After a decade-long hiatus, the greatest American rock band returns today with a new album. Sleater-Kinney is not just the greatest band to come out of the riot grrrl scene or more globally, the greatest all-female rock band. No, I sincerely believe that Sleater-Kinney is the epitome of American rock n roll, particularly in the post-grunge era. It diminishes their impressive recorded output to reduce the story to their gender.
It’s not that their gender is wholly irrelevant, though. Rock ‘n roll pre-"Alternative Nation" was almost strictly a boys-only club. Occasionally, a girl would be allowed to sing, but the list of female rock musicians is depressingly short, especially pre-1990 in the mainstream. Girls’ role in rock music was primarily to break sensitive boys’ hearts so they could write songs about them.
Even when women started busting down the back door of the rock citadel, primarily through the early ‘90s alt-rock boom, female musicians were judged on the scale of "good for girl". The musicians in Sleater-Kinney aren’t good for girls, they are awesome on any scale. Janet Weiss is pretty much Exhibit A on the importance of great drummer, as her joining the band marks the moment Sleater-Kinney went from being just another riot grrrl outfit from the Pacific Northwest to one of the powerhouse acts in all of rock music.
Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker developed one of the most interesting guitar dynamics. Playing without a bassist, the two tuned their guitars one and half step down, making a sound as distinctive as Keith Richards’ open G tuning. Their guitars seem to interplay, filling in the nook and crannies, enabled by Weiss filling in the low end almost entirely with her playing. Punk bands aren’t supposed to play this well.
Sleater-Kinney’s discography has only sold about 320,000 copies combined. Taylor Swift sold a million copies of her most recent album in just the first week. Heck, Pearl Jam’s most recent album sold 387,000 copies, and it barely made a dent on the popular consciousness. So how can a fairly obscure band from a subgenre of a subgenre be the greatest American rock band?
Because their recorded output stands up to just about any band in rock music history. It’s as simple as that: they are better than everyone else. Sleater-Kinney was actually the best reviewed band of the 2000’s, only held back from the top spot on metacritic’s list because they broke up in 2005. Change the endpoints, and the band is one of the most critically adored bands in modern history.
Steven Hyden of Grantland came up with a goofy test for greatness called the Five-Album Test. The premise is simple, releasing five great albums in a row. Surprisingly, some truly great bands flunk the test, most notably the Rolling Stones (who had the greatest four-album run ever). Sleater-Kinney demolishes the test.
Depending on who you talk to, Sleater-Kinney’s epic run now extends to a sixth or seventh album with the release of No Cities to Love, which is getting rave reviews. Some hardcore fans will argue that Call the Doctor is not only a great album, but Sleater-Kinney’s best album. These people are wrong, but I do admire the passion it ignites. That was their last album as a genuine punk band, and they were a pretty great punk band. But if they break up right then, I think Sleater-Kinney is remembered as a lesser version of Bikini Kill.*
*And in college, I loved Bikini Kill a lot more than Sleater-Kinney. Their righteous fury and confrontational lyrics were perfect for an angry twenty year old. "I may be alienating some of you, well your whole fucking culture alienates me" and even more to the point "I don’t need your dick to fuck" may not be subtle, but boy were they effective. Twenty years later, Bikini Kill looks like a youthful indiscretion (who I still adore) while Sleater-Kinney grew up with me to become actual adults. Kathleen Hanna would grow up in different bands, retiring the Bikini Kill name.
Sleater-Kinney then released in succession Dig Me Out (the first grown up record), The Hot Rock (the commercial breakthrough), All Hands on the Bad One (the political record), One Beat (the experimental record), and The Woods (the homage to classic rock). What makes the run so amazing is that each record marks a shift in style and tone, completed without a hitch. If you picked 100 random Sleater-Kinney fans, none of them would list the albums in the same order of preference. There is no Exile on Main Street or Nevermind, the acknowledged one great album. Instead, all are held in roughly the same esteem.*
* Heck, most fans’ order of preference changes by the day. I think All Hands on the Bad One is my favorite, but then probably my three favorite songs by them are on One Beat.
But who gives a crap what a bunch of stuffy old rock critics think? I mean, Rolling Stone would give a 5-star review to Bob Dylan recording himself vomiting into a toilet.
And that’s where the all-woman thing comes back into play, I’m afraid. I’ve got a little girl, and she’s going to grow up in a world in which no one is going to tell her she can’t do something because of her gender. OK, maybe a few people will, but they will be minority voices in her world. She sees strong, powerful women doing anything and everything, in almost all forms of media. I’m not saying we solved misogyny or anything, but she’s got a huge bag of heroines to inspire her.
But when she picks up the sticks to her toy drum kit and demands that I blast The Woods as loud as I can, I happily oblige. She can try and keep up with Janet Weiss or scream like Corin Tucker, while demanding I play air guitar like Carrie Brownstein. A band that once seemed so radical for just being premised on the not very radical notion that women can rock the hell out, now seems wonderfully normal.
Corin Tucker wanted to be my Joey Ramone. And she was. But now she’s something even better at my house: she’s my daughter’s Corin Tucker.