Editor’s Note: Luckily for this publication, Sleater-Kinney isn’t a band we talk about merely in the past tense. Since reforming in 2014, the trio (now duo) have continued breaking new ground while also breathing fresh life into their indelible legacy. As Dig Me Out, which came out on April 8th, 1997, celebrates another year, we revisit our definitive ranking, first published in August of 2019. Suffice it to say, it’s been a riot…
Riot grrrl was never as big as grunge, but that was the point. No sooner than grunge entered the mainstream was it on its way to becoming commodified and corporatized: you can now buy Nirvana smiley tees for $40 at Urban Outfitters while Pearl Jam is now happy to do business with Ticketmaster, who they once took to court. Riot grrrl, on the other hand, has stayed underground because it never left. Olympia, the genre’s ground zero, was about an hour outside Seattle, but their music scenes were worlds away; where grunge directed its rage inward in the form of self-loathing and self-harm, riot grrrl lashed outward, endorsing ideologies such as intersectional feminism and queer liberation that were years ahead of their time — and still pretty radical today. Much of that music remains as intense and exciting as it was when it was recorded, but no riot grrrl band was more intense or exciting than Sleater-Kinney.
Sleater-Kinney began as a side project — something for Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker to do when not occupied with their main bands (Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17, respectively) or coursework. (They were both enrolled at the Evergreen State College at the time, alongside Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail.) From Dig Me Out onward, Brownstein and Tucker’s call-and-response vocals and ferocious guitar interplay were backed by Janet Weiss’ thunderous drumming. Every album from then on until The Woods, their seventh and final album from their initial run, saw their sound and audience grow, to the point where they were consistently appearing on end-of-the-year lists and opening for Pearl Jam. And then they were gone; Sleater-Kinney had burned so hot and so bright for so long that Brownstein, Tucker, and Weiss needed to retreat from the heat, all pursuing other musical projects. Brownstein, meanwhile, branched out into acting with a little comedy show called Portlandia.
Then, just as suddenly as they disappeared, Sleater-Kinney re-emerged in October 2014 with the revelation that their eighth album was soon to follow. That album, No Cities to Love, was as stunning a comeback as one could have hoped for, the sound of a band still restless after a long slumber and still finding new ways to shake things up. The Center Won’t Hold, Sleater-Kinney’s just-released ninth album, marks another left turn; with St. Vincent’s Annie Clark handling production, it’s a record that’s as polished as it is distorted and perhaps the band’s most accessible album yet. It’s a stylistic departure that feels underscored by Weiss’ own departure from the band, announced just weeks before the album’s release.
We’ve done this before, but opinions change, and in the wake of The Center Won’t Hold, we figured the time was right to revisit and re-rank Sleater-Kinney’s mighty discography — and this time, we’re doing it in proper Dissected fashion. Over the last 25 years, Sleater-Kinney have released nine stellar albums and gone through four drummers, and they remain one of the most essential bands in modern music. If you want to rock with these women, we’ll get you started.
09. Sleater-Kinney (1995)
Runtime: 22:45 (10 tracks)
Call the Doctor (Producer): Tim Green, Sleater-Kinney
I’ve Got This Curse on My Tongue (Best Lyric): “You want to show me how to play dead/ How to be still/ How to please you” (“How to Play Dead”)
Rock You ‘Til You’re Good and Dead (Best Song): With love to the shocking, melodic facility of “Slow Song”, which foreshadowed the sophistication to come, it was “Be Yr Mama” that really introduced the Sleater-Kinney we know and love. Its instantly memorable riff would’ve fit perfectly onto Dig Me Out along with its darkly sweet urgency unlike any of their DIY peers, paired with a simple, effective rebuke of gendered codependency.
Gotta Go the Way My Blood Beats (Heaviest Sonic Moment): “Sold Out” is a performance every bit as furious and bracing as its anti-stardom lyric is retrogressive.
I’m Sick of This Brave New World (Most Topical Song): “I don’t want your kind of love,” Corin Tucker spits in the headlong “A Real Man”, which resists heterosexual and patriarchal conventions with the full force of her larynx, which still very proudly wore the influence of Kathleen Hanna on her inflections at the time.
