Sleater-Kinney Albums From Worst To Best
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.
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.
6. The Hot Rock (1999)
Having proven their bonafides regarding pop concision and stardom, Sleater-Kinney doubled back toward a calmer, more introspective sound. Brownstein had become a devotee of the Go-Betweens, the beloved Australian pop-rock act who were in the midst of an extended hiatus. Even without hearing the lush, textured approach enter the band's tonal repertoire, it's easy to picture how the Go-Betweens appealed to Brownstein on a biographical level: like Sleater-Kinney, the band featured two singer-songwriters, each with his particular approach. As a result of her McLennan/Forster scholarship, Brownstein adapted her own approach for the making of The Hot Rock, increasingly applying a multi-string attack, as well as a new delicacy in her playing and singing.
The Hot Rock's title contributes to this more oblique sensibility. While rock heads could view it as a tip to the Rolling Stones, the title track makes it clear that the primary connection is to the Robert Redford heist comedy of the same name. McLennan was an inveterate film freak; it's entirely possible that "The Hot Rock" was a sly homage on Sleater-Kinney's part. In time, the entire band would collaborate on the Go-Betweens' 2000 comeback album The Friends Of Rachel Worth, with Weiss drumming on every cut.
Even in softer form, the band's chemistry is unassailable. Tucker and Brownstein perform a virtuoso ping-pong on "Burn, Don't Freeze!," tossing a descending figure back and forth. In "Get Up" (filmed by Miranda July as the band's first music video), Tucker talks her desire out in classic Gordonian form, modulating her signature trills into something quite wistful. At one point, someone interjects the loveliest "whoo!" -- whether it's Carrie or Corin, I can't tell. But it doesn't really matter; they'd weathered both a breakup and a brighter spotlight, their sonic synchronicity only gaining force. Elsewhere, on the ICU love song "The Size Of Our Love," Brownstein deploys the astounding opening couplet "Our love is the size of/ These tumors inside us." She also sings lead on "Memorize Your Lines" (another film reference?), and as on "The Size Of Our Love," the production is juiced with a new element: strings. While her vocals tend toward the placid on the record, she's assisted by the usual guitar intricacy and Tucker's able vocal support. "A Quarter To Three," the final track, reaches even further back in history, as the band channels Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang" with the backgrounded "ooh! ahh!" chant.
5. All Hands On The Bad One (2000)
In 1999, Sleater-Kinney were tapped for Belle & Sebastian's inaugural Bowlie Weekender festival. They were stopped cold in the artists' reception tent; on a chalkboard listing the lodging assignments, someone had scrawled "ladymen -- yes" next to the number of their chalet. They duly converted the tone-deaf joke into "Ballad Of A Ladyman," a stunning combination of glam Bowie and adult alternative wherein Tucker croons about the pressure to conform, something the band still faced, even as they continued to annex exciting new territory. According to the band, even at this late date people were still asking when they were going to add a bassist. They didn't want one, they didn't need one, but unlike the White Stripes (pretty early into their career at this point), some still saw its absence as a bug, not a feature.
Ask Prince: conjuring a bass is a much cooler trick. On a pair of All Hands' lean rock and rollers, you'd swear someone is holding down the low-end. I refer, of course, to "All Hands On the Bad One" and "You're No Rock N' Roll Fun," a Beatles-indebted rave-up that harkens back to the coy playfulness of prime NW indie pop with a peculiar poignancy. (Perhaps it's that beautiful harmony on the final chorus.) Five albums in, it's clear that S-K still had every intention of having fun and surprising on their hard-won terms. Tucker drops a few obvious French signifiers on both "Male Model" and "Milkshake N' Honey": the former cheerfully offers to re-gender the rock hierarchy; the latter finds Tucker dropping into her lower register for a louche tale of a Parisian fling. In a scene that was still a couple years away from thinking it had invented dancing, Sleater-Kinney kept cranking out booty-shaking, sub-three-minute feminist anthems.
