Friday, April 13, 2007

The 30 Greatest Sonic Youth Songs Ever

Agree or disagree, know that this list is the product of blissful deliberation.

30. "I Dreamed I Dream", Sonic Youth
A Kim/Lee duet (the first of a few, despite what Bob Bert apparently believes), but that isn't the sole reason this EP track remains a fan favorite. On the heels of a hurricane, this is isolated menace. Everything about it is call-and-response: repetitive bass harks reiterative percussion to a tidy bed only to see two gleaming, jagged guitar buddies cannonball their resting place and soil the sheets.

The lyrics concern a couple seemingly doomed due to one or the others nagging solipsistic views. Sentiments are half-hearted either in actual word or delivery, but intoned so memorably by Lee and Kim that they stick to any surface. The infamous "fucking youth/working youth" would be echoed in the most bitter, cynical entry of Lee's JRNLS80S (yeah, Lee, I do read you), while Kim manages to make a woman uttering the word "impotence" a boner-birthing experience. See how she's my idol?

HIGHLIGHT: The perverted orchestral-sounding guitar section that splits the two individual spoken passages of the song is fresh as ever.

29. "Rain King", Daydream Nation

I can't handle this insane wait for East Coast DDN shows to be announced; there are two songs that will be played during said set that will cause dog-frenching pleasure overload in your humble writer: #25 and this, one of Lee's overlooked works of genius. The stream-of-consciousness lyrics pop up through SY's version of classic rock like the eternally cool observations of a man who has seen enough to know you shouldn't see it all.

HIGHLIGHT: "Crossfire rain king with his cadillac kid/Marries every dictionary from his trainyard bliss." Are you fucking serious? Amazing, amazing language. And oh yeah, taking bets now on how much of the lyrics Lee forgets for the new tour.

28. "Brother James", Kill Yr Idols
Bob Bert's drums only sound shit compared to the skin-pounding Steve "Jim DeRogatis' mom loves me" Shelley produces on all live versions of this beastly tune. But whereas said stage versions slay via speed, the version on record is tribal ritual, and not one of those encouraging regenerative powers either. People are losing virginity, limbs and lives to this soundtrack. Inspired by loser guru Jim Jones.

HIGHLIGHT: "Take my hand, you might as well/We're goin' straight to Hell." I don't know about y'all...I'm going where Kim says go.

27. "The Neutral", Rather Ripped
You may find this song boring, if you suck.

Rather Ripped got ripped ratherly, Dick Dastardly, either due to the overwhelming poppy field it traversed or the utter lack of skronko freako weirdo Ono Bobo mojo. Which borders on "official line" crap, really. People need to stop couching their dislike of Kim Gordon with these adorable explanations. Please be blunt about your aversion to the greatest female in music history so I can pity you. Please express your desire to live in a world where Sonic Youth is just the 3 dudes, and no Kim. 'Cause you are wrong. Sonic Youth without Kim Gordon is like sex without orgasm--not bad at all, but not as great as it can be. Kung Fu Nation needs to put that shit on a shirt.

It took a dog's eternity for me to warm up to this song, probably due to my acclimation to the whimsy of the lyrics. I don't care how many years she lives in New York or Massachusetts, Kim G. has a Cali-voice, and always will. This is a jaunt through the West just like "PCH", but less homicidal.

HIGHLIGHT: The simplistic purr of that effected riff after both instances of the chorus. Which was never replicated that well live, unfortunately.

26. "Shaking Hell", Confusion is Sex (I was at the show this performance is from...fuck yes)
The retarded funk of the bass and whack-a-mole guitar is C-level fright-flick--it's only when shit gets minimal that we enter Don't Look Now territory. Kim sounds as frightful as her nemesis Courtney Love looks these days. And, finally discovered she's a--what? What is she? A whore? A white slave? A Stepford Wife? A Republican?

HIGHLIGHT: When Kim gives the order to shake.

25. "The Sprawl", Daydream Nation

Kim's shining succession of moments on a momentous record. But it wouldn't be here were it solely her show, believe that. When people talk about SY stretching out and "extrapolating", this is a song that they refer to. One person's "goes nowhere" is anothers "holy shit, I didn't want that to stop."

