Friday, October 24, 2014

My Top Ten Sleater-Kinney Songs

The recent revelation that Sleater-Kinney is reuniting and releasing a new album in January is about the most welcome bit of pop culture news of the year. I've never posted about S-K on here before, but here's what you need to know about them: I basically love them as much as anything on this Earth, and consider them the greatest American rock band of all time (only R.E.M. really comes close), as well as one of the three greatest bands from any country. (The other two are The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, of course.) A trio that emerged out of the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s, they produced six straight essentially perfect records in a row, before calling it quits for almost a decade. I've listened to those six albums many, many times, and at least twice a month I wander down a YouTube black hole of S-K concert footage for a few hours. So yeah, I'm excited, even if I'm worried I'm going to miss out on seeing them on their upcoming tour. (I doubt you're reading this, Sleater-Kinney, but if you are . . . an April show in Oklahoma City and/or a couple of summer dates in Chicago or Milwaukee would be much appreciated.) 

In any case, I thought I would honor this occasion with a list of my 10 favorite S-K songs. As usual with lists, a caveat is in order: while I'm pretty secure in my picks for the top five, the rest of the songs that make up the top ten could easily have been swapped with about 30-40 others. Just off the top of my head, those would include (in no particular order): "Funeral Song", "Entertain", "Get Up", "Dig Me Out", "Little Babies", "Words and Guitar", "Light Rail Coyote", "Modern Girl", "You're No Rock n' Roll Fun", "Good Things", "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone", "Stay Where You Are", "Start Together", "What's Mine is Yours", "Big Big Lights", "Dance Song '97", and "Bury Our Friends", among many others.

The top ten after the jump:

10. "Leave You Behind" (from All Hands on the Bad One)

I was going to call this the prettiest song Sleater-Kinney has ever recorded, but that doesn't feel right to me, as it sort of implies that there's something ugly or unpleasant about their other music. What it is, however, is the gentlest; along with fellow All Hands on the Bad One track "The Swimmer", this is the sort of song that I suspect even people who don't like Sleater-Kinney's more typical sound—and yes, folks, these people do exist, as shocking as it may seem (I am related to several of them)—can enjoy. One can still hear the traditional S-K sound in there: most notably in the guitar parts, which are lighter than usual but still have that same wonderfully intertwining quality to them. But it stands as something of an outlier in their discography, as sweetly sung counterpoint weaves delicately over those luminous guitar parts. This is Sleater-Kinney setting out to show that, hey, we can create a tender and catchy piece of pop music if we want to. And in doing so, they outdid just about every pop song released in the years since, and crafted one of their finest achievements.

9.  "Wilderness" (from The Woods)

With the first bars of opening track "The Fox", The Woods announces its intentions to be the loudest, most unrestrained, and experimental S-K album to date. But as this second track proves, they didn't so much abandon the qualities of their earlier records as much as tweak them a bit. On one level, this is yet another absolutely airtight rock song, built around a thrilling opening riff and a series of sharp vocal handoffs between Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. Yet it also finds room for doses of heavier and more jagged distortions: most notably on the bridge, which sees the guitars making noises that don't really sound like anything on One Beat (and certainly not All Hands on the Bad One or The Hot Rock). The rest of the record will push these new sounds further, with results that I would argue occasionally surpass this. (See below.) But "Wilderness" is definitely one of this monumental record's finest moments: both a great song in its own right and one that helps to set us up for the even greater sonic experimentation to come.

8. "One Beat" (from One Beat)

One Beat is a masterpiece of memorable riffs and often pointed lyrics, and its title track contains both in abundance. It also features some of my favorite S-K lyrics of all time; does it get much better than Brownstein singing "Take me to the source of chaos / Let me by the butterfly" over a combination of searing background vocals from Tucker and Weiss's thunderous drums? (That was rhetorical. No. No, it does not.) It would be easy to point to the Bush administration as inspiring most of the righteous fury of the song, but I find it more universal than that; its lyrics don't just call out the government, but go after all those in power who ignore cries for change. Furthermore, they express a desire—no, a need—for exactly the kind of change that's being ignored. And all the while those drums and guitars keep the pulse rigid and angry. As great as "Combat Rock" is, for my money this is the ultimate protest song on this record.

7.  "Memorize Your Lines" (from The Hot Rock)

My pick for the band's most underrated track. As far as I can tell, it's basically almost never been played live, and I doubt it would be the song that immediately comes to most S-K lovers' minds if you were to walk up to a group and say: "The Hot Rock. Top songs? Go." Which is cool; there's a ton of great stuff on that album, and it's one that rises in my estimation the more I hear it. But this is my favorite. There's just a beautifully realized sense of melancholy to the whole affair; the emotional arc of the lyrics (which appear to chart an attempt to salvage a decaying relationship) is heartbreaking. And the music is absolutely gorgeous, most notably as the narrator realizes it's almost certainly over and bares her soul to her departing partner: first in wistful, almost hushed counterpoint and then in gradually surging, full-voiced rock. All in all, it's just stunning.