4. Call The Doctor (1996)
For a document so quickly executed, the debut was a hell of a thing. Call The Doctor adds to the palette while exhibiting a keener sense of sequencing. (Sleater-Kinney has the two shortest songs in the band's catalog -- either of which could have been a ripping opener -- and closes with three straight tracks with the word "song" in the title.) Brownstein ups her vocal contributions, offering soaring countermelodies on "Stay Where You Are," high-flown support on "Hubcap," rejoinders on the title track. Macfarlane keeps the kit on lock, an improvement on her work on the debut -- understandable, given the compressed nature of Sleater-Kinney's recording. "Hubcap" features her deconstructed beat -- dig those off-beat cymbal hits -- and she also chips in backing vocals on a handful of tracks. According to Wikipedia, she played guitar on the wide-eyed closer "Heart Attack," which, just like debut's "The Last Song," is sung by Brownstein. Her screaming stands in stark contrast to the gentle arpeggiation, just another example of the band's capability to subvert expectations.
At this point in their career -- and, really, very rarely afterward -- Sleater-Kinney did not deal in quietude. As writers and singers, Tucker and Brownstein masterfully forsook vulnerability; the sentiments were raw, even incendiary, but like their scene forebears, they're presented as inquiries, not apologies. For every statement of pride like "Call The Doctor" ("This is love and you can't make it/ In a formula or shake me") there's a deeply ambivalent cut like "I'm Not Waiting," in which Tucker declares "I'm not waiting/ Till I grow up/ To be a woman," then switches to "Till I throw up." A blazing emotional tone colors the music, whether on the live-wire mod-punk of "Little Mouth," or "Taking Me Home," a sea shanty that keeps listing into the minor key. Even "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" -- the most well-known track on Call The Doctor -- though it explodes with gleeful see-saw yowls on the refrain, it mostly crawls forward on the low end, accruing that death-drive energy.
"Joey" is where the band's ambitions got explicit. The title can certainly scan as twee, but Tucker claims a different kind of desire, crowning herself "the queen of rock and roll." At the time, it was probably more an acknowledgement of the peculiar nature of scene popularity; after all, who but a tuned-in music geek would consider Joey (to say nothing of Thurston Moore, who also gets a namecheck) the king of rock and roll? At the same time, Sleater-Kinney were staking their claim to the kind of plaudits accorded all too infrequently to bands masterminded by women. Soon enough, this song would look like a prophecy; at the time, it must have seemed like an astounding wish.
3. One Beat (2002)
As Tom Breihan noted in his excellent 10-year commemoration of One Beat, circumstances both political and profoundly personal influenced its creation. While Sleater-Kinney were dedicated chroniclers of the individual's experience, the 9/11 strikes and the Bush Administration response suffused the band's writing sessions, undertaken after Tucker returned from a hiatus. (She had given birth five months prior to a baby born nine weeks early.) Tucker rejoined the group with a singular experience of motherhood. The combination of themes could easily have led to some disjointed writing and/or sequencing, but the three responded to the challenge in classic riot grrrl form: They linked the personal and the political. "Far Away" opens with the image of Tucker, her nurse, and her baby on a couch, riveted to the televised images of apocalyptic return fire. Muted, curlicuing guitar breaks mirror her holding her breath, praying that the sky "doesn't rain on my family tonight." "Step Aside" offers a domestic couplet worthy of needlepoint ("This mama works till her back is sore/ But the baby's fed and the tunes are pure") but can't shake the outside sights. The second verse is a full-on Temptations-style raveup, with a full-gospel Tucker directly addressing her bandmates while engaging in a bit of call-and-response replete with "whoo-hoo-hoo"s. It's a testament to Tucker's raw power that lines like "shake a tail for peace and love" don't land as goofy appropriation or goopy sentiment.
