Has there ever been a performance by an artist, be it of just the one song or their whole set, that completely changed your perception of them? For me, there have been several of these, some of them introductions and some reintroductions. Björk’s performance of “Human behaviour” was one such personal and almost spiritual experience and it wasn’t even a set that I witnessed live, that’s how transformative it was. I can only imagine how it must been for those who witnessed it in the flesh.
I distinctly remember hearing Björk on alternative radio and a big deal being made of her solo debut album, cheekily titled “Debut”. I knew from hearsay that she had been in a band called The Sugarcubes but I wouldn’t properly discover and explore that band’s catalogue and understand what it all meant until many years later. Many of my friends and passing acquaintances throughout the 90s were huge Björk fans, bordering on obsessive and on my side, I also liked pretty much everything I heard, which was quite a lot given how popular she was becoming in the alternative rock realm. I also remember being super impressed by her acting turn in the Lars Von Trier feel-bad movie, 2000’s “Dancer in the dark”. In fact, the music for that film was also so great that the soundtrack by Björk (“Selmasongs”) would be the first album of hers that I would own on CD. After that, though, her art explorations tended to diverge with my own musical tastes and we grew apart.
At some point in the late 2000s, I picked up the Julien Temple directed documentary on “Glastonbury” at the Ottawa Public Library and brought it home with me to watch. I’d always heard that the British music festival was the holy grail of music festivals and based on the lineups that have graced its stages over the years, I’d had held a reverence for it, always dreaming of attending. I was held rapt for the film’s two plus hours and found myself watching a ton of the bonus features, including uncut sets of the some of the iconic performances there over the years. One of these was Björk’s 1994 appearance there, specifically her performance of “Human behaviour”. It was the embodiment of childlike exuberance and animalistic intensity, exuding both sensuality and innocence. She was pixie-like in a slinky pink slip of a dress, racing and marching and flitting about the stage when she wasn’t blowing the speakers wide open with that unique and powerful voice of hers. It further fuelled my desire to go to Glastonbury (which I have yet to do) and forced on me a Björk rethink. I started collecting her early albums on CD and even managed to see her perform live in 2013.
“If you ever get close to a human
And human behaviour
Be ready, be ready to get confused
There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic”
Though it is not the only great tune on the aforementioned debut, “Human behaviour” now has its hold on me as my bar none favourite from album. It was track one and released as the first single and incidentally, was written a good five years before its release, back when Björk was still leading The Sugarcubes. It is synth, sample, and percussion heavy, rhythm as a melody, industrial dance, playing second fiddle to Björk, the voice, the magician and artist and shaman. A song that could grace and cross dancefloors of many ilks, high culture, pop culture, low culture, and everything in between.
For the rest of the Best tunes of 1993 list, click here.
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):
Playing the angel (2005)
Sounds of the universe (2009)
Delta machine (2013)
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, the 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 for this series 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 started 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.
It was the music video for this song that first caught my attention. It was just so weird.
This was back during that brief period where I managed to catch music videos again on television. I had discovered AUX TV on cable and figured out that they often played some great music videos early in the AM, right around the time I was making and enjoying my morning coffee. I was only half watching it the first time and was quite confused about the svelte, large-nosed, half-naked man with a jet black pageboy and what he had to do with an apparent catastrophe that mortally injured a number of children, and how he managed to get the investigating police officers to dance. Then, I caught the video again a few days later, stopped what I was doing to watch, and it still didn’t make much more sense. Though I did find myself really enjoying the tune.
And based upon on this track, I sought out the album, “Happy to you”, the second by indie dance pop trio, Miike Snow, and began searching out their other videos on YouTube. As it turned out, the video for “The wave” was a continuation of the video for “Paddling out”, the previous single released from the album. Watching the two videos back to back, both directed by Andreas Nilsson, things started to make sense, but really only by a little bit. I learned from “Paddling out” that the ‘catastrophe’ was the result of the crash landing of a space ship piloted by psychotic twin girls who go around kidnapping innocents and transforming them in “perfect” beings, of which the large nosed man was one.
Right. Let’s not thinking too much on it.
“The wave” is my favourite tune from “Happy to you” but it is by no means the only great track on it. Miike Snow, made up of Swedish producers Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg (who also operate as Bloodshy and Avant) and American vocalist/songwriter, Andrew Wyatt, create super danceable indie pop, very much in the same vein as Peter Bjorn and John. It’s all very catchy and fun stuff, a little bit weird and surprising at times, but always well crafted. “The wave”, for instance, employs the use of an autoharp and the staccato, marching band rhythm is actually performed by the Swedish army drum corps. The digital effects mix finely with the organic elements, giving it all a very tribal alien groove. Yes, I said it, tribal alien groove.
For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.