The 10 Best Smiths Songs

The 10 Best Smiths Songs

It’s hard to believe that the Smiths were only together for five years. In addition to four studio albums, they have a handful of compilations, a live LP, and a session with John Peel. The Manchester outcasts are known as one of the most influential groups, yet their specific sound has rarely been replicated; ’90s groups like the Sundays, the La’s, and Belle And Sebastian definitely came close, along with early 2000s act Voxtrot, but otherwise resemblances are quite vague. They’re also credited with inspiring the Britpop movement. Blur formed after watching the Smiths on The South Bank Show in 1987; Oasis, the Stone Roses, and Suede reportedly drew heavily from the Smiths as well, though similarities are hard to detect. What genre are the Smiths? Depends on who you ask. Jangle pop. British alternative. Mope rock.

In 1982, the Smiths formed in Manchester, a few years after Steven Patrick Morrissey and Johnny Marr met at a Patti Smith gig as teenagers. Mike Joyce was welcomed as the drummer after an audition, during which he was on magic mushrooms. At first, the band went through a couple of bassists, one of whom allegedly complained about the “gay” aesthetic of their first performance (though he denied he ever said that), before Andy Rourke joined.

At the Smiths’ second show, John Walters, the producer of John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show, was in the audience. He invited them onto the program. “You couldn’t immediately tell what records they’d been listening to. That’s fairly unusual, very rare indeed… It was that aspect of the Smiths that I found most impressive,” Peel said. They signed to Rough Trade, and the following year their debut LP The Smiths reached #2 on the UK Albums Chart. Its follow-up, next year’s Meat Is Murder, achieved #1.

But things were messy. Rourke was replaced by Craig Gannon shortly before the 1986 release of The Queen Is Dead due to his heroin addiction, then both of them ended up remaining in the band with Gannon on rhythm guitar. Then, Rourke was arrested for drug possession charges. There were legal disputes with Rough Trade and dissatisfied feelings toward their American label Sire Records; at one point, Marr told NME about touring that he “was just drinking more than I could handle.” The following year, they shared their final album Strangeways, Here We Come and they disbanded. Only a couple of years later, Rourke and Joyce sued Morrissey and Marr over royalties. Rourke passed away last year, and Morrissey and Marr still publicly fight. In 2022, Marr said there’s zero chance he’ll ever work with Morrissey again; just a few months ago, Morrissey lamented that he was being erased from the Smiths’ history. The never-ending bickering has a certain charm to it.

It’s also easy to believe that the Smiths were only together for five years. The magic of the Smiths is much like the magic of life — they were special because they were ephemeral. Their chemistry was undeniable, the stars were aligned, if only for a blip in time. They still stand as a one-of-a-kind band whose reach is always expanding. Take the iconic scene in the 2009 film 500 Days Of Summer, in which the Smiths spark a meet-cute in an elevator and serve as a point of understanding between two strangers (I had my own 500 Days Of Summer moment a couple of years ago, when I was in a hotel elevator holding my Hatful Of Hollow tote bag and the man standing across from me pointed to it and said, “I love the Smiths.” We talked about our experiences seeing Morrissey before parting ways; we did not fall in love but it was a beautiful moment I’d like to think he sometimes reminisces fondly on).

In addition, take the TikTok trends of teens and twentysomethings relating to the lyrics “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job/ And heaven knows I’m miserable now,” from “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” which was released 40 years ago today and possesses more cultural importance than ever before. No matter how much the world is changing, there will always be outsiders who turn to the Smiths for comfort and never turn away. Like many Manchester groups, the Smiths were trying to capture the gloom of the famously rainy city, but ultimately struck a chord with anyone anywhere who felt the turmoil of the human experience.

When I was 16 and got hooked on the Smiths, I was exclusively into emo music. My favorite band at the time was Brand New, whose song “Mixtape” goes, “And I’m sick of your tattoos/ And the way you always criticize the Smiths/ and Morrissey.” Emo revival torchbearers Citizen have an acoustic rendition of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” In the ’90s Braid covered both that song and “This Charming Man.” The correlation between the Smiths and emo makes sense, but their legacy extends far beyond that scene. The Smiths have been cited as an inspiration for so many artists from so many genres. Tons of heavy bands refer to the Smiths as an influence, though you’d never guess it from their sound. Deftones have a famous cover of “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.” In 2003, Outkast’s André 3000 said, “I personally wish I would have written that Smiths song ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.’ Genius song.” Even Kid Rock sampled “How Soon Is Now?” in his 1993 song “Back From The Dead.” The mix of cleverness, urgency, and poignancy found in the Smiths’ songs is something, I think, most artists aspire to create themselves.

