We rank every The Cure album from worst to best
With an extensive back catalogue, The Cure – now in their fourth decade – have no shortage of material to draw from when crafting their sprawling setlists. All of their albums sound as though they were made within the same five-year period, so it can be hard to distinguish between the band’s records, and harder still to rank their discography from worst to best. ROB INGLIS does the hard yakka for you.
13. Wild Mood Swings (1996)
Like a jab of Novocaine to the gums, the effects of The Cure’s tenth album aren’t entirely unpleasant, but you don’t really feel anything all the same. The band experiment with horn sections, but these just end up sounding tokenistic, like frontman Robert Smith thought he’d score points simply for including them. “It’s got to be jazz, that’s what she wants,” he says at the end of ‘Gone!,’ apparently under the impression that the mere addition of trumpets to a rock song makes it jazz. You can’t fault him for trying something new, but the shaky execution leaves a bad taste in the listener’s mouth.
12. 4:13 Dream (2008)
Whereas Wild Mood Swings saw The Cure taking risks that didn’t pay off, their most recent album 4:13 Dream sees the band hedging their bets. If you’ve ever wanted to know what a contractual obligation actually sounds like, then boy have you come to the right place! The album has some of Smith’s naffest lyrics: “I love what you do to my heart / It’s the best / Oh, yeah,” he sings on ‘Only One.’ I mean, Smith’s no W.B. Yeats, but he’s better than clangers like that.
The Cure haven’t put out another LP since 4:13 Dream, which is probably for the best. Working on a fairly regimented album release schedule since they formed in the late ‘70s, the longer break between records will hopefully produce a better one next time around.
11. Wish (1992)
Look, kids! It’s the album with that song we all adore and hold dear to our hearts: ‘Friday I Believe I’m in Love’ by Bobby Smits and the Curés! Unfortunately, the fellas forgot to write any other tunes for their Disintegration follow-up. Wish is nearly as long as the previous record, but it’s also devoid of that album’s creativity and ambition. In 1992, people just didn’t have time to waste on an album of The Cure in autopilot. There were much more vital and zeitgeist-defining things happening in the world of pop music, after all.
10. The Top (1984)
Prime Cure found themselves at an uncomfortable crossroads in 1984. Having been burdened with the ‘dark and gloomy’ label, they decided it was time to brighten up their sound. The result was The Top, an album with a loose animal kingdom theme. ‘Shake Dog Shake’ is a thumping blues rock song, while ‘Give Me It’ has a punk energy that isn’t present elsewhere on the album. The rest amounts to forced eccentricity. The Top is nowhere near as weird and wild as it seems to think it is. Mostly, it just sounds confused, as though the band were unable to reconcile themselves with their change of direction. “This top is the place where nobody goes,” Smith sings on the title track. There certainly aren’t many reasons to return to this one, so I guess he was right.
9. The Head on the Door (1985)
Reshuffling their lineup, The Cure were a different beast on The Head on the Door. The trio became a quintet, with Porl Thompson jumping between guitar and saxophone, while former drummer Lol Tolhurst took keyboard duties.
The band’s shift from gothic rock to jangle pop might have been effected here, but their grasp on this new style wasn’t firm until the next album. ‘Close to Me,’ the big single from The Head on the Door, anticipates The Cure’s chart success in the latter half of the ‘80s. It’s a song that you’ve absolutely heard even if you think you haven’t. The instantly recognisable synth line works in harmony with Smith’s soft, rhythmic exhalations, producing one of The Cure’s most enduring singles.
8. The Cure (2004)
Smith sounds more dynamic here than he ever had previously. The dissonant guitars of opener ‘Last’ serve to compound the frontman’s gradually intensifying vocal performance. Meanwhile, closing track ‘The Promise’ is a ten-minute jam that ranks up there with The Cure’s best. Smith’s vocal hook boasts a melody that’s beautiful in its simplicity. Moreover, he actually sounds like he gives a shit for the entirety of this album. The same can’t be said for the band’s ‘90s output.
7. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)
1987 was a good year for double albums. There was Prince’s Sign o’ the Times, o’ course. And the Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me was also a blockbuster. The album’s first single ‘Why Can’t I Be You?’ had a strange afterlife in the Almost: Round Three skate video, as the musical accompaniment to Ryan Sheckler’s part. Remember how on MSN there was an option to display what song you were listening to? Every time I’d log in during the mid-2000s, it seemed my skateboarding-obsessed friends would invariably be listening to that track. The synthetic horns sound pretty dated today, but the song retains an undeniable pop sophistication. ‘Just Like Heaven’ is even better in this regard. The greatest pop music manages to offer a brief glimpse of perfection, and The Cure are acutely aware of this. I mean, what’s more perfect than eternal salvation?
6. Bloodflowers (2000)
Smith sees The Cure’s eleventh album as the final entry in a trilogy. According to him, Pornography, Disintegration, and Bloodflowers are the three records that best represent the essence of the band. I’d tend to agree with the man. Much like on Pornography and Disintegration, there’s nothing immediately accessible here. Bloodflowers sounds like it was made right after Disintegration, so a release year of 2000 can’t help but look anachronistic.
