Pioneering Seattle label celebrates three decades atop a brutal game
Sub Pop Records, the self described “medium-sized independent record label based in Seattle, WA,” was founded in 1986 by Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, and opened for business in 1988 and signed a series of bands who would kickstart the whole “grunge” scene. Bands like Green River, whose members would go on to form Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam; Soundgarden, who later signed to A&M and had a monster hit in 1994 with their Beatles-Meets-Black Sabbath ballad “Black Hole Sun”; and of course Nirvana, whose tragic frontman Kurt Cobain would later become an icon of the alternative nation and an unfortunate victim of the overexposure of underground artists by the mainstream press.
While Sub Pop will always be remembered as the quintessential “grunge” label by aging Gen X’ers who stopped listening to good music after college, for a whole new generation of music fans it remains a vital hotbed of bold, interesting new acts who’ve inspired a whole new group of kids by breaking acts such as Iron and Wine, The Thermals, Wolf Parade, Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes and of course The Shins, immortalized in a Natalie Portman namecheck during that one scene in Garden State. They were also referenced on Dawson’s Creek, although I’m almost positive it wasn’t because James Van Der Beek was a closet Murder City Devils fan.
Beyond Sub Pop’s prominence then and now, it’s the in-between years in the mid-to-late-90s and early 00s that have arguably proven to be the most interesting period in the label’s history. In between “Touch Me I’m Sick” and the forthcoming label debut from Vetiver, Tight Knit, which is due out in February ’09 and is said to be Andy Cabic’s unfettered masterpiece, Sub Pop has blessed us all with the wildest array of albums created by bands and artists from all over the world.
To celebrate the label’s 30th anniversary, here is a tribute to the label who helped make us cool back in high school, cobbling together our thirty favorite Sub Pop releases of the last thirty years.
- MUDHONEY Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988)/Mudhoney (1989)/Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (1991)/Since We’ve Become Translucent (2002)/Under A Billion Suns (2005)/The Lucky Ones (2008)/Vanishing Point (2013) Their sound was thick, rough and trippy, like if someone dropped a tab of Timothy Leary’s favorite blotter acid into your Guinness, and sounded unlike anything we ever heard at the time. And while they had a bit of a grey area there after they jumped ship to Reprise in the mid-90s for a short string of underrated albums (all in desperate need of reissue!) once they returned to the record label they played a big role in putting on the national map in 2002, they picked up right where they left off with Fudge, continuing to blaze a trail of excellence and consistency that towers over anything their counterparts in the grunge movement could ever muster. It’s very hard to pick just one of the six albums Mudhoney recorded for Sub Pop, because they all fucking rock. Thirty years after Superfuzz Bigmuff, long may they run.
- SUNNY DAY REAL ESTATE Diary (1994) Though this album is blamed for giving birth to that dreaded “emo” sound that was so big amongst annoying Long Island kids in the early 00s, Diary is so, so much better than that. In fact, if they are being tagged as the parents of emo, somebody should call child services, because it really seemed like Sunny Day was far more attentive to that older, wiser and more romantic offshoot of grunge than anything that would inspire the likes of Saves The Day, The Anniversary and Dashboard Confessional.
- FRANKIE COSMOS Vessel (2018) Sub Pop picking up the all-important third album from the New York City-based indie pop group led by young Greta Kline shows that even thirty years later, this label still has a keen ear to the streets. And the streets are screaming for more earnest K Records-kissed sentiments from a Manhattan original whose music is as gritty and sweet as the city streets she was raised on.
- MARK LANEGAN Whiskey for the Holy Ghost (1994) You know about those “Methamphetamine Blues” Lanegan was talking about a couple of years back? That is exactly what he made on this, the best album he ever did as a solo artist, hands down.
- WOLF PARADE Expo 86 (2010) Third time’s the charm for this celebrated Montreal-based indie rock supergroup with the brilliant Expo ’86. Named after the famous World’s Fair held in Vancouver, British Columbia back in the summer of their youth, Wolf Parade also seem to be mining some of their favorite albums of that year as well. There are moments across this set that suggest a crew of good friends growing up to the sounds of The Cramps and Candy Apple Grey-era Hüsker Dü. Escaping the ironic hipster trappings of their dumb name and their last two albums, Expo ’86 will make even the most hard-pressed skeptic of this Pitchfork favorite a true believer. (RH)
- AFGHAN WHIGS Congregation (1992) Before the Whigs signed to Elektra and started freaking the funk, they created some of the most soulfully dense rock of the early 90s for Sub Pop. Gentlemen might be considered to be their full-on masterpiece, but Congregation was the absolute genesis of the classic Afghan Whigs sound, the brutal/beautiful combination of Stax and SST that could never be replicated by any other act if they even tried.
