Our last entry was in July with the eccentric country collective Lambchop, so this time we went in a completely different direction and chose a true icon of electronica: Depeche Mode. Between the band’s massive commercial successes and equally innovative use of synthesizers in the world of pop music, choosing Depeche Mode’s most essential songs was no easy task.
Once again, we got together, butted heads and hashed out this list. We hope it not only motivates you to dig into your Depeche Mode collection again, but also to come up with your own lists! PLAYLIST is a recurring feature here at Spectrum Culture, so please tune in, check them out and share your thoughts. Enjoy! - Michael Merline
While most people will only remember single “Just Can’t Get Enough” from Depeche Mode’s debut album Speak and Spell, that hokey piece of pop heaven is an anomaly in the band’s catalog. Bouncy and radio-ready, “Just Can’t Get Enough” is also the last song written by Vince Clarke before he left the band that same year to form Yazoo. However, the darker “Puppets” is not only a better song, but also the template from where all future Depeche Mode songs sprang (although Clarke, not Martin Gore, also wrote this song).
Many of Depeche Mode’s greatest songs truck with obsessive love, and “Puppets” is no different. As Dave Gahan’s breathy vocals still curl with a sinister, clinical leer (“I’ll be your operator baby/ I’m in control), it’s really that synth line that makes the song great. Cold and inhuman, the melody twists around your brain, controlling you soon enough just like the poor puppet in the song. Treading on the tightly wound rhythms of the best of Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode brought synthesizer to the mainstream with Speak and Spell, throwing in elements of European disco as well as porting over elements of mod sensibility. While the synth rock movement of the ’80s produced its fair share of garbage, “Puppets” ranks among its best creations.
Speak and Spell may be the sound of a band getting its footing – Gore would later claim that the song “What’s Your Name?” was the worst song ever produced by the band – but “Puppets” could easily fit in on several of the band’s later, greater records. - David Harris
By the time Depeche Mode released their sophomore disc, A Broken Frame, the band’s lineup had already lost its main songwriter: usually not a recipe for success for a fledgling group. The band’s original songwriter, Vince Clarke, departed for another project in 1981, leaving lead guitarist Martin Gore to pick up the reigns. Surprisingly, this ended up being one of fate’s greatest moments in pop music. Even though Clarke went on to a full career with some expected parallels to Depeche Mode’s electronic sound, Gore’s songwriting turned out to be the catalyst that made the band hit makers as well as critical successes.
A Broken Frame wasn’t an overwhelming stylistic jump for Depeche Mode; rather, Gore and the rest of the crew (including arranger and keyboardist Alan Wilder taking over for Clarke) were still warming up, even though it brought the band their biggest hit to date and also included some of their catchiest tunes. In fact, many of the album’s tracks are almost bubbly in their textures and style despite a wide range of moods and themes that don’t naturally fit the aesthetics of Depeche Mode’s early sound. Nevertheless, “My Secret Garden” straddles that transition; a bleakly lovesick song that can simply be described as melancholy, the track features stuttering synths, a driving beat and surreal imagery in the simple trope of a secret garden, a combination that would eventually play a role in Depeche Mode’s most popular lyrics. With Gore’s writing now defining every element of the group’s sound, “My Secret Garden” signaled his role in what the band’s music would be on their best albums to follow: adventurous pop giving way to much darker, introspective and moody expressions of Gore’s vision. - Michael Merline
Depeche Mode’s early material is at its best when it’s most neatly balanced, with the combination of bouncy new wave instrumentation locking together with baroque undertones and tawdry gothic lyricism. When separated these elements often sound ridiculous; when presented in a mixture such as “More Than a Party,” which offsets its creepy touches with goofy effects and often absurd lyrics, they blend together perfectly, their singular silliness canceled out by the strange collage they form. It’s hard to tell if the song is intentionally ridiculous, appearing as it does on an album pitted with lame decisions and overblown, poorly-aging stylistic choices.
However, questions like that, along with the song’s vague political message, are immaterial. The pinball accretion of the opening synth lines, which begin to pile up as the song grows increasingly complicated, represents a progressive move toward an ever more busy sonic environment, bolstered by a steadily charging drumbeat. The significance of the politically slanted lyrics, which compares a political party’s deception to that of a magician’s, is difficult to decipher. Like many Depeche Mode songs that aim for consequence, it doesn’t seem to convey anything of real substance.
