SONIC YOUTH was an American rock band from New York City, formed in
1981. Founding members
Thurston Moore (guitar, vocals), Kim Gordon
(bass guitar, vocals, guitar) and
Lee Ranaldo (guitar, vocals)
remained together for the entire history of the band, while Steve
Shelley (drums) followed a series of short-term drummers in 1985, and
rounded out the core line-up. In their early career
Sonic Youth were
associated with the no wave art and music scene in New York City. Part
of the first wave of American noise rock groups, the band carried out
their interpretation of the hardcore punk ethos throughout the
evolving American underground that focused more on the
DIY ethic of
the genre rather than its specific sound.
The band experienced relative commercial success and critical acclaim
throughout their existence, continuing partly into the new millennium,
including signing to major label DGC in 1990 and headlining the 1995
Sonic Youth have been praised for having
"redefined what rock guitar could do", using a wide variety of
unorthodox guitar tunings and preparing guitars with objects like drum
sticks and screwdrivers to alter the instruments' timbre . The band is
considered to be a pivotal influence on the alternative and indie rock
In 2011 Ranaldo announced that the band was "ending for a while"
following the separation of married couple Gordon and Moore. Thurston
Moore updated and clarified the position in May 2014: "
Sonic Youth is
on hiatus. The band is a democracy of sorts, and as long as Kim and I
are working out our situation, the band can't really function
reasonably." Gordon refers several times in her 2015 autobiography
Girl in a Band to the band having "split up".
* 1 History
* 1.1 Formation and early history: 1977–1981
* 1.2 Early releases: 1982–1985
* 1.3 SST and Enigma: 1986–1989
* 1.4 Major label career and alternative icons: 1990–1999
* 1.5 Later DGC period: 2000–2006
* 1.6 Independent agents and signing to Matador: 2007–2011
* 1.7 Disbandment (2011)
* 2 Musical style and influences
* 2.1 Alternative tunings
* 2.2 Influences
* 2.3 Musical instruments
* 3 Members
* 3.1 Timeline
* 4 Discography
* 5 References
* 6 Bibliography
* 7 External links
FORMATION AND EARLY HISTORY: 1977–1981
Shortly after guitarist
Thurston Moore moved to
New York City
New York City in
early 1977, he formed a group, Room Tone, with his roommates, who
later changed their name to the Coachmen. After the breakup of the
Coachmen, Moore began jamming with
Stanton Miranda , whose band, CKM,
Kim Gordon . Moore and Gordon formed a band, appearing under
names like Male Bonding and Red Milk and the Arcadians, before
Sonic Youth just before June 1981. The name came from
combining the nickname of
Fred "Sonic" Smith with "Youth" from
Big Youth . Gordon later recalled that "as soon as
Thurston came up with the name Sonic Youth, a certain sound that was
more of what we wanted to do came about." The band played Noise Fest
in June 1981 at New York's
White Columns gallery, where Lee Ranaldo
was playing as a member of
Glenn Branca 's electric guitar ensemble.
Their performance impressed Moore, who described them as "the most
ferocious guitar band that I had ever seen in my life", and he
invited Ranaldo to join the band. The new threesome played three songs
at the festival later in the week without a drummer. Each band member
took turns playing the drums, until they met drummer
Richard Edson .
EARLY RELEASES: 1982–1985
Sonic Youth as the first act on his record label
Neutral Records . In December 1981 the group recorded five songs in a
studio in New York's
Radio City Music Hall
Radio City Music Hall . The material was released
Sonic Youth (EP) that, while largely ignored, was sent to a few
key members of the US press, who gave it uniformly favorable reviews.
After their first release, Edson quit the group for an acting career
and was replaced by
Bob Bert .
During their early days as part of the New York music scene, Sonic
Youth formed a friendship with fellow New York noise rock band Swans .
The bands came to share the same rehearsal space, and Sonic Youth
embarked on its first tour, a two-week journey through the southern
United States starting in November 1982, supporting Swans. During a
second tour with Swans of the Midwest the following month, tensions
ran high and Moore constantly criticized Bert's drumming, which he
felt was not "in the pocket". Bert was fired afterwards and replaced
Jim Sclavunos , who played drums on the band's first studio album,
Confusion Is Sex .
