The only band that can be said to be better than the Cure is the Beatles.
I’m not saying the Cure is the second-best band to ever exist. (Though, pointedly, I am not not saying that.)
I am merely saying there is a rarefied place where the Beatles hover that few groups get to, where their achievements are so singular and monumental, and their influence is so vast, that they can’t be measured against anyone in any real way. There’s just no point in debating the Cure versus Fleetwood Mac or A Tribe Called Quest or R.E.M.; they’ve all become fundamental parts of the universe, an entire color.
Robert Smith, a precious lad who once wore a dress to his Crawley, West Sussex, school, formed Malice with a few mates in 1976, the Year Punk Broke, and began gigging around town. With Smith as the guitarist, that band eventually morphed into the Easy Cure by 1977 and included Mick Dempsey, Laurence “Lol” Tolhurst, and Pearl Thompson, all of whom would fall out with Smith at one point or another. (Thompson would leave and rejoin more than once, and he’s not the only member to have taken such a route.) Eventually, a few singers left, and Smith decided he could do as good a job as anyone in the frontman department. He also decided that the name Easy Cure was a bit too hippieish for his tastes.
After helping to set the template for New Wave and post-punk (spiky guitars, moaning bass, lots of free-floating anxiety) on its 1979 debut, Three Imaginary Boys, the Cure went on to record the trilogy of Seventeen Seconds, Faith, and Pornography between 1980 and 1982, firmly establishing, alongside its peers in Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees, the sound, look, and subculture of goth.
If the band had quit then, it would have been an underground legend. But something quite unexpected happened, as the Cure followed that run of albums up with the absolutely frothy pop single trilogy (lotta trilogies with this band) of “Let’s Go to Bed,” “The Walk,” and “The Lovecats.” These songs proved that Smith was willing to push back against his image and that he wouldn’t let anyone define the Cure except himself.
From there, the Cure set out to prove that it could do whatever it felt like: absolute pop bangers, wedding dance staples, guitar epics, or That Real Goth Shit. It conquered the hearts of America’s arty weirdos with the essential 1986 Standing on a Beach compilation and conquered everyone else with 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and 1989’s Disintegration.
Along the way, Smith became a cultural icon, and his look (poorly applied lipstick, hair that makes it look like he stuck his finger in an electrical socket, deeply skeptical eyes) became entrenched as both a uniform and a shorthand. Few ’80s rock stars can match his reach. He was one of the first celebrity guests on South Park. He inspired Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, James O’Barr’s The Crow, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands—and also Tim Burton’s whole vibe. He was the main plot point of a Mike Leigh film and the inspiration for a Sean Penn film I haven’t seen on account of it looking terrible. He also long ago defeated his rival Morrissey. (Not aging into an anti-immigration weirdo is a real knockout blow.)
The Cure has ever been part of the Morose Teenager Starter Kit, alongside Harold and Maude and Blankets, and its influence will endure as long as kids are bummed. There are now die-hard fans who are much younger than 1992’s Wish, the band’s last truly great album.
Smith always has been canny about how he manages his legacy. He takes care of his fans. (The man tried his best to sell you a $20 ticket in 2023.) He never skimps on the songs he knows people want to hear. (The band famously kept playing more hits even after its 2009 headlining Coachella set was cut off.) He wisely cultivates relationships with his greatest acolytes. (The 2004 traveling festival Curiosa featured Mogwai, Interpol, the Rapture, and Thursday.) His features are smart and surprising. (No one else could guest with Blink-182, Crystal Castles, and Gorillaz and make it all make sense.) The reissues are top-notch and loaded with revealing bonuses. (I’m glad the guitars on last year’s Wish reissue are way louder now.)
A new album, rumored to be called Songs of a Lost World, has long been promised, and I don’t discount the idea that it could be great. The idea of falling off is ageist and shows a misunderstanding of how creativity and inspiration work, and guitarist Reeves Gabrels, who joined the band in 2012, has been a B12 shot for the live show. Perhaps this chemistry will follow the band into the studio. But until we get news about that, the Cure is set to start its latest tour, and during its four-hour sets, you will definitely hear many songs from this list. The top 20 is all but a lock.
