10. The Separate ft. Joan as Police Woman – This Night Has Opened My Eyes
Not embeddable, listen at Soundcloud
A curious oddity, this: an album of orchestral variations of a number of varied songs from varied sources, entitled just that, Orchestral Variations V.01, and emanating from Ireland’s Setanta records in 2012. A string quartet: The Separate, led by Fiona Brice, backs an array of singers as they try to enrich the back catalog of a number of artists with a chamber hue. This Smiths song, courtesy the atypically transatlantic clipped guitar style, is always a bit of an outrider to their repertoire, even if Morrissey sounds never more insular from the external process. Joan Wasserman, her tones often sounding equally detached, is perfect. – Seuras Og
9. James Elkington & Nathan Salsburg – Reel Around the Fountain
An instrumental guitar duet is an unlikely approach to the Smiths, especially if it’s acoustic and rooted in the Celtic finger-style tradition. And no, these American guitarists don’t re-jigger “Reel Around the Fountain” into a reel or a jig. Instead they play Marr’s composition rather faithfully, but as if Bert Jansch or John Renbourn had been its composer. Jansch’s influence on Marr was massive, so maybe this trad folk thing is not so unlikely after all. In any case, this rendition is simply beautiful, with the two guitarists interlacing in graceful and beguiling ways. – Tom McDonald
8. Mojo Nixon – Girlfriend in a Coma
The minute I heard Mojo Nixon’s take on “Girlfriend in a Coma,” I had to have it, so truly batshit crazy is the interpretation. Nixon out-wilds Wild Man Fischer in a rabid rockabilly riot, the video confirming his seeming state of mind. You could say it’s a metaphor for the many and varied ways of grief. Or you could just grin, slack-jawed, distracted by the sheer nerve of it. – Seuras Og
7. Radiohead – Headmaster Ritual
Radiohead have cited The Smiths many times as a key influence in their development as the premier UK indie band of our times. It’s an influence most evident in the grim humor of 1997’s “Karma Police” and the mournful air of 2001’s “Knives Out,” but they acknowledged the debt further with a truly vital cover of “The Headmaster Ritual” for an In Rainbows-era webcast in late 2007. Thom Yorke introduced the Meat is Murder classic as being “about when we were younger,” clearly able to relate to its theme of school-based corporal punishment and being at the mercy of “belligerent ghouls” and “spineless swines.” He obviously had a great time singing it, too, very much in the vein of Morrissey, while the triple guitar attack of Yorke, Ed O’Brien, and Jonny Greenwood is absolutely thrilling. Plus, with Marr having personally taught his friend O’Brien the chords to the song, there’s a definite sprinkle of Smiths magic here, even if, as Marr has suggested, he was “looking out of the window” at the time. – Adam Mason
6. Everything But The Girl – Back to the Old House
Can Tracey Thorn just please record every song ever made? This version of “Back To The Old House” was recorded live in London in October 1990, and it sees Thorn, supported by some fine picking courtesy of Ben Watt, damn near stealing “Back” from its original owners. The performance is exceptionally intimate. When she hits the long notes I’m pretty sure that somewhere in the world, it starts to rain. – Hope Silverman
5. Yes The Raven – How Soon Is Now?
A friend who is chronically unwise insists that “How Soon is Now?” is a song that cannot be covered. I think they mean there’s no point in imitating it, and I would agree there. As would Alan Mearns, aka Yes The Raven. When Mearns works with something, he finds some new surprising translation of it, but then he varies it on each iteration rather than put it on repeat cycle. The descending melody that plays under the “Shut your mouth” section, on the other hand, is an example of addition rather than translation – the line is not even hinted at in the original. This song resists summary; I’ll just say it’s as satisfying as the original. They just satisfy strikingly different musical needs. – Tom McDonald
4. The Decemberists – Ask
The Decemberists count the Smiths as a key influence; Colin Meloy’s first solo project was a collection of Morrissey covers, and the title of their album The King is Dead may well be an homage to the Smiths’ classic album. So it is not surprising that the band has performed Smiths and Morrissey songs as part of its large collection of live covers. “Ask,” an atypically upbeat Smiths song (with a more typically angsty message) was released as a single in 1986. The Decemberists appear to have begun covering the song in 2004, typically as a stripped-down show-closer that is surprisingly more somber than the original. – Jordan Becker
3. Stars – This Charming Man
It’s hard to believe that almost twenty years separate the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” from Stars’ cover. The music world had changed considerably in the interim, but both songs sound just as fresh today as they did upon release. Stars applies their Canadian cool to the music and vocals, and have the audacity to sample Johnny Marr’s opening guitar lick in the middle of the song. It works beautifully, helping to make this a favorite cover of both Smiths and Stars members. – Patrick Robbins
2. Billy Bragg – Ask / Never Had No One Ever / Back to the Old House
Billy Bragg may not seem the most obvious Smiths interpreter to merit three picks on this list. His musical tools are almost always plain ones — bassline guitar chunking, his yawp of a voice. But it’s precisely the distillation, the pure, raw energy of Bragg’s approach, that floats these three B.B. covers to our list.
On his 1990 live cover of “Ask,” Bragg alternates between utter fixation and total daze, staring lazily into the middle distance one minute, then sneering at full throttle the next, shaken awake by the onslaught of his own strums. Whatever the mode, the whole performance is a thrill to take in. Musically, too, the performance feels in a state of perpetual flux, with numerous holes poked in the arrangement that seem liable to make it sink — no drums, tossed-off alternate lyrics, flimsy-sounding countermelodies at the CP-80. But somehow, it’s these limitations (and quirks) that also make Bragg’s “Ask” feel buoyant and restorative.
Bragg’s take on “Never Had No One Ever,” from 1996 tribute album The Smiths Is Dead, takes time to simmer to its painful climax, one giant slow burn. Key to the song’s big boomy vibe is a baritone sax solo, backed by a horn section that sits in a particularly weird and lowdown headspace: part Tusk, part “St James Infirmary,” all unhinged. Who knew that Bragg would be the one to carry a tune to such a raw place – let alone by way of a Smiths song.
Finally, Billy pulls inward with his version of “Back to the Old House,” a home recording which appears on Bragg’s self-titled compilation released in 2006. The cover feels resigned, built around a loose guitar performance from Johnny Marr himself. Bragg puts on a good face and guides the tune to a moment of quiet triumph at its close, leaning into its final and profound kiss-off: “I’d love to go back to the old house/but I never will…/I never will/I never will…” – Ben Easton
1. Dum Dum Girls – There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
You know, this is not the first Cover Me list this cover has topped. A decade and change ago, we named Dum Dum Girls’ version of the most often-covered Smiths song the best cover of 2011. Here’s what we wrote at the time, which still holds true (especially that bit about Morrissey baggage): “A Morrissey’s hair-sized set of cultural baggage accompanies ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ and would-be interpreters tend to sink under the weight. Dum Dum Girls dismiss all that with a bang flip and lipstick sneer on a refreshingly irreverent cover that makes the original seem downright maudlin. Surf-rock drums and shoegaze guitars roar through this squalling performance, equal parts Link Wray and Ramones while singer Dee Dee rides atop the noise with a give-a-fuck attitude. Good thing that light never goes out, ‘cause with this power it’s liable to blow a fuse.” – Ray Padgett