You may remember reading my story regarding The Smiths on the blog before, but if you don’t, I’ll recap quickly now. For my entire life, I have hated The Smiths. This is partly down to the fact that my parents hated them and that whenever they were brought up in conversation on TV or the street, it was usually with derision and mockery. I would actively dislike people who liked them (how shallow is that?). Then I started hearing very respected people (within the industry and out of it) talking about the group – and Morrissey in particular – with utter adoration and reverence and so one day, on a whim, I decided to see what the fuss was about and I listened to The Queen is Dead and instantly realised I’d been wasting over 20 years of my life. Never had a band touched me so furiously (and yet, tenderly…) before. Sure, I love The Beatles and Bob Dylan with a burning affection, but no one had ever had such a rapid and remarkable effect on me before. So, in honour of (quite possible the greatest band that ever lived) I will try the impossible task of ranking their top 12 songs …
Some of the dates for Hatful of Hollow and Louder Than Bombs are actually when they were released as singles or B-Sides and not when the compilations were released.
- Half a Person - (Louder Than Bombs, 1986)
‘Half a Person’ may seem like an odd choice for this list, however I find it contains one of Morrissey’s best and most touching lyrics. Tucked away on Louder than Bombs and serving as the B-Side to ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’, this little gem tells the comical story of a young guy (presumably) who follows a woman around before lodging at the YWCA (the women’s equivalent of the YMCA) where he hopes to become a back scrubber in the showers. It’s humorous, like a lot of Smiths’ songs, but it is also tender, especially when he sings ‘And if you have five seconds to spare, then I’ll tell you the story of my life’. Ah, Morrissey, as self-deprecating as ever.
- Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before - (Strangeways, Here We Come, 1987)
It’s a shame that I can only squeeze one song from Strangeways, Here We Come – the band’s final album – on this list, as it is a great record that is somewhat overshadowed by The Queen is Dead. ‘Stop Me…’ may not be the most intellectually stimulating, lyrically impressive, or musically original song on the album, however if you’re looking for a classic, 80’s infused pop-rocker, then you need look no further than this. If you have a friend who thinks they hate The Smiths because they ‘drone on’ and are ‘miserable and boring’ then you need to play them this and it’ll change their mind … ‘Panic’ would work just as well …
I still love you, oh, I still love you.
… Only slightly less than I used to, my love.”
-Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before
- Asleep - (Louder Than Bombs, 1985)
And the (much contested) award for the most depressing Smiths song goes to … ’Asleep’. The theme of suicide was nothing new to The Smiths catalogue when this B-Side to ‘The Boy with the Thorn in His Side’ rolled around, but never had Morrissey wrote about it with such rawness before. Couple the lyrics with the melancholy music (which is, believe it or not, quite strange for a Smiths’ song) and it makes this song bring a tear to anyone’s eye. In the song, Morrissey (or a persona) asks for someone to ‘Sing me to sleep’, but ‘Don’t try to wake me in the morning, ‘cause I will be gone’. The song goes on to say that you shouldn’t feel bad because ‘deep in the cell of my heart, I will feel so glad to go’ … See, it’s songs like this, Morrissey, that gives the rest of your back catalogue a bad name! … it’s still excellent though …
- Girl Afraid - (Hatful of Hollow, 1984)
This is one of my personal favourite Smiths’ songs, however it is one I feel doesn’t get talked about enough and even though it was the B-Side to ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ and was featured on Hatful of Hollow and Louder Than Bombs, I never hear people discuss it among the rest of The Smiths’ canon. What I like about ‘Girl Afraid’ is that it’s neat. A lot of Smiths’ songs are long and ramble-y (like ‘Paint a Vulgar Picture’ or ‘I Know It’s Over’) which I love as well, but it’s nice to a have a simply structured song. The lyrics to ‘Girl Afraid’ are split into two, where a boy and a girl both like the other but think that it’s not reciprocated. Like a lot of Morrissey’s lyrics, it is both funny and sad and – in my opinion - features one of the greatest intros to a song ever.
“Where do his intentions lay?
Or does he even have any?”
- Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now - (Hatful of Hollow, 1984)
‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ is one of the more famous Smiths songs and has one of the most ‘Morrissey’ cliché titles ever. He really doesn’t help himself shake the ‘Smiths are just depressing and miserable’ stereotype, does he? Whilst the lyrics deal with being miserable, Marr’s music is actually quite joyous and sends the listener very mixed messages. This song resonates with many young people, because who else ‘was looking for a job, and then I found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now’? I’ve definitely been in that position more than once.
- There is a Light That Never Goes Out - (The Queen is Dead, 1986)
Now we get to, probably, the most iconic Smiths song of the lot … so famous that it was even parodied in an episode of Gavin and Stacey. This is a prime example of a song that is genuinely funny, but sorrowful as well. Morrissey famously didn’t want to include the song on The Queen is Dead, but conceded at the insistence of Marr that it was, in fact, great. He has since said that he was very stupid as it has quite possibly become the song that means the most to the most number of Smiths’ fans. What’s also interesting, is some people have hypothesised that the song is actually about Morrissey and Marr’s relationship, which adds an interesting dimension, to an already excellent lyric.
“And if a double-decker bus
Crashes into us,
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die.
