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Best The Smiths Songs: 20 Classic Tracks From Indie-Pop’s Most Charming Men
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List & Guides

Best The Smiths Songs: 20 Classic Tracks From Indie-Pop’s Most Charming Men

Influential, distinctive and enduring, the best The Smiths songs are just part of an inspiring body of work recorded in under five years.

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Quality always kept pace with quality where The Smiths were concerned. Not only were they the most influential indie-pop outfit to emerge during the 80s, but they were staggeringly prolific, too. Their career lasted barely five years, yet during that time they released close to 80 songs; whether a single, album track or even a B-side, each one was an absolute must-hear. This legendary Manchester quartet left a truly handsome legacy from which to select the best The Smiths songs.

Listen to the best of The Smiths here, and check out our best The Smiths songs, below.

20: Still Ill (1984)

One of The Smiths’ most memorable existential treatises, Still Ill included several of Morrissey’s most-quoted lyrics (not least “England is mine, it owes me a living”) and it went down a storm in concert, remaining a stalwart of The Smiths’ live set throughout their career. The John Porter-helmed version of the song that graces The Smiths’ debut album was more streamlined and arguably had more energy, though many fans preferred the vibey John Peel session version featuring Johnny Marr’s Dylan-ish harmonica breaks and which appeared on Hatful Of Hollow. Whichever you prefer, the irresistibly jangly Still Ill remains one of the best Smiths songs, representing the group hitting an early career peak.

19: Girl Afraid (1984)

Few would argue that The Smiths were a fantastic singles band, but it’s a testimony to the strength of their wider body of work that remarkable songs such as Jeane, These Things Take Time and Rubber Ring ended up as B-sides. Arguably greater still, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’s criminally underrated flip, Girl Afraid, bears all the hallmarks of the very best Smiths songs. Built around Marr’s cyclical riffs, its evocative backdrop was matched by Morrissey’s musings on the fragility of relationships from both male and female perspectives. He further elaborated in a 1985 Melody Maker interview: “Ultimately, you’re on your own, however you go through life. You die on your own. You have to go to the dentist on your own.”

18: Rusholme Ruffians (1985)

One of numerous highlights gracing The Smiths’ second album, Meat Is Murder, Rusholme Ruffians included one of Morrissey’s most visceral lyrics, with beatings, stabbings and a suicide attempt taking place at the “the last night of the fair”. In contrast, the violence of the lyrics was married to an exuberant, rockabilly-flecked backing track driven by one of Andy Rourke’s most gravity-defying basslines. Though the song was very much its own entity, The Smiths later acknowledged its similarity to Elvis Presley’s (Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame by segueing from it into Rusholme Ruffians during live shows (as heard on the group’s 1988 live album, Rank).

17: Well I Wonder (1985)

Though it’s undoubtedly another of Meat Is Murder’s triumphs – and one of the group’s finest ballads – the poignant, lovelorn Well I Wonder is often overlooked in Smiths retrospectives, perhaps because it was never performed live. Nonetheless, it remains one of the best The Smiths songs, with the band’s admirably restrained performance coaxing out one of Morrissey’s most sublime vocals. “Well I Wonder I really like,” Johnny Marr said in a December 1992 interview with Record Collector. “It’s one of those things that a modern group could try and emulate but never get the spirit of. It’s so simple.”

16: Paint A Vulgar Picture (1987)

It’s hardly unheard of for bands to slag off their record company and/or the music business in general, though Morrissey laid into the process with unexpected venom on Strangeways, Here We Come’s centrepiece, Paint A Vulgar Picture. However, his cleaver-sharp dissection of industry practices (“Reissue, repackage, repackage/Re-evaluate the songs/Double pack with a photograph/Extra track and a tacky badge”) was misconstrued in some quarters. “No, it wasn’t about Rough Trade at all,” Morrissey said in a 1988 NME interview. “It was about the music industry in general, about practically anybody who’s died and left behind that frenetic fanatical legacy which sends people scrambling. Billy Fury, Marc Bolan and more.”

15: I Know It’s Over (1986)

The Queen Is Dead’s towering ballad I Know It’s Over derived its strength from its sparseness. Johnny Marr’s guitar was unusually restrained, with Andy Rourke’s bass initially carrying much of the song’s melody under one of Morrissey’s most telling portrayals of sexual and social isolation. The band finally released the tension mid-way through, and the song climbed to an epic finale, with Morrissey repeating the song’s harrowing opening line, “Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.” Morrissey had withheld his lyrics from his bandmates until they’d done their work, and they were amazed by the intensity of his performance, which was captured late in the evening but resulted in one of the best Smiths songs of all time. It was “dark and deep”, Rourke told the NME in 2016. “We did it with the lights turned down low, with everybody getting into [the vibe].”

