This month, The Cure commenced a massive North American tour, their first in seven years. The outing has already generated publicity and controversy, due to the band’s frontman, Robert Smith, tangling with Ticketmaster over fees that inflated ticket prices. Unlike many of his rock-star peers, Smith has been an outspoken advocate for his fans, and pushed to keep admission as low as $20.
But even without the Ticketmaster debacle, these shows would have likely been a huge hit. Originally formed in 1978, The Cure have endured over the course of 45 years as an alt-rock institution impervious to trends. Even as their output has slowed — their peak lasted from the early ’80s to the early ’90s, when they put out new albums practically every year — they have hung on as an influence for each new generation of “sullen teenager” music. From shoegaze to nü-metal to emo rap, The Cure lurks in the architecture of modern music.
Smith’s advocacy for his fans speaks to how The Cure is a community as much as a band. They are synonymous with a distinct sound, look, and vibe that is unique to them, and also a reliable reference point for countless other bands, regardless of genre.
How did it happen? And what has survived after all these years as The Cure’s best work? I’ll show you how they did it. These are the Cure songs that make me scream, I said. The ones that make me laugh, I said. I’ll throw this list around your head.
TWO MINUTE LANGUID INSTRUMENTAL PRE-LIST INTRODUCTION
It is October of 1980. The Cure are in Amsterdam while on tour in support of their second LP, Seventeen Seconds. The band is being interviewed by a Dutch journalist, who posits a question that seems unusual now but (I guess?) at the time was relevant: “Are The Cure the Pink Floyd of the ’80s?”
The only possible explanation for this inquiry that makes sense to me is that on Seventeen Seconds — which feels like The Cure’s real debut, in that exhibits all of the Cure-esque sonic signifiers that their actual debut, 1979’s plucky post-punk missive Three Imaginary Boys, does not — the band indulged in the sorts of long, languid instrumental introductions that a rock critic in 1980 might have likened to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” Not that the breakout song from the album, “A Forest,” resembles the Floyd in any other way. But (I guess??) that intro — it takes exactly one minute and 48 seconds for the vocal to appear, nearly the length of a “normal” pop song — seemed similar enough at the time.
Robert Smith — who until now has been mostly ignoring the interviewer in favor of staring at the wall behind him — is visibly annoyed by the question. Not because he’s striking a standard punk posture against Pink Floyd on “boring old fart” grounds. (He actually loves early Pink Floyd, when they were lead by Syd Barrett, the original self-destructive British eccentric topped with a wild, bird’s nest mane of black hair.) What bothers Smith is that the assertion is lazy. More than that, he resents the implication that he’s not an original.
“The Cure are The Cure of the ’80s,” he insists.
Smith, we all know, is correct, even though The Cure haven’t fully become The Cure quite yet. In time, they will have their own aesthetic that is both musical and visual. For instance, any band that inserts a long, languid instrumental introduction into a song in 2023 won’t be compared with Pink Floyd. They will be likened to The Cure. A spidery guitar line that riffs on the melody against an equally melodic bass part slithering in and out of a stately drum beat — that’s The Cure’s whole thing right there.
And now I’m ripping it off. I’m ripping it off because the long, languid instrumental introduction is what initially pulls you into a Cure song. It’s what makes a Cure song feel like a movie that is depressing and romantic in equal measures.
I am preparing you for a nice, long, warm wallow.
Here comes the vocal.
40. “The Baby Screams” (1985)
It is April of 2019 in New York City. A small battalion of Cure band members are seated inside the Barclays Center while Trent Reznor delivers a speech inducting them into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame.
But Trent Reznor really is just telling his own origin story. He grew up in a nowhere town in Pennsylvania, Trent tells us, and then moved as a young man in the mid-’80s to Cleveland, the big city, where he discovered college radio and alternative rock. Which meant he encountered one of the defining albums for alt-rock during this period, The Head On The Door by The Cure.
“A lot of darkness I felt in my head was coming back at me in the speakers,” he says, “and it blew my mind.”
