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Top 20 Sub Pop Albums

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For the first decade or so of its existence as a full-time record label, it seemed that Seattle's Sub Pop Records was going to be synonymous with grunge. Sub Pop were key chroniclers of the fertile Seattle scene in the late-'80s and early-'90s, and were an early breeding ground for Soundgarden and Nirvana. After a decade living down grunge hype, a funny thing happened in the '00s: Sub Pop going from faded alt-rock stalwarts to insanely-successful enterprise. It's been a long and varied story over the label's 20+ years on the job, but the music has been routinely awesome. Here, then, are 20 of the best Sub Pop LPs.

1. Nirvana 'Bleach' (1989)

Nirvana 'Bleach'
Sub Pop Records

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.

2. Mudhoney 'Superfuzz Bigmuff Plus Early Singles' (1990)

Mudhoney 'Superfuzz Bigmuff Plus Early Singles'
Sub Pop Records

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.

3. Codeine 'Frigid Stars LP' (1991)

Codeine 'Frigid Stars LP'
Sub Pop Records

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.

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4. Eric's Trip 'Love Tara' (1993)

Eric's Trip 'Love Tara'
Sub Pop Records

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.

5. Sebadoh 'Bakesale' (1994)

Sebadoh 'Bakesale'
Sub Pop Records

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.

6. Sunny Day Real Estate 'Diary' (1994)

Sunny Day Real Estate 'Diary'
Sub Pop Records

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.

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7. Six Finger Satellite 'Paranormalized' (1996)

Six Finger Satellite 'Paranormalized'
Sub Pop Records

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.

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8. Saint Etienne 'Good Humor' (1998)

Saint Etienne 'Good Humor'
Sub Pop Records
Few remember that soft-pop heroes Saint Etienne were once signed, Stateside, to Sub Pop. And, if they do, it's usually as symbol of how this one-time staunchly local, independent label lost its way in the late-'90s. Yet, whether Good Humor is even associated with Sub Pop is immaterial: they pressed up copies of one of the great albums by the eternally-underrated Londoners, and that's what we're here to laud. Tripping off to Tore Johansson's studios in Stockholm, Saint Etienne shelved their acid-house/disco fixations for an album steeped in vintage soul; all rich piano chords, sugary strings, pushbeat bass, and Sarah Cracknell's golden-girl vocals. The insistent melody of singalong single "The Bad Photographer" still persists 'til this day.
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9. Damon & Naomi 'With Ghost' (2000)

Damon & Naomi 'With Ghost'
Sub Pop Records
Former Galaxie 500 rhythm-section Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang had already crafted a couple of tender, melancholy LPs for Sub Pop by the time they hooked up with Japanese hippies Ghost. It proved a blessed union: Michio Kurihara's deft, glistening guitar playing bringing out the psychedelic heart beating deep within Damon and Naomi's normally-restrained acid-folk. The resultant, resplendent album finds nine gently numbers glowing with the warmth of newly-blown glass; none more beautiful than Yang's impassioned reading of Nico's Tim Hardin-penned "Eulogy to Lenny Bruce." A follow-up live-album/road-movie, 2002's Song to the Siren, was maybe even better, crowning an underrated run of impressive artistry for an oft-forgotten Sub Pop signing.
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10. The Shins 'Oh, Inverted World' (2001)

The Shins 'Oh, Inverted World'
Sub Pop Records
No one knew it then, but The Shins' debut LP effectively marked the start of a new era at Sub Pop; where the musically-lean days of the late-'90s would give way to a unbridled, unexpected success in the next century. The Albuquerque-born combo didn't seem likely types for unit-shifting success; they were, really, an unpretentious indie-pop outfit. But James Mercer's songs were really good; and if Oh, Inverted World wasn't an all-killer first effort, its irrepressible high-points —"Caring Is Creepy," "New Slang," "Know Your Onion!"— peaked really high. In the new online-centric era of the new millennium, The Shins' found a solid following that grew slowly, until that really bad Garden State movie expedited their rise to the big-time in 2004.
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