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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Top 25 Smiths Songs of All Time, 25 Years After the Band's Split

Posted By on Wed, Aug 1, 2012 at 3:00 AM

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Twenty-five years ago today, Johnny Marr disappointed over-thinking 9th graders everywhere by loudly, abruptly leaving The Smiths to begin the journeyman second act of his career. Marr has since continued honing his impeccable ax chops with bands like the The The, The Cribs, and Modest Mouse. Singer and co-songwriter Morrissey has released nine albums -- each of them exhausting, fiercely funny and usually brilliant -- with song titles like "Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed."

To mark the anniversary of The Smiths' self-implosion -- which was first made public in a now-infamous Aug. 1, 1987 New Musical Express story headlined "Smiths to Split" -- All Shook Down has compiled a list of the band's 25 best songs of all time. Here they are:

25. "You've Got Everything Now" (The Smiths, 1984)

Smiths albums are full of strawman antagonists -- protest singers, tattooed boys from Birkenhead, even cross-dressing vicars -- but "You've Got Everything Now" turns the loathing inward. "No, I've ever had a job/Because I'm too shy," says Morrissey in a gob-stoppingly honest moment of self-indictment. It's an everyloser anthem that exists slightly out of time.

24. "Frankly Mr. Shankly" (The Queen Is Dead, 1986)

Moz grins wide as he makes known his feelings about the higher-ups at Sire/Rough Trade (the shit-eating sarcasm of "I want to go down in celluloid history" is note-perfect) on "Frankly Mr. Shankly," a sunny diversion from The Queen Is Dead's purple prose and lost-dogged sadness with one of the more exalted riffs Johnny Marr would ever write.

23. "Girl Afraid" (Hatful of Hollow, 1984)

This is one of several Louder Than Bombs tracks that posit a waterproof argument for Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce being the tightest rhythm section of all-time: they stay so deep in the pocket that "Girl Afraid" gets linty. Morrissey's mock-operatic falsetto could shake the nosebleeds.

22. "Half a Person" (Louder Than Bombs, 1987)

This pained, aspirational cut gets at the heart of social phobia. As if to tune out the loutish noise pollution coming from Fleet Street, a 16-year-old, gender-confused Morrissey checks into the YWCA. The Smiths invented twee indie-pop here, for all practical purposes.

21. "Sweet and Tender Hooligan" (Louder Than Bombs, 1987)

Sadder than "Oscillate Wildly" and funnier than "Bigmouth Strikes Again," "Sweet and Tender Hooligan" is pitch-dark comedy, reimaging Thatcher's England as a macabre hell lorded over by adolescent yobs. It's also one of the few thumb-your-nose punk songs they ever did.

20. "Wonderful Woman" (UK 12", 1983)

Morrissey always seemed to get caught up with domineering women in his youth: one such relationship was so scarring that he swore celibacy on the priestly "Pretty Girls Make Graves." But "Wonderful Woman" is great for its elongated hook and Marr's harmonica, played with almost throat-tearing pain.

19. "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" (Hatful of Hollow, 1984)

It took less than two minutes for this thing to entrench itself in the youth zeitgeist forever. A lot of it has to do with that title, which could be the tagline for every Molly Ringwald movie ever. It no doubt helps that "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" is a brave, salient, unrecoverably wounded love song.

18. "Reel Around the Fountain" (The Smiths, 1984)

"Reel Around the Fountain" isn't perfect -- Joyce's opening drum line is very, very 1984 -- but the track (a piano ballad, rare for this jangly group) never flinches in its psychoanalysis of a child whose lost innocence is irretrievable. By song's end, death sounds like the path of least resistance.

17. "Unlovable" (Louder Than Bombs, 1987)

"Unlovable" starts out weird, lurching forward and then banking down, before slowing to a rich, molten burn. For once, Morrissey strips off his deflective armor; there's no kitchen-sink cynicism here, just brutal, bracing vulnerability ("I know that you would like me, if only you could see me").

16. "Suffer Little Children" (The Smiths, 1984)

A noir-rock epic about the string of child slayings that shook Manchester in the mid-1960s, "Suffer Little Children" is as roomy and haunted as the reservoir where the Moors murderers buried their victims. You'll need a good 15 minutes after hearing "A woman said, 'I know my son is dead'/I'll never rest my hand on his sacred head."

15. "A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours" (Strangeways, Here We Come, 1987)

The Smiths' funereal final album begins with a Spanish lullaby: "A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours." With a voice chastened by the humiliations of twenties-dom ("Oh, but don't mention love/ I'd hate the strain of the pain all over again"), Morrissey finds comfort in his resignation. The piano riff is like a siesta on quartz sand, helping this thwarted love song go down a little easier.

14. "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" (Meat Is Murder, 1985)

The weathered, unsentimental beauty of "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" can't go overstated. Every pause is lyrical; the silences speak multitudes. Ultimately, it's what you don't hear -- the chorus of soul-sapping jeers that started on the schoolyard and followed Moz well into adulthood -- that's as important as what you do.

13. "The Headmaster Ritual" (Meat Is Murder, 1985)

With "The Headmaster Ritual," Marr turned an MC5 homage into a superbly engineered pop song. Darting power-pop riffs give way to a hook that stutters as nervously as a child about to feel the military two-step down the nape of his neck.

12. "Shoplifters of the World Unite" (Louder Than Bombs, 1987)

In the wake of last summer's British riots, "Shoplifters of the World Unite" proved prophetic: it's a rejection of austerity and an indictment of conservatism. With a chorus big enough to knock down concrete barricades, "Shoplifters" is so anthemically charged that it feels like an electric zap.

