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The 25 Best Indie Pop Albums of the ’90s

While alternative rock raged in the 1990s, the softhearted sound of bands like Heavenly, Tiger Trap, and the Pastels welcomed listeners into their own secret world.

The genre that would come to be known as indie pop first emerged during the late 1970s and early ’80s in Great Britain. Weary of punk’s anger and aggressive masculinity, bands like Television Personalities, Orange Juice, and the Pastels began to make music that retained its uncompromising DIY spirit while channeling a more melodic sound, releasing their music on community-driven independent (“indie”) labels like Postcard and Creation. NME’s massively influential C86 compilation would further cement the burgeoning scene’s association with jangly, shambolic guitar music. One year later, the beloved label Sarah began releasing 7" singles—an intentionally accessible format, in accordance with its founders’ anti-capitalist principles—tied together by handmade artwork and the pursuit of sweet pop sounds.

Meanwhile, in North America, a similar scene was emerging out of Olympia, Washington. Centered around Calvin Johnson and his label K, early North American indie pop was proudly rudimentary; Johnson’s own band, Beat Happening, used whatever materials were at its disposal, like yogurt containers, to make clumsy, sentimental rock songs. By the early ’90s, K was at the forefront of a scrappy subculture. Indie pop musicians leaned proudly left-of-center, rejecting the latest fashions in favor of thrift-store finds and embracing feminism and progressive politics. (This is a good place to mention that while indie pop was inclusive in terms of gender and sexual orientation, its lack of racial diversity remains an unignorable flaw.)

Before long, major labels took notice of indie music’s popularity and began trying to capitalize on the underground. In August 1991, a month before Nirvana released Nevermind and forever changed the meaning of alternative, K hosted the International Pop Underground Convention, a six-day festival that promised to reject “the corporate ogre.” (Kurt Cobain, who had a tattoo of the label’s logo, was disappointed to miss it.) The gathering’s legendary Girl Night became a catalyst for the burgeoning riot grrrl movement, marking the musical debuts of Rose Melberg and a pre-Sleater-Kinney Corin Tucker. Elsewhere, labels like Slumberland and Harriet were championing their own regional bands, forming a cross-pollinating indie pop ecosystem.

By the end of the ’90s, the definition of indie pop had been diluted. These days, the descriptor is less a mark of independence or stylistic allegiance than it is a vague suggestion of authenticity: Sometimes it describes pop-oriented music that exists slightly outside of the mainstream, or incorporates influences more commonly associated with underground music. Maybe, as Stephen Pastel wrote in the liner notes of the Pastels’ 1993 compilation Truckload of Trouble, indie “was never meant to be a genre.”

The following collection of records, presented in chronological order, represents an overview of what ’90s indie pop meant, in all the forms you’d expect from a genre so intimate and loosely bound. Some acts released only a handful of 7"s, while others have rich catalogs; some existed for just a few years while others remain active today; some favor a bubblegum bounce while others channel shoegaze complexity. Yet these projects exist within the same family tree, varying in sound but sharing their commitment to forthright emotion.

Read Pitchfork’s list of the best songs of the 1990s here and best albums of the 1990s here, and check out our full ’90s package here.

(All releases featured here are independently selected by our editors. When you buy something through our retail links, however, Pitchfork may earn an affiliate commission.)

Rough Trade

The Sundays: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (1990)

Even if the Sundays hadn’t named their debut Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, its bookish nature would’ve been apparent. Harriet Wheeler sings like she’s trying to get the librarian’s attention without disturbing others, and guitarist David Gavurin strums with a studied focus. Across 10 songs, the Sundays assemble a buoyant collection of jangly guitar riffs, hazy stories, and dream-pop crescendos. Much of the album’s transfixing power lands on Wheeler; she sings as if from atop a hill, prompting comparisons to everyone from the late Dolores O’Riordan to Elizabeth Fraser. From the open-ended “A Certain Someone” to the bite-sized advice in “My Finest Hour,” Reading, Writing and Arithmetic is an indie pop classic that bowls you over on first listen. –Nina Corcoran