- NIRVANA Bleach (1989) Almost a contractual obligation to include Nirvana’s debut, strictly because of its historical value. It’s decent, but not a great album by any means, neither were Nevermind and In Utero. Add up all the great songs on all three and you have one of the greatest rock albums ever created. However, these albums hardly scratched the surface of the kind of music Kurt would have been making had he lived to see his 50th birthday. Though I have to admit, “Floyd The Barber” is the shit!
- THE VASELINES The Way of the Vaselines: A Complete History (1992) Lo-fi sometimes noisy, sometimes delicate indie pop that about sex, religion and the absurdity of life sung by a boy/girl duo whose wonderful harmonies shine through the muddiest sonic muck. There’s a reason why Kurt Cobain covered three of their songs while he was still alive and The Moldy Peaches stole everything they did from them. It’s because Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee are one of the best songwriting teams of the last 30 years and, if you can forgive them for helping give birth to the twee movement, your life will truly be changed by the magic of their melodies. No joke!
- BILLY CHILDISH I Am The Billy Childish (1991) The prospect of scouring the earth for the early material of England’s bastard white son of Bo Diddley and fearless leader of the influential garage group Thee Headcoats would drive even the most staunch underground crate digger into a dire need for a government bailout. Subtitled “50 Songs From 50 Records”, I Am The Billy Childish gathers up all of his most crucial cuts from the late 70s to the early 90s in a brilliant anthology that Sub Pop released in a limited 1500 copy run. One can only hope Bruce Pavitt will make this gem, going for between $65-75 on Amazon, available for mass consumption once again.
- SIX FINGER SATELLITE The Pigeon Is The Most Popular Bird (1993) Before he was known as DFA stalwart the Juan Maclean, John MacClean played guitar in this pioneering Rhode Island outfit, one of the first rock groups of the modern era to truly embrace electronic music and fuse it with the post-punk elements of the Birthday Party and Wire. Had they come out in 2005, Six Finger Satellite’s explosive debut would’ve been atop every lemming critic’s Top Ten list. But in 1993, scribes were still trying to get their head around Pavement, let alone a band whose sound would become the clarion call of 21st century indie rock.
- CHEAP TRICK “Baby Talk” b/w “Brontosaurus” 7-inch (1997) Those who felt as though Cheap Trick totally had fallen off after Dream Police were pleasantly surprised by this shocker of a one-off 7-inch for Sub Pop the Rockford, Illinois rock heroes recorded with longtime fan Steve Albini, who revived the crunch that made their first three albums such a perfect trifecta of classic heavy pop, highlighted by a ferocious take on a classic jam by The Move. Around the same time they recorded the “Baby Talk” single, Albini and the Trick also had a laugh doing a beefed-up reworking of the band’s 1977 sophomore masterpiece In Color, which you need to hear to believe.
- COMBUSTIBLE EDISON I, Swinger (1994) Formed from the ashes of the underrated indie rock group The Christmas (whose members included Yo La Tengo’s James McNew at one point), Combustible Edison added a little bowtie charm to the flannel-clad masses who made up the Sub Pop demographic at the time. I, Swinger is more Esquivel than Endino, delivering a torchy exotica flavor that helped jumpstart a renewed interest in Kennedy-era Space Age Bachelor Pad Music in the mid-90s with far more style and wit than most. A truly overlooked gem of Sub Pop’s post-grunge comedown. It’s only a penny on Amazon. Go buy it right now. Don’t even think about it. Treat yourself.
- RED RED MEAT There’s A Star Above The Manger Tonight (1997) A heady stew of King Tubby, Dock Boggs and Can’s Tago Mago exists within the shotgun shack rock of Red Red Meat’s magnificent Sub Pop swan song. Fans of Califone can easily trace back the sound of such works as Quicksand/Cradlesnakes and Heron King Blues to RRM frontman Tim Rutili’s kitchen sink arrangements here, while admirers of RRM drummer-turned-in-demand-producer Brian Deck helmed for the likes of Iron & Wine and Modest Mouse within Star’s more together moments. Even after nearly a dozen years in the public domain, There’s A Star Above The Manger Tonight still provides something new for the listener with every spin.
