Nicky Wire sits down in a German hotel room to pass a critical eye over the VOX writers' Singles Of The Year. He wants to know who's the scariest, why the Americans are so crap... and why the Manics are only at number two.
1. Underworld - Born Slippy (Junior Boy's Own)
Underworld's feverish discourse on the alch-babble that follows pub closing time united the masses at Tribal Gathering and then spread its beery fumes all over the top of the chart, courtesy of its inclusion in Trainspotting. All this, and a roaring techno tune, ensured that 'Born Slippy' was the VOX anthem for '96. Nicky Wire approves - apart from the fact that said record has kept the Manics off the top.
Nicky: "Beaten to Number One again, ain't we? Everywhere we go. Mark Morrison, George Michael and now Underworld. We're doomed never to have a Number One in anything! I love their album titles, though, and they've got a Welsh bloke! Trainspotting was a perfect film, and 'Born Slippy' was a perfect song with perfect timing. The lyrics were good, too. You can't fail to be moved by a record like that. And that line "Lager! Lager! Lager!" fits in with our line, "we only want to get drunk". It's a good correlation. As a punter, I thought Trainspotting was mega. The only bad thing on the soundtrack was Sleeper doing a Blondie song."
2. Manic Street Preachers - A Design For Life (Epic)
For some punters, it was the first time they'd encountered the guts and glory of the band. For seasoned fans, it was a heartbreaking statement of class pride and the will to survive. Written partly as a response to Blur's 'Girls And Boys', which the Manics deemed "patronising", they transcended this anger to make a storming defence of the workers' potential and socialism's original promise of self-improvement.
Nicky: "Along with 'Motorcycle Emptiness', it's become our universal song now. Wherever you go, people know it. The lyrical content is something that we're pretty proud of. Simple as that.
"I think it will stay with us for a long time. We've got to better, or at least equal it, and that's the hardest part. We're always confident with our songs, yet when the single came out it was a nerve-racking time. The fact that 300,000 people bought it still means something to us."
3. Prodigy - Firestarter (XL)
The video terrified young children when it was aired on Top Of The Pops. The Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant wondered aloud if 'Firestarter' could actually be described as a "song". And Mark Lamarr was moved to record a hilarious homage to the Number One on Shooting Stars. Once again, Prodigy had managed to give us a terrific binge of drama, comedy and adrenalised riffs.
Nicky: "When we played Knebworth and I saw 'em live for the first time, I thought they were absolutely amazing. Especially to get an Oasis audience going with a full-on, dance attack; That was pretty brave of them. And the fact that they wear make-up, that always gets me going. The reaction to their video on Top Of The Pops was a bit like when the Manics did 'Faster' with the balaclavas on. Prodigy might have got more complaints."
4. Beck - Where It's At (Geffen)
A smart sample from Mantronix, some funky organ lines, and a unique hip-hop demo from the man who described himself in VOX as an "industrial outdoorsman".
Nicky: "Beck is vastly overrated. Typical maverick US lyrics that pretend to be intelligent, but deep down mean absolutely fuck all. I know he's very credible but I just don't see it - he's got a good haircut and that's about it. The first time I saw 'Loser' on Top Of The Pops with all those old geezers and the breakdancing, I thought it was an absolute pile of shit. Both the albums are really disappointing, the singles are better."
5. Orbital - The Box (Internal)
The undisputed dance emperors of Glastonbury several years running. Orbital followed the overground success of 'Snivilisation' with a cinematic single. Suddenly the world - and specifically, the Albert Hall - was all theirs.
Nicky: "I have got to be honest, this is the first dance record ever that has hit me and has had something that I liked. It's probably the first dance record that I've gone out and bought straight away. I didn't even know who it was when I first heard it on the radio.
"I still don't really know why I liked it to this day. The video was absolutely fantastic, but perhaps it was the filmic nature of the song that actually did it. Does the fact that it's in a minor key make it melancholic? Well, there you are then. Melancholia's got me again! I still put this record on all my compilation tapes. That's a good sign."
6. Fugees - Ready Or Not (Columbia)
Ultra-expensive videos, a geezer that keeps shouting "two times", and a lyric about "defecating of your microphone". Pity the poor roadie who has to pack away the mikes at the end of the night. A sinister brand of dub-wise, hip-hop, all told.
Nicky: "She's angelic, but they rely on cover versions too much. 'Ready Or Not' is my favourite off the album. Normally when I buy dance records, it's an attempt to try and get into it. I've come round to the Fugees, but with Orbital it was a natural thing. Their interviews are good, though I get nervous when religion comes into it so often. They could be this year's Arrested Development."
7. Oasis - Don't Look Back In Anger (Creation)
A mere Number Seven in the charts? Noel's vocal highpoint so far (ignoring The Chemical Brothers' collaboration), it probably failed to score highly because it was already a familiar album track this time last year.
Nicky: "I still love the song - I just love Oasis anyway - but I think this was one of their most derivative songs. It reminds me of the theme from Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? But it still gives me goose pimples. It's a beautiful singalong.
"I disagree with people who think all their B-sides are fantastic - a lot of Noel's acoustic songs are very average. They're incredibly focused and hard-working, though. I think Liam is an integral part of the danger of the band and I admire Noel's stamina. There's a great quote from Noel when he read about Menswear's nervous breakdown: 'They should try being me, pal."
8. 2pac - California Love (Death Row)
A fearless paean to the roughneck lifestyle in the City of Angels. Like many things connected to the rapper (the record label, the lyrics, the video and film performances), this takes on new levels of irony following his violent death.
Nicky: "When anything like that happens, it just seems such an incredible waste. Perhaps five years ago I would've been a bit more blase about it, but not now. I find it hard to relate to the lyrics and I need to do that with songs. We had a lot of love for early Public Enemy but the modern stuff seems very self-indulgent. I'd be lying if I said it was my favourite record."
9. The Charlatans - One To Another (Beggars Banquet)
The Charlatans, like the Manics, made the crossover with the Chemical Brothers/Heavenly Social set - both were viewed as the progressive and soulful side of British rock'n'roll. The parallel continues when you realise that both acts were obliged to restart their careers in '96 without one of their former, pivotal members.
Nicky: "I used to play 'The Only One I Know' all the time when I was at university. I think James is friendly with Tim from the Sunday Social. The production is fantastic - it gives real power to the song. There's something fragile about The Charlatans. I've always had a soft spot for them, even though I once said I didn't like the fact that some of their fans had moustaches. They've made some duff albums, but have still come back. Tim's so enthusiastic, there must be something wrong with them."
10. The Bluetones - Slight Return (Superior Quality)
The Bluetones and the Manics have the same publicists, causing some consternation therein when this record was mentioned as one of those that Nicky would be asked to comment on. Seems that Nicky doesn't care for duffle-coat chic, the Mark Morriss shuffle, or comfortable jangle-pop. However, on this occasion, Wire's wicked wit is kept in check. But just for a short while...
Nicky: "This is the best song they've done by a mile. What I like is that there's a certain kind of femininity about them. They're not your run-of-the-mill boy band, but it will be interesting to see if they can come up with a 'Fool's Gold'. There's obviously a gap that's there to be filled, but it would be nice to see if they could expand a bit, because they're a little one-dimensional.
"I do like 'Slight Return', the missus likes it, too. What I find frustrating is that the album's called 'Expecting To Fly', which is a Neil Young song. It really gets on my nerves that everyone nicks old song titles these days. I try so hard to come up with original titles, but noone else gives a toss.