From their formation in Washington State in the mid-1990s to their amicable split in 2006, Sleater-Kinney were more than just the standard-bearers of riot grrrl, transcending both gender and the signature post-grunge sound of the Pacific Northwest. They were what Greil Marcus called them: America’s greatest rock band. And it’s fitting that they ascended right alongside the moaning, dude-rock format known as Alternative — Sleater-Kinney was the alternative to Alternative, a fiercely independent power trio that played pop songs tough enough to split your lip. Though the yowling Corin Tucker probably deserves credit as lead singer, in her and Carrie Brownstein (later of Portlandia fame) the band essentially had two formidable singers and two guitarists, backed by the inventive drumming of Janet Weiss. Together they made a string of great records, peaking with Dig Me Out, released 15 years ago this month and featuring a raft of songs as taut as barbed wire.
Released the year after Kurt Cobain's suicide, Sleater-Kinney's first album signaled an evolution not just for guitar rock from the Pacific Northwest, but for anyone who cared about underground music. Riot grrrl was a fully fledged genre, and S-K's self-titled debut embodied the sound: angular guitars, feminist lyrics, howled vocals, stripped-down sonics and an electric current channeling palpable (here's an antiquated word) angst. The first song, "Don't Think You Wannna," aped Nirvana's loud-soft-loud dynamic, and the band's screamy vocals plus lo-fi production can't help but be compared to Bleach. Nirvana, though, was seldom as explicitly political as "A Real Man" ("I don't wanna join your club/ I don't want your kind of love") or "Sold Out," two kiss-offs to the male gender. The album's confrontational edge was sharpened by the decision to subordinate Brownstein's sweeter vocals to Tucker's ("How to Play Dead" is an exception). Weiss hadn't yet joined the band and, in retrospect, her absence is deeply felt — Laura MacFarlane's tempos were sludgy where later discs felt spring-loaded with surprises. Simply put, this is a loud, young, angry rock record by a band that had yet to coalesce: Only two tracks exceeded three minutes long, and "Slow Song" could get away with that title because it was so unusual in context. Nuance would come later.
Without losing any bite, Sleater-Kinney's sophomore release was more fun, more self-assured, rangier and just plain better than the band's self-titled debut. The band showed real growth, especially considering how quickly this record followed the first one, and Call the Doctor hinted at the full-on awesomeness of Dig Me Out, which was right around the corner. Weiss's drums help immeasurably, keeping listeners guessing with playful misdirection, while Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein were beginning to understand how to fuse punk-rock anger to infectious melodies. "Little Mouth" is an absolute rager, with Tucker wailing through the chorus as though she's been scalded by hot water, but it's also a catchy tune with a halting rhythm that begs replaying. "Stay Where You Are" inches closer to the bobbing-and-weaving Tucker/Brownstein vocal dynamic that would become a signature, and Brownstein herself steps out with "Heart Attack," a melodic album-closing classic that she sings gloriously off-key.
Sleater-Kinney makes a very fine mixtape band — you can cherry-pick tracks from throughout their catalog and wind up with an all-killer, no-filler compilation. But if you could only have one complete album, this would be the one, for Dig Me Out represents the truest distillation of the band's sound. It's the precise moment when the group mastered their sonic template and made clear that they had so much more to give. Janet Weiss, the band's secret weapon, conjures her inner Bill Berry on "Dance Song '97," reminding you that her drums are not merely timekeeping — they're the band's heartbeat. Meanwhile, Tucker's wail reaches full boil on "Words and Guitar," and tangles perfectly with Brownstein's voice on the candy-coated pop nugget "Little Babies." Their songs just keep on coming. Without ever sounding like anyone other than themselves, the women of S-K deliver blistering rock ("The Drama You've Been Craving"), old-school pop (the hand-clapping "Turn It On"), syncopated verses with anthemic choruses ("One More Hour"), and a raucous track ("Not What You Want") so well executed that it seems almost effortless. From here the band would expand its boundaries in some exciting directions, with individual songs that even surpassed the best stuff here. This album, though, remains the fullest and most perfect expression of Sleater-Kinney's prowess. They'd realized at this point that they were a band with some weapons. On Dig Me Out, every gun was drawn; every blade was sharp and glinting.
With their third record in three years, Sleater-Kinney showed signs of fatigue. The hooks here are dulled, the energy feels blunted. It's as though the band finished off its masterpiece Dig Me Out and wasn't exactly sure what to do next. That said, the album's not without its rewards. "Burn, Don't Freeze" hit an especially high watermark, with Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker's vocals dueling intricately on two separate melody lines. "One Song For You" works similarly (though not quite as well,) and maybe that's a microcosm for The Hot Rock as a whole. It's rough compared to what came before and after, though Sleater-Kinney on an off day was still better than most bands would ever be.
Of all Sleater-Kinney's albums, this one probably best illustrates the sweet-and-sour vocal interplay between Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. Their voices are all over each other — overlapping, competing, popping up, dropping out, adding up to far more than the sum of their parts. Witness for instance "You're No Rock n' Roll Fun," the closest this band ever came to The Donnas. Or check "Leave You Behind," one of the band's great (and too rare) power ballads, with a chorus to melt your heart. Above all, do not miss "Youth Decay," a 160-second punk-rock bottle rocket that's arguably most exciting track in S-K's catalog. Brownstein hangs back in brooding monotone, while Tucker throws herself into a performance that scorches the earth.
Released in 2002 and bristling with nervous energy, One Beat may always be known as Sleater-Kinney's "9/11 album." The band had spent years thriving on the tension between euphoria and paranoia, and here that mixture boils over. (Within the first 30 seconds of the first song, Tucker has described herself as "exploding like the sun," a pretty good self-assessment of her vocal presence here.) For sardonic commentary on American life after the attacks, you can skip directly to "Combat Rock," which snaps back at Republican leadership. Or you can dance the pain away, which is not this band's usual suggestion, but the exhilarating "Step Aside" (complete with blaring horns and cooing background vocals) goes all in for the idea, delivering protest punk by way of Motown.
Sleater-Kinney's sound was always instantly recognizable (Tucker's voice made certain of that), but The Woods represents the band's biggest sonic departure. Riffs are more expansive, melodies more atmospheric. (Don't miss the squalling feedback solo of "What's Mine Is Yours.") Where Weiss once drummed like she was popping balloons, now she sounded like she was beating down a door (see "Entertain" for proof). Other standouts include "Let's Call It Love," an 11-minute sex jam complete, at the climax, with a ringing bell. Brownstein fans will also appreciate "Modern Girl," a sweet ballad which she sings solo over liquid guitar and Dylanesque harmonica. It'd be a stretch to call this swan-song album prog-rock, but it's the wooziest record Sleater-Kinney ever made — the sound of three restless musicians trying something new before they unplugged their amps.