Best albums of 1987: #1 Depeche Mode “Music for the masses”

On June 18th, 1988, Depeche Mode played the 101st and final concert of its “Music for the masses” tour, selling over 60,000 tickets to Pasadena’s Rose Bowl stadium, an astounding feat, even for a rock band, which Depeche Mode was decidedly not. (But more on that on a bit.) The show, and tour leading up to it, was immortalized in an excellent documentary and an accompanying double live album, both titled, of course, “101”.

This live album was my real introduction to the band, a couple of years after its release. I had, of course, heard “People are people” at high school dances and “Personal Jesus” had just been released as a single and was being played all over the place. I had told my friend John I really liked the latter of these two and he made me a copy of “101”, a cassette tape that spent a lot of time in my bedroom stereo and opened my eyes and ears to a whole different world of music. It wasn’t very long at all before I was purchasing all of their albums on cassette tape and compact disc.

“Music for the masses” is Depeche Mode’s sixth album and it was made at a time when new wave and synthpop was on the wane. The title is the band being ironic about the fact that their music was unpopular and not commercial in an increasingly hair metal and rock environment. Interesting, then, that this was the album that was their most successful to date and finally broke them in the US. It was daring in that they changed producers for the first time and reduced their use of samples in exchange for more experimentation with synths, but they did not give in to pressure to pick up rock guitars or to make pop music. It is austere and dark. It is love and sex, often of the deviant kind. And interestingly, it is a road record, not just in its lyrical references, but the sound, production, and pacing makes for great night driving.

For me, “Music for the masses” is an iconic band at the top of their game (whether or not it’s their true apex is debatable). It is full of nostalgia for me and never really sounds dated, as some of their earlier material does. Have a listen to my three picks for you below and tell me if you disagree.


“Little 15”: Our first song is one that was never meant to be a single but a French label wanted to release it as such and so it became the fourth one off the album. Because it barely even made the album, it wasn’t one that appeared on “101” so I first heard it in context with the rest of the album. I liked it immediately but originally thought “little 15” was the girl. I’ve since realized that it refers to a teenaged boy in love with an older woman and there is an innocence here that is betrayed by the something sinister in the synthesized strings. The way they jump and cavort always reminded me of a mad scientist, villain type character from the Bugs Bunny cartoons, playing the harpsichord in an off kilter and crumbling castle while creaky bats flit about around him. Sounds quite the contrast with my perceived content of the song, I know, but is it, really?

“The things you said”: Heavy low-end thumping, creating a waft of negative and empty space, space filled by sad and plodding notes, sounds emulating saxophones and xylophones, and Martin Gore’s deeply disappointed and tear-soaked vocals. It’s a song for night time and candle lit bedrooms. It’s a song for teen angst, though I suppose this scenario could occur at any stage of life. One would hope these mistakes, that of ending relationships due to betrayal and the spreading of poisoned words, could only occur during the foolishness of youth. I remember singing along to this one quite a bit when I was feeling sorry for myself, you know those moments, when your own teen-aged drama feels like it’s the most important thing happening. “I get so carried away. You brought me down to earth. I thought we had something precious. Now I know what it’s worth.” Indeed, songs like this were why some of my friends called them “depressed mode” but I still love it.

“Behind the wheel”:  My third pick for you is the third single released off the album and is the most obvious of the “road songs” I referenced above. Indeed, the extended remix of the song incorporates a cover of Bobby Troup’s “Route 66”, another great driving song, and samples of cars roaring by. “My little girl, drive anywhere. Do what you want. I don’t care… tonight.” It all begins with a sort of rattling sound, presumably a hubcap that has loosed itself from a speeding car and left to skid and rest on a dusty deserted highway. Then, the song’s driving beat beams us back into the car, where the driver is determined. We don’t know where she is going or when she needs to get there, but it seems to be soon. It is really just enough for us to be in the passenger seat, letting someone else drive and enjoy the ride. It is dark, sexy, and sleek, inferring speed and a hint of danger. Great tune to dance to and obviously, for driving.


