There’s an alternate—make that alternative—history in which Sub Pop Records has been the most significant rock-oriented label, major or indie, over its 25 years of existence, not to mention a prime mover of millennial pop culture at-large. It’s actually not that far-fetched a version of cultural history, if you simply consider that the Seattle institution helped give Nirvana a push right before Nirvana redefined the trajectory of rock ‘n’ roll from that point on, its now iconic logo attached to every single copy of Nevermind out there. Sure, labels obviously meant something pre-Sub Pop, but after grunge changed the cultural landscape, they could mean more than just a sound, but give a mental image of a lifestyle—otherwise, how could Sub Pop staffers have had so much fun goofing on the New York Times in a Style section story that now reads like a “kick me” sign slapped on the writer’s back? But before Seattle became Seattle in the popular imaginary, before (you realized) Microsoft was on every desktop, before Starbucks took over every city block and every suburban strip mall, Sub Pop and the bands it nurtured planted the seeds of what folks imagined the city and the region was like, accurate picture or not.
Of course, Sub Pop was never just about grunge and couldn’t have been if it was to sustain itself through the boom and bust cycles the music industry has gone through with regularity since the alternative revolution. To the credit of founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Pavitt, Sub Pop never rested on its laurels, paying forward the bounty Nirvana provided them by supporting all sorts of bands everywhere even if the return on investment hasn’t always been so great. In some ways, Sub Pop has been just enough ahead of its times to succeed—and fail—when others have at best tread water: As A&R head Tony Kiewel explained in a flattering Los Angeles Times profile last year, “We were lucky that we were going bankrupt two years before everybody else in the music business…We fixed everything two years ahead of everybody else.” Indeed, Sub Pop innovated the way business as usual is done in the music industry, pioneering indie-major partnerships with a distribution deal with Warner that allowed the label to maintain creative autonomy, although it took the Seattle imprint a little while to figure out how to make it work as it overextended itself, handing out big advances on projects that didn’t pan out in the ‘90s. Still, many of the first high-charting indie albums of the 2000s came via Sub Pop once its ship was righted, like the Postal Service’s Give Up and the Shins’ Wincing the Night Away, showing its peer labels that staying true to your principles, building up bands, and savvy marketing could help you reach the top on terms as close to your own as possible.
And that’s what Sub Pop represents after a quarter century of trial and error, that more than once in a while you can have your cake and eat it too. To celebrate Sub Pop’s 25th anniversary, which was marked this past weekend with a series of events in Seattle, PopMatters has compiled a list of 25 memorable Sub Pop albums, which—although far from totally comprehensive, without representation from crucial acts like Afghan Whigs, the Fastback, Velocity Girl—covers the label’s monumental achievements, best artistic accomplishments, and the underappreciated gems. With no further ado, here are 25 essential Sub Pop albums, many obvious and others not so much, spanning the history of the label in chronological order. Arnold Pan
Superfuzz Bigmuff (1998)
Behold the rise of the Flannel Nation. The flagship band of early Sub Pop and the de facto face of the Seattle Sound before anyone had any idea that “Teen Spirit” could mean anything else besides a brand of deodorant, Mudhoney defined the sound and look of a label devoted to making the act of rocking out in the underground scene cool again. Mudhoney’s first EP succeeded beyond Sub Pop’s wildest fantasies: characterized by fuzz-thick guitar chords, Mark Arm’s feral Iggy-indebted snarl, and Danny Peters’ downright monstrous drumming, Superfuzz Bigmuff is pure, unadulterated grunge with a capital UNGE, lurching with violent drunkenness and plumbing the grimy depths of America’s hard rock legacy. Superfuzz Bigmuff (long since available in expanded form paired with assorted singles) is six heavier-than-heavy songs of sweat-soaked abandon and gleeful (yet knowing) lunkheadedness, with its finest moment “In ‘n’ Out of Grace”—a track with an introductory drumroll build-up courtesy of Peters that’s more enthralling than most choruses—save for the body-mangling finale. Yeah, Mudhoney has released full albums for Pavitt and Poneman both before and after attempting to cash into the major label gold rush of the early ‘90s, but this is the one ‘Honey record you absolutely, undeniably need. AJ Ramirez
