Starting today, Merge Records will celebrate its 25th anniversary with the four-day festival down in Carrboro, NC. Personally, I’m kicking myself for not saving up enough loot to attend because not only is the lineup dy-no-mite, but the label has always meant so much to me. The following list is a testament to that.
Founded by Superchunk’s Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan in 1989, Merge Records was originally a medium for the band to release their own records. Soon enough, the Durham, NC, label expanded to include music by their friends and eventually opened its doors to artists all around the world.
We’ll spare you the history lesson, but if you also love their output, it might behoove you to check out books like Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, or watch Google Play’s recent 24-minute documentary about the label. It’s a fascinating story that sheds a little light on how and why you’re able to enjoy some of the best records of the last 30 years — specifically, the 10 you’re about to read about.
Before you click ahead, do note that we only chose one album per artist. Also, if you’re interested in grabbing any of these LPs, support the label by buying straight from the source.
10. Mikal Cronin – MCII
Last year, I wrote in a stoned daze: “I’ve listened to Mikal Cronin’s sophomore album about 54 times already.” Not surprisingly, that number’s at least quadrupled since spring of 2013, and it’ll probably bubble up even higher as the summer burns into fall. I mean, the way Cronin strolled into Merge Records with an album like MCII is so fucking badass, I can’t even stress it properly through hyperbole. It’s an essential album for the label if only because it pays homage without actually paying homage to the distortion-rattled homilies of Merge founder and Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan. Outside of that, it’s, well, one of the best alternative rock albums in years, thanks to its jangly multi-instrumental pop and Cronin’s knack for making every component tick, tock, and click. [Pause.] In fact, I actually just left the living room to put it on my turntable again, and I freaked out because I couldn’t find it on the shelf. Silly me, of course it was sitting comfortably wedged with my recent listens. As always. –Michael Roffman
9. Destroyer – Destroyer’s Rubies
“Dueling cyclones jackknife/ They got eyes for your wife and the blood that lives in her heart/ Cast myself towards infinity,” Dan Bejar croons to begin the grandiose Destroyer’s Rubies. That line might seem wordy (and it is, and wonderfully so, in the sort of way that it’s impossible to hear it in your head in any way besides in Bejar’s voice), but it feels weightless when spinning through the orchestral indie pop accumulation of the quirky musical choices on each of his other Destroyer albums: there are shades of the crystalline Streethawk: A Seduction, the theatric and explosive Your Blues, even the suave retro-pop that would go on to run Kaputt. That sort of self-reference and fully formed poetic world comes off in epic fashion, multiple tracks cracking the five-minute mark, yet none of them overbearing or overwhelming. While that does leave some space for meandering, Bejar aimlessly wandering through the back stretches of his mind is still entirely compelling. –Adam Kivel
8. Caribou – Andorra
Andorra is many things to many people: a baroque-psychedelic triumph, what Tame Impala would sound like hanging out with the Beach Boys, the hallucinated euphony of bong smoke. One thing it is not: boring. Canadian multi-instrumentalist Daniel Snaith, aka Caribou, (adopting his second of three pseudonyms so far) squeezed as many sleigh bells and sunny harmonies into this album as he could, but he also left plenty of room for reverbed piano delay and other electronic whirrs. The result is a hemp-mesh that flows exceedingly well, taking its time at each turn down a different rabbit hole. Songs that brood (“Irene”) and vacillate (“She’s the One”) make this a smart concoction of psychedelia and real emotion, not just sunshine and rainbows. Snaith found his rhythm on Merge with these far-out ditties, and he’s since pushed himself in new directions with the house-influenced Swim. Andorra, for now, will remain a favorite — that is, until he surprises us with another new stage name and another great record. –Julian Ring
7. Wild Flag – Wild Flag
