I didn't spend the 80s listening to The Smiths. Of course, I was aged 3-13 in the eighties, so I mostly listened to the Mini-Pops and stuff. Instead, I didn't hip to The Smiths until a few years ago, when they were in the liner notes of every CD I bought. So I grabbed the Best II compilation on a trade in, figuring it was past time I educate myself on them. And... liked them enough, but didn't love it.
I later borrowed The Singles collection off of a friend, and liked it a bit better. When I got my 20G iPod, I had plenty of room so I borrowed their four albums and two mid-career singles compilations from the same friend, and eventually, something clicked. At first it was pleasant music, then I finally "got it" and have kept them in constant rotation since (and am starting to purchase their catalogue for myself, which is an incredibly affordable thing to do). For me, The Smiths are pop music perfection, with Morrissey's wit and misery being perfectly balanced by Johnny Marr's bouncy arrangements. I'm a fan of Morrissey's solo work as well, but don't love it like I do The Smiths, because it lacks the counterbalance. The Smiths made some of the peppiest misery music ever!
5. "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" from Hatful of Hollow
Originally released as a single in 1984, "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" was later compiled in the Hatful of Hollow compilation, but didn't appear on any of the band's full length albums. Which shows that the band took their singles seriously, not just as promotional material for upcoming albums. Included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll", the song is a perfect example of Morrissey: the Miserable Bastard. My favourite part is when he asks "in my life, why do I smile, at people who I'd much rather kick in the eye?" It's the specific decision to kick them in the eye, instead of say, the head, that makes it art.
4. "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side" from The Queen is Dead
Perhaps not as challenging as other tracks on The Queen is Dead, "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side" was released first as a single, later included in the album. A bit of a throwback to the earlier Smiths albums, it stands out in the album with Marr's jangly riffs, which aren't used as often throughout the album as in past efforts. Strangely for Moz, the songs is a fairly optimistic one, which may be why it wasn't that popular a single upon its release. But, I dig it, as it is a great example of the catchy sing-a-long stylings of The Smiths.
3. "Bigmouth Strikes Again" from The Queen is Dead
"Now I know how Joan of Arc felt". No one ever said that Morrissey didn't have a martyr complex. Or an ego. Both are on full display in the official single from The Queen is Dead, as is Marr's urgent, jangling guitar that makes this track one of the band's most explosive. The Queen is Dead is often regarded as the group's best album because of its diversity, but I keep going back to its most jangly tracks as my favourites. What can I say? It's what I love about The Smiths.
2. "How Soon Is Now?" from Meat is Murder
Possibly the most popular track in the band's catalogue, it's one of the least representative of their overall sound, making it possible to be a fan of this track and not a fan of the band. Which is reason enough to not rank it number one. But I love it. It's haunting production, trademark psychedelic tremolo guitar riff, and Moz's brilliant lyrics make it a classic. "So you go and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home, and you cry, and you want to die" is a great lyric, listed at number 2 on a recent VH1 lyrics poll. But my favourite is the lead lyric "I am the son, and the heir, of a shyness that is criminally vulgar". Apparently cribbed from a George Eliot novel, I love how it contains two homonyms that each work in comparison to one another. The son/heir combination as it is written works best with the next lyric, but sun/air (as one might hear the lyric) works just as well as a metaphor. It's a simple line, but is the kind of thing literature students eat up.
1. "This Charming Man" from The Smiths
If I had to pick one track as definitively Smiths, one track to introduce an outsider to the band, this would be it. An absolutely perfect pop song, revealing Marr's understated brilliance, Morrissey's crooning voice and ambiguous lyricism, drummer Mike Joyce's punchy, danceable beat, and Andy Rourke's Motown-esque bassline. To know this track is love it. So charming.