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  • Sleater-Kinney Albums From Worst To Best
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7. Sleater-Kinney (1995)

Clocking out after a mere 22 minutes, Sleater-Kinney's debut takes the stylistic torch of the Pacific Northwest indie scene and holds it heroically high. At this point, the band was a side project, but as a combination of Heavens To Betsy's rangy melodicism and Excuse 17's tight punk-rock rhythmic chops, it's clear in retrospect why this new project became the primary focus. The album is a heady series of refusals: to sell out, to be defined by any relationship, to be claimed by the hungry maw of American masculinity. Brownstein and Tucker's guitars curl and seethe like some combination of Sonic Youth (especially on album opener "Don't Think You Wanna" and the minute-long "A Real Man") and Fugazi. The basic dynamic was established here: Tucker occupies the low end and Brownstein provides minimalist, melodic pings.

At the time, the album was regarded in the larger music press as an exemplary riot grrrl document, but it's now clear how grand the band's sonic ambition was. The downcast, alt-pop "The Day I Went Away" is an early experiment in contrasting vocals, with Tucker taking the chorus, contributing a poignancy to Brownstein's affecting flatness on the verses' line endings. "The Last Song" conjures a churning ocean of low-end; Brownstein expertly dials up the vocal restiveness until the screamo chorus ("I don't owe you anything/ I'm not a part of you") hollered (I imagine) from the back of the recording space. And "Slow Song" rides the range as well as vintage Pavement, with Tucker scaling back the ululations for heart-tugging alienation.

Remarkably, the album was recorded in a single day with a recruited drummer (Lora Macfarlane) during a trip to Australia. (The band's founders were a couple at this point, a fact revealed to the world -- and the band's families -- in a 1997 Spin article.) Macfarlane -- who sings lead on "Lora's Song," backed by Tucker's subtle rhythmic chopping -- moved to Seattle, recording the follow-up Call The Doctor. Sleater-Kinney's reputation has suffered in comparison to the confident punk-rock surge of Doctor, but make no mistake: This is an assured, powerful record.

Sleater-Kinney: the name suggests a joint sociological survey, or perhaps a university residence hall. Turns out it’s the Lacey, WA street on which the band held practices. It’s a fitting name for a group that spent more than a decade interrogating the nature of being a band. Formed by two Evergreen State University students in the searing heat of the riot grrrl movement, Sleater-Kinney maintained a breakneck pace: releasing seven albums in 10 years, touring worldwide, and providing some of the more intelligent interviews in rock.

In a sense, Sleater-Kinney (whose classic lineup consists of drummer Janet Weiss and founding members/guitarists/vocalists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker) were one of the most professional bands of the indie-rock boom. Theirs was a non-corporate professionalism, one that saw them reach astounding levels of popularity without ever jumping the indie-label ship. They kept their heads down and challenged each other toward greatness, in the process expanding their instrumental and structural vocabulary through seven fantastic-to-incredible albums. Fame, motherhood, breakups, marriage: None of it could slow Sleater-Kinney down.

While Wikipedia still, as of today, has Sleater-Kinney pegged as a “riot grrrl” band, that’s clearly not the whole story. The riot grrrl scene was a revolution on par with ’77 punk or the first wave of American hardcore — two scenes that, despite their democratic promise, proved to be largely unaccommodating for women. It was a free region for feminist ideas and feelings and alliances and outrage, incorporating art and poetry and zinemaking and theory. Like John Peel’s beloved indie hobbyists or the DC peripherals dutifully chronicled by Ian MacKaye, the majority of self-identified riot grrrls saw expression as a vital end in itself. The idea wasn’t to do something important. It was to do something, which was inherently important.

Having said that, Sleater-Kinney was unique. Their first album, recorded in a day, put them on the map. By their third record, they were underground stars. A bassless power trio, with Tucker holding down the rumbling low-end and Brownstein darting about with curled midrange lines, Sleater-Kinney developed an awesome chemistry, as lines seamlessly meshed and clashed within the confines of a hooky three-minute song. In Weiss, the band had one of indie rock’s greatest treasures, a drummer capable of everything from assault-rifle rolls to the thundering tomwork of the gods. They wrote pop songs, punk-rock songs, songs of seething dudgeon and sexist nose-tweaking. They spent an album unpacking 9/11 and being a mom, and it was a triumph. Then, having taken their sound to its developmental endpoint, they went to the woods for intuitive, monolithic thrashing.