"Step Aside" is just one piece of evidence attesting to her sky-high vocal confidence. The force of her singing recalls those early records, but all through One Beat you can practically hear her assume the weight of capturing something immense. She uses her full range, alternately sneering and cajoling, cooing and searching. Brownstein and Weiss -- who continues to fully inhabit the soundscape, even adding cowbell at one point -- contribute their most ironically angelic harmonies yet. On the lyrical front, their writing sessions yielded evocative imagery both concrete (as on "Light Rail Coyote," the crashing, sawtoothed tribute to surviving Portland) and figurative (the "meaning in sores" and "grammar of skin" in "Sympathy"). Speaking of "Sympathy," it's simply a tour de force, a searing picture of Tucker's battle for hope in the light of her son's premature birth. She digs out a deliberate, bluesy howl unprecedented in her recorded history while also providing her own high-pitched hoots. "There's no righteousness in your darkest moment," she cries, her bandmates' defiant "hey"s slamming the point home. Examinations of parenthood are rare enough in indie rock, but this sort of anguished parental grappling is without peer.
On One Beat, Sleater-Kinney had pushed their grammar of rock about as far as it would go. Not every track is a triumph; the trite "Hollywood Ending" trades in the kind of laceration that was Courtney Love's territory at this point, and "Prisstina" is a third-person story - not the band's strongest suit -- tricked out with exotica touches. The band was still in it to win, but they were ready to strike out for new territory.
2. The Woods (2005)
One Beat pushed the band into new sonic (theremin, brass) and thematic (motherhood, war) territories, but it was not enough. They ended their runs with Kill Rock Stars and producer John Goodmanson, switching to Sub Pop and Dave Fridmann, of Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev fame. A sojourn to Fridmann's isolated New York studio once brought Wayne Coyne face-to-face with his fear of silence, and something similar happened to Sleater-Kinney.
But this was, more or less, what the band wanted. As Brownstein noted in an interview with Eddie Vedder for Magnet, Fridmann was cool toward the band's discography; he thought they had yet to make a record that captured their intensity. The band responded by pillaging the classic rock graveyard for heavy treasures. With Fridmann pushing the needles into aneurysmal realms, Brownstein is free to push her love of sludge-rock riffage to ecstatic levels. Opening fable "The Fox" swaps out the guitar grins of prime Lips for bloodstained jaws as Tucker operates in a Plant-ian shriek. The closing chord progression alone could've been ridden to death by a troop of inferior noise rockers. "What's Mine Is Yours" starts and closes with sick panned guitar roughage; the towering middle section is all Brownstein by way of Jimi, backwards guitar, crackling feedback: the whole nine. On "Night Light," Brownstein tosses her axe into the prevailing winds of backmasking and reverb, Weiss intuitively updates John Bonham, and in a reprise of One Beat's themes, Tucker cradles her spark against the maelstrom. It sounds a bit like Heart doing battle with the implacable Old Ones.
The temptation for this kind of bludgeoning rock record is to limn the vocals for their psychotropic properties, rather than dig into the text. But the band's writing game emerges from the wringer as transformed as their sound. The texts focus on perception over reflection. And there are zingers. The married-couple migration tale in "Wilderness" bears a gem that presages Brownstein's work on Portlandia: "Moved to a city/ Where hippies run wild/ Everything's white/ Now so are the smiles." The loping, lilting break afforded by "Modern Girl" pivots on the perception of the scene that bore them: "My baby loves me/ I'm so angry," Tucker sings to the harmonica (!) as Fridmann pushes the distortion to capsizing force, "Anger makes me a modern girl."
