Sub Pop became famous as the breeding ground for the early-90s alt-rock revolution, home to the biggest bands of the grunge-era bands. Music changed fast, though, and Sub Pop struggled near the end of the decade to find their footing again, with WEA (Warner Elektra Atlantic) taking a substantial minority stake and making some cross-label promotional deals that didn’t seem like a bad idea, but didn’t really help Sub Pop’s long-term creative prospects. All that changed around the turn of the millennium, with a new generation of talent forging original and somehow familiar sounds. There have been many quality releases by the label since 2000, but these are some of the very best. I’ve combined multiple releases in some cases, and left off others when they didn’t quite hit the heights.
10. Band of Horses – Everything All The Time (2006) / Cease To Begin (2007)
A slightly more grounded My Morning Jacket or more spacey Built To Spill—either way, nothing to change the world, but really nice vibe-y, hook-filled, atmospheric rock songs with restrained country influences. Now doesn’t that sound good?
9. Twilight Singers – Dynamite Steps (2011)
Sub Pop released a couple of early Afghan Whigs records and this is singer Greg Dulli’s first time back with the label since then, and it is his best post-Whigs work. Alternately propelling and seething, these songs paint dusky scenery around Dulli’s soulful, unpredictable vocal.
8. Beach House – Teen Dream (2010)
Not precisely the sunny pop music that the name suggests, but not exactly dark, either. Maybe it’s the music of the summer twilight, lying near the fire after you’ve had a few, staring toward the fading ocean. Yes, that’s exactly it.
7. Hot Hot Heat – Make Up The Breakdown (2002)
Hot Hot Heat has the goods that many of their contemporary New Wave revivalists lack—rock, soul and melody. Only Franz Ferdinand could match them for style, energy and swagger.
6. Rogue Wave – Out Of The Shadow (2004)
They’ve released another record on Sub Pop since, and it’s quite good, but Out Of The Shadow has a meandering magic that can’t be matched.
5. Blitzen Trapper – Furr (2008)
If Neil Young was a young dude starting an indie rock band, and was listening to The White Album a lot, I imagine it would sound a good deal like this. This is far more unique that I just made it sound. I’m sorry. Check it out. (And check out the interview we did with Blitzen Trapper this week!)
4. Eugene Mirman – En Garde, Society! (2006) / God Is a Twelve-Year-Old Boy With Asperger’s (2009)
Patton Oswalt – Werewolves And Lollipops (2007)
David Cross – Shut Up, You Fucking Baby (2002) / It’s Not Funny (2004)
Flight of the Conchords – S/T (2008)
This is a music blog, so I don’t want to fill it up with comedy albums, but the quality of these records is so high as to merit at least one spot. (Of course, Flight Of The Chonchords is mostly music…) Cross’ albums are particularly brilliant pieces that are so completely of their time—I don’t mean to say that they are dated, they just reflect the popular and political culture of the day in the way that the best comedy does. Shut Up, You Fucking Baby is the record I will always go back to for some of the best and somehow funniest reflections on what will certainly be remembered as the truly bonkers aftermath of 9/11, when the United States collectively lost our minds. Now back to the music:
3. Death Vessel – Stay Close (2005) / Nothing Is Precious Enough For Us (2008)
Providence’s Joel Thibodeau is Death Vessel. Moving away from the somewhat traditional bluegrass pop of his former band, String Builder, he recorded Stay Close, which was ultimately re-distributed by Sub Pop in advance of Nothing Is Precious Enough For Us. Thibodeau toured mostly solo in support of the latter, and his extra-high and clear voice is something to hear in any context, but the fully fleshed-out arrangements on these records bring the songs to lush realization.
2. Beachwood Sparks – Beachwood Sparks (2000) / Once We Were Trees (2001)
What a great band. The first record is more faithful to Parsons-era Byrds, and the songs are just fantastic, but the big bang (for my buck, anyway) happens with the spaced-out genius of Once We Were Trees.
1. The Shins – Oh, Inverted World (2001) / Chutes Too Narrow (2003) / Wincing The Night Away (2007)
“Oh, increased cash flow,” said Sub Pop VP Megan Jasper when recalling some of her label highlights. The Shins are the band that heralded the new era at the label, shooing away the post-grunge vulture-creditors and helping define a particular aesthetic that threads together many of their top acts. Each of these three releases is a beautiful listen, from spooky to bright to majestic, respectively.
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