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Sonic Youth are a legendary Noise Rock-Alternative Rock band known chiefly for its noisy, experimental avant-garde tendencies and extensive use of prepared guitars, unorthodox tunings, heavy distortion and feedback in their songs. They've been a significant influence on Alternative Rock in The Eighties and were a key influence on My Bloody Valentine and, by extension, the entire Shoegazing movement. Formed in 1981 in New York City, their current lineup is as follows:

  • Thurston Moore - guitar, vocals
  • Lee Ranaldo - guitar, vocals
  • Kim Gordon - bass, vocals, nowadays guitar
  • Steve Shelley - drums (1985-present)
  • Mark Ibold - bass (2006-present)

Past members include:

  • Richard Edson - drums (1981-1982); left the band for an acting career, better known as Vito from Do the Right Thing
  • Bob Bert - drums (1982-1983, 1983-1985);
  • Jim Sclavunos - drums (1983); played on the Confusion Is Sex album
  • Jim O'Rourke - guitar, bass, synthesiser (2000-2005)
  • Anne DeMarinis - keyboards (1981-1982); left before the band ever recorded anything, making her SY's very own Pete Best

Drawing on a wide variety of influences ranging from protopunk acts like The Stooges and Velvet Underground and Hardcore Punk to avant-garde musicians Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham and John Cage, Sonic Youth's early career was spent largely being a Sensory Abuse Noise Rock band and struggling with lack of recognition and cycling through a succession of drummers. Notably, the band sparred with music critic Robert Christgau over a dismissive review (renaming their song "Kill Yr Idols" to "I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick" in concert), had a disastrous debut in London ending in instrument destruction (which paradoxically got rave reviews) and released a mediocre debut suffering from horrible production, Confusion Is Sex, that hardcore fans love but everybody else tends to ignore.

Starting with 1984-1985, the band managed to sort out their career, finally obtaining a permanent drummer with Steve Shelley of The Crucifucks (whose hyperactive style fit the group very well indeed), getting Record Producers with actual ears to work on their albums and toning down their extreme True Art-iness in favour of a middle ground between avant-garde noise and energetic Alternative Rock. With albums like Bad Moon Rising, EVOL, Sister and its universally-acclaimed double album Daydream Nation, the band refined its Signature Style, striking the perfect balance between arty, experimental Noise Rock and accessible, catchy Alternative Rock. Thurston and Kim also got married in this period and remained together until late 2011. However, not all was fun and games: the band suffered from distribution and payment issues from its indie record labels, SST and Enigma - Thurston had some particular choice words for Enigma, deriding it as a "cheap-jack Mafioso outfit" and trashing them over their difficulty in supplying Daydream Nation to stores.

Sick of being jerked around by distribution-deficient indie labels, Sonic Youth jumped ship and signed on to Geffen Records in 1990. Their first album for Geffen, Goo, represented a concentrated blast of alt-rock noise, and accordingly sold better than previous albums and spawned the band's biggest hit, "Kool Thing". In the same year, Kim's staunch support persuaded Geffen to also bring on board devoted SY fans Nirvana, making them indirectly responsible for the popularisation of Grunge in The Nineties, Not That There's Anything Wrong with That - Nirvana and SY quickly became friends too. Their followup, Dirty, was produced by Butch Vig and engineered by Andy Wallace (the guys behind Nevermind) and also proved to be a decent success.

Many fans predictably whined It's Popular, Now It Sucks after Sonic Youth went to a major label and gradually began abandoning the band in droves. This didn't initially affect their popularity much, as the band managed to pump out more successful albums and underwent a stylistic evolution starting with Washing Machine, abandoning their Punk Rock roots and indulging more freely in long noise jams. Kim also began playing guitar more often and eventually abandoned the bass entirely. They also found enough free time to release experimental records on their SYR label and collaborate with experimental noise musicians such as John Cage, Yoko Ono, Steve Reich, Christian Marclay and Mission of Burma.

