Merge Records was founded in 1989 by Superchunk members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance as a way to release stuff by Superchunk, other Superchunk-related bands, and other North Carolina bands that Superchunk were friends with, but it grew into one of the most major, consistently reliable indie rock labels in existence, and it’s remained that way for over three decades.

We’re a year late to say this is timed with the label’s 30th anniversary, but we decided to make a list of 20 essential albums released on Merge Records. Obviously the first two that came to mind were Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but then we thought, is there anything left to say about those albums that hasn’t been said already? And could they possibly require any more hype? Probably not, so we figured we’d pick 20 other albums for this list instead (and we did pick different Arcade Fire and Neutral Milk Hotel albums that are more underrated than Funeral and Aeroplane). We’ve included albums from all throughout Merge’s discography, as far back as the early ’90s and as recently as this year (2020). We kept things to one album per artist, and with just 20 albums from over three decades worth to choose from, there are obviously many great Merge records that didn’t make our list. But these are 20 that have stood out to us over the years.

This list also only includes albums initially released on Merge, but Merge has also reissued tons of great albums over the years, including classics by Sugar, Archers of Loaf, Dinosaur Jr, Redd Kross, The Mountain Goats, and more. There are also some classic bands who had released just a 7″ or two back in the day like Archers of Loaf, Seam, Drive Like Jehu, Rocket From the Crypt, Velocity Girl, and more, but this list only includes full-length albums.

Read on for the list, in chronological order, and let us know your favorite Merge Records releases in the comments.

Polvo - Today's Active Lifestyles

Polvo – Today’s Active Lifestyles (1993)

Superchunk’s Chapel Hill neighbors Polvo were one of the earliest bands signed to Merge, and — assuming my internet research is correct — their 1992 debut LP Cor-Crane Secret was the first non-Superchunk-related full-length that the label put out. It’s a great debut that quickly proved Polvo were one of the most delightfully weird bands that the North Carolina indie rock scene had to offer, and their 1993 sophomore album Today’s Active Lifestyles — produced by Shellac’s Bob Weston — was even better. On it, Polvo’s guitars were probably out of tune, their recording quality and mix was nothing to write home about, and Polvo rarely paid much attention to traditional song structures and melodies. In a lesser band’s hands, this album would be a mess, but Polvo made it sound like art. Its off-kilter timing and riffage makes it one of the earliest math rock classics, but it also included the grungy indie rock of a band like Dinosaur Jr, Slint-like post-rock, droney psychedelia, some meandering Sonic Youth-style noise, and more. And the way Polvo brought it all together, it never sounded like any other band. With ingredients like these, Polvo were destined to be niche, but even today they remain influential on some of indie rock’s current key bands. It’s hard to imagine bands like Speedy Ortiz or Black Midi sounding the way they do without the path paved by Polvo. [Andrew Sacher]

superchunk - foolish

Superchunk – Foolish (1994)

No list of Merge albums would be complete without at least one from Superchunk, the band that started it all and includes label heads Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance. They’re not just the quintessential Merge band, they’re one of the quintessential ’90s indie rock bands. Picking one is tough but we’re giving the edge to 1994’s Foolish which was actually their first to be released on Merge (their first three originally came out via Matador). The youthful punk energy and attitude is still there on anthemic, poppy rippers like “The First Part,” “Water Wings,” and “Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything?” but there’s just enough “maturity” to give us one of Superchunk’s best-ever songs — the wistful “Driveway to Driveway.” Growing up’s not so bad. [Bill Pearis]

lambchop I Hope You're Sitting Down (aka Jack's Tulips)

Lambchop – I Hope You’re Sitting Down (aka Jack’s Tulips) (1994)

Kurt Wagner is a lifer and his Lambchop project remains a consistently-evolving, reliably-great project that has gone through all kinds of changes over the years and these days is responsible for vocoder folk R&B that’s not too far removed from Bon Iver and James Blake. But way before those artists started their careers, and even before Lambchop released widely celebrated albums like 2012’s Mr. M and 2000’s Nixon and 1997’s Thriller, he had arrived fully formed on Lambchop’s 1994 debut album, I Hope You’re Sitting Down (which is also known as Jack’s Tulip’s). It wasn’t Kurt’s very first crack at it — he had some cassettes and singles that predated the album — but it’s still hugely impressive how Kurt already sounded like a seasoned artist on I Hope You’re Sitting Down. It’s fleshed out with organs, horns, strings, slide guitar, lush backing vocals, and more, and it’s all performed and recorded with a kind of professionality that you’d sooner expect from a big-budget ’70s rock album than early ’90s Merge. Still, it was an alt-country album with a rawer, indie rock side that showed Kurt as a kindred spirit of someone like Will Oldham, especially on the devastating, downer songs like suicide hymn “Soaker in the Pooper.” Lambchop would further embrace the multi-layered embellishments, add in a little more studio polish, and get a little loungier on subsequent albums, and at this point they’ve made too many good albums to count. Still, none other is quite as plainly raw and sneakily ambitious as I Hope You’re Sitting Down. [A.S.]