HIGHLIGHT: "Does this sound simple? Fuck you. Are you for sale? Does 'fuck you' sound simple enough? This was the only part that turned me on, but he was candy all over." Snoopy isn't even this cool.

24. "French Tickler", A Thousand Leaves

You knew the greatest album ever had to have its say. Sonic Youth hit a peak phase here ("phase" being the operative word) and Kim's meditations on leisure go from beckoning to threatening so abruptly you could just hear all the Washing Machine devotees squeeze their cheeks together.

HIGHLIGHT: The entirety of Kim's vocal performance. I listen to her all out of key and think of how many people it pissed off and Eight miles wide, baby.

23. "Skink", Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star

Kim owns this album; I still don't understand why it's her professed least favorite SY wreck-hard ever. Oh wait, of course I do; it's her unbearable guilt over hogging the spotlight and denying Lee Ranaldo's songs their rightful place, right? Lee fanboys are the greatest!

I want to swim slooooowlyyyyy around a green-lit pool as this song plays on a 3-hour loop.

HIGHLIGHT: "Here. There." Great example of guitars complementing Kim's vocals...not a common occurrence in the SY oeuvre.

22. "Inhuman", Confusion is Sex

Overrated like water into wine, but still tremendous--like walking on water! The guitars brook no pretense; they're too busy stabbing the dumbass kids who don't (or can't, stupid hormones!) hightail it out of the house immediately upon finding their friend hanging lifeless from the ceiling fan. Jim Sclavunos plays his freaky, loves-to-have-items-inserted-in-his ass off.

"My body is a pasttime/My mind is a simple joy/But you don't know me/And you don't need me/Complete inhuman". They'd never again plumb such pessimistic depths.

HIGHLIGHT: The beginning, AKA, revving up Satan's lawnmower.

21. "Mote", Goo

Just like "Eric's Trip", this is a Lee track folk consistently orgasm over, except I understand it in this case. As evidenced by "Rain King", Lee sounds killing whilst reciting the poetry of a vagabond mind over swirling guitar noise and steady, insistent rhythm.

HIGHLIGHT: The last 4 minutes. The moment on Goo when anyone with ears realized this band could never "sell out."

20. "Sunday", ATL

So brilliant not even a video featuring a talentless actor making out with his girlfriend can ruin it! (Just imagine the "So Easy A Caveman Can Do It" commercials.) This set the tone for an album chock full of lazy haze and vague yet somehow profound meditations on the autumn of life. "Sunday" is loaded with emotion and enlightenment on the levels of lyrics and music, and it
gives the overwhelming impression of a man happy with his lot.

HIGHLIGHT: The riff that kicks in at 0:15 is a total jack of Helium's "Skeleton". You will acknowledge Mary Timony as your guitar!

19. "I Love You Golden Blue", Sonic Nurse

I dunno; tis fact that Kim sequenced this album, and I want to know why she put this near the end instead at the very beginning, as it was rewarded in the live show.

Tell me why the Youth should follow the herd in loosing sinister squeals and squalls when their old asses can actually execute songs brick-thick with weariness, sorrow and contemplation? Especially with Kim Gordon whisper-singing all the while.

HIGHLIGHT: "I can't feel the thrill." I couldn't have been the only one who had my heart filled then snapped in half.

18. "Cinderella's Big Score", Goo

Thurston's behind-das-bridge playing at the intro is a Sonic Youth fanboys version of "you know those guitars that are like...double guitars?" Fuzzed-out and fucked-up as the protagonist (allegedly, based on Kim's schizophrenic brother Keller Gordon), with pogo-igniting drum work and flawless structure.

HIGHLIGHT; The vocals kick in, beginning and end.

17. "Screaming Skull", EJSTANS

I may be this song's #1 fan, but don't get too excited, haters. No sledgehammer to the ankles of this grizzly beauty. Sure, the Thurston "Rap Damage" version destroys in such a brilliantly stupid way that Young Jeezy will be appearing on a remix of it for inclusion on his upcoming mixtape, Thaaaaaaat's Riiiiiiiiiiiiiight: More Rhymes About Cocaine Over Shit Synth Beats.

