Thirty years ago this past Thursday, Manchester-based music icons The Smiths released their self-titled debut. Rather than doing (another) anniversary post, I've decided to take a broader look at the group's discography by ranking their ten best songs. This list is by no means definitive, especially considering the excellent body of work the band put together in just five years.
10. "Death of a Disco Dancer" - Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)
For their last full-length release, The Smiths decided to implement more jam-style songs. "Death of a Disco Dancer" is the prime example of how the usually clean-cut, fine-tuned group break out of their predetermined formula and improvise a little. It's the only Smiths song to feature famed lead singer Morrissey on a instrument, as he plays some jingling piano under Johnny Marr's punchy guitar strumming. It may not be the most put-together track by The Smiths, nor the most typical, but that's what makes it special.
9. "The Headmaster Ritual" - Meat Is Murder (1985)
I actually heard Radiohead's version of the opening track from Meat Is Murder before the original, and to this day I still can't decide which take I like better. "The Headmaster Ritual" has that signature Smiths feel, though at five minutes it's longer than other songs by the group done in the similar style; usually the jangle-pop tunes are limited to two or three minutes, and the lengthier pieces get more experimental. This track is an exception to this rule, however, as the immediate snare-guitar combo to kick off soon delves into a delicious riff before Morrissey croons in protest of corporal punishment. The chorus is delectable, as Morrissey's indeterminable la-da's and hmm's are amazingly catchy, even though he isn't saying much at all. Marr's guitar riff really is golden, and keeps me coming back for more.
8. "Girlfriend In A Coma" - Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)
The shortest song on this countdown, "Girlfriend In A Coma" is a delicate song dealing with a delicate situation. The instrumentation is light and sunny, and might fool you into thinking the song was a happy one. However, one listen to the lyrics uncovers the darkness behind the track: "Do you really think she'll pull through?/Do you?/Let me whisper my last goodbyes/I know it's serious," sings Moz as the tune ends. And that's the beauty of this Strangeways track lies; how the listener interprets Morrissey's emotions is completely manipulated by the instrumentation. Had the guitars been dour and the drums down-trodden, you'd immediately understand that something grave is going on. But since the music is perky rather than prickly, he seems at peace with the situation. Adding to the song's strength is the spectacular use of strings in the chorus, marking a noticeable change from the verse.
7. "Panic" - Louder Than Bombs (1987)
Taken not from any studio full-length but the 1987 compilation album Louder Than Bombs, "Panic" is a classic Smiths song. Mike Joyce's march drum beat, Morrissey's grimly witty lyrics ("Hang the DJ"), and Marr's plucky guitar work all combine for 142 seconds of '80's alternative excellence. This was the first Smiths song I ever heard, thanks to a music-savvy mother, an iPod nano, and a lot of car rides to siblings' sporting events. It has everything you expect from the Smiths, plus a children's choir eagerly shouting "hang the DJ!," so what more could you really want?
6. "This Charming Man" - The Smiths (1984)
"This Charming Man" is may be the best three minutes of not only the band's debut album, but of the year 1984 as a whole. Coincidentally, "This Charming Man" wasn't included on the original UK release, and was actually put out as a single in late 193. Still, built around yet another fantastic guitar part, the song introduced the world to what The Smiths were all about. Like "Panic" above, it embodies everything the band is known for, but to a slightly better effect. Additionally, the track's lyrical content, which presumably details a romance between two males, helped spark ongoing questions about Morrissey's sexuality. Regardless, this surprisingly danceable tune is bound to live on forever in music lore; it's made it thirty years already, hasn't it?
5. "Bigmouth Strikes Again" - The Queen Is Dead (1986)
This The Queen Is Dead track is unique in that the chorus is driven by vocal pitch-shifting; Morrissey's baritone croon is transformed into a near-chipmunk octave for the backing vocal, and it works wonders. The guitar playing and even more so the rushed drums set the quick pace, as a hook-laden melody stops by to say hello. There is something simultaneously light and dark about this song, similar to the feel of "Girlfriend In A Coma." Perhaps it's the production coupled with the self-loathing lyrics ("I've got no right to take my place with the human race) in contrast with the high-pitch vocals. Whatever the case may be, "Bigmouth Strikes Again" is definitely one of my favorite songs by The Smiths.
4. "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" - The Queen Is Dead (1986)
"Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" closes out what many Smiths fans, myself included, consider the group's best effort, 1986's The Queen Is Dead. While the title may state something obvious, the ideas it took to make such an excellent song were anything but. The odd yet intriguing fades during the intro are different and refreshing, and the muffled vocals during the bridge fit extraordinarily. Marr's genius shows here once again, as does Morrissey's satirical style of humor. A truly stunning song, "Some Girls..." remains an essential part of The Smiths' discography.
3. "How Soon Is Now?" - Hatful of Hollow (1984)
The quintessential long-form Smiths song, "How Soon Is Now?" is known for its shifty, echoing guitars and blaring alarm-like noise that pops up throughout the track. It's probably the most famous song of theirs among US listeners, and contains some of Morrissey's best lyrics to date. The song deals with shyness and social anxiety, and how such feelings can prevent someone from being in a relationship. "I am human and I need to be love/Just like everybody else does," Moz reveals. The droning nature of the song encourages the listener to space out while listening, much like the shoegaze movement would do five years later. "How Soon Is Now?" is one of the most magnificent tracks of the 1980's, and it's still only #3 on this list.
2. "Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before" - Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)
Whether its the guitars, the pounding drum beat, the atmospheric production, the catchy melody, or the whimsical lyrics, there's something for everyone to enjoy in "Stop Me." From the exhilarating opening to the little guitar solo near the end, this song is near-perfection all the way through. Morrissey's trademark dark humor is noticeably present: "I crashed down on the crossbar/And the pain was enough to make a shy, bald buddhist reflect/And plan a mass murder," he jests, though the"mass murder" line drew controversy after the Hungerford Massacre, which occurred just as the song was being prepped for release as a single. Despite the unfortunate circumstances, the song went on to become a fan favorite. Personally, I love this song dearly, and there's only one Smiths tune that I could rank above it.
1. "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" - The Queen Is Dead (1986)
Well, here it is. Far and away my favorite Smiths song, "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" is a beautiful example of '80's alternative and excellent songwriting. "Take me out tonight/Take me anywhere/I don't care/I don't care/ I don't care," pleads Morrissey earnestly, before later adding sweetly (albeit morbidly), "And if a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Is such a heavenly way to die." Every instrument here is implemented superbly; guitars, bass, drums, strings, and even a flute all come together stunningly. Like the rest of The Queen Is Dead, the production is impeccable. Simply put, "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" is the greatest song The Smiths ever did, and considering the strength of the group's discography, that's saying a lot.
Honorable mentions: "The Queen Is Dead," "Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me," "Meat Is Murder," "A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours," "Pretty Girls Mark Graves," "Frankly, Mr. Shankly"