11. "I Want the One I Can't Have" (Meat Is Murder, 1985)

Meat Is Murder is largely about the state of the working poor in a hierarchical, misgoverned country. "I Want the One I Can't Have" brings that into focus via erotic dramatization: Morrissey makes a lover out of a deprived boy conditioned to fail. Caligula would've blushed at "If you ever need self-validation/ Just meet me in the alley by the railway station."

10. "This Charming Man" (The Smiths, 1984)

With that peacocking strut of a groove, "This Charming Man" is as disco as it is post-punk. But what really makes the track is how it delves into the untoward realities of adolescence with a sensitivity that's almost Dickensian. The questions posed here have surely troubled every teen at one stage or another: What happens when there's no light at the end of the darkened underpass, when even theoretically inclusive social circles won't have anything to do with me? Why can't someone -- anyone -- smile at me? Why is it so hard to face my reflection? Why can't I enjoy a real life like a real person?

9. "I Know It's Over" (The Queen Is Dead, 1986)

If "What Difference Does It Make?" boasts the all-time funniest Morrissey lyric ("You make me feel so ashamed because I've only got two hands"), "I Know It's Over" lays claim to his one of most gut-wrenchingly visceral: "I know it's over, and it never even began/ But in my heart, it was so real." Marr's spooked echo lends a touch of the extraterrestrial to a track about human misery.

8. "Asleep" (The World Won't Listen, 1987)

"Asleep" could be the most crushing song this band ever wrote, but it's breathlessly simple and economically short in design, free of arch wordplay or labyrinthine melodrama. Marr's piano chimes give off a whiff of airless dread: "Eleanor Rigby" is day-brightening by comparison. Moz sounds like a cipher, too devoid of feeling to ponder his eventual suicide in any depth. Still, "Asleep" makes its impact felt, a gentle tremor that reverberates violently.

7. "Barbarism Begins At Home" (Meat Is Murder, 1985)

Another Smiths song that rings uncomfortably true even a quarter-century after its release, "Barbarism Begins At Home" was "Born This Way" before "Born This Way." While the Gaga-backed It Gets Better campaign -- hatched in response to a 2010 spike in LGBT youth suicides -- is noble, "Barbarism Begins At Home" is wrenchingly real. Moz doesn't have to address the topic explicitly; the line, "A crack on the head is just what you get/ Why? Because of what you are" speaks for itself with next-to-no context. Then there's Andy Rourke, who funks up his bass and makes "Barbarism Begins At Home" roil like mammary clouds.

6. "This Night Has Opened My Eyes" (Louder Than Bombs, 1987)

Morrissey is an inexhaustible jack of all trades: cynic, Luddite, social critic, reporter on the crime beat. "This Night Has Opened My Eyes" describes people so desensitized by their industrial, apocalyptic world that they don't even take a second glance at an infant who's only garment is a copy of News of the World. It's a grim dirge made beautifully lyrical by cushiony, velvet-smooth funk.

5. "Cemetry Gates" (The Queen Is Dead, 1986)

Pretty much anything that anyone does in their day-to-day life is a means of distraction from scarier truths. All of the various ways that people seek out safety -- in numbers, in denial, in narcissism -- are useless because there's no safe refuge from the cemetery gates. Marr is a master of goosebump-inducing atmosphere; his guitar builds here push and pull in perfect measure. But this is Morrissey's show. "Keats and Yeats are on your side" is the perfect kiss-off, as if to say: you can keep your naïve romanticism.

4. "Back to the Old House" (Hatful of Hollow, 1984)

What happens when your childhood haunts become a blackened ruin? Morrissey would rather not find out. This John Peel-produced acoustic version of "Back to the Old House" appears on ace compilation Hatful of Hollow (a hypnotic reworking appeared on Louder Than Bombs three years later) to posit that the good times are fragile and transient, while the bad times drag at a marathon pace.

3. "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" (Louder Than Bombs, 1987)

"Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" is a picture of total, wind-beaten defeat. Moz has given up on all of his self-soothing pursuits -- drinking, reading Wilde, even writing verse to his dentally challenged pen pal in Luxemburg -- and resigned himself to a bedsit life. But the song's genius lies in its devil-may-care rendering of this very dark material. Rourke's bassline and Marr's chicken-scratch arpeggios make crippling malfunction sound pretty jolly.

2. "Still Ill" (The Smiths, 1984)

Only Morrissey could parse out every syllable ("Ask me why and I'll die/Oh, ask me why and I'll diiiiiiiie") until a word takes on life-affirming importance. That guitar line is a fucking beaut: a whooping, jaunting, eddying, anticipatory thing that captures the excitement of a kid who's finally found some small, cheap thrill to take perverse delight in.

1. "Well I Wonder" (Meat Is Murder, 1985)

The Moz of "Well I Wonder" could've sprung from Emily Dickinson's typewriter, a shy castaway for whom stepping out of his lightless flat amounts to "the fierce last stand of all that I am." "Well I Wonder" is deeply bizarre by this group's standards. Where the rest of Meat Is Murder vrooms, "Well I Wonder" crawls. Morrissey's voice, usually animated by a certain cockney bravado, never raises above a dovish whimper.

The most common reading of "Well I Wonder" is that it's about a love that never was. It's more about those base insecurities that paralyze your body and constrict your conscience, the kind that keep you from meeting someone's eyes out of fear that they'll better notice the imperfections on your face. It's the least romantic song on an album that rejects romanticism almost entirely. In a way, "Well I Wonder" is the anti-"There Is a Light That Never Goes Out," which is the Smiths' best-loved song in part because it affirms a resolve to find oneself. But confusions and apprehensions are always deeper held than convictions.

See also:

* The Top 20 Greatest San Francisco Musicians: The Complete List

* The Top 15 Most Cocaine-Influenced Albums of All Time: The Complete List

* The Top 10 Most Disappointing Albums of 2012 (So Far)

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M.T. Richards

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