So let’s pull on our hair and put on our pouts and get to the opening song on this list, shall we?
50. “The Lovecats” (stand-alone single, 1983)
In which the Cure pivots from being the world’s most serious band, one that was widely heralded as the successor of Joy Division, to being the silliest band in the world. A big part of Smith’s genius is that he can make moves like this feel like they aren’t acts of desperate commercial pandering or what we would now call trolling. (Though both are somewhat the case here.) You can tell that one day Smith woke up and decided that after three albums of uncut gloom, he just wanted to dance around, sing about cats, and make some meow sounds.
Also, more Smart, Artistic Bands should take a page from the Beatles’ book and make goofy songs whose ideal audience is young children. Get ’em while they’re young.
49. “M” (Seventeen Seconds, 1980)
Play this tale of all-consuming romantic paranoia punctuated by stabbing guitar and chilling negative space, and then go back to the euphoria of “The Lovecats.” That happened within three years, which boggles the mind. I simply can’t think of a modern analogue to such a wild mood swing that actually works. It would be like if Beyoncé’s Renaissance Vol. 2 turned out to be a shoegaze metal album.
48. “The End of the World” (The Cure, 2004)
Produced by Ross Robinson, best known for his work with Korn and Slipknot, the Cure’s self-titled comeback album suffered from the overly compressed win-the-loudness-wars-at-all-costs production style that was common at the time, and you can often feel the presence of a Geffen A&R man saying, “Come on, Bob, give us something KROQ can feel.” But “The End of the World” shines through all that, and Smith’s repetition of the title and the refrain “I couldn’t love you more” during the bridge (the man loves his percussive consonants), as well as Roger O’Donnell’s cathartic keyboard sigh at the end, proved the Cure still had it.
47. “Why Can’t I Be You?” (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987)
Love the metaphor of being so into someone you just want to become them. Million points off for Tolhurst wearing fucking blackface in the video. I understand that a big part of the Cure’s visual presentation back then was painting their faces different colors, but someone should have said “no, Lol, no” on this one.
46. “The Exploding Boy” (B side of “In Between Days,” 1985)
The Cure has a ton of great B sides where the band either goes into realms a bit too weird for its proper albums or shows just how much fun it can have when it plays it loose and off the cuff. This one is the best, skipping along nimbly on some wheezing sax, energetic strumming, and a classic Smith couplet: “You talked until your tongue fell out / And then you talked some more.”
45. “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep” (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987)
No one but the Cure could make the feeling that you’re slowly losing your mind and could maybe stand to lay off the stuff for a bit sound so damn alluring. Somewhere, a young Abel Tesfaye took notes.
44. “The Loudest Sound” (Bloodflowers, 2000)
The turn-of-the-century Bloodflowers suffers from a tendency to drift along and often feels like a collection of lush soundscapes more than a collection of songs. But this portrait of a couple that has nothing to say to each other anymore after many disappointing years but also doesn’t have the strength to end it showed that Smith can always find a new way to approach heartbreak.
43. “All Cats Are Grey” (Faith, 1981)
As a fellow cat man, I see you, Robert.
42. “Disintegration” (Disintegration, 1989)
While the general public might think of the Cure as Smith and some blokes, that couldn’t be further from the truth. This song is a keen example of the muscle and grace that Simon Gallup, whom Smith has called “my best male friend throughout my life,” brings to the proceedings. You could build a Victorian castle on that bass line, yet it glides along as unhurried as the sea.
(There was a brief time a few years ago when Gallup left the band, but luckily, he’s back now. Let us not speak of it again.)
41. “Mint Car” (Wild Mood Swings, 1996)
By 1996, the Cure was well out of fashion and several years away from canonization. The imperial phase had ended, as it always must. Wild Mood Swings is a disjointed album. But at least Smith was still having fun.
