[14 July 2013]
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
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
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’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
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
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.
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
Damon and Naomi released four albums for Sub Pop—three studio and one live—which is more than some of the bands one might associate with the label (Nirvana, Soundgarden). It’s also as much music as their previous band Galaxie 500 released, and it only represents roughly half of their output overall. If 1998’s Playback Singers was where the two really found their footing, then the album after that, With Ghost, was their first chance to build on that and make a bigger artistic statement. Damon and Naomi were never going to be one of the best-known Sub Pop bands; their tastes and interests are simply too esoteric. With Ghost, a collaboration with Japanese experimental group Ghost, is a prime example of that, and of the beauty that lies in finding and pursuing your own direction. It is one of the prettiest Sub Pop albums, if you find beauty in strange ideas, in light, in words, in philosophical conundrums. And in ghostly, quiet covers of Big Star and Tim Hardin. Dave Heaton
As a professional musician, Damien Jurado seems to be enjoying a more fulfilling career on Secretly Canadian than he did in his years with Sub Pop. But 2000’s Sub Pop release Ghost of David remains a gold standard both for his songwriting and among subsequent folk-influenced releases by the label. On Ghost of David‘s best songs, Jurado’s voice is accompanied by very little instrumentation. “Desert” features an acoustic guitar. “Medication” adds to that an organ and a bit of percussion. “Tonight I Will Retire” rests on a simple piano line and barely-there drums. All of these songs appear in the album’s first half, during which the attention is rightly focused on Jurado’s soulful voice and the characters that populate his imagination. These are tales of loneliness, illness, and despair. There is a “brighter side” but it’s that of “roads that lead to Hell”. Though the second half of the album occasionally strays from the sorts of production and narrativity established in the first, Ghost of David never feels less than complete. And regardless of the kind of dark territory Jurado explores through the characters here, a line from the title track seems closest to summing up his own way of soldiering on: “Life is short, but love is eternal.” Thomas Britt
One of the best-selling records in Sub Pop history, the Postal Service’s Give Up marked both stylistic broadening and an unexpected success for the label in 2003. The band began with the friendship of Jimmy Tamborello of DNTEL and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie fame; neither had released music on Sub Pop before the label’s head of A&R Tony Kiewel signed the project based on his personal relationship with the two artists in question. Not only would this produce one of the label’s most popular and iconic records, but it began the next iteration of the Sub Pop brand. With the success of Give Up, a surprising sleeper hit, Sub Pop branched out beyond the iconic “Seattle” sound of its early years and the discrete “indie rock” that colored the late 1990s and early 2000s. Give Up sounded neither particularly Pacific Northwest nor especially indie rock, a miasma of Tamborello’s glitchy pop and Gibbard’s gift for digestible melodies. Its success was built on sounding like everything and nothing. The official single was the stunning and imminently catchy “Such Great Heights”, garnering the attention of college radio and a placement in the trailer for Zach Braff’s Garden State, crossing over first as an almost organic secret and then later as wantonly commercial; Iron and Wine covered the song to the delight of M&M’s executives who synched the cover to an especially psychedelic advertisement for candy. Sub Pop courted little of this commercialization explicitly, rather riding the record’s success as it spread through high schools and colleges. The vision then was never in the marketing of the music; it was that the label took a flier on an electro-pop record from two credible but obscure musicians and, in the process, supported one of the most memorable collaborations in the history of non-major label pop: both one of Sub Pop’s finest releases and one of its most unexpected. Geoff Nelson
Chutes Too Narrow is like the forgotten middle child of the Shins’ three-album run on Sub Pop. No, it’s not the album that changed your life like 2001’s sterling debut Oh, Inverted World did, à la Natalie Portman in Garden State. Nor was it the disc that changed the way indie bands and labels did business—that would be 2007’s Wincing the Night Away, which raced to #2 on the Billboard charts with the highest opening week sales of any Sub Pop album. What Chutes Too Narrow happens to be, however, is a document of the Shins at the height of their powers, honing the precocious melodies of Oh, Inverted World into pop gems that were immediate but polished, warmly personal but precisely packaged. And as consistent as it is quality-wise, Chutes possesses a variety that’s a testament to James Mercer’s versatility as a songwriter, from the tender indie-isms of “Kissing the Lipless” to the mod-ish romper “So Says I”, from the almost-orch-pop of “Saint Simon” to the alt-twang on “Gone for Good”. So maybe Chutes Too Narrow wasn’t the Shins’ most culturally significant album or the one that changed Sub Pop’s profile and fortunes in the 2000s, but it’s the record that gives the Shins’ discography more depth and meaning than any other. Arnold Pan
Our Endless Numbered Days might not be the most critically acclaimed of Iron and Wine’s albums—see The Shepherd’s Dog—but it was the gateway drug and introduction to the band for some people, such as myself, after hearing Sam Beam’s cover of fellow Sub Pop act the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” on the Garden State soundtrack. To wit, I got my CD of this album for Christmas in 2004 after my ex-girlfriend had heard “Such Great Heights”, which I took as being pretty much a ringing endorsement for the band by her standards. Beyond that, though, Our Endless Numbered Days offers track after track of hissy, lo-fi-ish acoustic strumming, and, to this day, I can still hum the melody of “Naked as We Came”. While Iron and Wine has since gone all major label on us, and has traveled down a more ‘70s soft-rock trail to the slight derision of some, such as myself, Our Endless Numbered Days still stands up, and offers a reminder of when Iron and Wine was lush and sparse, and offered quiet, contemplative beauty in a folksy strain. Zachary Houle
One secret to Low’s success is the band’s history of producers. Launched by Kramer on Vernon Yard Recordings, Low went on to greater acclaim and recorded some of its most enduring songs with Steve Albini for Kranky. Having built a reputation for stark, slow compositions with moving vocal turns by Alan Sparhawk and wife Mimi Parker, it was a “transitional” album recorded with Tchad Blake and Tom Herbers that led to the band’s first release with Sub Pop, 2005’s The Great Destroyer. The critically misunderstood Trust (2002), Low’s last release on Kranky, was much more electric, brash, and up-tempo compared to the recordings on which the band built its name. Without Trust‘s grinding gears, there would be no The Great Destroyer.
