13. The Cure (2004)
Somehow, Robert Smith got into his head the notion that it would be a good idea to work with producer Ross Robinson, known for his collaborations with Korn, Slipknot and, Gods help us, Limp Bizkit. Robinson tried to fit the Cure into the edgy, almost-but-not-quite "nu metal" vibe that polluted the rock airwaves at the time, with disastrous results.
The collaboration was not a good fit -- it's like a Hot Topic exploded all over the studio and slathered everything in thick layers of contrived melodrama and cheap mascara. Robert Smith's vocals are way too high in the mix -- he spends much of the album howling incoherently over a maddening barrage of heavy guitars. The keyboards, which have been an integral part of the Cure's sound since Seventeen Seconds, are largely absent.
Perhaps all wouldn't be lost if there were any discernible melodies, but unfortunately most of the songs meander uselessly to nowhere. Particularly nail-on-chalkboards is the punishing ten-plus minute, "The Promise". Still, there are a few worthwhile tracks if you have enough patience to wade through the dross to find them.
The best is a pleasant pop throwaway that would have made a great single, "(I Don't Know What's Going) On". "Taking Off" is catchy Cure-by-numbers pop (it's been done before, and better, but at least it's a break from the relentless slog). "Anniversary" is another high point, a brooding expression of melancholy that sounds like the Cure we know and love. First single "The End of the World" is mediocre compared with other lead singles to Cure albums, but it's not a total catastrophe.
"alt.end" is the only one of the harder-edged rockers on the album with any value. The scream-fests "Us or Them" and "Never" are simply unlistenable. The Cure has moments that work, just not enough of them. Some of the songs may have turned out better with different arrangements and mixes. It seems that Ross Robinson cheerily led Robert Smith and company into a ghastly misfire with this one. Robinson didn't understand the Cure, and it shows.
12. 4:13 Dream (2008)
4:13 Dream is easily better than The Cure largely because Ross Robinson is no longer in the picture, and the songwriting is improved. Unfortunately, for the most part, it finds Robert Smith descending into formula.
Unlike its dreadful predecessor, 4:13 Dream is at least always tolerable, and there are sprinkled moments of Cure magic. Far and away the best track is the opener Underneath the Stars, with Smith's effects-laded multi-layered vocals building an atmosphere of mystery and wonder. The quirky "Freak Show" is reminiscent of the hallowed "Close To Me"/"Lovecats" days, but it's not quite convincing -- it's like Smith is checking off a box on a list of stylistic musts for a Cure album.
Tracks like "The Reason Why", "The Hungry Ghost", "The Perfect Boy" and first single "The Only One" are all worthy additions to the Cure's discography, but nobody's going to confuse them for the band's best work. "Siren Song" is a mellow and dreamy acoustic piece with slide guitar that is quite lovely. Much weaker is the noisy guitar-freakout "Switch" and the album's two-song finalé of bashing guitars and Smith's discordant wailing, "Scream" and "It's Over". Strike those three tracks and add a couple of the superior b-sides, and you've got a solid album. There are enough strong moments on 4:13 Dream that it's worthwhile adding it to your collection, eventually. No real hurry.
11. Bloodflowers (2000)
Billed as the third of a trilogy that also includes Pornography and Disintegration, the Cure's 2000 release Bloodflowers had a lot to live up to. By and large, it fails. That's not to say it isn't a solid Cure album -- it is -- but it doesn't belong in the same breath as the first two chapters of the supposed trilogy. It smacks of Robert Smith trying too hard to replicate something that's impossible to force (especially with the 11-minute "Watching Me Fall", which is simply overkill).
Yeah, like Pornography and Disintegration, Bloodflowers is relentlessly downbeat and tense, but the sonic marvels and songwriting thrills of the first two are largely absent. Still, there are some killer tunes, and Bloodflowers is far superior to the two albums that followed it (and make up #13 and #12 on this list).
The album's strongest moment is "Maybe Someday", a blazing rocker with a terrific vocal by Smith that's good enough to stand alongside any of the Cure's classic singles. The long and atmospheric opener "Out of This World" is excellent as well, as is the stripped-down acoustic "There is No If". "The Loudest Sound", about the wall of sullen silence that builds between a couple who have fallen out of love, rings of convincing truth.