Here, he sweetly makes a promise to the jaded romantics who find solace in his life’s work. One day, to your utter bafflement, you will find someone just as strange as you, and it will all work out in the end, and you will never quite understand why.
40. “Closedown” (Disintegration, 1989)
When Kyle Broflovski said, “Disintegration is the best album ever”? No lies detected.
Let us now praise Roger O’Donnell, a former member of the Thompson Twins and the Psychedelic Furs who was brought on for the Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me tour, as Tolhurst’s alcoholism impaired his ability to play. On “Closedown,” O’Donnell’s oscillating keyboard, like a switch you flip on and off to see a brief glimpse of heaven, stunned the listening public, who then decided it didn’t need to hear a synthesizer again for the rest of the 20th century.
39. “Primary” (Faith, 1981)
I had a job, briefly, in Tampa, one of the most goth cities in the world, before everyone realized I should not be writing about real estate. My one respite during this distressing period was a nightclub called the Castle. (There was a 60-something man who was always there and always dressed in lingerie. It was a whole mood.)
Goths love to dance, and you’d better believe this song, which sounds both over-caffeinated and pillowy at the same time, got those fishnet stockings on the dance floor posthaste.
38. “Hot Hot Hot!!!” (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987)
Smith doesn’t really have the voice to pull off the “goth goes to church” funk thing he’s going for here, but the man earns points for never doing anything halfway. Fortunately, Gallup and drummer Boris Williams go deep enough to help the song earn all those exclamation points.
37. “Other Voices” (Faith, 1981)
Smith can tap into real moments of despair and alienation that only the most perceptive artists would even see. On “Other Voices,” he contemplates the feeling that you are part of the world, but only barely, always just on the outside, while Gallup’s bass line personifies the feeling when claustrophobia begins emanating from inside you.
36. “High” (Wish, 1992)
I don’t know how Smith makes absolute nonsense like “kitten as a cat” and “licky as trips” sound like poetry that William Wordsworth would envy.
35. “Faith” (Faith, 1981)
The Cure is a very sexy band, and “Faith” is a very sensuous form of despair bolstered by a very slutty bass line. A perfect soundtrack for barely being able to leave the bed or strutting around the graveyard in your hottest cape. Eros and Thanatos are kissing cousins, after all.
34. “The Caterpillar” (stand-alone single, 1984)
Butterflies are one thing, but caterpillars are not cute, and women generally don’t find it a compliment to be compared to an insect. At best you are telling her she will be beautiful at some point. But, again, Smith can make almost anything sound like poetry.
33. “Prayers for Rain” (Disintegration, 1989)
This is Smith at his most desperate, calling out for a salvation that seems all but impossible. Even a drop of hope seems too much to ask for. The Cure’s best epics make you wait for it while also making every moment count. This is the sound of being sucked into the ocean of despair, punctuated by cinematic drumrolls and Thompson’s vertiginous swells.
32. “Fire in Cairo” (Three Imaginary Boys, 1979)
When it comes to post-punk, it’s the notes you don’t play. The Cure was a bunch of imaginary boys here, confident enough to keep it as minimalist as possible while painting a portrait of nervous lust and green enough not to realize it’s a bit insensitive to compare a really hot babe to a historic series of riots that leveled a city.
31. “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea” (Wish, 1992)
One of the central paradoxes of Smith is that he is, to this day, married to Mary Poole, whom he met when he was 14 and about whom he once said, “I always think of myself as Mary’s boyfriend, never her as my girlfriend.” (Their first date was to see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.)
But he’s also one of rock’s finest chroniclers of loneliness, romantic despair, and that feeling that if you just found her, it would all be OK. But who would want a mess such as you?
How do we reconcile this? Well, we don’t. Brian Wilson didn’t surf, William Roberts II wasn’t an international drug lord, and Bruce Springsteen never worked at a factory. It’s art. It only matters if you can sell it and make it feel real for the listener, and the Cure certainly did so on this tale of romantic implosion. You can also hear roadie-turned-keyboardist-and-guitar-player Perry Bamonte shred hard to prove that he belongs.
