Catalog Crawl: Sleater-Kinney

Catalog Crawl

Music nerds love ranked lists. Music nerds love thoughtful commentary. Music nerds love carefully curated playlists. Catalog Crawl provides all of these things and more. In these features, Strange Currencies takes an exhaustive look at the discographies of our favorite artists — the ones who reside at the core of our music obsession.

Formed in Olympia, Washington by a pair of students at Evergreen State College, Sleater-Kinney emerged as part of the Pacific Northwest’s vibrant Riot Grrrl movement of the mid-nineties. Though barely out of their teens at the time, founding members Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein were already veterans of that scene: Tucker as a member of Heavens to Betsy, and Brownstein spending time in a group called Excuse 17. As those projects dissolved, what had begun as a side-gig — named after a road adjacent to their first practice space — became Tucker and Brownstein’s primary creative outlet.

From the outset of their collaboration, Tucker and Brownstein displayed a remarkable artistic synergy: one perfectly symbolized by the interweaving vocal parts and guitar lines that defined their music from the start. Their competing-but-complementary individual contributions would create something far more compelling — and unique — when paired together. It was a sound that spoke to an intense artistic and personal partnership, and one that would quickly grow to transcend any kind of temporary, regional movement. Put simply, Sleater-Kinney were a superlative act on a scene with a relatively limited immediate impact outside of the Pacific Northwest.

In 1996, Sleater-Kinney would graduate from ‘superlative’ to ‘peerless,’ with the addition of powerhouse drummer, Janet Weiss: a veteran of the Portland punk scene. The trio’s first album with Weiss, 1997’s Dig Me Out, garnered significant critical acclaim, making Sleater-Kinney one of the most talked-about bands in America. A run of excellent albums followed, and all the while, S-K remained steadfast in their dedication to their most challenging artistic elements: bass-less arrangements, uncompromisingly commanding vocals, and lyrics heavily-inspired by third-wave feminism. Resultantly, from Dig Me Out through 2005’s The Woods, Sleater-Kinney would become one of the most acclaimed and respected rock groups of their era.

Following The Woods, Sleater-Kinney would embark on an extended hiatus: one that lasted nearly a decade, before 2015’s comeback LP, No Cities to Love. Reenergized by their time apart — a span that saw them grow from beloved to legendaryNo Cities seemed to promise an equally-thrilling second act. However, Weiss would depart Sleater-Kinney in 2019, on the eve of the release of their ninth album, The Center Won’t Hold. The years since have found Tucker and Brownstein continuing on as a duo, supported by a rotating cast of support musicians, both onstage and in the studio. Upon last month’s release of their eleventh album, Little Rope, it’s fair to say that they stand as elder (not really, elder) stateswomen of American indie rock.

Like all Catalog Crawls, this feature provides a general overview of the band’s studio records, ranking them from worst to best. Unsurprisingly, I tend to favor the albums on which Janet Weiss appears, as her presence brought far more than a ‘typical’ drummer would. Still, there are plenty of gems, pre- and post-Janet, to be found in Sleater-Kinney’s discography. For the playlist, I’ll be picking two songs from each of the group’s eleven albums. Since there is no official ‘best of’ compilation for the group, I’m picking what I perceive to be the band’s finest work, without any parameters. Enjoy!

Path of Wellness




As Sleater-Kinney’s first album following the departure of Janet Weiss — and as a product of the pandemic/quarantine era — 2021’s Path of Wellness is understandably subdued. But while understatement had previously made for some particularly noteworthy corners in the group’s discography, much of Path of Wellness feels lacking in both urgency and memorability. And for a band whose best work screams ‘vitality’ and ‘impact,’ the comparatively-forgettable nature of Path is particularly stinging.

Things start well enough, as the album’s first three tracks provide its best material. However, the second half is simply listless. It’s hard not to cite Weiss’ absence as a serious detriment to Sleater-Kinney, but at the end of the day, Path of Wellness suffers just as much from its lackluster content — generally Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s department, even when Janet’s influence in the band was strongest — as it does from poor execution. Path is not an outright disaster, but it is the clear nadir of an outstanding discography.

Two for the playlist: As stated above, Path of Wellness peaks on its first few songs, with “High in the Grass” being the best of the bunch. It’s a worthwhile, modernized take on the classic S-K sound, with Carrie’s guitar work fuzzy and angular, and Corin turning in one of her finest vocal performances. First single “Worry with You” similarly puts Brownstein’s guitar front and center — albeit in a poppier context.

