In 1989, you would’ve really had to stretch your imagination to believe that Merge Records would still be around a quarter of a century after it began as an outlet to self-release Superchunk 7” singles because no one initially would. And certainly no one could’ve forecasted that Merge would become as influential as it is now, going from underground trendsetter to the home of Billboard chart-toppers, Grammy awardees, and indie legends. But that’s exactly where Merge stands today as it celebrates its 25th birthday this week with a festival taking place in its homebase of the Research Triangle in North Carolina.
Apropos of the label’s own backstory, unlikely success stories have been Merge’s specialty. Who knew that Merge’s first breakthrough into the popular consciousness would’ve come with what seemed at the time to be an overly ambitious, gimmicky, unwieldy three-CD boxset—the Magnetic Fields’ 1999 opus, 69 Love Songs? Who expected Spoon would go from exiled major-label never-weres to a consistently charting act after Merge rescued the now venerable Austin band from the alt-rock scrapheap? And who would’ve predicted that a heretofore unknown collective from Montreal would turn into the current generation’s U2 and Springsteen all rolled into one when Merge released the Arcade Fire’s Funeral in 2004? Yet all that really happened over the last two-and-a-half decades, which is why Merge has become a model franchise that aspiring indies and restructuring majors alike are patterning themselves after.
From the outside looking in, the secret to Merge’s success actually seems rather simple, yet something that can’t be replicated or imitated: a sense of community. That’s the core principle that seems to have guided Merge and Superchunk founders Laura Ballance and MacMcCaughan in their artistic investments and business endeavors—as Ballance puts it in the video above, Merge’s basic philosophy is “to be nice to people and to be fair.”
In the most basic sense, that spirit of camaraderie and bonhomie informs everything the label has done, right down to Ballance and McCaughan’s initial aim for Merge to preserve and grow its own local musical community. That’s something Merge’s catalog has stayed true to through thick and thin, tracing the lineage of the North Carolina indie-rock from early label stalwarts like Polvo and Pipe to newer voices such as Mount Moriah and Spider Bags. But that idea of community has become at once more intangible and more substantial as Merge has aged. It’s what has tied Merge to the New Zealand underground for over two decades, its commitments never stronger than when the label rallied the troops to make a benefit album for Chris Knox after his stroke. It’s the reason why Merge has been a refuge for so many esteemed acts looking for a new home—from Bob Mould to Teenage Fanclub, from the Buzzcocks to Carrie Brownstein in Wild Flag—who, in turn, have produced some of their best work after that was supposed to be behind them. And it’s really the thread that stitches together a catalog that’s broad and diverse, defined by a shared ethos more than a sound.
To mark the silver anniversary of Merge Records, PopMatters has come up with a list of 25 essential albums from the label. While one could almost compile such a best-of list with just Superchunk, Magnetic Fields, and Spoon albums, we decided to not to double-dip from any band’s discography to give a broader, better cross-section of what Merge has to offer. So yeah, we know the list to follow doesn’t start with Merge’s first and perhaps defining album—Superchunk’s singles comp Tossing Seeds (1992)—nor is Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, Merge’s best-selling and only Grammy-winning disc, on here. But actually, that seems only in keeping with the spirit of a label that plays no favorites if only because every release is treated like a favorite. Arnold Pan
Today’s Active Lifestyles (1993)
Polvo was never destined to have a wide appeal; the band’s fondness for shifting time signatures and unconventional guitar tunings meant that it could aim to be a semi-mainstream curiosity, at best. Still, when they first appeared, their take on noise rock was unlike anything that any band was attempting at the time, and 1993’s Today’s Active Lifestyles is still the most refined, sharpened take on what they did. The album seems like neither fish nor fowl: too dissonant and off-kilter for more conventional indie rock, yet not hard and twisted enough for fans of the “math rock” genre that Polvo founded, then disavowed. Yet, the album’s singular place in Polvo’s discography and in indie rock makes it all the more remarkable.
Ash Bowie always seemed to prefer to let his guitar talk for him, and he might be better for it. Bowie’s work on Today’s Active Lifestyles remains Polvo’s defining characteristic, mixing distortion-driven noise with post-punk’s angular riffs. His guitar could even evoke emotions that no amount of singing could, as on the beautiful, melancholy “My Kimono”. Few bands were as daring as Polvo was in its time, and even fewer could pull it off credibly, which is why Today’s Active Lifestyles manages to resonate years later. Kevin Korber
Foolish found Superchunk in emotional tatters, reeling from a tricky ideological divorce from Matador as well as Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance’s dissolved relationship. The album finds the band at odds with its own identity, as Superchunk’s punchy, high-energy punk slowed to a crawling pace, and McCaughan’s lyrics got more personal (and more vicious) than ever before. By all rights, Foolish should have been a disaster, but it not only works, it’s arguably the quintessential indie rock album, one that laid out a groundwork for dozens of bands who followed in its wake.
