Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Sonic Youth

  • Sonic Youth [Neutral EP, 1982] C
  • Confusion Is Sex [Neutral, 1983] C+
  • Kill Yr. Idols [Zensor EP, 1983] B-
  • Bad Moon Rising [Homestead, 1985] B
  • Death Valley '69 [Homestead EP, 1985] D
  • Evol [SST, 1986] B+
  • Starpower [SST EP, 1986] A-
  • Sister [SST, 1987] A
  • Master-Dik Beat on the Brat [SST EP, 1988] C+
  • Daydream Nation [Enigma/Blast First, 1988] A
  • Goo [DGC, 1990] A-
  • Dirty [DGC, 1992] A
  • Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star [DGC, 1994] A
  • Screaming Fields of Sonic Love [Geffen, 1995] A-
  • Washing Machine [DGC, 1995] A-
  • Anagrama/Improvisation Ajoutée/Tremens/Mieux: De Corrosion [SYR, 1997] B+
  • Slappkamers Met Slagroom/Stil/Herinneringen [SYR, 1997] Neither
  • A Thousand Leaves [Geffen, 1998] A+
  • Goodbye 20th Century [SYR, 1999] Neither
  • NYC Ghosts and Flowers [Interscope, 2000] A
  • Murray Street [DGC, 2002] ***
  • Sonic Nurse [DGC, 2004] A-
  • The Destroyed Room: B-Sides and Rarities [Geffen, 2006] *
  • Rather Ripped [Interscope, 2006] A
  • Daydream Nation: Deluxe Edition [Geffen, 2007]  
  • The Eternal [Matador, 2009] A-
  • Battery Park, NYC: July 4th 2008 [Matador, 2019] A
  • Live in Los Angeles 1998 [Bandcamp, 2019] B+

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Sonic Youth [Neutral EP, 1982]
You may not think Glenn Branca's proteges are a rock and roll band, but after all, why else would they essay a lyric like "Fucking youth/Working youth"? At their worst they sound like Polyrock mainlining metronome, at their best like one of Branca's early drafts. The best never last long enough. Not for nothing is the sonic grown-up so attached to phony grandeur. C

Confusion Is Sex [Neutral, 1983]
Back in 1970 I played Max Kozloff, a Cal Arts colleague of distinctly Yurrupean musical tastes, some singles I thought instructive--"Brown Eyed Girl," "California Earthquake," "Neanderthal Man," like that. The one he flipped for was "I Wanna Be Your Dog." So if you think the sonic cover here proves they're rockers at heart, you have a fine art critic on your side. The dull rock critic wants to mention that the cover doesn't rock too good. Of course, neither did King Crimson a lot of the time. C+

Kill Yr. Idols [Zensor EP, 1983]
Idolization is for rock stars, even rock stars manqué like these impotent bohos--critics just want a little respect. So if it's not too hypersensitive of me, I wasn't flattered to hear my name pronounced right, not on this particular title track--not pleased to note that, though "Brother James" is a dandy Glenn Branca tribute and one of the tracks lifted directly from Confusion Is Sex is a lot niftier than the other track lifted directly from Confusion Is Sex, the title cut's most likely to appeal to suckers for rock and roll as opposed to suckers for boho posers. Boho posers just shoot off their mouths a lot. With rock-and-rollers you never know. B-

Bad Moon Rising [Homestead, 1985]
They're sure to disagree--what else are they good for?--but despite all their apocalyptic integrity and unmediated whoziwhatsis, the achievement of their first halfway decent record is strictly formal: simple, rhythmic songs that neither disappear beneath nor get the better of the clanging and grinding of their brutal late-industrial guitars. Whatever credibility the guitars lend to their no doubt painful but nonetheless hackneyed manic depression is undermined by their usual sociopathic fantasies, and in the end the music isn't ugly or ominous or bombs bursting midair. It's just interesting. B

Death Valley '69 [Homestead EP, 1985]
Lydia Lunch feature from current LP b/w best-of sorta from their three previous releases--all of them, as is noted once you've paid yer money and zipped yer shrink-wrap, still available in the kind of shoppes that stock such arcana--plus pieceashit outtake from current LP. Suck their dicks or pussy as the case may be. D