The Great Destroyer was produced by Dave Fridmann. Already legendary for his work with Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips, and Sparklehorse, Fridmann also revolutionized Sleater-Kinney’s sound on The Woods, another 2005 Sub Pop release. Fridmann makes use of the best sonic experiments from Trust and adds his own distorted, layered signatures. His orchestration is the ultimate realization of Low’s strengths, and the band commits to the process as if their lives depended on it. On “Just Stand Back”, Sparhawk and Parker sing, “I could turn on you so fast”—a fitting phrase for an album that completes a bold about-face. The lyrics about dying, going deaf, and walking into the sea stare squarely at the end of life, accepting it. The Great Destroyer is the last of Low’s masterworks, and it couldn’t sound more like a farewell. The band has continued to release new music, with and without Fridmann. But its Sub Pop debut is the sound of a band standing at a precipice and holding nothing back. Thomas Britt
Yeah, we’ve got the Corin Tucker Band and Wild Flag, but it’s still hard not to miss Sleater-Kinney. Even if we want new stuff from them, though, it’s hard to imagine a better swan song than The Woods. Producer Dave Fridmann offers a surprisingly light touch, scraping these lofty rock songs with some low-end weight that gives the speed and fury of their sound a new sort of heft. These songs are more intricate than the slashing tunes of, say, Dig Me Out, but they still share the same sort of pent-up concision. Those rundown chords that open “The Fox” are jolting. The lean riffs of “Jumpers” can transfix you. Janet Weiss’ thundering drums on “Entertain” make it impossible not to stomp your feet, nod your head, move as much as possible. The back and forth—on guitar and vocals—between Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein is as volatile as ever here, and yet it doesn’t repeat past success. It taps into a long-established energy, but pushes it towards elements of classic rock not explored on past records. Even the 11-minute “Let’s Call It Love”—a shock to hear at first—is just a precise combination of tight movements. The Woods was a perfect final statement from a band that seemed like it always had something to say, and this both summed up their career to that point and opened up new wormholes in their sound. It’s exactly what we expected but also wholly unpredictable. It doesn’t end their story so much as it loops us back to the beginning, a welcome circuit to get caught in. Matthew Fiander
Few debut albums come as fully realized as Apologies to the Queen Mary; it’s an accomplishment that Wolf Parade was arguably unable to live up to since. Granted, the band was faced with high expectations from its inception, but Apologies found them exceeding those expectations in the best way possible. For one wonderful moment, Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner—two songwriters who couldn’t be farther apart—united in a ball of nervy energy and melodic brilliance. Even when Boeckner’s Springsteen fantasies (“This Heart’s on Fire”) are lined up alongside Krug’s fractured, keyboard-driven pieces (“Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts”), it never feels as if we hear two different bands, as we would on the band’s later albums. Most bands never make an album as cohesive and wholly brilliant as this in their career, yet Wolf Parade managed to do it on its first try. Kevin Korber
To this day, there are still people that only know Patton Oswalt as Spence Olchin from The King of Queens, despite his scene-stealing movie appearances, years of working the alternative stand-up circuit, and multiple concert specials. Yet the exact moment that Oswalt transitioned from “best kept secret” to “next big thing” can be found in Werewolves & Lollipops, which some still argue is his hands-down best stand-up album. For starters, it contains his first truly viral routine (“America Has Spoken”, a riff on KFC’s excessive Famous Bowls), one of the most hilariously graphic depictions of old people giving birth ever (”...which I’ll illustrate by pushing this uncooked Cornish game hen through these gray drapes”), and what is arguably the greatest takedown of a heckler in recorded history (“I Tell a Story about Birth Control and Deal with a Retarded Heckler”). Up there with the finest works of Louis C.K., David Cross (a Sub Pop labelmate), and all of the people Oswalt now considers his good friends, Werewolves & Lollipops is the finest-ever example of knowing exactly who your audience is and hitting their every bull’s eye. Evan Sawdey
