It's hard to believe Sonic Youth have been broken up for almost a decade. We still miss them, but fortunately, they've been unearthing so many rare and previously unreleased recordings on their Bandcamp lately, and the four core members have remained highly prolific in the years since SY called it a day. In the past year alone, Kim Gordon released her debut solo album, Lee Ranaldo put out a new album (with Raül Refree) and other material, Thurston Moore has a new album coming and recently put out other material too, and Steve Shelley has drummed on a lot of new stuff recently, including the upcoming Thurston Moore album.
If you're a longtime Sonic Youth fan, they need no introduction. But if you're new to the band, diving into their discography can be intimidating. They put out 16 studio albums over the course of 27 years (counting their self-titled debut, which sometimes is considered an EP) -- all of it varying from good to some of the greatest rock music ever recorded -- and that's not counting their many live albums, bootlegs, collaborations, "side" projects/releases (like Ciccone Youth), their experimental SYR series, and other odds and ends that came out over the years. It's a lot to dig into, and most of it is well worth your time. New York Times critic Robert Palmer famously said Sonic Youth were "making the most startlingly original guitar-based music since Jimi Hendrix" in a 1986 review, and not only has that claim stood the test of time (even if the '60s guitar band that SY most directly took after was The Velvet Underground), it's hard to think of anyone who beat Sonic Youth at their own game since. Sonic Youth seemed to exist directly in response to all the guitar-based music that came before them. They learned from it as much as they argued with it, borrowed from it as much as they destroyed it, and hated it as much as they loved it. They existed side by side with punk, post-punk, hardcore, no wave, noise, alternative rock, grunge, indie rock, art rock, post-rock, psychedelic rock, the avant-garde, and various other underground rock subgenres, but they never really fit in with any of them. They also drove the communities surrounding many of those genres to become what they are today. It wasn't just Sonic Youth's music that was influential; it was also the values they held as artists, their roles as tastemakers (it was Thurston Moore who suggested to Geffen Records that they sign Nirvana), and the way they carried themselves as a band that irreversibly influenced underground music as we know it. It's impossible to imagine what indie and alternative rock would look and sound and feel like without the impact of Sonic Youth.
Once you get sucked into their world, it's worth listening to everything they put out, but if you're trying to get into them and wondering where to start, we put together a guide to all of their studio albums. This includes the self-titled 1982 debut (as mentioned above, there's debate about whether this is an EP or a full-length, but we're counting it), and it includes 1983's Confusion Is Sex + the Kill Yr Idols EP as one item, as it has been since the 1995 CD release. The live albums, the SYR releases, and the other odds and ends are worth scoping out too -- and maybe one day we'll talk more in-depth about those -- but even the studio albums alone can take a lifetime to fully explore and digest. No matter how many times you listen to them, you hear something new.
The list is presented in chronological order and unranked, because I don't really think ranking the albums is very helpful in the case of Sonic Youth. All of their albums bring something unique to the table, and they're a band where the #1 pick changes based on what mood you're looking for in a given moment. The consensus pick for #1 is always 1988's Daydream Nation, and Daydream Nation is every bit as good as everyone says it is -- a perfect 10 if those exist -- but I don't necessarily think it's helpful to say Daydream Nation somehow beats out everything else Sonic Youth ever released. Its 1990 followup Goo is more accessible and arguably a better entry point for new listeners; its 1987 predecessor Sister is a little rougher around the edges, but otherwise, that one's arguably more approachable as well. Daydream Nation is a studio triumph, but 1985's Bad Moon Rising is a better representation of Sonic Youth's mesmerizing live show. And even favoring the '80s / '90s era leaves out the creative hot streak that Sonic Youth were on from 2002's Murray Street through their final album, 2009's The Eternal. No one song or album or era can tell the full story of Sonic Youth. It's all necessary for different reasons, and with this list, I'll attempt to discuss what makes each studio LP so uniquely special.
Sonic Youth (1982)
Sonic Youth eventually landed on a distinct, groundbreaking sound that ended up typifying most of their music, but they didn't find that sound immediately. Their self-titled 1982 debut -- released on Neutral Records, which was founded by Glenn Branca (whose ensemble included Thurston and Lee early on) -- is the only Sonic Youth album to be largely in standard tuning, the only one with Richard Edson (also of Konk) on drums, and the Sonic Youth album that's most directly rooted in the NYC no wave and funk-punk records that inspired Sonic Youth early on. It's like nothing else in the band's discography, but it's essential to understanding where this band came from and how they got to where they ended up. It's also a great record in its own right and you can hear the seeds being sewn for the path Sonic Youth would eventually take. It's more simplistic, more minimal, and more rhythmically funk-inspired than any of the music Sonic Youth would release after it, but certain trademarks of the band's sound -- atonal guitar riffs, droning jams, and the near-monotonous singing styles of Thurston, Kim, and Lee -- were already in the developmental stages on these songs. Despite it being the band's starting point, it's not the best starting point for new listeners. But once you've heard their masterworks, there is a lot to be gained from diving into their comparatively humble debut.