The two-and-a-half-week-long recording process pushed Sleater-Kinney to draw from their deepest stores of talent and intuition. Janet Weiss in particular found herself challenged by Fridmann, who would offer her cryptic instructions like "This part should sound like Keith Moon -— and then like a blanket being lowered over Keith Moon's kit." But lest we forget, this was what the band wanted, and they had over a decade's brawn and muscle to deploy. The sunshiney "Rollercoaster" is a rutting update of All Hands' pugilist pop; the poisoned San Franciscan portrait "Jumpers" taps into the fog of One Beat, even as it sounds in parts like Yes attempting ska. And the epic, epochal "Let's Call It Love" recasts previous lovers' suss-outs as one giant grudge match, complete with honking klaxon throb, Gatling-gun snares, more pedal stomps than a Tour de France, and a fucking bell.
If the band had any concerns about the album's reception, they were unfounded. The Woods was their first record to crack the upper half of the Billboard 200, it made nearly every rock publication's end-of-year list, and earned the band its fifth top-10 Pazz & Jop finish. On neutral ground and with an uncertain outcome, Weiss, Tucker and Brownstein dropped their axes on the roots of punk's musical unrest. They did so with chops honed over decades of combined gigging and a faith in each other. If there's a Sleater-Kinney reunion anywhere on the horizon -- and all three have separately expressed varying measures of hope for the prospect -- is there any doubt they'll pull it off?
1. Dig Me Out (1997)
Given time, a lot of American Underground groups discovered a knack for pop concision. Sleater-Kinney's move from punk-rock to punk-pop compares to the journeys taken by fellow greats like Nirvana and Hüsker Dü -- and to a lesser extent, Sonic Youth. Like Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney's pop approach offered a point of access to their extensive sonic capabilities; like Hüsker Dü, they delved into hooks because it was fucking fun.
Call the Doctor spread the band's gospel far, nabbing a third-place finish in the 1996 Pazz & Jop critics' poll. But Dig Me Out (released domestically on Kill Rock Stars and in Europre on Matador) pushed the love to a feverish temperature. While it was almost certainly a natural evolution, the inclusion of streamlined, hand-hitting pop songs was a canny progression. "Turn It On" is an all-timer, a sour mashnote with a channel for each guitarist and handclaps on the chorus. "Don't tell me your name," Tucker sings, "if you don't want it sung." The final third mainly consists of the title, murmured then stuttered and hammered, a command that mustn't be contravened. The notion of bandhood is thoroughly interrogated here. "Words And Guitar" is as good a statement about being a music lifer as ever has been laid down; the band works stoptime to thrilling effect, with Brownstein offering assent vocally and with a stunningly direct guitar line. It's followed by "It's Enough," turning the idea of groupiedom on its head by finding sensuality in the act of buying a record. The singer is brought home, but in vinyl form, and even then she's asserting control: "Hit the floor/ Shake it baby/ A little more."
This is where the band started to give itself over to expressions of pleasure, both in the self-referential sense of a band unable to see its limitations, and in the sense of Sleater-Kinney claiming the spoils of adulation. On the debut, Tucker declared "I'm not gonna be your mama"; by contrast, "Little Babies" assumes the mantle of caregiver with relish. "Are you hungry?/ Did you eat before the show?" Tucker asks. "I peeled potatoes/ Set the table/ Washed the floor." Any ambivalence is shooed away by Brownstein's sinuous midrange line and the absurdly catchy chant of "dum dum dee dee dee dum dum." The confident come-on "Dance Song '97" struts on Tucker's terse riffage, a Farfisa and even a bit of chintzy toy piano. And like a good portion of the record, it's held together by Janet Weiss's muscular work on the toms.
With the addition of Weiss, who was and would continue to be one-half of Portland's Quasi, the "classic" lineup was in place. Her control is impressive, her snare hits crisp, her fills totally fierce. Brownstein and Tucker continue to develop their riff chops and timbre range. The closer, "Jenny," goes to Tucker this time; over glacial reverbed psych strum and an embedded sorta-solo from Brownstein, she holds court with a masterfully-parceled singing display. The album cover is an homage to the Kinks' Kink Kontroversy, the record that preceded their major commercial breakthrough. For Sleater-Kinney, though, their dream of rock iconicity had become very real.