13 Essential Sonic Youth Songs That Put Kim Gordon Center Stage
In the eight years since the demise of Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon has remained the band’s most committed avant-gardist. Of the legendary band’s three singers, she tended to front the gnarliest songs, with the fewest concessions to melody or pop structure, and a voice that would sound like cold wind blowing through an abandoned cityscape even if it were delivering the ABCs.
And while her old bandmates Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo have peppered their post-SY catalogs with traditional rock albums in addition to far-out experiments, Gordon has been dedicated almost entirely to the latter. So far, she’s mostly worked with Bill Nace in Body/Head, a duo that’s responsible for some of the most dense and challenging music currently being made by any artist of her popular stature. (What other improvisational noise bands are getting write-ups in T: The New York Times Style Magazine?)
Gordon’s debut solo album, No Home Record, released October 11, is completely different from Body/Head, but is no less uncompromising. Its opening track pairs modern-classical instrumental arrangements with assaultive industrial drumbeats; its closer is a surreal monologue on the end of capitalism, recorded with ASMR-like attention to every click and sibilant in her voice. It’s a record about both the luxuriant slickness and the terrifying precarity of our current American situation, and its hyper-contemporary musical palette—which includes more electronics than you might ever expect to hear on a Sonic Youth-universe release—reflects both of those qualities back to you in unsettling detail.
To celebrate the release of No Home Record, we’ve combed through the catalog of Gordon’s old band and collected 13 essential songs that were led by her unmistakable vocal presence, presented in chronological order. We hope they tell a story about the band’s journey—especially about the way Gordon’s voice, bass, and guitar helped to forge Sonic Youth’s aural identity, and the way her unflagging commitment to feminism and all forms of justice ensured that the band’s political point of view was just as radical as its music.
“Freezer Burn”/”I Wanna Be Your Dog” (Confusion Is Sex, 1983)
Across their catalog, Sonic Youth indulged a gleeful postmodern streak, peppering albums with references to figures as disparate as Madonna, Arthur Doyle, Dinosaur Jr., and Aerosmith, poking mischievously at the canons of rock and avant garde music even as they took their rightful place within each. They got started early. Confusion Is Sex, Sonic Youth’s 1983 debut full-length, contains this piece of ominous La Monte Young-esque drone that explodes eventually into an unhinged Gordon-led cover of a Stooges proto-punk classic. From the outset, Sonic Youth pledged equal allegiance to boundary-pushing experimentalism and rock’n’roll at its most feral and primitive. And here, Gordon announced herself as a presence that could make even Iggy Pop seem tame.
“Shadow of a Doubt” (EVOL, 1986)
The sounds that would come to define Sonic Youth recognizably came together on EVOL, their third album. It was here that their extended guitar techniques and peals of feedback began pointing toward stillness and quietude as well as fury and catharsis. “Shadow of a Doubt” is one of the album’s highlights, with layers of ringing harmonics that hover like nighttime fog. Gordon’s lyrics are some of her most elliptical, centering on a repeated plea to “Kiss me in the shadow of a doubt.” The music itself seems to exist in that same nether region, somewhere between certainty and oblivion.
“Pacific Coast Highway” (Sister, 1987)
An early exemplar of a style that Gordon would make one of her trademarks, in which she adopts the voice of the enemy—a seething, jealous, possessive man on the verge of violence—to find out what makes him tick. As guitars grind like rusted pistons behind her, lovelorn cliches such as “You make me feel so crazy” and “I want to take your breath away” reveal their barely hidden menace. “Come on, get in the car, let’s go for a ride somewhere,” her narrator urges. “I won’t hurt you as much as you hurt me.”
