If The Cure’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does absolutely nothing else for their musical legacy, hopefully it will at least mark the end of anyone thinking that they’re solely the province of goth-rock mopers and those otherwise obsessed with things that go bump in the night.
It’s already been clear for most of the band’s history, which kicked off in earnest on record 40 years ago with the release of their Three Imaginary Boys debut LP in 1979. Since then, they’ve evolved from post-punk misfits to new wave superstars and alt-rock elder statesmen, while scoring massive crossover hits, becoming one of rock’s biggest and most reliable touring attractions, and seeing their influence trickle down to all corners of popular music. There’s probably no The 1975 without The Cure’s lush synth grandstanding, sure — but there’s also probably no Billie Eilish without their creepy-crawly sonic and visual aesthetic, and no Juice WRLD without their heart-bleeding bedroom confessionals, either.
And if you don’t buy any of that, you can be quite sure of this: Niche bands with entirely subterranean fanbases don’t get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s hard enough to get the institution to acknowledge even the most massive and obvious alt-rock success stories — from U.K. peers like Kate Bush, The Smiths and Depeche Mode to next-generation artists like Smashing Pumpkins, Hole and Nine Inch Nails (whose ingénieur Trent Reznor will be officially inducting The Cure). But now, The Cure are inside, and it shows that they haven’t been true outsiders for some time now.
Of course, this should’ve been most obvious from the music itself. The Cure may have existed in extremes — their 1996 album Wild Mood Swings boasted one of the more on-the-nose LP titles in recent memory — but even though their enduring image is one of grey, bleak depression, they were equally adept at vivid, brighter-than-the-sun joyfulness. More importantly, the majority of their best songs mixed those primary colors into new shades that were totally their own, recognizing that happiness and sadness are far from discrete, independent emotions, nor is anything in between. The Cure were basically Inside Out before Inside Out.
But the pull quotes could be deceiving. Take two of drama queen frontman Robert Smith’s most iconic opening lines: “It doesn’t matter if we all die” and “Yesterday, I got so old, I felt like I could die.” On their face, the lyrics feel similarly gloomy, despairing, nihilistic. But the songs they kick off couldn’t be more different: The former is the kind of apocalyptic death-disco throwdown you might expect from such a lede, but the latter is a jangly endorphin rush of a pop-rock singalong. Neither song feels any more authentic to its opening than the other; both just feel quintessentially like The Cure.
You’ll find both of those songs below in our list of the top 40 songs The Cure ever did — a list spanning 13 albums and even more lineup changes, as well as dozens of singles (and inextricable accompanying music videos), and so many great B-sides they eventually had to release a friggin’ box set of ’em. It’s one of the richest catalogs in rock history, one of thundering drums, shimmering synths and refracting guitars, galloping bass lines — many played by a guy literally named Simon Gallup! — and of course, lyrics and vocals so expressive that the singer eventually had to sport the genre’s over-the-top clothes, hair and lipstick to match. Read on below, and let’s never misjudge their limits or take them for granted again.
40. “Lullaby” (Disintegration, 1989)
The most sensual song ever written about being eaten by a spider, “Lullaby” mixes tender guitars with spindly strings and lush synths for one of their greatest nocturnal pop fantasias. Despite its stage-whispered vocals and lack of a traditional chorus, “Lullaby” became their biggest hit in The Cure’s home country, peaking at No. 5 in 1989 — an appropriately inappropriate signature smash for the group.
39. “The Exploding Boy” (“In Between Days” B-side, 1985)
In case you thought “In Between Days” wasn’t enough of a blood-pumper, its B-side goes even harder with its acoustic strumming and stomping — pity the poor wrists of guitarist Porl Thompson. More importantly, though, the song’s emotional surge is nearly as profound through its infectious melody and urgent lyrics, as Robert Smith squeals over squawking saxes, “Tell yourself, it couldn’t happen/ Not this way…. NOT TOOODAYYYY!!!”