To see Sleater-Kinney as a riot grrrl band does them a bit of a disservice; to see them as an indie rock band, on the other hand, does a disservice to their origin, and their ideals. Brownstein, Tucker, and Weiss were keen to lay out (and explode) the expectations set out by a larger world. They never stopped rocking about rock, because they were always thinking about it (and it was always being thrown in their faces). But when they sang about someone pricing your body or crawling up the stairway to heaven, it was never just about music. Sleater-Kinney remains on hiatus, but we’re still reenacting the same battles.

What follows is a list of Sleater-Kinney albums in some kind of order. Worst to best, ostensibly, but they’re all indispensable. We can talk Portlandia in the comments. Start the Countdown here.

Comments (72)
  1. I’d put The Woods over Dig Me Out, but otherwise I completely agree with this list (for like the first time ever)

  2. I go such long periods without even thinking about listening to Sleater-Kinney, but they have such an amazing catalogue. Good list.

  3. Yeah, The Woods is a more obvious #1. But I don’t know if any order of a Worst to Best list would irk me… I love every album.

  4. I can’t argue with the number one placement. My personal fav that isn’t too high up there but I’ve enjoyed more so than The Woods is All Hands On the Band One, and if you disagree, I guess you can put a bird on it.

    On the topic of Brownstein and Weiss, anyone else get the feeling that future fate of Wild Flag is up in the air? After they dropped off last year’s FYF Fest lineup and Brownstein’s concentration continues to build around Portlandia, I got this feeling it might cause the project to cease.

  5. 1. The Woods
    2. The Hot Rock
    3. One Beat
    4. Dig Me Out
    5. All Hands on the Bad One
    6. Call the Doctor
    7. Self-Titled

  6. The Hot Rock is definiatley one of their more accessable and consistently good albums, and should be placed higher than Call the Doctor which seemed to be a less well put together album, and All Hands on the Bad One; which to me is by far their worst material (albiet still pretty amazing).

    Sleater Kinney got me into alternative music, so thanks for putting up this list as it made my day.

    • I gotta agree with this. The Hot Rock is criminally underrated and one of their best (their best imho). All Hands has gotta be their worst.

    • I’m with you. Putting Call the Doctor above The Hot Rock is my biggest issue with this list. The Hot Rock took risks and is probably their most daring record as well as containing some of their greatest songs.

  7. Bold move not putting The Woods at #1, and while Call the Doctor will always be my sentimental fave (“Good Things!!”), it’s difficult to argue with the justifications for numerical placement here. Great piece.

  8. The Hot Rock is way too low. In addition to being one of their more intricate and consistent records, it’s arguably the one that’s aged the best.

  9. Btw this would be my hierarchy:

    1. The Hot Rock
    2. The Woods
    3. Dig Me Out
    4. One Beat
    5. All Hands on the Bad One
    6. Call the Doctor
    7. Self-Titled

  10. Their s/t LP, for me, is a perfect album, and the running time is a big factor in that. It enters your ears and fucks you for about 22 minutes and then leaves. Great stuff.

    Anyway, “Dig Me Out” (the song) is my favorite rock song of the 90s bar none, although I’d have to put One Beat above the album.

  11. 1. Dig Me Out
    2. The Hot Rock
    3. One Beat
    4. The Woods
    5. Call the Doctor
    6. All Hands on the Bad One
    7. s/t

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      • Have some respect.

      • The riot grrrl movement may be the single most significant moment in rock in the last twenty years. I only say “may” because of the trickle-down effect that shoegaze has had in opening up endless possibilities for the guitar. When asked what the future of rock was, Kurt Cobain replied, “Women.” This has turned out to be true. Riot grrrl’s ripple effect (although it must be said that none of these bands has been more critically acclaimed or cited as an influence more often than Sleater-Kinney) has been a major influx of women into underground rock bands, and in the majority of instances, the most unique and innovative music of the last two decades has been made by bands that had one or more female members. Gender affects one’s perspective and identity, and one of the things on which art thrives is the expression and exchange of differing perspectives. The influx of women breathed new life into it; it opened up new possibilities for the form because it told women that rock belonged as much to them as to men. The ripple effect has even extended to the mainstream; consider how many more women are involved in popular rock bands than there were prior to the early nineties. It is much less of a boys club than it used to be, and I firmly believe that, like many things in rock since the late seventies, this change began in the underground.

        • Thank you for that. I wasn’t going to waste time responding to Brandoch’s comments, because he seems pretty content with being ignorant as hell, but I’m glad that you did.