Nobody Figures Like You Figured Me Out (Analysis): I’ll swear on a Kill Rock Stars iron-on patch that the only reason this incredible, sustained 22-minute tantrum isn’t considered one of the great punk essentials is because it’s been bested by nearly everything else they’ve done since. Even in their formative stages, Sleater-Kinney didn’t have to prove shit, and after their 1996 and 1997 releases, three in three years, anyone else under the aggressive-rock umbrella would be answering to them.
08. All Hands on the Bad One (2000)
Runtime: 37:07 (13 tracks)
Call the Doctor (Producer): John Goodmanson
I’ve Got This Curse on My Tongue (Best Lyric): “Keep turning me on/ With those French words I can’t pronounce” (“Milkshake n’ Honey”)
Rock You ‘Til You’re Good and Dead (Best Song): The shimmering pop songs Sleater-Kinney was briefly interested in are some of the best things they’ve ever made, whether it’s the girl-group put-on of “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun” or the rippling harmonies of “The Swimmer”, but the mid-tempo “Leave You Behind” is downright gorgeous and splits the difference. The bridge even goes full glockenspiel.
Gotta Go the Way My Blood Beats (Heaviest Sonic Moment): “The Professional” is one of Sleater-Kinney’s shortest and most compact songs, but it’s mesmerizing in its efficiency. Herky-jerk pop-punk with expert pop harmonies on every chord turn of that heavenly chorus? All Hands on the Bad One is their least “heavy” album in both its jangly content and flakier lyrical concerns, but it still revs up the intensity even with malt-shop tempos.
I’m Sick of This Brave New World (Most Topical Song): “Was It a Lie?” deviates from the most lighthearted fare of their career with an attack on the media that comes into full focus when Corin Tucker laments about “a woman’s pain/ Never private always seen.”
Nobody Figures Like You Figured Me Out (Analysis): Maybe because of the convoluted title, weak cover art, and lack of primal focus, All Hands on the Bad One has been largely taken for granted between the tug-of-war mystique of The Hot Rock and the Zeppelin-addresses-9/11 thunder of One Beat. But it’s the best record The Go-Go’s never made, with “fun” being the primary concern of its lead single and the Axl Rose-approved “n’” in two different titles. In fact, the straight-ahead riff-rockers like “Ironclad” and “Youth Decay” are the least interesting moments of a layered pop exploration that the band is only just starting to revisit for the first time in 19 years. Any Sleater-Kinney album not ranked at No. 1 can only be underrated, though, which means it’s time to reassess the unsung brilliance of “Male Model” and “The Swimmer”. And it’s worth noting that they sent this candygram out into the world shortly after Bush took office; years later, they’d release the synthed-up The Center Won’t Hold under Trump’s tiny ruling fist. Even first-rate slash-and-burn progenitors know when the world needs some TLC.
07. Call the Doctor (1996)
Runtime: 30:04 (12 tracks)
Call the Doctor (Producer): John Goodmanson
I’ve Got This Curse on My Tongue (Best Lyric): What elicits a bigger gasp, “This is love/ And you can’t make it” (“Call the Doctor”) or “Your words are sticky stupid running down my legs?” (“I’m Not Waiting?”)
Rock You ‘Til You’re Good and Dead (Best Song): Call the Doctor is loaded with classics that deserve to return to live rotation (especially now that Janet’s gone as she wasn’t on the originals), and there’s a reason “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” is their most enduring song of this vintage. On the voracious chorus that set the template for many dueling dual vocals to follow, Corin Tucker is the knife, Carrie Brownstein (dubbed Carrie Kinney on this album, as another Ramones nod) is the fork, and both sound primed to devour any audience in their path.
Gotta Go the Way My Blood Beats (Heaviest Sonic Moment): Before The Woods, Call the Doctor was Sleater-Kinney’s heaviest album, and in many ways it still is; imagine a Nirvana that skipped right from Bleach to In Utero. So it’s all pretty acidic save for the two ballads, but “Little Mouth” sounds positively demonic, just 104 seconds of foam and spittle.
I’m Sick of This Brave New World (Most Topical Song): “I’m Not Waiting” is one of many claustrophobic explosions on this record to rail against the oppression of its auteurs, first insisting, “I’m not waiting ‘til I grow up to be a woman” and then weaponizing every infantilizing, overly familiar name in the book: “Honey, baby, sweetness, darling/ I’m your little girl.”
