In late spring of 1982, Johnny Marr and his friend Steve Pomfret inquired with Steven Morrisey about forming a band. By 1984, the band had been playing for about two years and had their lineup set with Morrisey behind the microphone, Marr on guitar, Andy Rourke on bass and Mike Joyce on drums with the group releasing their debut album to critical astonishment and retrospective praise. With some taking attention and a liking to Morissey's unusual yet exciting vocal style, the real secret weapon of the band was guitarist Johnny Marr, especially given the state of music at the time. The world of alternative rock was quickly evolving, growing in popularity, but it was The Smiths who can be largely credited for the explosion of the popularity of indie rock, a subgenre of alternative rock initially characterized as post-punk, new-wave and jangle-pop inspired alternative rock emerging from smaller independent record labels. With Rough Trade (the groups record label) giving the band an immense amount of freedom, The Smiths greatly changed the world of rock music, establishing a new and fresh, guitar forward, bright, emotional sound. Releasing four studio albums and a handful of compilation albums containing tracks from the four records, along with some non-album singles, The Smiths righftully earned their place towards the very top of list of greatest alternative and indie bands, number three to be exact by our metrics. The Smiths third studio album, The Queen Is Dead we crowned the finest indie rock album and the finest alternative album of all time garnering a perfect score from us at Melophobe. With so many stellar songs all unique and praiseworthy in their own right, we decided to take a stab at ranking the top 15 songs by the smashingly influential and talented band, The Smiths.
15. The Headmaster Ritual (Meat Is Murder)
Fans of The Smiths are generally pretty split on the second studio album by the group Meat Is Murder, while some listeners enjoy the slight step away from the more traditional sound of the group, others found it a bit disinteresting as a whole while. The exception to that though is this song (and I Want the One I Can't Have, which would hold the 16th spot on this list), the opening track on this record goes toe-to-toe with a good majority of the group's songs. The upbeat nature of the guitar paired with the bright, low-pitched melody played by Marr makes it danceable, catchy and quite memorable. In all fairness to Meat Is Murder, it has aged fairly well and has received more retrospective praise.
14. Hand in Glove (The Smiths)
Some people like The Smiths because of Morrissey's voice and clever lyrics, some people like the band because of the brilliance of Johnny Marr on guitar, and some people like the group due to a mixture of both; this is song is both. From the start, Marr lays down a catchy, repetitive guitar riff, coming back again and again over a groovy bassline and some high-pitched harmonica. Of all the memorable and catchy tracks on the debut, this one certainly earned its place, with that earworm of a guitar riff.
13. The Boy with the Thorn in His Side (The Queen is Dead)
Originally released as a non-album single in 1985 (nothing out of the ordinary for fans of The Smiths), a remixed version of the song appeared on the bands masterpiece album The Queen is Dead. Although in terms of profundity and interest on a musical level it may be a tier below some of the tracks on the list, nevertheless the song is truly a beautiful piece of music. Apart from being played by The Smiths during their five-year tenure, the song has been frequently covered by Belle & Sebastian who received a great amount of influence from The Smiths.
12. Cemetery Gates (The Queen is Dead)
Perhaps the most humorous track by the group, this tongue-in-cheek tale of "borrowing" lyrics from books, poems and songs of yesterday lives on in relevance today. Opening with a momentous hi-hat pattern from Mike Joyce alongside wavy bass playing by Andy Rourke, this track has become one of the most streamed and remembered tracks from The Queen is Dead. Marr had his reservations about the song feeling the guitar was relatively uninteresting, inferior to the superb guitar work of the other songs on the record but regardless, Morrissey convinced him it was worth including on the album and right he was.
11. I Know It's Over (The Queen Is Dead)
Released in 1986 on The Queen Is Dead, this track was Morissey's personal spotlight on the LP showcasing his introspective and vulnerable vocal delivery, drawing listeners into a world of raw emotion and heartache. With its poetic storytelling and melancholic melodies, I Know It's Over remains as a timeless as ever in The Smiths' repertoire, resonating deeply with fans and continuing to leave an indelible mark on the indie rock landscape. With the entire near six-minute track acting as a continuous build up, the band takes listeners along for quite a journey in this emotional tale.
10. Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others (The Queen is Dead)
This is perhaps the first of two songs on this list which are generally absent on lists of this nature, but the truth is it ought to be constantly ranked among the finest tracks by the band. The closing track on the The Queen is Dead, has one of Johnny Marr's best guitar riffs of all time. Although the track may not be referenced as much as some of the other stand-out tracks on the album, the natural inclination of these guys to lay down constant, great grooves is heard just as much in this song than any of the others. Alongside some cool volume effects making you check your speakers, what a track to end a perfect album.
9. Paint A Vulgar Picture (Strangeways, Here We Come)
Following Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others, this is probably the other song that some long-time fans may be surprised to see ranked. Paint a Vulgar Picture, is perhaps the most complex song on the final studio album of the band exhibiting a fantastic rhythmic connection between Marr's guitar and Andy Rourke's bass. Morrissey's gift at writing and his gift of phrasing are quite prevalent on this song in fact; the best part of the song is a unification of both exhibitions of pure musical talent and grace, in a way only The Smiths could do.
