Top 7 album Tracks – Depeche Mode

Depeche Mode have an enviable back catalogue, and their singles collection is as good as any of the greats – if not better. The band would need to extend a live show to two and a half hours to fit all their iconic singles into one performance. But what about their album tracks – those songs that are less well-known to the public but just as life-affirming to the dedicated fanbase?

There’s no doubt that the Basildon boys are masters of writing an immersive album. Can you think of a better run of LPs in anyone’s catalogue as good as the records this band produced between 1986 and 1997? With the likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Deftones, Placebo, Tori Amos, Marilyn Manson, Between the Buried and Me and even Johnny Cash covering their songs, it’s safe to say that Martin Gore’s songwriting and Dave Gahan’s voice have influenced more artists than ninety-nine percent of all musical groups registered on Spotify.

And yet nobody would have predicted this in 1982 after hearing the group’s first two records of catchy but naïve synth-pop music that did much to grow their teenage audience and even more to ruin their credibility with the serious music press. Only with a switch towards the pioneering use of samplers and industrial soundscapes did Depeche Mode begin to build a reputation as an outsider artist with innovative albums such as 1983’s Construction Time Again, 1984’s Some Great Reward and 1986’s classic Black Celebration LP winning them millions of fans in Europe. By the time they broke America with 1987’s Music for the Masses and 1990’s Violator, Depeche Mode were the definition of alternative music waiting to conquer the mainstream. They did not move towards it – the mainstream came to them as eagerly as it embraced The Cure and U2.

Though synonymous with the 1980s, time has been kind to Depeche Mode, despite their sound design genius, Alan Wilder, quitting in 1995 after their debaucherous Songs of Faith and Devotion album and world tour. For a while, it looked like the band might disintegrate with Dave Gahan developing one of the most infamous heroin addictions of the decade, but they reinvigorated their career in 2005 with Playing the Angel and 2009’s Sounds of the Universe. Last year saw them return with the fifteenth album of their career after the sudden death of founding member, Andrew Fletcher. But might Memento Mori be the last recording before they pull down the curtain forever on a career spanning over forty marvellous years?

These shortlists always create debate, and it’s difficult to please everyone. Your favourite non-single by Depeche Mode might not be on this list. Tells us if you think we’ve missed a classic from our final seven.

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7. ‘Stories of Old’ from Some Great Reward (1984)

Placed at track five on Depeche Mode’s 1984 effort with ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ and ‘Somebody’ either side of it, this composition is the ultimate example of a transitory song that eases the navigation between an introspective electronic number and a piano ballad. It’s also an underrated masterpiece built around Dave Gahan’s baritone voice and shrouded in reverb. ‘Stories of Old’ has the minimalist atmospherics, the woodwind keyboard effects, and the root notes of the electronic bass to map its terrain. You can read the thought process of Martin Gore’s structuring as the instruments accent the vocal lines, and the orchestral hits power the bridge to the neo-gothic chorus. An up-tempo song by Depeche Mode is seldom dull when it pulsates with dark undertones and catchy high-register keyboard hooks.

The track resurfaced in a Depeche Mode live studio session in New York in 2008 with blues guitar licks and a huskier voice. Though different to the original and in the key of A Minor, it proves that you can take any Martin Gore song and reveal its latent sophistication on piano and guitar.

6. ‘The Sinner in Me’ from Playing the Angel (2005)

Many fans wondered if Depeche Mode could capture the urgency and innovation of the Alan Wilder years (1982-1995) after the disappointment of their 2001 Exciter album. They stormed back in 2005 with their last undisputed masterpiece and produced one of their most up-tempo records since Violator. At the heart of it is track number four, ‘The Sinner in Me’, which appears to be a retread of the Songs of Faith and Devotion era on first listen. Sit down with it under the surround sound of headphones and you’ll recognise the dissonant industrial brilliance of its bassline and mid-tempo drums. Whistling furnace effects and deadpan vocals give it a morbid texture that ends in a sinister flurry of sampled string bows, yet the chorus allows glimpses of light to penetrate through the contemplation.

Themes of religious guilt and original sin are common in Depeche Mode songs throughout the 1980s and appear in the late 90s in singles like ‘Barrel of a Gun’, but ‘The Sinner in Me’ is the last time Martin Gore tackled the subject with conviction.

5. ‘Clean’ from Violator (1990)

This is the first song where people wondered if Martin Gore’s lyrics might be written with Dave Gahan’s lifestyle in mind. There’s no doubt this is the point where Depeche Mode’s frontman fell into a life of ecstasy, debauched loneliness, euphoria, and drug addiction. Yet Gore’s lyrics are personal to him, as a successful pop star, with millions of adoring fans, an endless queue of groupies, and a religious guilt complex spilling over from childhood. Musically, ‘Clean’, works from the pulse of a single bass guitar note and progresses through restrained drumbeats that seldom form into regular snare hits. A haunting chapel meditation reverberates in the background as Gahan dances from regret to spiritual awakening like a tormented man experiencing a bout of hypomania. It’s an introspective way to end Violator, but it’s one that remains unforgettable and influential on atmospheric rock, industrial and electronica musicians to this day.

