Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Best of Depeche Mode - part 2: the albums

I've been listening to the new album by Depeche Mode, Delta Machine, pretty solidly over the last couple of weeks and my initial thoughts are that there don't seem to be that many stand-out tracks, but that as a whole it's a consistently good album.

I am, however, a fan of hit singles and album tracks that are good enough to be singles, so that means if I were to slot Delta Machine into my list of favourite DM albums, it would likely rank between numbers 9 and 10 below.

There's always time for it to improve - and some DM albums do take a while to grow on me, but it has some stiff competition among the 12 studio albums the band has released to date. In order from least to most favourite, I give you the Depeche Mode back catalogue...

12. Construction Time Again


Released: 1983
Singles: "Everything Counts", "Love, In Itself"
Best album track: "And Then..."
Rating: 6.44/10

Despite featuring my favourite Depeche Mode single of all time, the band's third LP is my least favourite of their studio albums to date. In fact, I only have half of it in my iTunes library - and interestingly enough, the songs that didn't make the cut are those written wholly or partly by Alan Wilder, who, in 1983, had made the grade as an official member of the band. It wasn't the best album for Martin's songwriting, either, especially as he'd proved on previous album A Broken Frame that the band would be quite fine without Vince Clarke.


11. A Broken Frame


Released: 1982
Singles: "See You", "The Meaning Of Love", "Leave In Silence"
Best album track: "My Secret Garden"
Rating: 7.2/10

Speaking of that second studio album, here it is - and it's one the band don't think that highly of either. Parts of A Broken Frame are fairly consistent in tone to their debut - especially songs like "Photograph Of You" and "See You", which are as light as anything Vince Clarke wrote for the group - but other songs hint at DM's emerging darker side.


10. Speak & Spell


Released: 1981
Singles: "New Life", "Just Can't Get Enough"
Best album track: "Boys Say Go"
Rating: 7.45/10

I'm a big fan of Vince Clarke, with Erasure ranking as my third favourite group of all time behind Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode - and it's almost unfair to compare this album to the others by DM, since it has their original songwriter's musical DNA all over it and not so much in common with the dozen albums that were to come. Vince didn't write every song on Speak & Spell, of course, but the couple penned by Martin aren't up to much. Even so, it's a strong enough debut offering - with a handful of perfectly formed pop moments that indicated the band was one to keep an eye on.


9. Sounds Of The Universe


Released: 2009
Singles: "Wrong", "Peace", "Fragile Tension/Hole To Feed"
Best album track: "Perfect"
Rating: 7.75/10

With albums one, two and three out of the way, we skip right ahead to their most recent offering, which had a fair bit to live up to since 2005's Playing The Angel had featured some of their best songs in years. My problem with Sounds Of The Universe is the same issue it looks like I'm going to have with Delta Machine - there's nothing terrible on the album, but at the same time, there's a decided lack of classics. This was, however, the first (and, to date, only) album I interviewed one of the band members for (I spoke to Dave ahead of its release), so at least that's something.


8. Exciter


Released: 2001
Singles: "Dream On", "I Feel Loved", "Freelove", "Goodnight Lovers"
Best album track: "Shine"
Rating: 8/10

Although roughly the same amount of time had passed between DM's ninth (Ultra) and tenth (Exciter) albums as had between the eighth (Songs Of Faith And Devotion) and ninth - four years - the second gap somehow felt longer. Not only did it seem like DM had been away for more time, but in 2001, the musical landscape was markedly different than in 1997. Pop ruled in 2001 - and although that made no difference to DM, it did make it harder for me to get my head back around the band since I'd been bombarded (not unwillingly) by boy bands, girl groups and Britney for the last couple of years. 
Add to that the fact that Exciter was, as a whole, a much softer collection of songs than we'd heard from them before and it was a bit of a shock to the system. Instead of one or two ballads, the majority of the album was more subdued and tender. "I Feel Loved" and "The Dead Of Night" were there to shake things up, but it was a gentle return for the band - and one that's aged quite well in the decade since its release.


