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)