This is SY pretty much on autopilot, but so what? Thurston multi-tracking his vox to the point of femininity is pretty damn cool, too.

HIGHLIGHT: Thurston's end-of-track adlibbing.

16. "Karen Koltrane", ATL

More heartscraping Lee-on-lost-love here, with music for a spooky midnight guiding him along. The "will she stay forever" middle passage is magnificently constructed, and demonstrates Lee is much better suited to raw emotion than either Kim or Thurston.

HIGHLIGHT: The first two lines. That's how you set up your story. Sky is the limit.

15. "Starfield Road", EJSTANS

On July 2, 1999, Sonic Youth played their last show (in Berkeley, CA, for chrissake) before the legendary gear theft. In addition to a multitude of specialty instruments, the band also apparently lost this song; it has not graced a single set list since.

Shame. Best song about anal sex ever ("Whole Lotta Love" is so overrated, don't even bring that into the discussion; that vaunted middle section isn't erotic, it just sounds like a hyena orgy taking place in a wind tunnel). Can't you just feel the KY being applied? Can't you just see the rest of the band shooting each other disbelieving looks as they hear the shit their beanstalk leader is singing? "Ai ye butt cheeks can't be tamed/As I splooey my name/In flame"? That shit's icon status. Dude is yakkin' 'bout "bend down round this garbage can" and his band mates are attempting to zap alien invaders, and why is no one answering that fucking phone?!

HIGHLIGHT: The spaceship lands! Aliens lose! Turbo goes to rocket, no shit.

14. "Beauty Lies in the Eye", Sister

Close your eyes and make a won't come true, likely, but you'll always have this song to make you believe it will.

HIGHLIGHT: The animal call that pops up like a lion's death throes throughout the song, over shimmering-with-life strumming. Sonic Youth understand contrast.

13. "Hoarfrost", ATL

Oh dear God...there are two songs in the world that effortlessly evoke snow, "Skating" by Vince Guaraldi and this. While the former is light on its feet, this is heavy on the mind. A couple traverse frosted woodlands and for what?

HIGHLIGHT: "You'll know where/When we get there." This lyric sums up the career philosophy (insofar as one could be presumed applied) of Sonic Youth. Awesome.

12. "Brave Men Run", Bad Moon Rising

I hath ripped it from "Intro" like infant from mama--deal with it.

How odd--and invigorating--this must have seemed to those familiar with the screw-in-a-swamp that was Confusion is Sex, to hear this for the first time. Signs of technical proficiency here and there, and even honest-to-Jebus, no reach required, beauty.

The lyrical play off of the title is awesome: said brave men run, alternately, "in my family", "into the setting sun" and finally, "away from me."


11. "Doctor's Orders", EJSTANS

Kim tackling (in the flag-football way) the issue of legally drugged-up women. There's a great Mary Gaitskill short story somewhere in here.

HIGHLIGHT: The guitars finally quit clearing their throats, while Kim continues her somnolent tale of a middle class princess come undone. Anyone who's heard the "raw" version of this track appreciates this all the more.

10. "Orange Rolls, Angels Spit", Dirty

No one knows what Kim is saying, not entirely. It's Charlie Brown's teacher letting her hair down for Karaoke Friday at Ruby Tuesdays, or some shit. This, of all the rockers on Dirty, is proof that SY could do balls-out crunch and roll with the best of the time, but of course they couldn't resist throwing some good ol' maelstrom in the middle--where it at? in the middle!--thus cutting the commercial legs out from under the radio-ready beast.

HIGHLIGHT: After all that pummelling and pounding, wailing and wilding..."Say goodbye." And pick up whatever you dropped, I heard that!

9. "Reena", Rather Ripped

Kim's about as on-off with hitting these notes live as I am with typing up my SY tour journals. Self-burn! More relevant, the fact that she nails it here. The lyrics are suitably open to the listener's whimsy--can't really go wrong with a bipolar female protagonist, proclaims the expert--and there's lots going on under it all if you listen. Hear the boys share adventure stories, just as they've always done, except a quarter-century on the tales have an O. Henry sense of economy and twist.

HIGHLIGHT: "I had a friend who/Cried all the time". The double-tracked vocals are perfect for the song's theme of duality.

