Top 20 Sub Pop Albums

the Shins sub pop record framed

Dave O/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

For the first decade or so of its existence as a full-time record label, it seemed that Seattle's Sub Pop Records was going to be synonymous with grunge. Sub Pop were key chroniclers of the fertile Seattle scene in the late-'80s and early-'90s and were an early breeding ground for Soundgarden and Nirvana. After a decade living down grunge hype, a funny thing happened in the '00s: Sub Pop going from faded alt-rock stalwarts to insanely-successful enterprise. It's been a long and varied story over the label's 20+ years on the job, but the music has been routinely awesome. Here, then, are 20 of the best Sub Pop LPs.

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Nirvana 'Bleach' (1989)

nirvana bleach cover


When Bleach was released in 1989, few could've suspected it would be the album to define the entire decade of the '90s. The debut album by Nirvana captured a time and place (turn-of-the-decade Seattle), in the form of energetic, propulsive rock'n'roll that seemed a culmination of the ten preceding years. The best $606.17 recording budget Sub Pop ever shelled out for over, Bleach bleeds abhorrent attitude, beginning with the generation-defining anthem "Negative Creep." Where historical hindsight has it that the record was only a minor footnote until the success of Nevermind turned it into retroactive platinum, the reality is that Bleach was the culmination of the early, underground, garage-bound Sub Pop era.

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Mudhoney 'Superfuzz Bigmuff Plus Early Singles' (1990)

Mudhoney 'Superfuzz Bigmuff Plus Early Singles'



No band has been more synonymous with Sub Pop history that Seattle's grunge reprobates Mudhoney, who've essentially served as the label's flagship band —or, perhaps, the one band that can't get rid of— from day ought 'til now. When the label initially unleashed Mudhoney's debut LP, Superfuzz Bigmuff, the righteous slab of wax effectively put grunge-rock on the map. Two years later, re-packaged to cotton onto the new craze of 'compact discs,' it was made even better with the inclusion of stone-cold-classic single "Touch Me I'm Sick." With Mark Arm screaming ridiculously over the top of the sludgy, Stooges-esque racket, it's Mudhoney's definitive jam: drunken, deranged, predisposed with vomit.

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Codeine 'Frigid Stars LP' (1991)

Codeine 'Frigid Stars LP' (1991)


Sub Pop's first non-rocking signing was a radical one. New Yorker trio Codeine played spaced-out, slowed-down, opiate alt-rock at a snail's pace. As guitarist John Engle laid out sheets of oft-atonal guitar, bassist Stephen Immerwahr kept Codeine's flatlining pulse, playing plodding basslines and singing in a dispassionate monotone. Things like "Three angels/Holes in your socks" and "D for dishes/F for floors/Can't make the grade anymore." Lyrics so prosaic their simplicity became somehow profound; Immerwahr's eked-out syllables carrying the carefully-carved precision of a haiku. Pushing things from whisper quiet to in-the-red loud, Codeine birthed the slowcore sound, presaged Mogwai by half-a-decade, and made one mighty on-the-nod album.

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Eric's Trip 'Love Tara' (1993)

Eric's Trip 'Love Tara'



Long before Wolf Parade, scrappy New Brunswick kids Eric's Trip (named, indeed, after a Sonic Youth song) were Sub Pop's first Canadian signing. Inked at the height of grunge mania, they came bearing the requisite distorted guitar sludge, quiet-to-loud dynamics, and thrift-store threads. But Eric's Trip were never built for big-time success in the alterna-crossover era. Where grunge peddled angst, self-destruction, and sarcasm, Eric's Trip were —for all their Dinosaur Jr-inspired guitar fuzz— sweet, romantic, and gently melancholy. Sure enough, the band's bassist, Julie Doiron, went on to release two solo LPs for Sub Pop —1996's Broken Girl and '97's Loneliest in the Morning— that are the quietest, frailest records to ever grace the label.

