On The Record: 20 Years In 20 Records. Or 21. Whatever.
Back in April, Sub Pop Records celebrated either its 20th or 25th anniversary (or maybe its 27th?), depending on who’s counting. It was cause for much celebration and even a bit of confusion, and not just because no one seems to be able to agree on just how old the label really is. This is typically Sub Poppian.
Started first as a ‘zine in the early ’80s, then inching closer to label-tude with the release of a compilation back in 1986, and finally becoming an actual record label (with an office and everything!) in ’88, Sub Pop has grown against pretty much all odds, surviving and thriving thanks to a little bit of luck (or a lot), a complete lack of a business plan, and a stated — if jokingly so — goal of “world domination.”
There have been boom times and bust times, and just about every single kind of time in between. Sub Pop went from being the “grunge” label — the hottest name in the game — to being the label no one wanted to be associated with in less than six years, and then it nearly went out of business. Then it didn’t, and since the dawn of the new millennium (how dramatic!) it’s flourished once again, posting gains in a time when most labels are complaining that the sky is falling and the seas are boiling. Times are good in Sub Pop Nation.
And if anyone can appreciate this, it’s Megan Jasper. After all, she started as the receptionist at Sub Pop back in 1989. She was there for the good, the bad and the ugly. She’s the one responsible for creating the great “grunge speak” hoax that fooled The New York Times back in 1992. She remembers Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell bumming around the SP offices. She also remembers paychecks from the label bouncing during the lean years. She was fired because there was no money to pay her. And she was rehired. Now she’s Sub Pop’s executive vice president. This, too, is typically Sub Poppian.
This weekend, Jasper and her co-workers will celebrate the label’s 20th (that’s the official tally) anniversary, with a typically understated affair. They will throw concerts at Seattle’s Marymoore Park (and in most of the city, for that matter), where bands old and new will play. The city is posting SP’s iconic black-and-white flag atop the Space Needle. Label owner Jonathan Poneman just threw out the first pitch at a Mariners game. World domination does not seem all that inconceivable at this point.
So, to mark this occasion, I flew out to Sub Pop’s offices in Seattle to do a news piece and talk to the people who made the label what it is today. While I was there, I marveled not just at the photo booth and the beer machine in the kitchen (cans of Rainier, 75 cents!), but at the warehouse, which was stuffed full of iconic and amazing records that shaped not just my youth, but the fortunes of the label as well.
And Jasper was nice enough to guide me through it all … stopping in the warehouse to pick out her 20 favorite (and most important) Sub Pop records. (Check out some MTV News staffers’ favorites in the Newsroom blog.) We figured it was a good way to showcase the label’s impressive back catalog and pay tribute to the acts that have gotten Sub Pop through the past two decades. It was also a good way for me to fatten up my record collection.
Jasper’s picks are below, along with my impressions from listening (or, in most cases, relistening) to them all. Also, even though she was supposed to pick 20 albums, Jasper went ahead and picked 21. How typically Sub Poppian of her.
A landmark not just because it’s the debut EP from one of grunge’s “big four,” but also because without Soundgarden, there’d probably be no Sub Pop. Back in ’86, Poneman, who was working as a radio DJ, caught a SG show, had some cash and wanted to put out their album. So at the insistence of guitarist Kim Thayil, he approached Bruce Pavitt, who had been releasing cassette tapes and comps as part of his “Subterranean Pop” ‘zine. The two joined forces, and with Poneman’s $20,000 investment, they started the label. And the rest, as they say, is history. As for the EP itself, well, there’s plenty of yowling from frontman Chris Cornell, plus the debut of Thayil’s famed “Drop-D” tuning and a recorded sermon from a 1950s preacher that producer Jack Endino found at a Seattle garage sale. Also, according to legend, opening track “Hunted Down” was the song you’d hear when you called the SP offices and were put on hold — meaning hundreds of creditors were kept at bay by the tune’s heavy riffage while Pavitt and/or Poneman scrambled to find some cash. The power of proto-grunge at its most practical.