"39" and the title song, the one-two punch that ends the album with its heaviest emotional impact and are obviously meant to be the grand finalé, don't quite gel. They never reach the piercing intensity of the Cure's best work -- it's a lot of Robert Smith wailing over heavy guitars about getting older and life's neverending parade of disappointments. While it isn't their greatest work, there are indeed brilliant moments on Bloodflowers, and the tour in support of the album was outstanding.
10. Wild Mood Swings (1996)
By the mid-'90s, the Cure was due for a swoon. A band can't keep putting out near-perfect albums forever, can they? The alternative music scene had changed so dramatically thanks to bands like Radiohead, Blur, Oasis and of course Nirvana that by 1995 it was hard to see where the Cure might fit into the picture.
Were they has-beens? Not at all. They had the material for an album that might have reaffirmed their exalted stature, but they let it slip through their fingers. The biggest problem with Wild Mood Swings is that many of the finest tracks of the sessions were left as b-sides -- it's been an issue at other points in their career, but they never fumbled the track selection as badly as they did here.
The obvious choice for first single is "A Pink Dream", a fizzy confection that's one of Robert Smith's most beguiling pop songs. But not only wasn't it the first single, it didn't even make the album -- a potential major single wasted as a b-side. "The 13th" was chosen as the lead single, and while it's a work of demented genius, it had zero chance of becoming a hit (and it didn't).
The pop song they chose to follow it, "Mint Car", is one of the most insipid of the band's long career. A far better choice would have been the wonderfully zany and upbeat "Return". B-sides like "Adonais", "Waiting", "Ocean" and "Home" are all better than several tracks that made the album.
Of course, Wild Mood Swings undoubtedly has some very strong moments. The Cure has a long history of delivering brilliant openers, and they do here with "Want", a blistering exercise in slowly escalating tension and cathartic release. The melancholy "This is a Lie" and the hypnotic acoustic ballad "Jupiter Crash" both stand up to the band's finest work.
Sadly, though, the album is saddled with the almost too-hideous-to-mention "Gone", a song that, in a strange fit of madness, they released as a single. For every strong moment on Wild Mood Swings there is a corresponding weakness. "Treasure", a touching reflection about loss, has a sad and fragile beauty. On the other hand, there is "Bare" -- a long, plodding dirge that ends the album with a dreary whimper.
The parts are there for Wild Mood Swings to have been a much better album. Unfortunately, the band glued the wrong pieces together, and it kinda just fell apart.
9. Three Imaginary Boys (1979)
Three Imaginary Boys is a collection of oddball power pop with flashes of brilliance. As a fledgling trio straight out of Crawley, the Cure had yet to fully develop their sound. There's little here to suggest the creative force they'd become, but Three Imaginary Boys has its own quirky charm.
There are a few throwaways that would have been better as b-sides (especially the embarrassing "So What", the lyrics of which are Robert Smith reading an ad for a cake decorating set). Their awkward cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" should have been left on the outtake reel. Still, there are a number of incisive and melodic ditties like "Fire in Cairo", "Object" and "Accuracy".
The opener "10:15 Saturday Night" is a taut exercise in rock minimalism. "Grinding Halt" was mooted as the band's next single until Smith came up with the much superior '60s rock pastiche "Boys Don't Cry". The album's finalé, "Three Imaginary Boys", is its unquestioned high point. With its shadowy imagery, tense vocal and jagged guitar solo, "Three Imaginary Boys" is the strongest hint of the band the Cure would become.
Three Imaginary Boys is the Cure in its embryonic stage, still feeling themselves out and trying to figure out who they are. It's awkward and you can practically feel the growing pains, but there's an irreverent charm to it that's impossible to deny. It's hard not to like it, warts and all.
One note: several tracks that did not appear on the debut album, including early singles "Killing an Arab", "Boys Don't Cry" and "Jumping Someone Else's Train", were included with a handful of the stronger tracks from Three Imaginary Boys on a compilation called Boys Don't Cry. It was the band's first American release and, with the addition of the singles, it's a superior listen overall than the actual debut.
