Saturday, 9 May 2015

Rank Your Manics Records - My Turn!

I am a Manic Street Preachers fan.  To anyone who knows me, or who regularly reads this blog, that fact will not come as a surprise.  What may be more surprising, is the fact that Manics' frontman, James Dean Bradfield, recently ranked all of the Manics' albums from worst to best and I sat, veering so wildly between nodding in agreement and shaking my head in horror, that it left me rather dizzy...

Manics fans are a slightly (okay, deeply) obsessive bunch and so the album ranking soon began appearing over and over in my Facebook timeline, accompanied by the inevitable squabbling: "Why wasn't THIS album higher?  How could he place THAT so low?!"

And so it was that, a few days ago, my gig buddy, Kirstie and our friend Mikey hit upon the idea of composing our own lists, in which we'd rank the Manics' albums from worst to best, with reasons for each ranking.  Completely dull if you're not a fan.  Probably liable to enrage you if you are.  So, without further ado, let's jump in and see which album is picking up the wooden spoon...

12.Know Your Enemy (2001)

It's a cliche to put this in last place, to be honest.  I'm almost embarrassed to do so, such is the notoriety of fans' displeasure in this album, but... Well, it's my least favourite, so cliche or not, here it is!  So why is it in last place?  

Well, I got into the Manics in 1999 and I hungrily devoured their back catalogue (not literally - DISCLAIMER: EATING CDS IS BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH).  I knew their first three "Richey" albums (as I used to call them) off by heart and I was absolutely in love with their two "post-Richey" albums.  When you've just got into a band and you're waiting for a new album, it's a heady mixture of anticipation, fear and excitement.  I can vividly remember buying Know Your Enemy and rushing to listen to it on my old Sony Discman, which I'd dug out of retirement for the express purpose of listening to it in the car on the way home from a shopping trip to Truro, with my parents and sister.  And my first reaction?  Was, I'm ashamed to say, disappointment.

It didn't sound anything like the last two albums.  The soaring string section was gone.  The album sounded messy and disjointed and rushed.  It sounded like the band were trying too hard to be punky and hard-edged, rather than making the album they actually wanted to make.  It didn't surprise me at all when James described Know Your Enemy as a hurried "reaction" to the band's previous success.  

Whilst there may be several songs I like - and the album has grown on me a lot since that first listen - it just doesn't sound like the band I love at their best.

11. Send Away The Tigers (2007)

This isn't an album I dislike.  Far from it; I love the anthemic, big sound and the return of the sweeping string section and on first listen, I was pretty much in raptures over it, because it reminded me so much of the "glory days" of Everything Must Go.  But on repeated listenings over the years, that has actually become its undoing.  For me, this album was trying a little bit too hard to be the Manics of 1996.  It was aping Everything Must Go and, on reflection, just not quite reaching the same heights.  Whilst it has songs on it that I genuinely love (the title track is one), the awfulness of the lyrics to Autumnsong still makes me cringe every time I hear them.  Oh and let's not mention the Underdogs edit, just in case Sean is reading this...

That all said, if I had the figure for it, I'd still suggest my gig buddy Kirstie and I went to our next gig dressed as the girls on the album cover.

10. Generation Terrorists (1992)

There will be fans out there, baying for my blood due to placing the band's debut album so low in this list.  The fact is, I do love it.  I have a very big soft spot for how messy it sounds, because unlike Know Your Enemy, it wasn't made by a stadium-playing, polished band, but a group of young men determined to take on the world.  In many ways, it shouldn't be this low on my list, but...  Let's face it, it isn't without its faults.  Whilst the album contains truly iconic Manics' songs, such as Motorcycle Emptiness and You Love Us, it also contains... Well, Damn Dog

It's also too long, too wordy and frequently too naive.  I love it, but it's like looking back on an outfit I wore when I was 16 and groaning "whyyyyy?!"  It's kind of beautiful, wistful and ever so slightly mortifying, all at once.

9. Postcards From A Young Man (2010)

This album contains one of my favourite Manics lyrics ever.  I love it so much, I have it tattooed on my shoulder: "This world will not impose its will.  I will not give up and I will not give in."  Those words got me through my recovery from a relationship with an abusive man and they're pretty much my mantra for life, these days.  Those lyrics - and the title track they come from - almost pushed this album much higher up the chart.

But then I remembered that I don't adore the rest of it quite as much.  Don't get me wrong, there are some great songs on there, but there's a fair bit of what sounds suspiciously like filler, too.  As a whole album, it's a perfectly entertaining listen and when I heard it for the first time, it felt like a natural successor to Send Away The Tigers, or even Everything Must Go, but there's something almost too radio-friendly about it for me to place it much higher in this list.

