It is general consensus that grunge has been dead for some time now; the advent of so-called “post grunge” being the primary evidence, alongside Chris Cornell’s collaboration with Timbaland and the oft-noted deaths of Kurt Cobain and — for all of those old school purists — Andrew Wood. All things considered, the scene that was spawned from something of an anti-scene in the ’80s is about as dead as some claim punk has been since post ’94. The fans of grunge still hearken back, even as they age and opt to put trash in the can instead of kicking it. Those who look back far enough will find an obscure compilation album originally released to vinyl in December of 1988 by label Sub Pop (who has amongst its alumni The Shins), a record that may have been the second in a series but remains the first in hearts of fans — the bleak, fuzzy distortion of nostalgia that is Sub Pop 200.
This collection spans the gamut of everything we could consider to be grunge. It promotes the derision of its respective generation and genre, and it avoids clean production, aiming instead to pierce the listener’s very soul through kamikaze audio chaos like a skeleton behind the stick of a fighter jet. Sub Pop 200 covers everything, from the early, pre-Grohl days of Nirvana on masturbation anthem “Spank Thru” (re-released on Nirvana’s With the Lights Out box set) to Cobain favorite Mudhoney and its truly epic track “The Rose”; from Burroughs-inspired spoken word poetry to blues-tinged alternative. Granted, this compilation is in its own right an acquired taste for most, but anyone who really appreciates songs of self-loathing and angry dispositions can at the very least relate to something on this record. The broadest appeal might sit with the more famous names present in the track listing, particularly Mudhoney and Nirvana; luckily, once you’ve started listening, it’s hard to ignore the brilliance of varied bands that are practically unknown nowadays.
Sub Pop 200 opens on a thudding note with Tad’s “Sex God Missy”, which if played sped up, could serve as an excellent backdrop to any car-chase scene through rundown city streets. Tad being a band whose vocalist contrasts against the higher wails of most bands in the mainstream, this group never really expanded too far beyond the West Coast, but keeps a devoted following to this day. Beyond this we get a double slap of very ’90s alternative in a late ’80s scene — The Fluid plays its role with “Is It Day I’m Seeing?”, and the always recognizable Nirvana chimes in on the infamous alt-meets-country send-off “Spank Thru”. In all honesty, I could draw multiple parallels to “Spank Thru” and a few Faith No More songs from The Real Thing, but anyone who is a fan of both would claim these similarities are self-evident.
Next up from the school of Burroughs, we have Steven Jesse Bernstein with his spoken word inclusion, “Come Out Tonight”. The ultimate predecessor to the likes of Lewis Black, Bernstein might stand out on this record, but with this comes a great responsibility that he sticks to vehemently. There is a passion here, as if some kid with a Walkman recorded a poetry night in Seattle one evening, before suddenly realizing he had captured a true generational moment, distributing it to the world via Sub Pop 200 and treating said compilation as a time capsule. “The Rose” by Mudhoney and “Got No Chains” by The Walkabouts follows this up magnificently, trading in total chaos for mind-altering epics that precede Alice In Chains and the like with love and conflicted edge. Both songs could be hailed as prized possessions in each respective band’s catalog no question.
Terry Lee Hale of Texas debuts on Sub Pop 200 with the melancholy jangle of “Dead Is Dead”, a precursor to the likes of The Violent Femmes. Hale has been making records on into 2007, but remains memorable on this charming song introduced by Sub Pop, even after his move to Paris. Early Soundgarden comes to the forefront afterward with “Sub Pop Rock City”, and for anyone whose idea of Soundgarden is strictly Superunknown, prepare yourself for a drastic change in venue as this features Cornell pre-harmony. He comes off as a raw banshee with no remorse, and his vulnerability and the band’s honesty play off each other wonderfully. Green River, forefathers of Pearl Jam and Mother Love Bone, introduce the song “Hangin’ Tree”, a staple grunge tune with no need of introduction at all; elements of classic rock, surf, and punk make appearances here in a way only grunge music is capable of.
If one were to analyze the rest of this album in absolute depth, we could be here for hours on end. Screaming Trees’ “Love Or Confusion” is Jimi Hendrix and Sonic Youth in a blender; Fastbacks’ “Swallow My Pride” predates Sleater Kinney and shows how chicks rock too; Swallow’s “Zoo” is grunge on speed with a glaze of Sex Pistols; “Split” by The Nights and Days is rockabilly grunge at its finest (think “Kill The Prez-O-Dent”); the phenomenal sound engineer Steve Fisk lets his freak flag fly on “[Untitled Track]“, a song that could rival any mix by a modern day producer with Bollywood flair and alt rock drums a la Mogwai. If you can look at things like Time Life Collections or Now, That’s What I Call Music! after hearing Sub Pop 200 and keep a straight face, it is likely you were born after 1990 and could care less about grunge and the origins of alternative or “college” rock.
Most compilations are either hits catalogs of a single artist finishing off a contract with said party’s label, labels squeezing some extra life out of a long-since-vacated act, the sordid reward for late night infomercial bargain hunting, or, on a more beneficial note, an introduction for a new listener to some noteworthy songs by an unfamiliar artist. Nowadays, a greatest hits compilation has little place in the age of piracy, and mix discs (or mix tapes for you old school people) are a dime a dozen. There was a time when underground movements had a charm about them, passing out demo 45s and hoping to get noticed. When grunge first broke out of the cage, we could sense the end would eventually come, and it did. Sub Pop 200 is a relic to some, a treasure to fans, and proof to all how vastly varied the simple art of alternative really was — no two artists sound exactly the same, and while some of them never achieved the success of Nirvana or Pearl Jam, this record can always be revisited and remind us that the truest and most honest rock stars are not born or made.
They are just like you and me, scraping a living and making a masterpiece without a single care beyond the ripe age of twenty-something.