The Cure Albums From Worst To Best
From lightless depths to the dizziest heights, the Cure have always traded in extremes. Albums careen from genre to genre, capturing a wider, stranger range of emotions than most other bands could dream of. Starting with a nervous post-punk twitch that led to the existential freeze of their pioneering goth trilogy, the band would flit from one style to another, reinventing itself along the way, dabbling with dense, heady psychedelia and going for broke with glistening, giddy jangle-pop — and a million shades of light in between. Robert Smith — with his big, overwhelming, infectious emotions — has proven himself a brilliant songsmith in just about every sense that counts: At their peak, the Cure sold millions of records, raked in hits, and steadily built a devoted following around the world. The glory years may be a glimmer in the rearview, but the Cure still release solid new material every few years, and hey, they can still fill a stadium.
Fortunately for us, the Cure don’t really make bad albums, not by normal standards. At their worst, they’re merely strange — interesting diversions rather than life-changing experiences. At their best, they’re fucking brilliant. It’s hard to picture a band more evocative of unique textures and emotions than the Cure; the songs practically exist outside of time. There’s an intoxicating, tangible strangeness at work — the atmosphere sets you up for the hooks, which open the door for the lyrics to work their way inside your head. Listening, you’re pulled into a glimmering, twilit dreamscape: someplace imaginary, but almost real; the kind of place you’ve always known but never seen. The songs feel so specific and personal it’s hard to believe they work on such a universal level, but therein lies the magic.
Since releasing Wish in 1992, the Cure have kept to a steady schedule, putting out a new record every four years without fail. The last record came out in 2008 … and here we are in 2012. Sadly, there’s no definitive word about a projected release date for the 14th Cure record, reported to be the second half of 4:13 Dream. In the meantime, let’s pull up the carpet and see what shakes out as we look back through the catalog of one of the most brilliant bands of all time. These are the albums of the Cure, from worst to best. Start your case for Wild Mood Swings in the comments.
12. The Cure (2004): The last decade hasn't been incredibly kind to the Cure. Despite the release of several elaborate, excellent reissues and a new appreciation for the band in critical circles, Robert Smith and Co. have yet to recapture the brilliant heights of their earlier work. More than anything, latter-day Cure suffers from the long shadow cast by their formidable back catalog. 2004's self-titled album saw the band try something new -- venturing into heavier territory with then-super-producer Ross Robinson (also known as "the godfather of nü-metal"). The songs themselves aren't bad, but Robinson recasts the band as something they never were -- overly-angsty heroes for the emo generation -- and it never quite fits. The epic-length dirges actually hold up well ("The Promise" especially), but the poppier bits feel lightweight. The thin jangle of "The End Of The World" feels less like the effortless pop that made them a household name and more like a carbon-copy of Cure-derivative emo/indie-pop bands. For a band built on timeless wonder, the last thing you want is an awkward reminder of the horrors of 2004. (I can't even begin to comment on the horror of the album cover.)
11. 4:13 Dream (2008): Most folks didn’t expect much from the Cure in 2008, but the band came up surprisingly strong with the loosest album since their debut. Shaking off the cobwebs of the self-titled record four years earlier, they sound younger here than they have in years. Once again we get Smith's favorite trick -- opening the record with its longest, saddest song -- though it can't keep 4:13 from being the most consistently upbeat Cure album since The Head On The Door. The goofball funk of "Freakshow" traces its lineage straight back to the manic thrills of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me rather than the stillborn experiments of Wild Mood Swings, which is a good thing. If anything, it’s the first time the band has had proper fun in ... 20 years? There’s an infectious energy to the playing: You can tell the band are enjoying the act of creation again, and Smith’s affectionate squeal is in top shape. If there’s a downside, it’s in the undercooked melodies; for all the sugar-coated fun, hardly anything sticks to your ribs. That said, it's a step in the right direction, offering hope for the upcoming 14th record.