30. “The Figurehead” (Pornography, 1982)
Metalheads, punks, emo kids, indie rockers—they all love the Cure because they can all see parts of themselves in the world Smith created. Pornography helped spawn a billion different metal subgenres and created a template followed by everyone from Trent Reznor to Deafheaven to Grimes. Key track “The Figurehead” is weaponized moroseness and is one of the hardest songs in the Cure catalog, Tolhurst’s martial drums and Gallup’s throbbing bass line all but marching you off a cliff.
29. “Burn” (The Crow: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1994)
I’m not saying the soundtrack to The Crow is the best soundtrack ever. Of course I’m not. But … we got Nine Inch Nails covering fucking Joy Division. We got the best Helmet song. We got Jesus and Mary Chain going wild. We got the underrated cult shoegaze band Medicine. And we got “Burn,” in which Robert Smith gazes on a decimated metropolis, knowing it could only end thus. Man has fallen, yet he is not without pity, nor is he without epic guitar elegies.
28. “Six Different Ways” (The Head on the Door, 1985)
While Smith was in the midst of the “none-more-goth trilogy,” he was also pulling double duty by playing guitar in Siouxsie and the Banshees. The two were frequent tour mates, and Smith often played two sets a night.
This experience pushed him to swap out minimalism for maximalism and embrace wall-of-sound guitars and outré textures and arrangements. The dark, theatrical glamour of Siouxsie Sioux and time spent at the goth nightclub the Batcave eventually influenced Smith’s signature look. (It is quite striking to watch early videos of the Cure from when they looked like a bunch of dudes who waltzed onstage straight from the pub.)
The high point of Smith’s Banshee era was the album Hyæna, which contained the enthralling single “Swimming Horses,” cowritten by Smith. He later recycled that song’s piano motif for this equally beguiling bit of art pop, though he added an off-kilter 6/8 time signature and lyrical musing on how we’re all different people depending on the day to make it feel like more than self-plagiarism.
27. “Killing an Arab” (Boys Don’t Cry, 1980)
Smith wrote many of the best-loved songs from the Boys era while a teenager, placing him firmly in a lineage of precocious geniuses alongside Fiona Apple, Paul Westerberg, and Stevie Wonder. This was one of those songs.
If Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” is both the most misunderstood song of the ’80s and the song most cynically appropriated by the forces the artist stood against, then “Killing an Arab” is the second. Infamously inspired by Albert Camus’s existentialist novel The Stranger, it was a well-intentioned howl against unthinking cruelty in all forms but was later played by right-wing, anti-Arab DJs, which prompted Smith and his management to add a sticker to the album’s cover that said, “The song ‘Killing an Arab’ has absolutely no racist overtones whatsoever. It is a song which decries the existence of all prejudice and consequent violence.”
While it has more than a whiff of “white teenager reads a classic, decides to solve racism,” it is impressive how fully formed the Cure sounds on this early outing, and young people are allowed to be a bit strident when their hearts are in the right place.
26. “Charlotte Sometimes” (stand-alone single, 1981)
The universe, taking the form of MTV and, later, music magazines, once sent me a much-needed message.
“Hey, kid, you don’t like sports, you’re still recovering from the religious school you barely escaped from, and while you can sense that everything around you is fucked, you don’t have the language to articulate that at all. Also, you don’t really have much in the way of friends, and let’s not even get into the whole ‘girls’ thing. It’s just not going well for ya, huh?
“Can we interest you in lifelong devotion to the Cure?”
“Just Like Heaven” and such could get you in the door, but it’s Standing on a Beach that turned untold numbers of lost boys and girls into acolytes. One of the key tracks was the stand-alone “Charlotte Sometimes,” a song with enough mystery and allure that it didn’t seem to come from a place you’d heard of before, a song you could base an entire personality around, a way of viewing the world.
25. “End” (Wish, 1992)
During an extremely difficult period of my life when a toxic job began to eat away at my soul, I once again found solace in the Cure, as I have throughout my life. I particularly turned to this song and its opening lines: “I think I’ve reached that point / Where giving up and going on / Are both the same dead end to me.”