8. "Sweet Shine", EJSTANS

The fact that Sonic Youth have never performed this live is not as tragic as the Hindenburg disaster, but it is more catastrophic than, say, the Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping (I mean, kid was a Jr.; he woulda spent his whole life in his dad's shadow).

Typical Jet Set in that the band is resting (but not sleeping), putting the onus on the vocalist/lyricist to step up and elevate. Which Kim does, much more than her husband, explaining why 5 of the 14 songs from the album have made my top 30 yet the album ranks 12th of 14 overall on that particular list.

Thurston told NME prior to the albums release that this song was "very personal to Kim." I have heard a few theories about the dominant meaning of the track, chiefly that it concerns Kim's impending motherhood. Which certain of the lyrics could suggest. However, I did a full lyrical analysis (spared you here, oh lucky reader) and decided that "Sweet Shine" is a reflection on marriage, specifically her own.

HIGHLIGHT: Wherein I make my most poignant argument.

"Cowboys are languishin'/Little girls are bees/Is it really a green stagecoach/Crawlin' up to me?"

Lines so memorable Thurston quoted them at the beginning of his Alabama Wildman book; in response to an interviewers query, he would claim to have chosen them for their quintessential Kim-ness. I think they made an impression worth regurgitating for a different reason. The cowboys are the boys in the band, in moments of relaxation, say pre- or post-concert. The buzzing girls are as close as any band on SY's level can get to "groupies". The green stagecoach--genius fucking use of Wild West imagery throughout; note also the "Marlboro belt buckle baby" line in the first verse--is jealousy, visiting the wife of the guitar hero.

And there's more, all suppositions and guesses in a fool's game. We all have our explanations to fill such open space, usually designed to endear the song to us. That was mine.

7. "Disappearer", Goo

Tom Verlaine wrote Spin magazine's review of this watershed release, the first opinion on the group my greenhorn fan self ever read. He was, as I recall, particularly taken with the lyrics to this song, and it's one of Thurston's crowning achievements in the realm of pen-to-paper. Like, I would put this song and "Small Flowers Crack Concrete" back to back on a mixtape as a joke.

The band follows T-bone's lead and creates a soundbed sweet enough to float across the nightskies on, into the parallel universe where this would have been a huge radio smash and propelled Goo to gold status. Ah well.

HIGHLIGHT: "Pick it up and/Turn it on and/Head on out to/The Western Starland". Thurston's mild surfer whine never served him so well.

6. "Titanium Expose", Goo

T-money Mackamillionz was really at a lyrical crest on this album. Here he takes a stab at pinpointing the loveliness in a marriage's routine and he actually does it. Drive-in dreams and seasonal transitions, I guess Kim Gordon would be a hell of a muse.

HIGHLIGHT: That riff. That highway patrol-defying beast of a riff. I can just see the band riding that in rehearsal for 20 minutes.

5. "Stones", Sonic Nurse

Thus far, the pinnacle track of SY's 21st-century output. The start is actually so commonplace I was praying Thurston wouldn't start singing in mimic of it. Finally, as the words enter the frame, axes swoosh to claim individual sweet spots in the forest, making the journey onward easier, unobstructed grounds guiding your feet and naked winds whipping in your face to keep you awake and alert. Let's go explore; the dead are alive.

HIGHLIGHT: The best chorus in Sonic Youth history.

4. "Theresas Sound World", Dirty

Great title, first of all. I have a friend who may or may not have had this playing in the delivery room as her child was being born; it was an SY song, but she can't be 100% sure which. A good song to either come into this world to or leave it. If this is actually about Mother Theresa, well, chalk up another song on this list inspired by real-life figures who didn't deserve the honor (oh yeah, talkin' shit about a dead saint, I'm a cunt).

HIGHLIGHT: The gently plucked "hook" of the song is less effective if not preceded by the shearing glory of the band in full throttle. Sounds like the blood rushing through your body during the best sex of your life.

3. "The Diamond Sea", Washing Machine

The guitar effect at the beginning is still too cornball for me to give this song #1, ever. I'm sure it sounds wicked when weeded, but I don't smoke, so...poor me, huh?

