Friday, January 20, 2006

The Smiths: A Retrospective

The Smiths are a band that is frequently name-checked in the indie rock scene, but I have a feeling that many of the people who are constantly referencing them have never actually heard more than a few songs. One of the great strengths of The Smiths is that their entire catalogue is extremely solid and there is very little filler on any of their albums. This is definitely one advantage of only being together for 5 years, offering no time to fade into mediocrity, but I digress. I wanted to give everyone out there a brief rundown of all The Smiths albums, especially for those who wish to discover them but have no idea where to start. There are tons of compilations out there and many of them are just modified versions of other compilations, so I will do my best here to break down the albums and let you know what you need to learn everything there is to know about The Smiths' music.

Absolutely Essential

The Queen Is Dead - This is the third studio album that the Smiths released and where everything they've been tinkering with over the first few years of their careers comes together perfectly. Not only does it contain three of the bands biggest hits ("Bigmouth Strikes Again," "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side," "There Is a Light that Never Goes Out"), but also has the finest non-singles tracks of any of their albums. "Cemetry Gates" and "Frankly Mr. Shankly" could've been huge hits had they been released on their own, and the title track is one of the darkest, most intense songs that Morrissey and Johnny Marr ever wrote. The album only slips up at one point, when "I Know Its Over" and "Never Had No One Ever" come back to back. They are both excellent songs in their own right, but putting the only two slow songs back to back early in the album might stop people from progressing into the album's second half. That is such a minor flaw, however, and should not deter you. This is one of my all-time favorite albums, I promise you will not be disappointed if you go out and buy it right now.

Louder Than Bombs - What is most confusing about The Smiths is that they did not include many of their best songs on their studio albums. They released several single-only songs which not only were some of the band's finest, but also contained some brilliant B-sides. Louder Than Bombs collects all of the Smiths non-album singles, as well as most of the B-sides that accompanied them (the only glaring omissions are "Jeane" and "Handsome Devil"). What's amazing is that if you don't know which songs are singles and which are B-sides, it is nearly impossible to distinguish which is which. Songs like "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" and "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby" sound perfect alongside hits like "Panic" and "William, It Was Really Nothing." There are countless compilations out there, but if you buy just one, this is the one to get, as if you buy this and all the studio albums, you will have nearly every song that The Smiths committed to record.

Also Essential

The Smiths - The Smiths' self-titled debut is not nearly as heralded as The Queen Is Dead, but it is damn close to being just as good. "This Charming Man" and "Hand In Glove" will always be the centerpieces of this album, but several of the surrounding tracks are equally as incredible. "Reel Around The Fountain," at nearly six minutes, is an interesting choice for an opener, given that it's one of the album's tamest songs, yet it works perfectly as Morrissey draws you in slowly with lyrics like "You can pin and mount me like a butterfly" and "You're the bees' knees but so am I," and by the end you can't wait to hear what's coming next. "Pretty Girls Make Graves" (taken from a line in Kerouac's The Dharma Bums) uses a wonderfully bouncy bass line coupled with Morrissey's now trademark moans and ambiguous lyrics to make a wonderfully catchy and danceable yet dark song. This album also features what I feel is perhaps The Smiths' most underrated song, "Still Ill" which features some fabulous lyrics like "There are brighter sides to life and I should know because I've seen them, but not very often," and an awesome chugging breakdown to close it out.