Musically, these passages are almost unbearably claustrophobic and dissonant. And no matter how many times you’ve heard “Pacific Coast Highway,” it’s always a jolt when this churning noise opens up into the instrumental section that serves as the song’s chorus, a spacious and celestial take on classic rock twang, aurally evoking the grand ocean vistas of Pacific Coast Highway itself. What does it mean that music so uplifting coexists with sentiments so perverse? Are we inside the delusional mind of the killer, imagining he’s on a romantic drive with a woman who loves him? Or has his victim escaped? The band provides no answers, and it’s better that way. Posing the question is enough.
“‘Cross the Breeze” (Daydream Nation, 1988)
On their landmark 1988 fifth full-length, Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth used the ugly-beautiful textures they’d begun perfecting on Sister to build compositions that were far more structurally and thematically ambitious than anything they’d attempted before. “‘Cross the Breeze” is among the grandest gestures. It barrels forward with the furious kinetic energy of a hardcore punk song and never seems to stop, stretching endlessly toward a far-off horizon instead of petering out after two minutes like standard mosh-pit fare. It takes about that long for Gordon to enter as a vocalist; by that time, the titular breeze has gathered into an apocalyptic storm. She’s cool and collected at the center, providing the album with one of its catchiest half-shouted hooks: “I wanna know! Should I stay or go!” If previous references to punk classics were a way for Sonic Youth to declare their affinity for songs of the past, this one served to show just how far they’d brought the music forward.
“Tunic (Song for Karen)” (Goo, 1990)
Goo was Sonic Youth’s first major-label album, released on the Geffen Records subsidiary DGC as the follow-up to Daydream Nation. A scattered but occasionally brilliant collection, it splits the difference between the experimental grandeur of its predecessor and tight modern rock befitting the band’s new label. “Tunic (Song for Karen),” one of the album’s highlights, is in the former category. It’s the first of multiple Sonic Youth songs written about and titled after soft rockers the Carpenters’ singer/drummer Karen Carpenter, whose lifelong struggles with and eventual death from anorexia seemed to hold a tragic poignancy for the band, especially Gordon. (Despite the obvious genre differences, the band related to the Carpenters on a musical level too, and beautifully covered “Superstar” for a tribute album in 1994.) The song switches perspectives repeatedly, between the voice of Carpenter beaming down from heaven and a hectoring, belittling mother on Earth, who provides “Tunic” with its sad and unforgettable chorus: “You ain’t never goin’ anywhere.” The former passages are sweet and airy; the latter are set to one of Sonic Youth’s most demonically heavy riffs.
“Kool Thing” (Goo, 1990)
The terminally catchy “Kool Thing” serves as a brutal subtweet to LL Cool J, a rapper Gordon previously admired. Her opinion of him took a dive after SPIN tasked her with interviewing the rapper in order to get her feminist perspective on the genre. The two failed to connect during their discussion, and Gordon was particularly put off after LL remarked that a man “has to have control over his woman.” Gordon funneled the frustration she felt into “Kool Thing,” a noise-punk diss track that brings Chuck D along for the ride.—MAGGIE SEROTA
“Swimsuit Issue” (Dirty, 1992)
Sonic Youth had mixed feelings about their decision to sign to a major label. Part of that, for Gordon at least, entailed an alleged incident of sexual harassment that occurred between a Geffen executive and a secretary. Gordon channeled that fury into Dirty’s “Swimsuit Issue,” a punishing dirge that indicts her own label. At the end, she name checks every model in the 1992 edition of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue as a stand-in for how she imagined said executive sees women: two-dimensional, sexy, and silent.—MAGGIE SEROTA
“Bull in the Heather” (Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, 1994)
Sonic Youth’s early major label years were not their most artistically fertile, but they did see the band smuggling their radical ideals into the mainstream without sanitizing them much, reaching their widest audience yet and turning plenty of suburban kids on to underground music and ideas. The single most recognizable song from this period might be “Bull in the Heather,” something like the band’s alt-rock anthem, with a music video featuring Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill that’s one of the most enduring documents of early-’90s punk cool. Looking back, what’s remarkable about “Bull in the Heather” isn’t any sort of flirtation with pop, but the idea that music like this could ever be considered remotely poppy. The song’s key feature isn’t its chorus, but the chunks of noise that come out when Gordon scrapes her pick against the strings of her bass.