In a 2021 interview, Marr told us, “No one had to tell us to raise the bar. No one had to tell us to make something more intense. No one had to warn us to take our foot off the gas. We were kind of already a couple steps ahead of everyone. Trying to be one step ahead of ourselves all the time.” At a certain point, the flame burns out. But that doesn’t take away from how bright it had been. Here’s a list of their best 10 songs.


"Unloveable" (from Louder Than Bombs, 1987)

The Smiths’ discography abounds with beautiful ballads. There’s the aching “I Know It’s Over” off The Queen Is Dead; there’s the sweeping “Asleep,” which was fittingly featured on the soundtrack for The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, a movie centered on the struggle of adolescence. “Unloveable” is subdued, self-deprecation reaching its apex as Morrissey sings of the humiliation of rejection and loneliness. Quite possibly the most melodramatic moment in their discography, “Unloveable” is full of the most emo lines you’ll ever hear: “I know I’m unloveable/ You don’t have to tell me/ For message received/ Loud and clear,” Morrissey sighs, and you get the sense he’s not even getting rejected by someone else, he’s just doing this to himself. Love, in Smiths songs, is always entangled with insecurity; “I don’t have much in my life/ But take it, it’s yours,” he sings, his desire indistinguishable from desperation and self-loathing.

The guitars follow Morrissey’s lead, letting him take the spotlight as he establishes his malaise in his resigned lulls: “I wear black on the outside/ ’Cause black is how I feel on the inside,” he sings at one point, then later proclaiming: “And if I seem a little strange/ Well, that’s because I am.” Of course, only Morrissey can get away with these lyrics, because he’s Morrissey. However, he perks up at the end in a twist that reveals a glimmer of hope, seemingly out of nowhere: “But I know that you would like me/ If only you could see me/ If only you could meet me.” The instruments pick up, bringing the song into a louder place and it floats and fades out while Morrissey vocalizes vaguely, as he often does, closing out a beautiful indulgence into woefulness.


"Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” (from Hatful Of Hollow, 1984)

“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” bursts with their signature playful misanthropy. The title was inspired by Sandie Shaw’s 1969 single “Heaven Knows I’m Missing Him Now” — an example of Morrissey’s ability to not just see misery anywhere but unlock deeper levels of sadness where it already prevails. “In my life/ Why do I smile/ At people who I’d much rather kick in the eye?” he croons. “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” is a laid-back, laconic song about the unpleasant experience of everyday life. Really, what else must be said: “Two lovers entwined pass me by/ And heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” is the ennui anthem. It dares to question the conventions of adulthood — why must we have jobs? Why must we dedicate time to people who don’t care if we live or die? Why must we kindly smile at people we’d rather spit at? Morrissey is the voice for every grownup that still feels like a child inside, and the innocence reverberates through the jangly guitars.


“Nowhere Fast” (from Meat Is Murder, 1985)

Meat Is Murder incorporated influence from rockabilly, which can be heard on this energetic, twangy supernova. It serves as big middle finger to the establishment, predicting the following album The Queen Is Dead as Morrissey croons: “I’d like to drop my trousers to the queen/ Every sensible child will know what this means.” The amazing rhyme is chased by the striking insight: “The poor and the needy/ Are selfish and greedy on her terms.”

In its two and a half minutes, it not only expresses this political frustration, but also existential dread. It has some of the best lines Morrissey has ever written: “And when I’m lying in my bed/ I think about life and I think about death/ And neither one particularly appeals to me.” “Nowhere Fast” is an encapsulation of feeling lost in your own country, as well as in the whole world.

Considering the Smiths are an extremely UK band, this western sound is jarring. But it’s another way for the Smiths to convey this sensation of being an outlaw, an exile. On “Nowhere Fast,” Morrissey only turns to death and nature as places of solace, lamenting the noises of trains rumbling by and wishing to jump in the ocean. He ends the song with the declaration: “And if the day came when I felt a natural emotion/ I’d get such a shock I’d probably lie/ In the middle of the street and die/ I’d lie down and die.” After growing up in the post-industrial dystopia of Manchester, he’s doomed to a life of numbness — so much so that he thinks he’d die if ever struck with real feeling. Meanwhile, the guitars are strummed with abandon, like a runaway train derailing off its tracks.


“Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before” (from Strangeways, Here We Come, 1987)

How else to describe “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” but as a banger? Sitting in the middle of Strangeways, Here We Come, the song is an adrenaline rush, a three-and-a-half minute party. It was their last single ever, and it takes the opportunity to be as decadent as possible: “And so I drank one/ It became four/ And when I fell on the floor I drank more,” Morrissey sings mischievously against buoyant guitars.

I’m not exactly sure what’s going on in this song, but whatever’s happening, it’s urgent: “I smelt the last 10 seconds of life,” Morrissey sings, while giving a fast-paced spiel that contains the words “mass murder” lilted with such a playful cadence he makes them sound as sweet as candy, which led to the BBC refusing to play the song due to the recent Hungerford massacre. The hook is a biting backhanded compliment, which Morrissey is the master of: “I still love you, oh, I still love you/ Only slightly, only slightly less than I used to, my love” (I mean, ouch). The anthem ends with a victorious, electrifying guitar solo. Marr said he “wanted it to sound like a punk player who couldn’t play, so I fingered it on one string, right up and down the neck. I could have played it with harmonics or my teeth, or something clever, but the poignancy would have gone out of the melody.” “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” is plain and simple fun.


“Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” (from Hatful Of Hollow, 1984)

Morrissey aptly described “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” as “a very brief punch in the face.” It’s hard to even notice the brevity of the ballad considering how much emotion is contained within it; every second has movement as Morrissey begs with a dejected, earnest lull. Marr wrote the music in waltz time signature after writing the upbeat “William, It Was Really Nothing.” It was on the soundtrack for 1986 film Pretty In Pink as well as in 1999’s Never Been Kissed. The Dream Academy covered the song in 1985, and an instrumental version was used in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

This is all to say that “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” is a very cinematic song. Marr had said he aimed to capture a “spookiness and sense of yearning,” and that’s exactly what the music does. The strumming of the guitars is simultaneously delicate and powerful. Though Morrissey’s words are lugubrious, the guitars ascend into a gorgeous, transcendent finale after he’s sung the last lines: “So for once in my life/ Let me get what I want/ Lord knows, it would be the first time.” Though Morrissey can often veer into a silly attitude, “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” is pure melancholy, a startling scene of sincerity.


“These Things Take Time” (from Hatful Of Hollow, 1984)

Sometimes the Smiths went hard and leaned into rock. “These Things Take Time” is driven by fast, forceful guitars, Morrissey’s vocals emphatic and determined (almost sassy, which he gets sometimes) as he narrates a relationship gone awry: “But I can’t believe that you’d ever care/ And this is why you will never care.”

“These Things Take Time” is a visceral, poignant portrait of a breakup: “Oh, the alcoholic afternoons/ When we sat in your room/ They meant more to me than any/ Than any living thing on earth.” At two and a half minutes, it’s a dynamic blip of the fury that follows the demise of love. Wistfulness and self-pity are woven in with anger brilliantly. It’s an absolutely underrated moment in the Smiths’ oeuvre; other great flashes of aggression are “Handsome Devil” and “What Difference Does It Make?,” but “These Things Take Time” utilizes it best, serving an infectious rager about heartache.


“How Soon Is Now?” (from Hatful Of Hollow, 1984)

While recording “How Soon Is Now?,” one of the most famous B-sides in music history, the Smiths replaced the studio’s light bulbs with red ones for ambience. They were smoking weed “from when we got out of bed to when we got back to bed,” according to producer John Porter. The demo was originally titled “Swamp,” because the first takes were done with microphones set up at varying distances to evoke a “swampy” mood. Porter and Marr added a tremolo effect to the guitar — also known as the underwater effect — which is the syncopated, hallucinatory sound that makes “How Soon Is Now?” instantly recognizable.

The result is a song that is like a tidal wave. It is an outlier in the Smiths’ repertoire, but the risk paid off. The song was a different vessel through which Morrissey expressed his typical themes of alienation and desperation, but it feels more monumental. “I am human and I need to be loved/ Just like everybody else does,” he sings, making it sound more like a demand. The watery texture of “How Soon Is Now?” heightens this feeling of distance and otherness. If they put out more music like this, this track may not have endured the way it has; it’s one-of-a-kind.


“This Charming Man” (from The Smiths, 1983)

If this is your introduction to the Smiths, it’s probably jarring. The stereotype of the Smiths is that they’re music for crying, they’re songs for wallowing in your sadness and your loneliness, they’re mope rock. Yet “This Charming Man” — which was only their second song — is jovial, buoyed by a flamboyant bassline and Morrissey’s colorful croons and occasional playful shrieks. You probably have no clue what he’s saying either, because his vocals are so melodramatic and his lyrics are incredibly weird; the first two words of the song are “Punctured bicycle.” I’ve listened to the song a million times and never knew that was what he was saying.

