With that in mind, we’ve reopened the vaults and gone back to Daydream Nation and nine other seminal albums from the ’80s underground. The parameters are narrow. The 10 albums we’ve chosen are part of a narrative that’s cohered over time — a narrative inspired by the increasing acceptance of Daydream Nation as part of the larger rock canon. (A parallel tale that deserves its own chapter, of course, is the rise of hip-hop.)
These are the 10 albums that generated the right conditions for the rock that would follow. But they weren’t mere stepping stones. Each has its own story, suggesting other albums and artists that have a place somewhere in the rock pantheon. As Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo explains in the 33-1/3 book devoted to Daydream Nation, “We were learning from and being inspired by bands from around the country in this really cool, secret indie world that the mainstream media still doesn’t know anything about. What was really happening in the ’80s — no one has captured any of it. What happened on MTV and what happened in the clubs was totally different. Everyone was drawing from the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart and Iggy and the Stooges and Television. . . . That part is lost so far.” This is our effort to find it.
VIDEO: Sonic Youth, "Teenage Riot"
Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation (Enigma, 1988)
Two decades ago, the very idea that a band like Sonic Youth, with their taste for feedback-laced dissonance, post-modernist deconstruction, no-wave nihilism, and noise, noise, noise, could have any impact beyond the confines of the small world in which Amerindie post-punk existed was simply preposterous.
And when the pre-grunge grungy New Yorkers released Daydream Nation in 1988, the Earth did not stop revolving around the sun.
Now, of course, Daydream Nation is curiously ensconced in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, and this week Sonic Youth begin the American leg of their “Kill Yr Radio” tour, supporting the newly re-mastered “Deluxe Edition” reissue of the disc by headlining the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago. On these dates, they will also play Daydream Nation live in all of its glorious, double-sided entirety for the first time in 20 years.
But then, there was no way of knowing that Daydream Nation would ever amount to more than just a blip on the proverbial radar — another rousing, triumphant cry from an overlooked underground band, drowned out by the cold Big Brother cruelties of the Reagan/Bush era, ignored by the plastic, polished MTV mainstream.
Which is not to suggest that, upon its release, Daydream Nation didn’t cause a stir. By ’88, Sonic Youth had reached a certain critical mass. The four albums leading up to Daydream Nation had already taken the quartet from the dirty, fertile streets of NYC experimentalism to the more focused, accessible, rockist ways of “Schizophrenia,” the almost anthem that begins 1987’s Sister. That was the final album Sonic Youth recorded for the SoCal indie label SST (home to Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen, Black Flag, etc.).
Being on SST had helped put Sonic Youth in a broader post-punk/hardcore context. They were no longer just an NYC phenomenon: they’d become part of a larger underground network, which would, down the road, come to encompass Nirvana, grunge, and the alt-rock upheaval of the early ’90s.