Icon: Sonic Youth
They’re one of the greatest bands to emerge in the last 30 years and have released as many consistent and interesting albums as bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and contemporaries Radiohead. They do one thing and they do it very well: loud, dense, atonal art-rock that’s fused with tight guitar hooks and hummable melodies – even though none of the singers have proper singing chops and they’ve rarely played in standard guitar tunings.
But Sonic Youth haven’t totally caught on with the mainstream – even with the backing of a major label and headlining slots on fests like Lollapalooza. And that’s because since forming in 1981, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley have had an uncompromising vision of their music, which has taken equal cues from fringier no-wave scenes as equally as more modern rock.
Sonic Youth only become alt-rock heroes seven years into their career, well after their 20s, with the release of their 1988 breakthrough Daydream Nation, which arguably remains the most important alt-rock record ever released. Since then, the band has released nothing but good-to-great albums, with only one out of the eleven that could be considered out-and-out dud (NYC Ghosts & Flowers). Not bad for a band that’s never had a no. 1 album or single.
The Early Years
Sonic Youth had only played a handful of local New York shows when they cut this album in 1981 with their mentor Glenn Branca, the avant-garde composer known for his wild guitar symphonies. It's a tame collection of songs compared to the band's later work and the band had yet to develop their style of writing music in their now-trademark alternate guitar tunings. There's also a clear punk influence coursing through these... six tracks, largely due to drummer Richard Edson's straightforward beats and Kim Gordon's near-funk bass riffs.more »
Still, all the pieces that would make up Sonic Youth's best records are in place. On "I Dreamed I Dream," Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore manage to fashion theoretically catchy hooks while "I Don't Want to Push It" climaxes with violent amp static and white noise.
Sonic Youth's self-titled EP may have sketched out the band's artistic vision but their debut full-length is the band's mission statement—and a psychotic, dark, twisted, and often thrilling one, too. It kicks off with "(She's in a) Bad Mood"—five-and-a-half minutes of jarring guitar drone and Thurston Moore convincing himself he won't fall for a lover's insane behavior—and then careens into Kim Gordon's violent rape tale "Shaking Hell" and Moore's call-to-arms "Kill Yr.... Idols," which featured the sort of quotable lyrics that'd be scrawled in the lockers of indie geeks everywhere.more »
For their third album, Sonic Youth moved up to the bigger indie label SST and hired the tighter and more technically proficient drummer Steve Shelly to replace Bob Bert, resulting in the first album to mix relatively catchier verse-chorus-verse structures with artier no-wave noise. Thurston Moore sounds like he's attempting to actually sing on key on the epic "Expressway To Yr. Skull" while "Shadow of a Doubt" gently glistens with pitter-pattering guitar... harmonics and Kim Gordon's whispered coos. Steve Shelly's fierce backbeat on "Starpower," meanwhile, snaps and pops like the greatest 80s pop records, even amid all the alternately-tuned guitar chaos.more »
Not everything clicks and despite their more mainstream rock moves, Sonic Youth's annoyingly arty side remains intact. "In the Kingdom #19," for instance, mashes three minutes of white noise and found loops with Lee Ranaldo's indecipherable pseudo-beat poetry.
Sonic Youth's first two releases earned them acclaim among New York's avant-garde community, but Bad Moon Rising raised the band's profile to a national level. As the title suggests, the band indulges their detached interest in ghosts, Satan, Charles Manson, and other images of horror movies and the occult.more »
But despite the dark undercurrent of the band's lyrics and the chaotic guitars, Sonic Youth's music begins to perk with brighter hooks and a... melodic savvy. "Brave Men Run (In My Family)" revolves around the band's version of an anthem while "Death Valley '69," featuring a cameo from pal Lydia Lunch, features the band first stab at a proper rock hook. There's also genuinely heartfelt lyrics from Thurston Moore, who delivers his own demented version of a love song on the dizzying "I Love Her All the Time."
Right from the gorgeous chiming riffs of opener "Schizophrenia," Sonic Youth clearly favored hooks and tune over noise and static for their fifth album. The band even ratcheted up their ambitions by holing up in the iconic New York studio Sear Sound to cut the disc. To this day, Sister remains one of the band's best overall albums—a perfect synthesis of wild sound collage and pop melody that's as exciting as their... 1988 triumph Daydream Nation.more »
On the deranged "Kotton Krown," husband-and-wife Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon deliver a haunting ballad of devotion and commitment, amid sharp squawks of distortion. "Pacific Coast Highway" is equally striking, fusing clanging riffs with Ranaldo's sweet melodic lines.
