• Jamie Dixon

15 Sublime Songs, Ranked

From Same In The End To Santeria


Sublime, the reggae/ska-punk band from Long Beach, skyrocketed into the limelight - and essentially fell off soon after. Their third album was the one that brought commercial success - but unfortunately, that success came posthumously for lead singer Bradley Nowell, who died of a heroin overdose two months before their self-titled album was released.


The first two albums, 40 oz To Freedom and Robbin' The Hood, both fared decently. They had attracted something of a cult following on the West coast, primarily through live shows. Unable to attract enough attention, they released their music through their own label Skunk Records with the help of a music student, Michael Happoldt.


Finally, in 1995, they had begun to get a decent amount of radio airplay and were headlining some big events. Wanting to continue their momentum, they crafted their third album for release in 1996. Unfortunately, Nowell did not get to see the rewards of their efforts. The album was certified 5x platinum in 1999 and contained the band's only #1 single ("What I Got.")


Other tracks received heavy airplay and the band was now a worldwide name, just in time for their disbanding. The rest of the band chose to end with Nowell no longer there, feeling that as a group, they were unable to continue without him.


Fans will always wonder what the future could have held for the band, had Nowell not died tragically at only 28 years old. But for now, let's take a look through the vault at some Sublime classics.


April 29, 1992


Referencing the Rodney King riots, Sublime takes a fictional role in the violence that occurred. It tells the story of a person engaging in opportunistic looting, contradicting that this was because of Rodney King at all. Instead, Sublime supposes it was the response of struggling people who were acting on their anger and disillusionment with the systems at large.



Same In The End


Sublime was known as a band that encapsulated many genres - they were a little of this, a little of that, and they defied any standard attempt at definition.


One listen to this song should make it clear why. Is it punk? Sort of. Is it ska? Yeah, kind of. It's hard to say exactly what it is, besides heartfelt. In songs like this, Sublime had a way of putting everything on the table to say very little - but say it in a way that everyone could relate to. It's an everyman's song of struggle, told in every musical language.



Wrong Way


Ooh boy. This is a complicated song, where Nowell acts as a character "rescuing" a woman from a troubled life of forced prostitution. He isn't, perhaps, exactly a hero himself. His own behavior toward her isn't quite ethical and full of the sexual mistreatment that he allegedly prides himself for "saving" her from. Ironically, by the end of the song, he at least knows enough to regret his behavior.


Musically, this is classic third wave ska at an almost textbook level. It's fun and bright, despite the dark lyrics. It charted fairly well, though not till after the death of Nowell, finally reaching the third spot on the alternative Billboard chart.



Badfish


The raw emotion in this song really hits. He begs someone to get him off the reef, a parallel for his substance abuse issues. "I swim, but I wish I'd never learned," he laments. He's keeping himself afloat, but uncertain for how long. He sounds lonely and isolated, calling himself a Badfish. Outloud, he wonders, "Are you a Badfish too?"


You can't help but wonder how long he knew that sooner or later, the end would be coming for him. "Ain't got no quarrels with God, ain't got no time to grow old."



The Ballad Of Johnny Butt


For the record, this song was actually a cover of a lesser-known band called Secret Hate. Sublime did this a lot - borrowed from other artists, or just did straight covers. I think that might be part of why they got dunked on a lot - they got famous because other people did the work.


In all fairness, I do need to point out that there's one big difference between them and many other famous bands. Unlike many, many artists who stole material and tried to pretend they did it first, Sublime didn't do that. They were very honest and forthright about acknowledging the sources. It wasn't all out of the brain of Bradley Nowell, but he never claimed it to be.


What Sublime did well is what they did here. They heard a song, envisioned how they could make it better, and actually did so. In the end, they ended up with a more popular version of their cover, with merit. Maybe they didn't think of it, but they did know how to make it sell, and that should count for something.



What I Got


If Bradley Nowell hadn't died so young, this would be a fun and silly little song. It's a tribute to the simple joy of being alive and enjoying your time on earth.


Unfortunately, Nowell had already passed from a heroin overdose by the time this song was released. As a result, it's impossible to separate the work from the bitter irony that underlies it. "Life is too short, so love the one you got, cause you might get run over or you might get shot," takes on a new meaning when the writer has proven just that very thing.


Musically, the song is catchy, but I'm not sure it would hold up the same with time if it wasn't for this extra poignancy. It's also worth pointing out that it's really essentially a cover of Loving by Half Pint. They did, at least, update and add some originality to the song.



