Happy 30th Anniversary to Sonic Youth’s fifth studio album Daydream Nation, originally released October 18, 1988.
Sonic Youth has always been a band with a lot to say and their fifth full-length studio album Daydream Nation is no exception. It’s an incredible album, both angry and funny, thoughtful and flippant—a perfect equation for “cool.” Recorded in the summer of 1988 at Greene Street Studio in New York City, Daydream Nation featured a photo in the liner notes of the band standing in a dark city alleyway. They look young and aloof, Thurston Moore wearing his sunglasses in the streetlight. There isn’t anything in the photo that would look out of place 30 years later, a testament to the enduring coolness of Sonic Youth.
When released on October 18, 1988, Daydream Nation was met with widespread critical acclaim. It was produced by Nick Sansano, who up to this point had mainly worked on Public Enemy albums. The Wharton Tiers-bred jazz and noise elements of earlier albums are used on top of a pop structure, instead of as the foundation. A studio engineer whose experience had been with hip-hop, not art rock, his rhythm-driven influence played beautifully with the more obscure sound the band had cultivated to that point.
Sister (1987), the album preceding Daydream Nation, shares a similar conceptual background, based on the science fiction writing of Philip K. Dick. While not a true concept album, Daydream Nation incorporates the same futuristic paranoia, this time finding inspiration in Neuromancer and James Ellroy. The mindset of a dystopian near-future feels prescient in the late ‘80s ultra-consumerist society and adds an edge of desperation to the general punk angst.
Widely considered Sonic Youth’s greatest album, it served as a manifesto for alternative music. College radio was thriving, bringing a very specific brand of New York cool to campuses across the country. “Teen Age Riot” kicks off the album with a Kim Gordon incantation. Originally referred to as “J. Mascis for President,” the threat of a second coming of punk is an enthusiastic rallying cry for indie music.
Charges against capitalism and the American Dream are leveled again on “The Sprawl.” Gordon drawls, “Does fuck you sound simple enough?” and kicks off an ode to suburban horrors. “Come on down to the store / You can buy some more and more and more and more,” serves as the chorus, a menacing pastiche of the late ‘80s culture.
“Eric’s Trip,” “Hey Joni,” and “Rain King” are Lee Ranaldo tracks, adding surrealist drama to the album. Based on the monologue by Eric Emerson in the Andy Warhol movie Chelsea Girls, “Eric’s Trip” is a dry parody full of manic noise, Moore using a drumstick on his fretboard while Ranaldo roars ahead on his guitar. Ranaldo’s significant contributions to Daydream Nation would position him as a vital member of the band and help to further define their sound into their second decade.
“Silver Rocket” and “‘Cross the Breeze” are full throttle rock music, everyone having fun and showing off a little bit. They fit nicely into the ‘80s college rock zeitgeist, with hints of Hüsker Dü. “Total Trash” sounds like Sonic Youth’s version of pop. Musically, the group runs the gamut on Daydream Nation in a more comprehensive fashion than previous albums, perhaps due to the extended double album length giving them some room to try things out.
Despite the length of Daydream Nation, every song is good. There is a frantic intensity that never seems to die down, normally only captured by a newborn band hungry to prove their collective rage. Even when a track begins to wind down, there’s rarely a moment of ambient noise, normally a Sonic Youth signature. A two-minute song turns into seven minutes, yet even after all of the original tracks, it’s still not enough. Daydream Nation is essential to the punk rock canon, an exceptional point in a band’s already prolific career.