The Center Won’t Hold




While Sleater-Kinney are a band that has never been content to make the same album twice, no record from the group represents more of a departure from its predecessor than 2019’s The Center Won’t Hold. And — speaking of departures — The Center proved to be a turning point for S-K in more ways than than one, as Janet Weiss would leave the band between the album’s recording and release.

Weiss’ departure was largely chalked up to the fact that her creative input had been marginalized during the making of The Center Won’t Hold. The relative silence on the subject from Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker may provide some confirmation of Weiss’ claims, but in all honesty, one can hear plenty of evidence in these songs — most of which sound pretty clearly like Brownstein/Tucker collaborations.

And while many of the album’s detractors — plenty of whom have gone a little overboard in their hatred of The Center — would love to blame St. Vincent’s production for breaking S-K’s decades-long winning streak, I’m not sure that Annie Clark deserves much of the blame. Yes, some of these tracks clearly bear her stamp — not a deal-breaker for me, as St. Vincent is one of my favorite contemporary artists — but The Center tends to lag more in songwriting than production. Too many of these songs are either overly broad or heavy-handed, and a few are genuinely not all that good.

Still, The Center Won’t Hold is not a bad record. It’s just not a particularly great one; and coming from this band, falling short of greatness makes for real disappointment.

Two for the playlist: The advance single “Hurry on Home” is the clear highlight, and it set up high expectations that the rest of the album couldn’t match. Regardless, it’s a convincing example of what a Sleater-Kinney/St. Vincent collaboration could have been. Tucked away toward the end of the record, “The Dog / The Body” sounds like little else in S-K’s discography, but its “small verse”/”big chorus” arrangement is plenty effective.

Little Rope




Though it’s on the lesser side of the dividing line between good and great, Sleater-Kinney’s eleventh album — and second following the departure of Janet Weiss — offers a bit of a course correction from 2021’s disappointing Path of Wellness. Leaning even more heavily into the new wave inspirations of their recent years, Little Rope is arguably the most conventionally ‘hooky’ album in the band’s catalog, but it manages to retain much of the edge of their classic era.

Much of that edge was provided by the circumstances surrounding Little Rope‘s creation. Partway through the writing sessions for the record, Carrie Brownstein was informed that her mother and stepfather had both been killed in an automobile accident in Italy. Accordingly, there’s a profound sense of grief standing at the core of several of these songs, and along the periphery of the rest. And while this gravity lends Little Rope an urgency that had been lacking on the band’s previous two LPs, it’s perhaps too early to call it a true comeback or a return to form. Still, it’s a much welcome step in the right direction.

Two for the playlist: Little Rope‘s harrowing themes are best laid out in the album opening “Hell” — which was also released as the first single. An affecting demonstration of the pair’s symbiotic relationship, Corin Tucker seems to be channeling Carrie Brownstein’s grief and anxiety in one of her most gripping latter-day performances. Arguably the most pop-adjacent track in the band’s catalog, “Say It Like You Mean It” shows that S-K’s sound can effectively translate to a more accessible vehicle.





Sleater-Kinney’s self-titled debut is arguably the most visceral record in the band’s catalog — speeding ahead in an intense and taut twenty-two minutes. While original drummer Laura MacFarlane doesn’t quite match the power of Janet Weiss, she more than holds their own in matching and complementing the interplay of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. And though this is the record that most resembles the riot grrrl scene that the group emerged from, Sleater-Kinney provides proof that they were a singular band from the outset of their career.

Two for the playlist: The raw force of early Sleater-Kinney is arguably best presented on “The Day I Went Away.” Carrie Brownstein’s deadpan delivery in the verses are joined by a haunting accompaniment from Corin Tucker, who establishes herself as a plenty compelling front-woman in the chorus. Among the most intense songs in the S-K catalog, “The Last Song” finds Brownstein unleashing a particularly powerful performance in the screamed chorus.

Call the Doctor




While, on the surface, it may seem as if Sleater-Kinney made only marginal progress between their first and second records — a narrative that has gained traction given the great leap that followed — Call the Doctor was enough of an improvement over the already-strong Sleater-Kinney that it’s fair to call it the band’s first genuinely great album. More than anything else, Call the Doctor displays significant growth in the Carrie Brownstein/Corin Tucker songwriting partnership — specifically in the depth and range of its twelve tracks. Brownstein and Tucker had been writing anthems from the start, but the ones on Call the Doctor have sharper musical hooks and deeper lyrical barbs.

