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16. Sonic Youth (1982): Originally released on Glenn Branca's Neutral label and the only Sonic Youth album to feature original drummer Richard Edson, the band's debut sounds like the dark, post-punk cousin of Thurston's spunky new wave band The Coachmen. Punk mostly in the temporal sense, the songs force-feed jangle to dissonance, occasionally sounding like a more melodic (though not much more) Public Image Limited. Though almost unrecognizable from the Sonic Youth we know today, Sonic Youth nevertheless remains a decent if inauspicious debut that offers a fleeting glimpse of what was to come. It's also fitting that the cassette version of the first album by a band that would become synonymous with experimentation features the entire program repeated on side 2 –- in reverse.

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.

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Comments (101)
  1. The first three records are waayyyyyyyyyy too low.

  2. I can’t wait to til Stereogum ranks their rankings of their own Top 10 best to worst lists in 10 years.

    It.Will.Be.Epic.

  3. Funny, I always considered Daydream Nation to be their best album.

  4. Good writing, and interesting list. Die-hard Sonic Youth fans are gonna argue with some of these spots like crazy, of course.. Rather Ripped is better than Bad Moon Rising, Goo, and Dirty? That’s nuts to me. My top 3 would have to be Daydream Nation, Goo, and Bad Moon Rising.

  5. glad to see sonic nurse gettin some choice words. album still blows me away.

    on the complainy-pants side of things, i’d bump dirty up about 5 spots or so.

    can’t really argue with the top 3.

  6. Switch Rather Ripped with Dirty and A Thousand Leaves with Washing Machine and this isn’t bad. Bad Moon Rising is way underrated though, Death Valley 69 is spectacular. And Daydream Nation belongs at the top but I’ll let it go because Sister is pretty much perfect itself. I’d just take 70 minutes of perfection over 40 minutes.

  7. “Bull In The Heather” is a great fucking song.

  8. Totally agree with top 3. But i think their first EP Sonic Youth should be little upper. Bad moon rising is my worst even if Death Valley ’69 is hell of a song.

  9. Ask 16 SY fans to rank their albums, and you’ll get 16 different lists.

    Mine would have NYC Ghosts and Flowers, Experimental Jetset…, and The Eternal in the top-5.

    But I enjoyed reading, anyway. Good job.

  10. I’m pleasantly surprised that they chose Sister. I’ve always liked it more than Daydream Nation.

  11. First of all, Sonic Youth are unquestionably one of the greats and there are only a few bands with that many excellent albums in a row, but Sister besting loveless in “invention, joy, and magic”? No. loveless is the album that finally perfectly actualized punk’s ideals (to be succinct, melody from noise). It is also the only album that is, from start to finish, synesthetic in both senses of the word. It is comprised of songs that perpetually hover in the undefined space between this world and some spiritual realm. When played at the proper volume (LOUD), the songs are massive, overwhelming, and yet…somehow ethereal. It is nearly fifty minutes of coexisting contradictions, and it always reminds me of this:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/28433765@N07/4487033787/sizes/o/in/photostream/

  12. I think dirty should be higher than goo, in my opinion.

  13. I have been a fan for a loooong time. Yes, Daydream Nation is a good record, but its almost cliche’ to say it is your favorite. And there was a period (2000s) that I was lost on their work. Then I came back. Rather Ripped, Sonic Nurse, the Eternal and Murray St. were all amazing from end to end. This along with the reissue of “1991: TYTPB”, the book, and all the CD reissues I am glad that i got back to those sonic roots. Great list!

  14. I really love the first five as well as the EPs from that period, and think that the first three proper titles are way underrated here. I find it really hard to get into their post-Dirty work, even the ambitious SYR series, but some of the Matador-era stuff translates pretty well live. Having witnessed a 40-minute Diamond Sea live in ’95 made me wish that the entirety of Washing Machine was just that track.

    Fuck, the word is Love!

  15. I am pleasantly surprised that Sister is #1. It has always been my #1 but many self-professed Sonic Youth experts seem to place it lower. And I thought maybe I was missing something. I also would put Rather Ripped down just a touch lower. #10 at the highest. It’s solid, but not extraordinary in my opinion.

  16. yep, Sister is my fave Sonic Youth too, and the first time i saw them was on the sister tour. i agree with the top 3, but i would put Bad Moon Rising way higher. Their last 4 or 5 albums haven’t done much for me, sadly. i think they could have called it quits after Washing Machine and went out on a high note. Though Thurston’s new solo Demolished Thoughts is pretty damned good, it is more in sync with what i want to hear these days.

  17. Just to get it out of the way, Murray Street, should be 3rd and switch Sister and Daydream Nation to 2 and 1 (although funnily enough Sister is the first SY album I really loved).