Confusion Is Sex + Kill Yr Idols (1983)
Packaged on this list as they have been since the 1995 CD release are Confusion Is Sex and the Kill Yr Idols EP, two releases that found Sonic Youth going in a darker, louder, noisier, more spacious direction than their debut and landing on a primitive version of the sound that would lead to their most classic albums. Confusion Is Sex was made mostly with drummer Jim Sclavunos (previously of Lydia Lunch and James Chance's no wave band Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, and of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds from 1994 to present day), while part of the album and the Kill Yr Idols EP was made with drummer Bob Bert (later of Chrome Cranks and Pussy Galore), who was in and out of Sonic Youth at the time. The no wave roots that informed the debut can be heard on this album too, but Sonic Youth let you know that Confusion Is Sex is a different beast right off the bat. Album opener "(She's In A) Bad Mood," one of the most intense songs of the band's early days, finds Thurston nearing a scream over brooding, jammed-out goth/noise. Elsewhere on the album, there's a noise-drenched, ear-piercing cover of The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog"; there's the pounding, shouted, Kim Gordon-led "Shaking Hell" and the punk-ish drive of the Thurston-sung "The World Looks Red," both of which were revisited as live staples in the band's later years; there's the Velvet Underground-worshipping "Confusion Is Next"; and there's the pummeling blend of discordant riffage and Kim Gordon shoutage that drives Kill Yr Idols highlight "Brother James." This is the album (and EP) where Sonic Youth become Sonic Youth, and it's got no lack of classic songs. Still, the best was yet to come.
Bad Moon Rising (1985)
Confusion Is Sex/Kill Yr Idols found Sonic Youth shaping their now-trademark sound, but it still couldn't fully capture the hypnotic power of their live show, which made use of Glenn Branca-style prepared guitars and eccentric tunings and which were heavily improvisational, often with no breaks between songs. With Bad Moon Rising -- made with Bob Bert on drums, co-produced by Martin Bisi, and released on Homestead Records which was run by future Matador co-owner Gerard Cosloy -- Sonic Youth finally had an album that replicated their shows. To this day, it remains the studio album that's most similar to seeing Sonic Youth live. Each of the album's two halves (sides A and B on the vinyl release) are presented with no breaks at all between songs, and sometimes the transitions between songs are so seamless that, no matter how many times you listen, you never see the next song coming. Once it hits you that they moved onto the next piece, the effect is jarringly psychedelic.
Bad Moon Rising really sucks you in and trips you out, but it's not all about creating a vibe. It's got the songs too. "I Love Her All the Time" offsets its eight minutes of drone with a tangible melody that you can really sing along to, while "Brave Men Run (In My Family)" nails the balance between sprawling experimentation and concise songwriting as well as any of the alternative "hits" the band would put out in the late '80s and early '90s. Essential bonus track "Flower" (originally released on a 12" single with "Satan Is Boring") finds Kim Gordon at her shoutiest and most vicious, and the result is one of Sonic Youth's earliest feminist punk anthems ("Support the power of women, use the power of man / Support the flower of women, use the word... FUCK!"). The best song on Bad Moon Rising, though, is "Death Valley '69," the total rager that closes the album and finds Thurston sharing lead vocals with Lydia Lunch (whose current band Retrovirus is with Bob Bert). The song pairs a shouted, fist-raising hook with guitars as exploratory as anything else on this highly experimental album, and the in-your-face lyrics -- about the Charles Manson murders -- convey genuine terror.
Sonic Youth may have lived in the New York City art scene but they were obsessed with the energy of hardcore, and after splitting with drummer Bob Bert for good, they found themselves a new drummer who could bring that energy to Sonic Youth: Steve Shelley, formerly of the Alternative Tentacles-signed hardcore band The Crucifucks. They also sought out a deal with a hardcore label, SST, which was founded by Black Flag's Greg Ginn and had already released albums by Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Husker Du, and others by that point. As immortalized in Michael Azzerad's Our Band Could Be Your Life, Ginn and his SST partners Chuck Dukowski and Mugger were interested in Sonic Youth but the label's Joe Carducci was not -- "Record collectors shouldn't be in bands," he apparently said. As the story goes, Carducci ended up leaving the label shortly after, and "legend has it that it was minutes after he left" that Ginn called Sonic Youth and offered them a deal. Their SST debut and first album with Steve Shelley was Evol. And if Bad Moon Rising hinted at Sonic Youth's ability to fuse concise songwriting with sprawling experimentation, Evol solidified it.
