Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Neither Elegy Nor Effigy: The 30 Greatest Sonic Youth Songs...And the 10 Worst (Part Three)

Pretentious preamble sucks.  Yer gonna smile, sneer or shrug at these choices no matter what.

10.  "Kotton Krown"
APPEARS ON:  Sister (1987)

Love song definitely, but what's the object of affection?  A person?  A city?  Heroin?  Is it heroin?

Thurston's interview-speak supports the non-opiate theory ("It's a fine line between sensuous and sleazy").  Giving credence to the more sordid take is that a cotton ball can be used to filter the heroin solution just prior to shooting up.  Only one person knows for sure, and it's possible he's actually forgotten by now.

Lyrically, I can't but want to bake it muffins:  "Angels are dreaming of you," "Your carnal spirit's spraying," "I'm a Care Bear."  Wait...misheard that last one.  But yeah, who the hell writes like that?  This is back when Thurston was a true poet, long before he felt compelled to adopt the affectations of one.  "Angels are dreaming of you" floors me to this day.  I'm serious.  Don't try picking me up either.

Musically, it's a roaming zoo packed with pandas and komodo dragons.  2:12 to 3:51 is the aural manifestation of an orgasm having an orgasm.

"White Kross" comes screaming right after "Kotton Krown," short and sweat-splashed in sharp contrast.  It educes this very unnatural desire in my heart--to escape my body.  First it eyes what would seem the easiest route by attempting to burst from my chest, then up through the throat, and finally it pushes laboriously against my spine.  No such luck, ticker o' mine.

9.  "Rain King"
APPEARS ON:  Daydream Nation (1988)

Sonic Youth's most woefully underappreciated song. 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.  "Crossfire rain king with his cadillac kid/Marries every dictionary from his trainyard bliss." Are you fucking serious, Ranaldo?  A writer needs some gelatinous cognitive processes happening in his head and deeply-stained blood rushing through everywhere else to scratch those words out.  Amazing, amazing language. 

I already explained why I chose "Hey Joni" over "Eric's Trip," so why "Rain King" over "Hey Joni"?  Letter-chain magic.  Work it just right, and the world will volunteer to be your assistant.

8.  "Hoarfrost"
APPEARS ON:  A Thousand Leaves (1998)

Lee's best song as a member of Sonic Youth; his upcoming solo album may or may not have a track to better it.  No song, save for the gently falling "Skating" by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, evokes winter with more sure-footed vision.  It's tempting to melt into the nearest surface when "Hoarfrost" fills the room.

With this song and "Karen Koltrane," Lee shines on what I feel is SY's best album.  So wherefore art the damn thing then?  On the cusp.  Just "Hoarfrost" is more in my mind these days, is all.

7.  "Starfield Road"
APPEARS ON: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994)

Give grown men zap-guns and they'll regress in record time.  It's all fun and games till the spacecraft lands.  The invasion will be brief and devastating, thankfully.  Meticulous planners, those so-called "aliens." 

My dear Patrick and I were in attendance to witness the reappearance--after twelve long years--of this song in concert.  When Steve busted out the BOOM BOOM PISH BOOM BOOM BOOM PISH, we were hopeless to do anything other than erupt.  Just another memory for the friendliest bank I'll ever do business with.  

Also?  Best introduction in the history of anything.

"Bull in the Heather" is Neptune, "Starfield Road" is Saturn.

6.  "The Diamond Sea"
APPEARS ON:  Washing Machine (1995)

Stands with "Kool Thing," "Schizophrenia" and "Teen Age Riot" on the shortlist of songs that can claim the title of SY's signature tune.  At 19:35, it is the longest song to ever appear on a Sonic full-length.  

It is possible to experience a positive crisis, which seems to be the case for the protagonist of "Diamond Sea," a lucky soul experiencing the first wondrous days of romantic love in bloom.  Thurston's words are solicitous and kind, but it's the extended instrumental section that does the most to quell the anxiety threatening to derail a beautiful journey.  The method so used expresses an entire lifetime spent in thrall to the heart.  Life, to death.   In between, don't be afraid to share a secret or two.

Before "The Diamond Sea"'s appearance at the end, Washing Machine's title track was the longest song on an SY record--nine whole minutes!  Kim rides the blissful memory of sippin' a soda and rolling her eyes at the future while the jittery kid in the orange/red down vest a few tables over inadvertently makes his mom crush on him.  

