The Smiths was a band unlike any other, a mixture of cool and shy, vulgar and well-read.
They were one of the most important guitar bands of an era dominated mainly by synth sounds and glamorous costumes. And through it all, their success was just as paradoxical. It seemed both surprising and underwhelming at the same time.
The Smiths did not record much, but most of the songs they commissioned to tape are iconic. The fame and the reputation of Johnny Marr and Morrissey, the band’s leading contributors, cannot help but also inform how their music is judged.
With all of this in mind, I’ve taken it upon myself to look back, sort things out and rank the albums produced by The Smiths from worst to best.
The Smiths’ Albums Ranked
6. “Rank” (1988)
Yes, “Rank” is a live album released posthumously. It may well be a cash grab for the record label, Rough Trade, or the band who’d often release compilation material from here onward.
I and others have forked over a pretty penny with the intention of becoming completists. John Cusack’s character in “High Fidelity” knows this well.
But it’s a worthy document of an impressive live unit. “Rank” proves that The Smiths weren’t merely a jangle-pop group that could function only inside a recording studio.
Instead, The Smiths are depicted as inspired rockers with a great batch of songs with which to work. They even round up their line-up with a second guitarist, Craig Gannon, formerly of Aztec Camera.
While certainly not perfect and an item that only strict devotees will want to purchase, the album offers a glimpse into one of England’s finest bands in peak form.
Since this live set was released after the band’s break-up, once their status had been elevated globally provided a unique opportunity for new band fans to interact with their live performances.
5. “Meat Is Murder” (1985)
The Smiths were a protest band, and their singer carried around flowers. Still, their approach and messages were hardly typical.
“Meat Is Murder” is the follow-up to a record that had helped breathe life into the rock scene in England. It’s also, arguably, one of the first aggressively pro-vegan albums. But, then again, The Smiths were a lot of things.
The sound of the band remains intriguing. Their enthusiasm for music-making is still palpable.
However, unlike its predecessor, the quality of the songs doesn’t rise to the same standard. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” is excellent, and “The Headmaster Ritual” allows Morrissey to pick a fight with longtime enemies from afar.
“How Soon is Now” represents one of the band’s towering achievements. Nonetheless, it was initially not included in the studio album. Later pressings fixed the issue, giving buyers of the album access to a song that NME called “one of the greatest indie anthems of all time.”
The singer was in feisty spirits throughout the promotion of the album. While he didn’t precisely cut the figure of an anarchist, Morrissey courted just as much controversy for his politics as Sex Pistols‘ John Lydon once had.
Some of his frequent targets included the monarchy and the Thatcher government, the meat industry, and other pop stars. Yes, Morrissey could certainly provide magazines with a quote. It was something on which the media came to depend. In recent years, some of the singer’s quotes have come under even heavier scrutiny, and he has received much pushback.
4. “Louder Than Bombs” (1987)
While almost everyone saw The Smiths as a rock alternative to the glittery pop music of the 1980s, the band members viewed themselves quite differently. Johnny Marr fashioned the band as a 1960s-inspired guitar-pop group.
This attitude was carried out in the way that the band released singles. They would do it often and without the promise that the songs would also be found on studio records.
“Louder Than Bombs” is not, technically, a studio album of new material. I’ve included it on the list based on two critical things. First of all, the songs are brilliant. Secondly, fans who had failed to purchase the singles heard these tunes for the first time.
The artwork, once more, gives a hint into Morrissey’s creative process. It’s a picture of Shelagh Delaney, the author of “A Taste of Honey.”
The lack of cohesiveness of the record ends up being its strength, proving The Smiths’ capacity to write in numerous styles. There’s the great glam rock of “Sheila Take a Bow.” There’s room for the band’s punk roots on “Sweet and Tender Hooligan.” And, in terms of pure pop pleasures, little can beat “Panic.”
“Asleep” closes out the set, and Morrissey’s knack for melodrama has never been more poignant.
Make no mistake, The Smiths believed in their greatness. “Louder Than Bombs” is a great testament to it.
