The Top 10 Best Songs by The Strokes

I’ve been kickin around some of The Strokes albums lately and after repeated listenings, here are the ten songs I’ve found to be their greatest (so far).

12:51 (from Room on Fire)

“The world is shutting out… for us.”

The upbeat melody and carefree feel make this one of the Strokes’ most addicting songs. And its tragically short running time just makes you want to play it again and again. 12:51 is pure pop ambrosia with a guitar effect that is sonic ecstasy. It reminds me of the way I felt listening to The Smashing Pumpkins’ 1979 in high school: cool, relaxed, free of responsibility and immune from consequences.

Bonus points for effective use of handclaps and Tron-inspired video.

What Ever Happened? (from Room on Fire)

“I come together in the middle of the night.”

This first song from the band’s sophomore release can either be read as a reaction to a bad break up or the casting off of expectations and presumptions (or possibly both). The song lacks a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, instead feeling like a dramatic bell curve bookended by the same plea. It opens with Jules almost begging to be left alone before breaking into a sensational mind-grabbing riff that leads straight to defiant crux before retreating back to where it started.

By the time its all done, you’ve found another song to play on repeat.

Barely Legal (from Is This It)

“You ain’t ever had nothing I wanted
But I want it all”

Musically and lyrically unadorned and straightforward, Barely Legal is the compellingest song from a compelling album. Composed of simple sardonic and candid one-liners, this song is a musical tirade, bitter and catchy. It’s one for the misanthrope in all of us.

Bonus points for effective use of guitar harmonics.

You Only Live Once (from First Impressions of Earth)

“Sit me down
Shut me up
I’ll calm down
And I’ll get along with you”

When Jules belts those lines, with a wailing guitar counterpoint, its a powerful moment. You Only Live Once launches the band’s third album and, from its sound, they are clearly growing up. Musically and emotionally complex, the song hits with an existential cynicism based on the notion that everything and everyone that has ever existed will eventually be gone. But even that depressing notion can’t stop the rock, so you might as well enjoy it, because you only live once.

Reptilia (from Room on Fire)

“The room is on fire as she’s fixing her hair”

This song takes feeling of bitterness, anger and servility to a whole new level. Then there’s a guitar breakdown. Then it repeats.

The Modern Age (from Is This It)

“Work hard and say it’s easy
Do it just to please me”

The song that started it all. All the dogged hype that is. Much of the negativity that exists toward the Strokes is really more a reaction to the ridiculous behavior of the musical press at the time leading up to the release of Is This It. Hell, even I avoided the band for years because of it. But as evidence that the attention was not all undeserved obsequiousness, this song one day got stuck in my head and the next thing I know, I’ve got it on my iPod, singing along with the windows down.

Someday (from Is This It)

“When we was young, man did we have fun
Always, always”

Someday is a perfect pick-me-up. If you’re feeling somewhat down, a little under the weather, or maybe just stuck in traffic, this song is guaranteed to improve your disposition, if only for about three minutes. The video makes being in a band look like so much fun that I want dust off my guitar and start my own again.

Razorblade (from First Impressions of Earth)

“Oh no, my feelings are more important than yours.”

Being one of the more traditional songs in the group’s repertoire doesn’t stop Razorblade from being any less catchy. Its conventionality probably contributes to its catchiness. The border-line beeping guitar effect is a new effect for the band and its emphasis in the mix really serves to pull you in.

Juicebox (from First Impressions of Earth)

“Why won’t you come over here
We’ve got a city to love”

The Strokes learn to grind on this first single from First Impressions of the Earth. Powered by a throbbing, revolving bassline and quick-tapping, tension-building ride on the cymbal, the song feels like a high-speed ride in a sports car changing gears as it whips through sharp turns and shoots down straightaways.

Juicebox rivals Reptilia as the band’s hardest rocking song (and perhaps their most overtly incensed).

The video features David Cross as a jerkass radio announcer who introduces the band as “Stroke.”

Last Night (from Is This It)

“In spaceships they won’t understand
And me I ain’t ever gonna understand”

A feel-good song with ironically downtrodden lyrics. Sure, it’s based largely on a (admittedly) lifted riff from Tom Petty’s American Girl, but it has its own kind of nonchalant independence. Though the song might be concerned with a disaffected relationship, the energy is such that it’s impossible not to tap your toes along with.