Even as your teenage pain turns into something more adult, Smith is there for you. He still sees you, and he still understands.
24. “Grinding Halt” (Three Imaginary Boys, 1979)
The ’00s were filled with bands trying to nail this over-amped, jittery but danceable vein of post-punk. No one quite replicated it, but there are rewards in trying.
23. “The Same Deep Water as You” (Disintegration, 1989)
Smith was deeply influenced by the Romantics: Dickinson, Brontë, Keats, all your faves. He created the “Robert Smith” persona to help him elevate normal human feelings to the level of grand drama, and here he examines a love so powerful that he will swim across oceans to be reunited with his beloved. You can never say he doesn’t commit.
But beyond the absolutely swoon-worthy story, this song is a marvel of quiet confidence, a nearly 10-minute epic that ambles along at its own pace, with Smith in no hurry to drop the devastating chorus (“I will kiss you forever on nights like this”) until he’s good and ready.
22. “Play for Today” (Seventeen Seconds, 1980)
Smith is the greatest pouter in music, and you can hear his rolled eyes and exasperated sighs in every second of this song. You can also hear post-punk slowly inch its way toward spawning goth as well.
21. “Doing the Unstuck” (Wish, 1992)
Smith always has been careful not to let himself be hemmed in by other people’s idea of Robert Smith, once saying, “I could sit and write gloomy songs all day long, but I just don’t see the point.” On this jaunty slice of pop perfection, he gives a pep talk to the sort of mope that people might perceive him as, gently nudging them by singing, “let’s get happy” over guitars that might do the trick.
20. “Lullaby” (Disintegration, 1989)
There’s always been a storybook, fairy-tale aspect to the Cure, and Smith often seems like he just walked out of Alice in Wonderland. But fairy tales are simply ways to approach darker feelings, and while whimsical on the surface, “Lullaby” is an elegant metaphor for the dark thoughts and personal demons that won’t give you a moment’s peace, buttressed by whispering synth lines and carefully plucked guitars that slowly move from soothing to unnerving as the nightmare intensifies.
Also, I imagine that the only reason this hasn’t appeared in a Spider-Man film yet is that, canonically, Peter Parker is not a cannibal.
19. “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” (Boys Don’t Cry, 1980)
The way music works is that someone has an idea, and someone else builds on it. Everyone is allowed to borrow, and “authenticity” is a dicey concept.
That said, it is hilarious to hear Smith get all petty and sneer at all the post-punks come lately who are trying to bite his style.
18. “The Hanging Garden” (Pornography, 1982)
Goth, as a subculture, was a reaction to Reagan- and Thatcher-era austerity and the looming sense that life would only get more dreadful for all but the rich. But the reason it has endured, to paraphrase the late journalist, playwright, and goth scholar Marc Spitz, is that it is a deeply practical approach to life, and not just because everyone looks hot in all black.
Once you embrace the darkness in life and accept that death is inevitable, you can shrug off the greater worries and go about enjoying your finite time. Perhaps by doing your favorite sway dances and enjoying absolutely badass anthems like “The Hanging Garden.” I don’t know what “The Hanging Garden” is, but I do know that the nearly tribal drumming makes it sound like a place of great portent, as well as a cool spot for teenagers to smoke cloves.
17. “Catch” (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987)
In which the Cure expertly captures the sensation of meeting someone you fall head over heels for right away, only for it to fizzle out before it even begins. The gentle violin sway conjures the hopeless, dizzy spell such an encounter can conjure, while Smith’s knowing tone recognizes that, later in life, you will look back and laugh at yourself, wistful but grateful you ever had such passions.
16. “Push” (The Head on the Door, 1985)
Few can rival the Cure for bombastic intros. The genius of “Push” is that the Cure asked, “What if most of the song was a bombastic intro built around an insistent guitar progression?” Well, it turns out that would be awesome. The non-intro parts are pretty great as well.
