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Music Review: Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation

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Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth’s sixth studio album and widely agreed upon magnum opus, was released October 1988 during the birth pangs of the rising alternative scene. One of my personal favorite albums, it is repeatedly rated one of the top albums of the 1980s (and oftentimes the top album) by various music publications such as Q, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork.

If anything, Daydream Nation proves the 1980s were not the abysmal Dark Age for music that many claim it to be. In my opinion, the 1980s are chocked full of great music. You just have to know where to look. But Daydream Nation is much more than just good music during an alleged dry spell. It does what good music is supposed to do: at the time of its release, Daydream Nation defined, redefined, broadened, and challenged existing notions of what alternative music was, and affected notions of what alternative music could and should be.

My first time hearing Daydream Nation was in my dorm room at the University of Iowa, October 2007. It was a cold, gray, and melancholy day, perfect ambiance for the muddy guitars and strange melodies I was about to hear. Curled up in my warm bed, geared to fall asleep, I put in my ear buds, and heard the first riff of “Teenage Riot” emanating from the earphones.

It was love at first sound. At least, that is what I would like to say. I took a few more rotations before I could begin to understand the unique sounds and melodies. Much of Sonic Youth’s discography belongs to a genre called noise rock. The dirty, unrestrained sound of this genre does not obey laws of harmonics or time signatures, which is why it has been dubbed noise.

Sonic Youth are known for their alternate instrumental tunings. Thurston Moore, singer and guitarist for the band, once said playing with standard tuning led to standard-sounding songs. Certainly, what I listened to that cold, autumn night was nothing standard. It was a bit challenging, and even tedious, to listen to at first.

Nevertheless, noise rock was key in influencing later musical genres; most broadly, alternative rock, and more specifically, grunge and indie. Nirvana owes much of their influence to Sonic Youth. In fact, Nirvana’s late lead singer Kurt Cobain cited much of his influence had come from Sonic Youth, as well as other late 1980s acts such as the Pixies. As such, Nirvana can be compared to Sonic Youth, and fans of Nirvana as well as other alternative acts may find much to like about Sonic Youth Daydream Nation.

Moore and his bassist girlfriend and now wife Kim Gordon, along with guitarist Lee Ranaldo, started Sonic Youth in 1981. After going through several drummers, the band enlisted Steve Shelley after the recording of Bad Moon Rising in 1985.

The New York noise scene gained steam in the early 1980s, and saw the release of Sonic Youth’s first two studio albums, Sonic Youth (1982) and Confusion is Sex (1983). I find it interesting that Sonic Youth were more experimental earlier in their career than later, when most other bands take the opposite route. The music in their early years rarely contained hooks or melodies and was, almost literally, pure noise. It was only in 1985 with their release of Bad Moon Rising that melodies became more prominent.

1986 and 1987 saw, respectively, the release of EVOL and Sister, also albums I adore. Through them, Sonic Youth continued to evolve by featuring more melodies and hooks than their previous work. Each was influential in its own right. And finally, 1988 saw the release of Daydream Nation, which I consider to be the perfect blending of Sonic Youth’s experimental past with their relatively more mainstream future.

Because Daydream Nation is a double album, there are plenty of songs, most of them longer than the average four minutes one hears on the radio. However, with a double album, there is doubly the danger of having too much filler. Fortunately, Daydream Nation does not have too much, and as far as filler goes, “Providence,” “Rain King,” and “Kissability” are not bad, though they are tracks I often tend to skip.

Daydream Nation was not only influential at the time, but is still lauded to this day, twenty years after its release. However, the Sonic Youth virgin or average radio listener might find the album daunting to listen to at first as I did, but the task is manageable with patience and open-mindedness.

The musical ideas, progressions, and length of the songs might be a bit hard to take in at first. But, with more rotations, listening to Daydream Nation becomes more enjoyable than something easily digested on first try. As such, it has greater longevity than work by most artists out there.

Daydream Nation, hard to understand both musically and lyrically, reflects feelings I often have which are hard to express. But they are feelings we all have, and they’re all in there, buried beneath the walls of murky guitars of the album.

Finally, I recommend this album for its widespread impact on music at large. It is an absolute must for anyone claiming to be a fan of alternative music. Alternative music, and indie music for that matter, owes a debt to Sonic Youth and Daydream Nation. For its longevity, lasting impact and sheer joy, I give Daydream Nation five out of five stars.

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