Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sonic Youth: 30 Years of Anti-Pop

In the world of "indie" music, you'd be hard-pressed to find a band as highly revered as Sonic Youth, who formed in New York in 1981, as part of the No Wave and Post-Punk scenes and (unlike most bands from that era, or most rock bands for that matter) continued to make acclaimed records for 30 years, until their break up in 2011.  Sonic Youth has always been a difficult band for me.  Although I love independent music, I still maintain certain "pop" sensibilities.  Sonic Youth made a career of deconstructing and destroying all conventions of rock and pop music, while at the same time becoming champions of rock music as a legitimate art form.

Sonic Youth, early 80s.

Now that I have a regular DJ gig and a lot more free time (summer break!), I've decided to do some serious Sonic Youth research.  I've spent the past few days listening to their complete discography, and educating myself about this super influential band.  I think one reason people love Sonic Youth so much is the fact that they never "sold out," to use a rock and roll cliche.  For 30 years, they made the music they wanted to, without following any sort of pop formula or trend.  This is, for a rock and roll band, a near miracle, and a big part of why this band is so beloved by music purists.  What follows here is their complete discography (minus live recordings and bootlegs), a little about them, and my favortite songs on each record.  Check it out...

1.) Sonic Youth EP (1982).  Their first EP reflects their roots in the New York No Wave/post punk music scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Brandon Stosuy of Pitchfork Media describes their debut in this way: "This is Sonic Youth at their most icy; it's an erudite, windswept set, wrapping distortion inside danceable half frozen Liquid Liquid beats."  My favorite track is "The Burning Spear."

2.) Confusion is Sex LP (1983).  Their debut LP is more "raw" sounding than their first EP, pushing the band into more of a "Noise Rock" sound.  To create the strange and abrasive sounds on this record, guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore stuck screwdrivers and drum sticks between the strings and the fretboard.  My favorite track off this record is "The World Looks Red."

3.) Kill Yr Idols EP (1983).  This is also the title of a really good 2004 documentary about New York art punk bands.  Check out the trailer HERE.  My favorite track on this EP is the title track, "Kill Yr Idols."

4.) Bad Moon Rising LP (1985). This is almost a concept album, in that most of the songs focus on the dark side of America, exploring such themes and topics as Native American genocide, Satanism, and Charles Manson.  My parents definitely would not have let me listen to this album.  Sonic Youth's first music video comes from this album, "Death Valley '69" (which is about the Manson family).  Super dark!

5.) Evol LP (1986).  This album was released on SST Records, which was founded by Greg Ginn of the iconic punk band Black Flag.  This label is perhaps the greatest embodiment of the DIY (Do It Yourself) ethos.  Mike Watt of Minutemen played bass on two tracks of Evol.  The single off this album was "Starpower."

6.) Master=Dik EP (1987).  This may be the most "fun" Sonic Youth recording.  The title track is a kind of "shout out" to the 1980s New York hip hop scene.  That's right, Sonic Youth raps!  Also, check out their cover of The Ramones' "Beat on the Brat."

7.) Sister LP (1987). This is a concept album based (sort of) on the life and works of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.  My favorite track is "Schizophrenia," which is a mental illness that Dick's later novels deal with.

8.) Daydream Nation LP (1988).  This is widely regarded as their greatest album, their masterpiece.  It was actually chosen by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Recording Registry.    It is consistently listed on "Best Albums of All Time" lists.  If you buy one Sonic Youth record, buy Daydream Nation.  The single off this record was "Teenage Riot."

9.) The Whitey Album LP (as Ciccone Youth) (1988).  This was a kind of tongue-in-cheek homage to pop singer Madonna and 80s pop in general.  It features beatbox and samples, as well as interesting covers of Madonna's "Burnin' Up" and "Into the Groove(y)."  Mike Watt of Minutemen was part of the band on this recording.

