I know I'm taking a huge risk by even attempting a list like this, but sometimes an '80s music guide has to do what an '80s music guide should have done months before. After all, it's safe to say that fans of the Smiths, Britain's premier indie rock band of the decade and one of alternative music's most influential acts, are about as rabid as they come when it comes to the group's sanctity. So for my list, presented in the most accurate chronological order that I could discern, I've tried to capture the finest tunes from one of pop music's most consistently brilliant catalogues of guitar-based emotional poetry.
Even for uninitiated admirers of the Smiths like myself - who gravitated more often as a teen to melodic mainstream rock - this 1983 single has always served as a prime example of the mesmerizing intensity of the Smiths. The left-field combination of Johnny Marr's chiming guitar melodies with Morrissey's aching lyrics, dramatic croon and flamboyant performance style ensured that no other band of the mid-'80s would sound much like the Smiths. This track became the group's first charting U.K. hit and through its ambiguous but gripping tale of a conflicted and cautious same-sex encounter with a stranger, it presents a signature lyric that exemplifies the band's haunting appeal: "I would go out tonight, but I haven't got a stitch to wear."
This track does such a searing job of capturing romantic longing that the late John Hughes - a music fanatic and tastemaker of the '80s through his films - employed the song not once but twice. Marr's guitar work here commands most of the attention, as his precision expertly drives the song's achingly deliberate rhythm. But it's not like Morrissey's spare lyrics recede into the background in any way, as once again he makes brooding self-pity feel well-earned and warranted instead of just like the complaints of any random drama queen. If the "less is more" philosophy has ever been used more effectively in pop music to communicate life-gripping despair, I certainly can't come up with an example. "Lord knows, it would be the first time..."
This jaunty tune showcases the keen ability of Marr and Morrissey to make music worthy of the intense sinking feeling reserved for only the most genuine, sobbing depression. Its melodic beauty holds a fierce power made even more piercing by the spare but breathtaking lyric that stands as one of the most affectingly accurate portraits of despair in all of pop music. For anyone who's ever been "happy in the haze of a drunken hour" and clung to the moment in a futile attempt to ward off the inevitable creeping dread of sobriety, this tune probes at an open wound in the soul. Perhaps there's no badge of honor that comes from identifying with Morrissey's uncanny grasp of psychological paralysis, but there is an enormous amount of truth there.
Almost everything about the Smiths' best music is tied inextricably to a sense of longing so extreme that it's painful, and although Morrissey's lyrics and romantic vocal delivery of them contribute most to that impression, Marr's ringing, sometimes peppy guitars serve as a fascinating foil. No wonder so many teens - albeit the unusually contemplative ones - identified so desperately with Morrissey's ambiguous but moving meditations on love: his work so often encapsulates the "you-just-don't-understand" feeling that makes it so difficult to explain one's feelings during adolescence. Beautiful, painful and mysterious, this song deftly details the kind of underlying anguish that perhaps never goes away once you recognize its presence.
Perhaps no band within the early alternative rock scene could sound as simultaneously buoyant and menacing as the Smiths, thanks to Morrissey's haunting croon and cockeyed lyrical anger paired with Marr's lively chord progressions. The opening lines to this track - "Sweetness, sweetness, I was only joking when I said I'd like to smash every tooth in your head" - comes on like a serial killer in the best possible way of which music is capable. Complete with chilling high-pitched vocals from Morrissey himself, the song plumbs typical Smiths depths of the human psyche, all the way from self-hatred to self-martyrdom and back. Comparisons to Joan of Arc notwithstanding, Morrissey demonstrates a complex self-evaluation unmatched in pop music.
This is one of the most beautiful songs of the '80s, an intensely personal declaration of desperate love that so perfectly fits the quintessential teen love affair prototype: I would die for you and be truly happy doing so. The blend of Marr's lovely verse melodies with the simply stated but incalculable emotion of Morrissey's lyrics is nothing short of exquisite. In truth, I'm not sure if uncontrolled devotion that requires the participation of body, soul and spirit can be expressed any better than this: "Driving in your car, I never never want to go home, Because I haven't got one anymore." Or a modern perfection of Romeo and Juliet: "And if a double-decker bus crashes into us, To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die." Wow.
Several years before Kurt Cobain seemed to become the musical mouthpiece for alienated youth, Morrissey was already a veteran lyricist with a keen understanding of the explosive potential of revolution in the face of a crumbling civilization. Detractors can certainly say they never enjoyed the singer's foppish, hands-on-his-hips gyrations on stage or his stylized, singular vocal approach, but I don't understand how anyone can argue that during the Smiths' brief but powerful reign atop British guitar pop that Morrissey did not churn out unbelievably dense yet concise lyrics. Just don't forget who got there first: "My only weakness is... well, never mind, never mind." Take that, Kurt - Morrissey was "bored before he even began." Match that.
This 1987 single works incredibly well as an operatic, unflinchingly direct gothic masterpiece. It really has no excuse to be this compelling given its heart-on-the-outside take on the claustrophobic vulnerability only possible among a certain cross section of the young. The opening line - "Girlfriend in a coma, I know, I know, it's serious" - possesses a classic yet utterly novel intensity that could almost be misconstrued as flippancy. Still, the plaintive quality of both Marr's intricate musical composition and Morrissey's refrain "Do you really think she'll pull through?" has few peers in guitar-based rock of the era, especially when you consider that this little ditty clocks in at a very tidy two minutes.