If 1989’s Technique found release at a time where New Order’s signature sound had thoroughly saturated the airwaves, 1993’s Republic—and specifically, its hit single, “Regret”—saw the band moving into new territory. “Regret” is as wistful as the band’s most melancholic material, but instead of cloaking that sadness in frigid synths and clattering drum machines, this track gives it wings: “Regret” soars with the best of early ‘90s Britpop. Sumner’s plaintive vocal performance is among his strongest and most subtle. The song bounces along on Peter Hook’s typically emotive bassline, and Sumner’s staccato guitar hook seems to gain import with each repetition. “Regret” served as something of New Order’s swansong, as the band broke up later that year. It would reunite in 1998, but it’d never quite recapture the easy beauty shown here.
On the opening track to New Order’s first proper studio LP, Peter Hook shows off his best Ian Curtis impression. Though Bernard Sumner would go on to become the band’s primary vocalist, Hook’s voice bears much more of a similarity to that of the late Joy Division frontman; if you close your eyes and turn the volume down just a bit, “Dreams Never End” plays like a lost Joy Division cut. Even the lyrics attempt to cop Curtis’s dark abstractions: “We’ll change these feelings, we’ll taste and see / But never guess how the him would scream.” Still, the difference between the two groups is already on display here: Sumner’s guitar is brighter than in most of his Joy Division work, and Stephen Morris’s jittery drumming has solidified into a steady, hi-hat-and-kick-drum pulse. The song’s core might seethe with tension, but its surface is as inviting as they come.
12” single (1984)
“It’s called love / And it’s the only thing worth living for!” Hard to argue with that. Hard to argue, too, with the dueling synth and bass melodies here. In fact, every instrument on deck in “Thieves Like Us” makes its own hummable contribution to a gorgeous patchwork of melodies. Sumner’s vocals may be a bit strained, but that’s part of the charm (see also: #15 on this list). “Thieves Like Us” is completely transportive, a vessel to lift you up and away from your troubles. Sentimental? Sure. Romantic? Absolutely. Brilliant? In its own unassuming way.
Power, Corruption & Lies (1983)
“Your Silent Face” achieves the blend of stately grandeur and arch attitude usually reserved for New Order’s Mancunian contemporaries, the Smiths. An insistent beat and low-level synth line lay down a steady rhythm, while a melodica sighs over bursts of keys. Sumner practically exhales his vocals, a torrent of sad-sack one-liners (“We asked you what you’d seen / You said you didn’t care”), culminating in a blunt, disarming bit of humor: “You’ve caught me at a bad time / So why don’t you piss off?” “Your Silent Face” is much like this line, a remote lightness cut through with melancholy.
Keeping up with New Order’s trend of placing showstoppers in the opening slot of its records, “Love Vigilantes” kicks off 1985’s Low-Life with one of the strongest—and most straight-forward—tracks of its career. Bernard Sumner’s lyrics are often a bit too romantic, but his story of a soldier coming home from war to surprise his family contains just the right amount of heroics and simple pathos to carry the “r” word. Peter Hook does some heavy lifting, too, with a vintage Hook—uh—hook. The bassist is famous for turning his rhythmical instrument into something more like a lead guitar, and “Love Vigilantes” features some of his most engaging, high-necked playing. You might not expect it from New Order, but this is celebratory, summertime listening: windows down, volume up.