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Saint Etienne: Foxbase Alpha (1991)

Saint Etienne’s postmodern take on indie pop questioned if other eras of music could offer the same simplicity and respite as ’60s guitar pop. The francophone radio babble that opens the London band’s debut sets false expectations: Foxbase Alpha was going to be another indie pop album full of romantic guitar melodies and innocent adventure. Then the opening disco beats of their Neil Young cover kick in. Like showing up to the rave in a demure school uniform, Foxbase Alpha is a grand gesture towards subcultural merger. “Carnt Sleep” is a smokey dub ballad for dancing solo at 1 a.m., and “Nothing Can Stop Us” is a mellow funk groove for shuffling in your slippers even later. Saint Etienne found a way to create ’80s club music for soft-spoken guitar kids, and Foxbase Alpha is evidence that even the most bashful young adults need a dancefloor from time to time. –Nina Corcoran

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Teenage Fanclub: Bandwagonesque (1991)

In the 1980s, Norman Blake was already active in Glasgow’s fertile music scene. His early band the Boy Hairdressers even had a 7" on Stephen Pastel’s label 53rd & 3rd, where their peers included indie pop stalwarts like the Vaselines, Beat Happening, Talulah Gosh, Shop Assistants, and BMX Bandits. Teenage Fanclub’s debut, 1990’s A Catholic Education, feinted in a heavier direction, but its follow-up, Bandwagonesque, established the Blake-led group as purveyors of sparkling power-pop par excellence. Cherished by the likes of Liam Gallagher and Ben Gibbard, the album retains the shambolic intimacy of the community that birthed it but strains irresistibly for the classic-rock brass ring, with sweet vocal harmonies and finely wrought codas that collapse the distance between overpriced arenas and dank indie dives. –Marc Hogan

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Sub Pop

The Vaselines: The Way of the Vaselines (1992)

Few bands better dispel the myth of indie pop as somehow sexless than the Vaselines. Formed in 1986 around then-couple Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, the Glasgow band’s brightly tuneful, noisily off-kilter songs bounce along on horny chemistry, from the sunlit bedroom in “Son of a Gun” to the more over-the-top double entendres of “Rory Rides Me Raw.” Although the sole album from the band’s initial run, Dum-Dum, was released in 1989 via Stephen Pastel’s 53rd & 3rd, the Vaselines famously found a fan in Kurt Cobain. The 19-track collection that Sub Pop released at Cobain’s suggestion, The Way of the Vaselines, has long been the best way to listen in on Kelly and McKee’s flirty chaos. Since expanded and reissued as Enter the Vaselines, the set also features “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” whose ramshackle religious subversion leaves Nirvana’s reverent MTV Unplugged take sounding rather overdressed. –Marc Hogan

Listen: YouTube


Heavenly: Le Jardin de Heavenly (1992)

Critics at the time rejected Heavenly as overly twee, too fixated on feminine emotions and childhood clichés to be taken seriously. It’s a lot harder to pull off the kind of generosity on display on the band’s second LP, Le Jardin de Heavenly. In “Different Day,” Amelia Fletcher imagines her crush’s heart not as a trophy to be won, but as a place that’s warm and kind. When the protagonist of “Orange Corduroy Dress” waits in vain for the man who bestowed the garment to return, the band is sympathetic to her plight. And though “I’m Not Scared of You” is a story of betrayal, the real takeaway is self-respect: “If things start to fall apart/I’ll know down in my heart/It isn’t worth the dream.” Stacked vocal harmonies and sugary guitars mark Le Jardin de Heavenly as quintessentially ’90s indie pop, but it’s the band’s lyrical benevolence that makes these songs so tasteful. –Nina Corcoran

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Jonathan Richman: I, Jonathan (1992)

Modern Lovers founder Jonathan Richman was 41 when he released this sunny solo record, but he looks half that, nearly teenaged, on the album’s cover. He sounds it, too. Richman’s lyrical concerns involve the magic of new love, the despair of a disagreement with a roommate, and the joy of losing oneself on the dancefloor in a lesbian bar. I, Jonathan marries the airtight pop construction of Brian Wilson to the crustpunk ethos of K Records as it narrates all the triumphs and tribulations of 20s adolescence. Timeless is the word. –Peyton Thomas

