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Determining The 20 Best Smiths Songs

I Started Something I Couldn't Finish

Morrissey, The Smiths: Determining The 20 Best Smiths Songs

In the years between 1984 and 1987, The Smiths released four brilliant albums. Since then, they haven’t strayed far from the headlines of the music press (thanks partially to Morrissey’s penchant for making controversial statements and pursuing legal action). Lately, however, it seems that The Smiths have been dominating headlines even more frequently than usual. Morrissey’s libel case against the NME is one reason for this, but The Smiths' Complete Collection is another. This massive collection features all four studio albums, the live album Rank, and the compilations Hatful of Hollow and Louder Than Bombs, all newly remastered by Johnny Marr. It was released October 18, and since that time we here at the Prefix offices have had the chance to wade through its 106 songs to choose the twenty definitive Smiths songs - those album tracks that represent the band in all their mopey, melancholic glory, those experiments that strayed from their usual formula (and succeeded), and the B-sides that have become staples in the collections of Smiths completists. On the upcoming tribute album Please, Please, Please (due out December 13), indie-rock mainstays such as Built to Spill, Vivian Girls, and Joy Zipper cast their votes as to the best Smiths song with reinterpretations of several classics. Get in on the discussion by letting us know your favorite in the comments section below.

By order of appearance on chronological releases:

S/T - 1984
"Reel Around the Fountain"

Though The Smiths released “Hand in Glove” and “This Charming Man” in 1983, the first track on the Smith’s 1984 self-titled debut served for many as the introduction to Johnny Marr’s brand of jangly guitar rock and Morrissey’s expressive vocals. This was a precursor to Britpop nearly a decade in advance. “Reel Around the Fountain” deals with topics Morrissey will return to throughout the Smiths’ career, as well as solo: obsession, loneliness, and self-deprecating humor.

"This Charming Man"

The video for “This Charming Man” says it all. Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce are all stoically playing their instruments as Morrissey takes center stage, shirt unbuttoned and swinging a bouquet of flowers like a mace. “This Charming Man” was the Smith’s first single, and they couldn’t have picked a better one. At times both danceable and sad, it is a pure distillation of what made The Smiths great. Not to mention Morrissey’s atonal yelps, which by all indications should not work but absolutely do.

Hatful of Hollow - 1984
"William, It Was Really Nothing" 

The 1984 compilation Hatful of Hollow is almost as well-beloved by Smiths fans as their proper albums. Although it also features alternate takes of many songs from their debut, the real attraction here is their stand-alone singles, which The Smiths took just as seriously as albums as artistic statements in their own right. “William, It Was Really Nothing” starts off the collection. It was their fifth single, and showcases a cheerier (in terms of the Smiths, at least) side of the band. Marr’s guitar work is sparkling, and Morrissey’s vocals are comparatively restrained. Rumor has it that the “William” in question was Billy Mackenzie, lead singer for the Associates.

"Handsome Devil"

Morrissey’s sexuality was an issue that was brought up in the British music tabloids to the extent that his official line became that he was celibate. Songs like “Handsome Devil” don’t do a lot to quell those types of questions. Think carefully before you put this one on a mixtape for that special someone.

"Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now"
“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” was the first single that did not reappear on a proper studio album by the Smiths. As such, it’s proof that the band took their singles seriously as independent works of art from the beginning. Its lyrics lack some of the wit and wordplay of later singles, but it also elicits an immediate sympathetic response from anyone who has tried desperately to get a job that they know they will hate.

"Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want "
“Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” is supposedly the perfect Smiths song in Morrissey’s opinion, and it’s not difficult to drum up a defense of that position. Clocking in at just under two minutes, it is probably the simplest, most directly affecting track the band recorded. Morrissey’s vocals are straightforward and somber, while Marr’s work on the acoustic and electric guitars and mandolin is subtle and restrained. Given this simple setup, a lot of weight gets taken up by the lyrics, which Morrissey delivers masterfully: “See the luck I’ve had can make a good man turn bad.”

Meat is Murder - 1985
"Rusholme Ruffians"
Underlying much of the desperation and melancholy of the Smiths’ music is an endearing hopefulness about the future. One of the best examples of this dialectic is in the repeated refrain here, “I might walk home alone, but my faith in love is still devout.” This, ultimately, is what makes Morrissey such a sympathetic character. Compared to the rejected girl estimating the time to death after a jump from the parachutes, Moz’s lonely walk home is almost heroic.

"I Want the One I Can’t Have"
Elvis Costello once said of Morrissey that he “writes wonderful song titles, but sadly he often forgets to write the song.” A song title like “I Want the One I Can’t Have” doesn’t leave much doubt as to 1) who wrote it and 2) what it’s about. Fortunately, in this case Costello’s criticism does not apply. This is quintessential Smiths not only because of Marr’s trademark guitar playing and Morrissey’s lyrics, but because Morrissey indulges himself with his vocal inflections to an almost absurd extent. Listen to him rhyme “mentality” with “biology,” and ask yourself who else could pull that off.

"How Soon Is Now?"
“How Soon Is Now?” is arguably the Smiths’ best known song. Johnny Marr’s incessant tremolo is the most memorable moment in the Smiths’ discography for fans and non-fans alike. Marr has said that it’s one of The Smiths songs he is most proud of, as well as “the guitar track [he’s] still most asked about.” He has also said that upon hearing Morrissey’s vocals, “I knew he'd hit the bullseye there and then.” Which, considering the pair’s troubled history, is high praise indeed. 