Nobody Figures Like You Figured Me Out (Analysis): Most of Sleater-Kinney’s expressionism comes through in their howling performances, serrated guitar leads, and entangled vocal scripts. Call the Doctor, their most abrasive album and first legitimate masterpiece, has all of the above. But it’s also home to their least opaque words. Tucker and Brownstein were romantically involved during this period, but songs like “Stay Where You Are” and “Taking Me Home” convey anything but emotional security. These songs are terrified, anxious pleas for their own skin to not suddenly fall off, and the trio also directs plenty of earned rage at the gender that tends to put them in that space.
06. The Center Won’t Hold (2019)
Runtime: 36:20 (11 tracks)
Call the Doctor (Producer): St. Vincent
I’ve Got This Curse on My Tongue (Best Lyric): “When my feet touched on to land/ The sweet relief, the hot, dry sand/ With one short breath, my chest expands/ My body is my own again” (“Reach Out”)
Rock You ‘Til You’re Good and Dead (Best Song): It seems like a cheat to choose an album’s title track as its best, but this entire album is about “falling apart,” and the statement rings even more true now that Janet Weiss has left the band. “The Center Won’t Hold” is one of the band’s best opening tracks, and it carries so much more weight after-the-fact. The track previews exactly what is to come on the record. It builds up intricacy, emotive themes about physicality and the political climate, and a sorta sad, nostalgic-in-the-moment feeling from the band’s personal perspective. In a way, this album and this track seem simultaneously like a goodbye and a hello, conveying these feelings through infectious and electric crescendos that are then propelled by angular and distorted sounds. Both song and album demand to be listened to.
Gotta Go the Way My Blood Beats (Heaviest Sonic Moment): This band have been through a lot together: they grew from a DIY band from small-town Washington to pioneers in a defining subculture. They’ve broken up, and they’ve gotten back together. And while “LOVE” is the shortest track on the record, it’s also the one that resounds the most and seems most personal to the band’s members. It feels as though it’s a love song written to themselves.
The song goes, “Heard you in my headphones, slipped you my address” and “Call the doctor, dig me outta this mess/ Turned it down to C,” which are all direct references to themselves. The first referring to Brownstein first hearing Tucker’s voice in Heavens to Betsy and reaching out, the others direct from previous album titles and a nod to the unusual tuning of Corin and Carrie’s guitars. “LOVE” seems to be the most vulnerable track and showcases the trio through enticing, catchy synth-rock, acknowledging something they’ve always known: they need each other. Which is now just a haunting sentiment.
I’m Sick of This Brave New World (Most Topical Song): As mentioned in our album review by Kaleigh Hughes, the new record is “a confident, dynamic, and, frankly, dynamite record that asks: what can a woman do about her body when she feels like it and the whole world around her are all collapsing?” In a time where the rights a woman has over her own body are constantly being policed and politicized, it’s a heavy theme to carry throughout an entire album, but it’s executed masterfully on the album’s closing song, “Broken”. The track is a powerful, eruptive, and emotionally jam-packed ballad that’s led by a poignant piano and directly references the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford and the pain millions felt during the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings. The song sings, “I really can’t fall apart right now/ I really can’t touch that place,” a mantra a lot of us are feeling every day with every new headline.
Nobody Figures Like You Figured Me Out (Analysis): There was a lot of debate as to where to place the PNW trio’s latest record in this ranking; it seems everyone is divided. This record showcases the band doing something different; however, it seems a lot of fans and critics alike have forgotten that Sleater-Kinney are a band that is constantly changing and growing and have done so throughout the years, avoiding ever sounding stale or stagnant. Brownstein, Tucker, and the now-departed Weiss brought on glamorous art-rock icon Annie Clark (AKA St. Vincent) to produce, and it shows. And that isn’t a bad thing. The Center Won’t Hold is still very much a record made by intelligent women who go hard and are filled with rage. The album is just an expansion on how to express that; they’ve incorporated the lustful groove of Annie Clark but still embrace the purgative barrage of sound the band is known for. It’s just a little more danceable, and that doesn’t sit well with everyone.
Does anything ever?
