On the heels of my Radiohead list, PopMatters is having me rank the best songs by The Smiths. If I feared the internet’s wrath at the Radiohead rankings, I’m truly quaking in my boots now — the cult of Smithsdom does not mess around. As before, I’m rounding out the list here at OYL with those songs that didn’t make the cut for PopMatters. Check back soon for a link to the rest of the list as soon as it’s published!
20. “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” – Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)
Strangeways sees Morrissey exploring narrative more than ever before in his lyrics, shying away from the open diary techniques that brought him the undying love of thousands of teenagers around the world. “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” sounds like it could be about a doomed relationship at first listen, but the track seems to be getting at something else entirely. Male aggression, the relationship between violence and regret—they’re here, but you might not suspect such weight when it comes delivered through Morrissey’s restrained, lilting melody.
19. “Rubber Ring” – “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” 12” (1985)
“Rubber Ring” has much more edge to it than its more famous counterpart, “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side”. Both songs speak of a young person’s unrequited love, but “Rubber Ring” hits with contempt instead of “Boy’s” gentle melancholy. “You’re clever,” Morrissey sings over a skittering rhythm section, “Everybody’s clever nowadays.” It doesn’t sound like a compliment.
18. “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” – “William, It Was Really Nothing” 7” (1984)
Another example of a Smiths B-side being leagues above most band’s A-side material, “Please, Please, Please” gives equal thrift to Morrissey’s talent with the pen and Marr’s ear for orchestration. Moz keeps things just vague enough to be universal, while Marr experiments with layers of sound over the backdrop of his acoustic guitar. Often covered, never bested.
17. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” – Meat Is Murder (1985)
One of the bleakest songs in The Smiths’ repertoire, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” blends high-wire misanthropy (even for Morrissey) with restrained balladry to great effect. Renowned for his one-liners, Morrissey sounds ready to give up that game: “When you laugh about people who feel so / Very lonely, / Their only desire is to die, / Well, I’m afraid / It doesn’t make me smile, / I wish I could laugh, / But that joke isn’t funny anymore, / It’s too close to home, / And it’s too near the bone.” There’s some real grief behind the narrative here, and it’s not difficult to feel.
16. “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” – Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)
Did Morrissey lie, after all? “Stop Me” leaves things ambiguous, and it’s more affecting for doing so. The band show its tendencies toward rock over pop—something that’s all over Strangeways—and Marr even indulges in a guitar solo (!). Regretful, perhaps, but anthemic for sure.
15. “I Want the One I Can’t Have” – Meat Is Murder (1985)
The title gives a name to the types of stories Morrissey tells best (and often), and this track sees him in top form. The chorus could come right out of a Norton anthology of British poetry: “A double-bed / And a stalwart lover, for sure: / These are the riches of the poor.” Almost the entirety of The Smiths’ manifesto, condensed into three minutes.
14. “Girlfriend in a Coma” – Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)
Funny, sad, sad, funny. You can laugh along with Moz during the verses, but you just might get a little choked up when those strings come in. The tone can be hard to pin down, but “Girlfriend in a Coma” is beautiful, straight through.