Saturday, June 12, 2010

Top 10: Sonic Youth

For me, the Youth are simply the greatest band that has ever existed, a manifestation of perfection. It's not just the music, but on its own that would probably be enough: developing from their abrasive, no-wave-influenced early material and gradually reconciling their atonal noise assaults with a more conventional rock approach, they hit upon arguably their richest vein of form on the outstanding Daydream Nation (1988). After that, they flirted with the mainstream with sometimes compromised but always interesting results, and last decade, just when many had written them off as a spent force, the arrival of Jim O'Rourke galvanised them into creating some of the most amazing material of their career.

Aside from that, there's their vast, wide-ranging influence on the alternative scene; their use of underground artists' work on their album sleeves; their use of underground film-makers for their music videos; their voracious appetite for fanzine culture and their relentless promotion of pioneering new music; the awesome symmetry of their live performances (veering between freeform noise and thrilling, propulsive rock; Ranaldo and Moore taking off on separate tangents before locking back in; Shelley keeping everything in check)...I could go on but I'm trying to keep this concise.

#1 - 'Rain on Tin' (Murray Street, 2002)

Murray Street was a late-career album that carried a special resonance: for one, it was regarded as a return to form after the critically-savaged NYC Ghosts and Flowers. As well as that, it was named after the Manhattan studio, just a few blocks from the Twin Towers, where the band had been recording at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (Jim O'Rourke was in the studio the day of the attacks, while an engine from one of the planes was later found on the roof). 'Rain on Tin' sounds appropriately elegiac. The moment around the 3-minute mark where the guitarists start stretching out is amazing, as are the melodic, interlinking lines that follow.

#2 - 'Unmade Bed' (Sonic Nurse, 2004)

Haunting, twilit late-period classic that echoes their earlier epic 'Diamond Sea', with a lyric that hints at an abusive relationship. The increasingly violent squall of guitars halfway through takes an already great song to another level.

#3 - 'Washing Machine' (Washing Machine, 1995)

Two and a half minutes of bratty sneering from Kim is the precursor to an absolutely irresistible groove that turns the tune on it's head. The band nail it and ride it for the next seven minutes, adding lashings of feedback and squall as they go.

#4 - 'JC' (Dirty, 1992)

A haunting, gut-wrenching tribute to Joe Cole, Henry Rollins' partner-in-crime and a good friend of the band who appeared with Kim in the video to 'My Friend Goo'. The Youth have a knack of writing tributes/laments that avoid schmaltz or sentimentality (see also 'Tunic (Song for Karen)' or '100%'). See also the Henry Rollins videos below for a spine-chilling account of the tragedy that claimed Cole's life.

#5 - 'I Love Her All the Time' (Bad Moon Rising, 1985)

The live version from brilliant documentary/tour-film The Year Punk Broke is the definitive one, Ranaldo and Moore injecting bursts of freeform noise and guitar improvisation into the slow, tense march of the song. Compelling viewing, actually probably the coolest live performance I've seen on film.

#6 - 'Schizophrenia' (Sister, 1987)

I'm robbing this from a YouTube user comment: "the open chords almost make you have an epiphany of clarity for the 5 seconds they transpire where everything in your life makes sense" - I think he meant opening chords, but otherwise, YES.

#7 - 'Stones' (Sonic Nurse, 2004)

Another example of why I think the Youth are at their best when they stretch out, and why O'Rourke was such a vital cog in their noughties incarnation. Blissful guitar lines on this one.

#8 - 'Teenage Riot' (Daydream Nation, 1988)

Still undeniable, still pretty much the signature Sonic Youth tune ('Kool Thing'? Fuck right off). Also known as 'J Mascis for President', or something to that effect. If you don't thrill to that moment at 1.25 where the sublime central riff
kicks in and Shelley counts in the song proper, there's no hope for you.

#9 - 'Sunday' (A Thousand Leaves, 1998)

I remember hearing this when I was a lot younger, digging it, then later in life getting into Sonic Youth and being delighted to realise it was one of theirs. Menacing, grungy, and featuring a fantastic noise eruption. And the video! Macauley Culkin resembling a young Thurston! God, what a band.

#10 - 'Candle' (Daydream Nation, 1988)

I've always loved the video to this one, the band playing in some dingy basement, surrounded by graffiti'd walls, swirling camera-work reflecting the thrilling music, Thurston singing "Wind is whipping through my stupid mop"... It's a video that seems to represent a golden era gone by, where alternative bands retained an air of mystery and effortless cool, where a late-night viewing on MTV opened you up to a world of underground culture, but where you had to make the effort to discover it.

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