In hindsight, it feels like we eventually took Sonic Youth a bit for granted. By the time of the band’s implosion following the very public divorce of bassist Kim Gordon and guitarist Thurston Moore in 2011, there had been almost a decade of records in which the band’s pioneering—and ever-evolving—mix of avant-garde noise with radio-friendly rock and roll was received with the acclaim generally reserved for artists seen as bedrock pillars of a musical community that have nothing more to prove. As The A.V. Club put it in a review of 2002's Murray Street, “doesn’t mark an epochal moment for Sonic Youth, but its familiar nods and new ingredients… stake out another high point.” In other words: Good job, keep doing what you’re doing, etc.
But just as nobody ever expects the day to arrive when they don’t immediately rush to hear a new album from their favorite band, no one can anticipate the end of a group that felt like it would always be around—had always been around, somehow, in the collective unconscious of a million indie-rock obsessives who felt in Sonic Youth the musical and aesthetic pull of counter-cultural cool. The band, even as brash young upstarts coming of age in the no-wave scene of downtown Manhattan in the ’80s, always came across like intimidating but inspiring older siblings, introducing shy midwestern nerds and coastal outsiders alike to the radical possibilities of rock music fused with the experimental avant-garde—and a healthy dose of punk. Unless you were Robert Christgau, issuing edicts on the state of American music from a typewriter in The Village Voice office, Sonic Youth came across like they had something to teach you, and it was gonna be thrilling.
So when the long-running outfit called it quits over a decade ago, it felt like we were losing a group we hadn’t sufficiently embraced in recent years. The band members’ roles as elder statesman, combined with the stolid consistency of quality in its musical output, made it too easy for fans to just accept Sonic Youth’s presence in the pop-culture firmament without properly appreciating what it could still bring to the avant-rock table. As writer Gabe Delahaye has called it, it’s the Curse Of Being Very Good: “At a certain point, you get tired of eating the same lunch every day, even if that lunch is FILET MIGNON (widely recognized as the finest lunch there is). This is the curse of being filet mignon.”
Sonic Youth was just about the most badass filet mignon imaginable. Watch any scene from 1991: The Year Punk Broke, the sometimes satirical documentary of the band’s European tour with openers Nirvana, and try to imagine a world in which impressionable alt-rock youth wouldn’t want to spend as much time as possible soaking up the wit, weirdness, and musical chops of all four of them, even wallflower-anonymous drummer Steve Shelley (arguably responsible for making sure the world heard Cat Power for the first time, among other commendable acts). Whatever “cool” actually means, rest assured, it included Sonic Youth. And with the release this week of In/Out/In, a collection of unreleased music from the band’s final 10 years, it’s a good time to remember that fact.
But which Sonic Youth was the best? Throughout its three-decade existence, the group’s sound underwent multiple transformations—sometimes as part of a cultural zeitgeist redefining contemporary rock, at other points an insular recalibration far removed from the confines of the “alternative music” charts. And yet the signature sounds retained some surprising consistency across the years; there are moments on 1985’s Bad Moon Rising not so far removed from the churning beauty of the band’s 2009 swan song, The Eternal. It’s part of what made it so indelible: Even while forever pushing the boundaries of genres and sounds, every song remained stubbornly, and instantly, recognizable as Sonic Youth.
To truly trace the arc of its music from the finest to the slightly less fine, a few parameters were necessary. This list only includes albums considered part of the band’s canon of studio releases, meaning the records Sonic Youth put out as part of its free-to-experiment-and-improvise label, SYR, aren’t included. (This includes the variety of EPs and soundtracks put to tape over the years, though not the first EP, as we’ll explain below.) That also goes for the playful one-off release The Whitey Album: yes, it’s the band members making music together, but look right there on the cover—different name, different project. Consider it the Facebook/Winklevoss rule: If it were a Sonic Youth album, it’d be a Sonic Youth album. And while The Destroyed Room and other compilation releases contain some excellent music, they weren’t conceived as albums, and are therefore disqualified.
Still, that leaves 16 albums’ worth of music to absorb, from the earliest days of lo-fi magic to the zenith of commercial polish during the alt-rock heyday. (Though, as always with Sonic Youth, “commercial polish” should be graded on quite the sliding scale.) Read on to see where we ranked each record, and if at any point you disagree (why would you?), just remember that Thurston Moore probably shares your contradictory opinion—after all, he thinks the best songs Sonic Youth ever wrote are the ones “nobody knows about.”
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