10. Bloodflowers (2000): If Wild Mood Swings was a failed attempt to channel the energy of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Bloodflowers was a modestly successful attempt to recapture the stately gloom of Disintegration and Wish. Coming directly after WMS sputtered in the public eye, it was an immediate and dramatic improvement over that record. But you can't shake the feeling we're getting calculated fan-service in the place of genuine inspiration. The songs are generally gorgeous, but it never quite comes alive. Ultimately, it's low-stakes Cure. The band sticks to one mode for the entire album -- long, slow, and sad -- which means tracks start to bleed together by the back half of the album. A shame, really, since the closing title track is fantastic. Taken in pieces, Bloodflowers has some of Robert Smith's best melodies, though it also marks the beginning of a disturbing trend of truly awful album art that continues to this day. Can't win 'em all.
9. The Top (1984): The strangest album in a catalog full of strange albums, The Top came together from the chaos of a massive reboot of sound, lineup, and intent. After the emotional toll of releasing Pornography in 1982, the band practically fell apart. Longtime bassist Simon Gallup stormed off in a huff, and Robert Smith considered putting the whole thing to bed. Instead, he tossed off a few "throwaway" singles (including "Let's Go To Bed" and "Love Cats") with programmed drums and synthesizers, and inadvertently reinvented the band as something lighter and poppier than they'd been since "Boys Don't Cry." Naturally, when it came time to make a new album, Smith took the new, lighter direction ... and threw it out the window, instead making the batshit, bugfuck freakout that is The Top. It's all dark and densely arranged psychedelia dipped in a thick coating of weird, like the score for a Jim Henson movie set in a haunted rainforest. Jittery keys, fake ethnic instrumentation (synth pan-pipes?), and dissonant bass chords abound, sounding utterly unlike anything they'd done before or anyone else would ever do. MGMT would pick up some of these threads years later, but never went half as far. Minor classics like "Bananafishbones," "Dressing Up," and "The Caterpillar" are all so absurd they can't help but tickle your ribs. At the time, no one "got" this album; the weird was too much. But that's part of the lasting appeal -- there's a lot here to unlock.
8. Seventeen Seconds (1980): Compared to what came later, early Cure material might as well be a different band. But in it's own way, it's just as strong. Sophomore album Seventeen Seconds kept the sparse instrumentation of the debut but forged into deeper, darker territory. Technically they were still playing post-punk, but Robert Smith was outgrowing the limits of the genre, instead finding comfort in cold, stripped arrangements, prefiguring the gothic movement they'd unwillingly spearhead over the next few years. "A Forest" stands as one of the Cure's best early tracks -- a perfect mood piece, with its heartbeat thump and shimmering guitars that dissolve into the aether like so much fog. If that clean guitar tone sounds familiar, it should -- you can hear it in just about every song by the xx. It's fascinating to see the band at this early stage; each step was a massive leap in confidence, ability, and execution. They were already good, but they'd be great before they knew it.
7. Three Imaginary Boys (1979) (released in the US as Boys Don't Cry): Right out the gate, you could tell there was something a little different about the Cure; even on their roughshod debut, they had a certain spark. Three Imaginary Boys saw the trio playing half-formed post-punk, more indebted to pop than any of the esoteric influences they'd eventually pick up from further-developed compatriots like Siouxsie & The Banshees. "Grinding Halt" sounds an awful lot like "The Loco-Motion" as filtered through the mind of a punk teenager circa 1978, but it succeeds in spite of itself (and The Kids In The Hall theme sounds suspiciously similar in hindsight). At this stage the band could barely play, though Robert Smith already knew his way around a hook. "Fire In Cairo" showed his potential perfectly: The name-spelling chorus wasn't just cute, it made for a perfect pop moment when paired with the surfy lead guitar. And the subtle, slinky title track showed a glimpse of the darker path that would guide Seventeen Seconds and Faith—everything was in place, they just had to get there. Call it dumb luck or divine inspiration, but the Cure pretty much had it from the get-go. (The American version falls on the line between an official album and a compilation, swapping five tracks out but throwing in classics like "Boys Don't Cry," "Jumping Someone Else's Train," and "Killing An Arab." It comes off poppier but equally strong.)
