I was 22 when I first bought the album Hatful of Hollow by the Smiths. I found it at a record shop in Athens, Georgia in the fall of 1985, recommended to me by the weird kid working at the shop, who informed me that this album—mostly recorded live in the studio for the John Peel BBC radio show, plus containing new songs not on the band’s eponymous debut—was a masterpiece and much better than the above-mentioned debut. He informed with with great passion that it would change my life.
And of course the record changed my life. From then until when The Smiths broke up in 1987, I was a devoted fan of their music and bought every record they released. Since their breakup in 1987 my devotion waxed and waned over the ensuing decades, but every now and then I’d return to their music if only for the intense nostalgia I felt for that period of my life.
I shall list my 10 favorite songs by The Smiths in descending order. Everyone’s opinion varies on any subjective art form like music, so my favorites may not be your favorites, or anyone else’s for that matter, and if you disagree with mine, so what. It’s just an opinion.
10. Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now (1984, Hatful of Hollow)
The anthem that I am sure articulates the existential angst felt by all mopey, dorky, sexless boys too afraid to leave their bedrooms. In 1985 I was not among their ranks, as I was a randy and fun-loving US soldier sleeping with every pretty girl I could possibly bed and was as cocky and confident as any annoyingly smart and charming pretty boy, but I appreciated Morrissey’s lamentations on this song. Johnny Marr truly began experimenting more here with his idea of a beautiful guitar sound, a crisp, wonderfully jingley-jangley cacophony of chords and picks that make this song perfect. Morrissey’s prissy, quasi-faggie demeanor and complete lack of testosterone, coupled with the fact he possessed not a molecule of muscle tissue on his body, made him the most curious and yet fascinating pop star, especially since he was capable of articulating his angst with such eloquence and poetic silliness, plus he had the coolest haircut in the 1980s, hands down. He was a far cry from the arena rock gods like Robert Plant or Punk assholes like Johnny Rotten. Morrissey’s Rock & Roll rebellion was to be smarter and more annoying than his peers, and to hold the entire pop world in sneering disdain, and yet to succeed in it despite his dyspeptic view on life. We fans just loved his dark bedroom, navel-gazing rants. He was nothing like me as a man and everything like me as an intellectual.
9. Bigmouth Strikes Again (1986, The Queen is Dead)
Hell hath no fury like that of a prissy sissy, and on this rolling rocker Morrissey thumbs his nose at his critics while the band rollicks through a pretty kick-ass tune, Johny Marr’s brilliant wall of guitars, so gleefully recorded over god-knows-how-many overdubs, sounds majestic here, plus Andy Rourke’s pulsing bass lines and Mike Joyce’s steady drumming resonate with amazing pace and feeling, and meanwhile Morrissey sneeringly mocks everyone who mocks him, wiggling his bum triumphantly as he figuratively compares himself to Joan of Arc being burned at the stake for the way he’s lambasted in the press, and it works because the song fucking rocks by a pretty damn good Rock & Roll band. It’s silly, yes, but silly is Morrissey’s strong suit and why he so endeared himself to his fans. We all wish we could articulate such an annoyingly funny fuck you at our own critics backed by such cool music. Yeah. The Queen is Dead is an album of a great band maturing into the best one of its era, hands down. Most of my Army friends fell for The Smiths because of this song or Boy with the Thorn in His Side, or simply because I played the fuck out of this album the fall of 1986.
8. How Soon is Now? (1984, Hatful of Hollow)
Most people rate this song higher than I do in compiling their Smiths greatest hits list, and I can understand why, yet I do not agree that it’s top-5 worthy great compared to other songs by the band. But of course I love it, cherish it, and thought it was wonderful from my first listen onward. Johnny Marr’s wall of guitars sound is incredible, and of course Morrissey’s whiny, self-absorbed plea for social acceptance is both poignant and yet annoying as only he can exude so gloriously eloquent, and obnoxiously so. It’s a great song, rocking, and should be on everyone’s playlist for the band.
7. Handsome Devil (1984, Hatful of Hollow)
Here we have The Smiths as Punks, although smart ones who could deftly play their respective instruments better than most Punks, and fronted by an almost anti-Punk singer who sounds like a gayer and smarter version of Roy Orbison in the throes of a horny hissy fit over someone obviously oblivious to Stephen’s desires. Morrissey was an admitted celibate (or so he claimed), so all his sexual longing was theoretical and creepy like in all involuntary celibates, and even when he became a huge pop icon in England he vehemently clung to his celibacy as a weird badge of honor, as if shagging other people would ruin his intellectual purity. It was obvious he was gay, not that we fans cared, as homophobia was not only stupid but also just plain wrong, and I think we all collectively wished he’d just get his fuck on at some point with some muscular football hooligan bloke with good hair, though we loved his musings on the subject of forced sexlessness. This is a fucking rocking tune, The Smiths doing Jumping Jack Flash or I Wanna Be Your Dog in their own wonderful way. Rolling Stones and Iggy and the Stooges, meet Stephen Morrissey, sissy crooner and well-coifed pop star wannabe, backed by his kick-ass band.
6. Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before (1987, Strangeways, Here We Come)
By the time we got this one from the record store, the band was no more. This is, in effect, their swan song. And what a tune! Morrissey and Marr could no longer agree on the band’s sound or musical direction, yet when they did collaborate it was fucking beautiful, like here. Morrissey’s had a decent solo career, but none of his post-Smiths songs sounded this great. Without Johnny Marr, Morrissey’s just a weird-looking singer with a slightly annoying voice and some clever wordplay, but never as good as he was in this great band. I have never really dug Morrissey’s solo work, and, in fact, since his first solo record, I’ve ignored him completely. Now that’s he’s super old and still prancing around the stage singing his songs of youthful sexless celibate angst to crowds of dorks living in the long-gone Smiths past, I find it sad and weird and boring. I was even happier when Morrissey was forced in court to dole out part his wealth to brilliant drummer Mike Joyce, whom Stephen fucked out of royalties since day one. This wasn’t a one-man band nor was Morrissey the sole genius in the band. Marr was equally brilliant in creating the band’s sound, and Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke certainly played a huge part in making the bands music amazing.
5. This Charming Man (1984, Hatful of Hollow, Peel Session Version)
This version is hugely better than the original single that put the band on the UK pop charts for the first time. It’s got a cheeky ebullience lacking in the original, and Johnny’s guitars sound better, with more jingle-jangle for the buck, so to speak. And Andy Rourke’s bass sounds utterly perfect. On the original version, Johnny’s guitars sound annoyingly like an 8-bit telephone ring tone, while here the stereo mix by John Peel’s amazing engineer/producer Roger Pusey sounds fabulously warm and utterly inviting. The version produced by John Porter annoys me. In fact I have never liked the first album by The Smiths because Porter’s production makes the band sound tinny and hollow and gross, while on Hatful, the songs, especially the Peel Session versions, all sound fantastic. It’s why Hatful made me love the band and luckily I didn’t hear their debut first.
4. The Boy with the Thorn in His Side (1986, The Queen Is Dead)
Easily the best pure pop song by The Smiths, almost AOR-radio-friendly, and for most of my friends it was the first Smiths song that truly pricked their ears. Johnny Marr again shines with a layered symphony of guitar sounds so sublime it feels like you’re listening to pure heroin. I also think it’s Stephen’s finest vocal performance of his recorded career, as he sounds completely sincere in his expression of his angst and isolation. Say what you want about the guy, but he was a proper pop star at this point, working perfectly with his excellent band to make songs on The Queen is Dead that put The Smiths on the top tier of English Rock & Roll greatness with The Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Who, Zeppelin, Sabbath, and Clash (and later Stone Roses, Oasis, Blur, and Radiohead). Really. That good. And on my list we’ve yet to get to the best song on that great album.
3. What Difference Does It Make? (1984, Hatful of Hollow, Peel Session Version)
Again, this is a vastly superior version of the song than the one on the band’s eponymous debut record. That version is very good, sure, even great, but this version is magical. Morrissey later slagged this song, but, dude, we fell in love with your band because of songs like this, shut the fuck up, you silly wanker. This has the anger and energy and brilliant wordplay that made you a star and endeared your band to its most ardent supporters. What makes this song swing is Andy Rourke’s bass line, coupled with Marr’s angry guitar attack, like the band is assaulting a hill in wartime, led by that prissy sissy singer all filled with vim and sneering vitriol. Punk never sounded this good except on the occasional Clash song. This is, to me, the song that sold me on The Smiths as a great Rock & Roll band and not just a silly novelty act of a bitchy, weird, sissy-boy lead singer.
2. There Is a Light That Never Goes Out (1986, The Queen Is Dead)
In many ways The Smiths’ defining song, of course beginning with Johnny Marr’s brilliantly layered guitars, but also because Morrissey’s lyrics—sad, ironic, wistful, tragic, and yet beautiful—convey everything that made him a brilliant voice of his generation. He manages to sound sincere and not the least bit cheesy or phony. He was who he claimed he was, a mad genius trapped in the walls of his angst and frustration at dealing with the humanity around him. On this album the band figured out what made them great and finally produced a recording worthy of their greatness. Is it any wonder most critics call this the best album of the 1980s? And most fans agree? This just sounds perfect. I cannot describe how many late nights in 1986 I listened to The Queen is Dead over and over. It’s one of my favorite albums in my long life of music fandom, right up there with London Calling by The Clash, Remain in the Light by Talking Heads The Bends and OK Computer by Radiohead, Doolittle by Pixies, Nevermind by Nirvana, Murmur by R.E.M., and of course the greatest: Pet Sounds, Sergeant Peppers, Let it Bleed, Ziggy Stardust, Paranoid, Who’s Next, Physical Graffiti, and Dark Side of the Moon.
1. Well I Wonder (1985, Meat Is Murder)
Oh my fucking god. What a song! In the fall of 1985 I split with a girl I adored but didn’t really love, and immediately began missing her when I saw her with another guy I considered a huge step down from me, so I felt sad for her and even sadder for me as I missed her but could never admit it to her—or even me for that matter. And then I heard this fucking song and it penetrated my cold exterior into my heart like a searing hot dagger made of a welding high-intensity arc used to cut titanium. Oh, Stephen, you created the ultimate depressing, mope-friendly, hide-from-humanity classic. Jesus, has ever a song evoked such heartache like this? “Gasping, dying, but somehow still alive, this is the final stand of all I am.” Fucking hell, that’s brilliant. Everything about this song is great, from the sublime guitars to the slow, rolling feel as the tune wanders through that rainstorm and Stephen bleeds out his heart with such earnest candor. This, my friends, is all the proof you need of this band’s true greatness. This is a magical song, sad, yes, but sadness is an integral part of human feeling. Morrissey spent much time in the dark pondering his own sadness, then penned this classic song for all of us to view his dark psychological depth along with him. Love him or hate him, he had a gift. Hand this to Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, or some Country star, and it’s a pop hit these days.