Artist Spotlight: Sonic Youth
by Seth Colter Walls | April 5, 2013
First things first: Let's all agree to hope that Sonic Youth's hiatus, initiated in the wake of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon's divorce, does not mean the end of the band for all time. (Though Gordon herself has sounded pretty over her "old band" in recent interviews.)
But even if it's all over, well, what a catalog they're leaving behind! Each of their studio recordings -- beginning in 1982 with the Sonic Youth EP -- has at least a couple keepers. What may be shocking is how natural the No Wave-meets-stutter-funk underpinning of "The Burning Spear" sounds next to a much later track like 1992's "Youth Against Fascism." The tenor of the squall changed, the production got better, Steve Shelley took over the drums and Thurston's voice got a little deeper, but the sonic blueprint had already cohered.
From the tentative songforms of Bad Moon Rising to the late-in-life crisp execution of albums like Murray Street and Sonic Nurse (both of which benefited from Jim O'Rourke's skill with production and counterpoint), the band always maintained a singular voice. In between those biographical eras, you can find five consecutive titles that might be considered not just essential alt rock, but one of the strongest runs in rock history, spanning 1986 to 1992: EVOL, Sister, Daydream Nation, Goo and Dirty. The underrated Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star gave Sonic Youth their biggest MTV moment in 1994 with "Bull in the Heather" -- a pop song that could only have been composed by this band. Fans differ on later albums, but there are undercover hits on each one, all the way up to The Eternal, released by Matador in 2009. Check out the appended playlist, Sonic Youth: Top Tunes, to hear the 35 on-purpose "songs" that hang together the best, regardless of what year they were composed.
Because Sonic Youth were never just about songs, however, but about exploration, noise and texture as well, I've cooked up a bonus playlist, Sonic Youth: Top Freakouts. From collaborating on a screamo EP with Boredoms' Yamatsuka Eye (see TV Sh*t) to covering such avant-classical pieces as Christian Wolff's "Burdocks" (on Goodbye 20th Century), this is a side of the band that has inspired countless artists currently jamming on the margins of alt rock. Some albums, like 1998's A Thousand Leaves, have cuts on both playlists, befitting a band that always blurred the lines between pop and more outré styles. If you're missing Sonic Youth during this extended hiatus, getting to know some of their more out-of-the-way recordings is better than just holding your breath. So here's our comprehensive look at the S.Y. catalog.