Sub Pop was the first label I fell in love with. There have been many suitors since, but I’ve always left room in my heart for this “high school sweetheart.” As Sub Pop celebrates their 25th anniversary Silver Jubilee this weekend, I thought I’d pay tribute counting down some of my favorite Sub Pop albums. I picked these records specifically not just as how much I like them (which is a lot) but how I feel they represent Sub Pop.
Whether these are highly celebrated records or not, they all speak to the story I feel like Sub Pop has been telling for the past 25 years.
Sub Pop has branded themselves and their artists as “LOSERS” for sometime now. But of all the releases, Love Tara by Eric’s Trip embodies the loser title most exceptionally. The songs center on break-ups and not feeling sure what to do next. Everything is lo-fi, as if they weren’t able to afford the studio time the cool kids have. Even taking their name from a Sonic Youth song reminds of something a music dork would do (I say from personal experience, being a music nerd and doing the same thing). But still, the tracks are gripping with their fuzzed out solace.
Not everything is just moody and self-loathing at Sub Pop – the label has lots of opinions and a lot to say. The Thermals record The Body, The Blood, The Machine is a manifesto tackling both politics and religion. It’s brash with pure punk braggadocio but manages to be insightful and rightfully concerned. It’s as infectious as it is infected.
Dum Dum Girls have surprised me over the years. It took me awhile to really get it. It wasn’t until they let down their guard with End of Daze that I really felt I understood the band. They’re a timeless act filtering themselves through indie punk. Same can be true about Sub Pop – it can really be hard to tell what’s going on with their catalog of obscure to approachable acts, but once it clicks it stay with you.
While talking about letting your guard down, J. Tillman took it to another level under his Father John Misty monicker on Fear Fun. It’s an album full of self-referential quips and self-deprecating commentaries. Tillman’s lyrics are tripped out and wacky yet beautiful and captivating. Like I said before, Sub Pop is a mixed bag. Though musically this album isn’t off-the-wall, it highlights and peculiar and sassy character that most major labels could only manufacture.
The Shins fill the subterranean pop side of Sub Pop. Oh, Inverted World is hook after hook of pop excellence. Though not strikingly commercial, it’s decidedly approachable to a mainstream audience. At the same time, it’s powerful enough to feel like it can change your life (here’s looking at you Braff and Portman). Being on Sub Pop doesn’t mean being exclusive to the indie elite.
Sunny Day Real Estate has become more of a legacy than a band. Their influence has spread out wider than, presumably, their listeners. Diary is emo before it became something else completely. I see Sub Pop in a similar way. People list Sunny Day Real Estate at the top of their laundry list when talking about the lineage of emo just as people talk about Sub Pop when talking about influential figures in the independent music scene. Both hit hard and have left their mark.
At first, I was surprised it took Sub Pop so long to sign a hip-hop act. Then I heard Shabazz Palaces and it all made sense. Black Up is challenging and progressive listen. The beats are brooding and hypnotic while the lyrics are dark and insular. Sub Pop wasn’t going to sign a rap act just to have one. Shabazz Palaces are bringing an entirely new skill set to the table.
One of the things I’ve admired most and also cringed at with Sub Pop is their willingness to be an outlet for an established artist to try something new. Sometimes it doesn’t always work, which can be a let down for the listener. However with Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello’s project The Postal Service it worked. It’s amazing how beloved Give Up has become since its release 10 years ago, especially as a one off release. Thank goodness they had the opportunity to see this album through.
[I talked more in depth about Give Up recently in a Wax Story]
We’re living in a post-Fleet Foxes music scene. I’m convinced of it. Their self-titled album might have been the biggest breakthrough for the folk rock movement. Before Mumford and Sons, before The Lumineers, there was Fleet Foxes. Which all sounds absurd seeing as how this album came out only a few years ago, but it was that powerful. It was another example of Sub Pop coming in ahead of the curve. This album struck me hard when I first heard it. It may not be as ambitious or even as brilliant as their follow up Helplessness Blues, but to me it is definitive Fleet Foxes album…
… and this is the definitive Sub Pop album. Yes, it’s the cliche choice, but not without reason. Nirvana’s first release Bleach is a monster. It squeals and yells and burns. But below that its roots are in pop melodies. It has the enrapturing, undeniably important persona of Kurt Cobain. It was ahead of its time. It’s from a band who set a new standard. All of this from greasy looking losers from Aberdeen, Wash. Even though this wasn’t Nirvana’s breakthrough, it feels like the harbinger of what was yet to come.
[You can check out my Wax Story on Bleach as well]
To whet your appetite, here’s a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite Sub Pop tracks:
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