Mute is a label that prides itself on shining a light on the fringes, making a name for itself over nearly 40 years of weird pop, electronic and experimental music.
Home to the likes of Depeche Mode, Erasure, Goldfrapp and Moby, from the popular realm, and championing the likes of The Birthday Party, and nearly all of its offshoots, Swans, Arca, Fad Gadget, DAF, Laibach, and Renegade Soundwave from the experimental realm.
Always ahead of the zeitgeist, from their very first single release, right up to now, Mute are a label up there with the very best.
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The Normal - 'Warm Leatherette' / 'TVOD' (7”, 1978)
Where it all started; this double A-side single is the brainchild of Mute founder Daniel Miller, and is one of the earliest examples of synthesisers at work on a scorching work of skewed experimental pop.
‘Warm Leatherette’ grasps its influence from JG Ballard’s Crash, the Ballardian influence stretches further than just the lyrics, which feature the car crash fetishism prevalent in the novel; blocky, angular synth patterns picture perfectly the concrete jungle, from whence the label and artist were spawned.
‘TVOD’, the other track, is a tentative, claustrophobic number that captures the same brutalist imagery through sound; it sees Miller gasp; “I don’t need/no TV screen/I just stick the aerial into my skin”.
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Fad Gadget – ‘Incontinent’ (LP, 1981)
Fad Gadget, aka Frank Tovey, was one of the 80s’ bravest, most singular artists. Whilst first album ‘Fireside Favourites’ saw pounding drum machines and found sounds filtered atop, this album is much more sinister, testament to the lurking jester that smatters the cover.
Diverse instrumentation, which ranges from creepy harpsichord arrangements to jaw harp and accordion sections, are on offer whilst Tovey’s lyrics manage to remain centre stage. On the album’s centrepiece, the bastard waltz ‘Saturday Night Special’, his hollow mutterings are ‘every man should have the right to carry a gun’, as a reaction to the States’ ever firm gun law stance.
'Incontinent' is the album that sees Fad Gadget at their most consistent and cohesive, proving once and for all that they’re one of the single most underrated artists of the decade.
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Depeche Mode – ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ (7”, 1981)
Arriving in 1981, the same year as ‘Don’t You Want Me’, this track is symptomatic of the synth-mania that would dominate the 1980s. One of the catchiest earworms of a main melody ever to grace record, ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ is simply the perfect pop song. Depeche Mode are known as one of the greats when talk of Mute records comes up, and here they’re at their most instant, punchy, and unforgettable.
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Yazoo – ‘Upstairs at Eric’s’ (LP, 1982)
Yazoo were a duo comprised of ex-Depeche Mode Vince Clarke and fiery voiced singer Alison Moyet, who managed to release what might be the greatest and most cohesive album of the synth pop era.
'Upstairs At Eric’s' is a conquest of stark, almost obnoxious pop music. The stabs of Clarke’s synths that open 'Don’t Go' are among the most iconic of the decade, the disco-ready ‘Goodbye 70s’ ushered in a new era for pop, and tracks like the slow, oscillating ‘Only You’, are among the era’s most beautiful.
Everybody rightly bangs on about Soft Cell and The Human League, but the history books need to give Yazoo the chapter they deserve for this debut.
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Crime and the City Solution – ‘Room Of Lights’ (LP, 1986)
The coalition of several notorious Australians working in Berlin, ‘Room Of Lights’ is probably the definitive Crime and the City Solution album. This is their first full length, which came into fruition when frontman Simon Bonney joined forces with Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey, who had just jumped ship from The Birthday Party.
Slow tempos, murky textures, and deep-voiced warblings and howlings fill up this record; it’s the sound of the wild west on cough syrup, it’s pistols at dawn in the opium den. ‘Room Of Lights’ is a record by a band you cannot imagine existing in anything other than black and white, despite the fact their inception came long after colour photos were birthed into the world.
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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – ‘Henry’s Dream’ (LP, 1992)
It’s difficult to pinpoint a most important album for The Bad Seeds, as each one from ‘Her To Eternity’ to ‘Skeleton Tree’ is essential and pivotal in its own right. But it is ‘Henry’s Dream’, which sees Cave develop both his balladry and visceral folk punk to a pinnacle; furious opener ‘Papa Won’t Leave You Henry’ throws you in at the deep end, Cave’s commanding voice steals all the show.
‘Straight To You’ sees him perfecting the ballads that light up ‘The Good Son’, whilst ‘John Finn’s Wife’ is a bloodthirsty explosion of Cave at his most venomous. ‘Christina The Astonishing’ brings a Latin influence to their ever expanding palette, and ‘Jack The Ripper’ is a classic that speaks for itself; in short, because there are essays to be written on the majesty of this album, this is the album that propelled Nick Cave to the greatness that would follow with ‘Let Love In’ and ‘Murder Ballads’ over the next couple of years.
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Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – ‘Orange’ (LP, 1994)
Long-term Mute signings, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, are notorious for their scorching garage blues, their lightning guitar licks a million miles from what you’d expect a typical Mute release to have. From the brutally simplistic, derivative ‘Dang’, to the softer, noodlier ‘Cowboy’, to - of course - the barnstorming, intergalactic opener ‘Bellbottoms’, Jon Spencer and co. spend an entire album (and of course, career) sounding more like their name than any other band ever to consign music to record.
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Goldfrapp – ‘Ooh La La’ (7”, 2005)
One of the few mainstream successes of the label, Goldfrapp’s staunchly meteoric ‘Ooh La La’ is one of the single most iconic songs of the noughties. A pulsing synthesiser sample brands itself in the mind of anyone within a certain radius of the speakers, every time it comes on. A sassy, cool single worthy of any list, of any essential anythings.
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Liars – ‘Drum’s Not Dead’ (LP, 2006)
The ever-evolving group are a mainstay of Mute, a project whose post-punk sound took many experimental twists and turns throughout the noughties. On ‘Drum’s Not Dead’, pounding, pounding drum rhythms that rumble through and shake the skull, are spliced with haunting falsetto and almost frightening monotone vocal rasps. And whilst the majority of the album takes you on a journey of the most gnostic, disconcerting, pummelling variety, it ends with the beautiful respite of ‘The Other Side of Mt Heart Attack’.
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Arca – ‘Mutant’ (LP, 2015)
Arca is an artist who is truly an outlier. A Venezuelan producer whose material and list of collaborators is as unique, varied and challenging as he is, Arca released his ‘Mutant’ and ‘Xen’ albums on Mute, before his critically adored self-titled landed on XL.
An artwork as twisted as the figure that adorns the cover, this album is 20 neo-futurist sound collages that aim for a twisted kind of euphoria, rarely missing the mark.
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Words: Cal Cashin
Mute: A Visual Document by Terry Burrows with Daniel Miller is published by Thames & Hudson - order a copy HERE.
Daniel Miller, Anton Corbijn and friends will be at Rough Trade East on Tuesday (November 21st) for a panel discussion and book signing - details HERE.
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