Further Reading: I, Jonathan Sunday Review

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Lois: Strumpet (1993)

Before founding her eponymous project, Lois Maffeo could be found around Olympia, Washington, writing for fanzines, hosting an all-girl radio show, and performing in a number of bands, including the short-lived duo Courtney Love with Pat Maley (who would produce many of the artists on this list). The followup to Lois’ 1991 debut, Butterfly Kiss, Strumpet features members of Bratmobile, Team Dresch, and Codeine and was produced by Calvin Johnson. “You say I’m walking around like I own the whole place/Well I do,” she sings sweetly on the title track. By the time Strumpet wraps up with an a cappella cover of the Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside,” Lois will own your whole heart. –Quinn Moreland

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Tiger Trap: Tiger Trap (1993)

The short-lived Sacramento quartet Tiger Trap was founded on the purest of beliefs: that being in a band was “the coolest thing” imaginable. Their sole record, 1993’s Tiger Trap, has a thrilling immediacy; when Rose Melberg celebrates new love on “Puzzle Pieces,” she sings like she’s experiencing pure happiness for the first time, invigorated by scrappy melodies reminiscent of UK guitar bands like Talulah Gosh and Shop Assistants. Later, when she describes the cruelty of heartbreak, she is assured in her innocence and her anger: “How could you do something so ugly when you had/Just said you loved me moments before?” While their songs about crushes may have made Tiger Trap appear less radical than their riot grrrl peers to the North, the band’s unflappable tenderness was its own sort of rallying cry. –Quinn Moreland

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The Pastels: Truckload of Trouble (1993)

By 1993, the Pastels were iconic. In the decade since the band emerged from Glasgow’s independent music scene, they had become emblematic of a scene and a style. Their jangly, ’60s-inspired guitar music heralded imperfections, from charmingly awkward vocals to instrumental amateurism. Meanwhile, their bookish, wallflower image—singer-guitarist Stephen Pastel (né McRobbie) was an actual librarian—rejected the stereotypical rock star image in favor of an unassuming cool. From the scrappy poetics of “Crawl Babies” to the aching purity “Nothing to Be Done,” the band’s 1993 compilation Truckload of Trouble captures these shambolic early years, wherein the Pastels inspired a generation of could-be musicians. –Quinn Moreland

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Sub Pop

Velocity Girl: ¡Simpatico! (1994)

Much great 1990s indie pop hailed from the UK or the Pacific Northwest, but the East Coast had a thriving scene too, and Velocity Girl were proof. Taking their name from a C86 classic by pre-fame Primal Scream, the Washington, D.C.-area band picked up the British scene’s “it was easy, it was cheap, and go and do it” spirit with early 7"s and EPs for locally formed label Slumberland. Their effects-swathed debut album, 1993’s Copacetic, could’ve been a transatlantic cousin to My Bloody Valentine. But their more tuneful follow-up, ¡Simpatico!, sounds like quintessential indie pop, with punk-spiked bubblegum about heedless grins and endless recriminations. Trading off lead vocals were Sarah Shannon, with nonchalant exuberance, and founding member Archie Moore, who notably played in another key DMV-area indie pop group, Black Tambourine. –Marc Hogan

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Cub: Come Out Come Out (1995)

In the mid ’90s, a new subgenre of indie pop called cuddlecore embraced bright, unabashedly childlike aesthetics, reclaiming a cuteness that others might write off as infantile. The Canadian group Cub was one of the flagship cuddlecore bands, and its 1993 debut Betti-Cola was stuffed with charmingly twee songs about picnics and pet chinchillas. But first impressions can be deceiving: Cub’s second album, 1995’s Come Out Come Out, is undeniably dark. Sometimes the danger is just a flicker, as on “My Flaming Red Bobsled,” or in their melancholy cover of the Go-Go’s 1982 hit “Vacation.” Then, on songs like “Tomorrow Go Away,” the fire is screaming: “And we eat lunch with your parents/While you’re wishing I was dead.” –Quinn Moreland

