Influenced: Tears For Fears, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Violent Femmes, Dinosaur Jr., The Sugarcubes, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Nine Inch Nails, Jane’s Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins, Depeche Mode, My Bloody Valentine, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, The Cranberries, Manic Street Preachers, Suede, Placebo, Garbage, Arab Strap, Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Weezer, Deftones, Low, The Afghan Whigs, The Shins, Interpol, Hot Hot Heat, Bloc Party, The Killers, Editors, My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Broken Social Scene, White Lies, The xx, Sky Ferreira, Savages, Chvrches, Eagulls, Wolf Alice, Iceage
Influenced by: The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Television, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Joy Division, Blondie
Marking the 40th anniversary of their foundation with a huge headline gig at British Summer Time Festival in Hyde Park this July, prefaced by a mouth-watering Meltdown Festival line-up curated by their iconic yet enigmatic singer Robert Smith, The Cure have reminded the world of rock and pop music in 2018 just how much impact they’ve had.
More so than most bands with firmly defined fanbases, The Cure are often all things to all music fans. Indeed, The Cure are the one single band whose brilliance that absolutely every one of The Student Playlist’s nearly two-dozen writers over the last five years can agree upon.
Somehow, they’ve managed to balance two different reputations, and separate meanings for totally disparate groups of music fans. Firstly, their reputation as an albums act, as crafters of gothic, monochrome and emotionally weighty masterpieces like Disintegration and Pornography. But also, The Cure have a well-deserved reputation as a singles band, of flighty, melodic chart hits that can fill the dancefloor at a wedding, particularly their invincible run of commercially accessible gems from the mid-Eighties to the early Nineties. Their 2001 Greatest Hits compilation is arguably the most intense concentration of five-star songs in the history of recorded music.
It’s the tension of this dichotomy that has made them such a compelling draw for four decades, despite having not released any music in pretty much exactly the last ten years of that time. Their influence extends from other glamorous, goth-oriented acts like My Chemical Romance to industrial rock icons like Nine Inch Nails and alt-rock groups like The Killers.
However, looking past their rightfully lauded collection of brilliant singles, this feature looks at The Cure’s 13 studio albums and ranks them in order from worst to best – which begins on the next page!
Furthermore, we’ve included a Beginner’s Guide playlist for newcomers to The Cure over at Spotify.
After coming down from the qualified success of the grandiose Wish, The Cure endured a somewhat torrid time in the Nineties after a major personnel shift. Long-term drummer Boris Williams quit and was replaced with current sticksman Jason Cooper, and keyboardist Roger O’Donnell, previously a member for a couple of years, joined permanently in 1995. Eventually arriving during the height of the summer of 1996 and with Britpop still in full pomp, a movement that essentially couldn’t have been further from The Cure’s aesthetic, Wild Mood Swings was a curious beast, whose noticeable unevenness was flagged up by the album’s very title. It’s an identity crisis of an album, with the pure and twisted pop of the band’s Eighties rarely getting a chance to assert itself. The lithe ‘Mint Car’ and the almost tropical ‘The 13th’ sat uncomfortably next to traditional Cure hulkers like ‘Want’. There’s something in Wild Mood Swings for everyone, but critically, not enough of anything to satisfy anybody. (LISTEN)
Recorded and released quickly under the aegis of Ross Robinson, a producer who had worked with many huge American acts like Korn, Slipknot and Limp Bizkit and who had done more than anyone to define the fleetingly popular nu-metal genre, The Cure ended up making the band sound slightly caricatured, rather than revolutionised. Epic closing track ‘The Promise’ and the jangle-pop of ‘Taking Off’ aside, it’s filled with loud, funereal but largely flat songs that don’t lodge themselves in the listener’s brain. Notwithstanding Robinson’s modern, heavy makeover, The Cure sound comfortable, more than anything else, on their 12th album. Unfortunately, the output covered by their previous two LPs had by now exposed the over-familiarity of their sound. Consequently, it’s the kind of album that tends to gather dust, with only die-hard fans tempted to re-visit a competent but ultimately transient listening experience. (LISTEN)
It’s incredible to think that The Cure’s newest album arrived a full decade ago. After several years of sonic stasis, the gloomy opener ‘Underneath The Stars’ turned out to be a red herring for what followed. With a more pronounced and recognisable attempt to include catchy hooks and sing-alongs, 4:13 Dream was the most overtly pop Cure album since 1992’s Wish. Or it wanted to be, at least, but for the same old emotional angst that tended to weigh a lot of it down. Though it’s more varied than its predecessor The Cure, the band’s most recent album still retained that nagging sense that they were happy enough being comfortable – perhaps knowing that they had long since moved into the status of ‘heritage rock’. The most accurate assessment of 4:13 Dream came from a reviewer who summarised that “the music perfectly fits the definition of the pop side of The Cure, without ever truly embodying the spirit”. Essentially, it didn’t really prove anything other than that Robert Smith, despite being three decades into a career, still knew how to make a Cure album. However, Smith described 4:13 Dream as the most “intense… difficult… fraught” album he’s ever made, perhaps explaining why we’re still waiting for another in 2018. (LISTEN)
After their initial run of four increasingly bleak albums in as many years, the mid-Eighties marked the point at which The Cure ceased to be a conventional band and started to become a personal vehicle for Robert Smith to dive deep into his imagination and experiment – 1983’s hit single ‘The Lovecats’ being a prime example. The Top, therefore, is a product of its environment, an imperfect but often intriguing snapshot of a band in transition. The previous year, Smith had been a touring member and sometime recording musician with fellow goth purveyors Siouxsie & The Banshees, while The Cure itself had dwindled in number to consist of just himself, keyboardist Lol Tolhurst and temporary drummer Andy Anderson.
