Ranking: Every Song by The Smiths from Worst to Best

All 72 songs that helped define a generation of misfits straight outta Manchester


    We revisit our definitive Smiths ranking as their debut turns 35 this week.

    Say what you will about internecine bad blood and the virtuous desire to keep the past in the past, but here’s the real reason we’ll never see Manchester legends The Smiths on stage together again: They’ve already accomplished everything they set out to do.

    In just five short years, between 1982 and 1987, the foursome of Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce produced 72 songs whose youthful angst, literary humor, and yearning nostalgia became the slim canon that helped define subsequent generations of little misfits.

    On “Rubber Ring”, Morrissey wrote: “But don’t forget the songs/ That made you cry/ And the songs that saved your life.” On the following list, we pay these tracks an overdue visit; from the singles that defined their sound to the album tracks and B-sides that spread out with unexpected depth, we’ll unearth the hits and misses that made The Smiths the most singular band of the ’80s.

    –Tyler Clark
    Contributing Writer


    Buy: Pick up copies of your favorite Smiths albums at Reverb LP. Click here for more.

    72. “Golden Lights”

    “Ask” B-side (1986)

    The Smiths don’t have many train wrecks in their catalog, but this cover of a 1965 single by English singer-songwriter Twinkle is the sublime exception that proves the rule. Part of that disappointment is owed to the jarring mismatch between band and source material, but Stephen Street shoulders some of the blame for sending Morrissey’s voice through a bizarre flange effect in the mixing stage. Producer John Porter was righteously miffed at that, and the band would never leave Street — or any other mixer, for that matter — alone with their work again. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “Is life always like this, brother?/ Good for one side but bad for another”

    71. “The Draize Train”

    “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” B-side (1986)

    There’s a dubious origin story attached to the third and final Smiths instrumental. As Len Brown recounts in his Meetings with Morrissey, Moz simply refused to write words for the song because he thought “it was the weakest thing Johnny [Marr] had ever done.” That’s an extremely priggish move to pull on your guitarist, but in this particular instance, well, let’s just say he had a point. –Collin Brennan

    70. “Meat Is Murder”

    Meat Is Murder (1985)

    One of the rare Smiths song Morrissey still consistently plays live, “Meat Is Murder” is a vegetarian anthem that outlines the beliefs he literally brings to his meat-free shows. While Moz pushes his rhetoric, the rest of the band replaces their normally lively arrangements with a wallowing nightmare of ethereal drag. –TJ Kliebhan

    Peak Morrissey: “And death for no reason is murder/ And the flesh you so fancifully fry/ Is not succulent, tasty, or kind”

    69. “Work Is a Four-Letter Word”

    “Girlfriend in a Coma” B-side (1987)


    If Johnny Marr is to be believed, this is the song that cemented The Smiths’ breakup; the guitarist famously told Record Collector in 1992 that he “didn’t form a group to perform Cilla Black songs.” The Smiths’ second cover song is a perfectly serviceable rendition of the 1968 blue-eyed soul B-side; however, given its infamous effect on the band and “contractual obligation” quality of the harmonies, there’s a reason this one ranks near the bottom of the list. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “I don’t need/ A house that’s a showplace/ I just feel/ That we’re going no place/ When you say that/ work is a four-letter word”

    68. “Oscillate Wildly”

    “How Soon Is Now?” B-side (1985)

    Talk about false advertising. If the band had called this “How Soon Is Now?” B-side “Noodle Around Tepidly” or “Morrissey Needed a Nap but We Still Had Some Studio Time, So…” it might’ve gained a few spots for honesty. They didn’t, though. Shame. –Tyler Clark

    67. “Miserable Lie”

    The Smiths (1984)

    Though “Miserable Lie” belongs to the earliest crop of Morrissey-Marr collaborations, this precocious post-punk tune bears many hallmarks that would later come to define The Smiths: lost innocence, inter-class love affairs, and a half-and-half pairing of sexual deviance and domestic squalor. It’s also got ambition to spare, as evidenced by the jarring tempo change that shifts it from a ballad to a banger around the one-minute mark. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “The dark nights are drawing in/ And your humor is as black as them”

    66. “Money Changes Everything”

    “Bigmouth Strikes Again” B-side (1986)


    The plodding instrumental that accompanies this “Bigmouth Strikes Again” B-side just oozes Smiths swagger. “Money Changes Everything” is capable of retaining the eerie attraction The Smiths create even without Morrissey’s classic croon. –TJ Kliebhan

    65. “Jeane”

    “This Charming Man” B-side (1983)

    The Smiths generally had a difficult time staying on the same page, but “Jeane” is an early example of intra-band dynamics playing to their advantage. Marr had essentially written the song as a Drifters rip-off, but Morrissey wisely recognized that it yearned to rock harder and encouraged his guitarist to — in the grand tradition of punk — play faster. There’s not a lot of meat on poor “Jeane”’s bones, but she’s a stomper with some nice surface-level appeal. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “I’m not sure what happiness means/ But I look in your eyes/ And I know that it isn’t there”

    64. “What She Said”

    Meat Is Murder (1985)

    The success of “What She Said” is directly tied to the driving and salient rhythm Mike Joyce maps on the drums. Accompanied by Marr’s blistering screech of a guitar riff, the whole band pushes the pace as fast as they can for this quick two-and-a-half-minute track. –TJ Kliebhan

    Peak Morrissey: “How come someone hasn’t noticed/ That I’m dead/ And decided to bury me/ God knows, I’m ready”

    63. “I Keep Mine Hidden”

