Sonic Youth was formed in New York City in 1981, just a few years after guitarist Lee Ranaldo, ’78, graduated from Binghamton University. While here, Ranaldo majored in art, helped out at the Food Co-op and — of course — made music. After leaving BU, this alumnus became an integral part of arguably one of the most influential alternative bands of all time. Ranaldo and his bandmates started out in the aggressive, noisy New York City no wave scene, but later developed their sound into a more melodic mode — exemplifying the versatility of the group. Although noted for his impressive, albeit experimental guitar work, placing 33 on Rolling Stone editor David Fricke’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists and tied for 1 on Spin’s version, Ranaldo occasionally does takes the mic.
“Pipeline/Kill Time” from “Sister”
This song shows the dynamic capabilities of Sonic Youth and also features the unique quality Ranaldo brings when he’s on vocals. As the song transitions into its second movement, Ranaldo delivers his lyrics like a spoken-word poem. Then the guitar-noise cacophony starts and Ranaldo gives us a call to action with his last line, “We should kill time.”
“Rain King” from “Daydream Nation”
Although this album contains the melodic hit “Teen Age Riot,” the aggression comes on “Rain King.” Ranaldo describes, rather abstractly, this guy called the Rain King. What Ranaldo is actually trying to get across is for you to decipher, since this song, as per usual with his lyrics, is very poetic.
“Wish Fulfillment” from “Dirty”
The verses of this song demonstrate how beautiful the pairing of Ranaldo and Thurston Moore’s guitar work is when one of them takes a melody while the other messes around with noise and feedback. As to Ranaldo’s lyrics, the way he explains the Freudian concept the song is named after takes us into a dream. We are taken to a place where we struggle to distinguish what is real from not, leaving us “Making wishes, watching dreams.”
“Mote” from “Goo”
The comparison of Ranaldo’s lyrics to poetry is even more apparent here since they are based of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Eye-Mote.” The track begins chaotically, then turns into a driving post-punk anthem. But it wouldn’t be Sonic Youth if noise wasn’t worked into the song structure. Hence, the band takes a sharp turn at the three-and-a-half-minute mark and devolves into the sound they’re known for.
“Saucer-Like” from “Washing Machine”
When the song begins, you think you’ll be taken somewhere intense and atonal, but it breaks into a lovely melody. This, coupled with Ranaldo’s lyrics, takes you “Swirling whirling through the city of ages.” However, the atonality does come back for Ranaldo’s spoken-word bridge, though not for too long — then we’re back floating through the city.