Sub Pop released Diary, the debut album of Sunny Day Real Estate, into a rock music landscape that was finding nihilism to be very profitable. The album came out just two days before Mark Romanek’s profane video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” premiered on MTV. Already in heavy rotation on the same network was Anton Corbijn’s video for Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”, which was well on its way to winning two Video Music Awards. Nirvana frontman and former Sub Pop recording artist Kurt Cobain had killed himself a little more than a month before Diary was released, and his legend was poised to grow both critically and commercially. Videos for the singles of Diary also made it onto MTV, creating only small ripples.
While the music/music videos from Diary were nowhere near as pervasive as those by Nine Inch Nails or Nirvana, Sunny Day Real Estate was, for its time, arguably more subversive than either band. Certainly influenced by various post-punk and hardcore acts, the songs of Diary were sometimes as chaotic, urgent, and questioning as any of the angst-ridden chart toppers of the mid-1990s. But Sunny Day Real Estate dared to add touches of hope and uplift to their music. The voice of Jeremy Enigk soared above the tension of the drums and guitars, alternately melodious and strained. Enigk’s later “coming out” as a Christian further illustrated the contrast between his worldview and that of the bulk of what was being sold as “alternative” rock at the time. Diary would prove to be a small but very influential turning point for rock bands in the post-grunge era. Thomas Britt
Sebadoh was always about its disparate parts—the forlorn tunes of Lou Barlow, the edgy punk slices of Jason Loewenstein, the experimental noise of Eric Gaffney. But with Bakesale, as Gaffney (mostly) left the band, those parts started to converge. All of a sudden, there was some of Loewenstein’s spirited sludge in Barlow’s tunes (“License to Confuse”, “Give Up”) and some of Barlow’s overcast mood in Loewenstein’s work (“Not Too Amused”, “Got It”). The results may not have been quite as fascinatingly unpredictable as, say, Bubble & Scrape, but the consistency and energy of Bakesale is remarkable. It’s the sound of a great rock band fully realizing its songwriting potential and, with the help of new drummer Bob Fay, coming together with a tight-knit new power. Sure, Gaffney’s experiments were always interesting, but this album accounts for them by giving us scuffed-up now-classics like “Rebound”, “Magnet’s Coil”, and pretty much anything mentioned above. Sebadoh was known for shape-shifing—hell, it grew out of another band, Dinosaur Jr.—but this is where they hit their stride, not by compromising, but rather by honing their eccentricities into the most potent dose in their discography. Matthew Fiander
Ain’t My Lookout (1996)
In 2013, we’re living through a wave of extreme ‘90s nostalgia, yet many of that decade’s most unique bands are slipping through the cracks, being left out of history. The Grifters are one such band, yet one that’s always lived one step off from the dominant culture: a skuzzy and strange garage-pop/warped blues band that could switch in a nanosecond from the dirtiest, creepiest alleyways to outer space. Their two-album stint on Sub Pop might be considered a failure by the label and band, I’m not sure, but Ain’t My Lookout is a ‘90s classic. It’s the Grifters’ cleaned-up, ready-for-the-big-time moment, which means that they were not cleaned up at all; the shadows and dirt are just larger than life, which makes them even stranger, prettier, and more frightening. Dave Heaton
Despite Joe Pernice’s deadpan wit and heartbroken tales, there’s always been something intimate and approachable about his songs. And while Sub Pop did put out the first (and excellent) Pernice Brothers record, it was Pernice’s work before that, with Scud Mountain Boys, that marks his high-water mark with the label. The Scuds were labeled alt-country, but what they really were was kitchen-table pop (they even performed around the table). These shuffling, dusty tunes offered a spacious, bittersweet backdrop for Pernice to hit us with a uniformly beautiful set of songs. It also expanded on the band’s previous two records, which felt like just acoustic-guitar-and-voice tunes. Here the palate stretches out and so does Pernice—into the obsessive delusion of “Grudge Fuck”, the misguided escapism of “Penthouse in the Woods”, and the sneering stomp of “Cigarette Sandwich”. The songs are clever but always heartfelt, funny but never buried in irony. This kind of pop music isn’t interested in the kind of self-aware nods to the past that would inform later popular Sub Pop acts like Fleet Foxes and the Shins. Scud Mountains Boys just made the sound they knew how to make, singing sweet, aching tunes, huddled around a table that we, the listeners, always seem to have a seat at too.
The Geometrid (2000)
Looper’s two albums on Sub Pop are a reminder of the “rock” label’s stylistic openness, or at least that they may have been looking for their Postal Service-type bedroom electronic-pop smash a few years before they found it. In any case, Looper’s second album won’t ever be considered a quintessential Sub Pop album, and it was not the success—even on a cult level—that it should have been, but it is brilliant and charming and funny, not to mention great, bittersweet dance music. If the first album stayed within the story-song terrain Stuart David had marked with Belle & Sebastian, The Geometrid turned those same fanciful romantic instincts and humble observations of the world into a pseudo-futuristic dance album about our own ideas of the future (meaning also our concepts of the present and past), and the fears, hopes, and joys within them. Dave Heaton