Sub Pop Records: 30 Years, 30 Tracks

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Sub Pop Records is a big deal. From its early days in the 1980s as a zine run by founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, Sub Pop acted as a catalyst for introducing underground bands. And beginning in 1980 with Sub Pop 5, it also began to release that music into the world via cassette, that particular release featuring tracks from the likes of The Embarrassment and Jad Fair, along with Pavitt himself and longtime Pacific Northwest musician and producer Steve Fisk. And when it finally became a proper label in 1988, Sub Pop regularly began issuing some of the most iconic music in indie rock (some of which wasn’t recognized as such until years later). It was instrumental in helping to introduce grunge, while incorporating various other styles over time, including the synth-pop of The Postal Service and the abstract hip-hop of Shabazz Palaces. Today, it’s a Seattle institution, with its own boutique at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, and even a Sub Pop airplane. As the label celebrates three decades this weekend with SPF30 Fest, we give a rundown of our favorite tracks from its history, including a few bonuses.

MudhoneyMudhoney – “Touch Me I’m Sick”

from Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988)

If any one lyric exemplified the attitude of the grunge movement, it’s “Well, I won’t live long/and I’m full of rot.” Starting with the name itself, grunge music is synonymous with dirt and Seattle’s Mudhoney provided the scene the perfect anthem with “Touch Me I’m Sick.” Released in 1988 as their debut single on Sub Pop, and later appearing on an expanded version of their seminal EP Superfuzz Bigmuff, “Touch Me” drips sleaze from start to finish. From the distorted instrumentals to Mark Arm’s snotty vocals spitting out overly simplistic filth-ridden lyrics, it’s hard to imagine a better introduction to the sound that summed up rock music at the end of the 20th century. – Laura Ansill

bleachNirvana – “Negative Creep”

from Bleach (1989)

Remember in Kill Bill where the titular character says, “This is me at my most masochistic?” “Negative Creep” is like that for Kurt Cobain. Heavily influenced by Cobain’s beloved Melvins, it’s hardly an ideal introduction for the future Nirvana neophyte: pummeling drop-D riffage the blunt-force-trauma rhythm section of Chad Channing and Krist Novoselic worlds away from their future hits, Cobain’s most purely self-loathing lyrics in a songbook full of them. Most notably for me, it’s easily his most harrowing vocal performance; his second-verse breakdown into howls of raw pain are like a dog being repeatedly beaten. Which, in retrospect, is accurate, but he administered many of the worst beatings himself. “Negative Creep” is one of Nirvana’s best songs, it’s just hard not to see it in hindsight as a missed, albeit early, warning sign. – Liam Green

sub pop 30 years 30 tracks TadTAD – “Boiler Room”

from God’s Balls (1989)

Any song off of TAD’s earth-shaking debut “God’s Balls” deserves a write-up of its own, but only “Boiler Room” reminds us just what God’s balls are actually made of. On an album full of punishing blows, each track has to truly stand out on its own and thankfully TAD is behemoth enough for the task (so much so that it’s the name of the first track). The lyrics on “Boiler Room” are simple, the drums are unimaginably powerful, and Tad Doyle proves, as he always does, why he’s one of the best vocalists in heavy music. It’s exactly what you imagined was going on behind the iron door of the boiler room in grade school. – Laura Ansill

Sub Pop 30 years 30 tracks CodeineCodeine – “Cigarette Machine”

from Frigid Stars (1991)

Released shortly beforehand in Germany via Glitterhouse, Chicago band Codeine’s debut predated the likes of Slint with a similarly intricate and dramatic approach to indie rock. They were dubbed “slowcore” for the low BPMs of their music, though that in no way should be confused for “sedate.” Take “Cigarette Machine,” a moment of explosive intensity that erupts amid some of the sparsest verses in indie rock. It’s among the heaviest tracks to ever be released through Sub Pop, which says a lot—it’s released Earth, after all. But Codeine are a fascinating case of how a slow, measured approach can still yield something dark and intense. – Jeff Terich

Sub Pop 30 years 30 tracks Afghan WhigsThe Afghan Whigs – “Miles Iz Ded”

from Congregation (1992)

