Want Some Rock with Your Noise? These Are the Best Sonic Youth Songs!

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Providing a pivotal link between the noise experimentation of the Velvet Underground and the alienated aggression of Nirvana, Sonic Youth both documented and nurtured the transition from punk to alternative. With their uncanny ability to coax metallic shards of dissonance out of overdriven guitars, Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo added more to the guitar lexicon than some more heralded stalwarts. Kim Gordon’s embittered, snarling rasp and attitude have been co-opted by everyone from Alanis Morisette to Jemina Pearl. Steve Shelley’s steadily ferocious drumming provides a helipad for the other three to launch off of. Clearly, we love this band with all our hearts and are the best people to offer the top 5 Sonic Youth Songs of All Time! Get noisy, get loose, and get ecstatic… this list is going to blow your mind!

5 “Hey Joni” from Daydream Nation, 1988

Though “Eric’s Trip” usually gets more credit, the ran-sacking anthem “Hey Joni” is the best Lee Renaldo-sung number on Daydream. With its breakneck pace and beat-inspired lyrics, the song gets furious and colorful without ever becoming too collegiate. Instead, Renaldo sings of intractable love and begs that eternal question: “When you gonna find a way to climb down off that truck?” Such non-sequiturs would all be fine reading, if they weren’t such better listening! The simple fact of the matter is that “Hey Joni’s” lyrics propel the violent rock instead of obstructing it. The song is the perfect blend of heart-wrenching apathy and visceral decimation. Kick it!

4 “Madonna, Sean, and Me” from EVOL, 1986

Their first full record with Steve Shelley, EVOL found Sonic Youth fitting their free-for-all noise into (relatively) accessible song structures — and the new approach works best on the epic raga of “Madonna, Sean, and Me.” This song invented the structure that become a favorite of SY… namely riff, verse, chorus, riff, noise. It crops up in different incarnations (“Schizophrenia,” “Rain on Tin,” etc.), but there’s a certain freshness to the innovation here. And who doesn’t want to sing-a-long to the chorus: “Mystery train, three way plane, expressway to your skull!” Especially when the song erupts at the end in demonic swathes of noise.

3 “Diamond Sea” from Washing Machine, 1995

Sonic Youth’s feedback meditations don’t get much better than this. One of their more well known songs, you might have even caught the radio edit (5:26) on alternative radio in the mid-90s. We’re bigger fans of the album version (19:35), which will drown you in shimmering feedback and swirling cyclones of wah-wah. There’s an even longer version (25:50) that will really put some noise rock meat in your bologna sandwich! One of Thurston’s best melodies is sandwiched between tides of guitar backwash, and sometimes you’ll have to wait five minutes for the next verse to come in. But when the results of their noise are this blissful and harmonious, you won’t mind a bit.

2 “Little Trouble Girl” from Washing Machine, 1995

The second single off of Washing Machine is less noisy, but no less innovative. Instead of packaging the song in noisy bubble wrap (as per usual), they puncture the fragile contents with diabolical tape-speed and echo manipulations. The whole song is groovy and pulsating, giving off a sun-faded wipe out vibe — like washing ashore and coughing up a little salt water. With guest vocals from Pixies’ Kim Deal, the whole song has a bubblegum sweetness, recalling classic girl groups like the Crystals… quite an unexpected touchstone for these noise rock pioneers! Chalk it up their brilliance and versatility that the song is accessible and catchy without compromising the band’s aesthetic.

1 “Teenage Riot” from Daydream Nation, 1988

Daydream Nation is where most people start with Sonic Youth and “Teenage Riot,” as such, might be the first real taste people have of the band… and this list will be no different! Yes, this freewheeling classic has led to as much air guitar and snarling as any angsty, high school girl’s mirror could possibly contain. But it still makes us feel cool. And it represents a watershed in Sonic Youth’s song writing, with the band finally able to meld their off-kilter tonalities with danceable beats and undeniably catchy lyrics. The song details what it would be like if Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis were president. (Major bonus points!) It’s working title “Rock’n’Roll For President” actually makes us want to vote!

Conclusion

We just fired the exploding load into the milkmaid maidenhead! What a rip-roaring blast of a playlist — noisy, groovy, violent, peaceful, punchy, and peachy. Everything you’ve come to expect from these elder statesmen (and woman… sorry Kim) of alternative. But maybe you think we’ve missed an essential number that just needs to be here. Well, say it; don’t spray it! But before we close the curtain, we have to give a shout out to our favorite tracks that came dangerously close to making the Top 5

Zack Hillman sold his soul for rock ’n’ roll, but at least he found a favorable market. Between hoop dreams and guitar orgasms, he managed to graduate from CSU Long Beach with a degree in Creative Writing. And he speaks of the pompitus of love.

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