Reznor’s story resonates because it isn’t unique to a millionaire rock star. It is, in fact, utterly typical for a Cure fan, particularly in the pre-internet world. This band blew a lot of minds by mirroring their audience’s dark sides and pushing it back at them in the form of dream-like anthems.
Later, Reznor marvels at Smith’s ability to write songs about difficult subjects that are also accessible and radio-friendly. He calls it inspirational, which is unique to a millionaire rock star who went on to write a pop song about how he would rather die than give someone control.
Reznor doesn’t put it exactly in these terms, but The Cure’s secret sauce is their ability to be soft and hard at the same time. This particular deep cut from The Head On The Door is a good example. The title is off-putting, even grotesque, in a way that I’m sure would have appealed to a person with Reznor’s sensibility. It hints at an unfathomable evil, and yet in the actual song the phrase “like a baby screams” is intended to evoke extreme pleasure. The baby screams because it is frightened, and the baby screams because it is delighted, and it’s sometimes hard to know the difference. That’s The Cure. Like so many of their songs, “The Baby Screams” is hard and bitter on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside.
39. “Before Three” (2004)
This simultaneous soft/hard-ness is what explains The Cure’s stubborn relevance and widespread influence, which is far greater than they get credit for. Their impact on post-punk, goth, alternative rock, dream pop, and shoegaze is obvious. But their reach goes well beyond those genres. In a broad sense, they are a foundational act for several generations of “sullen teenager” music. In the “alt-rock” mid-’90s, they were covered by Smashing Pumpkins. In the “nü-metal” late ’90s and early aughts, Korn and Deftones played Cure tunes. After that, the mall punk generation of Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance paid homage to Robert Smith. Then it was the emo-rap era, and Lil Peep and Wicca Phase Springs Eternal sampled them.
What’s incredible about this is that The Cure over the years has been a fairly static institution. We all know what they sound like, and what they look like, and what their vibe is. It never really changes. And yet all kinds of musicians and fanbases hear something that speaks to them that might not be apparent to a different constituency. Are they dark and drone-y? Jangly and poppy? Morose? Hopeful? Wimpy? Muscular? Malevolent? Pure? Do they rock? Do they roll? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.
Back to the nü-metal segment of The Cure Stan community: In 2004, Ross Robinson was brought in to produce the band’s self-titled album. At the time, any other legacy band caught working with the guy synonymous with Korn, Slipknot, and Limp Bizkit would be accused of trend-hopping. But with The Cure, it actually made sense, because they fit with those bands while also not fitting in with them at all. And that translates to this song: If you love nü-metal, it might sound like a slightly harder version of a typical Cure tune. If you don’t love nü-metal, it sounds exactly as hard as any other typical Cure song. And also as soft.
38. “Where The Birds Always Sing” (2000)
In reality, the most metal-like aspect of The Cure is the merch. This is a band that gives you a uniform.
Does “The Cure Kid” phenomenon still exist in American high schools? In the late 20th century, you could not walk into a school in this country without witnessing this particular clique. Oversized band T-shirts, baggy dark pants, wiry hair, and conspicuous makeup slathered on pale faces — this was the costume of The Cure Kid. Importantly, it worked for all genders. As it did for Robert Smith, who tinkered with the look during the Pornography era and codified it in the music videos spawned by The Head On The Door. The Cure Kid look obliterated the norms that defined the rigid world of pubescent angst that was ruled by confused hormones. Boys don’t cry? They do now. But it also wasn’t about boys and girls. The Cure Kid look was not feminine, either — it was “other.” It was you. Even if it was also him.
Speaking of him: In 2000, Robert Smith resolved to make an album that was basically a musical tribute to himself. It was called Bloodflowers, and it could be construed by an uncharitable observer as a sign that he was out of ideas. But I am not uncharitable. If anyone is going to make a record that riffs on Disintegration, I want it to be Robert Smith. After all, so many people have worn his clothes. He ought to have the right to wear them himself any time he wants. He wears the hell out of them in this song.
