No cultural institution in Seattle has had the international impact of Sub Pop Records. From its grunge origins to its wonderfully eclectic current stable of standout artists, the record label has helped define the sound of the city for three decades. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Sub Pop is hosting SPF 30, a free all-day outdoor concert at Alki Beach this Saturday, Aug. 11. While it’s sure to be a madhouse, the lineup is worth braving the crowds: Mudhoney, Father John Misty, Shabazz Palaces, METZ, clipping., Beach House, LVL UP, Bully, and more will rock the beach starting at noon.
To celebrate 30 years of Sub Pop, we’ve attempted to pick the best song the label put out every year (the only rule was limit one song per artist). (We even made a Spotify playlist, if you’re into that kind of thing.) We’re sure your picks would be different, but at least we can all probably agree Sub Pop’s output is monumental.
1988: Mudhoney – “Touch Me I’m Sick”
A defining opening salvo. “Hi, we’re Sub Pop. We’re loud, rambunctious, and a little gross. Meet our friends, Mudhoney.” After all these years, Mudhoney is still going strong, and “Touch Me I’m Sick” remains arguably the band’s most beloved tune—a snarling, fuzzed-out blast of absolutely filthy garage rock (grunge, if you will).
1989: Nirvana – “About a Girl”
There is no way to tell the story of Sub Pop without the pre-fame brilliance of Nirvana’s Bleach. While the album highlight’s the band’s raw punk spirit, what makes Nirvana legendary is Kurt Cobain’s otherworldly ability to embed undeniably catchy pop melodies in his noise. “About a Girl” is the best pre-Nevermind example of that element.
1990: L7 – “Fast and Frightening”
“She’s fast, she’s lean, she’s frrrightening” doubles as as the chorus from this standout Smell the Magic track, and an apt rallying motto for L7 as a band. The fem quartet’s take-no-prisoners hard-rock attack is evident from the opening rapid snare roll and the slide guitar revving to the thunderous chunky chords and Donita Sparks’ screeching vocals. This song could beat up your favorite song.
1991: The Reverend Horton Heat – “Psychobilly Freakout”
Any aspersions that Sub Pop was only a grunge label were always ridiculous. Sub Pop has always given space to various niche genres. (Tangent: Do you know how many instrumental albums the label has put out? It’s waaaaaaaay more than you remember.) While just short of being an instrumental, the lightning-quick rockabilly guitar shredding and wild-man hollers by The Reverend Horton Heat on “Psychobilly Freakout” deliver a live-wire electricity that still stands out.
1992: Beat Happening – “Sleepy Head”
While the heaviness of Northwest grunge was garnering international attention, bands like Olympia’s Beat Happening continued to plod away crafting lo-fi twee gems like You Turn Me On’s “Sleepy Head.” With a tonally light palette of no-frills indie-rock guitar and straightforward beats, Heather Lewis’ soft, unassuming lyrics express feelings of an aspirational yearning for something more that’s hindered by a lack of mutual effort—a dreamy tune for those who refuse to wake up.
1993: Fastbacks – “Believe Me Never”
Compared to sub-two-minute songs that make up much of Zücker, “Believe Me Never” (3:03) basically feels like a power ballad. But Fastbacks make the most of this “long” runtime on this infectious pop-punk ditty, cramming in a barrage of power chords, a vocal breakdown, multiple guitar solos, and just enough lyrical bile from Kim Warnick (“Believe me never, hate me forever”).
1994: Sunny Day Real Estate – “Seven”
While bands like Rites of Spring laid the groundwork, it’s not a stretch to say that Sunny Day Real Estate’s “Seven” is the most seminal emo song, boasting a more complex angular start-and-stop musicianship than other emo pioneers, their hallmark soft/loud dynamics, and Jeremy Enigk’s ultra-emotive singing and songwriting, it’s a genre-defining masterwork that doesn’t feel dated almost a quarter-century later.
1995: The Hardship Post – “New Wave”
Canadian alt-rock act The Hardship Post’s Somebody Spoke served as its only LP, but there’s goodness to be found for those who dive really deep into the obscure corners of Sub Pop’s discography. “New Wave,” the album’s opening track, builds on a relatively clean-toned, herky-jerky guitar riff and Sebastian Lippa’s crackling vocal warble to set the table for an underappreciated record.
1996: The Afghan Whigs – “My Enemy”
You can hear the venom in Greg Dulli’s voice as he throat-frayingly screams “Out of your mind, bent on revenge/To think I once called you my friend.” To put it bluntly, “My Enemy” rips. The instrumental flow from sinister, bouncy verses to frenzied pre-chorus to the calmer open space of the chorus makes the song from Black Love a masterclass in aggressive, unpretentious rock composition.