15. “Let’s Go to Bed” (stand-alone single, 1982)
Goth isn’t given enough credit for being a horny subculture. (Goth culture and S&M culture aren’t synonymous, but there’s a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram.)
This was the first time Smith set aside abject misery for uncut lust. With playful keyboard whines and some slightly unnerving empty space, he makes his intentions clear with a pithiness Prince would appreciate (“I don’t care if you don’t”) and then wails like a man who really needs a little less talking, a little more something else.
14. “Fascination Street” (Disintegration, 1989)
One of the oldest tropes in pop music is that night in the city is where and when it all happens. It’s where the danger, the sex, the thrills are.
The best example of this type of song is Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” but “Fascination Street” is certainly up there, with Smith making a night out looking for kicks with his mates feel like a journey into the darkness from which he might not return. As ever, credit to Gallup, who can make anything sound ominous.
13. “A Night Like This” (The Head on the Door, 1985)
On one hand, sure, this portrayal of a romantic obsession verging on stalking, of an overpowering desire to have someone, is a bit problematic. The stalkee isn’t given much agency, I concede. And yes, it’s a good thing we’ve had a decade’s worth of social media conversations about some of the less savory aspects of the art we consume.
But let us now invite our friends nuance and artistic intent back into the chat.
Just as we acknowledge that, throughout cinematic history, most erotic thrillers were deeply flawed and often quite icky, there’s a reason many people find themselves missing them these days. That sense of danger and allure holds a power over us still, especially as popular culture continues to lose sight of true eroticism. And art, after all, is a place for artists and audiences to work through complex emotions and feelings we would never pursue in real life.
Which brings us back to “A Night Like This,” a song that sounds both seductive and dangerous, with Smith sounding equal parts desperate and deranged when he barks, “I’m coming to find you if it takes me all night,” unwilling to believe he can’t make it all right again, unwilling to believe they’re gone. You still might need a cigarette when it’s over.
12. “Pictures of You” (Disintegration, 1989)
Do many of these songs remind you of … someone … from long ago? Certainly. Do we need to get into it here? Certainly not. Is this one of them? Certainly. Am I glad I’m not a teenager anymore? You bet. Does the epic sense of regret and longing, that desperate hope for one more chance, represented by desperately sad guitars and Smith’s defeated plea of “do-do-do-do,” still conjure something in me that’s still just a bit more than I can handle sometimes?
[Starts sobbing uncontrollably.]
11. “10:15 Saturday Night” (Three Imaginary Boys, 1979)
Another all-powerful rock trope is the lament that there is nothing to do in your Podunk town and with your Podunk life, and everyone out there is having fun without you. It’s a terrifying feeling, to be young and to worry you are wasting your youth. It might even push you to form one of the greatest bands ever.
The Cure, being a bunch of teens from the small town of Crawley, was able to adroitly tap into this feeling in this, one of their opening salvos. The “drip, drip, drip” part is the sort of perfect detail a more experienced songwriter might feel a bit silly going for, even as it captures the sort of thing a bored mind might focus on to pass the time. And the Cure succeeds in making crushing ennui sound like a blast here, as in the best songs of this lineage.
10. “Lovesong” (Disintegration, 1989)
Smith once said that “we’ll be mainstream when the mainstream accommodates us,” and he has a knack for making pop songs that win you over without seeming desperate for your approval. “Lovesong,” which hit no. 2 on the Billboard charts and upgraded the band to stadiums for a spell, didn’t do anything drastically un-Cure. It simply distilled the band down to its essence.
Famously written as a wedding gift for Poole, only to become a first-dance staple for thousands, the song is centered on as simple a promise as you can muster: “I will always love you.” Smith has never sounded more unguarded than he is here, and that’s what connected him to the entire world for a time. He sings with passion and faith, swearing he will always be true. But there’s a hint of sadness in his voice, as he knows full well that no couple can be together forever, at least not in this life.
9. “Friday I’m in Love” (Wish, 1992)
I’m not saying Smith created poptimism, per se. But I am saying that he knew he could create head-rush pop anthems and they would enhance, not detract from, his artistry.