7. Playing The Angel


Released: 2005
Singles: "Precious", "A Pain That I'm Used To", "Suffer Well", "John The Revelator/Lillian"
Best album track: "Nothing's Impossible"
Rating: 8.27/10

This is what's been missing from the two most recent DM albums: strong singles with great hooks - and they're in abundance on Playing The Angel. The only thing that lets the album down is that its second half is nowhere near as strong as the first, but it was a sign that DM wouldn't be one of those bands that keep putting albums out long after their used-by date and perform concerts where the crowd politely sits through the new material but really wants to hear the old stuff. This album proved the band's new music could be just as good.


6. Music For The Masses


Released: 1987
Singles: "Strangelove", "Never Let Me Down Again", "Behind The Wheel", "Little 15"
Best album track: "Sacred"
Rating: 8.3/10

If it wasn't for "Pimpf", this album would sit at number 3 on this list since besides that final track, it's a pretty solid collection of songs. But, fair's fair and since it's a bona fide track and not just an interlude, it needs to be included (I call it the "Act Of Contrition" rule). Technicalities aside, Music For The Masses was the band's most self-assured album to date with a robust sound that felt as big as they were becoming around the world.


5. Black Celebration


Released: 1986
Singles: "Stripped", "A Question Of Lust", "A Question Of Time"
Best album track: "Black Celebration"
Rating: 8.5/10

It was almost as if DM needed to release a greatest hits collection in order to clear the decks and really move forward as a band - and they did just that with the first album after The Singles 81-85. A bold step forward, Black Celebration set the stage for Music For The Masses and Violator, and, for me, only falls short due to a handful of tracks that aren't quite as memorable as the three singles, the title track or the excellent "Here Is The House" and "Fly On The Windscreen". The beginning of a new era...


4. Some Great Reward


Released: 1984
Singles: "People Are People", "Master And Servant", "Blasphemous Rumours/Somebody"
Best album track: "Something To Do"
Rating: 8.78/10

Of course, that new era would never have happened if it wasn't for this album, on which Depeche Mode, er, got the balance right - and, most importantly of all, realised that gloomy and gothic didn't need to equal tuneless. With a mix of pop hits and darker fare, the band's redefinition was complete.


3. Ultra


Released: 1997
Singles: "Barrel Of A Gun", "It's No Good", "Home", "Useless"
Best album track: "Freestate"
Rating: 8.89/10

Although they're viewed by many as an '80s band, the '90s really were the best era for Depeche Mode albums - with 1997's Ultra managing to be almost as good as the two albums that had come immediately before. And, given the obstacles they had to overcome to get it made (Alan Wilder's departure, Dave Gahan's drug problem), it's even more of a remarkable feat.


2. Violator


Released: 1990
Singles: "Personal Jesus", "Enjoy The Silence", "Policy Of Truth", "World In My Eyes"
Best album track: "Halo"
Rating: 9.11/10

The pinnacle of DM's success was achieved with this album. I remember finding the cassette of Violator among my sister's music collection at the time and listening to it because it was the band Vince from Erasure had been in at one point. Because I hadn't really heard anything by the band played in Australia since 1984, Violator was a revelation and an album I kept coming back to as each new single was released. Today, it's an album I still regularly play from beginning to end - and it sounds as fresh and exciting as it did back then.


1. Songs Of Faith And Devotion


Released: 1993
Singles: "I Feel You", "Walking In My Shoes", "Condemnation", "In Your Room"
Best album track: "One Caress"
Rating: 9.5/10

Not only is this album pretty great, it was also the soundtrack to my first year of university and was on constant rotation in my bedroom as I studied. This was also the first album I saw the band perform live - incidentally, the only concert I've ever slept out overnight to get tickets for. It was fairly different to rest of the music I was listening to in 1993 (think Eurodance, female British soul singers and Take That) and quite a shift for the band themselves, featuring a much more prominent rock feel than any of their previous albums, but it was the album that solidified DM as one of my favourite acts of all time and prompted me to go back and explore the music I'd missed out on between "Just Can't Get Enough" and "I Feel You".



Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Best of Depeche Mode - part 1: the singles

While there was sad music news this past week with the demise of Girls Aloud, there was also good news for me when it came to Depeche Mode.

Firstly, I got confirmation that I'll be going to see my second favourite group of all time (PSB are still just in front) at the O2 in London in May.