Santeria


This is one of the unmistakable songs that Sublime is known for. Sublime always had a unique style that's hard to confuse, but songs like this one really exemplified how they weren't quite like anything else happening at the time. At least, mainstream (if you were deep into the ska scene, you'd have a reasonable - and correct - argument against me. but I'm talking in Top 100 radio.)


There's an interesting juxtaposition between the carefree, ska melody that's holding up some rather sinister lyrics about murdering a man who slept with your cheating girlfriend. But the lines are delivered with an infectious, smooth cheer that belies the meaning.



Date Rape


I know it's hard to imagine this song being a bit divisive, with such a wholesome label as "Date Rape." But stay with me here.


There's absolutely no doubt, as you follow along, that Nowell is in no way condoning date rape. It was incredibly off-the-wall at the time and a bold thing to discuss. He details the story of a girl who avenges her attacker, both by smacking him with a rock and having him jailed.


The only negative, to me, is when Nowell turns to a rather classless and juvenile method of expressing his reproach (he explains how the man goes to jail, getting it "in the behind," but that he can't feel sorry for a man like that who deserves it).


Overall, though, I have to give him props for even putting something like this out into the universe. And standing firm and unwavering, in an age where 'she was asking for it' still seemed to be a reasonable defense. Plus, that bass. I mean, amazing.


Doin' Time


This song underwent multiple recordings, due to the untimely death of Nowell. It samples from several songs, including "Summertime" by George Gershwin. In order to get permission to use it, the band had to use the lyrics "summertime" rather than "doin' time."


It was already recorded once with the "doin' time" lyric. To make the change after the death of Nowell, a friend of the band (Michael Happoldt, also their producer) sang the "summertime" part.


The original recording has since been released and was also covered by Lana Del Ray in 2019.



Garden Grove


This is one of the more underrated Sublime songs. It's fun and catchy, with a definite surf party vibe. You can just bob your head along and picture relaxing out on a beach. Easily one of their more mellow pieces.



Get Ready


Once again, we find a Sublime song that's not exactly unique. "Get Ready" is, more or less, a cover of a song by the same name by Frankie Paul. Sublime does an admirable job.


But in this case, they really don't improve on the original source material. They do alter the lyrics around, but the end result isn't any better than what Paul did. It feels too exploitative to be as enjoyable as some of their better material.


On top of that, the context changes. In Paul's version, he's singing to a sweetheart. Nowell's version is his own sort of love song but to drugs. Considering, once again, how his own life would end a few months after this recording, it feels more like a warning than anything.



Under My Voodoo


There's a lot of potential in this song, but it feels wildly inconsistent. The rhyme scheme is weak, then solid, then weak again. The bizarrely deliberate choice to drown the lyrics out with a screeching guitar for almost the entire song seems frustrating at best.


But then, just when you're sick of hearing feedback, one of the most banging guitar solos emerges. And yet, it ends with another brief solo, which is timid, weak, and unfocused.


It doesn't seem like anyone in the band was quite sure what this song was supposed to be, and they just released it anyway. Given Nowell's premature death, I'm not certain this isn't the case. I can't help but wonder if this was the finished product by design, or just the last take they had available. If it's the latter, this probably would have been a great song with a bit more refinement.



Seed


This was a tough call for me because musically, this song is about a 95. It's short, tight, and shifts in tone several times without missing a beat. If I was listening to it as an instrumental, it might be at the top of the list.


Unfortunately, the lyrics are just so problematic for me. He talks so fast you might nearly miss it. But this is the story of a man taking a girl's virginity, knocking her up, and taking off. He has no real regrets or shame, besides hoping that her parents "love her" (aka, will take care of her because he's not going to). That's a really hard one to root for. Sorry.




Pawn Shop


It was songs like this that hurt Sublime's reputation in the ska community, I'd have to argue. So much of their music is very interesting. Then they release something like this.


Overall, the song is unclever and deeply repetitive. It's a cover of "War Deh Round A John Shop" by the Wailing Souls. And it's considerably poorer. Many of Sublime's covers at least improved on the material. I'm not at all convinced this one does.


If you really dig the rhythms here, at least check out the original by the Wailing Souls. It'll be well worth your time.



Caress Me Down


I know there are some people who love this song, but it's just not for me. It's too close to the Clement Irie version, without bringing much new to the table.


The song is relying, entirely, on its own novelty. It's in the vein of songs like "Then I Got High," counting on fans who enjoy it for the sake of absurdity. I like nonsense as well as the next person, but this particular take feels a bit lazy to me.



Jamie Dixon is a contributing writer here at The Pyrrhic. She's a content writer by profession, but this is more fun. She's also working on her first novel in her spare time.


Find her on Twitter @onegirloneblog

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