10 Best Sonic Youth Songs
Born in the early '80s downtown New York music scene and raised on a cocktail of No Wave jitters, avant-garde noise and punked-up attitude, Sonic Youth started out as a highly experimental group of downtown noiseniks before evolving into a fully formed rock band responsible for some of the most ambitious and universally celebrated albums of the last 30 years. Here, we count down Sonic Youth's 10 best songs. There were certainly plenty to choose from. After dishing slabs of chilly, challenging fare like their self-titled 1982 debut and 'Confusion is Sex,' the quartet -- singer-guitarist Thurston Moore, singer-guitarist Lee Ranaldo, singer-bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Steve Shelly, who joined in 1986 -- pulled it together for the triumphant late-'80s triumvirate of 'EVOL,' Sister' and 'Daydream Nation,' long considered their magnum opus. Since then, they've reinvented themselves over and over, going from art-damaged alterna-gods ('Dirty') and mellow, mid-aged rockers ('Washing Machine') to scene-leading elder statesmen ('The Eternal'), all while earning props from fellow musicians for their unique guitar-tuning schemes, innovative playing styles and massive arsenal of custom-modified, battle-worn guitars. With the shocking divorce of indie power couple Moore and Gordon last year, the future of the Youth remains up in the air. But regardless of what happens to the band, Sonic Youth's powerful legacy will forever remain.
‘Dirty’ was Sonic Youth’s ticket in the alt-rock lottery that followed the massive breakthrough success of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind,’ yet lead single ‘100%’ showed the band would only hit it big on its own terms. Kicking off with a maelstrom of overdriven guitar feedback, the tune quickly turns into an up-tempo, punkish ode to underground rock. SY never quite reached the platinum success of some peers, but ‘100%,’ peaked at No. 4 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart and remains their biggest radio hit to date.
Who would’ve thought that one of Sonic Youth’s best-known songs would be a Carpenters cover? The Youth originally recorded this unique take on the Californian pop duo’s ‘Superstar’ for the tribute album ‘If I Were a Carpenter,’ but it was its inclusion on the soundtrack to the hit 2007 indie flick ‘Juno’ that brought it to the mainstream. Actress Ellen Page’s titular character digs the tune when Jason Bateman’s SY fan Mark first plays it for her, but further appreciation of the the band's catalog proves difficult. “I bought another Sonic Youth album and it sucked,” Juno rants in a pivotal scene. “It's just noise!”
Early Sonic Youth releases showed the band’s roots in the downtown New York noise scene, from the ‘70s No Wave movement to Glenn Branca-inspired guitar orchestrastration, but 1985’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’ was the first album to pair those influences with classic rock song structures. Album closer ‘Death Valley ‘69’ is five minutes of frantically brutal dueling guitar terror and teetering beats, with Thurston Moore and seminal NYC rocker Lydia Lunch less sharing vocal duties than screaming bloody murder.
If 1991 was the year punk broke, 1995 was the year Sonic Youth forever secured their spot as elder statesmen of the alternative nation. That summer the band headlined a touring Lollapalooza lineup filled with their disciples – Beck, Pavement, Hole, et al – and they often closed their set with the final track from that year’s ‘Washing Machine’ album. A sprawling 20-minute-plus jam of drifting licks and shimmering noise, ‘The Diamond Sea’ is equal parts ‘Daydream Nation’ and Grateful Dead, with Moore’s pristine vocal melodies floating beautifully atop.
Sonic Youth bid adieu to the indie world and signed with the major label DGC for 'Goo,' and first single 'Kool Thing' is the clarion call that announced the switch. A raucous, punked-up ditty wrapped around around a powerfully infectious slightly atonal three-note hook, 'Kool Thing' features Kim Gordon on the mic, railing against some vague notion of "male white corporate oppression" before trading words with out-of-left-field collaborator Chuck D of Public Enemy in the breakdown. Then Moore and Ranaldo crank their amps and bring the noise. Turn it up!
Kim Gordon handles the vocals on 'Bull in the Heather, the first single off Sonic Youth's 'Dirty' follow-up 'Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star.' The Youth had come to terms with not striking alt-rock gold by 1994, and 'Bull' finds the band moving beyond blatant anthems and finding their footing with a quirky, noise-splattered minor masterpiece featuring wild wordplay about, of all things, a Kentucky Derby long shot named Bull in the Heather. (He didn't win.)
If ‘Kool Thing’ was the hit single off ‘Goo,’ then the Lee Ranaldo-sung ‘Mote’ was the sleeper. The low-key Ranaldo often plays George Harrison to Thurston Moore’s John Lennon in Sonic Youth, taking over the reigns infrequently but turning in some their most memorable tunes -- and ‘Mote’ could be considered Lee’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Sleeps.’ “I'm down in the daytime out of sight/ Comin' in from dreamland I'm on fire,” Ranaldo sings over surges of melodic guitar snarls, perfectly summing up his spot in the band.
Sonic Youth's 1988 double LP 'Daydream Nation' is oft considered their masterpiece by critics and fans alike, and first song 'Teen Age Riot' is hands down one of the greatest opening tracks in the history of rock. A clear-eyed, slack-jawed anti-anthem against apathy, the tune was written as a pro-indie battle cry for teenage angst in the face of Baby Boom nostalgia and Reagan-ized '80s America -- and has since become a timeless statement on the power of youth movements everywhere.
From 'EVOL' (1986)
Godfather of grunge Neil Young once called ‘Expressway to Yr Skull’ one of the greatest guitar-rock songs ever written, and to see them perform it live is to understand why. The closing track off 1986’s darkly gorgeous ‘EVOL’ (that’s “love” spelled backwards) opens with Moore evoking the band’s fascination with ‘60s counterculture icons like Charles Manson (or crucifying '80s pop stars like Madonna, take your pick) before quickly devolving into five minutes of a driving, transcendent, mind-blowing noise freakout, with drummer Steve Shelley's frantic tom pounding eventually giving way to blissed-out guitar drone. The original vinyl pressing had a lock-groove at the end, sending listeners off with an infinite loop of chiming guitar hum.
Arguments could be made for placing several songs atop this list, but 'Schizophrenia,' the lead cut from 'Sister,' perfectly encapsulates all the band's best attributes in one track. The song is grouped into three distinct sections, kicking the first off buoyed by Steve Shelley's steady, toms-and-snare beat, which backs a slightly atonal guitar riff with Moore's surreal vocals. There it segues into a slow-burning middle passage, with Moore and Ranaldo's interlocking harmonics chiming behind Gordon's ghostly whispers, before act three kicks in. A quick-rising sonic cathedral, which builds in tension at a frenzied pace before an epic payoff of transcendent guitar glory. "Schizophrenia is taking me home," indeed.