Depeche Mode version 2.0

And secondly, their new album, Delta Machine, streamed in full on iTunes ahead of its Australian release date of March 29.

I'm still digesting Delta Machine, so while I get to grips with it, here are my favourite 25 Depeche Mode singles of all time...


25. "Freelove"


Released: 2001
Album: Exciter
Charts: UK #19
Given a welcome remix from the album version by the band's one-time producer Flood, "Freelove" is not one of DM's best known songs, but it's a sensitively performed tune that ranks as one of their best ballads of all time.




24. "Martyr"


Released: 2006
Album: The Best Of Depeche Mode Volume 1
Charts: UK #13
It didn't make the cut for Playing The Angel, and although the compilation album it did end up on seemed like an unneccesary release at the time (speaking of which, will there even be a Volume 2?), at least the world got to enjoy this track, which almost sounds like it could date back to the mid-'80s.




23. "Only When I Lose Myself"


Released: 1998
Album: The Singles 86>98
Charts: UK #17, Australia #34, US #61
Another previously unreleased song included on a compilation, this was the sole new track on DM's second singles collection. I first heard this track on the Greek island of Santorini, when I saw the newly released The Singles 86>98 in a local record store and bought it despite it being a ridiculously expensive import. And, although that holiday was full of sun, surf and donkey rides, this moody track is the song I associate most strongly with that time.




22. "Stripped"


Released: 1986
Album: Black Celebration
Charts: UK #15
With their first singles collection (The Singles 81-85) marking the end of one chapter in DM's history, "Stripped" signalled the start of another. Released as the lead single from Black Celebration, it showed the band's poppier days were behind them, even if that change was resisted in the US, where B-side "But Not Tonight" (also a great song) received the focus of promotion.




21. "Strangelove"


Released: 1987
Album: Music For The Masses
Charts: UK #16, US #50
It sounds quite different on Music For Masses, but I prefer the more commercial single version of this track, which returned the band to the Billboard Hottest 100 for the first time since 1984's "Master And Servant". The next few years would see the band's popularity and commercial success peak in the US.




20. "Master And Servant"


Released: 1984
Album: Some Great Reward
Charts: UK #9, Australia #89, US #87
Speaking of "Master And Servant", here's the song which in my mind marks a turning point for the band. While still relatively upbeat and poppy, its flirtation with a darker subject matter hinted at things to come. Naturally, any suggestion of "sexual deviancy" had radio stations up in arms, with some US stations refusing to play the song and a ban by the BBC narrowly avoided.




19. "Blasphemous Rumours / Somebody"


Released: 1984
Album: Some Great Reward
Charts: UK #16, Australia #87
Released as the follow-up to "Master And Servant", this double A-side single was the band's most introspective release to date. It was also the first time a song featuring Martin as lead vocalist ("Somebody") was released as a single - even if Mute hedged its bets by issuing it alongside "Blasphemous Rumours", which was sung by Dave.




18. "Walking In My Shoes"


Released: 1993
Album: Songs Of Faith And Devotion
Charts: UK #14, Australia #74, US #69
Skipping ahead a decade now and this second single from Songs Of Faith... was not only a great song in its own right, but it also featured one of my favourite Depeche B-sides, "My Joy".




17. "Personal Jesus"


Released: 1989
Album: Violator
Charts: UK #13, US #28
"Master And Servant" and "Stripped" might have each marked important turning points in the band's career, but "Personal Jesus" trumps both those, heralding the start of DM's time as a supergroup. As the '80s ended, the first single from the landmark Violator album put the group back on the radar with a much wider audience than just the fiercely loyal fanbase who had supported them throughout the decade. Sonically, the rock sound of the track made it clear (if 101 hadn't) that Depeche were just as comfortable filling stadiums as a live act as they were in the studio on their synthesizers.




16. "A Pain That I'm Used To"


Released: 2005
Album: Playing The Angel
Charts: UK #15
Here's a track which showcases the guitars-meets-synths sound that has been a feature of DM's work since "Personal Jesus". The second single from the return-to-form album, Playing The Angel, starts with a blast of sound and builds back up through each verse to a similarly raucous chorus.




