About a month ago, Stereogum.com ran an article ranking all the albums of The Smiths. Among the usual anger towards one of their lists, a reader made the comment of how hard it would be listing The Smiths’ top 10 songs. A few weeks after that I was out with a friend and we got on the topic of the band: She, not being much of a fan asked me to name my favourite songs.
For any fan of The Smiths, this is a near impossible task. As Noel Gallagher points out below, you never hear about unreleased Smith songs, they released almost everything they wrote and there is hardly a misstep in the collection. Not just a matter of any bad albums, but barely even a bad song to be found. In their short time, the writing partnership of Morrissey/Marr inspired comparisons to Lennon/McCartney. A lofty comparison, but one that feels right as their short run is similar to the relatively short 7+ years of Beatles’ releases. And like The Beatles, it’s not just the song writing partnership between two band mates; it’s the entire foursome including Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce that produces the magic that is The Smiths.
After mulling over the collection of and listening to a lot of songs many times over, I started to compile a list. Not an easy task to just list 10 of their tracks. A google search to find what others have thought revealed others have had similar difficulty with the task. The interweb is littered with Smiths lists and not surprisingly, they vary wildly. One person’s #1 track won’t even rank in another’s top 25. And neither person is wrong. The difficult part with compiling this list is that they have relatively few sure fire “anthems”, instead their collection is littered with an extraordinary amount of “great” songs. Singles, b-sides, and album tracks stand side-by-side equally.
For the list below, there is a handful that I don’t think would ever fall out of my top 10 but the rest could be changed with 20 other tracks with not much argument. We tried to go with songs that if we were to just start playing tracks, what would we play? A few songs, notably most of The Queen is Dead do not appear mostly due to overplay nearly 20 years ago when an ex-girlfriend first introduced us to the band. So with all this in mind, here is TLA’s top ten favourite songs by our all-time favourite band, The Smiths:
10. Hand in glove –One of the first tracks that the partnership wrote, “Hand in Glove” became The Smiths first single. Notable for its ambiguous lyrics (homosexual couple, interracial?), the track is a defiant, almost teenager like story of thinking that our love is better than anyone else’s and how dangerous it all is. I mean, how could anyone else really understand? “It’s not like any other love, this one is different because it’s us”
9. Panic – Reportedly written after Morrissey/Marr were listening while BBC Radio One made an announcement of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster then moments later to the horror of Morrissey DJ Steve Wright played a track by Wham! The track features listings of cities across the UK with our favourite being “Dublin, Dundee, Humberside”. However, “Panic” is more synonymous with the “hang the DJ” refrain sung throughout. Today, this can be heard shouted out by our mate Anthony at any club when the music suddenly gets cut.
8. What Difference Does It Make – One of their highest ever charting singles, this appears on the debut album but was quickly dismissed by the band and rarely played live after just a year later. The ending of a relationship is chronicled with the narrator veering from spite to complete boredom/resignation. Our preference is to the rougher version heard on Hatful of Hollow. “But still I’d leap in front of a flying bullet for you”
7. You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby – One of their most immediately catchy tracks, surprisingly this was never released as a single and never played live. It was one of the songs that we first gravitated towards when we first started getting into the band. Whenever the “why hahahaha yyy” part is sung, we think of our mom who would always do a mock impersonation of it. “All I wanted was to be famous, I have tried for so long it’s all gone wrong”
6. Ask – Among all of the stereotypical downcast songs in the Smiths cannon, “Ask” stands out for its sunny disposition. Following our rule of what we actually listen to, this song will always get played in a run through of Smiths’ tracks. With the much missed Kirsty MacColl providing backing vocals, one of the most memorable Morrissey lyrics appears here – “spending warm summer days indoors, writing frightening verse, to a bucktooth girl in Luxembourg”
5. This Charming Man – One of the most jangly and upbeat of all Smiths tracks (with a terrific walking bass line), it is the one whose lyrics are quite possibly more scrutinized than all others. Is it a homosexual tryst that the jumped up pantry boy is experiencing? What ring is he returning and why? Doesn’t matter, contains one of our most quoted Morrissey lines, “I would go out tonight but I haven’t got a stitch to wear”
4. Still Ill – We also prefer the Hatful of Hollow version of this track which acts almost like a companion piece to Hand in Glove when the love starts to fade. For us this captures the grim side of love and 80s Manchester at the same time with its “under the iron bridge” scenery, most likely raining and definitely cold. “It just wasn’t like, the old days anymore”
3. William It Was Really Nothing – This track has appeared on many of our mixtapes over the years. At slightly over 2 minutes it was always able to be fit somewhere and can sit easily between the pop and the alt in any collection. Every single time it rains we still think of “the rain falls hard on a humdrum town” line. But that fights for best lyric with “I don’t dream about anyone except myself”
2. Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before – Appearing halfway through Strangeways, Here We Come, “Stop Me…” has the feeling of being BIG. The thundering drums, the 80s style production, and double tracked vocals – this was a band going down a different path and doing it with style. If “you never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips” is the saddest lyric in pop music, then surely “nothing’s changed, I still love you, only slightly less than I used to” must be the most cutting.
1. There Is A Light That Never Goes Out – Not really a big surprise here. “There Is A Light..” is the track that is the most likely to appear at the top of a list of best songs by The Smiths. This is Morrissey and Marr at the apex of their powers. Strings ascend and descend, Marr’s distinct guitar line throughout, Andy Rourke’s bass provides the pavement for the rain to hit, and Mike Joyce’s drums drive the bridge to the chorus. The story is a theatrical play set to music; James Dean could have starred in the stage production. It is simply one of the most perfect songs ever recorded. “And if a double decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to do die. And if a 10 ton truck kills the both of us, to die by your side, well the pleasure the privilege is mine.”
As “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” fades out on the Queen Is Dead, “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” fades in. Therein lies the beauty of The Smiths. One of the greatest tracks ever recorded with a symphonic soundtrack and heartfelt love story is then followed by one that basically just repeats “some girls are bigger than others, some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers” Yet somehow The Smiths make it sound like the most important statement ever made and acts as a perfect complement to all that came before.