While many people would make the immediate assumption that this album serves as the soundtrack to the band’s acclaimed HBO show of the same name, Flight of the Conchords is still a remarkable standalone album, a collection of newly recorded versions of classic back-catalog favorites (i.e., “Robots”) and new songs that have become comedy classics themselves (“Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros”). While the duo’s plainspoken comedy always goes down easy (no better than on “The Most Beauitful Girl (In the Room)”), what really impresses is the band’s breathtaking knowledge of pop music past, from the Ravi Shankar shoutout on “The Prince of Parties” to the OK Computer-nod on “Robots” to, of course, “Bowie”. People came for the comedy but stayed for the songs, which had far more shelf-life than anyone would have ever guessed. (Fun Fact: their The Distant Future EP, from a year earlier? Totally won Sub Pop their first-ever Grammy, if that can be believed.) Evan Sawdey
From out of the Smell in downtown Los Angeles and into the Sub Pop royalty category, here is where No Age arrived. Nouns, the noise-happy duo’s 2008 debut, is only 30 minutes long and you can’t really distinguish most of the lyrics, but that’s enough—the guitars speak for themselves, crunching (“Cappo”), pummeling (“Teen Creeps”), bleeping (“Things I Did When I Was Dead”), and accomplishing various other onomatopoeias with equal abandon. In sound and spirit, Nouns is a flashback to the fuzz and noise of Sub Pop’s ‘80s glory years that works equally well with the 2000s indie crowd. Zach Schonfeld
While Sub Pop is known for its grunge beginnings, by the end of the introductory decade of the double aughts, the label had become host to another brand of scruffy looking, flannel-esque types, just more in the folk-rock vein with Pacific Northwest band Fleet Foxes. The group’s debut album was startling, full of folk rounds (“White Winter Hymnal”) and pseudo a cappella musings (“Oliver James”) that were breathtaking in their beauty. Perhaps the album’s greatest highlight, though, is the Beach Boys-esque homage “Quiet Houses”, with its soaring sad melody and melancholy SoCal vibe. In truth, however, there isn’t a bad song on the disc. While the band has moved into more difficult terrain that is almost as equally compelling (Helplessness Blues), Fleet Foxes was a breath of fresh oxygen and a breezy compilation of 11 songs that you couldn’t help but fall in love with and hit repeat on. By 2008, Sub Pop had more than moved on from grunge in sound, though perhaps not look, and Fleet Foxes was the proof in the pudding. Zachary Houle
There’s nothing especially shocking about Teen Dream. Upon its release in spring 2010, it simply felt like the record we all sort of knew the Baltimore duo was capable of making all along. The basic ingredients were already there—the thin, ghostly keyboard textures, Victoria Legrand’s smoky vocals, the nods to shoegaze—but here, suddenly, they arrived fully formed and grander, shaped by the band’s richest production yet. That the album’s songwriting is in top form, from the lush, fluttering “Norway” to the achingly pretty “Take Care”, helps, too. With 2012’s Bloom, Beach House showed that they’ll keep drawing on Teen Dream, but they may never top it. Zach Schonfeld
Digable Planets’ Ishmael Butler may have renamed himself as Palaceer Lazaro to front thorny hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces, but the reinvention on Black Up goes well beyond titles. After the jazzy, smooth record digging of Digable Planets, this record is a much choppier cross-stitching of music and culture. Lazaro and partner Tendai Maraire made us rethink virtually everything about what hip-hop could be, meshing electronic ambience, dark spaces, skittering samples, afrobeat touches, and, yes, somewhere under there, the smooth experimentalism of jazz. Over these tricky, shifting compositions—chief among them “Free Press and Curl”, “Youology”, and “Recollections of the Wraith”—Lazaro has never been more incisive, raising questions about the very culture he seeks to imagine (“Things are looking blacker, but black is looking whiter,” he says on “Youology”). Black Up is a new picture of what music can do as an indictment of the old deals made between art and commerce. It’s a masterpiece and the hip-hop album on a label known more for its guitars than its beats. Matthew Fiander
Hard to believe a band that’s equal parts Jesus Lizard and Drive Like Jehu would find a place in 2012, but it’s a testament to Metz’s visceral force (just hear “Knife in the Water” as it revs up) and razor-sharp songwriting that they’ve done so. That’s not to mention guitarist Alex Edkins scuzzy riffs, which linger entirely on the verge of collapse, or his vocal tantrums—unhinged as they are, they never lose track of the songs themselves, which rarely tip the three-minute mark because they simply don’t have to. “We try to take everything we do and make it redline,” Edkins told Pitchfork last year, a spirit that seeps into the band’s skinned-knee production techniques and their bracingly intense live show. Zach Schonfeld