37. “In Your House” (1980)
In his Rock Hall induction speech, Reznor’s singled out for praise Robert Smith’s voice, “the most exquisite of instruments.” Indeed, the preservation of that voice is what’s most striking when you watch live clips of The Cure from any period. It is fundamentally a naive and youthful sound, capable of expressing (in Reznor’s words) “such a range of emotion, from rage, sorrow, and despair to beauty, frailty, and joy.” And it still, incredibly, has those same qualities even as Smith has aged into his mid-60s. Close your eyes and listen to this, and you might find it impossible to discern it from Smith as he was in 1980.
But there is more to The Cure than just Robert Smith. There is also Lol Tolhurst, band co-founder and perennial in-house punching bag. Their original drummer, Tolhurst has been slandered over the years — most prominently by Smith — as a substandard time keeper. And, I suppose, that is technically true. But his minimalist playing also is crucial to the band’s early sound, lending their songs an underlying sense of doom marching slowly but steadily forward. That inevitable pull toward something sinister is readily apparent on this track, a slasher movie in miniature in which a mysterious protagonist taunts the listener while pulling a psychological B&E.
36. “The Drowning Man” (1981)
“During Seventeen Seconds,” Smith later observed in 2004, “we honestly felt that we were creating something no one else had done.” That something was cinematic and grim, a sound that was atmospheric and enveloping, one that promised to take the listener to the very edge of whatever it is that makes human beings want to live in order to peer at the bottomless abyss that lies just beyond. On the next record, 1981’s Faith, The Cure actually went over that edge. Like on this song, which describes in horrific detail that sensation of slowly slipping away from life. “One by one her senses die / The memories fade / And leave her eyes / Still seeing worlds that never were / And one by one the bright birds leave her.”
35. “Charlotte Sometimes” (1981)
Not to state the obvious but: “The Drowning Man” isn’t exactly a toe tapper! But it is the kind of song that fed into The Cure’s image and created a strange sort of mystique. And Smith was self-aware about this, to a kind of creepy degree. In a 1989 Spin interview, he copped to following a strange story out of New Zealand about two young Cure fans who had taken their own lives. Smith saw a headline that read “Gothic Cult Suicide,” and he cut it out and pasted it to the studio wall while they were making Disintegration.
“I know it’s tragic,” he said, “but at the same time it’s grimly funny because it obviously had nothing to do with us. We were just singled out. Everyone was joking about it being suicidal music and how I upset people with the words.”
In this Faith-era single, which definitely is a toe tapper, Smith imagines a more typical Cure fan: She is alienated from the outside world, so she escapes to her bedroom, where “she hopes to open shadowed eyes / on a different world.” A world that a song like “Charlotte Sometimes” offers.
34. “Six Different Ways” (1985)
Most people heard “Charlotte Sometimes” on the singles compilation Standing On A Beach, which became The Cure’s breakthrough hit in America after it was released in May of 1986. While on tour in support of the record, they performed a sold-out show at The Forum in Los Angeles that was marred by fan who repeatedly stabbed himself in the chest and stomach with a hunting knife because — as the Los Angeles Times reported — he was trying to impress a girl named Andrea.
This is the sort of thing that might happen at a Cure show in the mid-’80s! What sold Standing On A Beach and the proper LP that preceded it, The Head On The Door, was Robert Smith’s pop sense and the quirky image forwarded by music video director Tim Pope. In the press, Smith was christened “the thinking teen’s pin-up” and “a dark version of Boy George,” which seems odd until you listen to this charmingly off-kilter tune from The Head On The Door.
33. “Why Can’t I Be You?” (1987)
When I say their music videos were quirky, what I mean is that Robert Smith was game to put on a bear suit for the sake of having a hit. (He also allowed Lol Tolhurst to don blackface, which I’m going to pretend was a diabolical scheme to justify 86ing him from the band soon afterward.)
My favorite Cure album came out the year after The Forum incident. While consensus opinion favors Disintegration, I lean slightly toward Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me for the very reasons that the album is criticized. I like that it’s a little long, a little scattered, and a little inconsistent. I also appreciate that it doesn’t commit to a single mood like Disintegration does. Kiss Me is the most rock ‘n’ roll Cure record — it was recorded in the south of France, like Exile On Main St., at the same studio where Pink Floyd made The Wall — that also contains some of their purest pop tunes. Like this track, a slyly deranged love song that is as aggressive lyrically (Robert promises to hug his love to death!) as it is musically (I refer to the likably cheesy fake ’80s horns that sound beamed in from a Jim Belushi movie).
