Sonic Youth Albums From Worst To Best
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.
15. Bad Moon Rising (1985): Bad Moon Rising is one of only a small handful of Sonic Youth releases that could be removed from the discography without much altering the band's historical narrative. Less a piece of the puzzle than an outlier, Bad Moon Rising is a cinematically spooky album that suggests what might have been had Sonic Youth continued on as a death-rock band by way of Warhol. It is by no means a failure –- the Lydia Lunch-assisted "Death Valley 69" and the cavernous and bizarre "Halloween" are both more than worth the price of admission –- but it would have been difficult at the time to predict that the band of Bad Moon Rising would follow up this uninviting, bleak record with the first of many masterpieces.
14. NYC Ghosts & Flowers (2000): The least-loved Sonic Youth album by some margin, the underrated NYC Ghosts & Flowers is the sound of Sonic Youth starting from scratch, and not necessarily by choice. While on tour supporting 1998's A Thousand Leaves, most of the band's one-of-a-kind guitars were stolen, forcing them to write and record their next record on new and borrowed gear. Fans who malign NYC Ghosts & Flowers may consider the album the point at which the band's florid wordplay and Beat obsession would finally get the better of them, but more attentive fans will note that Sonic Youth has always used the influence of poetry as a catalytic element for their expansive jams, usually with transcendent results. If the specter of cafe existentialists looms too large over NYC Ghosts & Flowers, the album remains noble as an 'all in' gesture that casts a defiant shrug at potential alienation, and we might recall that the history of great rock and roll is pockmarked with similarly courageous endeavors. Twelve-string guitars are introduced, as is the presence of the inimitable Jim O'Rourke (who would officially join the band as a full-time member for the next two albums). The album also boasts a spellbinding title track by Lee and a classic in opener "Free City Rhymes." NYC Ghosts & Flowers is a bewitching album that rewards repeat listens and deserves far better than its reputation.
13. Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star (1994): Based on the title alone, many fans might have incorrectly assumed, upon its release, that Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star was a collection of three EPs. In retrospect, that feeling of disengagement from the material as a body of work is understandable. Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star is the first album to not feature a Lee-sung number since Bad Moon Rising (also a lesser album in the discography –- coincidence?), and was to be followed by a long touring hiatus. Recorded by a likely baffled Butch Vig (the production sounds more Alien Lanes than Siamese Dream), the album is full of short, jarring songs with atmosphere to spare. There are some brilliant moments –- the propulsive "Bull In The Heather" is a sort of cousin to the Breeders' unlikely hit "Cannonball," and the chugging "Screaming Skull" is manna for fans wishing every Sonic Youth song was a variation on "100%." Another highlight is Thurston's affecting "Winner's Blues," a rare 'unplugged' number that portends future solo album Demolished Thoughts. Bonus: to save money, Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star was recorded over the band's previously used master tapes (a common practice), so if you turn the album up real loud, you can hear Sister leak through during quiet parts!
12. The Eternal (2009): Diffusive and divisive, The Eternal has in common with Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star an affinity for direct, shorter songs, and as far as 'final albums' go, this one leaves us hanging a little. Picking up where the catchier and more immediately likeable Rather Ripped left off, The Eternal adds a new fifth member in Mark Ibold (late of Pavement) after a short-lived return to a four-piece for Rather Ripped. The meatier production of The Eternal well suits the sturdier, more melodic tunes, but it's the endearingly seasick-sounding "Malibu Gas Station," the romantic "Antenna," and Lee's uncharacteristically somber "What We Know" that really sparkle. And no Sonic Youth mix CD would be complete without the hopped-up "Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)," featuring a rare Thurston and Kim unison vocal that conjures a bizarro world Dead Moon.