Recorded under a period of great stress and exacerbated by drink and drugs, Smith played the overwhelming majority of the instruments on The Top, and it’s a very personal artistic statement. The gnarled psychedelia and Eastern synths on ‘Wailing Wall’ and ‘The Empty World’ point the way forward, while the bitter, angry likes of ‘Shake Dog Shake’ and ‘Give Me It’ give it roots in the past. Smith was beginning to marry his new-found pop influences to his despair and neuroses, and The Top has a bit of the trial-and-error feel one might expect. Fortunately, he would soon perfect it on a dazzling run of singles. (LISTEN)
Boasting two truly excellent hit singles in the shape of the mellifluous ‘In Between Days’ and the irresistibly kinetic ‘Close To Me’, The Head On The Door represented The Cure’s big pop break-out, the moment that brought them to mainstream exposure with heavy MTV rotation. The glinting production and pinpoint melodies make even the gloomiest tracks sound accessible. The clean, fast acoustics powering ‘The Blood’; the filmic piano and dramatic bass of ‘Sinking’; Robert Smith’s touristic daydreaming of ‘Kyoto Song’ are all real treats. But the title of ‘most pop-orientated Cure album’ is a little trickier in practice than it sounds in theory.
While it’s unquestionably taut, disciplined and often terrific, The Head On The Door is very alienated from the qualities that most people have traditionally loved about The Cure: namely, the sprawling, gothic epics of Disintegration and Pornography. The likes of ‘A Night Like This’ and the noisome stadium-rock overtones of ‘Push’ are pretty ingratiating next to some of the band’s weighty discography highlights. But at its best, it’s the absolute epitome of one of Robert Smith’s many aspects – namely, the side of him that can’t help writing sparkling pop melodies. (LISTEN)
The first Cure album of the new millennium, Bloodflowers was billed by Robert Smith as the third and final part of a self-styled ‘trilogy’ of records that most characterise the group’s sound, after Pornography and Disintegration. Out went the experimentation, and back in came the gothic cathedrals – stately tempos, spacious arrangements and melodies, cavernous echoes, morose lyrics, keening vocals, long running times and more flanges and phasers than you can shake a stick at. Critics tagged it as merely a sop to fans who had been disappointed by Wild Mood Swings, a retreat to their comfort zone. To an extent, you can see their point. Much of it sounds self-conscious and prefabricated, as though the album’s sound has been determined before the content of the actual songs, and while unquestionably imposing in its monochrome gloom, it contains absolutely none of the latent pop of Disintegration to balance it out and elevate it to the heights of a true Cure classic.
‘Watching Me Fall’ is an overly long re-tread of past glories, for example, while the title track and ’39’ explore the same psychic territory within Smith’s head as on so many occasions before. What is obvious, though, is how impressive Bloodflowers sounds, particularly in comparison to its immediate predecessor and the group’s comparatively barren Nineties, and how in undoubtedly helped them reconnect with their fans. Just don’t make it your entry point into their catalogue! (LISTEN)
Released in the early summer of 1979 when British post-punk was at its height, The Cure’s debut album is more of an outlier than any other record in their discography. The garish pink of its cover stands in stark contrast to the monochrome and sepia artworks of their later masterpieces, and that difference is reflected within the music. Lasting a shade over half an hour, Robert Smith and his colleagues rattle through 13 short, wiry bursts of angular energy – including an extremely weird cover of Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’. The louche ‘Accuracy’ and the Buzzcocks-aping ‘It’s Not You’ put the band’s sound pretty far away from the goth for which they would become famous.