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Various Artists: There and Back Again Lane (1995)

No label more singularly epitomized the indie pop spirit than Bristol, UK-based Sarah Records, which began shipping 7"s in 1987. Driven by feminism and an understated leftism, the imprint released such cult favorites as Heavenly and St. Christopher, whose tender melodicism captivated fans as much as it repelled certain British music magazines’ critics. But when you see a band named the Sweetest Ache, you should know instantly what you’re getting. In a scene geared toward singles and EPs, Sarah’s swan song, There and Back Again Lane—a 21-track compilation spanning eight years—is an appropriately bittersweet summation, from the Field Mice’s bedroom-pop swooner “Sensitive” to Even as We Speak’s indie-disco sendoff “Drown.” As recounted in journalist Michael White’s book Popkiss, Sarah announced its planned finale with lavish half-page ads in Melody Maker and NME. Call it the sweetest “fuck you.” –Marc Hogan

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The Apples in Stereo: Fun Trick Noisemaker (1995)

If the Apples in Stereo seem curiously underrated today, perhaps it’s because they were so quietly influential during the 1990s. Led by falsetto-wielding frontman Robert Schneider, the Denver-based band upped the ante for homemade power-pop with its debut album Fun Trick Noisemaker, whose gleefully psyched-out bubblegum heralded a new generation’s burgeoning obsession with Pet Sounds. Despite the geographical distance, the Apples were also at the forefront of Athens, Georgia’s Elephant 6 collective—Schneider produced Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 touchstone In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The Apples have been quiet since the 2012 death of keyboardist Bill Doss, and several of their later albums, particularly 2007’s New Magnetic Wonder, offer cleaner entry points to their prolific catalog. But the shambolic charm of Fun Trick Noisemaker captures a particular turn toward sunny exuberance in the indie zeitgeist. –Marc Hogan

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The Softies: It’s Love (1995)

When they started the Softies in 1994, Tiger Trap’s Rose Melberg and All Girl Summer Fun Band’s Jen Sbragia didn’t expect their new side project to amount to much. By the following year, they had a striking debut album and an eager audience. It’s Love casts a spell, inviting listeners to re-embody their younger selves: to bask in naivety, act on the feeling that time is endless, ask simple questions and embrace straightforward answers. “It’s really comforting to put yourself in a childlike state of mind,” explained a 23-year-old Melberg. The album’s prosaic imagery—charm bracelets, Converse sneakers, a cigar box filled with keepsakes—offers that comfort, calling on shared emotion as a kind of protective armor. Because, as the duo sing in harmony, “It’s a hard world, that’s no lie.” –Nina Corcoran

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Rocketship: A Certain Smile, a Certain Sadness (1996)

Borrowing its title from a classic bossa nova record, Rocketship’s 1996 debut A Certain Smile, a Certain Sadness is hopelessly devoted to indie pop’s twin pillars of emotion. From the giddy regret of “I Love You Like the Way I Used to Do” to the earnest sentimentality of “Friendships and Love,” Dustin Reske yearns for romantic companionship while steadying himself for inevitable heartache. Reske, who lived in Sacramento and also produced albums for Henry’s Dress and the Softies, draped his ornate songs in droning organs that recall Felt and Stereolab. Conjuring a bittersweet longing for a happiness that’s just out of reach, the band’s masterpiece pushed beyond homespun indie pop toward a more ambitious sound. –Quinn Moreland

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Henry’s Dress: Bust ’Em Green (1996)

By the time Henry’s Dress released their first and only LP, 1996’s Bust ’Em Green, they had refined their sludgy shoegaze into full-blown noise pop with immense hooks and bouncy energy (the reverse My Bloody Valentine, if you will). With Amy Linton and Matt Hartman switching between guitar/vocals and drums and Hayyim Sanchez on the bass, the San Francisco-via-Albuquerque trio rip through 12 fuzzy tracks about scooters and tree forts in under 30 minutes. Although Henry’s Dress would break up just a year later—Linton notably went on to form the Aislers Set—their lasting influence touched their Albuquerque peers the Shins and, years later, inspired the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. –Quinn Moreland

