The imminent release of their eleventh album Rewind the Film and its accompanying shows and interviews appears to have brought Manic Street Preachers back into the limelight – but really, they have never left. Unlike the bulk of the British rock bands that came of age in the 1990s, the Welsh firebrands have never disappeared nor broken up and reformed for lucrative reunion tours. Their persistence has seen them survive the loss of troubled lyricist Richey Edwards, become one of the UK’s biggest bands in the mid- to late-‘90s, and celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their incendiary debut Generation Terrorists last year.
The passage of time has seen the Manics morph gradually from divisive upstarts to elder statesmen of British rock still maintaining a devoted fanbase. In the run-up to the release of Rewind the Film, fan Ian Lipthorpe took to Twitter to reach out to his fellow devotees, first asking them to submit a ranked list of their 50 favourite Manics songs, and later compiling the 60-plus responses into a master list that threw up some surprising entries. For this special List This, PopMatters explores the top 20 Manic Street Preachers recordings, as voted by fans.
(Gold Against the Soul, 1993)
Released in 1993, Gold Against the Soul is the album the Manics themselves and many critics have traditionally viewed most negatively out of the group’s whole discography. The band felt that they had gone “under the corporate wing” and taken on too many American influences on the album, but in one of the big surprises of the fans’ list, half of the album’s songs reached the top 20. Coming in at #20 is “Life Becoming a Landslide”, famed for the line “My idea of love comes from / A childhood glimpse of pornography”, but also notable for being an early attempt by the band at adding symphonic elements to their songs. In February 1994, the song opened the Life Becoming a Landslide EP, which featured “Comfort Comes”, a song that heralded the dawn of the dark, raw sound that would dominate the Holy Bible album.
(The Holy Bible, 1994)
Speaking of The Holy Bible, even that barbed-wire bundle of an album featured little as harrowing as “4st 7lb”, an alternately savage and beautiful take on anorexia nervosa named after the human weight below which survival is impossible. The song’s alarming lyrics are thought to draw on Richey Edwards’ own experience with the condition, and are still enormously relevant today, not least for their perceptive concern for body image. Edwards would disappear in February 1995, and “4st 7lb” was one of the songs most pored over when The Holy Bible became regarded as an essential, apparently final insight into the young lyricist’s state of mind.
(Gold Against the Soul, 1993)
Although it is one of the best examples of the slick, commercial rock sound that the Manics found so regrettable about Gold Against the Soul, the album’s opener “Sleepflower” has been a cult favourite among fans for many years. It is easy to see why—James Dean Bradfield’s guitar heroics here are matched only by his surprisingly angelic vocals during the clever middle section, and the song has lost none of its driving power over the 20 years since its release. Sleep would go on to be something of a recurring theme for the band, not least in the song “I Live to Fall Asleep” on 2004’s Lifeblood.
(The Holy Bible, 1994)
Amid all of the horror on The Holy Bible, “This Is Yesterday” is something of a moment of respite. Significantly, it was essentially written single-handedly by Nicky Wire, now the band’s primary lyricist but definitely the junior partner to Edwards in their songwriting efforts of 1994. The sad, regretful lyrics are undoubtedly one of the song’s main appeals (“I repent, I’m sorry, I regret everything”) but also of note is a brief, delicate but utterly superb guitar solo from Bradfield which is perhaps the closest thing to a happy moment on the whole album. Sadly, Tom Lord-Alge made some serious missteps on the US remix eventually released on the tenth anniversary edition in 2004, but the original is a deserving classic, particularly in its original context.
(Non-album a-side, 2000)
The Manics scored their second (and to date, most recent) UK #1 single with “The Masses Against the Classes”. It was a staggering achievement, and not only because it was the first new UK #1 of the new millennium—the song was a hard-rocking left-wing broadside against the establishment and was book-ended by quotes from Noam Chomsky (“The country was founded on the principle that the primary role of government is to protect property from the majority -– and so it remains”) and Albert Camus (“The slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown”). The single sleeve was emblazoned with the Cuban flag, foreshadowing the band’s controversial 2001 performance at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana. When the band met Cuban leader Fidel Castro and warned him the show would be loud, he famously replied, “It cannot be louder than war, can it?”, giving them the perfect title for the live DVD on which a performance of this thunderous concert favourite appears.