14: You’ve Got Everything Now (1984)

One of The Smiths’ most dynamic early songs, You’ve Got Everything Now was written in the spring of 1983 and remained a regular in the band’s live set for the next two years. It was a highlight of their self-titled debut album, though the majority of fans prefer the notably more muscular Hatful Of Hollow version, captured during The Smiths’ BBC session for David Jensen’s show in July 1983. Morrissey’s apparently envy-fuelled lyric referred to “the old grey school”, and he elaborated during a 1985 BBC interview: “I was quite advanced when I was at school, but when I left, it seemed that all these oafish clods from school were making tremendous progress and had wonderfully large cars and lots of money, and I seemed to be constantly waiting for a bus that never came.”

13: This Night Has Opened My Eyes (1984)

Though it sits among the The Smiths’ best songs, This Night Has Opened My Eyes was only officially released on the Hatful Of Hollow compilation, with that recording sourced from a BBC session for John Peel’s programme in September 1983. Nonetheless, it remains one of the band’s most emotive works. Morrissey’s depiction of an unplanned pregnancy and its devastating aftermath (“In a river the colour of lead, immerse the baby’s head/Wrap her up in the News Of The World/Dump her on a doorstep, girl”) was simply unforgettable, but it was equalled by the band’s dignified performance.

12: I Won’t Share You (1987)

As Strangeways, Here We Come’s closing track, I Won’t Share You took on an additional air of poignancy after the band split just months after it was recorded. However, despite its resigned, wistful feel, the song was the result of a burst of spontaneity at the tail end of the Strangeways, Here We Come sessions, when Johnny Marr discovered an ancient lyre in the studio. Finding its sound beguiling, Marr used the instrument to frame this gloriously sparse ballad. Morrissey recalled the song’s creation in his 2013 memoir, Autobiography: “The strings are possibly horsehair, and there is a barely usable tuning bar – but the sound Johnny finds is mesmerizing, and the song I Won’t Share You is alive.”

11: The Boy With The Thorn In His Side (1985)

Such is the lushness of its overall sound, it’s hard to believe The Boy With The Thorn In His Side was recorded in a basic eight-track demo studio in Manchester. However, The Smiths were so enamoured of the recording they put it forward for a single, with Stephen Street giving it a little extra polish at London’s 24-track RAK Studios. The band were right not to mess with it too much: easily one of the best The Smiths songs of all time, it was nigh-on perfect as it was, with Morrissey’s gloriously yearning vocal dancing around one of Marr’s most winsome melodies, which somehow sounded life-affirming yet also deeply melancholic.

10: Reel Around The Fountain (1984)

The Smiths established their credentials with their classic early singles Hand In Glove and This Charming Man, but they revealed the true breadth of their ambition by opening their self-titled debut album with the elegant, slow-burning Reel Around The Fountain. It’s now widely recognised as one of the best The Smiths songs, but Johnny Marr later surprised fans when he revealed it was inspired by two disparate artists. “[It] was my interpretation of James Taylor’s version of Handy Man,” he told Guitar Player in 1990.” I was trying to do a classic melodic pop tune, but at the same time, Joy Division was influencing everybody in England. That dark element – it wasn’t that I wanted to be like them, but they brought out something in the darkness of the overall track.”

9: Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Love Me (1987)

Both Morrissey and Marr have expressed their lasting fondness for Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me, with Marr revealing, “The last time I met Morrissey he said it was his favourite Smiths song,” in a 1993 interview with Select. Then again, the entire band put their heart and soul into this widescreen epic during the Strangeways, Here We Come sessions, beefing up their standard rock instrumentation with sampled orchestras, arpeggiated keyboard melodies, and even the sound of striking miners taken from a BBC Sound Effects album providing the album version’s dense, musique concrète-style intro. The song’s cinematic quality was matched by one of Morrissey’s most emotive vocals, with biographer Simon Goddard noting his voice is “all the more affecting for its lack of hysteria, baring his soul with an almost unbearable reconciled sincerity”.

8: Cemetry Gates (1986)

On paper, Morrissey’s lengthy, contemplative walks in Manchester’s Southern Cemetery with close friend Linder Sterling may seem unlikely inspiration for one of The Smiths’ breeziest pop songs. Yet the singer’s ruminations on plagiarists and “loves, hates and passions just like mine” made perfect sense when allied with one of Marr’s most gorgeous melodies and a spirited band performance, ensuring Cemetry Gates’ place among the very best Smiths songs. “It’s all the best elements of The Smiths, and what a wonderful vocal and lyric,” Stephen Street said in 2016. “It’s a nice bit of blessed relief [on The Queen Is Dead]. It’s delicate, but it’s still got power.”

7: Suffer Little Children (1984)

The Moors Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, were the ultimate taboo subject in Manchester for decades, so when The Smiths wrote Suffer Little Children, in memory of the local children Brady and Hindley had abducted and killed during the 60s, it inevitably caused a furore. To their credit, the band treated the subject with respect and, despite the tabloids’ attempts to vilify him, Morrissey ended up forging a strong friendship with Ann West, the mother of one of the murder victims, Lesley Ann Downey, who understood his intentions were entirely honourable. Sequenced as the final song on The Smiths’ debut album, and rarely performed live, Suffer Little Children bequeathed the oft-repeated phrase “Oh Manchester, so much to answer for”. But while it’s hauntingly beautiful, it remains a difficult listen.

