Sonic Youth Albums Ranked (Part 3)
6. Sister (1987)
Main Genres: Noise Rock, Alternative Rock, Post-Punk
A decent sampling of: Experimental Rock
This is the first LP in the Sonic Youth discography accessible enough to be labelled a true ‘Alternative Rock’ record. It’s still rough around the edges, but Sister is full of catchy hooks and thrilling guitar sounds. I feel like this record and Daydream Nation probably went on to spawn at least 200 new alternative rock bands by the time the 90s came around (not that I was there to see it or anything, just speculation).
Sister deserves a lot of credit for solidifying on tracks like “Catholic Block” and “Stereo Sanctity” what would become the dominant formula for the band’s sound throughout most of the rest of their discography. I think that's part of the reason why this is Sonic Youth’s second most acclaimed and beloved record. Perhaps some fans would even be downright offended that I only put this at #6 on the list, but trust me when I say that this is only because the band has made so many fantastic records. In fact, for most bands, this would easily be their greatest record.
I can still remember the first time I heard the opening to “Schizophrenia”, I had never heard anything quite like it. The guitars sound upbeat yet worn out and dejected, making me feel isolated and almost spiritually weak when I listen to this track, yet somehow also comforted. The song is partially inspired by Kim’s older brother who has schizophrenia, though the roles are reversed in this song with a brother whose sister is schizophrenic. It’s a deeply fascinating and memorable piece, and I can see why many fans consider this to be a top five Sonic Youth track.
Most of the rest of Sister is very scratchy and punkish with some very tight guitar work, like “Catholic Block” which boasts one of my favourite melodic riffs in the Sonic Youth canon. There’s also “Hot Wire My Heart”, another major highlight and a cover of the obscure British punk band Crime, where Sonic Youth takes their song and upgrades the guitars and drums while also adding a bold wall of feedback at the end.
Then there’s “Pacific Coast Highway”, a completely sickening song and one of Kim’s very finest moments as a lyricist and vocalist. This haunting noise rock jumble tells the story of either a unhinged stranger, or perhaps a resentful ex-lover, who is obsessively catcalling the listener from their car, with the not-so-subtle implication that you’re all by yourself somewhere and that this person intends to harm you. I have no idea if this was written about a personal experience, but I do know from listening to their voices that this is something many women have either gone through or live in perpetual fear of. Seriously fucked up stuff, but also one of Sonic Youth’s very best tracks.
"Cotton Crown” is an odd one out in the Sonic Youth discography; an uncharacteristically sincere but still off-kilter love song that Kim and Thurston sing as a duet. Their voices are a bit out of tune with each other, but i think that honestly fits the Sonic Youth aesthetic and it’s sweet in its own quirky way, although very bittersweet decades later with hindsight about the fate of their relationship. Sort of a noise rock lullaby almost, maybe even with hints of early shoegaze.
Sister does a really good job of taking the seemingly juxtaposing ideas of the ‘fun’ and the ‘grotesque’ and fuses them together. This album is both largely exciting and still somehow alienating and depressive. It’s textbook Sonic Youth, really. I will say that the best tracks are clustered together with a noticeably weaker middle portion, but really this is still a consistently great record throughout. Altogether, Sister is one of the many entries in the band’s discography from 1986 through 1990 where Sonic Youth could basically do no wrong. A classic record.
highlights: “Pacific Coast Highway”, “Schizophrenia”, ‘Catholic Block”, “Cotton Crown”, “Hot Wire My Heart”, “Beauty Lies in the Eye”
5. A Thousand Leaves (1998)
Main Genres: Noise Rock, Experimental Rock
A decent sampling of: Alternative Rock, Post-Rock, Neo-Psychedelia
I’m just gonna say this now: A Thousand Leaves is by far Sonic Youth’s most underrated record. It’s also the last truly amazing record that the band ever put out. Maybe it’s just the bizarre choice of an album cover that turns people off of this LP. Really, what the hell were they going for here with the minimalist hamster vibes? The beautiful title really suggests something a lot more visually stunning.