*Bonus Song: because ten just aren’t enough*

Red Light (from First Impressions of Earth)

“An entire generation that has nothing to say”

First Impressions’ closer is a syncopated head-bobbing melody that marches along merrily until an unexpected end that leaves your ears demanding more. The almost videogame-esque guitar treatment is a real treat here, yet the overwhelming sense of the song is trademark nihilism. The worldview here really is bleak, but as with most Strokes’ songs, you can’t help but feel a little cheerful as the invectives spew.

Then without a hint of coda, Red Light stops, leaving these words lingering: “Oh, the sky is not the limit and you’re never gonna guess what is…”

John Vanderslice – Exodus Damage: Spellbinding storytelling

John Vanderslice- Exodus Damage

From the album Pixel Revolt (2005). Download MP3.

Man, I am obsessed with this song. Seriously, it’s been on repeat in my head for the past seven days. I can’t decide what I find more compelling, the musical arrangement, melody and composition of the song or its fascinating subject matter.

I heard it for the first time a week ago, while partaking in my weekly Podcast Friday™ podcast listening spree and from there, its hold on my mind gotten deeper and more tenacious. The podcast in question was actually an old episode of The Sound of Young America and the topic at hand was Analog vs Digital, featuring, in part, musician/producer John Vanderslice, who operates one of the last remaining all-analog recording studios in the world.

Through the interview, Vanderslice talked about his studio, his recording techniques and the philosophy of maintaining the art of analog production in a world that is increasingly digital. He also covered some of the music he’s recorded himself, and admitted an attraction to “extreme” subject matter.

Exodus Damage is a prominent example of that attraction. Vanderslice discussed the song from the perspective of the American right-wing militant anti-government movement, and he noted the depreciation of that movement since the events of September 11, 2001. That is the overall theme of the song, told from perspective of an unsure acolyte, a follower of the movement and focuses on his relationship with the “true believer”. On his website, Vanderslice likens the relationship of his characters to that of Timothy McVeigh and one of his accomplices Michael Fortier (who helped survey the Murrah Federal Building prior to the bombing. Echos of this can be seen in the video, where the main character seems to be surveying buildings himself.)

Let’s take a closer look at this song:

I’ll see you next fall
at another gun show
I’ll call the day before, like usual

Our story opens in the late 1990s, at one of the favorite hangouts of militiamen and other colorful characters, a gun show. Our protagonist makes his customary arrangements to meet with his mentor at the next one.

but I wanted so much more
I got exodus damage bleed,
could not commit, some things I’ll never be

so now we’re talking about this
I’m starting to lose my confidence
no one ever says a word about
so much that happens in the world

Our protagonist admits that his devotion to the cause is waning.

dance dance revolution
all we’re gonna get
unless it falls apart
so I say: go go go
let it fall down
I’m ready for the end

Despite his uncertainty to the cause, our protagonist has his mantra memorized. You can’t have a revolution until you are ready to destroy what already exists. Unless you’re willing to blow something up, you might as well just play video games.

so the second plane hit at 9:02
I saw it live on a hotel tv, talking on my cell with you
you said this would happen, and just like that, it did
wrong about the feeling, wrong about the sound
but right to say we would stand down

A clear reference to the September 11, 2001 attacks. When the United Flight 175 hit, everyone knew that the first was no accident. Among the anti-government movement, there are those who suggest that this type of event was planned and executed by elites in the New World Order. There are even some who claim that talk show host and conspiracy filmmaker Alex Jones predicted the attack in July/August 2001, going so far as to name Bin Laden as a puppet of the elites.

Such speculation is rampant among conspiracy theorists.

When the attacks actually occur, our protagonists faith is shaken and is relieved when the mentor calls off any plans they may have been making.

Incidentally, the Wikipedia timeline says the second plane hit at 9:03AM. However, the bomb that exploded in Oklahoma City did indeed detonate at 9:02AM.

an hour went by without a fighter in the sky
you said there’s a reason why
so tell me now, I must confess
I’m not sick enough to guess

One claim made by conspiracy theorists is that, despite the threat of additional errant planes, military jets were far too slow in scrambling that morning and have suggested diabolical explanations for that. Again, the distrust of government kicks in for our protagonist, but his mind isn’t capable of taking the leap that his mentor’s is.

dance dance revolution
all we’re gonna get
unless it falls apart
so I say: go go go
let it fall down
I’m ready for the end

so you hope that one person
could solve everything
and for me, that’s you
sometimes that dream
is a sad delusion
but sometimes it’s true

Our protagonist realizes that the goal he’s worked toward is an illusion, but can’t shake his fascination with his mentor.

so now we’re talking about this
I’m starting to lose my confidence
no one ever says a word about
so much that happens in the world

dance dance revolution
all we’re gonna get
unless it falls apart
so I say: go go go
let it fall down
I’m ready for the end

All in all, I find Exodus Damage irresistibly engaging, as it shows both a glimpse into a foreign world and the intense personal struggle portrayed by its main character. Combined with its sheer listen-ability, the song will be on my playlists into the far far future.

