The Smiths' 20 Best Songs: Critic's Picks

Johnny Marr and Morrissey from The Smiths pose under the branches of a willow tree in London in 1983.
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Johnny Marr and Morrissey from The Smiths pose under the branches of a willow tree in London in 1983. 

There aren't many casual fans of The Smiths. The ostentatiously literate, willfully morose British outfit from the '80s tends to elicit either cultish adoration or sneering distaste from listeners. For the former camp, the Smiths are as much a worldview as they are a band. As such, their lyrics – full of rapier-sharp witticisms and droll observations – are almost like The Simpsons quotes of alternative culture, frequently cropping up in other works and even serving as a sort of social signifier. For instance, two Beatles superfans may find out they have little else in common. But if you meet another Smiths superfan, chances are you two have a lot to talk about.

All that aside, The Smiths created one of the greatest bodies of work in rock history. Below are our picks for the 20 best Smiths songs of all time. Yes, a number of iconic favorites didn't quite make the cut, but when you're talking about the best Smiths songs, that's a pretty damn long list. These are our selections for the 20 greatest from MorrisseyJohnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce.

20. The Smiths – "Handsome Devil"

"Let me get my hands / on your mammary glands" isn't exactly romance, but when Morrissey sneers it over the hard-charging punk attack of "Handsome Devi?l," you're at least caught off guard enough to consider the proposal for a moment (Important reminder: Men have mammary glands, too). As evidenced during BBC sessions and live performances, the Smiths had more bite than their studio recordings would lead you to believe. This song – taken from a 1983 John Peel BBC session, appearing only on the compilation Hatful of Hollow – makes the case that the Smiths could have existed successfully as a vicious punk outfit if their emotional palette wasn't quite so expansive.

19. The Smiths – "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want"

If you couldn't tell from the opening line ("Good times, for a change") this is one of the saddest Smiths songs – and that's saying something. But the softness of the guitar work, the song's brief runtime and the chorus' painfully honest, near-naïve plea – "Please, please, please, let me get what I want / Lord knows it would be the first time" – save it from falling into a self-pitying abyss. Instead, it's almost a rallying cry for disaffected souls – not to mention a lyrical and emotional counterpoint to the next song on this list.

18. The Smiths – "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby"

Morrissey can be mean, but sometimes you need mean to wise up when you're growing up. "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby" is tough lesson about life's disappointments delivered with a sassy insouciance. In many Smiths songs, the world is to blame; in this one, you're to blame if you're expecting anything to ever be easy.

17. The Smiths – "Girlfriend In a Coma"

Dark subject matter addressed in an incongruously light manner is a hallmark of British humor, and "Girlfriend In a Coma" is the Smiths' finest contribution to that grand tradition. Regal strings and a bouncy bass line float by as Morrissey casually opines how easy it would be to kill his comatose girlfriend, even though he would "hate anything to happen to her."

16. The Smiths – "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore"

A melancholy reverie that builds to a hypnotic conclusion, "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" is breathtaking in its structural scope, with spiraling guitars and lonely atmospherics creating a sort of dumbfounded despair about…what? Morrissey's vocals are emotionally direct, but the lyrics are general enough that you can apply the song's sentiment to any number of personal misfortunes and get lost in a bout of pensive bliss. 

 15. The Smiths – "Half a Person"

More than half of the population could claim "sixteen, clumsy and shy" as a apt descriptor of their sophomore year of high school, but Morrissey demonstrates his flair for half-sincere, half-smirking lyrical genius by preceding it with the following: "If you have five seconds to spare, I'll tell you the story of my life." Musically, "Half a Person" is less about emphasizing and more about empathy – more conciliatory than melancholy, the lovely guitar work seems to reach out and gently comfort the singer's bleak perspective.

14. The Smiths – "Panic"                 

For a song railing against pop radio pabulum, the Smiths' punchy, sing-song single "Panic" certainly sounds like it was created with Top of the Pops in mind. One of the band's most accessible entry points, "Panic" probably would have been a bigger hit in the '80s if not for its uncompromising lyrics: "Burn down the disco / Hang the blessed DJ / Because the music that they constantly play / It says nothing to me about my life." Still, it reached No. 11 in Britain.

13. The Smiths – "William, It Was Really Nothing"

With bright, clanging guitar tones ringing out in front of furious acoustic strumming, "William, It Was Really Nothing" is probably the happiest-sounding disavowal of marriage vows in musical history, with Moz sketching a quick picture of marriage as something that, at best, brings you down; at worst, it empties your life of meaning. "I don't dream about anyone except myself," he defiantly states on the second and final verse.

12. The Smiths – "This Night Has Opened My Eyes"

Inspired by the social ills-focused drama A Taste of Honey from Slelagh Delaney, "This Night Has Opened My Eyes" proves the Smiths don't just have sad songs about personal depression – they have sad songs about other people's shitty lives, too. Marr's guitar is drenched in melancholy, while Morrissey bluntly appraises harsh realities: "The dream has gone / But the baby is real."

11. The Smiths – "What Difference Does It Make?"

Smiths riffs don't typically qualify as 'muscular,' but "What Difference Does It Make?" is one of the band's most dynamic tracks, from the angular first notes to Morrissey's final falsetto banshee wail. The devil will find work for idle hands to do, but Marr is certainly safe on this one.