Sonic Youth set up a two-week tour of Europe
for the summer of 1983. Sclavunos, however, quit after only a few
months. The group asked Bert to rejoin, and he agreed, on the
condition that he would not be fired again after the tour's
Sonic Youth found themselves well received in Europe, but the New
York press largely ignored the local noise rock scene. Eventually, as
the press began to take notice of the genre,
Sonic Youth was grouped
along with bands like
Big Black , the
Butthole Surfers and Pussy
Galore under the "pigfucker" label by
Village Voice editor Robert
Christgau . After a substandard September concert in New York,
another critic from The
Village Voice panned it. Gordon wrote a
scornful letter to the newspaper, criticizing it for not supporting
its local music scene, to which Christgau responded by saying they are
not obligated to support them. Moore retaliated by renaming the song
Kill Yr Idols " to "I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick",
before the two eventually sorted out their differences amicably.
During another tour of Europe in 1984, Sonic Youth's disastrous
London debut (where the band's equipment malfunctioned and Moore
consequently destroyed the equipment onstage in frustration) actually
resulted in rave reviews in Sounds and the
NME . By the time they
returned to New York, they were so popular they played shows
practically every week. That same year, Moore and Gordon were
Sonic Youth released Bad Moon Rising , a self-described
"Americana" album that served as a reaction to the state of the nation
at the time. The album, recorded by
Martin Bisi , was built around
transitional pieces that Moore and Ranaldo had come up with in order
to take up time onstage while the other guitarist was busy tuning his
instrument; as a result, there are almost no breaks between the songs
on the record, which feature walls of feedback and pounding rhythms.
Bad Moon Rising featured an appearance by
Lydia Lunch on the album's
single "Death Valley \'69 ", inspired by the
Charles Manson Family
murders. In contrast to their abrasive, atonal material of the time,
the band considered the song relatively conventional. Due to a
falling-out with Branca over disputed royalty payments from their
Neutral releases, they were signed to
Homestead Records by Gerard
Cosloy and by
Blast First in the UK (which founder Paul Smith created
simply so he could distribute the band's records in Europe). While
even the New York press ignored Bad Moon Rising upon its release, now
viewing the band as too arty and pretentious,
Sonic Youth was becoming
quite critically acclaimed in the United Kingdom, where the new album
had sold 5,000 copies in just six months.
Claiming he was bored with playing Bad Moon Rising live in its
entirety for over a year, Bert quit the group and was replaced by
Steve Shelley, formerly of the punk group
The Crucifucks . The band
was so impressed with Shelley's drumming after seeing him play live
they hired him without an audition. Bert remained on good terms with
the group; he and Shelley both appeared in the music video for "Death
Valley '69", as Bert performed the drums on the song, but Shelley was
the group's drummer when the video was made.
SST AND ENIGMA: 1986–1989
Sonic Youth had a long fascination with influential indie label SST
Records . Ranaldo said, "It was the first record company we were on
that we really would have given anything to be on." Sonic Youth
eventually signed to the label in early 1986 and began recording EVOL
Martin Bisi in March of that year.