Evol found Sonic Youth teaming once again with Bad Moon Rising co-producer Martin Bisi, only this time they made an album with noticeably higher production quality, and the cleaner sound helped Sonic Youth's sound soar. It's still noisy and discordant, but Sonic Youth figured out how to shape that noise and discordance into structure and melody and accessibility. On "Shadow Of A Doubt," Kim perfects the whisper-singing that she'd bring to some of the band's best-known songs later on. The goth rock-adjacent opener "Tom Violence" and the driving, post-punk-ish "Green Light" find Thurston singing in a way that's actually kind of pretty-sounding, and "Starpower" does the same for Kim. But before you accuse Sonic Youth of going soft, "Starpower" evolves into the kind of blaring noise jam that would become Sonic Youth's calling card. With Steve Shelley behind the kit, they found the hard hitter they needed to take these jams to the next level. By Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth would be fusing alternative rock anthems and eardrum-assaulting improvisation in a way that seemed almost effortless, and you can trace that approach right back to a song like "Starpower."
"Death To Our Friends" is the album's heaviest moment and a true testament to the newfound power that Steve Shelley brought to the band, while eerie songs like "In The Kingdom #19" and "Secret Girls" proved Sonic Youth weren't gonna let their more structured songwriting material get in the way of including a few totally avant-garde pieces. Evol's highest peak, though, is closing track "Expressway to Yr. Skull." Famously known as Neil Young's favorite Sonic Youth song, "Expressway" took the formula of "Starpower" and blew it out of the water, turning what starts out as an unfussy rock song into seven minutes of assailing noise and dissonant drone. It's a mini-masterpiece of its own, and the perfect way to close out this masterpiece of an album.
As perfect as the 70-minute double album Daydream Nation is, sometimes you want it faster and rawer, and for that, there is Sister. It's smaller in scope and a little thinner sounding than its hugely beloved followup, but in its own way, it's just as good. Steve Shelley's chemistry with the three original members is even greater on this album than on Evol, and he plays even faster on this album. More than any other, Sister (also released on SST) is Sonic Youth's "punk" album. "Catholic Block," "Stereo Sanctity," and the cover of San Francisco punk band Crime's 1976 single "Hot Wire My Heart" are among the most rippin' Sonic Youth songs ever recorded, and even the slower songs on Sister channel that same restless energy. It's there in Kim Gordon's whispered, mostly drum-less "Beauty Lies in the Eye" as much as it's there in the songs where Steve Shelley is playing his heart out.
On Evol, you can hear Sonic Youth figuring out ways to combine clanging noise and anthemic songs, but on Sister, that combination just pours out of them in a way that sounds like it's second nature. Opener "Schizophrenia" is a straight-up indie rock song until all of a sudden it's a dissonant jam. It doesn't build to it; it just happens, and it sounds incredibly natural. "Catholic Block" is all white-hot intensity until everything drops out except static-y noise, and then before you know it it's a song again. "Tuff Gnarl" and "Pacific Coast Highway" pull off similar feats. Sister is quintessential noise rock, where both "noise" and "rock" are present in equal measure. It's the sound of an already-jawdropping band hitting their stride like never before.
Sister takes other leaps for Sonic Youth too. Lee Ranaldo -- the George Harrison of the group -- had sung lead on Evol's "In the Kingdom #19" and split vocals with Kim on "I Dreamed I Dream" on the debut, but with Sister's "Pipeline/Kill Time," he officially proves himself as a lead vocalist that rivals Thurston and Kim, and brings a new side to Sonic Youth's sound. Lee's background in psychedelic rock informs his sneering, hypnotic delivery, and "Pipeline/Kill Time" is the first of many show-stealing lead vocal turns that Lee would bring to this band. And then there's "Kotton Krown," a rare example of Thurston and Kim harmonizing for the entirety of a song. It finds Sonic Youth nearly in dream pop territory, and it comes so naturally to them that it's a shame they didn't do it more often.