east river pipe - poor fricky

East River Pipe – Poor Fricky (1995)

F.M. Cornog’s story made for good copy: After spending years addicted to drugs and booze, he found himself in the early ’90s homeless and spending most nights at Hoboken, NJ’s train station. It was around that time that he met Barbara Powers who took him in, and lent him a Tascam four-track recorder to put his songs to tape. Cornog proved to be a wunderkind with the cassette and, as East River Pipe, coaxed higher fidelity out of his machine than most other notable home tapers of the era. (Robert Pollard he was not.) Poor Fricky was the second East River Pipe album but first for Merge, and showed his talent was even better than his bio, making fuzzy pop a la Galaxie 500, Yo La Tengo or The Magnetic Fields with a self-effacing style that packs songs like “Bring on the Loser,” “Superstar in France” and “Here We Go” with charm and hooks. [B.P.]

Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island

Neutral Milk Hotel – On Avery Island (1996)

Two years before In The Aeroplane Over the Sea began capturing the hearts and minds of tons of listeners with its unforgettable tangle of imagery, horns, and Anne Frank references, Jeff Mangum released his debut LP as Neutral Milk Hotel, On Avery Island. He was backed by producer and The Apples in Stereo member Robert Schneider, as well as Rick Benjamin and Lisa Janssen; Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, and Jeremy Barnes didn’t formally join NMH until after the album’s release, and later they (and Jeff) moved to Athens, Georgia and the Elephant 6 collective began to coalesce. Regardless of personnel changes, though, Mangum’s presence was a constant, and On Avery Island lays the groundwork for Aeroplane‘s majesty with a mix of horns and strummed guitars — then, lest you get complacent, blasts you with noise on album closer “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye.” It’s not just Aeroplane‘s prequel, though; On Avery Island more than stands on its own with its unique charms and dense lyrics, cementing Mangum’s status as (reclusive) musical genius. [Amanda Hatfield]

Get ‘On Avery Island’ on vinyl in the BrooklynVegan shop.

seaweed Actions and Indications

Seaweed – Actions and Indications (1999)

Tacoma, Washington’s Seaweed were on Sub Pop for most of their career before a brief major label stint, but they had done their first national tour with Superchunk and they covered a song by Mac McCaughan’s band Wwax on a 1992 7″, so it was a long time coming when they parted ways with their major and inked a deal with Merge for their final album, 1999’s Actions and Indications (which had Quicksand’s Alan Cage on drums). And Seaweed really went out with a bang, as Actions and Indications is one of their best albums. It’s got the best recording quality of any Seaweed album, and every song is a punchy, punky indie rock song with hooks for days. It might’ve been the end of their career (until their late ’00s / early ’10s reunion), but it sounded like a new beginning. [A.S.]

magnetic fields 69 Love Songs

The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs (1999)

High concept albums are fun to come up with but don’t always work out when it comes to the finished product. It’s rare when a double album is worth both discs, let alone a triple album. Yet Stephin Merritt knocks it out of the park with this three-disc deep dive on love with the grand total hitting the most erotic of numbers (so says Serge Gainsbourg), which was clearly no accident. There are whimsical songs (“Absolutely Cuckoo”), horny songs (“Underwear,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits”), heartbreakers (“The Book of Love,” “No One Will Ever Love You”), ones that’ll make you swoon (“Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing,” “Busby Berkeley Dreams”), and at least a couple that were clearly included to get the track number up to 69. But it all adds up to Merritt’s masterpiece. [B.P.]

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - Madonna

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead – Madonna (1999)

Before Trail of Dead released their major label, 10-on-Pitchfork-scoring Source Tags & Codes, they released their excellent sophomore album Madonna. Source Tags & Codes tends to dominate the Trail of Dead conversation, but Madonna was the reason they stirred up enough buzz to attract a major label in the first place, and it doesn’t deserve to live in Source Tags & Codes‘ shadow. Madonna is basically everything you want from Trail of Dead: loud, hard-hitting, post-hardcore-tinged indie rock with plenty of hypnotic, zone-out sections and lots of pounding drums. It’s got punk rock intensity, art rock smarts, and stadium-sized ambition. Most indie rock bands can only dream that their second best album would be this good. [A.S.]

spoon girls can tell

Spoon – Girls Can Tell (2001)