EVOL itself represented an evolution of sorts for the band: in
addition to increasingly melodic material and the impact of new
drummer Shelley's playing, the record also dealt with themes of
celebrity, particularly with songs like "Madonna, Sean, and Me" (also
known as "Expressway to Yr. Skull" and called "a classic" by Neil
Young ) and "Marilyn Moore". Signing to SST catapulted the band on to
a national stage, something that did not happen to their peers in the
New York underground. The mainstream music press subsequently began
to take notice of the band. Robert Palmer of The New York Times
Sonic Youth was "making the most startlingly original
guitar-based music since
Jimi Hendrix " and even People praised EVOL
as the "aural equivalent of a toxic waste dump." EVOL is also notable
for a guest appearance by bass guitarist
Mike Watt , a friend whom the
band coaxed to come to New York after he was deeply depressed by the
death of his bandmate,
D. Boon .
Around the same time, the band formed a side-project with Watt under
the alias "Ciccone Youth", which is a play on the names "Sonic Youth"
and "Ciccone", the original surname of pop singer Madonna . As
Ciccone Youth, the band released one single and one studio album
during its career before disbanding in 1988. The single, "Into the
Groove(y) ", consisted of three tracks: "Into the Groove(y)" (a cover
of Madonna's hit "
Into the Groove ", incorporating snippets of her
recording) and the short "Tuff Titty Rap" on the A side (both
performed by the
Sonic Youth members), and "Burnin' Up" (performed by
Watt with additional guitars by
Greg Ginn ) on the B side. The studio
The Whitey Album , included the previously released three tracks
as well as three cover songs by other artists: "Addicted to Love " by
Robert Palmer (recorded in a karaoke booth), and "Burnin' Up" and
"Into the Groove" by Madonna.
On 1987's Sister ,
Sonic Youth continued refining their blend of pop
song structures with uncompromising experimentalism. Another loose
concept album, Sister is partly inspired by the life and works of
science fiction writer
Philip K. Dick (the "sister" of the title was
Dick's fraternal twin , who died shortly after her birth, and whose
memory haunted Dick his entire life). Sister sold 60,000 copies and
received very positive reviews, becoming the first
Sonic Youth album
to crack the Top 20 of the
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Daydream Nation showcases Sonic Youth's move toward more
conventional pop/rock songcraft but still has some of the loud guitars
that made them famous.
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Despite the critical success, the band was becoming increasingly
dissatisfied with SST due to concerns about payment and other
Sonic Youth decided to release their next
Enigma Records , which was distributed by Capitol Records
and partly owned by
EMI . The 1988 double LP
Daydream Nation was a
critical success that earned
Sonic Youth substantial acclaim. The
album came in second on the
Village Voice Pazz "> Live in The
Sonic Youth released Goo (their first album for Geffen ),
which featured the single "
Kool Thing " on which
Chuck D from rap
group Public Enemy guested. "Kool Thing" was later featured in the Hal
Simple Men and the video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of
Rock and was made available as a paid download for the
Rock Band video
game. The record is considered much more accessible than their
In 1992, the band released Dirty on the DGC label. Their influence as
tastemakers continued with their discovery of acclaimed skateboard
Spike Jonze , who they recruited for the video for
"100% ", which also featured skateboarder turned actor Jason Lee .
This song, along with the Gordon tune "JC", contains lyrical
references to the murder of Joe Cole , a friend who worked with Black
Flag as a roadie. The album features artwork by Los Angeles-based
artist Mike Kelley . "Dirty" features a guest appearance by Ian
Minor Threat ,
Fugazi ) playing guitar on the track "Youth
In 1993, the band contributed the track "Burning Spear" to the AIDS
No Alternative , produced by the
Red Hot Organization
Red Hot Organization .
In 1994, the band released
Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star ,
their best-charting release in the United States (until 2009's The
Eternal ), which peaked at No. 34 on the
Billboard 200 . The album
was filled with low-key melodies and even produced a hit single, "Bull
in the Heather ". Moore and Gordon's daughter, Coco Hayley Moore, was
born later in the year, and many of the songs from the album were
never played live because there was never a full tour to support the
album due to Gordon's pregnancy. In 1994, the band also released a
The Carpenters ' 1971 hit "Superstar " for the tribute album
If I Were a Carpenter ; their version would later be featured in the
2007 film Juno .
The band headlined the 1995
Lollapalooza festival with alternative
rock groups Hole and Pavement . By that time, alternative rock had
gained considerable mainstream attention, and the festival was
The Simpsons 1996 episode "
Homerpalooza ", which featured
voiceovers from the band. They also performed the final credits theme
for that episode.
Gordon collaborated in
Free Kitten , and started a clothing label
X-Girl, based in Los Angeles. Ranaldo and Moore played with many
experimental/noise musicians, including William Hooker ,
Nels Cline ,
Tom Surgal, Don Dietrich ,
Christian Marclay ,
DJ Spooky and Mission
of Burma , among others. Shelley started up the Smells Like Records
record label, as well as playing in backing bands for Chan Marshall
Cat Power ) and Two Dollar Guitar.
