Merge 25: The 25 Best Records on Merge, Year by Year

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2001: Spoon: Girls Can Tell

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Honorable Mention:   Crooked Fingers, Dignity and Shame; Tenement Halls, Knitting Needles and Bicycle Bells

2006: Camera Obscura: Let’s Get Out of this Country

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Honorable Mention:   Bob Mould, The Silver Age; Hospitality, Hospitality

2013: Mikal Cronin: MCII

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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.

Honorable Mention:   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.

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