Scroll down to find out more about their anniversary shows, including an all-day party on Alki. james the stanton

After 30 years, Sub Pop Records has become as emblematic of Seattle culture as Starbucks, Amazon, and Microsoft—only without the corporate baggage that sometimes makes those companies feel like enemies of freedom.

Against the odds, the label has thrived. How? Who knows? They signed a diverse array of interesting artists, they kept their scale reasonable, and they turned self-deprecation into a shrewd marketing device. Their motto: "Going Out of Business Since 1988." Their T-shirt: the word "LOSER" in huge letters. That Sub Pop became a winner while wearing "LOSER" on its chest says a lot about the past few decades of American culture, and even more about the courage and savvy of a few smart, diligent people.

Here we celebrate its genius and scratch our heads at its missteps. Just to be nice, we'll start with the good stuff.

15. Signing Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney

These are so obvious, it's almost cheesy to include them, but no list of Sub Pop successes would be accurate without them. In case you've been Rip Van Winkling it since Reagan's second term, the label signed and released the first records by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and many other bands that started out as underground chancers and wound up as internationally beloved legends. Thus, the label briefly made Seattle the epicenter of rock and youth culture (and arguably hastened the city's demise, but don't blame the music for that). Sub Pop's greatest hits are among the greatest of all hits, even if they weren't technically hits. Years later, the label would release actual hit records by the Shins, the Postal Service, and Fleet Foxes.

14. Pranking the New York Times

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Megan Jasper's "Lexicon of Grunge" prank—in which the label employee improvised a bunch of fake local slang (e.g., "Harsh Realm") while on the phone with a reporter and got it printed in the New York Times—always gets a nod on lists like this, and rightfully so, forever. Her stunt was in keeping with Sub Pop's ironic, absurdist, often hilarious institutional voice. (See also: the motto, the T-shirt, the liner notes to The Grunge Years compilation, cofounder Jonathan Poneman's spot-on impression of Negative Approach/Laughing Hyenas singer John Brannon, etc.) Punk and indie labels traditionally lean toward abysmal self-seriousness. So does Seattle music culture. Sub Pop's willingness to be silly even when a reporter from the New York Times is on the phone may be the secret to its ability to endure. Jasper later became the label's general manager.

13. Hiring graphic artist Lisa Orth to design the logo

In an age where no one seems to mind the overuse of the word "brand" or the misuse of the word "iconic," Sub Pop's improbably simple logo—designed by the great Seattle graphic artist Lisa Orth using two rectangles, two colors, four carets, and five letters—is a titan for the ages. Having long since represented the label's aesthetic sensibility while also signifying certain personal affinities, the Sub Pop logo is as important to the identity of the Pacific Northwest as Mount Rainier, and just as likely to outlive us all.

12. Creating the Sub Pop Singles Club

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The ingenious subscription service known as the Sub Pop Singles Club (1988–93) occupied the precise intersection of "of" and "ahead of" its time. Curated with care, shrewdly art directed, and above all available only to a limited number of people, the club bridged Sub Pop's fanzine past with its record label present, perfectly illustrated the scarcity principle of economic theory, and, oh yeah, dished up off-canon (pre-canon?) songs by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Shonen Knife, Unrest, Unsane, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Fugazi, Tsunami, Velocity Girl, and many others. But not too many. Club revivals in 1998 and 2008 failed to replicate the success, probably because the world was already past saving.

11. Immortalizing the poetry of Steven Jesse Bernstein

Sub Pop's only foray into poetry was one for the ages. Released in 1992, Prison—featuring poems that Steven Jesse Bernstein grimaced into existence while Steve Fisk provided the ideal film-noir-jazz/easy-listening/triphop soundtrack to them, after the fact—remains one of the most interesting anomalies in the label's vast catalog. Bernstein was a brilliant, dark presence in Seattle's poetry scene who earned the respect of William S. Burroughs, Oliver Stone, and Kurt Cobain, among many others, before killing himself in 1991. A bard of urban squalor and comprehensive self-deprecation, Bernstein created unforgettable scenarios with a pitiless eye for humanity's basest instincts.

10. Digging gems from the modern psychedelic underground

Heron Oblivion's self-titled 2016 album proved that even at this late date, Sub Pop still had its ears tuned to the psychedelic-rock underground. A favorite among heads who know what the deal is, Heron Oblivion consist of players from sonic explorers such as Comets on Fire, Espers, Sic Alps, and Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound. This debut full-length morphs from the fiery to the flowery with the flip of a heroic mane of sweaty hair, alternately gnarling into Zuma-era Neil Young territory and ambling into verdant fields of UK folkadelic giants Pentangle and Fairport Convention. Add fellow Sub Pop acts Goat and Morgan Delt to Heron Oblivion, and you have a strong mind-expansion department.

