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Sonic Youth: Three Decades of Dissonance

Thirty essential songs by the indie institution

Sonic Youth

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This month marks the 30th anniversary of Sonic Youth's first EP in 1982. Though the band started out as part of the No Wave scene in downtown Manhattan, they evolved into one of the best and most innovative guitar bands of all time. Over the course of a catalog that includes 15 studio albums and a number of side projects, experimental EPs and soundtracks, the group has explored the possibilities of abrasive dissonance, pushed the limits of punk rock and created elaborate tapestries of overlapping melodies. Click through for a guided tour of their discography, with highlights from all of their major works over the past three decades.

By Matthew Perpetua

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‘Bull in the Heather’

The lead single from 1993's Experimental Jet Set Trash and No Star is one of the band's most graceful combinations of pop songwriting and off-kilter experimental noise, with some of the song's best hooks coming out of unorthodox guitar techniques set against a galloping beat.

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‘Starfield Road’

"Starfield Road" is just over two minutes long, but there's a lot going on – wailing drones, a section that sounds like a busted fax machine and a punk rock nursery rhyme that ends with Thurston Moore shouting, "Ahh, ye butt cheeks can't be tamed as I splooey my name in flame!"

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‘The Diamond Sea’

Sonic Youth ended every gig on their headlining Lollapalooza tour with "The Diamond Sea," a 30-minute epic. Even though it ended with over 15 minutes of freeform noise and was unreleased at the time, it was a major crowd-pleaser.

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‘Skip Tracer’

Lee Ranaldo's "Skip Tracer" has become one of the band's most-played songs from the Nineties. The tune zooms forward with increasing momentum before reaching its climax as he greets the future: "Hello 2015!"

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‘Washing Machine’

Sonic Youth were so enamored of "Washing Machine" that they briefly considered changing their name to that, but they settled on using it as the title of their 1995 album. The song, with its jagged rhythms and spacey sections, is one of the group's most ambitious compositions with Kim Gordon on vocals.

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‘The Ineffable Me’

"The Ineffable Me" started off as an 18-minute instrumental jam called "Slaapkamers Met Slagroom" on the SYR2 EP, but it was pared down into a vicious, volatile rocker for the band's underrated 1998 album A Thousand Leaves.

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‘Free City Rhymes’

The band's beatnik-inspired NYC Ghosts and Flowers is their most divisive record, with some fans going so far as to say it's the worst thing they've ever done. That's a bit harsh, particularly when the LP contains a song as pretty and gentle as the opening track, "Free City Rhymes."

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‘The Empty Page’

Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon moved to suburban Massachusetts to raise their daughter Coco in the early 2000s. That change of scenery led to Murray Street, a mellow, pastoral record that was nevertheless recorded in Manhattan before and after the hysteria of 9/11.

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‘I Love You Golden Blue’

Sonic Youth opened every night of their tour in support of Sonic Nurse with "I Love You Golden Blue," a spacey ballad sung by Kim Gordon that echoed their older song "Shadow of a Doubt" while pushing them into uncharted territory with live keyboards.

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‘Jams Run Free’

"Jams Run Free," a moody ballad with a galloping beat recalling "Bull in the Heather," was a highlight of Rather Ripped, the band's most straightforward rock record in years.

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‘Incinerate’

"Incinerate" is prime late-period Sonic Youth – confident, relaxed and effortlessly tuneful. This performance from British television circa 2006 features former Pavement member Mark Ibold on bass.

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‘Calming the Snake’

Depending on whether or not the recently separated Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore can reconcile their differences, 2009's The Eternal could end up being Sonic Youth's final album. If so, they went out on a high note, particularly in harrowing rockers like the Gordon-sung "Calming the Snake."

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