2014 marks Sleater-Kinney’s 20th anniversary, and Sub Pop, with whom the trio released their definitive final album The Woods, is re-issuing the band’s complete discography in a limited-edition box set entitled Set Together this month.
First, that’s a shit ton of records. Second, each was (and is) a standout. After forming in Olympia, Washington in 1994 (after the break up of riot grrrl acts Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17), Sleater-Kinney fearlessly rose through the rock hierarchy; with each album, the band was better, riskier, braver. They addressed everything from misogyny to politics through smart lyrics, catchy hooks and even handclaps, while playing harder and faster than their peers. Sleater-Kinney proved you could still be punk and feminist as hell with major industry clout.
Even better than the reissue—tucked in the box set is a one-sided 7-inch with a new song called “Bury Our Friends,” the catalyst for the band’s announcement that on January 20, they’ll release their first new album in 10 years. No Cities To Love was recorded in secret in early 2014 and, according to Brownstein, “We sound possessed on these songs…willing it all – the entire weight of the band and what it means to us – back into existence.”
That’s why we’re going to give you a crash course. Ultimately, Sleater-Kinney is one of the most important bands of the ’90s, and as their legacy has been shaped by certain defining musical moments, we’ve broken down as many as we can. Let’s pay homage to what Rolling Stone called the “best American punk band ever.”
Let’s do this.
1995: “A Real Man”
In 1994, Corin Tucker (formerly of Heavens to Betsy), Carrie Brownstein (formerly of Excuse 17), and then-drummer Lora Macfarlane founded Sleater-Kinney—named after an Olympia freeway off-ramp—then, one year later, released a jarring debut self-titled album. Urgent, unapologetic, and commanding as fuck, Sleater-Kinney both fit perfectly with, and stepped up, the existing mid-’90s northwestern scene, building on the foundations laid out by the art-rock and riot grrrl movements. And we can see this from their 1996 show at Whole Music Club in Minnesota. (Even though at the time, some of us were just cluing into the Beanie Baby boom of ’96-’98.)
1996: “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”
If Sleater-Kinney announced the band’s existence, 1996’s follow-up, Call the Doctor announced their intentions. “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” flipped and reversed standard gender roles, seeing Tucker declare, “I’m the queen of rock and roll” with a confidence we should all aspire to. Show of hands if anyone is surprised that this album earned overwhelming accolades. (If you can’t hear me over your repeated listenings, I totally get you.)
1997: Dig Me Out
We should technically maybe be using the Jeffersons theme song to navigate 1997’s Dig Me Out. Why? Because after Macfarlane quit in 1995 and several temporary drummers rotated in, Janet Weiss took over and appeared on the band’s third full-length. Those tambourines on “Turn It On”? All her.
“Tambourines!?” you shout, over the tambourines. Yes, friends: Dig Me Out—released on Kill Rock Stars—saw a noticeably poppy turn from the harder sounds of one and two years prior. Which may explain why the band released singles like “Little Babies” in support of the album; they still maintained an overt feminist mandate and showcased the group’s affinity for tight songwriting, but these tracks also incorporated catchy pop hooks from from ’60s-era top 40. The lesson here? Sleater-Kinney was (and is) obviously unafraid of change, and this is one of many reasons why still care about them two decades after the fact.
1999: The Hot Rock
Well, well, well, what do we have here?
That’s right: an official fucking music video (filmed by Miranda July, thank you very much). This time, SK took their evolution in a darker direction, addressing themes like infidelity, break-ups, and sounds like you’d hear by bands like The Go-Betweens. Which is actually what Brownstein told the band’s Robert Forster when she met him in 1999, at least in terms of her own writing and playing on the record. And let’s talk about what changes four years can bring: if you were to play “A Quarter to Three” immediately following any song on Sleater-Kinney, you might think it was another band. Because even when they’re singing about love with a harmonica playing throughout the interlude, it’s ripping your heart out. (“Nothing bad, nothing free / There’s nothing left, for me to feel”)
No, YOU have emotions that are spilling out in a public place.
2000: “You’re No Rock and Roll Fun”
Let’s just keep this one simple: while 2000’s All Hands on the Bad One should be listened to by everybody, all the time (in no particular order, it’s pop, punk, political, and still crazily relevant) the record’s single, “You’re No Rock and Roll Fun” should especially be listened to by anyone who’s ever used the term “girl band.” (Because as far as I’m concerned, it’s those people for whom the party is over before it’s begun.)
Also, no wonder this record stands as one of the band’s best. Ever.
2002: “Combat Rock”
As we’re all aware, 2001 was a turbulant time in America, so that’s why Sleater-Kinney stepped up to get a political following the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11. And while the band never shied away from voicing what could be construed as controversial opinions, “Combat Rock,” from One Beat, directly addresses the reality of living in the wake of terrorist strikes and under a President who very quickly took to war. Uncle Sam, that one’s for you.
2005: The Woods
Thanks to their vulnerability, their assertion, their hard work, and their unparalleled creativity, Sleater-Kinney saved us from being the woman at work in the “Jumpers” video, the woman who built wings for herself and sailed away from her shitty job. Because even though The Woods was their swan song, they didn’t compromise their roots, their beliefs, or their outspokenness, and left us with a record that still provides responses to everything from issues of gender to politics to being in love.
2014: “Bury Our Friends”