The singular genius of Depeche Mode’s music might be the way their songs inspire a gut-wrenching personal response. The best music is, of course, meant to do this, but when Depeche Mode started their career in the early ’80s, pop music was as expendable as it was in the 1950s: a product meant for easy use and disposal. Mindless music was a byproduct of the boundless consumption that defined the times.
Depeche Mode proved that music often derided as simple synth pop was capable of the same expression as the most sophisticated rock and even classical music. They did so by forcing their listeners on a journey inward to the parts of ourselves that are the most confusing and frightening, the places we need to go to discover what makes us human. Their work often feels like an endurance test: How much pain can you take?
Depeche Mode was always catchy but they were never easy; their material touched on suicide, regret, obsession, doubt, and faith. Depeche Mode’s ability to provoke disparate reactions in a range of listeners is a rare achievement for a band that achieved enormous commercial success.
Most fans can remember the first time they heard Depeche Mode. Me, I was 16, and I went to visit a girl who lived in another state, expecting that I’d leave with a new girlfriend. We met at the beach that fall and made out and danced and listened to Dead Or Alive. I spent the ensuing weeks thinking about her angular but beautiful nose, the peculiar cadence of her voice. As we drove around in her parents’ Volvo, she told me that what amounted to a weekend fling (and a chaste one at that) wasn’t going to lead to anything more.
In retrospect it seems like so much childish bullshit — and it was — but young emotions are runaway meteors. They don’t leave marks; they leave craters. I was in another state after a long Greyhound ride and wanted to go home; I was rejected within hours of arriving and had to spend a weekend at her house. I wasn’t even sure why I was invited — just to get my ass kicked to the curb? The only music in her car as we drove around visiting strip malls, diners, and a rinky-dink zoo was DM’s 1984 now-classic, Some Great Reward. The songs were imprinted on my brain for life. I will always associate early heartbreak with that record. I’m sure I’m not alone.
Even if your heart wasn’t broken, Depeche Mode could make you feel like it was. And they still can.
Compiling the 10 best Depeche Mode songs is a herculean task. The band’s songs open small, Alice In Wonderland-esque portals that allow us to see the larger, often mystifying worlds inside. The hard work is distilling personal favorites — songs that feel eerily autobiographical — from the best work in their long career, particularly when there are so few duds. While “Blasphemous Rumors” and “A Question Of Lust” receive ample playtime on my stereo, they don’t reach to the level of the 10 songs below.
As blasphemous as it may seem to dissect such an impressive catalog — one that continues to expand, not to mention inspire new renditions and remixes — here are the 10 best songs from some of the most gifted songwriters of our generation. Depeche Mode was arguably at their creative peak from roughly 1983 to Wilder’s departure in the mid-’90s. So while the band continues to make memorable music — they’re releasing a new album next year, and the preview track suggests good things — all of these songs are culled from the band’s pivotal works. Playing The Angel and Exciter have their strong moments but it’s hard to compete with Some Great Reward, Violator, and Songs Of Faith And Devotion. But that’s just my opinion; let’s hear yours in the comments.
10. “Fly On The Windscreen” from Black Celebration (1986)
“Fly On The Windscreen” is one of the best songs on an album largely about death: the death of relationships; the decay of the physical body; the death and perhaps rebirth of the ego. The song could be about the abrupt end of love, the subconscious desire to hold on to love no matter what: “Reminding us, we could be torn apart tonight.” For those who paid attention in high school English class there’s an overt Emily Dickinson nod (“I heard a fly buzz when I died”). At its core the song is about the small things we notice when everything falls apart. The keyboard — often an object of whimsy in ’80s pop — is dark, overwhelming and depressing, particularly the driving hook that powers the song. The pitch-black tone and feel of Black Celebration birthed more darkness: Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine; Skinny Puppy’s Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse, and Marilyn Manson, who covered the next song on the list.
9. “Personal Jesus” from Violator (1990)
“Reach out and touch faith.” After the darkness of Depeche Mode’s ’80s output, this seemed like a breather, even if some of the songs on Violator, such as “Clean,” were unrelentingly dark. “Jesus” was one of the band’s biggest chart successes and was tweaked and remixed on dance floors throughout the early ’90s. While rhythm has always been central to Depeche Mode’s songs, on “Personal Jesus” it was the song — one idea that’s so good it can be retooled and recycled and still sound fresh. As techno took over the early ’90s — driving suburban kids to raves and Ecstasy — Depeche Mode was perhaps unknowingly one of the bands leading the way.
