The members of Depeche Mode spent years defending their work as real music: Their use of electronic instruments was blasphemous to punk and new-wave artists who couldn't imagine life without guitars. But by leaping ahead of those who sought to preserve the instrumental status quo, Depeche Mode became one of most satisfyingly dark pop acts of its day.
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The six-box, 36-CD Singles collection chronicles the band's evolution while illustrating the role that producers played in it. Early on, Depeche Mode saw the value of the producer and forged alliances that carried through their twenty-year recording career. Flood, Daniel Miller, the French house DJ Franois Kevorkian and Tim Simenon, a pioneer of British-flavored hip-hop sampling, are among those who crafted singles and remixes of tracks from DM's early catalogue, from 1981's Speak and Spell to 1987's Music for the Masses. After the band hit its commercial apex with the release of Violator, in 1990, its supporting cast widened: Brian Eno, Underworld, Dan the Automator, Plastikman, Kid 606 and Kruder & Dorfmeister are some of the studio wizards who produced remixes and singles through the band's final studio effort, 2001's Exciter.
Depeche Mode has always given its producers plenty to work with. The band recorded organic sounds -- beating on oil drums, rolling hub caps, beating metal pipes against a fence -- before the concept of found sound was de rigueur in electronic music. Structurally, Martin Gore's classically informed songwriting laid waste to the argument that synth pop couldn't be hooky because it didn't employ guitars; his licks, harmonies and dynamics made it relatively easy for remix artists to loop, echo, chop, splice and sew various elements back together. DM's various producers helped the band constantly reinvent itself and hold on to a perennial position as a staple of the dance floor as well as the album chart.
Singles is not for the dabbler. Boxes one through three are reissues of collections that were released in England in 1991; box four picks up with the Violator era, when the band shed all appearances of being an underground cult band and officially cracked the mainstream with songs like "Enjoy the Silence" and "Personal Jesus." The boxes are sold separately, which means you don't have to pony up for the entire career retrospective if you just want to own, say, three extended dance remixes of "Shake the Disease." (See box three.) But the completist will reap rewards. Scattered among the many mixes are live versions of classics ("Everything Counts," "Told You So," "Nothing," "Sacred") and singles that illuminate the understated talent of departed Depeche keyboardist Alan Wilder ("Fools," "In Your Memory"). Singles also does a great job of showcasing Depeche Mode's many paradoxes. The band can be funny (check the "boredom" loop on "Something to Do" and the shmaltzy lounge version of "Love in Itself"), lusty (swoon along with Gore on live versions of "Somebody" and "A Question of Lust") and boldly experimental (the entire sixth box is an orgy of atmosphere).
Today, of course, club culture is flooded with basement producers who've discovered the beauty of ProTools, and the keyboard is as ubiquitous as the cowbell once was. There's no doubt that Depeche Mode and the various talented mixmasters they enlisted are at least partially responsible for that. Singles is an exhaustive collection for those who want to remember every moment along the way.