5.  "Massage the History"
APPEARS ON:  The Eternal (2009)

To hear Kim Gordon tell it, you need to really lean in.  Once at optimum position to discern words, she'll gladly tell your her dual inspirations for "Massage the History":  Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the dying record industry.  Definitely explains the blood-sucking references, and also why Kim sounds like she's pale and shaking the entire time.  

Except isn't about a TV show or gasping monolith.  I mean that's cute and all, Kim knows how to work a soundbite and make the idiot fishermen happy with their catch, but this song is probably the most personal she's written since "Sweet Shine."  

The band make us wait 100 seconds before Kim starts singing. The lead in is a magnificent melding of Thurston's acoustic and Lee's electric slide guitar. The resultant mirage melts bones.  

2:51 to 2:54. Three seconds where the best parts go taut against each other. Lee's mournful slide; Kim's yearning voice. It seems almost impossible for such a rapturous concurrence of sounds to exist. That it does is testament to the rewards of the journey.

"You're so close/Close to me."

If this was the last song Sonic Youth ever recorded…brilliant.  Standing fucking ovation till my hands become raw.

Putting another song against this one isn't fair.

4.  "Inhuman"
APPEARS ON:  Confusion Is Sex (1983)

And if this was the last song I ever saw Sonic Youth perform live….

How powerful is a blow that breaks your tongue and makes your teeth bleed?   Funny how I even see it coming and can't (or won't) stop the assault.  Sick, sick puppies all around.    

Thurston's rumble-fuck bass instills in me the very mistaken notion that I can dropkick a brick loose from a wall.  

"(She's In A) Bad Mood" is analogous to "Inhuman" in that both traffic in sketchy menace, but the chick Thurston's yakkin' about doesn't scare me.  She can borrow some of my Midol and deal with it.

3.  "Theresa's Sound World"
APPEARS ON:   Dirty (1992)

We all know a Theresa; maybe you're fortunate enough to be one.  In touch with worlds beyond, privy to sounds and visions that escape the limited purview of the huddled masses yearning to be, a gracious host and compassionate friend…even if she doesn't seem to have a filter on her thoughts.  Her unabashed, uninhibited spirit emboldens some, repulses others, and affects everyone deeply.  

She is not a sex symbol, and cannot be swayed by the crackling come-ons of silly boys.  I like you, "Sugar Kane," but you aren't a Theresa.

2.  "Silver Rocket"
APPEARS ON:  Daydream Nation (1988)

Flat-out rock and goddamn roll with patented feedback break, all in the aid of electrical edification.  Flashing, smashing, bending, upending, mighty usurper of gruesome thoughts, "Silver Rocket" tells me that space travel is kinda crap when so much potential exists down here with astral travel still.  

"Teen Age Riot" is a true anthem inasmuch as a self-aware, highly intelligent band will allow.  But it never changed my life.

1.  "Star Power"

Still the champion of my Sonic heart, and always will be.  I'll put it in writing and notarize that baby. 

"Star Power" isn't forever linked in my mind with some pivotal life-event, it doesn't put me in  mind of a special someone--I just fucking love the song.  EVOL was SY's first album with Steve Shelley behind the kit, and "Star Power" is their first true attempt at "pop," with the new kid laying down a martinet beat that allows Lee and T to tentatively explore melodic fields.  Kim takes her (then) husband's words and recites them in a voice that gives the impression she's several hundred paces from the boy party, reflecting on idol worship with a promethazine passion, somehow sounding alluring despite her deliberate remove.  

"Everything turns black to blue."  Everything.  Hell, even the truncated acoustic version they recorded in 2009 for some show I don't care about was dipped in honey.

I have waxed so rapturous over what happens from 1:02-1:16, likened it to shaving mountainsides with nylon strings, claimed it was the closest any of us will get to attaining "sensory sponge" status without the use of illicit drugs, and most drunkenly proclaimed it would be the first song Snoopy played at a pizza party.  I ain't wrong about any of it.

I know many of you will bemoan that I did not place "Shadow of a Doubt" anywhere in my top 30.  Well, I gotta be in the mood for sexually-charged murder plots playing out on accelerating vehicles.  I am always in the "Star Power" mood.

