From the ice age to the dole age there is but one concern we have long since discovered... some albums are better than others. Of course, when it comes to The Smiths, judging the merits of one against those of the others feels a little like splitting hairs: their four studio albums (plus ‘Hatful of Hollow’) amount to one of the most imposing and influential bodies of work in the rock ’n’ roll canon, and the band never lasted long enough to blot their copybook with an objectively bad one. Still, let’s give it a go, shall we?
5. Meat Is Murder
The irony of placing ‘Meat Is Murder’ at the bottom of this list is not lost on me: not only does it contain my two favourite Smiths songs of all time - ‘’That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ and ‘How Soon Is Now?’ - but I have a vinyl copy of it, signed by Johnny Marr, framed on my wall. It’s easier for me to talk about what works on the album than what doesn’t: the placard-waving title track is the obvious place to start, though personally, I’ve always admired its zeal and conviction (with the caveat that, murder or no, I can’t bring myself to give up sushi). So, what’s wrong with it? Well, despite containing one of the all-time great album openers in the shape of ‘The Headmaster Ritual’, it doesn’t flow particularly well - if I’m being brutally honest, ‘Barbarism Begins at Home’ is something of a drag, and I’ve never much cared for ‘Nowhere Fast’ - nor does it feel like enough of a progression from their debut to warrant placing it above that record. Still, ‘Meat Is Murder’ is at the bottom of this list only because something had to be.
4. The Smiths
The Smiths were together for a little over five years, and their career moved at such incredible speed, even they sometimes struggled to keep up. This is very much the story of their debut album. Originally recorded with producer Troy Tate, Morrissey and Rough Trade were underwhelmed by what they heard and hired John Porter to fix it, who felt the album’s problems were so severe that it should be re-recorded from scratch. They had one week (and a miniscule budget) to do so, and in the end, almost half of the album was scrapped and re-recorded again in one frantic overnight session. The circumstances were far from ideal and by the time it was finally released, Morrissey and Marr had already moved on as songwriters.
The impact of ‘The Smiths’, however, was undeniable: no indie band had achieved this level of success before, and whether or not you think proper justice was done to the likes of ‘Reel Around The Fountain’ or ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ the songs themselves were luminous enough for it not to matter too much. Debate inevitably rages as to which version, original or official, is superior, and though both have their individual merits (Tate’s take on ‘Hand In Glove’ is more buoyant and exuberant, for example, while Porter’s ‘Suffer Little Children’ is more eerily atmospheric) my own preference will always be for the official release, for the purely sentimental reason that I heard and loved it first. (Read a big interview with Johnny Marr in this week's NME).
3. Strangeways, Here We Come
A couple of years back, when Morrissey issued a top-ten list of albums “of which I am most proud”, ‘Strangeways’ was the only Smiths studio album to make the cut, at number five. You might say that’s just Morrissey being his usual contrarian self (and considering his lacklustre 2009 solo album ‘Years of Refusal’ was at number one, you might have a point) but nonetheless, it’s easy to understand why he and Marr consistently name The Smiths’ final album as their best. It’s certainly their most adventurous: three years after Smiths fans went into an uproar over the presence of keyboards on their debut, here they were dabbling with saxophones (‘I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish’), autoharps (‘I Won’t Share You’) and unashamedly grandiose orchestration (‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’). The petty record company point-scoring of ‘Paint a Vulgar Picture’ aside, ‘Strangeways’ is a hugely satisfying record, and that’s part of what makes it an incredibly frustrating one: by this point, Marr’s abilities as an arranger were second-to-none, and the songs brim with ideas and possibilities for a future that, ultimately, wasn’t to be. Still, as swansongs go, they don’t come much better than this.
2. Hatful Of Hollow
‘Hatful of Hollow’ is a stopgap album, the sort that’s usually described as ‘for completists only’, yet if a Smiths neophyte asked you for their best point of entry to the band’s back catalogue, it’s almost certainly the one you’d tell them they to buy. In the years following their split, The Smiths’ penchant for repackaging the same material over and over again would come to confuse and irritate their fans, but after the relative disappointment of their debut, ‘Hatful of Hollow’ was a necessary (and superlative) document of the band’s early period. Featuring two of their most essential non-album singles (‘William, It Was Really Nothing’, ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’), their equally-impressive B-sides (‘Girl Afraid’, ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’) and a slew of radio session recordings that arguably outdo the originals, it captures the essence of the band better than ‘The Smiths’ and contains a stronger lineup of songs than ‘Meat Is Murder’. Simply put, if this record isn’t in your life already, you need to remedy that situation, and quickly.
1. The Queen Is Dead
Last November, when we conducted a poll of NME writers past and present to discern, once and for all, what the greatest album of all time was, this is the one that topped the list, and I’m the writer who made the 1400-word argument for why it deserved to be there. So yeah, quelle surprise to see it topping our list of the best Smiths albums, eh? Without wishing to bang on about something I’ve already banged on about, many albums are made with greatness in mind, but few have it in their marrow. ‘The Queen Is Dead’ is one such album. Johnny Marr was bang on the money when he described it as having “an overloading ‘Smiths-ness’ to it” - this is the album that gives everyone what they want, and from the incendiary rush of the title track, through to the self-deprecating wink of ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ and the evergreen brilliance of ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’, it is more than simply a collection of wonderful songs, it is the work of a very special band operating in excelsis.
Read NME's celebration of 30 years of The Smiths in this week's magazine