Sonic Youth

   Sonic Youth (Neutral, 1982)
    Confusion Is Sex (Neutral, 1983)
   Kill Yr Idols (Zensor, 1984)
    Bad Moon Rising (Homestead, 1985)
   Death Valley 69 EP (Homestead, 1985)
     Evol (SST, 1986)
      Sister (SST, 1987)
   Master-Dik (SST, 1988)
      Daydream Nation (Enigma/Blast First, 1988)
    Goo (DGC, 1990)
    Dirty (DGC, 1992)
    Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (DGC, 1994)
     Screaming Fields of Sonic Love (DGC, 1995)
     Washing Machine (DGC, 1995)
    SYR 1 (SYR, 1997)
    SYR 2 (SYR, 1997)
    SYR 3 (SYR, 1997)
      A Thousand Leaves (DGC, 1998)
  Silver Session for Jason Knuth (SYR, 1998)
   Goodbye 20th Century (SYR, 1997)
  NYC Ghosts and Flowers (DGC, 2000)
     Murray Street (DGC, 2002)
     Sonic Nurse (DGC, 2004)
     Rather Ripped (DGC, 2006)
    The Destroyed Room: B-sides and Rarities (DGC, 2006)
   SYR 7 (SYR, 2007)
    SYR 8 (SYR, 2008)
     Hits Are For Squares (Starbucks, 2008)
     The Eternal (Matador, 2009)

Sonic Youth's best song is "Kotton Krown," from their 1987 breakthrough album Sister. It starts as an ungodly eruption of New York feedback noise, until the noise starts humming a melody through the amp fuzz, and guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo play along with the melody, over and over. Moore and bassist Kim Gordon sing their mumbled vocals, repeating the line "Angels are dreaming of you" as if it's a lullaby, and the repetitions build until the guitars start to sound like antennas, picking up otherworldly signals and channeling them through the scuzziest urban noise. It's a hypnotic, unforgettable song, wreaking eerie beauty out of the clang. It typifies what Sonic Youth has always been up to, making art rock in the visionary New York tradition, standing tall on the third rail in between Television's "Marquee Moon" and Eric B. & Rakim's "Follow The Leader."

It took them a while to get their sound down. Moore and Ranaldo began as apprentices to noise composer Glenn Branca, and got pigeonholed as Branca clones, causing them much irritation, although maybe it was just a polite way of saying that whatever they were, it wasn't rock. Very Euro, very punk, heavily influenced by the late-Seventies No Wave bands, Sonic Youth tried out their own distinctive guitar tunings, often with drumsticks or screwdrivers jammed into the strings. Many of their guitar tones sounded "wrong" to rock ears on Sonic Youth, Confusion Is Sex, and Kill Yr Idols, but they were definitely on to something new, and by Bad Moon Rising the Youth had learned to emit some serious sonic shock waves. The excellent 1985 single "Flower"/"Halloween" was a turning point, a twelve-inch pairing the two most intense tracks they had recorded up to that point. But Evol, their first album with new drummer Steve Shelley, took the band's unique guitar textures and shaped them into compelling music. The macabre tones of the guitars really ring out in "Shadow of a Doubt," "Secret Girls," and "Star Power"; the violent guitar explosions of "Expressway To Yr Skull" build to a locked-groove finale. The CD version adds the Seventies trash-rock cover "Bubblegum," from the "Star Power" single, a must for Kim Gordon fans.

The next step turned out to be Sister, an album so good that the band's previous glories sounded a little dim by comparison. "Schizophrenia" and "Tuff Gnarl" are corrosively lyrical guitar-noise reveries, while Steve Shelley brings forward motion to the rockers "Stereo Sanctity," "White Cross," and the amazing "Catholic Block." The lyrics veer from Philip K. Dick-style science fiction ("Pipeline/Kill Time") to real-world feminist anger ("Beauty Lies In The Eye"), and the beauty of Sister holds up from the first minute to the last. The best line, even if it's stolen from Philip K. Dick: "I can't get laid 'cause everyone is dead."

Daydream Nation was Sister's double-album companion piece, and it was also the Youth's triumph. Instead of continuing the succinct punch of Sister, the band try something new every track, stretching out for long multidimensional instrumental passages of headphone-friendly guitar exploration that burst into noise ("Silver Rocket") or slow down for mood music ("Total Trash"). Daydream Nation doesn't exactly go down easy — lots of curious people who bought it found that they couldn't take it — but the cleaned-up production only makes the guitars sound weirder and more complex, combining prog-rock structures with punk propulsion (there's even an offbeat somewhere on Side Two, in the second third of "'Cross the Breeze"). The highlights: Moore's wistful rock elegy "Teen Age Riot," Ranaldo's fond psychedelic anthems "Eric's Trip" and "Rain King," Gordon's rock-goddess fantasies "'Cross The Breeze," "Kissability," and "The Sprawl." Hearing Gordon scream "I wanna know! / I wanna know!" over the necromantic groove is a powerful experience.

Having blown the collective mind of the rock underground, the Youth sought new worlds to conquer, and signed with a major label in search of a wider audience. They also decided to devote themselves to something they'd never shown much interest in before — concise, catchy rock songs. Unfortunately, the effort required more expertise and a snappier sense of rhythm than the band could muster. The initial Geffen albums had their moments: "Kool Thing" and "Dirty Boots" on Goo, "Purr" on Dirty, "Bull in the Heather" on Experimental Jet Set. But for better or worse, Sonic Youth are a groove band, not a song band, so it was a relief when they began stretching out again on 1995's Washing Machine. Alongside some truly sad attempts at tunecraft ("No Queen Blues," "Junkie's Promise") there were amazing jams on the title track and the twenty-minute finale, "The Diamond Sea." A Thousand Leaves took this approach further — it was utterly ignored on its release, but it was their spaciest and best since Daydream Nation. Program it 2-4-5-7-8-10 for a six-song, 46-minute-groove album as intense as Sister, topped by the Ranaldo ballads "Hoarfrost" and "Karen Koltrane."

NYC Ghosts and Flowers was a mainly instrumental throwaway, bringing in Jim O'Rourke as a full-fledged fifth member. Murray Street and Sonic Nurse were up there with A Thousand Leaves, with long, engrossing drones like "Rain on Tin," "Sympathy for the Strawberry," "Stones," and "Dripping Dream" summing up the music Sonic Youth could keep making for 20 more years. Minus O'Rourke, and eventually adding Pavement's Mark Ibold on bass, the band went for brazenly emotional punk rock songs on Rather Ripped, with Moore's "Incinerate," Gordon's "Jams Run Free," and the Ranaldo guitar showcase "Pink Steam," while The Eternal peaks with the masterful Kraftwerk-via-Television ballad "Antenna."

Sonic Youth has always strewn odds and ends about for their fans: places to experiment (Goodbye 20th Century), places to unload pure feedback (Silver Session), places to cover "Beat on the Brat" (Master-Dik). Goodbye covers avant-garde compositions by the likes of John Cage and Christian Wolff. The self-released SYR EPs are improvised instrumental jams. All four have done various solo projects; the prize goes to Moore's excellent 1995 Psychic Hearts. As Ciccone Youth, they did a novelty album (The Whitey Album) with Kim Gordon's brilliant karaoke version of "Addicted to Love." Screaming Fields of Sonic Love is an Eighties best-of that does a patch-up job on the early, sketchier records. The celebrity-curated compilation Hits Are For Squares is a solid collection, although newbies should start with Daydream Nation.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004)

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