- SEBADOH Bakesale (1994) After spending the dearth of the early 90s drowned in feedback and dissonance, Lou Barlow, Jason Lowenstein and new drummer Bob Fay fully succumbed to the shimmering beauty of their softer, more together moments on Bakesale, with the pop-loving Barlow handling the majority of the songwriting, resulting in the group’s most accessible and thoroughly enjoyable album in their catalog.
- CHAPPAQUIDDICK SKYLINE Chappaquiddick Skyline (2000) Following the dissolution of the influential Scud Mountain Boys, head Scud Joe Pernice returned to recording under this Kennedy scandal name-check and came out with the most starkly beautiful material of his career. Chappaquiddick has set a bar in Sub Pop folk that Iron and Wine has yet to reach.
- MALE BONDING Endless Now (2011) For their second Sub Pop LP in the span of a year, Male Bonding showcase some serious growth spurts as a creative entity. The noise pop trio from London’s artsy Dalton district showcased a strong cognizance for 90s alternative rock beneath the din of DIY dissonance that informed their blistering debut, Endless Now. Now, the Males streamline the wild nature of their UK jive by taking their jones for all things 120 Minutes across the Atlantic and setting up shop at one of the true meccas of the era. Dreamland Recording, the famed converted church located in beautiful Ulster County, NY, was the palce where such band faves as Dinosaur Jr.’s Where You Been and The Connells’ Ring. So it should come as no surprise to learn that guitarist/frontman John Arthur Webb, bassist Kevin Hendrick and drummer Robin Silas Christian, with the help of white hot indie producer John Agnello, did their damndest to channel all that retro mojo into the fabric of Endless Now’s 12 tracks. This artistic upgrade from their previous work is further enhanced by a significant expansion of their sonic arsenal, including piano, cello, Mellotron and female backing vocals courtesy of Crystal Stilts/Dum Dum Girls/Vivian Girls drummer Frankie Rose. And as songs such as the buoyant “Tame The Sun”, the SMiLE-esque “Can’t Dream” and the Alley Cats-indebted “What’s That Scene” signify, Endless Now is a far greater album for it–allowing this immensely talented triad to soar in ways they never dreamed of when they first started out.
- SUPERSUCKERS Must’ve Been High (1997) Temporarily ditching their garage punk roots, Eddie Spaghetti and co. toned it down enough to record this loose, loopy country gem about the joys of smoking weed. They even cut a track with Willie Nelson, as if to prove they were serious about this shit and not fucking around like Ween did the year before with 12 Golden Country Greats. Bonus daps for the equally-kick ass compendium split EP with Steve Earle they released that year as well.
- JESUS AND MARY CHAIN Munki (1998) For those who are fans of the more tuneful Jesus and Mary Chain stuff, their sole Sub Pop release is also up there with their best, second, of course, to 1992’s Honey’s Dead. Who knew that beneath that wall of noise lay the finest pop songwriting pair of brothers since the Davies boys.
- CHAD VanGAALEN Shrink Dust (2014) “It’s like Bob and Doug McKenzie in space,” proclaims Chad VanGaalen in reference to the sci-fi film he recently wrote and to which his fifth full-length LP serves as its unorthodox score. Sonically inspired by the recent acquisition of an aluminum pedal steel guitar, the quirky multi-media maven from Calgary takes a stab at country rock on the 12 tracks comprising Shrink Dust. However, by channeling his new affinity for such cosmic cowboys as Gene Clark, If I Could Only Remember My Name-era David Crosby and Gram Parsons through his obsessions with processing instruments through an ether of psychedelic exploration, songs like “Frozen Paradise,” “Weighed Sin” and “Hangman’s Son” unspool a mosaic of fuzzy vibes as kaleidoscopic as the menagerie of characters illustrated in his flick’s accompanying guidebook. But at the same time, the Calgary-born songwriter also utilizes the album to expound upon some of the heartbreaking personal losses he had experienced in recent times, including his beloved pet hound dog Lila and his good friend Chris Reimer of the terribly underrated Alberta art-punk group Women. The album is dedicated to both of them, and the feeling of loss is indeed palpable when you hear the two songs that bookend this record, “Cut Off My Hands” and the swirling closing number “Cosmic Destroyer.” Not in Sub Pop’s quarter century in business has there hasn’t been anyone quite like Chad Van Gaalen on its active roster. And for all of its beauty, sorrow and headphone trippiness, there isn’t a more apt compendium to the quintessence of his artistry than Shrink Dust.