8. “Just Can’t Get Enough” from Speak And Spell (1981)
Depeche Mode’s first album, before Martin Gore took over songwriting duties, was brighter (and less sophisticated) than their later material. You couldn’t say it was poppier; the darker work commanded just as many replays. Speak And Spell was the only DM record to feature Vince Clarke (later of Erasure); there are a few diehards who abandoned the band with him even though the Martin Gore material is superior. Of the entire batch, “Just Can’t Get Enough” is one of their most enduring songs, about slipping and sliding and falling in love. The song marked the band’s last embrace of childhood innocence before their moody adolescence and eventual maturity.
7. “I Feel You” from Songs Of Faith And Devotion (1993)
“This is the story of our love,” Gahan sings in one of the most inspired vocal performances in a career that’s like a highlight reel. Gahan’s vocals are so intimate that you feel like he’s singing in your living room. Listen for the brilliant fills in the small spaces between the vocals; there’s a musical sophistication here that you’ll miss if you focus on the voice. One YouTube commenter says it all: “If I hadn’t already been in my panties this song would have made me take all my clothes off.”
6. “People Are People” from Some Great Reward (1984)
On an album about personal struggles this is a clarion call for something that everyone can get behind: harmony. While there is a certain hokeyness to “People Are People” this is a Depeche Mode staple; the band’s synth-pop version of utopian songs like “All You Need Is Love.” It’s also one of the few Depeche Mode songs to look consciously outward rather than to the interior struggles of the mind.
5. “Master And Servant” from Some Great Reward (1984)
Writing about sadomasochism wasn’t unprecedented in ’80s synth pop. Marc Almond and Soft Cell (of “Tainted Love” fame) crawled deep into red-light territory on the 1981 album Nonstop Erotic Cabaret; their “Sex Dwarf” is a dirty ditty about a perv who carries a dwarf around on a dog leash for sexual thrills. Depeche Mode also toyed with themes of pain and domination. “Master And Servant,” with talk of forgotten equality and play between the sheets, is perhaps more timid than Soft Cell’s earlier ribald tale. But it nonetheless reached many more listeners. The chorus of “let’s play master and servant” sounds compelling decades later.
4. “Everything Counts” from Construction Time Again (1983)
“Everything Counts” is an acidic song that’s all about joining the machine, written as Depeche Mode was becoming an unstoppable force in that machine, a band that filled arenas. Is it about the dirty record industry or the band feeling guilty about having achieved success? The sacrifices we all make to cobble together a living? Is it telling us to mind our time because we don’t have much left? Perhaps it’s about all the above. The band parroted and mimicked sounds of industry to give the song a feeling of being swallowed, much like the workers in Fritz Lang’s silent-film masterpiece Metropolis. “Everything Counts” is the moment where Depeche Mode showed how much they had grown after they were reconfigured following Clarke’s departure and Alan Wilder’s addition.
3. “Stripped” from Black Celebration (1986)
“Stripped” earns its title. It’s trimmed and reduced to its essence; there’s a mechanical backbeat that sounds like a car engine rumbling or an assembly line running; Gahan’s voice starts at a near-whisper and rises to a looming, rich baritone; keyboards sputter to life a minute in. Is “Stripped” a reference to how much you can take away from a song and still have something memorable, as much as it is about reducing someone to the place of ultimate vulnerability? “Stripped” was covered by the theatrical German metal band Rammstein, performed with a leer rather than Depeche Mode’s pensive glare.
2. “Never Let Me Down Again” from Music For The Masses (1987)
Depeche Mode has always been a pop band with a proclivity for writing songs that burrow in your brain. On “Never Let Me Down Again” they do the same with orchestral ambitions. This is in many ways their richest song: a songwriting showcase buttressed by a wider-ranging sound and approach. Much like Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys did with “Good Vibrations,” Depeche Mode constructed a “pocket symphony” tailor-made for radio that contained worlds underneath the easily grasped. The hook was unexpectedly sampled by the early white rap duo 3rd Bass in “Wordz Of Wizdom, Part 2.” Until then, I never expected to hear Depeche Mode and the line “these hoes go frontin’ on my Jimmy,” in the same song, but it’s pretty brilliant.
1. “Enjoy The Silence” from Violator (1990)
If any one song perfectly combines the elements that make Depeche Mode compulsively listenable it’s their masterpiece “Enjoy The Silence.” What works here? Everything: the anthemic chorus; Gahan’s vocals; the wide-ranging, orchestral feel and rich dynamics, which play with volume and pace. In a catalog that often talks about the pain and desperation of loneliness, the band seems to find a measure of peace in letting go and living in a quiet moment with someone important. “Enjoy The Silence” also marked that rare moment when a band’s popularity coincided with their peak of their songwriting powers, which somewhat diminished during Gahan’s addiction and the dark years that followed. This is a timeless song that works for the same reasons the best songs by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones work: Everything is done right, all at once. It’s pure magic.