6. "One More Hour" (from Dig Me Out)

Romantic heartbreak is the theme of this Dig Me Out classic as well, which ranks as one of the great break-up songs of all time. The lyrics are powerfully sparse and to the point, with a bridge that's pretty much as concise as it gets ("Don't say another word about the other girl") and a lead-in to the chorus that simply refers to a lover with "the darkest eyes". It's about a specific situation—Brownstein and Tucker's own break-up—but it also captures a mood of yearning for a time that's past. It's no surprise they used it as the last song of their final pre-hiatus concert; while its feelings of bittersweet reflectiveness may be romantic in origin, they must also have perfectly captured the feelings of fans witnessing that show. 

5/4. "Let's Call it Love"/"Night Light" (from The Woods)

Until No Cities to Love was announced, this pair of tracks represented the last statement of Sleater-Kinney. I'm glad it's not, but had it remained so, it would probably be the best final punctuation mark of any band out there. In general, I abhor extended songs that get much of their length from 4+ minute guitar solos, finding them self-indulgent, repetitive, and dull. But heading into a nearly decade-long hiatus, S-K had earned the right to go a little crazy with the instrumental jamming. particularly since it's something they never really did much of before The Woods. The results are glorious: after spending much of the previous eight tracks critiquing the alienating effects of modern world, "Let's Call it Love" functions as an escape into a world of pure sexual energy. Voices, guitars, and drums all become instruments of musical eroticism; at one point Brownstein's singing eventually devolves—in the best possible sense of the word—into a series of frenzied, wordless fragments, while Weiss's drums match her in volume and intensity. (This is her finest moment as a drummer, as far as I'm concerned. Which is saying a lot.) And that guitar solo . . . again, I'm not always a fan of these, simply because musicians/bands who use them tend also to overuse them. But this one is something special, lively and dynamic in a way so many solos aren't.

As the song comes to a wonderfully clattering conclusion, it directly segues into "Night Light". And suddenly we're ripped away from this thrilling 11 minute escape for a track that basically sums up the human condition in a little over three minutes. "How do you do it? / This bitter and bloody world / Keep it together / And shine for your family", Tucker asks. It's a statement that has (sadly) only grown in profundity in recent years, and if the song is an undoubtedly somber note—though it does leave room for some sort of "spark" from the titular light—to leave fans with for the better part of a decade, it's also an absolutely fitting way to end Sleater-Kinney's magnum opus: fitting perfectly with the album's dominant themes and tone while offering one more display of gripping, melodic songwriting and sonic ambition.

3. "Turn it On" (from Dig Me Out)

Originally this was my #1 pick, but upon reflection I decided to move it down a few spots, reflecting the fact that it doesn't quite have the lyrical heft of the two tracks ranked above it: or, for that matter, many of the songs below it as well. As great as Dig Me Out is, there's a reason why I prefer One Beat and The Woods ever so slightly: there's a level of scope, intricacy, and poetry to the lyric writing that the earlier albums can't quite match. With all that said, this is probably my desert island S-K track, simply because of the exhilarating level of musical energy it packs into under three minutes of music. I could listen to the chorus, with its unmistakable hook and thrilling handclaps, forever. And the gradual dynamic build of Tucker's repetitions of "turn it on" towards the end is downright anthemic. About the only real complaint I can muster is a greedy quibble: I wish they'd found room for one more chorus. But ending with a return to the opening words of the first verse works too, and is perfectly in keeping with the concise aesthetic Sleater-Kinney was going for at this point in their career.

2. "Sympathy" (from One Beat)

One Beat concludes on a note of powerfully expressed compassion. "Sympathy" finds Corin Tucker drawing on her experience giving birth to her son prematurely, singing the opening lines (a prayer that begins "I know I come to you / Only when in need") over a lone guitar figure. It's a nakedly emotional, deeply personal beginning, and the song doesn't lose that quality once the rest of the band joins in; Weiss's drums heighten the impact of the emotions, while the lyrics Brownstein sings further the song's portrait of fear and strength by referencing curses and "decay in my blood". All of that alone would make this one of Sleater-Kinney's greatest tracks. But then something remarkable happens about two-thirds of the way through. The song somehow crescendos even further into a statement of pure empathy: not just for mothers who've been through the same experience as Tucker, but also for all the members of humankind who've been left "naked in the face of death and life" due to war, poverty, and all the other ills of the world. If "Night Light" asks how we're supposed to live in a world that often denies us our grasps at meaning, then this earlier track could be said to provide an answer in its title.

1. "Jumpers" (from The Woods)

I really, really love The Woods, in case you can't tell. And for me, this is pretty clearly its finest track: a magnificent and bleak piece of songwriting that tells the story of someone about to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate bridge. Here, S-K just flat-out punches you in the gut lyrically again and again; every line is designed to bring you into the narrator's state of mind, as she observes traffic congestion, lemons (described as "tumors" and "tiny suns infused with sour"), and finally the bridge "heavy with my weight" that she will soon leap from. And that's before even getting to the section in which she reflects upon her own impending death. The lyrics are so potent that they almost overwhelm the music at times, but of course the song would be nothing without that sudden explosion of the chorus, or the absolutely chilling bridge heading into the final verse. As the repeated final words and their sheer despairing finality ("Four seconds was the longest wait") reverberated in my head after my first listen, I knew I'd heard one of the greatest pieces of rock music ever written. I must have listened to it at least seven or eight hundred times since. That opinion has not changed.

What are your favorites? 

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