32. “The Perfect Girl” (1987)
Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me went platinum, and Smith later theorized that the secret to his success was the album’s appeal to women. And that was entirely planned. During the making of the record, the band would play their songs for their girlfriends. They dubbed them “The Panel.”
“They wouldn’t like ‘Fight,’ which was really not a girly song,” he told Rolling Stone. “But the more male members of the band were like, ‘This is rock! This is what we should be doing, not this other wussy stuff.’” An example of “this other wussy stuff” is this song, the sweetest tune on a record rich with funk experiments and extended mood pieces. The women loved “The Perfect Girl,” so it went on the album. And this paid off in unexpected ways.
“I remember on the Kiss Me tour we were in Los Angeles, and there were girls taking their clothes off and lying down in front of the bus to stop us from driving away,” Smith said. “And I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t really what I imagined I would be doing with this band.’”
31. “10:15 Saturday Night” (1979)
Three Imaginary Boys is Robert Smith’s least favorite Cure album, and I agree with him. Let’s start with the cover. Making pink the predominant color on a Cure LP is like printing Celine Dion’s name in the death-metal font. It’s just wrong. But Smith had no say in the matter, just as he had no control over the production or even which songs made it on the record. (That changed by the time of Seventeen Seconds.) On Three Imaginary Boys, The Cure sounds like what they were: A young, talented, but essentially formless British post-punk band. Nevertheless, on this song, they did successfully turn out the kind of zippy bubblegum gloom that countless Interpol wannabes attempted in the aughts.
30. “The Funeral Party” (1981)
When The Cure first emerged, the band that had already mastered atmospheric depression music was Joy Division. In a timeline where Ian Curtis does not kill himself, I can imagine Joy Division having a Beatles vs. Stones dynamic with The Cure throughout the ’80s. Though I can’t decide which band is which — The Cure seems more Beatlesque musically, but Joy Division came first and (in Beatles’ fashion) influenced The Cure more than the other way around.
When Robert Smith first heard the final Joy Division studio album, Closer, he thought to himself, “I can’t ever imagine making something as powerful as this,” he later recalled. “I thought I’d have to kill myself to make a convincing record.”
Thankfully, he didn’t do that. Instead, he made Faith and loaded it with songs like this one, in which he metaphorically offs himself.
29. “The Hanging Garden” (1982)
The album after Faith is where The Cure really went into “none more black” mode. Pornography is prized by serious Cure-heads as the apotheosis of their “dark” early period. It’s also their staunchest goth move, and it’s what permanently embedded them in that culture, much to Smith’s chagrin. (He’s long insisted that The Cure is not a goth band in interviews.) But The Cure were committed to the bit. They worked at night and did loads of cocaine to stay awake. (The recording budget set aside £1,600 for blow.) They even recorded in the bathroom “to get a really horrible feeling, because the toilets were dirty and grim,” Smith explained later. Perhaps those “dirty and grim toilets” explain the album’s booming, cavernous sound, which is apparent on this track, the album’s biggest “hit.” Music mixed by cokeheads tends to be trebly, but Pornography is all low end, like it’s being beamed directly from hell.
28. “The Lovecats” (1983)
On a recent Friday night, I tweeted that I was getting ready for the weekend by listening to Pornography. Several people — including at least one life-long friend — immediately replied to ask if I was okay. This is a natural response. I suspect that “Listening to Pornography” is listed in the DSM-IV as a potential sign of mental illness. But I swear that my brain was in a good place. That’s because I classify Pornography first as a “drug and/or party” record, rather than a “depression” record, which made it seem perfectly appropriate to put on while enjoying a Friday night cocktail. (And because I was also technically working, as I was binging on The Cure for this very column, I will be writing off that cocktail as a business expense for tax purposes.)
Now, if I said I was listening to Standing On A Beach, it wouldn’t seem like a red flag. It is The Cure’s “fun” record, particularly the songs like this one that came in the immediate aftermath of Pornography, when Robert Smith left his filthy bathroom and radically remade himself as a purveyor of goofy pop-gloom.