6. Wish (1992): Wish is … really goddamn good. That it tends to suffer in the public eye has more to do with where it falls in the catalog than any actual failing. Coming after Disintegration, it couldn't help but seem lightweight, even as it continued that record's tendency toward sad, sweeping mood pieces ("Apart," "From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea," "Trust"). Taken on it's own, it's fantastic. It's Aladdin Sane up against Ziggy Stardust -- one is the clear embodiment of that specific perfect-thing, but they're both fucking excellent. Wish brought back some of the sunshine missing from Disintegration, but the gloom is still pervasive. That said, it's often the uptempo songs that leave the strongest impression. If almost any other band wrote "Friday I'm In Love," it'd be the greatest thing they ever did. For the Cure, it was the most musically realized of all their pop songs, but the lyrics came up light. Accusations of "throwaway pop" didn't hold it back, but the massive success (and subsequent overplaying) of such a cute, slight song seemed to tarnish the album as a whole, which is a shame. "Doing The Unstuck" and "A Letter to Elise" highlight Smith's best guitar playing, with tightly wound spirals of melody lifting both songs to classic status. In the end, Wish is merely quietly brilliant in comparison to the records yet to be named on this list: an under-appreciated classic worth revisiting.
5. Faith (1981): The gloomy, grey cover; the somber, grey guitars; the spectral echo of "All Cats Are Grey." No question, Faith has a theme. It's all exhaustion, emptiness, fog, loneliness, dwindling hope, and the feeble, dying light of faith. The vocals are leeched of all color; defeated resignation creeps into Robert Smith's voice to the point where, when he stops singing to let the spare arrangements cycle by unaccompanied, it feels like he's just given up: ennui stretched to its limit. With the exception of the (comparably) fast tracks, "Primary" and "Doubt," everything is sapped of energy -- the drums plod along in repetitious circles; guitars rarely do much more than follow the bass; ghostly keys float somewhere in the distance. The instrumentation, as a rule, is painfully sparse. Seventeen Seconds saw the Cure embrace simplicity and space; Faith plunges twice as far into thin air. They'd hit deeper, darker depths on Pornography, but Faith remains a singular experience -- the perfect expression of depression. Smith's lyrics are maudlin to a fault, but they serve the atmosphere well, and he sells every word. "I sit and listen dreamlessly/A promise of salvation makes me stay/Then look at your face, and feel my heart pushed in." Everyone needs their heart pushed in once in a while.
4. The Head On The Door (1985): After The Top failed to ignite charts or hearts, Robert Smith looked back to the light, bright, keyboard-based singles from a few years earlier ("Let's Go To Bed" and "The Walk") to write the poppiest album of his career -- which isn't to say it's emotionally thin on any level. The Head On The Door still bears a passing resemblance to The Top, but the arrangements are cleaner, tighter, and stronger. For the first time in years, they'd touch on the long-ignored pop influences of Three Imaginary Boys along with a slew of newfound world influences that would creep into the flamenco-drenched stutter of "The Blood" and the Asian-inflected "Kyoto Song." Despite the continuing experimental tendencies, this is where Smith would find his pop muse and rediscover the art of writing hits. "In Between Days" is pure New Order-aping gold until a frantically strummed acoustic propels it somewhere else entirely; wide-eyed and brimming with excitement, this energy would define the Cure's best singles from here on out. And while all the remaining album tracks are fantastic, it's "Close To Me" that shines as the brightest highlight. Years of minimalist songwriting on Seventeen Seconds and Faith hit pay dirt when Smith finally turned the dial from scathing to sweet. It's all in the arrangement: insistent handclaps and a dainty keyboard get maximum mileage out of a perfect bass line and one of Smith's best subdued performances. Everything he'd learn here would prove useful on the next go-round …
3. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987): …which came in the form of a sprawling, cacophonous, whirlwind of an album: Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. Not so much a cohesive record as an explosion of color and adventurous new sounds, Kiss Me is an entire world unto itself. Everything is gaudy and glorious, larger than life, manic, depressive, maniacal, and expressive -- it was everything the Cure had ever done, rolled into 18 songs and 75 minutes, and it is absolutely brilliant. The creativity on display is staggering: Smith tries his hand at the slow mood-pieces that would dominate Disintegration, dabbles in wah-drenched funk to surprisingly fun effect (he wrote a lot of these songs over the years, but few work as well as those here), and wrote some of the best songs of his career. Drummer Boris Williams, who came aboard for The Head On The Door, is finally unchained -- his fills ensure the energy never flags over the entire running length. The ethnic influences continue -- see the opium haze of "Snakepit" and the layer of gauzy sitars on "If Only Tonight We Could Sleep" -- while the broad-brush slathering of keyboards is unabashedly cheap but somehow perfect. Smith's songwriting is at its strongest: "Why Can't I Be You?" is raving ridiculousness dipped in sugar and spattered with fake horns, while "Just Like Heaven" outdoes almost everything out there, and stands as one of the greatest love songs ever written (in close contention with another song he'd write soon). He'd hit these heights again, but never again with such abandon.
