Noise-Rock Sonic Youth
[Photo: Sonic Youth by Michael Lavine]

Oftentimes, there simply isn’t a guitar chord ugly enough to convey what you want to say. And that’s why we have noise-rock glory. Sometimes torturing a guitar just sounds better than happily strumming it. This fact has been proven time and time again. And in 2020, these 10 noise-rock tracks were built to defy your volume settings.

This list has underground pioneers, (un)respected titans and some next-gen power brokers. Your favorite shoegaze band aren’t on here, just like your favorite industrial band isn’t. Upon closer inspection, the two things all these bands had in common were guitars and an extreme amount of physicality to throttle living hell out of them. Play these selections loud. And often.

Read more: These 10 bands represent the roots and future of shoegaze as we know it 

The Velvet Underground – “Sister Ray”

Our voyage into the brutal ardor of noise-rock should begin with the Velvet Underground. Sure, Jimi Hendrix and the Who were following their own feedback-laden noise squalls in the ’60s. But the highly influential Velvet Underground used feedback and distortion as genuine compositional tools, not just flaming filigree. “Sister Ray” melds Lou Reed’s songwriting and John Cale’s subversive, conservatory-trained aesthetics into one visceral attack that still sounds like rock ’n’ roll. We doubt none of the other bands mentioned here will be pissed that the VU are on this list. 

Sonic Youth – “Expressway To Your Skull”

As both straight-up rockers and a cultural conduit, NYC noise avatars Sonic Youth were truly genre royalty. Strange tunings, junk-store guitars, amplifier demolition and unapologetic instrument abuse were all facets in their attack. In the mid-’80s, your fanzine had better featured at least one photo of guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore jamming drumsticks or screwdrivers under their guitar bridges. Whether it was short, sharp shocks or scorched earth, Sonic Youth always conjured an aural avalanche. P.S.: You can thank them for putting Nirvana in front of Geffen Records suits all those years ago. If that kind of thing matters to you. 

Big Black – “Cables”

Guitarists Steve Albini and Santiago Durango and bassist Dave Riley (R.I.P.) were the classic lineup of Big Black. Powered by a Roland drum machine, the trio routinely decimated eardrums with their patented vision of noise-rock fury. The live version of “Cables” (found on their first full-length, Atomizer) is high-frequency bliss. The guitars sound like someone beating on chain-link fence posts with aluminum ball bats. However, after all these years, we still want to punch the guy yelling “Louder.” 

The Jesus And Mary Chain – “Never Understand”

This was the room-clearing salvo from the legendary Scottish band. 1985’s “Never Understand,” sounded like a ’60s pop song being played through a jet turbine. Actually, most of the tracks from their debut album, Psychocandy, have those proprietary migraine-inducing capabilities. Couple that with a glorious attitude (eight-minute gigs that routinely ended in riots) and the Jesus And Mary Chain etched their name on the veneer of noise rock like acid (not that kind, EDM child) on sheet metal. It only lasted for one album, though.   

World Domination Enterprises – “Asbestos Lead Asbestos”

The first sound you hear on World Domination Enterprises’ unsung classic debut LP, Let’s Play Domination, is a kick-drum beat that’s reminiscent of a shotgun blast. That’s followed by the intensively corrosive guitar work of Mr. Keith Dobson, who was able to create songs out of abject chaos. He used a door handle for a bridge on his guitar, and he frequently used two treble pedals. (Yes, he blew up amps as often as most people change their underwear.) There is nothing that sounds so alien, sinister and glorious as “Asbestos Lead Asbestos.” The great news is that after a multi-decade hiatus, Dobson has reactivated the name again and began putting out some previously unreleased tracks into the world. This act alone has made 2020 worth living through. Go get you some.

Godflesh – “Christbait Rising”

With early stints in Head Of David and Napalm Death, Justin Broadrick had his sonic credentials in order. When he formed Godflesh with C. Christian Green (aka “Benny”), the idea was to create a reductionist aesthetic to heavy metal. No guitar shredding or drum solos. Just pedals set on infinite sustain and enough wattage to make one in every five heads at the gig cave in. This writer once saw Godflesh terrify a Swedish crowd who weren’t sure if they wanted to run away or hang out and buy merch via sign language. Their reconvening in 2010 was a sound for bored ears. And with Post-Self, they’re still delivering the goods.  

A Place To Bury Strangers – “Everything Always Goes Wrong”

Oliver Ackermann is a boarder for life. We’re not talking about all that SoCal surf-and-skate culture. Ackermann knows his way around fretboards, pedalboards and motherboards, and he’s got the band to prove it. He’s kept A Place To Bury Strangers active for nearly two decades, and they are still as thrilling as your first black magic ritual. Powered by a crushing rhythm section, Ackermann routinely blows minds with tones and effects of his own design. Some of these effects are so deadly, musicians should register to use them. Throw around terms like “space rock” and “shoegaze” all you want. APTBS sound like every noise you’ve ever heard all at once. It’s really the sound of catharsis when you think about it.  

Whores – “Flag Day”

The Atlanta, Georgia, trio are keeping the sound of Midwest American noise rock alive and lurking. Guitarist/frontman Christian Lembach cuts a commanding figure as he articulates some unhealthy thoughts. Shoring him up are bassist Casey Maxwell and drummer Donnie Adkinson, who let Lembach’s maniacal tendencies soar like any other kind of bomb-blast shrapnel. Whores are the worthy successors to the legacy fostered by such noise-rock institutions as Amphetamine Reptile and Touch And Go, bringing the noise, the fear and the ugly. And if you think that last sentence is pejorative, why the hell are you even reading this? Don’t you have some Imagine Dragons shows to stream somewhere? 

Girl Band – “Paul”

Irish quartet Girl Band are an unsettling amalgam of sing-speaking surrealism with a fragmented approach to songwriting. We could use the old cliche of putting a round peg in a square hole. Girl Band just happen to have bigger hammers to force said objects into whatever forms they need to fill. Guitarist Alan Duggan and bassist Daniel Fox are responsible for the hellish yet captivating scree for frontman Dara Kiely’s servings of word salad. On The Talkies, Girl Band feel like an aural version of the “exquisite corpse” process with enough juddering sonic atrocities and twisted narratives that simply don’t fit. They only fit because the band will it to happen.

Melt-Banana – “Introduction For Charlie”

Melt-Banana have been making a light-speed racket for over 20 years, and they haven’t gotten boring yet. With a big assist from avant-garde composer John Zorn, the Japanese hardcore unit caught the attention of both rarified enthusiasts and pit masters alike. Guitarist Agata used a pedalboard that looked like the dashboard of a jet airliner cockpit. The high-powered madness was once described by one particularly excited journalist as “the missing link between Slayer and the Hanna-Barbera sound effects library.” On the first song from their 1998 LP, Charlie, the band were able to hang all of their favorite noises (glitchy electronics, thrash, turntablism) on one nail. If you’re not feeling shivers, you’ve probably left the room half a minute in. It’s OK. We’ll just turn it up for you.