Manchester Orchestra formed in 2004, right in the midst of the big pop-punk and emo push of the 2000s. With Andy Hull’s delicate, emotionally honest songwriting at the helm, they found their way out of their unlikely hometown of Atlanta with gritty rock music on the heavier end of the spectrum, that also wasn’t afraid to get slow and heart-wrenching at times. Over the years their music has improved in production value and become a bit more experimental, slower and more deliberate.
By now Manchester Orchestra have released six studio albums, the most recent being the acclaimed 2017 release, A Black Mile To The Surface. Each of their albums have been noteworthy in their own right, but A Black Mile To The Surface is considered by many fans to be the be the band’s best album, myself included. We all know how rare it is for a band to actually get better with age, but Manchester Orchestra have managed to do it thus far, with the possible exception of 2013’s Cope, which is a decent album but probably their worst overall, and not necessarily for the songs but for the production and the arrangement.
Manchester Orchestra’s first two albums, 2007’s I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child and 2009’s Mean Everything To Nothing remain staples in their catalogue, yet their sound has evolved so much over the years in a way that incorporates the heavier, more punk influenced elements on those two albums in a very melodic, thoughtful way. 2011’s Simple Math was their first album that really nailed that balance and the production is immaculate, and thus they took off a bit. A Black Mile To The Surface even had a radio hit in lead single “The Gold”, which reached Number 1 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative chart.
Nowadays Manchester Orchestra are becoming a much larger entity than just one band. They’ve got their own label, Favorite Gentlemen Records, which includes a roster of bands in their circle, including All Get Out and more. Andy Hull and crew participate in a number of side projects, including Bad Books with Kevin Devine and Andy’s solo project Right Away, Great Captain!.
Manchester Orchestra have a lot of great songs, but we’ve narrowed it down to 10 that we think are the best, with an exception that you’ll find out about later. Check out our list of the 10 best Manchester Orchestra songs below.
10. “Pensacola” (Simple Math, 2011)
You can’t go wrong almost anywhere on Simple Math, but “Pensacola” stands out particularly because of how stellar it is to see live. This song is a staple in Manchester Orchestra’s live setlists, and always, always features the fans screaming along to the chorus that makes for an epic, energetic experience. “My daughter, she barely eats / she barely sleeps / she barely speaks!” They ask for it in the studio recording by having the instruments drop out for an acapella section during the bridge, and the fans surely deliver.
9. “Shake It Out” (Mean Everything to Nothing, 2009)
“Shake It Out” comes from Mean Everything To Nothing, Manchester Orchestra’s heaviest album, the second in their discography. This is the record that landed them on tour with Brand New back in 2009. “Shake It Out” is one of the band’s loudest, most forward-driving songs, but with a nice balance that slows things down and allows both you and the band a chance to breath before ramping the energy back up again. It’s reminiscent of things that they would explore in greater depth on later albums like A Black Mile To The Surface.
8. “I Can Feel A Hot One” (Mean Everything To Nothing, 2009)
“I Can Feel A Hot One” is the first slow-burning Manchester Orchestra song to make this list. It is one of the band’s most popular songs from the early days, and features this slow, rambling guitar line that leads Andy’s vocals through a cerebral tale where he finds himself burned out from extensive touring, which leads him toward a nightmare about the death of his wife. Through all this Andy finds a thread of beauty and weaves an entire song around it in a way that can hit you right in the feels if he catches you in the right mood.
7. “The Gold” (A Black Mile To The Surface, 2017)
Usually it’s a bad sign to hear one of your favorite bands on the radio, but with Manchester Orchestra it was more like I was proud of them and for the mainstream audience for actually choosing a good song to enjoy. “The Gold” is surely the radio hit, but it’s a damn good song and it deserves to be a radio hit. It’s very accessible yet still zippy enough to scratch the emotional rock itch that many Manchester Orchestra fans crave. It was released as the lead single for A Black Mile To The Surface, and offered us an excellent preview of what ended up being an equally excellent album.