    Mainly though I’d want to note how much I agree that NYC Ghosts & Flowers is really underrated, so much so in fact that I’d have it higher. Incredibly interesting to hear a band like Sonic Youth turn to minimalism and make an album that could probably be described as quiet. Definitely an album that needs to be listened to from start to finish, and it’s not the easiest to get into, but it’s an incredibly rewarding listen.

  18. Hey ! There have been other bands, around for thirty years too, and playing the same sh*t again through all these years. Luckily SY was not was of them, and hopefully for us SY albums we don’t like today may one day become masterpieces in our own ranking. Looking forward in thirty other years how I personally rank 1982 vs the Eternal for instance.

  19. You’re just being a “contrarian” to not have “Dirty” & “Goo” in at least the top 5.

  20. Some rare LPs missing, like Ciccone Youth – Whitey Album.

  21. I’d put Murray Street a few spots higher – that’s an incredible album. I’m glad to see Washing Machine getting some respect, though. In sum, I think it’s fair to say this band had an incredible run… let’s hope they can get beyond this whole “the two main songwriters getting divorced” thing and keep it going.

    • Lots of love here for Murray Street. It never did much for me but I think I’ll go back to it and give it a few more listens. To be honest, when I read the list and Murray Street came up I was like “I forgot about that one”. Maybe it will be like getting an new SY album for me. I guess these lists DO serve a purpose.

      • And now I’m back from that little experiment and remembered why Murray Street didn’t do it for me. The first four songs are really good and the last three stink. I am glad that I went back though because I did forget about those first four and it was nice to hear them again. Instead of getting a new SY album I got an ep.

  22. Honestly, the only 3 Sonic Youth albums that even register to me are Bad Moon Rising, because of my penchant for death rock, Evol, and Daydream Nation. Of those, Evol is far and away the best. I know Daydream is the “landmark achievement” or whatevs, but Evol just sounds better to me.

  23. 5. Rather Ripped
    4. Sister
    3. Goo
    2. Goo
    1. Goo (talkin’ bout goo)

  24. Also surprised to see Daydream Nation not in the usual #1 spot. Who thinks the new Lee Renaldo album is better than the last couple SY records?

  25. agree with #1 but evol at #2? that’s total insanity.

  26. Of course it’s impossible to agree with a list like this because everyone has different experiences with the band and their albums, but I do agree with the last line of the list about Sister: “It’s a record that changes you.” That’s exactly what it did to me. I had never heard music like it before, and it opened up a world to me that I will always be grateful for discovering. I seriously can’t choose just one as a favorite because each one fulfills a different part of me, that’s what makes them so brilliant. I will choose a song though – “Schizophrenia”

  27. what posessed u guys to think there’s a bad sy album

  28. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

    • Hey everybody, Look, it’s your annoyingly pretentious and elitist indie OG grandpa.

      • Highschool days, folks. Majority likes Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi etc., and they think they’re right just because they are majority. A misfits liked SY, Nick Cave, Black Flag etc. and didn’t care about what majority says.

  29. as someone who got into SY with confusion is sex (still have the Neutral pressing kids:)), i have to politely disagree with the listings. the early records and later records are far more interesting to me than the ‘middle period’, which are kind of a sub stooges mishmash. all the records up to and including EVOL are great, as are for the most part the ones from a thousand leaves onwards (back to more experimental). with the exception of ‘daydream nation’ which is a monster of an album, i find the middle period of sister through washing machine to be dull, with a few great songs the exception. sister itself is almost a parody of EVOL. it’s SY by numbers. “here’s a song, verse chorus verse chorus noisy bit chorus fade, repeat 9 times and add a quiet song for kim to moan over.”

    • Agree on the most, except “back to more experimental”. I felt like those “experiments” came from boredom, not from inspiration.
      “here’s a song, verse chorus verse chorus noisy bit chorus fade, repeat 9 times and add a quiet song for kim to moan over.” Funny but true. Still, Sister was a candy, and everybody like candies, even it is just from time to time.

  30. I agree with the crowd that “Rather Ripped” is rather overrated here, and I think “Goo” and “Dirty” hold up a lot better than the list suggests. Also, I was glad to see “EVOL” near the top; what a brilliant and blissful record. I would give the No. 1 spot to “Daydream Nation.” “Sister” is definitely the hipper choice among the rock critic cognoscenti, and while I like it, I’ve never really gotten just exactly why people love it so much.

    • Rather Ripped overrated? Nah. If anything, it needs to be higher. I used to be one of those “fuck yeah noises long live the 80s” SY fans, but then I heard “Jams Run Free” and absolutely fell in love.

