Arguably the most successful independent record label of the last two decades, Merge Records has consistently been curator of the perhaps most eclectic, unique, and inventive recording artists bearing the loosely defined category of “indie”. But the bands on Merge aren’t indie for the sake of being indie – the music they make is genuinely different because the artists are genuinely independent, and in the era of cookie cutter label-grown music celebrities, finding a collection of recording artists as creatively powerful as the ones on Merge is an altogether refreshing experience. Not every band is fantastic, many of the styles I don’t particularly like, but with every artist signed and every album pressed, you can tell Merge is very hands-off. The music lives or dies by its own merits, without marketing campaigns, without multi-million video productions, nothing more than a monthly email newsletter and a few gigs on late-night television. And yet, Merge bands find their way into all manner of popular culture on their own. In movie scores, television series sound tracks, even the background of Target ads, you’ll find Merge.
As is no surprise, the label was founded by two musicians, members of the band Superchunk. Our playlist starts with the opening track from their “back from 9-year hiatus” album, Majesty Shredding. The band was over 20 years old on this album’s release, the band members almost old enough to be my parents, but personally I think it’s their best record to date.
I discovered Merge back in 2009 when a band I’d never heard of played on whatever show Conan O’Brien was hosting (this is more an indictment of how musically oblivious I was in 2009 than it is a barometer of this band’s popularity). I bought Spoon’s Transference the next day. Spoon has since left Merge and put out another album on a different label, and it is excellent, but the bare, restrained sound of Transference I feel is in many ways superior.
I’d probably be ostracized for life if I didn’t mention Merge’s probably most popular artist, Arcade Fire. I don’t really like Arcade Fire, but I like this one track because it’s got David Bowie on it, and considering that sitting on my desk is a coffee mug with cartoon Glam Bowie having breakfast, how could I leave it out?
My favorite aspect of many Merge artists is that they tend to drastically change musical direction from album to album. I get bored quickly, so I especially appreciate these groups who aren’t content to rest on their laurels. Apparently Wye Oak’s typical fans don’t feel the same way as I, and after their wildly popular third album Civilian, they received heavy criticism from the fan base for switching from a sort of ambient-folk-rock sound to a punkier all electronic sound. (With no guitars!) Personally, I love the new album, Shriek is easily my favorite of theirs.
A newbie to Merge is Mike Krol and his third album, Turkey. I haven’t dug into his catalog much yet, but what I’ve heard so far is excellent.
Because I’m a fan of Portlandia, I also had to include a track from Carey Browstein’s short lived band, Wild Flag. Have you ever wondered how well an all-female punk band would fare playing baseball against a team of actual bears? Now you don’t have to wonder.
One of my favorites from this list is the Brooklyn-based band Hospitality. Their most recent album, Trouble, was another one with radical shift in sound, though probably a bit better received than Wye Oak’s was. Moving from Camera Obscura styled twee pop to a more electric soft-punk, their first album was like a tourist’s vision of New York City, their second like a resident’s. Also this video has Dean & Britta, so how can you go wrong?
Filed in the category of “probably the weirdest artist I listen to” is Daniel Bajar’s Destroyer. He also has changed styles quite a few times in his multi-decade history with Merge, but lyrically, you’re always guaranteed some of the most obtuse, indecipherable ramblings you’ll ever find in a pop album. (I could probably best describe him as Steely Dan with the heart cut out.) Slick production values, insanely catchy pop hooks, and lyrics that require a bachelor’s degree in literary studies to interpret. His newest album, Poison Season, came out a few weeks ago.
Speaking of Camera Obscura, they were on Merge for at least half a decade before they found their home on the more appropriate Scottish label, 4AD. Their third album, Let’s Get Out Of This Country, was the first album I ever bought on vinyl.
And since we left the continent to visit Scotland, we might as well close with The Clientele, a band from Liverpool you can only listen to in Autumn. (Perfect timing!) They’ve got a new “best of” album that came out last week, it’s a pretty decent playlist to drink with your pumpkin latte.
And that’s all I’ve got for now! If you like what you heard, this hurried introduction to my favorite music from the last six years hasn’t even scratched the surface of Merge’s 26 year catalog. Go exploring!