Top five tunes: Depeche Mode (21st century edition)

Who? Depeche Mode

Years active: 1980-present

Band members:
Dave Gahan (vocals) 1980-present
Martin Gore (vocals, keyboards, guitars) 1980-present
Andy Fletcher (keyboards, backing vocals) 1980-present
Vince Clarke (keyboards, lead and backing vocals, guitars) 1980–1981
Alan Wilder (keyboards, piano, drums, backing vocals) 1982–1995

Discography (21st century):
Exciter (2001)
Playing the angel (2005)
Sounds of the universe (2009)
Delta machine (2013)
Spirit (2017)

Context: As it stands right now, Depeche Mode will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in just over two weeks. This year’s ceremony was pushed back from the spring, when it is traditionally held, and now, instead of a live event, a special is due to be televised on HBO on November 7th. In any event, we’ve been assured the induction will happen and in their 40th year in existence, Depeche Mode, iconic synthpop and alternative rock band, will be a part of the action.

At the beginning of 2020, I came up with this idea of celebrating Mode’s 40 years by doing a three-part series focusing on some of their best tunes over the years. I usually try to distill a band’s or artist’s best tunes down to a top five but given this band’s longevity, how long I’ve been following them, and how much their music has meant to me over my own bunch of decades, I decided to spread it out over three top five tunes posts, each focusing on a portion of their career. I posted part one on Depeche Mode’s first and most prolific decade together, the 1980s, back at the end of January. I was hoping to have this whole series wrapped up by the end of July but didn’t get around to posting part two on the band’s 1990s catalogue until pretty much the end of August. Here we are now nearing the end of October and I’m finally presenting the third and final chapter, the one where I will count down my favourite five of their tunes from the 21st century. Yeah. I did it.

I actually thought after posting the last part in this series that the steam I managed to gather would carry on and I’d just bang this one out right away. I honestly didn’t know how much I’d have to write about them after all I’ve done so far. The 80s and 90s were my favourite Depeche Mode years by far. Still, they’ve managed to stay very relevant this century, releasing a new album every four years since 2001. And though I haven’t been as excited about a new release since 1997’s “Ultra”, I’ve stopped and paid attention to each of the five albums the band released when they came out. And on each, there’s been at least one or two excellent tracks worthy of this iconic group and their storied discography.

So yeah, the 21st century, Depeche Mode worked with Mark Bell, Ben Hillier, Flood, and James Flood. They flirted with techno and all of its derivatives, all styles of music upon which Depeche Mode was one of the greatest influences, and though the results were decidedly mixed, it showed that the band was continuing to forward think. Indeed, Depeche Mode have never been a band to rest on their laurels and bank on past successes and the five tunes below will highlight some new classic tunes that are just as timeless as anything they’ve produced in the past. If they continue the trend that they start back in 2001, we should be seeing new music from the trio in 2021 but until then, have a gander here at their recent past and of course, sit back to enjoy the music.

The top five:

#5: Peace (from “Sounds of the universe”, 2009)

We start this top five with the second single released off Mode’s 12th (!) studio album, 2009’s “Sounds of the universe”. Martin Gore, the band’s principal songwriter, has called it one of his favourite songs he has ever written, this on account of its ’spiritual’ feel. David Gahan, the main voice of the group has said that for him, “it represents the joy and ecstasy of everything looking better, tasting better, sounding better.” The song starts off all heavy percussive low end synths with high end electronic beats, flittering and frittering digital party streamers, and then, more synth washes give way to breakbeats and other flourishes, Gahan gets all exultant, even breaking out the falsetto just before that breathtaking chorus, yeah, an unusually optimistic note, the repetition of the refrain: “Peace will come to me”. Gore joins in and it all sounds like we should be hearing this from the highest peak, monks and other spiritualists and the like.


#4: A pain that I’m used to (from “Playing the angel”, 2005)

From uplifting and optimistic, we move directly into more familiar Depeche Mode territory: sleek, dark, and sexy. The opening track off 2005’s “Playing the angel” was released as its second single. It is like the older and wiser and infinitely more lecherous cousin to “Master and servant”. “There’s a hole in your soul like an animal with no conscience, repentance unknown. Close your eyes, pay the price for your paradise. Devils feed on the seeds that are sown.” It feels kind of like industrial light, some bass heavy drumming, half human and half computer, alarming tidal wave synths wash and crush, left and right. Gore breaks out some guitar chops, dusting off the rock and roll stance. Everyone wears sunglasses here. Purgatory and pain. Angelic voices with broken wings. Atonement does not come easy.


#3: Where’s the revolution (from “Spirit”, 2017)

The first single from 2017’s “Spirit”, Depeche Mode’s last album to date, was a real eye-opener and call to arms. This isn’t the sound of a decades old band cashing in old cheques. No. This is Mode getting political, something they did on occasion, but haven’t for decades. “Where’s the revolution? Come on, people. You’re letting me down.” Tentative vibrations are answered by a twitchy and anxious beat, more of that industrial aesthetic, factory thumps and whistling steam exhaust, feet stomping like a military parade in a dystopian, fascist state. Fist pumps and salutes. Gahan is older but his voice has aged like fine whiskey and rather than grow stoic, he’s let the fire spread to conflagration. Fletch and Gore are right behind him, the muscle with arms crossed and sunglasses reflecting rage and moral superiority. These are big brothers but they’re not just watching, they’re calling you out to action.


#2: Dream on (from “Exciter”, 2001)

The runner up track on this particular list was the first single to be released by Depeche Mode in the 21st century. I’ve already written some pretty decent words on this very track when it made an appearance at number 18 on my Best tunes of 2001 list. So excuse me, while I plagiarize myself a little bit here. “You can hear the influence of producer Mark Bell (LFO, Björk) with the EDM beats throughout the record but here, it’s augmented by a bluesy acoustic guitar riff that just doesn’t quit. Dave Gahan’s vocal work is almost soulful and old-timey, clear and front of the palette of the austere production with Martin Gore adding his usual flourishes at opportune moments. Gore’s song subject is an addict hitting rock bottom and you feel that he is a addressing a woman he could love if she would give him the chance. But it’s Gahan that is singing the words and he does so from a place of experience.”


#1: Precious (from “Playing the angel”, 2005)

There’s a very good reason that there’s two songs on this list from 2005’s “Playing the angel” and that’s because, in this blogger’s humble opinion, that album is Depeche Mode’s best album since the 1990s. And this particular track, “Precious”, is the group’s best in a very, very long time. It’s got all of the hallmarks of Depeche Mode at their peak. A driven beat, dark and insular tones, an atmosphere of its own, nay, a world of its own, a wicked hook, and a draw to the dance floor. Not just any dance floor though. I’m thinking of your local vampire bar, dry ice and lasers, leather and PVC everywhere, dyed black hair and tattoos and piercings, and yeah, perhaps some sharp fangs. Martin Gore was at the top of his game when composing this wonder and David Gahan invoked some deep romance in his vocals. “If God has a master plan, that only He understands, I hope it’s your eyes He’s seeing through.” It’s precious and beautiful and pure Depeche Mode. Let’s hope we hear more of this very soon.


For other top five lists in this series, click here.

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