Updated: Nov 2
In 2003, The Strokes took on the near-impossible task of recording a follow-up album to their earth-shattering debut, Is This It. By that point, Is This It had been praised to the heavens for its significant role in the post-punk-revival movement of the early 2000s, with its reach expanding well into and beyond garage rock, alternative rock, and indie rock. Finding themselves in a similar predicament as bands like Interpol—who were also trying to follow up on their near-perfect debuts—The Strokes faced nearly impossible expectations for their sophomore release. Yet, retrospectively speaking, they did pretty well.
With Room on Fire, The Strokes quite clearly stuck to what they were good at: guitar-forward indie rock with distorted vocals. The band avoided reinventing the wheel, and the record sounded very similar to the debut, without introducing many new ideas. Meet Me in the Bathroom, What Ever Happened, and 12:51 are textbook Is This It, although that's not meant as a criticism. Fans of the debut would surely prefer familiar yet still good songs over newer, bad ideas. To The Strokes' credit, one of their most popular tracks, Reptilia, found its home on this record and added a new layer of guitar-prowess that completely knocked it out of the park. Not only is Reptilia one of the guitar-heavy songs of the century, but it is also one of the finest indie rock songs of all time.
With What Ever Happened and 12:51 in particular, the band captured the fact that the sound of the debut and that of the indie rock of the time was still as hot as ever. These songs remain great twenty years later, consistently streamed, and still among the best of 2000s indie rock. Speaking to 12:51 specifically, why exactly is there that eight-or-so-second silence before the track starts, alongside most other tracks on here? My research indicates frontman Julian Casablancas was just trying to be funny, but the humor eludes me. Regardless, he gets a pass because he's a creative genius. The track still features some of the catchiest guitar work of the first half of the decade.
Listening to the debut album followed immediately by Room on Fire, they flow together like clockwork. Room on Fire has about a 10% crisper sound and a bit more post-production but stays close to the grit and rawness of the debut. Room on Fire is a great record, and considering the band's subsequent releases, it seems safe to call this their second-best showing. Because it wasn't as revolutionary as the debut, all of the marks here fall just short of Is This It. Room on Fire harnesses some of the band's best songs and sits among the best records of 2003. The album is worth the listen, every single time.