05. No Cities to Love (2015)
Runtime: 32:17 (10 tracks)
Call the Doctor (Producer): John Goodmanson
I’ve Got This Curse on My Tongue (Best Lyric): “You were born in a shout/ But you will die in a silent skull” (“Fangless”)
Rock You ‘Til You’re Good and Dead (Best Song): “A New Wave” practically starts mid-drum fill; it hits the ground running and never stops. Befitting the song’s name, it’s a jittery, frenetic number that’s equal parts pop and punk. It’s classic Sleater-Kinney, which is to say that it resists easy genre classification: “No outline will ever hold us/ It’s not a new wave, it’s just you and me,” Brownstein and Tucker sing in unison on the chorus. Coming from a band that had already swallowed riot grrrl, punk, indie, and classic rock whole, it was just another reminder that Sleater-Kinney are a genre unto themselves.
Gotta Go the Way My Blood Beats (Heaviest Sonic Moment): When it was announced that St. Vincent would be producing the follow-up to No Cities to Love, there was reason to believe the results wouldn’t be too far from “No Anthems”. Tucker’s guitar sounds blunt and metallic, while Brownstein’s sounds computerized and spasmodic — two tones that sounded new and alien even to longtime Sleater-Kinney listeners. The song’s most thrilling moment comes in the final third, when Brownstein lets rip with a guitar solo that sounds like she’s trying to pull the instrument apart with her bare hands. Not many bands make it to 20 years and are still looking for new ways to knock you on your ass. Fewer actually pull it off.
I’m Sick of This Brave New World (Most Topical Song): It seemed that the United States had shaken off the worst of the Great Recession by the time of Sleater-Kinney’s return, but many of the band’s fellow Americans were (and are) still working minimum-wage jobs that couldn’t support a living. No Cities to Love opens with a ferocious swipe at capitalism and how it dehumanizes the working class. The characters depicted in “Price Tag” squeeze unhealthy bodies into itchy uniforms, and they seem to devote more time to their jobs than to their children, who seem doomed to the same fate. To hear this song is to know that Bruce Springsteen wishes he wrote it.
Nobody Figures Like You Figured Me Out (Analysis): The early-to-mid-2010s saw the return of some of music’s most beloved and forward-thinking acts after lengthy hiatuses. Some of them came back with merely good albums (David Bowie’s The Next Day, Blur’s The Magic Whip, The Avalanches’ Wildflower) and some of them came back with legitimately great albums (Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, Aphex Twin’s Syro, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah). Funnily enough, the two artists who’d been gone the longest, My Bloody Valentine and A Tribe Called Quest, dropped two of the greatest comeback albums ever. It was apparent from No Cities to Love’s lead single, “Bury Our Friends”, that the album was going to fall into the latter camp. No Cities was the most streamlined and accessible album in Sleater-Kinney’s discography up until that point, but don’t let that fool you: it’s as much of a thrill ride as its predecessors. It’s telling that some fans, including the notoriously curmudgeonly Robert Christgau and Annie Clark (who — oh, you know), considered it among their finest records. And we ranked it fifth on our list. That should tell you how brilliant the next four are.
04. The Hot Rock (1999)
Runtime: 41:40 (13 tracks)
Call the Doctor (Producer): Roger Moutenot
I’ve Got This Curse on My Tongue (Best Lyric): “The ring on my finger/ So tight it turns blue/ A constant reminder /I’ll die in this room, if you die in this room” (“The Size of Our Love”)
Rock You ‘Til You’re Good and Dead (Best Song): Every track on The Hot Rock seems to convey a manifestation of either anxiety, an eruptive desire, or an introspective, complex brokenness — and all three are present in “Get Up”. The track is led by guitar riffs that are like little jolts of electricity and thundering drum breakdowns. It highlights Tucker and Brownstein’s vocals thrillingly blurring together, barely giving us a chance to process the intensity of the words. People say that “Get Up” can teeter on being “cheesy,” but the more I listen to it, the more I can appreciate its cheesiness. It’s a joyful observance of unashamed desire, and I think that’s allowed to have a little cheese.
Gotta Go the Way My Blood Beats (Heaviest Sonic Moment): One of the first memories I have of listening to Sleater-Kinney was as a teenager growing up in small-town Oregon. I was listening to the college radio station (KBVR-FM), the only station in boring-town, Oregon, that would sometimes play something cool. I had no idea what I was listening to, but it felt like I had been struck by lightning. I waited for the awkward college DJ to announce what song they’d just played. It was “Burn, Don’t Freeze!” off of Sleater-Kinney’s fourth record, and it was like nothing I had ever heard before.