Evol [SST, 1986]
By deigning to play a few tunes and eschewing both dirge and breakdown for minutes at a time, these media heroes work up a credible representation of the avant-porn clichés that mean so much to them--you know, passion as self-immolation, life redeemed on the edge of death, and (last but not least) it was only a dream. The deliberately stoopid title, misspelled frontwards and misapprehended backwards, captures the loopy tone they've achieved. In fact, the good parts are so good that for a while there I thought I was enjoying the bad parts. Guess I must have been woolgathering. B+

Starpower [SST EP, 1986]
Yet another reshuffled ripoff from these master packagers, and while those who eat their Lower East Side bullshit for breakfast will want something messier, I must admit I love it: superior, edited remixes of the two baddest songs on Evol plus Kim Gordon's Kim Fowley cover--done in a monotone far catchier than the old rip-off artist deserves or could manage himself. Glad they've finally acknowledged this key influence. A-

Sister [SST, 1987]
Finally, an album worthy of their tuning system, and no, it's not like they've suddenly started to write tight or see a shrink. All they cop to is making their bullshit signify, which means keeping a distance from the insanity they find so sexy and not letting their slack-jawed musings drone on too long. Hence, those with more moderate tastes have space to feel the buzz and a chance to go on to something else before boredom sets in. With the California punk cover acknowledging their debts and the bow to coherent content safeguarding against that empty feeling, their chief pleasure, as always, is formal--a guitar sound almost unique in its capacity to evoke rock and roll without implicating them in a history few youngish bands can bear up under these days. A

Master-Dik Beat on the Brat [SST EP, 1988]
If you believe their revolutionary potential is realized only in confusion, this, how you say it, bricolage of white rap, Ramones cover, Swiss interview, and studio fuckaround will turn your world topsy turvy (again!). It's pretty long, too, which doesn't make it a bargain. Nothing revolutionary about bargains. C+

Daydream Nation [Enigma/Blast First, 1988]
At a historical juncture we can only hope isn't a fissure, a time when no sentient rock and roller could mistake extremism in the defense of liberty for a vice, the anarchic doomshows of Our Antiheroes' static youth look moderately prophetic and sound better than they used to. But they don't sound anywhere near as good as the happy-go-lucky careerism and four-on-the-floor maturity Our Heroes are indulging now. Whatever exactly their lyrics are saying--not that I can't make them out, just that catch-phrases like "You've got it" and "Just say yes" and "It's total trash" and "You're so soft you make me hard" are all I need to know--their discordant never-let-up is a philosophical triumph. They're not peering into the fissure, they're barreling down the turnpike like the fissure ain't there. And maybe they're right--they were the first time. A

Goo [DGC, 1990]
Their first true major-label album and first true song album stars the bassist who has always been this paradigm-shifting guitar band's secret weapon. Maybe Kim Gordon overrates Karen Carpenter and undervalues Chuck D. But it's "Tunic" and "Kool Thing" you'll sing along with, not Thurston Moore's pseudo/macho ZZ Top homage. Her friend Goo is your friend and my friend and the reason this music exists. In a world where songs are still counted girly, we need Goo. And it's her big sister's in-my-room ethereality, direct and spaced out at the same time, that gives her a voice. A-

Dirty [DGC, 1992]
With the help of their first real producer, they stop flirting with progress and concentrate on remaining the world's greatest rock and roll band--if Butch Vig snuck in a "Smells Like Teen Spirit," it's known only to David Geffen's bagmen, who understand things about airplay that you and I don't. "Youth Against Fascism" is catchy indeed, but fun as it would be to hear "I believe Anita Hill" roaring from a passing boombox, I don't think it'll fly. And elsewhere it's gonna be tough extricating the hooks, which are more plentiful than ever, from the noise, which makes a comeback. Aurally as well as lyrically, this album earns its title. Thurston never could carry a tune, but he can surround one. And when Kim warns you not to touch her breasts, the possibility that she's an uptight chick never crosses your mind. A

Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star [DGC, 1994]
Instead of distilling their weakness for experimental trash into noise-rock that sounds like a million bucks, they apply their skill at major-label compromise to their eternal propensity for experimental trash. After all this time, they know what they're doing when they fuck around, and their long-evolving rock and roll groove breaks down only when they have something better to do--there's nothing aleatory, accidental, or incompetent about it. Anyway, usually the groove holds; this is no Sister because it moves when it means to. Its unexpected noises are the marks of flesh-and-blood creatures thinking and feeling things neither you nor they have ever thought or felt before. If they can't quite put those things into words, that's what unexpected noises are for. A