10.) Goo LP (1990). This is probably my favorite Sonic Youth record, and the one I know the best.  The awesome cover art is by Raymond Pettibon who is now regarded as a really important contemporary artist.  He also did art for bands like Black Flag, Minutemen, and Foo Fighters.  This was Sonic Youth's major record label debut (Geffen).  The excellent documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke follows Sonic Youth on tour with Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. shortly after the release of Goo.  The singles off Goo were "Kool Thing" and "Dirty Boots."

11.) Dirty LP (1992). Entertainment Weekly called Dirty the best album of 1992, stating, "It is much-needed proof that the old-fangled concept of a rock guitar band can still result in vital, undeniably moving music."  The first music video from Dirty, "100%," was directed by Tamra Davis and Spike Jonze, and features skateboarder-turned-actor Jason Lee.  Also, the cover art was done by Mike Kelley, who recently had a massive retrospective exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA. I went to that show, and it was fantastic.  Another cool song off this album is "Youth Against Fascism."

12.) Whores Moaning EP (1993).  This was an EP released exclusively for their 1993 Australian tour. It features a re-worked version of "Sugar Kane" from Dirty, and a few other songs.

13.) TV Shit EP (With Yamatsuka Eye) (1994).  This strange EP was released by Thurston Moore's label Ecstatic Peace.  The concept of the album is four versions of the hardcore band DC Youth Brigade's song "No," which was originally a one-second song consisting only of the word "No."  This album is pretty badass, from an experimental/noise music perspective.  You can listen to the whole thing on Youtube HERE.

14.) Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star LP (1994).  This album is generally mellower than the previous few LPs.  It was recorded on an old 16-track analog tape recorder and antiquated equipment, which leads to a warm and homemade sound.  Critics praised the album's anti-commercial aesthetic.  The LA Times noted that, on this record, Sonic Youth "transcends the confining roles or pretentious art-rock band or palatable alternative group, and instead offered a penetrating album that's all its own."  This is actually a really good description of the appeal of Sonic Youth.  They manage to be challenging, yet still somehow accessible.  The single off this record was "Bull in the Heather," for which they made a music video featuring Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill.

15.) Washing Machine LP (1995).  The album contains the single "Little Trouble Girl" which features vocals by Kim Deal of Pixies.  It also features Sonic Youth's longest song, "The Diamond Sea," which is just under 20 minutes of ambient bliss.

16.) SYR1: Anagrama EP (1997).  This was the first in a series of experimental/instrumental EPs put out by Sonic Youth's own label, SYR (Sonic Youth Recordings).  Each of these SYR EPs has liner notes in a different language.  This one is in French.  This music on this record could be considered "Post Rock," a genre characterized by the influence and use of instruments commonly associated with rock, but using rhythms and guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures not traditionally found in rock.  Other notable "post rock" bands are Mogwai and Sigur Ros.  You can listen to all of Anagrama on Youtube HERE.

17.) SYR2: Slaapkamers Met Slagroom EP (1997).  The second in their self-recorded SYR series, this one features song titles and liner notes in Dutch.  The title "Slaapkamers Met Slagroom" means "Bedrooms with whipped cream" in Dutch.  This one probably falls more into the "Noise Rock" category, but (like all Sonic Youth recordings) it defies easy categorization.  You can listen to the whole thing on Youtube HERE.

18.) SYR3: Invito Al Cielo EP (with Jim O'Rourke) (1998).  For the third in their SYR series, the band collaborated with experimental musician/producer Jim O'Rourke, who has produced amazing records for bands like Wilco, Stereolab, Smog, as well as many solo projects.  O'Rourke would continue to work with Sonic Youth, and he eventually joined the band in 2002.  The song titles and liner notes for Invito Al Cielo are in Esperanto.  This EP's style may be characterized as "free improvisation".  You can listen to the whole record on Youtube HERE.

