No Pipe. No Radar Brothers. No The Ladybug Transistor. No M. Ward. No The Clean. No American Music Club. No Third Eye Foundation. No Butterglory. No Richard Buckner. No Ashley Stove: Yes, we know about the noes.
When it comes to Merge Records, the only thing more remarkable than the list of the label's best is the fact that it could have been completely different a dozen or so times. Over its approximately 350 releases, Merge's most consistent quality has been just that: its consistent quality. There are relatively few duds in these dustbins, from those heavy Bricks singles in 1989 to this year's charging pop charmer, Telekinesis! As divorce statistics demonstrate, doing anything—much less, doing it well—for 20 years is difficult. Numbers never bothered Merge, it seems.
That in mind, we asked over a dozen writers and longtime listeners to offer lists of their favorite Merge titles and persuasive arguments for a handful of underdogs. We compiled the lists, picked the clear quantitative winners and let those titles most passionately defended round out the roster. Moving from punchy rock to drifty drone, the resulting batch of the best reflects Merge's longevity, variability and—above all—its collective, gimmicks-be-goddamned ear for great songs.
DRIVE LIKE JEHU, "BULLET TRAIN TO VEGAS"
With one 7" single, San Diego's Drive Like Jehu smashed this ball from one coast to another. For a song so dissonant, the hook is perfect, supported by the heavy guitar work of John Reis (who went on to produce Superchunk's On the Mouth and was already fronting Rocket from the Crypt). The song is perfectly coupled with simplistic but compelling cover art, while the imageless back cover foreshadows a B-side, "Hand Over Fist," which doesn't try to wrestle the A-side. Still, it's a strong mid-tempo complement that holds it own.
This single epitomizes the good match made by the 7" single and indie rock in the early '90s. Merge had spent its first few years documenting the local music scene, but these two quick cuts—Drive Like Jehu's only Merge output—expanded its reputation west and the band's hold east of the Mississippi. Double whammy. —Glenn BootheANGELS OF EPISTEMOLOGY, FRUIT
Raleigh, 1987: The album of the year isn't the dour metallo-hardcore of Corrosion of Conformity's Technocracy, nor is it the lush jangle-pop of The Connells' Boylan Heights. Rather, it's a little pasteboard box of five 7" singles by five different bands, with its title, Evil I Do Not To Nod I Live, hand-printed on the cover. Angels of Epistemology were one of those five bands. Merge's Mac McCaughan was in two others. Together, they mapped a path toward the '90s, toward indie rock, DIY, uncertainty, self-deprecation, noise, irony and unorthodox beauty.
The Angels' three box-set tracks appear on the posthumous Fruit, along with 17 others recorded between '87 and '89. All loose strings and nerve endings, jangling like a banjo tossed downstairs, this is three parts punk snot, five parts art school and four parts drunken gypsy caterwaul. This is the freedom to annoy and be annoyed. —Ross GradyPOLVO, TODAY'S ACTIVE LIFESTYLES
Today's Active Lifestyles worked in accordance with the great avant-rock insurgence of 1993. Alongside Sebadoh's Bubble and Scrape, Trumans Water's Spasm Smash XXXOXOX Ox & Ass and Don Caballero's For Respect, the Chapel Hill quartet's second LP helped unhinge the college radio oligarchy and ring in a new age of odd. Like a guitar-rock monster being pushed down a staircase, Today's Active Lifestyles flails unwound and reckless. Every thud on a floorboard renders the perfect sound.
"Thermal Treasure" is the definitive opener, too, its detuned guitars drunkenly conducting an expert and meaty rhythm section. Ash Bowie's lackadaisical tone rests in the thicket, a welcoming sound in the midst of a minor-major slugfest. The nine tracks that follow add enough left-field changes and impossibly tabulated riffs to confuse and compel for 41 more minutes. —Rich IveyHONOR ROLE, ALBUM
This Richmond band didn't originally release its works on Merge, but that doesn't prevent Honor Role's Album—which includes most of its recorded output—from being an essential part of the Merge catalog. Bob Schick's panicked, monotone vocals and emotionally brittle lyrics fit beautifully with Pen Rollings' wiry, sometimes jangly guitar.