Screaming Fields of Sonic Love [Geffen, 1995]
Would have been funny to start with Daydream Nation and concoct a perfect Goo-style song album in reverse chronological order from their pre-Geffen catalogue. Only they didn't have the material. So instead they concoct a meaningfully imperfect song-and-mess album out of several near-perfect ones and several meaningless ones. This is less funny. A-

Washing Machine [DGC, 1995]
With nothing to prove except that they can do it forever without going gold, they do it again. Recalling their roots, they stretch the title cut past its songful limits and build the finale into a 20-minute improvisation not altogether unreminiscent of the Grateful Dead. But at the same time they stick to the theoretically radio-ready songwriting that is now an aesthetic commitment, even trying their hand at a folk tune and a Shangri-Las tribute. As it happens, the latter owes the Fleetwoods. But needless to say, both ultimately sound like Sonic Youth, an institution whose guitars are often emulated and never replicated. As does everything else on a record that will startle no one and sound fresh in 2002. A-

Anagrama/Improvisation Ajoutée/Tremens/Mieux: De Corrosion [SYR, 1997]
Nine-minute intro to a song that never begins, stroll through an artificial rain forest, and two improvised explosions, the longer and more playful of which comes in jet-engine stereo. Not rock and roll, although the intro comes close. But not avant-bullshit either. B+

Slappkamers Met Slagroom/Stil/Herinneringen [SYR, 1997] Neither

A Thousand Leaves [Geffen, 1998]
This record is what it seems--mature, leisurely, rather beautiful, perhaps content. But it's neither complacent nor same-old, and after it's settled into their, I'm sorry, oeuvre, it will rank toward the top for everybody except permanent revolutionaries, a noncombatant category if ever there was one. Awash in connubial ardor and childhood bliss, undergirded by the strength-through-strangeness of angry tunings grown familiar, it's the music of a daydream nation old enough to treasure whatever time it finds on its hands. Where a decade ago they plunged and plodded, drunk on the forward notion of the van they were stuck in, here they wander at will, dazzled by sunshine, greenery, hoarfrost, and machines that go squish in the night. The melodies aren't the foci of the 11-tracks-in-74-minutes--more like resting places. But even when the band is punk-rocking le sexisme or pondering the trippy fate of Karen Koltrane, the anxiety the tunes alleviate is never life-threatening. Motto, and they quote: "`We'll know where when we get there.'" A+

Goodbye 20th Century [SYR, 1999] Neither

NYC Ghosts and Flowers [Interscope, 2000]
Maybe the trauma of guitar loss jolted them past songform, or maybe they're acting out with David Geffen gone bye-bye. Either way this impressionistic poetry-with-postrock is the most avant-sounding of their DGC-etc. product, and either way its avant parts are more listenable--nay, beautiful-t-han anything on Washing Machine if not A Thousand Leaves. Songform guy that I am, it put me off at first. But heard refracting the dusk on the Taconic Parkway or spattering through the rain on Second Avenue, its refusal to distinguish between abrasive and tender or man-made and natural is a compelling argument for their continuing to do whatever they damn well feel like. A

Murray Street [DGC, 2002]
the diligently realized sound of exhaustion ("Sympathy for the Strawberry," "Rain on Tin") ***

Sonic Nurse [DGC, 2004]
They'd rather be Coleman Hawkins, but their long-term consistency recalls less august precedents--say the Shoes, fashioning perfect pop album after perfect pop album in Zion, Illinois. Difference is, the Shoes kept it up for what seemed an ungodly long time and still got bitter and old in the span it took these citizens of world bohemia to absorb Jim O'Rourke and continue the mature phase that began with Experimental Jet Set in 1994, just after they were a fixture and somewhat after they realized they'd never be stars. This unusually songful set is well up among their late good ones, its dissonances a lingua franca deployed less atmospherically than has been their recent practice. I like the lyric about the New Hampshire boys who live for Johnny Winter even if he's a no-show. Our heroes are so much more reliable than that. They can be Coleman Hawkins if they want. A-

