2001: Spoon: Girls Can Tell
Spoon was an indie rock also-ran who signed to a major label after the alt rock window had already closed, released a shockingly great album that nobody listened to and then got dropped almost immediately. Girls Can Tell, the band’s first album back with an indie label, didn’t just prove that 1998’s major label one-off A Series of Sneaks wasn’t a fluke. It confirmed that Spoon had somehow grown into a first-class rock band with an idiosyncratic sound as immediately identifiable as Britt Daniel’s voice.
Honorable Mention: The Clean, Getaway;
2002: Spoon: Kill the Moonlight
Britt Daniel knows how to sing and write songs, but the power of Kill the Moonlight is in the production. On the minimalist Moonlight you’ll hear some of the best use of sonic space on any recent rock record, with crafty use of echoes, separation and panning tricks. Of course that wouldn’t mean much if the album didn’t feature some of Daniel’s best songs, including “That’s the Way We Get By” and the ethereal “Vittorio E.”
Honorable Mention: Lambchop, Is a Woman; Crooked Fingers, Reservoir Songs EP
2003: Crooked Fingers: Red Devil Dawn
Chapel Hill’s Archers of Loaf somehow skipped Merge in the 90s other than one awesome single in 1994. Frontman Eric Bachmann hooked up with the hometown label for the third album from his next project, Crooked Fingers, which eschews the noise and angst of the Archers for a more tuneful and traditional take on songcraft. Bachmann’s Neil Diamond croak and Springsteen-ish arrangements reached their peak on Red Devil Dawn, an overlooked gem from an underappreciated songwriter.
Honorable Mention: The Clientele, The Violet Hour; Buzzcocks, Buzzcocks
2004: Arcade Fire: Funeral
Funeral might be a little overwrought, but who are we to doubt the band’s passion? Plus Arcade Fire wrote actual songs beneath all the drama, tapping into the universal discontent of arty teenagers worldwide while paying tribute to such redoubtable influences as Springsteen and the Talking Heads. Funeral quickly made Arcade Fire the biggest band Merge had ever worked with, solidifying the label at the very top of the indie rock industry.
Honorable Mention: Destroyer, Your Blues; American Music Club, Love Song for Patriots
2005: Teenage Fanclub: Man-Made
If you were around and aware in 1991 you probably had a copy of Bandwagonesque, even if it was just a dub. Acolytes of Big Star, the Byrds, Badfinger and other power pop pillars whose names may or may not begin with a B, the Scottish band has chased pop perfection on every record since, without ever really making a misstep. Man-Made is another stately collection of craftsman-like power-pop, but with a somewhat dry and clinical production job from Tortoise’s John McEntire that creates a nice tension with the traditional Teenage Fanclub sound. It’s not an especially great record for the band, but it’s the best album Merge released in 2005.
Crooked Fingers, Dignity and Shame; Tenement Halls, Knitting Needles and Bicycle Bells
2006: Camera Obscura: Let’s Get Out of this Country
Dogged by undying references to fellow Glaswegian indie-poppers Belle and Sebastian (whose frontman Stuart Murdoch had done some production work for the band), Camera Obscura’s gorgeous third album soars on the back of two fantastic singles, the title track and “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken.” It’s a warm, vulnerable, joyous look at love and the delicacy of personal relationships.
Honorable Mention: Destroyer, Destroyer’s Rubies; Robert Pollard, From a Compound Eye
2007: Spoon: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Daniel’s voice is still unmistakable, but Spoon largely foregoes its traditional sonic minimalism on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Alternative radio hits “The Underdog” and “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” are expansively arranged hits that recall Motown and Phil Spector. The band doesn’t completely ditch the studio trickery, though—“The Ghost of You Lingers” is a whirring, stuttering ghost of a song.
Honorable Mention: Caribou, Andorra; Oakley Hall, I’ll Follow You
2008: Destroyer: Trouble in Dreams
Yet again, it’s the luck of the draw. Trouble in Dreams is not the best Destroyer record, but it’s the only Destroyer record that came out on Merge in a year where the label didn’t release a better record by somebody else. It is a fairly representative Destroyer record, though, a twisting, elaborate, ambitious rock record with erudite lyrics and a confident, theatrical delivery that almost verges on parody. Dan Bejar is a tremendous talent, and Trouble in Dreams is just more proof.
Honorable Mention: Lambchop, Ohio
2009: The Clean: Mister Pop
Mister Pop isn’t the Clean’s best work. You’ll find that in the compilations Compilation or Anthology, the latter of which Merge has reissued a couple of times now. Mister Pop is the strongest of their sporadic reunion albums, though, an unassuming collection of pleasantly ragged pop songs with hooks and memorable melodies chugging through the lo-fi fuzz.
Honorable Mention: Polvo, In Prism; The Clientele, Bonfires on the Heath
2010: Superchunk: Majesty Shredding
After nine years of occasional singles and a few tours, Superchunk finally returned with a new album in 2010. Somehow it’s their best full-length yet. Even their best albums had a bit of filler here and there, but Majesty Shredding is a non-stop blast of high-energy pop power. It’s almost like, instead of releasing five albums during that period and then putting the singles on a “greatest hits of the aughts” collection, Superchunk decided to junk every song that wouldn’t be a single and release all the hits on a single album. “Learned to Surf”, “Digging for Something”, “Crossed Wires” and “Everything at Once” are mandatory for even the least committed Superchunk fan.
Honorable Mention: Arcade Fire, The Suburbs; Caribou, Swim; Various Artists, Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox
2011: Times New Viking: Dancer Equired
Merge put out some heavy hitters in 2011, but the best record that year came from Times New Viking, an excellent noise pop band from Ohio who had already had stints with Matador and Siltbreeze. Dancer Equired is Times New Viking’s most accessibly produced record, but it’s still thrillingly noisy, and features the band’s catchiest and most assured pop songs yet.
Honorable Mention: Destroyer, Kaputt; Wye Oak, Civilian; Wild Flag, Wild Flag
2012: Mountain Goats: Transcendental Youth
The word “literary” is overused when talking about singer-songwriters, but it perfectly fits John Darnielle’s work in the Mountain Goats. Darnielle is a gifted writer with a keen eye for observation, fully fleshing out the characters and settings of his songs with just a few details. Transcendental Youth, a song cycle about various social outcasts in Washington state, is a quietly devastating look at the margins of society. You’ll have a hard time not singing along to its catchier moments, no matter how sad the words make you.
Bob Mould, The Silver Age; Hospitality, Hospitality
2013: Mikal Cronin: MCII
Beneath the tough, noisy exterior of his earlier albums, Mikal Cronin was always a pop guy at heart. His Merge debut cuts back on the grime to reveal a beautiful and surprisingly fragile pop record. Bolstered by strings, acoustic guitars and Cronin’s occasional falsetto, MCII reveals Cronin to be as in line with Matthew Sweet as the Oh Sees.
Superchunk, I Hate Music; Arcade Fire, Reflektor
Best bets for 2014: Hospitality, Trouble; Bob Mould, Beauty & Ruin; Reigning Sound, Shattered; Ex Hex, Rips
Garrett Martin is Paste’s games editor. He’s written about music for the Boston Phoenix, the Flagpole, DigBoston and elsewhere.