To mark Merge Records' silver anniversary, PopMatters picked 25 memorable albums that help tell the label's remarkable history.
<i>In the Aeroplane Over the Sea</i>, <i>69 Love Songs</i>, and more
A Seat Beneath the Chairs (1997)
Jersey City’s finest, Spent is a group far too few people seem to remember. They refined and prettified their sound on their second, and final, album A Seat Beneath the Chairs. Their base sound had something quintessentially '90s indie guitar-rock about it, but they took that sound in a different direction, with their clean, distinctive guitar style; they had my favorite guitar sound of the '90s, in part courtesy of Annie Hayden’s melodic solos. They also boasted a multi-faceted demeanor that came from having, essentially, three lead singers with different personalities, in Hayden, John King, and Joe Weston. A Seat Beneath the Chairs played to each of their strengths while they got better at complementing each other, at singing and playing as a unit. Together they could take a light, gentle melody and then amp it up into a rebellious cry. They also could capture quiet, small moments, between people or one's own thoughts, vividly. While songs like "Stumble Up the Stairs" are underrated, glorious sing-along anthems of the time, tracks like the glacial "Until We Have Enough" stood time still. All in all, theirs was a smart, biting, and at the same time thoughtful and sensitive approach to the rock-pop music of the day -- a rare and special combination. Dave Heaton
Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
Many of Merge's greatest albums were documents of their time. Superchunk defined '90s indie rock. Spoon was one of the great avatars of '00s cool. But Neutral Milk Hotel's gift was its ability to step out of time and bring listeners somewhere altogether foreign. Although it was released in 1998, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a menagerie of songs and images that seem to have been pulled randomly from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Inspired loosely by The Diary of Anne Frank, Jeff Mangum's magnum opus is a beautiful tangled mess of sex, death, love, innocence, loss, and, ultimately, triumph. These emotions are channeled through singing saws, trumpets, banjos, and one very fuzzed-out acoustic guitar that sound like they belong in a long-lost carnival sideshow.
Not everyone gets In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but those who do tend to connect with it on a level best described as "spiritual". From the warm double-tracked strum and the opening phrase "When we were young" on "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1" to the pronouncement near the end of "Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2" that "God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life," the whole thing feels like a mystical fever dream sung by a child trying to be an adult...or vice-versa. That naked honesty resonated loudly, as the album has become a shibboleth in many corners of the indie world, as songs like "Two Headed Boy", "Holland, 1945", and title track have moved quickly from fan favorites to scripture. Getting In the Aeroplane Over the Sea down on tape was like catching lighting in a bottle and it quickly became something larger than simply a record. It's moments such as these that great labels help usher into the world. John M. Tryneski
The Ladybug Transistor
The Albemarle Sound (1999)
The Ladybug Transistor is another band that has quietly built an impressive discography on Merge, but The Albemarle Sound may be their finest, most defining statement. Band leader Gary Olsen assembled his band for this 1999 gem and whipped up a tightly constructed but loose feeling record of blessed-out '60s-influenced pop. It's an album that drifts intoxicated through various fields of sound like the sunburst shine of "Six Times", the string-laden romantic sway of "Today Knows", the front-porch thump of "Oceans in the Hall", and the intricate, ever-shifting "Aleida's Theme". The album manages to seem hazy while still feeling coated in very real stuff. Not dust, though. The lush spaces of the cover art, all that greenery, seem to give off the spores that coat these songs. They are tunes that blossom and bloom outward, outgrowing the humble compositional pots they start in. In the end, every song ends bigger than it began, while at the center of it all, Olsen beguiles with the subtle range and charm of his crooning. Fifteen years on, the album still feels fresh. There were a lot of bands with albums exploring a similar time in pop's past in 1999, but oddly enough too many of them sound dated now. The Albemarle Sound, however, continues to ring out true as ever. Matthew Fiander
Golden Time (1999)
The recent double-vinyl reissue of 2000's Sweet Bird of Youth brought the Rock*A*Teens some long overdue acclaim, but for many years the group's string of outstanding Merge releases seemed to never get the credit they deserved. Hailing from Cabbagetown, Georgia, the Rock*A*Teens created burly, beer-soaked rock anthems with a dark Southern twist, an approach they perfected on 1999's Golden Time. Frontman Chris Lopez's vocals are overpowering yet vulnerable, drawing every bit of desperation out of oddball lines like "Freedom Puff, don't you realize what you're a part of?" Lyrically, what the group might have lacked in crystal-clear storytelling they made up for with colorful imagery and the detailed depiction of everyday people, places, and conversations ("Clarissa, Just Do It Anyway"). The group's ramshackle recording approach might be described as lo-fi, but the songs always found a way to rise above their basement-level production, with sturdy choruses seemingly echoing out across vast open spaces. Some early lines on album highlight "Across the Piedmont" describe a child who finds a tattered object in a field and hides it away in the weeds where only he can see it -- an apt metaphor for a band that might've been Merge Records' best-kept secret. Mike Noren
The Magnetic Fields
69 Love Songs (1999)
Ironically enough, the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs was such a big production that only a smaller, more flexible, and more creative indie label like Merge could've rolled the dice on it. With its triple-disc boxset format and suggestive title -- completely literal and totally playful at the same time -- it wasn't likely that a risk-averse, bottom-line minded major label would have put out 69 Love Songs, despite the growing buzz around the Magnetic Fields and mainman Stephin Merritt at the time. But with the benefit of hindsight, 69 Love Songs should've seemed like the slam dunk it turned out to be, with one of the great songwriters of this era reaching the height of his strange powers, putting the Great American Songbook to use in ways no one imagined before -- or since. Tapping into songwriting traditions without being beholden and intimidated by them, Merritt explored love in all its messy, confusing, anxious, and euphoric ways, deploying four singers to deliver his flowery language, biting turns-of-phrase, and ingeniously weird analogies. With all the pomp and circumstance around the set, it's easy to forget that, musically speaking, 69 Love Songs was a big leap ahead for Merritt and company, as they moved away from the lush, synth-heavy arrangements of the early Magnetic Fields recordings into something more organically composed, often weaving together cello, banjo, and piano in intricate ways. The gamble obviously paid off for Merritt, who rightfully has his entry in the pop music pantheon, and for Merge, which emerged from its status as a purveyor of indie cred into the trailblazer it would become in the millennium to come. Arnold Pan