News & Politics

How Vox Became the Latest Publication to Identify the "Last Great Band"

Sleater-Kinney has a new album, and it's already been Voxsplained.

Sleater-Kinney at the 9:30 Club in 2005. Photograph by Flickr user Brandon Hirsch.

The reunited punk band Sleater-Kinney is releasing their first album in a decade today, and Vox, the website that wants you to understand the news, is Voxsplaining the signifigance of the group’s return. “How Sleater-Kinney became the last great rock band,” reads the headline for Kelsey McKinney’s piece, which celebrates the band’s new LP, No Cities to Love, with the usual Vox formula of critical praise and awkwardly posed questions.

Look, No Cities to Love is a great return for the lineup of Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss after a ten-year hiatus. Brownstein’s guitar work is as noisy and distorted as ever; Tucker’s voice is still commanding; and Weiss remains one of the most aggressive punk-rock drummers out there. But “last great rock band” is a very declarative assessment, and one that’s tossed around way too often by writers attempting to make authoritiative, unquestionable judgment. Once again, it is time to Voxsplain the Voxsplainers.

What is the “last great rock band”?

The “last great rock band” is one of those rockist tropes occasionally invoked when a beloved rock band reaches a career milestone—like a new album after a decade-long breakup—that suggests that rock music is in decline and that no future act will be capable of surpassing the last great rock band’s achievements. In other words, it is a cliché, and clichés should be be avoided.

Are you saying Sleater-Kinney isn’t that great?

No. Your explainer has been a Sleater-Kinney fan since 2000’s All Hands on the Bad One, and strongly encourages you to listen to No Cities to Love, as well as all seven albums Sleater-Kinney released in their initial 11-year run. But criticism that prohibits other artists from meeting or exceeding one group’s acclaim is exactly the kind of criticism that makes punk and indie fans come off like a bunch of snobs to the wider music-listening public. Punk and indie rock acts are often defined by their small, niche fan bases rather than their mass-market appeal. You know when the debut album by the Ramones—easily the most famous American punk band—went gold? Last June.

Who is Vox hoping to turn on to Sleater-Kinney?

As an obnoxious rockist, your explainer is all for more people listening to Sub Pop bands, but Vox is built on a model of offering readers tastes of random topics rather than deep dives. See, for instance, today’s “Vox guide to getting huge,” a quick, but not especially penetrative discussion of why protein supplements do not work unless they are accompanying an intense fitness regimen. That’s good advice, and there’s always a market for cursory explanations, but it’s by no means an authoritative work on getting swole.

Similarly, the Sleater-Kinney piece aims for authority on the band’s importance in rock history, but falls short. While it is, as McKinney repeats, a “big deal” that an all-female band like Sleater-Kinney is as loud, energetic, and critically lauded as any of their male peers, the piece channels a timeline in which there were no all-female rock groups before Sleater-Kinney. That would seem to overlook bands like Autoclave, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy (Tucker’s first band), and Fire Party. Sleater-Kinney might be more famous than the acts they cite as influences, but, like every just about every other band in history, they were inspired by the earlier work of others.

For a better explanation of how Sleater-Kinney relates to and surpasses the riot grrrl scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s, we’d recommend Lindsay Zoladz’s review of No Cities to Love for Vulture. “Sleater-Kinney remain their generation’s most important feminist band, not because they so neatly and uncomplicatedly embodied the movement’s ideals, but because they showed that it is actually possible to transcend them,” Zoladz writes. “By the end of their run, nobody would have been caught dead calling Sleater-Kinney ‘pretty good, for girls’—they were and remain great, full stop.”

So, who is the last great rock band?

Any band you want, basically. According to the music site Consequence of Sound, it’s The White Stripes. According to Jack Black, it’s Nirvana. In 2011, the New York Daily News gave U2 the appellation. Creative Loafing Charlotte has wondered if it might be the Avett Brothers. Eugene Weekly in Oregon once made a case for The Replacements. Salt Lake City Weekly wrote in 2008 that it might be Lucero. Also that year, John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote an epic essay for GQ about Axl Rose that claimed Guns ‘N’ Roses was the last great rock band. But former GNR drummer Steven Adler says the Foo Fighters are the last great rock band. So does Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould. And according to Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher, it’s Oasis. (Liam Gallagher has not answered the question on the record, but he probably disagrees with Noel.)

Let’s start a band this weekend. Even if it sucks, there’s a chance it might be the last great rock band.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.