Goo (1990) / Dirty (1992) / Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994) / Washing Machine (1995)
With all of the success and acclaim from Daydream Nation and the hit song, "Teen Age Riot", Sonic Youth signed to a major label: Geffen Records. This is the main source of controversy concerning the band. Signing to a major label was seen as career suicide to many within the indie music community feeling that once a band did that, they would lose their artistic independence and succumb to the "capitalistic" desires of the major label.
However, I believe they really did not lose their artistic independence at all. Based on the early alternative rock sound of "Daydream Nation", the direction they were heading into was apparent and could be heard within Goo and Dirty. Both are probably their most accessible albums, with the first probably being their most accessible due to the hit single, "Kool Thing". The structure of each song in general is a bit more ordered. This is especially seen in "Dirty", which was produced by Butch Vig, the famous producer who worked with Nirvana on Nevermind in 1991. Because of this, this album generally has more of a "grunge" sound than Goo, but it is fairly subtle.
Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star and Washing Machine represent Sonic Youth's even more experimental alternative phase. There are song structures present, however, the main focus shifts back to dissonance and noise, especially with Washing Machine, which has one song called "Panty Lines", which is entirely composed of diminished chords. Washing Machine is more abrasive in sound compared to Jet Set, with more riffs based on diminished chords and progressions, but Jet Set has more experimentation when it comes to noise in general.
A Thousand Leaves (1998) / NYC Ghost & Flowers (2000)
These two albums mark Sonic Youth's noise ballad phase, with NYC Ghosts & Flowers being their more avant-garde sounding album. Both are greatly influenced by beat poetry.
A Thousand Leaves maintains an alternative sound, mellow at times, mixed in with some bridges and outros that consist of noise jams and just plain noise, the best example of this being the single "Sunday". Some songs solely just focus on ambience and environment made with the sounds of the guitars, like "Snare, Girl". This album also marks the first use of a C Major 9 tuning, which give the guitars a more bass heavy sound.
In 1999, while on tour, all their gear -their prepared and uniquely tuned guitars, pedals, and amps - were stolen. Despite the great loss, Sonic Youth still started from scratch and released NYC Ghost & Flowers in 2000. This greatly explains the departure from their alternative sound from their last few LP's. It is the most experimental album they ever released since their first few LP's. The extensive use of prepared guitars that were last seen in Bad Moon Rising returns and the majority of the album uses this bizarre F Major add flat 9 tuning that has a very unusual sound.
These are not the band's most accessible albums. Again, just like with the first few albums, these albums do not generally come to mind when giving Sonic Youth recommendations due to the fairly experimental nature of the albums.
Murray Street (2002) / Sonic Nurse (2004)
After their return to experimentation with the noise ballads of A Thousand Leaves and the avant-garde noise of NYC Ghosts & Flowers, Sonic Youth entered an indie jam/instrumental phase. This was seen a bit in A Thousand Leaves and NYC Ghosts & Flowers, but was further developed and greatly improved with these two next albums. The majority of these songs feature long instrumental parts. Instead of just trying to achieve dissonance and noise, Sonic Youth crafted these melodic multi-guitar arrangements, interchanging seamlessly between mellowness and aggression.
Such arrangements were featured more prominently on Sonic Nurse. Also, with the addition of Jim O'Rourke on bass and guitar, almost all the songs on these albums featured three guitars, increasing their capabilities to further sculpt their sonic landscapes. Although they did start using three guitars in songs since Washing Machine, they did not play bass in those songs, which can add to a song.
All in all, both albums are arguably two of the best albums they have released in the 2000's. Even with a 20 year career under their belts, Sonic Youth still cover a wide range of sounds with Murray Street and Sonic Nurse, including things that they had not done before - especially those aforementioned instrumental guitar arrangements. Murray Street just edges out Sonic Nurse due to the better song transitioning, but that is just nit picking on my part.
"The Burning Spear" - Sonic Youth
("She's in A) Bad Mood" - Confusion is Sex
"Inhuman" - Confusion is Sex
"World Looks Red" - Confusion is Sex
"Kill Yr. Idols" - Confusion is Sex (on the Reissue)
"Brave Men Run (In My Family)" - Bad Moon Rising
"Death Valley '69" - Bad Moon Rising
"Tom Violence" - EVOL
Shadow of a Doubt - EVOL
"In The Mind Of The Bourgeois Reader" - Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star
"Sweet Shine" - Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star
"Becuz" - Washing Machine
"Saucer-Like" - Washing Machine
"Skip Tracer"- Washing Machine
"Diamond Sea" - Washing Machine
"Sunday" - Washing Machine
"Wildflower Soul" - Washing Machine
"Hoarfrost" - Washing Machine
"Free City Rhymes" - NYC Ghost & Flowers
"Renegade Princess" - NYC Ghost & Flowers
"The Empty Page" - Murray Street
"Disconnection Notice" - Murray Street
"Rain on Tin" - Murray Street
"Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style" - Murray Street
"Sympathy For The Strawberry" - Murray Street
"Pattern Recognition" - Sonic Nurse
"The Dripping Dream" - Sonic Nurse
Stones - Sonic Nurse
"New Hampshire" - Sonic Nurse
"Paper Cup Exit" - Sonic Nurse