10 Best 10,000 Maniacs Songs

The 10,000 Maniacs formed in upstate New York in 1981. They were initially an eclectic new wave outfit, with dub and folk in their sound. By 1987’s breakthrough In My Tribe, it was clear that vocalist Natalie Merchant was the band’s focal point. 10,000 Maniacs’ most successful release was 1993’s MTV Unplugged, with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Because the Night’, their last album before Merchant departed for a solo career. The band have soldiered on without Merchant, but I’ve followed her solo career rather than the band’s subsequent work, and only considered her work for this list.

17-year-old Merchant was originally recruited as a backing singer, but stepped into the lead role after original vocalist Teri Newhouse quit. Founding members Dennis Drew and Steven Gustafson are still in the band forty years after its formation, while founding guitarist Rob Buck passed away in 2000. Guitarist John Lombardo co-wrote much of the band’s early material with Merchant, but quit in 1986, rejoining after Merchant left 10,000 Maniacs for a solo career in 1993.

10 Best 10,000 Maniacs Songs

#10 Because The Night

from MTV Unplugged, 1993
Natalie Merchant’s swansong with the band was a live album for MTV. Most of the material was taken from their major label records, but they also threw in a cover of ‘Because The Night’. It was originally a hit for Patti Smith in 1978, co-written with Bruce Springsteen. The Maniacs’ version isn’t quite as strong as the original but it was the bigger hit, reaching #11 on the US singles chart.


#9 Scorpio Rising

from The Wishing Chair, 1985
1985’s The Wishing Chair was the band’s first major-label album and accentuated the folk-rock aspects of the band with a cover of the traditional ‘Just As Tide Was A Flowing’. The most successful song, though, was the hard-charging ‘Scorpio Rising’, with Merchant’s challenge to “amaze me now!”


#8 City of Angels

from In My Tribe, 1987
10,000 Maniacs’ third album took them into the mainstream. Producer Peter Asher was a member of Peter and Gordon in the 1960s and a producer for James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt in the 1970s. While the chorus is uplifting, almost like a hymn with its organ part, Merchant’s lyrics are darker.

These are sobering sights I’ve seen in the city of angels
Have all been one rude awakening that was due to me in heaven


#7 Stockton Gala Days

from Our Time in Eden, 1992
Mary Ramsay would take over from Merchant as the band’s lead singer – here she’s featured on violin. It’s a pretty tune, almost like a folk song, but Robert Buck’s chunky electric rhythm guitar gives it some vitality. Merchant’s lyrics are oblique here, but it seems to be a coming-of-age tale.


#6 Eden

from Our Time in Eden, 1992
Our Time in Eden is the 10,000 Maniacs’ strongest album, with Merchant taking control of the band and producer Paul Fox providing a lush and layered sound. The title track wasn’t a single, but it’s beautifully regretful.

But the clock is another demon
That devours our time in Eden


#5 Trouble Me

from Blind Man’s Zoo, 1989
Blind Man’s Zoo was considered a disappointment for the band after the commercial breakthrough of In My Tribe. It failed to break new ground musically, while Merchant’s lyrics were criticised for their preachiness. It is often a little heavy-handed, with lyrics about chemical waste dumps and US intervention in Latin America. ‘Trouble Me’ stands out as a personal tale, about Merchant’s father’s stay in hospital.


#4 Like The Weather

from In My Tribe, 1987
‘Like The Weather’ was the second single taken from 1987’s breakthrough album In My Tribe. It was preceded by their cover of Cat Steven’s ‘Peace Train’ – famously removed from later pressings of the album after Stevens supported the fatwah against Salman Rushdie.

What I liked about this song and their music when I first heard it was the bright happy music set against the dark/sad lyrics…I really like the contrast. The band loved up-tempo songs but Natalie liked the darker lyrics.

PowerPop Blog: https://powerpop.blog/2021/06/07/10000-maniacs-like-the-weather-80s-underground-mondays/

#3 My Mother, the War

from Secrets of the I Ching (1983) and The Wishing Chair (1985)
The 10,000 Maniacs are best-known for the restrained folk-rock and adult contemporary they recorded in their later Natalie Merchant years. But their early work is surprisingly eclectic, and it’s reflected on ‘My Mother, the War’. The guitars are jagged and post-punk, while the bassline is influenced by dub.