38. “Maybe Someday” (Bloodflowers, 2000)
The Cure’s first album of the 21st century aimed to recreate the majesty of the group’s largely unquestioned 1989 masterpiece Disintegration but seemed to forget how vivacious that album was in its dreamy sprawl; by contrast Bloodflowers was fairly flat in its production and dynamics. On lead single “Maybe Someday,” that evenness worked to its advantage, allowing the gentle ache of the song’s lyric to gradually deepen over the chorus of its five minutes.
37. “Seventeen Seconds” (Seventeen Seconds, 1980)
Particularly in their early run, The Cure excelled at title tracks, most often using them as closing statements. These titular cappers never went too big with their summations, though: The emblematic “Seventeen Seconds” reads its bitter dénouement matter-of-factly over greyscale guitars and a mercilessly ticking drum machine: “The picture disappears / Everything is cold now / The dream had to end/ The wish never came true.” The song ends with an ambiguous repetition of its title, terrifying in all its unsuggested possibilities.
36. “Want” (Wild Mood Swings, 1996)
If you picked up one of the many copies of Wild Mood Swings available in used CD racks across the country in the late ’90s, you might be pretty confused from the first track as to why the album was such a clearance regular: “Want” is a perfect opener, a slow-building epic of desperation, its synths dancing around the stereo span like an itch at the back of your subconscious. Truth told, Wild Mood Swings is pretty underrated on the whole — just sabotaged by a terrible album cover and an inexplicable choice of lead single, which we’ll get to here soon enough.
35. “Catch” (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987)
While the rest of the singles on The Cure’s U.S. breakthrough album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me seemed to be actively fighting their way out of your speakers, the lovely ballad “Catch” takes one of the lightest touches in the group’s catalog. Smith in particular comes off so low key, it almost sounds like he’s singing through a vocal filter on this love-that-never-was story. Its fragile strings and shuffling drums give it a delicacy rare to singles of its period, and allow for unforgettable moments like Smith unexpectedly echoing his “Just rolling about on the floor!” sigh, taken aback by the memory’s power.
34. “All Cats Are Grey” (Faith, 1981)
About as phantasmal as early Cure got, all endless drum reverb and lightly moaning synths and tensely plodding bass — you can practically see the shadows being projected against the back-alley wall. Robert Smith sounds strangely like Brian Eno on this one, letting the soundscape do most of the emotional storytelling as he coos from behind the thick fog, “The columns are all men/ Begging to crush me/ No shapes sail on the dark deep lakes.”
33. “Lost” (The Cure, 2004)
More influential than all but a handful of bands in modern rock history, The Cure didn’t often let the younger generation return the favor — while on his own, Robert Smith would collaborate with acolytes like Crystal Castles or Blink-182, as a collective entity The Cure remained largely monolithic. A fascinating exception was “Lost,” opener to their self-titled 2004 album, which let producer Ross Robinson (Deftones, Slipknot) tap into a discordant rawness that had largely eluded the band in their third decade. Its full-band chug approaches Taking Back Sunday levels as the song crescendos in intensity, Smith howling “IIIII CAN’T FIND MYSELF!” That Smith & Co. never let themselves get pushed further in this direction remains both a missed opportunity and one of the more compelling What-Ifs in the band’s story.
32. “Six Different Ways” (The Head on the Door, 1985)
When discussing their most traditional modes, The Cure’s more playful side often gets overlooked — but Smith’s rediscovery of his sense of whimsy was critical in breaking them out of the goth-rock holding pattern they threatened to get stuck in for much of the early ’80s. “Six Different Ways” almost sounds like children’s TV music with its scale-running flute hook and jaunty piano plunks, but matches that with an off-kilter waltz time signature and a delectably awestruck Smith lyric: “This is stranger than I thought/ Six different ways inside my heart.”
31. “The Top” (The Top, 1984)
Another brilliant title-track closer, best remembered for its steadily quaking bass line, like a bell ringing for an impending doomsday. It’s the ideal note of queasiness to finish one of the band’s most muddled albums — The Top is hardly the full-scale misstep it’s often portrayed as, but it was certainly a transition set, ending the first half of The Cure’s ’80s with the band a little adrift between frolicking pop oddities like single “The Caterpillar” and uninviting gloom marches like “Wailing Wall.” “The Top” seems to almost be addressing the band’s unease with the mainstream breakthrough that lay ahead of them: “This top is the place/ Where nobody goes/ You just imagine…” Wouldn’t have to imagine much longer.
