15. Sebadoh: Bakesale (1994)
The mid- to late ’90s were without a doubt Sub Pop’s low point, and signing Sebadoh was the last smart move the label made in a good long while. Lou Barlow missed out on his chance to become a major grunge star with Dinosaur Jr., so he responded with some of the whiniest, intellectually heavy indie rock of the early ’90s on the Homestead label. Bakesale was Sebadoh’s third Sub Pop album, and it was also their best with the label. With the lineup of Barlow, Jason Loewenstein and Bob Fay, the whines were kept to a minimum, the songs were their most consistent, and there was enough diversity to go around. Bakesale was Sub Pop 1.0’s last gasp.
14. Radio Birdman: The Essential Radio Birdman 1974-1978 (2001)
This was Sub Pop’s most altruistic moment, both to Radio Birdman and to music fans. For nearly a quarter century, Birdman’s greatness was more of a rumor than an established truth. Be it Birdman, the Birthday Party, or Feedtime, Australian bands have always been at least one step ahead of their northern-hemisphere counterparts, and but for geography would be seen as saviors. So out of nowhere, Sub Pop released this compilation, which showed a band that had beaten the Jam to classical songwriting punk by three years — and beat the Replacements to perfecting it by 10 years. In terms of first-wave punk, this was like rediscovering a lost Shakespeare play.
13. Sunny Day Real Estate: Diary (1992)
The forgotten founders of emo, Sunny Day Real Estate were sandwiched between the still relatively new hardcore emo (Rites of Spring) and its more pop-heavy incarnation (Weezer); Diary reflected the transitory stage to a T. Still with thrashing guitars and hardcore aggression, this was nonetheless an irresistible pop album, bringing the genre into the mainstream setting for which it was most naturally suited. While Sunny Day’s contemporarieswere all on the East Coast, the band were as Seattle as it got, and they were as much a part of the grunge B-list as Screaming Trees and Tad. How easy it is to forget emo’s lack of stigmatization back then.
12. Afghan Whigs: Congregation (1992)
The ignorance of Congregation was one of the first signs that grunge had grown too big for Sub Pop. Congregation, a grunge album with soul influences and a deeply insipid subtext, was one of the few grunge albums to toy around with grunge’s rather rigid structure. The problem, of course, was that this album came in January of ’92, when grunge was in full rage in the mainstream and its indie followers were too caught up in the success to pay attention to newcomers. But the fact that Congregation slipped by has helped it stay remarkable fresh over the past 16 years. There’s still not anything that sounds quite like it, as creative and inspiring as it is evil-sounding. It more resembles the bastard child of Fugazi and the Jesus Lizard than Pearl Jam. The band would go on to get its due with major label work later in the decade, but Congregation still sticks out like the sixth-grader who’s a foot taller than anyone else in his class.
11. Iron & Wine: The Creek Drank The Cradle (2002)
Without a doubt the softest of Sub Pop’s major hits, Iron & Wine basically destroyed any remaining conceptions that Sub Pop was exclusively a grunge label. With Sam Beam’s vocals so low-volume you could barely hear them, it’s no surprise the word “angelic” was thrown around enough to make you think he was hiding his wings. There’s always room for pretty in pop music; while some have argued that Iron and Wire’s success foretold of future pansiness in popular indie acts, don’t shoot the messenger. A revolution can be quiet, too.