Buzz’s Christine Pallon presents her definitive, in-depth ranking of every Sleater-Kinney album, from their 1995 self-titled to their triumphant 2015 reunion.
8. Sleater-Kinney, 1995
Best Song: “The Last Song”
Sleater-Kinney’s 1995 self-titled debut is by no means a bad album. Altogether a simple release on a technical level, Sleater-Kinney builds the necessary foundation for the band’s future work, resulting in a solid yet largely forgettable debut. Still, songs like “A Real Man” and “How to Play Dead” are Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein in their riot grrrl prime. “I don’t wanna join your club / I don’t want your kind of love,” Tucker sings in “A Real Man” in an effort to distance herself from heteronormativity. In “How to Play Dead,” Brownstein similarly mocks male sexual entitlement: “I won’t suck your big ego / And swallow all my pride.” Brownstein and Tucker never lost their bite on later releases, but Sleater-Kinney captures a sort of raw, genuine, youthful anger.
7. The Hot Rock, 1999
Best Song: “Memorize Your Lines”
The Hot Rock is more of a transitional album than anything. The band explores new territory on this release, particularly in regards to Tucker and Brownstein’s dueling vocals on “Burn Don’t Freeze,” “Banned From The End Of The World” and “Get Up.” Throughout the album, Tucker proves that she’s just as commanding a vocalist in the quieter moments. In “Get Up,” she channels Kim Gordon in Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song For Karen)” with her spacey, spoken lyrics over cascading guitars.
Sleater-Kinney turn down the energy on this release, taking a step back from their louder, anxiety-ridden previous albums. Instead, The Hot Rock is a more relaxed release with room for the band to explore the intricacies of their sound. Because of this, The Hot Rock doesn’t really come together as a whole album, having no real unifying sense of self to bring it all together. It’s a nice, solid record with great songs but as a whole The Hot Rock falls a little flat.
6. All Hands On The Bad One, 2000
Best Song: “Youth Decay”
Following The Hot Rock, All Hands On The Bad One is a much more cohesive album. Sleater-Kinney combine their experimentation on The Hot Rock with their punk rock roots to put together the band’s catchiest album yet. In fact, three of Sleater-Kinney’s catchiest songs – “All Hands On The Bad One,” “Youth Decay” and “You’re No Rock and Roll Fun” – follow one another in quick succession.
All Hands On The Bad One works well as a whole even though there aren’t any standout songs. It’s a tight, consistent, loud and fun release – a comforting return to form after the interesting yet ultimately underwhelming Hot Rock.
5. No Cities To Love, 2015
No Cities To Love isn’t Sleater-Kinney’s finest album, but it’s the perfect reunion and arguably one of the best releases of 2015. Almost ten years after the release of The Woods, Sleater-Kinney put out an album that managed to sound completely new while still retaining the band’s best qualities. In the time between The Woods and No Cities, Tucker, Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss grew considerably as musicians. Tucker released albums with The Corin Tucker Band while Weiss and Brownstein formed the fantastic but short lived Wild Flag with Mary Timony (Helium, Ex Hex) and Rebecca Cole (The Minders).
They grew considerably in their time away, but Sleater-Kinney pick up right where they left off. Brownstein’s guitar work is as impressive as ever from the beginning of the frantic “Price Tag” all the way to the brilliant album closer “Fade.”
Tucker and Brownstein sing about consumerism, fame, the music industry and the reunion itself. On “A New Wave” Brownstein brings back the confidence and swagger she fine-tuned during her time fronting Wild Flag. Every chorus on this album is catchy, making No Cities both a pleasing release for longtime fans and an accessible starting point for new listeners.
While it’s comparable to their earlier works in terms of quality, No Cities To Loveis leaps and bounds above their previous entries in terms of maturity. No Cities stands out as being one of their more carefully crafted, fine-tuned releases. Every note is polished, every move calculated. It’s clear why – the stakes were astronomically high when they reunited. If No Cites faltered it would have soured the Sleater-Kinney legacy, leaving them as just another name on a long list of long-desired but ultimately disappointing reunions.
But it works. Sleater-Kinney grow without sacrificing their edge. No Cities doesn’t dwell on the successes of the past, instead carving a new path for the band. Even after all these years, they haven’t stopped reinventing themselves.
4. Call the Doctor, 1996
Best Song: “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”
By the time Call The Doctor‘s eponymous opening track comes to a close – Tucker’s urgent refrain framed by Brownstein’s relentless screams – it’s hard to believe that this is only Sleater-Kinney’s second release. The band quickly found their footing following their self-titled album, and Call The Doctor is the album that turned Sleater-Kinney into riot grrrl legends.
