From his rise to stardom with The Smiths through to his enduring solo career, Morrissey has remained a true enigma whose heartfelt lyrics continue to ring true for old and new fans alike. (And that’s not even getting into his marvelous vocal style, a delightful, almost yodeling croon that still gives listeners butterflies after over three decades in the music industry). As iconoclasts go, Moz remains a beloved, if controversial, figure whose every move still has the ability to grab headlines. To commemorate his birthday, we’ve done an extensive re-listen of his output from his impressive solo career — spanning from the release of his 1988 debut, Viva Hate, to 2014’s World Peace Is None of Your Business — and chosen our picks for his 10 greatest songs.
10. “Something Is Squeezing My Skull”
Co-written with longtime collaborator Alain White, this lead-off track from Morrissey’s 2009 LP Years of Refusal is a thundering blast of pop disillusionment in which the singer seems downright at peace with his misanthropy. “I know by now you think I should have straightened myself out” he croons with confidence before responding with “thank you, drop dead.” If this track is any indication, it seems this man is still quite charming, even if the crashing bores of the world make him increasingly weary.
9. “My Love Life”
Throughout his career, Morrissey has been extremely cagey in terms of discussing his personal life and sexuality. While he has chatted about being celibate during his Smiths days and described a two-year relationship with a man in his 2013 autobiography, he still prefers to think of himself as “humasexual,” meaning that he is attracted to people in general. (In true Morrissey fashion, he clarified that statement by adding “But, of course … not many.”) Despite all this, Morrissey is still human and needs to be loved just like everybody else does. With that in mind, the 1991 single “My Love Life” has Moz at this most romantic as he asks a potential paramour “I know you love one person but why can’t you love two?” So maybe he’s into polygamy then? We don’t judge.
8. “First of the Gang to Die”
Following the release of 1997’s Maladjusted, Morrissey found himself without a record label for the first time in his solo career. During this excruciating time for fans, he debuted some new material that would eventually turn up on 2004’s comeback album, You Are the Quarry. Among Morrissey’s biggest fans was Craig Kilborn, who allowed the singer to debut some of his unreleased songs on The Late Late Show in 2002. An exuberant Morrissey wowed the audience with his tale of doomed youth, “The First of the Gang to Die,” a story song influenced by violence in his then-new home of Los Angeles. The tune is his catchiest rumination on tragedy since Kenny Rogers’ “Coward of the County” and remains one of Moz’s best.
As a lyricist, Morrissey has a tendency to pen words that tell universal truths about the human experience. (See “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” “How Soon Is Now?,” and pretty much everything else he ever recorded.) The Mick Ronson-produced “Tomorrow” from 1992’s Your Arsenal continues this trend as Morrissey demands that a lover tell him that he or she loves him, even if they don’t really mean it. The song’s message of yearning for a fleeting connection caught the attention of listeners: It topped Billboard’s Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart in the fall of 1992. Fun fact: The two videos produced for the song were directed by none other than Zack Snyder. Which makes sense given how gloomy the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice helmer’s output has been since then.
Morrissey tackles the issue of heroin abuse in this 1995 standalone single. Musically chronicling how a young junkie is dramatically impacting his life as well as the lives of those who continue to love him unconditionally, the song is a weirdly uplifting anthem for anyone who finds themselves powerless in the face of addiction.
5. “November Spawned a Monster”
“Sleep on and dream of love, because it’s the closest you will get to love.” Those words open up “November Spawned a Monster,” a sonically rich exploration of a person whose confinement to a wheelchair has them feeling unloved and forgotten by the world. Although handled with grace and subtlety, this song is an angry condemnation of a society who undervalues its handicapped. Morrissey has championed outsiders many times before in his music, but never with the urgency felt here.
It’s worth noting that as epic as the song is, its corresponding video is, to say the least, a bit goofy. So much so that Beavis and Butthead famously spoofed it. You can watch it in its misguided entirety above. Let’s just say that you’ll never look at band aids or chocolate bars the same way again.
4. “Jack the Ripper”
About 24 years after it was inexplicably relegated to B-side status on the “Certain People I Know” single, “Jack the Ripper” remains the strangest — and sexiest? — song Morrissey has ever recorded. Getting into the mindset of the notorious killer, Moz chronicles the Ripper’s journey through the London streets late at night as he goes in search of his next victim. “Crash into my arms,” he sings with a lustiness heretofore unheard in any of his songs, “I want you.” And with that, listeners everywhere get seduced by the darkness.
3. “Sing Your Life”
Until the release of 2014’s World Peace Is None of Your Business (which had him bordering on self-parody with songs like “Staircase at the University”), 1991’s Kill Uncle was Morrissey’s most divisive album thanks to its uneven tone and several notable musical misfires. For those willing to suffer through the LP’s weaker moments, there is redemption found in the outstanding “Sing Your Life.” An ode to empowerment, it is a reminder for people everywhere to be proud of themselves and embrace their lives… even if we are all ultimately doomed to turn to dust.
2. “Everyday Is Like Sunday”
Countless thinkpieces over the years have referred to Morrissey as things like “the pope of mope” and “the master of misery,” completely overlooking how hilarious his melodramatic tendencies can be. Case in point: The moment in “Everyday is Like Sunday” in which Morrissey yearns for armageddon to end the pain of being stuck in a dead-end seaside British town. This is Moz at his peak, and there’s only one of his songs that surpasses it.
Morrissey’s first solo single remains his strongest. In three minutes and 54 seconds, he lays out a musical map that he continues to follow by fusing a dynamic backdrop — one, in this case, that features the stellar guitar of The Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly — with acidic, often biting lyrics that illustrate the complexities of personal interactions. (Another reason why Morrissey’s celibate schtick never rung true is how songs like this one indicate a familiarity with relationships gone wrong that feels too complex and real to be fictional.) Beginning by asking a former lover why they showed up unannounced and ending by dismissing the person as “a good lay,” “Suedehead” remains Moz’s calling card. It is nothing short of a modern rock milestone.