20. NYC Ghosts and Flowers (2000)
The reputation of the dense, chaotic, beat-poetry-infused NYC Ghosts & Flowers has at least been polished up a bit after a short while. The title track, which slowly builds over seven minutes from a hushed intro to a cacophonous climax, is the perfect example of the dark, evil dream power that the album radiates at its best.
19. Shaking Hell (1983)
Sonic Youth’s first full-length album, Confusion Is Sex, was a huge leap from their clunky, half-formed debut EP. Excitingly you can almost hear the band finding themselves as Shaking Hell plays. It starts out as choppy post-punk funk, then suddenly changes: a disturbing Kim Gordon monologue about brooding, tense, out-of-tune guitar sounds.
18. Anti Orgasm (2009)
Sonic Youth’s last album, The Eternal, was arguably the most straightforward they’ve ever released, but again, that’s a relative term. As Anti-Orgasm poignantly proves: spiky, clashing guitars; heaving, monotonous riff; nice, off-beam coda – it couldn’t have been someone else’s work.
17. Sweet Shine (1994)
Apparently recorded via Sister’s master tape, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star from 1987 was a defiantly understated, uncooperative gesture in the wake of the post-Nirvana alt-rock gold rush. Its understated strength is exemplified by the languid, Pavement-influenced Sweet Shine, disrupted by Gordon’s sudden shift to gut-wrenching howls midway through.
16. Rain on Tin (2002)
Sonic Youth’s response to 9/11 offers a simple yet poignant plea for unity in the face of horror: “Gather around, gather friend, never fear, never again.” The music, meanwhile, evokes the ghosts of New York’s past: there are moments when the guitars intertwine in a way that is distinctly reminiscent of Television.
15. Death Valley ’69 (1984)
The Manson murders had hung over rock music for 15 years by the time Sonic Youth recorded Death Valley ’69, a savagely, deeply rooted powerful song written from the fractured point of view of one Manson Family member: the bloody, zero-budget video — by cross-border director Richard Kern – is the perfect accompaniment.
14. Candle (1989)
Candle’s lyrics defies explanation – look online and you can find people suggesting they’re about everything from the purity of love to crystal meth addiction – but it barely matters. The long intro is sublime; the nimble transitions from something straightforward alt-rock to explosions of rowdy avant guitar are stunning.
13. 100% (1992)
You can hear the influence of grunge on the riff at 100%, a feedback-criticized eulogy for murdered friend Joe Cole. The brief moment at 1:49, where everything else falls away, leaving drummer Steve Shelley – a talent sometimes underappreciated in the rush to praise the band’s radical approach to guitar playing – to thunder away is just fantastic.
12. Sunday (1998)
The band raging through Confusion Is Sex of Death Valley ’69 sounded like they’d burn bright but fast, but Sonic Youth matured incredibly well, as evidenced by the carefree Sunday of 1998. The video starring Macaulay Culkin garnered headlines. , but you want the full album version for the guitar playing of the song in all its glory.
11. Little Trouble Girl (1995)
A fantastic anomaly in the Sonic Youth catalog, Little Trouble Girl was both an examination of teenage girl prejudice and a song that stripped away the band’s signature sounds in a beautifully distorted tribute to ’60s girl groups—particularly the by fear-ridden Shangri-Las’s I can never go home and past, present and future.
10. Star Force (1986)
On the one hand, Starpower was Evol’s most poppy moment – the melody and enamored lyrics are irresistible – but when it’s pop, it’s a very quirky take: between the verses and choruses are two minutes of improvised experimentation, including a burst of beatless noise that My Bloody Valentine has clearly taken notice of.
9. Karen Revisited (2002)
A fantastic exercise in extremes. Karen Revisited starts as a beautiful, bittersweet song about nostalgia, sung by Lee Ranaldo, which has something of mid-’60s folk rock in its melody. Then, since this is Sonic Youth, all hell breaks loose for the next eight minutes: deafening feedback, abstract reverberating guitars, alternating swirling and spectral sound.
8. Silver Rocket (1988)
The critic David Fricke once suggested that Sonic Youth at full blast sounded like a New York subway entering a station: Silver Rocket’s savage makeshift centerpiece proves its point. Plus, in the first 30 seconds of the song alone, you get three consecutive killer riffs.
7. Kim Gordon and the Arthur Conan Doyle Hand Cream (2004)
Inspired by Mariah Carey’s public breakdown in the early 00s – the song originally had her name in the title – Kim Gordon and the Arthur Conan Doyle Handcream offers a scathing assessment of the music industry and the media’s treatment of women, her furious mood reflected by the brooding noise in the background. It also rocks.
6. Kotton Krown (1987)
The perfect encapsulation of Sonic Youth’s ugly/beautiful aesthetic, Kotton Krown sounds blissful at the same time – it’s not entirely clear whether the lyrics, sung in unison by Thurston Moore and Gordon, are about love or drugs – and chaotic: the guitars flutter around the vocals, the central riff slides in and out of the tone, feedback screams. The overall effect is stunning.
5. The Diamond Sea (1995)
“If I were the leader,” Moore suggested, “each song would be 20 minutes long.” As it was, The Diamond Sea was the longest song Sonic Youth had ever released on their ‘mainstream’ albums. Shifting from atmospheric ballad to drone experimentation and finally freeform noise, it’s completely captivating for its 19 minute duration.
4. Schizophrenia (1987)
Sister from 1987 is such a triumph from start to finish, it’s hard to pick highlights, but the album’s opening track definitely belongs in there: a sweet tune; disturbing lyrics – inspired by Gordon’s mentally ill brother – sung casually; a fantastic, hair-raising vocal cameo from Gordon; echoing, wildly inventive guitar playing; and a long slow-motion fade.
3. Tunic (song for Karen) (1990)
The pinnacle of Goo was Sonic Youth’s touching tribute to Karen Carpenter — an attempt, Gordon said, to “liberate” the late singer — softening the sound of their detuned guitars slightly and drawing the listener’s attention to the astonishing exploration of fame of the text, identity, sanity and posthumous reputation.
2. Highway to Yr Skull (1986)
“Have you heard Expressway To Yr Skull?” excited Neil Young. “It’s unbelievably good.” He was right. Evol’s closing track, otherwise known as The Crucifixion of Sean Penn or Madonna, Sean and Me, remains one of the best things Sonic Youth has recorded: a hypnotic, heaving, euphoric track that gradually dissolves into a strangely calm, booming sound. .
1. Teen Age Riot (1988)
You can’t get Sonic Youth’s entire body of work in 20 songs: no room for the experimental recordings released on their own Sonic Youth Recordings label; nor countless songs that fans could rightly claim as classics, from Halloween to Kool Thing to Sacred Trickster. Teen Age Riot seems like an obvious No. 1 — streaming numbers suggest it’s by far their most popular song — but that shouldn’t disguise how incredible it is: a clicheless anthem that streamlines their exploratory approach into something joyful and life-affirming without sacrificing to sacrifice an ounce of their originality. Had it been released a few years later, it would have been a huge, possibly well-known hit: as it is, it still sounds utterly fresh and vital.
Live in Austin 1995 and Live in Dallas 2006 are now available on Bandcamp