Sleater-Kinney emerged from the riot grrrl scene in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1990s and have been a caliber of indie and punk greatness ever since. Fundamentally comprised of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, with drummer Janet Weiss serving during most of the 26 years and ten albums since the band’s debut (and only very recently bowing out), Sleater-Kinney is defined by the dueling vocals and guitars of its consistent members. Tucker and Brownstein bring a unique sound to their socially minded and feminist messages, with Brownstein providing strong backing support to Tucker’s distinct vocal belt. Both of them trade off on a guitar duty that sheds the need for a bass, a move that one might believe strips, especially punk music, of a certain, expected depth. Not so with Sleater-Kinney. While the impetus for this piece, PATH OF WELLNESS, released on June 11, 2021, is a shift from the production of the band’s first record, it still contains the through line of the band’s ethos and sound. Its release calls to attention the ongoing brilliance of Sleater-Kinney, which at times is still referred to as some kind of novelty, “an all-female punk band.” Pinning them only to such is, of course, a disservice, because Sleater-Kinney is one of the greatest punk (and plain ol’ rock) bands in operation today.
#10 — NO CITIES TO LOVE (2015)
Favorite track: “A New Wave”
Let me start off this series of ranked blurbs by saying that I don’t believe Sleater-Kinney has made a bad album, and in fact, all of them are at least good. With NO CITIES TO LOVE, the group came back from a ten-year hiatus (the longest gap between records so far) to an extremely positive reception. And it was deserved! NO CITIES TO LOVE is a worthy continuation of the Sleater-Kinney discography that looked like it might have ended in 2005. But as my initial reception has cooled, I’ve realized the album is Sleater-Kinney’s “worst.” What that practically means, rather than implying that NO CITIES TO LOVE is no good to listen to, is that the album doesn’t rouse nor foster a moody ambience to the same effect as the rest of the band’s discography. That being said, there are great songs on NO CITIES TO LOVE, in particular the title track and my personal favorite, “A New Wave.” Strong hooks are present on them in particular, while the rest of the album coasts on a solid if not incredible foundation. In spite of the break between albums, NO CITIES TO LOVE is not entirely some kind of reinvention, and that’s why it’s good. It updates the Sleater-Kinney sound, but in the process, I guess something was lost.
#9 — ONE BEAT (2002)
Favorite track: “Sympathy”
Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing something from a lot of music. That’s because I’m not really a lyrics guy, although of course I can learn to sing along with the catchy stuff. But otherwise, I don’t read too much into the words or “meaning” behind music, with some key exceptions. I try to follow along with what the instrumentation itself makes me feel. So that’s some background for why ONE BEAT is here at #9. Regarded as one of Sleater-Kinney’s most political albums (which is kind of saying something), ONE BEAT dealt a lot with the state of the country in the wake of 9/11, as a lot of art did at the time. But with my frequent inability to dial into lyrics, even relatively strong ones, ONE BEAT doesn’t totally attract me in a cerebral sense. The same might be said for the rest of Sleater-Kinney’s work; I’m a feminist, but I’m not a woman, so it’s kind of difficult for me to feel the full impact of the band’s commentary, anger, sadness, and just general angst. I do have empathy though, so I have some clue, and part of the band’s strength is its ability to center the empathy in those core emotions, not only the specifics of their origin. Anyways, though, if I am to only peripherally appreciate ONE BEAT’s lyrical tone and zoom in on its musical approach, I’m left with one of Sleater-Kinney’s weakest records. Again, that’s really a relative term. ONE BEAT does not feel compromised, and in fact it still carries all those emotions I just listed off; the sound of “Sympathy,” the closing track, embodies them best. Otherwise, perhaps mirroring the confusion of the country and world at the time, my enjoyment of ONE BEAT is a bit scattered, conditional from one track to the next.