19.) A Thousand Leaves LP (1998).  The music video for the song "Sunday" off this album was directed by Harmony Korine, and it stars Macaulay Culkin and lots of ballerinas.  It's pretty bizarre and interesting.

20.) Silver Session for Jason Knuth EP (1998).  This EP consists entirely of guitar feedback with occasional drum machine.  It was dedicated to a young fan named Jason Knuth, who committed suicide.  The proceeds from the record were donated to the San Francisco Suicide Prevention Hotline.

21.) SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century LP (1999).  This unique double album features compositions by avant-garde composers like John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, and Yoko Ono, performed by Sonic Youth and collaborators.  It was praised for its effort to share important avant-garde music with a wider audience.

22.) NYC Ghosts and Flowers LP (2000).  While on tour in 1999, Sonic Youth's equipment was stolen, including irreplaceable prepared guitars and effects pedals with numerous modifications.  This was the first album they created after that devastating event, which they also saw as kind of liberating.  This album is pretty polarizing--some love it and some hate it.  Pitchfork infamously gave it a 0 out of 10.  I mostly like it.  "Nevermind (What Was It Anyway?)" is a groovy track.

23.) SYR5 Olive's Horn LP (2000).  This is a collaboration between Kim Gordon and electronic musicians DJ Olive and Ikue Mori.  It's pretty abstract, and fascinating, stuff.  Continuing the "foreign language" tradition of SYR recordings, this one's in Japanese.

24.) In the Fishtank EP (2001).  This is a collaboration with the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra (a Dutch jazz/free improvisation group) and The Ex, a Dutch anarcho-punk band.  

25.) Murray Street LP (2002).  While Sonic Youth was recording this album in 2001, the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened.  In response, the band led a Trade Center benefit festival in October.  This record is the first to feature Jim O'Rourke as an official band member.  My favorite song is "The Empty Page".

26.) Kali Yug Express EP (2002).  This was a limited edition EP released in Europe around the time of Murray Street.  It features songs from film soundtracks to "Things Behind the Sun" (directed by Allison Anders) and "Demonlover" (directed by Olivier Assayas).

27.) Sonic Nurse LP (2004).  The cover of this album was by famous contemporary artist Richard Prince.  My favorite track off this album is "Unmade Bed."

28.) SYR6: Koncertas Stan Brakhage Prisiminimiu EP (2005).  This was a live recording played to accompany the films of Stan Brakhage, as a benefit for the Anthology Film Archives.  The recording also included percussionist Tim Barnes.  The liner notes of this album were written in Lithuanian, just because.

29.) Rather Ripped LP (2006).  This album is quite accessible, and is described by Thurston Moore as "containing rockers and ballads."  A cool track off this record is "Incinerate".

30.) SYR7: J'Accuse Ted Hughes EP (2008).  This is the seventh in the SYR recordings, and was released on vinyl only.  The liner notes to this one are in Arpitan, a French regional language.

31.) SYR8: Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth EP (2008).  This is a live album recorded at the Roskilde music festival in Denmark with Swedish free jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and Japanese noise musician Merzbow.  The title is Danish for "Another Side of Sonic Youth," which is probably a reference to the famous Bob Dylan album "Another Side of Bob Dylan."  You can listen to the whole album on Youtube HERE.

32.) Sensational Fix EP (2009).  This EP, their first released on Matador Records, was put together to correspond with a traveling art exhibit hi-lighting the multidisciplinary creative activities of the band since it inception in 1981.  You can read more about it on Sonic Youth's web site HERE.

33.) The Eternal LP (2009).  This album reached number 18 on the Billboard charts, and was the band's highest-charting album ever in the US.  Like "Rather Ripped," this album is both accessible and challenging.  I like the song "Antenna". 

34.) SYR9: Simon Werner a Disparu EP (2011).  This album, the band's final studio recording before their tragic break-up in 2011, was a soundtrack to the French film "Lights Out," directed by Fabrice Gobert. 

In 2011, Sonic Youth broke up : (

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