"Heart in a Cage," "Life Is Simple in the Moonlight," and "Machu Picchu" all deserve praise.

By Steven Edelstone
April 08, 2020 at 08:30 AM EDT
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Credit: Mason Trullinger/FilmMagic

Read any “Best Strokes Songs” list and you’ll find the same ones written about over and over again. No ranking would be complete without “Last Nite,” “Someday,” or “Reptilia,” alongside deeper cuts like “Under Control” and “Automatic Stop.” But outside a selection or two, these "best of" features are typically only made up of tracks from the band’s first two albums, Is This It and Room On Fire. It makes sense: those records are nearly flawless. Meanwhile, their post-2003 output was met with middling (at best) reviews from critics and fans alike. The band seems to agree since their concert setlists tend to ignore their last two albums entirely.

But there is plenty to love about the less acclaimed side of the Strokes’ catalog, which showcases an entirely different group — one that couldn’t give a damn about the simplistic, straightforward Television-indebted guitar rock that made them famous in the first place. The quintet instead decided to push the boundaries on what their brand of music could be, injecting ‘80s synths, bizarre chord progressions, and dystopian lyrics into their approach. Just listen to recent single “At The Door,” a synth-led pseudo-ballad with Auto-Tuned vocals, which sounds nothing like the band that once wrote “Hard to Explain.”

After just over seven years since the maligned Comedown Machine (an album I’d argue holds up a bit better than you’d think) along with countless side projects — from Julian Casablancas’ the Voidz to Albert Hammond Jr.’s solo project that recalls the Strokes’ earlier material — the band is finally returning for their sixth studio record, The New Abnormal, out April 10 (you can read the review here). In celebration, we decided to rank the Strokes’ post-Room On Fire material, shining a light on the songs that rarely get a shout out.

10. “One Way Trigger” (2013) 

If anything shows how far the Strokes have come since their debut, it’s the fiery, punchy opening synth riff from Comedown Machine standout “One Way Trigger.” The song also features some of the most out-there vocals Casablancas has ever recorded for a Strokes release, a preview of what was to come on the Voidz’s 2014 record Tyranny. Nothing on “Trigger” resembles what the Strokes have done before or since. Despite the odd instrumental choices, it’s somehow just as catchy as the rest of their catalog. 

 9. “Taken for a Fool” (2011) 

Though this one takes awhile to get going — the verses are admittedly a bit suspect — “Taken for a Fool” may contain the band’s best chorus since “12:51.” Primarily written by guitarist Nick Valensi, it unabashedly aims for the arena nosebleeds. The song is a peculiar mix of new and old Strokes: The hook would have totally felt at home between “Someday” and “Alone Together” on Is This It, but the bouncy verses, which stray more toward the out-there glam rock of First Impressions of Earth, could only have made sense on Angles. It feels like two completely different songs smushed together, with Valensi’s nimble guitar-work connecting the two.

 8. “Ask Me Anything” (2006)

The Strokes had released pseudo-ballads in the past (“Under Control”), but never before had they tried anything like “Ask Me Anything,” a percussion- and guitar-less track featuring just Casablancas’ vocals and a hypnotic Mellotron line from Valensi. It’s warm and inviting in a way that Strokes songs typically aren’t. The lyrics make little to no sense (“We could drag it out but that’s for other bands to do” is a bit on the nose), but there’s something endearing about it all. The “I’ve got nothing to say” refrain may have given critics ammo for the band’s later work, but this is one of the Strokes’ defining songs.

 7. “Ize of the World” (2006)

The second half of First Impressions of Earth is a bit of a slog to get through, but it’s worth it for “Ize of the World,” yet another otherworldly Strokes chorus backed by a massive guitar line. It’s stuck around their setlists over the years for good reason: The song is wiry and anxious, and showcases the best of the band’s darker back catalog. Featuring a few great Casablancas screams and a more laid-back solo than expected, it all ends unexpectedly midway through the final lyric à la The Sopranos finale. First Impressions of Earth could have benefited from a few last-second tracklist cuts, but “Ize” is an extremely memorable song in a sea of forgettable ones.

