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.

Best tunes of 2012: #23 Miike Snow “The wave”

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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.

Top five tunes: Depeche Mode (1990s 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 (1990s):
Violator (1990)
Songs of faith and devotion (1993)
Ultra (1997)

Context: It was way back at the end of January that I posted the first part of this series. I got the idea to do a three part “Top five tunes” series of posts on Depeche Mode when I read the news late last year that they would be celebrating their 40th anniversary together in 2020. I focused on their 1980s back catalogue in that first post and I was hoping to post this second post focusing on their output from the 1990s back in March but that obviously didn’t happen. And it’s pretty obvious by now that my plans of wrapping things up with a final post on the rest of their work before the end of July is dead in the water. However, I’m still optimistic that I can wrap this one up before the year is out.

A lot has transpired since I started writing for this series back in January (and since I actually started writing this post at the end of March). And I’m not just talking about the announcement that Mode was named part of the class of 2020 for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though that ceremony has been delayed now until the end of the year. You might have also heard talk about this thing called COVID-19 and the havoc it is wreaking on what we have all come to know as our ‘normal lives’. Indeed, the pandemic likely had a huge impact on whatever plans the three remaining members of Depeche Mode were hatching to celebrate this year, much as it has for musicians the world over, whether it be album releases or tours or music festival appearances. Everything ‘normal’ has pretty much ground to a halt and our purveyors of music have had to find innovative ways, mostly via social media, to stay creative and relevant. My own personal celebration of Mode’s 40 years can still continue, as it must, albeit perhaps at a slower pace than I was planning.

I mentioned in passing back in January that my first real introduction to the band came by way of “Personal Jesus”. It was released as a single in 1989 and appeared on their 1990 album “Violator”. If you’ve gone back to check, you’ll notice that the song didn’t appear in my 1980s top five and that’s because I’ve always lumped it in with their 90s output, so (*spoiler alert*) don’t be surprised to see it below. “Violator” really blew things wide open for Depeche Mode, continuing the work of exposing them to a worldwide market that “Music for the masses” and its ensuing tour began. They would only go on to release two more albums in the 90s but each were, if not as iconic as “Violator”, at least tremendously successful and continued to build on the momentum from the album before.

I had become a serious fan in the years between the releases of “Violator” and “Songs of faith and devotion” and I distinctly remember the first time I heard anything new from the latter album. That’s right, a certain song came on the radio while I was working kitchen at the King Street Bar & Grill. From the very first blood curdling screech and the bluesy guitar riff, I knew things were heading in a very different direction for Depeche Mode. And then I saw photos in the music magazines of frontman Dave Gahan, the long hair, beard, and tattoos, and read the stories of his relocation to Los Angeles, the drug use and near death experiences. I saw the band live for the first and only time in the summer of 1994 while they were touring that album at Kingswood Music Theatre. Incidentally, it was the first of many concerts that I would see with my wife Victoria, back when we just kids and didn’t know what life had in store for us, so it was a pretty special show for us both.

Multi-instrumentalist and one of the principal songwriters, Alan Wilder left the group the year after that concert, making the quartet a trio, and leaving a lot of question marks in all of our minds. The biggest one for me was would there ever be another Depeche Mode album. That question was answered in the affirmative in the spring of 1997, a great year for music in my humble opinion, with the release of “Ultra”. And though my tastes had moved on and Mode weren’t as near to my heart at that point, the album drew me in nonetheless and featured some very excellent music.

So yeah, Mode in the nineties, only three albums, but some very excellent tunes and many of them are a big part of my memories from that time. Let’s go.

The top five:

#5: Barrel of a gun (from “Ultra”, 1997)

I will forever associate this song with the night my wife and I officially celebrate as the night we got together as a couple after a few years of friendship. Even though the song wasn’t released as a single in North America until the end of the following month, I swear that we heard “Bullet of a gun” on the radio as part of a new music preview driving home from the coffee shop Victoria brought me to, planning to break up with me, a funny thought considering we weren’t yet a proper couple. Instead, I convinced her that we should give it an honest try. I remember taking this song as a sign, given that we had seen Depeche Mode live together, two years prior. Though had I gotten a closer listen to the lyrics at the time, I might not have thought the omen a good one. Frontman David Gahan felt as though Martin Gore had written it about him and his struggles at the time, the drugs that had him “staring down the barrel of a gun”. The track was the first single since Alan Wilder had left them a few years earlier and had their fans breathing a sigh of relief. It was dark, electronic, industrial, sexy, sleek, and undeniably, Depeche Mode.