‘Honey frontman/maniac Mark Arm basically invented the so-called “Seattle Sound” with his previous band, Green River, but looking for something more (in his words, “a band that actually liked to practice”), he formed Mudhoney and blew everything up once again. Their debut single, “Touch Me I’m Sick,” is probably the single greatest grunge anthem of all time (seriously), all fuzzed-out guitars and tape hiss and Arm’s way-out wails. And on Superfuzz, they only honed their, ahem, craft. So we get big, lurching numbers like “Mudride” and “No One Has” (the guitars on the latter actually sound like they’re drunk on Schmidt Beer, a local favorite based on its potency and, well, its cheapness); the heavy fretting of “In ‘N Out of Grace”; and “If I Think,” a tune that basically spawned every “let’s slow it down for a minute” song for the next decade.
Perhaps you’ve heard of these guys. Taking the murky bludgeon of Mudhoney, stripping away some of Arm’s machismo and adding some rather subtle pop flourishes, Nirvana’s debut is as self-assured as anything they’d accomplish later, if not a little bit snottier. As the back of the album brags, er, states, Bleach was “recorded in Seattle … for $600,” though you’d never know it from the genuinely pretty “About a Girl” or the gnarly “Negative Creep.” Sure, there are moments when Cobain (or, sorry, per the liners he’s “Kobain” here) sounds like a bantamweight trying to flex his way out of a fight — like on “Love Buzz” — but there’s no denying that there’s something in his voice (of course, that could just be hindsight hearing it for me). I’m probably not alone in thinking that, either. With sales of more than 1 million copies, Bleach is not only Sub Pop’s biggest seller to date, but also its only release to be certified as platinum.
Thee Headcoats’ Heavens to Murgatroyd, Even! It’s Thee Headcoats! (Already) (1990, SP #82)
Brit Billy Childish was Jack White back when White was still upholstering chairs and calling himself John Gillis, and this is him at his garage-y finest. With the help of his Headcoats (and his all-girl Headcoatees), he serves up a lightning-quick retroist romp, complete with hissy, temperamental production and pipelined guitars for days (album closer “Rusty Hook” is quite possibly the greatest White Stripes song not written by the White Stripes). The entire album never gets much deeper than lines like “Treat yourself with respect/ Be a Headcoat man,” but, hey, that’s still plenty sage for me.
Tad’s 8 Way Santa (1991, SP #89)
Brutal, bludgeoning stuff from mountain man (and man-mountain) Tad Doyle, a former butcher who tipped scales and dropped jaws back in the early ’90s as the frontman/mastermind behind Sub Pop’s heaviest act. And Santa is Doyle at the height of his powers, in more ways than one. Taking its name from a type of acid blotter and featuring buzzing odes to meth-stained truckers and drunk driving, it’s a big, dumb and dirty album, one made only bigger (and, quite possibly, dumber) thanks to the lawsuit that resulted when the subjects of its original cover — a tube-topped woman and a heavily mustachioed man who had recently become born-again Christians — sued Sub Pop for using their images without their consent. (Doyle claimed he found the photo of the couple at a thrift store.) All copies of the album were forced to be destroyed, and a new cover image — featuring the band standing next to some livestock at a county fair — was used instead. Re-reading this paragraph again, it’s obvious to me that Tad was way more awesome than I remember.
His first solo record (1990′s The Winding Sheet) featured Cobain on backing vocals, and his full-time band (Screaming Trees) was one of Seattle’s finest, but it’s this, his second solo effort, that showcases Lanegan at his best. Recorded over a three-year period (sessions were so grinding that at one point, Lanegan nearly tossed the masters into a nearby lake), Whiskey is an intense listen, filled with beautifully sinister, nocturnal music. Songs like “Kingdoms of Rain” and “Beggar’s Blues” echo with churchly organs and somber cellos, while Lanegan’s voice pours over it all like Dewar’s over ice. Genuinely beautiful stuff and an album that foreshadows the latter part of Lanegan’s career, working alongside the likes of Josh Homme and Isobel Campbell.
The Vaselines’ The Way of the Vaselines: A Complete History (1992, SP #145)
Seriously screwy, supremely screwed-up indie pop from a pair of clever Scots. Formed on a whim, the Vaselines — Eugene Kelley and Frances McKee — released a pair of EPs and one full-length in the late ’80s (all of which is collected here) then split up for no apparent reason to do nothing in particular. Cobain was a huge fan of their skewered work, covering a pair of songs (“Molly’s Lips” and “Son of a Gun”) on Nirvana’s odds-n-sods collection Incesticide, and then — more famously, perhaps — during the band’s “Unplugged” performance (doing “Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam”). A gleefully warped record, one that only seems to be about three things: sex, bicycles and Jesus. Oh, and drugs too.
