Sonic Youth is the only Sonic Youth release in which the guitars predominantly use standard tuning. The album is also largely representative of their early No Wave roots. The production is also professional, with a crisp sound quality that wouldn't be heard in the band's music until their early-'90s major label releases. Drum-wise, the songs feature the more "downtown" roto-tom-addled stylings of Richard Edson, approaching the quasi-funk/hip-hop rhythms of 99 Records bands like ESG and Liquid Liquid. The bass guitar, though often playing minor key riffs, is almost funk-based, which was a common feature of post-punk and no wave music. The clean guitar tones contain little of the trademark noise that Sonic Youth would eventually become known for.
Although the original record clocks in at under 25 minutes in length, Sonic Youth is considered by the band to be their first studio album.
The bonus tracks were recorded live at the Music for Millions Festival at the New Pilgrim Theatre in New York on September 18, 1981 except for the studio version of "Where the Red Fern Grows" which was recorded at the Radio City Music Hall Studios sometime between December 1981 and January 1982.
Sonic Youth has received a mixed reception from critics. In their review of the 2006 reissue, Pitchfork called the EP "obviously more primitive than the quartet's later work", noting that "the recordings offer a ghostly, mesmerizing locked groove" and that "this is SY at their most icy; it's an erudite, windswept set, wrapping distortion inside danceable half-frozen Liquid Liquid beats."AllMusic wrote, "Awkward and rather formative, the record sounds like a fusion of no wave and an early Factory band."Trouser Press wrote of the album, "This disc is no fun."
In 1987, SST reissued the album in its original vinyl format, as well as on cassette with all five tracks running on its first side. The flip side of the cassette featured the same five tracks on the other side, but played backwards from last to first, and the printing on both the J-card and cassette matched this: side one had the band name and song titles printed forwards, side two had them printed as a mirror image. That same year the EP saw its first CD release by SST in the U.S. and by Blast First in the UK.
Sonic Youth was reissued in 2006 on CD and as a double-LP with a number of bonus tracks that bring the running time to 63:04. Added are seven songs from a live performance recorded on 18 September 1981. Most of the tracks played were based on pieces composed by the band for the Noisefest festival held earlier in 1981, while others predate the band itself, such as Kim Gordon's song "Cosmopolitan Girl". Several of these pieces are quite different from their studio counterparts, in particular the noisy early version of "She Is Not Alone". Amongst the tracks is the instrumental "Destroyer", previously coveted by bootleg collectors; also added is a studio recording of a song that appears in the live performance, "Where the Red Fern Grows". The song, an early version of "I Dreamed I Dream", was recorded in October 1981. This version is an instrumental, while on the live take Lee sings two lines towards the end. The 2006 booklet contains new photos and extensive liner notes from Glenn Branca, Richard Edson, Byron Coley, as well as a "few notes" concerning the album from Thurston Moore. On the Geffen Records CD reissue, the tray card is double sided – the side that faces out contains the track listing with a bar code and an RIAA anti-piracy notice and the opposite side has the same track listing without a bar code or an RIAA warning. Despite the CD reissue on Geffen, logos for Neutral Records, which the album was originally released on, can still be found in numerous places in the package.