    “Girlfriend in a Coma” B-side (1987)


    Recorded during the same mop-up session as “Work Is a Four-Letter Word”, this slight ditty about the virtues of hiding your emotions doubles as a snide critique (reportedly of Marr) that you can almost picture Morrissey delivering with his eyes locked on his frenemy guitarist. In addition to tossing gas on the sparks in the already-tense room, the song also opens with a whistle solo that, once it gets stuck in your head, will do exactly the same to your brain. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “I keep mine hidden/ But it’s so easy for you/ Because you let yours flail/ Into public view”

    62. “Wonderful Woman”

    “This Charming Man” B-side (1983)

    It wouldn’t be Morrissey if this song were truly an ode to a wonderful woman, but the powerful, heartless woman who magically controls the man’s every desire is perhaps a better character anyway. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “Ice water for blood/ With neither heart or spine/ And then just to pass time/ Let us go and rob the blind”

    61. “Well I Wonder”

    Meat Is Murder (1985)

    Morrissey’s cadence is well on display in this ballad describing crossing paths with a romantic interest. Andy Rourke’s punchy bass infuses a much-needed feeling of urgency into what’s otherwise a classic Smiths slow-burner. –TJ Kliebhan

    Peak Morrissey: “Well I wonder/ Do you see me when we pass?/ I half-die”


    60. “Vicar in a Tutu”

    The Queen Is Dead (1986)

    Morrissey loves nothing more than tweaking the hypocrisies of the church, except perhaps sticking up for the unloved misfits of the world. On “Vicar in a Tutu”, he tries to do both and alternates between rooting for and ridiculing the titular clergyman over one of the band’s not-infrequent dips into the world of country-western guitar. Unfortunately, these competing impulses never quit gel and instead combine to form the least essential track on the nearly flawless The Queen Is Dead. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “The monkish monsignor/ With a head full of plaster/ Said, ‘My man, get your vile soul dry-cleaned'”

    59. “Pretty Girls Make Graves”

    The Smiths (1984)

    This song is a coded critique of hetero society, but it once again uses a cruel woman to convey this message. In the final chorus, Morrissey moans, “I lost my faith in womanhood,” as if the listener might not have known. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “And sorrow’s native son/ He will not smile for anyone”

    58. “You’ve Got Everything Now”

    The Smiths (1984)

    There may not be a better way to sum up The Smiths’ lyrical themes than “Oh, what a terrible mess I’ve made of my life.” Despite that outlier, the song is mostly an exercise in the rebellious strut the band prided themselves on. –TJ Kliebhan

    Peak Morrissey: “No, I’ve never had a job/ Because I’ve never wanted one”

    57. “Suffer Little Children”

    The Smiths (1984)


    A Tom Waits-esque murder ballad ends The Smiths’ classic debut record by recounting the haunting Moors Murders that took place in the band’s hometown of Manchester in the 1980s. The sinister laughing children that echo in the background of this track earn it a spot among the most unsettling in The Smiths’ whole catalog. –TJ Kliebhan

    Peak Morrissey: “You might sleep/ But you will never dream”

    56. “I Won’t Share You”

    Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

    The song that displaced “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” as the closing track to Strangeways, Here We Come is built around a chord progression echoed elsewhere in The Smiths catalog. The difference here is that it’s played on an autoharp, the sound of which serves as an uncannily appropriate complement to Morrissey’s fragile, wounded ego. “I won’t share you,” he sings, and for a second we imagine this to be another of his obsessive love songs. But then he continues: “…with the drive and ambition/ The zeal I feel/ This is my time.” Ouch. Talk about sweeping the rug out from under our feet. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “Has the Perrier gone/ Straight to my head/ Or is life sick and cruel, instead?”

    55. “London”

    “Shoplifters of the World Unite” B-side (1987)

    On “London”, Moz assumes the role of a rotten Jiminy Cricket, by turns tempting his young ward-listeners with the promise of the jealousy-inducing life that awaits in the big city and then immediately undercutting the message with a well-timed “Do you think you’ve made the right decision this time?” As Morrissey sows doubt, Marr and co. become the chugging train and propel this uncharacteristically hard-charging song towards Euston Station and a life where the new arrivals will still be sad, but about more expensive things. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “You left your tired family grieving/ And you think they’re sad because you’re leaving/ But did you see jealousy in the eyes/ Of the ones who had to stay behind?”

    54. “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”

    The Smiths (1984)


    One of the first songs written by Marr and Morrissey, this track is both a horror movie and a love song, presenting a series of terrifying situations told in poetic alliterations. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “My life down I shall lie/ If the bogey-man should try/ To play tricks on your sacred mind/ To tease, torment, and tantalize”

    53. “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours”

    Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

    The lead track from Strangeways, Here We Come sets the tone for the record’s advanced theatricality and expanded sonic palette with an unexpected trick: the complete lack of guitars. For his part, Moz continues his obsession with Oscar Wilde in ways both obvious and subtle; in addition to channeling the poet’s world-weary ennui, Moz also paraphrases his title from Wilde’s mother, whose poems about the potential of a republican takeover of Ireland mirrored The Smiths’ own spotlight-grabbing ambitions at the top of the record industry. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “And people who are uglier than you and I/ They take what they need, and just leave”

    52. “Unhappy Birthday”

    Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

    What a fun idea we have here: loathing somebody enough to turn their special day into an occasion for spite. In all seriousness, the beauty of “Unhappy Birthday” is that it refuses to take itself seriously at all. Outlandish lines like, “No, I’m gonna kill my dog,” show hints of a more mature Morrissey, willing to laugh at his own reputation even as he gamely strives to reinforce it. Strangeways, Here We Come is a more humorous album than it gets credit for, and songs like this one help to brighten its darker corners. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday/ ‘Cause you’re evil”