Two for the playlist: The growth between S-K’s first two records can clearly be seen in “Good Times,” which featured their best-developed chorus to date. Even better is “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” which stands as one of the greatest band “mission statements” ever committed to tape.

No Cities to Love




If there was ever a band that had earned enough goodwill during their initial run to treat a reunion album like a victory lap, it was Sleater-Kinney. However — whether you first heard their comeback by way of the advance single “Bury Our Friends,” or the album-opening “Price Tag” — it only took a few seconds to realize that S-K were not phoning-in their reunion. Sounding like a wholly natural progression from 2005’s The Woods, No Cities to Love was little short of a triumph.

And now — almost a decade after its arrival, and in the midst of a definitively different era for the group — No Cities sounds more of a whole with the records that preceded it in Sleater-Kinney’s catalog than the ones that have followed it. The energy, hooks, and intuitive interplay of the band’s glory years are on full display here, and these ten tracks showed that S-K were still more than capable of offering poignant and relevant commentary for the times, despite the fact that their own debut had arrived two decades earlier.

So, in hindsight, maybe No Cities to Love really was something of a victory lap for Sleater-Kinney. Granted, their race to the top was such a wild ride that, ten years after the fact, the momentum alone was still capable of providing a genuine thrill.

Two for the playlist: Released alongside their reunion announcement, “Bury Our Friends” offered confirmation that Sleater-Kinney had lost none of their fire during their decade away. Similarly great is the album centerpiece, “A New Wave,” which featured some of Carrie Brownstein’s most warped guitar work to date, alongside one of the most anthemic choruses in the group’s discography.

All Hands on the Bad One




Unfazed by calls from some in their old scene that 1999’s The Hot Rock constituted a “sell out” move, Sleater-Kinney issued their most conventionally appealing record to date on its follow-up: 2000’s All Hands on the Bad One. And, with warmer melodies — plus the added element of Janet Weiss’ backing vocals — several tracks on All Hands could almost be described as ‘sweet’ in nature.

But this is still a peak-era Sleater-Kinney record, and thus, any sense of compromise was only felt along the margins. In fact, one could argue that the group’s feminist messaging was more effectively aimed at a larger number of targets across these thirteen tracks than on any of their previous records. And, given that these lyrics were delivered in S-K’s most welcoming sounding songs to date, it’s possible that this perceived ‘sell out’ was rather a brilliantly disguised Trojan Horse.

Long story short: scene politics suck; and All Hands on the Bad One rules.

Two for the playlist: Any argument that S-K were taking it easy with All Hands on the Bad One should be undone by “Youth Decay” — easily one of the most visceral and propulsive tracks that the band ever released. On the flip side, “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun” dresses plenty of social/scene commentary in what may be the catchiest song in S-K’s discography.

The Hot Rock




Following the critical breakthrough of 1997’s Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney refused to create a carbon copy of that album. Instead, they turned in The Hot Rock: a more subdued, winding, and less immediate record than its predecessors. But while the critical reception at the time was (comparatively) muted, The Hot Rock has ultimately become a dark horse favorite, as the same elements that separated it from Sleater-Kinney’s earlier work make it a uniquely rewarding entry in their catalog.

While one might view it as a transitional record, there’s a melodicism to The Hot Rock that makes it something of an outlier for S-K. In both their vocals and guitar parts, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker create lead lines that would be completely compelling on their own. And yes, they do work even better when paired together, but it does take a bit of time and patience to parse The Hot Rock‘s more densely-interwoven moments. Similarly, while Janet Weiss doesn’t sound like she had been shot out of cannon — as had been the case on most of Dig Me Out — there’s an intricacy to her parts that further confirm the album’s more subtle appeal.

Two for the playlist: The windingly melodic nature of The Hot Rock is immediately visible in the album opening “Start Together” — which leant its title to the (then) career-spanning boxset that the group released in 2014. While Janet Weiss is arguably the star of the album centerpiece “Get Up,” it also offers ample evidence of Patti Smith’s influence on the band.

One Beat




At the time of its 2002 release, One Beat was, both musically and thematically, Sleater-Kinney’s heaviest record to date. Largely informed by two concurrent events — the premature birth of Corin Tucker’s first child, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks — much of One Beat makes the already-significant lyrical concerns of the band’s previous records seem rather quaint by comparison.