Download Exodus Damage.

Want More? Get Pixel Revolt on iTunes.

The Smashing Pumpkins: Drown

singles smashing pumpkins drown (full version)
From the soundtrack Singles (1992)

This song is among the earliest in The Smashing Pumpkins catalog, recorded in 1992 for the motion picture soundtrack Singles. The film takes place in Seattle and heralds the coming of that city’s grunge music, using the local scene as a persistent backdrop the personal and professional turmoil of a bunch of twenty-somethings. Allusions and references to the burgeoning scene abound within the movie. Soundgarden makes an on-stage appearance and members of Pearl Jam have a cameo as members of Matt Dillion’s fictional grunge band, Citizen Dick.

It been more than ten years since I saw Singles and I don’t really remember if it was good or not. I was a teenager enthralled by the music; the rest of the story mattered little to me. Once thing I do know for sure though is that the soundtrack is phenomenal. Not only is it a definitive statement about what the “grunge sound” was (and thus make it marketable to the mainstream), it features some of the best songs in the respective catalogues of the artists that appear on it.

Pearl Jam’s State of Love and Trust is easily one of the group’s finest compositions. Seasons is surely Chris Cornell’s greatest non-Soundgarden work. Screaming Trees’ Nearly Lost You, well, it just rocks. The real gem on the soundtrack though, is its closer: The Smashing Pumpkins’ Drown. It’s ironic that the album’s superlative song would be from a band that lives 1800 miles away from Seattle.

I’ve loved Drown since the first time I heard it. The song is so dreamy and peaceful, evoking a wistfulness which is surprising, considering the massive amounts of layered distortion that is piled on top of itself. It’s classic Billy Corgan, intimate when it needs to be, crashing to life at just the right moments. At more than 8 minutes long, it is an epic mind-bending journey.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

What I Love: Billy’s soft but confident vocals. The distortion-steeped solo/outro.

drown short at itunes short version

drown full at amazon full version

Stereolab: French Disco

From the single Jenny Ondioline (1993). Also appears on the Oscillons from the Anti-Sun box set (2005).

french disco at amazon french disco

For nearly a decade now, Stereolab has been a consistent “A list” band in my library, but I’ve, more of than not, been more disposed toward the groop’s laid-back, lounge-infused work. The band’s early, fuzz-laden krautrock-inspired recordings generally don’t strike me as much (though I do enjoy krautrock as a rule). While mid-career songs like Spacemoth, The Free Design and Miss Modular are compellingly splendid, crisp, head-bobbing grooves, the lo-fi droning simplicity of earlier songs like Anapromorph and Enivrez-Vous tend to grate at my ears.

As a result, I’ve tended to spend less time exploring the early stages of the groop’s development. However, this song, French Disco, and in particular, this version, is a hard diamond in the spacey milieu of the band’s early works. It breaks two of the band’s early conventions, and that makes it especially appealing. First, it’s uptempo and bombastic and completely unlike anything the band recorded in that era. Second, it rocks! And Stereolab doesn’t do rock; it’s not their thing. But if they wanted to, they’d obviously be good at it.

It’s too bad this version was stuffed as a b-side onto a single of which there were only a few thousand copies pressed. Overall, it’s a highly regarded song in the catalog and I’m sure many fans would have loved to have heard it before the 2005 box set was released.

I must admit some confusion over the song though. Variants of it appear with Disco spelled with a ‘K’ (French Disko). That version looks like it’s the ‘main version’ and it appeared as its own 7″ single i think–stereolab’s catalog can get pretty confusing as well as on the Refried Ectoplasm comp and runs about 3:35. This recording is about 4:26 and sounds like a different studio recording with extended outro.

Both recordings are good, but I prefer this one.

What I Love: Laetitia Sadier’s voice, the tempo, the haunted house intro organ and the explosive (but oh-so-brief) chorus.