It won't make you feel good, though. Well, if you're mental, or if you simply find beauty in urban desolation, you actually might find Album—a musty old diary with the pages rotting away, found under debris in a gutted, needle-and-bottle-strewn building—to be beautiful. Still, it's a live wire and a testament to Merges's desire to stretch the bounds of indie rock
Rollings went on to perfect (invent?) math rock in Breadwinner, which released three singles and a compilation on Merge, while Schick continued with Merge's Coral. —Karen MannERECTUS MONOTONE, CLOSE UP
Merge released four 7"s by Raleigh's Erectus Monotone between 1990 and 1992, including a split/ collaboration with Polvo. Rave Records released a nine-song EP, Erector Set, in 1992. The songs were good. The recordings by Jerry Kee were good. The band was good. Cathode Gumshoe and Erector Set, in fact, were great. Erectus Monotone had urgency and melody and interesting ideas, and it filtered them through whatever furious post-punk indie pop chops the young players could muster.
But by the time Erectus Monotone finally rose from the glut of early '90s indie rock singles, it was too late. When its debut LP, Close Up, arrived in 1993, Kevin Collins, Andy Freeburn, Jennifer Barwick (née Walker) and the band's fourth drummer, Brian Quast, split. They'd put in the hours, concocted one of the area's most interesting sounds and finally put out their big-league calling card. Then they just broke up.
Close Up is another coulda-been classic. "I Am The World" pits Daydream Nation abstraction against Superchunk-catchy choruses, and "Gilberto"—full of staccato and swing, as well as Collins' trademark twisted strain that now fronts Double Negative—proves Erectus Monotone didn't have to be fast to be restless. —Rich IveyBREADWINNER, BURNER
Did Breadwinner invent math rock? Well, let's put it this way: Don Caballero, Oxes and the Fucking Champs owe something to this Richmond trio and its pioneering art-metal. Guitarist Pen Rollings slashed chunky riffs across dizzying time changes, forging a combo of brains and brawn that lessers have been chasing ever since. "Watching a thousand footballs roll down a hill," a friend said, half-right. Breadwinner was certainly chaotic, but undeniably precise, too. The band's only misstep was breaking up so early. All that's left is these eight songs on Burner (and a subsequent 7"), an air-tight remnant of a sizzling career. —Marc MastersLABRADFORD, "JULIUS"
Just after Kranky Records released Labradford's debut, Prazision, as its first LP, the Virginia band dove deep into this 7" for Merge. "Julius" is a rich mood piece that might be a ballad, if only we knew the story being told by the hushed vocals. As though recorded underwater, "Julius" lurks at a sonar's sporadic pace. A cloud of feedback floats nearby, and a pipe organ settles into an austere setting. The flip, "Columna De La Independencia," works on whispered, blurred and buried vocal lines that shape it as a love letter, the singer's tone adoring but slightly menacing. Labradford went on to a long career as part of a scene lazily dubbed post-rock. Early on, Merge knew Labradford offered something special. —Chris ToenesCORNERSHOP, HOLD ON IT HURTS
Fatboy Slim popped his quarter in Cornershop's 15-minutes-of-fame meter in 1997 when his remix of the Indian-English band's "Brimful of Asha" became an unlikely pop hit. For that, the band, still active and adored in England, will likely be relegated to one-hit-wonder status in the American mainstream. But its 1995 debut for Merge remains a must-hear oddball. Borrowing from Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Superchunk and, well, Bollywood, Hold On It Hurts winds sitar passages, musique concrete tinkerings and political lyrics through ripping guitar tones, generally connected by delightfully discursive instrumental ideas. The single "Born Disco; Died Heavy Metal" chugs like Archers of Loaf, while "Change" suggests Lee Ranaldo woodshedding for a sweaty North Carolina summer. Need evidence of Merge's cultural import? Plug in. —Grayson CurrinEAST RIVER PIPE, POOR FRICKY
Forget the backstory (alcohol, homelessness, redemption, love, songwriting) and that these gorgeous songs were recorded at home (then, a novelty). Just listen to perfect pop songs with a drum machine programmed for naturalism and guitars that float and soar like Ira Kaplan's. Maybe the organ reminds you of New Jersey's other favorite son? The vocals, drenched in reverb, are sometimes only wordless keening.