15. "Never Let Me Down Again"


Released: 1987
Album: Music For The Masses
Charts: UK #22, Australia #82, US #63
There's something triumphant about this track which makes it a great song to hear live - or even just cranked loud on your car stereo. When it was released in 1987, it gave a glimpse of the fuller, rockier sound that was to come just a couple of years later.




14. "A Question Of Time"


Released: 1986
Album: Black Celebration
Charts: UK #17
Remixed for single release, "A Question Of Time" is also notable for being the first song to come with a music video directed by long-time collaborator Anton Corbijn, who would be instrumental in helping to define the band's visual image over the next couple of decades.




13. "Suffer Well"


Released: 2006
Album: Playing The Angel
Charts: UK #12
Another first - this time it's the first single since "Just Can't Get Enough" not to be written by Martin. Instead, "Suffer Well" was co-authored by Dave Gahan, who, having released his first solo album three years earlier, was finally allowed to contribute to the songwriting of DM. 




12. "I Feel Loved"


Released: 2001
Album: Exciter
Charts: UK #12, Australia #95
I always think of Exciter, despite its title, as a rather understated album - but this storming single (aided by a remix from Danny Tenaglia) definitely shook things up between the quietness of "Dream On" and "Freelove". This was the first sign that the band had what it took to remain relevant in the new millennium.




11. "Policy Of Truth"


Released: 1990
Album: Violator
Charts: UK #16, US #15
1990 was a fantastic year for DM, and "Policy Of Truth" is the first of three singles from that year to appear on this countdown. It was a massive hit in the US - in fact, it was the first single by the band to chart higher in the States than in the UK.




10. "It's No Good"


Released: 1997
Album: Ultra
Charts: UK #5, Australia #52, US #38
"Barrel Of A Gun" had been a good choice of lead single from Ultra, since it definitely grabbed the listener's attention - but better singles from that album were to come, including this track, which I always remember being quite long (and taking up a lot of room on mixtapes).




9. "World In My Eyes"


Released: 1990
Album: Violator
Charts: UK #17, US #52
The fourth single from Violator need not have been the final single since there were other tracks that could easily have been released - especially in those days when seven singles from an album was not unusual. Fans who already had the album were rewarded with not one but two good B-sides in the form of "Sea Of Sin" and "Happiest Girl", making the "World In My Eyes" single a particularly worthwhile purchase.




8. "Precious"


Released: 2005
Album: Playing The Angel
Charts: UK #4, US #71
Since many of my other favourite '80s bands had started to disappoint me in the 21st century, I wasn't expecting Depeche Mode to release a single that'd blow me away when they returned after a four-year break from making music. But, they proved me wrong with this track, which instantly became a favourite.




7. "Home"


Released: 1997
Album: Ultra
Charts: UK #23, US #88
We've already seen "Somebody", and here's another song featuring vocals from Martin - and it was the first track he performed to be released as a single in 11 years. It was worth the wait, with "Home" proving to be my favourite track from Ultra.




6. "A Question Of Lust"


Released: 1986
Album: Black Celebration
Charts: UK #28
Here's the only other single sung by Martin, and like "Somebody" and "Home", it's quite an impassioned ballad - one that I used to play on the piano after I was given a compendium of Depeche Mode sheet music for my 19th birthday. Well, I tried.




5. "People Are People"


Released: 1984
Album: Some Great Reward
Charts: UK #4, Australia #25, US #13
It's been nearly 30 years and DM have not reached the Australian top 30 since this single peaked at number 25 in 1984. "People Are People" is also one of three songs that have made it to number 4 in the UK - the band's highest ever placing. Despite the chart records achieved by the song, it's not a band favourite and hasn't been performed in decades. Shame.




4. "I Feel You"


Released: 1993
Album: Songs Of Faith And Devotion
Charts: UK #8, Australia #37, US #37
1993 was the year I rediscovered DM. I'd been aware of them throughout the '80s and was a fan of a number of their songs, but I fully explored their back catalogue after this first single from Songs Of Faith And Devotion was released. At the time, I bought the CD single of "I Feel You", which featured the amazing "One Caress" - my all-time favourite non-single by the band.




