Buyer's Guide: How to buy the best of Sub Pop
US label Sub Pop became the beating heart of grunge in the late 80s and 90s – and adapted to live on into the 21st century
There aren’t many record labels with as much personality as Sub Pop. Less a business than a state of mind, it began life in mid-80s Seattle as a fanzine edited by Bruce Pavitt (it was originally titled Subterranean Pop, and gave away compilation tapes of local underground bands), and grew to become the refreshingly snark-infused, ultra‑DIY figurehead of the city’s burgeoning grunge scene. It provided a springboard for Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney, among others, and established its dysfunctional family as the heart and soul of the city’s musical awakening.
But while their logo remains synonymous with “this primal rock stuff” that would become tagged as grunge (the term ‘grunge’ gained traction after Mark Arm of Green River, and later Mudhoney, used it to describe his music, although he denies coining the phrase), Sub Pop have adapted over the years to survive – sometimes, admittedly, by the skin of their teeth – the evolution of American indie rock after the 90s explosion began to lose its heat. In fact, so varied, extensive and consistently good is their roster, we’ve had to be painfully strict about our choices for the main sections here – no singles (despite excellent one-off releases from Babes In Toyland, Shudder To Think, Cheap Trick, Les Savy Fav and a stereo mix of The Beach Boys’ I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times), no comedy albums (even though there’s genius to be found from stand-up David Cross and musical comedy duo Flight Of The Conchords) and no compilations (but really, do track down Sub Pop 100 and Sub Pop 200 for a spectacular snapshot of a particular time in US punk rock). And even then we’ve had to miss out truly brilliant albums by bands including Codeine, Sunny Day Real Estate, the Postal Service and the Gutter Twins, simply because it’s physically impossible to cram it all into just these two pages.
The Sub Pop motto is: “We’re not the best, but we’re pretty good.” Which is a typically Sub Pop, typically Seattle way of bursting their own bubble and avoiding their own hype, keeping them grounded and focused on the simple goal of releasing the best music they can find. But they are up there with the very best, and the records we’ve recommended here are a timeless reminder why.
Mudhoney – Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988)
Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm was there right at the beginning with Green River, but it was Mudhoney (who he also fronted), with their debut Superfuzz Bigmuff that truly defined both the Seattle sound and Sub Pop’s manifesto.
The deathless Touch Me I’m Sick takes The Stooges’ garage-punk blueprint and smears it with even more grime. ‘Production’ is pretty much non-existent, feedback and tape hiss reign supreme, but as Arm wailed sardonically over earth-shifting basslines a rallying cry went out to a generation.
Twenty-eight years later, Mudhoney are still loyal to the label, and still making a magically filthy racket, but Superfuzz Bigmuff is their defining moment.