More than 30 years since their breakup, The Smiths remains one of the most mythical bands in the 1980s. In an era where independent music was on the rise, The Smiths was one of the forerunners of that period. The songwriting partnership between Morrissey and Johnny Marr was considered the Lennon-McCartney of their generation. And that was justified by the nonstop release of albums and singles from 1982-1987.
Here are ten great songs by The Smiths. Like the Echo and the Bunnymen list, this a combination of their most iconic and my personal favorites in NO particular order. Of course a Spotify playlist will be listed below for your listening pleasure. Now, shall we begin?
“Hand in Glove” from “Hand in Glove – Single” (1983)
The band’s very first single, “Hand in Glove” was an explosive introduction to the Manchester quartet. The jangly guitars of Marr, Morrissey’s croons and the distinctive harmonica at the beginning gave way to a wave of guitar-oriented bands of the decade.
From looking at the very revealing single artwork, you can tell you were in for something different. For a long time, people had believed this was about homosexuality since there is a lyric saying “If the people stare then the people. Oh, I really don’t know and I really don’t care.”
Morrissey has long stated he doesn’t believe in terms such as Heterosexual, Bisexual, or Homosexual. According to him, “These words do great damage, they confuse people and they make people feel unhappy so I want to do away with them.”
But should it really matter? Because what matters is the music, not about the sexual orientation of a musician. That was the point of “Hand In Glove” from my interpretation of the lyrics.
“This Charming Man” from “This Charming Man – Single” (1983)
The band’s second single, “This Charming Man” features a barrage of intricate and melodic guitar playing from Marr. Marr is considered one of the greatest guitarists of his generations, his level of playing makes things that are simple sound really complicated.
In a Rolling Stone interview, Noel Gallagher once said that “there’s nothing he cannot do on guitar. The man’s a fuckin’ wizard.” Gallagher is right, something about Marr’s guitar playing is mesmerizing.
While Marr’s not that interesting in being a soloist, what he provides is that his rhythms and riffs make it sound like multiple guitarists playing at once. Everytime I play this song, I’m often left amazed at how accurate he is when he is playing.
Morrissey’s wordplay refers to many things such as Spartan culture, A Taste of Honey, Sleuth, and The Picture of Dorian Grey. Many literature and film items that some may find very esoteric.
“What Difference Does It Make?” from “The Smiths” (1984)
While this was the band’s third single, “What Difference Does It Make?” was the first major hit from The Smiths; reaching number 12 on the UK charts.
Another essential Smiths’ song; Marr’s guitar playing and Morrissey’s famous wail at the end define this track as Morrissey sings about an undying faith to a person despite how cold the person treats him.
In the Spotify playlist, I’ve picked out a live version from the “Hatful of Hallow” compilation album. The track is more energetic than the studio version from The Smiths’ debut album. Plus it’s a testament to how great they were live.
This song is a bit danceable, because it’s got a great rhythm section from bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce. In fact, the music video has a disco ball being used while the band is playing.
“How Soon Is Now?” from “How Soon Is Now? – Single” (1985)
“Possibly our most enduring record. It’s most people’s favourite, I think.” Marr said of “How Soon Is Now?” The distinctive tremolo guitar riff, the minimal lyrics of a desperate search of love, the wailing feedback was quite an oddball musically among this list.
This is probably the most hypnotic and melodramatic Smiths song ever written. Morrissey singing that he is “the son and the heir of a shyness that’s criminally vulgar” shows the absurdity Morrissey can get with his lyrics.
But that’s the beauty of many of the songs by The Smiths. Musically and lyrically there are taken to the point whether it is serious or not is blurred. Unfortunately, many people initially take most of these songs as serious and even labeled Morrissey as “the Pope of Mope.”
While this such melodrama like “How Soon Is Now?” can really touch and speak to people who have social anxiety and awkwardness, there’s also a dark sense of humor inside of them that can be overlooked.
“Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” from “Hatful of Hallow” (1984)
One of the most famous songs in the band’s catalog, “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” has been covered several times from various artists. In fact, the cover by The Dream Academy appeared in the 1986 film, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986). It was played when Ferris, Sloane and Cameron visit the Art Institute of Chicago.
The fact that it has been covered numerous times and made appearance in films like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “500 Days of Summer” (2009) made this The Smiths’ equivalent of “Yesterday” by The Beatles (that song has been covered numerous times as well).
I’ll be honest, I don’t think this is the best song by the band by any means. In fact, if this list was solely built by my personal favorites, this track would have never made it; but its longevity makes its case and hard to deny including this song in the list.