In all seriousness though, I feel like nobody talks about this one because it’s overshadowed by its predecessor Washing Machine, but if there’s one area that this record exceeds above all other Sonic Youth LPs, it’s that it perfectly captures that mellow feeling that the later Sonic Youth albums were inclined towards. Not a lot of Sonic Youth records put me at ease like this one does.
Likewise, this is maybe the most ‘feel-good’ record in their discography along with Murray Street. But where Muray Street is something you could put on in the background and enjoy pretty modestly, A Thousand Leaves is a largely experimental, out-of-body experience that pulls you into its surreal, flowery, evergreen world.
“Contre Le Sexism” is a perfect opener for this kind of record; this quiet daze of a waking dream is both dainty and delirious, alluding to Alice in Wonderland with Kim’s vocals never before sounding so gentle and bright. I swear I start to hear a door creak at the end. Maybe that’s the sound of stepping out into the rest of A Thousand Leaves.
What follows immediately after is “Sunday” which is actually one of the band’s poppiest moments, making it somewhat of an outlier on this highly avant-garde and immersive record, but the warm spring vibes of the melody fits right in. The wall of sound introduced during the bridge is a soft mesmerizing bliss more akin to a band like My Bloody Valentine, if not for the tiny distant screeches of atonality whirling around here and there. As a big fan of both bands, I’m all for this kind of sound.
“Wildflower Soul” is easily one of the best things Sonic Youth has ever written. Endless amounts of creativity are poured into this nine minute noise rock acrobatics performance along with a lyrical ode to love, nature, and childhood. The vibes of this one are really quite jaw-dropping given the fact that these are the same guys who wrote “Schizophrenia” and “Death Valley ‘69″. There’s such unison and harmony in the band’s performance here as they switch between different bpm and even time signatures, and the usage of the heavy phaser effect towards the end sounds nothing short of godlike. "Wildflower Soul” almost feels like an entire album experience in one song, and I’m beyond impressed every time I listen to it.
This makes for a hard act to follow, but A Thousand Leaves still has plenty of other highlights. “French Tickler” is a strange and satisfying track that switches back and forth between a playful melody and churning, stretchy distortion. “Karen Koltrane” is a murky but textured portrait of Lee Renaldo’s ex-girlfriend, who got addicted to hallucinogens and became heavily withdrawn from the rest of the world. “Snare, Girl” is a soothing spell where Thurston sounds like he’s trying to coax the listener into a never-ending slumber.
My only real complaint here is “Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)”, a lackadaisical jam session that sounds cool enough, but really overstays its welcome given the lack of development it achieves over its eleven minute run time. It’s a nice piece to vibe to, but it very noticeably disrupts the album’s flow. Take this one track away entirely, or even just edit it down severely, and this would probably be a 10/10 record for me.
Still, wow what a cool album. A Thousand Leaves is a great example of why I respect this band so much. Even this late into their career, Sonic Youth were willing to try so many new bizarre things while also building judiciously upon the foundations of their past work with great attention to detail. I wouldn’t recommend most people start with this one, it’s definitely a bit more challenging especially if you haven’t listened to some other really weird experimental rock records. But once you’re in the right headspace for it, it’s easy to get almost completely lost in A Thousand Leaves.
highlights: “Wildflower Soul”, “Sunday”, “French Tickler”, “Karen Koltrane”, “Snare, Girl”, “Contre Le Sexism”, “Heather Angel”
4. Goo (1990)
Main Genres: Noise Rock, Alternative Rock
A decent sampling of: Experimental Rock, Post-Punk
Goo was my very first Sonic Youth album, and I can definitely still feel some of the old teenage angst that I had at the time whenever I listen to this one. What probably adds to that feeling is the fact that this along with Daydream Nation is one of the two albums in the band’s discography that I’d say possesses a great deal of immediacy. Albums like Sister and A Thousand Leaves are a bit more subtle and they take a while to be fully digested. But this one, this one hit me like a brick wall.
