Now Is the Time to Invent

The legacy (and the return) of Sleater-Kinney, which was once the best rock band in America.

Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker perform at No Life Records in West Hollywood, California, circa 1996
Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker perform at No Life Records in West Hollywood, California, circa 1996.

Courtesy of Tamala Poljak

A generation ago a trio stormed out of the Pacific Northwest to become the most critically acclaimed rock band of their era. They rode the crest of a fiercely independent, now-legendary musical subculture, steeped in the aesthetic iconoclasm and righteous angst of the best punk rock but with a twist of the ineffably unique. Their songs, blitzes of scalding guitar and thundering drums, were nonetheless sneakily melodic, featuring passionate, piercing vocals. When the dust had cleared—if it ever really has—they’d produced some of the best and most ferocious music of the past several decades. And they had a way cooler name than Nirvana.

This week Sub Pop releases Start Together, a limited-edition vinyl boxed set that contains all seven studio albums by Sleater-Kinney. It’s a body of work that spans 1995–2005 and ranks among the finest any American band has ever assembled. Forged in the riot grrrl cauldron of Olympia, Washington, Sleater-Kinney was the brainchild of singer/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, late of the bands Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17, respectively. Boasting an unusual lineup of two guitars and drums—Janet Weiss would eventually become the band’s longest-tenured and most iconic drummer—Sleater-Kinney was a perfect fusion of musical personalities, a spiky and sparkling rock ’n’ roll machine. Smart, funny, angry, beautiful, loudly and utterly unique, at their best they were a band for the ages, and as Start Together reminds, Sleater-Kinney were at their best nearly every time they stepped into a room together. And to quote another punk legend, the past isn’t even past: In the wake of Monday’s announcement of a forthcoming album and tour, Start Together heralds a revival in every sense.

Sleater-Kinney took its name from an exit sign off Interstate 5, and in 1995 released a roaring laceration of a debut album on the aptly named Chainsaw Records. Sleater-Kinney was 10 tracks long and clocked in at a brisk 22 minutes, about the amount of time it takes to drink a strong IPA or watch an episode of Portlandia on Netflix. The following year saw the release of Call the Doctor, an enormous leap forward in every sense. At the end of 1996, Call the Doctor claimed the third slot in the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop critics’ poll, the first of four times that a Sleater-Kinney album would land in the poll’s top five.

In 1997 Sleater-Kinney jumped from Chainsaw to Kill Rock Stars, and released their third album, Dig Me Out. Dig Me Out took all the best elements of punk—its immediacy, its concision, its volubility—and wed it to some of the most adventurous writing and musicianship the genre had heard since the Clash. It was the band’s first album with Weiss, whose nimble, relentlessly creative drumming proved to be the perfect bridge between Brownstein and Tucker’s dueling down-tuned guitars. The album opened with the title track, a twisting thicket of gnarled guitars and drums that opens onto an anthemic refrain, then moved to “One More Hour,” an unexpectedly new wave­–ish stew of stuttering drums and intricate, layered melodies. The musical and emotional depths of the album were astonishing: From the aching “Buy Her Candy” to the coulda-shoulda-been-a-hit “Dance Song ’97,” the album distilled all the raucous fury of riot grrrl into 13 tracks of painstakingly crafted miniatures, then lovingly smashed the shit out of itself. “The catharsis Sleater-Kinney seek is more than just fun,” wrote Ann Powers, reviewing the album for Spin in 1997. “It’s a battle in earnest for the human right to know and possess yourself.”

Seventeen years after its release Dig Me Out remains a landmark of 1990s rock, a work that doesn’t so much transcend its particular time and place as embody them so perfectly that it pulls you back through its sheer will. Had the members of Sleater-Kinney never played another note in its aftermath they would still be demi-legends, but instead they did something almost more improbable: They got even better. By the early 2000s the band had moved toward a muscular, bluesy assuredness in both writing and playing, widening its instrumental palate to forge increasingly enormous soundscapes. 2002’s One Beat featured Stones-y hooks and horns while 2005’s The Woods was a stunning suite of guitar goddess noise-pop.  

Sleater-Kinney never had a hit single or a gold album, and in some ways this perpetual underdog-ness probably contributed to the band’s allure. Sleater-Kinney was so smart, so special, so relatively secret that to love it instead of everything else that was more popular and less good indulged a rich sense of snowflake-ness. In 2003, when the trio landed a slot on Pearl Jam’s tour, the belated exposure felt deserved but bittersweet: Pearl Jam is a perfectly fine band whose everydude appeal and spot-the-influence classic-rock fluency are exactly the sort of things that Sleater-Kinney always promised a respite from. Three years later, after The Woods, Sleater-Kinney made one of the smartest decisions a band at the height of its powers can make: They broke up. The band’s dissolution inspired a raft of impassioned eulogies, including Marisa Meltzer for Slate and Rob Sheffield for Rolling Stone, who called them “the best American punk rock band ever.”

Sleater-Kinney was almost certainly the most acclaimed American rock band of its time—Wilco is the only group that even comes close—and the question of why they never achieved broader success is an important and unpleasant one, particularly in a rock landscape that still treats female musicians primarily as texts to be read, suspiciously and never carefully. Joni Mitchell is one of the greatest musical minds of the past 50 years and the classic-rock set still mostly mentions her only when wondering which famous men inspired Blue. One of the biggest bands of Sleater-Kinney’s heyday was No Doubt, whose greatest hit, “Don’t Speak,” was about the female singer’s real-life failed relationship with the bass player, a fact mentioned incessantly during the song’s late-1990s ubiquity.

Sleater-Kinney did things their own way, refusing to chase fans through extra-musical spotlights or ill-conceived pop-star makeovers. They wrote passionate and urgent songs that eschewed the rote, damselish confessionalism that rock music still too often expects of female artists. Sleater-Kinney made art that you sought out, rather than vice versa, and as such was personal music in the best sense: warm, unique, personal for both the band and everyone who loved them. It’s just hard not to wonder why there weren’t more of those people, just as it’s easy to realize that audiences accommodate uncompromisingness better if you’re Radiohead than if you’re Sleater-Kinney.

But dwelling upon what didn’t happen misses the wilderness through the trees: The better story is what did happen, what is happening, and what might happen still. On the heels of this past weekend’s leak of a new song, “Bury Our Friends,” a new Sleater-Kinney album, No Cities to Love, will be released on Jan. 20, 2015 (appropriately, a 21-city international tour will follow). And they may find they have a new generation of admirers: The Girls Rock Camp movement that rose from the riot grrl embers of the Pacific Northwest in the early 2000s is now an international phenomenon, as the daughters of parents who once carted around copies of Dig Me Out in their Sony Discmen now pound their way into rock ’n’ roll’s future. As Sleater-Kinney returns at 20 years old we might say that they’re back to making the world a better place for little girls to play rock ’n’ roll, and we’d be half-right: Sleater-Kinney is back to making the world a better place for every kid in it to play rock ’n’ roll.