6. “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight” (2011)

Chock full of ‘80s synth sheen and playful, skeletal guitars, “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight” is self-deprecating in a way that no other Strokes song is. “Animals on TV singing about some pain they once felt/There’s no one I disapprove of more or root for more than myself,” Casablancas sings, knowing full well that he’d eventually sing this on TV (they premiered it on SNL a week before the album was released). It makes for a slow burn — an intricate and delicate track that builds toward a thrilling finish. The only song to survive the initial sessions for Angles in full, it would be fascinating to see where the record would have gone had they committed 100 percent to this sound.

 5. “Heart In a Cage” (2006)

Few songs capture the frenetic, anxiety-ridden pace of New York, but “Heart In a Cage” comes close. “See, I’m stuck in a city but I belong in a field” and “I went to the concert and I fought through the crowd/Guess I got too excited when I thought you were around” accurately depicts the frenzied feeling of living in Manhattan (or really anywhere in the five boroughs): wishing you could be anywhere else but knowing you’d be immediately bored by whatever you found when you got there. “Heart In a Cage” also sees the Strokes hit their most high-octane tempo, an electrifying First Impressions cut that simply doesn’t let up. 

4. “Machu Picchu” (2011) 

The Strokes wanted to make their musical mission statement as quickly as possible on Angles, and they did so in the first few seconds of this album opener. With spritely, staccato guitars and a wailing keyboard sound to kick it off, “Machu Picchu” is upbeat in a way that most Strokes songs to that point weren’t. It really wouldn’t be out of the question to hear a remix of this on a dance floor at some grimy basement club. Again, Casablancas admits he’s “putting your patience to the test,” but it pays off in the form of a shape-shifting, fun-as-hell track that feels more sure of itself than almost everything on First Impressions.

 3.  “Threat of Joy” (2016)

With all this talk of celebrating the risks and out-there musical decisions Casablancas & co. have taken over the past 17 years, it feels a bit like cheating to include a song that’s obviously trying to recreate the magic of Is This It and Room On Fire. But “Threat of Joy” is so damn catchy and fun that it’s impossible to ignore. This single reminds you of why you fell in love with the band in the first place. The “Past” section of the Future Present Past three-song EP from 2016 is a trip down memory lane, and "Threat of Joy" the kind of approach that the Strokes have been so desperately trying to distance themselves from. The middle ground between “Someday” and “Under Control,” it is a pitch-perfect summer song and a refreshing return to past glory.

2. “Under Cover of Darkness” (2011)

When Zane Lowe interviewed bassist Nikolai Fraiture two months ahead of the release of Angles he said, “Sonically, I feel it's the album which should have been made between Room On Fire and First Impressions Of Earth.” In retrospect, Angles clearly wasn’t a return to basics, but it may have sounded that way upon the release of lead single “Under Cover of Darkness.” Featuring a playful dueling lead guitar riff courtesy of both Hammond Jr. and Valensi, the track became an immediate setlist staple and festival sing-along. It’s fun in a way that most of their post-Room On Fire material isn’t, also the band’s last bona fide hit (it peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Alternative Chart). Few tracks from the group’s last three records would unquestionably be included on a greatest hits album. “Under Cover of Darkness” is one of them.

1. “You Only Live Once” and “I’ll Try Anything Once” (2006)

Is it cheating to put two songs in our No. 1 spot? Probably, but for as different as “You Only Live Once” and “I’ll Try Anything Once” are — one is an upbeat rocker à la “What Ever Happened?” and the other is a melancholic Valensi-aided keyboard stunner — the latter is actually the demo version of the former (just with entirely different lyrics). They’re equally great in entirely different ways: “I’ll Try Anything Once” sees Casablancas at his most vulnerable, while “You Only Live Once” is one of the most anthemic songs he’s ever written, seeing him dip a bit into a Mick Jagger delivery. “You Only Live Once” is the sound of a band at the absolute top of their game, and a live fan favorite. “I’ll Try Anything Once” is the most romantic song Casablancas has written to date, an intimate, lo-fi demo for the ages. It’s impossible to separate the two, but one thing is for sure: Few songs released after Room On Fire are legitimately in the conversation for best Strokes song, and both “Once” tracks can arguably stake a claim to that title.

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