When Bleach was released in 1989, few could've suspected it would be the album to define the entire decade of the '90s. The debut album by Nirvana captured a time and place (turn-of-the-decade Seattle), in the form of energetic, propulsive rock'n'roll that seemed a culmination of the ten preceding years. The best $606.17 recording budget Sub Pop ever shilled out for over, Bleach bleeds abhorrent attitude, beginning with the generation-defining anthem "Negative Creep." Where historical hindsight has it that the record was only a minor footnote until the success of Nevermind turned it into retroactive platinum, the reality is that Bleach was the culmination of the early, underground, garage-bound Sub Pop era.
No band has been more synonymous with Sub Pop history that Seattle's grunge reprobates Mudhoney, who've essentially served as the label's flagship band —or, perhaps, the one band that can't get rid of— from day ought 'til now. When the label initially unleashed Mudhoney's debut LP, Superfuzz Bigmuff, the righteous slab of wax effectively put grunge-rock on the map. Two years later, re-packaged to cotton onto the new craze of 'compact discs,' it was made even better with the inclusion of stone-cold-classic single "Touch Me I'm Sick." With Mark Arm screaming ridiculously over the top of the sludgy, Stooges-esque racket, it's Mudhoney's definitive jam: drunken, deranged, predisposed with vomit.
Sub Pop's first non-rocking signing was a radical one. New Yorker trio Codeine played spaced-out, slowed-down, opiate alt-rock at a snail's pace. As guitarist John Engle laid out sheets of oft-atonal guitar, bassist Stephen Immerwahr kept Codeine's flatlining pulse, playing plodding basslines and singing in a dispassionate monotone. Things like "Three angels/Holes in your socks" and "D for dishes/F for floors/Can't make the grade anymore." Lyrics so prosaic their simplicity became somehow profound; Immerwahr's eked-out syllables carrying the carefully-carved precision of a haiku. Pushing things from whisper quiet to in-the-red loud, Codeine birthed the slowcore sound, presaged Mogwai by half-a-decade, and made one mighty on-the-nod album.
Long before Wolf Parade, scrappy New Brunswick kids Eric's Trip (named, indeed, after a Sonic Youth song) were Sub Pop's first Canadian signing. Inked at the height of grunge mania, they came bearing the requisite distorted guitar sludge, quiet-to-loud dynamics, and thrift-store threads. But Eric's Trip were never built for big-time success in the alterna-crossover era. Where grunge peddled angst, self-destruction, and sarcasm, Eric's Trip were —for all their Dinosaur Jr-inspired guitar fuzz— sweet, romantic, and gently melancholy. Sure enough, the band's bassist, Julie Doiron, went on to release two solo LPs for Sub Pop —1996's Broken Girl and '97's Loneliest in the Morning— that are the quietest, frailest records to ever grace the label.
After being infamously booted out of Dinosaur Jr, Lou Barlow spent his days and nights recording a confusing smattering of lo-fi ditties, recorded under the alternating names of Sebadoh and Sentridoh. By 1994, though, he'd settled on the former, and Sebadoh had settled into a (semi-) permanent band built around Barlow and bassist/foil Jason Lowenstein. The ever-scrappy combo came of age with Bakesale, the band's best, most focused, most direct work. The record is a showcase for Barlow's biting songwriting, which veers between sarcastic blasts of noise and bruised, bloodletting balladry; cuts like "Skull" and "Magnet's Coil" classic lovesongs merely dressed in scrappy, indie-rock threads.
Thanks to the shifting tides of history, Sunny Day Real Estate's electric debut LP has to wear an honor that, with each passing year, seems more and more like a millstone: for many, Diary is the album that catalyzed, crystallized, and truly kicked into life the emo movement. It bears no stylistic similarity to the eyeliner-caked Leto-ites of the current emo era; instead, Jeremy Enigk and crew leant on lessons taught by pioneers like The Hated and Embrace, and played punk music that wore its heart proudly on its sleeve. A righteous slab of emotive riffing, exuberant shouting, and quiet/loud balladry, Diary still attracts a cult-following today; not simply for historically-minded emo kids, but for any fan of massively anthemic alt-rock.
Out of place and out of luck in the mid-'90s, Rhode Island's Six Finger Satellite toiled in near-obscurity, barely able to drum up anything more than a small, cult following despite their signed-to-Sub-Pop status. The Providence combo's post-punk-inspired marriage of twitchy guitars and blobby synths ran counter to popular alternative movements of the time, but budding acts like The Rapture and Les Savy Fav took notice, adopting Six Finger Satellite as influential role-models. John MacLean's subsequent solo success as disco-punk dance act The Juan MacLean —not to mention the proliferation of tight-pant'd post-punk posses that arose in the mid-'00s— showed that Paranormalized was simply an album that arrived ahead of the pop-cultural curve.