Daydream Nation (1988)
Sister found Sonic Youth at the height of their powers, so they did what a lot of rock bands at the height of their powers do: made a double album. They left SST after Sister and signed to the major label-affiliated Enigma, and presumably that meant a bigger budget, which was reflected in Daydream Nation being the band's most hi-fi album to date. Daydream Nation is deserving of "magnum opus" status because it really brought together everything Sonic Youth had done up until that point and then some. Other great Sonic Youth albums followed over the years, but none approached the sheer volume of Daydream Nation. This album did it all. It had Sister's punk rock intensity ("Silver Rocket"), Bad Moon Rising's improvisational song cycles ("Trilogy"), Lee Ranaldo's psychedelia ("Eric's Trip), "Expressway To Yr. Skull" style jams (lots of songs), and beyond. More often than not, individual songs would show off two or three or more sides of Sonic Youth at once. "Hey Joni" (a reference to both "Hey Joe" and Joni Mitchell) had that Lee Ranaldo psych-rock sneer but it was also loud and in-your-face and punk. "'Cross the Breeze" found Sonic Youth at their most whiplash-inducing and hardcore-inspired, but it's also a seven-minute mini-masterpiece that dips its toes into jam, post-rock, and more. "Teen Age Riot" both lyrically and sonically predicted the '90s alternative rock boom, but it's also a lengthy seven-minute song with an ethereal intro and its fair share of instrumental freakouts.
Sonic Youth took everything to the extreme on Daydream Nation. The pop parts were poppier than ever before, the pretty parts prettier, the fast parts faster, the noise parts noisier. And it never falls into the double album trap of feeling bloated or having filler (even the musique concrète track "Providence" earns its place without feeling self-indulgent). Every song on Daydream Nation achieves perfection in its own way. It's an album where, if you keep listening to it, each song on it will probably be your favorite at one point or another. There's the "big" ones like "Teen Age Riot" and "Silver Rocket" and "Candle" and "Eric's Trip" that have no trouble earning their statuses as underground rock classics, but then there's deeper cuts like "Kissability" that marries some of Kim's most addictive vocal hooks to Steve's most furious drumming to Thurston and Lee's most clamoring guitars, or "The Wonder" from the album’s three-part closer "Trilogy" where Thurston buries some of his catchiest songwriting beneath some of the band's most frantic energy.
Daydream Nation came during what was a landmark year for influential indie and alternative rock albums (Pixies' Surfer Rosa, Dinosaur Jr's Bug, My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything, Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden, to name four others), so it wasn't alone in creating a sea change within the genre, but it led the charge. Without it, future classics like Nevermind and OK Computer may not exist as we know them. It was a complete fusion of the aggression of punk, the braininess of the avant-garde scene, and the revolutionary songwriting of the then-burgeoning alternative rock movement. Daydream Nation forever altered the course of music on both a mainstream and an underground level, and yet, it is still just the tip of the iceberg of what Sonic Youth achieved throughout their consistently rewarding career.
Daydream Nation is the band's magnum opus, but it's not necessarily the best starting point for new Sonic Youth fans. You might wanna warm yourself up to the band with Sister or Evol first -- as Sonic Youth fans did in real time in the 1980s -- or you might wanna hear the album that introduced much of the mainstream world to Sonic Youth, Goo. Following Daydream Nation's success, Sonic Youth inked a deal with a proper major label, Geffen Records, and the band's major label debut was Goo. It apparently ended up costing five times as much money to make as Daydream Nation did, and they ended up finishing the album with veteran producer Ron Saint Germain (Bad Brains, Kraftwerk, etc), so it's no surprise that Goo is much more polished and accessible than Daydream Nation, but all things considered, Goo is still a noisy, abrasive, experimental record. It sort of bottles up the ingredients of Daydream Nation and spits them back in a more compact, more easily digestible way, but it's those same ingredients nonetheless.
The opening, Thurston Moore-sung track "Dirty Boots" is a rager, as good as anything the band put out in the late '80s. It fits in a little more with the soon-to-explode grunge movement -- which Sonic Youth themselves had influenced -- than with the band's avant-garde side, but it still finds time for the intricate guitar patterns and explosive noise buildups that the band were known for in the previous decade. "Dirty Boots" is a "Teen Age Riot" kind of anthem, but Goo's big crossover single was "Kool Thing," one of Kim Gordon's best songs to date. Over a backdrop that nearly qualifies as danceable, Kim dishes out sneeringly sarcastic references to an interview she had conducted with LL Cool J for SPIN in 1989, and comes out with one of the best feminist alt-rock anthems of the '90s in the process. "I just wanna know, what are you gonna do for me?" she mockingly asks in the spoken word bridge (with Public Enemy's Chuck D, who shared producer/engineer Nick Sansano with Sonic Youth, playing the role of LL). "I mean, are you gonna liberate us girls/From male, white, corporate oppression?"
