Hailing from the small community of Blackwood in South Wales, the creative path which Manic Street Preachers have walked since their formation in 1986 has been nothing short of astonishing.
If their early interviews were to be believed, the band were going to release one album that would sell 16 million copies and then they’d split up. That didn’t happen, but, amazingly, what we got instead was even more unbelievable.
From their formative years as glam punk nihilists raging against capitalism and embracing existential dread, to the loss of their enigmatic talisman Richey Edwards in the most bizarre of circumstances, to their subsequent rebirth as mainstream festival headliners, their story is so insane that surely even Hollywood script-writers would dismiss it as unrealistic.
Despite all this, they’ve mostly been pretty consistent on record, whatever they've turned their hands to. As they never tire of telling us, we love them, but which album do we love most?
14. Know Your Enemy (2001)
When Manic Street Preachers hit Number One on the UK singles chart at the turn of the new Millennium with the excellent stand-alone The Masses Against The Classes, many fans hoped it was a sign that they’d be able to recapture the punk energy of their early material on their next album.
Nope. Know You Enemy actually ended up being a frustrating half-way house, and probably the worst album of the band's career. Decent opener Found That Soul is something of a false dawn, with the majority of the album being unmemorable MOR numbers or somewhat wheezy attempts at a return to rock 'n' roll.
13. The Ultra Vivid Lament (2021)
Written during the 2020 lockdown and in the aftermath of bassist and lead lyricist Nicky Wire’s parents passing away, The Ultra Vivid Lament was talked up as a more personal and introspective album prior to its release. Nothing wrong with that of course, but the musical comparisons Wire made to lesser loved Manics efforts like Lifeblood and Futurology did temper expectations somewhat.
Unfortunately, what we got was a rather underwhelming set of songs, with even the appearance of the late, great Mark Lanegan on Blank Diary Entry failing to generate much excitement. At times, this barely sounds like The Manics at all, with only Happy Bored Alone really playing to their strengths. It still debuted at Number One in the UK, mind.
12. Rewind The Film (2013)
In 2013 the band announced that they had written new 35 songs and were recording two albums simultaneously. The first of the two was the gentler and more acoustic-led Rewind the Film, which is not a style totally at odds with past work, but certainly different enough an idea to be intriguing.
Truthfully, they didn’t quite pull it off, with the experiment turning this into one of the least dynamic Manic Street Preachers records. There are a couple of gems here, with former Longpigs man Richard Hawley turning up on the title track to fine effect and I Miss the) Tokyo Sykline recalling the more agreeable elements of modern U2, but broadly speaking, too much of Rewind the Film feels like a slog.
11. Lifeblood (2004)
Lifeblood is a really odd album and a hard one to accurately appraise. On one hand, the idea of The Manics going a bit New Order makes perfect sense, and they should be applauded for trying to do something new seven albums into their career: on the other hand, these songs are rarely strong enough to set pulses racing.
There are exceptions, thankfully: album highlight To Repel Ghosts is a shimmering pop glacier that elegantly drifts past, and opener 1985 gives their This is Your Truth... material a Peter Hook bassline. Plus the record definitely had its own distinct style. But lead single The Love of Richard Nixon came to represent everything wrong with the album; dull, directionless songwriting and a distinct lack of the flair that made the Manics so special in the first place.
10. This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours (1998)
The Manics fifth album features their first ever UK number one single, the overblown If You Tolerate This, Then Your Children Will Be Next, and secured a second pair of Brit Awards for Best Band and Best Album, but was also the point that many of their earliest fans took exception to their ascent into more mainstream waters and totally cut ties with the band.
Over two decades later, far removed from the context of the time, it’s fair to say that both responses were a bit much. TIMTTMY is by no means a classic, but it certainly is also not the affront to the Manics legacy it was painted as by some. There are some overly bloated misfires here; The Everlasting lives up to its name in the most ponderous of ways, the annoyingly jaunty Black Dog on My Shoulder is painfully middling and the chorus of You Stole the Sun from My Heart is frustratingly repetitive.
On the flip side, Tsunami is breathless and soaring, the slight, baroque My Little Empire is deceivingly catchy and superb album closer S.Y.M.M., a song about the Hillsborough disaster, is precisely the sound and sentiment that the band should have been mining at the time. A classic mixed bag.