1997: Damien Jurado – “Space Age Mom”
It’s a given that Seattle singer/songwriter Damien Jurado can pen excellent bummer tunes, but the rare occasions when he loosens up and has a little fun can be stellar. “Space Age Mom” (from his first LP, Waters Ave S.) finds Jurado strumming jaunty chords, layering cheery backup pop vocals, and playing around theremin warbles while gleefully and sincerely singing about mom’s love of aliens, psychics, tofu hot dogs, and other endearingly crazy passions.
1998: The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Birthday”
“Birthday” (accurately) sounds like an exasperated band on the verge of a break-up, but in the best way possible. Well after its ’80s heyday, the Scottish rock outfit was on its last legs but still could deliver wonderful shoegaze noise with the swagger of a seasoned vet—encapsulated succinctly with the snarling chorus line “Yeah, I’m a mean #$%&@#&!@#$# now, but I once was cool.”
1999: Sebadoh – “Love Is Stronger”
This feel-awful love ballad focuses on our lying flaws, as Lou Barlow repeatedly, desperately insists that “love is stronger than the truth.” With the pace and hope-levels of crawling through a desert, the tune possess a palpable pain where accepting everything’s garbage feels like the best-case outcome.
2000: The Murder City Devils – “Rum to Whisky”
This booze-fueled garage-punk track from In Name and Home dwells in the darkest of seedy alleyways. Spencer Moody hollers about the sorrow of (self-inflicted?) love lost with the conviction of a stumbling over-served misanthrope as ominous keys creep around a wall of guitar noise.
2001: The Shins – “New Slang”
From the opening acoustic guitar fade-in and distant “ooo” vocals, “New Slang” feels like a benevolent specter from the past—haunting, but not here to hurt you. While the Shins and this song would take a couple years to find its mass audience (thanks, Garden State), upon arrival James Mercer’s delicate cooing delivered melancholy with a wistful grin, making the song feel permanently nostalgic in the best way.
2002: Hot Hot Heat – “Bandages”
One of the best, most energetic singles in Sub Pop’s discography, Hot Hot Heat’s “Bandages” is an blast of frenetic dance rock that sweats urgency. From the opening tom thumps to Steve Bays’s wailing nasal vocals and organ keyboard flair to Dante DeCaro’s angular guitar blitz, every element whisps the listener into a frenzy for thre and a half minutes. (Sub Pop Hot Take: My musical heart will never get over DeCaro leaving Hot Hot Heat and joining—the vastly inferior—Wolf Parade.)
2003: The Postal Service – “Such Great Heights”
Unabashedly sincere pop love songs might not be Sub Pop’s brand, but Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello created a perfect one with “Such Great Heights.” What other Sub Pop tune could be played as a Valentine’s Day singing telegram in public schools? The stereo staccato bounced of electronic bleeps, twitch beats, delightfully saccharine lyrics about matching freckles, and the sunniest vocal performance of Gibbard’s career lift the song to its titular heights.
2004: Iron & Wine – “Passing Afternoon”
Singer/songwriter Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine) knows how to convey bittersweet beauty of love in rich, hushed details. Via breathy, whispered words and gentle folk strumming, “Passing Afternoon” drifts through “our endless numbered days” with a contented ease—a longing for faded love, but not broken by it.
2005: Sleater-Kinney – “Modern Girl”
While “Modern Girl” starts in a place of carefree serenity distant from Sleater-Kinney’s origins, by the end the song finds its inner riot grrrl. Mirroring the path of a modern girl waking up to the cruelties of the world, the sunny guitar picking and Carrie Brownstein’s innocent, happy musings build to harmonica-tinged growls of hunger before eventually reaching a point of righteous indignation and anger in a distorted mess of fuzz.
2006: The Thermals – “A Pillar of Salt”
With the power of ripping melodic punk tunes, The Thermals’ The Body, The Blood, The Machine conjures an Orwellian nightmare of Christian fascism that rings as true and terrifying as ever. Things feel most vitally defiant when when Hutch Harris belts out the opening rally cry of “Pillar of Salt”: “We were born to sin! WE WERE BORN TO SIN!” With a pedal-to-the-metal pop punk punch, cries of survival never sounded more catchy.
2007: Arthur & Yu – “There Are Too Many Birds”
Hell yeah, I’m including Hardly Art entries in this list. The subsidiary label is responsible for many of the best releases under the Sub Pop roof over the past decade or so. (Don’t worry, I’ll still include a “proper” Sub Pop pick.) Hardly Art’s first release, Arthur & Yu’s In Camera, remains one of its best thanks to the dreamy folk-pop vocal combination of Sonya Westcott and Grant Olsen. Behind Westcott’s soft coo, “There Are Too Many Birds” floats through the air even more weightlessly than its titular winged creatures.