27. “Let’s Go To Bed” (1983)
My favorite thing about The Cure is their willingness – when the time is right — to be really stupid. The idea behind “The Lovecats,” according to Smith, was to do “a Disney take on jazz, based around The Aristocats.” This is not a thought that would have ever occurred to Ian Curtis. A similar impulse also drove “Let’s Go To Bed,” a synth-pop confection that was the first of their post-“pivot from Pornography” singles. Later, Smith would dismiss the song as “a joke” and “junk” that he purposely larded with sonic references to “everything I hated about music at the time.” Though I don’t really believe him. Perhaps he meant that writing extremely catchy songs like this came easy to him in the ’80s, which I can believe.
26. “The Caterpillar” (1984)
While it’s true that “Let’s Go To Bed” is not as “serious” as Pornography or Disintegration, The Cure’s stupid side derives from the same hard/soft duality that rests at their core. For such an incredibly specific band, they are also incredibly broad. The arc of The Cure’s critical appreciation over time has bent toward recognizing and rewarding this. But for many years, it was easy to dismiss them as crass or juvenile, especially in comparison to a band with whom they did have a rivalry: The Smiths.
Actually, it was really just about Robert Smith and Morrissey. (I doubt, for instance, that Simon Gallup cared at all about Andy Rourke.) As a student of musical rivalries, I feel confident in declaring that the Robert Smith vs. Morrissey feud is one of the greatest in rock history. The hate was genuine, and it was hilarious.
Let’s review some of the highlights: Morrissey started it by calling Smith a “whingebag” who copied his predilection for being photographed with flowers. Smith replied that “if Morrissey says not to eat meat, then I’m going to eat meat; that’s how much I hate Morrissey.” Morrissey then called Smith “a fat clown with makeup weeping over a guitar.” Smith rebutted by declaring that Morrissey is “a professional complainer.” Morrissey countered by slagging off Disintegration as “absolutely vile” and “a new dimension to the word ‘crap.'” To which Smith responded, “At least we’ve only added a new dimension in crap, not built a career out of it.”
Shoot this directly into my veins! Actually, the funniest part of this feud is when Morrissey took his initial shot The Cure, and he said, “I’ve never liked the Cure… not even ‘The Caterpillar.’” Why single out “The Caterpillar”? His phrasing suggests that this is The Cure song that’s the toughest for Morrissey to hate, the highest compliment.
25. “Disintegration” (1989)
For years, it was conventional wisdom that The Smiths – whose audience was generally older and more collegiate — were the better band. But lately that’s shifted pretty dramatically in The Cure’s favor. And that obviously has a lot to do with Robert Smith seeming like a decent and level-headed guy, and Morrissey not seeming like any of those things at all.
But there are also musical matters. The Queen Is Dead is a great record, but it is also intrinsically British and inextricably linked to the 1980s. Meanwhile, The Cure’s “critical favorite” equivalent, Disintegration, is not hemmed in by geography or era. It’s the kind of album that will always sound perfect if you hear it at 16, or years later if you first discovered it at 16.
There are many reasons for this. But for now I’d like to praise Simon Gallup. He plays his ass off on Disintegration. He plays his ass off on every Cure album but his bass lines are world class here. Gallup’s melodic flourishes on the title track alone make this eight-minute torture fest feel sleek and sexy.
24. “Untitled” (1989)
Here is another compliment for Disintegration: It is one of the great “compact disc albums” albums of all time. Robert Smith conceived it as one block of music, rather than a traditional record with two sides. (Or four sides, since Disintegration runs for 72 minutes.) As a long-time CD booster myself, I must insist that anyone tempted to purchase this record on vinyl will in fact be listening to Disintegration the “wrong” way. In order to play this album properly, you must go on eBay, find a used CD copy, purchase a CD boom box, and play it in your bedroom with the lights off.
The problem with Disintegration when comes to a list like this one is that it’s difficult to separate individual tracks from the whole. This song, for instance, the album’s final track, only truly lands if you have stuck with the album to the bitter end.
