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Still Ill: The Best 13 Songs by the Smiths

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Friday, Jul 1, 2011
To celebrate the 25th birthday of the Smiths' masterful album The Queen Is Dead, PopMatters presents a list of the top 13 tracks by the legendary English quartet.

The Smiths, together for a mere five years (1982 to 1987), managed to change the face of rock music and inspired a cult of fandom unmatched since Beatlemania. Formed in Manchester, England, vocalist Steven Patrick Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr wrote most of the group’s material, joined by bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce. The band debuted with its eponymous first record in 1984, an album that introduced Morrissey’s distinctive croon and confessional lyrics to the world, as well as his brilliant partnership with Marr’s ear for melody. Meat Is Murder (1985) marked the Smiths’ greatest commercial success, and its follow-up, The Queen Is Dead (1986), is generally regarded as the band’s masterpiece. The following year saw the release of the group’s final proper LP, Strangeways, Here We Come, a more experimental and muscular album. Several compilation albums—Hatful of Hollow (1984), The World Won’t Listen (1987), and Louder Than Bombs (1987)—collect the band’s stellar non-album tracks, many of which are among the Smiths’ most famous and beloved material.
What to make of the Smiths today? You likely know more than a few Morrissey-and-Marr devotees, and whether you count yourself among their ranks or not, you know this band is a Big Deal—capital B, capital D—to a lot of folks. The Queen Is Dead turned 25 this month, so what better time to reinvestigate the band’s material? Here you have it, the Top 13 Songs by the Smiths. If that’s not enough, head over here for songs 14 through 20. Read through, oscillate wildly, and leave your own list in the comments section!

13. “William, It Was Really Nothing”—single (1984)

Talk about efficiency. In just over two minutes, the Smiths manage to bang out one of their finest pop songs. Johnny Marr strums the hell out of his acoustic guitar, setting the frantic pace for the track’s backdrop, and picks out an equally peppy melody on his ever-reverbed electric. Meanwhile, Morrissey unintentionally croons to his fans a rhetorical question: “Would you like to marry me?” What do you think they’ll say?

12. “The Headmaster Ritual”—Meat Is Murder (1985)

Most everyone knows Morrissey the Confessional Poet, but Smiths fans love his other prominent role, Morrissey the Politician, just as much. “The Headmaster Ritual” lets him fill both shoes—an adolescent boy’s torture in school would be material enough for a typical Moz investigation, but here the singer also uses the opportunity to write a screed against corporal punishment, as well. The emotional bruises get matched up side-by-side with the physical, but Marr and bassist Andy Rourke’s swinging rhythms make the hurt go down easy.

11. “Hand in Glove” – single (1983), The Smiths (1984)

The Smiths’ debut single serves as a blueprint for all of their best material to come. Morrissey proudly proclaims himself an outsider as he and his love—impoverished and iconoclastic—take on the world: “Hand in glove / The good people laugh / Yes, we may be hidden by rags / But we have something they’ll never have.” Marr’s guitar chimes and the rhythm section gives much-needed muscle to Morrissey’s sentimentalism. Moz went on record years later as loving this song the most in his band’s discography, and that’s a fair choice.

10. “Reel Around the Fountain” – The Smiths (1984)

Sadism, masochism, possible pedophilia—try those on for size in your debut record’s opening track. Even better, try making the whole thing sound discomfortingly romantic. Morrissey sings of an older lover taking a child “and making him old” in the course of an evening. His sexuality here is blunt but lyrical, with lines like, “Fifteen minutes with you / I wouldn’t say no…” and “You can pin and mount me / Like a butterfly” expressing his desire in vivid language. Musically, the song’s gentle sway laid the foundation for a legion of Britpoppers to come marching down the road.

9. “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours” – Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

The Smiths sound actually menacing on “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours”, the opening track to their vastly underrated final album. Strangeways, Here We Come points toward the heavier, more rock-oriented sounds that the Smiths may have continued to explore had they not called it quits, and “A Rush” is the finest example of that evolution. Just check Moz’s growl at the start of the chorus—there’s real anger here. Of course, Morrissey undercuts the hate with his sharp sense of humor; once he and his lover recapture their territory, “The people who are uglier than you and I / Take what they need and leave.” A dream, perhaps, but for once, the Smiths sound beefed up enough to take charge.

8. “Panic” – single (1986)

Written as a reaction to the facile sounds of popular radio in the 1980s, “Panic” simultaneously became one of the Smiths’ most successful and most controversial songs. Some people accused Morrissey and the band of racism, centering on the singer’s invocation to “Burn down the disco / Hang the blessed DJ.” Judge as you see fit—the band claims it wrote the track after hearing news of the Chernobyl disaster followed immediately by a radio DJ playing Wham!’s “I’m Your Man”. In that context, “Panic” simply asks that rock music have something to say to its audience—and it does so with one of the Smiths’ greatest hooks, to boot.

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