Thursday, June 18, 2009

Urge to Congratulate Merge

In a time when the majors are dying a slow death, it seems to me the industry is actually stronger than ever. Labels like Secretly Canadian, Kill Rock Stars, Domino, XL Recordings, Sub Pop, Matador and Yep Roc are consistently signing great bands and digging into archives to reissue indie classics and forgotten gems. Perhaps my favorite indie label of them all, Merge Records, turns 20 this year, and the Durham, N.C.-based outfit is celebrating with free shows, a Merge covers compilation and much more.

This is as good a time as any to plug the three-disc set 'Old Enough 2 Know Better' Merge released to commemorate its 15th birthday. The first two discs are boilerplate "best of" material, but the real fun stuff comes in the form of unrelased songs on the third disc. The collection is still in print and priced at less than $15. Believe me, Merge is the one giving out presents here. So, let's all thank Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance for starting this fine label two decades ago.

I'm celebrating Merge's birthday with my own list of label favorites. I was going to make it a Top 20 bands list for obvious reasons, but I found in order to do that the last few ranked would be bands whose peak years were at other labels. A few examples include Buzzcocks, Dinosaur Jr. and Teenage Fanclub. I love Teenage Fanclub, but the band has only one record at Merge. With this caveat in mind, here are my 15 favorites. The most difficult aspect of this list is choosing one favorite song for each artist. Here goes:

1. She & Him
M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel have recorded only one record, but it was my favorite of 2008. No other Merge band has captured my top spot in a given year.
She & Him - Sweet Darlin' (mp3)

2. Arcade Fire
'Funeral' was Merge's first record to crack the Billboard 200. The followup, 'Neon Bible', debuted at No. 2, making it Merge's highest ever charting release.
Arcade Fire - Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) (mp3)

3. Camera Obscura
The good news is each of their records has been a little bit better than the last. Sixties girl-group vibe in its infancy has become a fuller, more mature sound today.
Camera Oscura - French Navy (mp3)

4. The Rosebuds
I thought the dance pop on 'Night of the Furies' was only a minor hiccup in an otherwise stellar career.
The Rosebuds - Blue Bird (mp3)

5. Spoon
I didn't fork over any love for these guys until 'Gimme Fiction'. Now I scoop up all of their hooks.
Spoon - You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb (mp3)

6. M. Ward
He sounds like a old-timey Tom Waits. Beautiful.
M. Ward - Chinese Translation (mp3)

7. Shout Out Louds
After the first record, I considered these Swedes a guilty pleasure because they seemed to wear their '80s influences on their sleeves. By the second record I realized I was selling them short.
Shout Out Louds - Very Loud (mp3)

8. The Clientele
These Brits have a sound right out of the softer side of the '60s that remind me of The Association.
The Clientele - Since K Got Over Me (mp3)

9. The Broken West
Catchy Cali popsters seem to listen to everyone right -- Cheap Trick, Big Star, Matthew Sweet -- but need to focus more on The Broken West sound. Their debut was one of the best of 2007.
The Broken West - So It Goes (mp3)

10. The Clean
As I mentioned the other day, get Merge's excellent anthology of these New Zealanders. The first disc is disjointed and whimsical, and I mean that as a compliment. The second disc is a collection of polished pop. Here is their first single from 1981.
The Clean - Tally Ho (mp3)

11. Lambchop
You picture this guy strumming and telling stories on the front porch of a Southern shack at sundown. You get to be on the front step tapping your toes, picking your teeth and daydreaming.
Lambchop - Paperback Bible (mp3)

12. Caribou
Dan Snaith is a sun-drenched popster that must listen to a lot of The Zombies and post-'Smile' Beach Boys. Well, I do too. Thanks for 'Andorra'. Look up Snaith's story. He's fascinating.
Caribou - Melody Day (mp3)

13. Neutral Milk Hotel
Part of me is putting Jeff Mangum's baby on the list so I don't get hate mail. 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' is a must in your musical education. That's about as deep as I get with him.
Neutral Milk Hotel - Holland, 1945 (mp3)

14. Destroyer
Dan Bejar's work on New Pornographers records are usually the least liked by fans. I admit they are usually the most challenging. His voice is not as smooth as A.C. Newman's or Neko Case's, to be sure, but I enjoy his quirkiness. Bejar's Destroyer work is more symphonic and even more difficult to digest. If you don't like him with New Pornographers, you most certainly won't like him here. He reminds me of early Bowie on this song.
Destroyer - Notorious Lightning (mp3)

15. Superchunk
Two band members founded this label in rented office space 20 years ago. That and this anthem earn them a spot on my list.
Superchunk - Slack Motherfucker (mp3)

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