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Sonic Youth

One could make the argument that no other indie rock band of the last two decades has a greater legacy than Sonic Youth. Without this gritty, arty, and uncompromising Manhattan quartet (now quintet), we wouldn't have had the same Pavement or Dinosaur Jr. or Nirvana we knew and loved. Nor would we have had Blonde Redhead or Unwound or ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead today, not the way we understand them. Sonic Youth's accomplishments are vast and thus difficult to boil down to a single sentence, but here's a stab: SY took the abstract, often cerebral experimentalism of academic music and avant-garde jazz and made it punk. In doing so, they changed the course of underground rock music.

Looking back at Sonic Youth's career, it makes sense that the group took this path; back in 1981 when they were just getting started, they were four bold, intelligent personalities jointly influenced by the avant-garde leanings of New York no wave and the aggression of hardcore punk. Guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore were there from the start, both getting to know each other while playing in assorted Glenn Branca guitar armies, where they became adept at the dissonant six-string noise and bizarre tunings that would come to define SY's oeuvre. Bassist Kim Gordon, an artist who'd recently relocated from L.A. and was working for Artforum magazine, was also a founding member; she and Thurston got married in '84, eventually coming to be seen as the crown couple of indie rock. Richard Edson was the drummer on the group's eponymous debut EP on Branca's Neutral records, before Bob Bert, who later went on to play with Pussy Galore, joined for SY's first two records. With the confrontational noise-punk anarchy of Confusion Is Sex (1983) and the only slightly more conventional ghostly and atonal guitar poetics of Bad Moon Rising ('85) (with the violent Kill Yr. Idols EP in between), SY was consolidating their influences, laying the groundwork for an incredible string of landmark underground rock albums.

The titles of these records should be familiar to just about anybody who's gotten into indie rock over the past decade and a half (and probably to lots who haven't): they were EVOL (1986), Sister (1987), and the landmark Daydream Nation (1988). The addition of new drummer Steve Shelley was crucial; his spartan timekeeping served to anchor and ground the symphonies of feedback and dissonance. By corralling their ambitious avant-garde impulses into distinctively rock and roll structures, Sonic Youth completely changed the rules of punk with these records, taking it far from the vulgar three-chord rebelliousness of a decade previous and giving it a certain classicism and elegance, while continuing to prize the distortion, the atonality, the ugly sounds that are intrinsic to the punk ethos. Vital to their music too was the street righteousness and anthemic shout of punk rock, but here it was recast in a self-consciously arty and intensely cerebral context. With its stunning range of dynamics, moods, and colors, Daydream Nation, the group's sprawling, 75-minute opus, was their crowning achievement from this period, and perhaps their entire career.

No discussion of Sonic Youth would be complete without some mention of Ciccone Youth, a bizarro side project the group launched around this time to pay twisted tribute to pop chart-topper Madonna (Ciccone is, of course, the Material Girl's surname). The diversion began with a split single featuring SY on one side covering "Into the Groove" (featuring a hypnotized-sounding Thurston on vocals) and band led by ex-Minuteman Mike Watt on the flip doing "Burning Up." This dalliance eventually produced an entire album of ironic, tongue-in-cheek sonic experimentation, The Whitey Album.

In 1990, Sonic Youth surprised a lot of people by jumping to the majors, releasing Goo on Geffen, where they've remained ever since. While it may have been the group's catchiest record to date, Goo was anything but a sellout. Instead the band continued to flirt with abrasive guitar experimentalism, while railing against mainstream cultural norms in their now trademark tongue-in-cheek style and filling their songs with all manner of lyrical obscurantism. Even if SY hadn't signed to Geffen they would have begun to get more exposure, since 1991 was of course "the year that punk broke," which saw them tour with vocal admirers Nirvana. Their 1992 album Dirty was produced by Nevermind wunderkind Butch Vig; like Goo, it reigned in the sprawl of earlier years to an extent, consolidating the noise into power-packed nuggets which displayed a more overt political slant than ever before. Perhaps partially in response to the grunge explosion, SY tuned things down some for their next album (though not nearly to the extent they would later on), offering considerably less feisty guitar noise on the underrated Vig-produced Experimental Jet Set, Trash, & No Star (1994). Washing Machine, released a year later, continued this trend, making Experimental Jet Set feel like something of a bridge album. Maybe their best album of the '90s, Washing Machine sounds like the mature Sonic Youth, filled with the warmth, grace, and reflection that had been alluded to during the more pacific moments of Daydream Nation. It's still intensely adventurous, but whereas in the early days the chaos was often dark and shadowy, here it seems suffused with light.

In 1998, SY issued A Thousand Leaves, produced by NYC guitar great Wharton Tiers, which continued to show a movement towards quieter, more restrained experimentalism. In 2000, after a massive and unwieldy tribute to the great avant-garde figures of the last century titled Goodbye 20th Century, they issued NYC Ghosts & Flowers, a foray into Chicago post-rock-style soundscaping, a direction which can be at least partially attributed to their new producer and guitarist, experimental rock composer Jim O'Rourke (once of Gastr del Sol), now a full-fledged member of the band. The New York iconography continues on their newest effort, 2002's Murray Street. Surprisingly slim by Sonic Youth standards at only seven songs, Murray Street is to the band's late '90s' output as Goo was to their late '80s output, consolidating the reflective ambient rock sprawl of recent years into tight, focused song-based pieces marked by surprisingly crisp, mellow guitar work and only occasional fireworks. It is definitely a more grown-up Sonic Youth, considerably mellower and more introspective than the days of yore, but in many ways just as satisfying as ever.