Merge Records Top 20 for MergeXX

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Headlines: Special edition of the Morning Mix today, in honor of my trip down to North Carolina for MergeXX. Expect things to be quiet on here for the next few days. I might check in with a quick post or two, but this is my actual vacation, so blogging won't really be a priority. Yes, it's a sickness that I plan vacations around going to see music. I'm working on it. Anyway, here's a somewhat hastily assembled Merge Records Top 20. A couple ground rules I used for this exercise: 1) only one release per artist -- otherwise it'd be a whole lot of Superchunk, Spoon and Magnetic Fields, 2) no reissues (sorry, Dinosaur Jr.) and no compilations, unless it was a compilation of Merge stuff. Which means Superchunk's "Tossing Seeds" is eligible but the Clean's "Compilation" is not. I reserve the right to change these rankings every day, forever.

1) Neutral Milk Hotel - "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea"
I think we can now safely say that no amount breathless fawning, 10-year-anniversary tributes, fourth-rate imitators or anything else will diminish the majesty of this album. Timeless, magical, entrancing, transporting -- whatever you want to throw at it, it all still works. One of a kind.

2) Spoon - "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga"
Just a triumph on every level. A decade earlier Spoon made what should have been a career-defining album but was instead left for dead in classic bit of major label mismanagement. That the band regrouped, refocused, reinvented itself as the slyest pop band around and released its best record -- which debuted in the Billboard Top 10 -- on Merge is just one of those really happy stories.

3) Superchunk - "Tossing Seeds: Singles 1989-91"
All the angst, energy and spunk you could ask for. Some bands act like they mean it. Few of them actually mean it. Superchunk always, always means it, never more than on these earliest singles. I saw them play "Seed Toss" and "Slack [Expletive] on Friday in New York and they sounded as amazing as ever.

4) Guv'ner - "The Hunt"
Of all the bands playing in North Carolina this week, here's the one I'm most psyched to see. Nobody was too into them back in their heyday -- I'm pretty sure I was the only person paying attention when they opened for Belle & Sebastian whenever that was -- but this isn't one of those instances where I'll say, "I can't believe more people didn't like them!" I know exactly why. Because they had limited instrumental ability and terrible singing voices! But that certainly didn't stop them from writing some perfect, off-kilter songs, particularly "She's Evil," probably my favorite in the entire Merge discography.

5) Destroyer - "Rubies"
You know you're in for something special with Dan Bejar kicks things off with a nine-and-a-half-minute epic that has no fewer than three killer lines before the first of his many ascending guitar solos. There's no problem in being self-indulgent when you have the goods to back it up and that's the case here. Bejar is as iconoclastic and idiosyncratic as ever, spitting out lyrics with a smirk while stirring up some rousing indie-glam-folk hybrid.

6) The Magnetic Fields - "69 Love Songs"
It's pretty impossible to rank this album, a dilemma that sort of presented itself during the band's Discographically Speaking. So we'll just stick it here.

7) Butterglory - "Are You Building A Temple In Heaven?"
Like that Guv'ner album, this is another personal favorite. It's all fuzzy and bouncy and warm and it's not about hitting all the right notes, but just finding a couple of chords, a simple drumbeat, some male/female almost-harmonies and maybe a little whistling once in a while for good measure.

8) Camera Obscura - "Let's Get Out of This Country"
The Scottish indie-pop classicists loosened up and really went for it with this album. There are still moments when Tracyanne Campbell and her crew are demure but more often they embrace vibrancy, producing some of the most exciting songs of their career, all while keeping that distinctly bittersweet feel.

9) Portastatic - "I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle"
Side projects aren't supposed to be this good, but Mac McCaugahn's debut plays out like a bunch of great Superchunk 45s played at 33 speed. The stripped-down production and mix of acoustic and electric guitars give it an intensely personal feel and "Naked Pilsners" is a great slow-motion anthem.

10) The Clientele - "Strange Geometry"
These Brits always made perfect music for that drizzly Sunday morning, and this album certainly fits that bill. But there's an undeniable kick to songs such as "Since K Got Over Me" and "E.M.P.T.Y." that showed the band could be more than just pristine and melancholy.

(Rest after the jump.)

11) Oakley Hall - "I'll Follow You"
One of the few albums on this list I've actually written about before, so I'll just plagiarize myself: [the band has perfected] its modern take on classic Americana. Each song offers something a little different - "Rue the Blues" has a bouncy AM radio sound, "All the Way Down" shifts from a graceful ballad to an all-out psych jam and "I'll Follow You" is a charming, spacey pop song, all perfect for under-the-stars listening.

12) East River Pipe - "The Gasoline Age"
A sentimental favorite because it was the first album I ever reviewed at my college radio station. And it sure was perfect for those 3-6 a.m. shifts -- dreary songs about trying to get away from the world, all given that tinny, home recording vibe thanks to FM Cornog's handy Tascam 388.

