The pseudo-psychologists might be billing today as Blue Monday - the most miserable day of the year - but they’re wrong. They overlooked one major influencing factor. Sleater-Kinney have returned from a ten year hiatus, bringing ‘No Cities To Love’ with them. In the process they’ve added even more fire to the fairly accurate claim that they’re totally incapable of writing a bad album.
It’s a dangerous and foolish game to rank Sleater-Kinney’s back-catalogue, just as it’s tricky to know where to start wading in for the first time. For a start, every single release is outstanding, for different reasons. Over the course of twenty years and eight albums, the band has shape-shifted effortlessly, always holding up a mirror to the moment, and refusing to be pinned down by even vague mediocrity. There will be no ranking or orderly list making of any sort here - instead, here’s a celebratory look back at Sleater-Kinney, the undisputed queens of rock n’ roll fun.
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Sleater Kinney (1995)
Sleater-Kinney weren’t just raised on a diet of Bratmobile and Bikini Kill. Far from growing up as mere spectators to riot grrrl, they played a central part in establishing the movement in America’s Pacific Northwest. As flannel-clad, long-haired boys in grunge bands ruled down in Seattle - becoming a mainstream alternative phenomenon - Carrie Brownstein’s former band Excuse 17 was quietly making underground history, along with Corin Tucker’s Heavens to Betsy. Kurt Cobain famously wrote that “women are the only future in rock'n'roll", and a year after his death, in 1995, Sleater-Kinney proved him right.
‘Sleater-Kinney’, the band’s self-titled debut, was recorded during an all-nighter in Australia. It’s chaotic, all over the place and totally ferocious; a rallying, 22 minute long tirade. Pointedly thudding and monotone - occasionally to its detriment - Brownstein and Tucker urge forward with a vital agenda; don’t stand for sexist bullshit. On their debut, the band are still in the process of finding their voice. Still, 'Sleater-Kinney' marks quite the entrance.
Call The Doctor (1996)
'Sleater-Kinney' was a brief statement of furious intent; an unfocused burst of energy demanding that the people damn well sit up and listen. The band's follow-up, 'Call The Doctor' has the same vitality at its core, but it's sharper, more concentrated. Written in just three weeks, and recorded over four days ,'Call The Doctor' still comes from a very heightened, intensive place - like the debut. Everything about it, though, comes clearly into high resolution focus.
Corin Tucker hasn't exactly honed her vocals; rather, she's given them permission to go absolutely nuts on 'I'm Not Waiting' and 'Little Mouth'. Meanwhile Carrie Brownstein is increasingly becoming her front of stage counterpoint, perfecting the art of deadpan interjections and a softer rhetoric that weaves fearlessly around Tucker's terrifying, polemic roars. The guitars lose their coating of fuzz, and become clawed, and snagging instead - suddenly they've discovered how to write melodies. Railing against crap jobs and boredom, social expectations and violence against women, reactionary intensity is still at the core. Sleater-Kinney are in full command now.
Dig Me Out (1997)
In many ways, ‘Dig Me Out’ is an album that’s firmly defined by Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. It’s about them, for a start - the two briefly dated, and their break-up is the charge behind much of the album. Despite Spin magazine making a right old fuss about it all at the time (effectively outing the two women) Carrie Brownstein put it more lightly years afterwards in an interview with Rolling Stone; “we were a lot more in love with the band."
It's easy to see why. The electric vocal interplay between Brownstein and Tucker is the most enthralling pairing of the last twenty years, and that chemistry forms the original essence of the band. In absence of a bass and a low-end drive, though, it always seemed unloosed, fueled by dangerous, infatuated rage. It's in Janet Weiss that Sleater-Kinney's unleashed musical aggression finds a metronome. ‘Dig Me Out’ marks Weiss’ entry to the band, and a switch seems to flick with her potent, percussive foundation on board. Tucker’s raging vibrato is in constant tension with Brownstein’s yelping clipped syllables on ‘Dig Me Out’, but now they’re warring in the same direction. Driven by the relentless pulse of Janet Weiss, Sleater-Kinney are unstoppable.
The Hot Rock (1999)
With the sucker-punch of ‘Dig Me Out,’ Sleater-Kinney became critical darlings. When they started out on Olympia’s feminist punk scene, they stood for ideas like getting girls to the front at gigs, sharing experiences, and challenging tired old sexist stereotypes. By 1998, it was apparently Sleater-Kinney’s job to single-handedly save rock n’ roll, too. Some circles also elected the unwilling band as the assigned representatives for ‘Women in Music’™ because, obviously, there’s only allowed to be one female band doing well at any one time. But instead of being pigeon-holed by condescending gender-related praise - “wow, she really shreds... for a girl,” etc etc. - Sleater-Kinney responded with ‘The Hot Rock’.
Moody and introspective, the band trade in thrashing barre-chords for minimal, gappy interplay. Uneasiness and intimacy characterise lyrics like “I'd set your heart on fire/ But arson is no way to make a love burn brighter,” (‘Burn, Don't Freeze’) and on their 4th album, politics become increasingly personal. ‘The Hot Rock’ might be understated, but subtle, sparing, and expansive, it also marks the moment when Sleater-Kinney defiantly chucked their “saviour” status in the trash can. This album doesn’t save rock n’ roll. It stands for something far more important - Sleater-Kinney’s right to wildly change tact. By the time they made ‘The Hot Rock’, Sleater-Kinney's nonconformity and ever-shifting presence had become a political statement in itself.