While that album saw Smith grappling with the self-imposed pressure of creating a masterpiece before he turned thirty, Bloodflowers is his midlife crisis record. He appears to fret over the idea that he might lose his creative drive with age. “I used to feed the fire,” Smith sings on ‘39’ (as if the midlife crisis theme wasn’t already obvious enough), “But the fire is almost out.” With Bloodflowers, he proved that there was indeed some more creative fire left in his belly. On the other hand, it’s been sixteen years and Smith’s yet to reach the same heights as he did on this album. Let’s hope a few embers are still burning.
5. Three Imaginary Boys (1979)
Smith wasn’t happy with the way The Cure’s debut album landed on the music-buying public. Recorded at the tail end of the ‘70s, Three Imaginary Boys was pressed with a tracklist and an album cover that weren’t approved by the band. From that point on, Smith insisted on maintaining complete creative control over matters of aesthetic significance. I suppose it’s ironic, then, that the artwork for Three Imaginary Boys is far and away the best of The Cure’s entire discography – a band with no shortage of butt-ugly cover art. Three mundane household objects adorn the sleeve: a vacuum cleaner, a fridge, and a lamp. Austere, minimalist; call it what you want. But it reflects the content of the album perfectly.
An at once unambitious and self-assured debut, Three Imaginary Boys isn’t really that different to contemporary offerings from other post-punk groups with a pop sensibility – think Wire and The Buzzcocks. Considering it was made by a band who hadn’t even found their artistic voice yet, The Cure’s first full-length is a remarkably accomplished album.
4. Seventeen Seconds (1980)
Alright, here’s where things get serious. Seventeen Seconds, the follow-up to Three Imaginary Boys, is a collection of wiry post-punk songs where the band begin to toy with ideas of the gothic. The phlegmy guitars of ‘Play For Today’ are coupled with a ghostly synthesiser melody, while Smith’s vocal on ‘Secrets’ is low enough in the mix that it’s more akin to a whisper in a dark room. Tolhurst is still behind the drum kit on this album, contributing his motorik beats that smack of NEU! Precision grooves gave way to probing electronics when he switched to keyboards on later Cure albums.
3. Faith (1981)
Check out that cover! It’s like black metal album art, years before corpse paint began to coat the faces of Norwegian teenagers. But Bathory this ain’t. On Faith, we remain in the realm of post-punk. Since Seventeen Seconds, Smith’s lyrics have sunk further into the mire of defeatism, as he sings about “crying at the funeral party” and his wish to be “bathe[d] like a child christened in blood.” In spite of the ever-encroaching darkness, there are songs here where the band are up-and-about in terms of their energy. ‘Primary,’ one of The Cure’s best tracks, marches forward with an air of cautious optimism, while ‘Doubt’ has a bassline that tumbles and rolls with an ogre’s grace. The lyrics on Faith sometimes threaten to devolve into Fisher Price’s ‘My First Existential Crisis,’ but it’s hard to argue the point when the band is really starting to hit their stride.
2. Pornography (1982)
This is The Cure’s psychological horror movie, a David Cronenberg mindbender. Suffocatingly dark, Pornography is harder to listen to than the three albums that preceded it. And yet it’s definitely more interesting. The group emerge from the fog that engulfed them on Faith, armed with candles, incense, and a calf for sacrifice. Smith’s words read like funeral rites, and Tolhurst’s rollicking tom-toms are ritualistic. The darkness we hear on this record isn’t an act either. Making Pornography tore The Cure apart, causing certain members to have public meltdowns, and prompting Smith to completely change tack on the band’s next release The Top. It’s all a lot like I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, that Harlan Ellison novel I can’t be bothered reading.
1. Disintegration (1989)
“Disintegration is the best album ever!” Kyle Broflovski yells after Robert Smith as he walks off into the sunset in the ‘Mecha-Streisand’ episode of South Park. And that’s exactly what Smith intended to make with The Cure’s eighth full-length release. Moody and depressed, the frontman started using hallucinogens and consciously set out to create a masterpiece.
Smith observed that most masterpieces had been made before their creators had turned thirty. He was twenty-nine at the time. So the frontman fired the increasingly useless Tolhurst, who’d fallen prey to alcoholism, and started perfecting the new collection of songs he’d written. On ‘Pictures of You,’ Smith sings: “If only I’d thought of the right words / I wouldn’t be breaking apart.” Even the song titles here seem to collapse on each other – two words become one and the universe is made that much smaller. The instrumentation on tracks such as ‘Plainsong’ and ‘Prayers for Rain’ floats around your head like driftwood caught in an eddy.
Disintegration is Smith’s coming-of-age, as much a triumph as it is an admission of defeat. Where to once you’ve made your masterpiece? Your purpose has been served – all that’s left is oblivion. Fatalistic? Sure. But for a man who once sung, “It doesn’t matter if we all die,” it’s actually a pretty rosy outcome.