Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best

Natalie Merchant recently released her sixth solo album, Keep Your Courage. It seems like a good opportunity to revisit her catalogue. On this countdown, I rank her albums as a solo artist and as the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs. I only included studio albums of original material – this rules out live albums like the 10,000 Maniacs’ MTV Unplugged, as well as Merchant’s album of folk covers, The House Carpenter’s Daughter. Additionally, I didn’t include 10,000 Maniacs albums after Merchant quit.

Merchant was born in upstate New York. In 1981, she joined 10,000 Maniacs at the age of 17. The band took a while to find success, breaking through with 1987’s In My Tribe, produced by Peter Asher. Tired of making “art by committee”, Merchant left the 10,000 Maniacs after their successful 1993 MTV Unplugged album and embarked on a solo career.

Merchant has released studio albums in five different decades, from 1983 Secrets of the I Ching to 2023’s Keep Your Courage.

Natalie Merchant Albums Ranked

#11 Leave Your Sleep

It’s debatable whether Leave Your Sleep fits the criteria of an album of original material – Merchant wrote the music, but the lyrics are taken from 19th and 20th-century poetry about childhood. It’s an ambitious project, running over two discs. It’s worth hearing highlights like ‘Adventures of Isabel’, ‘Griselda’, and ‘Topsyturvey-World’, but it’s overlong and underwhelming.

#10 Secrets of the I Ching – 10,000 Maniacs

Merchant’s first studio album with the 10,000 Maniacs is markedly different from the rest of her catalogue. The band are eclectic, with touches of post-punk and reggae among their usual folk-rock, and Merchant is less influential than she’d become during her tenure with the band. The guitar rush of ‘My Mother the War’ is the standout track, although the band are fascinating on tracks like ‘Death of Manolete’. Only 2,000 copies of the album were pressed initially – a far cry from the 5,000,000 sales of Tigerlily. I Ching isn’t readily available as a standalone album; it’s been supplanted by the compilation Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982-1983 on CD and streaming services.

#9 Blind Man’s Zoo – 10,000 Maniacs

Blind Man’s Zoo is worthy but often feels like an inferior remake of the 10,000 Maniacs’ breakthrough album In My Tribe. The music’s a little weaker than usual, which means that Merchant’s well-meaning lyrics are too dominant. The record has its moments – ‘Trouble Me’ is charming, ‘Headstrong’ is a good rocker, and ‘You Happy Puppet’ is poppy and tuneful. But the record gets bogged down on lesser numbers like the ponderous ‘Hateful Hate’ and ‘Jubilee’.

#8 The Wishing Chair – 10,000 Maniacs

After the eclecticism of their debut, The Wishing Chair zeroes in on the band’s folk-rock elements. There’s even a cover of the traditional ‘Just as the Tide Was A Flowing’. It was the last 10,00 Maniacs album where Merchant worked with guitarist John Lombardo. Lombardo wrote much of the music for the first two albums, and he’d return to the band after Merchant’s departure. It’s a step forward, but the single ‘Scorpio Rising’, with its “amaze me now!” challenge/hook, outclasses the rest of the record.

#7 Tigerlily

It seems harsh to relegate Merchant’s best-selling album to the lower half of this list. It’s easy to see why it’s her best-selling – it has a streamlined sound and a batch of catchy singles like ‘Wonder’ and ‘Carnival’. But it’s less ambitious and diverse than Merchant’s best work, bogged down in uneventful tracks like ‘I May Know the Word’ and ‘Beloved Wife’. Lead guitarist Jennifer Turner does a great job adding flair to these tunes.

#6 Natalie Merchant

Merchant’s output slowed considerably after 2001’s Motherland – this self-titled record was her first album of entirely new material for more than a decade. It reflects the events of Merchant’s life since her last record. ‘Ladybird’ documents the end of a relationship – “You don’t know how to leave and you don’t know where to fly. You don’t know what you feel but you know it’s not satisfied today.” ‘Giving Up Everything’ is even bleaker – Merchant describes it as “seeing the emptiness as in some way magnificent.”

#5 Keep Your Courage

After almost another decade between albums, Merchant returned with Keep Your Courage. It’s sedate – Merchant often deals in slow tempos, and the brief ‘Babel’ is one of the only bursts of energy. But she compensates for the slow tempos with thoughtful songwriting and diverse arrangements. Abena Koomson-Davis duets with Merchant on the gospel-flavoured ‘Come on Aphrodite’, while ‘Eye of the Storm’ features the Celtic instruments of Lúnasa.

#4 Ophelia

Merchant’s sophomore album wasn’t as successful as Tigerlily, even though ‘Kind & Generous’ is her best solo single. But it’s a deeper and more interesting listen, a concept album, written from the perspectives of a woman with a multiple personality disorder. There are fascinating tunes like ‘Frozen Charlotte’ and ‘King of May’, the latter written about beat writer Alan Ginsberg, who’d passed away the previous year.

#3 In My Tribe – 10,000 Maniacs

The 10,000 Maniacs emerged into the mainstream with their second major-label album, reaching the top 40 on Billboaard. The band were able to take Merchant’s serious lyrics, about child abuse, depression, and gun use, and turn them into catchy songs. ‘Like the Weather’ and ‘What’s the Matter Here’ are strong singles. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe duets on ‘A Campfire Song’. The band covered Cat Stevens’ ‘Peace Train’, but removed it from later editions due to his support of the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie. There’s a great pair of ballads at the end of the record – ‘City of Angels’ and ‘Verdi Cries’.

