Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo and bassist Kim Gordon founded Sonic Youth in New York City in 1981, bringing Michigan-born drummer Steve Shelley on board to fill out the classic lineup in 1985. And for the next three decades, Sonic Youth ruled as one of alternative rock’s most influential bands, bringing alternate guitar tunings and feedback-drenched avant-garde noise to the major label world, headlining Lollapalooza, and even turning up on The Simpsons.
Sonic Youth played its final show in 2011, with the band going on permanent hiatus after Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s divorce. But the band has continued to regularly release archival recordings, including several live albums issued directly to Bandcamp. On March 18, Three Lobed Recordings will release In/Out/In, an excellent collection of previously unreleased studio recordings from the band’s final decade together. Here’s a look back at Sonic Youth’s 15 proper studio albums, ranked from worst to best.
15. NYC Ghosts & Flowers (2000)
NYC Ghosts & Flowers is not, as Brent DiCrescenzo wrote in a famous Pitchfork review with a 0.0 rating, ”an unfathomable album which will be heard in the squash courts and open mic nights of deepest hell.” But it is Sonic Youth’s weakest proper studio album, an icy and obscure return to the band’s No Wave roots and beat poetry influences after their harder-rocking ‘90s albums. Even the best songs, “Free City Rhymes” and the title track, sounded much better live on the tour in support of NYC Ghosts. In a 2020 SPIN interview with Lee Ranaldo, he mentioned plans to revisit those shows in the future: “We’re working on a track-by-track live rendition of that record that has a totally different vibe than the way those songs turned out on the record.”
14. The Eternal (2009)
After nearly two decades on a major label, Sonic Youth returned to the indie world, releasing The Eternal on Matador Records. It felt like an appropriate homecoming considering that Matador’s Gerard Cosloy had released Bad Moon Rising on his earlier label Homestead Records, and Sonic Youth had been a foundational influence on countless Matador bands like Pavement, whose bassist Mark Ibold had just become Sonic Youth’s new fifth member. Being a top priority at a smaller label worked well for them: The Eternal was their highest-charting album, reaching No. 18 on the Billboard 200. Unfortunately, it was the end of an era rather than a new beginning, the last proper studio album Sonic Youth would ever make. As an unintentional swan song, The Eternal holds up well, sounding like a career summary from the ass-kicking opener “Sacred Trickster” to the mellow, meandering closer “Massage the History.” And it did plant some roots for the future: Matador has since released solo albums by Moore, Gordon, and Ranaldo.
13. A Thousand Leaves (1998)
In 1996, Sonic Youth kicked off a prolific new period by building their own recording space, Echo Canyon Studio in Manhattan, and starting their own label, SYR, to release a series of experimental EPs. Their first Geffen release of that era is sprawling and relaxed, their only proper album longer than Daydream Nation. Like NYC Ghosts & Flowers, the songs on A Thousand Leaves often sounded far more lively and fully realized on the tour in support of the album. But the gentle hippie vibes of songs like the 9-minute “Wildflower Soul” point the way towards the side of Sonic Youth that would flourish on their 2000s albums. And Lee Ranaldo offers two of his finest moments as a songwriter and vocalist on “Hoarfrost” and “Karen Koltrane.”
12. Bad Moon Rising (1985)
Sonic Youth’s second full-length is a transitional record, with future Pussy Galore drummer Bob Bert filling out the quartet before their definitive lineup fell into place. Bad Moon Rising opens with “Brave Men Run” and closes with “Death Valley ’69” featuring Lydia Lunch, two striking, purposeful songs that showed Sonic Youth making major strides towards becoming a great rock band. But the tracks between those bookends are slower and spacey-er, full of tape loops, languid grooves, and dark, morbid lyrics verging on shock rock territory, making it an outlier in their catalog. They named the album after a Creedence Clearwater Revival song in the same year that John Fogerty released his biggest solo album, a Seattle band called Green River released its first record, and Sonic Youth’s pals the Minutemen released their second consecutive album with a CCR cover.