    51. “Girl Afraid”

    “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” B-side (1984)


    “Girl Afraid” would appear to fall within the classic Smiths category of “songs about promiscuous sex,” but the second verse’s shift in gender makes it clear that it’s actually about another of Morrissey’s favorite topics: disconnect. This one wouldn’t be much more than a curiosity if it weren’t for Marr’s slinky, sinister guitar riff, which matches Moz’s subject matter like black on black. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “Prudence never pays/ And everything she wants costs money”

    50. “Paint a Vulgar Picture”

    Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

    While this song fulfills all the misery requirements (lost love, feelings of profound inadequacy, etc.), it’s also a not-so-subtle jab at the record industry. The first few verses paint a disdainful image of company execs, criticizing them for greed and opportunism. It adds several layers of irony, as these companies were indeed greedy enough to release the track even though it insults them flat-out. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “You’re just the same as I am/ What makes most people feel happy/ Leads us headlong into harm”

    49. “Death at One’s Elbow”

    Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

    The whimsical organ on “Death at One’s Elbow” distinguishes this track as one of the more lighthearted entries in The Smiths’ discography. That is, until you look at the jealous lyrics Morrissey saw fit to accompany this jovial two-minute tune. –TJ Kleibhan

    Peak Morrissey: “Don’t come to the house tonight/ Because you’ll slip on the/ Trail of my bespattered remains”

    48. “I Don’t Owe You Anything”

    The Smiths (1984)

    If selfishness could be distilled, this song would be its purest form. The track is Morrissey’s ode to trying less, giving less, and caring less, and yet somewhere within his candid lyricism lies an inexplicable kernel of sympathy. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “I don’t owe you anything/ But you owe me something/ Repay me now”

    47. “These Things Take Time”

    “What Difference Does It Make?” B-side (1984)


    The first line of this track is a reimagining of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, which foreshadows the embattled attitude of the rest of the song. It also shows off some classic Smiths lyricism as Morrissey oscillates between subversive and referential. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “Vivid and in your prime/ You will leave me behind”

    46. “Never Had No One Ever”

    The Queen Is Dead (1986)

    How can you experience the anguish of heartbreak when no one’s ever taken the time to actually do the breaking? The unfulfillment of The Queen Is Dead’s “Never Had No One Ever” acts as a companion piece to the loss found one song prior on “I Know It’s Over”, but it’s by definition the weaker of the two emotions; Moz can sob all he wants, but even he knows that the real affecting lyrics come when there are no tears left to cry. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “I had a really bad dream/ It lasted 20 years, 7 months, and 27 days”

    45. “Unloveable”

    “Bigmouth Strikes Again” B-side (1986)

    What a wonderfully underrated song, pairing Marr’s endearingly lethargic upstrokes in the verse with Morrissey’s sly, self-deprecating sense of humor throughout. There might not be a funnier or more quotable line in The Smiths’ entire catalog than Moz’s riff on the goth uniform du jour, and it’s made better by the fact that he was probably poking fun at The Cure’s Robert Smith. The satire holds up decades later as ammunition to hurl at self-serious scene kids who can’t seem to remember that this stuff’s supposed to be fun. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “I wear black on the outside/ ‘Cause black is how I feel on the inside”

    44. “Accept Yourself”

    “This Charming Man” B-side (1983)


    A rare bit of positivity from Morrissey, who spends most of the song coming to terms with his flaws while hoping another love interest might do the same. This excellent track was overshadowed due to its relegation to the B-side of “This Charming Man”, but “Accept Yourself” offers a similarly electrifying guitar riff and upbeat groove. –TJ Kliebhan

    Peak Morrissey: “I once had a dream, and it never came true/ And time is against me now/ Time is against me now”

    43. “Sweet and Tender Hooligan”

    Louder Than Bombs (1986)

    This song is so overtly whimsical it’s almost queasy; the repetition of the lyrics and jangling of guitars both contribute to the claustrophobia. When Morrissey repeats “free me” in the last verse, the emotion is tangible. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “In the midst of life, we are in death, etc./ In the midst of life, we are in debt”

    42. “Death of a Disco Dancer”

    Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

    You could spend hours theorizing who the title character in “Death of a Disco Dancer” is meant to represent, and many Smiths message board posters have (popular theories range from acid-house club kids to targeted gay men to victims of terrorist bombings in Ireland and elsewhere). If you did that, though, you might miss a creepy, freaked-out jam thundered along by some of Joyce’s best-ever drumming, as well as Moz’s main message: In a world like ours, the only person you can trust is yourself, and even that’s a maybe. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “And if you think peace/ Is a common goal/ That goes to show/ How little you know”

    41. “Stretch Out and Wait”

    “Shakespeare’s Sister” B-side (1985)


    Another song about sex! Not quite a ballad and not quite a stomper, “Stretch Out and Wait” exists in a fertile middle ground of pop music, where there’s ample room for big hooks to flourish alongside some of the most poetic lyrics of Morrissey’s career. Let your puny body lie down, so this one can wash over you. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “God, how sex implores you/ To let yourself lose yourself”

    40. “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”

    The Queen Is Dead (1986)

    In the scheme of The Smiths’ catalog, this throwaway single is far from their most notable, but it does have major points of significance. It was only ever played live once at Brixton Academy in 1986, and it also serves as the album closer on The Queen Is Dead. Upon its release, critics were perplexed that the band would top off their most exhaustively genius album with such a playful, aimless song. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “Send me the pillow/ The one you dream on/ I’ll send you mine”

