Merge Records: 30 Years, 30 Tracks

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Mikal Cronin - MCII reviewMikal Cronin – “Weight”

from MCII (2013)

Where there are mentions of Mikal Cronin, the phrase “garage rock” isn’t far behind, which is fair up to a point. But that’s still pretty limiting—more accurately, he’s one of the purest power-pop songwriters of recent years, his 2013 album MCII a fuzz-filled set of standouts that nod to the best of guitar pop’s past. Big Star, The Replacements, Elliott Smith, The Elephant 6 Collective—they’re all connected, and on leadoff track “Weight,” seemingly all part of the same joyously melancholy package. Vocal harmonies, strings, an emotional build and a triumphant chorus. It’s a masterclass in pop, and it’s done in under four minutes. – Jeff Terich

Ex Hex RipsEx Hex – “Don’t Wanna Lose”

from Rips (2014)

Not long after Mary Timony’s Wild Flag announced their breakup after just one album, she started up another outstanding band, one more indebted to classic punk, new wave and power pop sounds than the more intricate indie rock of previous projects. It’s hard to make a simple song sound fresh, but “Don’t Wanna Lose” is just such a single, taking the influence of The Cars, Cheap Trick and Blondie and injecting them with some raw, vintage rock ‘n’ roll attitude. It’s a three-chord wonder that belongs in every jukebox. – Jeff Terich

Titus Andronicus The Most Lamentable TragedyTitus Andronicus – “Fatal Flaw”

from The Most Lamentable Tragedy (2015)

When New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus made the move to Merge, they did so in grand fashion, releasing the sprawling triple(!!!)-album The Most Lamentable Tragedy. It’s a lot of album, with a lot of quirks (there are two songs called “I Lost My Mind” but they’re totally different, and one is a cover), and a lot of absolutely kickass melodies. None better than “Fatal Flaw,” a shout-along and handclap-worthy rocker worthy of The Hold Steady, The Replacements and Springsteen all in the same steamy pub, complete with climactic strings and a dynamite guitar solo. Indie? Whatever. This is rock ‘n’ roll. – Jeff Terich

Eric Bachmann reviewEric Bachmann – “Mercy”

from Eric Bachmann (2016)

Merge stalwart Eric Bachmann’s songwriting career has been long and varied, a labyrinth of different groups and styles all with the thread of his sincerity running through it. His self-titled album of 2016 was perhaps the most sincere and heartfelt yet (though 2018’s No Recover comes close), with “Mercy” encapsulating the heart of the record. Playing out as subdued folk anthem, there’s an upbeat quality to the music complete with a chorus of “doo-wops”, and Bachmann’s words are steady and strong. At once a rejection of what appears to be religious trauma and the affirmation of a life of love well lived, “killing idols and fables” as it’s “only mercy you need in your world.” “I don’t believe in Armageddon, heaven, hell or time regretted,” he sings, “I’m going to love you like we’re all each other have.” – William Lewis

hgmHiss Golden Messenger – “When the Wall Comes Down”

from Hallelujah Anyhow (2017)

M.C. Taylor’s prolific songwriting has been a large part of Hiss Golden Messenger’s story—ten albums in ten years for those playing at home—with his country infused folk-rock stylings praised more for their consistency than any kind of broken ground. But this perception is elevated by the true gems that lie within the catalogue. “When the Wall Comes Down,” the lovely folk closer to 2017’s exemplary Hallelujah Anyhow, is one such. Playing out almost as bonafide gospel classic, it feels plucked out of the pages of history to be buried in the back-end of one of Taylor’s collections, discovered only by the lucky few. “What’cha gonna do when the wall comes down, what you oughta do is let it lie,” his whisky-soaked gravel voice sings over his strummed acoustic. Drawing further on the gospel traditions, the talk of walls and message of togetherness and reconciliation takes on weight now more than ever – even in two short years. – William Lewis

essential Merge Records tracks Ibibo Sound MachineIbibio Sound Machine – “Give Me A Reason”

from Uyai (2017)

Merge has come a long way since their early days of releasing records from underground Chapel Hill bands (and those in similar U.S. indie pockets). Still, it’s unlikely anyone saw a band like Ibibio Sound Machine ending up on the label. Based in London, the group takes major influence from Afrobeat and ’80s Afro-funk sounds, with vocalist Eno Williams singing in her mother’s mother tongue Ibibo, hence the name of the group. But the sound of a single like “Give Me A Reason” speaks the universal language of funk, its high-energy dancefloor sound enough to make listeners of all stripes get up out their seats. – Jeff Terich

Waxahatchee Out in the Storm reviewWaxahatchee – “Sliver”

from Out in the Storm (2017)

The early work of Philadelphia (by way of Alabama) singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield on Don Giovanni Records found her fully committed to lo-fi acoustic heartbreak, first as a solo artist and then teasing it out to a full band. She electrified her sound when she moved to Merge, and her second album for that label found new strength and polish as John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr.) helped out with live recording and production. This single time-travels back a generation to Juliana Hatfield and Liz Phair’s whip-smart critiques. Waxahatchee’s wordless, cooing choruses and pounded-out chords aren’t joyful; they merely celebrate the minor victories of recognizing and stinging back at ineffective men in relationships. – Adam Blyweiss

essential Merge Records tracks Essex GreenThe Essex Green – “The 710”

from Hardly Electronic (2018)

American indie rock group The Essex Green—which originally found a home on Merge in the late ’90s—delves back into the pop-folk of the ’60s and ’70s. Their song “The 710” from last year’s Hardly Electronic represents this sort of sound at its best. With wonderful vocals by Sasha Bell, the track spins in a neo-hippie vibe that is perfect for late spring, early summertime lazing about. There is always a beat, always a groove underlying the catchy lyrics and the driving backing instrumentals. – Konstantin Rega

Swearin new album 2018Swearin’ – “Grow Into a Ghost”

from Fall Into the Sun (2018)

The sisters Crutchfield were well established in the indie rock world before setting up camp at Merge, but that they each eventually ended up there feels like an inevitability. Swearin’, Alison’s band that more or less broke up before finding themselves on tour with Superchunk in 2018, also went the extra mile and delivered their first LP in five years. And considering there’s more than a little bit of Superchunk’s hyper-enough punk pop in their sound, it’s not a shock they ended up here. “Grow Into a Ghost” also shows how much growth they’ve undergone in five years, its dense array of guitars almost shoegaze-like, and its hooks warmer and more nuanced than some of their earlier lo-fi churn. It’s a master class on indie rock done right. – Jeff Terich

Bob Mould Sunshine Rock reviewBob Mould – “Sunshine Rock”

from Sunshine Rock (2019)

Bob Mould’s career began long before Merge Records even existed, his band Hüsker Dü having formed a full decade before Merge was established. But just as his recordings played an influence on the label’s flagship band, Superchunk, he’s since found a home among many of artists his music helped inspire. His latest album, and its title track, are evidence of Mould’s vitality and songwriting strengths 40 years into his career, balancing a strong pop melody, punk energy and a rare glimpse of optimism. There are few better examples of how strong Merge Records’ brand is now than Bob Mould, who’s not only made the label his home in the past seven years but released some of his best material on it as well. – Jeff Terich

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