ‘The New Abnormal’, we’ve listened to every one of those tracks and knuckled down to an incredibly hard task – ranking The Strokes’ songs in order of greatness.
65‘Call It Fate, Call It Karma’ (2013)
‘Call It Fate…’ is a sketch of a song, Julian Casablancas’ voice barely audible for much of it. It’s not bad necessarily, but it feels unfinished and frustratingly like it could be so much more given more attention.
There are points on ‘Chances’ where Julian sounds like Brandon Flowers, so un-Strokes-like is this song. Unlike The Killers’ oeuvre, though – or, indeed, The Strokes’ – this song feels like a bit of a mess. Unsure of where to go and what to do, the frontman switchjes between pained falsetto and barely legible mutters.
63‘Call Me Back’ (2011)
“That song just kind of… showed up!” Julian Casablancas told NME back in 2011. We believe it – ‘Call Me Back’ could be great but the drum-free song sounds half-arsed and unfinished, Julian’s trademark drawl sounding more lazy than cool.
62’15 Minutes’ (2006)
If a common theme of ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ was Julian’s alcohol intake, ’15 Minutes’ was the album’s point of peak drunkenness. Between the singer’s slurred bellows, there’s a Christmassy feel to things, like when your dysfunctional uncle has one too many whiskeys and tries to start a fight with your nan. Not the good kind of festive, basically.
61‘Tap Out’ (2013)
‘Tap Out’ is one of The Strokes’ smoother songs, but it’s let down by a chorus that feels underwhelming and as if the band are under the water they reference in its verses. Weak.
60‘Slow Animals’ (2013)
Julian practically whispers the verses of ‘Slow Animal’, which might work if he then went completely the other way on the chorus. But he only raises his voice a bit, failing to land a killer punch. “You don’t have to be so loud,” he sings in the opening line, but he shouldn’t take his advice quite so literally.
59‘All The Time’ (2013)
Single ‘All The Time’ deals with New York kids observed by the band who are hellbent on living fast and dying young. It’s the closest ‘Comedown Machine’ gets to The Strokes’ classic sound, but can’t hold a candle to their earlier work.
58‘Killing Lies’ (2006)
“Don’t think everything is gonna stay the same / That’s impossible,” Julian warns here and he’s right. You can also apply that wisdom to The Strokes themselves who, for better and worse, have long deviated from the blueprint that made them so special in the first place.
57‘Partners In Crime’ (2013)
On the weirder end of the spectrum sits ‘Partners In Crime’, on which the band do surrealism with confusing results. “I’m on the guestlist, we got the door but / Can’t seem to find it, pants on a tiger,” goes one chorus. Yeah, us neither.
56‘When It Started’ (2001)
‘When It Started’ replaced ‘New York City Cops’ on the US version of ‘Is This It’ in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s pleasant enough but the band were right to originally leave it off the album.
This is the gang’s attempt at psych-tinged punk, nagging riffs chasing their tails while Julian hollers over the top. This isn’t where The Strokes excel, though, and there’s plenty of other bands who do this kind of thing better.
‘Hawaii’, the b-side to ‘Juicebox’, is a lot of fun on the surface, Julian calling out locations around the world before settling on the 50th state. Underneath, though, there’s a deeper sentiment – a sneering look at the complacent attitudes of Americans. “A nuclear disaster might be on our way / But I don’t care, I’m in the USA,” jibes Julian, his bandmates’ bubbling accompaniment covering up his true feelings.
53‘Red Light’ (2006)
It’s bouncy and bright, but this is one of ‘First Impressions…’’s weakest tracks. Drummer Fab Moretti’s hi hats slice awkwardly through the rest of the track, while Nick Valensi’s jaunty guitar riff bobs like a boat on choppy waters.
The beginning of ‘Games’ sounds like it was lifted from a Blood Orange song but the track actually took inspiration from Daft Punk’s ‘Veridis Quo’. It also caused some issues amongst the band, with guitarist Nick Valensi not initially being happy at the more electronic nature of the track.
51‘At The Door’ (2020)
“Struck me like a chord / I’m an ugly boy / Holding out the night,” Julian croons on the chorus of this drum-free ballad. It’s emotional and tender, and a sign the group’s sixth album ‘The New Abnormal’ will see them pick up where they left off in terms of experimenting and inventing, at least.
