I stay up late writing these things and then publish them during the day so more people see them. “More,” in this case, is like 7 instead of 4. I think we can agree the word “more” still applies.
And here we are at the end! I had a pretty solid idea of which songs were going to be in my top 10 but had a heck of a time determining how to rank them. Ultimately, I rolled with the idea that I should feel more and more excited each time a new song begins. I think this list achieves that for me but obviously your mileage may vary.
Voices in my head! They’re saying “Where is my favorite Cure song, R. Kevin? Why isn’t it in the top 10?” Probably because it either wasn’t released as a single, because it was a cover song or a remix, or because I already listed it on one of the previous lists. Sorry, voices!
10. Wrong Number
“Wrong Number” is the sole originally song on the 1997 greatest hits package Galore (aka “the album I originally bought so I could avoid buying Wild Mood Swings”). I have the perhaps incorrect perception that – in the digital age – the need for greatest hits packages has dropped to zero. Everyone can make their own greatest hits package these days. “Wrong Number” was recorded by a Cure line-up that consisted of Smith, drummer Jason Cooper and (at the time) guest guitarist Reeves Gabrels. Gabrels was Bowie’s guitarist from 1987-1999 and he brought his angular, often counter-intuitive sense of musicality to this song. Smith took six years off between Wild Mood Swings and The Cure. The latter album leans a bit towards contemporary (to 2003) rock and I sort of feel like this song was pointing the way to that – Smith seems to have gotten really into rocking out in the last 20 years.
I have a bad habit with all rock songs – Cure songs especially – in that I always assume they’re about drugs. With The Cure, they often turn out to be about, you know, walking your dog or how life is meaningless. Not about drugs at all. There is some speculation online that the colors Smith sings about in this song are a reference to the 60’s fashion his sister wore. This speculation is unsourced. So drugs.
9. In Between Days
Or “In-between Days” or “Inbetween Days” because Robert Smith does not love you. The first single from 1985’s The Head on the Door is still one of Smith’s best pop songs. The quickly strummed acoustic guitar riff on this song became central to The Cure’s sound on many of their future songs – I think this is the first appearance of it in their songs. I remember being incredibly excited about this song from the very first time I heard it. Lyrically, the song seems like its about a man who leaves his current lover for a new one and then regrets his decision. Not drugs.
The unfortunately titled “alt.end” from 2003’s The Cure was a single in the U.S. only. The title has permanently dated the song, but that’s kind of appropriate because some of the production choices made on The Cure have permanently dated the album. Specifically, the producers (presumably with the complicity of The Cure) were trying to make an album that wouldn’t sound out of place on the 2003 American rock charts. It didn’t sound out of place then, but it sounds “of a time” to my ear now. Anyhow, that is a lot of unnecessary critique of an album that features some excellent songs, notably this one. “I’m ready to give up” is a recurring theme in Cure songs in general, late Cure songs in specific. Ironically, in concert these days, Robert Smith seems to be really enjoying himself in general so he might be singing “I want this to be the end,” but he keeps on touring every year (hurray!). This is a classic Robert Smith composition that successfully balances the 2003 “Cure-rock” production style with the musical elements that make the Cure unique. I especially like the one-two punch of Simon Gallup’ bass and Perry Balonte’s guitar on this one – particularly when the song shifts into high fear on the choruses.
7. The Love Cats
The background of 1983’s stand-alone single “The Love Cats” (as described at Wikipedia) is fascinating. Its another literary song (who knew?) that may be influenced by a novel that uses cats a symbol to represent the vulnerable in society. Hunh. This was the third of three uptempo quirky pop songs that reinvented The Cure and significantly broadened their audience in the early 80’s. I love that the opening percussion sounds a bit like he’s playing old bottles. I love the shift from verse to the “Into the sea with you and me” of the chorus (a line that has a significantly darker reading than I thought it did if you check out the Wikipedia link). I love all of the “doo doo doo” business (which also became a kind of signature vocal thing for Smith). And, yes, I admit, even back in 1983, I loved the fact that this was a song ostensibly about cats (and literally) about cats. I sing along with the meow at the start every single time. This video – which isn’t on YouTube – is a wonderfully silly hoot.
6. Charlotte Sometimes
“Charlotte Sometimes” is a stand-alone 1981 single released between Faith and Pornography. I’ve mentioned several times that The Cure are especially good at capturing the feeling of drifting off to dream in their music and I think this is their second most successful single in that regard. The lyrics are based on the book Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer. In that story, a young girl named Charlotte at a boarding school finds that when she falls asleep in her bed, she switches places with another girl (Claire) who attended that school 40 years earlier. I can see how a story about a dream transforming you into somebody else would appeal to Smith’s aesthetic. The song is somewhat more pop oriented than his other songs in that specific period, but I think it is one of the first tunes that really points the way to Disintegration – it balances Smith’s propensity to gloom and his pop song writing skills rather perfectly. I’m disappointed that I’ve never heard this song in concert.
