Rate The Albums is a regular series in which we line up a band’s output in descending order of quality. Then you do the same. As the meertwats say, simples.
“‘Hatful Of Hollow’ was the album when The Smiths really nailed it for me,” said Nicky Wire down the phone to me five minutes ago, quoting it as not just his favourite Smiths album but his favourite album full stop. “The rest of their albums are not brilliantly produced and even ‘The Queen Is Dead’ doesn’t have the depth of ‘Hatful Of Hollow’. From a production angle the first album is really sloppy compared to ‘Hatful Of Hollow’.”
Nicky’s comments pose several questions for the hack commissioned that very day to list, in order of preference, his favourite Smiths albums for an argument-spawning online bloggette.
1) Does one count ‘Hatful Of Hollow’ as a real Smiths album since it’s a compilation of singles, b-sides and Radio One sessions that just happened to end up as a work of accidentally immaculate genius? 2) And if so, surely we have to count all of the other Smiths compilation albums that included non-album songs as well: ‘The World Won’t Listen’, ‘Louder Than Bombs’, ‘Best…I’, ‘Best… II’, ‘The Best Of The Best Of The Best Of The Smiths’, ‘Now That’s What I Call The Best Best Of The Smiths Best Of Compilation Smiths Album In The World Of The Smiths… Ever!’, where the hell do we stop?
No, bearing in mind The Smiths themselves mocked the “re-issue, repackage” culture on ‘Paint A Vulgar Picture’, we can’t reasonably rate – against their ‘official’ studio canon – albums they occasionally disagreed with being released at all. So, as much as I too would be outraged to find a Best Morrissey Albums blog that didn’t list ‘Bona Drag’ in a prime position, we’ll stick purely to studio albums, deal?
Which poses me another question: am I wrong? Am I perverted, reactionary or just some blogosphere comment whore stirring up a bit of controversy for the attention? Am I part of an unwitting cycle of the regular re-evaluation of classic records driven by the unconscious desire to seem cleverer and more clued-in than previous generations of critics by challenging and upsetting accepted musical opinions? Like the way ‘Sgt Peppers…’ was the best Beatles album in the 70s, it was ‘Revolver’ in the 90s and ‘Rubber Soul’ today, on its way to someone striking a claim for ‘Beatles For Sale’?
No, I have scoured my morals, searched my soul and consulted my inner troll, and this is truly the order I would rank the albums by The Smiths. Sorry Nicky.
1. ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’
“The production on ‘Strangeways…’ is so programmed, the drums sound so 80s and the bass is fucking awful,” says Nicky Wire. However, I don’t hear the production when I listen to ‘Strangeways…’. I hear a band who’d, with ‘The Queen Is Dead’, reached the pinnacle of the indie-jangle genre they initiated with ‘This Charming Man’ and were looking around for somewhere altogether grander to go. In ‘I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish’ I hear their catchiest, most irrepressible pop tune. In ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ I hear a wit and delicacy lifted from ‘Cemetry Gates’ and polished to perfection. In ‘Death Of A Disco Dancer’, ‘Paint A Vulgar Picture’ and – best of all – the over-whelming orchestral bombast of ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ I hear a striving ambition and lust for sonic exploration superbly wielded. All the ex-Smiths agree – more than any other Smiths album, ‘Strangeways…’ exists in a widescreen world of its own. Plus, ‘Death At One’s Elbow’ instead of ‘Vicar In A Tutu’, which is a major advantage.
2. ‘The Queen Is Dead’
Oh, I could nit-pick. The ludicrousness of following the untouchable ‘There Is A Light…’ with the throwaway ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’ to finish the album on a shrug. The breakdown-inducing bleakness of dragging yourself as a sodden, teary wreck from ‘I Know It’s Over’ only to have your remaining heart-strings wrenched from your chest and used as dental floss by ‘Never Had No-One Ever’. But, secretly, I adore both of those ‘issues’. ‘The Queen Is Dead’ is nothing short of a monolithic achievement, a float-away flitting between light and dark that’s never less than intoxicating. But then you could probably bung ‘Cemetry Gates’ on ‘Permission To Land’ and I’d suddenly consider it a classic.
3. ‘The Smiths’
The production was “sloppy” according to Nicky Wire, Morrissey himself wanted the whole thing scrapped and it does now sound like the lame mutant step-brother of ‘Hatful Of Hollow’. But the sheer reediness of ‘The Smiths’, the sense that these songs would snap between your fingers if you tried to bend them an inch, adds to the thread of Manchester lineage and identity pierced through its heart from Joy Division in the past to The Stone Roses in the future – that feeling that every Manc record pre-Madchester was recorded in the same basement freezer unit inside ten minutes. ‘Still Ill’, ‘Hand In Glove’ and ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ formed a rampant pop bedrock around which ‘Reel Around The Fountain’, ‘I Don’t Owe You Anything’ and ‘You’ve Got Everything Now’ could sweetly seduce and ‘Suffer Little Children’ could seditiously unsettle. And, for the obsessives, the echo of Morrissey’s ‘Hold On To Your Friends’ at the end of ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’ makes the whole album sound like a hint at wonders to come. Which, obviously, it was.
4. ‘Meat Is Murder’
The blueprint for C86 and the holy bible for bullied, lovelorn vegetarians for the rest of time, ‘Meat Is Murder’ sparks with all the janglesome thrill (‘The Headmaster Ritual’, ‘I Want The One I Can’t Have’, ‘Nowhere Fast’), melancholic import (‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’, the rain-drenched Moz-as-Maria Callas (‘Well I Wonder’) and bristling poetry of The Smiths’ later albums. Plus, the last three minutes funk punk minutes of ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’ basically invented ‘House Of Jealous Lovers’ and ‘Somebody Told Me’. But it’s hobbled by the rockabilly-Smiths-by-numbers ‘Rusholme Ruffians’, Morrissey’s warbling melodic vagueness on ‘What She Said’ and the preaching dolour of its title track which, with all its talk of “the flesh you so fancifully fry” doesn’t half make me feel hungry. And therefore, from ‘Meat Is Murder’, a little dislocated – and when it comes to ranking albums by a band who never made a bad one, it really does come down to whether or not you can relate to a particular album’s dietary requirements. Though the US version including ‘How Soon Is Now?’ would probably pip ‘The Smiths’, in retrospect it feels like a warm-up curtsey for ‘The Queen…’.
How would you rank The Smiths’ albums?