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Sub Pop's 20 greatest albums (Part 4 of 4)


5. Vaselines: The Way of the Vaselines: A Complete History (1992)
Right after Nevermind exploded, people were wondering where the hell Nirvana’s sound came from, a question Kurt Cobain was only too happy to answer. One band he kept bringing up was one virtually no one else in the world had heard of -- a drunken Scottish quartet with male-female vocal harmonies and more twee than than comfortable the fans who loved Nirvana's hard rock side.

When Sub Pop released this comp, however, it was clear Kurt knew what he was talking about. There was little reason to hate on the Vaselines: They were snarky but sincere, creative but consistent, and they had just about the weirdest but strangely apt ideas for covers you’ve ever heard. If the Pixies and Black Sabbath helped formed the two sides of grunge’s identity, the Vaselines were the key step in learning how to take it down a notch without losing the sass.


4. The Shins: Oh, Inverted World (2001)
It’s too bad Garden State had to turn a small, rather pleasant album into a vastly over-hyped cultural phenomenon. But  the truth of the matter is this: Without Oh, Inverted World, the only Shins album not to chart but now their most recognized release, we may be speaking of Sub Pop as a historical relic instead of an enduring creative force.

With a disastrous Warner Brothers deal crippling the label’s leeway and with the label heads suffering a post-grunge identity crisis, here came a sweet, earnest, unassuming little pop album that gave good vibes to just about everyone. That just-enough appeal struck a chord with the Millenials, and before you knew it, a new era of Sub Pop had begun. Oh, Inverted World may not be an album to change your life, but it sure changed the label forever.


3. Wipers: Is This Real? (1980)
Once upon a time, the Pacific Northwest indie-rock scene was just a glint in the eye of a few Evergreen State College radio DJs. A social network was building fast, but with Facebook a quarter century away, there were sparse connections to be found within this isolated region of America where no one band wanted to play. Still, everywhere you looked in this prenatal scene, you saw Greg Sage. Is It Real?, the Wipers album most famous for being the source of future Nirvana cover material, not only legitimized the scene and helped break Sub Pop, but holds up as well as few other underground albums of its time.

Before Black Flag had even released Damaged, here was an upstart band from Portland, releasing a practically unheard album that still isn’t heard enough today. Is This Real? was light years ahead of its time, and even today its sound is hard to place. Does the album sound like a more streamlined Mission of Burma, a meaner Urinals, or a less trebly Minutemen? Either way, it ranks up there with the juggernauts of American post-punk classics, whether it gets that recognition or not.


2. Nirvana: Bleach (1989)
While not Nirvana’s best album by any means, even a relatively primitive Nirvana stacks up with just about any band that's ever worked with Sub Pop. Bleach is the most razor-sharp of all Nirvana releases, and starts off with a flurry of melodic but fiery tracks like “Floyd the Barber,” “About a Girl,” and “Love Buzz” that practically had major labels drooling over their album jackets.

The album has a reputation of going overboard on its second side, but to a modern ear, it’s incredibly consistent. Be it the Motorhead groove of “Negative Creep” or the Eastern flavor of “Swamp Meet,” the second side completes the work of a band that is simply on another plane. Bleach is not an album that went platinum by name recognition only; it’s an album that any alternative-rock band would have killed to produce.


1. Mudhoney: Superfuzz Bigmuff Plus Early Singles (1990)
Most of the classic grunge releases -- and all the platinum-selling ones -- came on the majors. Mudhoney’s own major foray was Piece of Cake, not their artistic best and a complete financial flop. The lack of mainstream success belies the fact that, in terms of pre-Nevermind grunge, Mudhoney were simply the greatest, game-changing band Seattle had ever seen, and this is their greatest release.

Without the singles, Superfuzz Bigmuff would still be in the top five simply for the audacity of tracks like grunge's greatest love song (“If I Think”) and one of its funniest (“In N’ Out of Grace,” which adds menace to its humor). But the 1990 comp added stone-cold classics like “Touch Me I’m Sick,” “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t So Sweet No More,” and “Hate the Police.” It also reorders the song to give this phenomenal comp well-designed album drag.

Earlier Sub Pop albums had their wild charm, and later albums helped diversify and maintain Sub Pop’s legacy. But no album was as fully capable of branding Sub Pop into rock 'n' roll’s consciousness like Superfuzz Plus, and it’s one of the few albums that’s as truly great as it is important. The recent deluxe edition couldn’t have come at a better time.