50‘Between Love & Hate’ (2003)
For most bands, a song like ‘Between Love & Hate’ would be up there with their very best. But given the incredible quality of The Strokes’ first few albums, it’s merely fine in the context of their work.
49‘Life Is Simple In The Moonlight’ (2011)
The twinkling closer of ‘Angles’ has a subtle nod to Latin music, its verses following a kind of syncopated swing rhythm typically associated with the sounds of South America. Lyrically, it references philosopher Cornel West. Fancy!
48‘80s Comedown Machine’ (2013)
The Strokes are known for their energetic, concise bursts, but this slow and stately track defies expectations and hangs around for nearly five minutes. It’s heavy with dejection and feels like a predecessor to ‘Human Sadness’, by Julian’s other band The Voidz, but could do with a trim.
Turns out even world-renowned rock stars get insecure, if the lyrics to ‘Metabolism’ are anything to go by. “I wanna be outrageous/ But inside I know I’m plain,” Julian sings, later claiming he wishes to be “somebody like you […] instead of me”. We know plenty of people who’d gladly switch with him.
46‘I Can’t Win’ (2003)
Interestingly, ‘I Can’t Win’’s riff sounds eerily similar to that of ‘Last Nite’. But the closing track of ‘Room On Fire’ couldn’t match that 2001 track’s glorious anthemics, prompting only a light air-punch rather than all-out abandon.
45‘You Talk Way Too Much’ (2003)
“Give me some time, I just need a little time,” begs Julian Casablancas on this chugging track from the band’s second album, ‘Room On Fire’. It’s sad but energetic, but boy does that solo let it down.
44‘The Way It Is’ (2003)
“It’s not you, it’s me” goes the popular let-them-down-gently relationship finisher and that’s an approach The Strokes try on ‘The Way It Is’. Instead of tiptoeing around a break up, though, they aim for the jugular, telling their soon-to-be ex: “I’m sick of you and that’s the way it is”. Ouch.
43‘You’re So Right’ (2011)
Written by bassist Nikolai Fraiture, ‘You’re So Right’ is one of the standout tracks on fourth album ‘Angles’. It’s darker than a lot of that record, with an almost restrained nu-metal air to the music and an unsettling climax that feels like the band’s instruments are facing off against each other.
Latter-day Strokes material often dives off into unexpected directions, but largely into something that can be linked to Julian’s later work with The Voidz. That’s not the case here, though, as this zippy song packs a big power-pop chorus that cheerily promises: “You’ll be frustrated til the day that you’re done.”
41‘Fear Of Sleep’ (2006)
Not many of Casablancas’ lyrics reach the surreal but ‘Fear Of Sleep’ offers up a little treat in its first verse – “I was hiding from the world, I was a squirrel / But you chopped down my tree to get my fur.”
40‘Modern Girls & Old Fashion Men’
The Strokes teamed up with fellow New Yorker Regina Spektor on the b-side to ‘Reptilia’ and the contrast between her and Julian’s voices makes for something beautiful. “Oh yes, we’re falling down,” they sing repeatedly in unison as a typical Strokes foundation chugs away beneath.
39‘Evening Sun’ (2006)
“All actors, they’re pretending and singers, they will sometimes lie / Kids are always honest ’cause they don’t think they’re ever gonna die,” Julian analyses on this, a lethargic, yawning song that’s as pretty as it is plodding.
38‘Ize Of The World’ (2006)
The Voidz might be well-known for commenting on modern society and the forces within it but Julian’s been getting increasingly into those topics in his songwriting since ‘First Impressions…’ On ‘Ize Of The World’, he sings about a society that gets bogged down with unimportant things rather than steer the world onto a better course. “A desk to organise, a product to advertise / A market to monopolise, movie stars to idolise,” he sings pn the last chorus before the final two lines cut off abruptly, as if the end of society has suddenly arrived. “No time to apologise, fury to tranquilise / Weapons to synchronise, cities to vapori…”
Literary inspiration strikes on this tinny track from ‘Is This It’. The title refers to the “ideal pleasure drug” of the same name in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, while the lyrics follow a similar narrative to that of character Bernard Marx.
