After the universally reviled Maladjusted and seven years of near-silence—that's far longer than The Smiths were even together—Morrissey jumped back to his feet with 2004's You Are The Quarry, which surprised detractors by being, well, pretty good, and probably surprised the man himself by shifting more units than any other title in his 20-years-deep catalog. Quarry's leap in the right direction apparently boosted the singer's confidence, too: Ringleader Of The Tormentors feels freer than any Morrissey album since 1992's Your Arsenal, not coincidentally his last to be roundly praised.

Partial credit goes to Tony Visconti, a producer known for ushering some of the best sets by Morrissey's heroes into the world: He was behind the boards for David Bowie's "Berlin trilogy" as well as the T. Rex discs that birthed glam-rock. An even greater factor is the songwriting of guitarist Jesse Tobias, whose résumé includes time spent with, umm, Alanis Morissette: He helps these songs breathe, instead of confining them to the straight-ahead rock and rockabilly of Mozzer's longtime collaborators. The result: The most purely listenable Morrissey album in ages.

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The most important part of the equation, of course, is Morrissey himself, and he's obviously happier than ever—and cleverer than in a long time. He's got sex and death on the brain: The former used to scare him and the latter fascinate him, but the roles have switched. On the funny "Dear God, Please Help Me," a church-like organ leads to a crooned, "There are explosive kegs / between my legs," something the Morrissey of old never would have admitted. On the excellent single "You Have Killed Me," Morrissey runs love and death through old Italian cinema, lyrically shifting and skirting in a way he doesn't do enough anymore. On the subject of mortality, he weeps through the maudlin "I'll Never Be Anybody's Hero," then grins through "On The Streets I Ran," both triumphantly. He only flounders on the songs that get too direct: Fifteen years ago, he would've made it clear that "the youngest was the most loved" (and that he turned out to be a killer) without coming right out with it. Ditto the murder/suicide tale "The Father Who Must Be Killed," though both those songs are brilliantly saved by a hell-bent children's choir. Track for track, Ringleader is unquestionably Morrissey's best in ages, and though it isn't his pinnacle—that mountain is massive—it does climb higher than he's been lately.