Merge Records: 30 Years, 30 Tracks

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essential Merge Records tracks ClienteleThe Clientele – “Since K Got Over Me”

from Strange Geometry (2005)

London’s The Clientele first made their mark with 2000’s Suburban Light, a singles compilation that served as American audiences’ first glimpse of the band’s dreamy pop sound. But they achieved a stunning new level of maturity with 2005’s Strange Geometry, helmed by leadoff track and single “Since K Got Over Me,” a shimmering piece of psychedelia with some haunting, melancholy undertones. Alasdair McLean sings, “Everything’s so lucid and so creepy…since K got over me.” We don’t know who K is, nor does it matter, just that she’s gone for good, and all that’s left is that devastating realization. Yet it’s the band’s gorgeous instrumentation, and guitars that sound like the rippling of puddles, that turn it from sad bastard fodder into a work of post-Britpop magic. – Jeff Terich

essential Merge Records tracks M WardM. Ward – “Sweethearts on Parade”

from Transistor Radio (2005)

M. Ward has always made new music that’s sounded like it might have been found on an old cassette, or even an antiquated 78, though he gradually embraced a less lo-fi, less stylistically vintage approach. Transistor Radio is essentially the middle point between his higher fidelity later recordings and the warm, fuzzy plucks of his earlier records. Many of the songs are really short, though on something like “Sweethearts on Parade,” it does all it needs to in just over two minutes. A dense, almost shoegaze-like fuzz fills the background, letting effects-pedal distortion win out over tape hiss as Ward crafts a climactic melody that gets out just as it gets going. – Jeff Terich

Spoon gimme fictionSpoon – “I Turn My Camera On”

from Gimme Fiction (2005)

Tthis Austin quartet are the kings of the wild frontier of non-traditional indie-rock singles, from the weird time signatures in the climax of “Sister Jack” to their hit cover-that-wasn’t, “Don’t You Evah.” But the slow-burning stomp of “I Turn My Camera On” is the centerpiece of Spoon’s fifth album Gimme Fiction and, by extension, their career. Muted guitar and rumbling background noises support Brett Daniel’s clipped tenor, whispering and wailing about how a failed romance made him “untouchable for life.” Emotional extremes, described with delicacy and subtlety. – Adam Blyweiss

essential Merge Records tracks Camera ObscuraCamera Obscura – “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken”

from Let’s Get Out of This Country (2006)

The Glasgow band’s third album really put them on the indie-rock map. More specifically, it branded them as modern champions of chamber pop, fleshing out their earlier spare acoustic arrangements with the airy artistry of American country balladeers and bedrock R&B. This LP’s opening cut and first single is lead singer/songwriter Tracyanne Campbell’s brightly played yet despairing response to Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?”. “What would it take/to wipe that smile off of your face?” he asked in 1984. “I’ve got my life of complication here to sort out,” she answered two decades later, sharing her source’s affinity for romantic isolation and ennui. – Adam Blyweiss

essential Merge Records tracks Conor OberstConor Oberst – “Milk Thistle”

from Conor Oberst (2008)

I keep death on my mind/ like a heavy crown,” Conor Oberst muses in the opening verses “Milk Thistle” the closing track of the self-titled album that brought the Bright Eyes frontman’s gradual progression into alt-folk emo mysticism to a halt. Replaced are the quivering voices and drunken tirades with a powerful sobering reflection, and he strips away elements until nothing but the rawest materials remained. Alone, equipped with a guitar, Oberst once more pours his soul into the track, revealing an almost jovial flirtation with self destruction, and acting as thematic ballad to folk masters of the past. It’s a track that looks back as much as it looks forward. – Brian Roesler

caribou swim reviewCaribou – “Odessa”

from Swim (2010)

Merge’s catalog doesn’t have a whole lot of electronic music forming its boundaries, but let me direct your attention to the nice solid line Canadian artist Dan Snaith drew over here. A diversion from his psychedelic pop leanings and borne of a DJ residency at London’s Plastic People club (RIP), Snaith’s third album as Caribou (fifth overall) was his vision of what techno sounded like. The single that kicked off the album was kitchen-sink dance music, a hodgepodge of gloriously wobbly bass, distant clanging bells, squeaking synthesizers, and Snaith’s quiet lyrical support of an emotionally neglected woman. There are few true classics in the world of indie-dance; “Odessa” simply gets more recognizable as time passes. – Adam Blyweiss

essential Merge Records tracks DestroyerDestroyer – “Kaputt”

from Kaputt (2011)

Wasting your days chasing some girls alright, chasing cocaine through the backrooms of the world all night.” The opening lines of ‘Kaputt’ easily play into the vibe of the song; washed out, decadent and indulgent. But as with everything Dan Bejar and Destroyer do, there’s far more layers to unwrap here. Kaputt means broken, and that’s exactly where Bejar stands on such a life. Drawing on the lush sounds of the early ’80s, the smoothest of saxophones gamboling through the reverb-drenched chords; the title track of Destroyer’s ninth album and fifth with Merge explores the emptiness of hedonism with a numb and dreamlike quality. “I wrote a song for America, who knew?” Bejar wryly muses; ever subversive and critical, this is some of his finest songwriting from his finest album to date. – William Lewis

wild-flagWild Flag – “Glass Tambourine”

from Wild Flag (2011)

Wild Flag—featuring members of Helium, Sleater-Kinney and The Minders—didn’t last long. And it didn’t really need to; the band’s sole self-titled record felt loose and fun, like the band was only meant to stick around as long as they were having a good time. “Glass Tambourine,” however, was a peculiar standout, a longer psychedelic rock jam that expanded beyond the new wavey conceits of much of the band’s pop gems. It also served as a reminder of Mary Timony’s badassery several years before she got back to the punk rock immediacy of Ex Hex. – Jeff Terich

Wye Oak CivilianWye Oak – “Civilian”

from Civilian (2011)

Baltimore duo Wye Oak have taken their sound in a variety of different directions over the years, but it’s still hard to top Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack at their leanest and most muscular. On “Civilian,” the title track of their outstanding third album, they sound like a two-person Crazy Horse, Wasner creating a slow burn of tense, melancholy guitar melodies and haunting reflections on loneliness: “I’m perfectly able to hold my own hand, but I still can’t kiss my own neck.” But it’s in the final minute when that burn rises up into an inferno, and the cinders turn to all-consuming flames. It’s an absolute barnburner that fools you into believing it’s a ballad.  – Jeff Terich

essential Merge Records tracks Mountain GoatsMountain Goats – “Amy a.k.a. Spent Gladiator 1”

from Transcendental Youth (2012)

The opener to The Mountain Goats’ tremendous 2012 record Transcendental Youth is one in the great, long line of Songs About Holding On, However Improbably in John Darnielle’s notebook. Half of its title honors Amy Winehouse, with whom Darnielle shared a history of drug abuse; the other half calls on the listener not to give up the fight, even if they’ve got nothing left to give. Brandon Eggleston’s production punches and thrashes and shines while Darnielle urges us to find power in our fear, and to make ourselves ugly if that’s what we need to be able to look in the mirror. “Just stay alive,” Darnielle screams. Like he means it—like he knows you need to hear it. “Just stay alive.” – Ben Dickerson

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