The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

CULT ’80s: Sonic Youth – ‘Daydream Nation’

Influenced: Pixies, Nirvana, Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, The Breeders, Fugazi, PJ Harvey, Slint, Yo La Tengo, Stereolab, Swervedriver, Teenage Fanclub, The Afghan Whigs, The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Sleater-Kinney, Sebadoh, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, Queens Of The Stone Age, Radiohead, Neutral Milk Hotel, Electrelane, Arcade Fire, Idlewild, Bloc Party, British Sea Power, The Cribs, Battles, Deerhunter, Japandroids, Beach House

Influenced by: The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Jimi Hendrix, The Fall, Television, Glenn Branca, Wire, Suicide, Mission Of Burma, Black Flag, The Jesus & Mary Chain, ZZ Top, Dinosaur Jr.

The ink spilled in critical circles from those who have queued up to praise Daydream Nation, the 1988 masterwork by American alternative rock legends Sonic Youth, must be enough to fill a small lake over the last 30 years. However, wider public (un)awareness of its significance still seems to cast it as a cult classic, one for the musos and nerds, rather than an iron-clad great like Exile On Main St., The Velvet Underground & Nico or London Calling.

Their fifth album in as many years, Daydream Nation marked a coming-of-age in Sonic Youth’s career arc, a story that had begun in the New York underground art scene of the early 1980s and ended up preparing the American mainstream for its last great rock revolution at the start of the following decade (which came with Nirvana’s Nevermind), and which had taken in experiments with minimalism and hardcore along the way. As well as being a milestone for Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley as artists, being their first unqualified masterpiece, it was also a landmark moment for American indie, the point at which an underground phenomenon, existing on a network of spatially distant and separate scenes began to coalesce into something greater.

READ MORE: Nirvana // ‘In Utero’ at 20 years old

Artistically speaking, the enduring achievement of Daydream Nation is that it managed to take musical tendencies that usually interact in direct competition with each other and place them together, without entirely resolving the inherent tension between them. Its songs were sprawling and complex in the same way as progressive rock, but nevertheless retained the energy and vigour of punk rock. Its dreamy, light-touch production lent it some of the surreal aura of psychedelia, yet Sonic Youth could also open all the channels and rock hard, giving it the social realism of the best art-punk and post-hardcore statements. As such, it still stands as one of the very greatest achievements in the genre we understand as alternative rock – and arguably, its pinnacle.


Following the word-of-mouth success of Sister and its companion EP Master=Dik in 1987, Sonic Youth parted ways with legendary American indie label SST under a cloud of acrimony. Among their complaints was a lack of accounting transparency, internal shifts in the company’s structure that saw their allies gradually pushed out and a slowdown in the label’s quality of output that, combined with Sonic Youth’s generally waning sense of allegiance to the purist ethics of the underground, made the group feel that SST couldn’t deal with them properly any longer.

What was essentially always a marriage of convenience was brought to an end, and the band sought a new home for their upcoming fifth studio album, arriving at a temporary solution with British label Blast First, who then joined forces with American outfit Enigma, an imprint half-owned by EMI and distributed by Capitol. All of a sudden, Sonic Youth had one foot in the majors, and a distribution arm that could take them up a level.

Recorded for just $30,000 in New York’s Greene St. studio with new producer Nick Sansano, someone accustomed to working with hip-hop artists like Public Enemy, Daydream Nation came together in relatively short order in just three weeks in July 1988. Over the previous couple of months, the band had already welded together most of the disparate ideas to be sorted out professionally in a studio. Having admired the aggression of Sansano’s work on PE’s ‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’ and Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock’s hit single ‘It Takes Two’, Sonic Youth embraced his style and methods – although Blast First boss Paul Smith’s rigid deadline of the third week of August led to a huge rush at the end, with Kim Gordon in particular regretting not getting more time for her vocal takes.