36‘What Ever Happened?’ (2003)
“I wait and tell myself: life ain’t chess” is one of Julian’s most poetic lyrics, hinting at the unpredictability of our existence.
35‘One Way Trigger’ (2013)
Enter the video game version of The Strokes, hurriedly rushing along on a synth line that sounds half like an 8-bit soundtrack to catching gold coins on a platform game and half like A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’.
34‘On The Other Side’ (2006)
This one will resonate with anyone who’s not a people person, opening with an elastic bassline that fades into Julian croaking: “I’m tired of everyone I know / Of everyone I see on the street and on TV.” Throughout the song he has an atmosphere of a cranky drunk propping up the bar and muttering to himself, before a moment of clarity arrives between sips. “I’m tired of being so judgmental of everyone,” he admits.
“It’s almost after midnight / I can see the city lights, we’re here,” Julian sings wearily over his bandmates’ gently glittering melodies. He doesn’t mention New York by name but it’s hard not to picture him in the back of a cab after dark, driving over Williamsburg Bridge with the Manhattan skyline sparkling like a giant disco ball ahead of him. Its title might suggest a big ball of energy, but ‘Electricityscape’ is sleepily beautiful.
32‘Two Kinds Of Happiness’ (2011)
There are several tracks throughout The Strokes’ catalogue that obviously take influence from the ‘80s but ‘Two Kinds Of Happiness’ is the most obviously so, at least in its verses. It explores the idea that long-term and short-term happiness are separate from each other, Julian crying: “One’s an instant, one takes some will.”
31‘Happy Ending’ (2013)
The Strokes go synth-pop on this quiet, crisp ‘Comedown Machine’ highlight. It’s as close as they’ve come to pop perfection yet, Julian’s falsetto softly springing off Nick’s fragmented guitar lines.
30‘Trying Your Luck’ (2001)
A brilliant example of Julian’s expert sarcasm, ‘Trying Your Luck’ sees him tell a girl with an audible eye-roll: “I know this is so rare, but I’ll try my luck with you.” That it comes right before the unrequited love story of ‘Take It Or Leave It’ suggests, perhaps, he didn’t get the results he wanted.
‘Oblivius’ boasts one of the most powerfully delivered choruses in Strokes history, one single line wailed earnestly as Nick and Albert’s guitars stop weaving in between in each other and become a shining wall of sound. “What side are you standing on?” Julian asks over and over again, an impatience creeping into his voice.
2828. ‘Vision Of Division’ (2006)
It’s no surprise this is the one Strokes song Julian’s other band The Voidz have covered in their live show; bordering on dissonant, it’s the most chaotic track track in his other band’s catalogue. One of the Voidz’s live airings also gifted us a viral video of Albert Hammond Jr watching on aghast. Win-win, really.
27‘Bad Decisions’ (2020)
The second track to be released from the band’s sixth album ‘The New Abnormal’, this sounds like classic Strokes put through a John Hughes filter and mixed with a New Order groove. It’s nostalgic but full of life and sounds like a band reinvigorated after some time apart.
On this lilting, poppy track, The Strokes are really down on romance. “Oh the razorblade, that’s what I call love,” Julian says, before a chorus that suggests turmoil in a relationship. If only all lovers’ tiffs sounded this buoyant.
25‘Welcome To Japan’ (2013)
A classic infidelity song that finds Julian addressing the woman he cheated with, who seems a little more enamoured than he is. “I didn’t wanna bore ya,” he says. “Didn’t wanna pick up your shit for ya.” You can’t talk about ‘Welcome To Japan’, though, without mentioning what is likely Casablancas’ most memorable lyric ever – the chuckle-worthy “What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?”
24‘Take It Or Leave It’ (2001)
‘Take It Or Leave It’ is one of the most frustrated-sounding songs on the band’s debut album, Julian huffing at an already coupled-up love interest that their current boyfriend isn’t a patch on him. Bold and assertive, it’s also a great kiss-off to a debut album released at the peak of a whole load of hype.
