The Cure’s 15 Best Songs From Their Greatest Decade
Yesterday, May 8th, marks the 40th anniversary of The Cure’s debut album, Three Imaginary Boys. Last Thursday, May 2nd, marked the 30th anniversary of their eighth, Disintegration. Nowadays, any band releasing eight albums over a 10-year period is an impressive enough feat, but The Cure aren’t just any run-of-the-mill band, and their first eight LPs aren’t just any run-of-the-mill albums. The fact that the Cure’s prolific early run neatly coincided with the start and finish of the 1980s illustrates just how defining they were to the music of that decade.
Slowly, and sometimes awkwardly, mutating from post-punk to goth to alt-rock to some psychedelic combination of all three, Robert Smith and Co. were never a band that emerged unrecognizable with a new vibe for each ensuing album. Instead, their music granted us a window into the painstaking inner-workings of each metamorphosis. There were moments when the stress, substance abuse, and pain of it all got to be too much, as on the transitional ugly duckling The Top. But instead of writing it off as a failure and going back to the gothy success of the preceding Pornography, the Cure synthesized its trippy eclecticism into the unprecedented pop triumphs of their next act. In chronologically listening to the Cure’s best work from 1979 to 1989, we come to see pop and rock music as Robert Smith’s means of evolution and exorcism. Below, we’ve selected the 15 most essential songs from their first and greatest decade.
“Grinding Halt” (Three Imaginary Boys, 1979)
The Cure’s many subsequent successes obscure the best-kept secret about the band’s early days: they could’ve been an all-time great post-punk band had they wanted to. No song proves this better than “Grinding Halt” from Three Imaginary Boys. The fragmented, repetitive lyrics, centered around the refrain, “No people,” are the closest the band ever got to Gang Of Four-style critiques of capitalism; Robert Smith’s amphetamine-y riffs exude anxiety; then-bassist Michael Dempsey displays the R&B/punk rhythmic and melodic tricks he’d build upon once he left the group for his decidedly more straightforward second band, The Associates. A whole album of this dry, vacuum-sealed sound could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of Wire, The Fall, Swell Maps, or Joy Division.
“Boys Don’t Cry” (single, 1979)
I was recently playing the Cure at the restaurant where I work when a gruff dude at the bar remarked, between munches of his Reuben, “In my day, the only people that listened to this band were girls and cave-dwellers.” Besides gifting me a solid new term for goths, this guy displayed the exact sort of heteronormative bias that the Cure skewered on their immortal second single, “Boys Don’t Cry.” 20 years later, this jittery anthem about a teen reckoning with his feelings inspired the title of the film adaptation of the tragic tale of trans hero Brandon Teena. Few pop songs have ever dismantled gender stereotypes so cuttingly.
“A Forest” (Seventeen Seconds, 1980)
Here comes the atmosphere. For all of Three Imaginary Boys’ emotional heft and tight musicianship, it lacks the widescreen scope of the Cure’s best music. From the opening note of “A Forest,” the band’s first single of the ‘80s, it was clear that they would be thinking bigger in the years to come. The droning synth intro, the chiming guitar chords, the full-throated, driving bassline— these are the early tricks that elevated a very good post-punk band to an impossibly versatile pop group. And then there’s Smith’s tireless work ethic— compare a 1979 performance of this track (then titled “At Night”) to the album version and note how he completely swapped out the original boilerplate horror lyrics for something more mysterious, dusky, and darkly vague.
“The Funeral Party” (Faith, 1981)
It doesn’t get more goth than straight-up titling your song “The Funeral Party.” The song evokes a posthumous reckoning, conveying catharsis just as much as mourning with its billowing curtains of building melodies. Set the scene better than this opening couplet, I dare you: “Two pale figures ache in silence/Timeless in the quiet ground.” 1981’s Faith is the midpoint between the Cure’s goth awakening on Seventeen Seconds and their complete mastery of the vibe on Pornography, and while its highs aren’t quite as high as those on the albums that bookend it, “The Funeral Party” showcases the increasingly moody, indulgent direction the band was taking.
“One Hundred Years” (Pornography, 1982)
The imagery— “Ambition in the back of a black car,” “Creeping up the stairs in the dark,” “A piece of new meat in a clean room,” “A tiger thrashing in the water”— is violent and bleak. The music is even more so. Smith unlocks an air-raid siren guitar sound reminiscent of his idol Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner,” a chaotic, abrasive tone which would also crop up in The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?” and My Bloody Valentine’s “Only Shallow” a few years later. Lol Tolhurst, the man behind the song’s twitchy drum groove, also gets his first credited synth part, a high-tension backdrop that presaged his post-Pornography move from percussion to keyboards. the Cure’s two previous records tinted goth’s ink-black void with moody blues and mysterious purples; Pornography, especially “One Hundred Years,” is blood-red with fury and disillusionment.
“Cold” (Pornography, 1982)
“The Funeral Party” is the warm-up; “Cold” is the Cure’s true plaintive goth centerpiece. The synth glitters like the walls of an ice cavern, pitch-shifting percussion plinks sound like brittle icicles shattering on the ground, the toms and snare rumble like a far-off avalanche. Once again, the sonics match the lyrical theme, as Smith repeatedly references frigidity, both in temperature and emotion. Pornography has plenty more impressive feats of composition— Simon Gallup’s bass odyssey “The Hanging Garden,” the impressive slow-build of “A Strange Day,” the experimental title track. As a mood piece though, “Cold” is unparalleled on the album, in the Cure’s discography, and in goth music as a whole.
