Johnny Marr is best known as the guitarist of ’80s icons the Smiths, but in the quarter-century-plus since he left the group, the 49-year-old Manchester, England, native has carved out a diverse career as a trusted sidearm. Besides joining several other bands as a touring and/or recording member (The The, Modest Mouse and, most recently, the Cribs), he’s worked with an impressive roster of British and American musicians—including Talking Heads, the Pretenders, Beth Orton, the Cult, and even Girls Aloud. To celebrate the release of his first solo album, The Messenger — and honor his colorful catalog — here are 10 of his best collaborations.
The Pretenders, “Windows Of The World”
This collaboration was likely quite an honor for Marr, as he's cited late Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott as a formative influence. A Nick Lowe-produced cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David chestnut, "Windows Of The World" boasts very Smiths-like chiming strums from Marr. Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde matches the feathery 12-string guitar and weepy orchestral touches with a stunning, glamorous vocal performance. A one-off single, "Windows Of The World" also appeared on the soundtrack to the Winona Ryder/Kiefer Sutherland flick 1969.
Talking Heads, “(Nothing But) Flowers”
Marr actually played on four songs on Talking Heads' final studio album, Naked, although his contributions are most prominent on "(Nothing But) Flowers." More breezy jangle reminiscent of you-know-who (which Marr himself admitted to Guitarist in 2009: "I pulled out the biggest sound I could — which was my Sunburst 335 12-string — and came up with this really big, kinda Smithsy part"), his riffing blends in nicely with the track's pleasant rhythms and tropical feel.
Billy Bragg, “Sexuality”
Marr had a major hand in shaping this warm-and-fuzzy (but cheeky) alt-rock hit by his long-time musical chum. He co-wrote the song with Bragg, and also contributed guitars and vocals. The result is one of Bragg's goofiest tunes — sample lyrics: "I look like Robert DeNiro/ I drive a Mitsubishi Zero" — but also one of his most indelible, with lilting harmonies (courtesy of the late Kirsty MacColl, among others) and exuberant riffs galore.
Beck, “Milk + Honey”
You have be patient to hear Marr on this screwball highlight of Beck's Midnite Vultures, but the wait is worth it. After the tune's sped through cosmic electrofunk, classic rock swoons and robotic R&B ecstasy, it winds down into a spacey coda featuring Marr on electric guitar. "Beck reminded me of David Byrne in the best possible way," Marr once told Magnet. "He can get on pretty much anyone's sense of humor and sense of the absurd…I think he's the real thing because he's not afraid to go down some necessary sideroads rather than just take the main highway."
Oasis, “(Probably) All In The Mind”
Britpop hooligans Oasis wouldn't have a career if it weren't for the Smiths, so it makes sense Marr would one day turn up on an album to show the band how it's done. On this rustic, psych-tinged sprawl from 2002's Heathen Chemistry, Marr contributes a solo that sticks to the tune's bleary-eyed spirit. Smudged with bar-band charm, faint twang and just the vaguest hint of psychedelia, his appearance is brief but memorable.
Electronic, “Tighten Up”
In the late '80s, Marr teamed up with New Order's Bernard Sumner and formed Electronic, a group whose guitar/keyboard hybrids teased out the nuances of each man's talents. Case in point: The needling, catchy "Tighten Up." The song's lightning-strike synths and blooming keyboards meld with Sumner's conspiratorial vocals and Marr's insistent acoustic strumming, which adds the perfect amount of bite and urgency.
The The, “Slow Emotion Replay”
Besides being an ace guitar player, Marr plays a pretty mean harmonica. As a member of The The from 1988-94, he had the chance to display both of these skills in spades — especially on "Slow Emotion Replay." As if the tune's bereft protagonist wasn't morose enough (lyrics: "I'm just a slow emotion replay of somebody I used to be"), Marr underscores the melancholy by adding watery riffs and weary harmonica.
7 Worlds Collide, “Learn To Crawl”
One of the Marr's underrated endeavors is the 7 Worlds Collide project, a loose collective formed by Crowded House's Neil Finn to raise money for charity. The Sun Came Out, the group's second album, features hefty contributions from Radiohead and Wilco. However, the understated "Learn To Crawl," a Marr co-write, boasts anguished vocals from Neil and son Liam, Radiohead-like ghostly rhythms and uneasy guitar arpeggios. Impossibly lovely, even though it aches with longing.
Modest Mouse, “Dashboard”
Initially, Marr was unclear whether jamming with Modest Mouse would amount to anything. That changed — fast. "On the first night, I came up with the riff and music to 'Dashboard,' then straight away we did another song called 'We've Got Everything,' and then at the end of the 10 days I changed my plane ticket," he told The Quietus. "Dashboard" indeed is one of Modest Mouse's boldest statements, a horn- and string-peppered whirling dervish with stomping beats and square-dance riffs.
Johnny Marr, “Lockdown”
The Messenger delivers exactly what you would expect from a Marr solo album: aggressive guitars — touching on glam, blues, psych-rock and jangle-pop — mixed in with moments of acoustic delicacy. Still, the album's not predictable — or pedestrian. For proof, start with "Lockdown," a soaring '90s Britpop throwback with yearning vocals and expansive hooks; in fact, the song feels very much like Marr tipping a cap to his pals in Oasis.