He once said, “‘Friday I’m in Love’ is a dumb pop song, but it’s quite excellent actually, just because it’s so absurd. It’s so out of character—very optimistic and really out there in happy land.” This is a pop classic only Smith would write, and not just because most songwriters would feel a bit self-conscious about the “Thursday, I don’t care about you” line.
Only someone who has plumbed the depths of despair that Smith has could so completely fling themselves in the polar opposite direction, eternally grateful to have made it out of the darkness and to have found a reason to never go back.
8. “A Forest” (Seventeen Seconds, 1980)
Mediocrity borrows, genius steals.
I’m a professional, you know. To do my research, I spent time with the Cure catalog, watched all their live videos I could find, reread old profiles, and, of course, listened to both parts of The Ringer’s Bandsplain episode devoted to the Cure, hosted by Yasi Salek and featuring Hanif Abdurraqib.
So I must concede that, for this particular entry, I could not top Salek’s description. So to quote the scholar:
“These fucking bass lines, bitch, that start coming on Seventeen Seconds? So fucking good.”
7. “Boys Don’t Cry” (Three Imaginary Boys, 1979)
In which Smith recreates masculinity itself in his image, offering a new, gentler, and more humane version for all to follow.
It’s one of the most vulnerable songs a man has ever written. He throws away macho rock orthodoxy like yesterday’s newspaper, a thing he has no need for. He’s proudly open with his feelings in a way few rock singers could match, then or now.
One of the most important things that the Cure helped popularize was the archetype of the weirdo who’s supremely comfortable in their skin. Smith rolls his eyes at anyone who doesn’t understand his makeup or overt emotionalism and is unbothered by anyone’s hang-ups, homophobia, and attachments to rigid gender roles. (Gallup has said, “The most entertaining rumor I heard was that Robert and me were gay lovers.”)
The impact this has had on popular culture cannot be overstated; it’s offered comfort to thousands, has saved countless lives, and now appears to be the only reasonable way of being for enlightened people.
6. “A Letter to Elise” (Wish, 1992)
[Uncontrollable sobbing intensifies to the point where my neighbors check on me.]
By 1992, Smith had married his longtime love and achieved pretty much anything he’d set out to accomplish. Based on “Friday I’m in Love,” he was in a better mood. But “better” sometimes means the pain isn’t resolved, just at bay. Or maybe it means you’re happy, but you still know your artistic strengths. Again, as long as you can still sell the drama, it’s not our business how “real” it all is.
Tapping into what he’s termed “that same core of despair that never goes away,” Smith delivered one of his best laments to a doomed romance, and one of his best self-recriminations, in “A Letter to Elise.” It’s one of the Cure’s most elegant compositions, from the devastating metaphors (“And every time I try to pick it up / Like falling sand / As fast as I pick it up / It runs away through my clutching hands”) to a bridge that builds until it threatens to block out the sun. And that’s the paradox of Smith: He sounds the most self-assured when he sounds the most dejected.
5. “Close to Me” (7-inch single mix version, The Head on the Door, 1985)
After the depths of the goth trilogy and the buoyancy of the pop single trilogy, The Head on the Door is where they put it all together, jelling into the band the world thinks of as the Cure. Darkness and light coexist on the same album (and sometimes the same song) just as they coexist within all of us. It’s also the album where Gallup returned after a brief spat and the lineup began to settle for a while.
Smith found a way to be clever, neurotic, and capricious here, self-aware and endlessly troubled by a love that never goes easily. (“I’ve made myself so sick / I wish I’d stayed / in bed today.”)
It’s one of the Cure’s best pop songs, gliding with an unceasing momentum and filled with the sort of idiosyncratic touches the band was becoming more comfortable with. (The xylophones! The horns!) By making romantic dysfunction so danceable, they began on the path to stardom.
4. “Plainsong” (Disintegration, 1989)
While I am a man of Faith, I’m not sure whether I’m a man of faith. Maybe, maybe not. But I do think the intro of this song is what it would sound like if the heavens were to suddenly burst open, only for the seraphim to emerge, finally set order to things, and allow us to live in grace.