An honest-to-goodness indie-rock classic, Bakesale is full of heart-stopping (or, alternately, heart-breaking) songs of doubt, fear and loathing — both of yourself and your fellow man. Masterminds Lou Barlow and Jason Lowenstein are in top form throughout, from the beautiful “Dreams” and the Slint-y “Sh– Soup” to the jangly “Give Up” and the classic “Rebound.” And it’s not as wussy as you might expect — OK, it sort of is, but at least the guitars sound plenty heavy.
By now, you probably know the drama surrounding this one — mercurial frontman discovers religion, breaks up the band before album is released, leaving other members high and dry (or in the Foo Fighters) — and all that you’ve heard about LP2 is correct. But also consider that it’s a colossal achievement, one that positively redefined stop/start (and loud/quiet) rock and paved the way for a new musical movement a decade later. Over the course of nine songs, guitarist Dan Hoerner arpeggiates and creates walls of crisp, clean sound, while the rhythm section of Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith chug and prod each other along. And frontman Jeremy Enigk’s eerie voice weaves through the din like a serpent ducking into holes. Songs like “8″ and “Iscarabaid” are both epic and minute, macro-detailed and wide-angle huge. “8″ gets positively stratospheric thanks to Hoerner and Enigk’s interplay, and “5/4″ rocks harder than any song about Jesus should be allowed to.
The Spinanes’ Arches + Aisles (1998, SP #417)
For all the electronic bleep-bloop, spy-movie guitars and bossa-nova beats contained therein (truly, producer John McEntire’s tech-y touch is all over this one), Arches is, at its core, a singer/songwriter album, one featuring the razor-sharp lyrics of frontwoman Rebecca Gates (OK, so it also sounds like a Stereolab side project). Witness her deft observations on tunes like “72-74,” where she plots revenge with a Mont Blanc pen on “your mustachioed mad man,” or “Love, the Laizee,” which laments the “seersucker pressure” of a former lover.
The Murder City Devils’ In Name and Blood (2000, SP #497)
Ah, the lean years … when records like this were tossed out by the floundering label with the hope of latching on to something — anything. The Devils’ third album is like a pulp crime novel brought to screaming life — booze, sex, ashtrays overflowing with butts galore. And then there are the liner notes, which feature gory and detailed crime-scene photos of the bandmembers’ rather unique demises (hanging, blunt trauma, “abdominal goring with a broken bottle”). Plus, a cover of Neil Diamond’s “I’ll Come Running.” If this record were released today, there is at least a 50 percent chance these guys would be Hot Topic godheads.
Oh, enhanced cash flow. James Mercer and his band of merry retroists ambled in from the desert surrounding Albuquerque, New Mexico, with an armload of sunny, amiable jangle-pop (the kind of stuff brooding 25-year-old sitcom-stars-turned-writer/directors just love) and Sub Pop found new — not to mention profitable — life. Of course, you know “New Slang,” but there’s plenty of gold here (“Weird Divide,” “Know Your Onion!”) and songs like “Your Algebra” and “The Past and Pending” (you know, the ones after “Slang” that you never listen to) only hint at the more nocturnal territory the band covered on last year’s Wincing the Night Away.
By everyone at Sub Pop’s admission, this one just sort of fell into their laps, and some 900,000 copies later, it’s the second biggest-selling album in the label’s history. And no one seems to be able to figure out why.Intended as nothing more than a one-off collaboration between Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard and producer Jimmy Tamborello, Give Up has instead taken on a life of its own, and while it’s difficult to listen to a song like “Such Great Heights” these days and not think of an ad for UPS, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some genuinely great moments on the album. Like when “Such Great Heights” bursts open with flourishes of mini-orchestras, or the split-second break in “We Will Become Silhouettes” or even closer “Natural Anthem,” where everything comes unraveled in five short minutes. If anything, the album is really a testament to the skill of Tamborello, because if there’s a vocal effect, drum pattern, synth flutter or low-end frequency he doesn’t use on Give Up, I haven’t heard it.
