The Strokes may have squandered their potential legacy with progressively weaker albums and far-too-soon-for-this-sort-of-thing solo albums, but I think it's safe to say that Is This It? was one of those watershed rock albums. It may not be "important" (whatever that means), it may not have ultimately changed the world (let alone changed/saved rock music), and it may have inspired as much love as it did hate (Ryan Adams supposedly recorded a covers album of it titled Is This ****? as if he himself wasn't sure)...yet during the last few months of 2001 and through most of 2002, The Strokes were everywhere, along with a wave of other bands lumped into their garage rock revival thing.
Still, Is This It? is a release that needed time. Not to determine if it was good, but to determine if it would remain good. Certain albums feel fresh and "of the moment" but don't age well, to the point where only people still hung up on that scene/movement keep trying to throw albums from it unto lists. Well, we're coming up on the eight year mark of the U.S. release of Is This It? and I have to say, as much cache as it might've held for me and a lot of people at the time, it's possibly even better now.
See, we've gotten beyond the whole garage rock revival and "saviors of rock" nonsense. The Strokes barely register on mainstream media's radar any longer so we don't have to hear about what insufferable jerks they may or may not be. No, we're left with this album and these songs in 2009, and they're still great. Now that I don't hear the music everywhere, now that the memories of the videos are fading from my mind, I can enjoy Is This It? as a pure audio experience. Thus I would argue that it's a better album now because we only have the music to go on and it's not inundating radio stations and MTV.
It's tempting to put Is This It? up on the table and dissect it to pick out all the various bands that influenced it, but this is one of those cases where critics have to grasp for straws as a reference point. I mean, The Strokes are, finally, just a rock band. Not really garage rock or punk rock or indie rock. Sure, the Velvet Underground are a good shot, but The Strokes sound as much like The Velvet Underground as !!! sounds like Liquid Liquid: yes, there's an influence, but it's hardly a direct copy. Suffice it to say that The Strokes are a lean and mean rock band who skirt more toward punk rock and post-punk while still having *gasp* guitar solos and a classic rock sense of melody.
Admittedly, Loaded-era Velvet Underground is a decent reference point, but perhaps it's best to say that they sound like what punk rock would've sounded like if it had taken more from the aforementioned 4th Velvets album and not their first two. For instance, 'Last Nite' has simple punk rock chording and dynamics but also much more affected, purposeful vocals than normally found in classic 70s punk (people often derided the singer for sounding apathetic and off-key, but I always felt his style was more deliberate than not). And 'Barely Legal' has a seemingly simple, repetitive structure before the change-up around the 1:30 mark.
I realize there's a lot of people out there who still think of The Strokes and this album in particular as a flash in the pan. And maybe I'll be saying that very thing in the future if Is This It? ever stops sounding timeless. Regardless, even if you don't feel it belongs on "best of lists" as far as this decade goes, it was at least the best album of that garage rock revivel era. Its only other true competition for that is White Blood Cells, which I would argue is far less consistent and memorable than people give it credit for. Anyway, the White Stripes managed to remain in the public consciousness while The Strokes faded away, so I'm going to grant them this one.
Oh, and yeah, for the record: I do think it's one of the best albums of this decade.