Read my reviews of albums released by Sonic Youth:
1982: Sonic Youth (???)
1983: Confusion Is Sex (???)
1985: Bad Moon Rising (???)
1986: EVOL (9/10)
Having never heard Sonic Youth at their most inaccessible, I can’t attest to whether or not this is really the moment when the band made concessions to the mainstream (or, conversely, wrote actual songs).
But, though our ears are much more used to this kind of dissonance now than they would have been at the time, this is still pretty jarring. What’s particularly jarring is that such harsh music is almost entirely free from distortion, which is something that I think very few other bands were doing at this time. And there’s ambition to the compositions that isn’t present in most music where the aim is just to be difficult and noisy.
This is not my favourite record of theirs I’ve heard, but it’s still a unique beast (for its era) and it’s an important step in making yet another form of inaccessible music (No Wave) not only accessible but, eventually, part of the mainstream.
1987: Sister (9/10)
Sonic Youth steps ever further towards accessibility with this record, finding a near perfect marriage of their no wave guitar noise and songs that you actually remember when the record is over. Honestly the accomplishment is borderline miraculous, given how unbelievably inaccessible their tunings and playings should be and I would acclaim it as a masterpiece except that I know, with the benefit of hindsight, that they made an even better record after this one.
It’s still one of the great moments of the 80s when something really arty was made accessible to a whole bunch of people who likely missed out on the no wave thing due to that movement’s deliberate difficult sound.
One of the better rock albums from the late ’80s.
My #3 album of 1987. Read my reviews of music from 1987.
1988: Daydream Nation (10/10)
This is the record when Sonic Youth finally figured out how to write songs (sort of). Sure, they’d sort of done it before at times but never had they had so many that you could actually digest as songs, rather than as something more like compositions. And the fact that they do this on a double album, which I think it is safe to assume would have seemed like something impenetrable to anyone following them in 1987, is all the more remarkable.
Yes, they were getting more accessible, but this is not an accessible band. This is the moment where they finally figured out how to take the things that made them so unique – the alternate tunings, the noise, the “unique” approach to singing – and made it proper rock music, instead of noise rock or post new wave or whatever want to call what they were making before.
Tied for my #2 album of 1988. Read my reviews of 1988 albums.
1989: Ciccone Youth: The Whitey Album (???)
1990: Goo (8/10)
Sometime between their earliest albums and Daydream Nation Sonic Youth learned how to write melodies and, as importantly, learned how to swing. (Obviously this happened gradually.) And that development is perhaps nowhere more apparent than on Goo, their most accessible album to date.
Sure, calling a Sonic Youth album ‘accessible’ is a relative thing, but it’s still the catchiest thing they’d yet recorded. There are multiple songs on the album that are as catchy as anything on Daydream Nation which was their catchiest album prior to this one.
But they still (mostly) have their edge, and there are a couple of tracks here that seem included in part to show that. These tracks are reminiscent of the noisiest Nirvana songs in the sense that they almost feel like they are there to show that the melodies that attract new (and most?) fans aren’t the only thing they’re doing. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad those tracks are here. But it does feel like a deliberate choice given the relative accessibility of the rest of the material.)
I gotta say that there is at least one track here I really don’t like (yet): “My Friend Goo.” I find it really annoying to a degree I can’t ever remember feeling about any other Sonic Youth song I’ve heard. Maybe I’ll feel differently in time but, at the moment, it’s the thing keeping me from giving this album higher marks.
Because, for the most part, this is a rather remarkable combination of their extremely unconventional tunings and melodies you can actually (almost?) hum. It’s easy to to see how critics familiar with their early tuneless music would be overwhelmed that they could ever produce something so (relatively) catchy. For me, it’s just not up to Daydream Nation, but I’ve also heard that record numerous times and this one is still new to me.
1992: Dirty (7/10)
This album has a reputation for being some kind of sort of pseudo sell out thing, which is something that only the ’90s alternative scene could have ever ascribed to an album this uncommercial. But Butch Vig is here, and there are recognizable songs, so it must be a sell out!
The truth of the matter is that Butch Vig’s trademark gloss really isn’t apparent at all and Sonic Youth had been writing more accessible music for ages at this point. So the rhythms are, at times, a little more conventional rock, so what? This still every much sounds like Sonic Youth and nobody else.
And that’s really my issue with this record, it sounds like other Sonic Youth albums I’ve heard, with not enough strong songs (to my ears) to rank among their best.
It’s still pretty decent and extremely difficult for a record that supposedly marks their concession to the mainstream, but it’s probably my least favourite of theirs I’ve heard to date…At least so far.
1994: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (???)
Sonic Youth albums from 1995:
Made in USA film score (???)
Washing Machine (???)
Albums released by Sonic Youth in 1998:
Invito al ĉielo (???) with Jim O’Rourke
A Thousand Leaves (7/10)
The first track makes me think of their early music, even though I haven’t heard anything earlier than their earlier than their fourth album, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. But anyway the opening makes it sound like they’ve gone more experimental. (Actually a few tracks do.)
But the “experimental” (read: atonal) beginning and later tracks where they get weird are contrasted with some of their most accessible music; that’s a relative thing I know, but there’s been enough bands inspired by Sonic Youth at this point that the unusual tunings have stopped sounding unusual. (Just think of Top 40 now – there’s all kinds of music that’s tonally weird now, which would have offended ears in the 1980s.)
It should be a weird contrast but it’s actually a nice balance – there’s not too much of one or the other and we’re left with the impression that they can still sound “out there” if they want to, but there also capable of writing songs, like they were at their peak.
Given the nature of their music, it’s entirely possible that after a few more listens, I could come to think of this as one of their best albums(at least of the 1990s). But at the moment I am content with viewing it as pretty good, and a reasonable middle ground between their competing impulses.