"Kool Thing" was one of two career-best songs Kim contributed to Goo, the other being "Tunic (Song for Karen)." Kim's delivery is nearly in spoken word territory yet the song manages to be stunningly melodic, and Kim's lyrics -- inspired by Karen Carpenter dying of anorexia, and full of pop culture references -- are some of the most memorable of her career. "Kool Thing and "Tunic (Song for Karen)" are Kim's biggest standouts on the album, but she also offers up the fun little nugget "My Friend Goo" and the driving noise-punk anthem "Cinderella's Big Score," one of the album's sleeper deep cuts.
Elsewhere on the album, Lee gives his one lead vocal contribution on the seven-and-a-half minute "Mote," which finds him evolving from the sneering delivery of his Sister and Daydream Nation songs and developing a sweeter, more melodic singing style that continues to suit him well to this day. Thurston offers up the punky "Mary-Christ" which wouldn't have felt out of place on Sister, the darker, more psychedelic "Disappearer" which wouldn't have felt out of place on Daydream Nation, and the harshly screamed racket at the end of "Mildred Pierce." That song, along with the feedback track "Scooter + Jinx," proved Sonic Youth weren't about to clean everything up for the majors.
In hindsight, Goo was a turning point album for Sonic Youth. Because it came at the beginning of a new decade and marked the beginning of their major label era, it comes off like the start of a new chapter. But if you take the songs for what they are and ignore all that other stuff, it sounds more like the end of the chapter that Sonic Youth started writing with Confusion Is Sex. Goo is the sound of '80s-era Sonic Youth at its most streamlined, and it rivals the groundbreaking albums that Sonic Youth released in that decade. It's where Sonic Youth would go from here that would start to mark a new era for the band.
Sonic Youth's classic '80s material helped influence the alternative rock movement and Goo helped inch that movement towards the mainstream, but it wasn't until Nirvana's Nevermind hit in 1991 -- the year sarcastically referred to as "the year that punk broke" in the documentary about Sonic Youth's Europe tour that Nirvana opened -- that the movement exploded. And once it did, Sonic Youth were right there with Dirty, the most "grunge"-friendly album Sonic Youth had released yet. It was produced by Butch Vig and mixed by Andy Wallace, both of whom worked on Nevermind, and Butch has said, "I wanted it to sound like Sonic Youth but I wanted to get it a little bit more focused... I was trying to make some of the songs a bit more concise, but I didn’t want to try to make them write three-minute pop songs."
That compromise is heard all over Dirty. It's not a sell-out record -- it's still weird and noisy and abrasive, especially by major-label standards -- but the songs are indeed more concise. The noisy freakouts are toned down and the hooks are more radio-friendly than they'd been previously in Sonic Youth's career, especially on singles "Drunken Butterfly," "Sugar Kane," and "100%," the latter of which is the closest Sonic Youth ever came to grunge. Maybe it was a savvy move to win over the newly-huge fanbase of a genre that they themselves helped create, but that kind of cynicism does an injustice to how fantastic these songs are in their own right. All three of them rank among the best songs in Sonic Youth's career; it isn't a bad thing that they're so accessible, it's impressive that Sonic Youth could write these radio-friendly songs without losing the distinct identity that separated them from every other alternative rock band.
Some of Dirty's non-singles had radio potential too -- the relaxed indie rock of "Chapel Hill" and the revved-up, Stoogey "Purr" (both sung by Thurston) are just as accessible as the album's bigger songs -- but Dirty also had more to it than radio-friendliness. Songs like "Theresa's Sound-World" and "Orange Rolls, Angel's Spit" snuck in more bursts of improvisational noise than the "radio-friendly" narrative would have you believe, and Dirty was more directly in tune with Sonic Youth's punk roots than the band had been since Sister. "Swimsuit Issue" and "Youth Against Fascism" (which features Ian MacKaye on guitar, and which was also released as a single) are among Sonic Youth's most powerful political punk songs, and it's almost a little scary (and sad) how much they still resonate today. "Swimsuit Issue" sounds like a #MeToo anthem, and "Youth Against Fascism" -- with its cries of "the president sucks" (they meant George Bush Sr.) and "I believe Anita Hill," and references to modern-day KKK and nazis -- critiques the entire system that we're taking to the streets to protest nearly 30 years later. Sonic Youth also tipped their hats to the hardcore scene they loved not just by inviting Ian MacKaye to play on the record, but also by doing a faithful cover of Ian's brother Alec's band Untouchables' "Nic Fit" from Dischord's classic Flex Your Head compilation. If you picked up Dirty because you heard "100%" on the radio, you'd end up feasting your ears on real-deal punk rock, and that's just one of many reasons that Dirty remains so badass.
Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994)
Dirty positioned Sonic Youth as adjacent to the grunge movement that they helped inspire, but they didn't want to stay there. Grunge was even bigger in '94 than it was in '92, and as Sonic Youth's own website says, the band became more interested in touring with more subdued indie rock bands such as Royal Trux, Sebadoh, and Pavement (whose bassist Mark Ibold also joined Kim's side project Free Kitten around this time, and eventually joined Sonic Youth in 2006 - more on that later), and that was reflected in the sound of Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. There were some "return to their roots" elements of Jet Set, like that they recorded it over the same analog tape used for Sister (legend has it that you can hear Sister in the background of Jet Set if you listen close enough) and that they sang about SST on "Screaming Skull," but Jet Set doesn't feel like a rehash of SY's '80s era so much as it feels like something they hadn't done before. It's lo-fi like their early albums were, but Sonic Youth had never sounded this calm. Even "Bull In The Heather," which was one of the band's bigger hits (and had a video that starred Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna), is atmospheric and meditative and a far cry from the alt-rock singles from Dirty and even Goo. And Dirty may have been the album where Sonic Youth and Butch Vig (who also produced Jet Set) made a conscious effort to trim the noise freakouts, but Jet Set is almost entirely void of them. It can come off like a more simple album, but it's revolutionary in its own way. When you expect loudness and abrasiveness, this small, quiet, buzzing lo-fi record becomes more jarring and challenging than Goo Part 2 would've been. Jet Set further established Sonic Youth as flag-flyers for the indie rock scene, which would pay off when indie proved to have greater artistic integrity and more longevity than the alternative rock scene, which turned into like, Puddle of Mudd. But again, savviness aside, Jet Set is just a great record, and it's not really like anything else in Sonic Youth's discography.
Washing Machine (1995)
Sonic Youth never made an album like Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star again, but that album helped open the doors for Sonic Youth to move away from grunge adjacency into more tranquil, atmospheric territory, and that move very much informed the band's next album, Washing Machine. Washing Machine was also perhaps informed by Thurston and Kim getting their more traditionally structured songs out of their systems earlier that same year (with Thurston's debut solo album Psychic Hearts and Kim's band Free Kitten's first proper full-length, Nice Ass), because Washing Machine was the most experimental album Sonic Youth had released since the '80s... maybe even the most experimental since Bad Moon Rising.
It's an overall slower album than any Sonic Youth album that had come before it, and the noise freakouts came back in a big way. Washing Machine is atmospheric like Jet Set, but it's not calm like that album. It works the dissonance and discordance and improvisational energy of the band's '80s material into the anti-alternative rock direction of Jet Set, and that combination made for one of Sonic Youth's most enduring albums. In a way, Washing Machine shared some DNA with the post-rock genre that was gaining steam around the same time (a movement Sonic Youth almost definitely influenced). Like post-rock, Washing Machine is more about movements and gradual build-ups than verse-chorus song structure. It's also, especially on a song like "Little Trouble Girl," pretty psychedelic. That said, Sonic Youth snuck plenty of "pop" moments onto this album too. For all its experimentation, it's got plenty of good hooks.
At 68 minutes, it's nearly as long as Daydream Nation, and it earns its running time with songs that slowly dig their way into your brain and stay there. That's never clearer than on closing track "The Diamond Sea." It's 19 and a half minutes -- many of which are made from feedback and white noise -- and every second counts. It just envelops you.
A Thousand Leaves (1998)
A Thousand Leaves came three years after Washing Machine -- the band's longest gap between albums at that point -- but still, it feels like the other side to that album's coin. Or at least it feels like a natural progression. Even more so than Washing Machine, A Thousand Leaves found Sonic Youth diving into long, atmospheric, experimental pieces and coming out with some of the most psychedelic and post-rock-ish music they'd released yet. They opened their own studio (Echo Canyon) before the making of this one, and not having to pay for studio time allowed the band to really stretch out their songs and record pieces that were more improvisational than ever, and they also made this album in conjunction with the first few releases for their highly experimental SYR project, so perhaps some of the ideas from that project seeped into this album too.
