Of the indie labels that started in the late ‘80s and are still in operation today (Matador, Touch & Go, Sub Pop), Merge’s path to veneration was a winding one. Started in 1989 by guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance of Superchunk, Merge was originally just a way for Superchunk to release all the singles they were recording.
The transition to an album-oriented label was lengthened by the fact that even Superchunk didn’t think to release full-lengths on Merge (besides singles comps), opting to release their first three full-lengths on Touch & Go instead. After Superchunk’s Foolish and releases by McCaughan’s Portastatic and Polvo (friends from Superchunk’s Chapel Hill hometown), the label began releasing full-lengths from Southern indie-rock bands like Lambchop and Neutral Milk Hotel and then started looking beyond the Southern indie-rock milieu for talent. The new millennium brought bigger albums from bands that exploded while signed to the label (like Spoon and the Arcade Fire).
The label is celebrate its twentieth anniversary with Score! Merge Records: The First Twenty Years, a subscription-only box set. To celebrate the celebration, we’ve counted down the label’s 20 greatest albums.
20. East River Pipe: The Gasoline Age (1999)
The question of “what would happen if you mixed shoegaze with alt-country” seemed like a music geek’s dream until 1999, when East River Pipe (the nom de rock of Fred "F.M." Cornog) released The Gasoline Age -- an album that welded billowy atmospherics and art-rock drones to dustbowl-referencing, singer-songwriter material. Like the cover, The Gasoline Age is dominated by American romanticism of the open road (nearly all the tracks have titles that allude to streets or cars), driven by Cornog’s reedy vocals and metaphorical lyrics.
19. The Rosebuds: Birds Make Good Neighbors (2005)
After Merge started peddling the works of indie communities outside their original North Carolina reach, they threw their home state a bone by signing a Raleigh power-pop group called the Rosebuds. The Rosebuds’ 2003 debut, Make Out, was a sloppy, sugar-fueled rush around rock that never connected with its ambition. The band’s sophomore set, the ruminative Birds Make Good Neighbors, however, was a triumph that didn’t seem possible from the Buds. Where all boy-girl bands rely on the sexual tension both rumored and implied, Birds Make Good Neighbors was about what happens when a relationship is no longer new, and all that’s left is a grown-up relationship with grown-up problems.
18. Spaceheads: Low Pressure (2002)
Spaceheads, a trumpet-and-loop-based project, were one of the strangest bands ever signed to Merge, and their sophomore album (their only one for Merge) is a collision between electronica, jazz and interstellar loops. The Manchester-based duo has performed and recorded off and on since the release of Low Pressure, but Andy Diagram and Richard Harrison have never been better than “Over the Moon” and “Astro Temple.” The trumpet may have become outmoded as the principle instrument of choice for those wanting to be music stars, but Spaceheads reinvigorated the possibilities of trumpet as a leading force in all branches of music, even electronica.
17. Caribou: Andorra (2007)
Andorra was the first album where Dan Snaith (a.k.a. Caribou, and formerly Manitoba) started caring more about song cohesion and less about creating interesting textures, and the result was his most complete album to date. Songs like opener “Melody Day” melded sweet electronica with garage-rock flow, and “Eli” shone like the sun breaking through a cloudy day. Andorra was one of 2007’s most rewarding albums, eventually wracking up accolades including the 2008 Polaris Prize.
16. Camera Obscura: Underachievers Please Try Harder (2004)
Like fellow Glaswegians Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura works in '60s-style melancholia that imagines Nico as the true Rosetta Stone of rock. But with its sophomore set (which Merge released stateside in 2004), Underachievers Please Try Harder, the band asserted itself as the quieter, more self- (and generational)-reflective antithesis to Belle and Sebastian’s world-ready bedroom pop. Underachievers is a call to adulthood for those still suffering from a Generation X-hangover (like many of Camera’s like-minded peers), without ever seeming like a preening or insistent manifesto.
15. American Music Club: Love Songs for Patriots (2004)
When American Music Club folded in 1995, the band’s lead singer, Mark Eitzel, was pegged to have a commercial breakthrough that never happened. So Eitzel decided to get American Music Club back together for another go round in 2004. Commercial success was never the impetus for the reunion (AMC didn’t sell many albums during their first run); instead, it was the ability to collaborate together again. The resulting reunion album, Love Songs for Patriots, is a synthesis of everything that AMC were in the early-'90s: It’s a rumination on darkness, loss and flawed love delivered in an fittingly gloomy atmosphere thanks to Eitzel’s low voice and his band’s shadowy version of alt-country.