Sub Pop 200 (1988)
For any cash-strapped upstart label, a triple-LP set like Sub Pop 200 would be a dicey proposition—especially since the set was intentionally spread over three discs instead of a sufficient two, purely for grandiosity’s sake. Pavitt and Poneman’s myth-making paid off, as the label’s second compilation convincingly projected the image of a vibrant musical scene developing in unmolested seclusion in the Pacific Northwest (conveniently glossing over the fact that acts like the Fluid weren’t even from Washington state). Sub Pop 200 is noticeably front-loaded and runs on fumes by the end, yet ace material from local heroes Green River, Tad, Soundgarden, Swallow, and their ilk muster more than enough momentum to convince listeners’ memories to block out the expendable curios (Screaming Trees’ Jimi Hendrix cover, Steve Fisk’s psychedelic doodle) and the stinkers (history has justly forgotten Cat Butt). Yes kids, there was once a time when a track by Nirvana wasn’t guaranteed to be the most impressive offering to be found on a compilation tracklist. AJ Ramirez
You could argue that In Utero remains the most uncompromising, and visceral, articulation of Nirvana’s—and Cobain’s—aesthetic. (Indeed, how could you not?) But Bleach, the band’s 1989, pre-Grohl debut, financed at just over $600, remains the purest expression of the young trio—before the tamperings of fame, MTV, or (quelle horreure) Butch Vig. Shifting between thick, metallic riffs like on “Big Cheese” and hints at more vulnerable territory (notably, the splendid “About a Girl”), Bleach was reportedly the result of a cassette tape the band trekked around with in their tour van, with the Smithereens on one side and Celtic Frost on the other—and it shows. Indeed, there wasn’t time to overthink things; Cobain wrote many of the lyrics the night before recording, including “School”, a snarling dig at Sub Pop itself (“You’re in high school again / You’re in high school again / You’re in high school again”). A compelling, if not entirely essential, portrait of the tortured artist as a young man. Zach Schonfeld
Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version (1993)
Earth’s full-length debut for Sub Pop, 1993’s Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version, was a minimalist narcotic trawl through eternal low-end, on which guitarist Dylan Carlson’s molten frequencies gave birth to an entirely new genre of downtuned droning doom. The album’s three lengthy instrumentals (“Seven Angels”, “Teeth of Lions Rule Divine”, and “Like Gold and Faceted”) were akin to Tony Iommi’s and La Monte Young’s worst nightmares stretched to infinity, all drenched in the thickest, dispiriting distortion. With glacially paced motion and opiate-infused repetitive riffing, Earth 2‘s viscous tar-and-trudge is the keystone against which all guitar drone is to be judged worthy, and it is rightly recognized as an unrivaled classic, as heavy as heavy can get. Craig Hayes
Of the albums included on this list, the Spinanes’ Manos is among those that got buried in the Sub Pop time capsule, not really to be heard from much since it made its modest mark 20 years ago. But in its own time and way, Manos was a crucial release for Sub Pop when post-grunge alt-rock was at a crossroads, with the Spinanes right at the intersection of the women-in-rock movement and the indie-fication of Alternative Nation. Compared to more media savvy peers like Liz Phair and Juliana Hatfield, Rebecca Gates flew under the radar, but that was because the workmanlike proficiency of her whirlwind guitar play on Manos was the sort of thing that inspired admiring word-of-mouth, not photo spreads. So even if her name might not ring many bells any more, Gates still holds a legacy as probably the most distinctive homegrown female performer in the Sub Pop catalog. And if that smacks of tokenism to you, you probably haven’t heard the force-of-nature melodies on Manos, which can make a strong claim to being Sub Pop’s best album from college rock’s ‘90s golden age, with Gates and drummer Scott Plouf doing as all memorable duos do by sounding bigger and more impactful than you’d think the low-profile pair could be. Arnold Pan