The Magnetic Fields’ Discography Ranked
The Magnetic Fields just released a new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea on Tuesday, so it seemed an appropriate time to reassess The Magnetic Fields’ canon. I ranked every full-length by Stephin Merritt and his gaggle of cohorts from worst to best and it might surprise you what ended up on top (or didn’t).
9. Realism (2010)
Three words: Too much ukulele. Okay, that’s not the only reason Realism lands at the bottom of this list. The songwriting here just doesn’t hold up to the acoustic arrangements; in fact it’s probably Merritt’s least inspired batch of tunes. The sobering yin to Distortion’s raging yang, it just comes across as kind of boring.
8. i (2004)
The start of the unfortunate “no synth trio” of albums (here favoring chamber pop adornments) that ended with Realism; it’s telling that the best song on this album is a new version of a song that first appeared on a single released before 69 Love Songs (“I Don’t Believe You”). It seems like Merritt just unloaded so many songs for that album that he was kind of running on empty afterword. The concept (or gimmick, depending on where you stand) of the album is pretty weak as well: all the songs start with the letter “i.” Obviously it’s not completely without redeeming qualities, but this album is for the really devoted only — there’s not much reason for the casual listener to bother with it. A weird side-note: “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend” kind of sounds like a Robyn song.
7. Love at the Bottom of the Sea (2012)
The synths are finally back! That’s enough reason to get at least a little excited about this album, but it’s not quite the return to form you might have hoped for. Love at the Bottom of the Sea’s best tune, “Andrew in Drag,” was leaked back in January, which only heightens the disappointment. There are a couple of other good songs on the album, but it mostly finds Stephin Merritt functioning on autopilot.
6. Distortion (2008)
The Magnetic Field’s foray into noise pop works better than you might expect. The noise is carefully balanced to avoid it from interfering with the delivery of the songs’ melody. At times the noisy elements feel tacked on, but when it works well, like on “California Girls” and “Drive on Driver,” it feels natural. Distortion ends up the best of the “no synth trilogy” on the strength of the songwriting on the album’s highlights and because you get the sense that The Magnetic Fields were genuinely excited about exploring new sounds.
5. Get Lost (1995)
There’s nothing wrong with Get Lost really, in fact it’s quite pleasant. But it was the first Magnetic Fields album to seem like “just another Magnetic Fields album,” which is likely the reason Stephin Merritt gave himself the challenge of 69 Love Songs. That’s not to say Get Lost is without great songs: “All the Umbrellas in London” “Old and Lonely” and “You And Me And The Moon” are particularly good.
4.The Charm of the Highway Strip (1994)
All the songs on this album have something to do with travel, which ends up being one of Merritt’s better concepts. Not all of the songs work, but the highlights (“Born on a Train,” “Two Characters in Search of a Country Song” and “Fear of Trains”) are among his finest. It’s more impressive when you consider that it was released the same year as Holiday.
3. 69 Love Songs (1999)
Some may be surprised to find this album not ranked number one, but while a great triple-album, 69 Love Songs is not The Magnetic Fields’ greatest (or second greatest) achievement. While there are lot of great songs on 69 Love Songs, there’s also a lot of filler; some of it pleasant and fleeting (“Reno Dakota,” “Roses” and “Boa Constrictor”); some of it forgettable (“The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be,” “Very Funny” and “Blue You”); some of it hard to listen to (“Punk Love,” “Love Is Like Jazz,” “Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget,” “Experimental Music Love,” and the long, boring “Papa Was a Rodeo”). So while there are a lot of good tunes here, it doesn’t have the consistency to compete with the bands’ early classics.
2. Holiday (1994)
The first album featuring Stephin Merritt on lead vocals contains one of his finest batches of songs. It’s arguably the most consistent Magnetic Fields album, and the highlights are some of the best songs Merritt has ever conjured. It’s also probably the most positive (or at least not massively depressing) set of songs he ever wrote. Maybe he was taking a lot of ecstasy at the time (which would explain the closing “Take Ecstasy With Me”) but Merritt is noticeably cheerier than on most albums. Don’t get me wrong, there are still dour songs — like “The Flowers She Sent And The Flowers She Said She Sent,” and “All You Ever Do Is Walk Away” — but there also seem to be a higher percentage of (relatively – this is Stephin Merritt we’re talking about) positive love songs than on other albums (with the possible exception of 69 Love Songs), like “Strange Powers” and the blissed-out “Sugar World.”
1. The Wayward Bus/Distant Plastic Trees (1995)
Okay, so this is kind of cheating a little bit since these are technically two separate albums (released in 1992 and 1991, respectively). But they’ve been packaged together since their 1995 re-release on Merge (omitting one track from Distant Plastic Trees for some reason) and that’s how most people know them. Plus it eliminates the tricky proposition of having to pick a favorite, although Distant Plastic Trees might win by default since it has the best, and most devastatingly depressing, Magnetic Fields song ever, “100,000 Fireflies.” This first incarnation of the band featured The Magnetic Fields’ original and best vocalist, Susan Anyway. Her vocals are delivered with an emotional distance that only renders the songs more affecting; Anyway sings Merritt’s songs of heartbreak as if heartbroken but trying hard to mask it behind an air of indifference. It’s the perfect delivery for the material, and one that Merritt himself has never quite been able to duplicate. It’s a shame she left the band after The Wayward Bus. The songwriting is also noticeably fresh and vibrant, with Merritt relying more on surreal imagery and wordplay in the lyrics than he would later on. The Magnetic Fields would go on to create a lot of great music, but they would never match the early successes of Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus.
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