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          • Listen. I’m really the last person you will find trying to personally insult someone, even on the internet where it’s all but anonymous. See Michael Hanna above? I’ve told him he was being an asshole before, and I never really meant it. However, I need to say something to you, and I’m going to mean it. You’re a dumbfuck. You’re a misogynist dumbfuck. You need to not have so much confidence in your own opinion. That is because you are a dumbfuck. Please please please just look yourself in the mirror and consider the possibility that you might be a dumbfuck, and try to figure out ways to fix this. Here’s a tip: read a book or something.

    • I have no opinion of the riot grrrl scene or its music, but it seems to me that Mr. Daha above me prefers his women quiet, smiling, and subservient.

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  13. I appear to be the only one who doesn’t particularly care for The Woods. Do agree that Dig Me Out is absolutely #1 though.

    • I agree with you. The Woods is an overblown sprawling rehash of classic rock from a band that specialized in concise mod-post-punk. Fridmann did his best to ruin them though there are still a couple great songs on it.

    • I absolutely love The Woods but I agree that Fridmann mucked it up a bit. I always wished that S/K would have recorded an album with Albini. The production on The Woods is honestly the only thing about their career that I wish was different.

      • I’m also on board with loving The Woods but wishing it had been produced by anyone but Fridmann. He didn’t need to resort to his typical in-the-red/panned to oblivion schtick to make that album sound like a total rawkfest. I agree that Albini would have been ideal for that one – especially considering how his thing works best when a band has an absolute beast on the drums.

        • I’m in the anti-Woods group and it’s not to be a troll, I love this band with every fiber of my body. I think One Beat is the perfect embodiment of what is great about SK and it’s as if every album was building to that moment. While it has few good tracks, the Woods just seems directionless and shambolic. It didn’t surprise me they broke up after that because it was felt like they’d lost their momentum. I saw them on both the One Beat and Woods tours, the former concert was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen while the Woods show was listless and unfocussed. Maybe they were having a bad night but the Woods never worked for me. Whatever, different strokes etc…

          • When did expressing your opinion about music become trolling? I love to hear dissenting viewpoints. That said, living in Portland I had the pleasure of seeing SK close to 20 times and I was almost always blown away by their live shows. I saw their second to last show ever and to me The Woods stuff they did was powerful. I feel like they were on the verge of becoming something greater but change is hard and maybe that contributed to the hiatus. I still think as a whole The Woods is an amazing “album” that is only hindered by the production.

        • du_husker, they went on hiatus after the Woods for two reasons: They felt they had made the best album in the band’s existence, and Corin wanted to spend more time with her family. I was at the final shows in Portland, and although they did play songs from every album, most of each set was Woods songs. Over the two days, every Woods song got played at least once. They are very proud of that album and rightfully so. It’s not directionless at all; it is their most thematically cohesive album. All of the albums from The Hot Rock on are driven by certain recurring themes, but the Woods is a concept album about the destructive and divisive power of the selfishness and sense of entitlement to which Americans are prone as citizens of a consumer culture that too often champions instant gratification at the expense of a sense of lasting fulfillment. A few years after 9-11, I remember thinking that not only had that feeling of nationwide unity faded but that a lot of people (perhaps in response to an amplified awareness of their own mortality) had actually become more selfish and detached from one another than they were prior to the tragedy. Americans are quite a melting pot anyway, so a sense of alienation is an ever-present threat both to the individual and the country. The Woods demands one take a good hard look at oneself and the moral implications of how one responds to such a threat. This is executed through the narrative of the relationship that is destroyed across the album’s ten songs, Entertain being a kind of intermission that sort of lays out the album’s (and Sleater-Kinney’s) general purpose, which is confrontation, not escapism. It is a dark and difficult listen.

          • BS. Besides the personal reasons, they went on hiatus because they knew The Woods was their first bad album and it left them with no direction to move forward in except backwards to all their good albums.

          • No actually what you’re saying runs contrary not only to the band’s stated opinion of the album at the time and in the following years, but it runs counter to the vast majority of critical opinion. But sure, rewrite history in your own mind in any way that justifies your poor musical instincts…

          • Show me where the band said they liked Woods more than their other albums. The proof is plain to see: they felt their creative juices had run dry and went on hiatus.

            It’s kind of strange that you think I have poor musical instincts given that Sleater-Kinney is one of my favorite bands and I saw them countless times.

          • P.S. – Critical Opinion? After All Hands on the Bad One, Greil Marcus said in Time magazine that they were the best band in the world (probably why some of you pretend it’s not their best album.) I didn’t exactly hear people saying The Woods was worthy of the title of “best band in the world.”