Okay, on to the controversy.  Why do a "Worst" list?  Well, I've written so much about my favorite band, and as their chapter seems ready to come to a close, so is mine.  Writing about SY has done more for me than I can tell you. So if I'm about to call it a day,  might as well cover all the bases.  I've never done a "Worst of SY" before (frankly 'cause they don't have very many bad songs over 27 years of recording music) so this is new territory for me and my pen.   And also, they're a band of human beings, not the Four Sublime Lords come into Being.  They fuck up sometimes.  Ten times, in fact.  

10.  "Do You Believe In Rapture?"
APPEARS ON:  Rather Ripped (2006)

What a waste of harmonics.  The American people sure as fuck didn't deserve eight years of aw-shucks Godboy Bush anymore than the people of the world deserved three minutes of soggy faux-protest poetry.  

9.  "Satan Is Boring"
APPEARS ON:  Bad Moon Rising (1985)

Song is boring.  Drugs make music better except when they don't.  

8.  "Lights Out"
APPEARS ON:  Rather Ripped (2006)

I swear I don't hate Rather Ripped; NYC Ghosts and Flowers is still their least impressive album.  But Jesus, the nadirs on Rather Ripped are just jaw-droppingly bad.  It's okay for Thurston to sing along to the guitar line so long as said line is interesting.  Don't meander and call it menace.  OOH IT'S LIGHTS OUT FOR ME I'M SO SCARED.  Pfft.

7.  "In the Mind of the Bourgeois Reader" 
APPEARS ON:  Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994)

What a waste of an amazing title.  Thurston coulda saved this one by pulling a Gadsby of sorts:  no use of the letter "o" anywhere in the lyrics.  I vaguely remember liking this one when the album was first released, but I was sixteen and easily impressed.

6.  "Peace Attack"
APPEARS ON: Sonic Nurse (2004)

Thurston's heartfelt desire for a just world is commendable.  Writing songs that bore me a hole allowing me to fall to my death, not commendable.  Maybe an additional verse would have given the track some variety and thus spice and thus life?  I dunno.  When Thurston's in putrid-poet mode it's best not to give him any more room.   

5.  "My Arena"
APPEARS ON:  "The Diamond Sea" single (1995)

Advice:  Write sober, edit wasted.  Not the reverse, which is clearly what happened here.  Soft as chow mein noodles.  Quick repetition of the last word in a line helps make any song 25% more "what the hell is this shit?"  It's befuddling how it starts off with Thurston's envelope poetry ("You smell like a rosary/And you like a Jew") and then some Jet Set-style Kim takes over.  Her refrains are mildly pleasing, but go on for far too long.  "Nowhere to go, nothing to do," and nothing to say atop it all.

"You drunk all my wine girl."  Yeah, well you clearly got hold of all the crack, my dude.

4.  "Self-Obsessed and Sexxee"
APPEARS ON:  Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994)

Another song where I admire and appreciate Thurston's sentiments while utterly loathing the overall execution.  The only interesting part of the song is the "party all the time" refrain, which just makes me want to listen to that Eddie Murphy song.  

3.  "Stalker"
APPEARS ON: "Drunken Butterfly" single (1992)

I would rather have a stalker than listen to this song.  "Got me prowlin' like a police car."  Dude, how did this happen?  

2.  "Sleepin' Around"
APPEARS ON:  Rather Ripped (2006)

A promising instrumental chug turned fatuous throwaway thanks to--

"Sleepin' around/Sleepin' around/What would the neighbors say?"  

Oh, I have some ideas.  Post-K & T split this song makes me even more squeamish.  It's enough that their separation has tainted a good song like "Titanium Expose," but turning this one from piss-poor to crappy is just beyond the pale.

1.  "Small Flowers Crack Concrete"
APPEARS ON:  NYC Ghosts and Flowers (2000)

I have a love/hate relationship with this song.  It's about as enjoyable to listen to as synchronized puking, but man is it fun to scribble out some parodic poetry in its dishonor.  Give me some aimless hippie drivel and I'll work like Rumpelstiltskin on that shit.  

Some songs should be accompanied by a list of possible side effects.  "Small Flowers Crack Concrete" is one of them.  "May cause shortness of breath, nausea, rash, drowsiness, loss of appetite, heartburn and narcotic squads to sweep through your poet den."  Poetry for the sake of poetry, oh ghost of T. S. Eliot won't you save us from poetry for the sake of poetry!   On the title track, Lee does it right.  He delivers his carefully-chosen words casually at first, then lets the emotion build up naturally.  The end result is an actual song, as opposed to, your band came up with some music, and you threw a poem you had laying around on top of it.  