Much of the success of Foolish could easily be credited to producer Brian Paulson, who understood the band’s more adventurous side as something to expand upon rather than hold back. In his hands, the more meditative, melodic work of “Driveway to Driveway” and “Like a Fool” have room to breathe, and they become the anthems that they were destined to be. Superchunk was always a rousing, fun band on record and in person, but Foolish was the first time that it really demonstrated the kind of range it had both lyrically and musically. That it’s still a touchstone for many indie rock bands—some of whom ended up signing to Merge—is a testament to the record’s sheer brilliance. Kevin Korber
I Hope You’re Sitting Down(1994)
At Merge Records’ five-year mark, the fast and noisy guitar rock that had been its backbone was still going strong, but a greater diversity was emerging with newcomers like the Magnetic Fields and Lambchop—both of which would release unusual “country” albums with their 1994 Merge debuts. A Nashville-based collective with upwards of a dozen members, Lambchop might be the most difficult-to-classify act Merge has had, a group where country, soul, jazz, rock, and experimental tendencies coalesce into lush orchestrations, accompanied by frontman Kurt Wagner’s gentle speak/sing and always colorful storytelling. Later Lambchop albums—notably, 2000’s Nixon—may have finetuned the group’s sound, but 1994’s I Hope You’re Sitting Down (alternately titled Jack’s Tulips) provides Lambchop’s most satisfying mix of stellar songs, sweeping soundscapes, and surprising turns. From the elegant downer of “Soaky in the Pooper” to the career high point of “Let’s Go Bowling”, the album expertly matches the group’s musical sophistication with Wagner’s front-porch wisdom, off-hand observations, and occasional dirty jokes. Mike Noren
Poor Fricky (1995)
Truly, any of East River Pipe’s seven albums could be featured here, as they are nearly equal in how well they present F.M. Cornog’s uniquely observant and affecting songwriting. Poor Fricky doesn’t stand head and shoulders above the others, but it does feel like one of the most cohesive, efficient encapsulations of that particular melancholic beauty that is East River Pipe. It’s also essentially a proper debut album, the first he recorded as an album. Nineteen years later, Poor Fricky has in no ways aged or become dated, which says something about how separate from fashions and trends this music was all along. It speaks to the timelessness of the almost otherworldly bittersweet dream haze that the album floats through, even as Cornog is consistently cutting to the quick; atmospheric music that also punches you in the gut. Occasionally Cornog stumbles onto a proper bubblegum hook, like on “Here We Go”. More often the pleasure is in the melodic way he drifts and ruminates. He sometimes almost meditates over the home-recorded synths and drum-machine beats, as on “Keep All Your Windows Tight Tonight”. Mostly he’s creating his own little pop universe, A.M. radio hits for outcasts, about alienation and healing and walking the dog alone at night. Dave Heaton
Are You Building a Temple in Heaven? (1996)
Looking in the rearview back to indie rock’s golden age, Butterglory’s Are You Building a Temple in Heaven? was more a product of its times than a shaper of its era, unlike a number of the entries on this list. But back in the day, the Kansas-by-way-of-California boy-girl outfit captured what was happening in the post-Slanted and Enchanted mid-‘90s better than any Merge band did during the label’s formative years: At the top of the call sheet for the next Pavement, Butterglory mastered—to the extent that it required mastery—the combination of bittersweet vocals, oblique lyrics, and thrift-store guitar play. Yet despite the obvious resemblances to Pavement, especially Matt Suggs’ Malkmus-like intonation, Butterglory made its own variations on familiar indie themes with a joie de vivre that never felt borrowed or second-hand. Indeed, 1996’s Are You Building a Temple in Heaven? has aged surprisingly well because of its spirit, the genial good vibes between Suggs and Debby Vander Wall feeling evergreen. Better yet, the album is more fleshed-out and less tossed-off than you remember old-school indie rock being, what with the touches of horns on “The Halo Over Your Head” and “Rivers”, a glimmer of chimes on “She’s Got the Akshun!”, and synth bobbing and weaving through the whole thing to give it heft and texture. Butterglory’s albums might’ve ended up in the bargain bin of history, but they’re a good reason to sort through the cut-outs. Arnold Pan