9. Making space for brutal and the cacophonous

Six Finger Satellite is a prime example of Sub Pop taking a risk on a band that was ahead of its time. The Rhode Island bros' four Sub Pop albums and one EP from the 1990s have proved to be enduring and influential documents of aggressive, synth-informed rock. For people who liked their rock brutal and cacophonous, Six Finger Satellite were the next evolutionary leap. They featured John MacLean—who went on to produce great house music for DFA—on guitar and keyboards and the cantankerous J. Ryan on Steve Albini–esque vocals. A reissue campaign is overdue.

8. Doing hiphop correctly

Sub Pop doesn't mess with hiphop very often, but when it does, it aims high. Shabazz Palaces rank among the most innovative hiphop acts of the 21st century, always evolving, always surprising, always enigmatic. Their four albums form an irrefutable statement of sleek, cryptic audio-lyrical futurism that universities should be teaching in liberal-arts curricula until further notice. Another hiphop gem Sub Pop polished and thrust into the limelight is clipping. (yes, that's how it's written out), a clique of sonic and verbal mavericks who include Daveed Diggs of Hamilton fame. The result is something like a horndog yet socially conscious Boots Riley rapping over Wolf Eyes B-sides—clipping. are so out of step with what's popular, they might as well be Venusian.

7. Allowing Steve Fisk to do whatever the hell he wants

The Stranger Genius has appeared on Sub Pop's timeline in many guises (as a producer, solo artist, half of Pigeonhed) and is responsible for many of its most fascinating releases. In 2001, Fisk dropped 999 Levels of Undo, an album of unclassifiable electronic music that couldn't be marketed easily or danced to with facility. Yet for heads who crave maverick studio manipulations and disruptive rhythms, 999 Levels of Undo was a revelation. We've been waiting in vain for its follow-up ever since—but in the interim, Fisk largely has been busy making other musicians sound fantastic as a producer.

6. Raiding the lost archives

Record labels aren't always good at history lessons, but Sub Pop has always done it right. With the 2012 box set the Aberrant years, the label did the world a huge favor by collecting the über-obscure releases by feedtime, one of Australia's most important and punishing rock bands. (It's probable that superfan/Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm—who also works at Sub Pop HQ—nudged the label into doing this.) Whatever the case, feedtime do but two things, but do them very well: ram-rodding, bass-heavy rock that makes the Stooges sound scrawny and slow-boiling, glowering rock that makes Black Sabbath sound anemic. This sort of underdog championing elevates Sub Pop to Nobel Prize worthiness. (See also: the recent U Men compilation, The Way of the Vaselines, The Essential Radio Birdman 1974–1978, and a slew of killer reissues over the years.)

5. Incubating a scrappy little sister label

The latest in a line of savvy, scrappy Sub Pop subsidiary labels, Hardly Art Records has emerged as a valuable incubator of bands. Many of them are Northwest-based and femme-centric and doing interesting things on a noncommercial level, with the potential for much wider popularity (e.g., Tacocat, La Luz, Protomartyr, the Moondoggies, and others). The people who run Hardly Art—Sarah Moody, Jason Baxter, and Matt Kolhede—have maintained high quality control and a consistent sonic identity without being too pigeonhole-able. All they need now is a catchy, self-deprecating marketing strategy...

4. Giving Jeremy Enigk more real estate

As the pressure of unforeseen success and exposure caused Sunny Day Real Estate's implosion, the band's young lead singer/guitarist Jeremy Enigk retreated from the spotlight. Then he emerged with Return of the Frog Queen, a miniature masterpiece that marries English folk and American punk, orchestral chamber pop and progressive rock, surrealism and pastoralia. Released in 1996 and, bafflingly, somewhat obscure even today, Frog Queen nonetheless became one of the secret pivot points for 1990s indie music—away from the forced smile of "alternative" culture and toward the more eccentric, inward-facing posture that would define the coming decades.

3. Enabling the transfiguration of J. Tillman into Father John Misty

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For years, Josh Tillman cut a dour, brooding figure, playing agonizingly bleak songs with titles like "This Jealous Blood" and "Casualties." (See also: the J. Tillman LP Cancer and Delirium.) Fast-forward a couple of years—during which he played drums in Fleet Foxes, and presumably learned what it's like when you play music people enjoy—and Tillman emerged from an LA chrysalis as the louche, hedonist heartthrob who headlines festivals and burns through TV screens singing catchy, caustic songs to an audience that may or may not know or care that they're being implicated. It's nice work if you can get it.

2. Sniffing out future cult classics

The Sub Pop discography is littered with undiscovered gems by bands that briefly seemed like candidates for next-big-thing status before getting swept away by the pop-culture tide—but not before making the one lowercase-p perfect album every band believes is in them. (See also: Hazel, Pond, Jale, the Grifters, Red Red Meat, Spinanes, and others.) For example: Despite having the worst cover art of all time, the second and final Zumpano record, Goin' Through Changes, is a melancholy masterpiece that stands comfortably in the space between the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle and singer/songwriter Carl Newman's subsequent band, New Pornographers. Start there.

1. Catching pop moments just before they happen

Everyone knows Sub Pop is synonymous with the late-1980s/early-1990s g-word explosion. But what about a decade or so later, when records by the Postal Service, the Shins, Fleet Foxes, Iron and Wine, Band of Horses, and the Thermals set the definitive tone for 21st-century indie pop v. 1? With strong recent releases by Frankie Cosmos, Kyle Craft, Bully, and nearly everything on the Hardly Art label, it seems plausible that they might be on the verge of doing it again.


15. Selling a 49 percent stake to Warner Music Group

The case for selling in 1995 was probably easy to make: a huge influx of the cash the label was (in)famously always short of, a muscular distribution and promotion engine, and a strong claim to biz legitimacy. But the case against included more than just the indie optics that were so much more significant at the time. To wit: The deal led to a period known as "the dark years," which involved the departure of ingenious cofounder Bruce Pavitt, an attempted internal "coup" against remaining (and differently ingenious) cofounder Jonathan Poneman, conspicuous firings, and a general sense of what corporate America refers to as "mission drift." The boat righted itself, of course, and even in the immediate aftermath, they never stopped releasing great records—and plenty of shitty ones, too. But even if it was ultimately the smart move, the Warner Music Group deal indisputably marked the end of something special.

14. Signing Memoryhouse

This 2010s group sounds like another Sub Pop artist, the similarly named Beach House, but blander and less melodically adept. It's a common record-company ploy to try to replicate big successes, but signing Memoryhouse contradicts Sub Pop's legacy of embracing many styles rather than chasing a "trademark" sound. That Memoryhouse released only one album, 2012's The Slideshow Effect, suggests the label realized the error of its ways.



13. Let us never Spoek of this again

It was bold for Sub Pop to sign South African electronic artist Spoek Mathambo, but he was just too niche and his music too confusing to find a substantial audience. Ergo, Mathambo's 2012 album, Father Creeper, sank to the ocean's bottom without causing a ripple. Unfortunately, the world just wasn't ready for Sub Pop to be championing "Township Tech." On the upside, you can likely find Father Creeper for cheap. On the downside, Sub Pop's shelves are surely groaning with unsold copies and taking up valuable space that could be holding Beach House LPs.

12. Packaging Jessamine's 7-inch single like that

Jessamine's 1994 7-inch, "Your Head Is So Small, It's Like a Little Light"/"Soon the World of Fashion Will Take an Interest in These Proceedings" was housed in wonky packaging that took forever to open and would damage any records stacked next to it, thanks to the bolt that held everything in place (shades of the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers zipper cover). However, the songs themselves are stellar examples of spacey psychedelic rock from one of the greatest Seattle bands about which most people have sadly forgotten.

11. Paying artists late

Everyone thinks they know everything about the way record labels work, despite hardly anyone knowing even one single thing. However, the times (and the faltering labor movement) have conspired to make it harder to laugh along with Sub Pop's reputation for not paying royalties on time.

10. Signing Wolf Eyes

Michigan's Wolf Eyes are a great noise band, but they proved not to be a copacetic fit for Sub Pop. Further, moving to such a big indie likely alienated Wolf Eyes' hardcore following of dudes prone to sneering at any musician who has the audacity to sell more than 500 copies of a release. Nevertheless, you can likely find the group's two cataclysmic Sub Pop LPs, Burned Mind and Human Animal, selling for 99 cents in used-CD bins across the country. (Don't settle for lousy streams when listening to the cream of the noise scene, people.)


