Sonic Youth: where to start in their back catalogue

In Listener’s digest, our writers help you explore the work of great musicians. Next up: the feedback-worshipping high priests of indie-rock who wedded art and pop

The album to start with

Daydream Nation (1988)

Sonic Youth: Teen Age Riot – video

One of indie rock’s truly sacred texts, Daydream Nation is both a gripping synthesis of the punk, college rock and modern composition that surrounded the young New York band, and a living mood board for so much of what would arrive in the decades to come. During 70 breathless minutes, Sonic Youth drift through refracted spoken-word and musique concrète collage, churn through Swans-like rumblings and atonal barrages, and shimmer through a series of pop-rock gems lined with shards of dissonance and sheets of feedback. This is the record that would rightfully earn Sonic Youth a major-label deal and a spot in the United States’ National Recording Registry.

Sonic Youth sometimes get a reductive rap for just making a racket. Essentially from the start, though, three distinctive songwriters powered the band in tandem, creating records that felt like rollercoasters – perhaps none more so than Daydream Nation. During its first seven songs alone, Thurston Moore lets Silver Rocket, an explosive rock hit waiting in the wings, collapse in a conflagration of smoking amps. One track later, Kim Gordon’s The Sprawl, inspired by the writing of William Gibson, lulls you with chanted vocals before the guitars split into bedlam, scoring a dystopian daydream. And Lee Ranaldo, the band’s classic rock doyen, pulls Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell into Hey Joni, a song balanced by bright harmonics and shrieking distortion and driven by a sense of trying to outrace the past. If you get from the perfect Teen Age Riot to the powerful Kissability without hearing Sonic Youth’s fundamental songwriting prowess, start again.

The three to check out next

Sister (1987)

Sonic Youth: Beauty Lies in the Eye – video

Urgent but articulate, Sister captures Sonic Youth at a quintessential crossroads. In 1987, they were stepping away slowly from their early no-wave pastiche and their purely bracing tirades, and moving toward the art-rock intricacy and coded accessibility that would remain their hallmarks. What’s more, Steve Shelley, a drummer with a preternatural sense for the way the messes Sonic Youth made would move, had settled into his role. Sister’s 10 songs continually fuse melee with melody, danger with delight.

If the Pacific Coast Highway evokes images of California’s wondrous coastline, Gordon’s song of the same name makes you fear for the hitchhiking kid on the side of the road, thumb out as the predator pulls up. Their prowling cover of Hot Wire My Heart is one of the more footloose moments in their catalogue, Crime’s punk anthem barbed with plangent guitars and blown-out bass. In the late 80s, Moore talked about incorporating elements of pop into Sonic Youth, which became more obvious in the decade to come. Listen to Sister, and you hear those inchoate ideas emerging.

Murray Street (2002)

Sonic Youth: The Empty Page – video

Murray Street, recorded in autumn 2001 in their Manhattan studio, close to Ground Zero, might be Sonic Youth’s most staggering guitar album, with Jim O’Rourke helping them realise their angular jam-band dreams. Opener The Empty Page is one of Moore’s most ready-made earworms, its riff versatile enough for an explosive solo and the crystalline bridge that follows. And his Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style, a paean to generations of New York kids surviving only on their own creative fuel, unspools around a tense, stabbing theme, as dark and dramatic as the best of what Interpol were offering. Ranaldo’s Karen Revisited opens wide into a blistering din, gnarled feedback and static blossoming into a delicate ambient murmur. For the parting shot, Gordon’s Sympathy for the Strawberry is a deceptively discordant jangle that frames her reflection on sexual liberation, like a Bildungsroman of desire and dreams. It’s a lingering testament to Sonic Youth’s perpetual ability to warp rock anthems into weird wonders.

SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century (1999)

SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century – video

Side projects, short-lived groups and stunts all litter the timeline of Sonic Youth, which has sometimes felt as much like a confederation of independent artists as a band. The SYR series – a sporadic source of live recordings, film scores and experimental ideas – served as an outlet for some of the band’s more esoteric interests.

On the splendid SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century, Sonic Youth and friends including Christians Wolff and Marclay, Jim O’Rourke and Takehisa Kosugi offer a bracing farewell to the 1990s with a survey of some of the century’s definitive new music. They linger in a miasma of scraped strings and whirring circuits during John Cage’s Four6 and grind their way through Pauline Oliveros’ charged Six for New Time. Gordon and Moore’s daughter, five-year-old Coco, even screams a Yoko Ono piece. Sonic Youth are modern art lovers who found their fame through music that reflects the Beats and the surrealists, the abstract expressionists and the dadaists. These recordings are every bit as essential to understanding Sonic Youth as Teen Age Riot.

One for the Heads

Live at the Warfield 1993

Sonic Youth haven’t played since late 2011, when news broke that Gordon and Moore were splitting. In the years since, a smattering of live albums and videos have trickled out, while the quartet’s members have remained busy. In March, drummer Steve Shelley began uploading Sonic Youth rarities to Bandcamp. This one, captured in 1993 in San Francisco on the heels of their first two major-label LPs, pulls the production sheen from those songs. 100% sports a near-industrial wallop, while Swimsuit Issue is unapologetically frantic, guitars shrieking beneath Gordon’s fusillade. The treat, though, is hearing Shelley hold the centre of a brief nod to fusion during Sugar Kane. As the band scatter slowly into a drone, he tap dances on his cymbals, letting the guitars float around him like the orbs inside a lava lamp. It’s a beautiful, gentle moment – at least until the band storms in again, much to the applauding crowd’s surprise.

The primer playlist

For Spotify users, listen below or click on the Spotify icon in the top right of the playlist; for Apple Music users, click here.

Further reading

Sonic Death, Nos. 1–7, by Sonic Youth (1991–1995)

You could spend £1,500 on the full run of Sonic Death, the fanclub zine Sonic Youth sporadically released through the early 90s. Or just download every irreverent, informative, and hilarious issue from their website. Full of slapdash record reviews, thoughtful and riotous interviews with the likes of Charlemagne Palestine and Bikini Kill, jokes about Weezer and birth announcements, they’re a delightful time capsule for the international rise of weirdo rock.

Confusion Is Next: The Sonic Youth Story, by Alec Foege (1994)

This in situ chronicle of Sonic Youth’s ascent to the fringes of the mainstream makes up for what it lacks in historical perspective with its enthusiasm for their importance to the mid-90s. Chockablock with interviews and memorabilia, it remains a sharp reminder of how important this outlandish rock music could feel.

Girl in a Band, by Kim Gordon (2015)

“Extreme noise and dissonance can be an incredibly cleansing thing,” Gordon writes in the introduction to this memoir of her life as an art student, a New York upstart, a touring musician, and a mother. She’s talking about Sonic Youth’s final stretch of shows, after news broke that she and Moore were splitting due to his extramarital affair. Gordon is often described as stoic or private, but here she’s funny, disarming and insightful, whether talking about Larry Gagosian, her brother’s mental illness or idyllic family camping trips. For an extra treat, listen to her read it herself.

Grayson Haver Currin

The GuardianTramp

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