30. “The Love Cats” (Japanese Whispers, 1983)
All cats are grey? Hardly. It never got friskier or more colorful for The Cure than 1983’s “The Love Cats,” an absurdly theatrical prance through jazzy new wave. Along with the group’s other ’83 singles, eventually collected on the Japanese Whispers mini-compilation, “Love Cats” effectively turned the corner on the band’s darkest period and positioned them as a pop act with blockbuster potential; in the U.K. it was the band’s first top ten hit. More importantly, it showcased Smith’s versatility as a frontman, preening and pawing with an elastic elan hardly audible on Pornography.
29. “To Wish Impossible Things” (Wish, 1992)
A jewel buried deep in the B-side of the underappreciated album it lends part of its name to. “To Wish Impossible Things” is among the most heartbreaking songs in the group’s catalog, a lyric of merciless nostalgic melancholy summed up in the already-ruined naivete of its title. But for all the song’s vocal yearning and weeping strings, its most indelible melody is provided by the ghostly tapping of its drums — faint, gentle and impossibly sad. It’s just one of the many examples in the Cure’s discography of longtime group percussionist Boris Williams improbably stealing the show from his bandmates.
28. “The 13th” (Wild Mood Swings, 1996)
The song that effectively closed the book on The Cure as a contemporary commercial force, “The 13th” was a disastrous choice of lead single, debuting at No. 44 on the Hot 100 and plummeting quickly after, never catching a foothold anywhere on radio. It’s not exactly tough to pinpoint why — the song sounds like a flamenco remix of a mid-’80s Style Council single, which a Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me deep cut occasionally bursts out the middle of. It had nothing to offer ’90s rock audiences in the era of Beck and Oasis, but for Cure fans, its stylistic inscrutability and unpredictability makes it an enduring gem — also featuring some of Robert Smith’s most enjoyable schizophrenic vocals, and the group’s best use of horns since “Close to Me” a decade earlier.
27. “Subway Song” (Three Imaginary Boys, 1979)
Every post-punk group worth its salt needed its own “Frankie Teardrop,” an eerily understated one-act that ends in absolute horror. The two-minute “Subway Song” escapes novelty primarily on the strength of its bare-bones groove — particularly then-bassist Michael Dempsey’s looping hook, which sticks in your head far longer than Smith’s unexpected shriek to close the song. By the way: Between this and The Jam’s “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” just how murderous a place was the U.K. public transit system in the late ’70s?
26. “Faith” (Faith, 1981)
The finest of the band’s early album closers, “Faith” sounds utterly defeated in its slow-rolling saunter, stretching out to seven minutes almost out of a lack of inertia. “Nothing left but faith” shouts an unconvinced Robert Smith into the void, as the song dissolves underneath him — as bleak an illustration of bottomless despair as the ’80s produced.
25. “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep” (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987)
The Cure’s dips into Eastern instrumentation weren’t always the most graceful or successful, but the sitars (or sitar-leaning keyboards, anyway) on “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep” proved an invaluable texture in the song’s rich psychedelic stew. Like many of the songs on the band’s album to follow, “If Only” performs an entire drama before Robert Smith even enters the fray, to plead with narcotic sweep and echo, “If only tonight we could sleep/ On a bed of nails.” The Deftones would cover it a couple decades later, because of course they would.
24. “Harold and Joe” (“Never Enough” B-side, 1990)
“Never Enough” was The Cure’s new single to promote 1990 remix set Mixed Up, but while that indie-dance excursion was a fun attempt by the band to glom on to the Madchester mania then sweeping the U.K., it was the single’s flip side that endures the true gem from this period. A cuddly electro-pop number with an inscrutable lyric that sounds more like the Frazier Chorus than Disintegration, “Harold and Joe” is everything you could hope for from a great B-side: Quirky, endearing and totally removed from whatever else the band was doing at the time.