11. Confusion Is Sex (1983): Confusion Is Sex is a great record, but only a contrarian would name it a favorite. The frankly terrifying Sonic Youth of Confusion Is Sex is mostly absent from later albums (and the debut EP), but it's a most welcome anomaly. Unlike Bad Moon Rising, the unselfconscious nihilism of Confusion Is Sex rings remarkably true. The leaden and uneasy opener "She's In A Bad Mood" sets the tone, as each subsequent song one-ups the previous one with increasingly intensifying onslaughts of sinister solid-state rumble and somnambulent keening. Even the cover of the Stooges' pogo-worthy "I Wanna Be Your Dog" sounds here like something Swans deemed too unsettling to release (Swans drummer Jim Sclavunos plays on all but two tracks). Other highlights like "Shaking Hell" and "Protect Me You" (which -- trivia fans take note -- is the only Sonic Youth song on which Lee has ever played bass!) feature guitars that sound like the vibrations of axe handles after striking a stone. Visceral and relentless, Confusion Is Sex is one the best no-wave albums of all time, and the fact that it doesn't even crack the top 10 of this countdown says a lot more about this band than this album.
10. Dirty (1992): Released in 1992 -- the year after the year punk broke, you'll recall -- Dirty finds Sonic Youth accepting the lifetime achievement award from their grunge progeny and raising the stakes. While fans tend to overrate Dirty (for a certain demographic, this is as much a coming-of-age album as Are You Experienced?), the album has held up remarkably well, especially the deeper cuts which are so often overlooked in favor of showstoppers like the sexy "100%," the declarative "Youth Against Fascism" (featuring Ian MacKaye in an extremely rare cameo role) and the irresistible "Sugar Kane." Butch Vig's clean production places the guitars center stage, but the rhythm section compensates by just pounding. Kim's vocals often steal the show, out-punking even Johnny Rotten on the airhead-baiting "Swimsuit Issue" and the snarling "Orange Rolls, Angel's Spit," the personification of big-sister cool on seductive album closer "Creme Brulee." Dirty's goofy vamps are frequently playful and rarely expansive, but even the simpler-sounding tracks are wonderfully deceptive. If on first listen a handful of these songs sound like they wouldn't sound out of place on an Alice Cooper record, listen closer and you'll notice a structural bed of wild, howling feedback beneath some of the album's catchiest tunes.
9. A Thousand Leaves (1998): The first thing you notice about the Sonic Youth of A Thousand Leaves is that there are fewer traces of punk than ever, at least in the aural sense. Following a long tour, the band established their own studio, Echo Canyon, to allow for more time to experiment with the backlog of songs written during the three-year break between albums -- the longest such break in the band's history. It is no wonder all of this wood-shedding yielded the first batch of the mostly crucial SYR series of non-album studio experiments. Though the band's jammy tendencies came to the fore on previous album Washing Machine, there are no caffeinated respites like that album's "No Queen Blues" to be found here. A Thousand Leaves, however, more than any other Sonic Youth album, provides a bridge that connects two of the band's distinct phases, and, as such, is a great introductory album for newcomers. While "Wildflower Soul" hearkens back to the spindly jams of EVOL, and "Sunday" recalls the melancholic motorik of classics like "Dirty Boots," songs like the epic "Hits Of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)" foreshadow the Beat-obsessed ethereality of future albums NYC Ghosts & Flowers and Murray Street.
8. Goo (1990): Goo (originally titled Blowjob!) gave Sonic Youth a surprise hit with "Kool Thing," a frenzied earworm of a tune about LL Cool J (inexplicably featuring an awkward cameo by a coerced-sounding Chuck D of Public Enemy). The album is perhaps the least art-damaged entry in the Sonic Youth catalog, and features some of the band's most enduring material. "Dirty Boots" is easily one of the greatest songs of the alternative rock era, perhaps only overshadowed on Goo by Lee's masterful "Mote," whose conflagrated denouement recalls early classics like "Expressway To Yr Skull" and "Hey Joni," and fittingly closes out the first side of the album. Elsewhere, "My Friend Goo" successfully borrows The Replacements' bored-as-fuck background vocal style from "I Don't Know," while the 'noise metal' break at the end of "Mildred Pierce" provides a most unexpected and jarring coda. The Raymond Pettibon cover art is no coincidence -- Goo is Sonic Youth nodding to their punk roots. The playing is also tighter that ever, and Kim begins to emerge as a truly great rock and roll singer, paving the way for gender-defying grunters like Royal Trux's Jennifer Herrema. And if "Tunic," a glum threnody for Karen Carpenter, comes off more roast than tribute, well, were you really expecting "Candle In The Wind?"