3. "Enjoy The Silence"


Released: 1990
Album: Violator
Charts: UK #6, Australia #71, US #8
This is the song that really put DM back on the map in the UK after more than half a decade of middling singles chart positions. "Enjoy The Silence" also gave them their first US top 10 hit and won the BRIT Award for Best Single. In many ways, it's the band's signature song, and has been sampled and covered by countless other acts. It was also remixed in 2004 by Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda for the Remixes 81-04 album and, had I included that single release in this list, it would have ranked as number 20.




2. "Just Can't Get Enough"


Released: 1981
Album: Speak & Spell
Charts: UK #8, Australia #4
In the 32 years since Depeche Mode's breakthrough hit was released, their sound has changed so dramatically that it's almost unimaginable the band we know today would ever have released this synthpop ditty. Obviously, "Just Can't Get Enough" comes from the Vince Clarke era of DM, but the band hasn't turned its back on it and the song still gets regular outings during live shows.




1. "Everything Counts"


Released: 1983
Album: Construction Time Again
Charts: UK #6
Until 1993, this was the only Depeche Mode single I owned - and my love for it has stood the test of time. A live version was released to promote 101 in 1989 and the song has acted as concert encore for more than one tour - in fact, it's probably due to pop up again in the Delta Machine set list. Fingers crossed.




In the next few days, I'll count down the 12 studio albums released by Depeche Mode so far and give my first impressions of Delta Machine.


Wednesday, 27 March 2013

25 Years Ago This Week: March 27, 1988

The biggest problem I have putting this ARIA recap together each week is finding all the clips to the songs on YouTube - and this week, it's a particularly troublesome bunch of tunes.

Would you get into this man's car?

Between the songs that don't appear on YouTube at all, those that do but won't embed and those that only appear in alternate live or fan-made versions, it really does make things difficult.

ARIA Top 50 Singles Chart - week ending March 27, 1988

Anyway, enough whinging. Twenty-five years ago this week, Kylie Minogue hung on to the number 1 spot with "I Should Be So Lucky", while the song that would eventually dethrone her made its debut.


Single Of The Week
"Safe Behind The Wire" by John Schumann
It may have been heavily promoted 25 years ago this week at the bottom of the ARIA chart, but this track by the former Redgum singer cannot be found on YouTube - possibly because it didn't crack the top 100. "Safe Behind The Wire" was the latest single from his debut solo album, Etched In Blue - and it managed to perform worse than previous single "Borrowed Ground", which had only reached number 91. I can't even tell you what "Safe Behind The Wire" sounds like since I don't recall it at all. A mystery for the ages!
EDIT: The song has since popped up on YouTube. Enjoy.




New Entries
Number 49 "I Get Weak" by Belinda Carlisle
Peak: number 34
Back in the '80s, Belinda Carlisle had trouble scoring more than one massive hit per album in Australia. 1986's "Mad About You" (which got to number 9) was the only top 50 single from her debut solo album, Belinda, while the number 2 smash "Heaven Is A Place On Earth" was followed by this song, which was a minor top 40 hit despite being a US and UK top 10 hit. A link to the single version of the song is in the song title, while below is a clip comprised of the music video with the audio from a live performance since the official music video isn't available on YouTube in Australia. See what I mean?




Number 43 "Under The Milky Way" by The Church
Peak: number 22
For this Australian classic, we have to resort to a clip of a live TV appearance by the band... in Italy! The actual music video is notably absent from YouTube (I'm sure it used to be there). The song itself reached number 22 on the chart - a position which equalled the performance of their first chart hit, 1981's "The Unguarded Moment", and came one place short of their highest-charting single to that point, 1982's "Almost With You".
EDIT: The official video is back on YouTube and below - but for how long?




Number 28 "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car" by Billy Ocean
Peak: number 1
We'd last heard from Billy in 1986 with the singles from the Love Zone album, notably the chart-topping "When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going". To launch his latest album, Tear Down These Walls, he released another song with a lengthy, two-part title and it would also end up at number 1 in Australia. Despite his pair of chart-toppers, Billy was an inconsistent performer on the singles chart - his songs either peaked quite high or very low - and as if to prove the point, no other song from the album would make the top 100 at all. Thankfully, "Get Outta My Dreams..." is readily available on YouTube for your listening pleasure.