    39. “I Want the One I Can’t Have”

    Meat Is Murder (1985)

    Smiths-era Morrissey was rarely as conspicuous as he was on “I Want the One I Can’t Have”. This inevitable feeling of rejection from a potential love interest is the precise kind of heartstring that Moz masterfully seems able to pull with continual ease. –TJ Kleibhan

    Peak Morrissey: “A double-bed/ And a stalwart lover, for sure/ These are the riches of the poor”

    38. “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”

    The Queen Is Dead (1986)

    Can you imagine having Morrissey as an employee? You don’t have to on this lighthearted music-hall ditty that jars listeners out of their anxiousness after The Queen Is Dead’s namesake opener. Over a jaunty Rourke bass line, Moz takes out his frustrations with Rough Trade honcho Geoff Travis by launching into a deliciously barbed mock resignation. Those label issues never really went away, and Morrissey’s ruminations on the pursuit of fame and its attendant costs would only get deeper (and more vicious) when they moved to EMI for Strangeways, Here We Come. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “But still I’d rather be famous/ Than righteous or holy, any day, any day, any day”

    37. “Nowhere Fast”

    Meat Is Murder (1985)


    Morrissey’s made a career out of poking at the bruising ennui of everyday life, but nowhere does that stasis sound so active as “Nowhere Fast”. Against Joyce’s locomotive drums, Morrissey yearns to muster the courage to hop that passing train, tell off the Queen, or live a fully realized life. In the meantime, he recounts his “if only”s and “I’d like to”s until he’s in a full-on existential tizzy that’s almost manic in its indecisiveness.” –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “And when I’m lying in my bed/ I think about life/ And I think about death/ And neither one particularly appeals to me”

    36. “Reel Around the Fountain”

    The Smiths (1984)

    The lushness of “Reel Around the Fountain” showcases a mature sound that could easily be mistaken for a band far beyond their debut record. The Smiths showed on their first outing that Morrissey’s casual coolness toward love songs alongside Marr’s unperturbed scaling of the fretboard were a most infectious pairing. They would delightfully tweak this formula over and over as the band’s career progressed. –TJ Kliebhan

    Peak Morrissey: “Fifteen minutes with you/ I wouldn’t say no/ Oh, people see no worth in you/ Oh, but I do”

    35. “Shakespeare’s Sister”

    “Shakespeare’s Sister” Single (1985)

    A frenzied A-side single released to the public just a month after Meat Is Murder in spring of 1985, “Shakespeare’s Sister” has a tendency to get lost in the conversation about truly great Smiths songs. But it deserves a seat at the high table thanks to the throwback rock ‘n’ roll rhythm of Marr’s guitar, the air-locked tightness of Joyce’s drum fills, and the interwoven threads of cello and bass courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Rourke. For his part, Morrissey blitzes through a lyric sheet that stinks of suicide and owes a heavy debt to one of his favorite feminist works, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “Young bones groan/ And the rocks below say/ “Throw your skinny body down, son”/ But I’m going to meet the one I love/ So please don’t stand in my way”

    34. “Rusholme Ruffians”

    Meat Is Murder (1985)


    The Smiths are typically hailed as the combined genius of Morrissey and Marr, but the second track off Meat Is Murder was commandeered by Rourke. The groovy and compelling bass line struts with attitude in a way typically reserved for Morrissey’s stage theatrics. –TJ Kleibhan

    Peak Morrissey: “And though I walk home alone/ My faith in love is still devout”

    33. “Sheila Take a Bow”

    “Sheila Take a Bow” Single (1987)

    This one’s about as glam-rock as The Smiths ever got, following in the grand tradition of “Panic” with Joyce’s stomping drumbeat and Marr’s squealing slide guitars. The track’s Bowie-esque feel evidently struck a chord with the public, as it went on to become the highest-charting single of the band’s lifetime. Sheila take a bow, indeed. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “Is it wrong not to always be glad?/ No, it’s not wrong, but I must add/ How can someone so young/ Sing words so sad?”

    32. “Still Ill”

    The Smiths (1984)

    Morrissey’s brilliant use of imagery on “Still Ill” is curtailed by his own lovely moans and empathetic malaise. The version of this song that appears on the Hatful of Hollow compilation features a nice harmonica that sounds wildly inappropriate for a Smiths song and yet feels strangely at home in this instance. –TJ Kliebhan

    Peak Morrissey: “Under the iron bridge we kissed/ And although I ended up with sore lips/ It just wasn’t like/ The old days anymore”

    31. “Cemetry Gates”

    The Queen Is Dead (1986)


    You don’t need “Cemetry Gates” to know that Morrissey was the type of teenager who hung out in graveyards with his friends. What you do need it for is a rare chance to see Moz comfortable in his own skin. Packed with references to Shakespeare, Wilde, and those melancholy Romantics, Morrissey’s ode to youthful days spent with friend Linder Sterling actually does feel like a sonic approximation of Morrissey’s perfect Sunday. It even gives him the chance to take the piss out of himself: just before he chastises the listener about the perils of plagiarism, Moz lifts the entire passage about “all those people [and] all those lives,” without citation, from The Man Who Came to Dinner. Ha! –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “A dreaded sunny day/ So let’s go where we’re wanted/ And I meet you at the cemetery gates”

    30. “Handsome Devil”

    Hatful of Hollow (1983)

    Powered by Marr’s gleefully sinister rockabilly riff, “Handsome Devil” nonetheless owes much of its popularity to the controversial nature of Morrissey’s lyrics, which then-Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens condemned for their implicit endorsement of child molestation. The irony, of course, is that Morrissey intended the song as a kind of satire of pop-music prudishness. There’s no more direct way to voice your intentions than asking to touch a woman’s “mammary glands.” Come to think of it, there’s no funnier way, either. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “Let me get my hands/ On your mammary glands/ And let me get your head/ On the conjugal bed”

    29. “Is It Really So Strange?”