11. Sonic Nurse (2004)
The Mariah Carey-inspired “Kim Gordon and The Arthur Doyle Hand Cream” is a throwback to Sonic Youth’s sneering ‘80s salutes to Madonna. But otherwise, Sonic Nurse is full of slow burners like “I Love You Golden Blue” and “Stones” that expand beautifully on the sound of 2002’s Murray Street. “This unusually songful set is well up among their late good ones,” wrote Robert Christgau.
10. Washing Machine (1995)
Returning from maternity leave to record Sonic Youth’s ninth album, Kim Gordon decided to stick to guitar, which she’d been playing more often in her side project Free Kitten. Later on, Sonic Youth would bring in a fifth member to play bass, but for a while they became a band with three guitars and no bass, straying even further from conventional wisdom than usual. The new approach felt fresh enough that Sonic Youth actually considered changing the band’s name to “Washing Machine” before simply making it the album title. Tracked at Easley Studios in Memphis, where Pavement and Guided By Voices made albums the same year, Washing Machine is the only Sonic Youth album recorded outside NYC or New Jersey, and has a unique feel, with taut, hypnotic grooves and frequently distorted vocals. It’s best remembered for “The Diamond Sea,” a 19-minute epic that veers from one of Thurston Moore’s sweetest melodies to a long dissolving outro jam. Making up for a two-year break from performing, Sonic Youth played to some of the biggest audiences of their career in 1995, opening for R.E.M. and headlining Lollapalooza before releasing Washing Machine and embarking on their own tour.
9. Rather Ripped (2006)
Recorded between Jim O’Rourke’s departure and Mark Ibold’s arrival, Rather Ripped is perhaps the only one of Sonic Youth’s late-period albums with Kim Gordon primarily on bass guitar. And it has held up well as the most popular and immediate album of the band’s last decade, with propulsive yet melodic songs like “Incinerate” and relatively few extended instrumental passages. “Dig the way SY’s oddly tuned guitars chirp and chime where they used to gnash and grind,” wrote Tom Sinclair in an Entertainment Weekly review that compared the album’s sound to The Byrds.
8. Dirty (1992)
The stars aligned for Sonic Youth’s second Geffen album. One of the first underground bands that Sonic Youth helped lure to the label, Nirvana, had just become multi-platinum superstars. So Sonic Youth went into the studio with Nevermind producer Butch Vig to see if some of that magic would rub off on them. Did it work? Yes and no. Dirty is Sonic Youth’s best-selling album, but it still fell far short of the suddenly sky-high commercial expectations, not even going Gold. And while enormous-sounding tracks like “Sugar Kane” and “Wish Fulfillment” make good on the potential of Sonic Youth going pop while retaining their post-punk edge, songs like “100%” and “Youth Against Fascism” bridge that gap awkwardly with string-scraping noise over riffs so campy and simple they could be Chuck Berry songs. Dirty is the easiest Sonic Youth album to imagine dramatically improving on with a different running order – you could drop several of the album’s 15 songs, and maybe add in the superior b-sides “Genetic” and “Hendrix Necro.”
7. Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star (1994)
Sonic Youth stuck with Dirty producer Butch Vig for the follow-up album. But Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star is a 180 in every other respect, pivoting from their beefed-up take on grunge to a quirky, minimalist sound inspired by a new generation of indie bands, toying with lo-fi on a major label budget. Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo pluck spikey, percussive riffs, Steve Shelley switches from open hi-hat thrashing to sparse grooves with maracas, and Kim Gordon perfects her Nico sprechstimme. For many longtime fans, Experimental Jet Set was a divisive album that ended the band’s commercial ascent and wound up in a lot of record store used bins. But it’s a unique and imaginative Sonic Youth album, featuring great songs like “Bull in the Heather,” “Tokyo Eye,” and “In the Mind of the Bourgeois Reader” that sound unlike anything else in their catalog.