- TAD 8-Way Santa (1991) The Kris Kringle that Tad sings about on this certified Sub Pop classic is the kind who prefers to shove a stockingful of coal straight up your asspipe, thus completely cutting the whole milk and cookies, naughty and nice middle man bullshit with a sharpened reindeer antler. Hence, the 8-Way Santa. Hillbilly stoner metal at its finest.
- OBITS I Blame You (2009) Signed by Sub Pop’s A&R guru Chris Jacobs after hearing a crude tape of the very first live show by Froberg’s latest band, Obits, at New York’s Cakeshop in January of 2008, it took the Brooklyn-based group less than a year to cobble together I Blame You (released March 29), a no-frills debut LP produced by Eli Janney of Girls Against Boys that sounds equally like everything and unlike anything Froberg has been involved with in his three-decade-strong year career. Fans of Hot Snakes and Drive Like Jehu will immediately recognize the pitch-perfect wail of Froberg’s ageless voice, which sounds as immediate and incendiary as it did on Yank Crime back in 1994. However, the music backing up that classic vox offers him a chance to really sing out his heartbreak, be it about a girl or a government, atop a barrage of propulsive garage-surf-psych grooves that comes off Little Steven’s vinyl collection melted down into one giant ACME bomb about to get dropped on your dome piece.
- POSTAL SERVICE Give Up (2003) Still the best thing of which either Ben Gibbard or Jenny Lewis has ever been a part, the Postal Service’s sole full-length is the Rubber Soul of laptop pop. With Figurine/DNTEL/Headset mastermind Jimmy Tamborello on the beats, Give Up’s combination of megabytes and melody have yet to be one-upped. Well, at least until these guys get back together for a follow-up.
- REVEREND HORTON HEAT The Full Custom Gospel Sounds Of…(1993) One of the best rockabilly albums ever made. Literally.
- SLEATER-KINNEY The Woods (2005) After making the jump from Kill Rock Stars to Sub Pop in 2005, Sleater-Kinney came out of the gate with an album that ranks right up there with Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock as one of their absolute best. Experiencing the cold of a New York winter during a holiday recording session at producer Dave Fridmann’s Cassadaga-based Tarbox Road Studios, The Woods contains music as big and powerful as the Adirondack Mountains they were surrounded by, as Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss play with more precision and confidence than ever before.
FATHER JOHN MISTY God’s Favorite Customer (2018) Since manifesting into the good Father in 2012, former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman has been bringing back the kind of majesty to pop music that’s only previously existed in the catalogs of the solo Beatles, Harry Nilsson and Todd Rundgren. And with the world still buzzing from 2017’s Pure Comedy, FJM ups the ante of his art with God’s Favorite Customer, an album that answers the question of how a John Lennon/George Harrison studio LP could have sounded like had they gotten together in between All Things Must Pass and Imagine. Pure Comedy? No, pure genius.
- SOUNDGARDEN Ultramega OK [Remixed Expanded Edition] (2017) It’s quite amazing to think about just how long Soundgarden has been around, and just how much their brand of heavy rock has transitioned over the course of their 33 years as an active entity. And certainly is a long walk between their debut EP Screaming Life and this electro-MOR stuff Chris Cornell seems to be dropping lately. But for a short run there in the days of Bush 41, there wasn’t a purer dignitary of the distinct Pacific Northwest homebrew of Black Sabbath and Black Flag back in the days when the sound soon marketed as “grunge” was still a regional thing. They even released their full-length debut, 1988’s Ultramega OK, on Greg Ginn’s SST Records, but immediately regretted the situation when they heard the muddy original mix and cast the album aside to get right to work on their first major label effort, 1989’s Louder Than Love. Yet warts and all, Ultramega has remained a quintessential testament to the sheer brutality that existed within the original lineup of Soundgarden. And while Ginn is notorious for the vice grip he has on the SST catalog, by some miracle the band was able to wrest the masters for OK away from the guitarist, and brought the tapes to their longtime Seattle homeboy Jack Endino to correct the murk in the mix for this long-overdue reissue. Not only has Ultramega OK never sounded crisper and more crushing, it’s been supplemented with an EP’s worth of early demo versions of such key OK cuts as “Incessant Mace” and “Beyond The Wheel” that place the ultimate exclamation point on this rehabbed classic.