8. This Night Has Opened My Eyes (Hatful of Hollow)
Eventually becoming one of the most streamed songs by band, This Night Has Opened My Eyes has seemingly become one of the most popular of the groups songs by those who may not consider themselves fans. This graceful, swaying track found itself on the first of a handful of The Smiths compilations, although it probably would have made a great addition to the first studio album as well. This song is frequently described as song discussing the matter of abortion but those who frequently listen to Morrissey's lyrics, the vocalist very rarely sings about anything literally, so perhaps the song has a different, deeper meaning?
7. Panic (Louder Than Bombs)
Whether the first time you heard this song was on the radio, on an indie playlist or in that episode of Black Mirror, Panic sure can stick in your ear. In Smith's fashion, a song with a symphonically huge chorus belting out the phrase "hang the DJ," got itself a ton of terrestrial and eventually satellite radio play by... DJ's. Regardless though, the song is memorable for good reason, alongside it's explicit distain for the state of pop music at the time. Catchy, singable and memorable.
6. Still Ill (The Smiths)
Just as many songs released by the group, Still Ill is quite an impressive feat to be seen live, even if all that could mean is just on YouTube. Still Ill harnesses lyrics of confusion reflecting on Morrissey's youth, questioning his sexual orientation along with dreams of the past in a poignantly moody and introspective manner. Johnny Marr equally matches Morrissey's emotion in switching between multiple guitar lines while Andy Rourke impressively plays harmonies of a rhythm guitarist, while also filling his role as a bassist. Although the song may not get quite as many listens as some of the others on the record, it absolutely deserves the praise it receives.
5. There Is a Light That Never Goes Out (The Queen is Dead)
As we get down into the top five, this is where ranking can get exceedingly tough. There Is a Light That Never Goes Out finds itself in the same key as Bigmouth Strikes Again, with both songs sharing similar chords and a similar c# minor melodic figure during their respective solo sections. Landing atop the list in the streaming world, this song could arguably be crowned the most well-known song by the group. Featuring an array of string synths, flute and of course guitar, this song is quite intricate musically alongside Morrissey's gorgeous lyrics.
4. This Charming Man (The Smiths)
As impressive as the debut album was by the band, perhaps no song was more impressive than the iconic track This Charming Man. Apart from maybe How Soon Is Now?, this song is the most covered song by The Smiths and one need not look any farther than Johnny Marr's guitar playing to know why. This track has one of the most iconic guitar intros of all time alongside some very unusual chords and an impressive counter-melody played below the vocals. Marr arranged a complex mix of guitar layering in the studio track backed up by Joyce and Rourke turning the song into still a very danceable, yet very 80's-esque track.
3. Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now (Hatful of Hollow)
Released as a single from Hatful of Hollow, this song showcases the band's signature blend of Morrissey's poignant lyrics and Johnny Marr's jangly guitar melody better than any track released prior to that point. With its candid, yet metaphoric exploration of loneliness and disillusionment, the track has become a youthful, indie anthem for generations. Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now has since received widespread critical acclaim, often cited as one of The Smiths' finest works and among the most influential songs of the 80's, especially on indie rock. Its status as a beloved classic continues to earn it accolades, securing its place in the ears of indie rock enthusiasts.
2. How Soon is Now? (Hatful of Hollow)
There is likely no other song by The Smith's to receive the amount of critical acclaim and retrospective praise as How Soon Is Now, a track which many would consider their greatest. With only seven lines of lyrics being repeated throughout the course of the nearly seven-minute-long song, Morrisey's haunting lyrics leave a VERY impressionable mark on the listener. Like most of the group's songs though, it is Marr who takes the spotlight with his perfect slide-guitar playing, dubbed over reverb laced rhythmic guitar playing. This song played a major role in the prominence of reverb in indie rock as a whole throughout the coming decades.
1. Bigmouth Strikes Again (The Queen is Dead)
Although Bigmouth Strikes Again, generally sits pretty close to the top on similarly titled lists, as far as we can tell Bigmouth crowns itself as the finest song ever released by The Smiths. Starting with momentous acoustic guitar, Andy Rourke follows Marr in shortly after with his finest bassline. In an unusual, yet equally expected fashion from a band defining the word unusual, the band begins a musical breakdown only fifty seconds in with an interesting back and forth between bass and guitar. Rourke's melodic bass guitar blends perfectly with Marr's percussive guitar riff, leaving a thirty second point in the track to be played on repeat over and over again. Although the one and two on this list can pretty much go either way, it is the pure catchiness of this track that puts it at the top, the catchiest song by perhaps the catchiest band.
At a time when so much of music, especially popular music was turning its back on traditional rock band forms, drums, bass and guitar for a more synth and keyboard heavy style, The Smiths played an important role in reestablishing and reinventing the more traditional lineup of rock'n'roll. Although sometimes it seems The Smiths can get thrown into an unusual and often misinformed musical category make no mistake, they were a fantastic rock band just as influential on alternative rock and indie rock as R.E.M, The Cure and Pixies, perhaps even more so. Their legacy is hard to put into words, because it's hard to put a specific sound to words, but it is clear the musical landscape would be very different without their impact. It can be hard to describe indie rock, but a quick listen to The Smiths will point you in the right direction. If we had to pick, the next five songs in order starting at 16 would be I Want the One I Can't Have, Girlfriend in a Coma, William, It Was Really Nothing, Ask and Pretty Girls Make Graves
We ranked The Smiths the third greatest alternative band of all time. Be sure to check out how The Smiths albums ranked among the greatest indie rock albums of all time, and also check out our retrospective review of The Queen Is Dead or Strangeways, Here We Come.