There's plenty of off-the-cuff moments that prove Sonic Youth weren't haughty aesthetes. "Hot Wire My Heart" is a goofy cover of Crime's bloozy 1977 punk anthem while "Master-Dik" finds Moore doing his best stab at hip-hop boasting: "One two, one two, one two, titty / I know every nook and cranny in New York City...I'm the royal tough titty and you're gonna taste my love."
It's perhaps the single most important recording to come out of indie rock ever, cracking the code for hundreds of bands to follow, from Nirvana and Pavement to newcomers like Deerhunter and No Age. It also pops up on just about every Best Albums list—including the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry, which inducted the album in 2006, thereby placing them in a musical pantheon alongside Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, Bruce Springsteen,... Michael Jackson, and the Beach Boys.more »
The proof is in the music. "Teenage Riot" is still one of the best songs Sonic Youth ever committed to tape—a seven-minute anthem that defines rock 'n' roll's rebellious spirit like Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" or "Johnny B. Goode."
From that triumphant opening track, Sonic Youth deliver maximal punk and noise-rock fun that never lets up for 70-minutes. "Silver Rocket" careens down the freeway at 100-miles-per-hour, "Candle" rides along a stunning arpeggiated guitar riff, Kim Gordon scratches and bites like a feral monster on "Kissability" and the mind-blowing seven-minute anthem "The Sprawl."
Lee Ranaldo has always been in the shadow of Moore and Gordon-led tunes, but he delivers his finest vocal moments on Daydream with "Eric's Trip" and "Hey Joni," easily two of the best highlights from the record.
The Grunge Years
The critical success of Daydream caught interest of the major labels and, after being aggressively pursued by them, Sonic Youth made the leap to the big leagues for Goo. The band only agreed to sign with Geffen given complete creative control over their music and image—the band even toyed with titling the album Blowjob?—and the resulting record captures the band continuing to fashion wild chaos with tempered rock melodies. Not even the... band felt the move to the majors was a good one. Thurston Moore once called the album, "One of major-labeldom's weirdest moments."more »
Goo doesn't totally hold up as well as Daydream, which might be due to the band's frustrations working with bigger production budget, better studio equipment, and involved A&R guys. Still, the band was cooking up cool experiments on tracks like the Kim Gordon-led "Kool Thing," which featured a guest cameo from Public Enemy's Chuck D. In fact, it's Gordon's songs that rule the roost, particularly her moving tribute to Karen Carpenter on "Tunic (Song for Karen)" and the fierce rocker "Cinderella's Big Score."
When Sonic Youth began work on this 1992 album, Nevermind mania was at its peak and every major label was scrambling to get a piece of the grunge pie. (Blame Warner Bros. for helping Candelbox go four-times-platinum in 1993.) Perhaps determined to match the success of Nirvana's debut—after all, Sonic Youth urged their label Geffen to sign Kurt Cobain and co. —the band hired Nevermind producer Butch Vig to helm the Dirty... sessions.more »
The album is the closest the band came to adhering to any sort of "grunge" archetype, with short, spastic tunes, angsty lyrics, and guitars and drums cranked into the red. "Purr" and the album's lead single "100%" are raging monsters of guitar feedback and crunchy power-chord riffage, although in retrospect, those tunes now come on like self-conscious parodies of "The Seattle Sound" going mainstream. Other tracks show a band flirting with more pop-friendly structures, including the dulcet guitar riffs on "Theresa's Sound World," and the clear-cut verse-chorus-verse structure of the gorgeous "Sugar Kane," Thurston Moore's tribute to actress Marilyn Monroe.
But Dirty also shows a band staying true to their avant-garde roots and, for a big-budget major label record, there are some considerably far-out, radical tunes. On "Shoot," Kim Gordon delivers a gripping tale of a woman who murders an abusive lover — the track climaxes with Gordon erupting into such an apoplectic fit, it sounds like she's barfing into the microphone. And on the punky "Youth Against Fascism," Moore skewers President Bush ("He's a war-pig fuck!") and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas ("I believe Anita Hill!"). It remains one of the most overtly political tunes the band has ever recorded.
Dirty wasn't the commercial breakthrough the band or their label had hoped—the album peaked at Number 89 on the charts—so Sonic Youth shifted gears for Experimental, the first album to feature more minimal songwriting and a handful of atmospheric ballads. With Butch Vig once again behind the boards, Sonic Youth took a tossed-off approach to the sessions, with many tracks completed in only a few takes.more »
Despite their new recording approach, Experimental resulted... in one of their biggest (and unlikely) commercial hits, "Bull in the Heather." That track is a perfect synthesis of angular skronk and power-pop, with Gordon breathlessly singing stream-of-conscious lyrics over Steve Shelley's maraca-powered beat and Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo's tightly wound riffs.