But couplets like, “Keep telling us we’re to have fun/ Then take all ice cream so we have none” confirm this as a song that’s less about making a stand than setting a mood, one that stands smartly poised between irreverence and anger. The way it speeds up at the end – a quickly accelerating funhouse mélange of blurry elements – verifies this quality, further warping an already twisted experience. - Jesse Cataldo
The first single from Some Great Reward turned into Depeche Mode’s first real hit in America, the dream of British pop bands since the Beatles stormed these colonial shores. That single – “People Are People” – also caught Depeche Mode in a transitional mode, moving away from the intermittent pop juvenilia of their early Clarke-influenced days and just before they became known for dark, moody synth-rock. Buoyed by a savage, hammering beat and a ridiculously catchy sing-a-long chorus, “People Are People” is a rarer thing than just a pop hit or a young successful band still finding their feet; it’s one of the few occasions the band stretches out of their comfort zone of inward melancholy and S&M playfulness.
Martin Gore’s great strength as a songwriter was always his ability to capture the kind of self-reflection that is inherently self-absorbed, the sort of obsessive discussion of love, relationships and desires that we all struggle with. It’s rare to see him rail against something as broad and reaching as the nature of prejudice and hate, but here he has Dave Gahan saying, “People are people, so why should it be/ You and I get along so awfully?” and taking up a verse himself in the plaintive “I can’t understand/ What makes a man/ Hate another man.” While it’s nestled in a classic Depeche Mode structure of surging synthesizers and overlapping vocals, “People Are People” is a brief flicker of an emerging songwriter starting to move past his comfort zone. - Nathan Kamal
With an ever-increasing string of European hit singles to their credit, Depeche Mode were on an upward arc in 1985; “People Are People” was an international smash – even becoming the theme song for West German television coverage of the 1984 Olympic Games – and the LP that housed it, Some Great Reward, was the first to enter the U.S. charts. Seeing an opportunity present itself, Mute (and Sire, in the States) put together The Singles 81>85/Catching Up With Depeche Mode to sell the band’s previous singles all in one shot, while at the same time urging the U.S. market, with its Catching Up With Depeche Mode, to take further notice of the act, who were seen in their native continent as electro-teen idols.
Though they may have been popsters in the U.K., it was coastal city goth kids that favored Depeche Mode in the U.S. and “Shake the Disease,” one of two new originals on Singles/Catching Up, indeed showed a band whose palate was ever-darkening. In the track, Dave Gahan pleads – almost lump-in-throat – with a lover to understand his motivation for the painful separation he feels he must instigate, while Martin Gore underlines the verses with his own earnest “Understand me.” It was gloomy stuff, to be sure, with Gore’s lyrics moving in the direction of the deeply personal.
The verses are chilly, full of rippling electronics and forlorn Gore backing vocals that portray a seething tension beneath the surface, while the dramatic synth chords of the chorus provide a welcome – though no less cheery – catharsis. Touches of industrial sounds show up once again on the track, as they had when they’d first appeared on Construction Time Again; the song’s video illustrates its metallic percussion as a steel tool being dragged against a corrugated metal door, and it’s hard to believe not only this isn’t what we’re actually hearing but that it works so well in such a gorgeous song. Between the attention to electronic detail and industrial elements and the maturation and darkening of Gore’s songwriting, “Shake the Disease” could easily mark the midpoint of Depeche Mode’s catalog: some of what came before and some of what come later. - Chris Middleman
After the fusion of harsh, industrial sonic themes with synthpop on Some Great Reward, Depeche Mode’s songs largely grew blacker, if not bleaker – frigid songs full of emotional torment amidst moody electronically imagined soundscapes. Black Celebration was somewhat of a turning point record, without much of the rhythmic bombast of “People Are People” and certainly no “Just Can’t Get Enough” bubblegum. A cold, despairing work, it saw Martin Gore take on more ballads per capita than ever before.
