The Magnetic Fields' magnum opus is regularly missed off of Best Album polls due to a technicality, and columnist Mark Beaumont isn't having it
David Miliband. The perfectly lovely couple who finally get onto the Coach Trip coach two days before it hits Ibiza. The new political party that forms while Chuka Umunna’s on holiday. Fate and bad timing have destroyed the chances of many a potential success story, popping their head out of obscurity only to be bashed straight back down again like some golden whack-a-mole.
Usually, as a hardened nearly-man myself – I mean, I literally had the idea for Elon Musk’s space car when I was seven – I’ve forgotten about them before I’ve finished smashing to bits whatever’s most recently told me to get ready for Brexit. But there’s one thing that’s fallen through too many cultural cracks for me to take it anymore. And that’s ’69 Love Songs’ by The Magnetic Fields.
For the woefully unaware, ’69 Love Songs’ is exactly that. 69 songs over three hours in a vast array of styles – country lament, Shinto ballad, Broadway showstopper, post-punk clatter, tracks that seem to be being played on a chocolate factory bubble machine, you name it – all concerning love or the lack thereof and mostly delivered in the dolorous baritone of Stephin Merritt, a voice that doesn’t so much have a lower register as mine the mesosphere. When this monumental, genre-spanning three-hour masterpiece of near faultless theatrical indie pop doesn’t get the fawning adulation it deserves at every possible opportunity, I get as triggered as a Sam Smith fan being asked if it’s ‘they are shit’ or ‘they is shit’. So when The Guardian released their list of the top 100 albums of the century so far last week, I scoured the ranks for this titan of alternative culture and, finding it absent as usual, sat down to hammer out a piss-boiling diatribe demanding to know what sort of imbecilic musical twat-gibbons vote for a list of albums of the century that doesn’t have ’69 Love Songs’ in it.
Then I remembered that I was one of the imbecilic musical twat-gibbons who’d voted for the list – ‘Modern Vampires Of The City’ at number 44? Guilty! – and that there was a perfectly logical reason for my vote for ’69 Love Songs’ being disallowed. It’s the same reason this brain-burstingly brilliant album – a 69-track record with maybe three crap songs on it which, by any reasonably metric, is at least a hundred and forty minutes better than the Guardian’s poll-topper, Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’ – hasn’t had a fair showing in virtually any poll, ever. And it is this: according to Wikipedia, ’69 Love Songs’ came out in 1999. And it did… in America. That year a few hardy Merritt devotees in the Melody Maker office managed to smuggle back a copy or two and the album made number 22 in the 1999 MM end of year poll despite not actually being released in the UK.
Copies were far too rare, and arrived too late in the decade, to make a dent in any Albums Of The ‘90s polls though, and when ’69 Love Songs’ did arrive on British shelves like a sopping great brick of solid heartbreak in May 2000 it was considered too ‘last year’ to gain much critical traction. By the time we got to vote for the best albums of the noughties, let alone the 21st Century so far, Wikipedia had spoken – ’69 Love Songs’ was released in 1999, it said, and one of the best albums of the past seventy years had been disqualified from pop culture’s highest tables on a technicality.
If I sound like a ranting, nerdy indie pub bore that’s because a) that’s what I’ve got on my passport, and b) there are some records you’re prepared to die on a hill for, in this case stabbed through the weary heart with a sharpened banjo. For about three years, back when you had to physically carry music with you and play it on a kind of whirring contraption that looked like something you’ve have to cut your own fingers off with in a Saw film, I crushed countless vertebrae lugging ’69 Love Songs’ around wherever I went because, to my mind, it simply towered over all other music. It made me laugh, cry, do the Charlston, take up cycling, kiss like I meant it and crave a night of immeasurable passion with a Rockette and at least two zebras. It soundtracked some of the biggest emotional upheavals in my life, and seemed utterly bottomless. There were tracks I dismissed as throwaway filler and regularly skipped over to get to ‘The Book Of Love’ or ‘Busby Berkeley Dreams’ which can now leave me a blubbering mess with a twitch of their jazzy balalaika, and even twenty years later there are nooks and crannies of CD3 I still haven’t spent enough time hanging out in. It’s like a mope-pop Glastonbury.
There are records we connect with so deeply they become part of us, as close as family and as engrained as cult worship, records that seem to know us better than Cambridge Analytica could ever dream of. And ’69 Love Songs’ just seems too magnificent, immersive and overwhelming an achievement to let linger any longer in obscurity. There should be monuments built to it, public holidays in its honour, the queen should play it in full on TV every Christmas Day. So, in the spirit of the Lib Dems, I vow to entirely ignore the opinions of my fellow voters and hereby declare ’69 Love Songs’ by The Magnetic Fields as the Guardian’s best album (released in the UK) of the 21st Century. If you want to write your own piss-boiling diatribe about it, @ them.