9. Resistance Is Futile (2018)
Early fans of the band may well long for the caustic punk blasts of the past from the band, but the fact is, Manic Street Preachers are a very different band these days, and they’ve quietly been making some very good music in their later years.
Resistance is Futile is a great example of that fact, a sunny, melodious album, with some incredibly poignant lyrics that explore life's many trials and tribulations as scene elder statesmen. The opening trio of People Give In, International Blue and Distant Colours is probably the hot spot of the album, but The Anchoress turning up on Dylan & Caitlin is a proper unspoken gem. Solid.
8. Futurology (2014)
A decade after Lifeblood, the Manics returned to the idea of an '80’s inspired album. This time the key influences were the sturm und drang Krautrock of Neu and the electro pulse of Kraftwerk. Although reviews were very favourable at the time, Futurology was less than enthusiastically received by fans. If you’re one of those people, you might want to dig it out again, because this is actually hugely underrated.
Lead single Walk Me to the Bridge is a fantastic disco banger, Sex, Power, Love & Money sounds like the Manics going full Sparks and Europa Geht Durch Mich, with German actress Nina Hoss, is like a maniacal mixture of Killing Joke and Chelsea Wolfe. Futurology is a risk that works against all the odds.
7. Postcards From A Young Man (2010)
Proof that you should never second guess the Manics, Postcards from a Young Man came only a year after it looked like they had finally fully returned to the harsh punk rock sound of their youth. Instead, they did the complete opposite, and released an album of sleek, shiny, pomp pop that is as broad as anything in their cannon.
That’s no bad thing by the way, with opener (It’s Not War) It’s Just the End of Love all major key strings, pearly white smiles and Hollywood bombastic and Echo and the Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch brilliantly lending his voice, alongside an entire choir, to the Beatles-esque Some Kind of Nothingness. It’s big, broad, unashamedly mainstream, but this was a point where the Manics were experts in hitting those marks.
6. Journal For Plague Lovers (2009)
With its lyrics coming from an unused folder that Richey Edwards gave Nicky Wire before his disappearance, and with notorious noise-maker Steve Albini on production duties, Journal for Plague Lovers is an album that is continuously compared to 1994’s The Holy Bible.
But while songs like Jackie Collins Existential Question Time and the title track do recall the stark, Joy Division-esque throb of the musical influences of that classic album, and Edwards lyrical flair is instantly recognisable, to say that this gets close to the viciousness of that record is somewhat misleading.
It’s still great to hear the band really indulge in their more acerbic influences once again though, making this a unique piece in their post-Edwards discography, and a fine attempt at throwing back to a classic.
5. Send Away The Tigers (2007)
The Manics had to turn things around in the aftermath of the lukewarm reactions to Know Your Enemy and Lifeblood. This didn’t take some massive reinvention: instead the band seemed to happily accept who they were, and who they had become, and concocted a short, but excellently-written, set of anthemic pop rock bangers.
While we would be pretty shocked to hear that Send Away the Tigers is anyone’s favourite Manics album, at the time, this seemed like a serious return to form and consistency. Singles Autumnsong and Your Love Alone is Not Enough, with The Cardigans Nina Persson, are both awesome, but then so are Just A Patsy, The Second Great Depression and the title track. Short, sweet, gorgeous and the finest moment of the band's second act.
4. Gold Against The Soul (1993)
When the Manics released their second album, there were grumbles that they had gone too mainstream and middle of the road. Man, were those people in for a shock a decade down the line! Those criticisms seemed a bit silly back then, but they seem completely ludicrous today.
Yes, a spit and polish job has been done on the production in comparison with the fast and loose sound of their debut, but those omnipresent Bon Jovi comparisons are way off. Gold Against the Soul is best known for the four singles it yielded, and Life Becoming a Landslide, Roses in the Hospital, From Despair To Where and, particularly, La Tristesse Durera are all brilliant.
But there are plenty of other gems here; opener Sleepflower has a massive riff, Yourself is full of intense energy and the title track is a huge, funk rock slalom. If it weren’t for the inclusion of, the pretty lame, Drug Drug Druggy you could argue that GATS is all killer, no filler.