Led by Carrie Brownstein but solid all the way through the lineup, Wild Flag were frankly more serious than the term “supergroup” implies. Their lone, self-titled album is on par with anything in the members’ non-WF output, and thanks to the teamwork, it’s inimitable, with tremendous individual contributions. Brownstein’s combative vocal delivery fueled her knifing acrobatics on guitar alongside Mary Timony. While Janet Weiss’s restless drumming kept Rebecca Cole smart behind the keyboards, where she nearly rivaled Ray Manzarek’s melodies in The Doors. Right from the jump, with opener “Romance”, the 40-minute bulldozer is loaded with hard-hitting (and occasionally intricate) vocal hooks. “If you want a pretty picture, you better look away,” Brownstein warns on the self-explanatory “Boom”. Yet Wild Flag has heaps of purpose and, in turn, an equal sheen of clarity. It’s a punk record without boundaries, which makes it so unassuming — even to its creators. As Brownstein later told Stereogum: “I never really thought of [Wild Flag] as something that was going to have a really monolithic identity or one that is very fixed.” Regardless, they made one excellent record, and given Brownstein, Weiss, Cole, and Timony’s pedigrees, the one masterpiece counts as extra credit. –Michael Madden
6. Superchunk – Foolish
On Superchunk’s fourth album, Foolish, singer-songwriter Mac McCaughan wasn’t so much a “slack motherfucker” as a brooding one. He and bassist Laura Balance had just broken up, and it’s her mug that graces the album’s cover, staring in front of a dangling rabbit carcass. How pleasant, right? True to their strengths as musicians, McCaughan and Ballance wrung that miserable angst into a brilliant 50 minutes, and it’s remained the band’s finest hour to date. Now, that’s not to say McCaughan hasn’t issued his share of excellent albums thereafter — last year’s I Hate Music, for example, was another slice of alternative heaven in their ever-succinct catalog — but none have captured such uncanny symmetry like Foolish did. As Josh Terry explained in our 20th anniversary retrospective on the album: “the mood, execution, and fantastic songwriting of Foolish have kept it in the band’s upper echelon.” On the whole, Foolish is an audio handbook to late twentysomethings, who might feel they’re fading into obscurity. “And the names were all we knew/ And the names were all erased,” McCaughan sings on “Driveway to Driveway”, basically summing up any number of friendships “forged” in English 101 or beyond. Thank god for Facebook, right? Ha. –Michael Roffman
5. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Spoon might be the best example of a rock band rising organically in the new millennium. For awhile there, each addition in the Austin rockers’ catalog took them to the next logical step, from 2001’s critical darling Girls Can Tell right up to 2007’s Billboard smash Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Unfortunately, 2010’s Transference broke their streak, but to their credit, it was always going to be near-impossible to top its predecessor, even if Britt Daniel & Co. seemed likely to do it after brilliantly hurdling over 2005’s tour de force, Gimme Fiction. The problem is that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is just too damn perfect to ever properly follow up. It’s home to their best single (“Don’t You Evah”), their strongest live song (“The Underdog”), and their choicest deep cuts (“Rhthm & Soul”, “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”). Their experiments turned out brilliant (“The Ghost of You Lingers”, “Eddie’s Ragga”), and they could be just as playful as their younger selves (“My Little Japanese Cigarette Case”). Rather poetically, the album’s closing track, “Black Like Me”, offers the exact line anyone wants to be left with on a rock album: “I believed that someone’d take care of me tonight.” Even Ryan Adams would agree on that. –Michael Roffman
4. Lambchop – Nixon
No matter how many times Lambchop get highlighted by lists like these, the Nashville outfit seems destined to have an under-the-radar cult following. And perhaps that’s fitting; their best album, 2000’s Nixon (only maybe sort of related to the titular president), highlights their ability to honestly and beautifully convey the realities of everyday life, the sort of stuff that rock stardom might overshadow. The heartbreaking “The Old Gold Shoe” describes how kids will “take their toys and break them, and look at them and walk away.” While the lyrics often exalt the mundane, the music itself is anything but, tracing its figures through Motown bass, country twang, and booming pop. Kurt Wagner’s falsetto on “The Book I Haven’t Read” balances passion, strength, and fragility in a way that that can perfectly convey emotions in that often difficult gray area between heartbreak, love, and hope. These aren’t songs of simple statements and judgments, but rather exploring the reality of the world as it is lived. –Adam Kivel
3. Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs
Stephin Merritt envisioned a grand experiment for the Magnetic Fields’ fourth album on Merge and sixth overall, 69 Love Songs. The three-hour marathon is basically a workout for the muscles it takes to smile. Aside from racy blues like “Underwear” and similar creepy-crawlers, the three-disc set tends to radiate “pop” whether sincere or sardonic, acoustic or (less often) electronic. Even the third disc, the most experimental of the bunch, might very well have been a cult album on its own, with oddities like “Experimental Music Love” possessing strange charm and surprising replayability.