7. Rather Ripped (2006): Rather Ripped was Sonic Youth's last contracted album for Geffen, and you could say they went out with a bang. From the punk-evoking stencil fonts on the cover to the relative brevity of the songs (seven out of 12 tunes clock in at under four minutes!), the message is clear: no fucking around. Steve's drums are mixed good and loud, which ably serves this relatively cleaned-up and frequently poppy version of the band. The least noisy Sonic Youth album since the s/t EP, Rather Ripped nevertheless forsakes none of the band's classic dynamism and charm -- think of it as a well-earned vay-cay from the yawning void. "Incinerate" is the band's best single in years, Lee's "Rats" outrocks everything on classic rock radio, and the oddly bucolic "The Neutral" marries a Paisley Underground jangle to shimmery guitars reminiscent of the Cure circa Disintegration (this is likely accidental). Not a moment of Rather Ripped meanders and not a note is wasted. Missing the spectral abstraction fans have begun to expect from this era, this is definitely not the Sonic Youth album to patiently count ceiling tiles to, but as a showcase for the leaner, punchier side of the band, Rather Ripped more than holds its own.
6. Murray Street (2002): Murray Street is the first of two albums to feature newly minted fifth member Jim O'Rourke, and if his influence is harder to detect here than on, say, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, consider that a weird guy supplementing a weird band will naturally have fewer noticeably drastic results than a weird guy supplementing a not-as-weird band. Though Kim has never been a stranger to playing guitar on Sonic Youth records (in fact, she'd been favoring it for years), O'Rourke's auxiliary support facilitated both the three-guitar era of Sonic Youth and the added excitement of Thurston and Kim as occasional frontman and frontwoman, respectively, during concerts. When diehards insist that the band's late Geffen years are often overlooked, they mean this album. All over Murray Street, guitars corkscrew around each other like a 21st century Television bequeathed with a second Richard Lloyd, with every sound rendered in loping, immersive tangles. Call it a 'return to form' if you like -- for once, the appellation fits. "Karen Revisited," whose ambitious mixing of studio recordings with live jams does nothing to dispel notions of Sonic Youth as the new Grateful Dead, anchors the album with typical slow-burning guitar synergism. "Sympathy For The Strawberry" (featuring Lee on keys!) slowly cascades from delicate restraint to white-knuckled abandon. Best of all is the dreamy and profluent "Rain On Tin," whose celestial jam sounds like it's trying to provide the soundtrack to a visit to the best planetarium ever.
5. Sonic Nurse (2004): Sonic Nurse sounds, in many ways, like a sequel to Washing Machine -- both albums are records of remarkable maturity and depth and both hit the song-to-jam ratio just right. The songs on Sonic Nurse are mostly appended and enlivened by noisy-not-noodly improvisations, with clean guitars snaking their way around winsome clusters of gauzy low-end fuzz and supple percussion. Sonic Nurse is also back-loaded, and while this does not diminish tracks like the effortlessly dazzling "Unmade Bed" or the frenetic William Gibson ode "Pattern Recognition," from track 5 ("Stones") on, Sonic Nurse is perfection.