Experimental is somewhat overlooked to this day—among the band itself (they rarely perform these songs live) and their diehards. But the album contains their best experiments in how to craft great art-rock while dialing down the amp noise — or sometimes turning it off altogether. On "Winner's Blues," Thurston Moore delivers a lovely acoustic ballad with reverb-dunked vocals while on "Skink," Kim Gordon gets into a romantic mood, cooing lyrics like "Kiss me on the lips...Ooooh, I love you!" over gently chiming riffs.
The Late, Great Period
Kurt Cobain had put a bullet through his head and grunge was officially dead by the time Sonic Youth released their tenth album in 1995. If there was any hope for these alt-rock lifers, now in their 40s, to have commercial appeal among younger listeners, those hopes now seemed totally shot. Even the band realized this: Lee Ranaldo joked to MTV at the time that Sonic Youth, disgruntled with the major labels'... revenue-oriented, sausage-making-approach to their rosters, had considered changing their name to Washing Machine. "We're cleaning up the scene," he joked.more »
To record the album, Sonic Youth left their hometown of New York for Easley Studios in Memphis. And just like Experimental, Washing Machine has a wonderfully unfussed-over, laid-back vibe. The most noticeable change to Sonic Youth's sound is the absence of bass throughout. Kim Gordon opted to pluck on a guitar instead, resulting in a thinner, more skeletal collection of tunes, especially on tracks like "Becuz" and "Junkie's Promise."
The band started to stretch out their improvisatory tendencies for the first time since Daydream. "Washing Machine" is a two-part epic that morphs from a spastic, minimal punk jam into a sprawling, static-saturated reverie. "Diamond Sea" is even grander in scale: a hooky rock ballad that swells into a thrilling, 20-minute-long exploration in drone and feedback.
Resigned to their status as indie icons instead of global rock stars, Sonic Youth took the boatload of money they made from their headlining slot on Lollapalooza 1995 and built their own recording studio in New York City, where they cut this album with Wharton Tiers, the producer behind the band's earliest releases.more »
A Thousand Leaves is the band's most diverse collection of tunes to date—and perhaps the reason why it's the most... underrated. From the first track onward, this is the sound of the band doing things on their own terms. "Contre Le Sexism" is four gripping minutes of Kim Gordon's haunting spoken word ("Oh Alice...Alice...He's just a kitten!") amid atonal guitar drifts and ominous metallic percussion that sounds like it was recorded in an abbatoir. But then "Sunday" kicks in, with Moore and Ranaldo's guitars beaming through like sun rays and Moore singing a sweet tale of lazy weekend afternoons.
Sonic Youth had long admired the experimental spirit of bands like the Grateful Dead—Ranaldo was a particular admirer—and with Jerry Garcia's death in 1994, the band looked to late-60s psychedelic music for inspiration, which resulted in one of their prettiest and most revelatory songs: "Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)," an 11-minute epic that slowly meanders like an unhurried walk through a forest.
If Sonic Youth have released a dud of an album, it's NYC Ghosts & Flowers. But the band was forgiven for releasing such a strange collection of music: one year before its release, they lost a huge chunk of their unique guitars and basses (each meticulously modified by the band over the last twenty years) when their van was robbed while touring in California.more »
As a result, NYC Ghosts & Flowers feels a... bit slap-dash—and just not on a sonic level. "Small Flowers Crack Concrete" is five tedious minutes of Thurston Moore reciting lame beat poetry over sultry atonal guitars. "The narcs beat the bearded oracles, replacing tantric love with complete violence," he drawls.
Still, there are a few hair-raising cuts, but only the sort of tunes that would appeal to die-hards who think Sonic Youth started to suck with Goo. The skeletal "Nevermind (What Was It Anyway)," for instance, features noodly riffs and atmospheric noise underneath Kim Gordon's awesomely sarcastic take down of a misogynistic music industry: "Boys go to Jupiter, get more stupider/ Girls to Mars, become rock stars!"
With their avant-garde jones out of their system, Sonic Youth returned to crafting proper rock songs on their thirteenth album. And with new member Jim O'Rourke on guitar, the band's sound was bolder and beefier than ever—with an emphasis placed on stretched-out jams.more »
In the aftermath of September 11th, the band's Echo Canyon studio in Lower Manhattan was destroyed, and many of Thurston Moore's deeply felt lyrics reverberate with themes of loss and... tragedy -- but never in a posturing manner like Bruce Springsteen's post-9/11 album The Rising. On the somber "Disconnection Notice," Thurston Moore illustrates his emotional despondency through the loss of Con-Ed service. "Did you get your disconnection notice?" he croons. "Mine came in the mail today / They seem to think I'm disconnected." And while "Rain on Tin" touches on similar themes of dealing with disaster—"Gather friends / Gather fear / Gather again," Moore croons—it's the music that provides the emotional Band-Aid: the gorgeous, intertwined guitars in the coda make up one of the band's best instrumentals ever.