And if a ten-ton truck
Kills the both of us,
To die by your side,
Well, the pleasure, the privilege, is mine.”
-There is a Light that Never Goes Out
- Panic - (Louder Than Bombs, 1986)
As mentioned earlier, this is one of the songs you play to a person who thinks that they don’t like the Smiths. ‘Panic’ was one of the bands biggest hits, and it’s easy to see why, with its catchy lyrics and fun, bouncing music. The song is still relevant today (for some people) as it bemoaned the state of modern pop music (in the 80s), however given the current spate of Coldplay and Marron 5 songs … I think we need to release ‘Panic 2: The Music is Still Shit’ … What is quite funny, however, is that ‘Panic’ was played on mainstream music stations, alongside all the music that Morrisey was criticising at the time.
… The song’s great, just don’t ‘hang the blessed DJ’ or ‘burn down the disco’ … even if it is Nick Grimshaw …
- How Soon is Now? - (Hatful of Hollow, 1985)
I spoke before about ‘How Soon Is Now’ and why it’s such a good ‘long song’. The guitar parts of the song are extraordinary … so extraordinary that Marr can’t remember how he created them in the first place, which means that the song is rarely played live. Many people will remember that a version of this track was the theme tune to the American supernatural TV show, Charmed, but the lyrics are far from the occult. The song deals with a classic Morrissey theme: loneliness. The persona in the song is waiting for that special person and everyone is telling him it will happen ‘now’, but he asks, ‘how soon is now’?
“There’s a club if you’d like to go,
You could meet somebody who really loves you.
So, you go and stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home and you cry
And you want to die.”
-How Soon is Now
- Reel Around the Fountain - (Hatful of Hollow, 1983)
‘Reel Around the Fountain’ was first heard on their debut album, The Smiths, however the definitive version (and much better version) of the song was collected on Hatful of Hollow. Although the song (as with a lot of Morrissey’s lyrics) were interpreted to be regarding paedophilia, the lyrics are actually regarding the loss of virginity, something Morrissey says is applicable to everyone. I think it’s why the song remains so current, however this is also helped by the more ambiguous aspects of the lyrics. The song could be described as being ‘droning’ or ‘overly melancholic’, however the lyric is so beautiful, that I think you can get past that if you try.
- I Know It’s Over - (The Queen is Dead, 1986)
Here we’ve come to, quite possibly, my personal favourite Smiths’ song, featured on the sublime and seminal The Queen is Dead, the album that – if you were paying attention at the beginning – changed my very stubborn mind about the band. To me the lyrics tell the same story as Michael Bolton’s ‘How Am I supposed to Live Without You’, but with erudition and intellect. A bit like if The Da Vinci Code’s Dan Brown wrote a version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth; they would both be fun, but one would be in a different league. For any new Smiths’ fans, this long, sad song would probably prove too much, but for the Morrissey faithful, it is probably the most rewarding and heart-breaking song in his oeuvre. You know you’re in for a rough ride when the opening lyric is, ‘Oh Mother, I can feel the soul falling over my head.’ No matter how many times I listen to this song, it never fails to send shivers down my spine.
“I know it’s over
And it never really began,
But in my heart, it was so real.”
-I Know It’s Over
- Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want - (Hatful of Hollow, 1984)
In a previous draft of this list, this entry was in the number one spot, but when I came to write it, I knew what I needed to replace it with. I’ve written about this before and how it is one of the most perfectly short songs of all time. You want it to go on longer, but at the same time, know it’s perfect at the length it is. The first time I listened to the song properly, it made my breath catch in my throat, for the central instrumental is so … for want of a better word … breath-taking and the closing lyrics of ‘So for once in my life, let me get what I want. Lord knows it would be the first time’, just about finish me off every time I listen to it.
- This Charming Man - (The Smiths, 1984)
I know it could be considered a bit of an obvious choice and it’s the one song that even people who have no idea about the Smiths, know, but it’s the perfect example of the magical alchemy that was created when Morrissey wrote a stunning lyric and Marr came along and wrapped it all up in spellbinding music. The song is stupidly catchy, as well as growing to become one of the most iconic British songs of all time … I also have a suspicion that even people who ‘hate’ the Smiths, still secretly like this little ditty. The song is pure poetry and shocked the British music scene at a time when every other pop song was raucous, synth rubbish … someone had come along and was actually writing poetry (‘Punctured bicycle, on a hillside, desolate’), like Dylan or Lennon in the 60s had done. The song remains the perfect entry point for any newbie and remains a favourite for die-hard, life-long fans.
“Why pamper life’s complexity
When the leather runs smooth,
On the passenger seat?”
-This Charming Man
As any Smiths fan will tell you, listing their top songs is an almost impossible feat. The following 9 songs were so close to being included that it hurt to exclude them:
William, It Was Really Nothing – (Hatful of Hollow)
Back to the Old House – (Hatful of Hollow)
Nowhere Fast (Meat is Murder)
The Queen is Dead – (The Queen is Dead)
Bigmouth Strikes Again – (The Queen is Dead)
The Boy with the Thorn in his Side – (The Queen is Dead)
Sweet and Tender Hooligan – (Louder Than Bombs)
A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours – (Strangeways, Here We Come)
Paint a Vulgar Picture – (Strangeways, Here We Come)