Reissue, repackage, repackage
Re-evaluate the songs
Double-pack with a photograph
Extra track (and a tacky badge)
Best of, most of
Satiate the need
Slip them into different sleeves
Buy both, and feel deceived
So goes “Paint a Vulgar Picture,” one of the Smiths’ very best songs, and one that for obvious reasons isn’t included on the group’s brand-new best-of, The Sound of the Smiths. Sound is the fifth such compilation released since the seminal British group’s 1987 breakup, thereby giving them more posthumous hits collections than they had studio albums during their too-short career.
But despite the glut of Smiths comps flooding the market, this one stands apart. The Smiths are one of the hardest bands in the world to do justice to with a greatest-hits album, mostly because they seemed to have several different alternate career paths during their short five years together. They were, of course, a first-rate singles band, and tracks like “How Soon is Now” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” remain mope-rock classics. But many of their best songs were never singles, and were either buried deep on their studio albums or relegated to the B-sides of their singles. Their various hits collections serve different purposes, and none of the previous ones paint a truly complete portrait of their work. 1992’s two-volume Best… almost plays like someone put the group’s catalog on random, and it flows too awkwardly to be enjoyable. 1995’s Singles is an agreeable-enough overview of the Smiths’ biggest hits, and 2001’s The Very Best of the Smiths is almost identical. All of them are vastly inferior to the group’s absolutely essential 1987 B-sides-and-rarities set Louder Than Bombs, which might be the best compilation album ever released by any artist.
The Sound of the Smiths is the first Smiths compilation that provides a truly balanced overview of their career. Its tracklist was put together by singer/lyricist Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, one of the few times the notoriously estranged pair has collaborated on anything post-breakup. Their picks are diverse, and don’t under-represent any part of their career. Sound is available in both a one-disc and a two-disc version, and there’s almost no excuse not to spring for the latter. The first, more widely available disc features a roughly chronological selection of 23 of the group’s most well-known songs. This disc flows much better than any of their other best-ofs, and it’s hard to knock any disc with “Still Ill,” “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side,” “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” “Barbarism Begins at Home,” “The Headmaster Ritual,” “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” “Ask,” “Girlfriend in a Coma,” and the list goes on. But by itself, the first disc is somewhat redundant. Either go for the deluxe version or go with one of the Smiths’ four studio albums or Louder Than Bombs as a starting point.
It’s the 22 rarities, live cuts, album tracks, and B-sides on the second disc that push The Sound of the Smiths into five-star territory. The selections from the group’s albums are inspired (“Vicar in a Tutu,” “Stop Me”), the stray singles and B-sides are all excellent (“Half a Person,” “Girl Afraid,” “Sweet and Tender Hooligan”), and previously unavailable rarities like “Wonderful Woman,” “Money Changes Everything,” “Jeanne,” and a demo of “Pretty Girls Make Graves” from the legendary Troy Tate sessions render the two-disc version essential even to hardcore fans. Those same fans will have their disagreements with the song selection (omitting “This Night Has Opened My Eyes,” “Unlovable,” and “Rubber Ring” is inexcusable), but there’s nothing here that shouldn’t be, and none of the space is wasted.
Taken as a whole, the two discs are an absolutely stellar collection of some of the finest pop music to come out of England post-Beatles, music that manages to be simultaneously depressing and life-affirming. Morrissey’s mesmerizing drone and witty, self-deprecating lyrics inspired two generations of emo kids, and Marr’s virtuosic, multilayered jangle is still one of the most singular guitar sounds in rock history. Morrissey’s solo career has produced some fine albums, even a few great ones, and Marr is currently undergoing an artistic rebirth as a full-time member of Modest Mouse, but neither one has ever been as effective without the other, a point The Sound of the Smiths drives home.
The remastering job, overseen by Marr, is nothing short of stunning, and spotlights bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce as one of the most underrated rhythm sections of their era. It makes you wish the group’s four classic studio albums—1984’s The Smiths, 1985’s Meat is Murder, 1986’s The Queen is Dead, and 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come—would get the same treatment. This compilation’s second disc would make an excellent companion piece to such a set of reissues. Until then, The Sound of the Smiths is a thrilling listen for old fans, an ideal starting point for new fans, and a solid sampler for nonfans. Make no mistake, you need the albums, and Sound doesn’t change that, but it also manages to be that rare hits compilation that doesn’t feel like a cash-grab.