Sleater-Kinney were made up, at last count, of Corin Tucker on vocals and guitar, Carrie Brownstein also on vocals and guitar and Janet Weiss on drums. That had been the line-up since their third album, Dig Me Out, which was their first release on Kill Rock Stars. Previous albums on Chainsaw Records saw drum duties carried out by Lora Macfarlane. These early albums, the self-titled Sleater-Kinney (1995) and Call the Doctor (1996), are indicative of the band’s roots in the punk influenced Riot Grrrl scene that was dominating the Pacific Northwest when they first formed. Members of the band had played in other Riot Grrrl and queercore groups such as Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17. It was through playing gigs together in these bands that Corin and Carrie met and began collaborating together on Sleater-Kinney before eventually making it their full-time project. Janet Weiss joined the band in 1996 after seeing them at a gig and talking with them backstage. Corin and Carrie played Janet the song that would be the title track of their next album and Janet allegedly made a beat “so solid you could practically bang your head against it.”
Thus began the steady ascent of Sleater-Kinney’s star in the world of American indie-rock. Recorded in two months and released on Kill Rock Stars, Dig Me Out is frequently cited as the band’s second best album but it’s my favourite of theirs. While there are noticeably better production values than their first two albums, the band lost none of the high punk energy while still managing to sound tighter and more polished than anything they’d previously put out. There were hooks, there were power chords, there were hand-claps on the chorus and there were just some really, really great songs that would become fan favourites. Stand out tracks include Words and Guitar (which is something like their mission statement for this album), Turn it On, It’s Enough, Not What You Want and Jenny. Those last two are tied for my favourite from this album. Yet Dig Me Out is more than the sum of its parts. It marks the start of a very audible evolution for the band that would see their sound change to reflect both themselves as well as the world around them without ever sounding like anyone else.
Two years later they released The Hot Rock, an often over-looked gem in their back catalogue due to its more subtle and abstract sound that differs from the immediacy and energy they had previously been known for. Influenced by Aussie band The Go-Betweens, who Carrie Brownstein had been listening to heavily when the album was being written, The Hot Rock showcases the band’s ability to rein in their wilder side and showcase the strength of both Carrie and Corin as singers and songwriters. It also spawned the band’s first music video for the track Get Up which was directed by indie darling Miranda July.
I think it’s my favourite Sleater-Kinney song but trying to decide that for definite is like asking a parent to choose their favourite child. It’s one I always come back to because it manages to be powerful whilst maintaining the sparser, more abstract feel of the album as a whole, and yet at the same time it imparts an important message. This song got me through some rough times and it is my faithful stand-by when I’m feeling down. Like the voice of David Bowie, it always lifts my spirits.
Where The Hot Rock went for introspection their next album, All Hands on the Bad One served as a reaction to some of the backlash they faced from fans who felt they’d abandoned their punk rock Riot Grrrl roots by ‘mellowing out’. With lyrics that directly reference the male dominated scene they performed in and criticised the mainstream media’s portrayal of Riot Grrrl and third-wave feminism, the band could not be said to be backing down from tackling socio-political issues stemming from the scene they came from. Where some fans find The Hot Rock the harder pill to swallow, for me it’s this album. There are times I can listen to it from start to finish and think it’s wonderful, but then I’ll go off it for a while and won’t come back to it for a long time. Don’t let this put you off though, there are some brilliant standalone tracks here including the title track as well as #1 Must Have, Was it a Lie? and my personal favourite Ironclad.
One Beat, their penultimate 2002 album, is great. Again, ranking these albums is like ranking children and my favourite changes so much but this is probably my second or third favourite Sleater-Kinney album. More politically minded than even its predecessor, the songs were written and recorded in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks in the US, and several of the tracks are reactions to the fallout from this as well as more personal events in the lives of Corin, Carrie and Janet. Yet for the seriousness of the subject matter it’s defiantly uplifting. Oh is a jubilant song about the first flushes of love and Light Rail Coyote is a surprising ode to a coyote in Portland who took a trip on the city’s electric tram network. Step Aside features a horn section and is Corin’s own tribute to her new maternal responsibilities following the birth of her first child. I also find this album to be one where Corin’s vocals really shine. They have always stood out and you’ll understand when you hear them, but there’s finesse to them now, and she’s able to let go without going overboard.
We turn, then, to the band’s last album. Released on Sub Pop in 2005, The Woods is definitely a sonic pinnacle. It constantly jostles with Dig Me Out for primacy in my ever-changing rankings of Sleater-Kinney albums. If you listen to their albums from first to last, you really do wonder where they could have gone next. The tragedy is we may never find out. Despite constant hints and whispers (teasing, I call it) of reunions and potential new albums there doesn’t appear to be anything on the horizon. Could they top it? From the wail and fuzz and call and response lyrics of The Fox to the duelling guitars of What’s Mine is Yours and the psych-rock breakdowns of Let’s Call it Love draped around the fierce howl of a manifesto that is Entertain to the acoustic guitar and harmonica album oddball Modern Girl, could they? Could Corin’s vocals exceed the ecstasy they evoke on Let’s Call it Love? Could Janet’s drumming ever thunder as much as it does here? Could Carrie’s guitar and own vocal snarls ever sound as loud, loose and venomous?
From start to finish Sleater-Kinney seldom sound like the same band twice. On each release since Dig Me Out their sound evolves and they manage to wear their musical influences on their sleeves without compromising their own sound. Corin and Carrie’s distinct guitar playing styles and vocals mean you could never confuse them on record and since the Kill Rock Stars years they have been matched in volume and ferocity by the rock that is Janet Weiss. Nowadays Corin works her musical projects around her family and favours a more bluesy sound, whereas Carrie is becoming something of an indie-celeb through her writing and starring in cult-favourite series Portlandia. She also plays in Wild Flag with Janet and keeps dropping breadcrumbs regarding the long wished-for return of Sleater-Kinney. Yet with the members in different places in their lives and careers, could they still entertain like they used to? They’re my favourite band and even I’m not sure. No, actually, I’m certain they’d be absolutely brilliant. I am, however, horribly biased.
The current Lesley Dickson Sleater-Kinney album rankings:
1. The Woods (I changed my mind while writing this article)
2. Dig Me Out
3. The Hot Rock
4. One Beat
5. All Hands on the Bad One
6. Call the Doctor