- DUM DUM GIRLS Too True (2014) The threat of losing your voice is the ultimate fear for any singer. And it was a dilemma Dee Dee Penny faced when she went to record the ten new songs she had written in a New York City apartment and the Chateau Marmont between tours in support of the band’s 2012 effort End of Daze. But what she mistook as laryngitis was in actuality the evolution of her pipes based on the excellent Too True, the fourth and finest DDG LP yet. Working in pursuit of “a bigger, darker, more urgent sound”, Dee Dee utilizes the newfound depth in her voice to great effect, coming off like Kristen Hersh-gone-Goth on such Rainer-and-Rimbaud inspired tunes as “Are You Okay?” and “Little Minx”. Vibrant with husk and harmony, Too True is a lemons-to-lemonade success story for the ages.
- STRANGE WILDS Subjective Concepts (2015) Sub Pop has spent the last two decades diversifying its roster enough to include such bold new voices beyond the realms of that classic Washington sound such as Low, Shabazz Palaces and Daughn Gibson. But with the interstate signing of Olympia’s Strange Wilds, it is great to see them seeding talent locally once again. And with their excellent full-length debut, this savage young trio offers a stiff reminder of those bygone halcyon days when Chad Channing drummed for Nirvana instead of Dave Grohl. But while the barbed, razor sharp riffs and tightrope bass thuds of Bleach largely inform the scrappy nature of key tracks like caustic opener “Pronoia” and the pensive “Oneirophobe,” there is an influential undercurrent of the signature sounds of their own city back in the day as well. Shades of K Records classics from Beat Happening and Some Velvet Sidewalk factor as well into the more melodic elements of Subjective Concepts, particularly within the structures of college radio-ready songs like “Don’t Have To” and “Lose and Found”. The girl on the cover of this record tiptoeing on the precipice of a building ledge is there for more than just shock value: she’s a symbol of the gleeful edge dancing Strange Wilds does between the sonic divide of its state’s two most iconic music cities.
- clipping. Splendor & Misery (2016) Daveed Diggs is best known for playing our third president Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton. But on the streets of the art ghetto, he’s been celebrated as the chief voice of the Los Angeles avant-rap outfit clipping., whose second album as key members of Sub Pop’s increasingly impressive urban roster finds the trio finding the centermost point connecting Techno Animal, Kanye West and Freestyle Fellowship by making a hard left away from the poptimism of this summer’s Struggle EP with a balanced sense of speed and nuance within the construct of the industrial hip-hop canon that proves the pioneering struggles of such predecessors as MC 900 Ft. Jesus, dalek and Antipop Consortium have not gone in vain.
- WASHED OUT Within and Without (2011) It was a wise move on the part of Ernest Greene to wait out the whole chillwave hype fit that went down online for a few months there to release his debut LP. Now, Within and Without stands tall on its own, unabated by any kind of incidental urge to compete with his contemporaries (though the Memory Tapes do have a new album out as well, but I think we all know who the more worthwhile listen is, don’t we?). And boy is it a beaut, especially if you are currently enjoying the ride of 80s nostalgia going down across the USA these days. For his inaugural launch as a member of the Sub Pop family, Washed Out transcends into the greatest lost 80s synth-pop act that never existed. Fully reveling in a professional studio (down the hall from where the Goodie Mob were recording their comeback), Greene sounds like his aim was to pick up right where the Human League’s Dare was physiologically transmitted from the record player into the cocktail of Darvon, Valium and Nyquil Lester Bangs ingested the night he died on April 30, 1982. Within and Without is a far cry from Greene’s humble beginnings as a country boy with digital dreams growing up in Perry, Georgia and recording on his parents’ deck. This is a full-on celebration of the early days of MTV through a gauze of subtle nods to the likes of Pete Rock and Madlib that sounds like nothing of its kind. And that is what makes it so great.
- And a bonus… ERIC MATTHEWS It’s Heavy in Here (1995) The best album on Sub Pop Records in 1995 did not come from a heavy Pacific-Northwest guitar band but rather an orchestral pop composer/songwriter from Compton, California. Once a member of Boston’s Cardinal with Australian indie great Richard Davies, the solo debut from Eric Matthews was a fuller, more sophisticated extension of the music he was recording with his old band, delivering an early classic in the Pet Sounds-propelled return to the chamber pop aesthetic that would eventually see the likes of Sufjan Stevens and Jeremy Enigk of Sunny Day Real Estate take flight as the 90s began to come to a close. Even after 23 years, It’s Heavy In Here sounds both out of time and utterly timeless.