The closing track on Violator’s successor album, Songs of Faith and Devotion, is also worth your time. Listen to the song, ‘Higher Love’, and tell yourself that it’s a sequel to ‘Clean’. Does it make more sense in this context?

4. ‘Nothing’ from Music for the Masses (1987)

‘Nothing’ should have been the obvious candidate for single number three from Music for the Masses after ‘Strangelove’ and ‘Never Let Me Down’, but its drab title and nihilistic lyrics were too despondent for radio, despite the serene melodies and remarkable crescendo in the chorus. As an album track, it flows perfectly from the maudlin industrial-doom of ‘To Have and to Hold’ in the way its squelch bassline lays the foundations for the drums to delay their entrance until your brain demands a release from the tension. The song anchors around an Eastern woodwind sample beloved of Tears for Fears from this period and accents the lyrical delivery of the chorus with a crashing drum fill to accentuate Gore’s playful line, “I’m not trying to tell you anything you didn’t know when you woke up today.” In the baritone pipes of Dave Gahan, this song sounds like a solemn chant on behalf of the teenage generation of America that rejected corporate rock and major label pop for the dark alternative forms of music that emerged in the late 1980s and dominated the 1990s. Depeche Mode were at the forefront of this surge in 1987, and it took this commercial and critical success in the US to convince their sceptics in Britain to take them seriously once again.

3. ‘Black Celebration’ from Black Celebration (1986)

Few bands craft a better opening album track than Depeche Mode, and most of them become hit singles. The title song from their 1986 opus is an exception (along with ‘Something to Do’ from their predecessor LP), but it might be the most recognisable non-single in their collection. Starting like a John Carpenter score off the Escape From New York soundtrack, ‘Black Celebration’ is the closest thing to an electronic rock song with its sampled power chord drones and dramatic percussion hits adding weight to the thrilling synth rotation at the heart of the song. Depeche Mode are at their best when their credibility comes into question, and any lingering doubts about their teenybopper origins in the ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ era can be dismissed with this bleak piece of nihilism that would go on to influence everybody from Skinny Puppy to Nine Inch Nails. Listen to the reset in the bridge to the reverb-heavy chorus as Gahan and Gore trade vocal lines like two unknown assailants dragged into the same despondent vision of the future.

This is where Depeche Mode found their calling as an innovative alternative band.

2. ‘Rush’ from Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993)

How do you follow up a hit record that sells over five million copies within two years of its release? The easy option would be to come back in 1993 with Violator, Part II, but Depeche Mode took the biggest risk of their career and returned as an atmospheric rock band with long hair, guitar riffs, and lyrics about spiritual awakenings and justifying a libertine life. As an album, Songs of Faith and Devotion is pompous, self-righteous, and bloody brilliant. One of the few familiar synth-led efforts is ‘Rush’, a song that gives you everything you need in a Depeche Mode composition – concupiscent synths that bubble in a sinister embroidery with hard beats and snarling vocals. This is the meaner side of the Basildon boys as you’ve never seen them. The prog rock slowdown in the middle-eight is one of the most self-affirming moments of recognising the importance of one’s ego: “I gave more for you / Dropped my crutches and crawled on the floor for you / Went looking behind every door for you/ And because of the things that I saw for you, I spiritually grew.” You can understand why Dave gets on his knees and leans back in the iconic Jesus pose, on stage, during this section of the song…

Undoubtedly, this track would not be out of place on a Nine Inch Nails record, and we know that Trent Reznor is a fan of Depeche Mode. Hold that thought and make of it what you will.

1. ‘Fly on the Windscreen – Final’ from Black Celebration (1986)

The legendary 1994 Nine Inch Nails song, ‘Closer’, has a precursor in the 1980s that’s every bit as erotic and dangerous. That song is ‘Fly on the Windscreen’, originally a b-side to Depeche Mode’s 1985 single, ‘It’s Called a Heart’. As track two on Black Celebration, it leads on from the title-track with copulating animal noises and a synth-bass/drum groove that we’d class as vintage hip-hop these days. At its core is a recurring one-finger tap of the synth keys like ‘The Man Machine’ by Kraftwerk. Dave Gahan shows no hesitation as he swings his hip and roars, “Death is everywhere / There are lambs for the slaughter waiting to die/ And I can sense the hours slipping by, tonight.” Behind him, Alan Wilder adds layer upon layer of counter melodies that dance around the thrust of the drums like the outer reaches of a whirlpool.

As the darkest and most sex-and-death obsessed record in the Depeche Mode canon, nothing captures the fatalist mood of the band better than ‘Fly on the Windscreen’. Its salacious baritone chorus and wide range of power tool samples showed the world how to incorporate industrial stylings into conventional song structures without sacrificing the power of either.

Fans can also enjoy an alternative version of this song as a dub track from the 1994 Devotional tour, replete with rich R&B brass melodies and a pulsating rock voice. Is there a better song in the Depeche Mode discography?

Honourable mentions

‘In Chains’ from Songs of the Universe (2009)

‘Mercy in You’ from Sounds of Faith and Devotion (1993)

‘New Dress’ from Black Celebration (1986)

‘Pipeline’ from Construction Time Again (1983)

‘Sacred’ from Music for the Masses (1987)

‘Shine’ from Exciter (2001)

‘Sister of Night’ from Ultra (1997)