After releasing albums on Matador (Telephono, their 1996 debut) and Elektra (1998’s A Series of Sneaks), Spoon signed to Merge, releasing their 2000 Love Ways EP and following it with Girls Can Tell, their third LP, in 2001. It’s still among their finest work and continues to stand up, nearly 20 years later, as 36 minutes of excellently crafted indie rock. It’s taut, lean, and direct, with each guitar, keyboard, and drum line sounding deliberately placed with Britt Daniel — his vocals part howl, part rasp — singing lyrics that continue to stick with me decades after my first listen. Spoon went on to make albums boasting higher highs than Girls Can Tell, including Kill the Moonlight and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, but on their third LP, it really feels like all the pieces came together. [A.H.]

the rosebuds make out

The Rosebuds – Make Out (2003)

Raleigh, NC duo The Rosebuds made some of the most winning, underrated indie pop of the ’00s, mixing big hooks, surfy twang and a predilection for “whoa-oh” choruses with a soulful side, too. All their records are good — including that full-album cover of Sade’s Love Deluxe — but their 2003 debut remains our memorable introduction. Make Out is a delight from start to finish with tracks like peppy “Kicks in the Schoolyard” and “Boys Who Love Girls,” the wonderfully dreamy “Wishes for Kisses,” and the smoky title track that closes the album. Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp possess a deep pop knowledge, too, that rears itself in some clever lyrical and musical references throughout the record. Perhaps most importantly, Make Out is overflowing with an underappreciated commodity — fun. It’s one big smile of a record. [B.P.]

the clientele - strange geometry

The Clientele – Strange Geometry (2005)

UK indie trio The Clientele have always been a rainy day kind of band, romanticizing British inclement weather in many songs and through their general air of wistful melodies, brushed drums and frontman Alasdair MacLean’s hushed vocals and delicately plucked guitars. Their early records also sounded like they were recorded in cloud cover, with a dense layer of reverb fogging up the lenses. Then came 2005’s Strange Geometry, which brought in just enough sunlight to burn off some of the haze and reveal an exceptionally skilled trio playing some of their best songs yet. They even rock out, ever so politely, on occasion. The Clientele are still carrying an umbrella but here it’s more for style. [B.P.]

camera obscura - let's get out of this country

Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out of This Country (2006)

Dogged by comparisons to fellow Glaswegians Belle & Sebastian throughout their early career (not entirely unwarranted), Camera Obscura came into their own on their wonderful third album. The group’s John Henderson had left the band before making the album, leaving Tracyanne Campbell as sole songwriter and lead vocalist and she really stepped up to the plate with her most winning batch of songs yet, mixing romanticism with a dash of knowing cynicism, wit, and absolutely soaring melodies. Camera Obscura truly did get out of the country for this one, too, heading to Sweden — a good move for any quality indiepop band — to work with producer Jari Haapalainen. He helped them hone their mix of Motown, country and blue-eyed soul but with songs like “Hey Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” and the title track, they were already most of the way there. [B.P.]

arcade fire - neon bible

Arcade Fire – Neon Bible (2007)

Like Trail of Dead’s Madonna, the only real factor working against Neon Bible is that it lives in the shadows of the band’s absurdly praised consensus-best. And actually, it’s probably even overshadowed by The Suburbs, which took Arcade Fire from indie stars to Grammy-winning superstars. I don’t think there’s any possible way to prop up Funeral any higher than it’s already been propped up, but it feels like Neon Bible‘s stature can still increase. Especially now that Arcade Fire are so far removed from the sound that made the indie world fall in love with them, Neon Bible really serves as the final offering of their breakthrough era. It’s a little darker and a little weirder than Funeral, and the deep cuts still feel revelatory because they’re not shoved down your throat like “Wake Up” or “Rebellion (Lies)” or “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).” It’s insanely impressive for any band to make an album like Funeral. Arcade Fire did it twice, and the songwriting of Neon Bible is distinct and enduring enough to stop this album from ever feeling like a rehash of its predecessor. [A.S.]

caribou - andorra

Caribou – Andorra (2007)

It’s hard to pick just one Caribou record as Dan Snaith’s project has gone through two distinct phases: first the heady, rhythm-heavy one-man psych band that was originally called Manitoba; and then the dance music incarnation Snaith morphed into with Swim that went on to make the great Our Love and this year’s Suddenly. But if we had to pick just one, like for the sake of this list, it’s 2006’s Andorra, a gorgeous head trip that sheds the laptop indie rock tendencies of Caribou/Manitoba’s previous two album in favor of a baroque psych / krautrock hybrid that explodes in technicolor stereo from your speakers. [B.P.]