#8 — THE WOODS (2005)
Favorite track: “Modern Girl”
If THE WOODS was truly Sleater-Kinney’s final album, it wouldn’t have been a bad one to go out on. The final release before the band’s ten-year hiatus, THE WOODS is, in a way that’s difficult for me to articulate, Sleater-Kinney’s most “fantastical” record. It’s a bit more spacey, whimsical, and wistful than much else in their discography, but to beautiful effect, as demonstrated by “Modern Girl.” THE WOODS does feel like a conclusion of something, and it was: the conclusion of a busy ten years for a great band, ten years that could have stood as an incredible run all on its own. Thankfully, we got more from Sleater-Kinney.
#7 — THE CENTER WON’T HOLD (2019)
Favorite track: “The Dog/The Body”
As with NO CITIES TO LOVE, I think my appreciation for THE CENTER WON’T HOLD (its follow up) has cooled since I first listened to it, just under two years ago. However, I think it is a stronger listen than its predecessor. NO CITIES TO LOVE was a straighter continuation of Sleater-Kinney’s sound, maybe a “return to form” in the sense that it recalled a few albums from before THE WOODS, and potentially thanks to longtime producer John Goodmanson. THE CENTER WON’T HOLD was a bolder shift. In fact, it’s probably the band’s poppiest record yet, and that’s potentially thanks to producer St. Vincent. Indeed, a couple tracks on THE CENTER WON’T HOLD almost sound like St. Vincent songs, which is a good and bad thing. I like St. Vincent, but a trait in common with the last two Sleater-Kinney albums is a reduction of the “dueling guitar” sound. It’s still there, but augmented and sometimes supplanted by a broader production quality. THE CENTER WON’T HOLD does hold on to what makes Sleater-Kinney great because of the vitality its members (including Weiss, who left a month before the album was released) were able to impart, still present in Tucker’s voice and the songs’ blend of catchy chorus and driving riffs. If Sleater-Kinney is now less overt punk and more general rock, whatever that means in the current decade-and-a-half or so, they haven’t lost a sense of exploration. Sleater-Kinney is not bored, and they’re not boring.
#6 — PATH OF WELLNESS (2021)
Favorite track: “High in the Grass”
That applies to THE CENTER WON’T HOLD’s follow up and Sleater-Kinney’s most recent album to date, PATH OF WELLNESS. Self-producing for the first time, and operating officially as a duo rather than a trio, Tucker and Brownstein have just delivered what feels like a fusion of their other two post-hiatus albums. PATH OF WELLNESS has some poppy grooves, as exemplified by “High in the Grass,” that feel like a recognition of pop-rock of the ’60s or something, not unlike the Kinks callbacks on DIG ME OUT. But there are some flat-out punk sensibilities, both lyrically and musically, on tracks like “Complex Female Characters” and “No Knives.” Like its predecessor, some of the two-guitar tradeoff is muted or missing. On the strength of PATH OF WELLNESS’ other hooks, however, that’s less of a problem.
#5 — SLEATER-KINNEY (1995)
Favorite track: “The Day I Went Away”
Sleater-Kinney would quickly become recognized for more complex works that still carried the punk simplicity of their self-titled debut, as they kicked off a streak of seven great albums within ten years, but SLEATER-KINNEY still fucking rocks. Running a super brief and super tight 22 minutes, the record delivers punk brevity and ferocity while displaying strong hooks that don’t just devolve into noise or get covered up by entirely raw production. “The Day I Went Away” is one of my favorite Sleater-Kinney songs, and it not only typifies what’s great about the self-titled album, but also the band as a whole.
#4 — CALL THE DOCTOR (1996)
Favorite track: “Heart Attack”
Sleater-Kinney’s sophomore release, CALL THE DOCTOR, was a definite improvement over their debut. It sold better, it reviewed better, and yeah, it is just better. While the production became slightly cleaner, it only benefitted the dueling guitar aesthetic, as Tucker and Brownstein’s contributions were woven together and clearly marked. But it’s not like CALL THE DOCTOR was suddenly some pop-infused record. Tucker still screams and the guitars are still powerful and the whole thing still has a sense of palpable frustration, as indeed the new records still do, albeit in a different way. Some of the monotone delivery that was brought into play on SLEATER-KINNEY does make its way into the instrumentation on CALL THE DOCTOR as well, as can be heard on “Heart Attack.” Overall, CALL THE DOCTOR funneled what made the band’s debut a strong introduction into an improved variation on its themes.
