Morrissey, “Ranked”

There are some bad people on the right. There are some bad people on the rise. They’re saving their own skins by ruining people’s lives. While Rome burns, let’s rank Morrissey.

This is of course the definitive, uptown Moz ranking. It includes only the albums you need and none of the ones you don’t. Of course, there will be stray rarities you need to acquire at all costs, e.g. the essential “Pregnant For the Last Time” and majestic B-side “I Can Have Both,” but does an extra track and a tacky badge rate a repackage a place on the ladder? It does not. A better case might be made for including the live albums, but since one of them is “Beethoven Was Deaf”, it’s kinder to note for the record that Live at Earls Court is wonderful and indispensable and concentrate on the densest collections of new-to-us songs. So we have ten albums and three collections to consider. Let’s go worst to best, like any good countdown should.

13. World Peace Is None of Your Business (2014)
I confess I have only made it through this album once. It was that appalling. It’s the only studio album by Morrissey I do not own. I’m not certain what happened but my guess is this: Morrissey, like Madonna (have those words ever been typed? they must have, surely), depends heavily on the right collaborators. None of them could write a Morrissey song without him, but the rub is that he can’t write a good one without them. Maybe there’s a good one on here, and if so please write in and tell me. But one is not enough.

12. Swords (2009)
Or, Things Less Mighty Than Pens. It’s the weakest of the compilations, and it has some truly embarrassing stuff, but there are plenty of impressive B-sides and rarities here. My favorites are the sly “Don’t Make Fun of Daddy’s Voice” and of course “Friday Mourning,” one of the loveliest songs he’s written this century. “Good Looking Man About Town” is fun, “Shame Is the Name” has a real drive to it, and though “Teenage Dad on His Estate” is dubious as social commentary, it’s lovely as melody. All are Alain Whyte collaborations, if that tells you anything.

11. Ringleader of the Tormentors (2006)
There’s a lot of gratifying stuff here, chiefly the continued lyrical hints that Moz has had something of a sexual reawakening around this time; claims that “I entered nothing, and nothing entered me” are tough to swallow even with his self-styled reputation, but in any case it’s nice to hear them in the past tense. Certainly there are plenty of strong melodies here, and the lyrics are assertive and bold, but it suffers by comparison with its predecessor. Lots of Tobias collaborations here, though they’re not all bad: “You Have Killed Me” is fun and “In the Future When All’s Well” cranks along just fine.

10. Years of Refusal (2009)
More uneven than Ringleader, but this means it has true highlights, namely the fantastic “Something is Squeezing My Skull,” the gorgeous “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris,” and the sublime “When Last I Spoke to Carol.” The rest of the record will probably appeal to anyone in search of scathing breakup songs, but is otherwise safely skippable.

9. Maladjusted (1997)
Kind of a shock at the time. That awkward cover photo! The shapeless title track! The one about Mike Joyce suing him for royalties! It seemed even more apocalyptic with the long silence that followed. But when an album is the latest Morrissey for seven years, you spend a lot of time spinning it, and you discover that the rest of it is actually really excellent. Only those two tracks are subpar; every other song is a pleasure, if perhaps not among his most urgent statements. You might not find another Morrissey album more fun to sing in the car.

8. Viva Hate (1988)
I’ll lose some of you here, but see this album for what it is: Morrissey figuring out how to be a solo artist, and establishing some of his worst habits. In the former column, “Angel, Angel…” may have saved a few lives but may have endangered others, while “I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me” begs the obvious joke. In the latter, “Alsatian Cousin” is the first in an intermittent series of obnoxious album openers, while “Bengali in Platforms” kicks off a confusing ambivalence about the place of immigrants in British society, encapsulated in the wait-what? line “life is hard enough when you belong here.” There are no bad tracks, and plenty of wonderful ones, but since several of the best end up on later compilations, the harsh truth is that there’s less to come back for than nostalgia would suggest. It might be time for an update of that guillotine song, though.

7. Kill Uncle (1991)
So concise it’s almost a swindle, and not unfairly derided as a flimsy record compared to both earlier and later work. And yet there’s something almost absurdly confident about it. The tone is set poorly by “Our Frank” at the top of one side and “Found Found Found” on the other, but the remaining eight songs are as focused and vivid as anything he’s ever done. “Sing Your Life” and “There’s A Place in Hell For Me and My Friends” are, not to put too fine a point on it, not only perfect Morrissey songs but perfect songs, full stop.

