Over the past few weeks, I’ve been coincidentally talking to several different people about some of my favorite bands. Whenever I bring up the name “Sonic Youth” as one of those bands, people usually know the name, but have reduced their knowledge of the group to “oh yeah, aren’t they the weird band that had a song on Guitar Hero?” I’ve even talked to a few people at WRVU about Sonic Youth, and, surprisingly, some of their reactions have been similar.
I went on a big Sonic Youth binge a few years ago, and they continue to be one of my favorite bands and one that I consider extremely creative and influential. From starting out as a no-wave group from New York to the indie rock giant that they were up until their dissolution in 2011, the group consistently put out material that was daring and sounded fresh. However, without a proper introduction (mine was the band’s fourth album, Sister), they can be a difficult mountain to scale: between unconventional guitar tunings, three vocalists, and occasionally degrading into pure feedback bliss, the band sounds truly like no other. Although many groups have tried to harness (and occasionally emulate) the creativity and uniqueness behind Sonic Youth’s sound, nothing quite measures up to the original band’s output. If you need a direction for where to start with the band’s large, varied discography, look no further as I’ve compiled a list of songs, one from almost* every studio album, to check out.
*I’m skipping A Thousand Leaves and NYC Ghosts & Flowers because they’re just not good representations of the band at all.
1) Confusion is Sex/Kill Yr. Idols – “Kill Yr. Idols”
Unless you’re into the weirder, more experimental side of music (no-wave and avante-garde in particular), I wouldn’t make Confusion is Sex/Kill Yr. Idols your first Sonic Youth experience. The title track from the EP Kill Yr. Idols is the band’s answer to a negative review by Robert Christgau, and it shows a lot of what’s to come from their later work. Sonic Youth was still going through their weird “we’re going to break down the barriers of traditional rock music” phase, a popular no-wave mentality. Honestly, I really love this album, but I’m gonna put this song later in the playlist so as not to immediately scare off some people.
2) Bad Moon Rising – “Death Valley ’69”
I’ve always considered the band’s second full-length album to be a little bit of an awkward transition in their discography. It fits in somewhere between actual structured songs and odd no-wave, avant-garde experimentation. However, “Death Valley ’69” is a gem on the album that sounds incredibly coherent and structured for a band currently trying to “find themselves”.
3) EVOL – “Shadow of a Doubt”
With their third album, Sonic Youth successfully start to incorporate actual structure into their music. I love the experimental side of the band, but some structure to all the madness doesn’t hurt. “Shadow of a Doubt” presents the softer side of the band, with Kim Gordon whispering the vocals for most of the track alongside chime-like guitars and a droning piano part.
4) Sister – “Stereo Sanctity”
Ah, my first Sonic Youth experience. I remember it fondly. This whole album is pure gold. “Schizophrenia” is probably one of my favorite opening songs to an album ever, but I’ve decided to add “Stereo Sanctity” to the playlist instead since I think it better characterizes the band’s sound at this point in their career.
5) Daydream Nation – “Total Trash”
I refuse to put “Teenage Riot” as the selected song from Daydream Nation even though it’s one of the most well-known Sonic Youth songs. Sure, it’s a good song, but when talking about an album as (I’m gonna say it) perfect as Daydream Nation, “Teenage Riot” is just the beginning (literally, ha). While “Total Trash” might not be my favorite song from the album (that title would go to album closer “Trilogy”), it perfectly reflects the album’s sound.
6) Goo – “Titanium Expose”
Sonic Youth’s major label debut on Geffen Records came with a lot of criticism due to many fans thinking that the band signing to a major label was them selling out. However, the band refuses to sacrifice their sound as Goo clearly sounds like Sonic Youth. The songs on Goo mostly seem very structured compared to earlier works in the band’s discography, but they all retain the qualities that make Sonic Youth unique. “Titanium Expose” is definitely my favorite track from the album.
7) Dirty – “Youth Against Fascism”
I’ll admit, I’ve always considered Dirty a bit underwhelming of an album considering the rest of the band’s discography. From grungy to noisy to poppy, the album seems like it was written by a band confused as to where they fit in between the mainstream alternative scene at the time and their roots in noise rock. That said, most of the songs are at least solid. “Youth Against Fascism” has a fantastic bassline that makes it worth adding to the list. Fun fact: Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi also contributed guitar to the song.
8) Experimental Jet Set, Thrash and No Star – “Bull in the Heather”
Experimental Jet Set is a difficult album to understand and get into. While it signifies a return to the noisier and more experimental side of the band, it also isn’t the most coherent release by the group. That said, “Bull in the Heather” makes for a jam, especially when Steve Shelley’s awesome drumming comes in at the chorus. Seen above is a performance of the song where Kim Gordon is actually pregnant, so that’s cool.
9) Washing Machine – “Washing Machine”
Washing Machine is a sprawling double album that sees the band going back to their original noisier roots, but several of the tracks get very “jammy”, for lack of a better word. “Diamond Sea”, the last song on the album, is almost 20 minutes long and most of that time is spent surrounded by walls of guitar effects and feedback. The title track seems like an appropriate place to start with this album.
10) Murray Street – “Karen Revisited”
After a few missteps that resulted from the band’s equipment being stolen, the band properly returned with Murray Street. Another super solid release that often has great softer moments, “Karen Revisited” is probably my favorite track on the album.
11) Sonic Nurse – “I Love You Golden Blue”
Containing some of my favorite Kim Gordon vocals is “I Love You Golden Blue”, a quieter song from Sonic Nurse. This album is super consistent, and doesn’t contain a particularly boring or bad song at all. Definitely recommended for later Sonic Youth material.
12) Rather Ripped – “Incinerate”
This album is where, unfortunately, Sonic Youth’s discography begins to slip. It lacks consistency, and doesn’t have that many standout tracks, although it does have a few. I’m gonna go with the obvious pick for Rather Ripped and choose “Incinerate”, a great song that should appeal to most indie rock fans who don’t know Sonic Youth (if those indeed exist).
14) The Eternal – “Antenna”
Despite having such a great discography for the most part, the band left us on a rather mediocre note with The Eternal. It’s not a bad album, it just doesn’t stand up to the group’s previous output, and it really just leaves you wanting something better and more consistent. However, “Antenna” is a fantastic gem amidst the inconsistency, so I’ll add that track.
If you haven’t ever really given Sonic Youth a chance, listen to the Spotify playlist below and definitely check out some of their best albums. They’re a group that consistently gets rotation on my turntable and my radio show, and they have the uniqueness and creativity to back it up.