Sonic Youth is a band that gave a lot to the alternative pop-rock music scene.
As pioneers of the New York underground musical landscape in the early eighties, Sonic Youth emerged through the years as one of the most influential and beloved alternative rock bands on the planet.
They unintentionally set the pace for a new musical genre, a genre that has been the inspiration for many bands such as Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, Pavement, Blonde Redhead, Yo La Tengo, Beck, Sigur Rós, Weezer, Deerhunter and countless others. They created a sound, a benchmark, that defines the band — no wave.
The band, who formed in 1981 with a name that merged that of MC5 guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith with dub pioneer Big ‘Youth’, included Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo on the guitars with Kim Gordon on bass. The band’s first drummer, Richard Edson, started things off before the group rolled through some replacements until, eventually, settling with Steve Shelley in 1985 who became and everpresent.
In October 2011, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon announced their divorce, ending 27 years of marriage and, ultimately, deciding Sonic Youth’s disbandment. Naturally, the four members of the band went on to dedicate themselves to new musical projects.
Far Out’s ranking only covers full-length albums, without considering the SYR collection or the many bootlegs or demo or live compilations available. Anyhow, this is about the sound Sonic Youth were able to create, fine-tune and allow your ears to reach climax. Well, not precisely the sound itself but, let’s say, the quintessence of Sonic Youth sound.
Sonic Youth’s best albums ranked:
17 – NYC Ghosts & Flowers (2000)
On NYC Ghosts & Flowers, it seems like Sonic Youth took a direction too close towards the avant-garde.
Seemingly making it too difficult for fans to comprehend, the record struggled to make the message they wanted to communicate clear, provided that there was one?
16 – Whitey Album (1989 – as Ciccone Youth)
The Whitey Album was initially meant to be a collaboration with Minutemen bassist Mike Watt. Ideally, it would have been a nice project on paper. Nevertheless, from a Sonic Youth sound perspective, fantasy went beyond reality and this highly experimental tribute to Madonna performed by Sonic Youth remains a collection of uneasy noise experiments and sound manipulations that make these songs almost unlistenable.
The only noteworthy track remains the Madonna cover ‘Into the Groove’ (renamed ‘Into the Groovey’) where Moore’s idiosyncratic vocals pair up with Madonna’s sampled voice smoothly, and the low-fi sound gives a dash of garage.
15 – Confusion is Sex (1983)
This album is a genuine collection of the early works from Sonic Youth. At the time the band was penniless, working petty jobs to make a living and, in their spare time, dedicated all efforts to experimenting and practising ‘new’ sounds.
Of course, if you are a Sonic Youth bonafide fan, you may consider this album spellbinding—especially when listening to it for the first time. If not, you would simply label it as lo-fi with tons of strident noise made by out-of-tune instruments.
These were the early ’80s, this was New York and this was no wave.
14 – Sonic Youth (1982)
Similarly to Confusion is Sex, Sonic Youth’s self-titled EP complements the no-wave response to the new wave musical movement. Although it is only a five-song EP, this record can be considered the first Sonic Youth album hence its inclusion here. It is an underground work and all tracks sound tribal, unsophisticated, and joyless.
In addition, this album helps to understand how alternative Sonic Youth intended music during the early eighties. The first track, a homage to a well-known reggae artist back then, Burning Spear, opens up with an unexpected snare hit and builds up with beautiful negativity that unfortunately ends too soon.
It is already possible to detect the seeds—for instance, the guitar clanging in ‘I Dreamed I Dream’—of how the Sonic Youth would have then been moulded throughout the years.
13 – The Eternal (2009)
No one really knows the reason behind Sonic Youth’s decision to quit Geffen records after 20 years and move to the legendary Matador record label—but the rest result was The Eternal.
It is therefore right to approach The Eternal with the knowledge that after such a long and glorious career, the band exhausted what they had to say and one cannot expect a new propulsive thrust, consistent with their shining past. Most songs reproduce the same ideas as before with no novelties.
The last track, ‘Massage The History’, is melancholic and ironically puts a virtual end to Sonic Youth. In fact, this is their last album before the disbandment and a couple of years later Kim and Thurston separated and then divorced.