Thurston Moore also made several
guest appearances on DJ Spooky's albums, which combined rock and hip
From Sonic Youth's earliest days, Gordon had occasionally played
guitar with the group. Around the time of
A Thousand Leaves and
Washing Machine , she began playing guitar more frequently, resulting
in a three-guitar and drums lineup. These songs were something of a
shift for the group's sound, and would lead to the introduction of a
fifth member a few years later.
The Washing Machine album began a shift in the band away from their
punk roots, seeing them working with longer jam sections. Two tracks
showed the new approach in full force – the title track "Washing
Machine", which is just under 10 minutes long, and "The Diamond Sea",
which is over 19 minutes long.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the band began releasing a
series of highly experimental records on their own Hoboken , New
Jersey -based label SYR . The music was mostly instrumental and
improvised, and the album and track titles and even the liner notes
and credits were in different languages:
SYR1 was in French,
SYR3 in Esperanto,
SYR5 in Japanese,
SYR6 in Lithuanian, SYR7
in Arpitan and
SYR8 in Danish.
SYR3 was the first to feature Jim
O\'Rourke , who went on to become an official band member. Tracks from
the SYR releases featured in their live sets in 1998, particularly
"Anagrama" from SYR1, and tracks from
SYR2 formed the basis of two
tracks from A Thousand Leaves.
Released in 1998,
A Thousand Leaves has a dreamy, semi-improvised
feel, and features extended jam sections on tracks such as "Wildflower
Soul" and "Female Mechanic Now on Duty". The album also features two
Ranaldo-led numbers, "Hoarfrost" and "Karen Koltrane". The only single
to be released from this album, "Sunday ", was accompanied by a video
Harmony Korine and starring
Macaulay Culkin .
SYR4 was subtitled "Goodbye, 20th Century" and featured works by
avant-garde classical composers such as
John Cage ,
Yoko Ono , Steve
Reich , and Christian Wolff played by
Sonic Youth along with several
collaborators from the modern avant-garde music scene such as
Christian Marclay ,
William Winant ,
Wharton Tiers , Takehisa Kosugi
and others. The album received mixed reviews, but some critics praised
the group's efforts at popularizing and reinterpreting the composers'
LATER DGC PERIOD: 2000–2006
On July 4, 1999, Sonic Youth's instruments, amps and gear were stolen
in the middle of the night while on tour in Orange County , California
(see initial post on
Usenet ). Forced to start from scratch with new
instruments, they recorded NYC Ghosts Jim at their NYC studio (Echo
Canyon on Murray Street) and Ranaldo and his wife Leah nearby at home.
After the attacks, they curated the first U.S. outing of the All
Tomorrow\'s Parties music festival in L.A. The festival was originally
scheduled for October, but it was delayed until March the following
year due to the attacks.
In the summer of 2002, Murray Street was released; many critics
heralded a "return to form for SY", seemingly revitalized by the
addition of Jim O\'Rourke , who became a full member during this
period, playing bass guitar, guitar and occasionally synthesizer . It
was during this period that the band were filmed for
Scott Crary 's
documentary Kill Your Idols , depicting
Sonic Youth as a key influence
upon the post-punk revival then happening in New York. This was
followed in 2004 by the release of
Sonic Nurse , an album similar in
sound and approach to its immediate predecessor that also received
positive reviews. "Pattern Recognition", a song named after the 2003
William Gibson novel, finds the band once again using Gibson's work
for inspiration. The band also showed their pop culture commentary and
sense of humor with the track "Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand
Cream ", a faster-tempo song sung by Gordon, which spoofed Carey's
life, including her short-lived relationship with rapper
which originally appeared on a 2003 split 7" with
Erase Errata (on the
album cover, the reference to "Mariah Carey" in the title was replaced
by "Kim Gordon" due to potential copyright issues.)
Sonic Nurse had
decent sales, in part due to performances on TV talk shows including
Late Night with Conan O\'Brien and
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno .
The band was also slated to perform in 2004's
Lollapalooza tour along
with acts such as Pixies and
The Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips , but the concert was
canceled due to lackluster ticket sales. When the band toured later
that year, they played extensively from their 1980s catalog.