All Hands On The Bad One (2000)
Fresh from mellower climes, Sleater-Kinney returned at the turn of the millennium with yet another curveball. ‘Moody, Thoughtful Sleater-Kinney’ didn’t get a moment’s chance to stick as a catch-all - not on ‘All Hands On The Bad One’s watch.
“Eye cream and thigh cream/ How ‘bout a get-high cream?” joke Kinney on the opening track ‘The Ballad of the Ladymen’ - a song that pointedly mocks detractors who feel threatened by creative and political women. ‘The Professional’, meanwhile, takes similar swipes at a specific kind of critic; the sort that mentions gender every other sentence, and describes bands like Sleater-Kinney as ‘shrill’. Totally assured, Sleater-Kinney only have one message for people that try to measure them against yawny old standards of male dominated rock - “go ahead and flunk my ass.”
Tearing gleefully across a no-mans land somewhere between playfulness and pathos, 'All Hands On The Bad One' is a quick-burning delight from a band having the time of their lives.
One Beat (2002)
Written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, ‘One Beat’ is Sleater-Kinney’s most stridently political record. Janet Weiss’ free-running beats tread the same angered footsteps as the Anti-War protesters who marched the streets that year, rallying against the Western world’s call to arms. “They tell us there are only two sides to be on/ If you are on our side you're right if not you're wrong,” yelps Carrie Brownstein in clipped, hiccupy fragments on ‘Combat Rock’ - seizing on George W. Bush’s infamous turn of rhetoric; “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
Beneath the immediate ferocity, though, ‘One Beat’ is, characteristically, a deeply personal record, too. Corin Tucker writes with arresting honesty, pouring the fear that she felt for her young son Marshall Tucker Bangs into the album. In Tucker’s own words from an archived Rolling Stone article,"Marshall is all over 'One Beat'. The last year was definitely a difficult time for me, as he was born nine weeks premature, and he was in the hospital for a while. It was the hardest thing that I've ever lived through, that fear and anxiety, and I think I was able to let go into the music."
With ‘One Beat’ Sleater-Kinney perfectly capture a climate of suspended fear and unrest; a mood which would go on to define the next twelve years.
The Woods (2005)
On their seventh album - the final before their ten year hiatus - Sleater-Kinney seem to tie up every loose thread. They seize on the togetherness of ‘All Hands on the Bad One’s taut, blocky structure, along with 'One Beat's unforgiving directness and anti-military precision. There's an eye cast back to 'Dig Me Out', and a return to 'Call The Doctor's intangibly huge riffery. Here, Sleater-Kinney somehow manage to incorperate every element, and still, the sprawling chaos sounds cohesive. Filling every pore of available space, 'The Woods' is a singular expansion that booms out faster and harder than the human ear can deal with.
Sleater-Kinney might be at their most abstract, lyrically, but ‘The Woods’ isn’t inaccessible by any means. “The sky is blue 'most every day / The lemons grow like tumors, they /Are tiny suns infused with sour,” goes ‘Jumpers’ - just one of the beautifully unfamiliar pieces of imagery tucked quietly away in every pocket. Opening track ‘The Fox’ gets all Aesop's Fables on everyone’s ass, with some absolutely manic allegorical storytelling from Tucker. Brownstein channels monumental solos that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jimi Hendrix record through that guitar of hers, and Weiss acts as the queen of expertly delivered subtly; turning ‘Modern Girl‘ from a saccharine lullaby, into a potently sardonic stand-out track.
‘The Woods’ is shadowy, full with dark beasts and unsettling echoes. and, following the infallible logic of Sleater-Kinney, it’s the only natural response from a band that continually refuses definition.
No Cities To Love (2015)
After they had finished touring 'The Woods', Sleater-Kinney announced their hiatus, with reason. Through seven albums the band had articulated exactly what they wanted to say. To put out another album without an agenda would be formulaic and unchallenging; and the band knew better than anyone else that it wouldn't hold the same magic. As Carrie Brownstein put it when she talked to DIY late last year, "music isn’t something that you want to feel is easy."
Instead, the members of Sleater-Kinney parted ways and leapt headlong into new challenges. Carrie Brownstein confounded expectation yet again with her US comedy show 'Portlandia', and formed a so-called super-group, Wild Flag, with Janet Weiss, as well as Ex Hex's Mary Timony and The Minders' Rebecca Cole. The Corin Tucker Band became Tucker's main focus, and meanwhile Janet Weiss poured energy into her other band Quasi, along with working with The Shins, and Stephen Malkmus.
And now, just like that, Sleater-Kinney are back making music again, with something new to say. Ten years might've passed, but 'No Cities To Love' returns fully-fledged, and it already stands up as one of the best albums that they've ever released. Just as 'One Beat' perfectly held a mirror up to an age of terror, Sleater-Kinney's return captures the sentiment of a generation that feels constantly worried, in a blurry, untraceable way. We carry on like clockwork, trying to live our dreams on minimum wages, under a government that doesn't care for anyone lacking a skyscraper and an off-shore bank account. We file our tax returns and pay our bills on time, but nothing ever seems to give, and in America - the supposed land of the free and the home of the brave - even continuing to exist is a constant struggle against a rulebook that won't play ball. We fear each other, the government, and our future selves.
'No Cities To Love' is another timely Sleater-Kinney record that repossesses space, and becomes physical again. It champions personal relationships and agency, and the simplest thing of all - being yourself. It's a fitting comeback from a band who have continually done just that since 1995.
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