Sonic Youth were one of the most influential and original bands to come out of the American underground. Formed in the early 80s, guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Steve Shelley produced a staggering amount of work, combining the intensity of hard-core punk with the performance art aesthetic of New York’s avant-grade. Embracing alternative tunings, dissonance, and feedback, they created a sonic landscape that would inspire generations to come.
With such an extensive collection to their name, it’s hard to believe they never had the hits of their ‘90s counterparts whose careers were taking off as alternative rock and ‘grunge’ broke into the mainstream. While the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam were getting constant airplay and sending plaid sales through the roof, Sonic Youth’s lack of a radio-friendly unit shifter meant they weren’t burdened by a high watermark they’d have to spend the rest of their years trying to live up to.
Making ‘noise-rock’ on their terms, the band steadily built a fanbase that revered their uncompromising approach; they made records that were popular, signed to a major while retaining creative control, and forged their own path in rock that combined loud, experimental guitar sounds with an ear for pop-tinged melodies.
From the ‘80s lawlessness of ‘Evol’ to the direct rock of ‘Rather Ripped’, here are 12 of Sonic Youth’s best songs.
12. Expressway To Yr Skull
The final track from 1986’s ‘Evol’ has multiple titles. Listed elsewhere as both ‘Madonna, Sean and Me’ and ‘The Crucifixion of Sean Penn’, it’s a towering, 7-minute-plus behemoth of rangy, dynamic guitars and steady, echoing drums that still finds room for catchy vocals. The loud-quiet shifts of the song will sound familiar to Scottish post-rockers and known fans Mogwai, and the dark, drony soundscape this track drifts into wouldn’t sound out of place on any Godspeed You! Black Emperor record. It’s the first album to feature new drummer Steve Shelley, and a fine example of why he became the band’s mainstay. Described as “unbelievably good” by long-time fan Neil Young, it kicks off our list at number 12.
11. Bull In The Heather
‘Bull In The Heather’ was the first single from 1994’s ‘Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star’. Its unique opening is surely a first on a single – the chime sound is the strings behind the bridge of a Fender Jazzmaster being plucked. From there it vaults into a steady, poppy rocker lead by Kim Gordon’s playful words and a firm, pumping drum beat from Shelley. The song is named after a Florida Derby winning horse, and Gordon has described it as being about “using passiveness as a form of rebellion.” The band recruited Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hannah for the video, and played it on David Letterman’s Late Show while Gordon was heavily pregnant.
10. Dirty Boots
‘Dirty Boots’ is the first song on our list from 1990’s ‘Goo’, and it’s a melodic thumper that kicks the record off. Featuring iconic album art by Raymond Pettibon (who designed several covers for SST Records bands, most notably Black Flag), the album is arguably Sonic Youth’s most accessible and definitive. The lyrics reference could be talking about band-life on the road as Thurston sings “dirty boots are on, hi di ho”, but could equally be about the stomping, slam-dancing of youth culture and festivals they’d been slaying in recent years. Another tune with a classic video that features a couple who meet and get together at one of the band’s shows.
Another record we’ve yet to mention, 1992’s ‘Dirty’, and the first single from it, ‘100%’. In Kim Gordon’s memoir ‘Girl In A Band’, she says this song was written about a friend of the band, Joe Cole, who was shot and murdered in front of Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins. ‘JC’, taken from the same record, is also inspired by the tragedy. ‘100%’ is a slight departure from Sonic Youth’s usual sound, and features a slower tempo with sludgy power chords. The record was produced by Butch Vig, who had not long before recorded Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind.’ An attempt at sending their fanbase stratospheric, maybe, that was never meant to be.
8. The Diamond Sea
Opening with the stick-count and iconic warble of the Ludwig Phase II pedal, ‘The Diamond Sea’ is Sonic Youth at their catchiest, mesmerizing best. Before the song was titled, the band would describe it as “new neil-eque” on setlists, and it’s easy to hear why. This distorted, searching epic comes in at just under 20 minutes on the album version, and is reminiscent of Neil Young’s extended versions of Cortez The Killer. Their first to make our list from 1990’s ‘Washing Machine’, it was edited and shortened to a five minute version so it could be released as a single. It features some of Thurston Moore’s most personal lyrics about love, as he sings “sail into the heart of the lonely storm and tell her that you’ll love her eternally”.
The warped, dueling guitar riffs that open ‘Sunday’ gives the song a spooky, haunted feel. It drifts into a ruminating, building mid-tempo number that describes how “Sunday comes and Sunday goes, Sunday always seems to move so slow.” For a band that became famous for experimental guitar wigging-out, it’s maybe the band at their most restrained. The only single from 1998’s ‘A Thousand Leaves’, the video features none other than Macauley Culkin, and was put together by ‘Kids’ director Harmony Korine.