12 – Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994)
With this album, Sonic Youth attempted a comeback to their origins. This change of direction is because, according to the band, is a result of the previous project which left the four in the grip of boredom.
The band had almost made a fool of themselves with the primary essence of the record: the smell of the live concert, the charm of crackles, the very noble idea of dirty but direct sound (which is their trademark), maybe sometimes even incomprehensible but sincere, blunt and straightforward.
‘Bull In The Heather’ stands out since, maybe, it is the only result of this unnecessary sound experimenting album.
11 – Rather Ripped (2006)
A bonafide Sonic Youth fan could say that the problem is not in the record itself, which is indeed honest, recognisable and well structured, but rather in what is expected by Sonic Youth.
Rather Ripped has a strange effect. This effort comes without Jim O’Rourke in the team, where the band members return to concentrate on the six strings, without tormenting them more with wands and screwdrivers, but weaving well-kept harmonies and, in a certain sense, lacking that sense of imminent exploding that characterised their most “pop-oriented” albums released in the nineties.
It would not be fair to not recognise the impeccable job on the tunings, therefore, on the guitar and vocals melodies. The track ‘Incinerate’ encapsulates at best the album essence.
10 – A Thousand Leaves (1998)
Inspired by the 16th-century French pastry mille-feuille (which means a thousand leaves), this very same cake became very popular a couple of centuries later under Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign. Regrettably, this Sonic Youth album did not obtain the same success as the pastry.
In particular, this work did not receive the deserved recognition. In this mature Sonic Youth world, the band sought new sound experimenting paths more deeply, as if by not betraying their original spirit but somehow understanding from the past mistakes (see Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star).
The result is harmonious, the sound is softer and smoother and recalls psychedelic moments, more commonly highlighted in their mid-eighties tunes. Guitars intertwine each other in such a polished and sophisticated fashion that each of the songs narrates something different.
9 – Bad Moon Rising (1985)
The year 1985 is a turning point. Among all the news, the most important one is undoubtedly the arrival of the new drummer Steve Shelley, who from that moment on will permanently remain the drummer of the group.
Musically, there is a novelty concerning Bad Moon Rising. That scary fury is missing, the one that tore the dirtiest songs and moves on to more balanced sounds, at times even serene. The ‘songs’ in this album are few, in fact, there are real experiments characterised by gritty and hallucinatory distortions.
Overall, the album is not a milestone, but it is certainly exemplary as Bad Moon Rising is the first step towards the definition of noise-rock, which is perhaps the most successful alternative rock current of the eighties.
8 – Washing Machine (1995)
For sure, Washing Machine redeems the previous album and cements Sonic Youth one of the greatest bands of all time.
Honestly, can you think of any bands today that would have the guts to recover from a disappointing release so fast? This album is undoubtedly one characterised by the warmest sound. The first notes of the first track ‘Becuz’ on bass define the colour of the album. The whole record then evolves between long instrumental passages completely abstract, creepy, alongside almost-pop choruses with a “Shalala” of unequalled phlegm.
And yet, the masterpiece ‘The Diamond Sea’ takes us on a 20-minute journey towards the abyss: beginning peacefully, we quickly find ourselves struggling under masses of distortion but, luckily, we emerge happily back on the surface touching ourselves to feel alive as if we went on another dimension. Perhaps we did.
7 – Sonic Nurse (2004)
Many consider Sonic Nurse as the acme of the creativity within the independent American musical scene. Others, instead, believe it is the turning point towards a cleaner and more listenable sound.
A stoic minority, somewhat attached to the past, label it as the crossroad for subsequent disappointing works. For sure, the title could give the idea of a certain return to the origins: a sonic nurse who takes care of the wounds of the different post-Dirty compositional approaches.
It is partly true if you take into consideration some of the ideas of this record. ‘Pattern Recognition’ outbursts with unexpected violence. There is the dissonant and hypnotic riff and the inevitable recovery in the ending that takes it all away. Another melodic artwork is ‘Dripping Dream’.
