Square 10: Sonic Youth Hidden Gems – Jack McKeever

How does one write anything fresh and new about one of the most lauded rock bands of all time? I struggled to answer that question before writing this piece, but decided that the answer was to ignore the classics. So here are 10 ‘hidden gems’ from (almost) the full breadth of Sonic Youth’s back catalogue.

1. Flower

The penultimate track on the CD reissue of the band’s dark-hearted Bad Moon Rising.[1] The quartet roll around in shadowy societal mire, the clanging reverb of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s guitar playing grifting across Kim Gordon’s wry exaltations about sinister pornographic mindsets and gender imbalances, surging to a bleak pinnacle that never really unfurls. Addictively creepy.

2. Tuff Gnarl

Thurston Moore’s irreverent humour – it opens with the immortal couplet ‘He’s running on a tuff gnarl in his head/ He’s got a fatal erection home in bed’ – finds a strangely natural bed amongst resonant melodies, the band’s trademark deconstruction and the sort of tremolo picking that would live long in the hearts of the likes of Mogwai. Sonic Youth’s importance in the idea of being ‘transcendentally noisy’ can’t be second-guessed.

3. Titanium Expose

The closer on the flawless Goo isn’t so much a hidden gem as my favourite Sonic Youth song of all time; it ought to be their most streamed on Spotify instead of the pleasantries of Teenage Riot. But I’m happy for the teeth-grinding intensity, (post-)punk’n’roll grit and definably anthemic notions to appeal to the lucky few. Moore and Gordon play off against each other brilliantly: artfully too.

4. Theresa’s Sound-World

Atmospherics are the order of the day here as they veer between lush, slow-mo jamming and a cascading, kaleidoscopic trip. Here, sound-world is definitely the most apt title they could’ve conjured, not least in the textured dynamics pinned together by Steve Shelley’s subtle thumping.

5. Screaming Skull

An exquisitely fucked highlight from the otherwise disappointing Experimental Jetset, Trash and No Star. It finds Moore and Gordon back on characteristically cartoonish form lyrically seemingly poking fun at society’s need for conformity via a mental effigy of grunge legends (for example: ‘Society, superstore/ SST, Lemonheads/ Sunset strip, society/ Screaming skull, Husker du’). It’s raucous, tough, syncopated and deceptively simple.

6. Becuz

A Kim Gordon special. The urgency in her vocals creates as much unease as her forthright, high-registered bass tones which hold Moore and Ranaldo’s righteous, increasingly eardrum-bothering scree to account wonderfully. And yet once again, it’s the melodies that come away as top dog.

7. Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)

Registering as one of Sonic Youth’s lengthier numbers, it’s 11 minutes of blissed out, fluid jamminess aimed squarely at us literary types. There’s a haunting ambience in Shelley’s snare hits, a creeping, unstoppable tide embodied in Gordon’s increasingly warped, mucky bass tones and Ranaldo’s gorgeous noodling, all the while Moore deadpans about farewells and burned-out colours.

8. Free City Rhymes

NYC Ghosts and Flowers is probably most remembered for the 0.0/10 review it received in Pitchfork when it came out in 2000. These days, most people see that review for the attention-seeking hatchet job it was. Its beautiful opener, ‘Free City Rhymes’ sets its stall out early; guitars reduced to squeaking blips, dreamy synths creating the kind of ominous space reserved for a deserted metropolis. Once again though, Shelley’s warm, healing drums are the pinnacle stitch.

9. Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style

Despite Moore’s absurdist, abstract ruminations, this is a glitzy late-era roller, and one of my more simplistic selections. But Sonic Youth never lost the ability to eke blinding tension out of ease, as they do here via tortuous soloing and a rambunctious close. And all of it just sounds triumphant.

10. Paper Cup Exit

By the time Sonic Nurse came out, the band were more or less resting on their slightly more reserved, straight-forward laurels. Musically, Paper Cup Exit isn’t one of their most adventurous numbers. But lyrics like ‘Coming in from the cold and losing half my soul’ and ‘a sea change is due’ – coupled with the fact that this was released in the George Bush Jr. era – give it a sense of timelessness that will send shivers up your spine given the last five years or so. And it might just help you make sense of everything – it has for me, anyway.


[1] Flower wasn’t on the original album release but was included in the Geffen CD reissue.