23‘Under Cover Of Darkness’ (2011)
After a lengthy break post-‘First Impressions Of Earth’, The Strokes entered the ‘Angles’ era with this jerky new wave track. Julian told NME at the time it was a “cheesy” song about leaving a loved one behind, but it also sneaks in a reference to the burden of one of the band’s biggest hits. “Everybody’s been singing the same song for 10 years,” goes the second verse of a song that, funnily enough, was released a decade after their ‘Last Nite’-featuring debut album.
22‘Automatic Stop’ (2003)
The Strokes subtly address sexuality on this staccato ‘Room On Fire’ track, Julian explaining, “She wanted him, he wanted me / That’s just a phase, it’s got to pass”. Classic Casablancas insouciance.
21‘Barely Legal’ (2001)
The Strokes have always been a little dogged by their privileged upbringings, but especially so when they were first starting out. Julian possibly addresses those complaints in ‘Barely Legal’’s opening line when he sings: “I didn’t take no shortcuts / I spent the money that I saved up.” He has since forsaken the song, saying it makes him “cringe a little bit”. The overall subject matter (trying to hook up with a girl who’s just the legal age to have sex) is uncomfortable, but tackles Casablancas’ dad’s affair with a then-16-year-old Stephanie Seymour.
20‘Drag Queen’ (2016)
Like ‘Bad Decisions’, this ‘Future Present Past’ track has a clear New Order influence, but warps it into something nastier and grittier. On the track, Julian sets out his feelings about capitalism (evil), the US (always playing the victim), and the rushed pace of modern life (bad).
19‘The End Has No End’ (2003)
Is it the government or the way we’ve devolved as a society that’s making us all infinitely more stupid? According to The Strokes on ‘The End Has No End’, it’s all down to us. The looping track also makes reference to the band’s beloved NY progenitors The Velvet Underground, alluding to the year when the Lou Reed-fronted band released their debut album (“One-nine-six-nine, what’s that sound?”).
18‘Under Control’ (2003)
“You are young, darling / For now, but not for long,” go the penultimate two lines of ‘Under Control’. Here, it seems the band are telling us to seize the day and make the most of our youth, and not “waste your time”. The wisdom.
17‘Is This It’ (2001)
According to producer Gordon Raphael, Julian wanted his vocals on this song (and accompanying album) to sound “like your favourite blue jeans – not totally destroyed, but worn-in, comfortable”. Worn-in is certainly how ‘Is This It’ feels – an old, familiar friend even on your first time hearing it. Oh, and that iconic, searching chorus? A case of Julian winging it in a bid to complete the song. Genius.
16‘Alone, Together’ (2001)
Where most of The Strokes’ debut album felt urgent and piercing, ‘Alone, Together’ took a different tact. It stripped things back and let the song languidly unfold, a rare spike of energy briefly bursting into view two minutes in, like a second wind hitting and then rapidly disappearing when you realise you can’t get into that bar you’ve trekked across town to. It also hints at the issues that would cause Julian to sober up a decade later (“Oh, ‘You drink too much’ makes me drink just the same”).
15‘Ask Me Anything’ (2006)
The centrepiece of third album ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ came out of leftfield, guitars switched for a revolving Mellotron melody over which Julian sighed “I’ve got nothing to say” and hinted at a cap on the group’s future (“We could drag it out but that’s for other bands to do”). It’s one of the Strokes’ most gorgeous songs, but it might never have left the recesses of their leader’s brain – according to the frontman, it came to him in a dream as a Scissor Sisters song and he was initially certain it had already been written.
14‘Threat Of Joy’ (2016)
One of three tracks featured on the band’s 2016 EP ‘Future Present Past’, ‘Threat Of Joy’ is the kind of multi-layered song that has you sifting through a whole deck of potential meanings. Is it about a relationship? The band themselves? Their fans? The media? Anyone could be the target of Julian’s eye-rolling spoken word opening: “OK, I see how it is now / You don’t have time to play with me anymore / That’s how it goes, I guess / Fuck the rest.”
13‘Taken For A Fool’ (2011)
Living for the weekend might be a sensible attitude to going out if you work a normal office job that requires you to turn up bright-eyed and not smelling like you’ve started washing yourself with tequila. Rock stars don’t have that problem, though and, on the zipping banger ‘Taken For A Fool’, Julian says partying on Friday nights be damned! “Monday, Tuesday is my weekend.” Hardcore.
12‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’ (2003)
‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’ lent its name to Lizzy Goodman’s transportive memoir of New York’s noughties golden hour and you can see why. It’s louche and cool, underwritten with a hint of grimy sexiness, and sounds like Julian is telling you about his latest exploits in a darkened corner of a Lower East Side dive bar.
11‘The Modern Age’ (2001)
The first track on the band’s debut EP of the same name, ‘The Modern Age’ is one of a triptych of tracks that kick-started their whole rise. No wonder: that perfectly in tandem thump of guitar, bass and drums is insistent and infectious, while Julian flies from purred insouciance to playful “woo”s. Imagine this being the first thing you heard from the New Yorkers. You’d fall in love by the time the first “g-g-g-g-g-go” hit.
Two things dominate ‘Juicebox’ – Nikolai’s rumbling, ominous bassline and Julian’s effortless switch from low-key to rasped, urgent howls. When he cries, “Why won’t you come over here? / We’ve got a city to love”, his voice cracks with the most compelling intensity.
9‘Machu Picchu’ (2011)
The Strokes’ fourth album ‘Angles’ might have been made in New York but it certainly didn’t sound like it. Opening track ‘Machu Picchu’ instead sounds like it was conjured up on a tropical beach on a time travel holiday back to the ‘80s. Don’t worry, though – the band’s vacay uniform is obviously still battered leather jackets and Converse.
8‘Heart In A Cage’ (2006)
Possibly Nick Valensi’s finest moment, ‘Heart In A Cage’ is absolutely made by his furiously noodling guitar solo, which sounds like its hurtling down a never-ending New York fire escape. Insanely powerful.
There’s a bit in the video for ‘Reptilia’ where Julian, who’s been casually eyeballing the camera the whole time, makes his eyes pop out of their sockets, grabs the mic with one hand and becomes uncharacteristically animated. “The room is on fire as she’s fixing her hair,” he half-screams. It looks like a panicked warning and it sounds like one on record too.
6‘Last Nite’ (2001)
The Strokes might have oodles of iconic songs but you can’t argue that any are more so than ‘Last Nite’. Just that opening singular riff is enough to have you putting on your darkest shades, grabbing your imaginary mic stand and drawling the lyrics. Bonus points if you can’t resist air guitaring your way through Nick’s solo.
The Strokes do metallic retro-futurism with this sleek, metallic sing-song about “the moment right before you fuck”. Also responsible for teaching a whole generation of non-Americans what 40s are (for the still uninitiated, cheap but strong beer sold in 40-ounce bottles).
4‘You Only Live Once’ (2006)
Think Drake invented the term YOLO? Think again – ‘You Only Live Once’ pre-dates Drizzy’s usage of the acronym and sets it to bright garage-rock. Elsewhere, the band reference – of all things – dating site eHarmony’s 29 “dimensions of compatibility” (“29 different attributes / Only seven that you like”) and deliver some critical insights into men’s minds. The Strokes, ladies and gentlemen – multifaceted inventors.
3‘New York City Cops’ (2001)
‘New York City Cops’ might have been removed from the US version of ‘Is This It’, but it was an early signifier of the band’s political side – something often overlooked about the group. Its genius lies in it working on two levels – a ridiculously catchy song to bounce around to and a commentary on police brutality that still feels relevant today.
2‘Hard To Explain; (2001)
It opens with a rhythm from Fab that sounds like a steam train chugging along a track, Julian’s vocals muffled like a conductor telling you where you’ll be calling at. The cliché goes it’s about the journey, not the destination and that couldn’t be more true here – in the build up to its abrupt end, ‘Hard To Explain’ gives us a searing, nervy guitar line, a trick ending in the middle and some of the frontman’s coolest vocal delivery.
‘Last Nite’ might be the first Strokes song you think of when you hear the words “indie disco”, but true connoisseurs of imitating Julian’s apathetic drawl in the middle of sticky dance floors after one too many Jägerbombs knowthat ‘Someday’ is the real deal. “I’m working so I won’t have to try so hard,” yelps Casablancas at one point, echoing all of our feelings about the rat race that is modern life.