The Queen Is Dead - 1986

"The Queen Is Dead (Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty)"
This arrived almost a decade after Johnny Rotten sang “God Save the Queen,” but watching Morrissey sing “The Queen Is Dead” (and wave around a sign declaring it, too) still feels thrillingly transgressive. The general consensus is that The Queen Is Dead is the Smiths’ best album, and once the driving rhythm section kicks in on this first track, it’s hard to disagree.

"Cemetry Gates"
Morrissey’s lyrics had always been somewhat self-consciously literary, but with “Cemetry Gates” he brought those inclinations to the forefront. He name-checks Keats, Yeats, and Wilde, while managing to re-write Thomas Grey for disaffected British kids in the ‘80s. In fact, Moz’s relation to the romantic poets has inspired a full-length academic literary analysis.

"Bigmouth Strikes Again"
Here is, I suppose, as good a place as any to talk about certain of Morrissey’s eccentricities during live concerts. In addition to constantly taking off his shirt (not a habit he has broken in his later years, by the way) and carrying bouquets of flowers in his back pocket, he would often wear a hearing aid (presumably turned off) as if to say he didn’t need all the posturing associated with Marshall stacks; he could make his music just as loud as he wanted for himself, thank you very much. Keeping this in mind, it’s hard not to see a connection between Moz and Joan of Arc, whose hearing aid starts to melt as she is being burned at the stake. Perhaps he saw himself as being sacrificed unfairly to public opinion by the music magazines, where he was often quoted saying outrageous things, bigmouth that he was.

"There Is A Light That Never Goes Out"
“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” is basically an entire song predicated on the idea of faith in love that Moz repeats on “Rusholme Ruffians.” Aside from being simply sonically amazing, this song is noteworthy because its popularity precludes any practical use of what is possibly the greatest pick-up line ever to be written by a hyperliterate, sexually ambiguous British pop star: “If a double decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” Another contender in this category is David Bowie’s line, “I’m the space invader, I’ll be a rock and rollin’ bitch for you.”

Louder Than Bombs - 1987
"Shoplifters of the World Unite"
“Shoplifters of the World Unite” was originally released in January of 1987 in dedication to one of the Smiths’ booking agents, Ruth Polsky, who was killed by a taxi. It is considered “Morrissey's call for gay people around the world to feel comfortable and to be open with their lifestyles.” Note Morrissey harmonizing with himself on “Always...” as well as Marr’s ridiculous (in a good way) guitar solo at 1:42.

"London"
“London” is as close to punk rock as The Smiths ever came. The song chugs along at a considerable pace for its two minutes, with feedback squall courtesy of Marr and relentless drumming courtesy of Mike Joyce. The lyrics describe someone else’s move to London from a small town, which marks a departure from Morrissey’s usually introspective mood.

"Panic"
Morrissey has never been afraid to call out those that he considers deserving of criticism, and with “Panic” he made his most explicit call to arms against the music industry that he was functioning within. Backed by a choir of children, he repeats “hang the DJ” because “the music they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life.” The implication, of course, is that the music The Smiths play does say something about their audience’s lives. And if at times Morrissey’s lyrics seem a tad bit self-consciously inward-looking, I think most would agree that they succeeded in telling ourselves something about our lives as well.

"Ask"
At first, “Ask” seems to be an abnormally uplifting and encouraging Smiths song. Morrissey sings that “Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to,” backed by a guitar riff from Marr that is positively effervescent. As it concludes, though, “Ask” reveals its dark side: “If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together.” The sense that annihilation is inevitable and our agency can only be enacted prior to it (not as an intervention with it) puts us back in familiar Mozzian territory. What would a Smiths song be without a little existential dread?

Strangeways, Here We Come - 1987
"A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours"
This is the anthem for a certain subset of people: in their late teens, having just moved away from home, and trying to forget that special someone who (approximately 18 months ago) became a reason to exist in a different time zone. Aside from these seemingly depressing circumstances, though, there is a bright side here. This land used to be ours, and all it takes is a rush and a push to make it so again.

"Girlfriend in a Coma"
“Girlfriend in a Coma” takes part in a paradoxical pairing of slit-your-wrists confessional and bouncy, uplifting backbeat that other Smiths songs share (“Frankly Mr. Shankly” comes to mind). This is one of the few songs that Morrissey has appropriated for his solo live shows. And it’s no wonder why: in two minutes, he captures the doubt, heartbreak and fear inherent in those situations that we would rather not think about. Whatever the backstory to this song is should be left to the imagination, but it allows for an immediately empathic reaction from the audience.

"Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me"
“Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” was the last official single from the Smiths, and as such it lends itself particularly well to retrospective detective guesswork about the demise of the band (and of Morrissey and Marr’s relationship). It is certainly darker than much of their early material, with the first two minutes taken up by what sounds like a field recording of a street mob chasing Frankenstein’s monster. And while Morrissey sounds physically tired as he’s singing, there is no indication within the lyrics that this is meant to be a symbolic swan song. It consists basically of an extrapolation of a one-liner from “I Know It’s Over”: “As I climb into an empty bed, oh well, enough said.” Unless you consider the repetition of “The story is old, I know,” as Morrissey’s acknowledgement that The Smiths had exhausted their creative potential, of course. But the track works much better simply as an example of Morrissey in his perpetual state: tired, disappointed, and wanting answers.

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