Speaking of Brownstein’s screams, this is also the last album to feature them. Perhaps they wouldn’t have fit on later releases, but in another life Brownstein would have been a killer hardcore frontwoman.
Call The Doctor is the embodiment of a young woman – locked up her whole life – breaking out for the first time, desperately reaching, searching for something. Tired of being treated like a monster, an experiment (“Call The Doctor”), tired of lacking control (“Hubcap”), she clings to what little identity she has (“Anonymous”) and refuses to be anyone’s object (“Taking Me Home”).
Call The Doctor is an album for setting things on fire, for breaking out and for building something new.
“I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” expertly destroys hyper-masculine rock culture in one fell swoop. Tucker deconstructs the “rock star” mythos and reappropriates it in an assertion of female sexual desire. “I’m the queen of rock and roll” she howls, and it’s not a question or a suggestion: she simply is. This theme of pulling from traditional rock standards reappears nine years later on 2005’s The Woods, but “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” remains the band’s most successful use of rock and roll tropes to date.
The only track on the album that doesn’t quite work is the closer “Heart Attack”, which is sometimes dubbed “Sleater-Kinney’s 90s emo song” by fans. Hearing the band try out different sounds is always appreciated, but in the end it just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album.
Despite its lackluster conclusion, Call The Doctor is wrought with a need to exist outside the terms of someone else. And nearly twenty years later, that emotional punch of Call The Doctor still resonates today.
3. One Beat, 2002
Best Song: “Combat Rock”
One Beat is credited as being one of the first (if not the first) anti-Bush albums. Released not even one year after 9/11, One Beat pulls no punches. The album relentlessly targets George W. Bush, the American invasion of Afghanistan and the toxic, mandatory patriotism that followed in the months following the terrorist attacks.
Musically, One Beat marks the shift towards a bigger, more sonic sound for Sleater-Kinney – a shift that would culminate with the 2005 followup The Woods. Weiss’ drum work on One Beat is some of the best of her career. That opening drum groove on the album opener “One Beat” is an example of just how fearless she is – that standalone, off-kilter groove shouldn’t work, but it does.
Tucker and Brownstein leave no room for interpretation – any doubt about the album’s message is absolutely obliterated by the time “Combat Rock” comes around:
Hey look it’s time to pledge allegiance
I love my dirty Uncle Sam
Our country’s marching to the beat now
And we must learn to step in time
Where is the questioning, where is the protest song?
Since when is skepticism un-American?
Dissent’s not treason but they talk like it’s the same
Brownstein and Tucker ask the questions no one else is willing to ask. Sleater-Kinney has always been a political band, but there’s something more here. Sleater-Kinney’s not fucking around, not sitting back and watching idly. They’re out for blood, and they want it now.
One Beat works thanks to the pervasive, underlying rage pushing through every riff, every half-shouted lyric, each track united by a clear and directed sense of purpose. With this album, Sleater-Kinney grows more and more restless, signaling an impending explosion, one that builds and builds but never quite arrives: the album ends with the still intense but much less explosive “Sympathy.”
2. The Woods, 2005
Best Song: “Jumpers”
And then came The Woods.
Ten years after its release, The Woods is still the most unique, confusing and exciting album Sleater-Kinney ever produced. Coming off of One Beat, The Woods is perhaps a logical follow-up, giving the eruption initially promised with One Beat. After all, Sleater-Kinney has never been a band to play it safe. But from the very first loud, distorted seconds of “The Fox,” The Woods exceeds all expectations.
The Woods goes beyond anything Sleater-Kinney had ever done in almost every aspect of their music. Tucker’s vocals never sounded as menacing as they do on “The Fox.” Weiss’s drumwork is increasingly complex on songs like “What’s Mine Is Yours.” On “Modern Girl,” Brownstein sings a slow, distorted Bob Dylan-esque ballad complete with Weiss on harmonica.
“Jumpers,” one of the band’s bigger commercial hits, is one of the best songs Sleater-Kinney ever wrote. An emotionally charged song about committing suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, it finishes with a haunting refrain: “four seconds was the longest wait.”
