Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley are the smartest living experimental artists operating within the increasingly predictable confines of rock music. But spin any of Sonic Youth’s recent major label releases—including this year’s excellent Rather Ripped—and you’ll discover a band more enamored with melody and groove than wedging a drumstick between a guitar’s fret board or demolishing an axe altogether. This year, however, the band also dredged up stuff from their back catalogue: 1982’s self-titled debut EP; The Whitey Album, a 1988 full-length from their goofy side project Ciccone Youth; Moore’s 1995 solo record Psychic Hearts; and this year’s just released rarities comp The Destroyed Room. Each proves that Sonic Youth are art-rockers at heart, sure, but none will be remembered as classics—that John Cage-inspired track of silence on The Whitey Album included.
On their debut EP, Sonic Youth employed instrumentation that was spare and haunting, with their guitars detuned to hell. Surprisingly, that less-is-more approach makes the tracks sound dangerously exciting today. On “I Dreamed I Dream,” Gordon purrs erotically about things that most definitely aren’t: “A lot of people suffering from impotence/All the money’s gone/The days we spend/Go on and on.” This debut laid the foundations for their 1988 masterpiece Daydream Nation, but that same year, our heroes faltered with the Ciccone Youth side project of avant-bullshit, junk shop hip-hop, and ironic Madonna covers.
When the ’90s came and alt-rock exploded, Sonic Youth achieved demigod status. Moore indulged this newfound fame with his only solo record, the sadly underrated Psychic Hearts. Over 15 tracks of ragged guitar rock, he pays tribute to the legends both living (the roughly hewn “Patti Smith Math Scratch”) and departed (the beautiful instrumental epic “Elegy for All Dead Rock Stars”). To date, it boasts the most straightforward punk tunes from the group’s entire musical output. But it was 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star that gave birth to the contemplative, quieter Sonic Youth we know today from Rather Ripped. The Destroyed Room spans from that era to the present—its lethargic pace makes listening to it feel like eavesdropping on a late-night jam session. Lyrics have always been an afterthought for this band, so instrumental numbers like “Kim’s Chords” sound almost fully realized—it’s just that no one could think of anything to sing. Still, fans will love these reissues to pieces; neophytes won’t get it. And Thurston, Kim, Lee, and Steve wouldn’t celebrate 25 years together any other way.