Additional guitarist Jim O'Rourke with the band in concert in 2005
On October 6, 2005,
LA CityBeat reported that some of the gear stolen
in 1999 was surprisingly recovered and that it might be used for
recording of the next album, then tentatively titled Sonic Life. The
report also said that Jim O'Rourke might be leaving the band soon; his
departure was confirmed by
Lee Ranaldo in an interview with Pitchfork
Media . In May 2006, the group announced on their website that
Mark Ibold would play bass for the band on their
Rather Ripped was released in Europe on June 5, 2006 and in the USA
on June 13, 2006. Compared to previous
Sonic Youth recordings, the
album features many short, conventionally-structured, melodic songs
and fewer feedback -fuelled left-field improvisations (the band's
avant-garde tendencies nowadays have been largely exorcised through
SYR releases and solo outings rather than band albums). Later that
Sonic Youth played the 2006
Bonnaroo Festival , as well as
Lollapalooza, promoting the album. In December,
Rolling Stone made it
their number three Album of the Year 2006.
The band released The Destroyed Room: B-Sides and Rarities in
December 2006. It features tracks previously available only on vinyl ,
limited-release compilations, B-sides to international singles, and
some material that had never before been released. This marked the
band's final Geffen release.
INDEPENDENT AGENTS AND SIGNING TO MATADOR: 2007–2011
In April, 2007, the band became one of the earlier big-name rock
bands to play China when they were brought on a China tour by Beijing
and Shanghai based company
Split Works .
In 2008, the band independently re-released
Master=Dik for the first
time on CD, exclusively at their online store. They also released two
more editions to the SYR series, SYR7: J\'Accuse Ted Hughes and SYR8:
Andre Sider Af
Sonic Youth .
SYR7 was released on April 22, and SYR8
was released July 28. On June 10, they also released a compilation
Starbucks Music , called
Hits Are for Squares . The first
fifteen tracks were selected by other celebrities, and track sixteen,
"Slow Revolution", is a new recording by Sonic Youth.
Also in June, the band was the subject of an intensively researched
biography, Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth, written
by music journalist David Browne. The book featured new interviews
with the band as well as nearly one-hundred friends, family members
and peers. It was published by Da Capo and included over sixty rare
On August 30, 2008, the band premiered two new songs at the final
McCarren Park Pool show.
Thurston Moore stated that in November the
band would start recording a new studio album. The band did not
continue their contract with Geffen , being discontented at the way
Geffen handled their last four or five albums. On September 8, it was
confirmed by Matador's Matablog that
Sonic Youth would release its
sixteenth album (titled The Eternal) in spring, 2009, on Matador
Records. In December, it was also announced that the group had
recently collaborated with John Paul Jones (of
Led Zeppelin fame) on a
piece that served as the soundtrack for a new Merce Cunningham Dance
Company piece. This work was performed by the company on April
16–19, 2009, at the
Brooklyn Academy of Music in celebration of
Cunningham's 90th birthday. On February 12, 2009 the band revealed
the cover art for The Eternal via their website and blog. The album,
John Agnello , was released on June 9. With the release,
Matador Records also offered an exclusive live LP only available to
those who preordered the album. The band scored and composed the
soundtrack of the French thriller-drama Simon Werner a Disparu , which
premiered in May, 2010 as part of the Cannes International Film
Festival . The soundtrack has been released in 2011 as SYR9: Simon
Werner a Disparu, the latest edition of the SYR series.
On October 14, 2011,
Kim Gordon and
Thurston Moore announced that
they separated after 27 years of marriage through a statement by
Matador. Matador also explained that plans for the band remained
"uncertain", despite previously hinting that they would record new
material later in the year.
In an interview on November 28, 2011,
Lee Ranaldo said that Sonic
Youth are "ending for a while". "I'm feeling optimistic about the
future no matter what happens at this point", Ranaldo said. "It was a
pretty good tour overall. I mean, there was a little bit of tiptoeing
around and some different situations with the travelling – you know,
they're not sharing a room any more or anything like that It remains
to be seen at this point what happens. I think they are certainly the
last shows for a while and I guess I'd just leave it at that." Ranaldo
also suggested there are no plans for
Sonic Youth to record new
material. "There's tons and tons of archival projects and things like
that still going on," he said. "I'm just happy right now to let the
future take its course."