Listen closer (while you're parked, humming along, waiting for the kids): This sweet, catchy stuff is actually a monument to agoraphobia, depression and gnawing doubt. In fact, its centerpiece, the majestic "Keep All Your Windows Tight Tonight," might be one of rock's loveliest paranoid rants: "Where's all the people? Where'd they go?/ Stare at the green clock up there in the sky/ Keep all your windows tight tonight... Don't fly away, don't fly away, don't fly away." —Ross GradyLAMBCHOP, THRILLER
Lambchop's third album begins normally enough, at least for Lambchop: distant chimes, leisurely guitar, a dozen voices crooning "oh yeah." Consonants clipping and vowels oozing, Kurt Wagner recites some nonsense about world, wire, spirals and fire. In its glacial pace and snotty profanity, the chorus—"I'll show your punkrock ass"—is quintessential Lambchop. The song ends, and the threat hangs in midair.
But then there's a guitar (too fast!), a shriek that's half James Brown and half burn victim, a Stax horn section, a ringing snare, a Curtis Mayfield guitar, and Wagner, again, now ecstatic: "What does it say, your fucking sunny day?" Everything we knew about Lambchop was undone.
Thriller holds more surprises, like a trio of East River Pipe covers that transpose the originals' melancholy tone into something like sadistic glee. But nothing comes close to that initial rush—repeatable, still, 13 years on. The shriek. The horns. The soul. —Ross GradyNEUTRAL MILK HOTEL, IN THE AEROPLANE OVER THE SEA
Jeff Mangum and some friends from his Elephant 6 musical collective in Athens, Ga., released a modest and earnest little album 11 years ago inspired by his encounter with The Diary of Anne Frank. On paper, the record's mix of eccentric and inspired instrumentation—from a New Orleans funeral to a four-on-the-floor rock group—and direct yet cryptic lyrics obsessed with biology and atrocity, all delivered in Mangum's nasal mewling, seems like the perfect recipe for a cult's acquired taste
So... Aeroplane becomes Merge Record's biggest sales success to that point, midwifes reams upon reams of critical appraisal and almost instantaneously enters the indie rock canon. In the wake of Mangum's sudden post-Aeroplane hiatus, he inspires the sort of noxious and fervent cult of personality that could inspire certain types to make the hiatus permanent (and maybe it has). But for an album whose myth has nearly eclipsed the actual work, Aeroplane remains just as disquieting, invigorating and enthralling now as ever. —David RaposaSHARK QUEST, BATTLE OF THE LOONS
(MRG 139, 1998)
Shark Quest began as wordless tinkering by a group of local Chapel Hillians between other projects. Drummer Groves Willer and guitarist Scott Goolsby played in Family Dollar Pharoahs, a highly cinematic instrumental band. Guitarist Laird Dixon developed his own idiosyncratic style through Zen Frisbee. Cellist Chris Eubanks matched string work to rock in Spatula. Sara Bell's mandolin and guitar gathered melodic folk and an Appalachia feel. But as its members dipped their toes into everyone else's sounds, they watered something—surf music's guitar rumble, dust-bitten spaghetti western ballads, pieces of finger-picking contemplation—that stands apart from anything else in Merge's catalog, or elsewhere. —Chris ToenesTHE MAGNETIC FIELDS, 69 LOVE SONGS
(MRG 166-169, 1999)
Between his albums with Magnetic Fields, The Gothic Archies, The 6ths and Future Bible Heroes, Stephin Merritt never seemed crippled by writer's block. Indeed, this massive trifecta, 69 Love Songs, was initially intended to be 100 songs inspired by Stephen Sondheim's theatrical music. Merritt reduced the number, but 69 songs? That takes most bands a decade.