    Louder Than Bombs (1986)

    As the song that kicks off the compilation album Louder Than Bombs, “Is It Really So Strange?” has presumably introduced countless young miscreants to the charms of Morrissey and The Smiths. It’s a fine jumping-off point, too, with its swaying mid-tempo rhythm and sadomasochistic approach to romantic love (“You can break my face/ But you won’t change the way I feel”). It’s also got one of the best one-liners in the band’s entire catalog, a tossed-off bit in which Morrissey gets confused and kills a horse. Sometimes, meat really is murder. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “You can punch me/ And you can butt me/ And you can break my spine/ But you won’t change the way I feel/ ‘Cause I love you”

    28. “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”

    Strangeways, Here We Come (1985)

    In the video for “Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before”, Morrissey bicycles through Manchester and Salford under the watchful eye of Oscar Wilde, pursued and mimicked by a pack of suedeheads eager to follow their leader. It was a testament to The Smiths’ power in 1987, as was the song itself, whose slickly produced reimaginings of standby Morrissey tropes (fading love, lack of personal responsibility, the harm that awaits the rakes) made it an obvious choice for the lead single from Strangeways, Here We Come. The BBC balked at the line about mass murder (the Hungerford Massacre having unfolded just months prior), but the song finally landed near the top of the charts when it was reworked into a brassy soul track by Mark Ronson. Say what you will about Mr. Uptown Funk, but that second life only solidifies the song’s place on this list. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “I crashed down on the crossbar/ And the pain was enough to make/ A shy, bald, buddhist reflect/ And plan a mass murder”

    27. “I Know It’s Over”

    The Queen Is Dead (1986)


    This is it. This is the saddest Smiths song. There are no witticisms here, no spritely Marr guitar solos to deflect the pain. Instead, listeners are left with a haunting, vulnerable dirge about a rejection so great and complete, it feels to Morrissey like the emotional equivalent of being buried alive. The song is made even spookier by its length and by an address to the world’s lovers (“Sad veiled bride, please be happy/ Handsome groom, give her room”) that feels like Morrissey unburdening himself of advice that he’ll never otherwise get to use. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “I know because tonight is just like any other night/ That’s why you’re on your own tonight/ With your triumphs and your charms/ While they are in each other’s arms”

    26. “Back to the Old House”

    “What Difference Does It Make?” B-side (1983)

    In a rare, clean acoustic moment, the wistful, coded lyrics of this track are even more resonant. The song uses the image of the old house as a metaphor for a past relationship, and both house and lover have a complicated past. Morrissey is once again conflicted about his past, and against the acoustic background, the indecision feels even more mournful. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: I would love to go/ Back to the old house/ But I never will”

    25. “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”

    Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

    The Smiths’ music is riddled with indecision, and this song is Morrissey at his most doubtful. Throughout the track, he falters, unable to commit but also unable to reconcile his guilt. It’s a faster, frenzied song for the band, even instrumentally frustrated. In a fitting bit of recording background, Morrissey couldn’t even decide on a take for the track — in an original demo, he can be heard asking his producer if he should have another go. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “Typical me/ I started something/ And now I’m not too sure”

    24. “The Headmaster Ritual”

    Meat Is Murder (1985)


    The opening track of The Smiths’ sophomore effort, Meat Is Murder, finds Morrissey confronting the “belligerent ghouls” who ran schools in 1980s Manchester. Speaking of ghouls, there’s something almost spectral about the open-tuned chord Marr hammers in the song’s intro. It’s echoed in the tremolo effect Morrissey’s vocals achieve in the chorus, which sounds halfway between a yodel and a cry for help. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “I want to go home/ I don’t want to stay/ Give up life/ As a bad mistake”

    23. “Girlfriend in a Coma”

    Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

    Depending on your tolerance for camp, “Girlfriend in a Coma” may rank among your most or least favorite Smiths songs. Sure, that bouncing bass line sounds lifted from the theme music to a forgettable 1980s sitcom, but there’s something so appealing about how Marr’s upbeat composition clashes with the blacker-than-black comedy of Morrissey’s lyrics. Like Moz himself, we keep trying to convince ourselves to take this one seriously. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “There were times when I could/ Have murdered her/ But you know, I would hate/ Anything to happen to her”

    22. “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby”

    The World Won’t Listen (1987)

    Morrissey is once again disillusioned here, but this track song could be interpreted as a warning against falling into his perpetual cycle of negativity. “Today I am remembering the time/ When they pulled me back/ Held me down/ And looked me in the eyes and said/ You just haven’t earned it yet, baby” he sings, but it is almost a warning not to succumb to the same cycle of feelings of inadequacy. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “You must suffer and cry for a longer time/ You just haven’t earned it yet, baby”

    21. “Rubber Ring”

    “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” B-Side (1985)