Listen: YouTube


Tullycraft: Old Traditions, New Standards (1996)

Tullycraft’s 1996 debut, Old Traditions, New Standards, walks a fine line between satire and sincerity. Take the hyper-referential, deliciously snotty “Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend’s Too Stupid to Know About,” which urges an ex to ditch her U2-loving beau in favor of a narrator with superior taste (“Just you and me and Halo Benders/Hey, that’s pretty hot!”). But then the Seattle band comes in with a song like “Superboy and Supergirl,” an empathetic appeal to the titular heroes’ vulnerabilities. As the track builds to its jangly, pumped-up conclusion, Sean Tollefson’s pinched vocals grow increasingly raw, and Tullycraft pushes through its defense mechanisms. –Quinn Moreland

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Electric Honey / Jeepster

Belle and Sebastian: Tigermilk (1996)

Word-of-mouth fandom worked its magic on Tigermilk. With only 1,000 copies initially pressed, it took time for Belle and Sebastian’s debut to find its audience—an embarrassed Stuart Murdoch watched the color fade from one copy as it sat untouched in the window of a local Glasgow record store for months. But the album eventually charmed its way to cult-classic status, going on to influence, if not define, indie pop for years to come. There’s something honorable about Murdoch’s delicate acoustic ballads and tongue-in-cheek confessionals about peer pressure and falling in love, as if he’s invited you over to spill his secrets in hopes of getting your advice. On “My Wandering Days Are Over,” he mythologizes his project’s future: “You know my one-man band is over.” As the music unspools and trumpet and violin players join in, the shape of the band as a whole takes form—a reminder that fostering community is just as key to the genre as lyrical content. –Nina Corcoran

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Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)

In 1996, Belle and Sebastian approached perfection, twice. First came Tigermilk, a quietly profound debut recorded as a school project. If You’re Feeling Sinister arrived a few months later, an album that presses its nose against a windowpane and peers out at the world beyond, yearning to indulge in beauty and ugliness alike. Writing in the shadow of his yearslong struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome, frontman Stuart Murdoch emerged as a Glaswegian Salinger, a storyteller with an eye for misfits: a track and field star as accomplished in sex as she is in athletics; a curmudgeonly veteran with nostalgia for Roxy Music; a suicidal girl who enjoys S&M and Bible studies. Set atop gorgeous arrangements inspired by swooning ’60s pop and the Velvet Underground at their most melodic, these songs set the standard for pretty much all indie pop that was to come. –Quinn Moreland

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Chrysalis / EMI

White Town: Women in Technology (1997)

A computer-OK homebrew of 1980s synth-pop, 1930s big-band jazz, and 1990s sexual ambiguity, White Town’s “Your Woman” stands as one of the unlikeliest global hits of all time. Originally issued via tiny Illinois label Parasol, the breakout single by Indian-born British “philosopher, semi-pro songwriter, and career pervert” Jyoti Mishra vaulted its creator from the artsy margins to the pop mainstream. If Derby, England-based Mishra had previously gone in for jangling guitars, his major-label debut album mirrored post-punk precursors Scritti Politti’s New Pop metamorphosis, yielding worldly electro-soul that felt more Janet Jackson than Calvin Johnson. With its smash hit more recently championed by Vampire Weekend and sampled by Dua Lipa, Women in Technology remains a testament to how fiercely principled do-it-yourself pop—equal parts ambitious and eccentric by design—can transcend the indie scene. –Marc Hogan

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The Cat’s Miaow: Songs for Girls to Sing (1997)