6. “Simple Math” (Simple Math, 2011)
Ah, “Simple Math”, the Manchester Orchestra gateway drug for many people back in 2011 when the eponymous album saw release. As I mentioned earlier, this entire album is fantastic, as are the rest of Manchester Orchestra’s albums, but “Simple Math” has a special element to it. The song builds and builds, with violins and increasingly complex and loud musical layers that comes to a cathartic break in the end. The whole thing will just grip you, and you might even find yourself humming the chorus later on.
5. “Girl Harbor” (HOPE, 2014)
“Girl Harbor” is a bit of a sleeper in the Manchester Orchestra catalog. There were two versions of the tune released, first in 2013 on Cope, and then in 2014 on HOPE, which features all the songs from Cope rearranged in a more quiet and atmospheric arrangement. The album remains a go-to for me in times of quiet rumination, and the song “Girl Harbor” is just so emotionally relatable and touching. I prefer the HOPE version of this song as well as most of the other songs on this double album, and especially like Andy’s passionate vocal take when he sings “I know your faults / I know the way you write them off / I don’t want anything to do with you no more”. It’s so damn cathartic and it stands as one of the strongest musical moments in the entire Manchester Orchestra arsenal.
4. “The River” (Mean Everything To Nothing, 2009)
Another song that makes this list because of the strong buildup is “The River”, a live staple for the band and one of the Mean Everything To Nothing songs that has stood the test of time the best. This one finds its strength in guitar playing from Robert McDowell, who had joined the band prior to these recording sessions and helped elevate the band’s sound to the next level. “The River” is a prime example of Manchester Orchestra’s sound, as it contains elements of everything they do musically, from melodic vocals to heavy guitars and cathartic breaks, “The River” has got it all.
3. “Colly Strings” (I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child, 2007)
“Colly Strings” is the gut-wrenching closer to Manchester Orchestra’s debut album, I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child. The lyrics and vocals are the real strength here, as Andy tells the emotional story of a broken relationship. Again, this one starts out slow and atmospheric and builds in intensity as Andy progresses through the story, with his singing also increasing in volume. The moment where the veil lifts and the electric guitars crank up is a fantastic way to close out their debut record with a bang, and gives this song an everlasting strength in an increasingly impressive discography.
2. “Where Have You Been?” (I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child, 2007)
It was a close call between “Colly Strings” and “Where Have You Been?” for the number two slot, but I had to give it to “Where Have You Been?” for the way that it reminds me of Brand New. The melodic guitar in the intro reminds me a lot of “Jesus Christ” off Brand New’s The Devil & God Are Raging Inside Me, and since that record was released in 2006 it’s reasonable to assume that there was a definitive influence drawn there. “Where Have You Been?” also has religious themes, with lyrics that question the presence of God in Andy’s life. Brand New’s Jesse Lacey actually joined Manchester Orchestra on this song live once, too, back in 2007. Watch that here.
1. “The Alien” / “The Sunshine” / “The Grocery” (A Black Mile To The Surface, 2017)
For the number one slot in our list of the best Manchester Orchestra songs, I decided to make an exception and actually highlight the three song sequence of “The Alien”, “The Sunshine”, and “The Grocery” off their most recent LP A Black Mile To The Surface. The album’s strength is well-rounded, but what really brings it to the next level and gives it such appeal are the transitions between songs. We’re not quite talking Grateful Dead-level transitions here, but the combination in the middle of the album of these three songs is pretty dang close, and they are certainly best listened to as if they were one long song. Manchester Orchestra also happens to play “The Alien”, “The Sunshine”, and “The Grocery” live in sequence as well, and they really play up those transitions in the live setting.
“The Alien” starts out slow and atmospheric and lyrically talks about somebody who feels like an outsider in the world, who is feeling suicidal and decides to leave his family behind. Then, it transitions into the short, upbeat and bright “The Sunshine” before breaking down into the heavier “The Grocery”, which talks about somebody who walks into a grocery store and guns the whole place down. This person is presumably the same person from “The Alien”, which brings the sequence full circle in a darkly poetic way.
This is likely the direction that Manchester Orchestra will continue to head as their career continues to expand. They really broke through to the next level with A Black Mile To The Surface, and since that record dropped over three years ago now it’s safe to assume that we’ll be hearing new music from them in the not-so-distant future. At which point I’ll have to come back and update this list and make some tough decisions about what gets cut. For now, though, enjoy!