KEXP's Top 20 Barsuk Albums of All Time (1-5)


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.

5. Nada Surf - Let Go (2002 // bark029)

“I don't feel like I'm an exhibitionist or anything, but I do get a little thrill out of that kind of honesty,” Nada Surf songwriter Matthew Caws told me in an interview earlier this year discussing the 15th anniversary of Let Go. He was specifically talking about the standout, despondent anthem “Inside Of Love,” but it’s a maxim that rings true throughout the entire LP.

After being wrung through the music industry meat-grinder and enduring being pegged as a one-hit wonder thanks to their MTV co-signed track “Popular,” Nada Surf pulled themselves out of a rut and found a new home on Barsuk. While the angst-driven, over-driven guitars of their former selves still show-up sporadically throughout the album, it feels safe to say that Let Go showcases the band more tender and open than they’d ever been. It marked a new beginning, but also some of their sharpest songwriting yet.

Listening to Let Go feels like a collage of the quiet thoughts we keep to ourselves as we go about our daily lives. The cinematic sensation we feel when we hear the perfect song to capture the moment you’re living in (“Blonde on Blonde”), feeling distant and alone from everyone around you (“Inside of Love”), the darkness of an ending relationship coming in at last call (“Killian’s Red”), and the pathetic feelings we sometimes feel when we’re alone (“Fruit Fly”). There’s a reason why this album is so cherished by Nada Surf fans. It’s the one that feels most like the inside of our own heads. - Dusty Henry

Read our track-by-track interview with Matthew Caws on Let Go HERE.

3. (TIED) Chris Walla - Field Manual (1998 // krang005)

After years of helping mold and shape Death Cab for Cutie’s sound, Chris Walla finally debuted his own solo material on 2008’s Field Manual. The album doesn’t stray too far from the Death Cab aesthetic but Walla puts his own stamp on it with hushed, whispering vocals and hopeful rather than the sensitive sad-boy lyrics Gibbard tends to lean towards. As expected, the album is beautifully and impeccably produced with a warmth radiating from the perfectly layered instruments. Walla’s unique voice is so hushed that at times it blends perfectly amongst the guitar and keys, itself just another instrument rather than a leading force.
It takes repeated listens to fully appreciate Field Manual but it’s well worth the time. Like a cozy sweater, it’s something to put on for moments of comfort. We may never get another solo-singing Walla album, his 2015 follow-up Tape Loops was a Brian Eno-esque instrumental album, and I think that’s alright. Field Manual cured a lot of curiosity of what a solo Walla album would sound like and it’s something to treasure while the in-demand producer busies himself perfecting every indie band under the sun’s next hit record. — Jasmine Albertson

3. (TIED) ¡All-Time Quarterback! - ¡All-Time Quarterback! (2002 // bark026)

Leave it to the KEXP Content Team to vote this otherwise obscure early Barsuk release so high in the countdown. And, in a total coincidence, two releases by Death Cab for Cutie founding members have tied for third place! (It wasn’t planned — we let the votes lie where they fell.)

¡All-Time Quarterback! was a solo home-recording project of Ben Gibbard, dating back to 1999. It has it all. Lo-fi recording quality? Check! (These songs were captured via an old four-track and a Walkman with a built-in condenser mic.) Album artwork with the track listing banged out on a vintage typewriter? Check! (And was this photo of a guitar, ahem, ...xeroxed? Be still my heart!) Cover of a Magnetic Fields song? Yeah, Oh Yeah! (Well, it wasn’t that song but “Why I Cry.”) And unnecessary punctuation in the band name? ¡CHECK! Take my money, Barsuk Records! (And then book a tour with that dog., clipping., and Frente!, please.)

Sadly, ¡ATQ! was benched when Death Cab for Cutie started taking off. By the time he returned to recording alone, he was using his birth name (see: Benjamin Gibbard’s 2012 solo album Former Lives, available via Barsuk). While the original ¡ATQ! pressings on Elsinor Records are long out-of-print (and that’s a label whose whole catalog needs reissuing), Barsuk combined the cassette-only The Envelope Sessions release (cassette-only? CHECK!) and the self-titled 5-song EP into this deluxe reissue set, adding on the "Plans Get Complex" video in mpeg and quicktime formats. (The video cost them $6 to make. Seriously, check, check, check.)

All of this is why this is my personal favorite Barsuk release of all time: it’s so earnest and unabashedly naive, in a way that is downright endearing. There’s no pretense, no posturing, no trying to be somebody he’s not. It’s relatable. You’ve got $6. Why don’t you go make a music video? Don’t complain that you don’t have the means to get into a recording studio to create your songs. Head to Goodwill, get a used Walkman, and maybe you, too, can create something like The Envelope Sessions. And then maybe, you, too, will get so busy with your other band that you’ll abandon your home-recording project for worldwide stardom. — Janice Headley

2. David Bazan - Curse Your Branches (2005 // bark083)

“Why are some hell-bent upon there being an answer, while some are quite content to answer ‘I don’t know,” David Bazan sings on the title track to his debut solo album, Curse Your Branches. It’s a question that eluded him throughout his tenure fronting Pedro The Lion, a band that was often grouped in with Christian Music despite Bazan’s protests and lyrics that openly targeted the church. After he emerged with the Whole EP, on Christian rock label Tooth and Nail Records nonetheless, he came across as a believer who sometimes had a hard time believing – ultimately always finding his way back to the flock. With each new Pedro record, he seemed to slip further and further away. After ending the project, he’d release the combative Fewer Moving Parts EP under his own name. It was the darkest material he’d released in his career, shouting “What a cruel God we’ve got” on one track and admonishing right-wing fear-mongering on “How I Remember.” Savvy listeners could put the pieces together that maybe Bazan had left the faith, but it wasn’t until Curse Your Branches that he’d really upon up about the culmination of his not-so-spiritual awakening.

Curse Your Branches is often called Bazan’s “break-up album with God.” However, I think it’s a bit more than that. There’s no doubt that he’s making a proclaimed and prominent split with the faith he’s held onto for presumably most of his life, but a split like that isn’t just moving on to a new relationship. It’s a severing of your soul from everything you’ve known. The album feels like Bazan’s final prayer; a last conversation with the Almighty before acknowledging that he no longer felt there was an Almighty to converse with.

Bazan opens the album addressing the opening chapters of Genesis on “Hard to Be.” He gives a brief recap of a time the Bible describes as a painless era in the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve would be tempted by a serpent to eat the fruit of knowledge. After the opening salve, he interjects himself – “Wait just a minute, you expect me to believe that all this misbehaving came from one enchanted tree?” No longer is he just doubting as he would on Pedro The Lion records like Achilles Heel, he’s outright defying the judgment and validity of his would-be creator. When he says “you,” he could be talking to a universal “us,” but I always imagine him talking to God directly. Like, “Really dude? That’s the best you’ve got?”

All of Bazan’s years of faithful-following are on display, even as he breaks from his past. On “Bless This Mess” he mirrors of the Beatitudes from the Book of Matthew, inverting them from promises for the meek, wounded, and poor into a rallying cry for the tortured who see no hope. It also sees Bazan opening up about his own drinking problems, spurred by his existential crisis, a theme he delves into even more bluntly on the uncomfortably candid drunken pleas of “Please, Baby, Please.” (Fun fact: Father John Misty himself, Josh Tillman, sings backing vocals on both “Bless This Mess” and “Please, Baby, Please.”) There are repercussions to the way he’s lived his life and he wants to make that very much clear.

On the closer “In Stitches,” Bazan invokes the story of Job. Job was a faithful man of God who found himself put under trial by Satan himself, testing just how unwavering his beliefs really are. It’s a story that’s easy to mirror with Bazan’s, who opens the song lamenting the drunk he’s become and his daughter asking questions about God. This time when he says “you,” it’s undeniable who he’s talking to. And so with his final words on the album, he turns to the story of Job.

”When Job asked you the question
You responded ‘Who are you To challenge your creator?’
Well, if that one part is true
It makes you sound defensive
Like you had not thought it through
Enough to have an answer
Or you might have bit off
More than you could chew”

All that uncertainty, all those years doubting and wondering, finally come to a head. A final prayer and question, before he pulls himself away for good. - Dusty Henry

1. Death Cab for Cutie - Transatlanticism (2003 // bark032)

Not incredibly long before Seth Cohen, handsome geek prince of Newport Beach, proudly wore the cover art of Death Cab for Cutie's fourth album as his coat of arms, Transatlanticism was released to record stores as a bold step forward for the band. The clarity of the recordings was striking, the universality of Ben Gibbard's writing was searing. To some degree, the album's legacy as a generational milestone will always be inextricably tied to that of The O.C., but it's impossible to believe the album would have made it past the first round of music supervision and on the pages of the show's script if it weren't so emotionally resonant.

With a decade and a half of hindsight on its side, each of the album's songs can be pointed toward a specific person you've come across: Someone posting a YouTube link or Tumblr mp3 file of "The New Year" at 9:30 PM on December 31st, the couple softly singing the title track's refrain of "I need you so much closer" on FaceTime or Skype — or, when the album first came out, Yahoo Video Chat. With the exception of maybe two or three songs, each selection on Transatlanticism is a tentpole moment, a broadside reference for anyone within even a remote distance to indie-rock's solidification as a section of American youth culture. Anyone who says otherwise is just pretending to be cool.

Chris Walla's production was once Death Cab's secret weapon; here, it stood only behind Gibbard's songwriting as the band's main ingredient. Listen to the flourishes that pop up like fireflies over the low, gurgling synth and the slow thwack of Jason McGerr's drums on "Lightness." Or the ambiance which makes "Passenger Seat" feel like the final leg of an eighteen-hour drive. The bloom that extends through the second half of the deconstructed 60's prom ballad "Death of an Interior Decorator" gives the song its emotional swell, the light traffic washing over closer "A Lack of Color" — and the touch of echoing drone trailing along the end like a cloud of vapor — brings the album's themes of love and distance full circle.

Ben Gibbard writes in complete sentences on the album, delivering his songs in paragraphs rather than stanzas. The hyper-specificity which flourishes on works like Something About Airplanes and We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes are delivered sparingly and carefully here: stealing glimpses of a dress tear, how shooting stars and satellites look exactly the same when you're viewing the sky from a distance. He gets famously pissy about semantics on "Title and Registration" before getting to the emotional root of the song: We often stash random ephemera in our glove boxes and it pops up to remind us of distant memories. 

"We Looked Like Giants" is a song of sexual discovery — harrowing and dramatic — clumsily fucking in the back of a Prius or something, listening to Jesus and Mary Chain and reading to each other while flipping through the glossy pages of a magazine. Beta-bros singing the refrain of, "She was beautiful, but she don't mean a thing to me" notwithstanding, "Tiny Vessels" espouses a sensitive truth about most of us who have ever engaged in the ritual of dating. There has been a point in all of our lives where we have told somebody we loved them and didn't mean it, or meant it in a very fleeting moment of flawed instinct. 

Transatlanticism is a powerful slog through the depths of human relationships, and by the time Gibbard sweetly harmonizes with himself toward the end of "A Lack of Color" — drunkenly begging his lover to return to his life into an answering machine — it's all too to feel exasperated. Not because the album is so heavy with feelings it's difficult to listen to, but because you realize you've been carrying the weight of your own dissolved relationships through the album's running time. — Martin Douglas

View 6-10, 11-15, and 16-20, and then tune in tomorrow, Saturday, August 18th, as label co-founder Josh Rosenfeld joins DJ Sharlese on Audioasis.

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