“Little Trouble Girl” (Washing Machine, 1995)
A song like no other in the Sonic Youth catalog, “Little Trouble Girl” casts guest vocalist Kim Deal as a one-woman girl group, inventing an alternate history of Spector-era pop in which the women get to be as shadowy, complex, and vaguely dangerous as the men. The verses return the song to more familiar SY territory, with Gordon delivering an icy monologue that both fleshes out the narrative and offers an ocean of mysterious subtext. “Remember, mother? We were close,” she keeps repeating. “Very, very close.” With Deal’s eerie, Lynchian sha-la-las echoing behind Gordon, it’s clear that there’s something sinister about that closeness.
“Dude Ranch Nurse” (Sonic Nurse, 2004)
A slithering rocker on an album of shaggy jams, “Dude Ranch Nurse” presents Sonic Youth at their most stylishly menacing, the aural equivalent of a pair of dark sunglasses and a cigarette dangling from the lip. The band stays tight and low to the ground, spending most of their time circling a single locked-in rhythm. And when they do stretch out, Gordon seems to narrate them back to the center. “Let the action begin again,” she intones. The instruments reassemble and the groove rolls on.
“I Love You, Golden Blue” (Sonic Nurse, 2004)
The first two minutes of “I Love You, Golden Blue” are one long shimmer of sticks gently tapping cymbals and fingers brushing lightly across guitar strings. Sonic Youth excelled at these sorts of meditative drones in their rich autumnal period of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but they’d never played one quite like this. The elements that bring it together are the ones you may not notice at first: some sort of gurgling synth—a rarity on any Sonic Youth release—rising occasionally to the surface, and Gordon’s subaqueous bass. She plays subtly against the grain of the music, releasing percussive depth charges and strange dissonances, and the contrast heightens the beauty rather than detracting from it. When she begins whispering her devotion to the ineffable “Golden Blue” of the title, it’s like a love letter to the sound itself.
“Jams Run Free” (Rather Ripped, 2006)
Between 1995’s Washing Machine and 2004’s Sonic Nurse, Sonic Youth jettisoned the punchy song structures of their early major label releases, returning to the sprawling scale of the late ‘80s, but with a distinctly looser and often more melodic improvisatory approach, resulting in some of the headiest and most pleasurable music of their career. But on 2006’s Rather Ripped, they tightened up once more, delivering a slick and immediately approachable set of straight-up rock songs. It’s fitting, somehow, that one of highlights from this resolutely non-jammy album is “Jams Run Free,” an ode from Gordon to the utopian power of getting together with your friends and letting the music flow with no particular direction in mind. The “utopian” part is important, offered as an alternative to the “blasted Earth” where “the blondes come first” that she describes in the first verse. When the guitars start soaring in the song’s final section, it’s the sound of liberation realized. Hard to believe the whole thing’s over in less than four minutes.
“Massage the History” (The Eternal, 2009)
Sonic Youth’s (presumably) final studio album is on the spottier side of their catalog, offering a handful of good songs but refusing to cohere around any particular vision. Fortunately, its last track—and Sonic Youth’s last missive to the world, as far as we know—is a stunner. “Massage the History” is easily the best thing about The Eternal, and deserves a spot in the Sonic Youth pantheon more generally. Its suitelike form covers even more territory than its 10-minute runtime lets on, from ruminative acoustic picking to gigantic fuzzy climaxes and back. Gordon’s soft and fractured vocal performance is as intense as anything from the Confusion Is Sex days, if only a fraction as loud, coming off like outsider-music folk hero Jandek fronting Crazy Horse in the place of Neil Young. “Come with me to the other side / Not everyone makes it out alive,” she creaks toward the end, as the squall of the music peels away to a single repeated note from a lonely guitar. The band didn’t make it. The spirit burns on.