Sonic Youth were one of the most unlikely success stories of underground American rock in the '80s. Where contemporaries R.E.M. and Husker Du were fairly conventional in terms of song structure and melody, Sonic Youth began their career by abandoning any pretense of traditional rock & roll conventions. Borrowing heavily from the free-form noise experimentalism of the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, and melding it with a performance art aesthetic borrowed from the New York post-punk avant-garde, Sonic Youth redefined what noise meant within rock & roll. Sonic Youth rarely rocked, though they were inspired directly by hardcore punk, post-punk, and no wave. Instead, their dissonance, feedback, and alternate tunings created a new sonic landscape, one that redefined what rock guitar could do.
The band's trio of independent late-'80s records -- EVOL, Sister, Daydream Nation -- became touchstones for a generation of indie rockers who either replicated the noise or reinterpreted it in a more palatable setting. As their career progressed, Sonic Youth grew more palatable as well, as their more free-form songs began to feel like compositions and their shorter works began to rock harder. During the '90s, most American indie bands, and many British underground bands, displayed a heavy debt to Sonic Youth, and the group itself had become a popular cult band, with each of its albums charting in the Top 100.
Such success was unthinkable when guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo formed Sonic Youth with bassist Kim Gordon in 1981. Moore had spent his childhood in Bethel, Connecticut; Ranaldo was from Long Island. Both guitarists arrived in Manhattan during the height of the New York-based post-punk no wave movement, and began performing with the avant-garde composer Glenn Branca, whose dissonant, guitar-based music provided the basis for much of Sonic Youth's early music. Moore's girlfriend Gordon had been active in the avant and no wave scenes for some time, and the pair helped stage the Noise Festival, in which the band made its live debut during the summer of 1981. At the time, Sonic Youth also featured keyboardist Anne DeMarinis and drummer Richard Edson. DeMarinis left the band shortly afterward, and the quartet recorded its eponymous debut EP, which was released on Branca's Neutral Records the following year. During 1983, Edson left the band to pursue an acting career and he was replaced by Bob Bert, who drummed on the group's debut album, Confusion Is Sex (1983). The band supported the album with its first European tour. Later that year, the group released the EP Kill Yr Idols on the German Zensor label.
Early in 1984, Moore attempted to land the band a contract with the British indie label Doublevision, but the label rejected the demos. Paul Smith, one of the owners of Doublevision, decided to form Blast First Records in order to release Sonic Youth records. Soon, he received a distribution deal from the hip U.K. indie label Rough Trade, and the band had its first label with strong distribution. During all these record label negotiations in 1984, the cassette-only live album Sonic Death: Sonic Youth Live was released on Ecstatic Peace. Bad Moon Rising, the group's first album for Blast First, was released in 1985 to strong reviews throughout the underground music press. The album was markedly different from their earlier releases -- it was the first record they made that incorporated their dissonant, feedback-drenched experimentations within relatively straightforward pop song structures. Following the release of the Death Valley '69 EP, Bert was replaced by Steve Shelley, who became the group's permanent drummer.
Bad Moon Rising had attracted significant attention throughout the American underground, including some offers from major labels. Instead, Sonic Youth decided to sign with SST, home of Husker Du and Black Flag, releasing EVOL in 1986. With EVOL, the group a became fixture on college radio, and its status grew significantly with 1987's Sister, which was heavily praised by mainstream publications like Rolling Stone. The group's profile increased further with the 1988 Ciccone Youth side project The Whitey Album, which was a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Madonna and other parts of mainstream pop culture.
The band's true breakthrough came later in 1988 with the double album Daydream Nation. Released on Enigma Records, it was a tour de force that was hailed as a masterpiece upon its fall release, and it generated a college radio hit with "Teenage Riot." Though the album was widely praised, Enigma suffered from poor distribution and eventually bankruptcy, which meant the album occasionally wasn't available in stores. These factors contributed heavily to the band's decision to move to the major label DGC in 1990.
Signing a contract that gave them complete creative control, as well as letting them function as pseudo-A&R reps for the label, Sonic Youth established a precedent for alternative bands moving to majors during the '90s, proving that it was possible to preserve indie credibility on a major label. Released in the fall of 1990, Goo, the band's first major-label album, boasted a more focused sound, yet it didn't abandon the group's noise aesthetics. The result was a college radio hit, and the group's first album to crack the Top 100. Neil Young invited Sonic Youth to open for him on his arena tour for Ragged Glory, and though they failed to win over much of the rocker's audience, it represented their first major incursion into the mainstream; it also helped make Young a cult figure within the alternative circles during the '90s.
