Designs for life.
After 25 years, 12 albums and a small library's worth of column inches, the Manic Street Preachers are such an established feature of the British rock landscape it's easy to mistake this presence as inevitable. Long before their story's seismic fissure - the disappearance of Richey Edwards in February 1995 - the Manics seemed destined for ephemeral glory at best: their early gigs were 20-minute exercises in "hate-noise", while initial singles scrambled pop art and politics with punk's Situationist polemic into barely coherent blasts, culminating in the self-immolatory brilliance of Motown Junk. They promised to make a 16-million-selling debut album, then break up. Inevitably, real life got in the way.
Coming of age in the '80s amid South Wales's embattled mining communities, the original quartet were bonded by shared experience and family ties: cousins James Dean Bradfield (guitar, vocals) and Sean Moore (drums) drove the music, while Edwards (brain, guitar) and Nicky Wire (bass) wrote lyrics and manifestos, initially much inspired by Wire's older brother Patrick, who inculcated appreciation of poetry and heavy metal. The challenge for Bradfield and Moore was to make their friends' voracious intelligence commercially viable. This they achieved fitfully across 1992's debut Generation Terrorists, but it wasn't until 1996's multi-platinum Everything Must Go that the masses finally submitted. By then, of course, Edwards was gone - though not before his molten visions had dictated The Holy Bible, the band's enduring masterpiece.
Squaring success with iconoclastic instincts has been at times fraught. Yet however much their past defines them, 2014's brilliant Futurology proved the Manic? history also impels an ongoing fascination with the art of rock'n'roll.
10. Postcards From A Young Man
Having honoured Richey with Journal For Plague Lovers, only the churlish could begrudge its successor's recourse to more luxuriant schemes. An array of Manic heroes - John Cale, Ian McCulloch, Duff McKagan - joined orchestra and gospel choir to deliver the anthemic overload required by this self-proclaimed "one last shot at mass communication". But the band's writing skills were in tune with their commercial antennae, and subversion lurked beneath the sleek veneer: A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun quoted JG Ballard's Cocaine Nights, while Britain's post-industrial vacuum was skewered on All We Make Is Entertainment.
9. This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours
At last successful, yet bereft: ambivalence at their new status seemingly bled into the sleeve image of Everything Must Go's follow-up: while Nicky wearily and Sean suspiciously eye the sands on a Welsh beach, James raises closed eyes to the heavens. Likewise the music felt passive, dejected: If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next beautifully hymned the International Brigades but from a pacifist's guilty perspective. The Everlasting yearned for an innocent past 'when our smiles were genuine'. Relegating Prologue To History's uproarious cultural dissertation to a B-side made no sense, but TIMTTMY still delivered their first Number 1.
8. Rewind The Film
The Manics closed 2011 by playing all 38 of their singles at London's O2 Arena, amid reports that this marathon act of retrospection would preface a radical overhaul. Yet beyond the obvious - a predominance of acoustic instrumentation; Bradfield sharing or ceding lead vocals on a couple of songs to Richard Hawley and Cate Le Bon - the ensuing Rewind The Film sought nourishment in home comforts: Welshness and Wales are specifically invoked on the first two songs and insinuated throughout the band's gentlest, most unaffectedly beautiful record. Essentially an act of retrenchment rather than a revolution; that was to come with the contemporaneously hatched Futurology.
7. Know Your Enemy
The Manics followed up the soft focus anthems of This Is My Truth... with this sprawling, skewed equivalent of The Clash's Sandinista!, a record designed to challenge its audience and reassert its authors' contrarian values. Haphazardly attired - now they're Spector/ The Fall/Stereolab/R.E.M./ Sonic Youth - amid its raw production values, random noise bursts and (on Wattsville Blues) Nicky Wire's debut lead vocal. Know Your Enemy featured a clutch of truly striking compositions, most spectacularly The Convalescent, a scything motorik navigation of Wire's pluralist culture map: from Picasso to Payne Stewart, Juantorena to Srebrenica. Uneven but underrated, KYE rewards repeated scrutiny.
6. National Treasures - Complete Singles
Children of the UK media's fixation with chart placings, the Manics appreciated the single for its commercial properties as much as aesthetic virtue. Unsurprisingly, much of their best work was released on short-format, and even flawed albums feature key Manics singles: Gold Against The Soul's airless hard rock vistas yielded La Tristesse Durera and From Despair To Where; Lifeblood begat ace Zooropo replicant The Love Of Richard Nixon; Send Away The Tigers had heart-pulping Nina Persson duet Your Love Alone Is Not Enough. All are here, plus Motown Junk and The Masses Against The Classes, both definitive revolutionary 45s.
5. Generation Terrorists
Self-ordained to be a 16 million-selling one-off, the advance mythic status accorded to the Manics' debut guaranteed it could never possibly deliver. Yet especially now, far from the era's contentious rhetoric, Generation Terrorists feels surprisingly robust. Steve Brown's steroidal arena rock production, programmed drums et al is the perfect conduit for scrawny punk hissy fits like Repeat, while he believed in his young charges sufficiently to nurture their elegiac gene, revealed so timelessly on Motorcycle Emptiness. Even its excess baggage is justified in assembling a rounded profile of these beautiful and damned provocateurs.
4. Journal For Plague Lovers
Post-millennium blues duly dispelled by 2007's Send Away The Tigers' heartland retreat, the Manics felt sufficiently resolute to deal with the ideas Richey Edwards had presented them shortly before his exit. Reuniting with their friend brought heightened intensity, amplified by Steve Albini's vérité recording ethic, and caustic powerage like nothing since The Holy Bible. But JFPL was no mere retread: the likes of Me And Stephen Hawking and Virginia State Epileptic Colony evinced humour, an oh-over-looked Richey attribute, while right to the final quavering vocal on William's Last Words, this powerful, nuanced exercise was surely what he would have wanted.
It's quite a feat for a band to effect a reinvention on its twelfth album, and not the least of Futurology's qualities is how unlike the Manic Street Preachers it often sounds. Essentially succeeding where 2004's Lifeblood tailed, here was the European art-pop synthesis these admirers of Bowie and Simple Minds felt they owed themselves (Europa Geht Durch Mich even references the latter's I Travel), while amid the bleached modernist textures lay a pulsing heartbeat, thanks especially to Bradfield's emotional capacity to inhabit these meticulous constructs and unerring melodies, notably the Green Gartside duet Between The Clock And The Bed. Both evocative and unprecedented: a tantalising augury for what might yet come.
2. Everything Must Go
Released at the apex of Britpop, the Mania fourth pulled the trick of superficially tuning into the era's nostalgic gratification while in reality pursuing a very different agenda. Utilising Richey Edwards' final writing with the band, his absence forced a reconfiguration around Nicky Wire's sparer lyrical style, honing melancholic, string-soaked songs of praise to the lost and alone, none greater than the working-class elegy A Design For Life. Populist yet dignified, EMG was a massive achievement, regardless of context.
1. The Holy Bible
Viewing the third MSP album as Richey Edwards' pre-ordained valedictory is at odds with the elated mindset of its creation. Recorded cheaply in Cardiff, the tiny studio a conduit for the songs' astringent post-punk designs, Edwards fumed at humanity's base instincts (both Mausoleum and The Intense Humming Of Evil were inspired by Nazi death camps) and dissected his personal traumas in harrowing detail (4st 7lbs: Die In The Summertime). The music evinced a group liberation; viz Faster's mantra. I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing." Still revelatory after all these years.