Released in 1987, Sonic Youth’s Sister marks the first time Sonic Youth made what regular people might call “music.” Not only can you hear the straightforwardness of punk, you can hear the radio and arena rock the group had always seemed to purposely avoid: “Catholic Block” sounds like something you could air guitar to, while “Cotton Crown” is like a slow dance at prom. Sonic Youth had spent much of the 1980s making its noise sound punishing and confrontational. Now, on its fourth album, the band members were letting that noise be beautiful—and not art-beautiful either, but beautiful like stars (“Schizophrenia”). As a result, Sister didn’t just bridge a generational gap. It merged avant-garde music with a social utility beyond the band’s tiny New York City scene. This is the album that turned Kim Gordon into a bass-bashing feminist icon, and Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo into guitar gods (at least to those who thought guitar solos were condescending and bourgeoisie). Picture it: A teenage outcast in the hinterlands of suburbia, scratching Sonic Youth into their desk with a Swiss Army knife the way their older brother or sister might’ve carved Aerosmith or Kiss 10 years earlier—and without the sexism and cultural complacency that had always felt like the price of admission to rock. By the time of Sister’s arrival, punk was dead—or, at least, it had settled into familiar routines. And at the other end of the spectrum, you had Whitesnake and Bon Jovi. In some ways, “avant-garde rock music” had always been an oxymoron, or at least an idea that always felt a little more exciting in theory than in practice—and either way, most bands wound up settling for either the “avant-garde” part, or the “rock“ part. But Sister—like the Minutemen’s Double Nickels On the Dime and Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising a few years earlier—pointed a way forward that felt radical enough to change minds, and familiar enough to build cultural momentum. The lesson, in short: Just because you break with history doesn’t mean you have to forget it.

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