Sub Pop isn’t the only Seattle-based label enjoying a landmark anniversary this month. 20 years ago this Saturday, Barsuk Records was birthed into our collective music conscious and became a hallmark institution for indie rock in the Northwest and beyond. Over the last two decades, Barsuk has shared astounding releases from artists like Nada Surf, Phantogram, The Long Winters, David Bazan, and – oh yeah – Death Cab For Cutie. (In fact, the release of Death Cab’s debut Something About Airplanes is the official birthdate of Barsuk!)
The label’s official anniversary is this Saturday, August 18th, and KEXP is counting down 20 of our favorite releases from this remarkable label, as voted on by KEXP's Digital Content team with support from DJ Sharlese, host of Audioasis. Tuesday through Friday, we’ll be breaking down five different albums. Then, tune in on Saturday to hear Barsuk co-founder Josh Rosenfeld on Audioasis with DJ Sharlese, talking about the label’s history and playing songs from the Barsuk catalog.
In 2010 Phantogram released their debut record Eyelid Movies, a trip-hop influenced synth pop slow-burner. The duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter burst onto the scene in 2009 with lead single and album opener “Mouthful of Diamonds,” arguably the album’s best song. With a ripping guitar riff and angelic vocals from Barthel, the dark track wears its Portishead influences on its sleeve. “Dark” feels like the most apt, if not most simplistic, descriptor of the album.
Eyelid Movies was perfectly crafted for nighttime listening, with its noir-ish atmospheric layers and brooding undercurrents. “When I’m Small” and “All Dried Up” are other highlights off the album. Phantogram works best when Barthel takes the lead on vocals. She’s able to take the songs to Chairlift heights while Carter builds a world of anxiety, fear, and isolation around her powerful vocals. Over time, the duo has learned this, making Barthel the sole singer for the majority of their output since Eyelid Movies. Thinking of where the band are now, playing 3,000 cap venues and every major festival under the sun as well as collaborating with major players like Big Boi and The Flaming Lips, is strange when you listen to Eyelid Movies. The isolating album doesn’t really seem fit for stadiums or for attention from mainstream artists. It’s weird and disarming and, at times, beautiful but mostly feels like an anxiety-ridden dream where you’re trying to run or jump or speak but you can’t. Scary and agitating perhaps but as soon as the alarm goes off and the album’s over, you hit snooze five more times to return to it. – Jasmine Albertson
My first favorite band that got me into the PNW scene was Death Cab for Cutie. I remember the first album I bought was We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes and I thought it was the album of a lifetime. I got an advance copy and I remember going to The Crocodile and singing all the words with my friend Hiromi, and Ben was like, "how do you know all the words to this??” Anyway, I was obnoxious about it, to say the least.
Of course not long after I got my copy of Something About Airplanes and that... that album triumphs because… well, it's just the best and only a true DCFC fan will understand what I'm talking about or maybe it's up for discussion… — Sharlese Metcalf
Weird confession, but for the longest time (as in “until just this year”), I thought the album title was I, SOLID Gold — like I, Claudius, but instead of an autobiography of a Roman god, a declaration of personal connection to the ‘80s TV show of musical and dance performances. (C’mon, look at that album artwork!) But, no, it’s not about spandex leotards; it’s about commerce and heavy minerals. I apologize to all the KEXP DJs who’ve back-announced it properly but still got a skeptical side-eye from me.
What began as a one-man home-recording project by Tulsa’s David Terry (aka I, Aqueduct himself) became a pop phenom when Terry relocated to Seattle. Keeping in the close-knit Barsuk tradition of recommendations, it was Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock who turned Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie on to Aqueduct, who then, in turn, introduced it to Barsuk's Josh Rosenfeld. You can’t get a better chain of praise than that. Apparently, a mere 12 hours after his cross-country move here, Aqueduct was already opening for Modest Mouse at The Showbox.
And while I Sold Gold may not have received the Recording Industry Association of America Gold Record certification, it sure did strike riches upon its release in 2005. The track "Hardcore Days & Softcore Nights” was used in an episode of FOX TV’s teen drama The O.C.. (Fun fact: Aqueduct-approvers Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie both appeared on the show, too.) And Terry (now with a full band backing him) was invited to perform the single "Growing Up With GNR” on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. Aqueduct’s quirky synth-heavy sound proved worth its weight in… y’know. — Janice Headley
On his fifth full-length, John Vanderslice (aka one of the nicest guys in rock) teams up with one of the greatest songwriters of our time, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. (Vanderslice produced two of TMG’s LPs; Darnielle returns the favor on lyrics, credited as "Edited, Expanded And Otherwise Improved Upon By.") The results couldn’t be anything other than awesome.
While certainly not a concept album, many of the songs on Pixel Revolt reference the September 11 attacks. "So the second plane hit at 9:02 / I saw it live on a hotel tv, talking on my cell with you,” he sings on "Exodus Damage.” The song "Radiant With Terror” repurposes lines from "FALL 1961,” a poem by Robert Lowell, inspired by the Cold War.
Less like an album, and more like a collection of interspersed short stories, Pixel Revolt stands as the strongest album of Vanderslice’s career, and an example that while he’s a strongly sought-after producer, he’s also an impeccable artist in his own right. — Janice Headley
Death Cab's watershed second album is the type of full-length that inspires nostalgia even on its first listen. The steady heartbeat of opener "Title Track" which only rises slightly by its climax. The way the countermelody that kicks off closer "Scientist Studies" cascades backwards over the main guitar line, the way the song crescendos to its roaring, distorted climax. The chiming slowcore of "Little Fury Bugs." the seamless fusion of that subgenre, the still-burgeoning "Northwest indie" guitar interplay of Built to Spill, and glockenspiel (a masterful garnish of pop melancholy) on "No Joy in Mudville." The smooth, eternally boyish voice of Ben Gibbard; sounding like he's singing you to sleep even when his words are spiteful. The unfortunate distinction -- good as the song is -- of "Company Calls," forever being known as merely the prelude to "Company Calls Epilogue."
And the production -- oh, the production here! -- showcasing Chris Walla's inventive ear for detail and love of texture. The highs, the lows, the little flourishes which appear and disappear; never to return, like the drunk and overly affectionate friend who kisses you on the cheek at a house party and fades back into the jumbled crowd of people standing with Solo cups.
Jack Kerouac and weak bandwidth signals. Postcards from the Eastern Bloc, imbibing wedding figurines like shots of tequila. Rearranging the furniture while a lover sleeps, feeling the pressure of being unemployed in a new city. A long drive for someone with nothing to think about, hitting Chicago and deciding to stay for the night; buddies scribbling your name on a piece of paper and putting it in their pockets in order to remember or be reminded. Standing in a suit, watching a car drive away with your ex in it, JUST MARRIED scrawled on the back windshield. And certainly, blinding summer drives from Seattle to Bellingham -- the ephemera of cigarettes and red wine hidden under the patio deck, the favorite shirt "on the floorboard wrinkled up/From pulling, pushing and tasting."
We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes is a definitive statement of what it's like to be in your twenties, stewing and shifting -- and yeah, wallowing a little -- in heartbreak. Sifting through the wreckage and craning your neck to observe the contours of the buildings still standing. – Martin Douglas
KEXP continues the Top 20 Barsuk Albums countdown tomorrow with albums 10 through 6. Check out 20 through 16 here.