The track is a story of a passionate, somewhat claustrophobic relationship that was told through the battling, overlapping vocals of some pretty pissed-off girls, and my teenage angsty-girl was eating it up. I loved everything about the song. It somehow matched my chaotic adrenaline with Tucker’s howls, Brownstein’s lower, softer vocals, and the rumbling of Weiss’ drumming. It had spiky guitar lines, with no guiding bass, and it was volatile and unhinged and made angry 15-year-old me feel understood with its inexplicable energy and release. It remains electrifying, rambunctious, and incredibly infectious to this day.
“I’m Sick of This Brave New World” (Most Topical Song): There are a couple tunes on the record about the impending takeover of technology, a couple songs that could place the record within the bizarre-o little pre-Y2K paranoia-filled bubble (it was released in 1999), but what was more topical on this record was that a lot of the lyrics are about being in a band and about resisting the hype, money, and outside influences that come along with it, particularly “The End of You”, a track that is peppered throughout with pelagic metaphors and parallels between an epic ocean voyage and Sleater-Kinney as a band.
The song goes, “Tie me to the mast of this ship and of this band/ Tie me to the greater things, the people that I love,” and ominously continues, “Come so far, come close together/ Don’t tear about what we worked for.” The song begins as a well-constructed ship (the band) and references Athena, the patron of Odysseus during his long journey in the epic poem The Odyssey. Athena encouraged fighting with wisdom for a higher purpose rather than for baser motives, and notably the girls fought for higher purposes and ideals, especially in gender-equality issues in music, and the song alludes to a difficult voyage (for the members and their fans). So if you’re along for the ride, you better be focused and prepared.
Nobody Figures Like You Figured Me Out (Analysis): The Hot Rock is a S-K album that exhibits a bunch of growth. It’s Sleater-Kinney’s first album to reach the Billboard charts (No. 181), the first album to have a music video (a grainy, prosaic, black-and-white clip for “Get Up” directed by Miranda July), and the first album the group made in the public eye. This is the record that the band actually had the luxury of taking the time to really write and record. Sleater-Kinney, at this point, had never been a critical success, but the levels of attention they were getting by the release of The Hot Rock must have still been jarring for a band who emerged strictly from a PNW DIY scene, a DIY scene that was even more suspicious of outside attention (riot grrl), and that caused tension — tension that was sung a ton about. They’d also just released the near-perfect Dig Me Out, which was immense pressure to follow up, and so, if they were going to keep going afterwards together, they had to figure some shit out, which is exactly what The Hot Rock sounds like. It sounds like Sleater-Kinney trying to figure out who they are now as a band in the public eye and what that means to them. And somehow, even as a transitional record, it’s a masterpiece that earned its spot at No. 4 in their discography.
03. One Beat (2002)
Runtime: 43:27 (12 tracks)
Call the Doctor: John Goodmanson
I’ve Got This Curse on My Tongue (Best Lyric): “The president hides/ While working men rush in/ And give their lives/ I look to the sky/ And ask it not to rain/ On my family tonight” (“Far Away”)
Rock You ‘Til You’re Good and Dead (Best Song): One Beat was colored by two life-altering events. One of them was 9/11 and its fallout (addressed most overtly on “Far Away” and “Combat Rock”). The second was motherhood. “Sympathy”, the final track on One Beat, finds Tucker literally praying to God for her son’s life; the boy was born prematurely and had to spend weeks in the hospital. It’s a truly moving song with a climax that’ll leave you in pieces: “I’m so sorry/ For those who didn’t make it/ And for the mommies who are left with their heart breaking.” Even in her darkest moments, Tucker remains a uniquely compassionate songwriter — one who doesn’t need the brute force of her bandmates to bring you to your knees.
Gotta Go the Way My Blood Beats (Heaviest Sonic Moment): One day back in 2002, a coyote snuck aboard Portland’s MAX light rail. The only reason why people still remember this now is “Light Rail Coyote”, Sleater-Kinney’s love letter to their adopted hometown. (Brownstein followed Tucker and Weiss to Portland in 2000.) The blunt, grungy riffs of the verses dissolve into the quicksilver choruses, which makes them hit that much harder every time the song transitions; ditto for Weiss’ drumming, which seamlessly switches from crashing to rolling and back to crashing. As a frequent visitor to Portland myself, I can tell you that the city has grown cuddlier and quirkier over the years, but when Brownstein beseeches, “Oh dirty river, come let me in!”, I wish it was as grimy and romantic as she makes it out to be.
