​Sonic Youth's 20 Best Songs Ranked

To mark the release of 'Live in Brooklyn 2011,' we're counting down the highlights of the band's catalogue

BY Myles TiessenPublished Aug 15, 2023

From their hyper-fuzzy industrial no-wave roots through the slacker rock '90s era and into the dynamic and formless later years, Sonic Youth possess an endless amount of music to explore, obsess over, and maybe develop slight tinnitus. 

They may not be the most accessible band (see the intentionally bewildering Silver Session for Jason Knuth), and they may not be the most restrained troupe to waltz the streets of New York City (see SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century) — but anyone familiar with them knows they make unapologetically singular music.

But, if you've ever found the courage to explore beyond Daydream Nation, Goo or Sister, you already know the uninhibited creativity, anomalous noise and pure joy that lies waiting for fans to discover.  

In preparation for the release of Live in Brooklyn 2011 on August 18, the last live recording and performance in the city that started it all, we've assembled a list of Sonic Youth's 20 best songs.

20. "Antenna" 
The Eternal (2009)

Extended instrumentals and explosive choruses collide with Thurston Moore's killer melodies on this late-career gem. Moderated by Mark Ibold, "Antenna" is comfortable, easy listening for any rock fan. One of the comments on the YouTube video for "Antenna" simply reads, "dude no way this song." That particularly apt statement more broadly captures fans' affection for the band's final studio LP. 

19. "'Cross the Breeze"
Daydream Nation (1988)

Drummer Steve Shelley was, by 1988, a definitive fixture in the band. Sonic Youth spent a few early records messing around before they finally got their act together and hired Shelley full-time, and it's hard to imagine what Sonic Youth would have been without him. Shelley usually preferred to suppress his drumming talents in favour of minimalist motorik rhythms that anchored whatever the hell was happening with the guitars. Lucky for us, every once in a while, he let loose.

18. "Bull in the Heather"
Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994)

Behind what can only be described as an impressively '90s music video is a subversive little pop number. With its jangly riffs and catchy melodies, "Bull in the Heather" is a tight track that perfectly captures the band's desire at this point in time to mix pop and grunge. Kim Gordon's steadfast dedication to fighting for feminism and women's autonomy adds some bite and political snarl to the track, but "Bull in the Heather" is one of the best and most approachable tracks in the band's discography. 

17. "Starpower"
Evol (1986)

While the acoustic version of "Starpower" the band performed on Gossip Girl might be lost in the cultural memory, the original recorded version still lives on. It's a gloomy little love song, fuzzed out with some premiere avant-garde noise and one hell of an extended ending. Evol is one of the strongest albums from the band's early years, and "Starpower" is undoubtedly its most fun. 

16. "Out & In"
In/Out/In (2022)

Not quite an album, not quite an SYR release, In/Out/In proves that Sonic Youth never stopped evolving. With its plodding rhythmic guitar and continuously morphing textures, "Out & In" is a peek behind the curtain and demonstrates that even their practices carry some of their best material. 

15. "Hoarfrost"
A Thousand Leaves (1998)

Sonic Youth may be known for their no-holds-barred aggressive approach to guitar rock — but, occasionally, they take a breath and slow down. "Wheels paddle wheels paddle movement as we go / Trees passing trees passing signs along the road / A view through the trees to a couple in the snow," Lee Ronaldo sings dizzyingly, matching the equally trippy guitar picking. "Hoarfrost" is a disorienting affair, like we're lost in the forest with Ranaldo. 

14. "Unmade Bed"
Sonic Nurse (2004)

The only bad thing about "Unmade Bed" is that it's too short. A fantastic groove leads into one of Moore's most outstanding melodies and eventually builds towards a blitzed-out, hyper-fuzzed guitar solo. Just when you feel like the band is ready to take off into places unknown, they bring it back down into reality, and Moore sings his final verse: "'Cuz now that you're in his arms, babe / You know that you're just in his way / Suckered by his fatal charm, oh girl / It's time we get away."

13. "Mary-Christ"
Goo (1990)

The energy and infectious character of "Mary-Christ" is simply too good to leave off this list. Gordon is screaming through a megaphone, Shelley is ripping it on the kit, Ranaldo is doing whatever strange guitar wizardry he does, and Thurston is singing about what matters most: iceskating on a date. It's textbook Sonic Youth fun. 

