It was the moment Long Beach, CA, band Sublime had been building toward for nearly a decade, one backyard kegger show and Warped Tour gig at a time—the July 30, 1996 release of their self-titled, major-label debut. The LP intended to launch this trio of rabble-rousing childhood pals into bona fide global rock stars. But as the CDs hit the shelves at Sam Goodys and Virgin Megastores, Sublime’s inner circle was mourning singer-guitarist Bradley Nowell, who died of a heroin overdose just two months shy of its release.
At the time, many fans didn’t even know Nowell had passed — Sublime had only just put the trio on the map outside SoCal. But over the past 25 years, Sublime‘s unique blend of reggae, punk, ska, dancehall, dub, hip-hop, surf rock and beyond has resonated with millions. Simply put, it’s the sound of three dudes paying tribute to the music that so deeply touched them.
By 1995, it had already been a long, strange trip for Nowell, bassist Eric Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh. They’d dropped two independent releases—1992’s 40oz. to Freedom and 1994’s experimental Robbin’ the Hood—that scored Sublime a devoted fanbase in their native SoCal; after all, their sound was a collision of many of the cultures that intersected in the greater Los Angeles area. Their live shows were infamous, including a debauched run co-headlining 1995’s Warped Tour: “Basically, our daily regimen was wake up, drink, drink more, play, and then drink a lot more,” Gaugh told Time magazine. “We’d call people names. Nobody got our sense of humor.” When the band’s famous dalmatian, Lou Dog, started biting partiers backstage, they were asked to leave. Their behavior only played into their brand as loose-cannon, tattooed skater/surfer dudes out to have a good time.
But for their third album, as the pressure mounted, the good times were turning sour. Sublime signed with MCA and entered Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio in Austin, with Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers serving as producer. By now Nowell’s off-and-on-again heroin addiction had spiraled out of control; he was caught amid a cycle of attempting to clean up before the birth of his first child and upcoming wedding, then relapsing and starting over again. In Austin, it got out of control and he was ultimately sent away before the recording session was complete.
Musically, Sublime captured the spirit of summertime vibin’ with big sing-along hooks, beach party-ready acoustic licks, furious punk guitar and the grooving rhythms of Gaugh and Wilson (Sublime’s secret weapon). “Santeria,” “What I Got,” “Doin’ Time” and “Wrong Way” became hits that have since grown into karaoke classics, propelling the album to eventually sell 6.9 million copies in the U.S. according to MRC Data.
Despite Nowell’s death at age 28 on May 25, 1996, Sublime’s music (not to mention the current evolution of the group, Sublime with Rome) endures—Sublime t-shirts are seen as often as tees from their heroes Bob Marley and Joy Division. And here’s why. Let’s revisit the 17 tracks of Sublime.
17. “Wrong Way”
Sublime’s career took off in SoCal when L.A. radio station KROQ put their single “Date Rape” in regular rotation – a song Nowell was later embarrassed by. Which makes “Wrong Way,” a track about a young girl forced into prostitution by her broke dad, all the more tragic. It became a hit – even featuring a trombone solo – but it doesn’t excuse its content. Some songs just don’t age gracefully.
It’s an aggressive way to narrate the loss of a woman’s virginity. Striding from ska to hardcore punk to rock, Nowell wails about, well, planting his seed. Thankfully, it’s only two minutes and change. Sadly, that’s long enough to drop regrettable lines like: “I made her bleed / Yes she wanted love in the scene / Well I planted my seed / Babe I knew we could make it / But I only knew that the b-tch would break it.”
15. “What I Got (Reprise)”
This stripped-back, acoustic version of the fully produced single (featured later in this list) just doesn’t hold a candle to the polished hit. So… skip this track in your Discman.
14. “Get Ready”
If you’re not a fan of loud dub music and weed, then Nowell and Sublime would make for difficult neighbors—especially if you plan on calling the cops: “Some folks say that smoking herb is a crime / If they catch you smokin’ they’re bound to drop the dime / And in the evening, we try to jam / We like the music loud in this here band / We let the bass line drop as loud as we can stand / Somebody always gotta turn informer for the man.” Don’t be that man, man.
13. “Caress Me Down”
Bradley Nowell goes full Ron Jeremy in this oft-graphic, Spanish-influenced track about, well, pent up physical needs. “‘Cause I’m the type of lover with the sensitivity / When she kiss my neck and tickle me fancy / The right kind of love on Sunday morning.” The flesh-slaps make for a convincing sound effect, as Nowell laid down lines that quickly became pop culture punchlines, such as: “Drip, drip, dip / That G.I. Joe Kung Fu grip.”
12. “Pawn Shop”
This pulsating groover is all about the elastic guitar riff and smoky-cool organ swells, as Nowell sings of the human price behind every sale at a pawn shop: “Down here at the pawn shop / What has been sold, not strictly made of stone / Just remember that it’s flesh and bone.” He’d know – he regularly traded in the band’s gear to pawn shops to buy drugs, knowing Sublime’s tour manager would somehow fix the situation before the show.