#2 Motherland

Merchant expanded her range with her third studio album, dipping into gospel, blues, and middle eastern textures. The record was completed two days before the 9/11 attacks – it’s an unfortunate coincidence that the opening track is titled ‘This House is On Fire’. It gets a little sleepy in the middle, with ‘Henry Darger’ and ‘Golden Boy’, but the rest of the record is excellent. ‘Tell Yourself’ is a great portrait of adolescence, while Mavis Staples duets of ‘Saint Judas’.

#1 Our Time in Eden – 10,000 Maniacs

Merchant peaked on her final album with the 10,000 Maniacs, the lush Our Time in Eden. She’s clearly the dominant creative force in the band by this time, with a sole writing credit on the majority of the tracks. The violin of Mary Ramsey, who’d replace Merchant as lead vocalist, is an asset on tracks like ‘Stockton Gala Days’. ‘These Are Days’ is joyful and optimistic, and the record is packed with rewarding deep tracks like ‘Eden’ and ‘Circle Dream’.

What Is Your Favourite 10,000 Maniacs and Natalie Merchant Album?

Did I underrate your favourite Natalie Merchant record?



  1. Great stuff! I might have Tribe no1, but whatever.

    One of my favourite NM moments is when she sings subtle backup to “wild eyed crazy Mary “

    • Who does she sing ‘Crazy Mary’ with? I like her with Wilco and Billy Bragg on Mermaid Avenue.

  2. Unfortunately, I’ve only know a handful of tunes by Natalie Merchant and the 10,000 Maniacs. What I’ve heard thus far I definitely like. “Kind and Generous” and “Jealously” are nice solo tunes. “These Are the Days” and their rendition of “Because the Night” are among the tunes by the 10,000 Maniacs I dig.

    • Kind and Generous and These Are Days are my two favourite tunes from Merchant/10,000 Maniacs, but there are lots of other good ones too.

  3. My order would be different but then I only 5 of the albums – but I’d very much like to get to know the latest album. And thank you for your earlier reviews which persuaded to buy many of them.

    So the order is:
    5. Tigerlily
    4. Our Time in Eden
    3. Motherland
    2. Ophelia
    1. Natalie Merchant

    Tigerlily is somewhat shapeless as an album but it does have Carnival and a couple of other strong tracks.

    An admission. I don’t know OTiE as well as the others and, for me, her songs need multiple listens to fully appreciate them – the mumbled lyrics not helping.

    As for Motherland and Ophelia, I could be persuaded either way. Motherland has great songs, more variety and propulsion but its running order has real issues. I actually like Henry Dargar as a song but it breaks the album apart. Ophelia has a much better thought through sequence but fewer exceptional songs perhaps just the title track and Thick as Thieves.

    A little history. There were a few albums that helped maintain the semblance of sanity during lockdown – Love & Hate Michael Kiwanuka, Journals Luke Jackson, Sugaring Season Beth Orton, Solid Air John Martyn, Bending the Dark The Imagined Village and above all Natalie Merchant.

    Her lyrics are always strong and her delivery distinctive but clarity and the understandability of the words without a lyric sheet are an issue.The sheer melodic strength and power of the tracks from Texas to It’s a Coming override that problem completely. The emotional force of each song is so clear and powerful that there is a run of tracks that is about the strongest I know.

    Having played the album so often (many times on repeat), returning to it now feels like luxuriating in a warm bath. The world weariness of the opening tracks moves on to resignation and finally morphs into hard won acceptance.

    The album gets a 10 from me.

    • It’s cool that you went out and bought some of the albums. It’d be interesting to hear what you make of the new one – it’s easy to want to overrate the latest album in these countdowns I find, and there was a bit of a logjam between Natalie Merchant, Courage, and Ophelia for me.

      She’s done well in her late career, limiting her output until she has something to say.

  4. I saw them around In My Tribe… that is the album I owned…that and Tiger Lily which was good but yea…I liked most of the Maniac ones more. The other one I knew was Blind Man’s Zoo from a friend but I didn’t like it as well.
    They managed to jump out of the alternate universe…

    • Yeah, 1987 was around the time a few bands started to break out of alternative land – R.E.M. started having hits, Husker Du were releasing major label records and The Replacements were about to. 10,000 Maniacs were the least edgy of the lot, really, so not surprising they were able to make that transition.

      • With her singing they were ready more than most I think…I knew they crossed when I started to hear Peace Train on major rock stations.

        • Yeah, probably a surprise they didn’t outperform REM in some ways. REM were more prolific and democratic, I think, which helped them.

  5. I always thought it was her in the background of the Pearl Jam original. I have been wrong before! I’ll google it to check.

  6. I always thought she was kind of retarded but I love Like the Weather and Planned Obsolescence and even Peace Train. And that one Candy or something like that.

  7. Then again, I thought it was Kate Bush on “set the fire to the third bar”. Instead it was Martha Wainright as you pointed out. This is why I don’t try any of the quizzes – I should stay mostly in my Indy/art rock lane!

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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person. It features album reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.

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Graham Fyfe has been writing this website since his late teens. Now in his forties, he's been obsessively listening to albums for years. He works as a web editor and plays the piano.

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