23. “The Walk” (Japanese Whispers, 1983)
Often thought of as an attempt to keep pace with peers New Order and their culture-shifting 1983 synth-disco single “Blue Monday,” the hammering bass and screeching synths of “The Walk” were not quite as geared for such mass consumption. Nonetheless, the barnstorming single remains one of the group’s most arresting hits of the ’80s, and an early showcase of Smith’s singular approach to writing pop lyrics as a mixture of melodrama and satire: “I kissed you in the water/ And made your dry lips sing/ I saw you look like a Japanese baby/ In an instant, I remembered everything.”
22. “High” (Wish, 1992)
The first single from the follow-up to a group’s obvious high-water mark has a tough road to hoe, and Wish‘s first offering performed admirably, if not quite spectacularly. “High” is a gleefully over-the-top love song — though given its title and some of its lyrical slips, it might not be romance really fueling Robert Smith’s delirium on this one — propelled by Simon Gallup’s immaculate bass hook, constantly elevating the song to new peaks. “High” might fall just short of the group’s true pop apex, but it resonates because as much as it rises, there’s still an undercurrent of doubt and fear (“It makes me bite my fingers through/ To think I could’ve let you go”) that never lets it quite shake the memory of the ground below.
21. “A Night Like This” (The Head on the Door, 1985)
The closing single on the band’s canonical first compilation, Staring at the Sea (or Standing on the Beach, depending on format and country), “A Night Like This” feels like The Cure trying to compete with the big boys of American mainstream rock, down to the deployment of a searing sax solo following the song’s bridge. It didn’t get the band on U.S. airwaves, but its guitar-led widescreen romance (“I’m coming to find you, if it takes me all night”) certainly made an impression — Smashing Pumpkins, often seen as keepers of The Cure’s flame during the ’90s, covered it on the B-side to their “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” smash.
20. “Lament” (Non-album single, 1982)
While it’s often overshadowed by its A-side brethren from Japanese Whispers, it was actually “Lament” — first issued as a single along with copies of U.K. magazine Flexipop — that initially marked The Cure’s move into more synth-pop-adjacent territory. Though maintaining the grumbling bass and skeletal six strings of their early-’80s albums — the song’s clanging guitar hook is the closest thing it has to a chorus, but still ends up more memorable than the majority of the group’s conventional refrains — “Lament” pushes the pace with a hissing and clapping drum machine, giving the song a tenacity missing in many of their lumbering jams of the period. Both an historically important rarity in the group’s catalog, and one of their most striking early compositions.
19. “The Hanging Garden” (Pornography, 1982)
“The Walk” may have failed to one-up “Blue Monday,” but “The Hanging Garden” succeeds at taking New Order precursors Joy Division’s “Atrocity Exhibition” to the next level with its pummeling drums and Tommy Gun bass. Robert Smith rises to the occasion with his vocal histrionics, wailing ” FALL! FALL! FALL! FALL! Out of the sky/ Cover my face as the animals die/ In the hanging garden” on the song’s, um, chorus. The fact that this was (fairly) chosen as the lead single should tell you pretty much everything you need to know about Pornography as an album.
18. “Let’s Go to Bed” (Japanese Whispers, 1982)
The first of The Cure’s trio of pivot singles, “Let’s Go to Bed” made its intentions plain from its opening “doo-doo-doo-doo“s, placing a group that had most recently been hanging out in the Hanging Garden firmly in classic girl group territory. It’s a lot for the ensuing song live up to, but “Let’s Go to Bed” does so with a brilliantly weirdo opening couplet (“Let me take your hand/ I’m shaking like milk”), an expert synth-pop singalong chorus, and a title that the lyric saves for the very last line — a gambit used by the band on several of their signature songs.
17. “Fascination Street” (Disintegration, 1989)
The list of bass riffs more immediately identifiable than Simon Gallup’s “Fascination Street” opening thrust — shooting out from the UFO-sounding feedback fragments that begin the song like the laser beam that incinerates the White House in Independence Day — is a pretty short one. Hell, it’d be tough to name all that many ’80s six-string riffs more adrenalizing than this, laying the foundation for one of the hardest-rocking songs in The Cure’s history, and a predictable choice for the first American single off Disintegration. Rest of it’s pretty good too, but the song only really needs one verse and a chorus — the riff, which runs ceaselessly throughout the song’s five minutes, does all the heaviest lifting.