8. The Top (1984)
After going it alone with three colorful pop songs that vaulted the Cure into the upper reaches of the U.K. singles chart for the first time ("Let's Go to Bed", "The Walk", and "The Lovecats"), Robert Smith created a new alchemy with The Top that became the template for all of the Cure's work going forward.
The template wouldn't be perfected until 1985's The Head on the Door, but The Top was the first Cure album to merge the ebullient and whimsical pop of the recent trio of singles with the shadowy epics that range from melancholy, to angry, to nightmarish.
The Top is an aptly named kaleidoscopic whirlwind splattered with strange sounds and images and beset with sudden dramatic shifts in mood. "Shake Dog Shake" is a ferocious opener, with torrid lyrics and a ravaging vocal by Smith. The lead single is the trippy folk-pop gem "The Caterpillar", a hallucinogenic singalong beaming with charm.
There are other great moments, especially the lunatic carnival ride "Bananafishbones". "Birdmad Girl" is a song catchy enough to have been the follow-up single to "The Caterpillar". As is their wont, the Cure ends the album with a massive epic, and they do so here with the emotionally desolate "The Top". It's one of their most underrated pieces.
The Top is a drugged-out funhouse trip with Robert Smith, at his most unpredictable and adventurous, as your tour guide. Although it's never been considered one of the Cure's major albums, Smith seems to have acquired more appreciation for The Top in recent years, as the band has started featuring the album much more prominently in their set-lists. The Top will never be considered the Cure's greatest release, but it's far better than its reputation suggests and is ripe for a thorough reevaluation by fans and critics alike.
7. Faith (1981)
Now we're entering sacred territory for Cure fans. Faith continues the stark approach adopted for Seventeen Seconds, but the mood is wholly different. Instead of spectral isolation and paranoia, Faith delivers spikes of anger in the midst of an ocean of woe.
"The Holy Hour" opens the album with the throbbing pulse of Simon Gallup's bass, Smith's stately guitar and dim swells of keyboard. It sets the stylistic tone. "Other Voices" is built around a swollen bass that shadows the almost tribal rhythm, with Smith's guitar working as a countermelody skittering across the song's dark surface.
Smith's guitar-work is generally restrained apart from the album's two rock tracks. The hard-driving single "Primary" features a markedly strident vocal, and the jagged post-punk "Doubt" feels like a frustrated release from all the morose tension surrounding it.
Most of Faith is defiantly funereal. "All Cats Are Grey" is solemn beauty, with a gently cascading rhythm, delicate layers of keyboard, and Robert Smith's voice seeming to float upward from inside a deep cave. "The Funeral Party" is as uplifting as it sounds -- syrupy keyboards and a lethargic bass offer support to Robert Smith's overwrought desolation. It's the epitome of the album's ethos, its lowest emotional point.
Much more engaging is "The Drowning Man", a piece of cinematic splendor on which Smith, his voice like a soulless phantom, glides majestically over waves of guitar and effects. The closing title-epic "Faith" is revered by fans as one of the Cure's untouchable classics, and is always an intense experience when performed live. "Faith" is a song to unleash when an authentic connection to the audience is established, a shared moment that can be overwhelming.
As an album, Faith is a logical step forward from Seventeen Seconds. It's bolder, bass-heavy, relentlessly gloomy, and perfectly willing to embrace its abject sorrow and twist it into something heartrending but often beautiful.
6. Wish (1992)
Wish is the Cure at their commercial apex, their stadium rock era. The band's fan base had been expanding for years, and Wish debuted all the way at #2 on the US album chart. Despite its immediate success, critical opinion on Wish was mixed.
It's not hard to understand why -- it followed Disintegration. Nothing was ever going to make the enormous personal impact that Disintegration did for legions of fans who felt every word of it to their core. The Cure smartly resisted trying to recreate Disintegration, and moved on to an ambitious project with the same sweeping diversity of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.
All of the parts that make the Cure tick are here. "Open" begins the album in a frantic state of drug-induced delirium set to a smoldering hard-rock groove. "From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea", eight minutes of riveting drama, has become a cornerstone of the band's concerts. "To Wish Impossible Things" and "Trust" are two of the most sublime ballads the Cure ever recorded.