Definitely Worth Buying

Strangeways, Here We Come - This album was recorded as the band was falling apart and we can definitely see Morrissey taking the lead songwriting role here as many of the songs sound similar to material from his early solo career. However, this is not a bad thing and this is still very much a Smiths album. Opener "A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours" might use a greater variety of instruments than your average Smiths song (most notably an organ and a xylophone), but Morrissey's growl at the start of each chorus makes this one another classic. "Girlfriend in a Coma" is a fantastically catchy pop gem and "Stop Me if You Think You've Heard this One Before" is a excellent danceable tune in the vein of some of the earlier singles. Where this album falters is in a few of the slower songs, "Death of a Disco Dancer" and "Paint a Vulgar Picture" just don't have the same appeal as earlier tunes like "Asleep" and "Half A Person." One slow song does hit the mark though, "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me," perhaps the band's strangest choice for a single, is an amazing song in which Morrissey sings about what he knows best, self-deprecation. It is difficult to know if Johnny Marr left the band because Morrissey was pushing his ideas harder this time around or if Morrissey pushed his ideas because Johnny was on the verge of leaving, but this album has a much more elaborate sound with more string sections and complex arrangements than anything they'd done before.

Meat Is Murder - It's difficult to say that any Smiths album is "the worst," but if I had to choose one, this is the one I would choose. It does contain the Smiths' most recognizable song, "How Soon Is Now?" but the song sounds out of place, considerably darker and more atmospheric than anything else on the album. Songs like "The Headmaster Ritual" and "Rusholme Ruffians" keep this album entertaining, but besides "How Soon Is Now?" the only other great song on Meat Is Murder is "I Want the One I Can't Have." Johnny's classic jangly guitar is in full effect here and I can just imagine Morrissey flailing around in frustration as he performs this song live. This album also features one of my personal favorites, "Barbarism Begins at Home," where the only chorus is Morrissey barking. It's not necessarily a classic, but definitely worth hearing. The closing song, "Meat Is Murder," however, is perhaps the worst song that the band ever wrote. It opens up with the sound of saws and cows wailing in pain, and features some of the most ridiculous lyrics I've ever heard, like "the meat in your mouth as you savor the flavor of murder." Mmmmm, delicious murder.

Other Stuff
Rank - I actually do not own this album, but I have heard it in its entirety. It is a live album recorded at London's National Ballroom towards the end of The Smiths' existence, in late 1986. It contains one new song, "The Draize Train," but feels somewhat short for a live album(apparently there are a number of songs that were recorded that same night that did not make it onto the album). There is nothing especially mindblowing here, but this is an album worth getting, especially for those who want alternate versions of their favorite songs. This is definitely not a place to start and should only be purchased by long-time fans of the band.

Hatful of Hollow - This is essentially an earlier version of Louder Than Bombs that gathered up all the band's singles and B-sides through 1984. Instead of the singles from later years, it contains several BBC Session versions of songs from the debut album, which do not add a whole lot. What is significant here is that there are two B-sides not available on Louder Than Bombs. "Accept Yourself" is nothing special, but "Handsome Devil" is an amazing song that should've been included on later compilations. It is not worth buying this album solely for that song, but if you can burn a copy from someone else, it's worth having it in your collection.

The World Won't Listen - When Louder Than Bombs was released in the US, the UK got The World Won't Listen. Because Hatful of Hollow had already been released, this compilation gathers up most of the Smiths singles and B-sides post-1984. It contains several album tracks that were also released as singles, and if you already own all the studio albums and Louder Than Bombs, there is no reason to buy this album. The only new song it contains is an instrumental entitled "Money Changes Everything" which is nice to have, but definitely not worth the price of this album.

The Singles - This is exactly what it sounds like, a compilation of all the band's singles, no B-sides included. This is a very bare-bones compilation, but if you're looking for a place to start and don't want to plop down the money for both The Queen Is Dead and Louder Than Bombs, then this is not a bad purchase. It contains nothing new, and if you own LTB and all of the studio albums, this album becomes obsolete. If you've never heard the band before and aren't sure if you'll like them, you could do worse than this album.

The Best Of The Smiths Vol. 1 & 2/The Very Best Of The Smiths - These albums are not really worth buying as they contain nothing new and all seem rather arbitrary in the songs they include. None of them present the songs in any sort of sensical order either. If you want just one album to encompass The Smiths' career, The Singles is a much better place to start.


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