16. “Why Can’t I Be You” (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987)
The beginning of The Cure’s pop imperial phase, a song so big and catchy and generally extra — with an absurdly choreographed video to match — that there was no mistaking the group’s commercial intentions. But “Why Can’t I Be You” thrived because it was still deeply weird, with Smith’s impressively limber vocal throwing a mix of lust, envy, fury and general mental displacement into a lyric that offers/threatens to “kiss you from your feet to where your head begins.” The first single from the band’s first Platinum-certified album, “Why Can’t I Be You” assured fans that no matter how much they crossed over, The Cure would forever be The Cure.
15. “Close to Me” (Closer Mix) (Mixed Up, 1990)
The original “Close to Me” was among the most exhilarating singles of The Cure’s first decade, a sashaying pop song with a gleefully rubbery bass line, a brain-burrowing call-and-response synth hook and an incredible dueling brass breakdown. But as jazzercise-friendly as that original version was, the song’s wish-I-stayed-asleep-today lyric feels even more at home over the song’s mid-tempo “Closer Mix” — also released as a single off the group’s Mixed Up set a half-decade later — which carries over most of the best parts of the original, but also feels, well, yeah, closer. Like you’re actually in the wardrobe going over the cliff with the rest of the group.
14. “Fire in Cairo” (Three Imaginary Boys, 1979)
An immaculate pop-rock fantasy — induced either by a mirage in the heat of the African desert or a vision on one particularly feverish late night in Robert Smith’s bedroom, depending on how literally you want to take the lyrics. The evocative lyrics and spritely guitar work make the song captivating throughout, but the first two verses and choruses are quickly revealed to be a warmup for the song’s firmly compulsory singalong bridge — “F-I-R-E-I-N-C-A-I-R-O!” — showing that even in the band’s earliest days, their pop instincts made them a force to be reckoned with. (By the way, fire in Cairo perhaps isn’t something you should be using cavalierly in song, but considering the Eastern allusions of the group’s debut single, well, baby steps.)
13. “Apart” (Wish, 1992)
The best of Wish‘s many longing, slow-developing deep cuts, “Apart” could’ve probably been single-worthy as a three-minute power ballad, but it’s positively hypnotic at a six-and-a-half minute crawl, its aqueous drums and bubbling bass spreading out to really blanket the listener. Robert Smith meets it with one of his most devastating breakup lyrics, double-tracked as both a soft cry and a smoky whisper on the verse, which eventually turns into Smith harmonizing with himself on the brutally blunt chorus: “How did we get so far apart?/ We used to be so close together.” The best single-song argument against fans who consider Wish a post-Disintegration disappointment.
12. “2 Late” (“Lovesong” B-side, 1989)
The Cure’s “Lovesong” was undeniable enough to take The Cure all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 — held off from the top spot only by peak Janet Jackson — and yet, there’s an argument to be made that it wasn’t even the best pop song on its own single. “2 Late,” one of the record’s two flips, was every bit as irresistible, a swirling synth-pop lament with guitar hooks zooming out from all directions, and a short 2:41 runtime that already kicks off in full gear and ends right before it risks becoming monotonous. That’s the level The Cure were at in 1989 — tossing off absolute diamonds on B-sides that could’ve served as career-defining hits for lesser acts. (Same could be said, by the way, of the stadium-rock slow-burn “Fear of Ghosts,” the single’s other stowaway.)
11. “Friday I’m in Love” (Wish, 1992)
The Cure had flirted with classic ’60s pop before, certainly, but “Friday I’m in Love” was the first song that had to have fans scratching their heads trying to remember if there was an original version by the Chiffons or Dusty Springfield. Nope: All Robert Smith & Co., from the opening piano to the verse checklist to the chorus handclaps. Must’ve made some of the old guard crawl back into their Faith T-shirts, but The Cure were just too damn good at this to worry about any concerns of selling out — check out the way the song’s delirium reaches its height on the disarmingly intimate bridge: “It’s such a gorgeous sight/ To see you eat in the middle of the night.” You can never get enough of this stuff, truly.
