Just as I’m getting ready to write this, I think “I’d better check to make sure that Wikipedia didn’t leave any odd singles off the list.” I visited Discogs (which I should have done in the first place) and had to do a massive resorting of the list. Well, massive for me.
I’ve chosen to not include cover songs, remixes, live versions and songs by bands that weren’t called The Cure but were actually The Cure. The Cure makes this challenging by completely re-imagining Hendrix’s Purple Haze into something delightful… and by releasing a pretty great remix album that improves on some of their classics… and by playing as Cult Hero with their postman as the singer. All delightful but ultimately outside the scope of this list, alas.
I’m a huge Cure fan. If I were to make a list of my top 50 Cure songs based on their entire catalog, there are about 40 songs that would vie with (and more often than not beat) these 50 singles. For the sake of this list, I’m defining single as “A-Side of a 45 or 12” or other era-appropriate format that was deliberately selected by the band and/or label to promote the song or as a thing somebody could buy in lieu of the album.” In the digital era, this has become a little tricky to determine sometimes, but ultimately I’m satisfied that the 50 songs on this list are The Cure’s canon singles.
For the most part, I like all of these songs. I’ve listened to this playlist several times through and am satisfied that I like each song more than the one before it. Obviously, your mileage may vary. Here we go.
50. Dredd Song
This is a true story. Robert Smith of The Cure was watching Rocky 2 and was so moved by a section of it that he was inspired to write the song “Catch.” Sylvester Stallone eventually learned of this and one thing led to another and Robert Smith agreed to write a song for Stallone’s Judge Dredd film in 1995. While this song is not the worst thing about that film (not by a longshot), lord it doesn’t help. The lyrics sound like a bunch of self-help aphorisms. Even when I try to imagine they were intended to be ironic I cringe a little. This is maybe the only song on this list that I actively loathe. I will say that I applaud Smith and Stallone’s desire to collaborate and would like to imagine that they have dinner and swap stories every now and again. That is the movie about them that I’d actually like to see.
49. Just Say Yes
Back before the Internet, one way to catch up with an artist’s catalog without buying a lot of albums was to buy greatest hits packages. In fact, two of The Cure’s big hits in the 80’s in the USA were hits packages (Japanese Whispers – which was a collection of singles that weren’t associated with an album and their B-Sides – and Standing on the Beach, which had different track listings depending on whether you purchased the album, the cassette or the CD). Fans, of course, had no reason to buy this packages (other than a desire to own everything with the name ‘The Cure” slapped on it, which is sometimes enough). So The Cure, like almost every successful band, included an original song or two on each of their packages over the years. “That’s ludicrous,” you might think. “Who would pay for a whole album of songs they have just to get a song or two they don’t have.” Well, somebody did or they wouldn’t have done it. There were two original songs on their 2001 Greatest Hits album. “Just Say Yes” was one of them and that’s maybe the most positive thing I can write about it. It sounds a bit like a throw back to 90’s Republica-period Brit rock (indeed, Saffron from Republica dueted with Smith on it) and wouldn’t be out of place as the soundtrack to a training montage in a sports movie (especially the Curve Mix of the song).
“Lament” is sort of low hanging fruit when it comes to deciding what to place near the bottom of my list. It was a flexidisc single included in the short-lived Flexipop magazine in 1982. The first thing you’ll probably notice is that it sounds like Robert Smith and one of his band mates lifted a pair of grade school recorders from a niece or nephew and decided to build part of the song around them. The rest of the song suffers from muddy production. Deliberate? Hard to say for sure, but The Cure later re-recorded it as a b-side to “The Walk” and it sounds much more like a finished song. The guitar work in particular in that version is really rather good.
47. The Only One
The first single off of 2008’s 4:13 Dream. I’m not a hater of 21st century Cure. Indeed, two of their 21st century songs made it to my Top 10. I’m just not an especially big fan of this particular song. It sounds to me like Smith consciously trying to create a song that sounds like some of his songs that were hits – particularly “Friday I’m In Love” era hits. Here’s where we start discussing The Cure’s line-ups over the years. Robert Smith has been the only constant member through the bands’ whole history. Thus, The Cure has been described as “Robert Smith and whomever happens to be in the room with him at the time.” The 4:13 Dream line-up, however, included bassist Simon Gallup (who, after Smith, has had the longest membership in the band), drummer Jason Cooper (who has been with the band since the mid-90’s) and original guitarist Porl Thompson (who was a founding member of the band and has played both guitar and keyboard with them on and off from their inception). Regardless of how I feel about this song, the band is tight and if they sound like classic Cure, its because the line-up is actually classic Cure.
How do you follow an album like Disintegration? The Cure took three years to put together Wish (released in 1992) and it was a huge hit. “High” was the first single. When I first heard it on Radio Free Hawaii, my first thought was “well, I guess The Cure is over.” Totally unfair of me – if you look at their prior work, it was customary for The Cure’s sound to change and evolve. Indeed, if you start with Pornography and listen through Wish, you’ll hear a terrific variety of styles from album to album, song to song. The Cure kind of get unfairly pegged as a gloom band, but they have their share of bonkers silly and generally optimistic tunes. “High” was a big hit (on the US Modern Rock chart) and I know millions of people dig it. I don’t know – it sounds like fan service to me. I especially cringe at the “when I see you kitten as a cat” line, and I love cats and The Cure so, you know…
45. Killing an Arab
OK, lots to write here.