5. Close to Me
The Cure have several songs – this one, “Catch,” “Lovesong” – that I think of as “tiny” songs. What I actually mean by this are the songs feel especially intimate – like Smith is talking to somebody privately and we’ve just been invited to listen in. “Close to Me” was the second single from 1985’s The Head on The Door and showed a new side of The Cure. Everything about it – the hand clap percussion, the naive little keyboard line (courtesy of Lol Tolhurst) and the quiet vocal delivery – is simple, perfect and charming. The Cure released a remix version of the song with horns that is also fabulous – it ups the joy level just a little and is worth seeing out if you have a few moments to google. Robert Smith would of course write other lovely tiny songs, but this is still my favorite.
Its a shame that 4:13 Dream went pretty much ignored in 2008. While I wouldn’t rank it as the finest Cure album, its a great collection of songs (only some of which are self-conscious). It also features one of Smith’s best tracks in year – “Freakshow.” Everything about this track everything. The odd syncopation, the sudden start, Porl Thompson’s seemingly completely unrelated guitar parts, the contrast between verse and chorus, the surreal word salad of the lyrics (is he singing about dancing in a club? Drugs? An actual freak show?), just everything. It comes in under three minutes and is just as tight and perfect a rock song as one could hope for.
3. Just Like Heaven
Speaking of perfect rock songs, the best song from Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me is a stone cold Cure classic. “Just Like Heaven” was The Cure’s first American Top 40 hit (though just barely). The band is just so tight – from Porl Thompson’s great guitar hook, to Smith’s acoustic strumming, to Simon Gallup’s perfect bass line, to Lol Tolhurst’s era-ideal keyboard tones, and most especially to all-star drummer Boris Williams’ unforgettable opening fill. As with a few other of Smith’s great love songs, this is one about his wife, specifically about a trip he took with her to the beach. This song was so ubiquitous in my life in the 80’s that when Dinosaur Jr covered it I wasn’t sure if they were paying homage or being ironic (they were paying homage – and Smith reportedly loves their version of the song). I will listen to reasons why any other song on this list doesn’t belong in the top 10, but, seriously, on any list of Cure songs, this should be in the top 10.
My top two songs are both from Disintegration. Using my rough categories for characterizing Cure songs, this is both a “tiny” song and a dream song. The Cure also achieve their most perfect balance between pop sensibilities and need-for-gloom on this track. Smith – who it turns out is a rather unreliable narrator in regards to both his biography and the meanings of his songs – has offered a bunch of explanations for this song, but let’s face it. Its about drugs. Specifically, its about addiction and withdrawal. Its one of the least glamorous songs about drug use that I know – yeah, let’s avoid doing anything that will eventually makes us feel like we’re being “eaten by a thousand million shivering furry holes” if we can avoid it in this lifetime. Yikes. Musically, the song is deceptively simple but when it breaks from “The spider man is always hungry” to the instrumental ending, I always feel like they’ve managed to capture in sound what Smith is describing in words. Like I can feel the giant spider sneaking in and getting ready to devour me and I’ve never even taken drugs stronger than aspirin. Just simply a great song.
1. Fascination Street
I mean, this is my karaoke song. In 1989, I’d been in Honolulu for maybe a week and I got a moped. I was rehearsing a jingju (Yu Tangchun) at the time. I didn’t wear my walkman’s headphones when I rode around because that would be dangerous (also: they wouldn’t fit under my helmet) so I entertained myself as I drove by singing really loudly. When I got tired of singing my jingju arias, I would inevitably turn to songs that I could sing the whole way through. More than I once, I sped down Wilder Avenue on the way back from rehearsal at 11 or 12 at night (or to KTUH at 11:30 or 3:30 at night) singing “Fascination Street” at the top of my lungs. I now realize people live there. They must have wondered why they were being punished with a Doppler-effect version of a Cure song every night for weeks at a time.
“Fascination Street” starts with a long instrumental jam. The two verses are separated by another long instrumental jam. Simon Gallup owns the first minute of the song on bass. Porl Thomspon lays down one of his best-ever riffs and then he and Smith trade off guitar duties (that’s how I hear it – is it true? – who knows?). Boris Williams cuts loose with some great rock drumming. Roger O’Donnell moves in and out of support and lead roles. The Cure had never struck me as a jam band before but it turns out that they might be at their best when they can just tear it up around a melody. The lyric – like “Why Can’t I be You” – is from the perspective of a fan demanding that Smith just put on his hair and pout and perform for him. Billboard had just created The Modern Rock chart and this song shot to number 1 and stayed there basically forever. I love the song and there wasn’t really a whole lot of doubt about what I was going to rank at number one.
I now stand open for questions and points of clarification.