4. Washing Machine (1995): Full disclosure: Washing Machine is my favorite Sonic Youth album. Though it cannot be given the title of 'best' in any objective way, it's the one I often reach for when I need a dose. This is Kim's album, the one on which she shines brightest, and the one on which her boho beat persona is most convincing and inspired. The title track is a marvel, beginning with a Loaded-era Velvets choogle that eventually segues at about four minutes in to a magical, goosebump-worthy moment of guitar catharsis. Lee's great "Skip Tracer" features lyrics that rival even Steely Dan's observational cynicism, and "Little Trouble Girl," abetted by a great vocal cameo by Kim Deal, is "Tunic" with a Shangri-Las makeover. This leaves the elegiac "The Diamond Sea," which you could consider Sonic Youth's "Dark Star" if the comparison wasn't such a cliché at this point. An awe-inspiring masterpiece of improvisation, "The Diamond Sea" is a moiré of atonal scrambling and harmonic scree that feels far too short at 19 and a half minutes. Washing Machine provides a roomy antidote to the claustrophobia of Goo and Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star, and the most perfect balance yet of the band's rockist and avant tendencies. Even the cover art rules: Meta and mysterious as ever, the band chose to spotlight the torsos of two teenage fans in Sonic Youth T-shirts, one of which is autographed -- by members of the band Come.
3. Daydream Nation (1988): Writing about Daydream Nation is sorta like writing about pizza. Almost everyone is familiar with it, everyone -- save for a few loonies -- agrees that it's great, and everyone has their fussy preferences about it. The band's first double album is a conceptually loose celebration/expose of the American badlands, as keen an examination of the concrete wilderness as ever constructed by a buncha guitar players. The album moves brilliantly, each song twisting into miniature vortexes, spiraling to exhaustion. As indebted to Amon Duul as Arto Lindsay, the album's beauty sounds effortless, as if the band's myriad public obsessions all converged and produced the album by divination. There is a piercing melancholy to many of the songs, not least "Teenage Riot" (for my money, still the band's best song), despite reportedly being little more than a loving ode to Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis. The double album ends, fittingly, with a trilogy of songs, a lofty concept whose irony was probably not lost on a band that was covering Crime's "Hot Wire My Heart" on their previous album. Yet this trilogy is one of the few in the annals of rock and roll worth its weight in Thai stick, bearing none of the grandiose prog-rock pomposity one expects from a "suite" of songs. If anything, this third act (especially "Eliminator, Jr") is as unfriendly as the album gets, recalling, if only for a couple of minutes, the earlier, fangier Sonic Youth of Confusion Is Sex.
2. EVOL (1986): EVOL is an album full of suspense. Taken together with its proper follow-up, Sister, EVOL provides the cornerstone upon which the 'Sonic Youth sound' is built, due in part to the debut of drummer Steve Shelley, who would remain with the band permanently. EVOL is ground zero for the combination of chiming guitars and atonal skronk, qualities mostly absent on the band's first EP and only hinted at on previous albums. It is on EVOL that Sonic Youth first happens upon the muggy delirium with which they would make with their name, launching a half million imitators in its wake. The virile "Tom Violence" sounds less 'written' than 'coaxed from a cauldron,' the sort of song that fogs windows. The off-kilter "Starpower" is a droning love song sung in frosty monotone -- Kim evoking Nico. "In The Kingdom #19" features Mike Watt on bass and marks the debut of a Lee vocal, and what a debut! The harrowing story of a highway wreck over a suitably edgy instrumental backing, the tune is punctuated by a classic (and audible) moment of studio hijinx, as Thurston surprises Lee, mid-take, by hurling a handful of live firecrackers into the vocal booth. They don't make 'em like this anymore.
1. Sister (1987): Let's get something straight. There is no album in the entire corpus of indie rock -- not Loveless, not Surfer Rosa, not Psychocandy -- that reaches the heights of invention, joy, and magic of Sonic Youth's sublime fifth album. If your night out has ever been made by a floppy-haired stoner disemboweling a guitar; if you've ever had an out-of-body experience while hearing a record of disembodied vocal catatonia and libidinous murmurs; if you've ever gotten a contact high from a deliciously 'off' noise-rock tumult -- then you can thank this album. The haunted reveries of Sister remain with you for years, even if you only hear them once. This isn't a rock album -- it's mortar fire. It is the point at which Sonic Youth discovered a new and truly radicalized "psychedelic" music that owed nothing to Pet Sounds or Sgt Pepper's, but to an amalgamation of record store arcana, suburban Gnosticism, and teenage kicks. Their peers may have been rocking, droning, and caterwauling, but Sister is the sonic manifestation of refracted light. It's a record that changes you.