For their second major-label album, Dirty, Sonic Youth attempted to replicate the sloppy, straightforward sound of grunge rockers Mudhoney and Nirvana. The band had been supporting those two Seattle-based groups for several years (and had released a split single with Mudhoney and brought Nirvana to DGC Records), and while the songs on Dirty were hardly grunge, it was more pop-oriented and accessible than earlier Sonic Youth records. Produced by Butch Vig, who also produced Nirvana's Nevermind, Dirty became an alternative hit upon its summer 1992 release, generating the modern rock hits "100%," "Youth Against Fascism," and "Sugar Kane." Sonic Youth quickly became hailed as one of the godfathers of the alternative rock that had become the most popular form of rock music in the U.S., and Dirty became a hit along with the exposure, eventually going gold.
Sonic Youth again worked with Vig for 1994's Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, which entered the U.S. charts at number 34 and the U.K. charts at number ten, making it their highest-charting album ever. The high chart position was proof of their popularity during the previous two years, as it received decidedly mixed reviews and quickly fell down the charts. Later in 1994, Moore and Gordon -- who had married several years before -- had their first child, a daughter named Coco Haley. Sonic Youth agreed to headline 1995's American Lollapalooza package tour, using the earnings to build a new studio. Following the completion of the tour, Sonic Youth released Washing Machine, which received their strongest reviews since Daydream Nation. After a series of experimental EPs issued on their own SYR label, they resurfaced in 1998 with the full-length A Thousand Leaves. NYC Ghosts & Flowers, which featured Jim O'Rourke as a producer and musician, followed in the spring of 2000. O'Rourke became a full member of the group, touring with the band and appearing on and producing 2002's Murray Street.
The five-piece Sonic Youth returned in 2004 with Sonic Nurse; one year later, however, O'Rourke departed the band to pursue a career as a film director. Late in 2005, the remaining bandmates issued SYR 6, a recording of a benefit concert for the Anthology Film Archives that Sonic Youth had played alongside percussionist Tim Barnes. Rather Ripped, a fusion of the mellow, sprawling feel of the band's previous two albums with a more stripped-down sound, was released in 2006. In 2008, the band resurrected the SYR series: J'Accuse Ted Hughes arrived that spring as a vinyl-only release, while Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth chronicled an improvised performance at 2005's Roskilde Festival. They also assembled a compilation album for Starbucks, Hits Are for Squares, featuring the previously unreleased track "Slow Revolution."
EVOL was a major leap forward for Sonic Youth, but Sister is a masterpiece, demonstrating the group's rapidly evolving musicality. More than ever before, Sonic Youth's songs sound like actual songs, and their collages of noise, distortion, and alternate tunings are now used to provide texture and depth to the music, which is original, complex, and rewarding. Not only is there the full-throttle roar of "Tuff Gnarl," but there are shimmering layers of ambient harmonics and dissonance that are as haunting and challenging as any of their barrages of feedback. Furthermore, Sister has a warm sound, which lures the listeners into music that's defiantly arty but never indulgent. It's one of the singular art rock records of the '80s, surpassed only by Sonic Youth's next album, Daydream Nation.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Sonic Youth made their first moves toward rock with EVOL, a stunningly fluent mixture of avant-garde instrumentation and subversions of rock & roll. The band benefits greatly from the addition of structure, which gives its aural experiments a firm grounding, but the addition of drummer Steve Shelley is essential to the group's new, dangerous edge. With the added propulsion, the fearless rush of "Expressway to Yr Skull" (aka "Madonna, Sean and Me") and the near-pop of "Green Light" are undeniably powerful as are the eerie textures of "Shadow of a Doubt."
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
By refining the song-oriented breakthroughs of Sister and developing their fascination with noise and alternate tunings, Sonic Youth created a masterpiece of post-punk art rock with the double-album Daydream Nation. Though the self-conscious sprawl of the album might appear self-indulgent on the surface, Daydream Nation is powered by a sustained vision, one that encapsulates all of the group's quirks and strengths. Alternating between tense, hypnotic instrumental passages and furious noise explosions, the music demonstrates a range of emotions and textures, and in many ways, it's hard not to listen to the record as one long piece of shifting dynamics. But the songs themselves are remarkable, from the anti-anthem of "Teen Age Riot" and the punky "Silver Rocket" to the hazy drug dreams of "Providence" and the rolling waves of "Eric's Trip." Daydream Nation demonstrates the extent to which noise and self-conscious avant art can be incorporated into rock, and the results are nothing short of stunning.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
After the regressive, low-key Experimental Jet Set, Trash & No Star, Sonic Youth appeared to be floundering somewhat, but Washing Machine erased any notion that the band had run out of things to say. Easily their most adventurous, challenging, and best record since Daydream Nation, the album finds Sonic Youth returning to the fearless exploration of their SST records, but the group has found a way to work that into tighter song structures. Not only are the songs more immediate than most of the material on their earlier records, the sound here is warm and open, making Washing Machine their most mature and welcoming record to date. It's not a commercial record, nor is it a pop record, but Washing Machine encompasses everything that made Sonic Youth innovators, and shows that they can continue to grow, finding new paths inside their signature sound.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Picking up where Murray Street's languid experimentalism left off, Sonic Youth's somewhat awkwardly named Sonic Nurse shows that the band still sounds revitalized, and may have even tapped into a more fruitful creative streak than they did on their previous album. Anyone who has stuck with Sonic Youth this long knows more or less what to expect from them, but the group still has the potential to surprise; one of Sonic Nurse's biggest surprises is the return of Kim Gordon.