The song that stood out for us, though, was album closer “New Dress.” One of the record’s few non-ballad tracks, it features a steady, straight-ahead tempo and a sort of gothic take on Kraftwerk’s heavily processed men’s chorus sounds, leaving Dave Gahan to soberly sing a laundry list of horrific newspaper headlines. “Bomb blast victim fights for life/ Girl, 13, attacked with knife,” he sings, later followed by “Jet airliner shot from sky/ Famine horror, millions die.” As a chorus, Gahan sardonically offers what might have been an adjacent headline in ’86: “Princess Di is wearing a new dress.”
Gahan suggests – strangely unconvincing in his delivery – that while one person changing the world is impossible, it is the role of the media, no less, to make the world a better place by picking and choosing the facts to report, thereby influencing perception and votes. It’s one of the few times Depeche Mode would be so overt in their social commentary, another reason why “New Dress” stands out from its po-faced brethren on the LP. - Chris Middleman
The opening sounds of “Never Let Me Down” are those of a band truly coming into their own: a winding, distorted guitar building into an immense combination of stark, nearly primitive drums and pianos and Dave Gahan’s ominous, loaded lyric of “I’m taking a ride with my best friend/ I hope he never lets me down again.” The second single from Music for the Masses, which would become Depeche Mode’s biggest commercial and critical success yet, “Never Let Me Down Again” is a massive beast of a song, every aspect of production and instrumentation sounding outsized and baroque. Whether it’s Gahan’s echoing vocals, the sheer over-the-top sensation of howling synthesizers or the melodramatic yet strangely affecting depiction of a harrowing drug trip, the song is a masterpiece of synth rock.
When Gahan sings, “We’re flying high/ We’re watching the world pass us by/ Never want to come down/ Never want to put my feet back down/ On the ground,” it’s an eerie description of the elation and terrible fear of a truly great sensation (whether you want to take it as a literal drug journey or not), the satisfaction of the high and the fear of the unavoidable crash. It’s little wonder that “Never Let Me Down Again” became a fan favorite, complete with its own arm-swaying tradition over the sinister Martin Gore-sung coda (memorably captured in its birth on the 1989 tour film 101). It’s a song that hits a listener on a visceral, dramatic level, an extravagant exultation of fear and pleasure. - Nathan Kamal
“Enjoy the Silence” may be Depeche Mode’s pinnacle, a song instantly recognizable from the very first rush of synthesizers, darkly mysterious and innately familiar at the same time. The second single from immense hit album Violator, the track touches so many points of the band’s oeuvre as a whole that it could be used as a primer course for their entire sound. Massive washes of synths? Check. A fluid guitar riff anchoring the song? Check. Plaintive yet demanding vocals courtesy of lead singer Dave Gahan? Check. Moody, ambiguously dismissive lyrics of love and callousness? Double check.
Gahan croons, “Feelings are intense, words are trivial/ Pleasures remain, so does the pain/ Words are meaningless and forgettable” with a cool desperation that remains a hallmark of his voice even after years of substance abuse. It’s a dismissal of traditional romantic lyrics, a rejection of the kind of wooing and treacle-y histrionics embraced by pop songwriters for decades; at the same time, it’s a strange embrace of the meanings within them, the idea that the emotions disguised by words are as valid as their literal meanings are vapid. Originally conceived by principal songwriter Martin Gore as a slow ballad, “Enjoy the Silence” was transformed by the band into a sweeping anthem for distorted, tentative lovers everywhere. It stands as one of their crowning achievements, a song that can enthrall a dance club or soundtrack a moody night for a faltering relationship. - Nathan Kamal
It took Depeche Mode three years to follow-up Violator, their biggest album ever, with Songs of Faith and Devotion. In musical terms, those three years were a long time as grunge blew up and fickle tastes changed. During that period off, Trent Reznor pushed Depeche Mode’s dark sound even further, striking gold by writing punishing songs blacker than anything Martin Gore could muster. Internal strife, as well as Dave Gahan’s image makeover/heroin addiction, also helped delay Songs of Faith and Devotion. While the record could not completely recapture the magic of Violator, it is still one of the band’s strongest albums.