I’m Sick of This Brave New World (Most Topical Song): “Combat Rock” doesn’t just offer One Beat’s catchiest guitar riff — it’s also the album’s sharpest political statement, coming out hard against the hollow displays of nationalism and “with us or against us” attitude that colored the United States after 9/11. “Where is the questioning? Where is the protest song?/ Since when is skepticism un-American?” Brownstein yelps in her best fake British accent. (Fitting, since this song takes its name from a Clash album.) It took guts to publicly criticize this country and its actions for a long time after 9/11; remember the heavy price that the Dixie Chicks paid for their words. That Sleater-Kinney had words of their own to offer not even a year after the attacks speaks to their bravery.
Nobody Figures Like You Figured Me Out (Analysis): The last time around, writer Claire Sevigny referred to One Beat as the album that “cemented [Sleater-Kinney’s] place as ‘pop politicos.’” Five years later, that still holds true. In more ways than one, One Beat sinks its hooks into you. It’s got some of Sleater-Kinney’s stickiest riffs, choruses, and drumbeats (the bubblegum punk of “Oh!”) as well as some of the band’s most explicitly political material (“Far Away”, Tucker’s 9/11 flashback), and sometimes it gives you both at once (the jagged outrage of “Combat Rock”). Sleater-Kinney had always worn their feminist and leftist ideals on their sleeves, and they wear them boldly on the new The Center Won’t Hold, but they wore them first — and best — on One Beat.
02. Dig Me Out (1997)
Runtime: 36:34 (13 tracks)
Get the Doctor (Producer): John Goodmanson
I’ve Got This Curse on My Tongue (Best Lyric): “Find me out, I’m not just made of parts/ Oh, you can break right through this box you put me into” (“Heart Factory”)
Rock You ‘Til You’re Good and Dead (Best Song): “One More Hour” may just be the best Sleater-Kinney song, which is a lot to say, because nearly all of their songs can squeeze into that conversation. However, “One More Hour” is the track where the dynamic between Tucker and Brownstein gets taken to another level. Through a relationship, through a breakup — it’s all put out on display — the hurt, the jealousy, the lust, and even moments of regret are cataloged in the course of sharp, infectious, jangly and angst-filled, fervent masterpiece. It’s catchy as hell, danceable and makes you want to scream and fling your body around.
Gotta Go the Way My Blood Beats (Heaviest Sonic Moment): The record’s opening title track is as ferocious as it is precise in execution. From the get-go, you hear Brownstein’s vicious guitar-work and screeching vocals tantalizing us with the words “Dig me out/ Dig me in/ Out of this mess,” and yelling at us, “What do you want?/ What do you know?” through discordant feedback. The song is a plea to be rescued from the chaos — from the world around us and from the chaos within us — and also the perfect entrance to Janet Weiss’ savage drumming, proving her spot within the band.
I’m Sick of This Brave New World (Most Topical Song): “Little Babies” is one of my favorite Sleater-Kinney songs, fittingly because it’s also grown to be a staple fan-favorite. It’s a song protesting against the traditional maternity roles thrust upon women, more so at the time of its release. The song erupts into a catchy, almost indiscernible chorus that showcases Brownstein and Tucker’s back-and-forth vocal style and is a fiery dagger of a track with Corin Tucker howling, “Mother’s little helper!” with unbelievable force. The track is powered by an almost exhausted anxiety and societal pressure, something that’s true of so many Sleater-Kinney songs, but yet is just so catchy that it somehow goes beyond all that and is just a great fucking anthem for the riot grrl inside all of us, even this Latina from small-town Oregon.
Nobody Figures Like You Figured Me Out (Analysis): At its core, Dig Me Out is an album leading listeners through vigorous emotional strains — and the tension implodes on nearly every track. The record was released just barely a year after the bomb-hitting Call the Doctor, but the trio somehow managed to upstage themselves with Dig Me Out. This is the record where they first teamed up with Janet Weiss, and the change only did amazing things for them. This album shows a sense of confidence. Sleater-Kinney were still an underground band when this record came out; Call the Doctor was a critical hit, but still wasn’t smashing numbers, and the band had shifted from a tiny indie label to a less tiny indie label.
