Since being minted in 1989, Merge Records has always had the feeling of a label quietly going about its business. Yet, in their history, Merge have served up some of the most treasured albums in alternative music’s hard-to-define history. In 2004, when they unleashed Montréal’s the Arcade Fire unto the world, Merge famously only had one PR man on staff; the humble, hard-working label hardly expecting the Canadian combo’s runaway popularity. In Funeral's wake, Merge has assumed a position of importance, but the label’s roots will forever be in bedroom-born, DIY-minded independence.
When Superchunk were taking Merge from a hobbyist imprint into a fully-fledged company, a way of kick-starting the label became clear: release their own album. When their former label, Matador, went into bed with Atlantic, Superchunk —by then when of the biggest indie bands in the land— issued their fourth LP via Merge. Foolish marked a change in artistic ways, too; the Chapel Hill quartet's natural urgency —defined by Mac McCaughan's distinctive coiled-up riffing and strangulated yelp— tempered with a sense of maturity. Chronicling, if but obliquely, his break-up with band/label co-founder Laura Ballance, McCaughan played the lovelorned fool throughout; this record matching pogo-friendly indie-rock with unexpected emotional bloodletting.
In his 2006 lament for the online music era, "The Decline of Country and Western Civilization," Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner railed against the popular perception that his orchestral-country big-band peaked with their second album. Which they, um, actually did. The strange band from Nashville —playing a kind of slow-motion soul music steeped in weepy-country orchestrations and delivered with a odd sense-of-humor— were coming-of-age, here, discovering the power in their delicate sound. How I Quit Smoking is the band's most beautifully —or preciously, even— realized record. Here, the Nasvhille ensemble's 13 members gently daub at their orchestral parts, which sweetly frame Wagner's gruff, cigarette-cough ruminations on life, love, and food.
Whenever the early-'90s revival truly takes pop-cultural hold, someone's going to "discover" Guv'ner's second record, and hail it as the greatest album Pavement never made. The long-dead New Yorker duo's frontman Charles Gansa bears striking vocal resemblance to Stephen Malkmus —snide, half-spoken, grimly ironic— but Guv'ner are a more good-time proposition. Highlighted by sing-along pop-songs like "She's Evil" and "Break a Promise," The Hunt finds Gansa and lovebird Pumpkin Wentzel kicking out the fuzzy, funny, silly-good jams. Most impressively, all these years on, the record has this amazing quality of seeming both carefully-sculpted and completely casual; its unknown ratio of intentional-to-accidental an under-regarded musical mystery.
Like Neutral Milk Hotel, Brooklyn crew The Ladybug Transistor were also alumni of the Elephant 6. Suitably retro-minded —obsessed with Brian Wilson, anachronistic language, and the innocent, romantic music made before punk infused everything with irony and anger— Gary Olson's outfit hit the creative peak of their psych-pop powers with their third LP. The Albemarle Sound is a suite of compositionally-complex, winsomely-orchestral tunes whose fluttering woodwinds and syrupy strings dueled with bar-room piano in all manner of odd keys. Wearing a confessed debt to Van Dyke Parks’ infamous Song Cycle on its paisley sleeve, the album creates a pastoral psych-pop idyll, frolicking through Brooklyn's Prospect Park with an unrestrained sense of joy.
With the second millennium coming to a cataclysmic close, Stephin Merritt —the erudite New Yorker behind at-that-point-ignored cult combos The Magnetic Fields, the Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes— set himself an artistic task of biblical proportions: write 100 love-songs in a year. Eventually, he was talked down to a smaller figure: the less taxing, yet more salacious, total of 69. Issued in a 3CD box-set, the three-hour-long 69 Love Songs showed the extent of Merritt's musical talents. Having far more in common with Cole Porter and Irving Berlin than any supposed 'indie' contemporaries, Merritt fashioned a silly, witty, endlessly melodic set that —shamelessly aping styles as it went— showcased the sharpness of his songwriter's pen.
By the time they were prepping their fourth album, the suits in the music biz had long ago consigned Spoon to also-ran status. After their major-label dalliance with Elektra had resulted in a second LP, A Series of Sneaks, that tallied sales in the dozens, the idea of Spoon as a big, important band was laughable. Then a funny thing happened: Kill the Moonlight came out, all smart studio sonics and razed-down rock'n'roll basics, and people begun to take notice. Internet buzz begat a slow rumble of recognition, and that eventually grew into a large, loyal, ever-growing following. Fast forward to 2010, and their seventh record, Transference, debuts at #4 on the Billboard chart, Spoon officially one of the biggest bands in the land.
If spoon were one of the first bands to experience the career benefit of internet buzz, epic Canadian outfit the Arcade Fire were perhaps the first band catapulted from anonymity to celebrity thanks almost solely to such. Catalyzed by a 9.7 rating on internet behemoth Pitchfork, the grandstanding band rode a wave of hype to the pinnacle of the pop-cultural zeitgeist with their debut. One part new-millennial lament, one part humanist rallying cry, Funeral is an album steeped, somehow, in both tragedy and optimism. It's a work perfectly defined by "Haiti," in which Régine Chassagne presides over a joyous jamboree whose lyrics, dancing between English and Kreyòl, paint with the blood of "Papa Doc" Duvalier's dictatorial Haitian regime.
Altough initially dismissed as simple Belle and Sebastian acolytes, Scottish indie-pop outfit Camera Obscura are one of those bands that Merge seems to attract: one that gets better with each LP. And, with their third LP —crammed to the gills, as it is, with harmonious, charming, toe-tapping tunes— they were suddenly, weirdly, Belle and Sebastian's equal (well, maybe not If You're Feeling Sinister, but otherwise...). Amidst the LP's sweeping strings and salty lyricism, songstress Traceyanne Campbell shows she knows her pop-music place. When she tips her hat to the likes of Dory Previn and Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, Campbell shows she's spent quality time studying songsmiths most lyrically-adept, and that she's a pupil most gifted.
Few songwriters of the modern era offer such a persuasive case for obsessive fandom as does Daniel Bejar, the Canadian warbler behind the ironically-named glam-folk-ish outing Destroyer. Bejar's Dylan-esque discography is a maze of mirrors; the lithe lyricist authoring an ever-evolving songworld in which lyrical references draw webs of connections between tracks from all over his back-catalogue. His career-defining seventh album, Destroyer's Rubies, marked the culmination of Bejar's obsessive craft. Blessed with the best pop-songs of any Destroyer disc, it's a sprawling, infinitely-replayable set of stirring, sterling songs showcasing the vocal range of his Bowie-esque falsetto, and the artistic range of his Bowie-esque dreaming.