Between “Tunic (Song For Karen)”, “Kool Thing”, and “Cinderella’s Big Score”, Goo is above all others the Sonic Youth record where Kim Gordon is really the star of the band, featuring not one but three of her most captivating songs. Likewise, I would also say that this is Sonic Youth’s most overtly feminist and socially conscious record.
I don’t know if anybody else feels this way, but to me the opener “Dirty Boots” really does sound like “Teen Age Riot” part 2. That’s not a bad thing of course, Sonic Youth making more songs like “Teen Age Riot” could never be a bad thing, and “Dirty Boots” is definitely one of the highlights of Goo with its massive build up of kinetic energy. That being said, I do have to say that I don’t think any song could do this particular kind of album opener better than “Teen Age Riot” already does it, but I still really do enjoy “Dirty Boots”.
“Tunic (Song For Karen)” is one of Sonic Youth’s most poetic and poignant songs. Kim’s sing-talking voice is even more solemn than usual as she takes on a surreal retelling of the final days of drummer/pop star pioneer Karen Carpenter from her perspective, highlighting the severity of her loneliness and the criminal negligence of many of the people around her who let her succumb to her eating disorder. Set to a backdrop of stark and droning alternative rock, I would say that this is possibly the band’s most depressing moment and certainly one of the biggest statements that they ever made.
A lot of the rest of Goo is actually pretty fun though. “Kool Thing” features Chuck D on guest vocals, and its a funny sarcastic take down of the subjugation of women’s voices in supposedly liberated spaces like the world of rock and hip hop, inspired by the time Kim interviewed L.L. Cool J and attempted to have a political conversation. The song mocks L.L.’s attitude towards women while also poking fun at Kim’s own self-perceived elitism. There’s also “Mote”, a sensational head rush that dissolves into noise rock weird-isms, sorta recreating the feeling of going from buzzed to totally black out.
“Mildred Pierce” is almost a practical joke but I kind of love the hell out of it anyway. A short track with lyrics consisting only of the song’s title, it starts with the band getting into a nice little riff before (without warning) bursting into a hardcore punk cacophony as Thurston screams the name over and over into the listener’s ears. Made me jump the first time I heard it.
And then there’s “Cinderella’s Big Score”. If “Schizophrenia” vaguely hinted at Kim’s estranged relationship with her older brother, then “Cinderella’s Big Score” confronts it dead on. Featuring some of the band’s most totally insane and disfigured guitar work ever, this song sounds harsh and militant, like the dawn of a nuclear cataclysm. It’s very hard to believe that Kim is 37 years old here; she reverts to sounding exactly like a hurt teenage little sister, rebelling against her childhood trauma and lashing out at her brother’s past bullying and now his cold indifference towards her.
The song grapples with some very painful emotions, but the experience is raw and cathartic. “Cinderella’s Big Score” is definitely somewhere in Sonic Youth’s top 10 tracks for me; it just doesn’t get any realer than this. Honestly, the record could’ve ended here. I like “Titanium Expose” enough as a closer, but this would’ve made a really powerful and lasting impression to end the album.
Despite that, Goo is an excellent Sonic Youth record that demonstrates just how much the band had mastered their craft after a decade of making all sorts of noises. Obviously I’m biased since it was my own first Sonic Youth record, but I really do feel like this is the very best place to start with the band. Goo is one of their more melodic and accessible offerings, but it’s also one of their most provocative records and it really captures the essence of Sonic Youth’s identity.
highlights: “Cinderella’s Big Score”, “Tunic (Song For Karen)”, “Mote”, “Kool Thing”, “Dirty Boots”, ‘Mildred Pierce”
3. EVOL (1986)
Main Genres: Noise Rock, Experimental Rock, Post-Punk
A decent sampling of: No Wave, Alternative Rock
If Bad Moon Rising was bleak and desolate, than EVOL is disturbed, uncanny, and deeply paranoid. Sonic Youth’s third record evokes the feeling of being all alone at midnight on a sketchy highway, complete with mental images of flickering street lights and looming shadowy figures. I mentioned earlier that I have to be in the right mood to enjoy Bad Moon Rising, but this record puts me in the right mood almost instantly whenever I put it on.