Thanks in parts to its sheer variability and volume, 69 Love Songs is hugely accessible, familiar and often very funny. Merritt uses themes—animals, places, the difference in a vocalist's or instrument's sound—as game pieces he can mix and reassemble. Some tunes pop with their own randy humor or turn one humorous conceit into a thoughtful ode, like "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits." Some, like "Experimental Love Song," are exercises in how something doesn't work. At its core, 69 Love Songs wrestles with the big, often irresolvable ideas of the heart. Merritt speaks to love's bittersweet and ridiculous sides, offering a release to which people keep returning. —Chris ToenesSUPERCHUNK, ON THE MOUTH
Matador Records released On the Mouth, Superchunk's third LP, in 1993, but Merge has long owned the rights to this 13-song marathon of sprints, which will soon be reissued on vinyl. But On the Mouth remains a pivotal Merge holding for four reasons. Two of its best songs, "The Question is How Fast" and the indefatigable "Mower," were crucial Merge 7"s that preceded the LP. On the Mouth fulfilled Superchunk's Matador contract, too, allowing the band to be the label's full-time flagship just as the band's international star rose. And, while making Mouth, Superchunk cemented its relationship with producer John Reis, whose Drive Like Jehu and Rocket from the Crypt became essential Merge chums.
But that's politics, and reason four is always Superchunk's ace—the tunes. "The Question Is How Fast" mellows hardcore stomp with perfect sidewinding riffs and dynamics that peal away from the hook. The misanthropic howl of "New Low" pushes Jon Wurster's drumming to new heights (oh, to witness those fills...). These songs stretch the Superchunk palette wide, smartly adding new textures (an acoustic guitar leads "I Guess I Remembered It Wrong") and decentralizing the band's guitar dependence (Laura Ballance's rattling bass takes the melody on "Swallow That"). And on slow-burning closer, "The Only Piece That You Get," McCaughan casts his feelings into the void, discarding another relationship with a drifting, fragmented and damaged kiss-off. Goodbye Matador, indeed. —Grayson CurrinCROOKED FINGERS, RED DEVIL DAWN
Red Devil Dawn, the first full-length release by Crooked Fingers for Merge Records, is a fully realized and cohesive collection that encapsulates the evolution of singer/ songwriter Eric Bachmann from the clangorous whomp of his '90s band, Archers of Loaf, to a state of pensive maturity. Flailing guitars and shouted vocals are swapped for the nuanced sensibility of Bachmann's distinctive voice, classic rock structures and flashes of eloquence. In its coal-streaked rumble, Bachmann's burnished baritone will remind listeners of Tom Waits, and of Bruce Springsteen in its gutsy sincerity. It's a rich instrument that stands on its own terms, though, verifying that Bachmann, like Merge, had advanced from raw, early production to radio-ready grandiosity. —David KleinTHE ROSEBUDS, THE ROSEBUDS MAKE OUT
During the two-minute sprint of "My Downtown Friends," the socialite anthem of The Rosebuds' unfussy debut, Ivan Howad tells you about his biggest hopes for this one Saturday night (just like any other): "We're going downtown/ you wait and see/ all my downtown friends and my baby and me/ We're going downtown/ trying to get in for free." His diction is deliberate. His approach is earnest. His curiosity is contagious.
In 2003, Howard was a mid-20s ex-suburbanite who'd recently ventured into the big city with his new wife, keyboardist Kelly Crisp, and the simple-rhyming pop band they'd started after college. Just like the couple exploring this life in a new setting, the music—unsophisticated and unaffected, but fun as the best house party—bounds with the enthusiasm of fresh lovers fumbling with buttons in the dark. The Rosebuds Make Out isn't the band's most finessed—or, honestly, best—album, but the blur between its insouciance and enthusiasm, between its innocence and experience, was a shot in the arm for Merge's early-decade ease. —Grayson CurrinTHE ARCADE FIRE, FUNERAL
It's only appropriate that Funeral, which moved nearly half a million copies, surpassed a certain Neutral Milk Hotel album as the biggest-selling Merge Records release ever. Both are seemingly cut from the same cloth, but, where In The Aeroplane Over the Sea often landed on the side of the poetic and personal, Funeral gracefully steps over specificity to craft a message that's equal parts universal and personal. Post-Funeral, The Arcade Fire found itself endorsed by both Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie, two larger-than-life performers who weren't afraid to risk absurdity in order to connect with the cheap seats. Indeed, it's not shocking to hear "Wake Up," the highest of the album's many highs, currently scoring the trailer to Spike Jonze's big-budget adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are. The album's unabashed earnestness—both figurative and literal—is the perfect backdrop for the story of an angry boy trying to deal with the injustices of the world and transcend them. —David RaposaPORTASTATIC, BRIGHT IDEAS