Sonic Youth hit a huge speedbump when all of their instruments, amps and gear were stolen on July 4, 1999 during their tour and their new album NYC Ghosts & Flowers quickly got a massive panning due to its self-indulgent jamming and pretentious, humourless, Narmy lyrics. However, they managed to recover quickly through the addition of new member Jim O'Rourke and releasing Murray Street, which was roundly hailed as a return to form. Most of their material since has been more accessible and melodic, with the avant-garde freakouts reserved for the SYR releases. Ever since, they've recovered their stolen gear, lost O'Rourke in 2005, recruited former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold in 2006 and left Geffen in 2008, moving to indie label Matador Records.

Discography:

  • 1982 - Sonic Youth EP (Fanon Discontinuity for many fans, as it lacks many of the defining features of SY's later sound)
  • 1983 - Confusion Is Sex (bundled together with the Kill Yr Idols EP on re-release by Geffen, Your Mileage Will Vary Heavily on its quality)
  • 1985 - Bad Moon Rising
  • 1986 - EVOL
  • 1987 - Sister
  • 1987 - Master-Dik EP
  • 1988 - Daydream Nation (double album, considered their masterpiece)
  • 1988 - The Whitey Album (released as "Ciccone Youth", a parody of pop and alternative rap with tongue-in-cheek covers of "Into the Groove" by Madonna and "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer)
  • 1990 - Goo (first album released on a major label)
  • 1992 - Dirty
  • 1993 - Whores Moaning EP (an attempt to out-Incredibly Lame Pun Nirvana's Hormoaning)
  • 1994 - Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star
  • 1994 - TV Shit (recorded with Yamatsuka Eye)
  • 1995 - Washing Machine
  • 1995 - Screaming Fields of Sonic Love (compilation of material up to Daydream Nation)
  • 1995 - Made in USA (soundtrack recorded in 1986, released in 1995)
  • 1998 - A Thousand Leaves
  • 1998 - Silver Session for Jason Knuth EP (its name is a tribute to a SY fan who committed suicide)
  • 2000 - NYC Ghosts & Flowers
  • 2002 - Murray Street
  • 2002 - In the Fishtank 9 EP
  • 2004 - Sonic Nurse
  • 2006 - Rather Ripped
  • 2006 - The Destroyed Room: B-sides and rarities (compilation)
  • 2009 - The Eternal (first album after returning to an indie label)

Sonic Youth Recordings series:

  • 1997 - SYR1: Anagrama
  • 1997 - SYR2: Slaapkamers Met Slagroom
  • 1998 - SYR3: Invito Al Ĉielo
  • 1999 - SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century (double album of covers)
  • 2000 - SYR5
  • 2005 - SYR6: Koncertas Stan Brakhage Prisiminimui (live recording)
  • 2008 - SYR7: J'accuse Ted Hughes
  • 2008 - SYR8: Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth (live recording from the Roskilde festival)

Tropes:

  • Album Title Drop: Daydream Nation's title comes from the line "Daydreaming days in a daydream nation", from the "Hyperstation" section of the suite which closes the recording, "Trilogy".
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: "Unmade Bed"
  • Attention Deficit Creator Disorder: Besides their regular gig and the SYR records: Kim is a visual artist, the owner of the X-Girl clothing company and has an active side project Free Kitten, Thurston occasionally releases solo albums and collaborations on his Ecstatic Peace! label (which also houses other musicians), Steve runs the Smells Like Records label besides his day job operating the SYR and Goofin' labels and Mark is also taking part in his former band Pavement's reunion. O'Rourke would also count when he was in the band, being a prolific musician and producer in the Chicago experimental and free improv scenes.
    • And last but not least, Lee, who plays in several free jazz/noise groups, provides live soundtracks to experimental films, and performs spoken word. Sometimes simultaneously.
  • Author Appeal: Kim likes writing songs about Karen Carpenter, for some reason.
    • Lee and beat poetry.
  • Banging Pots and Pans: Referenced in "Youth Against Fascism".
  • Black Sheep Hit: Arguably "Kool Thing".
  • Captain Obvious: During the chorus of "Total Trash," Thurston finds it necessary to point out that "it's a natural fact that I'm not no cow".
  • Careful with That Axe: "Death Valley '69".
    • MIIIIIIIIILDREEEEEEEED PIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERCE!
  • Cover Version: "I Wanna Be Your Dog" by The Stooges, "Bubblegum" by Kim Fowley, "Hot Wire My Heart" by Crime, "Nic Fit" by The Untouchables, "Into the Groove" by Madonna, "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer, "Within You Without You" for a Beatles tribute album, "Electricity" for a Captain Beefheart tribute album, "Superstar" for a Carpenters tribute album, "Touch Me I'm Sick" for a split single with Mudhoney and the entire SYR 4 album.
  • Clumsy Copyright Censorship: The artwork to Sister was a series of photo collages, which included some copyrighted material. Thus the front and back covers have big black bars over the offending pictures. A recent reissue at least replaced the black bar on the back with something more subtle - A conveniently placed bar code that only partially covers it up.
  • Creator Couple: Thurston and Kim.
  • Cultural Cross-Reference: The school level in Silent Hill has a list of teachers which says "K. Gordon, T. Moore, L. Ranaldo, S. Shelley". Silent Hill 3 expands on Gordon's relation to the main characters - sadly, it's a completely different character with just the Name's the Same. Also, the name of the main character Renton Thurston from Eureka Seven is a combination of Renton from Trainspotting and Thurston Moore.
  • Canon Dis Continuity: Sonic Youth, and Your Mileage May Vary but Confusion Is Sex and NYC Ghosts & Flowers are this as well.
    • That said, each has at least one Moment of Awesome; "The Burning Spear" and "Shaking Hell", in particular are classic Sonic Youth. Even NYC Ghosts & Flowers has the unbelievably sad title song.
  • Epic Rocking: "Expressway to Yr. Skull", "Teen Age Riot", "The Sprawl", "'Cross the Breeze", "Trilogy", "Tunic (Song for Karen)", "Washing Machine", "The Diamond Sea" (both versions), "Female Mechanic Now on Duty", "Wildflower Soul", "Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg)", "Karen Koltrane", "Free City Rhymes", "StreamXSonik Subway", "NYC Ghosts & Flowers", "Disconnection Notice", "Rain on Tin", "Karen Revisited", "Sympathy for the Strawberry", "The Dripping Dream", "I Love You Golden Blue", "Massage the History", and so on.
  • A Good Name for a Rock Band: Thurston's explanation for the name is that it's a combination of MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith's nickname and the tendency of contemporary reggae acts to include "youth" in their names (such as "Big Youth"). The "youth" part has kind of become bitterly ironic since Thurston, Kim and Lee are in their fifties now, with Shelley and Ibold (the youngest members) not far behind.
    • They were also briefly named The Arcadians, then Fucking Youth. Which is a different matter entirely.
    • In a magazine interview, Bob Mould of Husker Du fame remarked (at least ten years ago) that "Old Youth" would be a more appropriate name. The song "Granny Cool"--by his other former band, Sugar--is probably a Take That aimed at Kim Gordon. Mould apparently regards Sonic Youth as pampered and overexposed; however, he's more-or-less the same age as Sonic Youth's core members, and he too continues to release rock recordings.
    • The band Eric's Trip, evidently, thought so: having named themselves after the last song on side B of Daydream Nation. Whereas "Eliminator Jr." (from side D) isn't one, although it sounds as if it should be. There's a story behind it, most likely.
      • ZZ Top's album Eliminator + Dinosaur Jr. = "Eliminator Jr." The band thought the song sounded like a cross between the two.
  • Happily Married: Thurston and Kim (well until 2011 anyway), Lee and his wife Leah.
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: Master-Dik, Whores Moaning, The Whitey Album.
    • Actually, "dik" is the Dutch word for fat; most of the Master=Dik EP was recorded for radio in Amsterdam. Which makes the song/album title a very weird Bilingual Bonus.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: The 6"6" Moore is a foot taller than Kim
  • Last-Note Nightmare: "Becuz Coda".
    • On some level, "The Diamond Sea", which begins as one of the band's prettiest songs and slowly devolves into an epic-length noise jam. Terrifying for the uninitiated.
    • The transition in "Freezer Burn/I Wanna Be Yr Dog".
  • Literary Allusion Title: "The Sprawl" and "Pattern Recognition" are William Gibson references.
  • New Sound Album: Bad Moon Rising, EVOL, Goo, Washing Machine, Murray Street.
    • Well, yes and no. They changed their sound somewhat on each of those, but none is an extremely radical departure- more a case of a each representing a subtle refinement and slight reshuffling of their sound rather than a full-out, abrupt change.
  • No Export for You: Whores Moaning was released only in Australia and New Zealand. This is probably further mirroring Nirvana's Hormoaning, which was released in Australia.
  • Non-Indicative Name: They are called Sonic Youth even though many band members are in their mid to late fifties.
  • One of Us: At least if the references to William Gibson are any indication, this trope fits at least some of the band members.
  • One-Woman Song: "Reena", "Helen Lundeberg", "Marilyn Moore", "Mary Christ", "Sugar Kane"
  • Perishing Alt Rock Voice: Every. Single. Song.
  • Piss-Take Rap: "Master-Dik", "Into the Groovey".
  • Self-Titled Album
  • Shout-Out: Frequent in their songs, both in titles and lyrics - "Hey Joni", "Marilyn Moore", "Expressway to Yr. Skull"'s alternate title "Madonna, Sean and Me", "Master-Dik", "Teenage Riot" (a humorous jab at J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr's reputation for laziness), "Tunic (Song for Karen)", "My Friend Goo", "Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg)", "Karen Koltrane", "Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream" (it had its title changed to "Kim Gordon and..." for legal purposes), "New Hampshire" (the Steve and Joe mentioned are the guys from Aerosmith), "Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)", "Thunderclap (for Bobby Pyn)".
  • Signature Song: "Kool Thing" is probably the only song the average music listener knows from Sonic Youth.
    • "Teenage Riot", which they have played on nearly every tour since 1988.
      • To a lesser extent, "The Burning Spear", a guitar-assault anthem which has been part of their set on-and-off since before their first EP was released.
      • Possibly "Bull in the Heather," due to its inclusion in a Beavis and Butthead episode.
  • Something Blues: "Winner's Blues" and "No Queen Blues."
  • Subdued Section
  • Take That: "Youth Against Fascism" is 3 and a half minutes of Thurston insulting George HW Bush (Yeah, the president sucks/He's a war pig fuck/His shit's out of luck etc. etc.), "Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream" lampoons Mariah Carey, "Peace Attack" is a mellower but still pretty ripshit pissed indictment of George W. Bush. "I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick" is self-explanatory.
    • "Youth Against Fascism" is more of a Take That to political rock songs that were so prevalent at the time with most of the bands not even knowing what they're protesting.
      • Those not recognizing it as a piss take: either they didn't pay attention to the refrain, or over-applied WMG to make it mean whatever they hoped it meant. Self-explanatory, though:

