After being a little amused to see Richard Spencer getting flak for flippantly saying that Depeche Mode is the soundtrack of the alt-right, I found a post he made on Facebook way back in 2010 ranking the Depeche Mode albums. Looking at my own Depeche Mode related posts—I've never actually done that. So clearly, I'd better!
Before we start, let me chunk stuff a bit. I clearly think the best DM work is in the mid to late 80s when they're with their classic line-up and really hitting their stride. The very early stuff is so different from what they evolved to that it almost doesn't count as the same band anymore, but I think it's good in an immature kind of way. The 90s was a mixed bag; Violator of course has some of the most famous DM songs on it ("Enjoy the Silence","Personal Jesus") but overall was a step down from Music For the Masses. To be fair, I enjoy Depeche Mode the most when they're an electronic music band. Starting in the 90s and continuing until now, they've abandoned being an electronic music band altogether and have become a bluesy band that maintains a handful of legacy elements of their electronic past. I haven't liked much of what they've done since the late 90s, with the exception, mostly, of a few tracks here and there.
DM is like that high school girlfriend that you had at a time in your life when you were on top of the world, so you look back at those times fondly and with a lot of nostalgia. When you check this chick out on Facebook or Instagram, though, just to see what she's up to because you're curious, you're appalled to find that she's gained 75 lbs, cropped her hair and dyed it blue, and posts nothing but bitter, angry feminist rants and pictures of her mystery meat offspring with who-knows-who absentee fathers.
Ok, maybe that's a little dramatic. But you don't have anything much in common with her anymore, and it's kind of depressing to think about what could have been and what happened instead. So, expect to see the later DM offerings falling dramatically in the rankings.
#1: Black Celebration. This is simply DM at their best. They'd really hit their stride with sampling, with artistic expression in their song writing, instrumentation and even album composition (curiously, I've always thought that "But Not Tonight" served as a brilliant cathartic epilogue to the album, but I learned years later that only the American release had it as an album track at all, and that DM were a bit miffed about that.) Lots of tracks, too. The partnership with Gareth Jones reached its zenith. I really think Alan Wilder's talent is at its best here, too.
#2: Music For the Masses. There might be an element of this being the first one that I bought when I "discovered" DM as a teenager (I'd been familiar with them earlier from "People Are People" but I'd also forgotten about them by then.) Still riding high on talent and artistic vision, the use of guitars and a more approachable style made this one slightly more accessible, although I think Black Celebration outranks it slightly on sheer artistry.
#3: Some Great Reward. While heading towards Celebration, they hadn't quite hit their stride yet. There's still a few unusual tracks that contribute less to the whole than you'd expect—they're a little campy, and there aren't as many tracks as you'd like to hear either. It's curious that "People Are People" is one that the band hates now and doesn't like to play; I think it's still a standout from the era.
#4: Violator. While disappointed overall, you've got to give it up for the high points on this album. "Enjoy The Silence" is almost certainly the most iconic Depeche Mode song of all time. That said; not enough songs, too many of them aren't that great, the hoaky guitar effects were off-putting, and if they'd made a few of the B-sides (at least "Dangerous" and maybe "Sea of Sin") album tracks, they could have at least bumped this up a few points.
#5: Playing the Angel. This is an odd bird, that doesn't really fit in with its neighbors. It's deliberately old-school, which makes it one of the fan favorites. Dave Gahan isn't as good a songwriter as Gore, but I think Gore was tired and phoning it in half the time anyway. And man, it really misses Wilder's touch. Still, it's a bright (or should I say dark?) beacon in the otherwise mediocre or even poor offerings that we otherwise have had to deal with from DM lately. Although "lately" is relative; this album is 12 years old this year now.
#6: Construction Time Again. This is the somewhat sillier version of Some Great Reward; it would almost sound like a clever parody of it in some senses. The songs tend to be much campier, and musically the band (and their new Gareth Jones partnership) still had some growing to do. But it's also got some great tracks that makes it a keeper.
#7: Songs of Faith and Devotion. This took everything that was disappointing about Violator and amplified them. That said, there are enough good tracks here to keep it from being actively bad... just disappointingly mediocre.
#8: Speak & Spell. This is so different that it might as well be considered a different band. It's very difficult to compare it to the rest of their canon. But just in terms of how much I like them at a raw level, this is about where it'd fit. There's some stand-out tracks, although of course all of them are cheesy and campy compared to almost everything else that followed.
#9: Ultra. By now, Depeche Mode wasn't the band that they used to be. They'd long ago stopped being an electronic band in most senses, Wilder was gone and his talent was immediately obvious when it was taken away. This is mostly forgettable, but a few stand-out tracks like "It's No Good" make it better than much of what followed.
#10: A Broken Frame. The band really didn't know what they were doing here. Martin Gore was spending half the time trying to imitate Vince Clark (somewhat credibly, to be fair) and the rest of the time just experimenting with all kinds of weirdness. The beginning of the "darkening" of Depeche Mode is definitely showing here, though—and it's some of those tracks that stand out the most, like "Leave In Silence" and "The Sun & the Rainfall."
#11: Sounds of the Universe. A bland album that sounds like a pastiche of Depeche Mode made in a retirement home. It only barely tops Delta Machine because at least it has "Wrong" which is a pretty good song (and "Oh Well" as a b-side, which I also like a lot.)
#12. Delta Machine. Even the stand-out tracks are only average—"Heaven" and "Soothe My Soul" are better as remixes by someone like Rob Dust than as originals. I've got to be honest, though—part of my disillusionment is not intrinsic to the album itself, but surely rests on years of disappointment and lowered expectations by this time. There's a new album on the horizon—honestly, based on the lead single and the direction that the band has gone for the last 20 years, I might actually pass. Which given how big a fan of Depeche Mode I used to be, is really a huge deal.
#13. Exciter. There hasn't been a more mis-named album in the history of the pop-music industry. I can ... maybe... summon enough enthusiasm to listen to "The Dead of Night" and "I Feel Loved" and "Goodnight Lovers" if I'm trying to go for a completist run of their catalog, but the rest of the album isn't just mediocre; I actively dislike most of it.
Another odd thing about Depeche Mode albums is that for almost every single one of their albums, there's a least one track that I really don't like and can barely stomach it. This broke down with Songs of Faith and Devotion where there's three, and after that there were always too many tracks that I didn't really care for to say that this pattern was maintained. But for many albums it was a thing: absolutely hated "What's Your Name?" because of it's flaming cheesy gayness, "Satellite" for just being ugly and long, "Pipeline" for spoiling its promise by dragging on forever and not really ever doing anything, (Some Great Reward actually manages to avoid this trap, for whatever reason), "Dressed in Black" for being overwrought and just really bizarre (although mercifully short), "I Want You Now" for sounding like they made it up one night at the pub while they were way to drunk to be sitting down with blank sheets of music (and they're sad drunks too—not surprising, I guess,) "Sweetest Perfection" for just being a blight of amusicality, "Condemnation" and "Get Right With Me" for having no place on a DM album and really taking me "out of the mood" and "One Caress" for being the token bizarre, ugly Martin Gore ballad (if you'll notice, many of my least favorite songs on all of the albums are the bizarre Martin Gore ballads.)
For Exciter, Sounds of the Universe and Delta Machine there's too many songs that I don't really like for any of them to stand out to me as absolutely execrable, although if I could stand to listen to them more often, maybe some would pop. Playing the Angel gave us "Macro" and "Damaged People"—both self-indulgent Martin Gore wankfests again. Bleagh.