50 Song Memoir by The Magnetic Fields
Here we are at #20 of the Top 31, on the 12th day, with the 12th album, from a band called The Magnetic Fields, with sometimes five, sometimes eight members, led by one spectacular songwriter named Stephin Merritt. Numbers are supremely important for this particular entry in the countdown.
I used to love The Magnetic Fields. I feel their 1999 triple-album 69 Love Songs is one of the best albums of the 20th century. But since that album came out, Merritt and co’s output has gone steadily downhill, to the point where the albums they’ve released since the dawn of the Top 31 (2010’s Realism and 2012’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea) have not made those respective years’ countdowns. That was until, with Merritt nearing 50 years of living on this planet, someone at the band’s label, Nonesuch, had the brilliant idea to have him release a second number-based album multi-record album. They suggested he write a song for each of his 50 years on Earth. And so it is that we now have this lovely five-record album called 50 Song Memoir.
Before you dive in, be warned: if you’re not familiar with Merritt’s deep baritone, sharp sarcasm and genius intelligence, you may overlook the beauty of this music. Some — most — of the songs are not traditionally performed, and may well sound unlistenable to your ears. Pay attention to the words, and you may be able to rise above the noise. Merritt’s rhymes and humor are what carry the day. In addition to writing and singing on all fifty songs, the number of instruments Merritt plays on the album is greater than 1001. There are some gems within the 50 songs, but they’re not easy to find.
I have a special affinity for this album not just because of my love for the band, but also because I got to see them perform this album in its entirety across two 25-song nights at the Moore in downtown Seattle. Merritt has experience in writing musicals and stage shows, and the setup for the 50 Song Memoir performances demonstrated that beautifully. The stage was set up as if Merritt were performing from inside a doll-house, surrounded by actual toys and ephemera from his life. Outside the walls of the dollhouse sat the other performers (7 of them) who each played 7 different instruments throughout the two nights. The songs were played in order from 1966 through 2015, and each song had a unique video accompaniment that was played overhead. It was magical, and made me love Merritt and The Magnetic Fields all that much more.
You can see some of the videos that were played during the performance online. In addition to “’71 I Think I’ll Make Another World” above, “’68 A Cat Called Dionysus,” “’81 How to Play the Synthesizer,” “’83 Foxx and I,” “’85 Why I Am Not a Teenager,” and “’88 Ethan Frome” are all good songs with fun visuals to watch.
It may take a few listens, but I think you’ll grow to love these songs as much as I have. Don’t give up halfway through the first song!
1. As listed on the Nonesuch website, Merritt plays: National resonator ukulele, bass ukulele, all lead vocals, bass drum, log drum, slit drum, cymbal, woodblock, tambourine, bells, sleigh bells, cabasa, bottle, glockenspiel, cavaquinho, Joia Tubes, Dusty Strings harp, Farfisa organ, Dusty Strings hammer dulcimer, Kazoobie kazoo, Veillette Avante Gryphon guitar, AdrenaLinn drum machine, Tempest drum machine, Andes melodica, Realistic organ, Sequential Circuits Pro One synthesizer, Danelectro baritone guitar, mandola, Rhythm Ace drum machine, Harmony bass, Almeira classical guitar, Wurlitzer electric piano, thunder sheet, Rhodes Piano Bass, Oscar Schmidt autoharp, Oberheim OB-12 synthesizer, Kamaka 8-string ukulele, feedback, Congost Xylomatic, Simcha tongs, Roland JP-8000 synthesizer, tapes, TomCat drum machine, shakers, Fender acoustic bass, Roland TB-303 bass computer, Roland TR-606 Drumatix drum machine, Vermona DRM-1, Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer, Adam bell set, bowed psaltery, Roland vocoder, xylophone, EML 101 synthesizer, Roland TR-707 drum machine, Dawg electric dulcimer, Oberheim drum machine, LP Trash Snare, cowbell, bar chime, Metasonix D-1000 drum machine, Gretsch organ, Rheem Kee Bass, guiro, djembe, cajon, bell stick, LP Street Cans, electric sitar, Martin 12-string guitar, XBASE 999 drum machine, Yamaha CS-60 synthesizer, Dewanatron Keyed Melody Gin, Moog Voyager synthesizer, Schoenhut toy piano, Virus Access synthesizer, Gold Tone bass banjo, Metasonix S-1000 Wretch Machine vacuum tube synthesizer, Marxolin, metals, one-man band, Critter & Guitari Pocket Piano, charango, celeste, Fender Stratocaster, Yamaha RX21 drum machine, Fender acoustic bass, Yamaha U4 piano, hihat, wind chime, Hohner Pianet, Kilpatrick Audio Pattern Generator, Dewanatron Triple Slice, prepared piano, Korg Sigma synthesizer, zill, triangle, Suzuki Omnichord, ARP String Synthesizer, Baldwin organ, Casio VL-Tone, ocean drum, Korg KR mini drum machine, abacus↩
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22. DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar
23. Capacity by Big Thief
24. The Tourist by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
25. CCFX EP by CCFX
26. Woodstock by Portugal. The Man
27. MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent
28. On the Spot by Hot 8 Brass Band
29. A Deeper Understanding by The War on Drugs
30. Planetarium by Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, & James McAlister
31. A Moment Apart by Odesza
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