In November 2013, Ranaldo said in response to the question of a
possible reunion, "I fear not. Everybody is busy with their own
projects, besides that Thurston and Kim aren't getting along together
very well since their split. I think you can put a cross behind Sonic
Youth, same as you can put it behind the names Mike Kelley and Lou
Reed. Let them all rest in peace." In her 2015 autobiography Girl in
a Band , Gordon refers several times to the band having "split up" for
MUSICAL STYLE AND INFLUENCES
Sonic Youth are considered a pioneering band in the noise rock and
alternative rock genres. Their music has also been labelled
experimental rock , indie rock and post-punk .
Sonic Youth's sound relied heavily on the use of alternative tunings
Scordatura on stringed instruments has been used for centuries and
alternative guitar tunings had been used for decades in blues music,
and to a limited degree in rock music (such as with
Lou Reed 's
Ostrich guitar on The Velvet Underground Moore once reported that the
odd tunings were an attempt to introduce new sounds: "When you're
playing in standard tuning all the time things sound pretty
standard." Rather than re-tune for every song,
Sonic Youth generally
used a particular guitar for one or two songs, and would take dozens
of instruments on tour. This would be the source of much trouble for
the band, as some songs rely on specific guitars that have been
uniquely prepared .
The Stooges , Branca,
Patti Smith , Wire , Public Image Ltd
and French avant-gardist
Brigitte Fontaine , another influence was
1980s-era hardcore punk ; after seeing
Minor Threat perform in May
1982, Moore declared them "the greatest live band I have ever seen".
He also saw The Faith performing in 1981 and had a strong admiration
towards their only two records, a split LP with fellow Washington,
D.C. hardcore band Void and the EP Subject to Change . While
recognizing that their own music was very different from hardcore,
Moore and Gordon, especially, were impressed by hardcore's speed and
intensity, and by the nationwide network of musicians and fans. "It
was great", said Moore, "the whole thing with slam dancing and stage
diving , that was far more exciting than pogoing and spitting. I
thought hardcore was very musical and very radical."
Thurston Moore and
Lee Ranaldo expressed on numerous occasions their
admiration for the music of
Joni Mitchell , such as this quote by
Thurston Moore: "Joni Mitchell! I've used elements of her songwriting
and guitar playing, and no one would ever know about it."
Additionally, as with Sonic Youth,
Joni Mitchell has always used a
number of alternative tunings. The band named a song after her, "Hey
Members of the band have also maintained relationships with other
avant-garde artists from other genres and even other media, drawing
influence from the work of
John Cage and
Henry Cowell . For a 1988
John Peel Session,
Sonic Youth covered three songs by The Fall and
"Victoria " by
The Kinks , also covered by The Fall.
Sonic Youth has
featured album art by several well-known avant-garde visual artists,
such as Mike Kelley ,
Tony Oursler and
Gerhard Richter , whose
paintings from his "Candles" series was used as artwork on Daydream
Sonic Youth's sound was generated by their vast collection of unique
and exclusive instruments; from guitars altered to meet the needs of
the unique tunings employed to effects and amps designed to around
Sonic Youth used a wide array of custom instruments in
creating their sound.
Kim Gordon – vocals, bass, guitar (1981–2011)
Thurston Moore – vocals, guitar (1981–2011)
Lee Ranaldo – guitar, vocals (1981–2011)
Steve Shelley – drums (1985–2011)
Mark Ibold – bass, guitar (2006–2011)
Anne DeMarinis – keyboards (1981–1982)
Richard Edson – drums (1981–1982)
Bob Bert – drums (1982, 1983–1985)
Jim Sclavunos – drums (1982–1983)
* Jim O\'Rourke – bass, guitars, synthesizer (1999–2005)
Sonic Youth discography
Confusion Is Sex (1983)
* Bad Moon Rising (1985)
* EVOL (1986)
* Sister (1987)
Daydream Nation (1988)
* Goo (1990)
* Dirty (1992)
Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994)
* Washing Machine (1995)
A Thousand Leaves (1998)
* NYC Ghosts -webkit-column-width: 30em; column-width: 30em;
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Sonic Youth Wipe Off
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* ^ "CICCONEYOUTH.COM DISCOGRAPHY – ALBUM: THE WHITEY ALBUM".
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