10. Wild Mood Swings (1996)
By the mid-’90s, the Cure was due for a swoon. A band can’t keep putting out near-perfect albums forever, can they? The alternative music scene had changed so dramatically thanks to bands like Radiohead, Blur, Oasis and of course Nirvana that by 1995 it was hard to see where the Cure might fit into the picture.
Were they has-beens? Not at all. They had the material for an album that might have reaffirmed their exalted stature, but they let it slip through their fingers. The biggest problem with Wild Mood Swings is that many of the finest tracks of the sessions were left as b-sides — it’s been an issue at other points in their career, but they never fumbled the track selection as badly as they did here.
The obvious choice for first single is “A Pink Dream”, a fizzy confection that’s one of Robert Smith’s most beguiling pop songs. But not only wasn’t it the first single, it didn’t even make the album — a potential major single wasted as a b-side. “The 13th” was chosen as the lead single, and while it’s a work of demented genius, it had zero chance of becoming a hit (and it didn’t).
The pop song they chose to follow it, “Mint Car”, is one of the most insipid of the band’s long career. A far better choice would have been the wonderfully zany and upbeat “Return”. B-sides like “Adonais”, “Waiting”, “Ocean” and “Home” are all better than several tracks that made the album.
Of course, Wild Mood Swings undoubtedly has some very strong moments. The Cure has a long history of delivering brilliant openers, and they do here with “Want”, a blistering exercise in slowly escalating tension and cathartic release. The melancholy “This is a Lie” and the hypnotic acoustic ballad “Jupiter Crash” both stand up to the band’s finest work.
Sadly, though, the album is saddled with the almost too-hideous-to-mention “Gone”, a song that, in a strange fit of madness, they released as a single. For every strong moment on Wild Mood Swings there is a corresponding weakness. “Treasure”, a touching reflection about loss, has a sad and fragile beauty. On the other hand, there is “Bare” — a long, plodding dirge that ends the album with a dreary whimper.
The parts are there for Wild Mood Swings to have been a much better album. Unfortunately, the band glued the wrong pieces together, and it kinda just fell apart.
9. Three Imaginary Boys (1979)
Three Imaginary Boys is a collection of oddball power pop with flashes of brilliance. As a fledgling trio straight out of Crawley, the Cure had yet to fully develop their sound. There’s little here to suggest the creative force they’d become, but Three Imaginary Boys has its own quirky charm.
There are a few throwaways that would have been better as b-sides (especially the embarrassing “So What”, the lyrics of which are Robert Smith reading an ad for a cake decorating set). Their awkward cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” should have been left on the outtake reel. Still, there are a number of incisive and melodic ditties like “Fire in Cairo”, “Object” and “Accuracy”.
The opener “10:15 Saturday Night” is a taut exercise in rock minimalism. “Grinding Halt” was mooted as the band’s next single until Smith came up with the much superior ’60s rock pastiche “Boys Don’t Cry”. The album’s finalé, “Three Imaginary Boys”, is its unquestioned high point. With its shadowy imagery, tense vocal and jagged guitar solo, “Three Imaginary Boys” is the strongest hint of the band the Cure would become.
Three Imaginary Boys is the Cure in its embryonic stage, still feeling themselves out and trying to figure out who they are. It’s awkward and you can practically feel the growing pains, but there’s an irreverent charm to it that’s impossible to deny. It’s hard not to like it, warts and all.
One note: several tracks that did not appear on the debut album, including early singles “Killing an Arab”, “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Jumping Someone Else’s Train”, were included with a handful of the stronger tracks from Three Imaginary Boys on a compilation called Boys Don’t Cry. It was the band’s first American release and, with the addition of the singles, it’s a superior listen overall than the actual debut.
8. The Top (1984)
After going it alone with three colorful pop songs that vaulted the Cure into the upper reaches of the UK singles chart for the first time (“Let’s Go to Bed”, “The Walk”, and “The Lovecats”), Robert Smith created a new alchemy with The Top that became the template for all of the Cure’s work going forward.
The template wouldn’t be perfected until 1985’s The Head on the Door, but The Top was the first Cure album to merge the ebullient and whimsical pop of the recent trio of singles with the shadowy epics that range from melancholy, to angry, to nightmarish.
The Top is an aptly named kaleidoscopic whirlwind splattered with strange sounds and images and beset with sudden dramatic shifts in mood. “Shake Dog Shake” is a ferocious opener, with torrid lyrics and a ravaging vocal by Smith. The lead single is the trippy folk-pop gem “The Caterpillar”, a hallucinogenic singalong beaming with charm.
There are other great moments, especially the lunatic carnival ride “Bananafishbones”. “Birdmad Girl” is a song catchy enough to have been the follow-up single to “The Caterpillar”. As is their wont, the Cure ends the album with a massive epic, and they do so here with the emotionally desolate “The Top”. It’s one of their most underrated pieces.
The Top is a drugged-out funhouse trip with Robert Smith, at his most unpredictable and adventurous, as your tour guide. Although it’s never been considered one of the Cure’s major albums, Smith seems to have acquired more appreciation for The Top in recent years, as the band has started featuring the album much more prominently in their set-lists. The Top will never be considered the Cure’s greatest release, but it’s far better than its reputation suggests and is ripe for a thorough reevaluation by fans and critics alike.
7. Faith (1981)
Now we’re entering sacred territory for Cure fans. Faith continues the stark approach adopted for Seventeen Seconds, but the mood is wholly different. Instead of spectral isolation and paranoia, Faith delivers spikes of anger in the midst of an ocean of woe.
“The Holy Hour” opens the album with the throbbing pulse of Simon Gallup’s bass, Smith’s stately guitar and dim swells of keyboard. It sets the stylistic tone. “Other Voices” is built around a swollen bass that shadows the almost tribal rhythm, with Smith’s guitar working as a countermelody skittering across the song’s dark surface.
Smith’s guitar-work is generally restrained apart from the album’s two rock tracks. The hard-driving single “Primary” features a markedly strident vocal, and the jagged post-punk “Doubt” feels like a frustrated release from all the morose tension surrounding it.
Most of Faith is defiantly funereal. “All Cats Are Grey” is solemn beauty, with a gently cascading rhythm, delicate layers of keyboard, and Robert Smith’s voice seeming to float upward from inside a deep cave. “The Funeral Party” is as uplifting as it sounds — syrupy keyboards and a lethargic bass offer support to Robert Smith’s overwrought desolation. It’s the epitome of the album’s ethos, its lowest emotional point.
Much more engaging is “The Drowning Man”, a piece of cinematic splendor on which Smith, his voice like a soulless phantom, glides majestically over waves of guitar and effects. The closing title-epic “Faith” is revered by fans as one of the Cure’s untouchable classics, and is always an intense experience when performed live. “Faith” is a song to unleash when an authentic connection to the audience is established, a shared moment that can be overwhelming.
As an album, Faith is a logical step forward from Seventeen Seconds. It’s bolder, bass-heavy, relentlessly gloomy, and perfectly willing to embrace its abject sorrow and twist it into something heartrending but often beautiful.