9. The Plexi fiasco

Who knows what the truth really is, but the rumors at the time were that Sub Pop, which was cash-rich from its $20 million deal with Warner Music Group, spent more money than it had ever spent signing and launching Plexi, an aggressively mediocre, generic AF Los Angeles glam rock band that was gone in less than a year. To paraphrase the late Robin Williams on the subject of cocaine, Plexi was god's way of showing a record label it had too much money.

8. Showing the world a Cat Butt

As if the name weren't enough of a giveaway, Cat Butt just may have been the Insane Clown Posse of grunge... but without the commercial potential of those suburban Detroit rappers. You may not be shocked to learn that the tiny discography of Cat Butt—the 1989 EP Journey to the Center Of—is not on Spotify.

7. Failing to make "world music" happen

Next Ambiance, a sub-label headed by Jon Kertzer— former host of KCMU/KEXP shows The Best Ambiance and WoPop—was poised to be Sub Pop's "world music" subsidiary, but it only released three solid records by Debo Band, Aurelio, and Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba (the latter's I Speak Fula earned a Grammy nomination) in three years, before folding in 2012. What happened? Two things: Kertzer moved to Canada to teach ethnomusicology at the University of Alberta, and sales were insufficiently robust. As Kertzer said in an interview, international records used to regularly sell in the 20,000 to 100,000 range, but during his imprint's existence, those numbers decreased. It's a sad state of affairs, but Kertzer remains proud of the material Next Ambiance issued.

6. Releasing those not-funny comedy records

For indie labels to release comedy albums seemed like a natural progression, especially since comedy has come to occupy such a central place in the consciousness of the kind of youngsters who used to enjoy music. And Sub Pop is a famously funny label. But with the exception of Patton Oswalt's Werewolves and Lollipops and Jon Benjamin's indisputably brilliant Well, I Should Have..., it's a bunch of very funny people (David Cross, Sarah Silverman, Eugene Mirman) at their not-best, and also Flight of the Conchords.

5. Signing CocoRosie

From its proto-Snapchat, WTF cover art to its dilettantish dabbling with non-Western sonic elements to the twee-est rapping and singing ever (the Cassady sisters make Joanna Newsom sound like Lemmy), CocoRosie's 2010 album, Grey Oceans, comes across as a befuddling stain on the Sub Pop catalog. Something about their demeanor on record and onstage made CocoRosie seem like they were trying way too hard to be "transgressive." You could discern the calculation in every vocal trill and canned hiphop beat. Luckily, it was CocoRosie's one and only Sub Pop release.

4. Green (and red) lighting Jon Spencer's holiday single

Christmas music sucks, generally speaking, and not even Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at their 1992 peak could make their Sub Pop Christmas 45 "Big Yule Log Boogie"/"My Christmas Wish" sound like anything other than an awkward, shticky embarrassment. Whatever your feelings about holiday music, though, copies of this limited-edition single sell for $15 to $20—which is more indicative of the desperation of completist Jon Spencer fans for scarce product than it is of the songs' quality.

3. Occasionally finding Jesus

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You don't tend to see Sub Pop stars embroiled in sex or drug scandals, but every few years, you'd start hearing blasphemous rumors that someone—Jeremy Enigk from Sunny Day Real Estate was the first, then Eric Matthews, Damien Jurado, Kelley Stoltz, some portion of Fleet Foxes, the Head and the Heart, and others—was mobbed up with the conservative evangelical Christians who were eagerly trying to annex and ruin the local music scene. Not that religious faith is inherently reprehensible (just play along), but these microscandals made people feel like a defiantly secular world was under attack.

2. Trading away receptionist Mike Nipper

It's true that when The Stranger and Sub Pop swapped receptionists in 1995, they gained the great Anna Woolverton. But we got Mike Nipper, and we still do, and you can have him when you pry him from our cold, dead fingers.

1. Letting Sebadoh headline their eighth-anniversary party

The evening of Thursday, April 11, 1996, should have been triumphant, but instead it illustrated the weird in-betweenness of Sub Pop's post-boom years. Headliners Sebadoh were then considered to be the label's biggest prospect for breaking through. They made incredible records, but they were always a hit-or-miss live band. Their headlining set at the label's eighth-anniversary party—mere months before the release of the album that was to be their "crossover," Harmacy—proved to be a legendary, and seemingly intentional, meltdown witnessed by hundreds of influential biz people with long memories (and no apparent desire to see a random drunk guy plucked out of the crowd to sing lead on "Gimme Indie Rock"). Let us hope the 30th anniversary show goes a little smoother. Mudhoney are headlining.