Amidst the flurry of Sub Pop Records x Nordstrom Men’s Shop related goings-on this month (music festival! street style! interviews!)—we realized plenty of people out there could use a 101 crash-course in what exactly the now-25-year-old Seattle music label is all about. Count us among the curious, especially when a guy who lives and breathes this stuff, like music writer Andrew Matson, is doing the talking. Without further ado, here’s Andrew on his five favorite Sub Pop albums of all time:
My top-five all-time Sub Pop albums? Impossible! The label has too many good ones. But as a music writer, this is the kind of insane ranking I actually love to do.
Let’s see: The Flight of the Conchords album really brought me together with my parents. That’s a special thing. And Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues tells two stories excellently, one of pristine acoustic beauty, another of the importance of producer Phil Ek, who added a touch of majesty to that record, and The Shins’ Sub Pop stuff, and Band of Horses’. In a low-profile way he has been a major factor in defining the label’s sound.
How about, here are five albums I can say are quintessentially Sub Pop—that is, they indicate similar artists the label worked with, and will stand up to critical evaluation infinity years in the future.
Happy listening! (And for the record, just looking at all the 2000s-era albums I picked below is making me second-guess myself. I do realize Sub Pop put out amazing albums in the ‘90s. My favorites from that decade are by Sunny Day Real Estate and Red House Painters. But again, there are so many. I digress. Let’s get started.)
Nirvana – Bleach (1989). This is essential. You can hear Mudhoney and the rest of grunge, and obviously (obviously!) the churning/artistic tendencies of Melvins and B-tthole Surfers. But there is this other hypnotic, beautiful component—and that, my friends, is Kurt Cobain.
Wolf Parade – Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005). At one point, Sub Pop was promoting an endearing, melodramatic strain of Canadian indie rock. Wolf Parade’s first album is the best of those, with the highest highs. Its magic has something to do with the tension between very different songwriters Dan Boeckner (straight-ahead rocker) and Spencer Krug (free-form poet).
Damien Jurado – Ghost of David (2000). Three Sub Pop touchstones in one album: lo-fi yet adventurous recording style (Jurado spent his advance money on cheap equipment and used his Seattle house as a studio), subject matter focused on mental illness, and lonesome acoustic guitar music. Sound depressing? It certainly is!
Shabazz Palaces – Black Up (2011). It all comes down to the song “Are You… Can You… Were You? (Felt),” which is just the purest, most artistic, most wistful rap tune ever. I’ve listened to it a billion times and still can’t believe it exists. The refrain says it all about love, life, and the underlying anti-logic of Sub Pop: “It’s a feeling.”
THEESatisfaction – awE naturalE (2012). Sub Pop is known for starting things: grunge with Nirvana and peers, emo rock with Sunny Day Real Estate, indie pop with The Postal Service and The Shins. The duo THEESatisfaction are next, with their digital hip-hop jazz. Like Nirvana on Bleach, you can hear them influenced by heaviness, but feeling out their own style.
[By Andrew Matson. Andrew writes about music and culture for publications including The Seattle Times, NPR, and The Stranger—follow him on Twitter here. Intro image via. Album art and songs © Sub Pop and the respective artists.]