Shortly after the release of last year’s Start Together box set, Sleater-Kinney announced that they were returning after a ten year hiatus with a brand new album. The news made me ecstatic, and I don’t think the return of any other defunct rock band could make me feel quite the same way. Sleater-Kinney were a very important band to me, even though I only caught up with them a few years after they’d already broken up. A lot has been written about Sleater-Kinney’s impact on music in general, and many people have similar stories about how important their music was to shaping their taste, their personal politics, or even their identity. While I don’t have a particularly unique story about how I discovered their music or what it meant to me personally, I can say that they’ve opened my mind and rocked my face in a way few bands have. Here’s my take on their discography, including some tentative thoughts on their new album, No Cities to Love.
Of all their albums, Sleater-Kinney’s self-titled debut is the shortest, the most indebted to the riot grrl sound, and, in my opinion, the most underrated. Recorded in one night, the album is a quick blast of punk fury infused with feminist politics. One great example is “How to Play Dead”, a brutal song about the ways heterosexual men treat their sexual partners. While it’s technically a side project (Carrie was in Excuse 17 while Corin was in Heavens to Betsy) and Janet Weiss had not yet joined the band (the drummer in the early days was Lora Macfarlane, who gets a pretty cool song to herself here), a lot of what makes Sleater-Kinney such an iconic band is already evident here. Corin Tucker’s wail already has the ability to break your heart and kick your ass at the same time, Carrie Brownstein lays down some powerful riffs, and you even get a taste of their unique vocal interplay, which would become one of the greatest sounds in all of indie rock. It’s a direct, hard-hitting album that offers a taste of the greatness to come.
Favorite Tracks: “Don’t Think You Wanna”, “How to Play Dead”, “Slow Song”
While less visceral than the first album, Call the Doctor has several songs that showed how much the band had developed in less than a year. Carrie and Corin’s interplay hits a new level on both the title song and “Hubcap”, while “Anonymous” improves upon the debut’s similarly-themed “How to Play Dead”. The band had made a small leap forward as songwriters and musicians with the classic track “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”, which subverts gender cliches while showing off a mastery of loud-quiet-loud structure that would make the Pixies proud. It gets a little same-y for me in the sconed half, but it’s still a damn solid album.
Favorite Tracks: “Good Things”, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”, “Heart Attack”
Janet Motherfucking Weiss! With one of rock music’s greatest drummers now in the group, Sleater-Kinney were unstoppable. Dig Me Out is a massive leap forward for the band. It’s as potent and raw as the first two albums with stronger songwriting than ever. The title track is pure punk bliss, while “One Mour Hour” is one of the most devastating breakup songs I’ve ever heard (maybe one of the reasons it’s so powerful is because it’s about Corin and Carrie’s breakup, making their harmonizing simultaneously beautiful and brutal). “Little Babies” and “Words and Guitar” are infectiously hooky rock songs that critique indie rock bros and celebrate the joy of playing music respectively, while “Buy Her Candy” is one of the most beautiful songs in the band’s discography.
Favorite Tracks: “One More Hour”, “Buy Her Candy”, “Dance Song ’97”
With the band now tighter than ever, they followed up Dig Me Out with The Hot Rock, expanding their sound beyond high-octane punk with more mellow, melancholy indie rock. The band have cited the music of the Go-Betweens and Yo La Tengo as influences on the sound of this record (and I think I hear a little Sebadoh as well, but maybe that’s just me). Carrie’s guitar work is more versatile and ambient than ever, while the instrumentation has expanded to include slide guitar, violin, and melodica. Lyrically, Corin and Carrie tackle subjects as heavy as existential crises, aging, and doomed relationships. “The Size of Our Love” is my favorite Carrie song yet, and “Get Up” is one of my favorite songs by any band, period.
Favorite Tracks: “Get Up”, “The Size of Our Love”, “A Quarter to Three”
The band continued to show how versatile they were with All Hands on the Bad One. It’s an album that offers powerful punk (“Youth Decay”) and power-pop perfection (“You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun”). The band tackle misogyny in various forms, from the way it influences how people see their music (“The Ballad of the Ladyman”) to the way male violence can even make the music world a dangerous place for women (“#1 Must Have”). Dig Me Out producer John Goodmanson is behind the boards again, and that record’s immediacy and tightness is definitely present here. Another aspect this album shares with Dig Me Out is that they both have songs that are brimming with righteous anger while still being so ridiculously catchy that it’s hard to not sing along. That’s a beautiful thing.
Favorite Tracks: “Youth Decay”, “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun”, “The Swimmer”
As political as the last album was, One Beat is on a completely different level. The band took their feelings about the state of their country after the then-recent 9/11 attacks and channeled them toward the making of their most creative album yet. Corin offers her perspective as a new mother in an uncertain world on “Far Away” and channels Joe Strummer in the anti-war/anti-Bush “Combat Rock”. Carrie takes inspiration from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck (specifically from the Document era) and creates sweeping sonic landscapes with her guitar, while Janet proves herself to be the band’s not-so-secret weapon, especially on the title track. There’s a sense of real catharsis here that powers even the less explicitly political songs like “Prisstina” (which features keyboards). It’s a total triumph, and I can’t even imagine how it must have felt back in ’02. Oh, and “Step Aside” is a banger!
Favorite Tracks: “One Beat”, “Step Aside”, “O2”
While the release of the new album means I can no longer cite The Woods as an example of a near-perfect swan song, it still stands as a near-perfect album. Inspired by classic rock, the band took the sounds of bands like the Who and Led Zeppelin and filtered them through their unique sensibility (it probably helped to have a Moon/Bonham caliber drummer in the band). Aiding them in their artistic mission was producer David Fridmann. Confession time: for awhile, I thought of this as a great record hampered by over-compression. I now realize that this sound was exactly what Friddman was going for. The distorted, blown-out sound contributes to the feverish, unhinged vibe of the album. Sonically, it’s their most adventurous album. It’s also their strongest, song-for-song. The intense opener “The Fox”, the haunting rocker “Jumpers”, the achingly beautiful folk of “Modern Girl”… this is a great band at their best. They’ve never sounded tighter as a unit, Corin’s voice has never been so euphoric, and melodies have never been more soaring.
Favorite Tracks: “Jumpers”, “Modern Girl”, “Rollercoaster”
Obviously, I haven’t spent too much time with this one. I don’t know how it’ll grow on me, or how it figures into their discography, or even how I’ll feel about it a few days from now. What I can say is that from the moment I finished playing the pre-release single “Bury Our Friends” for the first time, I knew that Sleater-Kinney was back. As in, the same band that made The Hot Rock and The Woods had returned. This isn’t some nostalgia cash-in or half-assed return. This isn’t a reunion album. It’s just the new album. Carrie is offering some of her most jagged, angular riffs. Janet is as propulsive and in-the-pocket as ever. Corin’s voice is still one of my favorites in all of music. These are energetic, lively, dynamic songs from a band that still has a lot to say. It’s as powerful and indispensable as an album recorded in one night by some twentysomethings in 1995. And that makes me very happy.
Favorite Tracks: “No Cities to Love”, “A New Wave”, “Bury Our Friends”