While lead single “Walking in My Shoes” is probably best remembered from the album, “In Your Room” is Depeche Mode at its most hypnotic and emotionally stirring. On a literal level, “In Your Room” could easily be about BDSM, sung from the master/slave perspective that peppers much of Depeche Mode’s discography. “Will you let the morning come soon,” asks Gahan, “Or leave me lying here/ In your favorite darkness/ Your favorite half-light/ Your favorite consciousness/ Your favorite slave?” Akin to the unreleased Police chestnut “I Burn for You,” “In Your Room” aches with a burning sensuality, moving towards the stirring chorus, “I’m hanging on your words/ Living on your breath/ Feeling with your skin/ I will always be here.” If written or performed by a less skillful band, “In Your Room” would come off as overbaked and melodramatic, but Gore and Gahan use such melodrama to enrich the song.
If you look beyond the bondage aspect, the lyrics could easily be about Gore’s alcoholism or Gahan’s heroin addiction. It could be about complete surrender to love, God, sex, addiction, a sensual sliding and self-abandonment. However, there is no judgment here. The music echoes the lyrics, pushing towards crescendo and then falling back, sighing and tugging at us as it waxes and wanes. “In Your Room” is Depeche Mode at its sexiest, a song that still manages to caress like the first time, nearly 20 years later. - David Harris
By all accounts, Ultra should never have been recorded. As if it weren’t enough that keyboardist/arranger Alan Wilder had split from the group in 1995, citing ambivalence from Martin Gore, Dave Gahan and Andrew Fletcher toward his shouldering an “imbalance in the distribution of [the group's] workload,” Songs of Faith and Devotion tour saw Gahan’s heroin addiction getting the better of him, Gore suffering seizures and Fletcher bowing out of live performances due to “mental instability.” In the following years, Gore still refused breaking up the band, even with Gahan’s seemingly every-other-week recurrence of overdoses and suicide attempts turning up in the music press like bad pennies.
Attempts to record once more ended up like a botched six-week recording session at Electric Ladyland (which produced only fragments of usable vocal tracks from Gahan), until the singer completed court-mandated drug rehab. Upon his release, Gahan thrust himself back into his work – even taking voice lessons. The results are evident on Ultra’s second single, “It’s No Good.” Over a synthesized, pulsating bass groove and percussion provided by expert session drummer Victor Indrizzo, Gahan, somewhere in the night, smugly promises an object of affection that he’s got “all the time in the world…to make you mine.” During that first verse, Gahan is so self-confident that this eventual romancing is nothing less than “written in the stars above,” and that a even a weighty, revelatory “I love you” is worthless as currency; “Don’t say you’re happy/ Out there without me, Gahan instructs. “I know you can’t be/ ‘Cause it’s no good.”
In the second verse, however, cracks start to show. “When will you realize,” Gahan openly wonders, before asking, “Do we have to wait until our worlds collide?” It’s hard to imagine a electro/dance single as low-key as this getting released today; moreover, with this subtle change in lyrical angle and Gahan’s carefully nuanced vocal, “It’s No Good” stands as a sexy, nocturnal tension-filled track. - Chris Middleman
Reviewing one of Depeche Mode’s earlier albums, Robert Christgau slighted the band by noting that Martin Gore “can’t create without venting his shallow morbidity, which happens to mesh with a historically inevitable strain of adolescent angst.” Yet to take this as an insult ignores the huge potential of such a crude combination.
By the time Exciter was released, the band was pressing this angle to create straightforward, throbbingly gloomy rock songs, which used that morbidity as an engine. “Dead of Night” is the best example, a churning romp that invokes industrial nihilism and upper class dissipation all at once. The band wallows in sex while offering an offhand condemnation of its first-person narrators, the “Twilight’s parasites/ With self-inflicted wounds” and “Heavenly oversights/ Eating from silver spoons.” Borrowing its title from a 1946 Ealing Studios horror omnibus, it depicts the after-hours club scene as a nightmare world cast in black light and sludgy noise, contributing to another song delivering horror through a blatantly sexual lens.