3. Generation Terrorists (1992)
The record that was going to sell all those copies before the band split in a blaze of glory. We’re glad it didn’t pan out that way, but its creators were definitely right to be have such confidence in their debut. Yes, it’s too long, yes, the lyrics are sometimes a little too on the nose, and it isn’t actually as consistent all the way through as Gold Against the Soul, but, when Generation Terrorists gets it right the standard is just phenomenal.
We’ll start with the obvious one; Motorcycle Emptiness is one of the Manics' greatest ever songs, and showed that this was a band with far more depth and nuance than the press initially credited them with. Equally, there are a handful of brilliantly obnoxious glam punk ragers on here unlike anything the band ever managed again; Another Invented Disease, Stay Beautiful, Slash ‘n’ Burn and, of course, You Love Us. They’d expand and evolve, but the big riffs, sloganeering, pouted lips, hairspray and delicious arrogance of this album remain as seductive today as it did in 1992.
2. Everything Must Go (1996)
Disciples of The Cult of Richey might not like to admit it, but the first Manics album after the guitarist's disappearance is not the slump into middle-of-the-road mediocrity some like to paint it as: it’s actually a beautiful, lush and sombre lament to his memory, more melodic, more measured, and more universal.
The band magpied Edwards' leftover lyrics here and there to excellent effect, most notably on wonderful opener Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier, the staccato attack of Kevin Carter, the lush euphoria of The Girl Who Wanted to Be God and the tear jerking, fragile, and exquisite Small Black Flowers that Grow in the Sky. But truthfully, with or without his presence, everything here is perfect, everything sits on the right side of respectful without becoming mawkish, everything present contributes to rubber stamp this as one of the greatest ever reinventions in music.
Picking a highlight it’s hard to look past the phoenix from the flames that is the album's first single A Design for Life. Inspired as much by McAlmont and Butler’s glorious 1995 hit single Yes as it was by Wire’s desire to strike back against patronising attitudes to the British working-class, the song was the first written for the album, gave them the confidence to continue and became their biggest hit to date upon release. It’s a staggering piece of songwriting, and it can still make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck today.
A truly special album, which would be number one on this list were it not for something even more special, albeit in a totally different way.
1. The Holy Bible (1994)
The Holy Bible has earned its reputation as one of the darkest albums in the history of rock, but it’s hard to adequately describe just how tortuous, how bleak and, let’s not beat around the bush here, how vile some of the imagery and attitudes present on this record are.
At this point Richey Edwards, who dominates every facet of the record, was clearly in the depths of despair, and The Holy Bible is surely one of the most accurate musical documents of deep anguish imaginable. What other album starts with the chorus of the first song telling you that you can cut off a baby’s penis? And that’s just for starters. Go deeper and Archives of Pain focusses on a fixation with serial killers, Of Walking Abortion toys with the idea of a fascist, totalitarian state, and The Intense Humming of Evil was inspired by a trip to former concentration camps Dachau and Belsen. Few albums are so relentlessly uncomfortable to listen to.
Perhaps most gruelling of all is the anorexia-inspired 4st 7lbs, titled after the weight where it becomes medically impossible for the human body to survive, in which Edwards writes from the perspective of a teenage girl who sees “Such beautiful dignity in self-abuse." Lurching from hopeless melancholy to crystalline beauty, it is the entirety of the album's purpose condensed into a single song.
Vocalist and guitarist James Dean Bradfield deserves immense credit for managing to arrange such dense lyrics into something approaching catchy throughout the record, and for adopting the cold, monochrome chime of Joy Division and post-punk as a musical canvas to suit the lyrical material he was working with. Though The Holy Bible is tough, and often impenetrable, it remains an incredible, brave and moving piece of art.
It’s not short on tunes either. The caustic Faster remains a key part of the Manics' live set today, though their performance of the song on Top of the Pops drew record complaints, with James Dean Bradfield performing in a balaclava at a point when IRA and UVF activity in Northern Ireland was escalating: empathy even breaks through on the heart wrenching She is Suffering. For the Manics to author an album of such savage honesty, a moving exploration of the very worst, most troubling and complex aspects of the human condition, without forgetting to write actual songs, is nothing short of astonishing.
A true one-off, never-to-be-repeated landmark release, The Holy Bible should be approached with caution, but it remains one of the finest rock albums ever made.