His phrases almost come across as riddles: “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.’” But his words fit perfectly within the warm atmosphere of jangly guitar chords and quick drumming, which all build into a beautiful outro. Though it’s sonically upbeat, the meaning is bittersweet; an impoverished boy encounters a wealthy, “charming” man, who picks him up in his car: “Why pamper life’s complexity/ When the leather runs smooth/ On the passenger seat?” It’s an exploration of lust complicated by class and gender.

“I really like the idea of the male voice being quite vulnerable,” Morrissey said of the song, “of it being taken and slightly manipulated, rather than there being always this heavy machismo thing that just bores everybody.” This quote also applies to his own vocal delivery — the way his voice wavers and embarks onto an intense falsetto, sometimes bordering on yodeling.

When the Smiths appeared on Top Of The Pops to promote “This Charming Man,” Morrissey was less devoted to lip-syncing than he was to swinging around a bunch of large flowers, his shirt unbuttoned, his hair high and swoopy like Elvis’, beaded necklaces draped over his neck. Though a lot of Smiths songs are weighed down by bleaker sounds, this one is pure celebration, a radical moment of dancing rather than suffering.


“Still Ill” (from The Smiths, 1983)

Later, in their Peel Session, the Smiths added a harmonica to the intro of “Still Ill,” a bizarre choice. The original airy intro to “Still Ill” is pleasurable, leaving space for anticipation for Morrissey’s assertions against the most mesmeric guitar chords you’ve ever heard. One second Morrissey is threatening to spit in your eye; in the next, he’s contemplating, “Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?” and before he can come off as pretentious for throwing such a broad philosophical question in the air, he surrenders any sense of authority, admitting, “I don’t know.”

Wistfulness is a large part of the beauty of “Still Ill” — Morrissey’s demoralization with the present and pining after the past as he sings, “It just wasn’t like the old days anymore/ No, it wasn’t like those days.” He sings again of dying, of not going to work, of grasping for happiness: “For there are brighter sides to life/ And I should know because I’ve seen them/ But not very often.”

The great lyrics “Under the iron bridge we kissed/ And although I ended up with sore lips” are pulled directly from Viv Nicholson’s autobiography; it’s hard to imagine those words as originally printed on paper, considering how well they serve as lyrics with a melody set to music. Its slant rhyme and combination of romance and pain make it sound as if it came straight from Morrissey’s pen.

“Still Ill” intertwines feelings of disillusionment with both love and politics, but its brilliant one-liners can make the song about anything. “But we cannot cling to the old dreams anymore,” Morrissey declares in the beginning, his use of “we” bringing the listener even deeper into this world.


“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” (from The Queen Is Dead, 1986)

“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” is just it. Whereas many of the tracks on the concept-focused The Queen Is Dead operate better within the context of the record (such as the theatrical opener “The Queen Is Dead” or the very thematic “Vicar In A Tutu”), this one stands alone as a masterpiece. The Queen Is Dead is its own world; but “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” is its own world as well, and it’s bigger than the album itself.

When I was 16, I was trying to get into the Smiths to impress a boy; I fell under the spell of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” and never cared about that boy again. While Morrissey details a love affair that sweeps him off his feet, the song sweeps up the listener in that same way. It captures the euphoria of standing on the precipice of feeling alive — which is so good it almost feels like death. Do I even have to quote it? You already know the line about the double-decker bus, don’t you? You better.

What really brings this track to the next level is a synthesized string arrangement. It accentuates an air of cinema that was already there to begin with; along with that, there’s a flute melody that adds another layer of enchantment. Instead of feeling overpacked, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” feels fruitful, abundant, ripe with possibility — which is how falling in love feels. It goes to a place that songs rarely go; it is four minutes of full-body ecstasy, tinged with preemptive nostalgia. It is the best song by the Smiths, and it’s quite possibly the best song ever.

Marr described the recording process as “magical.” He also claimed that if the volume is turned all the way up, you can hear him yell “That was amazing!” at the end. I can’t hear it, but I have to believe that he did yell that after recording; that seems like the only appropriate reaction.

It feels like the Smiths’ entire discography leads up to “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” — like the angst and alienation have culminated up to this point where Morrissey is finally being seen and he doesn’t want to go home, ever, because he doesn’t have a home, this is his new home, and it’s so wonderful that there’s no point in continuing on because that’ll just ruin it. Better to just die here and now in this bliss. “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” is the definition of lightning in a bottle.

Stream our picks as a playlist:

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