As the title of this compilation implies, Sonic Youth has never been a band that would release something as bourgeois as a greatest-hits album. But with Hits Are for Squares -- a Starbucks-released album comprising songs handpicked by some of the band's famous enthusiasts -- Sonic Youth may be just bourgeois enough to release an album that appeals to the latte sippers that used to get mocked by the hip downtown crowd. Now that the hipsters have become the latte sippers, it’s time for a little re-education by Generation X-ers worshipped by the Starbucks crowd that happens to be under age 30.
Unfortunately, the latte appeal has the effect of producing some pretty benign stuff. You won’t find much of the nastier classic Youth tracks like “Death Valley '69” or “Master-Dik,” even though those tracks are as essential to the band’s legacy as Goo and Sonic Nurse. The weirder tracks are mostly confined to the back end, when a large number of Starbucks drinkers will have tuned out anyway.
In the meantime, we get the already overplayed “Superstar” cover (selected by Diablo Cody, natch) and “Shadow of a Doubt” by Dawson’s Creek’s Michelle Williams. These are decent tracks when you don’t hear eight of them back to back. It doesn’t help that the most empowering tracks on the album, “Sugar Kane” (selected by Beck) and “Kool Thing” (selected by Radiohead) come way too early to be fully appreciated.
The main appeal of Hits Are for Squares, which I’ve already alluded to, is seeing which tracks are assigned to which literati figure. Despite the stunning eclecticism of personalities -- from Flea to Catherine Keener -- all the tracks feel right for the personalities of their selectors. This only reinforces Sonic Youth’s vitality to American culture in general during the past quarter century. That people as disparate as Dave Eggers and Mike Watt could both select “Tuff Gnarl,” and that the selection makes sense for both of them, is a telling sign. David Cross’ selection of “Mary-Christ” may be the most perfect of them all, making the theme song to Mr. Show suddenly seem so obvious.
The lone new track, “Slow Revolution,” sees the band play it slow to painstaking levels as if to make a point, with a tension that never gets released. Sonic Youth were the ones who made seven-minute punk songs cool, but however much this track fits their legacy, it lacks the ultimate reward. Maybe someday Sonic Youth will let themselves put out the more traditional comp they fully deserve. Not bloody likely, though.