The two figures at the centre of 1980s English indie-rock band The Smiths were an unlikely pairing. Vocalist Morrissey was socially awkward, literate, and camp, while guitarist Johnny Marr was an aspiring football player who trialed with Manchester City. Bonding over a shared interest in The New York Dolls, they formed The Smiths with bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce.
The Smiths’ career was short – they recorded their first single in May 1983 and Marr left the group in June 1987 – but influential. The band melded mid-1960s sounds with contemporary ideas from post-punk. Marr’s guitar playing was modelled on the jangle of The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. He avoided cliches like solos and power chords in favour of intricate arpeggios and jangling rhythms. Morrissey was a punk fan whose odd croon alternated between keen wit and morose self-pity.
Usually I only include studio albums on worst to best lists, but for The Smiths 1984’s Hatful of Hollow and 1987’s Louder Than Bombs are essential parts of their story. Both are compilations, but because The Smiths’ timeline is so compressed they play well as albums.
The Smiths Albums Ranked
#6 – Meat Is Murder
The Smiths’ second studio album captures an awkward transition between the stark simplicity of their early records and their more studio-based later efforts. Lesser songs like the funky rockabilly of ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’ and the uneventful title track are stretched out to epic lengths. Even the worst Smiths album has plenty worth salvaging – highlights include ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ and ‘I Want The One I Can’t Have’.
#5 – The Smiths
The Smiths’ 1984 debut established their signature sound. It’s a straightforward recording that captures their live sound, rather than exploring the possibilities of the studio. It’s The Smiths at their starkest – there’s little humour from Morrissey, and the tone of their debut is established by bleak material like ‘Suffer Little Children’ and ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’. Many of these songs would sound better on the BBC sessions collated on Hatful of Hollow.
#4 – Strangeways, Here We Come
The Smiths’ final studio album was underwhelming after the triumph of The Queen is Dead. There’s plenty to like nonetheless – it’s arguably their most diverse studio album, ranging from the dramatic piano ballad ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ to the sparse ‘I Won’t Share You’. There’s plenty of lovable Smiths jangle on ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’ and ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’.
#3 – Hatful of Hollow
The Smiths followed their debut with a compilation that collected their non-album singles and BBC sessions. The BBC sessions, captured in 1983 before their debut was recorded, often outshine the studio versions. The singles are sublime – ‘How Soon Is Now?’, ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’, and ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ are among The Smiths’ finest songs.
#2 – Louder Than Bombs
The Smiths released two singles compilations in 1987 – Louder Than Bombs is an American compilation that collects the band’s non-album singles and b-sides from 1983 to 1987. There’s some overlap with Hatful of Hollow, but non-album songs like ‘Panic’, ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’, and the gentle ‘Half A Person’ are career highlights.
#1 – The Queen is Dead
The Smiths peaked on their third studio album The Queen is Dead. Legal issues with Rough Trade held up release for seven months, but when it finally emerged it was magnificent. The opening title track was the toughest that The Smiths ever sounded, while ‘There Is A Light Never Goes Out’ balanced tenderness and awkwardness. As always, there are plenty of literate and jangly songs like ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ and ‘Cemetery Gates’.