I've had The Smiths on my brain a lot over the last couple of days after reading an interview with the author of a recent book about them, which got me thinking about which album of theirs I like the best. I've always thought of The Smiths as more of a songs, rather than album band, but I do think that Meat is Murder is the one album of theirs I spin the most. In any case, I decided that it's been too long since I put together a list, and thought that a top five Smiths list would generate some debate (proprietor of the WCFC, I'm looking at you.) These five are entirely subjective, of course.
1. "How Soon is Now?"
This is the song that made me a believer, and it still holds up today. My fifteen-year old ears perked up when I heard the wall of reverby guitars, and when Morrissey intoned "I am the son and heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar" I felt as if there was someone out there who understood me. Johnny Marr's Dopler-effect guitars over the trance-like rhythm track still have the power to move my soul. I still vividly remember one time I listened to this song as I drove south on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago on a clear summer morning, the sun rising gloriously above Lake Michigan, its golden light reflecting off of the buildings to my right, with the ethereal sounds of this song on my stereo. I may have been alone, but I did not want to go home and cry and want to die.
2. "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore"
This song is so fraught with personal meaning that it can be rather difficult to listen to, as much as I love it. An old, dear friend and I would always put this on the jukebox and sing along on nights out at the bar in Chicago. We would always giggle a little bit at the way Morrissey sang "Time's tide will smother you, and I will too," delivering the second line in a kind of sinister falsetto. Whenever I hear this song, I am reminded of her, but the memories bite a little. We had a severe falling out about three years ago, and haven't spoken to each other since. As the man says, I've this happen in other people's lives, now it's happening in mine.
3. "Half a Person"
When I first really delved into The Smiths as a teenager, they were a voice of understanding in a cruel and difficult adolescent world. I was not conventionally masculine or confident, and I combined these deficiencies with an anti-social streak a mile wide. You can probably guess that I didn't have any girlfriends, and that was certainly true. However, I was a bit of a cracked romantic, and developed insanely intense crushes on girls well out of my league. This simple song told by a "sixteen clumsy and shy" narrator spoke to me like nothing else.
4. "Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before"
Apart from Keith Richards and Chuck Berry, Johnny Marr has constructed more classic riffs than any other rock guitarist. This song might have the best riff of them all, subtle yet undeniable. Unlike a lot of other guitarists who are more fetishized, he serves the song rather than reeling off solos. It's also got one of Morrissey's best quips, "I crashed down on the crossbar, and the pain was enough to make a shy bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder."
5. "The Queen is Dead"
The Smiths were too understated and smart to rock out in the overt ways of other great indie bands of the time like The Minutemen and The Replacements. They get pretty damn close with this song, however, with its punishing drums and jagged chords from Marr that sound positively violent. It's all a great bed for Morrissey's denunciation of life in Thatcher's Britain, taunts lobbed at Prince Charles and the rest of the aristocracy, and a warning to the working class about the "pub who wrecks your body and the church who takes your money." Unlike most Smiths songs, it goes well beyond three minutes, an extended explosion of anger, disappointment, and class resentment. In an increasingly hierarchical and technocratic America, we need more songs like this.