And that’s just the start. The song gets better from there as Smith strains to reach the divine and gets astonishingly close.
There’s not really a chorus, per se, but you don’t need one when you have continual cascades of slow-motion, radiant synth of such grandeur that Sofia Coppola plausibly used it to soundtrack the coronation of Louis XVI. (The best use of a Cure song in a film, though this is the funniest.)
The couple in the song is, maybe, watching it all come to a close. And they are at peace with that because they are together. Smith created a world and ended it in just over five minutes. Many operas have accomplished much less with much more time. Hell of a way to kick off Disintegration, the album on which the Cure perfected music.
3. “In Between Days” (The Head on the Door, 1985)
[Throws away entire box of tear-stained tissues.]
“Yesterday I got so old / I felt like I could die.”
Smith was 26 when he wrote those lines. How ridiculous. How absurd. How … accurate a portrayal of the beginnings of what we now call a quarter-life crisis, that feeling that life is slipping away and you have nothing to hold on to.
Smith knows what he’s doing, and while he can find the fun in an emotional purging, he never lets things veer into camp. He’s too sincere and too good with heartbreaking lyrics and disarming mewls for that. He’s also able to pay off his striking opening lines with a follow-up that’s just as affecting: “Yesterday I got so scared / I shivered like a child.”
Pair it with the hardest but most jubilant jangle pop he ever strummed, and you have a song that brings seasoned Cure fans right back to their first heartbreaks and that will be there for new Cure converts just as soon as they need it.
2. “One Hundred Years” (Pornography, 1982)
“The making of the album was incredibly demented,” Smith later said when reflecting on Pornography. “We didn’t sleep, which drives anyone mad, and we didn’t see anyone—it was an Us Against the World mentality, and nothing mattered but making the most extreme statement we could muster.”
Well, mission accomplished, my dudes.
The album, their fourth, was made during a difficult time for the band. Everyone was heavily using drugs and alcohol, and Smith entered the deepest depression of his life and decided he had to get the feelings out or else he’d become another rock star gone before their time.
Infamously starting with the line “It doesn’t matter if we all die,” the opener, “One Hundred Years,” is the most goth song on the most goth album by the most goth band. A dense barrage that keeps ratcheting up the tension until it reaches a brink-of-the-edge, this-could-really-go-either-way intensity that few bands could ever match, including, afterward, the Cure.
The coda offers no absolution, just Smith repeating “one after the other” endlessly, the sound of desperation or perhaps resignation.
The album was weirdly popular in England, and after this, Smith wisely knew it was time to change it up, lest he suffer diminishing returns and/or mental ruin.
1. “Just Like Heaven” (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987)
Of course this was going to be no. 1. I never considered otherwise. To pick something else would have been so contrary as to be juvenile.
It’s not just the Cure’s best song; it’s one of the best songs anyone has ever made, and the best song of the 1980s that wasn’t written by Prince.
Every second could not be made more perfect, from the ba-boom drum intro to the most delectable synthesizer purr ever recorded. Every time I see this band live, and I’m getting close to an even 10, I see couples dance (among other activities) when that piano line drops.
And the video! My God, this band never looked hotter. The image of Poole twirling in the ether forever cemented her mysterious lore among Cure fans, while the scene of Smith standing on a cliff, looking into the sea, his heart about to burst, placed him in the direct lineage of the Romantic poets he so loves.
Smith has said it’s about a perfect day with his wife that was worth endless hours of drudgery.
It’s also a song that proves, to its author and its fans, that it’s worth it to find a way out of the depths. It’s a song about how love is worth living for, great songs are worth everything, and some bands are worth making a part of your life forever.
An earlier version of this piece stated that the song “Catch” is on Wish. It’s on Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, from 1987.
Michael Tedder is a freelance journalist who has written for Esquire, MEL, Variety, Stereogum, and Playboy. His book, Top Eight: How MySpace Changed Music, will be published by Chicago Review Press on August 15, 2023, and is currently available for preorder.