Like it or not, Merge Records always has been -- and most likely always will be -- known as Superchunk's label. Bassist Laura Ballance and vocalist/guitarist Mac McCaughan started the tiny record company in the summer of 1989 with a few cassettes and 7-inch singles recorded by their friends' bands. Merge did well enough, and soon after, Superchunk parted ways with Matador and started releasing records on their own label.
More than 150 singles and full-length albums later, Merge is still home to Superchunk and a small stable of talented bands. Unlike a lot of indies that latch onto bands that have a particular sound (Bloodshot's alt-country, Lookout's pop punk), Merge favors groups that don't -- very few create anything that sounds like Superchunk's anthemic indie rock. Mac and Laura -- they're known by their first names in the tightly knit indie world -- are simply drawn to bands that touch them, whether they're neighbors in North Carolina (Polvo, Archers of Loaf, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Angels of Epistemology), Southern compatriots (The Rock*A*Teens, Lambchop) or musicians halfway across the world (Bristol's Third Eye Foundation, New Zealand's Cakekitchen, Glasgow's Ganger).
To celebrate its 10th anniversary, Merge offers "Oh, Merge," a compilation of mostly previously unreleased songs. A greatest hits collection would have been nice, but Merge doesn't specialize in what most people would call hits. Most of Merge's bands have only small cult followings, so Superchunk's record sales keep the label running.
Following the excellent fifth anniversary compilation "Rows of Teeth," the "Oh, Merge" companion concentrates on the label's roster of the past five years (except for notable absentees Verbena and Cornershop). These 20 songs -- presented democratically, alphabetical by group -- are a testament to Merge's overall diversity as well as each band's individual greatness. Unlike most rarities collections, "Oh, Merge" sounds almost like a singles comp: The songs here aren't throwaways or should-be-forgotten B-sides. Maybe the songs by Beatnik Filmstars, Guv'ner and the Rock*A*Teens don't catch those acts at their best, but the rest of the tracks are essentials for fans of Merge bands (or, heck, just fans of good music). Highlights include the melancholia of East River Pipe's "So Much Hate," the raw beauty of Neutral Milk Hotel's "Engine," the Ladybug Transistor's pensive update of the Bee Gees' "Massachusetts," a revision of the Magnetic Fields' "Take Ecstasy With Me," the Karl Hendricks Rock Band's clever "You're a Bigger Jerk Than Me," Portastatic's sultry ballad "Easily Aroused" and the impeccably weird drum 'n' bass of Third Eye Foundation's "Semtex." And as much as Superchunk would like Merge's other bands to take the spotlight, their new song here, "Clover," makes them sound as vital as they did in 1989.
Unlike Mammoth Records, located across the street from Merge's miniature office in Carrboro, N.C., the indie label doesn't have any platinum records or Disney deals to prove its greatness. With little fanfare, Merge has built a tiny but grand empire, one great record at a time.