While it’s leaning more towards post-punk and new-wave than anything else, making it representative of its time and place – certainly much more than all of their other records – Three Imaginary Boys does definitely contain all of the elements that would later make up the trademark Cure sound, albeit it in embryonic form. The teeth-clenching tension of ‘Grinding Halt’, for instance, is a signpost towards their future. The era’s companion singles – ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and ‘Killing An Arab’ – also remain fan favourites and informed the group’s direction as they evolved rapidly over their next three years. (LISTEN)
Following the unmitigated critical and commercial triumph that was Disintegration, The Cure had reached the height of the fame, but Robert Smith and co. were left with an imposing task in trying to follow it up. They chose the conservative option of attempting to replicate it. On the face of it, Wish is a substantially happier affair than its predecessor – borne out by the presence of the magnificent lead single ‘High’ and the adorably, hopelessly infectious ‘Friday I’m In Love’ – but any close inspection reveals that Smith’s pain is only just beneath the songs’ shiny surfaces.
Fans of the album say it was unfairly underappreciated by critics simply because it wasn’t Disintegration. To an extent, they’re right – the atmosphere and drama is mainly a match for it. The emotional devastation of ‘Apart’ and the epic expanses of ‘Open’ are real treats cut from the same cloth as the likes of ‘Plainsong’. The only genuine problem with Wish is that it all gets a bit same-y after a while, and that the tunes aren’t quite as memorable or consistently engaging, something not helped by rather neutral production values. (LISTEN)
Following less than a year after their debut album, Seventeen Seconds is much more recognisably a Cure record, the point at which they really started to define the gothic aesthetic that would define their career for three decades. Crucial to this was the inclusion of bassist Simon Gallup for the first time, who has since become Robert Smith’s longest-serving lieutenant in the band. His precise playing makes for a record that puts atmospherics front and centre – where texture is king, and where sound is as important as its absence. Monochrome gloom bleeds through the gaps in that sound, leading to consistently compelling results.
The record houses ‘A Forest’, one of The Cure’s most instantly recognisable singles, but Seventeen Seconds is more accurately defined by the slow, stalking pace, basic constructions and dead-of-night ambience of tracks like ‘In Your House’ and ‘Three’. Seventeen Seconds is not only vital in and of itself, it also makes a perfect precursor to The Cure’s next two records, which make up the first phase of their career. At its heart is devastating emptiness, the first step in the descent to the crushing, airless despair of Pornography. (LISTEN)
Representing the point at which The Cure broke into the American mainstream, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me is one of the group’s most special and fondly remembered releases. It is not their best (which is 1989’s Disintegration), nor their most accessible (1985’s The Head On The Door), nor even the most typically ‘Cure-esque’ effort (1982’s Pornography). However, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me is their boldest, most adventurous statement in their back catalogue, and the point at which they became truly magnificent.
Just about every Cure ‘mood’ that they had developed up until this point is included. There are a few dark, gothic epics, such as opener ‘The Kiss’, ‘One More Time’ and the Pornography-era guitar squall of ‘Torture’. There are fast-paced post-punk workouts (‘Hey You’, ‘All I Want’), mysterious eastern-tinged sidewinders (‘If Only Tonight We Could Sleep’, ‘Snakepit’), and rattling and clattering noise pieces (‘Shiver And Shake’, ‘Icing Sugar’). Best of all are the pop numbers: the funky, almost James Brown-esque workout of ‘Hot Hot Hot!!!’, the joyous trumpet-laden ‘Why Can’t I Be You?’ and the stunning, drop-dead beauty of ‘Just Like Heaven’. Truly, the whole spectrum is here. The only minor niggle is that these individual wonders do not make a coherent whole – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me does feel like it goes on for every one of its 75 minutes in length. But when a band as good as The Cure shows off like this, you can’t help but be impressed. (LISTEN)
One of the most legendarily bleak albums of all time, Pornography is a shorthand for a certain version of The Cure’s sound, the most extreme manifestation of one aspect of their personality – namely, the dark, brooding, gothic side. The first iteration of The Cure was on the brink of collapse during the sessions, with in-fighting exacerbated by heavy drug use. Smith himself was in an extremely depressed frame of mind, admitting that he had “every intention of signing off the group” and that he personally felt “I had two choices at the time, which were either completely giving in [committing suicide] or making a record of it and getting it out of me”.
What ended up being produced was a harrowing, hellish wall of sound that’s been matched by very few others before or since. Guitars, drums, synthesisers and bass were compressed together to form a suffocatingly airtight sonic compound. Just listening to Pornography feels oppressive, as if a weight is pressing the air out of your lungs. The grandiose swells of ‘Cold’, the relentless clatter of ‘The Hanging Garden’, the shuddering noise of the title track… all of it would have been self-parodic in lesser hands, but it’s Smith and his band’s utter conviction that makes the self-loathing and fear so compelling. Many reacted negatively at the time, but the passage of 35 years has been good to Pornography, and it’s regarded now as a genre classic. (LISTEN)
Because of where it lands in The Cure’s discography, it’s tempting to see their third LP Faith as a transitional album. The excellent, precise playing underpinning the rumble of ‘Primary’, its only single, filled in some detail on the template laid down Seventeen Seconds, while ‘The Funeral Party’ signposted to the way to the claustrophobia of Pornography. “The further we go and older we grow / the more we know, the less we show”, Smith intones on the former – if this isn’t the sign of a conflict between adolescence and fragile adulthood, of a journey from one state of being to another, what is? The blank hopelessness of the closing title track, the watery depths of ‘The Drowning Man’ and the throwback punk snarl of ‘Doubt’ all seem to make the album unsure of its own sound.
But Faith makes sense a beautifully coherent whole, so much more than just a bridging exercise, a point on a graph. It’s not as dark as a Cure record can get, but (as suggested by its cover) it’s most certainly a grey record – melancholy, downcast and despondent. Its variations in speed and urgency seem as if they might represent the ups and downs experienced by somebody in the grips of manic depression. Gradually, with bigger and bigger shows despite a lack of commercial success, The Cure were building their cult fanbase. As Diffuser put it, Faith “was like sending out a signal to all those Lost Boys and Girls that stage-whispered, ‘commiserate with us’.” (LISTEN)
1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me had at last broken The Cure in the United States, three years after they had done the same in Britain with singles like ‘The Lovecats’ and two pop-leaning records The Top and The Head On The Door. The pressure of this situation, in addition to his impending 30th birthday, had affected Smith and some of the band members negatively: drummer Lol Tolhurst, in particular, was ingesting huge amounts of alcohol to cope. Smith fired him during the recording of the new album (for other reasons in addition to his unreliability), and made a conscious decision to make something more profound and to revert to the sound of 1982’s resplendently dark Pornography in search of that. What we get with Disintegration is a sense of multiple musical threads coming together and culminating in a magnum opus.
Disintegration’s celebrated status lies in The Cure’s ability to marry the melodic tendencies that had brought them commercial success in the three-minute pop single format with extended, gothic and complex structures stretched out to, in some cases, nearly ten minutes. Disintegration is a terrific example of musical architecture. The final third, in particular, is an exercise in slow release as all of its tracks last over six minutes. The title track’s ringing low-end guitar is an exceptional moment, as is the opening ‘Plainsong’ with its dystopian synth gloom. ‘The Same Deep Water As You’ sprawls out to nearly ten minutes, unfurling itself with high-end bass straight out of Joy Division’s macabre Closer. Porl Thompson’s solo that bursts in nearly five minutes into the cinematic ‘Pictures Of You’ is a singularly glorious moment. But there are a handful of more radio-friendly moments to reel in the uninitiated Cure listener, like the sparse gothic sensuality of ‘Lullaby’ that reached #5 in the UK Charts and the sonorous, lingering keyboard figures on ‘Lovesong’ (now known to most of the world by Adele’s cover version on 21).
While there’s nothing on it with the joyful melodic knockout of ‘Just Like Heaven’ or ‘In Between Days’, Disintegration very much feels like a definitive statement, particularly because of its epic 71 minute length. The nature and themes of the songs and the way they’re ordered, with the four tracks representing the last third all over six minutes in length, made it a bit of a gamble for Fiction Records to go along with in the wake of The Cure’s recent commercial success. It reached #3 in the UK and the Top 20 in the US Billboard 200, and remains The Cure’s biggest-selling album worldwide with over three million copies shifted. It’s also their most complete statement, and no serious record collection should be without it. (LISTEN)
Do you agree with our list? Please leave us a comment below!
Tags: 4:13 Dream, Bloodflowers, Boris Williams, Disintegration, Ed Biggs, Faith, feature, from worst to best, Jason Cooper, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, Lol Tolhurst, Perry Bamonte, Porl Thompson, Pornography, Robert Smith, Roger O'Donnell, Seventeen Seconds, Simon Gallup, The Cure, The Head On The Door, The Top, Three Imaginary Boys, Wild Mood Swings, Wish
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