Kim Gordon had a relatively limited presence on NYC Ghosts & Flowers and Murray Street, but she's back in a big way on this album, contributing four tracks; not coincidentally, Gordon's songs are among the strongest on the album. "Pattern Recognition" gets Sonic Nurse off to a strong start and ranks among her best rock songs, falling somewhere between "Kool Thing" and "Bull in the Heather" in its icy-hot appeal. Her quieter songs have just as much impact: "Dude Ranch Nurse" boasts an oddly timeless guitar lick and lyrics ("Let me ride you till you fall/Let's pretend that there's nothing at all") that blur the line between alluring and nihilistic. "I Love You Golden Blue" is another standout, a beautiful but bleak ballad with ghostly vocals that recall Nico at her most fragile. Of course, the rest of the band finds moments to shine: Thurston Moore's "Dripping Dream" begins as absurdist, angular rock (although he still has the ability to make phrases like "We've been searching for the cream dream wax" sound like the coolest thing ever) and stretches out into a beautiful epic, with the interplay of feedback and guitar lines giving it a comet-tail majesty. "Paper Cup Exit," the requisite Lee Ranaldo track, has a sharper-edged mix of noise and melody than most of Sonic Nurse. Another of the album's surprises is how much of its inspiration seems to come from the band's late-'80s/early-'90s material. It's not just that the band slams George W. Bush on the mellow protest song "Peace Attack," just as Dirty's "Youth Against Fascism" railed against the first President Bush, or that they peer into the void of pop culture on "Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream" as they did on Goo's Karen Carpenter tribute, "Tunic." On songs like "New Hampshire" -- which could pass for a lost track from Daydream Nation -- Sonic Youth actually sound younger and more enthusiastic than they have in a few albums. All told, this album is probably the band's best balance of pop melodies and avant-leaning structures since Washing Machine; even if it doesn't rank among their most ambitious work, Sonic Nurse sounds like the kind of album Sonic Youth should be making at this point in their career.
Words - Heather Phares
When DGC Records signed Nirvana in 1991, one of DGC's A&R reps expressed the opinion that, with plenty of touring and the right promotion, the new act might sell as well as its labelmate and touring partner Sonic Youth. The surprise success of Nevermind upended previous commercial expectations for Sonic Youth (among other established alternative rock bands), and when Dirty was released in 1992, it was seen by many as the band's big move toward the grunge market.
Which doesn't make a lot of sense if you actually listen to the album; while Butch Vig's clean but full-bodied production certainly gave Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo's guitars greater punch and presence than they had in the past, and many of the songs move in the increasingly tuneful direction the band had been traveling with Daydream Nation and Goo, most of Dirty is a good bit more jagged and purposefully discordant than its immediate precursors, lacking the same hallucinatory grace as Daydream Nation or the hard rock sheen of Goo. If anything, Dirty finds Sonic Youth revisiting the territory the band mapped out on Sister -- merging the propulsive structures of rock (both punk and otherwise) with the gorgeous chaos of their approach to the electric guitar -- and it shows how much better they'd gotten at it in the past five years, from the curiously beautiful "Wish Fulfillment" and "Theresa's Sound World" to the brutal "Drunken Butterfly" and "Purr." Dirty was also Sonic Youth's most overtly political album, railing against the abuses of the Reagan/Bush era on "Youth Against Fascism," "Swimsuit Issue," and "Chapel Hill," a surprising move from a band so often in love with cryptic irony. Heard today, Dirty doesn't sound like a masterpiece (like Daydream Nation) or a gesture toward the mainstream audience (like Goo) -- it just sounds like a damn good rock album, and on those terms it ranks with Sonic Youth's best work.