Compensating for this, then, are thoughtful Thurston lyrics describing a woman as she begins to fall in love. The words are sad in some parts, sage in others, and ultimately sweet ("Sail into the heart of the lonely storm/And tell her that you love her eternally").

It is breathtaking on a lifechanging scale. It is not, however, how falling in love sounds. It is how it should sound; hell, I can think of several facets of life that should be accompanied by "The Diamond Sea" when we encounter them--waking up, going to sleep, dreaming, gazing at the world outside your window until it all blurs.

HIGHLIGHT: After the above-quoted lyrics, the band settles into a 4-bar lolling riff before the guits suddenly shoot upward and light the sky like the most no-bullshit firecrackers money can buy. No one is to talk to me for the duration of this section. The heralded eternal ending of this song is rightfully worshipped, but this part gets the nod for relative economy and abruptness of evocation in the listener.

2. "Silver Rocket", Daydream Nation

A legendary album's greatest track. Pure rock and roll with patented feedback break until it's time to lose your mind once again. Live, Lee adds bells to the middle section. Son, Sonic Youth are the greatest band in the world, and no amount of grey hair, wrinkles, or pot belly makes that not so.

HIGHLIGHT: There is no "highlight"; the whole song is 3+ minutes of "how did I ever live my life without hearing this at least once a day."

1. "Starpower", EVOL (no, no live video of this; Thurston always sang it and just fucked it up so fuckingly that Kim should have kicked his balls clear up to his throat. But, then I think, well, maybe as his wife she would have vested interest not to do that)

Steve Shelley brings it steady; the guitars are timidly trying out this "melody" thing; Kim is singing in the most imperiously awesome voice of all time about the ecstasy of having an idol. "Black to blue" is how the world turns everytime I hear this song.

HIGHLIGHT: After the second citation of the chorus, when Lee and Thurston join together on a mission to use sound to scrape a layer of rock off the nearest mountaintop. I shit you never, when I first heard this song, and it got to this part, I rewound it over 10 times. I cannot--to this day--be anything but gutpunched by the sound those two mere mortals are making come out of those lovingly hotwired guitars.

So there it is...drop comments/lists as you see fit. Thanks for reading, also, I'm not exactly F. Scott Fitzgerald.


  1. my 30 is quite different at times, there is seemingly an emphasis on this century having put 8 songs from their last three albums on there, i won't add on descriptions cause i couldn't describe how you can cook an egg let alone song interpretations

    1. Schizophrenia - Sister -1987
    2. The Diamond Sea - Washing Machine - 1995
    3. Kool Thing - Goo - 1990
    4. Mote - Goo - 1990
    5. Incinerate - Rather Ripped - 2006
    6. Orange Rolls, Angel's Spit - Dirty - 1992
    7. Shaking Hell - Confusion is Sex - 1983
    8. Starfield Road - Jet Set - 1994
    9. On the Strip - Dirty - 1992
    10. Unwind - Washing Machine - 1995
    11. Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style - Murray Street - 2002
    12. Hoarfrost - A Thousand Leaves - 1998
    13. Doctor's Orders - Jet Set - 1994
    14. Silver Rocket - Daydream Nation - 1988
    15. Brother James - Kill Yr Idols EP - 1983
    16. Jams Run Free - Rather Ripped - 2006
    17. I Love You Golden Blue - Sonic Nurse - 2004
    18. Death Valley '69 - Bad Moon Rising - 1985
    19. Inhuman - Confusion is Sex - 1983
    20. Stones - Sonic Nurse - 2004
    21. Genetic - Dirty B-Side - 1992
    22. Rain on Tin - Murray Street - 2002
    23. The Neutral - Rather Ripped - 2006
    24. Washing Machine - Washing Machine - 1995
    25. New Hampshire - Sonic Nurse - 2004
    26. Sweet Shine - Jet Set - 1994
    27. Theresa's Sound-World - Dirty - 1992
    28. Candle - Daydream Nation - 1988
    29. Beauty Lies in the Eye - Sister - 1987
    30. Cinderella's Big Score - Goo - 1990

  2. Jenn, you are fucking amazing! I love to read what you write. You are totally talented. Thanks for sharing with us. Peace & Sonic Love to you and Patrick!

  3. Not putting Kill yr. idols on there is a crime