Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ten Years Ago, This Was It

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Strokes' debut album, Is This It. Stereogum has marked this by putting together a tribute record, which you can hear here. Reading some of the quotes by the artists in the liner notes got me thinking about my relationship to the album which was, at the time, vitriolic and is now much, much more pleasant.

Why did i initially hate the Strokes?

When the album was released, i was 19 years old and entering my sophomore year of college. This was the apex of me thinking that i knew better than anyone else what made good music, and felt it was my duty to be the local bullshit detector for any record released. I hated the fact that many of my friends listened to, heavens forbid, pop music, and let them know how much i disapproved at every possible moment. I equally hated the rap/rock hybrids that seemed to be absolutely everywhere. As my good friend Matt Popovich said about some long-forgotten shitty aggro-band, "This music is only good for pro-wrestling montages."

And so when i started reading all the pre-release hype for Is This It, i was very excited for the album. "The most exciting album in 20 years" is a quote that particularly stands out for me. People i trusted, like David Fricke and Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone, or the pre-total-influence-on-the-entirety-of-the-internet Pitchfork staff, were on board with the record, and so i was eagerly anticipating its release.

In fact, i convinced a friend with only a passing interest in decent music (sorry, Ryan Schwoeble) to come with me to pick up the album the day it was released, and i remember very excitedly peeling off the shrink wrap and obnoxious sticker holding back the most exciting record i'd ever hear from my grasp and shoving it into Ryan's car's CD player and waiting to be blown away.

And what i got sounded, to me, like the worst Velvet Underground impression i had ever heard.

This was exciting? A record with zero dynamics was exciting?

To me, exciting was "Tame" by the Pixies, a song that fluctuated from whispers to blood-curling-shit-your-pants-scary screams in a matter of seconds. Exciting was an epic like Weezer's "Only in Dreams" that ran the gamut from solo bass to dueling guitar solo devastation. Exciting was an album where every song had a distinct sound that built something new together.

This is exciting music.

This was not that - this was like the Ramones if you took everything great about the Ramones and tossed it out the window. This sucked.

As the only sane person in a world of insanity, i tried to tell everyone i could about how lame the Strokes were. "The vocals are buried in the mix and distorted!" "The drums are too precise and rarely swing!" "The basslines are the only good part!" (Plus, their drummer was dating Drew Barrymore, so fuck that guy, right?)

Every few months, i would pull the record out and listen to it again, to make sure that i didn't miss something important that i had missed. If i could only find the decoder ring in my Ovaltine, i could crack the case of the overhyped buzz band...

Eventually, i forgot that the Strokes ever mattered (as did the rest of the world), and i moved on with my vitriol to more apparent topics (Creed, blink-182, boy bands). Occasionally, i'd hear "Last Night" or "Someday" on the radio and i wouldn't hate it as much as i remembered, eventually reasoning that the Strokes were a singles band that should never make an album. It was easy to love the songs one at a time, but a record was a mistake, like eating too many Twizzlers in a row.

And, as i got older, my tastes expanded. I heard things like Neu!, and their classic "Hallogallo," which features drums so sturdy and non-swingy that they appear to be played by a robot. I began to listen to more classical music, where melodies weren't as overtly out-front as i was used to. I also calmed down a lot, and saved my anger at things like Omar Minaya and Willie Randolph's mismanagement of the Mets or people who didn't recycle (which, i think we can all agree, are a little more important than whether you prefer the Olivia Tremor Control to Neutral Milk Hotel*).

Now, when my iTunes plucks out "Hard to Explain," i enjoy it and smile. I rarely, if ever, put Is This It on for a complete listen, but i respect and enjoy it much more than i did a decade ago. What is funny is that i'm pretty sure that most people have a converse relationship with this album - it was their jam for 4 months, and then they put it away and never really thought about it again and when they hear it now, they forget what all the fuss was about. Everyone, that is, except for Rolling Stone, which recently listed this as the second best album of the decade, which is the fucking craziest thing i've heard in a long time. Is This It is a good record with a couple of great songs (the title track, "Last Night"), but it was hardly the starting gun for the rock and roll revolution it was supposed to be.

The foreign, sexier cover

*Everyone picks NMH, but i'm an OTC man.

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