They had 10 days to record Dig Me Out and had to stay at Brownstein’s father’s place while recording because they still didn’t have the funds for a hotel; however, despite the small miracle it took to release Dig Me Out, it’s arguably their finest hour. Furthermore, Tucker and Brownstein had been a couple and had broken up not long before they recorded the album, and instead of falling into the same destiny of other riot grrl bands, who often don’t make it past a single record, they instead used all hurt and anger to propel the album to classic status. Dig Me Out is an album that will always push first into people’s minds when they think of the band, because it’s the record where everything first clicked for them — the record that marked their territory as a defining rock band in American history.
01. The Woods (2005)
Runtime: 48:03 (10 tracks)
Call the Doctor: Dave Fridmann
I’ve Got This Curse on My Tongue (Best Lyric): “I took a taxi to the Gate/ I will not go to school again/ Four seconds was the longest wait” (“Jumpers”)
Rock You ‘Til You’re Good and Dead (Best Song): The Woods’ middle triptych of “Jumpers”, “Modern Girl”, and “Entertain” makes for three of the band’s strongest songs, and I could have put them in “Best Lyric”, “Best Song”, and “Most Topical Song” in any permutation. “Modern Girl”, however, stands out for a couple of reasons. Where Tucker and Brownstein’s lyrics are normally sincere, here they’re practically dripping with sarcasm: Brownstein’s so happy she could buy a TV, so hungry she could buy a donut with a hole “the size of this entire world.” With its clean electric guitar arpeggio and jaunty harmonica, the song is almost disarmingly pleasant. It isn’t until its final minute that “Modern Girl” really starts to resemble a Sleater-Kinney song — Weiss goes in on the drums and Brownstein turns to anger as she and Tucker stir up a thicket of guitar fuzz. Like the work of Elliott Smith, who the first two minutes of the song sound like, “Modern Girl” is as much a pop song as a perversion of one — and a damn good one at that.
Gotta Go the Way My Blood Beats (Heaviest Sonic Moment): “Let’s Call It Love” is the musical equivalent of Atomic Blonde’s apartment brawl: it’s hard and heavy from the get-go, and it only gets harder and heavier as it goes on. Over 11 minutes, Tucker howls a series of come-ons (“I’ve got a long time for love,” she repeats) with gale force over her and Brownstein’s crushing, distorted guitar riffs while Weiss pummels the drums like the ghost of John Bonham. It all builds to an overwhelming, psychedelic climax that’s simply the most monolithic that Sleater-Kinney have ever sounded on record; every time I hear it, I feel like I could beat up an apartment full of goons myself. Yeah, this category has to go to “Let’s Call It Love”.
I’m Sick of This Brave New World (Most Topical Song): The most famous song to emerge from Washington in the ’90s (if not ever) declares, “Here we are now, entertain us.” “Entertain” takes that line and builds an entire song out of it. When Brownstein sneers the endlessly quotable “you’re such a bore, 1984 / Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore,” she’s calling out not just empty-calorie amusement, but its creators — lesser “artists” content to build a lookout point on the shoulders of giants and charge listeners to enjoy the view. (Suffice it to say that Brownstein probably hates Greta Van Fleet.) Sleater-Kinney, in their own words, are not here to entertain. They’re here to conquer.
Nobody Figures Like You Figured Me Out (Analysis): “Classic rock” is not a genre. It’s a concept, a set of moments: Robert Plant with his bare chest and golden curls, Jimi Hendrix coaxing voodoo magic from a burning guitar, Keith Moon dynamiting his drum kit. (It’s also fixed in a particular era, which means there will always be people who assign a greater importance to these images and sounds than, say, Prince straddling a purple motorcycle in a smoky alleyway or Kurt Cobain screaming the final two verses of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on the MTV Unplugged stage.) To be considered “classic rock” is to attain godhood.
The Woods drew comparisons to classic rock upon its release, and with good reason: it’s one of the most powerful, essential rock records that any band have released since Brownstein and Tucker first came together in that basement in Olympia. Sleater-Kinney built a stairway to heaven on its first six albums, and the seventh, from its opening shriek of feedback, is the sound of the band breaking down the pearly gates. It all sounds larger than life — vocals come at you with gale force, guitar riffs play off each other like thunder and lightning, drums hit with the force of a 9.0 earthquake — but Brownstein, Tucker, and Weiss never let you forget their humanity. On The Woods, they took on classic rock and its gatekeepers and won. Here’s where they became gods.