Jazz-funk legend Miles Davis had indeed just died—Sept. 28, 1991—immediately prior to this song’s recording. As such, it’s a hidden track (remember those?) on Congregation, the last album The Afghan Whigs would release with Sub Pop until their 2014 reunion (and return to the label). Along with “Turn on the Water,” “Conjure Me” and the the title track, “Miles iz Ded” shows the soul and funk influences that’d fully flower on albums like the epochal Gentlemen and especially Black Love. Rick McCollum’s incomparable grunge-funk guitar fusion and John Curley’s seductive basslines soundtrack another trip to the hell of unhealthy relationships and unhealthier booze and substance addictions in which frontman Greg Dulli resided for nearly 20 years of his life (he’s now sober), as he croons, “Don’t forget the alcohol, ooooh baby.” “Miles iz Ded” is hardly the best Afghan Whigs song, nor arguably even Congregation‘s best song, but it’s a fan favorite that aptly represents the crossroads at which the band stood at this transitional time. (Last thing: If you haven’t listened to Gentlemen, go forthwith and do that; do not pass go or collect $200 unless it’s to pay for the alcohol Dulli told you not to forget.) – Liam Green

beat-happeningBeat Happening – “Tiger Trap”

from You Turn Me On (1992)

If The Velvet Underground & Nico had been recorded by virginal hopefuls, this might have been the lead-off track. As it is, it opens the Olympia, Washington band’s final studio album. A hypnotic experience of release through tedium, “Tiger Trap” is a bittersweet march of ninth chords and Heather Lewis’ stuttering toms-playing. Calvin Johnson’s artistically flat singing (not a criticism) wanders through the frustrating thrill of taking apart the layers of a lover’s concealment. The song hints at a sudden turn in Beat Happening’s innocent spirit, as they unfold page by page over its nearly seven-minute running time. It’s shyly optimstic and almost prayerful.- Paul Pearson

sub pop 30 years 30 tracks Velocity girlVelocity Girl – “Sorry Again”

from ¡Simpatico! (1994)

The early-to-mid-1990s were stocked with female musicians who reinvigorated rock from its grimy core outward, delivering everything from politicized riot grrrl screams to melodic pleasantries on labels both major and minor. The fuzzy opening licks of “Sorry Again” belie the Maryland/DC group’s shoegaze roots from Copacetic, but Sarah Shannon’s clear-eyed vocals quickly signal a much perkier musical game is afoot on ¡Simpatico! This is a brilliantly deceptive power-pop classic, a pogoing party tune about trying—and failing—to change for your significant other. – Adam Blyweiss

BakesaleSebadoh – “Rebound”

from Bakesale (1994)

Sebadoh made a name for themselves on the fuzziness of their recordings, early albums like III along with contemporaries such as Guided by Voices providing a template for a decade’s worth of lo-fi rock bands. Though frontman Lou Barlow, formerly of Dinosaur Jr., was already pretty well established at this point. So by the time they released “Rebound”—five years and as many full-lengths into their career—they were due for a hit, or at least what passes for one in college radio circles. Still, I remember a brief moment where the band received their share of airtime on stations like L.A.’s KROQ thanks to the two-minute anthem’s upbeat melody, guitar jangle and Barlow’s heart-on-sleeve, slightly tongue-in-cheek bummed-out-ness: “Heartbroken and attractive, a sad, sloppy mess.” It turned out that Barlow would have an even more massive hit one year later thanks to the placement of a groovy Folk Implosion song in an otherwise highly uncommercial film. That being said, “Rebound” is one of the best songs he ever wrote. – Jeff Terich

sub pop 30 years 30 tracks ZumpanoZumpano – “Rosecrans Boulevard”

from Look What the Rookie Did (1995)

If you’re trying to pivot your label from the grunge and hard rock that’s defined it, a Jimmy Webb cover with a harpsichord is a good way to do it. Zumpano was a Canadian power pop group helmed by Carl “A.C.” Newman, who later hit gold with the New Pornographers. The fresh-faced “Rosecrans Boulevard” offered a summery escape from the likes of, say, Tad, and brought plain youthfulness to songwriter Webb’s typically complex Southern California mythology. I remember hearing it at a record store in Redondo Beach and being stunned to see the Sub Pop logo on the back. We were all so innocent then. – Paul Pearson

Rhode Island albums Six Finger SatelliteSix Finger Satellite – “Parlour Games”

from Severe Exposure (1995)

Six Finger Satellite—pride of Providence—kinda-sorta fit in alongside the weirder and noisier end of the grunge spectrum that Sub Pop embraced, but even more than that they took influence from the previous decade’s iconoclastic noiseniks: Devo, Big Black, Chrome. Pretty much everything they did sounded like it was recorded on aluminum and scratched to hell with Albini’s metal picks. So when they did allow those elements to cohere around a more melodic core, it still served to irritate as only their analog synth-punk could. “Parlour Games” is about as much fun as they ever got, scratching searing their way through a mutant dancepunk groove with corrosive, trebly hooks. It’s actually a lot of fun for something that’s been thoroughly soaked in acid—hydrochloric, not hallucinogenic. – Jeff Terich

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