Sonic Youth are the most respected elder statesfolk in alt-rock. Over the last 28 years—as both musicians and champions of great, obscure bands—they've done more than most to improve the world's soundscape. SY guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo brought unusual tunings and prepared axes to underground-rock prominence—translating Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham's cacophonous clangor to the Coachapalooza masses—while writing songs (with help from core members Kim Gordon and Steve Shelley) that stick in your head like feisty arguments. Within Sonic Youth's expansive sound world, avant-garde sensibilities commingle with pop instincts in a manner rarely equaled. Who else has covered Takehisa Kosugi and the Carpenters? Who else has collaborated with Merzbow and Chuck D?
Below, I pinpoint the goldest of these avant-rock luminaries' golden sounds in order to supply you with what this OG fan thinks is the ultimate Sonic Youth listening experience. Note: Tracks from Ciccone Youth's The Whitey Album were ineligible. The LP is currently recovering from this slight in an undisclosed used-CD bin.
"Intro" (Bad Moon Rising): Odd tintinnabulating and sighing guitars put you on tenterhooks for what's to come.
"The Burning Spear" (Sonic Youth): Here mainly for Gordon's most badass bass line, but Moore and Ranaldo's guitar klang and granular spray lay waste, too. SY's first song on their debut EP. Auspicious!
"Shadow of a Doubt" (EVOL): The epitome of the Whispery Kim Song™, this is subliminal Lower East Side gamelan that gives you shivers—until it explodes like a mass murderer.
"Star Power" (EVOL): As bubblegum pop as SY would ever get, save for their cover of Kim Fowley's "Bubblegum." Seemed like a surefire hit to me in '86, but, alas, the world wasn't ready for its foreboding, spine-chilling middle 8.
"Stereo Sanctity" (Sister): Lyrics inspired by Philip K. Dick set to thrillingly urgent and caustic rock. It's a literary roller-coaster ride through a fucked-up cosmos.
"Starfield Road" (Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star): Possesses some of SY's most hair-raising guitar timbres. Flares and slashes dangerously for 135 seconds and then exits before you know what the hell happened to your clothes, which are in shreds on the floor around you.
"Silver Rocket" (Daydream Nation): With its punky, wound-too-tight guitar/bass surges, Moore's bratty vocals, a bridge that sounds like the Eiffel Tower ablaze, and Shelley's speedy timekeeping, this is the definitive template for a certain SY composition that frequently recurred throughout their '90s and '00s albums. Also: While Daydream Nation has been the consensus Best SY Album since its 1988 issue, it strikes me as a bloated letdown compared to the crackling, concise zenith of Sister.
"Expressway to Yr Skull" (EVOL): A weird, ebbing-and-flowing wallow in guitar eruption and drone. "We're gonna find the meaning of feeling good" apparently involves killing California girls and firing exploding loads. Mansonic Youth, or what?
"Hallowe'en" (Bad Moon Rising reissue): Gordon deadpans in a stark stage whisper over an endearingly stumbling rhythm and a sublimely chiming, vaguely exotic guitar figure. This song is an irresistible temptress that seduces with minimal movement.
"Death Valley '69" (Bad Moon Rising): Unbelievably cinematic and dynamic, this cut screams out of the gate and takes you on a careening joyride to the desert. Fox fatale Lydia Lunch and Moore trade off lines about a doomed encounter, but the fearsomely ululating guitars are the real stars. Gordon's baleful bass line condemns the scenario.
"Pacific Coast Highway" (Sister): "PCH" starts all road-rage-y and rife with unbearable tension, as Gordon demands, "Come on, get in the car!/Let's go for a ride somewhere." But the shift in tone that occurs at 1:12 marks one of the greatest changes in SY's vast canon. The motif in the song's pacific part sounds like a whale orgasm (a great thing). "PCH" eventually returns to its original roiling state as it roars toward the vanishing point—an exhausting conclusion that has you choking on auto exhaust.
"Society Is a Hole" (Bad Moon Rising): Guitars toll like bells of doom for humanity and evoke automatons rusting in the distance as Moore numbly bemoans the grim state of things and his life. "We're living in pieces/I want to live in peace" sums up this song's fathoms-deep poignancy.
"Kotton Krown" (Sister): Containing SY's most woozily beautiful melody, this quasi ballad gradually intensifies into a fireball of coruscating guitar tones. "We're gonna take control of the chemistry/We're gonna manifest the mystery," Moore and Gordon sing in near-unison, as if under a seductive spell. This tune strikes me as an idealization of married-rocker artistic bonding. They also make the line "I'm wasted in time and I'm looking everywhere" sound like the ultimate romantic experience.
"Total Trash" (Daydream Nation): Epic, full of dramatic changes and some of da Yoof's fuzziest and densest guitar textures, and boasting a lovely seesawing melody, this is Daydream Nation's peak.
"Karen Revisited" (Murray Street): We need a Ranaldo choon; this 11-minute monster jam exemplifies his sprawling guitar calligraphy—and deemphasizes his iffy Beat poetry.
"Inhuman" (Confusion Is Sex): Captures the raw terror and excitement of what I thought early-'80s Manhattan was all about. An impure speed trip.
"100%" (Dirty): Included for shoving tuff-gnarly guitar textures into bland MTVland—and for its overall raunchiness.
"Making the Nature Scene" (Confusion Is Sex): Wiry no-wave tribal dub with Gordon sternly lecturing about urban decadence. Unique.
"Anti-Orgasm" (The Eternal): Newest SY LP The Eternal is one of their better post-Sister efforts: no towering peaks, but no duds, either. "Anti-Orgasm" finds SY recapitulating their compelling synthesis of pop catchiness, indelible riffs, chaotic dissonance, and eerily pretty codas, evoking their early masterpieces.
"Wildflower Soul" (A Thousand Leaves): Let's end this with an awe-inspiring opus. All of the grandiloquent guitar riffs inspire tears of wonder on this, SY's most heart-wrenchingly gorgeous song.