“Entertain” is Brownstein’s most impressive vocal performance to date, serving as a not-so-gentle reminder that Sleater-Kinney is blessed with not just one, but two fantastic front women. Tucker has always been more of an unconventional front woman – her powerful vocals make her more than qualified, but she doesn’t exactly have the presence and attitude of iconic rock and roll singers. Brownstein, on the other hand, brilliantly channels the intensity, confidence and swagger of the rock greats. She’s the Mick Jagger of the band – the Joey Ramone. There’s something so refreshing about seeing Brownstein take on the qualities of hyper-masculine rock and roll front men, turning them on their head, and giving a performance that’s completely her own. On “Entertain” Brownstein gives it everything she’s got, targeting the punk bands that capitalize on nostalgia rather than having any real bite.
You come around looking 1984
You’re such a bore, 1984
Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore
It’s better than before
You come around sounding 1972
You did nothing new, 1972
Where’s the fuck you?
Where’s the black and blue?
The sonic boom of a chorus kicks in, and it’s clear that if there is some shortage of “fuck you” in rock, it’s certainly not with Sleater-Kinney.
The album culminates in the behemoth that is “Let’s Call It Love.” At eleven minutes, it’s by far the longest song Sleater-Kinney ever released. A long, labyrinthine exploration of just how far the band could go, just how loud they could get, “Let’s Call It Love” is a testament to Sleater-Kinney’s willingness to push boundaries. It transitions perfectly into the album closer “Night Light,” bringing a fitting close to such a fantastic album.
1. Dig Me Out, 1997
Best Song: “One More Hour”
This is no doubt an uncontroversial choice for the number one spot- after all, Rolling Stone named it one of the best rock albums of all time – but there’s no way around it: Dig Me Out is iconic. Sleater-Kinney was a promising start. Call The Doctor established the band as a riot grrrl powerhouse. Dig Me Out proved that Sleater-Kinney was capable of greatness.
With their third album, Tucker and Brownstein brought Janet Weiss to the fold as the latest in a long line of ever-changing drummers. Weiss wastes no time proving that she’s here to stay on the album’s eponymous opening track. The song opens with Brownstein’s greatest riff to date and, seconds later, Weiss jumps in from behind the kit. With a riff this good, Weiss could have easily phoned it in and the song still would have been memorable. But that’s not the kind of drummer Weiss is – she jumps in head first, making diligent use of her rack and floor toms to add a new, complex layer to Sleater-Kinney’s sound. The band’s previous drummers were by no means untalented, but Weiss changed the game for Sleater-Kinney with her willingness to explore, her impeccable sense of timing and her dynamic drumming style. Vocalist Tucker is, as always, in top form. Evoking images of herself as sores on her lover’s body, she perfectly sets the tone for the entire album – one that can only be described as unrelenting, commanding, visceral.
The best song on the album, “One More Hour,” follows “Dig Me Out.” It’s almost reserved compared to the opening track. Weiss’ minimal drumming follows yet another simple yet fantastic riff from Brownstein. A heartbroken, vulnerable Tucker is left standing in the rubble of a failed relationship – one she’s clearly not ready to let go of. “I needed it,” she repeats in the chorus, and you know she means it. Brownstein comes in on backing vocals – dismissive, distant, almost mocking Tucker – singing “I know, I know, I know, it’s so hard for you to let it go.” This isn’t a hypothetical, anonymous relationship gone wrong: “One More Hour” plays out Tucker and Brownstein’s real-life breakup for all to hear. We get both of their sides of the story, from Tucker’s heartbroken pleas to Brownstein’s apparent indifference. This phenomenal vocal back-and-forth results in a breakup song fraught with Buckingham/Nicks-level tension, and goes down in the books as one of the band’s greatest tracks.
What follows is a slew of powerful, accessible punk rock entries. Clocking in at just 37 minutes, Dig Me Out is an incredibly tight record, striking a perfect balance between the band’s heavier riot grrrl roots and more mainstream friendly pop-rock. The simple but wonderfully catchy “Words and Guitar” and “Little Babies” show that Sleater-Kinney can have fun without losing their bite – the latter playfully mocks domestic gender roles, harkening back to the relentless social commentary on Sleater-Kinney. Tucker and Brownstein aren’t quite as straightforwardly brutal as they were on their self-titled or Call the Doctor, but they never forget their roots.
Dig Me Out is a near-perfect record. The slow, percussionless “Buy Her Candy” is the only track that feels slightly out of place on the album, but even that still manages to tread new ground for the band.
It’s fitting that Sleater-Kinney’s first album with Janet Weiss is their best. Dig Me Out is where the band trully found its stride. Looking back on Sleater-Kinney and Call the Doctor, many of those songs sound like they could have easily been released by Tucker and Brownstein’s previous projects, Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17. But every song on Dig Me Out is completely different from anything they had done. Dig Me Out is something distinctly Sleater-Kinney, the start of something truly great.