It is difficult to imagine indie rock without Sonic Youth. Only the Velvet Underground can reasonably boast a more important alternative history to the grand narrative of rock and roll. Combining the methodology of no-wave, the populism of punk, and the urbanity of the New York City art world, the band excelled at — nay, invented — the musical abstraction of subcultural memes. Like their peers the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth are a quintessentially postmodern group, one that delights in traipsing the high-wire intersections of trash culture and high art. William Burroughs, Madonna, Patti Smith, Gilmore Girls, Mariah Carey, and Richard Avedon can all claim an equal share in Sonic Youth’s collective muse.
Formed in 1981, Sonic Youth defied the proscriptive (if clandestine) dogma of the New York music scene immediately. Influenced equally by minimalist rock composer Glenn Branca and art punk bands like Crime and Swell Maps, the band challenged the status quo merely by existing. If the no-wave bands in New York were populated with overeducated, ultra-proficient jazzbos masquerading as inept scumfucks, Sonic Youth contributed a much needed populism to a scene whose erudite stuffiness would seem to prohibit the influence of true punks like the confrontational Black Flag or the dippy Ramones. The band’s Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and Lee Ranaldo (drummer Steve Shelley would join much later, following several short-tenured members) observed no such boundaries.
Over the next 30 years, Sonic Youth’s ubiquity would find them presiding, Zelig-like, over almost every major or minor event in underground music, from recommending Nirvana to David Geffen to tirelessly championing bands so obscure they don’t turn up a single hit on Google. Thurston and Kim personified alt-couple cool, their influence capable of swaying, directly or indirectly, the buying habits of thousands of music fans. Adjectives like “Steve Shelley-esque” began popping up in music reviews of any band featuring a drummer that favored a floor tom. A new crop of indie rock bands like Blonde Redhead, Versus, and Polvo emerged as little more than Sonic Youth tribute acts.
What’s the appeal, and why has the band endured? It comes down to the tunes, man. Avoiding the tired ontological obsessions of their leaf-eating contemporaries, Sonic Youth’s songs are always about the present, the future, or the very recent past. While the band’s music may frequently conjure stoned orreries, their lyrics don’t so much ponder modern existence as reinforce it. Songs plumb pop culture detritus and rebroadcast the most absurd qualities with an “is-this-a-put-on?” inscrutability that artfully blurs advocacy and satire.
Like most hip bands that came of age during the last two decades of the twentieth century, Sonic Youth’s discography is rich with countless EPs, soundtracks, collaborations, solo projects, split singles, and the like. These run the gamut from indispensible companion pieces (the self-released ’SYR’ series of mostly instrumental EPs, the Richard Hell-fronted side project Dim Stars), to frequently brilliant but frustratingly inconsistent vanity projects (noodle-prone film soundtrack Made In USA, pseudonymous side project Ciccone Youth), to diehard-baiting endurance tests (the Arc-meets-Metal Machine Music amplifier worship of Silver Session For Jason Knuth). Of these, only the 1982 debut is included in the following Countdown, for reasons of historical accuracy, and the fact that the band itself considers this their first official album. Many other necessary stopgaps, like the EPs Flower (1985) and Kill Yr Idols (1983), have been subsequently tacked onto CD reissues of Bad Moon Rising and Confusion Is Sex, respectively.
Sonic Youth has its share of fiercely loyal and extremely defensive fans, and rightfully so. But many of these same fans dramatically underrate the band’s middle-late period in favor of nostalgic favorites like Dirty and Goo, despite the late Geffen years producing some of the band’s most idiosyncratic and satisfying music. To order these correctly and not allow my own personal biases to interfere, I re-listened to the entire discography chronologically, as if hearing each album for the first time. The Countdown I came up with starts here.