Soundgarden: The Day I Tried To Live

From the album Superunknown (1994)

One of the best songs from one of the 90s best albums (a 4.51/5 on my scale). The Day I Tried to Live is Chris Cornell and company at the tip-top of their game on an album that delivers smash after smash.

It’s not as frantic as Spoonman or as sour as Fell on Black Days, but more steadfast and determined in its manner of storytelling. The whining intro sets a cynical stage a sordid story of ambition and the depths one can sink to while trying to achieve a perverted definition of “living.”

What I find most interesting about this song is its unusual construction, which seems almost operatic in nature. Sure, it employs a contemporary structure, but not in the traditional pop/rock manner. From the speaker’s perspective, there’s clearly a conflict as shown by the contrast between the resolute, ominousness of the verses and the screaming, adrenaline-soaked choruses. As the song progresses, the conflict gets increasingly heated as both sides of the argument struggle for control. The verses get shorter and the screaming gets more intense, back and forth until he cast he final accusation.

This song is of the kind that sits in the back of your mind until one day, at random, its brilliance explodes into your consciousness. From there, it’s no going back.

What I Love: The song, on an Interstate at night, with windows rolled down and the volumed rolled up.

the day i tried to live at itunes
day i tried to live at amazon

Bjork: I Go Humble

i go humble

B-side from the single Isobel (1995)

I’ve never been in love with Bjork’s music. To be sure, Bjork is a consummate artist and I do enjoy and have much respect for the majority of her work; I’ve just never been part of the “Bjork-is-untouchable” group. But if I were to become part of that club, it would be because of this song.

I Go Humble never fails to send me into a state of trance-like bliss.

There’s something in the earnest subjugation of her voice, the spacey electronic melodies and the disjointed-but-smooth percussion that just captivate me for its entire five minute length every time I listen to it. It has done that for the past ten years.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

What I Love: Everything about it dammit.

isobel at amazon

Soul Coughing: Unmarked Helicopters

Black Helicopters

From the album Songs in the Key of X (1996)

Recorded during the tumultuous sessions of the band’s second album, Irresistible Bliss, Unmarked Helicopters is prototypical Soul Coughing and an achievement in “slacker jazz.” That intra-band strife of the time seems to help this song, better than any other, capture the zeitgeist of The X-Files, the feeling of alienation and suspicion that the show projected.

The intro borrows from of the show’s disembodied main theme and sets the stage for an agitated and unnerving story. Over the course of three and a half minutes, the song makes oblique references to hovering lights on houses (and those that pursue them), fear of the end times and the role of the person who knows the truth. This thing is an ode to American society’s grand paranoia of truth and government that the show epitomized.

Unmarked Helicopters appeared as the second track on the Songs in the Key of X compilation, the whimsical soundtrack released at the height of the TV show’s popularity. In early 1997, the song was featured prominently in the fourth season episode Max.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

What I Love: The whole shebang.

Photo from DefenseLINK

Spirtualized: Ladies and Gentlemen we are floating through space

From the album Ladies and Gentlemen we are floating through space (1997).

Composed in “round” format, where each sung line overlaps another in a recursive way, Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen we are floating through space is a science and technology-era mantra, a chant to the lords of pharmaceutically-inspired altered states and a wistful, strung-out love song.

This is seriously space out, and transcendental, trance-inducing music, but it trades in new-age ethereality for the cold science (exemplified by the interspersion of NASA beeps) of modern progress. In steep contrast though, the lyrics reveal a tenderness and longing for love.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

What I Love: The song’s out-of-focus dreaminess.

Gomez: Whippin’ Piccadilly

From the album Bring it On (1998)

The highly regarded and Mercury Prize-winning debut album by Gomez mixes a down-home sensibility with slick production values. With three husky vocalists interchanging on the lyrics, these guys can blend together some mind-bending harmonies. Put those on top of some smooth bluesy-roots-rock-with-an-English-twist and you’ve got some pretty compelling music.

Whippin’ Piccadilly is a standout track on an album of standout tracks. With carefree abandon, Gomez stitches a picture of fun-loving guys have a fun-loving day in Manchester. The title of the song, I believe, is a reference to Manchester Piccadilly station, the busiest rail station in England. It is alluded to in the lyrics as the departure point for the guys’ next destination of Sheffield.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

What I Love: The simple strumming of the guitar and, of course, those harmonies.

whippin piccadilly at itunes store


And for something completely different, check Petty Booka’s polynesian-style cover of Whippin’ Piccadilly.