Sleepy lo-fi folk made by a bearded dude from Miami. If there’s any indication of just how much Sub Pop has changed over the course of 20 years, this is it. The debut disc from the majestically hirsute Sam Beard, Creek came out of nowhere to earn near-universal acclaim. And it’s not difficult to see why. Full of twinkly banjo (“Promising Light”) and rusty slide guitar (“Faded From the Winter”), it’s a remarkably accomplished introduction to the world. Full of scratches and pops, the screeches of fingers on frets and hushed lyrics, Creek is just as warm as I can presume Beam’s beard gets during those balmy South Beach summers.
From the opening claptrap of “You Are a Runner, I Am My Father’s Son” (herky-jerky piano, crashing cymbals, Spencer Krug’s bizarro falsetto), it’s clear Wolf Parade are zooming toward something — you’re just not quite sure what. And while the voyage is nice — “Modern World,” “Grounds for Divorce” and “Shine a Light” are all pleasant diversions — you know when you’ve arrived: with the blaring synth notes and pounding drums of “I’ll Believe in Anything,” a song that builds and crashes over and over again, creating great peaks of cymbal crashes and huge waterfalls of guitars. It’s glorious, like 10 vistas or a dozen mountain ranges. And then, it’s over, and the rest of the trip is kind of a bummer. But still, dude, that view from the top!
Love as Laughter’s Laughter’s Fifth (2005, SP #659)
LAL mastermind Sam Jayne has made a rather amazing anti-career out of not really trying all that hard, first as a guest on Beck’s One Foot in the Grave album, then on a pair of K Records releases of his own. And that, uh, talent is on ample display here. There’s an awful lot of wide-eyed, delightfully scruffy stuff here, from the opening track “In Amber,” which sounds like a Heartbreakers’ B-side and features a line about the Pauly Shore flick “Encino Man,” and the truly excellent “Corona Extra,” a lover’s lament that boasts gently plucked acoustic guitar and a cheesy “crashing tide” sound effect. Effort is overrated anyway.
The final chapter in the career of one of America’s finest bands, The Woods represents Sleater-Kinney at the brink. Recorded in the dead of winter at Dave Fridmann’s Upstate New York studio, it’s an album of quiet claustrophobia and less-than-quiet rage. They sound crazy and pissed off at their surroundings and each other, which is why we get feedback heavy freak-outs like “Wilderness” and the raging, 11-minute “Let’s Call It Love.” That S-K decided to call it quits after the album’s release was probably pure coincidence, but it certainly casts a deathly pallor over the record now — like hearing a star collapse into itself, only with more distortion.
Strummy, spacey, sepia-tinged indie rock to purchase SUVs to (or “crossovers” or whatever they’re called). South Carolina-bred Ben Bridwell does his roots proud, and there’s a homespun warmth to everything on the record. “The Funeral” put them on the map, but it’s far from the only great tune here — “Wicked Gil” is a stomper, “The Great Salt Lake” is a My Morning Jacket castoff and “Weed Party” is awesome because it sounds like the kind of song you’d make after attending a weed party.
Squealing, abrasive, unapologetic noise punk from the pride of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Frontman Matt Korvette yowls his throat out on tracks like the sludgy “People Person” and the thrashing “Secret Admirer,” plus there’s odes to scrapbooking (that sound like they’re being sung by the devil), ice cream and yuppies who play fantasy football. These guys are the future — or just the unruly bastard children of Mark Arm.
Flight of the Conchords’ Flight of the Conchords (2008, SP #715)
Faux French new-wave ballads, goofy synth-pop songs, tired “lover-man” tunes aplenty — ladies and gentlemen, the full-length debut from the Grammy-winning comedy duo Flight of the Conchords! I am not the best person to write about this one, as I detest “funny” music (my favorite track here is probably “Au Revoir,” since it’s only 21 seconds long), so let’s just move on, shall we?
The Gutter Twins’ Saturnalia (2008, SP #761)
An album more than three years in the making, full of morose and melodramatic ruminations on life, death and the afterlife, by Lanegan and former Afghan Whigs lothario Greg Dulli. If you like the dark and desperate places the Whigs (who, I’m just now noticing, are strangely missing from this list) went, or the windswept desolation of Lanegan’s stuff, well, then you probably already own this one. Songs like “Idle Hands” and “Circle the Fringes” are somber, eerie affairs, while album-closer “Front Street” is gorgeous, desperate and swooning. Basically, there are about 1 million emotions going on here … none of them rosy. But what else would you expect from the Twins?
Questions? Concerns? Platinum plaques? Send ‘em to me at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.