  31. Just testing to see Stereogum will post this meaningless comment after it rejected my substantial one.

  32. You just over-adjectived the shit out of that piece.

  33. I disagree with the order of this list.

  34. Being a massive SY fan, I actually approve of this list. While Sonic Nurse is my favorite by them, I can agree with the points about Sister. I think the Eternal’s better than it gets credit for. EVOL’s a little too high here to me though.

  35. I would put the eternal wayyy lower. I didnt like that album at all. In fact, the soundtrack work they did for that french film ( simon something2) under SYR recordings, was wayyyy better than The Eternal.

  36. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  37. Sister is my favorite. When performed live (at least the times I’ve seen then), Kim pulls out a trumpet during the instrumental section of Pacific Coast Highway. Yeah, that’ll do it.

  38. this list is terrible

  39. “NYC GHOSTS AND FLOWERS” WINS THE AWARD FOR MOST UNDERRATED ALBUM OF ALL TIME. *THUNDEROUS APPLAUSE*

  40. I want to complain but I’m afraid it would make the lists come faster

  41. Daydream Nation
    Evol
    Sister
    Murray Street
    Washing Machine
    Goo
    The White(y) Album
    Confusion Is Sex
    Dirty
    Sonic Nurse
    Sonic Youth
    Rather Ripped
    Bad Moon Rising
    NYC Ghosts and Flower
    A Thousands Leaves
    Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star
    The Eternal

    (IMO)

  42. Agree with many of the comments. It’s tough to rank what is an awesome catalog.
    I think The Eternal is way too low and I never quite ‘got’ Sister. OK, it’s a great album, but nowhere near as good as Daydream Nation, and I’d rate Evol, Goo and Dirty higher too.
    Another great thing about SY is the way their later albums hold up brilliantly. Sonic Nurse, Murray Street and Rather Ripped are great albums.
    I saw them on tour 4(?) years ago playing Daydream Nation live, in sequence, absolutely brilliant! I do hope they’ll play again……….

  43. It’s nice to see some LOVE for EVOL. That was where I lost my SY virginity and for that reason it will always be my number one, even if the others consistently shift around depending on my sonic mood.

  44. My list from best to worst

    Sister
    Daydream Nation
    Evol
    Goo
    Bad Moon Rising
    Washing Machine
    Sonic Nurse
    Dirty
    The Eternal
    Confusion Is Sex
    Murray Street
    A Thousands Leaves
    Rather Ripped
    NYC Ghosts and Flower
    Sonic Youth
    Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star

    For me, “Sister” is the perfect SY album and Pipeline/Kill Time is what made me love them. Actually, it was during a mushroom trip I really found the connection in the music/guitar parts and the poetry and I felt that I could relate to the expressiveness in the guitar sounds. My favorite band for more than 20 years now.

  45. Once again, A Thousand Leaves gets neglected while Sonic Nurse and Washing Machine get praised. I think all three are on the same level, with A Thousand Leaves just a hair better than the two others.

    • I agree. Washing Machine is the worst of the three, IMO. I’d put Murray Street higher, too. And NYC Ghosts & Flowers is dead last for me, by a wide margin.

  46. I’ve gotten in the habit of reading the introduction, and i must say..polvo and versus..sonic youth tribute bands? i think versus would be much more of a mission of burma cover act, and polvo..can’t compare them to sonic youth, you could even do a count down of their albums..not a clanger in there!!! (cool list here by the way, would have put “bad moon a bit higher over the newer albums)

  47. NO. NO and NO some more. Sonic Nurse is absolutely their worst album, tuneless, rambling, incohesive, banal lyrics and full of nothingness. Ranking Bad Moon Rising as second worst is even more tragic. That album, listened to in the blistering heat of the summer when you can not even move without disolving into a puddle of sweat, is perfection. After the abysmal Cure listing a few weeks ago, I refuse to ever read any of these listings again. And finally, comparing the 1st album to the Coachmen is completely base-less. Did this person even LISTEN to the Coachmen? And anyone who hasn’t, please go listen to “Thurston’s Song” right now, especially if you love The Smiths or Talking Heads 77.

    • OMG he even put Goo so far down the list he completely discredits the list entirely. Not to mention putting sister and evol above daydream nation. It’s in the Library of Congress for a REASON. Complete RUBBISH!!!!

      • Um, you do realize that most (and for all practical purposes, probably all) Sonic Youth releases are in the Library of Congress?

        Usually with two copies.

        • He probably meant selected by the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry for special preservation as an artifact of cultural significance, which Daydream Nation is… pretty sure the only other complete rock albums with that status are Nevermind and The Velvet Underground and Nico.

  48. Anyone else happy to see EVOL as high as it is? Underrated piece of work. “Shadow Of A Doubt” is hauntingly surreal.

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