There’s no clear reason why the Cat’s Miaow never achieved the popularity of some of their peers—maybe it was because the Australian quartet rarely played live or because its members were simultaneously working on other projects. It certainly wasn’t a lack of great material: Songs like “Not Like I Was Doing Anything” and “Note on the Table” are miniature pop gems with a plainspoken sensitivity. The group had a prolific run of physical releases throughout the ’90s, some of which would be compiled into the 1997 collection Songs for Girls to Sing. The tracks featured include many home-recorded originals, several live cuts, and covers of songs by Patsy Cline, the Ronettes, and Melbourne pop peers the Sugargliders. Heartfelt and gentle, each song is worth tucking away. –Quinn Moreland

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Gaze: Mitsumeru (1998)

The Vancouver band Gaze was founded in the late ’90s by singer-guitarist Miko Hoffman and singer-bassist Megan Mallett. They soon found an (inexperienced) drummer in Rose Melberg, who’d relocated to the city while still playing with the Softies. Though Melberg didn’t participate in the songwriting, it’s easy to hear an echo of her prior band, Tiger Trap, in Gaze’s first album, Mitsumeru. But instead of powering through heartache on a sugar high, the trio spend more time exploring murky miscommunications, failed relationships, and jealousy. In a genre that often indulges escapism, Gaze balanced sweetness and painful truths. After all, as they assert at the end of “Preppy Villain,” “Life isn’t just a bunch of snowflakes/Taking their sweet time as they float to the ground.” –Quinn Moreland

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Black Tambourine: Complete Recordings (1999)

Black Tambourine didn’t need to release a proper album to become iconic. The Silver Spring, Maryland band’s lineup was already a who’s who of ’80s and ’90s indie music: Mike Schulman, head of Slumberland; Pam Berry, co-founding editor of the beloved zine Chickfactor; and Archie Moore and Brian Nelson, who also played in Velocity Girl. Luckily, 1999’s Complete Recordings collects the handful of songs they recorded between 1989 and 1991. One of those tracks, “Throw Aggi Off the Bridge,” would go down in indie pop history as the genre’s premiere diss track, with Berry entreating the Pastels’ Stephen Pastel to toss bandmate (and one-time girlfriend) Annabel “Aggi” Wright into a river (“purely for pro-Stephen crush emphasis purposes,” Berry later clarified). Less sceney but equally invigorating is “For Ex-Lovers Only,” which offers some of the decade’s best blissed-out shoegaze-does-’60s-girl-group dissonance. –Quinn Moreland

Listen/Buy: Spotify


Advantage Lucy: ファンファーレ (Fanfare) (1999)

While the U.S. and UK were experiencing an explosion of cardigan-clad indie pop, Japan was quietly building a world of its own within the genre. Among the scene’s standouts were Advantage Lucy, a Tokyo quartet that fused sunny jangle pop with horns, jazzy drums, and retro vocal harmonies. After ditching their original, Peanuts-inspired moniker Lucy Van Pelt, they released ファンファーレ (Fanfare), their debut album as Advantage Lucy, in 1999. Like the best indie pop of the era, the album welcomes fans to reimagine the humdrum of life with an optimistic curiosity. “カタクリの花” floats through a dreamy guitar melody dotted with glockenspiel and recorder, while fan favorite “Solaris” is the most exuberant ode to milk you’ve ever heard. Decades later, the album is still charming new generations of fans at home and abroad. –Nina Corcoran

Buy/Listen: YouTube


The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (1999)

After Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, but before Sufjan Stevens promised to write an album after every state, the most ambitious music project known to indie heads was 69 Love Songs. The album delivers exactly what the title says, styled as cowboy ballads, folk songs, synth pieces, and countless other genres, all tied together with Stephin Merritt’s devastatingly clever lyrics. Merritt has maintained that it’s not an album about love, but about love songs—devotional, yes, but only to the tropes of the genre. He’s a scholar of pop music, and Love Songs is his thesis. But all of that is easy to forget once immersed in the world of the album itself, which is endlessly generous with its vignettes and listeners alike. They wouldn’t be love songs if they didn’t charm us off our feet, waltz us through familiar scenes which suddenly feel eye-openingly new, and leave us swooning—even when we think we should know better. –NM Mashurov

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