Monikers repel me unless I see them in campaigns, so Greil Marcus’ declarations washed over me at the time; but from 1996 through 2003 no American white band made music I cared most about (Ghostface is the era’s best album artist, an argument for another time).
1. Dig Me Out (1997)
Thank you, Details, and Rob Sheffield in particular, for urging me to buy an album that scared me so much I couldn’t play it for a year. Then, after successfully applying for a post-punk show (Phony Beatlemania, of course) on my uni student radio station, I slipped “Dance Song ’97” and “One More Hour” into the mix, possibly “The Drama That You’re Craving.” Then I could hum the rest of it. How appropriate that Janet Weiss added flexibility and solidness, a B-12 shot of confidence to Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s material, to my ear the only rival to Rumours in the preceding twenty years. When I read the lyrics, which the band included, I appreciated the intelligent sentiments. But that sense of peering into the void — of courting entropy and smiling at the last moment — came through in their cross-talk.
2. Call the Doctor (1996)
Released on the aptly named Chainsaw Records, Sleater-Kinney’s shower bleach of a second album compensates for the lack of Janet Weiss, whom all us fans would embrace an album later, with an incessant needling: it’s the equivalent of a phone that won’t stop ringing or a swarm of wasps. “I’m not waiting to grow up to be a woman,” Tucker wailed in 1996. It’s 2018. Not a goddamn thing has changed. Irritation is a device, annoyance is an intention. Catharsis too. They haven’t surpassed “Little Mouth,” which, like Public Image Ltd circa 1980, demolishes everything in its path, including itself.
3. The Hot Rock (1999)
In some ways their folkiest album: Brownstein and Tucker, submitting to the glum churn of music darkened by loss, become indistinguishable. For most of the first half of this remarkable album they, after, well, starting together, try to out-shout each other. If their last album was Rumours, this one is Shoot Out the Lights tinged with the guitar stylings of The B-52’s Ricky Wilson; I hear no rancor in The Hot Rock, I hear a series of admissions that bring no fulfillment (“I’m not the one you wanted,” Tucker yelps on the title track, to which Brownstein answers, “How do you want me to feel?”). Euphoric moments like “Get Up” are rare. They close with epitaphs: “The Size of Our Love,” about watching a loved one dying in a hospital bed; and a Gary U.S. Bonds tip of the hat called “A Quarter to Three,” anchored to a ping-ponging riff over which Tucker crawls to bed before a melancholy sun has risen, nothing left to feel, finally tired.
4. One Beat (2002)
I can’t play this album again — I gorged on it in the terrible summer and worse fall of 2002 when turning Iraq into a landing field for cargo plains looked as inevitable as Republican gains in the Senate and House, the first in an off-year election since 1934. Had George W. Bush been president in 1996, maybe Sleater-Kinney would have articulated their rage with such clarity instead of letting their tunings and riffs project their sexual-political tumult. At their two-night gig in Chicago’s Metro that October, the trio vaporized these gradations. Brownstein, Tucker, and Weiss wrote a series of admirable thesis statements, most of which with textual support, i.e. tunings, riffs, and Weiss’ fills. Their beat is one.
5. No Cities to Love (2015)
What I wrote three years ago: “’It’s not a new wave/it’s just you and me,’ Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein declare on ‘A New Wave,’ and ‘you and me’ is what No Cities to Love lacks: the symbiosis by which each of the two singer-guitarists matched, answered, and countered the other’s words and riffs exists in their (and drummer Janet Weiss’) commitment to the project and their respective songs; on their own music, not so much. No Cities to Love isn’t two solo albums stapled together, it sounds like two songwriters playing together: a bit like their beloved Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan’s Go-Betweens dynamic.”
6. All Hands on the Bad One (2000)
Purchased at a Best Buy on the day of release, the first I’d experienced in real time, All Hands on the Bad One suffers from a series of gestures that don’t cohere into songs (“The Professional,” “#1 Must Have”). Big thumbs up to Tucker’s going New Wave on her affectations, though: “Milkshake n’ Honey” is a dawn-to-dusk relationship narrative enlivened by an impressive Lene Lovich impersonation; and Jane Wieldlin could’ve written “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun.”
7. The Woods (2005)
Even if the levels weren’t going into red, distorting the band’s pulverizing sound, The Woods would’ve been Sleater-Kinney’s least necessary album. “What’s Mine is Yours” and “The Fox” make their cases and slink away. “Let’s Call It Love” is their “Achilles Last Stand,” for better or worse. On “Entertain” Brownstein, after condemning nostalgists, goes after star children used as whores like she’s Tom Petty on The Last DJ. The Woods offers some compensatory pleasures: Brownstein and Tucker doing their harmonies-like-vines routine on “Jumpers,” which still doesn’t shudder as menacingly as it might’ve in 1997 or even 1999.