Sonic Youth: Sister (1987)

One of the hallmark albums from my mid-80s college radio DJ'ing days, and one I still turn to when I need to amp things up a few notches.

While they were already an indie stalwart before Sister came out, I wasn't a huge fan, finding their oddly-tuned guitar noise experimental work interesting but not necessarily entertaining.  1986's Evol made a huge leap forward, tethering their no-wave guitar wonkery to actual rock & roll hooks, but it was on the next album that they moved from actual songs to actually great songs.  Maybe the band would only spend a couple minutes in traditional verse-chorus-verse territory before taking off in otherworldly directions, but the more standard indie rock songs that anchored the pieces were dynamic and fun, almost poppy.  And unlike later work, when they would take advantage of the CD format to really stretch out, the length limitations of a single LP kept the jams concise and measured.

Not that this is a mainstream-friendly album; the distortion and weird guitar tunings and feedback continue to push boundaries, the band still sounding like the sonic revolutionaries they were (and remained for some time), but beneath all of it are nearly a dozen truly great songs, or at least song snippets.  Lead-off track "Schizophrenia" wastes no time in establishing that Sonic Youth is perfectly capable of delivering a straightforward tune that sticks in your head, with Thurston Moore singing lyrics that sound like an integral part of the song rather than just an accompaniment to the off-kilter guitar tapestry.  And then you get some fantastic riff-rockers, pure pop-punk that would be almost radio friendly but for the (briefly) extended jams that emerge from each piece -- the wonderfully engaging "Catholic Block" and "Stereo Sanctity," still two of the band's finest songs; and Lee Ranaldo establishing he was no less capable than Moore of delivering the goods with the bracing "Pipeline/Kill Time."  Other highlights include the slightly more edgy (but still tuneful) "Tuff Gnarl," Kim Gordon's hypnotic "Beauty Lies In The Eye," and a phenomenal cover of Crime's little-known punk nugget "Hot Wire My Heart."

The songs are well served by a dense, analog production that makes the album feel like some early 70s lost proto-punk classic rock album, not lo fi yet still raw and vital; later albums would have a more contemporary, modern sheen, but Sister just feels more, I dunno, solid and present.

Here's the "Stereo Sanctity" video:
... and "Schizophrenia" performed live in the studio:
Here's a live take on "Catholic Block":