10. “10:15 Saturday Night” (Three Imaginary Boys, 1979)
The B-side of The Cure’s first single was so strong that it not only demanded inclusion on their eventual debut, it led off the thing. While lacking the spectral grandeur that would come to define the group at their peak, everything else is already here: The instrumental interplay, the ear for hooks, and particularly the world-building lyrics. It’s virtually impossible to sum up the feel of that titular time of week — at least from the loner vantage of early Cure — than with “Waiting for the telephone to ring/ And I’m wondering where she’s been/ And I’m crying for yesterday/ And the tap drips drip drip drip drip drip…” A perfect mix of tension and release, pop tidiness and punk edge, “10:15 Saturday Night” was the first of The Cure’s many mini-masterpieces to come.
9. “Pictures of You” (Disintegration, 1989)
A nostalgia overdose with no regrets whatsoever, the emotional wallop of “Pictures of You” feels so much like the first time that by the time Robert Smith enters to insist, “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you/ That I almost believe that they’re real,” you certainly take his word. Such a shimmering pop song might make intuitive sense at the length of a single edit, but you really need all seven and a half minutes of the album version here: It’s got to take the proper time to build to the climactic bridge (“If only I’d thought of the right words…”), only to shortly top that with the second climactic bridge (“There was nothing in the world that I ever wanted more…”). It lets you know from the second track that yeah, Disintegration was going to be Like That.
8. “A Forest” (Seventeen Seconds, 1980)
The chase music that every half-century-old black-and-white horror flick had no idea it needed. “Cinematic” is a descriptor that could be ascribed to pretty much every Cure song on this list (and maybe a couple hundred not on it), but perhaps none feels like an entire movie unto itself like “A Forest”: The instruments feel like characters, the production like cinematography, the lyrics like narration. It’s also the perfect pivot between the Cure’s makeshift punk years and their goth-rock golden age, with the energy and potency of the former with the atmosphere and shading of the latter, equally pulse-racing and spine-chilling.
7. “Lovesong” (Disintegration, 1989)
The title might feel understated, but really it’s just kinda accurate: “Lovesong” is one of the simplest and most straightforward lyrics Robert Smith ever wrote, putting it all there in the disquietingly sincere chorus: “However far away/ I will always love you.” That directness put it in a position to cross over in America the way no single of theirs previously had, but the reason it actually did so was because the production matched the complexity of the lyrics: a gorgeous bouquet of synth and guitar hooks rooted in a crashing drum beat and perhaps Simon Gallup’s finest bass line, a roaming, twisting Tasmanian Devil that seems to cover more ground than any other pop-rock low-end. It’s got both gravity and lift, and it makes Smith’s plain-faced vows of forever feel as resonant as Lord Byron.
6. “One Hundred Years” (Pornography, 1982)
Good bands come up with a riff as growling, roaring and just fucking mean as the “One Hundred Years” two-chord monster, but great ones lay it over a popping dance beat for maximal weaponization. The Pornography opener is an absolutely totemic work of the goth rock genre, like Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House” played at the darkest night in Studio 54 history, making so much of the rest of the genre sound wimpy and uncommitted by comparison. And of course, Robert Smith is up to the occasion of piloting this towering machine of death, starting with the legendary declaration “It doesn’t matter if we all die!” and just getting gloomier from there.
5. “Plainsong” (Disintegration, 1989)
The sound of the curtain rising on one of the greatest albums of the 1980s, with all the opening grandeur that you could possibly have asked for. “I think it’s dark and it looks like rain,” Robert Smith’s love observes in the greatest weather prediction in rock since John Fogerty got portentous 20 years earlier, and really, by the Cocteau Twins-like first chord, you’re already soaked. There’s not a ton of song to “Plainsong” — no real verses or choruses, just kind of a slowly unfolding poem for the apocalypse — but the sweep of it is peerlessly transportive, immersing you in the world of Disintegration and promising that the hour-plus to follow will be unlike any other sonic experience you’ve known. It’d probably be a lot lower on this list if it was lying.