“Let’s Go to Bed” (single, 1982)
Six months after releasing their darkest album, the Cure dropped “Let’s Go to Bed” as a stand-alone single. Imagine the shock: the poppy, sexy, upbeat track is more Soft Cell than Siouxsie, all slap bass, snappy percussion, and “doot doot doot”s. It’d be utterly goofy and disappointing if it was made by anyone but the Cure, or if it spelled the end of the band’s dark weirdness once and for all. In reality, “Let’s Go to Bed” is the crucial party-starter that the Cure’s discography otherwise lacks.
“Dressing Up” (The Top, 1984)
Years later, it’s baffling that a goofy-as-hell collection of ill-advised experiments like The Top wound up in the middle of a run as impressive as the Cure’s in the ‘80s. “Dressing Up” is a welcome departure from the album’s loose animal theme (“Shake Dog Shake,” “Birdmad Girl,” “The Caterpillar,” “Piggy in the Mirror,” Bananafishbones”) and dubious flirtations with mismatched international sounds. A lovely if innocuous tune, it introduces the brighter keyboard sounds the band would perfect on their next few albums. Despite the otherwise cheery vibe, Smith has rarely sounded this deranged: when he sings “Going under slowly,” you can actually hear it happening. The Top is an aggressively playful album in the midst of a dark spell for the band, and “Dressing Up” is the only moment in which that unwieldy contrast actually works.
“In Between Days” (The Head on the Door, 1985)
Kicking off with an instantly recognizable drum fill, the Head on the Door opener wastes no time in showing off the most talented full-band incarnation of the Cure. Bassist Gallup, who briefly left the band after an alleged fistifight with Smith on the Pornography tour, and original guitarist Porl Thompson, who quit before Three Imaginary Boys, were both back. And for the first time since Tolhurst’s switch to keyboards, the Cure had a full-time drummer in Boris Williams. “In Between Days” is one of the band’s four or five best pop songs, a jangly slice of perfection that made the Cure mainstays on college radio.
“Just Like Heaven” (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987)
Looking back, it’s insane that the Cure chose the grating synth-horn bleater “Why Can’t I Be You?” as the lead single for 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me when they had “Just Like Heaven” in the clip. As the album’s third single, it became the band’s biggest American hit to date, and its legacy lives on, in part thanks to numerous cover versions and more recently, a nostalgia-driven music festival. Something of a spiritual successor to “In Between Days,” “Just Like Heaven” is one of the finest love songs of its era, its music sweetly manifesting the drop-everything, “I’ll run away with you” theme that Smith’s lyrics hone in on. Especially after Dinosaur Jr.’s 1989 cover (which Smith loved), this song bridged multiple eras and continents of alternative music.
“The Perfect Girl” (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1985)
If Pornography added violent, angry red to the Cure’s moody color palette, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me doled out the color’s lustier sub-hues. “The Perfect Girl” isn’t exactly “Hot Hot Hot!!!”, the band’s dreadful horndogging attempt at expressing their deep-seated love for funk music. Instead, it shows that the Cure didn’t need to go full Kiedis to be sexy. The song’s quirkiness (“You’re such a strange girl”) is very much within Smith’s wheelhouse, but it struts instead of pining, and even sounds romantically confident—a true rarity in the Cure catalog.
“Fight” (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1985)
The Cure didn’t achieve true heaviness until the grimy, industrial “Fight.” (They’d gotten close before, on “Shake Dog Shake” and “The Kiss.” The only other song I can think of with a chorus that’s just the word “fight” over and over is by Project Pat, which should say something about this song’s outlier status in the Cure’s discography. Smith’s outlaw’s-last-stand riff, Tolhurst’s B-movie action sequence synths, Williams’ militaristic beat—the combination makes for “drama” in the TNT sense of the word, not the Hallmark Channel sense that the Cure is more closely associated with. Goths throw down too.
“Pictures Of You” (Disintegration, 1989)
For all of the Cure’s achievements in the preceding decade, 1989’s Disintegration is the capstone, a payoff that finally weds their pop instincts with their experimentalism, their tendency to meander with a unified, album-length vision. The same can be said for “Pictures Of You” when viewed next to their finest singles. Every mood that Robert Smith’s ever explored—longing, dejection, bitterness, sweetness, sensitivity, infatuation, melodrama—is contained within this song. What begins as all-consuming nostalgia for a lost relationship slowly mutates into understanding, then—in an “a-ha” moment during the crushing bridge—regret. Part of a stately suite that opens the Cure’s wide-open, reverb-heavy eighth album, “Pictures Of You” prepares you for the gorgeous but bracing ride that awaits.
“Disintegration” (Disintegration, 1989)
On the other end of Disintegration, the stakes get much more dire. The heartbreaking title track amounts to a suicide note, with Smith leaving hints like, “I never said I would stay to the end,” and “It’s easier for me to get closer to heaven than to ever feel whole again.” He put it even more blatantly in an interview: “‘Disintegration’ is obvious, it’s my scream against everything falling apart, and my right to quit with it when I want to.” Everything about the music— Gallup’s dead-eyed bassline, Williams’ krautrock-style locked groove, the climactic keyboard stabs, the broken glass sound effect, the ghostly choir— has the makings of a final stand.
“2 Late” (Disintegration B-side, 1989)
The Cure’s non-album tracks—first compiled on 1983’s Japanese Whispers, then much more extensively on 2004’s rarities comp Join The Dots—illustrate the sheer amount of music the band was producing in its heyday (as if eight albums over the course of 10 years weren’t enough). There are plenty of great ones to choose from, and to go out on a happier note than “Disintegration,” we’ve chosen “2 Late,” the B-side to 1989’s “Lovesong” single. Boiling down the band’s yearn-pop into a concise 160 seconds, this wrong-place-wrong-time tale nevertheless has hope for the future, which is more than you can say about the vast majority of Disintegration itself.