Making a list of the greatest Sub Pop albums is even more frustrating and inevitably controversial than making most lists. For one, much of Sub Pop’s roster put out their biggest records after leaving the label. The Shins may have charted at number two last year, but in the grunge era, there was simply no way for Sub Pop to hold onto bands once they reached a certain threshold of popularity. That disparity has caused the label to go through many incarnations over its 20-plus years of existence, all while keeping its ties strongest in the Pacific Northwest.
Even Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman admit that the 20-year milestone isn’t necessarily firm — it marks when they finally got an office — and two albums on this list come from before 1988. But just days after the Sub Pop fest, we couldn’t pass up the chance to compile — and defend — what we think are the label’s best offerings. Debate away in the comments.
20. Tad: 8 Way Santa (1991)
The countdown begins with the most inscrutable of the grunge bands. You call this punk? Fuck Sabbath: Tad sounded closer to Slayer. Or so it seems at first, until you realize that Tad Doyle was Captain Beefheart’s vocal and lyrical soul child. Then you realize that Kurt Danielson’s freewheeling bass had more than a little Mike Watt to it. Then there’s the Knack-like rhythm of “Wired God.” Suddenly, it all makes sense. Flannel initially seemed like a weird addition to punk. There was no other kind of clothing you could imagine Tad in. That both Steve Albini and Butch Vig took a liking to the band should be indication enough of their credentials, as is the fact that their major label follow-up, Inhaler, did not disappoint (artistically, at least). But it was 8 Way Santa that saw a band that many thought doomed to the underground show that they could damn well earn their keep with the majors, forcing their way into the grunge breakthrough by grit alone.
19. Hot Hot Heat: Make up the Breakdown (2002)
Sub Pop was too busy defining grunge in the late ’80s and early ’90s to touch upon the rave scene, so it’s only fitting they’d be at the helm of ushering in this decade’s equivalent movement: the dance-punk revival. Coming a few months after James Murphy entered the picture with “Losing My Edge,” Hot Hot Heat was two steps ahead. Releasing their much-heralded debut after a handful of buzzed-about EPs, Make up the Breakdown sees dance-punk revival in a very raw, primitive state. With the spotlights focused in, the members of Hot Hot Heat couldn’t let themselves fully turn away from more traditional rock. But while LCD Soundsystem may have passed them in danceability, Hot Hot Heat was the more complete band at this point. Only this band could follow-up the bouncy pop of “This Town” with the synth-heavy “Talk to Me, Dance with Me.” Come to think of it, you couldn’t dance to every Blondie track, either.
18. Band of Horses: Cease to Begin (2007)
For a band that now seems so ingrained in current discussions of indie rock, it’s easy to forget that Everything All the Time was quite polarizing. It got the big Pitchfork boost, but after a few years of this brand of light indie rock dominating the scene, Everything was seen by some as a nice but rather bland, superfluous source of praise. Rather than succumb to a sophomore slump, however, Cease to Begin showed the world that Band of Horses had special talents and rare country-folk songwriting prowess in the tradition ranging from Neil Young to Wilco. The band members were brave enough to stick with their strengths and not try to prove critics wrong just for the sake of it, and the decision paid off. Considering the minor controversy the band started with their screed against being labeled sellouts, we may never again see the band seem as graceful as they seemed early last fall.
17. The Postal Service: Give Up (2003)
The Postal Service, despite the prominence of its members, was still a surprise success. Back then, indie rock and electronica were well known but didn’t really dent the charts. Give Up, and album that was a part of both genres, shot to the top of the download charts right at the time CDs were beginning their demise. Its physical copy still went gold, validating the Sub Pop’s resurgence, and finally seeing its Warner partnership begin to pay dividends. As far as mainstream rock goes, this was some of the smarter stuff of its time, and it was one of the first major releases to fully show Kid A’s impact on the rock world.
16. L7: Smell the Magic (1991)
If Bikini Kill was the Nirvana of the riot grrls, and Sleater-Kinney was the populist Pearl Jam, it naturally follows that L7 was the darker, heavier Alice in Chains. That they were the only riot grrl band to fully embrace grunge’s metal side didn’t discount the fact that they were the pissiest of the pissy. L7 genuinely didn’t give a fuck what you thought, and whether that meant throwing used tampons at live crowds or producing the unflinchingly mean “Shove” or the coke-addled surf rock of “Fast and Frightening,” this band’s sole purpose was to punch you in the nuts. Their one Sub Pop release before hitting the big time with Bricks Are Heavy, Smell the Magic left no doubt that the band was the hardest, meanest group of lasses to rock the ’90s, maybe ever.