Compared to Washing Machine, A Thousand Leaves went a little lighter on the discordant noise, but it went much deeper into the psychedelia. This comes across most on the 11-minute "Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)," which imagines what it might've sounded like if Sonic Youth were actually making music in 1967, but that's far from the only song on A Thousand Leaves that turns on, tunes in, and drops out. Most of the album possesses a trippy side more so than any Sonic Youth album before or since. When you want psychedelic Sonic Youth, you want A Thousand Leaves. Still, as they did on Washing Machine, Sonic Youth brought pop smarts to A Thousand Leaves too. Its single "Sunday" (which actually dated back to the 1996 soundtrack for Richard Linklater's SubUrbia, where it appeared in a slightly different form) is one of the catchiest Sonic Youth songs of the '90s, "French Tickler" sort of returns to their grunge-friendly era, and they work accessible melodies into the more "challenging" songs as well. A Thousand Leaves overall sounds much different than what Sonic Youth were doing in the classic '80s era, but the approach is similar to the one they perfected on Bad Moon Rising: taking seemingly-indigestible music and not just making it digestible, but irresistible.
NYC Ghosts & Flowers (2000)
We now arrive at the album that famously got a 0.0 on Pitchfork upon its release (making Sonic Youth the only artist to ever get both a 0 and a 10 on Pitchfork). And like, okay, maybe it's a little self-indulgent, but you'd've thought from the score that it was a total disaster and it really wasn't. As the story goes, an extensive amount of Sonic Youth's gear was stolen shortly before writing the album, and the dread they must have felt from that seems to have informed the tone of this album, which is the most minimal and experimental of all their proper studio albums. It's their first album since Bad Moon Rising to use prepared guitar, it's clearly inspired by beat poetry and free-jazz, and it's also the band's first album with multi-instrumentalist/co-producer Jim O'Rourke, who would remain in Sonic Youth through 2005. It's not as listenable or accessible as Washing Machine or A Thousand Leaves, but given the increasingly experimental approach that those albums took, it also didn't entirely come out of nowhere. And really, it still sounds like a Sonic Youth album. It still has its totally intense moments that scratch the itch that no other band can scratch.
Murray St. (2002)
After NYC Ghosts & Flowers took Sonic Youth to their most experimental extreme, the band took a turn and evolved into a cleaner, more focused band than they'd been in a while or perhaps ever. Murray St. (named after the street the band's Echo Canyon studio was located on) was hailed as a "return to form" by many upon its release, and like Sonic Youth's most classic albums, it offers a complete fusion of structured, accessible songwriting and noisy crescendos, but it wasn't really a return to anything. Murray St. has familiar elements but it felt entirely new for Sonic Youth. It was their cleanest sounding album thus far but not in a way that flirted with the mainstream. It has hints of the calmer indie rock direction the band went in on Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, but it's not lo-fi and fat-trimmed like that album - it’s full of long songs that reach the nine and 11 minute marks. It's as if the expansiveness of Daydream Nation, the accessibility of Goo, and the indie style of Jet Set all merged, but even that description doesn't do justice to how much of a step forward this album was for Sonic Youth. It positioned them as wise elder statesmen within the NYC indie rock scene that was starting to explode on an international level (at a time when rising bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs were citing bands like Sonic Youth and Swans as major influences), and it sounded as fresh and relevant as those younger bands but it also could only have been the work of Sonic Youth. It was informed by everything they'd done before, and sounded like nothing they'd done yet.
Murray St. starts with two of the finest Thurston-sung songs of latter-day Sonic Youth, "The Empty Page" and "Disconnection Notice," both of which really show the maturation that this album represented and rank among Sonic Youth's most listenable songs. But as Murray St. goes on, it starts to gradually show off its more freakish side, with three of the band's finest immersive, noisy, jammy songs ("Rain On Tin," "Karen Revisited," "Sympathy for the Strawberry"). Even with three of those on one album, Murray St. feels compact. It was perhaps the most concise, filler-less album the band had released since Goo, it set the tone for what would end up being the rest of Sonic Youth's career, and it remains one of their very best albums.
Sonic Nurse (2004)
After Murray St. paved the road for the new era of Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse hit the ground running. Right off the bat, you get "Pattern Recognition," which -- in contrast to the overall calmer Murray St. -- is a real barn-burner. It's also the best Kim Gordon-sung rock ripper since... Dirty? And it's the first of many late-career highlights that Kim would contribute. She took a bit of a back of a backseat on Murray St., but on the band's final three albums, a good handful of the most immediate songs were sung by Kim.
