Sonic Youth were the first truly avant-garde band I discovered. I was eleven, and I heard them for the first time, this clang-clang-bash-shriek of a band that were heavy and weird and completely insane. I didn’t get them. I loved that.
They were New York, no wave, purveyors of noise that was truly noise, and ideas that were buried under a layer of piercing feedback that could sometime be impenetrable. They have never been an easy band to listen to. But they are one of the essentials for anyone who takes music seriously.
As far as Sonic Youth albums go, the only ones more accessible is Experimental Jet Set Trash and No Star and Dirty, albums that ended up having their biggest hits. But they were essentially loud pop records, and some of the anarchy that makes Sonic Youth so amazing was lost on these two grunge era, DGC records. Daydream Nation was their last real independent release before that controversial move to Geffen, so it almost stands as the last remnant of a simpler time for music fans, when indie artists were truly indie, and corporate rock was obvious.
The band made their name as a loud, proto punk No Wave band that created a wall of sound that was created with the twin guitars of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore. The would deconstruct their instruments, create unorthodox tunings, and try to create something completely unique.
The first time I heard Sonic Youth was the track “Teenage Riot”, a six-minute song about… something. I’ve heard it’s about J Mascis as president, but I think its more me wanting to play guitar like Lee Ranaldo. This song is so very important in music history- without it, Nirvana never write Nevermind.
It’s key to remember, despite their reputation for noise and artful chaos, the band has a brilliant ear for melody. It’s just layered deep under feedback and Steve Shelley’s fantastic drumming. Shelley’s drumming has always been my favourite part of Sonic Youth, simply because there is a disconnect between the physical appearance- he looks like accountant- and the sheer levels of anarchy he creates.
There is Kim Gordon, the greatest indie goddess, the cool blonde bassist who married the cool nerd guitarist (Moore) and did a clothing line long before it was a thing. She has this really monotonic voice, but it suits everything they do. She’s droll and clever, and exudes awesome from every pore.
Then there is the Lee-Thurston twin guitar assaults, magical cacophony that grab you and pull you into their universe, and you don’t escape them ever. I’ve been known to hum “Kissibility” and “Eric’s Trip” in meetings. Lee and Thurston sound more traditional rock star vocally than Kim, though it’s hard to tell under the feedback.
My favourite songs on Daydream Nation are the lovely (for Sonic Youth) “Candle”, and the punky Joni Mitchell tribute “Hey Joni”. The former is as close to a ballad you’re gonna get from them, and the latter is kick ass fun. There is no rhyme and reason when you listen to Sonic Youth, just an appreciation for chaos theory and volume.
Yes, you do have to listen at top volume. Or else it’s pointless. Well, not pointless. But certainly less fun.
They are a band that never sold many records, but are a seminal influence. The Library of Congress believes so- it’s one of the recordings preserved in the National Recording Registry. It entered the same year as Studs Terkel’s interview with James Baldwin and Switched-On Bach. It is just that good, and it is just that vital.