Though you might not know it, for many years now the capital of independent American music has not been Brooklyn (despite what the residents of Williamsburg might think) but the much less heralded Durham, North Carolina. It is here that the wonderful Merge Records, started by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance of perennial indie favorites Superchunk, has resided for a full quarter of a century. To celebrate the 25th birthday of Merge, here’s a list of five key albums in its high-quality history.
Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998)
One of the many strange facts about Neutral Milk Hotel’s second (and last) album is that it was one of the ten biggest selling vinyls of the year…ten years after it was released. That sums up the album’s history. A word-of-mouth, slow-burn phenomenon, it is a truly unique work, combining lyrics about Anne Frank and geeks in formaldehyde with a sound that incorporates folk, fuzz punk, horns, and lo-fi in one glorious whole. A near-perfect album, and one referenced by Win Butler as one of the key reasons that Arcade Fire later signed to Merge.
Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs (1999)
Stephen Merritt has long been one of America’s most distinctive singer/songwriters, but with 69 Love Songs he displayed extraordinary ambition. The album is exactly what the title says it is: a triple album made up of 69 different takes on the love song. The variety keeps the album utterly refreshing; songs vary in tone, length, and style to a remarkable degree, and as such, it certainly wins the award of the biggest album Merge has ever released.
Lambchop – Nixon (2000)
Kurt Wagner’s loose collective has been through several variations and remains a living, breathing band, but it is their expansive take on country, soul, and Americana from the beginning of this century that remains their most-loved work, much more so in the UK than in the US. The album manages that trick of being both intimate and expansive, most notably on the lovely, gospel-tinged “Up With People.” If there’s one album that truly sums up the label’s habit of signing grounded acts who are shooting for the stars, this is it.
Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)
You know these guys. They had Merge Records’ first number one record (The Suburbs), but Funeral was the first album on the label to hit the Billboard charts. Even in the wake of their enormous commercial success in recent years, Funeral is a staggering record. It feels like all of life, in its glory and tragedy, is contained in the album’s life-affirming ten tracks. This was an album with energy and soul to burn, and after a quiet start, it found its way into the heart of many a music fan. To me it was the album of its decade. Is that a clear enough recommendation?
Wild Flag – Wild Flag (2011)
I include this album partly because, according to recent interviews, it is likely to be the only album the members of Wild Flag release together. If that turns out to be the case, then they basically have a 100% track record for releasing amazing albums. Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss had already left their mark on American music with Sleater-Kinney (in my opinion the greatest rock band of the last 20 years), but with Wild Flag they found a new swagger and another way of kicking listeners’ asses. Way too good to ever be considered a side project, but their brief tenure will likely make this album even more special in the future.