23. “Plainsong” (1989)
This is also true of the first song from Disintegration! It’s unnatural to put on this overwhelming scene-setter and not hear “Pictures Of You” immediately afterward!
22. “Open” (1992)
Disintegration made The Cure the world’s most introverted stadium-rock band, which was “everything that I didn’t want us to become,” Smith mused. But when you listen to Wish, the follow-up to Disintegration and the last album of their golden period, you hear Smith leaning into crafting brawny and riffy rock tunes like never before. It’s the album where The Cure came closest to embracing its role as “the weird U2” of alt-rock’s prime, starting with the opening track.
21. “End” (1992)
I happen to really like that aspect of The Cure, though Smith clearly had his doubts, along with many fans. There’s a perception that Wish is simply a retread of Disintegration, which is sort of true. But it’s also loaded with real hits and songs that feel like hits (like this one) if you were young when Wish came out. (Everyone had at least one friend who kept this CD in their car.) If I had to recommend a Cure album to a neophyte, it would probably be this one. Wish is the “normie” Cure record, the one where you don’t really have to know or care about the mythos in order to “get it.” That’s a weakness if you’re already in the cult, but it makes Wish an inviting listen for everyone else.
In 2011, Sean Penn starred in a movie called This Must Be The Place, in which he plays (I’m copying and pasting from Wikipedia here) “a middle-aged wealthy rock star who becomes bored in his retirement and takes on the quest of finding his father’s tormentor, a Nazi war criminal who is a refugee in the United States.” He also dresses exactly like Robert Smith.
I have never seen this movie, and I doubt I ever will, based on the clip I’m sharing below.
Let’s get back to the real Robert Smith.
20. “Boys Don’t Cry” (1979)
Sean Penn isn’t playing the real Robert Smith in that scene; he’s playing an idea of Robert Smith based on a simple-minded interpretation of his songs and persona. The real Robert Smith — as conveyed in media coverage of The Cure since the ’70s — is not some precious, soft-spoken man-child. This description from that 1989 Spin profile is typical: “He’s been called the last of the doomed poets, yet leads an incredibly mundane life, in which the highlights include soap operas, snooker, watching football, and eating curry.”
Smith’s greatest cultural achievement is how “the Robert Smith character” deconstructed masculinity without dismissing it outright, creating a new role model for future rock stars and teenagers alike. And that began almost immediately with this song, one of his earliest hits. He was not a gender bender in the mode of David Bowie. He was not androgynous like Prince. He was a dude who rejected the usual trappings of conventional dude-ness, while also steadfastly remaining a dude. For all the people who followed Robert Smith, this was liberating, because he offered affirmation that not feeling like a conventional dude was okay and probably even universal. Boys do cry, Robert told us. And they also wear makeup while watching football. These things do not have to be mutually exclusive if you are a Cure fan.
19. “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep?” (1987)
Now that we’re a little past the midpoint of this list, I must confess that I am committing a common mistake in Cure discourse: Focusing on Robert Smith at the expense of his bandmates. The bandmates are crucial! I have already praised the minimalist drumming of Lol Tolhurst and the fluid bass excellence of Simon Gallup. But what about the magnetic guitar playing of Pearl “Porl” Thompson, the capable timekeeping of Boris Williams, or any number of musicians that have moved through this band’s revolving door? Inside the liner notes of my favorite Cure album, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, the entire band is credited as songwriters. And you can really hear them sprawl here, and in the process create a blueprint followed by the most epic alt-rock albums of the next decade. I can’t hear this song without immediately also thinking about The Fragile or Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. (I also conjure up White Pony, probably because of this cover.)
18. “Catch” (1987)
These guys could rock. But I am once again grateful for “The Panel,” which I am sure insisted on including this sweetly “wussy” number, a psych-folk gem that spotlights the band’s ’60s British pop side.