6: Hand In Glove (1983)

Though it wasn’t a hit on release, The Smiths’ debut single, Hand In Glove, remains one of the best Smiths songs – and one of their most significant. Having hit on the main riff on an old acoustic guitar, Johnny Marr played it over and over while his girlfriend (and future wife) Angie Brown drove him over to Morrissey’s house to preserve it on tape. Morrissey then added his singular lyric (“No, it’s not like any other love/This one is different because it’s us”), and when The Smiths completed the song just weeks later, at Stockport’s Strawberry Studios, it bagged them a deal with Rough Trade which set them on the road to stardom.

A killer pop song with timeless appeal, Hand In Glove frequently featured in the band’s live set throughout their career, and Morrissey in particular enthused about it. In 1984, he told the NME, “This is to me the most special song that we’ve ever done. It was our first single, and of course for that reason it has great romantic value. To me, it still sounds like a record that really had to be made.”

5: The Headmaster Ritual (1985)

Meat Is Murder’s vivid opening track, The Headmaster Ritual, was inspired by Morrissey’s gruelling experiences at his alma mater, St Mary’s Secondary Modern, in Stretford, Manchester. He expressed his pent-up fury in no uncertain terms, addressing those in power as “belligerent ghouls” and recalling one especially sadistic teacher who “does the military two-step down the nape of my neck”. Suitably inspired by the subject matter, the band weighed in with a robust, steely backing track, with Morrissey delighting in what he referred to as Marr’s “live-wire spitfire guitar sound that takes on all-comers.”

4: This Charming Man (1983)

Their second single and their breakthrough Top 30 hit, This Charming Man arguably remains the song most associated with The Smiths. Driven by Marr’s effervescent guitars and Andy Rourke’s lively, Motown-esque basslines, it was the ideal vehicle for Morrissey’s erudite, flirtatious and sexually ambiguous lyric (“I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear”) and, within weeks, the band’s nascent audience were singing it right back at him. Lavished with critical praise (Paul Morley declared it to be “accessible bliss… one of the greatest singles of the year”), This Charming Man took The Smiths onto Top Of The Pops and captured the hearts of a generation, forever cementing itself among the The Smiths’ greatest songs.

3: The Queen Is Dead (1985)

The superb, six-minute title track from The Smiths’ masterful third album was one in the eye for those who felt the band were purveyors of fey indie-pop. Recorded late in The Queen Is Dead sessions, it coalesced out of an energised studio jam and built steadily around Mike Joyce’s tom-heavy drums and one of Andy Rourke’s best basslines. Johnny Marr added his aggressive, MC5-esque guitars, laced with wah-wah, and Morrissey put the icing on the cake with his brilliantly satirical state-of-the-nation address. His invective lambasted not only the monarchy, but also the tabloids (“I say, Charles don’t you ever crave/To appear on the front of The Daily Mail/Dressed in your mother’s bridal veil?”) and a faltering Britain numbed by the effects of Thatcherism and a subservience to everything from religion to alcohol and drugs.

2: How Soon Is Now? (1984)

Widely hailed as The Smiths’ most sonically daring track, How Soon Is Now? emerged from a marathon London studio session with producer John Porter during the summer of 1984, which also yielded William, It Was Really Nothing and Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want. Its working title was Swamp, but the song was transformed in the studio when Marr and Porter heavily manipulated Marr’s rhythm guitar part with the otherworldly vibrato sound which is now instantly recognisable. After Morrissey added his memorably ennui-stricken lyric, one of the best Smiths songs was born. But while both the band and producer believed they’d created a landmark track, How Soon Is Now?’s reputation grew slowly. Initially sneaking out as a flipside to the 12” of William, It Was Really Nothing, the song attracted so much acclaim it topped John Peel’s Festive 50 in 1984 and eventually became a UK Top 30 hit under its own steam.

1: There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (1985)

Only a truly timeless track can top the list of best The Smiths songs, and There Is A Light That Never Goes out is just that. Bearing all the hallmarks of classic pop balladry at its best, The Queen Is Dead’s standout moment featured one of Marr’s most regal chord structures and an instantly memorable Morrissey lyric, which took the idea of doomed romanticism to the nth degree (“If a ten-tonne truck kills the both of us/To die by your side, well the pleasure, the privilege is mine”). Remarkably, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out wasn’t issued as a single until five years after The Smiths split, but as soon as it was finished, the band knew it was something special – a feeling Johnny Marr confirmed for Far Out Magazine in 2020 when he said, “I didn’t realise that There Is A Light was going to be an anthem, but when we first played it I thought it was the best song I’d ever heard.”

Find out why The Smiths’ left a legacy that will never die.

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