Discographically Speaking: Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth, esteemed godfathers of alternative rock, are in town for two sold-out shows at the 9:30 club tonight and tomorrow. It's been a while since there's been a Discographically Speaking on here, and what better band to restart the series than the definitive guitar rock band of the past few decades?
I didn't want this to be a solo venture. As you'll find out later on, I haven't always been the biggest Sonic Youth fan. So I convened a panel of six -- myself, "No Wave" author Marc Masters, our old buddy Chris Richards, City Paper writer Aaron Leitko, High Two label owner Daniel Piotrowski, and this dude Andy that I know who really likes Sonic Youth. Each person got 30 points to assign to at least five different Sonic Youth albums, in any way they wanted, and the results are below.
What was my main finding? If you convene a panel with a bunch of dudes who were born around 1980, the 1995 album "Washing Machine" album will end up with a ridiculously high ranking. Got differing opinions? Feel free to share, of course. Review of tonight's show will be online tomorrow afternoon, too.
1. Sister (1987) - 37 points
Sonic Youth will always be known for having a lot of ideas, guitars and tunings. In 1987, the noisy indulgences of the past were reduced and the grandiose indulgences of records to come are simultaneously hinted at -- and minimized. No time is wasted on this, the most punk rock and sci-fi (nods to Philip K. Dick throughout the album) of the SY catalog. This is the band at their most intrepid and succinct. (Daniel Piotrowski)
2. Daydream Nation (1988) - 25 points
The band threw that succinctness of "Sister" out the window the next year for this double-album magnum opus that is usually considered its masterwork. (Except according to this panel of damn hipsters, of course.) It announces its epic intentions from the beginning with the incomparable "Teenage Riot," which more 20 years later is still the definitive indie guitar anthem. "The Sprawl" is accurately titled, and "Total Trash" and "Cross the Breeze" are equally huge, not to mention the concluding "Trilogy." Maybe it doesn't totally work with the short-attention-span manner in which we consume music today, but it's the sound of a band at the height of its powers reaching for the sky and mostly hitting the mark. (Malitz)
3. EVOL (1986) - 22 points
"EVOL" is the first -- maybe the only -- truly scary Sonic Youth album. There's something about the echoey atmosphere and eerie chime of the guitars that make every song sound creepy and chilling. And for me it's the only SY album where the pervasive mood made such a lasting impression -- whenever "EVOL" comes up in discussion, I immediately hear the ringing feedback and goose-bump reverb of "Shadow of a Doubt," "Green Light," etc. Even snappy tunes like "Star Power" and epic journeys like "Expressway to Yr. Skull" catch the album's weird fever, which no other SY album has ever quite matched. (Marc Masters)
(Rest of the rankings after the jump.)
4. Washing Machine (1995) - 21 points
After a few records spent trying to write a hit, "Washing Machine" found Sonic Youth giving up and getting experimental again. But here experimental meant more than a noise-solo or a raunchy chord (although "Washing Machine" has both). Instead, Sonic Youth tried dismantling its identity a little -- applying its tried and true formula to kraut-rock ("Skip Tracer"), Phil Spector-style pop ("Little Trouble Girl"), or folk ("Unwind"). In the process Sonic Youth proved that it had more range than anybody previously expected. It may not have shipped a million units, but "Washing Machine" proved that Sonic Youth could live beyond the grunge-era. (Aaron Leitko)
5. Dirty (1992) - 17 points
When "Sister" and "Daydream Nation" led the band to an unlikely major label roster, the band did what they had always done: gave the new "modern rock" template a decidedly Sonic Youth-spin. Further focusing on standard verse-chorus-verse song structures, the band still wrapped everything in a blanket of buzzing guitars. It's not hard to imagine songs like "Drunken Butterfly" or "Sugar Kane" as radio hits, even while it's almost impossible to imagine them finding a mainstream audience sandwiched between other alt-rock acts like Sponge and the Stone Temple Pilots. (Andy Behr)
6. Murray Street (2002) - 13 points
With "Murray Street," the band shook loose the cobwebs and found a great middle ground between the experimental nature of their earlier recordings with the loose, jammy sound they had started to favor. But this was anything but pointless noodling; "Murray Street" pulsed with a newfound confidence in their songwriting ability, as well as a seeming "coming-to-term's with the countless guitars and other gear that were stolen in 1999. Whether they found their peace with new gear or just found themselves refreshed with the addition of temporary fifth member Jim O'Rourke, the resulting albums displayed new promise, both on-stage and off. (Behr)
7. Rather Ripped (2006) - 11 points
I'll be honest -- this is the album that really got me into Sonic Youth. I know, right? I'd always loved "Sister" and "Daydream Nation" but nothing after that really connected with me. "I don't like them nearly as much as the bands they influenced," I would always say, thinking I was sounding really cool. But I really fell in love with the elegance of this record. There's nothing particularly difficult or experimental going on; it's a (relatively) restrained but unquestionably rock record, one that seemed like a wholly appropriate one for the band to be making at this point in its career. I hate using the word gorgeous, but the guitars on this record sound gorgeous particularly on the unbeatable back-to-back of "Incinerate" and "Do You Believe in Rapture?" (Malitz)
8. Confusion Is Sex (1983) - 9 points
9. Goo (1990) - 8 points
10. A Thousand Leaves (1998) - 5 points
11. Bad Moon Rising (1985) - 3 points
11. Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994) - 3 points
13. NYC Ghosts and Flowers (2000) - 1 point
By David Malitz |
July 6, 2009; 4:20 PM ET
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