The Destroyed Room: B-Sides and Rarities [Geffen, 2006]
Washing Machine having cheaped out on "The Diamond Sea" at 19:35, they concoct an instrumental album to introduce the 25:48 version ("Fire Engine Dream," "Queen Anne Chair"). *

Rather Ripped [Interscope, 2006]
Their mean age up to 48 with thirtysomething troublemaker Jim O'Rourke gone, indie's gray eminences make a light, simple, terse, almost pop album. Granted, the guitar hook on, for instance, "Do You Believe in Rapture?" wouldn't sound so lovely if they and all their progeny hadn't long since adjusted our harmonic expectations. But who better to play to our expanded capacity for tuneful beauty? The vocal star is Kim Gordon, breathlessly girlish at 53 as she and her husband evoke visions of dalliance, displacement, recrimination, and salvation that never become unequivocally literal. A

Daydream Nation: Deluxe Edition [Geffen, 2007]
Loosed on the world in 1988, Daydream Nation made alt-rock a life-force. Over two vinyl discs containing just fourteen titles, it fused Sonic Youth's displaced guitar tunings with tunes as hummable as the Beatles' or the Ramones'--a standard they've matched ever since, but never again with quite so much anthemic consistency. Today, Daydream Nation's evocation of sonic youths with talent to burn and nowhere to build a fire is clearly rooted in the specifics of a Manhattan bohemia since transformed by Internet money and real estate sharks. Post-irony, its confusion-as-sex seems almost innocent. But its tunings keep it honest and its anthems keep it thrilling. A terrific bonus disc compiles covers that do justice to the band's ambition--Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick," Neil Young's "Computer World," the Beatles' "Within You Without You"--and unearths live versions of every Daydream Nation song. These are rough, intense, welcome. But the studio versions are definitive, as dense as cluster bombs. "Your life is such a mess/Forget the past, and just say yes"? "You can buy some more and more and more and more"? As words, admissions of futility. Atop marshalled guitars, artistic war cries. [Rolling Stone: 5]  

The Eternal [Matador, 2009]
Let us consider the Rolling Stones, a/k/a the world's greatest rock and roll band, who 25 years after their first album bestowed upon us the immortal Steel Wheels. Like said Stones, Sonic Youth are perfect masters of a style they created--a less derivative one, and concomitantly a less accessible one. Over Thurston and Lee's combustible tunings and Steve's strong beat, they've long since learned to construct memorable tunes track in and track out. So why is their 25th-anniversary album so much more fun than Steel Wheels--so sonic, so youthful? You think maybe it's that on a new minor label, with Pavement's old bassist freeing Kim up, they've gathered no moss, or whatever you call that green stuff mucking up the Stones' wheels? A-

Battery Park, NYC: July 4th 2008 [Matador, 2019]
Having enjoyed this free concert at a well-shaded distance, I'd best attest that my rave can't be nostalgia because this is more intense than what I remember. Played back to back with 1989's Daydream Nation, which provides half its 10 titles, or the live Daydream Nation pieced together for the 2007 "Deluxe Edition," it holds its own--the guitars sharper, more abrasive, higher in pitch. No doubt newish bassist Mark Ibold enhances this effect by relieving Thurston and Lee of the need to augment his low end as they sometimes did with Kim on bass--which in turn may well free her to dominate vocally even more than she did before. Knowing the bitter breakup that already lies in wait for this great band, it's fitting that the cover photo depicts Kim singing alone and up front. This was her record. A

Live in Los Angeles 1998 [Bandcamp, 2019]
Having always found live albums messy and preferred to spread my net wider rather than sink it deeper, I'm not inclined to stream much less review the plethora of concert tapes Steve Shelly has spent his quarantine selecting, grooming, and preparing for sale. I made this exception for two reasons. One, it showcases 1998's underrated A Thousand Leaves, a personal favorite. And two, it was hyped not just by deep-diving Joe Yanosik, whose Perfect Sound Forever rundown of live SY is recommended to completists, but wide-ranging Joe Levy, whose finds in a more historically compelling field of discourse I praise just below. Predictably, it seldom equals the studio original's lyricism. But almost as predictably on a live album worth preserving, especially by this band, the guitars are fire--including the true finale, which long predates A Thousand Leaves and which we'll pretend was chosen for geographical proximity: a "Death Valley '69" far more searing and practiced than the original. B+

See Also