The pop songs "Friday I'm in Love", "High" and "Doing the Unstuck" are clever, catchy, and infused with that unique Cure weirdness. "Doing the Unstuck" is so ebullient that Smith explodes with joy: "Kick out the gloom! / Kick out the blues! / Tear out the pages with all the bad news!" he sings with breathless abandon. His skill as a lyricist is often overlooked, but it's on full display throughout Wish.
Other standouts include the acoustic gem "A Letter to Elise", the wickedly groovy "Wendy Time" and the devastating ballad "Apart". The only bit of trouble is at closing, as the lumbering guitar colossus "End" isn't quite as successful as "Open".
As is the norm with the Cure, the b-sides are hard to separate from the album as a whole, and some of their greatest are culled from the Wish singles: "The Big Hand", "Play", "Scared as You", "Halo", and especially "This Twilight Garden", a lush and dreamy masterpiece so beguiling that it's hard to imagine what they were thinking by leaving it off the album.
5. Seventeen Seconds (1980)
The Cure lurches from off-kilter power-pop to pensive icy soundscapes on their brilliant second album, Seventeen Seconds. Although it wasn't a huge smash, in retrospect it's clear this is the album where it became apparent that the Cure wasn't just an ordinary band.
Inspired by the chilly minimalism of albums like David Bowie's Low and Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, Robert Smith turned away from the jumpy punk-pop of the band's debut. The lineup changed, too. Smith fired bassist Michael Dempsey and brought in two members from the Magazine Spies: bassist Simon Gallup and keyboardist Matthieu Hartley. They didn't exist as a four-piece for long -- this was Hartley's only album with the group -- but Gallup has endured as an essential component of the Cure's sound.
Seventeen Seconds is an album shrouded in mist and doubt. The repetitive and hypnotic rhythms help create a tense atmosphere of dread. "A Forest", the classic lead single, is riven with anxiety, fear and delusion. It became their first major hit, and the foundation upon which the rest of their career is built. The razor-sharp "Play for Today" easily could have followed into the UK Top 40 -- that single quavery line of keyboard is now sung at top volume by every person in the crowd whenever the band plays it live.
"M" is withered with self-doubt and anxiety but is beautiful nonetheless. Like on the rest of the album, Smith's guitars stay within the lines of the rhythm and provide plenty of sonic space and ambience. "In Your House" and "At Night" both point to the thick fog of gloom that would permeate Faith.
The title-song finalé is solemn, resigned, and morose. There seems little hope in Smith's bleak lyrics: "The dream had to end / the wish never came true / and the girl starts to sing / 17 seconds / the measure of life." The guitar soldiers on for another minute or so before giving up, leaving just a skeletal drum to beat finality.
4. Pornography (1982)
The maudlin despondency of Faith didn't fade away -- it morphed into a torrent of bitterness and feverish red rage. Pornography sounds just like it looks, with the distorted forms of the faceless band members emerging like tortured spirits writhing in hazy fire. Smith opens the album with a line that sets the tone, "It doesn't matter if we all die!"
There is nothing else remotely like Pornography. As a recording, the album is a stunner. Its massive wall of sound is Phil Spector in Hell, with cavernous guitars, chilling synths and rhythms that are sometimes stilted, sometimes maniacal.
"One Hundred Years" is a bullet train riding the very edge of torture, on the last thread before despair extinguishes everything. It's a grim exploration of the intense anguish and hopelessness that human existence can sometimes encompass, expressed in rage and raw-nerved desperation. "The Hanging Garden", an animalistic drug-induced sexual frenzy set to fierce tribal drumming and a brain-shattering bass line, strangely enough crept into the UK Top 40.
"Siamese Twins" is a serpentine psychosexual melodrama with a tormented vocal dripping with venom. It's an uncomfortable listen, which was no doubt the intent. "The Figurehead" is a behemoth that begins Side 2 with a rock solid rhythm, a rumbling bass and Smith's despondent self-loathing. It's followed by two of the album's finest tracks: "A Strange Day", with its shivery layer of guitars, and the icy and desolate "Cold".