 8. Lifeblood (2004)

The cover makes me feel a bit squicky, but this album gets slated far more than it deserves to.  I've talked in this blog about disliking an album on first listen because it didn't sound enough like the band I loved, but this is an album that sounded nothing like my Manics and which I absolutely loved it for.

There are electro-pop beats, there's a lower vocal register for James than I think he'd ever really gone before and there are raw, beautiful songs on this album.  There's no need for the loud guitars.  This is the Manics experimenting with doing something different and that, in my view at least, is why so many fans absolutely loathe it - they wanted the band they were familiar with.  But for me, this album is triumphant proof that the Manics can wander into uncharted territory and come out with something stunning.  

It's odd to me that James feels like this album is "an investigation that didn't work," because to me, the sparse, unusual aspect of it is what makes it stand out from their other records (and I mean that in a good way).

In fact, Lifeblood might even be higher on this list if it wasn't for Fragments.  I can't hear that song without wanting to loudly defend the band to anyone who'll listen.  "THEY'RE BETTER THAN THIS, I SWEAR!"  Boys... What were you thinking?!

7. Gold Against The Soul (1993)

In the past, the band have dismissed their second album as being overly produced and not raw enough.  I think they're being pretty unfair, to be honest.

Gold Against The Soul is a polished-sounding album, but why should that be a crime?  The lyrics are still recognisably Nicky/Richey poetry and the guitar riffs have "Bradfield" written all over them.  It's the same band who recorded Generation Terrorists; they've just grown up a bit and written something less thrashy and more radio-friendly.  

For all the criticism Gold Against The Soul gets from fans and band members alike, it's the album from which we get La Tristesse Durera, From Despair To Where and Roses In The Hospital - three of the Manics' best known "early hits" and all songs I think have stood the test of time.  In a way, this album could easily have been the one that preceded Everything Must Go, as the strings, polished performances and overall feel are not a million miles away from one another.  It's one of the albums I listen to the most and an excellent CD to blast out whilst driving in the car.

6. Rewind The Film (2013)

The title track of this album, along with the video for it, remains (in my opinion) one of the most beautiful things the Manics have ever done.  The poignancy of wanting to wistfully look back on your youth before it all fades away forever, never fails to form a lump in my throat and I'm proud of the band for making an album that could have been so bleak and stark seem warm, genuine and quintessentially Manics, whilst also being markedly different in places to anything they'd released before.

Tracks like Show Me The Wonder and Anthem For A Lost Cause are two songs that I fell in love with from the very first listen and they continue to feature in my "fantasy Manics setlist."  This is an album on which the band let go of twiddly guitar solos and bombastic production, in favour of creating something simple and beautiful.  I can put this album on and just drift away for a bit.  Lovely.

5. Futurology (2014)

I know at least one, if not both of my fellow fans making their own lists will disagree with me here, but I think Futurology is the best Manics album in years.  It's loud, it's a bit edgy and best of all, it sounds coherent.  The whole thing just runs nicely from start to finish, which is something I can't say for Postcards From A Young Man, for example.  Every song on the album sounds like it's supposed to be there, in that exact place and I adore listening and singing along to it loudly as I'm driving in the car, blissfully unaware of the fact that my windows are down and people are staring...

It doesn't sound like a band trying to recapture a past era.  And yet, it doesn't sound like a band making a point of trying to be different.  In fact, it doesn't sound like anything else, really.  Take a song like Europa Geht Durch Mich, for example; who else would write and record that?  I mean, honestly?!  And yet that's a proper, stomping rock song that was begging to be written and played at full volume.

Then you get to Dreaming A City and you can just tell that Sean was obsessed with old school computer games, without having read a single interview.  It conjures up images of "POWER UP" and "NEXT LEVEL" signs, along with bright graphics and desperately hammering at the controller.

For what it's worth, despite what comes next on this list, it's almost certainly going to be Futurology that I play on my way to work on Monday.

4. Journal For Plague Lovers (2009)

Imagine you're a Manics fan (for some of you, it won't be very hard, admittedly...).  Imagine that you got into the band after Richey Edwards disappeared, never to be seen again.  Imagine you'd read countless interviews and stories, referring to the lyric books he left behind.  And then imagine the band announcing that they were finally going to put some of those lyrics to music.  

When I heard that news, it was like a Manics version of Christmas, in which Santa wears guyliner and a faux fur leopard print coat.  "YES," I thought to myself. " AT LAST!"