Prior to Bright Ideas, Mac McCaughan's pogo-powered day job as Superchunk's frontman and his alone time with Portastatic met only in passing. But on McCaughan's first "solo"record with a full band—four years after Superchunk's last full-length—the two worlds come together to produce what might be the most confident album he's ever put to tape. While Bright Ideas contains plenty of proof that McCaughan has always had a way with a power chord, it's his dalliance with less familiar terrain (lyrically and vocally) that's the most heartening. Collaborations with notable jazz musicians and Tropicália tributes aside, when the guy who's spent most of his career disillusioned and heartbroken finally cops to it, real growth can—and, here, does—happen. —David RaposaSPOON, GIMME FICTION
We live in an era conspicuously lacking in subtlety and careful planning, which is why Spoon has ascended to such a distinct and uncontested position in the world of indie rock, and why Gimme Fiction amounts to a jewel in Spoon's sparsely decorated crown. It's everything that most rock records aren't these days—uncluttered, restrained, utterly lacking in big gestures. Gimme Fiction casts its spell based not on a wall of distorted guitar but on the gestalt of a few select elements: Britt Daniel's cocksure rasp, some astringent guitar chords and a rhythm section that swings, abetted in no small part by the well-timed handclap and tambourine shake. This collection cherry-picks from a host of styles—the descending figure of "The Beast and Dragon Adored," recalls the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon," for instance—and makes them all resound. —David KleinTHE CLIENTELE, STRANGE GEOMETRY
To be blunt, Alasdair MacLean is fucked: His bills are piling up. His heart is broken down. He's hallucinating. He might be bleeding. He's weepy with nostalgia and innocence lost. The world sings to him one word: "E.M.P.T.Y." London's The Clientele can claim responsibility for four of Merge's most exquisite records—Suburban Light, The Violet Hour, God Save the Clientele and this, their third, Strange Geometry. Strange Geometry, though, is the most accessible, both for its emotional empathy (You've been lonely before, right?) and its hooks that infiltrate like private investigators (If you've never hummed "Since K Got Over Me," you've simply never heard it.) But in the luxuriating strings and the wafting notes of electric guitar, there's a hope, a flicker of resilience, a feeling that something good is to come of this relentless gloom. After all, when music's this beautiful, how bad can life get? —Grayson CurrinDESTROYER, DESTROYER'S RUBIES
(MRG 268, 2006)
With his sweeping, spiraling voice and interlocked levels of verbosity, Canadian songwriter Dan Bejar has established himself as one of the decade's most distinguished aesthetes. If you doubt it, see "Rubies," the monumental lead and title cut from his third Merge album, Destroyer's Rubies: In nine minutes, Bejar "casts himself toward infinity" while chastising the shallow wealth of American money and referencing Otis Redding, John Fogerty and Jim Morrison. Diligently self-referential, he twists previous album titles into new meanings, giving his own mythology a deservedly broad context. And like a Lil Wayne for those receiving doctorates in The Classics, Bejar leads like he's having the time of his career here, routing his wisdom through a florid band he seems to conduct with the inflections of his voice alone. The remainder of Rubies brings Bejar's preternatural coolness to bear perfectly, his aplomb and ambition shining like an encrusted jewel in a landscape dominated by boring rocks. —Grayson CurrinCAMERA OBSCURA, LET'S GET OUT OF THIS COUNTRY
From the first Spector-texture notes of "Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken," Camera Obscura stepped from the twee shadow of Belle & Sebastian and staked its own claim to book-smart, '60s-flavored indie pop. Lead singer Tracyanne Campbell and band found a sympathetic collaborator in Swedish pop producer Jari Haapalainen and delivered a set of sugarcoated retro hooks that remind us why we fall in love in the first place—even if it results in disappointment or disaster. These sentiments, conveyed with soaring strings and reverb, would tilt saccharine if Campbell didn't turn such a wry, knowing eye: "Tell me where it all went wrong/ I can make it better," she sings on the Motown echo "If Looks Could Kill," only to concede on the ballad "Country Mile" that "the more you look forlorn/ the more to you I warm." And we to you, Tracyanne. —John Schacht