EVOL isn’t exactly a no wave album like their first two records. The highly experimental influence is still there, but the arrangements are starting to sound fuller and more intentional.
You could say that this LP marks somewhat of a transitional phase between Sonic Youth the no wave band and Sonic Youth the alternative rock band, and in many respects it has the best of both worlds. There’s a few catchy darker alternative rock songs here and there, sandwiched between tracks that could best be described as ‘mad scientist’ music, which altogether creates a varied and unique album experience.
“Tom Violence“ immediately establishes the tone of EVOL with crooked, scraping flashes of post-punk guitars. This track reminds me of heads hung low, bodies slouched uncomfortably, and the feeling of being completely wide awake at 2:00 am. There’s something very unfriendly that lurks beneath the dissonance of these sounds.
If “Tom Violence” is uneasy, then “Shadow of A Doubt” is an auditory nightmare, managing to capture something akin to the fear of being watched by an unknown stranger hiding in the shadows. Notes are gently plucked like icy cold fingers slowly crawling up the listener’s back while Kim whispers about murder plots and oneirophrenia. The “just a dream” lyrical motif is first uttered reassuringly, but eventually turns into a desperate plea as Kim begins to shout frantically and the music intensifies.
The album dials down the spook factor a few notches with “Starpower” and “In The Kingdom #19″. The former is an early example of Sonic Youth’s ability to combine melodic hooks with meandering chaos that would become refined on the next few LPs, while the latter features Lee’s first solo vocals (and one of his best) reciting a lucid, jet black vision of a car accident. Thurston threw firecrackers into the recording studio when they did Lee’s vocals on this track and you can hear it in the recording, and just like “Mildred Pierce” it really caught me off guard the first time I heard it.
“Secret Girl” is the scariest fucking thing in the whole Sonic Youth discography, and also just one of the scariest songs I’ve ever heard. It starts with a deep shuddering thud that sounds like it’s getting closer and closer. Then out of nowhere, a cassette-recording of an old detuned piano starts to play a simple, unnerving refrain while Kim offers a cryptic and uncomfortably suggestive spoken word piece. It feels like a scene that might play out in a horror film, where a television screen comes on by itself and the person on the screen begins to talk directly to the viewer.
Finally, there’s “Expressway To Yr Skull” (alternatively titled “Madonna, Sean, and Me”), which would be my #1 Sonic Youth album closer if not for the #1 album on this list. That being said, this song is still surely one of the biggest highlights of the band’s career. "Expressway To Yr Skull” starts off restless and spectacular, leading up to an utterly earth-shaking climax, and then it’s as if the song promptly dies, only to become a lingering undead entity that pulls you down with it. I still can’t get over how the ending really manages to sound like it’s dragging you down further and further into its barren depths.
To add to that, there’s actually a locked groove on the original vinyl release of this LP that plays the last little bit of “Expressway To Yr Skull”, meaning that if you let the needle sit there, it will forever loop that last little bit of droning at the end of the track. I really appreciate this little detail; it’s as if the pervasive darkness of EVOL is so encompassing that it could turn into a deep midnight that never ends.
EVOL is honestly so close to being a 10 for me, but just like Sister I find that it is decently weaker towards the middle. Still, I’m absolutely enamored with the atmosphere on this album. No gothic rock record has ever managed to sound so deeply unsettling to my ears like this little experimental record does. You really just have to experience this one for yourself. Honestly, don’t be surprised if in a year or two I’ve changed my mind and bumped this one to a 10.
highlights: “Expressway To Yr Skull”, “Shadow Of A Doubt”, “Tom Violence”, “Secret Girl”, “In The Kingdom #19″, “Starpower”