Though they sprang from the depths of the No Wave scene by the mid eighties their music was moving towards a more structured, faster and less chaotic song form. After releasing Daydream Nation in 1989 the group was signed to Geffen Records and began releasing more alternative rock, indie rock, and grunge related material and in 1991 they toured with the grunge band Nirvana.
By the 2000s their music had moved more and more in an indie rock direction and the band began using more standard tunings and more conventional song forms with less of their trademark noise. Unfortunately, the band stopped touring and broke up by 2011 with the end of Moore and Gordon’s marriage. Though it’s been tough to pick the best songs of a band that has released so much quality material over such a long career here are the top 10 greatest Sonic Youth Songs:
# 10 – Cross the Breeze
This track appeared on 1988’s Daydream Nation, featuring Kim Gordon on lead vocals. After a short buildup, this song explodes with the speed and energy of a hardcore punk band and the prepared guitar and alternate tunings that Sonic Youth was so famous for. The song crackles with energy as Lee and Moore’s dueling cacophonous guitars howl over Shelley’s high-speed drum beat.
“Cross the Breeze,” is one of their longer songs and passes through several phases of mellow, almost psychedelic guitar before returning to the hardcore part like a refrain. Gordon’s intense vocals round off the experience with her soft yet urgent voice and surreal lyrics.
# 9 – Bull in the Heather
This is perhaps the most popular and accessible Sonic Youth song. Released in 1994 on Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, the groups second-highest selling album, Bull in the Heather has a definite alternative rock sound to it along with intricate guitar parts. The band makes use of atonal and noise elements for a surprisingly catchy result. The track is dominated by Kim Gordon’s spoken-word style vocals and a sharp rhythm from Steve Shelley. It placed high on the charts and is one of the singles that put Sonic Youth on the map in their major label years.
# 8 – Incinerate
Released in 2008 on their second to last album, Rather Ripped, Incinerate represents Sonic Youth at their most melodic and accessible. Unlike much of their material, Incinerate is in standard tuning and follows the typical verse-chorus-verse formula of most rock songs. That being said Sonic Youth executes the track perfectly with a quick beat, catchy indie rock riffs, and a vocal melody sung by Moore that sticks in your head. The lyrics follow a simple theme of comparing love to a fire that “incinerates.”
# 7 – Eric’s Trip
Written and sung by Lee Renaldo, this song, also from the 1988 album Daydream Nation, combines an indie rock beat and fast, catchy guitar parts with flowing, surreal spoken word lyrics about a man named Eric and his acid trip. It’s based on the sequence in the film Chelsea Girls by Andy Warhol documenting Eric Emerson having a real LSD trip. The song itself is only about three and a half minutes long but its jam-packed with energy and has a beat typical of a hardcore punk song mixed with alternate tunings, poetic vocals and prepared guitar to give it a unique sort of psychedelic punk sound.
# 6 – Tom Violence
Recorded in 1986, Tom Violence opens the band’s first record for SST, EVOL, it has a slow, plodding beat and harsh noise guitar in an unconventional strong structure. Moore sings the vocals which are surreal and seem to reference drug intoxication with lines like “My violence is a sleepy head/nodding out to the rising bliss.” Its slower speed and noisier atmosphere show that the band was still very much influenced by the No Wave movement and experimental rock.
The guitars sound almost metallic but unlike in their previous album, Moore’s singing is more accessible than in previous albums and you can hear the band’s progression from No Wave group to mainstream indie rock stars.
# 5 – The Diamond Sea
By far the longest song on this list, “The Diamond Sea,” is a 19-minute long sonic journey through waves of noise and static and gentle melodic parts that really showcase the intricate guitar work of Moore and Renaldo. It closes the 1995 album Washing Machine. The song begins with a brief melodic vocal part by Moore, which is then revisited about halfway through the song. Its sheer length makes listening to “The Diamond Sea,” in its entirety like listening to an entire EP, but it’s worth it.
No band except maybe Pink Floyd is as capable of writing such a long, yet engaging piece and the Diamond Sea is structured much like the early Pink Floyd song, Echoes, in that there are multiple parts, both dissonant and melodic and both songs have repeating riffs and vocal parts separated by complex instrumental sections.
# 4 – Schizophrenia
Instantly recognizable by Steve Shelley’s simple, thudding backbeat, Schizophrenia was released on their 1987 album, Sister. It begins with a soft-spoken word part about a ghost twin by Kim Gordon before Moore comes in with his own vocal melody. The song then disintegrates into chaotic noise from which a gentle melody eventually sprouts and turns into a catchy alternative rock riff. Like many of their songs from this period, Schizophrenia incorporates both melodic and noisy elements to create a cohesive, hauntingly beautiful whole.
# 3 – Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)
Another Sonic Youth song that stretches close to the ten-minute mark, Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg) is on their 1998 album, A Thousand Leaves. It is a sprawling psychedelic journey of sound that stays true to its name, a reference to sunshine acid and dedication to the late beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who was known for his use of mind-altering substances.
The lyrics are surreal and sung softly by Moore at the beginning of the song before it delves into a sonic exploration of psychedelic noise. Much like “The Diamond Sea,” this song also has a vocal refrain, with Moore returning near the end of the song, the structured parts bookending the sort of free improvisation that characterizes the middle portion of the song.
# 2 – Death Valley ’69
The only single to come from the group’s first full-length album, 1985’s Bad Moon Rising, this song was a collaboration between Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch, formerly of the bands Teenage Jesus and The Jerks and Eight Eyed Spy and one of the biggest influences on the band in their early No Wave years. Unlike the other songs on this list the drummer for Death Valley ’69 is Bob Bert, who left the group after the Bad Moon Rising tour, joining Pussy Galore and then The Chrome Cranks.
By far the noisiest song on this list, Death Valley ’69 was about the Manson Family murders, and the hammering drums and screeching guitar lends the track an ominous feel. It has no proper structure but builds in intensity with Moore’s shouted lyrics and Lunch’s manic screamed vocals adding a disorienting sense of urgency at the song’s cacophonous climax.
# 1- Teenage Riot
Another song from Daydream Nation, “Teenage Riot,” is likely the greatest Sonic Youth song of all time. It begins with a gentle melody over which Kim Gordon speaks rhyming, nonsensical lyrics, such as “kiss me, don’t dismiss me” and “we will fall” after which the song picks up pace, kicking off with a searing guitar riff and drum beat with Moore singing the catchy, yet surreal vocals for the rest of the song.
It has incredible energy and is perhaps the point where Sonic Youth was able to perfectly balance their dissonant and melodic sides to create a catchy indie rock song. “Teenage Riot,” is the best song on an album full of great songs and it represents Sonic Youth at the peak of their underground career, just before they signed to a major label. Teenage Riot signaled the end of one era for Sonic Youth and the beginning of another.
Updated July 11, 2023
Top 10 Greatest Sonic Youth Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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