PreAmp Set Lists: Favorite Sub Pop Albums

Sub Pop Top Albums

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.

Eric's Trip - Love Tara

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.

The Thermals - The Body, The Blood, The Machine

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.

DumDumGirls

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.

Father John Misty - Fear Fun

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.

ShinsOhInvertedWorld

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.

SunnyDayRealEstate

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.

ShabazzPalaces

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.

PostalService

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]

FleetFoxes

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…

Nirvana - Bleach

… 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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Wax Stories #7: Nirvana – Bleach

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Whenever there’s a Nirvana related anniversary, I get oddly nostalgic. It always feels a bit misplaced. I was alive through Nirvana’s ascension but I’m pretty sure I was more interested in Mr. Rogers’ cardigans at the time – not Kurt Cobain’s. Nevertheless, when I released today is what would have been Kurt’s 46th birthday, I immediately went to my record shelf to play some of his work as a tribute.

I started to get into Nirvana when I picked up their greatest hits at a Sam Goody on a whim when I was 14. It’s a super lame way to get into a band (as detailed in a post I did in 2011), but it opened up the door for me at least. The music struck me in a way that nothing else had before. The demolishing crashes of the drums, the gritty sloppiness of the bass, the cutting sound of the guitar, and Kurt’s aching angry voice; it was fuel for my burgeoning teenage angst. I’d later pick up a CD copy of MTV Unplugged In New York to flesh out the image of Kurt as a misunderstood artist. He was not just a musician in my eyes. He was a symbol of identity and struggle that I thought I could relate to.

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In the summer of 2005 I went over to West Seattle for a day where my mom had an office near California Avenue. She pointed me in the direction of the Easy Street Records down the road and I eagerly made my way over there. I had only just recently got my record player a few months before. I made my way upstairs to the vinyl section to partake in one of my first Seattle crate digging experiences. There was no real agenda, nothing in particular I was hoping to find. This was also the first time I’d get a chance to buy a record new instead of used from a junk shop. I was a bit floored when I found the Nirvana section. For some reason I never really thought that they’d have anything available on wax and thought this rare opportunity – I had to pick up one of these. I inspected the track list on the back of each album and weighed out which was going to make the most sense. In Utero and Nevermind both featured tracks that I already had on my greatest hits CD so I dismissed those (dumb, dumb, dumb). I seriously considered picking up the Unplugged album because I thought it would sound so good. I remembered my dad telling me that on acoustic albums you could sometimes hear the fingers moving across the strings on vinyl releases.

I held up Bleach and examined it. The cover was stark and intense. A negative photo of Kurt headbanging with the band behind him in what appears to be a basement. I recognized one of the tracks, “About A Girl,” but everything else was unfamiliar. The fact that it was their first album also intrigued me. Sub Pop. That name sounded vaguely familiar. White vinyl? The case for Bleach got stronger and stronger the more I looked at it.

It must have been a funny sight to watch a gangly kid 15-year-old wearing cargo pants and probably a buttoned up, bright colored short sleeve shirt walking up to the counter clutching Bleach. I imagine the disenchanted cashier wanted to face palm at the sight. Maybe not.

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I had to wait till we got home late that night to listen to it. Funny how most of my early memories of vinyl are listening to them late at night on low volume in my room. Krist’s sludgy bass lead in on “Blew” bellowed out of my crackling speakers. Immediately it wasn’t what I was expecting. I was used to Kurt being dark and lots of heavy guitars, but this felt different. There was a sense of doom looming over their playing. It was unrefined and harsh. It only got more so by the time the needle moved over to the second track, “Floyd the Barber.” The low thumps of guitar synchronized with the drums gave a sense of impending dread. I anxiously awaited for “About A Girl” to come on so I could hear something familiar. When it finally did I rejoiced in the Beatles sensibilities and brighter guitar tones.

I knew I liked the album because it was Nirvana, but looking back I’m not entirely sure how keen I was to the record. I played it repeatedly because that’s what I thought a Cobain disciple should do. I was supposed to like it. I desperately tried to relate to it. “Hah! On ‘School’ he talks about high school and there being ‘no recess.’ I know what that’s like!” Obviously I wasn’t exactly Lester Bangs in my interpretations, but I was trying. I did take to “Love Buzz” almost immediately with its incredible bass groove. I stayed away from the b-sides for the most part, which were marked by a label depicting the circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno. My aversion came down to one primary reason, which in turn applied to the whole album and that I would not admit to myself at the time: Bleach terrified me.

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While Nevermind had just as much self-deprecating and fuming imagery, it also had Butch Vig’s crisp production to act as a filter. It’s like when you ask someone how they’re doing and they unload you all their problems without even easing into it. Bleach was full-on Cobain without anyone interpreting or holding him back. Not that I think Nevermind is in anyway lackluster. If anything it succeeded in making Kurt’s pain accessible to a wider group of people. I didn’t feel prepared to jump into this without Vig holding my hand.