14. Ladybug Transistor: The Albermarle Sound (1999)
Despite the Brooklyn zip code on band leader Gary Olson’s W-2s, his band Ladybug Transistor sounded like they stepped out of the London Underground in 1967 with bowl cuts, tailored suits and painted dancers (or, for that matter, out of Athens, Ga., in 1997). Ladybug’s third album, The Albermarle Sound, surfed along its borrowed '60s sound effortlessly and earnestly, where similar albums from other bands in the Elephant 6 collective (to which Ladybug is occasionally tied into) used the same sounds as an excuse for over-the-top theatrics.
13. Pram: The Museum of Imaginary Animals (2000)
Surreal darkness oozes forth from the electronic instrumentation of The Museum of Imaginary Animals while singer Rosie Cuckston’s vocals (think Alison Statton from Young Marble Giants meets Satomi Matsuzaki from Deerhoof) prove to be a shining beacon of tenderness. Museum moves at a pace akin to water dripping from a faucet -- dripping and dropping until it’s an ocean.
12. Destroyer: Destroyer’s Rubies (2006)
As a poet, Dan Bejar’s skills are kind of suspect (what poet would feel comfortable uttering lines like “Those who love Zeppelin, will eventually betray Floyd”?), but as a prolific, Bowie-loving indie-rock god, he provided the template for fellow Canadians like Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner. Picking one Bejar album from Merge is an exercise in minor differences, but Destroyer’s Rubies was the first Destroyer album on Merge where the oddity of Bejar’s voice and dense and ponderous lyrics seemed like less of a hindrance and more of a positive.
11. Crooked Fingers: Red Devil Dawn (2003)
Crooked Fingers principle member Eric Bachmann sounds like Neil Diamond if Diamond went on a three-year Jamison binge, smoked two packs a day, and decided glittery shirts were too ostentatious. Bachmann’s third full-length, Red Devil Dawn, is a gloomy trip through the deepest, darkest recesses of the American landscape, with a pit stop in Mexico (for the mariachi-esque “You Threw a Spark”). Red Devil Dawn imagines what Tom Waits would be like if he were a little less depressed, and it made wishes for the reforming of Bachmann’s first indie-rock career (he was in Archers of Loaf) irrelevant.
10. Portastatic: I Hope Your Heart’s Not Brittle (1994)
At some point, Superchunk became incapable of containing the prolificacy of Mac McCaughan, and he started Portastatic, a band that’s work is a bit more Americana-influenced than that of Superchunk. Despite some of Superchunk’s best work occurring at the same time, McCaughan still had enough material on him to make Portastatic’s full-length debut a good one: The songs rang with dismay and sadness while the music was quiet and somber. Quite the contrast to the discord of Superchunk.
9. Lambchop: How I Quit Smoking (1996)
Of all the unclassifiable bands signed to Merge, Lampchop may take the cake. Never one to settle on one American tradition, principle member Kurt Wagner jumps from soul to country to rock to blues to doo-wop, sometimes all in one song. How I Quit Smoking was the band’s defining moment: Wagner’s Burl Ives-lite vocals mixing with glitzy slide guitar and wistful Dust Bowl ballads like “The Man Who Loved Beer,” “Life’s Little Tragedy” and “Smuckers.” Lambchop have always stuck out like a sore thumb in their Nashville hometown, but now that bands like Blitzen Trapper are picking up their baton, the band’s impact on indie-rock is just now being felt.
8. The Clientele: The Violet Hour (2003)
With a name lifted from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and songs that float like dense fog in the London morning, the Clientele’s first proper album, The Violet Hour, is an exercise in creating atmosphere that leaks off the tape. The English band’s hyper-literate and poetic take on French and British rock seemed like an anachronism when The Violet Hour came out, but it proved a perfect antithesis to the dance-punk that was beginning to explode at the time. In the time since, the Clientele have (like Spoon) become one of Merge’s consistently great bands, providing the label with its newest wave of memorable albums.
7. Polvo: Today’s Active Lifestyles (1993)
As perhaps the original purveyors of what we’ve come to know as math-rock (the band disavowed the label), Polvo was a band that was more about creating disorienting, violent guitar riffs than making an album-length statement. The band’s best full-length, Today’s Active Lifestyles (their last and second for Merge), was the closest they got, as the amorphous guitars, pulverizing rhythm and near-psychedelic lyrics played like Black Francis fronting Throbbing Gristle. Polvo broke up after tumultuous times surrounding their two latter albums on Touch & Go, but at this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties they reformed to rip through Active Lifestyles and new tracks they claim will be on a forthcoming LP.
