Guardian and Observer writers are picking their favourite albums ? with a view that you might do the same. Here, Mark Beaumont gives 69 reasons why he loves the Magnetic Fields
The modestly recorded, immodestly conceived grand revue that is the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs still doesn't get the credit it deserves. At least not for me. For this is the slow-creeper that, during 2000 and beyond, stole my heart, blew my mind, broke my funny bone in 12 places and practically dislocated my shoulder carrying the sodding thing everywhere I went in the pre-iPod age.
It's one of the most avidly dissected yet little-known albums in recent years, for three reasons. First, as a "critics' band", the Magnetic Fields are lavished with torrents of slavering rhetoric and respect (particularly in the US), yet eschew the styling, attitude, production value and onstage pizzazz demanded by radio and mainstream; the notoriously downbeat and reticent Stephin "New Sondheim" Merritt is far from your typical pop star. Second, even pared down from the originally intended 100 songs, the 69 tracks here run to three hours, an insurmountable Clarissa of a record to a generation of Spotify surfers for whom "value for money" in music is as archaic as a student grant. Finally, it fell between the gaps of the end-of-decade polls, released too late in 1999 in the US to be considered in time, and still thought of as a 20th-century album in the UK despite its early-2000 release date here. Thanks, Wikipedia.
I, on the other hand, vividly remember those buzzing few months as American copies from some shadowy Stateside source slowly leaked, CD-by-CD, into the NME office where I was a staff writer at the time, surreptitiously passed under desks between the small coterie of Merritt devotees like contraband. Accidentally, it turned out to be the best way to digest the beast.
A few weeks with the CD1 convinced me these first 12 tracks would be the best album of the decade on their own. The vivacious opener Absolutely Cuckoo tripped over itself in its eager rush for the melodic beaches, the likes of I Don't Believe in the Sun, I Don't Want to Get Over You, All My Little Words and Come Back from San Francisco were the peak of Merritt's mastery of wit-laced balladry, and The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side was the joyous, jazz-handed Broadway classic about punching above your romantic weight simply because you've got a cool car.
Then, at track 12, there was The Book of Love; the stark yet stunning ukelele love letter that's become the album's most celebrated escapee, covered by Peter Gabriel and given the full Hollywood rom-com climax treatment in Shall We Dance? After that, the further 12 tracks on CD1 felt like out-takes.
Yet out of that bewildering mass drifted more magnificence: the sweeping Parades Go By, the maudlin hillbilly twangs of The One You Really Love and the all-out comedy of A Pretty Girl Is Like ? ("... a minstrel show/ It makes you laugh/ It makes you cry/ You go/ It just isn't the same on radio"). CD2 provided an equally expansive array of more traditional styles ? folk, country, Irish jigs, jazz, world music ? alongside a smattering of synthy clatter-pop and one track (Long Forgotten Fairytale) that sounded like Erasure doing panto. And CD3 was the most experimental of all, attempting Swedish jazz (It's a Crime), avant-garde electronica (Experimental Music Love) and industrial surf tunes about domestic murder (Yeah! Oh Yeah!). It was, arguably, the correct home for the dying Dalek of CD2's vocoder masterpiece I Shatter.
For the first six months, 69 Love Songs was a skip-to-the-hits album: it seemed to be a legendary album buried between brilliant song ideas left half-written (Very Funny, Boa Constrictor) and tokenistic genre nods to pad out the numbers (Punk Love, Love Is Like Jazz). But interviewing Merritt in mid-2000 I was amazed to find he was as artistically and theoretically dedicated to the thinking behind Experimental Music Love ? a 30-second computerised loop of the title that, he explained, took on a new tone and meaning with each overlap ? as he was to a heartbreaking C&W showstopper like Papa Was a Rodeo. So I let the CDs run, and found myself immersed in Merritt's widescreen panorama of influence ? Johnny Cash, Gilbert & Sullivan, Abba, the Velvets, Can, Steve Earle, the Beach Boys, Nick Cave ? and falling for seemingly throwaway numbers such as Grand Canyon, Meaningless and Strange Eyes as deeply as the album's big tune cornerstones. Context was irrelevant, continuity a sham; 69 Love Songs was its own all-encompassing world, and one that, 11 years of adoration later, I don't feel I've spent enough time exploring.
Even today, just looking back at the rolling reams of tracklisting fills me with a kind of bittersweet longing, of joys remembered and heartaches overcome. I shared some of the toughest years of my life with it, and many of the most wonderful nights. It made the Magnetic Fields a band for all seasons, and it abides in me like the lost lover from arguably the most moving song I've ever heard, Busby Berkeley Dreams: "I should have forgotten you long ago, but you're in every song I know ?"
Or you could simply star rate it, or add it to one of your album lists. There are more than 3m new pages for you to explore as well as 600,000-plus artists' pages ? from Irving Berlin to Beirut ? then find their albums and get to work!