Sonic Youth had never come so close to the most classic song form they always treated with stubborn mistrust.
6 – Goo (1990)
1990 is another turning point and the Goo album gets consecrated by a major record label, DGC (David Geffen Company).
The band, which until that point had published its material only through independent labels, ended up with their singles on MTV as their sound was softened and more accessible. Sonic Youth managed to bring to the masses alternative rock.
In any case, the band proved to follow-up successfully after (spoiler alert) a monumental album Daydream Nation.
5 – Dirty (1992)
Dirty is an exceptional album and a classic in the substantial discography of Sonic Youth and certainly one of their most representative album of the ’90s. Nevertheless, among all tracks on the record, it is difficult to find one that is not noteworthy.
The pressing rhythm of ‘Swimsuit Issue’, the adenoidal scream of Kim Gordon in ‘Drunken Butterfly’ is extreme and sharp. Furthermore, the digression psychedelic of ‘Wish Fulfillment’ and again the simple and incisive sequence of three chords in Youth ‘Against Fascism’ or the authentic sound trip of ‘Theresa’s Sound-World’.
Noises, instruments and sounds that take different directions but always end up together through energetic riffs, melodies in crescendo and distortions that exalt and pay off all the sound experiments of past albums, conferring an objectively well-deserved band maturity.
4 – Murray Street (2002)
Murray Street is the album that best represents the genius of modern Sonic Youth (post-2000) and its definitive transition towards sounds that tend more to pop experimentation than to noise.
The album delivers seven excellent tracks, among which there are the instrumental ‘Rain On Tin’ and the masterpiece ‘Karen Revisited’, encompassing ten minutes of warped hypnosis that fulfils precisely when that typical ‘noise’ comes into play.
The record, besides being one of the most complete in terms of sound complexity, is the tangible evidence that the creativity of Sonic Youth is always ready for experiment with new concepts and sounds.
3 – Evol (1986)
Evol has less complicated and catchy melodic lines (within the limits that this word can assume in Sonic Youth). The nihilistic outbursts are still present in the structure of the songs, but now the quartet’s music is heavily contaminated by the psychedelia of Bad Moon Rising.
Songs are therefore developed as ballads and, as the result of a sick mind, in which noise still plays an essential role, it is purposely confined in a more defined structure than in the past (without exaggerating, anyway). The mesmerising ‘Shadow Of A Doubt’ is both a creepy and sensual lullaby in which the voice of Kim Gordon is more fascinating than ever. In other tracks, Lee and Moore invent themselves new unexpected tunings, moments of absolute calm and right after hysteria, with long reverberations. It is a colourful and spooky trip into unknown territories.
This album is a piece of the evolutionary path that led them to subsequent productions.
2 – Sister (1987)
On this record, Sonic Youth refines the path taken the previous year with the hypnotic Evol, a journey that leads them to merge sound experimentation and the search for new guitar techniques.
In Sister the typical elements of the song structure, the care for the text and the vocal parts merged with the classic noise rides in which the Moore and Ranaldo guitars interact to create the typical tension that characterises the sound of the band.
All the tracks are excellent and, in a way, the disc flows with a soothing smoothness without a glitch. It is clear from the pooling of the various instruments that Sonic Youth almost reached the sound perfection they strived for.
1 – Daydream Nation (1988)
Before returning to 1988, we specify that records like Evol or Sister are nothing more than spontaneous forms of what Daydream Nation will be—but then what has Daydream Nation got more than the others? Why it is considered the peak of the Sonic Youth?
During the eighties, the band experimented in all directions and finally with Daydream Nation they reaped the benefits of their work. This album is a record that must be rigorously listened to. It is one of those records, which in its scope, represents a monumental work.
While Steve Shelley cements himself as a virtuoso drummer, Kim Gordon composes some of the blunt bass lines of her career, the focus of the entire opera is once again be conceived by Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore and their two guitars.
The real strength of Daydream Nation lies in the fact that every sound is studied in depth. It is something that Sonic Youth had achieved before. Even with this new sound orgy, each of the four instruments is perfectly listenable individually. Four different roads, generated by each of the four members. A unique, impeccable result.