Barry Manilow – all his greatest songs ranked!

As the bouffanted Brooklynite tours the UK, possibly for the last time, we cast an eye over his musical achievements

16. Rain (1979)

Proof that every artist has a moment that might reasonably be described as Balearic: Rain features a slinky, sampler-friendly rhythm track, some glittering synth arpeggios, a hint of smooth soul about the dampened guitars and a sound that falls somewhere between quiet storm R&B and yacht rock.

Barry Manilow: Rain – video

15. Can’t Smile Without You (1978)

Perhaps the point at which Manilow’s oeuvre of greatest hits becomes a bit too runny for all but devotees – if you are allergic to sugary sentimentality, steer well clear – Can’t Smile Without You nevertheless boasts a tune that sounds instantly familiar, as if it had been remembered rather than freshly written.

14. Flashy Lady (1973)

Trying on different styles for size on his debut album, Manilow proved more versatile than he would later allow himself to be. He was clearly never going to make it as a rocker, but if Flashy Lady had been released on RAK Records by a band called something like Thumper, it would be acclaimed as a junk-shop glam classic and fetch £25 in VG+ condition.

Barry Manilow
Pinball wizard … Manilow at the flippers in 1975. Photograph: GAB Archive/Redferns

13. Read ’Em and Weep (1983)

Casting around for material in the 80s, Manilow occasionally ended up singing some pretty odd things, including a cover of Some Girls by Racey, a band best described as the Tesco Value version of Showaddywaddy. But Read ’Em and Weep – originally recorded by Meat Loaf – was an inspired choice: songwriter Jim Steinman’s patent brand of table-banging melodrama suits him perfectly.

12. She’s a Star (1975) / He’s a Star (2011)

A noticeably tougher and darker song than Manilow is usually associated with, She’s a Star offers a grim depiction of celebrity, allegedly inspired by his former boss Bette Midler. Manilow reworked it for his surprisingly adventurous 2011 concept album 15 Minutes, also home to a track that features him rapping.

11. Looks Like We Made It (1977)

The standard line about Barry Manilow – that he deals solely in unctuous schmaltz – is wide of the mark, as demonstrated by Looks Like We Made It. It is an MOR ballad with real emotional depth: the lead characters are divorced and have both remarried, but they’re haunted by the past, unable to fully accept their new happiness. A very grownup tear-jerker.

Barry Manilow: Looks Like We Made It – video

10. Sandra (1974)

Relatively stripped back by Manilow standards, the overlooked Sandra is his answer to the Carpenters’ Rainy Days and Mondays or Dr Hook’s The Ballad of Lucy Jordan: a beautifully drawn, sympathetic depiction of a bored housewife and mother, who shifts from daytime drinking to a botched suicide attempt.

9. Ships (1979)

Tucked away on 1979’s One Voice was a cover of an elegiac song about a strained relationship between a son and his father, written and originally recorded by Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter. Manilow’s version is sweeter, but the song’s emotional punch remains fully intact: “That guy’s no slouch when it comes to arranging,” Hunter subsequently noted.

8. When October Goes (1984)

His record sales declining, his image terminally naff, Manilow repositioned his music in the 80s: 2:00 AM Paradise Café was jazzy and downbeat. A man who served his musical apprenticeship in nightclubs and gay bath houses, he makes a convincing early-hours barfly, on a song based on an unfinished lyric by Great American Songbook writer Johnny Mercer.

Barry Manilow
More than MOR ... Barry Manilow. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images

7. Copacabana (At the Copa) (1978)

Released as a single at the suggestion of Kinks frontman Ray Davies, Copacabana turned the Latin and big band-infused disco minted by Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band into something so wildly camp it made the sound’s originators sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd: the saga of Lola, Tony and Rico plays out to screams, melodramatic backing vocals and film-soundtrack strings.

6. I Write the Songs (1975)

Manilow was initially resistant to recording Beach Boy Bruce Johnson’s paean to the power of music, thinking the lyric sounded egotistical. Persuaded by label boss Clive Davis, he proceeded to give it the full, kitchen-sink showstopper treatment – harps, orchestras, massed backing vocalists – resulting in something that’s simultaneously preposterously OTT and oddly moving.

5. Weekend in New England (1976)

Barry’s been for a quick break in the country, now he is back in New York City and is not happy about it in the slightest. Yearning melancholy set to soaring strings and explosive key changes, Weekend in New England is as good as mid-70s MOR balladry gets. No wonder Frank Sinatra was a fan.

Barry Manilow: Weekend in New England – video

4. Mandy (1974)

Mandy began life as Brandy, a single by its co-author Scott English and a perfect example of the British bubblegum that filled the UK charts between the death of the 60s and the birth of glam. Manilow turned it into something more expansive: amping up the vocal drama, layering on the orchestra, choir and crashing drums until its finale sounded like a homage to Phil Spector.

Barry Manilow
He’s a star … Bazzer in 1976. Photograph: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

3. New York City Rhythm (1975)

Manilow’s best songs are almost invariably ballads, but his homage to lushly orchestrated Philly soul – and, more unexpected still, the Latin funk-rock of Santana – is the exception: there is definitely a hint of the showtune about it, but an unexpected intimation of seaminess too: “I live my life with strangers and the danger’s always there.”

2. Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again (1975)

Manilow’s greatest skill might be in singing songs about romantic despair that end up sounding epic and triumphant: the musical equivalent of a tearfully stoic smile. And Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again, the title track of his best album, may be the greatest example. Sneer at it as music for housewives if you want – this is a fantastic song.

1. Could It Be Magic? (1973)

After serving an apprenticeship as a jingle writer and Bette Midler’s musical director, Manilow’s solo career began inauspiciously. His debut album was a flop, but it contained his most famous song, a portentous seven-minute epic that ultimately defined Manilow’s style: heavily orchestrated, big on surging drama, poised somewhere between a power ballad and the middle of the road, unafraid to sound a little Broadway. The latter aspect would doom his critical reputation, but Could It Be Magic? is a spectacularly well-crafted song that over time has been turned into everything from a disco anthem (by Donna Summer) to high-camp boyband hit (Take That) to part of a gorgeous falsetto medley with Leon Russell’s A Song For You (Sylvester).

Barry Manilow: Could It Be Magic? – video


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Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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