By the time we get to the title track we've slipped into a roaring nightmare, a hurricane of disorienting chaos from which Smith shouts maniacal ravings like, "One more day like today and I'll kill you! / a desire for flesh, and real blood." It's clear his mood has not noticeably improved since the beginning of the album. "Pornography" ends with him wailing "but it's too late"! and "we must fight this sickness / find a cure!" If only we knew the disease.
You gotta be in the right frame of mind for Pornography or it'll take you places you won't want to go. It distorts reality. But when you need that trip, it's a sonic universe like no other.
3. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)
Some of the best double albums in rock history are sprawling quiltworks of wildly divergent styles that allow artists to stretch their creative muscles as they see fit (The Beatles' White Album and Prince's Sign o' The Times are two prime examples). The Cure follows this path with Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, a dizzying collection that ripped the lid off the American market in a major way.
The timing could not have been more perfect. The Head on the Door earned the band much-needed exposure in the US, thanks primarily to college radio. Then came their hits collection Standing on a Beach, which helped get American fans up to date on the Cure's back catalog. The Cure boldly captured the moment and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me was a massive success.
The first single was the zany, amped-up "Why Can't I Be You", with Robert Smith delivering a howling, audacious performance over a white-hot groove. "Just Like Heaven", with its dazzling guitar riff, punchy rhythm, soaring synths and wistful vocals is the Cure at their very finest. It became their first Top 40 hit in America, and the video received substantial MTV airplay.
Kiss Me contains some of the best pop of their career. "Hot Hot Hot!!!" is another ferocious groove, with a kinetic rhythm and funked-out guitar. "Catch" is a loopy little nugget that's strangely endearing, and "Hey You!" is Robert Smith on loads of caffeine (or… something else?). "How Beautiful You Are" sounds upbeat but actually tells a sad tale about coming to a devastating realization about someone you love. It was planned as a single -- a radio mix was created -- but eventually the idea was shelved.
There are several hypnotic pieces that explore exotic, otherworldy textures ("The Snakepit", the stunning "Like Cockatoos", "If Only Tonight We Could Sleep"). There are powerhouse rockers, including "Torture", "All I Want", "Shiver and Shake", and the dramatic opener "The Kiss". In contrast to other Cure albums which seem to end on a note of hopelessness, the closer here is the angry and defiant "Fight", a call not to allow the misery that Smith has been singing about for nearly a decade defeat you.
The outstanding b-sides must be mentioned, particularly the beautifully mournful "A Chain of Flowers". The band had the makings of a third disc with tracks like "A Japanese Dream", "To The Sky", "Sugar Girl", "Breathe" and "Snow in Summer". The Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me era may be the Cure's most prolific period, an embarrassment of riches made possible by Robert Smith's blazing (and underappreciated) talent as a songwriter.
2. The Head on the Door (1985)
After finally merging Robert Smith's bipolar impulses for euphoric pop and emotional epics into something close to balance on The Top, full equilibrium is achieved on The Head on the Door. It's the album where it all comes together for the Cure musically, and it happened at a time when Robert Smith was churning out one great tune after another.
By this point in his career, Smith had emerged as a first-rate songwriter who could pen gleaming pop gems and deeper introspective tracks with equal proficiency. The Head on the Door could have been even better; b-sides like "The Exploding Boy", "Stop Dead" and "A Few Hours After This" would have sounded fantastic on this album. He was overflowing with good material, and that would only increase in the years ahead.
The Head on the Door is the perfect composite of all the Cure's components. "Inbetween Days" is the mastery of the guitar-pop that Smith had been toying with ever since the band's early days. It's breezy and immediate, a joyous nostalgia ride. "Close to Me" is a quirky slice of pop genius, with Smith delivering a breathless vocal over a jaunty rhythm and bass.
The brooding "A Night Like This" is riveting personal drama, a tense rocker with heavy guitar, a spirited sax solo, and one of Smith's most convincing vocal performances. "Kyoto Song" is a dense exotic nightmare, sexual and dangerous. "Six Different Ways" is twisty pop candy that easily could have been a single.