Sub Pop Proper Pick: Band of Horses — “No One’s Gonna Love You”
2008: The Helio Sequence – “Keep Your Eyes Ahead”
An effortless hopefulness permeates much of The Helio Sequence’s music, and “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” finds the rock duo at its most musically expansive and jubilant. Brandon Summers’ lightning-quick earworm of a guitar arpeggio immediately grabs the listener and loops throughout his projects to the heavens about forward momentum, but it’s Benjamin Weikel’s masterfully dynamic drumming that propels everything forward with a palpable joy.
2009: Handsome Furs – “Evangeline”
Comprising then-husband-and-wife duo Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry, Handsome Furs knew how to maximize the minimal. Over a simple electronic beat and synth bass swells, Boeckner peppered in just enough guitar to flesh out the sonic space as his voice wailed about an archetypal woman who left him high and dry.
2010: The Head and the Heart – “Rivers and Roads”
Seattle bred way too many indie-folk acts during this era, and none of them could match the melodic grandiosity of The Head and the Heart’s “Rivers and Roads.” Josiah Johnson and Charity Rose Thielen’s voices fit together like harmonic puzzle pieces as they contemplate love that no distance can keep apart, while the rest of the band employs a slow-burn approach taking the tiny sparks of acoustic strums and fanning the flame until thing reach an arena-filling emotional blaze.
2011: Shabazz Palaces – “Swerve… The reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)”
It’s fitting that Shabazz Palaces would place the most accessible song on its otherworldly debut album Black Up as the last track on the record. Gotta make people work for it. While still spacey, the beat on “Swerve…” doesn’t overwhelm the sonic structure, allowing the flow of Palaceer Lazaro and guest MCs THEESatisfaction do the heavy lifting. The trio’s rhymes dazzle with heady words about theorem rapping, soul energy, blackness, and dance-floor freedom.
2012: Father John Misty – “I’m Writing a Novel”
While less anthemic than “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” if one doesn’t understand the satirical rambling rock ‘n’ roll persona laid out in “I’m Writing a Novel,” then one probably doesn’t “get” Father John Misty. (And, oh, what a shame.) It’s a rambling psychedelic California rock barn-burner that gets every instrumental note right while lyrically picking apart the form’s drug-fueled hazes, starry-eyed idealism, and pretentiousness (after all, the narrator is writing a novel “because it’s never been done before”).
2013: Colleen Green – “Sock It To Me”
Colleen Green can turn out one-woman pop-punk tunes with ease, but she’s at her best when she slows things down and lets things get a little darker. The steady undercurrent of a menacing, plodding bass sets the scene for a very straightforward expression of how visceral and impactful an expression of love can feel.
Sub Pop Proper Pick: Low— “Just Make It Stop”
2014: S – “Brunch”
Cool Choices is the best breakup album in the greater Sub Pop family, and “Brunch” is the most cutting and heart-wrenching song of the lot. Over a crafty bed of arpeggiated indie rock, Jenn Champion shares achingly personal details of the pain exes can intentionally inflict upon one another.
Sub Pop Proper Pick: clipping. — “Story 2”
2015: Protomartyr – “Dope Cloud”
Protomartyr pummels. The Detroit quartet’s unrelenting rock is as bleak as it is brutal. Joey Casey’s dry refrain of “That’s not gonna save you man, that’s not gonna save you man” hits like repeated punches to the head, emphasizing the song’s themes of mankind’s futility, scoffing at the very notion of justice. The music matches the vibe, with the rhythm section’s pulse setting up anxious and strained guitar notes that feel like they could snap at any moment.
Sub Pop Proper Pick: Beach House — “Levitation”
2016: LVL UP–“Pain”
Vitriol might not be healthy, but we’re not going to act like it’s not natural or occasionally justified. LVL UP’s “Pain” slowly builds withering anger that stems from watching someone you love have their innocence stolen as the noise slowly cranks up. Things get unabashedly personal as Mike Caridi seethes “I hope you’re cold/I hope you grow old/And never find love.” It’s necessary and cathartic harshness.
2017: Dude York– “Tonight”
We’ve all dealt with the frustration of people wasting our time. “Tonight” is a blissful pop-punk middle finger to those folks with a chorus that feels like an anthemic release of all the pent-up frustrations that those situations build.
Sub Pop Proper Pick: Bully—“Feel the Same”