Over 70 exhilarating minutes, Sonic Youth take the listener from the state-of-the-nation address of anti-anthem ‘Teen Age Riot’ to the three-part wig-out of 14-minute closing suite ‘Trilogy’, navigating through billowing noise-rock and freeform punk using their idiosyncratic arsenal of alternate tunings and latent but finely tuned melodic sensibilities. It’s as if the band had internalised all the results of their previous musical experiments, from the experimental avant-garde of Bad Moon Rising and their earliest EPs to the refinements made on Evol and Sister. It made Daydream Nation a display of total mastery of their art, and one that almost perfectly balanced their twin tendencies toward both noise-craft and song-craft. It also forged a bridge between their determination to be avant-garde, their admiration for other underground rockers like Hüsker Dü and classic rock like Neil Young and The Grateful Dead.

The songs’ structures are often lengthy and complex – few tracks last for under four minutes, with several exceeding the seven minute mark – but Sonic Youth use these bigger canvases to lay down strong melodies before using them as platforms to improvise and explore their noise-rock tendencies to a point that the resulting mix is almost orchestral. ‘Teen Age Riot’ is like a cut-and-paste montage of rock and pop culture – opening with a sleepy, hazy pool of guitars that sound like a reverie, and Kim Gordon’s muttered vocals, before exploding with snares, cymbals and hardcore energy as Thurston Moore takes over the mic. Making an ideal out of slackerdom and generational ennui, he drawls “’Cause it’s getting kind of quiet in my city head / It’s a teen age riot to get me out of bed right now”. A weird, sardonic anti-anthem that gets held up as one of Sonic Youth’s finest moments, ‘Teen Age Riot’ resolves rival tendencies to sound both like The Byrds and Ramones at the same time, or The Stooges and R.E.M., marrying chiming guitars and rampant energy.

The impression of Daydream Nation as an expertly curated jumble of bric-a-brac continues throughout, from the more direct sonic assaults that encapsulate bubblegum guitar-pop and punk rock, to the more oblique strategies of its more architecturally stunning moments. Beginning with a riff straight out of the first-wave punk textbook, single ‘Silver Rocket’ shifts gears and de-tunes into a blistering noise-rock soundscape. Here, the two-headed guitar beast of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo is given free reign, and the engine room duo of Kim Gordon and Steve Shelley establish strong and dynamic rhythmical undercarriages.

Sonic Youth lean in to the entire record, even its less headline-grabbing moments. The straightforward hard-rocker ‘Candle’ features a dazzling middle segment; ‘Hey Joni’ is both discordant and sonorous with its ringing guitars; the fairly standard punk chords that constitute ‘Total Trash’ mutate into a skronking noise-rock thrash, before the original chord pattern re-emerges, this time slower, as if moving through treacle. In the middle of it all, there’s the weird instrumental ‘Providence’, consisting of a piano, the sound of an overloading guitar amp and a distorted voicemail message from Minutemen frontman Mike Watt – bizarrely, chosen for one of Daydream Nation’s four singles.

It all ends with the stupendous ‘Trilogy’, beginning with the blast-off of ‘The Wonder’ with Thurston Moore’s almost hyperventilating vocals about “flashing eyes”, before the suite levels out and cruises with billowing, freeform ‘Hyperstation’ section, a spectacular exercise in minimalist dynamics and maximalist noise. The album finally bumps back to earth with the pumping riff of the ‘Eliminator Jr.’ coda (so named because the band felt it sounded like a cross between ZZ Top’s Eliminator album and Dinosaur Jr.).

Kim Gordon’s tracks see her flex her feminist ideals, expressing an unchained vision of female desire in ‘The Sprawl’ using the concept of a post-modern Denis Johnson novel about a futuristic suburban mass, and then explores dedication and commitment on ‘’Cross The Breeze’ which builds up from a dreamy intro into a ferocious salvo of crashing drums and guitars that almost resembles post-hardcore. Towards the end of the record, she puts the skeeziness of the male gaze under the microscope on the pop-punky ‘Kissability’.

Lee Ranaldo’s input is the most immediately revelatory on Daydream Nation, however. Customarily, the mercurial guitarist only got one track per Sonic Youth album, but here his contribution is upped to three. His writing is influenced by dark ‘60s masterpieces like Forever Changes and ‘The White Album’ – ‘Hey Joni’, in particular, features striking lyrics like “shots ring out from the centre of an empty field / Joni’s in the tall grass / she’s a beautiful mental jukebox, a sailboat explosion / a snap of electric whip-crack”. The brash, direct ‘Eric’s Trip’ sees Ranaldo base his lyrics on Eric Emerson’s LSD-fuelled monologue from Warhol’s Chelsea Girls film; while the pitter-pattering percussion on the scrungey ‘Rain King’ feels like the squalling drive of a ferocious storm.

Every single track conjures up some kind of emotion – from sensuality and joy to cynicism and existential ennui – mixing up the raw propulsion of Sister, the cracked drama of Evol and the swingeing noise textures of Bad Moon Rising to make dense, ingeniously arranged and beautifully rendered passages of cutting-edge guitar music by a band at the peak of their powers.


The very title Daydream Nation evokes a subtle counter-cultural criticism of mainstream American society, one which was about to elect a Republican administration for the third time in a row in the context of the economic and social upheavals of eight years of Reaganism. The music itself was at home anywhere, from the dangerous downtown streets of New York to the soulless sprawl of the suburbs via the abandoned outskirts of de-industrialised cities.

That statement is reflected in the album’s artwork, a cropped and close-up image from Gerhard Richter’s 1983 painting ‘Kerze’ (or ‘Candle’). A solitary source of light illuminating an otherwise drab and dark backdrop, it seems to represent resistance, a last source of inspiration that might soon be snuffed out.


Up until 1988, Sonic Youth’s blossoming career had been characterised by small, gradual evolutions and improvements, culminating in 1986’s fascinating Evol and the following year’s focussed, addictive Sister, a couple of the most resounding indie successes of the decade. Daydream Nation, however, was something else entirely, the culmination of the best part of a decade’s worth of evolution in underground guitar music and the independent scene that exploded in the context of Reagan’s Eighties.

Daydream Nation’s astonishing critical success led to the band being snapped up by major label Geffen, a symbolic recognition of both Sonic Youth themselves and that the underground network of independent labels and local scenes was a rich and fertile ground to be tapped. This, in turn, helped spawn the alternative rock revolution in the States over the following decade.

For all Sonic Youth’s achievements over their three-decade existence, even the most die-hard fans would be hard-pushed to argue that Daydream Nation isn’t the group’s greatest album. Except for maybe their major-label debut Goo in 1990, whose cartoon artwork is even more iconic than its predecessor’s, it’s by far and away their most famous album, and definitely the one you’d recommend to a newcomer. Daydream Nation was even immortalised by the Library of Congress when it was added to the National Recording Registry in 2006, one of just 50 recordings to be afforded the honour. American indie bible Pitchfork bestowed it with the title of Greatest Album of the 1980s in its staff list, and it regularly appears near the summit of similar publications’ lists.

But no amount of accolades and critical adoration truly covers the significance of Daydream Nation. While it was difficult to get hold of for American consumers and therefore didn’t chart at all, it was highly in demand off the back of the indie successes of their SST albums Evol and Sister. In Britain, it broke just into the albums chart at no.99, a small but significant triumph.

What those statistics don’t show is its lasting legacy. Just like the constantly burning candle on the front cover, Daydream Nation became a guiding light for the next generation of indie bands, from the likes of Nirvana, The Flaming Lips and Arcade Fire on the American continent, to British groups like Teenage Fanclub, Idlewild and Bloc Party. If you’re a fan of independent culture on any level, Daydream Nation is essential listening – it’s ingrained into its very DNA.

Listen to Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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