#2 Verdi Cries

from In My Tribe, 1987
Merchant is accompanied only by Dennis Drew’s piano and some lovely understated strings. As noted above, the Maniacs often marry happy music with sad lyrics, but here a trivial incident is turned into something beautiful and profound. As the quote below demonstrates, ‘Verdi Cries’ is literally about listening to the Italian composer Verdi – “With just three days more/I’d have just about learned the entire score to Aida.”

On her VH1 Storytellers special, Merchant told the story: “When I was a tender ingénue, when I was 20 years old, I was taken to Spain for the first time, to the wild frontier, and I had a very romantic holiday in the Balearic Islands, the island of Mallorca. And we stayed in a little hotel perched on this massive rock overlooking the Mediterranean. I repeat, very romantic.

There were a lot of different Europeans there, mostly Germans, Dutch, French, English, and it was very E.M. Forster, you know, the communal dining area on the terrace and the communal bathroom, one per floor, and the walls were very thin.

There was one older German gentleman who seemed a bit obsessed with one opera, which he listened to over and over. Every morning he would listen to this opera. And, I don’t know about you, but certain songs can be very evocative of periods in my life and that first trip to Spain is always associated in my mind with Verdi’s opera ‘Aida’ and the song that I wrote after called ‘Verdi Cries.'”

from https://www.songfacts.com/facts/10000-maniacs/verdi-cries

#1 These Are Days

from Our Time in Eden, 1992
‘These Are Days’ is an unimaginative pick for the band’s best song, but it’s terrific. There are some great arrangement details packed into the third verse –  – the drum fill, the lyric “you might fill with laughter until you break”, the descending bass run, and the vocal echo on the word light. The song captures a feeling of optimism and hope that I associate with lengthening days and warmer weather.


What’s your favourite 10,000 Maniacs song?

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Aphoristical

Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande.

Aphoristic Album Reviews features many Reviews and Blog Posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.

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26 Comments

  1. Very underrated band.

    “Trouble Me” is my no 1 10KM song and “Because the night” is one of the best Springsteen covers right behind “Blinded By the lighf”

    • I can’t think of many Springsteen covers off the top of my head – Blinded by the Light is certainly a rare example of a cover outshining and reinventing the original.

  2. I saw them in the late eighties and they were excellent. She has one of the most distinctive voices I’d heard. Like the Replacements, I put them away for a while and have been listening to them in the past year or so. Like The Weather would be my 1 with These Are Days 2 but that is minor.

    Great list of songs Graham and thanks for the shoutout.

    • It’s cool you got to see them – yup, we both had those songs in your top 4. I figured you’d plump for Weather since you featured it.

      • A song about depression that is super catchy…you don’t come across that much.
        A little off topic… After Tigerlily I thought she was on her way to becoming huge.

        • Yup, she was huge for a while there. I think her next few albums are better than Tigerlily, but didn’t really have many radio-friendly songs.

  3. Like the Weather and Trouble Me I really like a lot, but I think the greatest one they did is Planned Obsolescence that was on their very first release which I think was just an EP. It’s also on a reissue of one of their albums. That song is completely different than anything else they ever did. Kind of psychedelic and trippy. I guess Because the Night is okay too. And that one about child abuse is all right. It’s on In My Tribe, but I can’t remember the name of the song.

    • Planned Obsolesence is on their greatest hits, which was the only Maniacs album I had for a while, so I know it well. I think My Mother the War does a good job of capturing that early sound too. What’s the Matter Here is the song about child abuse – would have been good to squeeze that one in.

  4. I never liked Blinded by the Light that much, but I love Manfred Mann’s other Bruce Springsteen cover Spirits in the Night. It’s great. I think it’s a lot better than the other one. And I like Patti Smith’s Because the Night better than 10000 maniacs. The worst Springsteen cover is David Bowie Saint in the City. It’s dreadful.

    • I like Smith’s version better too, but it’s still a good song. The Manfred Mann cover I love is Dylan’s The Mighty Quinn.

    • I think you could maybe see her outgrowing the band with Our Time in Eden. She wrote most of it herself and probably just wanted to not have to argue with the rest of the band.

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