6. Confusion Is Sex (1983)
Sonic Youth’s eventual rise to major labels and MTV airplay is remarkable when you listen to the stark no wave of their debut album, recorded by producer Wharton Tiers in a Chelsea basement for avant-garde composer Glenn Branca’s label Neutral Records. Where Sonic Youth’s self-titled 1982 EP had such dry production that it demystified the band’s early sound too much, Confusion Is Sex has an eerily hissy ambiance that enhances the sickly sound of the guitars’ alternate tunings and early drummer Jim Sclavunos’s thumping tom-toms. “Shaking Hell” remains absolutely terrifying, an early example of the emotional power Sonic Youth could summon out of all that noise.
5. EVOL (1986)
Sonic Youth never took as big a leap forward in a single album as they did on EVOL. With the addition of Steve Shelley, a 23-year-old from Michigan who’d previously played drums for The Crucifucks, the definitive lineup of Sonic Youth was complete and their sound became more propulsive and uptempo. Lee Ranaldo made his lead vocal debut on “In the Kingdom #19,” though it’s closer to spoken word than the tracks he’d sing on later albums. And with some of their best songs to date, including “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Expressway To Yr Skull,” Sonic Youth unlocked the melodic potential of their unorthodox approach to the electric guitar.
4. Goo (1990)
Each of Sonic Youth’s ‘80s albums had a distinct sound and approach, recorded in different studios with different producers. But for their major-label debut, they wisely returned to Greene St. Recording with Daydream Nation producer Nick Sansano to make a bigger, more radio-friendly version of their greatest indie triumph. Half the songs continue in that vein, ambitious tracks that build and explode like “Dirty Boots” and “Cinderella’s Big Score.” But on the other half, including the lead single “Kool Thing,” a punky and playful pop sensibility was emerging that would give their ‘90s work a different edge.
3. Murray Street (2002)
After producing 2000’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers, Jim O’Rourke officially joined Sonic Youth as bassist (and occasional guitarist), making the band a quintet for the first time in their long history. But musically, Murray Street was a jammy, warmly melodic album, a dramatic reversal from the no-wave throwbacks of NYC Ghosts. “Rain On Tin” is the album’s ecstatic masterpiece, and with good reason became the most reliable live staple of any song the band wrote in their last 15 years together. “The band square their artier tendencies with their sweet tooth for classic psych-rock, slipping New Yawk punk solos and acid-folk riffs half-remembered from old Grateful Dead records into ‘Disconnection Notice’ and the tuneful burner ‘Karen Revisited,’” Joe Gross wrote in the SPIN review.
2. Sister (1987)
The Steve Shelley-powered lineup of Sonic Youth was firing on all cylinders by 1987 when they entered Sear Sound, a New York studio they’d later return to for Experimental Jet Set and Rather Ripped. The band had never sounded tighter, and Walter Sear’s vintage tube equipment helped give Sonic Youth’s harsh, frenzied attack an unexpected beauty. Thurston Moore packs his lyrics with references to Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novels, and nearly every song bursts at the seams with ideas, bridges and outros and tempo changes and overdubs of acoustic guitar and Moog.
1. Daydream Nation (1988)
Compact discs started to outsell vinyl in the late ‘80s. And Daydream Nation may be the last great double album of the era when vinyl reigned as the top music format, a moment when a band that had been making 35-minute albums ramped up their commercial appeal and artistic ambitions enough to justify the additional expense and resources required to make a 70-minute double LP. From the iconic opening reverie of “Teenage Riot” to the abrupt end of the closing trilogy’s “Eliminator Jr,” not a moment is wasted on Daydream Nation – even the weird Mike Watt answering machine interlude “Providence” enhances the album’s hazy aura. But what makes Daydream Nation such a durable thrill is that Sonic Youth plays as fast and relentlessly as they ever have on the blistering thrash sections of “’Cross the Breeze” and “Silver Rocket.” “Gordon and drummer Steve Shelley have become one of rock’s most feral, kinetic rhythm sections,” wrote Rolling Stone critic Robert Palmer.