Over the course of the summer, I found myself coming back again and again to the last track on side a – “Negative Creep.” Sometimes I’d drop the needle on just that track over and over again just to hear it. This is when I started to have my revelation. Kurt wasn’t the “loveable martyr” I’d made him out to be who opted to burn out instead of fading away. He was more like the intense guy I tried to avoid making eye contact with at shows, scribbling “fuck you” furiously in his notebook. I wanted desperately to believe that he and I had so much in common, but we really didn’t. Not only was he dealing with different (and albeit, much bigger) issues in his life, he was also just living in a different world. I was going to a private school, had a dopey golden retriever, and said “shoot” instead of “shit.” As much as I thought of myself as a negative creep, I really wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean I’m immune from feeling emotions of angst or despair. We all can feel like negative creeps sometimes, but most of us don’t embody it or suffer through it like Kurt did.

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My image of Kurt was broken down even more as I read Charles R. Cross’ biography on Kurt, “Heavier Than Heaven,” this last summer. The inkling I had that Kurt had it worse was proved to be true. I began sympathize for him instead of empathize with him. Looking back at Bleach in the context of the rest of his life is overwhelming and daunting. It’s not even that there’s an excess of imagery of suicidal imagery like some of his later work. It’s the brashness and dissonance and loudness that grabs me. To me, Bleach is his most tortured sounding work. I can feel more uncomfortable listening to tracks on here than I do listening to tracks like “Rape Me.”

Bleach feels more accessible to me today than it did in 2005. A lot of that I can attest to my change in taste over the years. My heart still pounds when the bass comes in on “Blew” and I’ve taken to screaming along to some of the b-sides (“gimme back me alcohol” on “Scoff” may be one of my favorite Nirvana lines now). It’s hard to think of many other records in my collection that has received this much consistent replay. Despite how much I’ve listened to it, I’ve come to terms that I’m never going to fully understand it or any of the bands other albums. Kurt will always have a shroud of mystery to him. I wish we could have understood him so we could have helped. Now I think the next best thing we can do is celebrate his life by indulging in his music in those those negative creep moments.

Happy birthday, Kurt.

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Previous Wax Story: The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism

Next Week: Japandroids – Celebration Rock

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A 21 Year-Old on 20 Years of “Nevermind”

At 21 years old, it’s easy to dismiss my input on the legacy of Nirvana because, well, I wasn’t there when it happened. However, I think this also qualifies me as the perfect person to attest to the influence and relevancy of the band that surpasses any claims of a “musical fad.”

I wasn’t introduced to Nirvana by Nevermind. Nor was I introduced to them by any sort of hype (surprisingly enough, being raised in Western Washington). It was on my 14th birthday that I picked up Nirvana’s self-titled Greatest Hits album. I’d seen it there several times and was intrigued by their name. I bought it on a whim. I know, it’s the lamest introduction ever.

There were a few things that initially stuck me with Nirvana. First of all, it saved me from the terrible early 2000s rap-rock of Linkin Park and Papa Roach that I was starting to get into. It was a new sound (new to me) unlike anything else I’d heard. Then there was the emotion. Being 14 years old, even if things are fine, you tend to feel like you suddenly have all this emotion that no one relates too. Hearing Kurt Cobain singing lines like “I’m so ugly, but that’s okay cause so are you” felt like confessions that you could never find the words for.

Around my junior or senior year of high school, I started fading away from Nirvana. I maintained a respect for them, but the less I listened to them I grew scared that if I went back I wouldn’t feel the same way.

Now its 20 years since Nevermind . The buzz of Nirvana in the air and the media lately has inspired me to look at that album again. No, the songs don’t feel the same that they did then, but I’m not the same person. I also don’t think I truly understood Cobain like I thought I did. He wasn’t dealing with high school crushes; he was talking about things that even now I cannot fully relate to.

I imagine maybe it’s a similar thing for those who were there for Nevermind’s release. So many people listened to that record and related to its gloom and doom. Cobain clearly had issues, but it seemed like he was speaking for an entire generation with the same issues. In hindsight, Cobain was in a different league of problems. Music history may see him as a martyr, but I feel like maybe the greatest tragedy is that we thought we understood him and didn’t do anything about it.

Nevermind stands as a testament of a musical movement, a breakthrough in emotional transparency in music, and a tragic story of a man who changed a genre and whose potential may never be fully known. In another 20 years I’m sure there will still be younger generations picking up Nirvana records and feeling comfort in the distortion of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or the self loathing of “Something in the Way.”