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Ranked: Every Thurston Moore & Sonic Youth Album, from Worst to Best

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Thurston Moore, formally of Sonic Youth, is the most important guitar player of the last 30 years. The only other person you could even argue is close, is his Sonic Youth bandmate, Lee Ranaldo. No other musician has had as much of an affect on the instrument since perhaps Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page. Through Sonic Youth, and his solo releases, Moore created a generation – Generation X. 

Tomorrow, October 21st, his most recent solo album, The Best Day, is being released and fans wait eagerly to see where this guitar virtuoso and poet will take us this time. In preparation, we ranked his 15 Sonic Youth, and 3 solo, studio albums. After you’re done reading, take out your headphones and put them to good use.

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18. A Thousand Leaves (1998)

Sonic Youth was a band that believed in reincarnation and, to date, it’s lived 3 different lives. Their early, middle, and later albums are all very distinct in style, continuing to explore and reinvent themselves as they aged. A Thousand Leaves was a transitory album in-between their 2nd and 3rd lives, when they were stuck in the bardo, before beginning their next incarnation. It’s not as freewheeling as their middle, experimental period; not as tight as their later mature melancholy.

But let me be clear, A Thousand Leaves is a damn fine album. Sonic Youth never made a bad one, they just made some that were greater than others and that’s why there is no agreed upon ‘Greatest Album’ by Sonic Youth aficionados. Ask 100 fans what their favorite album is, and I’m guessing you’d get a pretty even spread across the board. I know some critics have called A Thousand Leaves the greatest Sonic Youth album. For me? Nah, but ranking them all was a lot of fun.

Standout Tracks: Hoarfrost, Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg).

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17. Confusion Is Sex/Kill Yr Idols (1983)

The first full length Sonic Youth album is a wild ride — like jumping in a stolen car with some drunk friends of your younger brother the night before Halloween, watching them go smash pumpkins. They’re all over the road, nearly killing pedestrians, laughing while they do it. Before Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore was a member of Glenn Branca’s Guitar Orchestra, where he met Lee Ranaldo, his long-time partner in crime with Sonic Youth. Here both Moore and Ranaldo learned experimental techniques in tunings, distortion, tools, and many other unimaginable ways to use an electric guitar. Sonic Youth was born here, and their first output was the unbridled mayhem of this album, a classic in the pantheon of SY, but it only scratches the surface of the further greatness the band would create.

Standout Tracks: Protect Me You, Kill Yr Idols

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16. NYC Ghosts & Flowers (2000)

I first met Thurston when he was teaching at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics Summer Writing Program. Moore’s lyrics have been highly influenced by different poetic techniques, especially the Beats, and his later life has seen him teaching at the school founded by Allen Ginsberg. I bring this up because NYC Ghosts and Flowers is the album where the influence of The Beats can be seen most easily. Several songs on this album contain spoken word poetry, mixed with the noise rock experimentation Sonic Youth is known for. While not their greatest work, it’s a nice addition to the catalogue because of how different it is stylistically and it shows how even at the turn of the century, they were willing to test their own boundaries. This can be considered the 2nd transitional album between their middle and later phases, where they would soon cement their more mature sound.

Standout Tracks: Small Flowers Crack Concrete, Side2Side

15. Bad Moon Rising (1985)

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Sonic Youth’s second album, Bad Moon Rising, is an important album in retrospect to understand early Sonic Youth. It’s interesting because, unlike other albums, many of their songs have long intros and outros, melting in and out of one another. This is because it was made when they became very experimental in their tunings, so songs were written with long segues so that one member could go tune their guitar differently while the others continued to perform. Like no other album, this recreates the experience of seeing Sonic Youth live, which is especially important because of how early on in their career Bad Moon Rising was. Take an evening, get some big headphones, and close your eyes – imagine it’s 1985 and you’re in a small underground venue in some corner of New York experiencing this performance in person, probably never having seen anything like it previously.

Standout Tracks: Society is a hole, Death Valley ’69

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14. The Eternal (2009)

Sonic Youth’s last album before splitting up, The Eternal, has an eerie quality, as if it was a premonition and a memory all at once. It was a premonition that the band would soon be ending, and they decided to recreate and to commemorate their entire career on this album. They don’t break new ground, but rather take a long slow walk through the town they grew up in, breathing in the air and the memories that came with it for the final time. If Sonic Youth is ever to be reincarnated again, this I imagine will be the transitory album before the next stage, the 4th life, that I and other Sonic Youth fan’s have confusing dreams about. Until then, it’s a quiet reminder of the greatness they achieved in the lives they did live.

Standout Tracks: Massage the History, Walkin’ Blue

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13. Trees Outside the Academy (2007)

Outside of Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore has created an absurd amount of art. It would be impossible to list everything he’s done, from live albums to soundtracks, side-projects to writing, he’s kept himself busy. That being said, no retrospective of Moore’s career would be complete without ranking his three solo albums as well. The first of those to make the list is his second solo album, Trees Outside the Academy. This was an amazing departure from what we’d come to expect from the one of the deities of noise rock. Instead of distortion and feedback, most songs were played primarily on an acoustic guitar, featuring violins and drums. Much different than previous works, it showed Moore branching into a new world once again. This direction and flare for experimenting with acoustic instruments in ways they’re not commonly used has become a staple of his later career. It was a pleasant surprise for fans of Moore, but I can’t say it’s better than when he hit his peak with Sonic Youth and in his own personal work.

Standout Tracks: Off-Work, Honest James

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12. Goo (1990)

Sonic Youth’s middle phase, beginning with flashes of Bad Moon Rising, and ending with Washing Machine, was the height of Sonic Youth. From this era, Goo was the weakest. It’s been referred to as the most “accessible” of their early albums, but that’s not what they were about. Sonic Youth didn’t conform; they created genres that other people conformed to. Why be accessible, when you can be revolutionary? Goo is a really enjoyable album, but in a period of incredible creativity and production, it just doesn’t have the same heart as some of their others. The heart beats in Goo, but in other albums, it ticks like a bomb ready to explode out of the chests of the band.

Standout tracks: Tunic (song for karen), Kool Thing

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11. Rather Ripped (2006)

This is Sonic Youth’s most “accessible” album. If there was ever a Sonic Youth record that you would perhaps play for your grandmother, this would be it. It’s smooth, mature, and utterly confident. There are moments on this album when you actually could imagine a song being played on a pop radio station. Still, even a smooth pop ballad like “Incinerate” carries weight by finding a way to create an up-beat, yet gloomy, tone through a mix of clean and distorted guitar riffs. The band controls each song with the experience of someone who knows completely what they’re doing all the time. They aren’t worried about making a mistake, because they’ve even mastered the art of making mistakes. Great album, not top 10.

Standout Tracks: Incinerate, Lights Out

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10. Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994)

Full discretion: this is my favorite Sonic Youth album, and I was very tempted to rank it number one. But when I was doing prep for this article I tried to drop all my previous notions about the band and start again with beginner’s ears. I listened to every album, first chronologically, then chaotically, switching from album to album depending on my mood, always listening to what I chose in its totality. In the end, I spent a month ingesting every Sonic Youth album like I was relapsing into the 90s.

What did I learn? This isn’t their best album. Is it great? Oh yeah. I could listen to “Screaming Skull” on repeat over and over (and I have), but that’s not what this is about. During their prolific second period they created a number of amazing albums, and this is the one that is usually slept on by critics. I recommend that everyone give Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star a re-listen, you won’t be disappointed.

Interesting fact: if the volume is turned up full blast on this album, you can hear their album Sister played underneath.

Standout Tracks: Screaming Skull, Bull in the Heather

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9. EVOL (1986)

With their 3rd album, EVOL, Sonic Youth fully, viciously, arrived. That was in no small part due to the arrival of Steve Shelley who would cement himself as the long-term solution at drums, finally bringing the banging rhythm section that could finally keep up with the guitar playing of Moore and Ranaldo. Evol should be considered the first true alternative rock record. This was the beginning of Sonic Youth’s best phase of making music, when they destroyed boundaries, mainstream sensibilities, and eardrums all at the same time. This was the rise of the second reincarnation of Sonic Youth – and music would never be the same again.

Standout Tracks: Tom Violence, Expressway to Yr. Skull (Madonna, Sean, and Me)

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8. Demolished Thoughts (2011)

Moore’s most recent solo album was a thing of beauty. Everyone knows electronic noise rock Thurston Moore, but this album showed his diversity. He plays primarily on a 12-string guitar, in wild tunings, taking a 12-string to places it’s never gone before. Listening to a song like “Mina Loy” is a visceral experience. It’s diverse tunings and chord changes — all while Moore sings — is an example of how much control and influence he’s had, and is still having, on our conceptions of what a guitar can do. I had the opportunity to watch Thurston play a small set of songs from this album with only a 12 string and no accompanying band. What he can do with an instrument, that is typically associated with folk music, only enhances his reputation as one of the greatest guitar players who has ever lived. Beautiful songs, intricate riffs, and touching lyrics, makes this an important piece in the Thurston Moore catalogue.

Standout Tracks: Blood Never Lies, Mina Loy

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7. Murray Street (2002)

The first of their 3rd reincarnation albums, Murray Street, introduced us to a new Sonic Youth that had come into it’s own after years of experience. A blend of pop-rock sensibilities and distortion, both formless and structured, we were given an album filled with extended experimental ballads. I remember when I first heard this album thinking simultaneously that ‘this is not Sonic Youth’ and ‘this is what Sonic Youth was always meant to be.’ It’s an album of contradictions, balanced perfectly against each other, to create immense confusing structures that don’t need nails, or cement, to keep them together; the weight of the contradictions balancing against each other holds everything in place.

Murray Street was the first album after they officially added a new bass player to the band, and committed fully to the 3 guitar line-up that they had experimented with over the past decade. Having Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, and Lee Ranaldo finding ways to balance so much sound and creativity created this mature melancholy and the kind of album that Sonic Youth fans will never grow out of.

Standout Tracks: Disconnection Notice, Radical Adults Lick Godhead

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6. Daydream Nation (1988)

Has any other phrase better encapsulated Generation X than Daydream Nation? These two words set the tone for a genre of music that would soon influence an entire decade: the 90s. With Daydream Nation, alternative rock was given a doorway into the mainstream without compromising on their post-punk, art-rock values. Sonic Youth strapped the dynamite to the door, then let bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden light the fuse. Without Daydream Nation, the course of music history would be altered more so than any another Sonic Youth album. But that doesn’t mean it’s their best work. Due to its historic importance, this album has been unfairly canonized by many as their greatest contribution, and it’s undoubtedly awesome, but compared to other albums it doesn’t crack the Thurston Moore top 5. Give me this on a desert island and I’ll be more than alright, but if I had my way, these five would be playing under the palm tree with me.

Standout Tracks: Hey Joni, ‘Cross The Breeze

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5. Psychic Hearts (1995)

Thurston’s first solo album is a triumph; a raging epic that shows exactly the kind of influence he had on Sonic Youth. Of course, the band would be nothing without each member, but Psychic Hearts nails down the point that Thurston was the soul of the band; the soul that had found itself in hell and described its climb out through the howling banshee screeches of warped guitars.

I wouldn’t change the history of Sonic Youth, but Psychic Hearts makes you wonder what their music would have sounded like if Thurston had complete creative control. One area that Moore really pushed with Sonic Youth was rather than forming songs around the typical chorus, verse, standard, that music had adopted over the generations – he pushed for more melodious chord changes that repeated over and over throughout the song, creating layers and textures. Then variation would be given through the riffs, solos, and distortion.

Standout Tracks: Queen Bee and Her Pals, Patti Smith Math Scratch

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4. Washing Machine (1995)

Washing Machine, along with Daydream Nation, may be the most recognizable Sonic Youth albums. It also marks the death of their second life. This album is special for so many reasons but none more than the track, “The Diamond Sea.” At nearly 20 minutes, the song is a final breeze on the ocean. It took Generation X, put it on a boat, and sent it out to a burial at sea. It was the capstone of the 90s and, more than any other song, represented the end of an era, for not just Sonic Youth, but grunge, alternative rock, and legions of fans.

Washing Machine is sometimes referred to as Kim Gordon’s album. I don’t know if I agree with that assessment since the contributions of Moore and Renaldo are very evident throughout the album (“The Diamond Sea” being a great example). But it does have my favorite Gordon sung song: “Little Trouble Girl.”

Standout Tracks: Little Trouble Girl, The Diamond Sea

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3. Sonic Nurse (2004)

Grown up Sonic Youth embraced melodies on this album, while still finding a way to balance their urge to innovate. The album is methodical, complete, epic, strong, and a great example of everything they do well; it is their most polished and expertly delivered piece of work. With Sonic Nurse the final reincarnation of Sonic Youth was in full force showing just how far they’d come. Songs like “Unmade Bed” and “New Hampshire” create noise-rock/pop main-stream crossovers that would never have even been imaginable before Sonic Youth. Sonic Nurse is not so much an album, as a statement, that says, ‘we came, we saw, and we conquered without compromising.’

Standout Tracks: Stones, Dripping Dream

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2. Sister (1987)

If EVOL ushered in alternative music, this album said ‘fuck yeah, we’re here and we’re taking over.’ It took elements of punk a step further and created what would become the most important kind of music for the next seven years (sorry, hip-hop.) This was the first album that contained real traces of traditional song structures, which made it unique for the band at the time. It’s also why this album ranks so high on the list of the greatest works of Thurston Moore. There is an aggressive pulling in both directions, typical structure, and experimental forms. Later they would perfect this balance, but here it’s volatile and they’re hardly able to control it.

Interesting fact: Sister was partially inspired by the work of Philip K. Dick and his haunting memories of his fraternal twin who died shortly after birth – which you know is pretty cool too.

Standout Tracks: Pacific Coast Highway, White Cross

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1. Dirty (1992)

If Sister was when Sonic Youth invented the A-bomb, Dirty was when they finally decided to press the button to show-off their military might. This album is so goddamn tight, it’s unbelievable. The riffs, the static, the anger, the lyrics – Sonic Youth finally put it all together and it lives up to it’s name: Dirty.

It’s hard to argue that Nirvana’s Nevermind wasn’t the epitome of 90’s grunge, but if I was going to try, this would be the album I’d argue for. It is Sonic Youth in all its greatness, when it finally unleashed it’s full fury without the curses of youth and growing old; it is that moment in time when everything clicked and they created a masterpiece. Sonic Youth was a band where every fan has a different album, and every ranking would be different. This is because their influence on music was a collection of their entire output, their entire career was a revolutionary experience, not one single album or one song – they created a generation and evolved as the generation evolved too.

So many bands are flashes in the pan, momentary releases; Sonic Youth was a soundtrack for history. Moore is one of the most influential musicians of all time, and Dirty is his greatest work. Now go get some headphones and have a listen, okay?

Cool fact — the video for the song “100%” was Spike Jonze’s 2nd music video (whose complete works I also ranked here.)

Standout Tracks: Theresa’s Sound World, Sugar Kane

All album cover art found on SonicYouth.com.