17. “A Night Like This” (1985)
The “classic” era lineup of Robert Smith, Simon Gallup, Lol Tolhurst, Porl Thompson, and Simon Gallup came together on The Head On The Door. (This was preceded by 1984’s The Top, a de facto Robert Smith solo record that I really like in spite of it being a complete mess. Actually, I like it because it’s a complete mess, especially the all-time insane deep cut “Bananafishbones,” which I talked myself out of including here at the last minute.) Smith missed working with a band, so he mostly recorded The Head On The Door live, and the result sounded instantly like the iconic Cure vibe epitomized by this beloved warhorse.
16. “The Walk” (1983)
As we’ve established, even at their worst, The Cure was still better than almost every post-9/11 NYC band that stole from them. This song in particular invented approximately 127 bands in the aughts, all of them trashy and dumb. (Exactly one of them, The Bravery, qualifies as a guilty pleasure.)
15. “Primary” (1981)
What the imitators miss are the important nuances. It’s one thing for Carlos D to recognize Simon Gallup as an essential influence on his bass playing. But Interpol wouldn’t dare put two bass guitars on a song, like The Cure did here, revolutionizing the idea of rhythm and lead bass. Is it possible that Robert Smith was the best bass player in this band all along?
14. “From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea” (1992)
The Cure’s “golden era” stretching from the mid-’80s to the early ’90s came apart on the Wish tour, when the daylight between Robert Smith and “the Robert Smith character” shrank to nothing. “I was very easily seduced into playing a role,” he said later. “People were nudging me along and I ended up becoming something other people wanted me to be and getting gratification from the fact that other people were enjoying themselves because of it.” Thompson and Williams left at the end of the tour, and The Cure entered their “well respected nostalgia act” phase.
This song evokes that ending for me. It’s The Cure at their most mammoth sounding — it’s a roar you can imagine subsuming Madison Square Garden with ease. But it’s also torn and frayed around the edges. It’s formidable, but not indomitable. But when it falls, the impact will be seismic.
13. “High” (1992)
I like the post-Wish albums. Even 1996’s Wild Mood Swings, which slots with The Top as a commonly acknowledged lowlight, has some jams. But there’s no doubt that the band lost something moving forward. It’s not just that they became unfashionable; they never were in fashion, which has worked to their advantage, because nothing ages worse than coolness.
The only thing that’s unusual about a rock band fading after their ninth album is that most rock bands don’t get to make nine very good-to-great albums in a row. (To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: The only thing more certain than an artistic slide for a legacy band is death and taxes.) In the case of The Cure, the easy armchair psychologist diagnosis is that being “the real Robert Smith” became more important for Robert Smith than playing “the Robert Smith character,” and that took away a lot of the band’s edge.
I think that’s true, but I would also argue that by 1992 a song like “High” was so thoroughly a manifestation of The Cure’s sensibility that anything afterward — even the pretty good late-period albums The Cure puts out every four or 15 years — was going to pale in comparison. It just wasn’t going to get any more “Cure-like” than this. The band carries on, but Wish is where they completed their artistic mission.
12. “Lullaby” (1989)
Smith once claimed that “The Cure could produce two or three albums a year if I didn’t have to write the words.” But if he didn’t have to write the words, we would not have ended up with this song, the strangest Spider-Man reboot ever. Should we assume, based on “Lullaby,” that he is unfamiliar with the Marvel Comics character? Did he just coincidentally create a character called “the spiderman” who eats people at night? It’s like writing a song about a vampire and calling it “Superman.” Then again, Disintegration came out the same year as Batman, directed by Cure super-fan Tim Burton, so maybe this was just counter-programming?
11. “Fascination Street” (1989)
Goddamn, Simon Gallup didn’t have to go this hard.
10. “One Hundred Years” (1982)
I would have had to turn in my Cure fan card if I didn’t include at least one song from Pornography in the top 10. Naturally, I’m going with the iconic opening track, which includes the most immortal opening line in a Cure song that doesn’t involve someone asking to show me show me show me how to do that trick. If “Just Like Heaven” is the sound of the angels, this song is the devil’s work through and through. Though “It doesn’t matter if we all die” doesn’t really sum up who this band is, given their indestructible longevity.