Employing such overtly degenerate narrators gives the band the opportunity to submerge the song in crass sex metaphors without endorsing them. The pulse drone that dominates the song adheres to this tone, adding to its sickly feel. Perhaps the song’s biggest accomplishment is the approximation of a standard rock structure, without the appearance of a single guitar. From top to bottom, “Dead of Night” is all synthetic elements, from bottom-heavy fuzz to shrieking synth stabs, with a lurching, processed drumbeat scraping around at the bottom of the mix. - Jesse Cataldo
Probably the only direct link between Depeche Mode and The Blues Brothers, “John the Revelator” is the increasingly ragged bastard child of a traditional composition, one that has earned wildly different interpretations in each rendition. The version here has virtually nothing in common with the barebones original, performed by early bluesmen like Blind Willie Johnson and Son House, retaining only the call-and-response structure that begins the chorus.
This version exploits the song’s religious themes to make another statement on mendacity, tearing into the apostle John and all organized religion by extension. It’s a simplistic interpretation, driven by a series of weakly rhymed stanzas (“John the Revelator/ he’s a smooth operator/ It’s time we cut him down to size/ take him by the hand/ and put him on the stand/ Let us hear his alibis“), but the barnstorming apocalyptic bent and boldly voiced chorus more than sustain the song.
At this late point in their career, the band that had helped shape the timbre of Nine Inch Nails’ early sound was now aping that band’s later work, covering similar ground in a style more catchy and effusive than NIN would dare. The quavering opening guitar line, which sounds like something cribbed from Adrian Belew’s work on The Fragile, sustains itself instead of exploding into blustery noise, remaining locked in a tight circuit alongside the thin drumbeat, while startlingly effective rock song, underscored by a smashing beat and reedy 2/4 handclaps. - Jesse Cataldo
Sounds of the Universe marked Depeche Mode’s first release since a 2007 best-of collection, and in many ways it picks up where their previous studio album, Playing the Angel, left off, even bringing back the same producer and again including songs written by Dave Gahan instead of just Martin Gore’s expected offerings.
“Wrong” is an especially important centerpiece for Sounds of the Universe in many ways. It stands out from the rest of the album’s tracks through sheer bombast, crackling with negative energy and Gahan’s growled words, terrifying in their self-condemning clarity. It was wisely released as the album’s lead single, its explosive style providing a logical connection to Playing the Angel. Considering the combination of ’80s-era polish, spiky synths and bendy, overcharged guitar, “Wrong” is, not surprisingly, a Gore contribution (from an album where Gahan was responsible for three tracks).
Yet “Wrong” has nothing in the way of a hook to hold things together – which is pretty damn unusual for a Depeche Mode single – and the song’s aggressive nature feels all the more raw as a result, amplified by sharp synths clashing with each other angrily. It also samples both the synth-heavy baroque of the band’s early days and the grit of their later industrial sounds. The song is a veritable map of the band’s transformation into its contemporary incarnation – a map that glows, pulses and shifts like a Tron game before blowing up in your face, with Gore’s backing vocals soaring out of the dirge in anguish.
Many critics gave Sounds of the Universe a lukewarm reception, stating that Depeche Mode wasn’t the zeitgeist changing force it once was. Perhaps that’s true. But if Sounds of the Universe can’t blow our minds, “Wrong” can certainly handle the responsibility. - Michael Merline
“Secret to the End” from Delta Machine (2013)
Delta Machine showed Depeche Mode working towards their strengths. It’s 13 tracks of gloomy darkness and electronic programming, with Martin Gore’s bleak worldview and obsessions with sin, forgiveness and despair just as intact as ever. But singer David Gahan has slowly but surely grown as a writer during Depeche Mode’s long and storied career, to the point where one of the highlights of their 13th album is credited to him. “Secret to the End” is the band at their most archetypal, sounding as if the team of Gahan, Gore and Andrew Fletcher were straight of the Songs of Faith and Devotion tour. It’s filled with deep, ominous synthesizers and Gahan’s uber-dramatic phrasings, building up to an accusatory chorus of “Could have been you/ Should have been you/ If it hadn’t been me.”
Gahan and Gore join their voices together in a mesh of bitterness and longing, the twin sensations that fill so many of their songs, repeating the words in a rapid, overlapping rhythm. For any other band, it might even feel like self-parody, but the kind of outsized emotion that fills “Secret to the End” is what’s kept Depeche Mode going for so long. The washing, wavering synthesizer just fill in the sense of unease that Gore’s choirboy voice and Gahan’s flat tones build. It’s Depeche Mode at their best, melding emotion and intensity into pitch black synth pop. - Nathan Kamal