    Sometimes, songs are your only friends. It’s a sentiment that’s probably familiar to anyone who’s invested significant emotional energy in a band like The Smiths and certainly one that Morrissey understood on a personal level. When he wrote “Rubber Ring” in 1985, Moz might’ve been speaking on behalf of all the comforting songs that he and his peers neglected as soon as their own clouds parted. When you listen to it now, it’s hard not to hear him as a prescient (if outgrown) confidant hoping that his own fans, though happier now, might remember to visit once in awhile. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “But don’t forget the songs that made you cry/ And the songs that saved your life/ Yes, you’re older now/ And you’re a clever swine/ But they were the only ones who ever stood by you”

    20. “This Night Has Opened My Eyes”

    Hatful of Hollow (1983)

    “This Night Has Opened My Eyes” is the kind of beguiling track one would expect to hear at a smoke-filled underground bar, where it’s impossible to make out the faces of any of the band members, but the band itself sounds surprisingly on-point. This lavish tune is slow enough to register as sexy and vigorous enough to not suck the air out of the room completely. Morrissey’s debonair vocals juxtapose Marr’s easygoing riff confidently, and the song perfectly captures the attitude of unruly, chic romanticism that the four blue-collar lads from Manchester so frequently tried to convey. –TJ Kliebhan

    Peak Morrissey: “And I’m not happy/ And I’m not sad”

    19. “Bigmouth Strikes Again”

    The Queen Is Dead (1986)

    The title of this song prepares you for the self-critical eye of the protagonist at the heart of it. Morrissey creates a character that feels not just misunderstood but persecuted, and by evoking Joan of Arc, he implies not only his own sainthood but also compares his own antagonizing to being burnt at the stake. The warped vocal echo is, fittingly, Morrissey’s own voice put through an unsettling filter. This is one of the small nuances in production that sets the band apart from others of the era, a bizarre detail that only enriches the theme of the music. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking when I said/ I’d like to smash every tooth in your head”

    18. “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”

    Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

    In the 1980s, many musicians took it upon themselves to memorialize the dark legacy of Margaret Thatcher in song. This track opens with solemn guitar chords and audio from the Thatcher-era miners’ strike. The unsettling sound bite properly sets the tone of misery, and it then explodes into a keyboard- and guitar-driven track that boasts one of The Smiths’ most explicitly hopeless choruses. “No hope, no harm, just another false alarm,” Morrissey sings anytime the song’s protagonist nears a loving moment. Since The Smiths’ music reveled in its own gloom, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that both Marr and Morrissey have claimed this one as a personal favorite. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “Last night I dreamt/ That somebody loved me/ No hope, no harm/ Just another false alarm”

    17. “Shoplifters of the World Unite”

    “Shoplifters of the World Unite” Single (1987)


    Years before he became the ringleader of the tormentors, Morrissey could instigate with the best of them. Mimicking Marx’s exhortation to the workers from The Communist Manifesto, “Shoplifters of the World Unite” advocates for low-grade larceny (whether physical or emotional) over woozy production that leaves the song sounding like the delinquent cousin of “How Soon Is Now?”. Moz gets in on the act himself; much like “Cemetry Gates” and numerous others, Morrissey once again deploys his penchant for lyrical appropriation; Smiths scholar Simon Goddard counts lines lifted from sources including Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, and a James Dean appearance on the ’50s anthology series Campbell Summer Soundstage. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “Tried living in the real world/ Instead of a shell/ But before I began/ I was bored before I even began”

    16. “Ask”

    “Ask” Single (1986)

    Many Smiths fans still feel cheated by “Ask”; originally the brainchild of producer John Porter, the single’s intricate guitar work from Marr and “fifth Smith” Craig Gannon was supposedly ruined when it was mixed (behind Porter’s back) by Steve Lillywhite (whose wife, the late Kirsty MacColl, provides backing vocals). Porter’s original, more complex vision may be lost for good, but what’s left behind is hardly a failure; The Smiths’ most accessible single is also one of their best. Even with the specter of nuclear war that Morrissey dramatically hangs over it, “Ask” is almost completely lacking in sadness or snark (that poor Luxembourgian girl excepted). Rather, it’s a peppy exhortation to get up off your ass and do something about those feelings. Even if you strike out, it’s ok; it’s hard to cry along to a song that starts with handclaps. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “Spending warm summer days indoors/ Writing frightening verse/ To a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg”

    15. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”

    Meat Is Murder (1985)

    Marr has cited this song as one of his favorites from his career with The Smiths, and it’s certainly an instrumental highlight. It’s written as a haunting waltz, and the guitar on the track is a focal piece, the clean, abrupt chords and the swirling effects joining to create an eerie synergy. The lyrics depict a confrontation with death; when Morrissey sings, “That joke isn’t funny anymore,” it’s him imploring the listener not to make a mockery of loneliness and loss. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “That joke isn’t funny anymore/ It’s too close to home/ And it’s too near to the bone,”

    14. “Barbarism Begins at Home”

    Meat Is Murder (1985)


    The Smiths’ sound was largely concrete by 1985, but Rourke’s funk-influenced bass line and Marr’s rockabilly guitar on “Barbarism Begins at Home” introduced a new sense of exploration into their music. Add Morrissey’s distinctive yelps to the mix, and it’s easy to see why “Barbarism Begins at Home” remains one of the group’s most influential mid-career tracks. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “A crack on the head/ Is just what you get/ Why? Because of who you are!”

    13. “Hand in Glove”

    The Smiths (1984)

    The Smiths have various songs that highlight one of the member’s strengths, but the band is truly at their best when all four come together cohesively. “Hand in Glove” is one of the best examples of The Smiths putting together a completely robust, dynamic performance. The plodding bass is steady, the guitar is vibrant and scintillating, Morrissey is as smooth as ever, and the drums stay buoyant throughout it all. –TJ Kliebhan

    Peak Morrissey: “No it’s not like any other love/ This one’s different/ Because it’s us”

    12. “What Difference Does It Make?”