First off, when you release a song into the wild, you have no control how it is used. Sting things “I’ve written this great, creepy stalker song” and everyone else hears “Every Breath You Take” and thinks “that’s so romantic” and the next thing you know its being played at weddings. Joe Strummer (and this is true) heard that US Fighter pilots were playing “Rock The Casbah” as they dropped bombs during the first gulf war and wept. Robert Smith – in 1979, a 20 year old Catholic-turned-agnostic – read Albert Camus’ The Stranger and was so effected, he wrote a song inspired by its key moment. In that book, the titular character murders an Arab man on a beach. His reason for killing him ultimately boils down to “because it was hot.” So, anyhow, Smith writes this song about this moment and releases into the world and people who haven’t read the book (and that includes probably most of the world) hear the song as racist. Well, ya know, intention matters less than perception in the real world. Just like some people hear Joe Strummer’s song celebrating the liberating power of rock and roll as a call to blow up the Middle East, some people hear “Killing an Arab” and go “yeah, that sounds like a good idea.” What I’m saying is you don’t get to choose how people hear your song or view your art and or interpret your play or whatever. So yeah, the song is hella-problematic. You can read an interesting description of how Smith has tried to address this in recent years at the Wikipedia article on the song.
Second, I contend that the controversy surrounding the song is part of why its still played. If the lyrics were about anything else, it would just be another piece of early post-punk Cure. Its a tight little song, but its sort of nothing special. That said, it did draw attention to them in 78-79 and is in part responsible for their early popularity. So its an important song for them, just not their best.
Finally, one of the things that amuses me about early Cure is the sound of Lol Tolhurst’s drumming. Something about the cymbals always sounds to me like he’s playing on a child’s drumset – or perhaps is using a kitchen pot instead of a cymbal. This is, of course, a deliberate artist choice but it kind of makes me chuckle a little whenever I focus on it.
I used “Killing an Arab” as a guidepost song here. As I was ranking, I thought “do I like hearing this song more or less than I like ‘Killing.’” I was actually a little surprised that there were songs I liked less. I could start listening to this playlist with the next song and not feel I was missing anything vital.
44. Taking Off
“Taking Off” is the second single from 2004’s The Cure album. There are several outstanding tracks on that album but this one is just sort of mediocre to me. The guitar line sounds like it was lifted directly from “Just Like Heaven” to me” Like many of the songs on the lower half of this list, it suffers because it draws deliberate comparisons with earlier songs. I like it a bit more than “The Only One” because I think its just a better song. Another song that suffers from sounding a bit like an earlier better song is…
43. Mint Car
Inexplicably, Robert Smith thinks this is one of The Cure’s strongest singles. I mean, its not a bad song. A mediocre Cure song is still going to be better (to my ear) than like 75% of the rest of popular music. 1996’s Wild Mood Swings has not gotten a whole lot of love over the years which is kind of a shame because it has some excellent songs on it (notably “Want,” “Club America” and “Jupiter Crash,” none of which were singles). The band was going through a major personnel transition at the time and the album sounds a bit like Smith wasn’t really sure where to go musically. Thus, he sort of went everywhere (which of course is the reason for the album’s title). Anyhow, I’ve read that Smith has claimed that he was perplexed that this song wasn’t a hit, but I think they were fighting against changing tastes and a certain amount of general fan disdain.
42. 10:15 Saturday Night
The early Cure were often described as having an “anti-image.” Like they deliberately eschewed a look or stage presence or anything. You can kind of get that idea watching them play in that video. “10:15 Saturday Night” was released as an A-Side single only in France (hence its inclusion on this list) and its a great little song, even if there’s not much to it. Smith hadn’t yet found his signature vocal style here, but the lyrics (which describe just being alone in your room on a Saturday night) are wonderfully bland and capture the Barton Fink-esque quality of being alone in a room with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Its a song that I sometimes love (especially for original Cure bassist Michael Dempsey’s bass work) and sometimes skip over. Depends on my mood.
41. Last Day of Summer
2000’s Bloodflowers was promoted as the third part in a trilogy of albums that started with Pornography and continued with Disintegration. That is setting a ridiculously high bar for yourself, Robert Smith. If Pornography captured the desperate nihilism of youth (“it doesn’t matter if we all die”) and Disintegration captured the a sense of the terror and excitement of being on the verge of everything falling to pieces, Bloodflowers captures a sense of a move from youth to middle age. This song – musically, lyrically and vocally – has a sense of resignation to it. You know your best years have passed and you might never reach the heights of relevance you once did. Summer is over, it feels cold. Bloodflowers is a frustrating album if you approach it like I did. It was 2000, I was visiting Maui with my parents and I saw it on the shelf in a record store. I had no idea The Cure had a new album out. The cover made it look like it was released on the cheap. I played it listening for hooks – any hooks. But its more of an atmospheric piece. When you let the whole album wash over you, its a moving experience. While there were no singles for sale from the album, this track and two others were released as “promotional singles” to radio stations. It appears that single version of this song was exclusively released in Poland.
Coming Next: The first of many songs that were probably ranked way too low, and I’m counting “High.”