6. Southpaw Grammar (1995)
I’ll never forget the Morrissey radio interview I heard when he was asked his favorite Smiths record and then his favorite solo record. His answers were “Rank” and this one. He might have been trolling, or self-promoting (this album had just come out), but actually he kind of has a point. “Rank” captures the energy of The Smiths in a way that the studio albums never could, and Southpaw might have come closest to doing the same for a backing band that — heresy time — might have, in whole though not in part, been their match. At the time I was enthused by the baroque opening track but a bit indifferent to the more conventional rock that followed it; now I feel the opposite. It’s easy to get lost in some of the highly unusual extended instrumental stretches, but it’s a fine place to be lost. Everyone is at the top of their game here. The scorching “Reader Meet Author,” “The Boy Racer,” “Dagenham Dave,” and “Best Friend on the Payroll” are top-notch, and I refer to “Do Your Best and Don’t Worry” at least every other week.

5. Your Arsenal (1992)
The muscle Morrissey sorely needed after Kill Uncle, and just in time. “You’re Gonna Need Someone on Your Side” is fine, but forgettable; “We’ll Let You Know,” a little limp; but the rest of the album is stone classic. “Successful” and “Fatty” are treasures, “Tomorrow” a triumph, “Glamorous Glue” perennial (“everyone lies, nobody minds, everyone lies: where is the man you respect?”). “The National Front Disco” might be awkward to sing along with, continuing that “Platforms” ambiguity with the pre-chorus “England for the English” which is probably condemnation but sounds a bit like celebration, but it’s all part of the fascinating Morrissey puzzle, of which this is a key piece.

4. My Early Burglary Years (1998)
If you know anything about Morrissey you know he saves most of his best tracks for B-sides. And here’s a stunning lineup: “Sunny,” “At Amber” (“it’s not lowlife, it’s just people having a good time”), “Nobody Loves Us,” “A Swallow On My Neck,” “Pashernate Love,” “Jack the Ripper,” “I’ve Changed My Plea to Guilty,” “Boxers,” and the indispensable “Sister I’m a Poet” and “Girl Least Likely To.” I’d quickly have traded away “Michael’s Bones” and the unnecessary “Cosmic Dancer” cover for “My Love Life” and “I Can Have Both,” but one has to sell singles somehow.

3. Vauxhall and I (1994)
This album came out at a time when I had cooled toward a lot of the music I’d been into and became obsessed with female singer-songwriters and neo-medievalists. I borrowed this, listened, gave it back: it had flown under my radar entirely. When I revisited it years later I couldn’t believe I’d missed out on one of Morrissey’s most perfect albums. The bravado of Your Arse settled down, the point proven, and now just a matter of gorgeous music sustaining some of Morrissey’s best lyrics. It’s highlight after highlight. If I’m back to not listening to it much, it’s because I’ve just about worn it out with repeats. I have to put something aside for old age.

2. You Are the Quarry (2004)
The idea that Maladjusted might have been Morrissey’s retirement record seems crazy now, but in the early 21st century it seemed the most likely scenario. When we heard this was coming out on some obscure defunct reggae record label as a vanity release, we hoped for the best but feared the worst. What we got was the best. It’s not as consistent as Vauxhall, what with meanders like “Come Back to Camden” and near-novelties like “I Like You.” But the sudden direct and forthright and sure-footed power of songs like “America Is Not the World,” “Irish Blood, English Heart,” “I’m Not Sorry,” “The World Is Full of Crashing Bores,” and “You Know I Couldn’t Last” seemed both unprecedented and quintessentially Morrissey. And after so many years of coyness about not only his sexuality but that of others, to hear him use the word “gay” in a song, or sing gorgeously about “All the Lazy Dykes,” or declare “the woman of my dreams…there never was one” seemed revelatory. Other albums might be easier listening, but none made stronger statements, and regarding a man known for his lyrics, that counts for a lot.

1. Bona Drag (1990)
I might be biased for two reasons: one, this is the first solo Morrissey album I ever owned and listened to, so it set the baseline; and two, this is objectively the best Morrissey album of all time. Of course it’s a collection, not technically an album, but with Moz, what difference does it make? This is a set where “Hairdresser on Fire,” “Everyday is Like Sunday,” and “Suedehead” aren’t even in the running for best tracks. “Piccadilly Palare,” “Interesting Drug,” “The Last of the Famous International Playboys,” and “Ouija Board, Ouija Board,” are all extraordinary in their own right and are early prototypes and perhaps best examples of Moz tropes he’d revisit again and again. Depending on your taste, you might find “November Spawned a Monster” or even “He Knows I’d Love To See Him” among the highest of highlights. For my money, it’s the back-to-back pair “Yes, I Am Blind” and “Lucky Lisp” that really brings this one home. There’s an alternate universe where this is a Smiths album and fans debate its merits vs. The Queen Is Dead. As much as I’d love to hear Johnny Marr’s guitar underpinning some of these songs, I’m fine with them just as they are.