Words - Mark Deming
Released in 2002 this was the band's twelth album and was the first to feature Jim O'Rourke as an official fifth member of Sonic Youth. The album is named after the street on which the band's studio was located in New York Ciy between 1996 and 2006. On the BBC's website they reviewed the album saying, "In a world where most guitar groups regurgitate mouldy old ideas, floundering ham-fistedly around in a sea of stupidity and borrowed riffs, it's a relief to turn to this intelligent, confident and, dare one say it, tasteful record." It's hard to disagree. The young blonde haired girl to the right on the album's cover is Coco Hayley Gordon Moore, the daughter of band members, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon.
Considering that Sonic Youth lost Jim O'Rourke and found the custom-tweaked, irreplaceable guitars that were stolen in 1999 before heading into the studio to make Rather Ripped, it seemed that the album could be a big departure from what they'd been doing on Murray Street and Sonic Nurse -- possibly a return to the kind of music they could only make with those instruments, or perhaps an entirely different approach that reflected their revamped, old-is-new-again lineup.
Rather Ripped ends up being of a piece with their previous two albums, and often plays like a stripped-down, slightly less-inspired Sonic Nurse. Once again, Kim Gordon contributes some of the best tracks here; "Reena" and "Jams Run Free" are equal parts dreamy and driving, while "The Neutral" is a sweet, low-key love song. Thurston Moore contributes a gently but powerfully political track à la Sonic Nurse's "Peace Attack" with "Do You Believe in Rapture?," a reflection on peace and apocalypse that's mostly serene, even if the guitar harmonics throughout the song add shivers of doubt and tension. "Rats" is a standard-issue Lee Ranaldo song, freewheeling and poetic (and with lines like "Let me place you in my past/With other precious toys," it has the sharpest lyrics on Rather Ripped), even if it's not quite as amazing as the previous album's "New Hampshire." Rather Ripped's rock songs are solid, but not amazing -- the interplay of Moore's and Ranaldo's guitars and Steve Shelley's drumming are the best things about "Sleepin' Around" and "What a Waste." Actually, the more atmospheric songs end up being some of the most compelling. "Lights Out" reeks of whispery, late-night cool, and the closing track, "Or," is one of the sparest and most oddly unsettling songs Sonic Youth has done in a while (not to mention a reminder that quiet doesn't always mean peaceful in this band's world). Rather Ripped is also surprisingly lean, with the songs on its first half feeling so tightly structured that they seem like radio edits. Only "Turquoise Boy" and "Pink Steam" really open up and deliver Sonic Youth's famously sprawling, jam-based sound. If Rather Ripped is a tiny bit disappointing, it's only because the band's playing outpaces their songwriting ever so slightly. It's a solidly good album, and if taken as part of a trio of albums with Sonic Nurse and Murray Street, it shows that Sonic Youth is still in a comfortable yet creative groove, not a rut.
Words - Heather Phares
Any doubts as to the continuing relevance of Sonic Youth upon their jump to major-label status were quickly laid to rest by Goo, their follow-up to the monumental Daydream Nation. While paling in the shadow of its predecessor, the record is nevertheless a defiant call to arms against mainstream musical values; the Geffen logo adorning the disc is a moot point -- Goo is, if anything, a portrait of Sonic Youth at their most self-indulgently noisy and contentious, covering topics ranging from Karen Carpenter ("Tunic") to UFOs ("Disappearer") to dating Jesus' mom ("Mary-Christ"). Even Public Enemy's Chuck D joins the fracas on the single "Kool Thing," which teeters on the brink of a cultural breakthrough but falls just shy of the mark; the same could be said of Goo itself -- by no means a sellout, it nevertheless lacks the coherence and force of the group's finest work, and the opportunity to violently rattle the mainstream cage slips by.
Words - Jason Ankeny
Beginning with Washing Machine, Sonic Youth returned to more adventurous territory, and in 1997, they released a series of EPs that illustrated their bond with such post-rock groups as Tortoise and Gastr del Sol. Those EPs, as well as the epic Washing Machine closer, "The Diamond Sea," provide the foundation for A Thousand Leaves, the band's most challenging and satisfying record in years.
The blasts of dissonance that characterized their SST masterworks have been replaced, by and large, by winding, intricate improvisations. There's a surprising warmth to the subdued guitars of Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Kim Gordon, which keeps the lengthy songs captivating. Both Moore and Ranaldo concentrate on quiet material, which almost makes Gordon's noisy politicized rants sound a little out of place, but her best moments ("French Tickler," "Heather Angel") have unsettling, unpredictable twists and turns that greatly contribute to the success of A Thousand Leaves. It may be their most cerebral album in ages, but that only makes it all the more engaging.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine