When you pick up a record from Kill Rock Stars, you might have little idea what you're going to hear, but you know what you're going to get.
Since it launched in Olympia, Wash., the year punk broke—and pretty close to the month—the label has prided itself on placing substance above style, emphasizing leftist political principles over any easily placed musical aesthetic. As such, the label provided an early home for many of the most vital acts to come out of the Pacific Northwest that, viewed together, form a timeline of the movements that have defined underground music in the region for the past quarter-century—from grunge to riot grrrl, to singer-songwriter soul-baring to literate indie rock, to the new punk rock of standup comedy.
As the label, now with offices in Portland as well as Olympia, prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary, we asked Portia Sabin, who took over as president from founder Slim Moon in 2006, to name the records that have come to define Kill Rock Stars for her.
Various artists, Kill Rock Stars (1991)
"The story of this album is really the story of the label, in that founder Slim Moon was documenting the Olympia scene and other bands that were important to that scene. He put a bunch of his friend's bands that he loved on the record, including his next-door neighbor Kurt's band, Nirvana. The comp was released in August 1991 and Nevermind came out in September. The Kill Rock Stars comp promptly sold 25,000 copies, and the label was launched for real."
Bikini Kill, Pussy Whipped (1993)
"This stands out as a defining record for the label in that it represents a lot of the other bands KRS was releasing, like Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, Heavens to Betsy, and Excuse 17. These bands gave the label a reputation as the home of riot grrrl and also as a queer-friendly, feminist label for political artists with something to say."
Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out (1997)
"I lived in New York City in the late '90s, and the band I played in, the Hissyfits, was obsessed with Sleater-Kinney. We went to Irving Plaza one night in May 2000 to see them play, and I was introduced to Slim by a mutual friend, and that's how I ended up getting involved with the label. Dig Me Out remains the defining S-K album for me—it's so raw and powerful."
Elliott Smith, Either/Or (1997)
"Elliott Smith was somewhat of a departure for the label soundwise, but signing him was certainly a testament to Slim's ability to spot true talent, even when not packaged in the 'band' format that was in vogue at the time. Either/Or is KRS's best-selling album, a beautiful gem that we're honored to be able to introduce to new generations of fans."
Decemberists, Castaways and Cutouts (2002)
"I saw Colin Meloy play solo at a rock 'n' swap in the backyard of a Portland bar in 2002 and immediately forced Slim to go see him. His charisma and talent as a songwriter just shone out of him. We released this record as a co-release with their Portland label, Hush Records, then did two more. I picked this album because it set the stage for several of the artists that we signed after that, like Horse Feathers and Thao With the Get Down Stay Down—a group of less punk, more melodic bands driven by a singer-songwriter."
Cameron Esposito, Same Sex Symbol (2014)
"In the last five years, we have started releasing comedy records by comedians who have something important to say. Cameron's album is a great example of this. With over 500 releases, it's probably KRS's commitment to feminist, queer, political and innovative artists that provides a throughline for understanding the label, rather than a particular sound."
SEE IT: Kill Rock Stars' 25th Birthday Party, with Kinski, Wimps and Lithics, is at Spare Room, 4830 NE 42nd Ave., on Friday, Aug. 19. 9 pm. $10. 21+.