Now, then...that wasn't so bad, was it?  


  1. Yesss, Massage The History is fantastic!! Panty Lies should've been in here somewhere, haha! A Thousand Leaves or NYC would be their low point for me but I agree with you about Ripped: when it's bad, it's BAAAAD. Great list, really enjoyed your writing!

  2. Live in L.A. now...but will always be "Fucked up in Cleveland!"

  3. you left 900 songs of their songs off the "worst" list

  4. great list..... and I thought I was the only one who thinks "Starpower" is the bees knees. nice read


  5. NYC Ghost & flowers is my favourite album of the 2000's... "Nevermind" is one of my very favourite SY songs.
    Except that, I agree with you. (I would also switch "wildflower soul" and "self obsessed ans sexeeee".

  6. Enjoyed reading the list. I will go back and revisit some of the songs I have not listened to in awhile. Pretty idiosyncratic though. "Starpower" is a cool choice for #1. Personally, I would include more from the last three studio discs and leave "Confusion is Sex" in the back of the record collection. Thanks for posting!
    Greg B

  7. nyc ghost & flowers is one of my favorite SY albums. that being said you left total trash off the 10 shitty songs list. cause that song is just awful.

  8. To me a best of SY list without Teenage Riot, Schizophrenia, Tom Violence, and Shadow of a Doubt is unthinkable, but to each his/her own.

  9. This list is very intersting for me, a non-english-native-language sonic youth fan. I'm from Chile, and its very fun to see that over there, where you speak english, some lyrics sound "stupid" or, I don't know, simplistic, obvious, or just thrown away there. Never thought Peace Attack or Small Flowers had BAD lyrics (maybe they do). I really enjoy them both, maybe because, even if I know the lyrics well, it's not the first thing that comes to mind while listening, because the relation with the "message" of the song, for a native-spanish speaker, its not direct. Me in particular, maybe I tend to listen to a "mood" in the song before the lyrics themselves, and those lyrics, even if I'll eventually know them by heart (mainly because I read them on the internet afterwards), never get too much "over" the song, meaning they never determine it. But now that I think of it, maybe it is true that Small Flowers is just some poetry for the sake of poetry. You gave me something to think about.
    Oh, and Eric's Trip instead of Rain King, The World looks Red instead of Inhuman, and no Kim song from A Thousand Leaves (best SY album!)?

  10. It's not a bad list. 'Theresa's Sound World' will never fall out of my top 10 list of all songs ever recorded by anyone. I would have put in at least an honorable mention for "Screaming Skull," which almost -- almost -- sounds like a song a lot of bands could make. And yet it doesn't because they couldn't.

    No accounting of the low points of 'Rather Ripped' is complete without 'Rats.' And I come from a heavy bias toward 'Lee' songs.

    'Massage the History' is fantastic, as is 'Malibu Gas Station.' And nothing in the annals of guitar rock exceeds the first minute of 'Calming the Snake.'

    'Unwind' is a near-perfect lullaby, and it's not their only lullaby.

    So you were right --- everyone who reads this list agrees with you completely.

  11. Star Power? Really?
    Not that it's bad, but...then, I've never been a big fan of EVOL as a whole, and Thousand Leaves might be my least favorite SY album.
    Glad to see my #1, Diamond Sea, in the top ten at least, along with Inhuman, but would definitely put Tunic up there with it, along with Swimsuit Issue, The Sprawl, Kill Yr. Idols and the much-maligned Mieux: de Corrosion...also probably Scooter + Jinx, which, slight as it is, may have done more than any other track to expand my musical horizons...
    Least favorite: Panty Lies.

  12. I'm in disbelief anything from THE ETERNAL could make the top 10.

  13. "Massage the History" is an all-timer to me. It struck me that way from the first listen.

  14. Yes! Rain King! Mike Watt said he always looked out for the Lee song on an album ("Aw man, THIS is the LEE song...") -- this is the best Lee song of the three amazing ones on SY's best album.

  15. Where is "Dirty Boots"?????

  16. Nice list!

    I miss Tom Violence and Wish Fulfillment (another great Lee composition!) in the 'greatest' section.

  17. I expected I would have to protest at least one or two inclusions in your bottom 10. And while I don't completely agree (StreamXSonic Subway was spared?), I can't say I really like any of those. Well done!