Recommended: Check out our Sunday songs list.
6. Sugar Kane
Another song from ‘Dirty’ to make our list, the pulsating, tense opening of ‘Sugar Kane’ is unmistakably Sonic Youth. The band would often begin songs with gripping sections that sound like you’re midway through the song, and the same can be said about ‘Sugar Kane’. Dissonant feedback kicks this one off, before it turns into an energetic bouncer that sounds like Dead Kennedys’ ‘Police Truck.’ The song eventually settles into a hooky, Nirvana-like groove (which makes sense, given Butch Vig was on the mixing desk).
5. Tunic (Song For Karen)
‘Tunic (Song for Karen)’ begins our countdown from five, and it’s one of Kim Gordon’s best vocal performances. The verses consist of spoken word poetry from the bassist and vocalist, and the overall feel of the song leans into the band’s art-rock, experimental side. The titular woman the song is dedicated to is Karen Carpenter, the late singer and drummer from the sibling duo the Carpenters. ‘Tunic’ is sung from her perspective, and it’s a haunting take on the tragedy of Carpenter’s life and eventual death from anorexia. Closer listening to the song can identify the names Gordon mentions — “Janis” Joplin, “Dennis” Wilson (from the Beach Boys) and “Elvis” Presley all feature in the lyrics.
Fourth on our list isn’t technically a Sonic Youth song. It’s the second on our list that involves Karen Carpenter, though. The band recorded it for 1994’s ‘If I Were A Carpenter’, a tribute album dedicated to the Carpenters. It’s a mournful song to begin with, but Sonic Youth’s version lacks the luscious, boppy production and trumpets of the Carpenter’s 1971 cover (it was originally written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell in 1969). Moore’s vocals on this cover are almost whispered, and the words could easily be about his relationship with Kim Gordon. There’s enough pedal-heavy guitar to make this cover sound like Sonic Youth, but to a casual listen it could easily be mistaken for Sparklehorse.
Recommended: See our pick of famous covers of songs.
3. Kool Thing
Given it was their first major-label single and once on regular MTV rotation, ‘Kool Thing’ is surely the closest Sonic Youth came to a hit. It’s another on our list taken from ‘Goo’, and it’s another that features Kim Gordon’s punk-influenced, spoken vocals (and singing). It’s a melodic rocker that also combines thunderous Steve Shelley drum fills, and hypnotic guitar from both Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore. The song was shelved for years until 2000, where the addition of multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke to the band freed Kim Gordon up to sing the song while dancing. Chuck D, of Public Enemy, is the man behind the voice advising Kim to “tell it like it is”, and the song was supposedly inspired by an interview Gordon did with another rapper, LL Cool J, the year before.
Our second-placed choice is Sonic Youth at their most poppy, accessible best. The only single from 2006’s ‘Rather Ripped’, ‘Incinerate’ combines all the aspects of the band’s output leading up to it, and a late-period classic is the end result. As Thurston sings, “I ripped your heart out from your chest, replaced it with a grenade blast”, the band have never sounded more immediate and direct. Straightforward though it is, there’s enough room in the track for loose, jammy guitar licks. Ranaldo has claimed responsibility for leading the band down a ‘pedal’ labyrinth, so the guitar tones on this late-period rocker could be coming from any combo of his Fender Phaser, his Italian Sitori Sonic or his Mu-Tron. Live performances were beefed-up by the late addition of Pavement bassist Mark Ibold, who remained with the band until they split in 2011.
1. Teen Age Riot
Sonic Youth’s most played and rightfully worshipped song was originally titled ‘Rock N’ Roll For President’. Thurston Moore at the time imaged Dinosaur Jr’s frontman J Mascis as the one to unite the masses, and lyrics like “it takes a teen age riot to get me out of bed right now” and references to “Marshall stacks” were inspired by their friend and guitar hero’s playing style and sleepy demeanor. It’s a restless, high-energy call to arms driven by a catchy melody over frenzied, high-octane guitar rock. Rightly getting heavy radio play when it was released and helping the band reach a wider audience, ‘Teen Age Riot’ is our number one pick.
Recommended: Our pick of influential 80s songs (which includes this).
Note: Putting together a dozen picks from their entire catalog wasn’t easy. A few gems that didn’t make the cut include the laid back, fuzzy ‘Disconnection Notice’ from 2002’s ‘Murray Street’ and ‘Unmade Bed’ from 2004’s ‘Sonic Nurse’, which features some of Thurston Moore’s most dreamy, wistful lyrics.