Given these influences, it’s unsurprising that One Beat displays an even stronger sense of musical urgency than Sleater-Kinney’s earlier work. These twelve tracks seethe with tension, anger, anxiety, and a looming sense of dread, and virtually all of them are considerably more tightly-wound than those on The Hot Rock and All Hands on the Bad One. But even while S-K explore darker territory across these songs, One Beat ultimately serves to reaffirm the positive power generated by the group during their peak years.

Two for the playlist: The first time that I saw Sleater-Kinney live, they opened with “Far Away,” and since that is one of my favorite concert memories, it gets the call here. And perhaps I was a bit premature in declaring “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun” to be the band’s catchiest song, given that “Oh!” also exists.

Dig Me Out




Enter Janet Weiss, and the arrival of Sleater-Kinney’s golden era. It takes less than thirty seconds to realize that Dig Me Out is operating on an entirely different level than the band’s first two records. While Laura MacFarlane was a plenty-solid complement to the undeniable chemistry of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, Weiss would serve as Sleater-Kinney’s engine throughout her entire tenure in the band. And while I wouldn’t argue that every great rock band needs a truly great drummer to thrive, Weiss provided something close to what Keith Moon, Topper Headon, Dave Grohl, and Steven Drozd brought to their respective groups after joining.

But the rhythmic propulsion brought by Janet Weiss is merely one of many things that make Dig Me Out stand among the finest rock albums of its era. Tucker and Brownstein have truly come into their own, both as songwriters and performers. Their vocal and guitar interplay is as sharp here as it would ever get, and every line — especially those sung in unison — drip with intensity and passion. However, there are also a few moments of genuine levity — something not really found on the group’s first two records — which move Sleater-Kinney well beyond the often-one-dimensional peers of their scene. Then again, Sleater-Kinney didn’t have many true ‘peers.’ This is the work of a truly singular rock band entering their element.

Two for the playlist: Offering more than enough evidence that Sleater-Kinney was a far greater band with Janet Weiss on board, “Dig Me Out” is simply one of the great album openers. And yet, even that classic takes a backseat to “One More Hour,” which may be the group’s greatest-ever track.

The Woods




It’s time we start referring to The Woods as one of the great rock albums. No need for qualifiers. This is simply one of The Great Rock Albums.

At least partially inspired by playing arenas in support of Pearl Jam — and thus subject to the skepticism that any opening act deals with, on top of the misogyny that the band often faced when placed on festival/support bills — The Woods is unquestionably ‘bigger’ than anything else in Sleater-Kinney’s catalog. As is often the case with his production, Dave Fridmann pushes the drums to the max, but the guitars are every bit their match. Recorded, mixed, and mastered deep into the red, The Woods made S-K the unquestioned victors in the “loudness wars,” but it’s all done in service to the album’s vision.

The songs here are uniformly great: “The Fox” is full-throated fury; “Entertain” is a thrilling whirlwind; “Jumpers” matches its bleak subject matter with equally unsettling musical vibes; “Rollercoaster” is a perfectly-named tour de force; “Let’s Call It Love” is epic in every sense of the word; “Modern Girl” is a calm-but-ponderous port in the middle of a raging storm. And the performances are simply unbelievable. The band never sounded tighter, more forceful, or more defiant than they do throughout The Woods. It’s forty-eight minutes of pummeling, smart, uncompromising rock.

And about a year after dropping their best album, Sleater-Kinney simply went away. For nearly a decade, they laid dormant outside of each member’s numerous side projects and other commitments. While the reasons for their extended hiatus were both numerous and complicated, their absence had a fitting air to it. Sleater-Kinney had spent the previous decade fighting against the politics and prejudices of a male-dominated genre in a notoriously sexist industry, but by the time of The Woods, they had become the best rock band in America —again, no need for qualifiers. Seriously, what the fuck did they have left to prove?

Two for the playlist: There are some tough omissions here. I’m inclined to agree with the growing consensus that says “The Fox” is one of S-K’s greatest moments, but it feels perfectly in place at the front of The Woods, and not as part of a playlist. And while “Modern Girl” is perhaps the most immediately-appealing track that S-K ever penned, it doesn’t do the greatest job of showcasing what makes The Woods such a compelling record. They may be predictable choices, but I’ll go with “Jumpers” and “Entertain” as the ambassadors for Sleater-Kinney’s masterpiece.

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