Merge Records celebrates its 25th birthday this week with a series of great shows throughout Carrboro and Durham, North Carolina. It kicked off yesterday with Lambchop playing all of its album Nixon, and concludes on Saturday 7/26 with an outdoor party featuring Neutral Milk Hotel, Bob Mould, Teenage Fanclub and more. In between Superchunk, Destroyer, Wye Oak, the Mountain Goats and a host of others will be filling the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, Merge’s unofficial house rock club.
Merge’s success is based on two simple ideas: Do good work and treat people well. The label has released some of the best and most important rock ’n’ roll records of the last 25 years, from Superchunk’s earliest singles to iconic classics from Neutral Milk Hotel and the Arcade Fire, while preserving a 50/50 profit split with artists that major labels would never match. It’s grown from a part-time label putting out singles by North Carolina bands to a Grammy-winning cultural institution, without ever having to compromise its ideals or reputation. And despite maintaining the utmost integrity and credibility, the label and its founders remain almost self-effacing in their modesty.
To celebrate the label’s anniversary, we’re going to run down the very best from each of the label’s first 25 years. It’s hard to pick just a single album from each year, so we’ve also listed a few honorable mentions.
1989: Superchunk : “What Do I” b/w “My Noise” and “The Train From Kansas City”
The Bricks 7” with “Girl With the Carrot Skin”, “The Mountain Goes to Mohammed” and “The Sturgeon” might deserve this spot—it’s a better collection of songs, and it’s the only realistic opportunity for one of Mac McCaughan’s pre-Superchunk bands to make this list. But Superchunk’s first single (released under the band name Chunk) gets the nod because you could find a mission statement of sorts within the lyrics of “My Noise”. Plus the cover of the Shangri-Las’ “The Train from Kansas City” is a great noisy pop song.
Honorable Mention: Bricks, “Girl with the Carrot Skin” 7”
1990: Superchunk: “Slack Motherfucker” b/w “Night Creatures” 7”
“Indie rock anthem” is an unseemly term, but “Slack Motherfucker” fits the bill in the truest sense. It’s another song that strikes to the heart of the ethos guiding Merge—you don’t have to have a “real” job to work hard at something. Often misunderstood (but not as much as, say, “Born in the USA”), “Slack Motherfucker” is a beautiful “fuck you” and a battle hymn for the dedicated creative.
Honorable Mention: Angels of Epistemology, s/t 7”
1991: Erectus Monotone: Cathode Gumshoe EP
Okay, despite offering up five great permutations of catchy, dissonant pop, Cathode Gumshoe probably isn’t the best record Merge put out in 1991. How much Superchunk does one list need, though? Plus it might be the most representative of Merge’s early days. Erectus Monotone was a North Carolina outfit who released a handful of singles on Merge and a single album. They’re just good enough to escape the buddy rock zone, and a perfect example of Merge’s history of hometown boosterism.
Superchunk, “Cool” b/w “Fishing”; Superchunk, The Freed Seed EP
1992: Butterglory: Alexander Bends EP
In 1992 Merge expanded to releasing full-lengths, starting with a Superchunk singles compilation and Polvo’s first album. It also released a stream of great singles from bands like California’s Drive Like Jehu, Virginia’s Honor Role and cult indie rock band Seam, who Mac briefly drummed for. One of those seven-inches was the debut from Lawrence, Kansas’s Butterglory, beginning a relationship between Merge and songwriter Matt Suggs that would last in various forms for a decade and a half. The lo-fi indie-pop of Alexander Bends (specifically the title track) is both timeless yet firmly embedded in its pre-internet cultural moment of college radio and indie rock zines. If you had to find a prototypical early 90s indie rock song and couldn’t pull from any of the obvious headliners,“Alexander Bends” would be as good a pick as any.
Honorable Mention: Polvo, Cor-Crane Secret LP; Drive Like Jehu, “Bullet Train to Vegas” b/w “Hand Over Fist” 7”
1993: Polvo: Today’s Active Lifestyles
Polvo might’ve been the best rock band in America for a stretch, merging the dissonant rock of Sonic Youth with complicated rhythms and influences from Asian and Indian music. The result is often called “math rock”, but Polvo never feels as cold or impersonal as that genre often gets. Today’s Active Lifestyles is Polvo’s second full-length, and one of the earliest albums released by Merge. It’s a heady mix of fractured and inventive rock music that’s both heavy and seemingly always on the verge of collapse.