2. Pornography (1982): Pornography is not to be taken lightly. If Faith was Robert Smith paralyzed by his own discontent, Pornography fermented that misery into something worse, reveling in its own bitterness and channeling it into self-destructive dementia. Faith was bathed in grey; Pornography is the dim red of a makeshift darkroom built in a slaughterhouse. Calling it "dark" cheapens the experience -- dark merely suggests pain; Pornography is pain itself. It starts on the album's opener, "One Hundred Years": "A hundred years of blood, crimson/The ribbon tightens round my throat/I open my mouth and my head bursts open." It's a lyrical horror show with a soundtrack to match. Drums pound out a rigid death march, guitars can't help but squeal; loops of noise play in reverse, and Smith's voice echoes into the void, twisting and distorting into something less than human. As an album, it's not something you put on for fun -- casual fans will skip it altogether. But as a lesson in extremity, it more than serves its purpose -- nothing else comes close. The title track is legitimately unhinged. Samples spiral in the dark, an ominous synth drones deep, and the drums stomp incessantly in a distant room. It's Robert Smith relinquishing his tired grip on life and turning to fully embrace death. "The Figurehead" approaches something melodic, until the refrain twists and inverts itself into an unholy tritone -- the semblance of comfort evaporates, and you're right there with Smith as he sings, "I will never be clean again." Not for a little while, at least.
1. Disintegration (1989): There was never any question what would come out on top, yet it's funny to think about what exactly Disintegration even is. It isn't the culmination of everything the Cure could do; that was Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. And it isn't their greatest pop moment, where the songwriting bridges art and artifice into a string of perfect hits (though there were hits, to be sure). No, it's something entirely different: It's the perfect expression of a particular mood, fleshed out in a way you never knew possible. It's a towering, colossal slab of emotion stretched across a dozen long songs, all lined up in a perfect row. Gloomy? Sure. Depressed, desperate, hurting, and yearning? Absolutely. But wrapped up in all that emotional wreckage is a thin but undying thread of hope. Robert Smith came to the album from a place of dissatisfaction; he wanted to write an enduring masterpiece before he turned 30, because that's what brilliant artists do. From that place of insecurity, he tapped into something greater than himself and wound up crafting the greatest collection of songs he would ever write. Insecurity shifted to confidence, weakness became strength, and the songs were allowed to grow outward. In the hands of a lesser talent, Disintegration might have been horribly indulgent, but the Cure never once falter. Most songs follow a similar structure: An instrumental verse and chorus stretch for minutes before Smith finally steps to the microphone and carries us away. As one long song gives way to another, we suddenly hit the delicate sincerity of "Lovesong" (the second of Smith's perfect love songs) or the sinister, slinky pop of "Lullaby." And that's the trick of the album: As much as it's about one thing, it never succumbs to that one emotion; there's always something else around the corner, and it keeps getting better. "Plainsong" bursts out the gate like a cannon shooting silk, an explosion and an embrace at once. "Pictures Of You" lays out the blueprint for every "big" song on Wish and Bloodflowers, but tops them all. "Fascination Street" finds inspiration in one hell of a bass line and rides it for all it's worth. You feel everything Smith feels -- the vague dissatisfaction of searching for a perfect moment that doesn't even exist -- but it doesn't matter because you can't help but move. Life may not live up to our expectations, but albums like this make it worth living. Nothing compares to Disintegration, and nothing ever will.