#3 — ALL HANDS ON THE BAD ONE (2000)
Favorite track: “Leave You Behind”
Sleater-Kinney entered the new millennium with ALL HANDS ON THE BAD ONE, their fifth record and the follow up to THE HOT ROCK, which was seen as a “sellout” album by some fans because of its gloomier, less angry sound. That was bullshit then and now, and rather than acquiescing to some conservative instinct to keep things the same, ALL HANDS ON THE BAD ONE maintained a softer, moody tone while continuing to infuse the drive of punk. “Leave You Behind” is maybe the record’s most chill song, so of course it’s my favorite, but even its chorus, which echoes some of the contemporary pop of the time, doesn’t just evaporate into muted mellowness. The rest of ALL HANDS ON THE BAD ONE is more electric, but its consistent approach to a more layered sound behind the riot grrrl instinct that made Sleater-Kinney great at the jump makes this album one of the band’s best.
#2 — THE HOT ROCK (1999)
Favorite track: “The Size of Our Love”
As mentioned, THE HOT ROCK was seen as an attempt to curry mainstream success, after the steady build of commercial and critical success across Sleater-Kinney’s first three albums. But in fact, THE HOT ROCK wasn’t as successful in either camp as its predecessor, DIG ME OUT, which seems to be the gold standard among fans (myself included, which is a spoiler, I guess). However, in terms of its standalone quality, THE HOT ROCK is phenomenal. Rather than interpreting its shift in sound as some kind of radio-conscious power play, I see its mellowing of the Sleater-Kinney aesthetic as the result of personal introspection. The lyrics got more personal (and yeah, I took notice of them a bit more on THE HOT ROCK) and the music got moodier, reflecting a place that any angry punk band is going to and maybe should go to. Rather than perpetuating a formula, Sleater-Kinney impressively expanded their range with THE HOT ROCK, while placing it in the same sonic universe that had already brought them growing success and respect. THE HOT ROCK is a fun listen at times, but it’s also a deeply affecting one, inspiring the same kind of reflection that came to the people who made it.
#1 — DIG ME OUT (1997)
Favorite track: “Buy Her Candy”
I have to go with the go-to Sleater-Kinney favorite for my top pick. DIG ME OUT is simply the band’s best work to date, and while THE HOT ROCK is notable as a shift in sound, DIG ME OUT is not without its moodier, more ambient tracks that offer a dose of quiet vibes amid the welcome power of its faster, angrier tracks. “Buy Her Candy” is the best example, but it’s one of the outliers in this sense. The rest of DIG ME OUT, while different, is still incredible. It’s considered Sleater-Kinney’s breakout album, and it deserved the distinction. As indicated by its cover, the band was inspired by The Kinks in some manner, and indeed other rock music of the ’60s. That inspiration should have made the “HOT ROCK shift” less surprising than it may have been for some. Woven into the riot grrrl and punk sound of DIG ME OUT is a melody, one that was a bit more nascent on the previous two records, that calls to a greater appeal. Sleater-Kinney make this melody their own, and DIG ME OUT does not just play like an homage to The Kinks; that influence is subtler in the music, even if it is clearly represented in the art (which is patterned after the cover of THE KINK KONTROVERSY ). DIG ME OUT lays bare the strength of Sleater-Kinney and why the band has endured past a limited era. That strength lies in the creation of punk anger and angst, often represented in a strong, at times overpowering rock sound, with an ear to the universal. And an ear to what makes Tucker, or Brownstein, or Weiss so frustrated and sad, filtered through hooks that are so damn fun, and if not overtly poppy, at least impressive in the true sense of the word. Sleater-Kinney impresses upon you the emotions of its members. It’s music to enjoy on its face, and while their lyrics clarify the band’s position, you can find the answers in those guitars and the pure sound of Corin and Carrie’s voices.