11. “April 29, 1992 (Miami)”
This ode to anarchy in the streets during the Los Angeles riots samples Doug E. Fresh, Mobb Deep, Just-Ice and others, and tells a personal tale of the members of Sublime engaging in arson, vandalism, and robbery – including stealing the very musical equipment played on the track. “They said it was for the Black man / They said it was for the Mexican / And not for the white man / But if you look at the street, it wasn’t about Rodney King / It’s this f–ked-up situation and these f–ked-up police / It’s about coming up and staying on top / And screaming 187 on a mother–kin’ cop.” Now that’s how you draft young agitators from suburbs across the nation.
10. “The Ballad of Johnny Butt”
A tale of one of the many junkie characters that tumbled through Sublime’s world: “Johnny Butt was a man with a real strong will to survive / He just kept pushin’ on even though he was barely alive / So, shoot it up, shoot it up / It just don’t matter.” Somehow, it gets darker from there: “Johnny says he wants to kill a cop.” In typical Sublime fashion, the topic then changes dramatically, reflective of the band’s chaotic surroundings and influences: “We’ve got a brand new dance, it’s called we’ve got to overcome.”
9. “Same in the End”
It’s pedal-to-the-metal ska punk for the mosh pits, over a story of Southern domestic drama: “Daddy was a rollin’ rollin’ stone, oh / He rolled away one day and he never came home,” Nowell shouts. “If I make you cry all night / Me and daddy gonna have a fist fight.” Nowell’s singing here, impassioned and forceful, is some of the best on the LP.
8. “Garden Grove”
The album opener tells the story of a day trip to Garden Grove, California, and it aptly sets the album’s tone with ska/dub drums and bass, scratching vinyl, and Nowell’s “chk-chk-chk” reggae guitar and rapping about “sticking needles in your arm.” The experimental, atmospheric sounds – which fans may remember from Robbin’ the Hood – works here thanks to the top-notch production.
7. “Under My Voodoo”
Nowell does his best Jimi Hendrix, unabashedly flaunting his influences with guitar heroics and crooning about cosmic love and voodoo: “You can’t hide your love, it’s true,” he sings into a Fuzzbox while going full psychedelic on guitar. “Let your freedom hang free.” It’s Sublime’s most blatant nod to classic rock on the album, and they pull it off. Don’t miss the ska/dub flair at the end: “Lord, God, voodoo / Lord, hey, voodoo / Lord, hey, voodoo.”
6. “Paddle Out”
The punk-surf vibes go hard here. Warp-speed guitar crunch phases in an out over a reverberating guitar lick that’d make Dick Dale proud. “A huge summertime south swell hit when I’m in my hometown,” Nowell barks over hardcore drums and bass. “I’m a surfside boy, is where I can be found / Up and down the coast / Checkin’ the spots that I love the most.” Surf’s up.
5. “What I Got”
This acoustic guitar jam with hip-hop drums and scratching vinyl, the band’s biggest radio hit, reached No. 1 on the Alternative Airplay chart and No. 29 on the Radio Songs chart. Its simple message resonated with fans: “Early in the mornin’, risin’ to the street,” Nowell sing-raps. “Light me up that cigarette and I’ll strap shoes on my feet…. Love is what I got!” Over a lilting, repetitive acoustic guitar lick, the band chants and chants, “Love is what I got!”
Easily the most sing-along-able track on the album, “Santeria”—a tale of a jealous ex plotting revenge on the man who stole his girlfriend—opens with that memorable electric guitar lilt and Nowell’s summery croon. This is peak radio-friendly Sublime; the tune cracked the top 5 of Alternative Airplay and hit No. 43 on Radio Songs.
3. “Doin’ Time”
A loose cover of the jazz standard “Summertime” by George Gershwin, Sublime’s Hot 100-cracking version has become a generational classic – those ringing opening notes welcome Nowell’s tale of an evil woman who has him on love lockdown. Lana Del Rey’s true-to-form cover of Sublime’s version, featured on her Norman Fucking Rockwell LP, introduced a new generation to the sweltering summer-in-the-city jam.
It’s surf-guitar overdrive about the days when you just… can’t. “I don’t want to go and party / I don’t want to shoot the pier / I don’t want to take the doggie for a walk / I don’t want to look at naked chicks and drink beer / I don’t want to do a bong load / Cause I ain’t even gonna get out of bed.” The guitar work between verses is a testament to Nowell’s wildly underrated ability as a lead surf guitarist.
This has all the ingredients of a quintessential Sublime track – bright, slashing guitar hooks and loud-soft-loud dynamics, and yarling vocals about jails and youthful rebellion: “Can’t fight against the youth,” Nowell sings. “‘Cause we’re strong, and we’re rude, rude people.” Nowell’s pleading voice melds all his distinct influences not into a patchwork sound, but something new and wholly its own. Crank the volume—this is where Sublime comes alive.