3. “Strangeways, Here We Come” (1987)
The Smiths’ status is such that finding underplayed songs by the band is no easy feat. With that in mind, “Strangeways, Here We Come” becomes a more pleasant listen with each passing year.
No, this is not a near-perfect record a la “The Queen is Dead.” No, the songs aren’t quite as good as on “The Smiths.”
Still, there’s a rushed energy and manic paranoia that drives some of the album’s best songs. Look no further for proof than the title. Strangeways is the name of a notorious English prison.
There are numerous highlights. “A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours” deals again with the evils of over-nationalistic ideals.
“I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” finds Morrissey feeling trapped and thinking about Oscar Wilde once more. It is one of the most underrated songs by The Smiths.
“Girlfriend in a Coma” uses strings and acoustic to create a massive sound. Meanwhile, the lyrics paint the singer as the undercover villain of the tale.
And “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” is another emotionally raw piece of songwriting that avoids sounding formulaic.
While this was not as revolutionary as its predecessor, it was an album received warmly by critics and fans alike. The Smiths had created an aesthetic and a sound all of their own.
They were now building upon it and setting themselves apart from the multitude of guitar bands that had appeared in the wake of their debut.
Sadly, the cracks had started to set in. The apparent difference in temperament between Johnny Marr and Morrissey had finally begun being an issue.
The press painted it as a clash between partying, charismatic rock guitarist and a gentle, introverted poet. Oversimplification, or not, by 1987, The Smiths were no more. Any chance of bettering relations was tarnished over the years among royalty disputes and verbal jousts held in the press.
Andy Rourke‘s tragic 2023 death means that The Smiths’ original line-up will never again play together.
2. “The Smiths” (1984)
The story of how The Smiths came to be is almost as famous as their music. It involves a charismatic guitarist, Johnny Marr, striking an unlikely partnership with a young, would-be writer, Steven Patrick Morrissey. Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce rounded up the line-up.
“The Smiths” arrived at a time when the charts were monopolized by shiny, electro-pop. And, for a while, it seemed like the Manchester band were the saviors of guitar music.
They weren’t merely rehashing blues or hard-rock formulas either. Here was a mysterious, poetic, and occasionally disturbing work from a band with songs so good that the world couldn’t ignore them.
Nearly every song here is exceptional. “Reel Around the Fountain,” “Still Ill,” “Hand In Glove,” or “This Charming Man” are some of the very best indie-rock songs recorded by an English band.
Morrissey and Marr had found a rare alchemy. Their best work seemed to reflect their peculiar interests but also contained universal truths.
1. “The Queen is Dead” (1986)
Fewer albums of the 1980s are held in as much esteem as “The Queen is Dead.” In Britain, it is routinely entered into the conversation about the greatest albums ever made. For once, all the hype is justified.
“The Queen is Dead” manages to blend the excellent, classic songwriting of the band’s debut with the virulent critique of the English way of life accompanying “Meat is Murder.” Best of all, it does all this without rehashing old ideas.
The title track opens the record with Marr’s dramatic arrangement and Morrissey’s humorous but biting critique of the monarchy, a frequent target of his from here onward.
“Frankly, Mr. Shankly” allows the singer to settle a score with Rough Trade’s record execs.
Meanwhile, “I Know is Over” is a heartbreaking ballad where the singer’s composure is dangling seems to be dangling by a string. The song would be covered in a marvelously evocative way by Jeff Buckley.
“Bigmouth Strikes Again” sounds fiercely angry over one of Johnny Marr’s most direct guitar parts.
And few songs are more beautiful than “There is a Light that Never Goes Out,” in which Morrissey proudly declares that “If a double-decker bus crashes into us/To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.”
The Smiths had been the talk of the town for some time, but they’d more than rewarded their supporters. “The Queen is Dead” was a perfect album, and British rock bands would struggle for years to come up with something of similar stature.
A quote by Oscar Wilde, a figure Morrissey practically obsessed with was etched into the vinyl groove of the record. It reads, “Talent borrows, genius steals.”
Indeed, The Smiths had taken many elements from many sources. But they’d chosen wisely, and the way these elements came together resulted in sounds that few could rival and many imitated.