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Sebadoh 'Bakesale' (1994)

Sebadoh 'Bakesale'



After being infamously booted out of Dinosaur Jr, Lou Barlow spent his days and nights recording a confusing smattering of lo-fi ditties, recorded under the alternating names of Sebadoh and Sentridoh. By 1994, though, he'd settled on the former, and Sebadoh had settled into a (semi-) permanent band built around Barlow and bassist/foil Jason Lowenstein. The ever-scrappy combo came of age with Bakesale, the band's best, most focused, most direct work. The record is a showcase for Barlow's biting songwriting, which veers between sarcastic blasts of noise and bruised bloodletting balladry; cuts like "Skull" and "Magnet's Coil" classic lovesongs merely dressed in scrappy, indie-rock threads.

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Sunny Day Real Estate 'Diary' (1994)

Sunny Day Real Estate 'Diary'


Thanks to the shifting tides of history, Sunny Day Real Estate's electric debut LP has to wear an honor that, with each passing year, seems more and more like a millstone: for many, Diary is the album that catalyzed, crystallized, and truly kicked into life the emo movement. It bears no stylistic similarity to the eyeliner-caked Leto-ites of the current emo era; instead, Jeremy Enigk and crew leaned on lessons taught by pioneers like The Hated and Embrace and played punk music that wore its heart proudly on its sleeve. A righteous slab of emotive riffing, exuberant shouting, and quiet/loud balladry, Diary still attracts a cult-following today; not simply for historically-minded emo kids, but for any fan of massively anthemic alt-rock.

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Six Finger Satellite 'Paranormalized' (1996)

Six Finger Satellite 'Paranormalized'


Out of place and out of luck in the mid-'90s, Rhode Island's Six Finger Satellite toiled in near-obscurity, barely able to drum up anything more than a small, cult following despite their signed-to-Sub-Pop status. The Providence combo's post-punk-inspired marriage of twitchy guitars and blobby synths ran counter to popular alternative movements of the time, but budding acts like The Rapture and Les Savy Fav took notice, adopting Six Finger Satellite as influential role-models. John MacLean's subsequent solo success as disco-punk dance act The Juan MacLean —not to mention the proliferation of tight-pant'd post-punk posses that arose in the mid-'00s— showed that Paranormalized was simply an album that arrived ahead of the pop-cultural curve.

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Saint Etienne 'Good Humor' (1998)

Saint Etienne 'Good Humor'


Few remember that soft-pop heroes Saint Etienne were once signed, Stateside, to Sub Pop. And, if they do, it's usually as a symbol of how this one-time staunchly local, independent label lost its way in the late-'90s. Yet, whether Saint Etienne is even associated with Sub Pop is immaterial: they pressed up copies of one of the great albums by the eternally-underrated Londoners, and that's what we're here to laud. Tripping off to Tore Johansson's studios in Stockholm, Saint Etienne shelved their acid-house/disco fixations for an album steeped in vintage soul; all rich piano chords, sugary strings, push beat bass, and Sarah Cracknell's golden-girl vocals. The insistent melody of the singalong single "The Bad Photographer" still persists 'til this day.

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Damon & Naomi 'With Ghost' (2000)

Damon & Naomi 'With Ghost'



Former Galaxie 500 rhythm-section Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang had already crafted a couple of tender, melancholy LPs for Sub Pop by the time they hooked up with Japanese hippies Ghost. It proved a blessed union: Michio Kurihara's deft, glistening guitar playing bringing out the psychedelic heart beating deep within Damon and Naomi's normally-restrained acid-folk. The resultant, resplendent album finds nine gently numbers glowing with the warmth of newly-blown glass; none more beautiful than Yang's impassioned reading of Nico's Tim Hardin-penned "Eulogy to Lenny Bruce." A follow-up live-album/road-movie, 2002's Song to the Siren, was maybe even better, crowning an underrated run of impressive artistry for an oft-forgotten Sub Pop signing.

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The Shins 'Oh, Inverted World' (2001)

The Shins 'Oh, Inverted World'


No one knew it then, but The Shins' debut LP effectively marked the start of a new era at Sub Pop; where the musically-lean days of the late-'90s would give way to an unbridled, unexpected success in the next century. The Albuquerque-born combo didn't seem likely types for unit-shifting success; they were, really, an unpretentious indie-pop outfit. But James Mercer's songs were really good.