#4: Waiting for the night (from “Violator”, 1990)

I remember my friend John using this song and quoting lyrics from it to spin yarns about his ability to visit parallel, dream-like worlds to the young ladies in our group of friends back in the day. Even now, I couldn’t tell you if he truly believed it or if it was just an attempt at getting some play. Listening to this song loudly, though, in a darkened room, through half closed eyes, might have anyone believing in the supernatural. “And when I squinted, the world seemed rose-tinted and angels appeared to descend.” Everything seems better when partially obscured says track five on Depeche Mode’s iconic album, “Violator”. The rapid fire, repetitive, percussive synths mesh together and wash miasma to create a sort of mist, a haunted space where all seems at peace, and Martin Gore and David Gahan sing together as one, a dream, a pang at the heart, a big glass of deep red wine. Just lay back on your carpet, let the night wash over you, the vibrations sink into your bones, and it doesn’t really matter if the story was true or not. It just is.

#3: I feel you (from “Songs of faith and devotion”, 1993)

“Violator” saw Depeche Mode branching out and adding other instruments, like guitars (!), to their typical synth palette but their next album, “Songs of faith and devotion”, was the closest thing to a rock album that the band would record. “I feel you” has a serious blues riff, care of Martin Gore on guitar, and Alan Wilder played the rhythm on an honest to goodness drum kit. Though truth be told, his playing was then looped, digitized, and sampled throughout. The religious overtones in their lyrics were taken to new heights on the album, flirting with gospel tropes and choirs, and here on “I feel you”, as per usual, Gore has Gahan equating God with the very human emotion: love. “You take me where the kingdom comes. You take me to and lead me through Babylon. This is the morning of our love. It’s just the dawning of our love.” It’s a sensuous piece that bumps and grinds along and Gahan roars like the sexy beast that he is, newly long hair a flailing, attitude personified. Yes indeed.

#2: Enjoy the silence (from “Violator”, 1990)

The fact that there are three songs from “Violator” on this list of Depeche Mode’s best five tunes from the decade (don’t worry, I know you’ve already skipped ahead to see which one was number one) only serves as a reminder (as if it was needed) as to how great that album was. Both this track and the number one also hit these pages as part of my Best tunes of 1990 series. “Enjoy the silence” was number 11 on that list and only comes second here to an indisputable modern classic, but it too is definitely one of my favourite tunes of all time. It is breaths of fresh air interspersed with delectable guitar licks that, together, approximate the beauty of the soul. Drum beats explode with confetti and get frenetic and tribal. It is worldly and interstellar, calling to mind the vastness of the grand canyon and the grandeur of the alps and the solitude of the Sahara or Antartica. It is all this and yet, all David Gahan (or was it Martin Gore) wanted and needed was here in his arms, the love of his life, the love of your life, equating silence, equating everything. Yeah, it’s all that but it’s also a great tune with which to smash the dance floor.

#1: Personal Jesus (from “Violator”, 1990)

I hinted earlier in this post that this song would appear somewhere in this list and given that I mentioned that it was my introduction to Depeche Mode and that this very same song was my number one track on my best tunes of 1990 list, you shouldn’t at all be surprised to find it number one here. Don’t be disappointed. Really, is there anybody that was alive in 1990 that doesn’t know  and love “Personal Jesus”, at least to some degree? Just play the twin chiming bells at the start of the song and I’d say that most will chime in with “reach out and touch faith”, call and answer like. The song was everywhere for a time and with good reason. “Personal Jesus” is an excellent track that feels that it pokes fun at televangelists at the same time as it examines the nature of love and obsession. The bluesy guitar riff and and the stomping percussion that plays through the first part of the verses is sexy and danceable and then things get all erratic and driving and needy before the familiar refrain kicks in. Yeah, we all need faith and we all need something to believe in, love is a religion. “Personal Jesus” is a revolution.

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