12. "Master-Dik"
Master-Dik (1987)

Described by Ranaldo as "a slight hiccup in our production," the beatbox version of "Master-Dik" — originally released on Sister just a few months before — is a free and goofy snapshot of the band clearly enjoying creating music together. If you follow the lyrical breadcrumbs to Ciccone Youth, you'll open up an entirely new and equally strange world of Sonic Youth side projects and collaboration. A particular highlight of the song is be the Royal Tuff Titty himself (Moore), without provocation, zealously screaming, "London, fuck you're pissing me off / Hollywood weirdo, cough cough cough." 

11. "Winner's Blues"
Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994)

Coming off the rowdy and successful Dirty, Sonic Youth shifted gears with a foray into slacker rock territory on Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. And there's no better way to say they're slowing things down than with the album opener, "Winners Blues." The solo Moore track doesn't just stand out among their discography because of its distinctive lo-fi acoustic sensitivity, but also because it shows the band's new intention to approach listeners with character and affection, something they continued to do throughout the '90s. "Run out the door / Come back when you score / New times will come and you will see a door / Into all your life," sings Moore.

10. "Brother James"
Kill Yr Idols (1983)

All the songs on Kill Yr Idols are as hot as they come. Like adding water to hot oil, they snap, bite, and erupt with flaming ferocity. Despite its primitive and extreme energy, "Brother James" shows how fully formed Sonic Youth sounded at such an early stage in their career. It features all the best hallmarks of Sonic Youth songcraft in its rawest form: extended intros with no discernible pattern, guitars that plow through Gordon's muddy lyrics, and a heavy dose of Glenn Branca's avant-garde influence. It's dark, expressive and abstract, proving that sometimes the feeling of a song needs to outweigh its form.

9. "Death Valley '69"
Bad Moon Rising (1985)

Lydia Lunch is, shall we say, a peculiar figure from the '80s no wave scene. Her history is far too storied and bewildering even to try and condense here. Still, one thing is certain: her bold, cut-throat music with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks reflects her take-no-shit, unadulterated outlook on life. She remains nothing less than an iconoclast. It seems rather fitting then that Sonic Youth collaborated with her on a song about the Manson murders that seemingly celebrates the fall of a failed hippie rebellion. The New York punks pieced together an outrageously infectious no wave anthem that could, by the end, get anyone screaming, "Death Valley '69!"

8. "Slaapkamers Met Slagroom"
SYR 2: Slaapkamers Met Slagroom (1997)

Is it ridiculous to put a 17-minute experimental instrumental from the SYR series in the Top 10? Maybe. But Sonic Youth are a ridiculous band. And honestly, if you've made it this far, "Slaapkamers Met Slagroom" is probably right up your alley. Those of you whose brains have already been fried by the aberration that is SYR 2 will know that "Slaapkamers Met Slagroom" is pretty much an extended version of "The Ineffable Me" from A Thousand Leaves. While that version is a masterclass in poetic balladry — with lyrics like, "A cum junkie's job makes my dick throb" — the hyper-extended version pulls back all that graceful posey to reveal some of the best guitar work the band ever accomplished. "Slaapkamers Met Slagroom" leans into chaotic feedback, but balances it with focused structure and riff-laden clarity. It's a perfect starting point for anyone interested in exploring the bizarre nine albums that are the SYR series. 

7. "Pipeline/Kill Time"
Sister (1987)

It's relatively normal for Sonic Youth to cram as many melodies, tempos and improvisations into a song as they can until the ending hardly resembles where it started — hence why  "Pipeline/Kill Time" splits its title in two. In reality, the two-part title doesn't matter much because of how damn hard the song rips. Ranaldo's quick cadence and syntax whirl around like a roller coaster and carries the song in place of a discernible melody. Gordon lets her bass run off the rails, and don't forget Shelley's excellent and restrained drum fill at the one-minute mark. Also, "My best friend sucked his wife's blood and shrivelled up / He was mistaken for sane" is a pretty wild lyric. 

6. "Reena"
Rather Ripped (2006)

Track one from Rather Ripped can only be described as a sleeper hit. It's often sadly eclipsed by "Incinerate," which is fine, but "Reena" is the most compelling track on the band's penultimate LP. Beyond the fun melody, Gordon's lyrics about friendship, strange seduction, toxicity and self-discovery feel palpably honest and heartfelt. There's no hiding behind deafening feedback or drawn-out improvisations. It's relatively pure and mature songcraft from a band who, at this point, had been making music for over 30 years. "When you were gone, I met a friend / She taught me how to live in the end," sings Gordon. 

