Discographically Speaking: Magnetic Fields

Stephin Merritt, the joyless grump behind Magnetic Fields, is a certified pop music genius. He started out with a Phil Spector fascination (right down to having a female vocalist on his first two albums), became a synth-pop sensation and then somehow made a three-disc, 69-song album that is more consistent than most 10-song albums. The band's discography is rich and rewarding, and with the band in town Sunday night at Lisner Auditorium, it's ripe for rankings. We'll go from the bottom to the top, and feel free to add your thoughts in the comments. (Programming note: You'll notice that comments now require registration.)


10. "i" (2004) - The only Magnetic Fields album that I never need to hear again. From the pointless gimmick (every song starts with the letter "i" and they are in alphabetical order) to the singular sound of overwrought chamber-pop, it's the only album in the discography that's pretentious more than anything else. Plus, the best song ("I Don't Believe You") was released as a single a decade earlier in a much superior version.


9. "Distant Plastic Trees" (1991) - People who were introduced to Magnetic Fields with "69 Love Songs" probably wouldn't recognize this album as by the same band. Susan Amway, not Stephin Merritt, handles vocal duties, and the music is all rudimentary keyboards and drum machines. Which isn't a bad thing, Merritt just hasn't emerged from his songwriting shell yet. "100,000 Fireflies" is an all-time classic, though, even if Superchunk's cover is the definitive version.


8. "The Wayward Bus" (1992) - The band's second album was the last with Amway on vocals. Very similar to the album that preceded it, but with more of a Phil Spector obsession. Merritt's distinct lyrical style -- call it whimsically romantic -- also is more defined this time around.


7. "Distortion" (2008) - After "i" I wasn't sure if there would be another Magnetic Fields album I'd really enjoy, so "Distortion" was a pleasant surprise. A squeaky squall lingers in the background of each song, but never to the point of distraction. By sticking to a simpler, guitar-based approach the hooks are more at the forefront than on "i" and the bright vocal presence of Shirley Simms on songs like "California Girls" and "Drive On, Driver" serves as a perfect counter to Merritt's low rumble.


6. "The Charm of the Highway Strip" (1994) - As the title would indicate, driving/roads/traveling are the themes here, and the album does make for good nighttime driving music, although it might be a bit too melancholy if you don't have some company. It's a low-key success and is home to one of Merritt's very best songs, "Two Characters In Search of a Country Song," which manages to add some twang while staying within the album's synth-driven template. ("You were just like me/You were one big bruise/In the game of life you were playing to lose/You were Jesse James, I was William Tell/You were Daniel Webster, I was the devil himself.")


5. "69 Love Songs, Vol. 3" (1999) - The third volume of Merritt's magnum opus has the fewest standout songs and really drops off over the final 10 tracks. As with all of the discs, there are a handful of classics that jump around from genre to genre. There's the galloping girl group sound of "I'm Sorry I Love You," the plucky mandolin-pop of "Queen of the Savages," sweeping piano ballad "Busby Berkeley Dreams" and hilarious "Distortion" precursor "Yeah! Oh, Yeah!" (Do I drive you up the wall?/Do you dread every phone call?/Can you not stand me at all?/Yeah! Oh, Yeah!"). In comparing it to the other volumes it's a simple of the other volumes having a few more winners.


4. "69 Love Songs, Vol. 1" (1999) - The first volume of the three-disc collection sets the tone with a mixture of naughty ("Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits," "Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long"), tender ("The Book of Love," "The One You Really Love"), over-the-top-dramatic ("Parades Go By," "I Don't Believe In the Sun") and plain weird ("Punk Love," "Boa Constrictor").


3. "Get Lost" (1995) - It's understandable that Merritt moved away from strict synth-pop after this album. He had no more to accomplish within the genre's limited confines after another masterpiece, and you can already see him starting to branch out here. Sure, the highlights are the bedroom dancing anthems like "Famous" and "Save a Secret for the Moon," but there's some ukulele and banjo that hint at the creative explosion to come.


2. "69 Love Songs, Vol. 2" (1999) - "Papa Was a Rodeo," the showstopper of a duet with Shirley Simms, serves as the centerpiece for the entire set. It's quintessential Merritt, full of humor, heartbreak and perfect pop craftstmanship. In between the skippable first two songs and weird croaking of last track "I Shatter" are 20 mostly flawless songs chronicling all aspects of love. The arrangements are also ingenious, the insistent strings of "The Way You Say Good-Night" immediately followed by the woozy, panning guitar of "Abigail, Belle of Kilronan."


1. "Holiday" (1994) - It may not have the impressive array of sounds found on "69 Love Songs," but this is where Merritt perfected his craft. The synths are warm and inviting, his lumbering croon never sounded better and every song hits the perfect pop sweet spot. "Swinging London" and "Deep Sea Diving Suit" would fight for top honors on most albums, but "Strange Powers" is the best of this bunch, one of the most perfect love songs ever. "On the ferris wheel looking out on Coney Island/Under more stars than there are prostitutes in Thailand/Our hair in the air, our lips blue from cotton candy/When we kiss it feels like a flying saucer landing/And I can't sleep 'cause you've got strange powers."

By David Malitz |  October 24, 2008; 2:48 PM ET Discographically Speaking , Rankings
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Comments

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My List:

1. Get Lost
2. Holiday
3. Charm
4. Distortion
5. Trees/Bus
6. i
7. 69 Love Songs

Here come the disclaimers...

I am fully expecting the onslaught of people that are going to kill me for putting 69 Love Songs last. BRING IT ON! 69 songs...maybe 20 good ones. So much filler on there. It was a great concept, but i think it gets way too much credit as far a actual listenability. A great album should be able to be listened to from beginning to end without skipping. You simply can't do that with any of those discs.

Next, Superchunk has the definitive version of 100,000 Fireflies?!? Is that a joke? It's a great cover, granted. But come on dude! The juxtaposition in the original between beautiful music and depressing lyrics can't be taken down by a straight up indie rock cover. Sorry.

Posted by: bweisholtz | October 24, 2008 3:11 PM

I concur about Holiday - it's an amazing album, although my favorite track is Take Ecstasy w/Me (and NOT the !!! version).

Superchunk's 100,000 Fireflies is better that Here Comes the Sun or Baba O'Riley.

Posted by: dsloanerider | October 27, 2008 6:11 PM

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