Hits Are For Squares

Sonic Youth

Geffen, 2008


REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Great album title. Greater still is the concept: allowing fellow artists and fans of the band to pick the track selection. Sonic Youth is one of those bands that was influential, beloved by those who knew them and just short of commercial success. It's not for lack of bad songwriting, but the band's willful embracing of noise and post-punk dissonance, sometimes at the expense of melody, more or less doomed them to a life of cult status.

But those who know the band are devoted, as is evidenced by the liner notes of the actors, writers and musicians who made these track selections. The 15 tracks (plus one new one, as is tradition with hits collections) fairly and accurately represent the band's long history, reaching back to 1983 ("World Looks Red"), running through underground albums like EVOL and Daydream Nation, hitting the major-label records Goo and Dirty and offering a few late-career songs. Because the band really didn't have hits (save for "Kool Thing," I suppose), every fan's Top 15 will probably be different, but this serves as a fine introduction for the uninitiated.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Sonic Youth has been categorized as "noise rock," along the lines of My Bloody Valentine, the Pixies and the Jesus and Mary Chain, but this is both needlessly reductive and somewhat misleading. True, the band's music often carried washes of distortion and feedback with the bass buried in the mix, creating a wall of alt-punk sound that could sweep you up or piss you off, depending on how Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore felt that day. The celebrated double LP Daydream Nation is the best example of this approach, but only one song is here from that one, "Teenage Riot."

However, the band's other influences are felt throughout their career, and that is where this compilation succeeds. "World Looks Red" owes a clear debt to glam-rock (Moore sounds like Ian Hunter, at times) and punk and ends far too soon, "Expressway To Yr Skull" is a kind of psychedelic-punk that got a favorable review from Neil Young and "Rain On Tin" is a bass-heavy, epic-length ballad asking for love and unity in the wake of Sept. 11.

Yet even with the stylistic differences, the band's dissonant wall of sound can make the songs start to sound alike after a while, and songs like "Tuff Gnarl," "Tom Violence," the slow nightmare of "Shadow Of A Doubt," the dull Carpenters cover of "Superstar," "Mary-Christ" and "Sugar Kane" just don't stack up to the band's best work. These are offset by highlights like "Kool Thing," one of the great rock songs of 1990 that manages to be sexy and pounding in its love letter to LL Cool J, because, hey, why not? "100%" isn't bad either, an offhand party-rocker (Mike D of the Beastie Boys picked this one, and it's easy to see why), and the attitude of Gordon's vocals on "Bull in the Heather" was, in 1994, part of a dying breed of noncommercial alternative rock.  

Props go to director Allison Anders for selecting the 2004 songs "Stones," which starts with a long band jam before settling into the song proper. It is the sound of Sonic Youth grown up, a little cleaner and more mature but no less compelling, and it is an excellent tune. The same cannot be said for all of this to the newcomers, but the personal nature of the track selection will resonate with longtime fans of the band, and those newcomers or casual fans will find enough to like here that it may change their perception of this unique, influential and truly alternative band.

Rating: B-

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