10. The Smiths – "The Queen Is Dead"

Yes, the Smiths can kick ass. Exhibit A: The moment the heady rush of pummeling drums, vertiginous guitars and breathlessly delivered vocals kick off "The Queen Is Dead." (Exhibit B? Listen to the snarling live version on Rank.) And for as endlessly quoted as the Smiths are, this song boasts one of their most underappreciated couplets: "Passed the pub that wrecks your body / And the church, all they want is your money."

9. The Smiths – "Hand In Glove"

One of the most perfect opening salvos in any band's catalog, the Smiths' debut single "Hand In Glove" brilliantly introduced the world to Johnny Marr's marriage between punk energy and Byrds jangle, and established Morrissey as the double-threat frontman rock n' roll never knew it needed: A man with the languorous, emotive vocals of Edith Piaf and the pointed wit of Oscar Wilde.

8. The Smiths – "The Headmaster Ritual"                      

Kicking off the band's underrated Meat Is Murder LP (which is a classic, despite dismissive reviews fueled by distaste for militant vegetarianism), "The Headmaster Ritual" pairs some of the band's most intricate, propulsive guitar work with Moz's elegant, ethereal "da-da-da" ad-libs. And man, you thought Pink Floyd hated the British school system? If Roger Waters tackled teachers with the subtlety of a bulldozer, Moz one-ups him like a wrecking ball, swinging freely and gleefully through the air while railing against "spineless swines [and] cemented minds."

7. The Smiths –  "Cemetery Gates"

As any disaffected, artistically inclined teen can testify, finding your own thoughts and passions mirrored by intellectual greats from the past is a nice ego boost to counter that perpetual self-doubt and flagellation. And sometimes, if you're feeling saucy, you just might pass off those witticisms and insights as your own in casual conversation. Buoyed by one of Marr's most uplifting riffs, Moz addresses the folly of plagiarism and our rather ridiculous tendency to use literary giants as personal avatars with one of his best lines: "Keats and Yeats are on your side / But you lose / 'Cause weird lover Wilde is on mine."

6. The Smiths – "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out"

It's hard for Morrissey to just say "I love you," and we're all better off for it. "If a double-decker bus crashes into us / To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die" may be the most beautifully morose romantic sentiment ever expressed, and Morrissey's delivery is among the most convincing he's ever put to tape. Marr meets Morrissey's oblique declaration of affection with one of the band's gentlest riffs and superbly restrained strings.

5. The Smiths – "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now"

Just because you're depressed doesn't mean you can't have panache. This is the Smiths at their melancholic best, evoking and addressing ennui without romanticizing it or succumbing to a sense of hopelessness. It also features some of their most relatable lyrics ("I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour / But heaven knows I'm miserable now") and some of their best life advice in the form of a rhetorical question, augmented by peerless falsetto: "In my life, why do I give valuable time / To people who don't care if I live or die?"

4. The Smiths – "This Charming Man"

"This Charming Man" is a perfect point of entry for the nascent Smiths fan: Marr's ringing guitar hops and bops atop a jaunty bass line (the song's instrumental MVP) while Morrissey casually tosses out lyrics 19th century poets would trade a year's supply of quills for. "Punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate / Will nature make a man of me yet?" is a couplet for the ages, and the chorus is winking tribute to cat-and-mouse same-sex flirtation that never passes the line of British propriety: "I would go out tonight / But I haven't got a stitch to wear / This man said, 'It's gruesome / that someone so handsome should care.'"

3. The Smiths – "Ask"

Has Morrissey ever sounded so friendly, before or since? Sure, he barks the titular word like a battle cry on the Rank live version, but "Ask" remains one of the nicest songs in the Smiths catalog both musically and lyrically, with a sprightly guitar riff and shuffling handclap beat complementing Moz's gentle invitation for the listener to come out of their shell. "Ask" also contains one of the most famous of all Smiths lyrics, "If it's not love, it's the bomb (x6) that will bring us together," which provides a sardonic, cynical counterpoint to the overall congenial anthem. As immortal as the "bomb" line is, the best lyric may the one that follows: "Nature is a language – can't you read?"

2. The Smiths – "Bigmouth Strikes Again"

It's a tough trick to make yourself a pitiable figure after threatening to knock someone's teeth out or bludgeoning them while they sleep, but Irascible Moz has always been irresistible to Smiths' fans. The operatic, cheeky "ha-ha-ha"s help smooth things over while Marr furiously strums the acoustic guitar as if jangle rock is the new punk. Plus, "Bigmouth" boasts the most charming/alarming cry-for-help lyric in all of rock: "I've got no right to take my place with the human race."

1. The Smiths - "How Soon Is Now?"

When the Smiths ventured out of their comfort zone, the results could be dicey (see: "Golden Lights," "Draize Train"). But even with "How Soon Is Now" qualifying as the most un-Smiths Smiths single, it's the crown jewel of their catalog. Marr's vibrato guitar -- the product of painstaking studio manipulation -- is the sonic equivalent of looking directly into the sun while experiencing a bout of vertigo. The nearly seven-minute track is a blissful coma induced by guitar tremolo and a relentlessly simple drumbeat, with the usually verbose Morrissey deftly weaving in and out of the song to drop bon mots that occupy the sliver of shared space in the Victorian literature/existential philosophy Venn diagram.