 It's the song I hate

It's the song I hate

    • Thurston still sneaks in an actual Take That:

 I believe Anita Hill

The judge'll rot in hell!

    • "Swimsuit Issue" is one to a rather loathsome former Geffen employee; "The Ineffable Me" is similar in subject.
    • "Kool Thing" was a Take That directed at LL Cool J (of all people), apparently prompted by an interview Kim Gordon had with him.
    • For those who were wondering, Robert Christgau and Thurston Moore have since sorted out their differences and made up. Christgau even gave A Thousand Leaves an A+, his highest rating.
    • Then there's their "cover" of Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece For Soprano", which is just the newborn Coco Gordon-Moore mewling for a few seconds.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers loved to mock Thurston for this, saying at one point "Did you have an actual mom?". Thurston and Kim also may possibly qualify, since they named their daughter Coco Hayley Gordon Moore.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Especially prominent on songs where Lee sings, with lines like "He's a steel drum wedding ring Pontiac doorknob ten" and "she's a beautiful mental jukebox - a sailboat explosion/A snap electric whip crack."
    • Self-awarely parodied in Lee's "Skip Tracer."

 the guitar guy played real good feedback and super sounding riffs

with his mild mannered look on, yeah he was truly hip

the girl started out in red patent leather

very "I'm in a band" with knee pads

we watch her fall over and lay down

shouting the poetic truths of high school journal keepers

row house row house pass through, let the city rise up

twister, dust buster, hospital bed, I'll see you see you see you on the highway

  • Xtreme Kool Letterz: Some of their song titles, such as "Tuff Gnarl," "Kotton Krown," "White Kross," and "Kool Thing."
    • Also, the band (and their fans) have an idiosyncratic habit of always writing "yr" instead of "your".
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