Merge's Silver Age

25 Essential Albums Over 25 Years

by PopMatters Staff

22 July 2014


Funeral, Transfiguration of Vincent, and more

Radar Brothers
And the Surrounding Mountains (2002)

We all too often talk about innovation and consistency as if they are totally separate. But bands like Radar Bros. remind us that there is an area of inclusion where those two circles meet. What makes Jim Putnam and company innovative is the way they make grand soundscapes out of the most basic elements, and nowhere in the band’s, yes, absolutely consistent catalog is this clearer than on And the Surrounding Mountains. The electric fills bleeding out over a warm acoustic strum on “You and the Father”, the cool piano chords rippling through “Sisters”, dripping fills and layered vocals on “Camplight”—these songs and so many others stack layers of traditional rock instruments to create spacey pop songs. The songs on this record are as muscular as they are atmospheric, as quietly blissful as they can be melancholy. What ties it all together, the atmosphere and sweet melodies, is the melting yet sturdy bass work of Senon Williams, weighing these songs down so they float without drifting off. This combination of layering and immediacy, of atmosphere and clarity, makes And the Surrounding Mountains one of the great unsung pop records from one of the great unsung bands. Arcade Fire may get a lot of attention, but the quiet, ongoing craftsmanship of the Radar Bros.’ sound makes them a truly quintessential Merge band. And the Surrounding Mountains, then, isn’t their greatest album, it’s their first of many great albums. Matthew Fiander

The Clean
Anthology (2003)

Merge has long been one of the biggest Stateside boosters of New Zealand underground-pop, with the label’s connections running deep by putting out releases from prominent Kiwi acts like the 3Ds, the Cakekitchen, and the Bats. But it’s the imprint’s association with the Clean and David Kilgour that has been the most enduring and fruitful, with their post-2000 output coming out on Merge. Nothing has symbolized this mutually beneficial relationship better than the Clean’s Anthology: Although it doesn’t include any original material, the stuffed-to-the-gills two-disc collection is the most pivotal NZ release on Merge because it gave greater exposure—finally—to the Clean’s seminal early material, which, during the CD era, remained oddly and obstinately hard to find in the U.S. despite the group being a name brand in indie circles. Anthology served an important dual purpose, providing an overview of the Clean’s prolific first decade-and-a-half at the same time it was deep dive into hard-to-find out-of-print recordings that, for many, made ‘em a prime example of a band you heard of but hadn’t really heard. The first disc, in particular, would be a horizon expanding history lesson, except that proto-indie early ‘80s tracks like “Tally Ho”, “Billy Two”, and “Getting Older” sound so vital no matter when you hear ‘em. And if you missed them the first time—or the second time—Merge has recently reissued Anthology, speaking to the Clean’s timelessness. Arnold Pan

M. Ward
Transfiguration of Vincent (2003)

M. Ward’s music has become inextricably linked with a kind of nostalgia for a way music used to be made. If he’s not the only person who loves old country records, or obscure 45s, or John Fahey, he is the only one who manages to make his records feel like aged artifacts from the first note. It’s an incredible accomplishment, but on his first album for Merge, Transfiguration of Vincent, the mix of that longing for a past with personal loss and heartache proves potent. Ward later released Transistor Radio, which calls to your attention its genre-hopping, but Transfiguration of Vincent moves even more deftly from tradition to tradition. The dusty power-pop of “Vincent O’Brien” links to the buzzing folk of “Outta My Head”, while “Involuntary” and “Undertaker” offer a swaying, melancholic counterpoint. We get hints of everyone from Fahey (the album title is an allusion to his work) to Django Reinhardt to all manner of folk and blues traditions. The songs themselves are down-and-out stories of loss and lost love, of loners wondering how they ended up so lonely. But if the words are about being trapped, the music is playfully free, and Ward twists tradition as much as he honors it. One needs only to hear his heartbreaking version of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” to see that Ward hears music in his own way, and finds his own unique voice within all of these traditions on Transfiguration of Vincent. It’s an album that doesn’t come up as much as others when we talk about Merge classics, but that doesn’t mean we can’t (and shouldn’t) change that tune. Matthew Fiander

Arcade Fire
Funeral (2004)

Funeral is a landmark album, both for Canadian music and for Merge Records. After receiving glowing reviews upon its release, the LP quickly sold out of its initial pressing, and has since been certified Gold in the United States. One can only imagine that the “Arcade Fire money” has allowed Merge to grow and put out more quality acts. And while some Canadians might be now sick of the album from radio overplay, it still has the power to captivate, and this is arguably the band’s finest moment. Ranked at No. 151 in the updated version of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Funeral, despite its title and the fact that it was inspired by the deaths of family members close to the band, is a joyous and celebratory affair. Not one track is a throwaway, the album works as a unified whole, and it’s no surprise that Funeral yielded no less than five singles, or half the album. And while Arcade Fire’s output since has been consistent, but not quite as rewarding, Funeral is important because it turned international attention towards the Montreal music scene and Canadian music in general. For that reason, Funeral is probably the most crucial release, outside of perhaps Superchunk’s, put out by the label, and is a reminder of just how great music can be, no matter the country of origin. Zachary Houle

Teenage Fanclub
Man-Made (2005)

Teenage Fanclub could have easily disappeared into the ether. A prominent band in the ‘90s that grabbed headlining spots at festivals in the UK, American audiences never warmed to them as they should have. Their spot on Merge Records seems perfect in hindsight, as they’re cut from the same cloth as Superchunk, the Ladybug Transistor, and the Magnetic Fields, albeit with a bit more polish and shine to their sound. Man-Made, their debut for Merge, is flawless. Twelve tracks of harmonized power pop and readymade singles from a band that has more songwriting talent than all of the biggest names in indie pop. Man-Made breezes through the darkness and the light with simple elegance. “Cells” turns a sour subject (“cells breaking down” into nothingness) into a hummable run the Flaming Lips only wish they could write. “It’s All in My Mind” and “Nowhere” could be lost Big Star tracks, and “Feel” wraps up all the sounds of a brilliant summer day with a psychedelic ribbon. Get in and get out could be the band’s mantra. Scott Elingburg

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