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Ugly Casanova 'Sharpen Your Teeth' (2002)

Ugly Casanova 'Sharpen Your Teeth'



Taking a respite from Modest Mouse after the supposed 'commercial failure' of major-label debut The Moon and Antarctica, Isaac Brock made a solo-ish album wielding the countryish licks he'd been whetting since 1997's The Lonesome Crowded West. Working outside his rock band for the first time, Brock obviously felt musical freedom: there's a genuine sense of musical adventure in the Brian Deck-produced studio experimentalism that shrouds these twangy tunes. As a songwriter, Brock's Ugly Casanova obsessions were the same as always: the album finding him continuing his career-long lyrical study of mortality. Two years later, back at the helm of his rock day-job, Brock'd go multi-platinum with Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News.

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Iron & Wine 'The Creek Drank the Cradle' (2002)

Iron & Wine 'The Creek Drank the Cradle'



Sam Beam had home-recorded a set of frail, barely-whispered lullabies late, late nights; the bearded bard rolling tape on a dusty four-track after his wife and newborn had gone to bed. The recordings were passed on to Sub Pop boss-man Jonathan Poneman by Isaac Brock, and the label released them as they were; knowing that part of the magic was the way Beam's ballads nestled gently amidst blankets of white-noise, tape-hiss, and room hum. Releasing his first-ever recordings, Sub Pop presented a songsmith whose softly-sung lyrics spoke of a mythical, Faulknerian South full of riverbeds, trees, and animals; this Iron and Wine LP promising a sense of audio escapism with every spin.

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The Thermals 'More Parts Per Million' (2003)

The Thermals 'More Parts Per Million'

Hi-Voltage Records

It got lost in all the concurrent unit shifting of The Shins and The Postal Service, but the arrival of The Thermals' debut was a pronouncement that Sub Pop was back in form. The Thermals were an attempt by longtime lo-fi foot-soldiers Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster (who'd done time in Urban Legends and Hutch & Kathy) to "go back to [their] punk-rock youth." So, they bunkered down in a basement and rolled tape on a set of saturated-in-noise pop-punk jams played loud, fast, bratty, and anthemic. These were effectively demos —total cost: $60— and during their bleak Warner-helmed years, the label would've stuck The Thermals in a slick studio after signing them. Instead, here, they dished up the cuts as-is, and the world rejoiced in turn.

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The Postal Service 'Give Up' (2003)

The Postal Service 'Give Up'

Sub Pop Records/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.5


Jimmy Tamborello was stuck, trying to make a follow up to Life Is Full Of Possibilities, the epic 2001 disc from his death-obsessed project Dntel. So, at the suggestion of Sub Pop bigwigs, the Los Angelino electro boffin started trading tapes with Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, whom he'd collaborated with on the cut "(This Is) The Dream Of Evan And Chan." Going back-and-forth through the post (hence the band name), the original-odd-couple struck upon a fruitful union; Tamborello's precise beatmaking and Gibbard's self-conscious lyricism making for some of the best sad-electro-songs-you-can-still-dance-to since New Order. The album became one of '03's sleeper hits; Give Up giving Sub Pop their first Gold Record since Bleach.

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Wolf Parade 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' (2005)

Wolf Parade 'Apologies to the Queen Mary'


Like Iron and Wine and The Shins, Canuck indie-rockers Wolf Parade were brought Sub Pop's way by their one-time, part-time A&R, Isaac Brock. The Modest Mouse main-man took his involvement in Wolf Parade a step further, producing their debut LP. Arriving at a time in which Montréal was swamped in Seattle-esque hype —thanks to the colossal success of Wolf Parade's pals Arcade Fire— Apologies to the Queen Mary bolted out of the blocks, earning the band instant acclaim and fandom en masse. The album set co-songwriters Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug against each other in a song-by-song battle; and, with "You Are a Runner and I Am My Father's Son," "Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts," and "I'll Believe in Anything," Krug won by KO.