5. "In the Kingdom #19"
Evol (1986)

Ranaldo has always been the beat poet laureate of Sonic Youth. The stream of conscious verse woven into "In the Kingdom #19" is simultaneously irresistible and oppressive as it hypnotizes and traps listeners with its lyrical dance. "The tar glistens in the noon heat / He treads across the grass up onto and down off of the concrete abutments / Mirage on the highway / Ghosts in the tunnel / The dark cave," reports Ranaldo. It seems Moore wanted to break the spell during the recording, as you can hear him throw firecrackers into the booth while Ranaldo tracked his vocals at the one-minute mark. "Words crumble around me and fall with the weight of heaven / I can not move / I am beneath the great weight / I can not see / My eyes are blinded / I am in the darkness," sings Ranaldo at the song's end. 

4. "Teen Age Riot"
Daydream Nation (1988)

In all honesty, the largest reason this track ranks so high is not because of how it compares to other Sonic Youth songs, but rather how deeply it affected and shaped the history of alternative and indie music. An innumerable number of kids — not just when this song came out, but every year and decade since — have found themselves and their love of rock music somewhere between the distortion and melody of "Teen Age Riot." From its illusory "spirit, desire" introduction to its amped-up ending, "Teen Age Riot" is imbued with undeniable power and significance. It helped cement the band's place in history and was probably one of the most significant factors when Daydream Nation was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. Also, it just sounds fun! 

3. "100%"
Dirty (1992)

Does it really need to be said again? Sonic Youth are masters of combining pandemonium and simplicity. These are each pushed to the extreme on "100%." Ranaldo and Moore used their pedals to pull every offensive howl from their guitar that they could, confronting listeners with abrasive sounds not meant for any ears. Then, there's the rhythm section and melody: Gordon and Shelley hold down a deceptively simple beat, tethering the track to some form of reality, and Moore's singing is effortlessly catchy. "100%" initially feels like a cool and fun track. But a look into the lyrics and accompanying music video reveal a harsh reality. Written about their friend Joe Cale, who was murdered during an armed robbery in front of Henry Rollins's house, "100%" is saturated by the dichotomy of fun friendship and harsh violence. Suddenly, that isolated shot of Shelley's drum kit starts sounding a little representative of something more sinister. 

2. "Disconnection Notice"
Murray Street (2002)

Listen to enough Sonic Youth and you'll quickly start to recognize that their subtle and potentially more muted tracks from their late career carry some of their best musicianship. With its sophisticated production, amazingly technical guitar interplay, and bullet-proof lyrics, "Disconnection Notice" is top-tier Sonic Youth. From the jaw-dropping lead guitar tone to the complete shift in melody and rhythm later on, the track refuses to settle for anything less than perfect. With lyrics that reflect an increasing alienation from society, Moore croons his with more emotion and lucidity than ever before: "Hurry up, the stage awaits you / Don't forget to memorize your lines / Can you hear them congratulate you? / Out of step just can't find the time." Murray Street has long been a late-career favourite among die-hard fans, and "Disconnecting Notice" is the crowning jewel. 

1. "The Diamond Sea (Alternate Ending)"
Single (1995)

Sonic Youth always pushed the boundaries and limits of every one of their songs, altering and shifting them, both live and on tape, until the track reached its full potential. Three distinct versions of "The Diamond Sea" were officially released, but with this 21-minute magnum opus, Sonic Youth reached gritty transcendence. "The Diamond Sea (Alternate Ending)" is the marriage of pop, distortion, industrial and shoegaze packed into a marathon of highly articulated and scheduled experimentation. The length of the track is vital to all of this, providing ample opportunity for the band to explore and investigate all these varying and divergent sonic interests into a complete and cohesive piece that's seamlessly stitched together. "Time takes its crazy toll / And how does your mirror grow?" reflects Moore at the beginning of the track, through a romantic and simple melody. The traditional songcraft doesn't last long, eventually disintegrating into total abstraction. The song is almost tranquil in its dissociative non-conformity, as it bounces and reflects obscure tones and shapes until a lone guitar riff slowly pierces through the murky sound, interrupting the meditation of noise. "The Diamond Sea (Alternate Ending) closes with extended reverse feedback, as if to imply an infinite cyclic loop of universal sound. 

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