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:


Follow me on Twitter: @DustyEffinHenry

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Wax Stories #9: The Postal Service – Give Up

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Postal Service Give Up cover

I can remember distinctly an argument I had with my friend Brandon in junior high concerning the validity of electronic music.

“Techno is totally music dude,” Brandon said.

“Dude. It’s not. Literally. It’s just computer noises,” I said with confidence.

“What? Does every song need a guitar to be music?” he replied, trying to call my bluff.

“No! But it needs instruments. That’s what music is.”

“No way dude. Anything with a beat is music.”

“Is this music, Brandon?” I said as I started tapping a rhythm with my pencil on my desk.

“No.”

“Then neither is techno,” I replied with a smirk. I like to imagine I put on sunglasses and walked away from an explosion after saying that, but in high school I just didn’t have the budget.

There’s a slight chance I might have been wrong about that one. When I first started getting into music, I was a staunch purist. Anything that wasn’t a group of people plugging in amps and playing instruments wasn’t “real music.” I wasn’t the first kid to think it and won’t be the last (you can currently find them commenting on Justin Beiber YouTube videos). This was during a time in my life when I would say things like ” I like all genres except for country and rap.” Not only was it pretentious, it was inhibiting me from listening to a lot of great music.

In my defense though, there was a lot of shitty music coming out around the time. For someone who grew up holding Aerosmith as the pinnacle of musicianship J-Kwon’s “Tipsy” and Darude’s “Sandstorm” weren’t really holding up for me. Techno just sounded fake to me. It felt like it needed Ma-Ti to give it some heart (“gooooo Planet!”). I was virtually immovable on my position. So much so I even pretended to hate Daft Punk whenever Brandon mentioned them, while secretly listening to “One More Time” and “Around the World” at home and in private.

Then Ben Gibbard came around. That doe eyed little sap would change everything for me.

photo (22)

As a point of reference, I didn’t initially know Gibbard as “the Death Cab for Cutie guy;” I first knew him as “the Postal Service guy.” It was by strange, nerdy chance that I even got introduced to the band. It’s almost too ironic how much of it is tied to a laptop.  Brandon, our friend Austin, and I (collectively known as B.A.D.) were walking around Austin’s neighborhood late into the summer of 2004. Not just walking, war-walking. We carried around Brandon’s massive Dell laptop, with his wireless card plugged in, searching for free unsecured Internet. It was our version of war-driving, having to make due without our licenses. Sure, we could’ve just stayed at Austin’s and had Internet for free, but where’s the adventure in that?

We stopped in front of one Austin’s neighbors houses where Brandon picked up a signal. “Holy cow! We can check our Mypaces…in the middle of the road! What a thrill!” We were pretty excited. Then we noticed the teen girl who lived there spotted us from the window. She made her way to the porch to ask us what we were doing but we booked it back to Austin’s place before she could start the vigorous interrogation. It was a close call, for sure.

When we got back, we went online (effectively defeating the purpose of hunting for Internet). Austin signed on to his MSN Messenger and ended up chatting with the neighbor girl from before (effectively defeating the purpose of running away from her). Somehow I ended up adding her to my own MSN Messenger. As I mentioned in my last Wax Story, most of my summers were spent talking to strangers online.

I think she and I only had a couple conversations, most of which were pretty surface level. But we decided to exchange some music. With my slow Internet, songs usually took half an hour or more to transfer but I always relished the mp3s even more because of it. The first song she sent me, and only one I recall, was “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service. I looped it in my iTunes player for the rest of the day and listened to it constantly throughout the week. Bleep bloops, synths, and drum loops. One of my initial thoughts was, “I can’t let Brandon know how much I like this.”

Postal Service White Vinyl

About a year later, I found myself at the mall with my grandma. Between war walking and this, you could tell I was a real cool kid. For some reason I thought it was a good idea to take her into Hot Topic with me. I’m sure my sweet, bingo loving Grandma felt very comfortable on her scooter listening to the sounds of Hawthorne Heights and the sights of pink and black mini skirts as I searched through their record bin. That’s where I found a copy of The Postal Services’ “Give Up.”

I immediately recalled a conversation I had with a good friend Amanda Davidson. Something she mentioned before I even had a record player.

“Of all the modern bands, I think that The Postal Service would sound best on vinyl,” she said while talking to someone else.

“Why? What difference is there?” I asked.

“Vinyl sounds waaaay different. It sounds a lot better than everything else.”

“Interesting.”

It all started to come full circle for me. Without even realizing it in that moment that I picked up that record at Hot Topic, I was making a change in how I listened to music. I wasn’t conformed to one format or genre like I was a year before. Maybe I was maturing. Maybe my tastes were changing. Maybe it was all just silly because I watched as my grandma paid the gothed out cashier and bought me the record as a repayment for helping her around the house.

As I watched Gibbard, Jenny Lewis, and Jimmy Tamborello at Sasquatch Festival this past May, all of this came rushing back to me. All of these strange and embarrassing memories. All of the shit I gave Brandon and others for listening to bleep bloop music and here I was watching Tamborello stand behind a set of laptops on stage. All of the cringing I had thinking about buying the album at Hot Topic instead of somewhere else as Ben Gibbard danced in all black with swooping bangs across the stage. All the money and years I’d spent collecting records and branching out in my taste based off of one off-the-cuff comment from Amanda.

If there was any embarrassment along the way, it was worth it just for that moment where I belted out all the words to “Such Great Heights”  in the front row with thousands of others. I guess bleep bloops aren’t so bad after all.

photo (23)

Previous Wax Story: Pinback – Summer in Abaddon

Next Week: Simon and Garfunkel – Bookends

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