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Band of Horses 'Everything All the Time' (2006)

Band of Horses 'Everything All the Time'

 Sub Pop Records

Ben Bridwell spent eight years in indie-rock outfit Carissa's Wierd [sic] —the Seattle scene's eternal bridesmaids— but the bassist/drummer had never written a song of his own. When the band fell apart in 2004, Bridwell camped out in their abandoned rehearsal space, picking up a guitar for the first time in his life. It was slow going at first, but soon he struck his own musical chord: a romantic, reverbed-out, shoegaze-informed take on Southern-Rock. After opening for Iron and Wine, Bridwell's project, Band of Horses, were inked by Sub Pop. They delivered Everything All the Time, a debut which sounded eerily like the early albums of My Morning Jacket, yet found a huge audience for its plaintive, wall-of-sound take on Americana.

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Fleet Foxes 'Fleet Foxes' (2008)

Fleet Foxes 'Fleet Foxes'

Juno Records

A crew of local Seattle boys who fell into Sub Pop's laps, Fleet Foxes came from nowhere to be suddenly everywhere in 2008; a band barely known at year's beginning ending it lodged atop countless best-of lists. All scruffy beards and resplendent four-part harmonies, their debut played on folkie myths; their devotion to the spiritual qualities of communal singing summoning summer nights on porches and winter eves round fires. Lead by strikingly-talented songwriter Robin Pecknold —blessed with an uncommon sense of harmony and a cracked, Neil Young-ish tenor— the band's country-psych-ish jams were —like Band of Horses— delivered with that reverbed-to-the-hilt production of early My Morning Jacket LPs, and the effect was endlessly evocative.

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No Age 'Nouns' (2008)

No Age 'Nouns'


After a strange, commercially-unsuccessful two-album dalliance with white-noise shamanists Wolf Eyes, a few eyebrows were raised when Sub Pop signed Los Angeles duo No Age, whose 2007 debut Weirdo Rippers was a work of nasty noise-rock cacophony. And, yet, it proved one of Sub Pop's most prescient, successful moves: the band's second LP, Nouns, arriving right at the crest of a nascent noisy-indie-rock revival. Drawing from various guitar gods of the '80s —Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, My Bloody Valentine— guitarist Randy Randall unleashed fistfuls of effects-scorched riffs, whilst drummer/vocalist Dean Spunt pounded and yelped with a hardcore kid's fury. In the space of 30 minutes, Nouns delivered No Age from obscurity unto popularity.

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Handsome Furs 'Face Control' (2009)

Handsome Furs 'Face Control'

Sub Pop Records


After making an unsure debut with 2007's Plague Park, side-projecting Wolf Parade songwriter Dan Boeckner and his wife Alexei Perry turned around and used the exact same elements —blunt drum-machine thunk, overdriven guitar, Boeckner's Beck-like moan— to author a follow-up album that was streets better in every sense. Loud, bold, and brash, the set of stark post-punk-ish jams added up, lyrically, to a Russian travelogue headed due East. But, rather than being some work of Soviet kitsch, Face Control —with its titular reference to Moscow nightclub policy— is a study in contemporary Russia; its songs riddled with the oligarchy, kleptocracy, government-mandated murder, and resumed Cold War posturing of Vladimir Putin's neo-Soviet Union.

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Beach House 'Teen Dream' (2010)

Beach House 'Teen Dream'

Vinyl Me, Please


Baltimore's Beach House already had a pair of impressive albums and a cult following behind them when they inked to Sub Pop in 2009. The signing paid immediate dividends, Beach House releasing the sparkling, crystalline Teen Dream —the best album of their young career— mere months later. Summoning a summers night haze of pulsing organ chords, rippling piano, washes of overdriven slide-guitar, Teen Dream, is, as its title attests, a work steeped in sexual tension; something Victoria Legrand's deep, moaning vocals all too obviously embody. Such hot-under-the-collar sound struck a chord with a broader audience; Beach House's first record for Sub Pop proving to be their breakout.