A short, but sweet two-minute ballad that is a beautiful mandolin that is played at the end of the song. Backed up by poignance, and desperation provided by the lyrics makes this a classic among many.
“Still Ill” from “The Smiths” (1984)
“Still Ill” is a moody track that contemplates on an ever-changing world that leaves you wondering if life will ever be so simple and not stressful as it is now. You are left conflicted whether this is all in your head or not; “Does body rule the mind? Or does the mind rule the body? I don’t know.”
I think this one of Morrissey’s finest vocal performances; his voice is filled with dread and angst as he describes the bleak outlook he shows. Considering the context of Manchester (the band’s hometown) during the 70s and 80s, it was a soundtrack for many growing in the city.
This is one of the dreary tracks on this list, but one that helps you express any inner thoughts you have late at night.
“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” from “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Know – Single” (1984)
Not all of the songs by The Smiths are so depressing as newcomers may think; a number are worded in such a way that whether Morrissey is being serious or not. And “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” is a prime example.
While the song is about a person who is upset about the world around them, the wording makes it irresistible to smile at. “In my life, why do I smile? To people who I’d much rather kick in the eye?” Who would sing such things in such a direct manner with much enjoyment? Only Morrissey.
This song can also be relatable in many ways; the feeling of being part of a crappy job where your boss and coworkers are intolerable to deal with that you want to “kick them in the eye.” Sure, that’s a bit exaggerating, but that’s the beauty of the lyrics in this song.
On top of that, musically the song is very upbeat. The intricate bass playing and the bright guitars make the song memorable for the contrasting feelings when hearing this track.
“Cemetry Gates” from “The Queen Is Dead” (1986)
One of my favorites from their third (and easily their best) album, “The Queen Is Dead.” Boy, I love the references to the works John Keats, William Butler Yeats and Oscar Wilde. So many of the lyrics brings reference to those three and their work.
This song basically shows Morrissey’s approach towards his lyricism. While people fawn over Keats and Yeats’ romanticism, Morrissey falls towards the irony and wit of Oscar Wilde. I mean, who would meet casually and friendly on “a dreaded sunny day” at a cemetery?
It’s no secret that Wilde’s writing is a major influence to Morrissey’s lyricism. In fact, you can say that Morrissey was the Oscar Wilde of his generation. His wit and satire can be found all over Morrissey’s lyrics.
If you haven’t, then try to read the lyrics carefully in terms of word choice and structure for many of these songs in this list. It would be even better if you read some of Wilde’s material to see where Morrissey gets his lyricism from.
“Bigmouth Strikes Again” from “The Queen Is Dead” (1986)
A fan favorite, “Bigmouth Strikes Again” brings the best out of the entire band. A high-pace song that is also an incredible closer to live shows. This has to be one of the best band performances by The Smiths on record. The speed and precision from Mike Joyce’s drumming provides a backbone for Marr and Rourke to create a dynamic track.
To top that all, Morrissey provides a set of lyrics that shows how he perceived people’s thoughts of his outrageous comments. Morrissey is known for his controversial comments on a range of topics such as, well, you name it (politics, vegetarianism, animal rights, etc.), he’s said something about it.
Although, he said that he never intended to create controversy, he finds that it is easy to be controversial because in his own words, “no one is.” “Bigmouth Strikes Again” brings his thoughts of the public reaction into form; he sings in a sense of confusion and mockery to those criticizing him and even compares himself to Joan of Arc.
“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” from “The Queen Is Dead” (1986)
And finally we get to the greatest song that is written by The Smiths. My god, this song is something. An anthem of teen angst, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” almost provide escapism to the troubles of life. The wanting to leave home and never come back even if you die shows the desperation. It’s almost as if it is a recreation of the film, “Rebel Without A Cause.”
The song is provided by beautiful arrangements of strings from the synthesizers that provides listeners a dream-like world. Every time I hear this track, I imagine I’m watching clips of “Rebel Without A Cause” while the band is playing along in the background.
What has made this song immortal among Smiths fans? The infectious yet morbid chorus? Johnny Marr’s melodic guitars? The lyrics? Appearances in films such as “500 Days of Summer”? A combination of both?
Whatever it is, this song is now forever tied to The Smiths as the finest song they have ever written, and just listening to that song by itself will make you say “Yeah, I get it.”
Honorable Mentions: “William, It Was Really Nothing,” “Panic,” “Ask,” “The Headmaster Ritual,” “The Boy With The Thorn On His Side,” “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” “Girlfriend In A Coma,” “Asleep,” “I Know It’s Over” and “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”