4: The Smiths – There Is a Light That Never Goes Out (1986)
“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” is, perhaps, the crown jewel of the Smiths’ catalog. Containing just the right amount of doomed balladry and uplifting melodies, it represents the strong union between Steven Morrissey and Johnny Marr—a duo very often named amongst the likes of McCartney/Lennon and Jagger/Richards in terms of praise, despite their relatively short time together. In a rush and push, it only took the Smiths five years to leave a lasting and unique legacy on indie music.
Morrissey’s lyrics have never been as morbidly beautiful as they are on this song, his admission that it’s no problem if “a double decker bus” or a “10-ton truck” kills him and his lover. “To die by your side/ Well, the pleasure, the privilege, is mine,” croons Morrissey as his young life is hypothetically cut short. It’s about as Morrissey as Morrisey can get, and it sounds as if he’s about to explode into a whirlwind of hormone-induced drama.
Marr forgoes his usual guitar chimes in favor of a symphony of acoustic guitars and synthetic Mellotron sighs. Despite his perhaps unwarranted reputation as a Rickenbacker fanboy, Marr’s true heart as a guitarist is found in the acoustic and his love of guitarists like Bert Jansch and Neil Young. Here, Marr adds crucial color and tone, especially through his hopelessly beautiful string and flute arrangements, but he refuses to take the spotlight.
Andy Rourke’s bass playing, perennially the most underrated aspect of the Smiths, similarly takes a back seat. His typically melodically-rich basslines are replaced by an understated walk around the chord progression. However, much like Marr’s contributions, Rourke adds a certain richness including a sly deviation that holds the choruses together.
“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” was never a commercially strong hit for the Smiths—much like many of their other beloved songs, it stands as a much-adored cult classic rather than a world-conquering single. However, for the sad and lovelorn, the Smiths’ enduring and powerful music continues to burn brightly. – Edward Dunbar
3: Prince – When Doves Cry (1984)
“When Doves Cry” has no bass. That’s the fact you hear, over and over, about the biggest and strangest song on Purple Rain. It might be the bit of trivia most frequently cited to prove why Prince is a genius—then they play the song. But, of course, most people know this song already. It’s the one that plays on the radio, the one Milhouse cites as he meets his Shelbyville doppelganger. You hear those “oohs” and think of that scrawny poodle-man strutting around in purple. But slowly you realize how sneakily out-there it is. You notice the empty spaces where the bass should be, and then you realize how little it sounds like anything else while hiding in plain sight as a pop song that makes perfect sense.
One of the most avant-garde pop stars in history, Prince laced even his biggest hits with ideas that the woolliest denizens of the underground would fear to try. There are weirder songs than “When Doves Cry” in his catalog, but none got this big and none are as good at worming into your head. It’s one thing to assault your brain with bizarre sounds, like Timbaland (who covered this song with Ginuwine) does in his productions. It’s another to let those bizarre sounds blend into the music so seamlessly that you don’t notice the degree of ingenuity you’re hearing. The latter’s arguably more admirable. I suspect Prince would agree.
The two-note hook. The amped-up ascending classical shit at the end. The synth that sounds almost like an alarm bell. Those layers of LinnDrums, grinding away, often the only thing keeping Prince’s notes aloft. The chorus, which evokes the paranoid psychoanalysis of Pet Sounds (is it a coincidence his subsequent work with the Revolution mostly comprised florid baroque pop, with a clear debt towards the heavenward-reaching high art of Wilson and McCartney)? And, of course, those big wide-open gaps where the bass should be.
What is this song? Just the biggest hit of 1984, Prince’s first Number One, a modern-day masterpiece of art music and one of the most natural things in the world on the radio. – Daniel Bromfield