4. “Boys Don’t Cry” (Non-album single, 1979)
Perhaps the most surprising-in-retrospect part of The Cure’s Billboard chart history is that “Boys Don’t Cry” never even charted on the Hot 100 — and only even hit the U.K. singles chart upon 1986 re-release, peaking at No. 22. That’s startling partly because 40 years later, the song has become as iconic as any in the band’s catalog, a pop-culture perennial familiar even to listeners who couldn’t pick Robert Smith out of an ’80s MTV lineup. But also it’s because the song simply sounds like the most classic, enduring pop music: a lyric that could’ve been written by Smokey Robinson, a melody that could’ve been cribbed from Lennon and McCartney, a new wave production that could’ve been delivered by Ric Ocasek. From its see-sawing guitar intro to its brilliantly compact (and totally unexpected) bridge to Smith’s varied inspired intonations of the title phrase, “Boys Don’t Cry” is a master class in timeless pop-rock songwriting and performance — and maybe their best song that didn’t absolutely have to be by them.
3. “In Between Days” (The Head on the Door, 1985)
A drum intro that sounds like The Cure falling out of bed, and “In Between Days” is off to the races, the band’s glorious first stab at truly buoyant pop music. The rush of “In Between Days” is uncontainable and practically indescribable; every instrument involved sounds like an open wound that emotion and effusiveness can’t stop gushing out of. The song’s feeling is one of incredible joy, even though the lyric — about a breakup that has left Smith all but physically crippled — is actively despairing. It should feel inappropriate, but it doesn’t: “In Between Days” understands that extremes of emotions are never really as far apart as they seem, and that there’s something to be said about the excitement of a strong feeling regardless of its emotional polarity. At the very least, it’s more likely Smith’s love will heed his eventual pleas (“Come back, come back, don’t walk away”) if he’s bursting with life and no longer shivering under the covers.
2. “Disintegration” (Disintegration, 1989)
The action-packed climax and title cut to The Cure’s best album, “Disintegration” begins with the sound of breaking glass and only shatters further and further the longer it goes. The song immediately starts at 10 from a musical perspective — the song’s racing heartbeat coming from the flickering bass and head-smacking drums, and the six-note piano cascade from Roger O’Donnell providing the song’s primary hook. It’s up to Robert Smith, then, to keep the song crescendoing over the course of its eight minutes — and somehow he does it, constantly upping the emotional ante by raising his volume, his octave, his intensity, and building the drama with evolving sentence fragments (“Stains on the scenery” turning into “Stains on the memory”) that all add up to the titular feeling of dissolution and disappearance. It’s Smith’s finest vocal, and if Disintegration is The Cure’s The Queen Is Dead, then “Disintegration” is both their “The Queen Is Dead” and their “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” in one defining eight-minute masterwork.
1. “Just Like Heaven” (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987)
Despite Robert Smith being the only consistent member over the band’s 40 years, The Cure were always at their best when at their most musically democratic, with every member performing as if they were the lead instrument. Their greatest songs were most often built in layers, and “Just Like Heaven” is the premier example of this: Each instrument gets its mini-turn in the spotlight during the intro, as if being introduced by the credits on a sitcom. It almost feels like simple musical math: Wave-crashing drums + rumbling bass undertow + anchoring acoustic guitars + shooting star synths + aurora borealis electric riffing = supreme goth-pop splendor. And that’s before Robert Smith crash lands from the skies for one of the most stunning opening stanzas of the rock era: “‘Show me show me how you do that trick/ The one that makes me scream,’ she said…”
But there’s a connecting factor to all of it that makes “Just Like Heaven” a once-in-a-lifetime song, even for a band with a catalog as formidable as The Cure’s. The song’s elements are really less a math equation than ingredients for a magic potion, conjuring a musical witchcraft so potent that it gives you a chill just to think of its title. It’s the kind of song where the entire thing is the chorus. It’s the kind of song whose third-verse revelation that the love story detailed in the first two verses was probably a dream about a dead girl doesn’t change its feeling at all. It’s the kind of song that ends without warning in the middle of its second bridge (“You, just like heaven”) — as if the song’s title was such a dangerously powerful statement that uttering it served as a secret three-word password to institute automatic emergency shutdown. It’s the kind of song that reminds you that music is as strong a force as love and death, and in a song like “Just Like Heaven,” they’re all interchangeable anyway.