          • Yeah dude, I’m well aware of what Greil Marcus said after the release of All Hands, but if you look on Metacritic, you will see that the Woods has the highest critical average of the last three albums. There are a lot of reviews and articles written after they disbanded that state that the Woods is their best album. You can find some of them by typing “Sleater-Kinney and “on a high note” (the phrase most often used to describe how Sleater-Kinney ended) into Google. As for the band themselves, nobody held a gun to their heads and forced them to make the majority of their ultra-long final sets Woods songs on the short tour they organized for the express purpose of saying thank you to their fans and celebrating their career together. People went nuts for those songs, and I have never seen a band play with that much joy and confidence. If you don’t like those songs, you are really in the minority. Anyway, I’m nobody’s performing monkey, and I have no intention of attempting to sift through the mountain of interviews from 2005-2006 and all the post-breakup interviews, trying to find the relative handful of times they have explicitly stated that the Woods felt like their peak. I got into them in February of 1999, and I have probably read almost every interview they have done, the exceptions being some of the very early ones that were in zines and never made it to the internet. I did all that because they mean that much to me, and if I did it again, it sure wouldn’t be for some nobody on the web who didn’t do his rock ‘n’ roll homework. If you want to find the interviews in question, do the work yourself. The fact of the matter is that their music has been too important in my life and I respect them too much as people to misrepresent their views on anything, which apparently you are all too happy to do. That’s definitely not being a fan; that’s being a troll.

          • I checked Metacritic. The Woods has the lowest user score of their albums – I think that’s the best measure. The critics were being a bit overly kind to them at the end of their career, kinda like how some artists win awards more for lifetime achievement than the latest work that they were actually nominated for.

          • Oh, suddenly the user-score average is more important to you! Gee, I wonder why. Anyway, it’s not really surprising that the user score for the Woods is lower. Critics tend to have a better sense of what is good and what works will stand the test of time; that’s why they are able to have a career as critics. They have the gifts of insight and foresight. Also, Sleater-Kinney themselves, smiling all the while in their video interviews, repeatedly said they fully expected to alienate some listeners with the stylistic shift on the Woods. For a relative handful of people, that proved true. But you know what? Those kinds of people were a dime a dozen throughout all of S-K’s history, and they were always replaced by different, more open-minded people with better ears…all while their fanbase as a whole continued to expand from year to year. At the two shows I saw in DC during the All Hands era, there were people in the audience whining about, “I wish they still sounded like they did on Call the Doctor.” And of course, those same people assaulted the band throughout the show with obnoxious requests for old material. The problem was never the songs; the problem was those people and their fear of change and inability to stretch themselves a bit to embrace something new that was also brilliant. Sleater-Kinney always brought it on their albums, but as evidenced by your comments, sometimes their supposed fans fall short.
            All of your counterarguments rest on baseless supposition, so it is impossible to take them seriously. Currently you’re pretending to know what all 36 of those critics were thinking as they wrote their reviews. Well, suddenly I think users rated All Hands slightly higher because they’re Sleater-Kinney fans that felt bad for the album that critics didn’t rate as high as the others and they were extra nice to it to give it a boost. You see what happens when you argue this way? It goes nowhere. Anyone can invent a reason for anything. I’m through talking about this with you because you aren’t interested in facts; you’re just interested in the cheap thrill of thinking you’ve won an online argument, which is lame.

          • I’ve actually read all your long posts and you haven’t made any points. You’re no rock n roll fun.

  14. One Beat is my favorite, but I can see how it could go in all sorts of directions, because Sleater-Kinney has been consistently good for while. I really hope Carrie goes back to music soon. Portlandia has some good moments, but it’s really hit and miss. Though maybe the publicity will mean that more people will start getting into her music.

    • You know about Wild Flag right?

      • She hasn’t done anything with that band for a while as well.

        • The Wild Flag album was released in September of 2011, and they did a good deal of touring in 2012. We just started 2013. That is a normal amount of activity for an active band. Whether or not they have been recording could have as much to do with whether S-K’s hiatus is ending anytime soon as whether she has Portlandia commitments or is finishing up the book she has been working on for a while. Portlandia is great by the way.

  15. #1. All Hands on the Bad One
    #2. Dig Me Out
    #3. One Beat
    #4. Call the Doctor
    #5. The Hot Rock
    #6. The Woods
    #7. s/t

  16. I am incredibly glad many people here see The Hot Rock as underrated. I love each and every album of theirs, but THR is well above the others. It probably helps that I’m a massive Go-Betweens fan.

  17. Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock definitely #1 & 2 . . .

