Yet another huge British band that can't give its records away here, the Manic Street Preachers started out in the late '80s as lipsticked glam-punk revolutionaries. After the mysterious disappearance of guitarist and ideological linchpin Richey James (now presumed dead), they got a lot more serious, a lot more ambitious, a lot more popular and a little less fun. Fortunately, what they've sacrificed in energy and volume is almost matched by what they've gained in emotive power.
This collection emphasizes the latter period, with twelve of the twenty cuts dating from after James' disappearance. The Manics' punk-metal guise only pops up a few times here, but what great times they are. "You Love Us" tells the world, "We're gonna burn your death-mask uniforms," over slicked-up pop-metal guitars; the ballad "Little Baby Nothing" has Traci Lords singing, "My mind is dead/Everybody loves me." It's a shame that more of the early stuff isn't included, especially "Stay Beautiful," perhaps the group's best single.
The Manics moved on to a much more varied, subtler and usually slower big-rock sound. Singer James Dean Bradfield's feminine wail sometimes drifts into Dennis DeYoung territory, and the band seems to have trouble ending songs in less than five minutes. The worst parts of these albums (especially 2001's Know Your Enemy, represented here only once) drag by like a sloth on Quaaludes.
But the high points, as collected here, add up to an impressive whole. "A Design for Life" is a great icy pop epic; "If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next" is what happens when you run some prickly Spanish Civil War rhetoric through a guitar-effects processor; "Faster" is twitchy post-punk inflated to arena scale. Elsewhere, Prince meets Rimbaud on "La Tristesse Durera," and "So Why So Sad" wraps its misery in a Spectoresque pop glow. None of it will have any place on American radio during our lifetimes, but all of it is worth hearing. If you're looking for some poignant, inventive arena pop and you can handle Bradfield's voice, you'll find much to dig on this disc. Existing Manics fans will appreciate the non-LP cuts here: the early punk single "Motown Junk," the UK hit cover of "Suicide Is Painless (M*A*S*H Theme)" and 2001's "The Masses Against the Classes," a rabble-rousing flashback to the Manics' original sound. All are central to the band's story, unlike the two fairly lifeless new songs.