“Playing live is a cynical ploy to sell T-shirts,” Merritt once not-that-jokingly said, and 69 Love Songs is both too claustrophobic and too sprawling for an equally edifying show to be within reason. Merritt — presumably under the assumption that no one would want three hours of his voice — recruited Flare’s LD Beghtol (who would later write the 33 1/3 volume on the album), Kid Montana’s Dudley Klute, and Shirley Simm to assist with the vocals.
Indeed, some of the most accessible songs are the ones where Merritt’s croak is nowhere to be found — see the Beghtol-led “All My Little Words”, among others. But Merritt also played dozens of instruments on the record, all of them asking for imagination, and not immense skill, on the part of the operator. Released at a time when the $35 price tag was less avoidable, 69 Love Songs‘ legacy — from the number of fans that followed to the creative inspiration it offers — is incalculable. With 2004’s i, the Boston-founded project entered the charts for the first time. In the 15 years since its release, 69 inspired a universityful of kids and their perpetual SoundCloud uploads; the brightest pupils knew the album was less about quantity and more about focus. –Michael Madden
2. Neutral Milk Hotel — In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Ask the casual listener to name any other work by Neutral Milk Hotel, and you’re apt to get furrowed brows in return. That’s because the indie rocker’s second and final album isn’t only their best — it’s a lo-fi masterpiece. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’s golden ratio of crisp songwriting to grab-bag instrumentation stands peerless even today, and no matter what this album is even about — Anne Frank, or something far more cryptic — you can’t help but be drawn in by Jeff Mangum’s abstract narratives. More than any other album, this one is a product of the best tool at Merge’s disposal during its pre-Arcade Fire years: a penchant for finding and releasing off-kilter albums by artists with a story to tell. The label still has that killer instinct, to be sure, but it’s albums like Aeroplane that have won admiration as true classics while setting the stage for greater things to come — even inspiring our number one album’s release on Merge. –Julian Ring
1. Arcade Fire – Funeral
The key to Arcade Fire’s Funeral, the reason it stands as one of the best examples of indie label success, is that it felt like a secret, a key to something new. It got passed from one friend to another, cracking open that person’s brain, welcoming them into the fold, and then getting offered to the next in line. That description sounds very religious, and that too makes sense, considering the Sunday’s best suits, the lyrics about us and them, the absolutely triumphant choruses. Listening to Funeral for the first time felt like discovering a lost family; the lyrics are full of “us”s, and “we”s, and “our”s about hope, surviving, and loving in a world that seems stacked against those very things.
Whether it’s the pomp and glory of the wordless chorus of “Wake Up”, the shout-along empowerment of “Rebellion (Lies)”, or the childlike wonder of “In the Backseat”, Funeral pulls at the biggest, boldest heartstrings without ever feeling heavy-handed or melodramatic. And then that secret spread to the point that Arcade Fire became Arcade Fire, and Merge grew from a respected indie label to one of the biggest in the world thanks to Funeral becoming its first album to make the Billboard. Funeral was a transformative moment, for the band, for listeners, and for the label. –Adam Kivel