Honorable mentions (by year):
Soundgarden: Screaming Life/Fopp (1990)
Screaming Trees: Change Has Come (1991)

Velocity Girl: ¡Simpatico! (1994)
Ugly Casanova: Sharpen Your Teeth (2002)
The Constantines: Shine a Light (2003)
Rogue Wave: Out of The Shadow (2004)
Low: The Great Destroyer (2005)
The Thermals: The Body, The Blood, and the Machine (2006)
Wolf Eyes: Human Animal (2006)
Handsome Furs: Plague Park (2007)
Pissed Jeans: Hope for Men (2007)
No Age: Nouns (2008)
Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes (2008) 


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Sub Pop

I would have Bakesale and Diary in the top 10. I'd have Bleach at #1. I'd also add Velocity Girl's Simpatico to the top 20, probably top 15.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/daba/me-bermudajpg.jpg Daba

I think Full Custom Gospel Sounds is a much better Horton Heat album. What about an honorable mention for the Dwarves?

/site_media/uploads/images/users/mburr/Photo 44.jpg mburr

We dropped the ball on the Dwarves, I will admit.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/Ethan/nirvana-corporate-rock-whoresjpg.jpg EStan

Pretty solid list. Apologies to Queen Mary could have been higher, and I love the shout out to Handsome Furs, I think that record is way underrated.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/thestorfer/1202393jpeg.jpeg andross

i also think that bakesale shoud be higher up. certainly in the top 5 for me.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/margaritaland/foto2.jpg margaritaland

Yeah, I love Bakesale too. It's definitely my favorite Sebadoh record.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/daba/me-bermudajpg.jpg Daba

Very nice list, Ethan. Regarding Tad, I'd probably have gone for God's Balls or Salt Lick instead of 8-Way Santa. There's something slightly more unhinged about those two records. I agree on Superfuzz as the #1 choice. It's a close call between that and Bleach, but Mudhoney really is the archetypal grunge/Sub Pop band.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/nick/461770063_f6a8d92e3a_s.jpg nick

Nice list. I would have ordered it much differently.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/deseraestage/no.jpg des!

I like this list. You hit all of the important ones. My favorite inclusions were Sebadoh, Vaselines and Beat Happening.

My favorite underrated Sub Pop bands are Six Finger Satellite, Seaweed and Holopaw.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/breidy/Koko B. Ware.jpg breidy

Hmmm... I like the second Shins record better than the first. It's more dynamic. Hot Hot Heat shouldn't have made it either. Dance-punk blows.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/FMH/5241619.gif FMH

I second Bleach at #1

/site_media/uploads/images/users/lori_baily/1.jpg lori_baily

Nick, I agree that the first two Tad albums were crazier, but I think 8 Way Santa saw them truly hit their stride beyond a just crazy level.

Margarita, I must admit that I'm not the biggest Sebadoh fan (which I type while wearing a Dinosaur Jr. shirt), but Bakesale is definitely my favorite. I realize that some like III better.

Lori, I didn't put Bleach at #1 not simply to be non-obvious (e.g. Pitchfork's ranking of Nevermind as the #6 album of the 90s). I legitimately think Mudhoney was the better band while on Sub Pop, and that Superfuzz is a classic which until this year was criminally underrated.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/Ethan/nirvana-corporate-rock-whoresjpg.jpg EStan

I would like Bleach at number one, too, and Bakesale higher. Des, how would you have reordered the list?

/site_media/uploads/images/users/brandon/216_browser_clut.gif brandon

No complaints about Superfuzz at number one here. The reissue is a major improvement over the original, and the importance of the original cannot be understated.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/FMH/5241619.gif FMH

Ugly Casanova is terribly underrated! Nice job giving that album a shout out.


Thanks for including Ugly Casanova. I keep seeing these leasts, and people keep ignoring that album. Idiots.


hey, what about eric's trip? love tara was an amazing album...would have defintely put it on the list.


Damon and Naomi with Ghost was pretty good. Maybe not top twenty, but good. Also Chad VanGaalen and Dead Moon and Codeine and Supersuckers. Weren't some of the Earth records released by Sub Pop? The more you think about their output over the years, the better the label becomes.


Good stuff. Perspective on Oh, Inverted World is well kept despite how difficult that album can seem in a post-Braff world.



I also really love Beachwood Sparks- Once We Were Trees. That album has a very organic beauty that is very much overlooked.


I think Bleach was the most impactful offering that epitomized grunge, more because of what Nirvana did after they left Sub Pop. I would not want Rein Sanction of Florida to be ignored. Mariposa, Creel, Deeper Road, all unveiled the breadth of grunge and went beyond the Pacific Northwest then extended into the scrub palmetto lands of the Southeast. The brothers Gentry, Mark and Brannon, and Ian Chase epitomized the driving guitar sound that brought garage band, live performance to the forefront. Listening to their music transcended the feeling of studio to why music and dance (and moshing) was what was driving the genre to the prescence of American youth.


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