The band saves the best for last. "Sinking" is the album's titanic closer, with a bass line that throbs your soul long after it's over, and a vocal performance by Smith that transcends anything else on the album. There couldn't be a better ending for such a tightly compact collection of pop brilliance. The Head on the Door is every bit as enchanting now as it was the day it was released.
1. Disintegration (1989)
Disintegration is the ultimate Cure album. It's their masterpiece, the album for which they will always be remembered. All of their finest impulses are here. Smith is at his peak as a songwriter and vocalist, and he has the strongest group of musicians in the band's history to help realize his majestic visions.
"Plainsong" opens the album with faint chimes fading in, then suddenly comes a sweeping rush of orchestral grace built on layers of keyboard. Then a lilting guitar line starts, and finally, 2:36 into the song, Smith's whispery vocal begins a haunted verse about two broken souls grasping at the edge of the world. "Pictures of You" is steeped in regret and loss. It unfolds slowly over seven minutes but never outstays it's welcome. The main melodic hook is the shimmery guitar pattern that shines brightly during the long instrumental passages.
"Fascination Street" is a studio creation of extraordinary dexterity and attention to detail. The dynamic interplay between Simon Gallup's thunderous bass and Boris Williams' rock-solid groove is the foundation upon which layers of sound are slowly built bit by bit until it becomes a stupendous cacophony. It's an intricate arrangement, with guitar, keyboard, and sonic effects all wrapping and wriggling around each other as perfect complements.
Smith offers some of his most enigmatic lyrics and a feverish vocal. The song builds to an almost unbearable level of tension and excitement during the guitar solo when all of the numerous instrumental parts are jamming at once, and then Smith comes in for one last powerful verse. "Fascination Street" is breathtaking, the Cure at the height of their creative powers.
"Lovesong" is Robert Smith's love letter to his wife Mary, but even this expression of devotion manages to sound somewhat mournful. It's another terrific recording, opening with a bright slash of guitar, before an insistent groove, wildly florid bass, and a forlorn keyboard work in lockstep with clockwork precision. "Lovesong" became by far the Cure's biggest hit in the US, reaching #2 behind Janet Jackson's "Miss You Much". It's rhythmically upbeat and catchy, and the lyrics are romantic, but somehow the whole thing still feels funereal; "I really really love ya, but something bad is gonna happen, right?"
Robert Smith knows instinctively how musical pieces must fit together. "Lullaby" is a perfect example, with its interlocking lines of melody coming from multiple keyboard and guitar parts. It's a creepily atmospheric piece with Smith ghoulishly half-whispering his s-s-slithery lyrics like he's dramatizing a horrifying campfire story.
It's impossible to discuss Disintegration without mentioning the dual epics that anchor the album's stunning second act. Buffeted by the sounds of thunder and rain, "The Same Deep Water As You" spans over nine languid minutes of naked vulnerability and passion. Smith gives the finest and most deeply nuanced vocal performance of his career, and he's backed by a stately, water-color musical world that's evocative of the dark greens of the album's cover. It's sublime, fragile, and gorgeous.
Equally powerful but completely different is "Disintegration", the earthshaking title track. Opening with the sound of shattered glass, "Disintegration" trails the heartrending wreckage of a relationship riven by distrust, lies, and ultimately emptiness, all set to a fierce rock vibe. Smith's vocals becoming increasingly manic and frantic with each passing verse, until finally in the end he's just wailing mindlessly.
Disintegration is not a happy album, but it's a deeply moving one. The melancholy sweep, the vast grandeur cloaked in vulnerability and regret, the sorrow that underlies almost every thought… Disintegration is beloved because it feels so real and envelopes you in a lush world of intense emotion. For fans who were at the right age, the right moment, Disintegration is everything. They know every word, every line of guitar, every twist in Robert Smith's voice, every ghostly sigh of keyboard. In a career made up of mostly terrific albums, Disintegration stands alone at the pinnacle.
In the album's liner notes, at the very end, is a simple but very important instruction, all in caps: "THIS MUSIC HAS BEEN MIXED TO BE PLAYED LOUD SO TURN IT UP." No arguments here.