  18. A perfect list, clearly etched in stone and handed down by God himself!

  19. I saw THE WOODS tour in Boston. They played the album in its entirety, only a couple older songs and a cover. (Danzig, if I recall correctly.) All the fans were screaming for older stuff but they stuck to their guns and pummeled the club. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and even if they reunite tomorrow, I doubt I’ll ever see anything quite as brutal.

  20. Well, Stereogum screwed this one up BIG TIME by not actually screwing it up.

    Bring “Call the Doctor” up to third and it’s perfect.

    I love this band beyond words, and “Dig Me Out” is as perfect an album as I can name.

  21. The Hot Rock. Forever and ever. Amen.

  22. Sleater-Kinney is the perfect example of how bizarre it is to rank an artists discography objectively. Specific records hit people more than others harder than others for different reasons. Each record is has an individual perspective based on where the members were in their life and career. I’d much rather read about each individual writer’s favorite Sleater-Kinney album and what it means to them. Not ranked.

  23. I’d switch move Call the Doctor up one place, as it’s one of their three perfect releases, but other than that this is the best ranking y’all have done yet. Most bands wish they could release something as good as the debut 10″, and they started with that.

    They really need to tour again. When I saw them it was mostly Woods material, and while that was great I wanted to hear more.

  24. Good list but I just can’t get down with a list that ranks The Hot Rock as second to worst

  25. I’m going to leave a incredibly un-Sleater-Kinney like comment; I used to have a big crush on Corin Tucker.

  26. Please do Prince next! Albums, not songs.

  27. I am compelled to correct the author’s weird misunderstanding of the opening lyrics in “Faraway”. Corin is not sitting on the couch with her baby and a nurse. She is nursing her baby on the couch. Then the phone rings.
    While I’m here, God bless Sleater-Kinney.
    1. Dig Me Out
    2. All Hands On the Bad One
    3. One Beat
    4. Call the Doctor
    5. The Hot Rock
    6. The Woods
    7. S/T

    It’s hard to place Hot Rock so low considering how much I LOVED it when it came out, but upon many re-listenings over the past few years, it’s just not as good as I remembered. One Beat OTOH, has aged beautifully, which seems odd given how topical it was.

    • This is an excellent list, identical to mine except 1 and 2 switched. I think we’ve definitively stated the general ranking. Odd that Stereogum got it so wrong with All Hands and The Woods.

      I agree with your comments, it’s hard to place The Hot Rock so low. It’s not quite as good as the top 4, but after The Hot Rock there is a massive quality drop-off with The Woods.

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  29. One Beat is the best one, hands down

  30. Very surprised at the rankings here. I almost feel like people here just heard the more commercially saleable ‘The Woods’ and were never real punk, alternative, riot grrrl, or S-K fans to begin with. Try something like this:

    1. Call the Doctor
    2. Dig Me Out
    3. One Beat
    4. Sleater-Kinney
    5. The Hot Rock
    6. All Hands on the Bad One
    7. The Woods

    Not so much my own ranking, as I would put the first album a lot higher, but more true to history. I can’t even get through ‘The Woods’ myself. I skip to Jumpers, then just can’t get through Modern Girl at all. It seems to me they were mostly going their own way musically when this album was composed, which is why it just doesn’t have the same Carrie-Corin chemistry as their earlier works. The early stuff has so much more energy, which is synonymous with S-K. I only put One Beat so high because it is so damn poetic. Just brilliant song writing.

  31. 1 Dig Me Out
    2 All Hands On The Bad One
    3 Call The Doctor
    4 Self Tillted
    5The Hot Rock
    6The Woods
    7One Beat
    The first album is fucking great

  32. It’s difficult for me to put their albums in order, this was a brave feat, good writing too.

    I personally think Hot Rock is way away from Worst, I love all their albums but think the band hit something with Hot Rock that pushed way past expectations, the songs did not gel as well as those on Call the Doctor or Dig Me Out, but individually the songs are supremely strong. The introspection of the album radiates intensely way beyond anything they did before. It is as if their ego had been clipped away and the true soul and spirit of the band was revealed.

    I almost think that they stopped and thought ‘Oh Shit, where have we gone, we don’t know what to do’ and retreated with All Hands to a more direct rocky approach, One Beat was good, but I think they came back to where they were supposed to/ where Hot Rock took them with the Woods and addressed where they were and were successful in their outcomes.

    I remember seeing them on the All Hands on the Bad One tour, I stood and watched for most of the gig, when hey played ‘Start Together’ I could not stop myself dancing, it was as if someone hot wired my nervous system, Mary Timmony supported, it was great. I love anything they do musically as SK or in separate forms. Thanks for a great article.

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