13) Archers of Loaf - "What Did You Expect b/w Ethel Merman" (7")
The only Archers release on Merge, you knew it had to find its way onto this list somehow. In my mind, these guys were always the quintessential indie rock band and this song is a pretty good example of what they do best -- slashing, squealing guitars, shouted vocals with lines like "Drown that face/Look at that slobber/Looks like goiter/and I'm all tied up" and then suddenly for a few magical moments it becomes a perfect pop song before descending back into a glorious mess.

14) The Clean - "Getaway"
It's not the best effort from the Kilgours -- and if I made this list a few months from now I might include the upcoming "Mister Pop" instead -- but it's still the Clean, which means there is no shortage of blissful pop filtered through some Kiwi weirdness.

15) The 6ths - "Heaven In A Black Leather Jacket b/w Rot In The Sun" (7")
Just one of hundreds of shiny gems written by Stephin Merritt. It's like '60s girl-group perfection except replace Spector's Wall of Sound with Merritt's army of synths, and replace a young female wailer with a New Zealand warbler, in this case, Robert Scott of the Bats. Win!

16) The Rosebuds - "Birds Make Good Neighbors"
Pretty much the perfect follow-up after a promising debut, this album lost none of the playful spark of "TheRosebudsMakeOut" and added those things you like bands to add the second time around -- more textures, more defined hooks and just the right amount of swagger.

17) Cornershop - "Born Disco, Died Heavy Metal +3" (7")
It's a shame that Cornershop will mostly be remembered solely for "Brimful of Asha." It's a great single, but probably not even one of the 10 best songs the band wrote. This one is, and, to be honest, it's basically a sped-up version of the big hit, but soaked in more distortion and imperfect vocals. So of course I like it more.

18) Arcade Fire - "Funeral"
I don't really consider myself an Arcade Fire fan, but it's hard to deny that this album is pretty massive. Honestly, if Merge released a 7" of "Wake Up" that would probably be higher on the list than this album. Let's move on.

19) The Ladybug Transistor - "The Albermarle Sound"
The record came out in 1999 when I was gobbling up anything and everything that was loosely affiliated with the Elephant 6 collective. While nobody will mistake this record for an E6 classic, it really finds that sweet spot where '60s psych and chamber pop meet. "Like a Summer Rain" was always my favorite. That's the song on YouTube to a montage of Beatles pics. Don't ask me why.

20) Erectus Monotone - "Cathode Gumshoe" (7")
This is what indie rock sounded like before blogs made every band think they were just thisclose to making it big and friends just bought cheap equipment, learned a few chords and simply tried to write songs that didn't fall apart, but when they inevitably did, it least it was in an appealing manner.

By David Malitz |  July 22, 2009; 8:16 AM ET Morning Mix , Rankings , XX Merge
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Comments

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Great list (glad to see Rubies so high, that's one of my favorites). I'm heading down myself for XX Merge in a few hours, can't wait!

Posted by: misere | July 22, 2009 8:59 AM

Please explain to me: Neutral Milk Hotel. I understand their casual appeal. But are they really worthy of hardcore adoration?

Posted by: Miles_Standish_Proud | July 22, 2009 1:54 PM

Welcome to town, David. If you need some wifi and a place to get some writing done, check in with us over at The Carrboro Citizen. If you find yourself in need of pastrami stop by Neal's Deli.

Posted by: rossreport | July 22, 2009 2:54 PM

I would trade AF, LB, OH, ERP, CS for

Ashley Stove - New Scars
Polvo - Cor-Crane Secret
David Kilgour - A Feather In The Engine
Robert Pollard - From A Compound Eye
Spent - Songs of Drinking and Rebellion

Have fun in NC!

Posted by: vinton1 | July 22, 2009 5:20 PM

i havent heard of many of these ppl but arcade fire needs to be way higher

Posted by: tarabowenva | July 28, 2009 1:39 AM

Great list and appreciation. I share your enthusiasm for Merge. Really, can you think of many labels that maintained their "brand" so well for so long - perhaps Touch and Go, Sub Pop, Dischord... But what is a list if not something to quibble with. In prep for Merge XX I have been listening to a lot of older Merge stuff. I think Spoon's Kill the Moonlight is a claustrophobic masterpiece. I think the next Superchunk full-lengths were spectacular and cohesive sets. I think Crooked Fingers put out a splendid, melancholy first record. I prefer Nature of Sap or even Slow Notes (two classics in San Andreas and Skinny Glasses Girl) to your Porta pick. But who cares! Gimme Indie Rock!

Posted by: JimATL | July 28, 2009 5:22 PM

I have to agree that "Funeral" should be higher. I realize that there's still a backlash for the band but even Merge will agree that this album brought the label to a new level.

Posted by: k4man123 | July 31, 2009 3:11 AM

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