Destroyer – Kaputt

Destroyer – Kaputt (2011)
Dan Bejar has made amazing records with acoustic guitars and cheap keyboards, but the widescreen soundscape he created for Kaputt is like the glamorous, shabby chic world of his lyrics come to widescreen life. Here we get saxophones, flutes and trumpets, soulful backing vocals, and layers upon layers of synthesizers on which Bejar hangs his stream-of-conscious lyrics, sounding all the more romantic with this lush backing. It’s a musical snapshot of a city where the streets are always rain-slicked and reflecting neon, drum machines power the taxis, and the fire escapes are populated with saxophonists. One imagines this is the sound Bejar always hears in his head when he’s writing songs like “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” “Chinatown,” “Blue Eyes” and “Downtown.” It’s Bryan Ferry in a rumpled suit. It’s Al Stewart fronting New Order. Or as Bejar puts it on the glorious title track, “It all sounds like a dream to me.” It still does. [B.P.]

wye oak - civilian

Wye Oak – Civilian (2011)

For a duo, Wye Oak’s sound is wide and deep, and it was perhaps never more majestic and compelling than on their third album where ambition, talent and a decent recording budget allowed them to make this 38-minute collective swoon. Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack produced it themselves, too, which makes it all the more of an accomplishment as Civilian surprises and defies expectations at every turn. Beauty and eloquence crash into pounding drums and massive guitars, making for some spine-tingly moments, like in the featherlight but muscular “Hot as Day,” and when “Holy Holy” bursts wide open in a dazzling display of melody and power chords. Wye Oak took a left turn into synthy territory on their next album and have never really looked back…maybe because they perfected this shoegazey era of the band here. [B.P.]

Wild Flag – Wild Flag (2011)

In 2015, Sleater-Kinney reunited and released No Cities to Love, one of the best albums of their career and one of the best of the 2010s. The only downside of that album is that it ended and overshadowed Wild Flag, a “side project” who were just about every bit as good as Sleater-Kinney. Wild Flag was S-K’s Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss plus Mary Timony (Helium, Autoclave, etc) and Rebecca Cole (The Minders), and their sole album is hard-hitting punk/indie/hard rock fusion that’s a crucial part of all four members’ discographies. Carrie and Mary split lead vocals, and they always sounded like they were bringing out the best in each other and challenging the other to rock even harder. (They looked this way on stage too.) It’s hard not to wonder if No Cities to Love rocked so hard because of the hot steak Carrie and Janet were already on with Wild Flag. [A.S.]

bob mould - silver age

Bob Mould – Silver Age (2012)

In 2012, Bob Mould and his new band of bassist Jason Narducy (Split Single) and drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk) did a tour playing Sugar’s Copper Blue for its 20th anniversary, and Merge also reissued Sugar’s two albums and Beaster EP that year. But all the Sugar stuff wasn’t just nostalgia for Mould and his ace new band. They released Silver Age, Mould’s most Sugar-sounding album in a while, and the Mould/Narducy/Wurster trio kept going from there, with three more rippin’ albums all cut from a similar cloth. This new era really reinvented Bob Mould, and as his recent live shows prove, the stuff from the last four albums fits in very nicely with the Sugar and Husker Du classics. All four are good, but Silver Age began this late-career creative spark and managed to stand out in a year that included a Copper Blue reissue and tour. [A.S.]

Ex Hex – Rips (2014)

After Wild Flag ended, Mary Timony stayed signed to Merge for her next band, Ex Hex. And like the Sleater-Kinney reunion album, Ex Hex also sounds inspired by Mary’s time in Wild Flag. Her ’90s band Helium (who weren’t on Merge but who were Matador labelmates with Superchunk and shared a member with Polvo) was more in the off-kilter underground rock realm, but Ex Hex was all about glammy hard rock/power pop and shared a lot of musical DNA with Mary’s Wild Flag songs. The band helped reinvigorate Mary Timony’s career and establish her as a force within the modern-day indie rock scene alongside a handful of bands that Helium probably influenced. Ex Hex have two albums now and it’s hard to pick just one, but Rips started it all and made it clear that Ex Hex were a great band off the bat, so Rips it is. [A.S.]

Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud

Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud (2020)

Waxahatchee signed to Merge for her third album, 2015’s Ivy Tripp, following the release of American Weekend and her breakthrough second LP Cerulean Salt on Don Giovanni. Five years and two albums later, she put out Saint Cloud at the end of March, and it’s already being heralded as the best album of her career. With its earthy, twangy, country and folk influenced sound, Saint Cloud is a bit of a departure from her previous, more indie rock-flavored releases, but Waxahatchee brings sensitivity and depth to whatever style she works in. This album has drawn deserved comparisons to Lucinda Williams, and while it’s early to be making predictions, it feels primed to have the same kind of staying power as Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. [A.H.]

Check out pictures of some of the artists from this list in the gallery below: