Ranking All the Sonic Youth Studio Albums
After getting off to a slightly shaky start, Sonic Youth delivered a minor masterpiece with their third studio album, EVOL. From there, things just got better. They might never have been the most commercial band on the block, but their influence on the alt-rock scene of the late ’80s and ’90s is hard to overestimate. They redefined what rock music sounded like, opened the door between the underground and the mainstream, and gave us some of the most important albums of the last 40 years. Here’s how we rank all the Sonic Youth albums from worst to best.
15. NYC Ghosts & Flowers
As stereogum.com notes, NYC Ghosts & Flowers is the least loved Sonic Youth album by quite some margin, and there’s a very good reason for that. Eleven albums into their career, and Sonic Youth sound like a band starting from scratch, abandoning everything that had endeared them to their fans over the years and replacing it with a highly experimental, avant-garde approach that simply doesn’t work. Described by Pitchfork as “an unfathomable album which will be heard in the squash courts and open mic nights of deepest Hell,” this is one for the truly devoted only. Released in May 2000, it stalled at number 172 on the Billboard 200.
14. Bad Moon Rising
There are some excellent moments to be enjoyed on the band’s second studio album, Bad Moon Rising, including Death Valley 69 with Lydia Lunch and the bizarrely brilliant Halloween, but despite a clutch of excellent songs, the album seems out of place in Sonic Youth’s catalog. It’s compelling but far too morose to give any kind of indication of the crazily colored soundscapes the band would go on to paint on their future albums. Although a fascinating listen for hardcore fans, anyone new to the band will find its foreboding tone and references to Charles Manson, insanity, and Satanism an unsettling starting point. Like their debut, the album failed to make any inroads on the charts on its release in March 1985, although it did receive a generally favorable reception from the underground music press.
13. Confusion is Sex
Confusion of Sex, Sonic Youth’s debut album, didn’t get the warmest of receptions when it was released in 1983. Described by All Music as “lo-fi to the point of tonal drabness,” it’s raw, unpolished and very, very noisy. If you’re already a fully signed-up member of the Sonic Youth fan club, you might find the screechy, monotone noise fascinating. If you’re not, you’ll probably just consider it an assault on the ears. It may have been the album that set them on the path to future glory, but there’s very little sign of the masterpieces that were to come.
12. Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star
After toying with an avant-garde approach on Dirty, Sonic Youth attempted to get back to their roots with its follow up, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star Speaking about its lo-fi sound, the band has said: “The idea this time was to cut as much of it live as we could, and not labor over polishing and overdubbing in the usual big-rock manner. None of [Experimental Jet set’s] music was labored, some of it was done in people’s bedrooms, even. [… We wanted] to write the songs and record them simply and basically.” It was a noble idea, but not one that necessarily works. There are a few corkers (Bull In The Heather is worth the cost of the album alone), but overall, it’s just a little too cool for school to appeal to casual listeners. Enthusiasts might appreciate the sincerity, but others might find it too incomprehensible to be approachable. Released in May 1994, the album made it to number 34 on the Billboard 200 and number 10 on the UK Albums Chart.
11. The Eternal
After breaking ties with Geffen Records after 20 years, Sonic Youth moved to the iconic Matador label to release their fifteenth and, as it turned out, final record. The Eternal is a decent last hurrah, if an unsurprising one. For a band that had built their career on noise and confusion, The Eternal is a remarkably well-crafted, well-executed album that delivers the goods, but without the thrills and spills you’d usually expect from a Sonic Youth album. But you can’t really fault a band for not breaking new ground after almost 30 years in the business. Judged on its own merits, it’s a very solid effort… even if a few surprises would have been nice. Released in June 2009, the album became the band’s highest-charting release in the US, peaking at number 18 on the Billboard 200. In the UK, it reached number 42.
10. Rather Ripped
Rather Ripped is a good record. A great one even. If you don’t like it, you’re probably a Sonic Youth fan. And therein lies the problem. A well-structured, remarkably consistent album with actual harmonies, instruments that serve the purpose for which they were intended, played in the customary manner, and tight, traditional rock song structures might be exactly what we’d want from a regular band… but Sonic Youth? If you always wished the band could be just a little more accessible, this is the album for you. If you always considered their complete lack of interest in the mainstream part of their charm, it might not be. Released as their last album with Geffen Records in 2006, the album reached number 71 on the US Billboard 200 and number 64 in the UK.
9. A Thousand Leaves
Not everyone was a fan of A Thousand Leaves on its release in 1998. Rolling Stone, for example, criticized the songs for being “long” and “sluggish,” saying that the album “really does sound like a demo — eleven songs waiting for better organization and cliché removal.” Others took issue with Kim Gordon’s “contrived and annoying” vocal delivery. But there are always two sides to a story, and the other side of this one presents us with a challenging, deeply satisfying album with superb improvisation, clean production, and a deeply appealing, mature beauty.
