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.