In case you missed them, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Dead Can Dance “Within the realm of the dying sun”
9. Spaceman 3 “The perfect prescription”
8. The Jesus And Mary Chain “Darklands”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Jane’s Addiction”
6. The Sisters of Mercy “Floodland”
5. The Cure “Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me”
4. U2 “The joshua tree”
3. The Smiths “Strangeways, here we come”
2. R.E.M. “Document”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 1987: #2 R.E.M. “Document”

Athens, Georgia’s R.E.M. may be a household name in most circles these days but when they released their fifth studio album in 1987, they were just getting started. This was to be the band’s final album on indie label I.R.S. before jumping to the majors the following year. It was their first time working with Scott Litt as producer, a collaboration that would carry them through their most successful years, right up to 1998. He helped pick them up where they left off, further cleaning up the production work they did on “Life’s rich pageant”, and took them into rock and power pop territory on “Document”, scoring the band their first hit single in the process.

I distinctly remember when “Monster” was released in 1994, the raw fuzz and rock was like a kick to the head. After the mandolin heavy, folk-influenced rock of “Out of time” and “Automatic for the people”, it was easy to forget that R.E.M. was originally a rock band. Slipping “Document” on every once in a while can be a good reminder of this fact. Indeed, there’s a bit of anger here but it’s restrained, Michael Stipe showing some politics and Peter Buck giving us reason to believe in rock beyond the hair metal prevalent at the time.

There’s a lot of good music on “Document”, some of R.E.M.’s best, but this album deserves to be remembered for more than just the songs. It is about how it positioned the band to be huge, critically and commercially, and was an important cog in the push for college radio rock to the mainstream, laying the groundwork for the alternative rock explosion later on. My three picks for you from this album might be obvious to you, they certainly were to me, but here they are nonetheless. Enjoy.


”Finest worksong”: “The time to rise has been engaged.” Yes indeed. That pretty much says it, right there. I’ve read that as soon as they wrote and recorded this tune, the band knew it was going to be the first song on the album. A blaze of guitar precedes the aforementioned opening line, likely requiring a volume adjustment on the stereo a moment after pressing play, up or down, depending on your age. But it’s not just the guitars that are aggressive here. The drums are muscular, the bass provides another melody layer, and of course, Stipe is just belting it out. This is rock! This is a very fine final single with which for R.E.M. to bow out on their indie career. Turn it up and play it again.

”The one I love”: During my last couple of years of university, I shared an apartment just off campus with two friends, Meagan and John, and we regularly hosted get-togethers/drink-ups that went late into the night. Invariably, as the party was winding down, our friend Terry would pick up Meagan’s acoustic guitar and strum out a few tunes, appeasing our requests if he knew the songs. It took him a while but he eventually figured out that we always asked for “The one I love”, just to hear him drunkenly struggle with hitting the high “Fire!” note in the chorus line. Still, he always appeased us. The song was R.E.M.’s first hit single and deservedly so, but it was mostly because people mistook the song as a love song. It’s like we chose not to listen to Stipe past the opening line and ignore: “This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind, a simple prop to occupy my time.” Or maybe the pop hook and simple song structure had us all fooled. Great tune, nonetheless.

”It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)”: “That’s great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, and aeroplanes. And Lenny Bruce is not afraid.” This is easily my favourite R.E.M. tune and it was comfortable in the top spot when I unleashed My Top Five Tunes by the band last October. In that post, I recounted a story of debated lyrics, something I’m sure happened quite a bit with the band, prior to this album and its predecessor, when Michael Stipe’s singing was more mumbling and was placed lower in the mix. On this track, he is relatively clear. It’s just that he’s throwing a lot at us. Rambling off a litany of historical disasters and pop culture references, he piles it all up like a precarious Jenga tower that wobbles and trembles with the just as rapid-fire guitars and drums. And if it does all fall apart, R.E.M. is fine with this and so should we be. Because we can just press play again. The music video is worth mentioning too, given that it doesn’t show the band at all, but a teenager hanging out with his skateboard in a house in shambles. And this always reminded me of the abandoned house near our high school, to where we would sometimes sneak off during our spare periods in our latter years. We imagined ourselves in some ravaged post apocalyptic world, instead of a house ravaged by ignorant teens like ourselves, and not unlike like that miscreant in the video. I can’t say this enough though: Incredible tune.


Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Dead Can Dance “Within the realm of the dying sun”
9. Spaceman 3 “The perfect prescription”
8. The Jesus And Mary Chain “Darklands”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Jane’s Addiction”
6. The Sisters of Mercy “Floodland”
5. The Cure “Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me”
4. U2 “The joshua tree”
3. The Smiths “Strangeways, here we come”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 1987: #3 The Smiths “Strangeways, here we come”

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in these pages, The Smiths were ruined for me early on by my old friend and housemate John. It took me years to get over it, easing myself into them over the years, song by song. So although I had heard a number of the songs from the Manchester four-piece’s final album, “Strangeways, here we come”, I never actually listened to it from beginning to end until a few years ago, when I got it as part of the box set and I put the 180 gram slice of wax on my turntable for its first spin.

And yes, it was sweet.

By the time it was released, Andy Rourke, Mike Joyce, Johnny Marr, and Morrissey had been together as a band for only five years but had already released three prior studio albums, three compilations, and a boat load of singles. The band had already built up a cult following, the appreciation of the music press, and were just starting get the attention of the mainstream, music-buying public, scoring a couple of top ten singles in their final year. I keep using the word “final” here because the band split after the recording of “Strangeways, here we come” and before it was released. The word is that Johnny Marr took a break from the band and in ceasing communication, mistook an article claiming the band was finished as a plant to the press by Morrissey. And though they likely haven’t talked much since, the two principal songwriters have both agreed that this final album was the band’s best work together.

This, I think, is debatable and has definitely been much debated, but what can’t be argued is that it sits well amongst the influential indie pop band’s fine catalogue. So many great tunes, it was hard to pick just three for you but here they are nonetheless.


”Unhappy birthday”: This first track here was never released as a single but it’s likely the first tune from this album that I ever heard, due to its inclusion on a retro mixed tape that a friend of mine (not named John) made for me in university. I loved it then and still love it now. So much so that I included as part of my Top Five Tunes list I did for the band back in June. It’s a not-at-all-veiled hate song aimed at some unknown person. Acoustic strumming, harmonium whispers, howls, a dancing bass line, and a jaunty Morrissey, dishing jabs left and right. “And if you should die, I may feel slightly sad (But I won’t cry).” Exactly right.

”Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before”: “And so I drank one. It became four. And when I fell on the floor, I drank more.” Who knows what this song is about, really? There are references to drinking, buddhists planning mass murders, bicycle accidents leading to various painful injuries, and denials of lying. I cannot figure it out but should I really care? As long as we stop him (oh oh oh, stop him), if we’ve heard this one before. Thankfully none of us has, so we get the big drums, the booming bass, and more of Marr’s jangling Rickenbacker. This was a song that I used to skip over when I first got a copy of “Best… I” on CD but now I can’t stop from repeating it.

”Girlfriend in a coma”: “There were times when I could have murdered her. But you know, I would hate anything to happen to her.” So here’s a perfect example of Morrissey’s lyrical wizardry. In a two minute song, he encapsulates the mixed emotions of a young person dealing with having a girlfriend in a coma, so brilliantly, in fact, that he inspired a novel of the same name by Canadian writer Douglas Coupland. The song is catchy and joyful, shotgun drums and synthesized strings and arpeggiating guitars, belying the seriousness of the situation. A fact of which Morrissey keeps reminding us. “I know, I know, it’s serious.” Seriously good.


Check back next Thursday for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Dead Can Dance “Within the realm of the dying sun”
9. Spaceman 3 “The perfect prescription”
8. The Jesus And Mary Chain “Darklands”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Jane’s Addiction”
6. The Sisters of Mercy “Floodland”
5. The Cure “Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me”
4. U2 “The joshua tree”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.