I've blogged before about being a self-confessed "Richey girl."  Well, the thought of getting to see those left-behind lyrics was stupidly exciting.  Of course, when I did read them, a lot of them were... Richey-baffle.  Which is my term for Richey's habit of writing such intellectual lyrics that the layman can't actually understand them... But I was impressed all the same.  Richey's biting (and slightly warped) sense of humour came through as I'd hoped it would: "Oh what joy, me and Stephen Hawking, we laugh.  We missed the sex revolution when we failed the physical."

The music was, of course, always going to be important on this album.  Would the band try too hard to ape The Holy Bible?  Or would the emotional weight of using their lost friend's words cause them to write something too dreary and depressing?

In the end, Journal is a gorgeous, rock beast of an album, on which music and lyrics melt perfectly into one another.  When the words call for melancholia, the band bring it.  When they call for angry guitars, that's what the listener gets.  I'd waited so long for this album and it didn't let me down.

My only gripe is that the final track, William's Last Words, was moulded into something I'm not sure Richey ever intended it to be.  The lyrics were edited by Nicky Wire, from a hugely long piece of prose Richey wrote, seemingly from the viewpoint of a man approaching retirement.  Sure, you can take whatever metaphor you like from that, but the transformation from rambling prose to, effectively, a goodbye letter to the band sits a little uncomfortably with me.  I completely understand Nicky's need to do it, possibly for himself, possibly for the fans, but it's the only song on the album on which I'm not sure the band have put across what Richey actually meant.  But hey, I never met the bloke and I'm probably analysing his lyrics just as much by saying this as Nicky was when he edited them in the first place...

3. This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours (1998)

Upon its release in 1998, this album was as far away from the Manics' punky, confrontational early style as it was humanly possible to get.  Stripped back and melodic, this album was unafraid to be lyrically raw in places, yet musically beautiful.

Some suggest that if you're a fan of the band's early rock sensibilities, then you won't like this much gentler offering.  I would say that's not entirely true.  Many Manics fans - myself included - are eclectic in their tastes and there's no reason why you can't love a much softer, more polished version of the band just as much as you do the earlier version.

This album is the first completed solely using Nicky Wire's lyrics and in many ways, you can tell.  There's a simplistic, at times inward-looking feel to many of the words and it feels as though it's this simplicity that inspires the music.  This isn't a band with a manifesto, or a point to prove.  It's a band just writing beautiful songs and proving themselves to have far more substance to them than their early critics would ever have credited them with.

2. Everything Must Go (1996)

"Perfect" is a word that is frequently overused.  So it's with some hesitation that I'm about to use it.

This album is perfect.  

When you think about the circumstances surrounding the birth of this album - the disappearance of Richey Edwards, the band's decision to try to carry on as a three piece, the full glare of the music press, waiting and watching to see what the new incarnation of the Manics would do and the fans, some of whom felt there shouldn't even be a Manic Street Preachers without Richey - it's a wonder that this album was made at all, let alone that it should be so heart-stoppingly brilliant. 

But that's the Manics for you.  In the face of almost unimaginable awfulness, they regrouped, dusted themselves down and made a record that was unashamedly triumphant in the face of all that had come before.  Soaring strings, anthemic melodies... It was everything you could possibly ask from an album.

It was bittersweet; Richey's lyrics were featured on almost half the songs on the album and his guitar playing could be heard on the closing track, No Surface All Feeling.  It's an album without Richey, with Richey.  It's the sound of a three-piece who, somewhere at their heart, are still a four-piece.  And of course, with heartbreaking irony, this - the album they made after losing their bandmate in such sad circumstances - was the album that finally catapulted the band to deserved fame.

Triumphant and yet laced with wistfulness.  Perfect.

1. The Holy Bible (1994)

I once wrote a whole blog on why The Holy Bible is my favourite album of all time, so rather than regurgitate that again, I'll let you click that link and read about it in the detail it deserves.

For those of you who aren't inclined to read an entire blog about an album that is at times scary, dark and confrontational, I'll summarise:  You have to listen to this to truly realise how perfect Everything Must Go is.  The Holy Bible is a band plumbing the depths, howling in the dark, grabbing you and forcing you to confront the unthinkable.  Everything Must Go is the sound of the shackles being removed and the sun breaking through the clouds (as corny as that image undoubtedly is).  

The Holy Bible is a lyrical masterpiece, a musical punch in the face and a statement unlike almost any other, by any band I can think of.  It's my number one Manics album.  And it always will be.

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