6. M. Ward: The Transfiguration of Vincent (2003)
Thanks to his acoustic guitar and albums with titles like Post-War, M.Ward has often gotten pegged as a new Dylan, alongside his pal Conor Oberst. But in reality, Ward’s nearest musical kin is some-time Merge musician Stephen Merritt and his Magnetic Fields project: Ward is always at his best when he’s using a smattering of genres (in Ward’s case it’s mostly American genres like the blues, country and jazz) to convey his tales of heartbreak and loss. Transfiguration of Vincent was his watershed moment, the time when his ambition and abilities finally synced up in great tracks like “Helicopter,” “Dead Man” and “Outta My Head.”
5. Superchunk: Foolish (1994)
After three albums for the wider-reaching Matador, Superchunk opted to release their fourth full-length, Foolish, on Merge, which had been a hobby until then. The band proved it could do genre-defining sloppy punk, but with Foolish Superchunk proved they were capable of an “adult” song cycle. Fueled by the break-up of McCaughan and Ballance, Foolish seethes with disappointment and tension (with tracks like the evil-woman-referencing “Water Wings,” “Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything” and “Keeping Track”) that’s even evident on Ballance’s dead-rabbit cover art.
4. Spoon: Kill the Moonlight (2002)
It’s hard to remember now that they’re indie-rock heroes, but back in 2002, Spoon were the poster boys for what happens when a beloved indie band makes the jump to a major. After their excellent 1998 album, A Series of Sneaks, was released on Elektra but sold few copies, the band was dropped. Spoon signed to Merge in 2000, releasing the solid Girls Can Tell in 2001. But Spoon’s best album came a year later, when Merge released Kill the Moonlight, an album that reduced Spoon’s formula to the bare minimum of hooks (of the instrumental and vocal kind) and had future indie anthems like “The Way We Get By” and “Jonathon Fisk.”
3. The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (1999)
Stephen Merritt’s 1999 album 69 Love Songs reeks with pretension: What would possess a musician to write 69 songs about love, and to boot, change genres with nearly every track (jumping from folk to electropop to jazz sketches, vast ballads and new wave)? Yet it all works. Granted, the thing is damn long, but it captures so many different angles on a thing called love that heart-on-sleeve balladeers can study it like a masters course.
2. Arcade Fire: Funeral (2004)
Arcade Fire are the most successful band in Merge history. Their second album, Neon Bible, was the first Merge LP to debut on the Billboard 200 (at No. 2, in 2007), and the band’s brilliant debut, Funeral, was the first album from Merge to even appear on the Billboard 200.
That seemed unlikely (probably impossible) when Arcade Fire first signed to Merge and put out Funeral. The Canadian band’s epic merging of the orchestral leanings of glam-era David Bowie and the world-weariness of Fear of Music-era Talking Heads was the furthest thing from indie’s taste at the time, not to mention the Billboard charts. Funeral swayed with existential dread and fear of death and ushered in a new era where the lines between what was “indie” and what was “mainstream” was blurred beyond recognition. Neon Bible may have moved more copies, but Funeral is Arcade Fire before they were the “the great Arcade Fire” -- sometimes terse and sometimes joyful.
1. Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
After the release of his stunning debut, On Avery Island, Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum holed up in Athens, Ga., and read The Diary of Anne Frank. Apparently, Mangum was filled with so much dread over Frank’s death, he became deeply saddened. Mangum’s reaction to the book informs the bulk of his classic sophomore album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, an album influenced by the threat of loss (and the feelings of actual loss, as it's been said that Mangum’s wife passed away during the sessions), a rush of emotions, and darkly surreal vocals (like references to the King of Carrot Flowers).
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea isn’t an album that lends itself well to knee-jerk canonization: It has no show stopping moment, no one song to keep people coming back, and has no central figure to lord over it. (Mangum has all but disappeared off the face of the earth.) But it’s an album that continually grows stronger with age -- one that made no overt nods to reference points (except for maybe 1940s marching band music) and is a genre unto itself.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is not only the greatest album in Merge’s varied back catalog, it’s also one of the best of the '90s. Coupled with Radiohead’s OK Computer, it provided a clarion call of a warning about our loss of freedom and emotion as the world passes us by through technological advancement. Mangum may never lace 'em up again, but with a defining masterpiece like Aeroplane in the can, he never has to.