    The Smiths (1984)

    The Smiths even managed to make ambivalence attractive on “What Difference Does it Make?” Morrissey’s confusion about his own feelings are a visceral bit of honesty from a songwriter who is typically so unabashedly confident in knowing his own feelings. The Smiths were able to turn this heavy subject matter into one of the greatest hooks and most enduring tracks on their eponymous record. Fun fact: The song closes with a piercing falsetto from Morrissey that he has since stated he detests. –TJ Kliebhan

    Peak Morrissey: “I stole and I lied, and why?/ Because you asked me to/ But now you make me feel so ashamed/ Because I’ve only got two hands/ Well, I’m still fond of you”

    11. “William, It Was Really Nothing”

    “William, It Was Really Nothing” Single (1984)


    The tension in “William, It Was Really Nothing” is palpable from the offset. The intro finds two acoustic guitars playing against one another in different octaves as Morrissey describes rain falling on a “humdrum town” — an inauspicious sign no matter which way you look at it. As with many of Moz’s best songs, the rest of the lyrics are open to a wide variety of interpretations. Some choose the cynical route, with the line, “Would you like to marry me?/ And if you like, you can buy the ring,” alluding to a marriage that’s empty of connection and intended merely to hide the asker’s homosexuality. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “I don’t dream about anyone/ Except myself”

    10. “The Queen Is Dead”

    The Queen Is Dead (1986)

    The best start of any Smiths record comes on The Queen Is Dead; after a brief snippet of music hall sing-along “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” from the 1962 British drama The L-Shaped Room, Joyce’s militant drums snap listeners out of their nostalgia and back into the empire-in-decline of ’80s Britain. Although he’s obsessed with plenty of his own cult celebrities, Morrissey has no time for the idle, unearned acclaim of Britain’s royals; instead, on his equivalent of “Anarchy in the U.K.”, he dismantles and disparages the monarchy and its fawning followers with all the populist rage of a clever boy held down by his background rather than his brain. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “Life is very long, when you’re lonely”

    09. “Half a Person”

    “Shoplifters of the World Unite” B-side (1987)

    The thing to do in 1980s Manchester, if you were a person of any ambition, was to take the train south to London and never speak of Manchester again. “Half a Person”, probably the most baldly autobiographical song in The Smiths’ catalog, recounts Morrissey’s trip to the English capital as a boy “16, clumsy, and shy.” Though the song deals in oddly, even comically specific language — no, we’re pretty sure the YWCA does not have an opening for a back scrubber — it resonates universally as a ballad of youth chasing after unrequited love and finding something more profound along the way. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “Sixteen, clumsy, and shy/ That’s the story of my life”

    08. “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”

    “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” Single (1984)

    The Smiths are one of those bands that predate the emo genre and are yet almost universally loved by emo fans. That fact may be largely due to this track, whose lyrics could easily find themselves on an album by Jawbreaker or Sunny Day Real Estate. Look no further than “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” to understand why Morrissey’s delivery gained him a reputation as an engaging raconteur. But it’s not just Moz who shines here; Marr famously wrote one of the best riffs he ever crafted for this song on a guitar that was purchased for him that day in New York City by a record label executive hoping to sign the young band. “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” remains perhaps The Smiths’ most cohesive composition due to the way Morrissey’s heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics and Marr’s bright, skeletal riff seem to weave in and out of each other in perfect harmony. –TJ Kliebhan

    Peak Morrissey: “In my life/ Why do I give valuable time/ To people who don’t care if I live or die?”

    07. “Panic”

    “Panic” Single (1986)


    For all of the well-deserved acclaim, both contemporaneous and retrospective, The Smiths rarely topped the charts; of their albums, only Meat Is Murder made it to No. 1, and only two of their vaunted singles managed to crack the top 10 (“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “Sheila Take a Bow”, both of which stalled at exactly No. 10). The discrepancy between the band’s cultural cache and commercial success didn’t escape Morrissey’s notice; aided by the beefier two-guitar lineup of Marr and Craig Gannon, “Panic” takes aim at ’86’s most inconsequential chart-toppers (Doctor and the Medics, anyone?) and the radio personalities who enabled them. In addition to giving indie kids everywhere a rallying cry, the song also attracted its share of controversy; the “Hang the DJ” line, coupled with Morrissey’s ill-advised comments about a “black pop conspiracy,” earned the single (and the singer) charges of racism they’re both still trying to shake. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “Burn down the disco/ Hang the blessed DJ/ Because the music that they constantly play/ It says nothing to me about my life”

    06. “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”

    “William, It Was Really Nothing” B-side (1984)

    The Smiths almost always closed their albums with slower introspective tracks, but “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” has always felt starkly different than those songs that fall within its same category. Here, Morrissey’s vocals are dramatically bare, accompanied merely by a few chords and a simple drumbeat. The vulnerability of this setting perfectly matches the lyrics’ themes of hedonistic honesty and sinful desire, and Morrissey’s bleeding heart is expressed with a staggering raw power that even gets Moz himself choked up from time to time. –TJ Kliebhan

    Peak Morrissey: “So for once in my life/ Let me get what I want/ Lord knows, it would be the first time”

    05. “Asleep”

    “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” B-side (1985)

    One of the finest ballads The Smiths recorded over their five-year career, “Asleep” is also the first of their songs to feature Morrissey and Marr playing alone together in a room. This one is only minimally a pop song; gone are the guitars and drums, replaced with a tentative piano melody that sounds almost as if it’s embarrassed to be heard. It’s some of Marr’s most affecting work in spite of the fact that he’s straying away from his home instrument.