Next week: the debut of the year's biggest teen pop sensation and another hit from Dirty Dancing. Before then, I'm going to count down my favourite singles and albums by my second favourite group of all time.


Back to: Mar 20, 1988 <<<<<<<<<<<<<  GO  >>>>>>>>>>>>> Forward to: Apr 3, 1988


Thursday, 21 March 2013

The Best of Girls Aloud

They're the exception to the girl group rule. By remaining intact from beginning to end (admittedly, with a rather large gap in there), Girls Aloud have achieved what so many other female groups have not. And, for an act formed by a reality TV show, it's especially surprising they lasted this long.
Perfect pop stars: Kimberley, Cheryl, Nicola, Nadine, Sarah

Plus, they've released some of the best pop singles of the last decade while they were at it. To mark the end of Girls Aloud, here are my top 10 GA singles...

1. "Love Machine"


Album: What Will The Neighbours Say?
Year: 2004
The second single from Girls Aloud's second album remains my favourite track of theirs - and proved the Xenomania production team really knew what they were doing with the group. Thank goodness no one connected to the project decided to stop working with the pop dream team.




2. "Biology"


Album: Chemistry
Year: 2005
The only song from GA's third album to make my top 10, "Biology" made up for the girls' other lacklustre releases ("See The Day", especially) during that period.





3. "The Show"


Album: What Will The Neighbours Say?
Year: 2004
I was in London when this single came out and rushed back with the CD single in my luggage to play it to the Smash Hits Australia team only to find it was being played by a local radio station despite there being no plans at that stage to release it. It didn't end up charting in Australia until June 2006, when it was released as a follow-up to "Biology", which had reached number 26. "The Show" got to number 67.






4. "Something Kinda Ooh"


Album: The Sound Of Girls Aloud
Year: 2006
The best new track from the group's first greatest hits release. I didn't think that much of the other previously unreleased songs, especially the seemingly pointless cover of "I Think We're Alone Now".




5. "Something New"


Album: 2012
Year: Ten
And here's the best new track from their second greatest hits album. At first, I wasn't that enamoured with "Something New" (although I did like its literal title) and rated it about as highly as, say, "Sexy! No No No...". Clearly, it grew on me.




6. "The Loving Kind"


Album: Out Of Control 
Year: 2009
What more perfect pop collaboration could there be than Girls Aloud and Pet Shop Boys, who co-wrote this tune with the Xenomania team?




7. "No Good Advice"


Album: Sound Of The Underground
Year: 2003
The surf guitars were back for GA's second single - with this the first indication that there might be some longevity to these Popstars: The Rivals winners.




8. "Sound Of The Underground"


Album: Sound Of The Underground
Year: 2002
The song that started it all - and blew away Popstars rivals One True Voice. "Sound Of The Underground" even made number 31 in Australia in early 2003 and it was around that time I conducted my only interview with one of the group's members. I had a phoner with Cheryl (still Tweedy at the time) and may have just been a little bit tipsy when I did it, since I'd popped out of a Universal function to take the call.





9. "Call The Shots"


Album: Tangled Up
Year: 2007
Rated by some as Girls Aloud's best song, "Call The Shots" was certainly the best of the three singles chosen from Tangled Up. As you'll see from my non-singles top 10 below, there were a few better candidates for singles selection than "Sexy! No No No..." and "Can't Speak French".




10. "The Promise"


Album: Out Of Control
Year: 2008
The first single released from my favourite Girls Aloud album was an instant UK number 1 (one of four they scored) and a BRIT Award winner.




And, since it wasn't always just about the hits for Girls Aloud, here are my top 10 non-singles:

1. "Girl Overboard" from Tangled Up
2. "Every Now And Then" from Ten
3. "Miss You Bow Wow" from Out Of Control
4. "Memory Of You" - B-side to "The Loving Kind"
5. "White Lies" from Sound Of The Underground
6. "On The Metro" from Ten
7. "Black Jacks" from Tangled Up
8. "Close To Love" from Tangled Up
9. "Love Is Pain" from Out Of Control
10. "Stop" from Sound Of The Underground

Farewell, Girls Aloud. See you in five years?