For a lot of fans, Dirty represents the pinnacle of Sonic Youth’s achievements, and it’s certainly a hugely enjoyable album. With its playful approach, raw vitality, and Butch Vig’s clean production, it’s held up well, with showstoppers like 100%, Sugar Kane, and Youth Against Fascism still sounding as compellingly addictive today as they did in 1992. Critics loved it, but even more importantly, so did the fans, with the result that Dirty became one of the most successful albums of the band’s career, reaching number 6 on the UK Albums Chart and number 83 on the US Billboard 200.
7. Washing Machine
After hitting a bum note with Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. Sonic Youth made an explosive comeback with its follow-up, 1995’s Washing Machine. A mature, reflective album with a warm, inviting tone and laudable (and accomplished) ambitions, it found the band exploring new territory without deviating from their signature sound. The standout attraction is unquestionably The Diamond Sea, a 20-minute epic that serves at the album’s centerpiece. But even taking that out of the equation, it’s a remarkably accomplished album that should be considered a must-listen for both casual listeners and the devoted alike. Released in September 1995, the album took the band to Number 58 on the US Billboard 200 chart and number 39 on the UK Albums Chart.
6. Sonic Nurse
It’s an excursion, into corners weird and corners familiar”) but mostly, the reviews were excellent, praising the balance between noise and melody, the inspired vocal imagery, and the combination of violence and restraint. If 2002’s Murray Street had redeemed them after the self-indulgent misstep of NYC Ghosts and Flowers, Sonic Nurse was yet more proof of Sonic Youth’s continued return to form. Released in June 2004, the album failed to chart in the UK, but reached number 64 on the US Billboard Hot 100.
1990’s Goo, the group’s first major-label release after signing to Geffen Records, proved a turning point for Sonic Youth, propelling them to mainstream attention when it reached number 96 on the US Billboard 200 – their highest charting position till that point. Its lead single, the Chuck D assisted Kool Thing, was also a success, reaching number seven on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. Its popularity hasn’t waned in the years since, with Rolling Stone ranking it at number 358 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time in 2000, and many other publications ranking it as one of the most influential albums in the history of alt and indie rock. They may have made better records, but of all of their releases, Goo ranks as one of the most important, not only in the band’s history, but in terms of how it opened the door to let other alternative bands emerge from the underground to become dominant forces in the music industry.
4. Murray Street
After the disastrous experiment that was NYC Ghosts & Flowers, Sonic Youth redeemed themselves with its follow-up, Murray Street. There might be a few lengthy tracks in the mix, but the self-indulgence that plagued NYC Ghosts & Flowers is noticeable by its absence. It rocks, but the aggression and strung-out energy that characterized their early material is astutely balanced with delicate textures and slowed-down melodies. Focused, seductive, and endlessly listenable.
After two less than stellar albums, Sonic Youth finally proved their worth with EVOL, an impeccable record that showed them slowly emerging from the no wave experiments of their earliest days towards a more pop-orientated sound. It did absolutely nothing in the charts, but this is where the seeds of greatness were sown. If you want to hear the point Sonic Youth turned from court jesters into alt-rock royalty, this is the album to listen to.
If EVOL was a minor masterpiece, its follow-up, Sister, was a full-blown one. Commercially, it was an abject disaster, failing to make any kind of inroads into the charts. But commercial success isn’t always a barometer of merit, and here, it’s the exact opposite. Like EVOL, it takes the band further away from the no wave aesthetic of their first two albums. The experiments are as vivid and ambitious as ever, but they’re complemented by songs that can actually pass for songs. A nuanced, intelligent masterclass in indie rock, it stands not only as one of the greatest albums in Sonic Youth’s canon, but as one of the greatest albums of the last 50 years.
1. Daydream Nation
In at number one of our ranking of all the Sonic Youth albums is Daydream Nation, an album in which all of the band’s endless experiments come together to produce one of the most seminal records in the history of alt-rock. It’s an album that requires very little introduction and absolutely no explanation, but one that demands repeated, rigorous listening. Listen, then repeat. Your ears will thank you.
“NYC Ghosts and Flowers” is so unfairly called their worst album. This is baffling considering it’s basically a more concise and listenable version of “A Thousand Leaves”.
It’s a similar sounding album but much improved by: being 8 tracks versus 11; having shorter, less meandering songs (“Leaves” has 3 tracks going over the 9 minute mark); having less screechy vocals by Kim Gordon; and containing the opening song “Free City Rhymes” which is one of their most gorgeous compositions (and wouldn’t have been out of place on Washing Machine, one of their best for me).
The second half of the album is not as strong, a lot of this thanks to the closing track which is one of the worst things Sonic Youth has recorded, but everything up to this is excellent and overall this album is stronger than their first 2, Goo, and Experimental for me.