1994: Polvo: Celebrate the New Dark Age EP
Merge released a lot of great albums in 1994—Superchunk’s Foolish, the Magnetic Fields’ The Charm of the Highway Strip, the 3Ds’The Venus Trail—but none of them can stand up to Polvo’s perfect EP. It’s not surprising the band’s best work would be an EP—the format lets any band focus like a laser on its greatest strengths, but Polvo in particular is a band that works best in concentrated bursts, where the power of their atonal melodies and droning noise can neither dissipate nor grow redundant. There’s no fat on Celebrate the New Dark Age, and the self-referential “Every Holy Shroud” might be this pivotal group’s best song.
the Magnetic Fields, Superchunk and 3Ds albums mentioned above; Portastatic, I Hope Your Heart is Not Brittle; Archers of Loaf, “What Did You Expect?” b/w “Ethel Merman” 7”
1995: East River Pipe: Poor Fricky
Even F.M. Cornog’s upbeat songs, like Poor Fricky’s “Here We Go”, are drenched in sadness. Between the ethereal guitars, the distant synths and Cornog’s yearning voice, Poor Fricky is a beautifully depressed and intimate record from a first-class songwriter. Along with a burgeoning relationship with the Magnetic Fields and 1995 releases from Cornershop and Spent, Merge’s still-extant relationship with the New Jersey-based Cornog was proof that the label had fully outgrown its provincial Southeastern roots.
Honorable Mention: Spent, Songs of Drinking and Rebellion; Cornershop, Hold On It Hurts; Superchunk, Here’s Where the Strings Come In; Magnetic Fields, Get Lost
1996: Neutral Milk Hotel: On Avery Island
Neutral Milk Hotel
didn’t arrive out of nowhere with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The band’s 1996 debut is less cohesive than its more famous record, but it’s a noisily beautiful set of songs with some of Jeff Mangum’s best lyrics.“Naomi” and the one-two punch of “Gardenhead” and “Leave Me Alone” are as good as anything on Aeroplane.
Honorable Mention: Lambchop, How I Quit Smoking; The Karl Hendricks Trio, For a While, It Was Funny
1997: Portastatic: The Nature of Sap
This is the most underrated record from the always underrated Portastatic. The basic songwriting isn’t that dissimilar from McCaughan’s work with Superchunk, but with the fuzzed out guitars replaced with piano, clarinet and acoustic guitars. It’s a downcast jazzy pop record that dabbles with electronic minimalism and features some of McCaughan’s best song writing, including the sugary kiwi pop pastiche“Impolite Cheers”, and the would-be hit “Spying on the Spies”, which could easily be a Superchunk staple.
Honorable Mention: Beatnik Filmstars, Inhospitalable;
1998: Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Merge released Neutral Milk Hotel’s second album in 1998. It was released to little fanfare and nobody ever heard either the album or the band ever again.
Honorable Mention: The Third Eye Foundation, You Guys Kill Me; Lambchop, What Another Man Spills
1999: Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs
Stephin Merritt’s three-disc epic was a crucial breakthrough for both the band and the label, both inarguable proof of Merritt’s songwriting skill at a variety of styles and of Merge’s ability to successfully release and promote such a massive project. This isn’t the best Magnetic Fields record, but it is the most audacious and most overwhelming. It’s not a flawless collection of songs but almost a flawless experience, and the batting average is high enough to make up for the strike-outs.
Honorable Mention: The Ladybug Transistor, The Albemarle Sound; The Rock*A*Teens, Golden Time
2000: Lambchop: Nixon
Lambchop was remarkably prolific in its first decade, and more consistent than any band with such a large discography should be. It was also impossible to pin down to any specific genre, least of all indie rock. Nixon, its fourth album in four years, is a smooth collection of loosely R&B inspired chamber pop that got tagged as alt-country or indie rock because of the band’s hometown and the label name on the spine, respectively. Kurt Wagner is a masterful, if sometimes indulgent, songwriter, with a knack for abstract lyrics infused with emotional heft by a voice that’s both relaxed and tired and deeply lonely.
Honorable Mention: The Rock*A*Teens, Sweet Bird of Youth