Merge's Silver Age

25 Essential Albums Over 25 Years

by PopMatters Staff

22 July 2014


Wild Flag, Transcendental Youth, and more

American Music Club
The Golden Age (2008)

Merge has a knack for catching established artists as they are hitting a new peak (see: Bob Mould, Richard Buckner, David Kilgour, that Buzzcocks record you’re just now remembering), but the return of American Music Club was a revelation. The anger and ache of Love Songs for Patriots was the band’s first record in ten years and also one of their best, but it also merely set the stage for The Golden Age. The album, a weary echo of its predecessor, feels more ethereal and yet resonates much deeper. The album opens with the dreamy roll and shuffle of “All My Love” and Mark Eitzel breathing out, “I wish that we were always high.” The rest of the album approximates that haze while also churning up the worry that brings on that wish. Eitzel has always dug into the darkest corners of the room, but his trick is that it’s there he finds light. And The Golden Age has some of his brightest darkness, with career-highlight songs like “Who You Are” and “Decibels and the Little Pills”. The album tones down the dramatics and edge of early AMC records and in its place is a sound so fragile you almost miss the strong weave of its layers. Eitzel’s back on his own these days, but when American Music Club came back and found a new home in Merge, they also produced their best album in The Golden Age. This was their highest high, so every time this record spins, Eitzel gets that opening wish. Matthew Fiander

The Clientele
Bonfires on the Heath (2009)

Merge’s scouting reputation, their ear for talent, is a story all its own. When the news came sometime around the last turn of the century that the label would be releasing music by the UK trio the Clientele, a band some of us had already been rapturously following from import-only 7” to 7”, I was overjoyed. Fast-forward nearly a decade beyond that, and you reach Bonfires on the Heath, the group’s final full-length album (so far). It contains all of their progress in glimmering fashion and captures the essence of their music: the unique combination of romance, surrealism, and vivid, bittersweet atmosphere. Some of the songs have the exact same intimacy and immediacy as their earliest, most home-recorded songs, while others stretch out in a manner befitting a group who has practiced new tricks and incorporated new styles into their sound over the years. It’s an album that stands in some ways as the most complete actualization of their approach to pop music. Perhaps knowing this album could be this kind of career-summarizing effort, they also revisit the earliest Clientele song, “Graven Wood”. The album concludes with a late-afternoon stroll through a park, a lovely, brief, and inconclusive moment typical of the Clientele. “I don’t know what more I can say” are the words they leave us with. Dave Heaton

Wild Flag
Wild Flag (2011)

The recently departed Wild Flag was a kind of unicorn of the musical world—a supergroup that was actually as good in practice as it seemed on paper. Composed of Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney), Mary Timony (Autoclave, Helium), Rebecca Cole (the Minders) and Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, the Jicks), the group came together as if by fate in late 2010, releasing their sole album the next year. Wild Flag is a delirious mélange of the kind of garage, punk, psychedelia, FM jams that teenagers grok to in their cars, delivered by women with enough experience to know just how life-affirming that kind of music can be.

From the distorted jolt of keyboards that introduce “Romance” to the skronkily riffed fade-out of “Racehorse”, the songs on Wild Flag insinuate themselves with every listen. The record is suffused with the enthusiasm of youth filtered through the confidence of maturity which makes for a front-to-back tour de force. Unlike their earlier collaboration, the Spells, Brownstein and Timony seem of a same liberated mind, singing about music, movement, meaning, and connection on nearly every song on the album, which Weiss and Cole back up with taut, propulsive accompaniment. Never overstaying its welcome, Wild Flag is a supremely satisfying one-off in the Merge catalog, the kind of record that leaves you happy to be wanting more. John M. Tryneski

The Mountain Goats
Transcendental Youth (2012)

The Mountain Goats spent much of the last 25 years bouncing from one record label to another, so it was probably only a matter of time before they ended up on Merge. It’s fitting too, since the group’s recording output has traveled a path similar to that of the label—starting with a rough, riveting early run overloaded with jittery energy, and moving into a distinctive second phase marked by more complex songcraft and fleshed-out arrangements. On the Mountain Goats’ 2012 album Transcendental Youth, John Darnielle’s tales of wayward characters and destructive behaviors are given a variety of treatments, from sparse piano backdrops to sturdy indie pop to lively horn sections. “The Diaz Brothers” and lead single “Cry for Judas” rank among the most accessible tracks the group has produced, while “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” references Amy Winehouse in a memorable celebration (and word of warning) for a reckless life lived on the fringes. Striking the right balance between studio embellishment and the Mountain Goats’ trademark raw simplicity, the album stands as a late-career highlight and a promise of even better things to come. Mike Noren

Mikal Cronin
MCII (2013)

Instead of putting its cultural capital behind the blogosphere’s next big things, Merge has, of late, been giving a platform to up-and-coming artists who are gaining attention for being true craftsmen—in other words, the label is sticking with a business model that’s worked for 25 years now. In that vein, this 25th spot could go to, say, Mount Moriah’s Miracle Temple or William Tyler’s Impossible Truth, but let’s slot in Mikal Cronin’s MCII, as fine an example of how the next wave of Merge mainstays are taking well-trodden sounds and putting their own twists on them. So while he’s often chalked up as part of the garage rock revival, Cronin flashes more power-pop workmanship on 2013’s MCII than you’d expect going in, bearing as much of a resemblance to Big Star and Elliott Smith as he does to compatriots Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees. Indeed, what stands out about MCII is how effortlessly timeless its best melodies are, whether you’re talking about the pop symphonics of the opener “Weight” or the yearning strum of “I’m Done Running from You”. Yet despite all the elements that recall the best that power-pop and garage-rock can offer, it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what Cronin’s influences are, because everything about MCII is so complete on its own terms. Giving the floor over to artists approaching their prime like Mikal Cronin is, Merge’s future is as bright as its bench is deep. Arnold Pan

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