"Pattern Recognition" is the most immediate song on Sonic Nurse, but the album has plenty of other high points, and its kinetic energy continues throughout. The Kim Gordon-sung "Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream" is the album's grungiest rager, and songs like "Dripping Dream," "Stones," and "New Hampshire" find Sonic Youth in deceptively chill territory with a driving backbone. The band's mid to late '90s albums and parts of Murray St. ebbed and flowed like a low tide, but Sonic Nurse is like a running river. And compared to the more atmospheric guitar work on Murray St., Sonic Nurse is largely made up of interlocking, sinuous riffs that took "Teen Age Riot" style guitar workouts and the band's increasingly explicit love of psychedelic rock and distilled them into something aerodynamic and forceful. They still made plenty of noise on Sonic Nurse, but their ability to reshape classic guitar heroism into their own weird mold is a big part of this album's appeal, and that would continue on the next two albums too.
Rather Ripped (2006)
In fact, it would continue just seconds into Rather Ripped opener "Reena," which was the band's second consecutive A+ Kim Gordon-sung album opener, and which is fueled by a guitar workout that sounds like Sonic Youth's own weird version of "Gimme Shelter." (Apparently, the song's alternate title was "Stonesy.") The one-two punch of "Reena" and "Incinerate" gets this record off to even more of a running start than Sonic Nurse, and though they chill out for the hypnotic, atmospheric "Do You Believe In Rapture?", Rather Ripped ultimately picks back up with a string of great upbeat, driving songs. Even more so than Sonic Nurse, this is a real "rock" record. Less noise, more riffs and hooks, but still more defiantly anti-mainstream for its time than Dirty was in 1992. It's also the band's first album with producer John Agnello, a longtime engineer/mixer for Sonic Youth's old pals Dinosaur Jr, and Agnello would go on to produce Sonic Youth's next (and final) album and some of Thurston and Lee's solo stuff too. He proved to be a great match for the band's late-career material, and it all started with Rather Ripped.
When you've achieved as much as Sonic Youth had by 2006, you very much earn the right to write an album like Rather Ripped -- which is one of their most overall accessible albums and a little easier on the ears than their classics -- but Rather Ripped doesn't sound like Sonic Youth are catering to anyone. If anything, it's just more proof of how versatile this band is. They've made the art rock epics, the avant-garde excursions, the punk ragers. On Rather Ripped, they offered up further proof of how good they are at writing concise pop songs without sacrificing their uniqueness.
The Eternal (2009)
How fitting that the final album by a band who've been broken up for almost a decade but will never die is called The Eternal. They didn't know it'd be their last album -- Thurston and Kim ended their 27-year marriage in 2011 and that in turn ended the band, and there had even been talk of new music before the band's breakup was set in stone -- and it's refreshing that Sonic Youth ended organically, not with some big orchestrated farewell. And The Eternal didn't sound like a band who had run out of steam; it sounded fresh and energized. It was their first album on an independent label since the '80s (Matador Records, which reunited them with Gerard Cosloy, who released Bad Moon Rising on Homestead Records way back in 1985) and also their first with Pavement's Mark Ibold on bass, which allowed Kim to switch over to third guitar. Like the last two albums, this one starts with a career-high Kim Gordon song, and that song -- "Sacred Trickster," home to the sarcastically sneered line "What's it like to be a girl in a band? I don't quite understand!" that gave Kim's memoir its title -- was Sonic Youth's most straight-up punk song since the early '90s. This album picked up where the accessible "rock" songwriting of Rather Ripped left off and injected it with a jolt of rage that recalled the heaviest moments of the Sister through Dirty era. The mix of the late-career guitar heroism and the earlier-career punk energy is thrilling, and it resulted in timeless riffy ragers like "Anti-Orgasm" and "What We Know" that rival plenty of the band's more widely-adored classics.
The Eternal also found room for the satisfying '80s revival of "Malibu Gas Station," some Lee Ranaldo '60s psychedelia worship on "Walkin Blue," and one last immersive, hypnotic build-up: the nearly-ten-minute album closer "Massage the History." The Eternal scratches a lot of itches, and now that it's over a decade old, a lot of these songs are starting to feel as classic as the band's '80s and '90s material has felt for a while.
With the hindsight we now have, it becomes even clearer just how rock-solid Sonic Youth's career has always been. From their primitive but promising beginnings to one last refreshingly energetic album, they kept progressing and finding new ways to toy with their music, while always sounding aggressively original. There really aren't many rock bands who sounded as unique and as inspired for as long as they did, and it's frankly incredible how well everything they've done goes together. At what ended up being their final hometown show (which is now a live album on Bandcamp), they broke out Bad Moon Rising songs for the first time in decades and played them alongside The Eternal songs, and the whole set sounded as cohesive as could be. It was one last reminder that Sonic Youth weren't just a band; they were a universe.