    Morrissey, for his part, is no stranger to lyrics about the act of suicide — he tackles the subject in “Shakespeare’s Sister”, “Rusholme Ruffians”, and several other songs throughout the band’s career. In those cases, he treats the subject with a fascination that borders on bemusement, but only in “Asleep” does his tone broadcast real empathy for the suffering. It’s devastating to hear and yet somehow comforting, as if Morrissey has set aside his shield of irony in order to speak directly to the listener. To you. –Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “There is another world/ There is a better world/ Well, there must be”

    04. “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side”

    The Queen Is Dead (1986)

    While it was long theorized this song was about Oscar Wilde, Morrissey confirmed in 1985 that he felt it more about the music industry’s doubt of his art. When he sings, “And still they don’t believe us,” he’s talking about his critics and his frustration at feeling the rejection of even his most earnest work. Morrissey often peppered his lyrics with double entendre, which can be interpreted on one level as being about love and on another about fame or acceptance. While so much of The Smiths’ music feels personal and introspective, it often turns a critical eye outward upon a deeper listen. –Mary Kate McGrath

    Peak Morrissey: “How can they look into my eyes/ And still they don’t believe me?”

    03. “How Soon Is Now?”

    “William, It Was Really Nothing” B-side (1984)

    Despite producing four studio albums, The Smiths rarely felt ambitious enough to eclipse the six-minute mark in a song. “How Soon Is Now?” is the longest track in the band’s discography, and it absolutely maximizes the potential of its extended runtime. Morrissey’s clamoring cry of “I am human and I need to be loved” seems to beg the attention of anyone who will listen. These words are delivered with such compelling pageantry that, even after hearing them repeated for the third time in the song, they still feel just as significant and, well, concerning. If any track deserves to be cited as the best example of Morrissey’s clever verbosity, surely this is the one.


    But “How Soon Is Now?” is a complete band effort, with Marr’s vibrato effect roaring to the forefront just when it needs to. The guitar creates a steady heartbeat of a rhythm even as its piercing tone leaves the listener in fear of an inevitably sudden stop. All told, this track is a masterful example of how a rock band can build gripping tension within the relative constraints of a pop song. Nothing else in The Smiths’ discography is quite as adventurous or as harrowing. –TJ Kliebhan

    Peak Morrissey: “I am human and I need to be loved/ Just like everybody else does”

    02. “This Charming Man”

    “This Charming Man” Single (1983)

    When they released “This Charming Man” in October of 1983, The Smiths had something to prove. Their first single, “Hand in Glove”, had underperformed, and there seemed like a genuine danger that the confidence placed by Rough Trade in the band’s transcendent early live shows had been misplaced. It’s fortunate, then, that “This Charming Man” finds everyone in the band meeting and exponentially exceeding his stated ambitions: Morrissey croons like the son of Oscar Wilde and Mel Tormé, Marr accomplishes more with his opening riff than most guitarists manage in a lifetime, and Rourke and Joyce combine a shuffling beat and bass line that’s even hookier than Marr’s guitar into the most danceable rhythm section The Smiths had seen before or since.

    From its wistfulness for the courtly, coded homosexuality of a more reserved (and repressed) age to the Jean Cocteau film still that graces the cover, the taut single codifies the band’s nostalgia-fueled indolence and insolence in less time than it takes most people to brush their teeth. It also launched generations of imitators. Without “This Charming Man”, we wouldn’t have the snotty jangle of the C86 tape, the cheeky tweeness of Belle and Sebastian, or the arch sensuality of Grizzly Bear. It’s a hell of a legacy, and there’s only one song in their catalog that can even come close to topping it. –Tyler Clark

    Peak Morrissey: “I would go out tonight/ But I haven’t got a stitch to wear/ This man said, ‘It’s gruesome/ That someone so handsome should care'”

    01. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”

    The Queen Is Dead (1986)


    It doesn’t get any better than this, and not just within the context of The Smiths’ discography. In the vast cosmos of pop music, there may not be another song that speaks so eloquently to both sides of the psyche, inviting the love-drunk romantic and the death-obsessed nihilist to dance, if not together, then at least in the same room. “Take me out tonight,” pleads Morrissey, and it sounds as if he’s literally trying to find a way for his soul to escape his body and meld with a companion for the evening.

    The famously celibate frontman rarely admits to such feelings, which lends this moment an extra emotional charge. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” is by far the most romantic Smiths song, and it’s made all the more so by our ingrained knowledge of Morrissey’s cynicism. When this guy says, “To die by your side, is such a heavenly way to die,” we can be damn sure he means it.

    Pop music strives for a certain universality, and yet the best pop songs feel like secrets shared between intimates. This one pulls you in until you’re standing in the darkened underpass, a strange fear gripping you until the floor falls out and suddenly all you know is euphoria — the heavenly sense of being in love and knowing that, as such, you are invincible.


    The Smiths were never particularly good at projecting invincibility; Morrissey and Marr used their compositions to probe rather than fill the cracks in humanity’s exterior. But here, at least, they allowed themselves to succumb to the pop sublime — the notion that love really can save the world and, yes, that it is a light that never goes out.–Collin Brennan

    Peak Morrissey: “And if a double-decker bus/ Crashes into us/ To die by your side/ Is such a heavenly way to die”

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