9. “All Cats Are Grey” (1981)
Pornography is held up as the goth landmark, but I actually find Faith to be more convincingly bleak. (Like I said, Pornography scans for me as a “drug and/or party album,” not a depressing one.) At this stage, Smith would find lyrical inspiration by hanging out in churches, which definitely sounds like something a pretentious artist in his early 20s would do. But the power of Faith is that it really does sound like young kids moving into adulthood by confronting matters of life and death in real time. Unlike the performative decadence of Pornography, there is a chilly austerity to Faith that evokes a deep loss of innocence. And this song, which sounds like Smith trying to make his own version of Closer, typifies that feeling.
8. “A Letter To Elise” (1992)
At the time that The Cure put out Wish, their alt-rock peers like U2 and R.E.M. approached their middle periods by trying to reinvent themselves. But on “A Letter To Elise,” The Cure did the opposite, honing the stately epics of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Disintegration in a new, perfectly realized package of heartbreak and romantic longing. “Yesterday, I stood and stared wide-eyed in front of you / And the face I saw looked back the way I wanted to / But I just can’t hold my tears away the way you do.” This boy simply cannot stop crying.
7. “Friday I’m In Love” (1992)
The ideal pairing of Robert Smith’s melodic genius and his fearless silliness. I know this song is probably intolerable for those who prefer the miserablist trifecta of Seventeen Seconds/Faith/Pornography, but the existence of “Friday I’m In Love” ensured that The Cure would never be a one-dimensional self-pity machine. Besides, it’s worth noting that he is only allowing himself one day of happiness. So let the man rhyme “blue” with “you.”
6. “Close To Me” (1985)
This is unquestionably one of the best Cure songs. The only debate is whether you prefer the original track from The Head On The Door or the remix by Paul Oakenfold that appears on 1990’s All Mixed Up. I’m going with the Head On The Door version, which benefits from the claustrophobic feel of the music that cloaks Smith’s conspiratorial vocal. But either version is a reliable romantic mixtape staple.
5. “In Between Days” (1985)
The paradox of this song is that it’s probably the first Cure tune I think of when trying to describe what they sound like. It has that rich blend of acoustic and electric guitars, a synth line that enters like a fanfare, and even a long instrumental intro. (It’s 49 seconds before Robert Smith sings, which is an eternity for a radio hit.) But this is also a pretty obvious rip-off of New Order! Only a band who loves bass tones as much as The Cure could so lovingly replicate Peter Hook and make that sound their own.
4. “A Forest” (1980)
The song where The Cure invented themselves. Not since The Brothers Grimm had a writer made wooded areas seem so foreboding.
3. “Lovesong” (1989)
The modern standard. When Adele and 311 are moved to cover the same song, you know you have accomplished something. But while other artists have turned “Lovesong” into bossa nova, reggae, emo or industrial metal, the original is the one where Robert Smith’s voice cracks when he reaches for a high note. And that’s the one that moves me the most.
2. “Pictures Of You” (1989)
The ultimate “languid instrumental introduction” Cure song. Smith and Gallup, the lifelong bros at the center of The Cure, create a symphony out of their meandering guitar and bass lines and it’s totally magical. (Those fluttery wind chime sounds emphasize how transportive this track is.) I don’t know many times I have immediately restarted “Pictures Of You” once the vocal kicks on. As great as the rest of the song is, it feels like gravy after the main course of that opening 1:50.
1. “Just Like Heaven” (1987)
I hate to be so obvious! But it’s the right choice! “Just Like Heaven” is a masterclass in songwriting and arranging. Few songs build as well: You start with that incredible bass line and drum part, you add rhythm guitar, you send that fanfare synth over the top, and then — cue the Vince McMahon “overwhelmed face” meme — you introduce an absolutely iconic lead guitar lick. And then Robert Smith starts singing one of the most memorable opening lines for any song ever.
“Just Like Heaven” gives you everything you could want from a Cure song. It somehow is perfect for radio while also having a long instrumental intro. The sentiments are romantic, but the vibe is melancholy. It gives you softness, but there’s also something hard about it. (Especially if we’re talking about the Dinosaur Jr. version, which is also a classic.) You can dance to it, and you can cry do it, and you can dance and cry to it at the same time. It evokes its time, and also feels timeless. Just like The Cure themselves.
The Cure is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.