When it comes to placing R.E.M. in the history of American indie music, it is impossible to be hyperbolic. They are simply one of the best and most important bands this country has ever produced.
Not only did they make great albums — and they did this more frequently than nearly every other band of their generation — they invented the indie-band prototype that is still being propagated today, even by younger generations that might not have direct knowledge of their music. Beyond simply writing brilliant songs, R.E.M. is foundational in modern rock history. They wrote the book for this kind of music, and then re-wrote it several more times.
March 12 marks the 30th anniversary of R.E.M.’s seventh album, their most successful, Out Of Time. But, honestly, this is merely an excuse to explore this band’s deep catalogue, which still sounds timeless but also seems weirdly underrated. R.E.M. played as big of a role as any band in the manifest destiny that was early ’80s indie rock, traveling to dozens of towns where previously there were no punk clubs or garage bands and showing that it was possible to exist outside of the corporate music infrastructure. What is now commonplace had to be dreamt up by bands like R.E.M.
And yet when people look back at this time, R.E.M. is often overlooked in favor of less significant acts, or generally taken for granted as a band who became omnipresent only after the larger culture caught up with them a full decade into their career.
For this list, I’ve tried my best to take in the full scope of R.E.M.’s 29-year recording career, from their modest beginnings in Athens, Georgia in the early ’80s to their gradual indie fame in the late ’80s, to their “imperial” period in the early ’90s to their troubled but often rewarding post-Bill Berry period in the late ’90s and beyond.
There are so many great songs here! (As well as a fair number of songs I had to leave off. To quote Michael Stipe: I’m sorry!) Are we ready to explore 100 of R.E.M.’s best songs? Let’s begin the begin.
100. “Shiny Happy People”
When I talk to people who didn’t grow up with R.E.M., this is inevitably the song they always bring up — not “Radio Free Europe,” not “So. Central Rain,” not “Driver 8,” not “The One I Love.” For multiple generations, R.E.M. has been reduced to the “Shiny Happy People” band. If you strip the song of context, “Shiny Happy People” obviously is a corny calling card. It’s inherently goofy and chronically dorky. However, if you do know the context — which means you’re aware that this was the second single from Out Of Time, their most successful album, and came after “Losing My Religion,” a brilliantly brooding song with an artfully filmed but painfully self-serious music video — you can appreciate “Shiny Happy People” as a knowingly goofy song, a frothy dessert after a very heavy meal. And you will then appreciate that R.E.M. had the ability to be both profound and self-deprecating. And this might cause you to investigate further and discover that R.E.M. played a pivotal role in redefining what a rock band could be in the ’80s and ’90s. You didn’t have to live in New York or Los Angeles, you didn’t have to benefit from wealthy parents, you didn’t have to look or sound like rock stars as the concept of “rock star” was defined in previous decades. You could instead be a band from the South who lived for years in a college town situated about as far as possible from traditional American media centers. You could then redefine what “cool” was supposed to be in rock. It might even encompass this song.
99. “Every Day Is Yours To Win”
I look forward to elaborating on the context of R.E.M.’s career and legacy as we proceed. But before we dig deep into their back catalogue, let’s dispel another myth, the most pernicious in all of R.E.M.-dom, the one about how they never made any good albums after Bill Berry left. It’s true they never made another Murmur or Automatic For The People in the final 14 years of their career, though they might have been true even if their founding drummer had stayed. But while the five post-Berry records are uneven to varying degrees, each of them has at least a handful of great songs. Here’s one from their final LP, 2011’s Collapse Into Now, a low-key stunner in which Michael Stipe looks back on his career in indie rock like Frank Sinatra in “My Way”: “I cannot tell a lie / It’s not all cherry pie / But it’s all there waiting for you / Yeah you.”
98. “Leaving New York”
The one acknowledged turkey in R.E.M.’s catalogue is 2004’s Around The Sun, a severely overworked album that culminated a period in which the band strayed from their classic guitar-bass-drums sound in favor studio-bound, Pet Sounds-inspired pocket symphonies. Over the course of three albums released between 1998 and 2004, R.E.M. slowly drained all of the rock ‘n’ roll energy out of their music, resulting in their sleepiest and least engaging record. How demoralizing was Around The Sun for R.E.M.? Peter Buck once likened the record to the war in Iraq, telling Spin, “We don’t know why we got in there, we don’t know how to get out, and we don’t know what we’re trying to accomplish.” But even this record has some good tunes, including this ode to NYC in the wake of 9/11.
97. “Boy In The Well” (R.E.M. Live version)
R.E.M.’s late-career work ultimately is stymied — as is often the case for aging rock acts — by questionable production choices. But they never really lost their knack for songwriting, which is more apparent when you listen to live versions of Around The Sun deep cuts like “Boy In The Well,” which was given new life on the 2005 concert album R.E.M. Live.
The one post-Berry album that I would group with R.E.M.’s 1981-1996 run — arguably the greatest period of sustained excellence for an American rock band ever — is the first, 1998’s Up. At the time, Stipe described R.E.M. without Berry as “a three-legged dog,” a maimed animal now tasked with finding a new way to navigate the world. Wisely, they didn’t opt to pretend that Berry was gone by simply hiring a new drummer; instead, they essentially made an album about Berry’s absence, leaning into drum machines and skeletal song structures that always feel about 25 percent incomplete. While Automatic For The People is commonly viewed as R.E.M.’s “death” album, Up is their “grief” record, a collection of numb and deeply sorrowful songs that document the members of R.E.M. struggling to figure out in real time how their band is going to function now. You can hear that fog in “Suspicion,” which marries a beautiful melody to Stipe’s shellshocked vocal.
95. “Walk Unafraid”
The degree to which Berry’s departure traumatized the band probably can’t be overstated. Stipe and to a lesser degree Mills initially retreated from the making of Up to such a degree that Buck worked on large swaths of the record with a supporting cast of hired guns that included drummer Joey Waronker and multi-instrumentalist and longtime associate Scott McCaughney. This initially bothered Mills, but Buck made no apologies, later telling biographer Christopher Buckley, “For him it was like, these guys who aren’t in the band are getting to play all over the record and I’m not really on it. My feeling was, you know what, you want to be on the record? Then show up, ’cos that’s all it takes.” What seemed at the time like a necessary evil to finish the record would soon develop over the next several records into a troubling tendency to rely more and more on outside musicians. But on Up, R.E.M. could still evolve in new sonic directions on songs like “Walk Unafraid” while also retaining their core R.E.M.-ness.
94. “Imitation Of Life”
The first single from 2001’s Reveal, the first R.E.M. album I didn’t buy the week it came out. From the time I first started caring about music in a tangible way as a grade schooler in the late ’80s, R.E.M. had been one of my favorite bands. But for much of the aughts, I found myself resenting them. This trajectory, while grossly unfair, was common for a lot of R.E.M. fans, I suspect, and it was due entirely to how many of us had idealized R.E.M. beyond all reason. I think this has been lost a bit when people talk about R.E.M. now, but when I was growing up, this was the band that every indie and alternative act looked up to. For many years, they seemed to have achieved the perfect level of success, where their music was accessible on radio and MTV and yet they didn’t seem as ubiquitous or oppressive as mainstream pop stars. All of this seems incomprehensible now given that the indie scene politics of the late 20th century have been defanged, delegitimized, and completely removed from the public square. But R.E.M. at that time was the epitome of integrity. More than that, they didn’t really ever make serious public blunders. That is, until Berry left, and R.E.M. all of a sudden seemed like any other old rock band that keeps carrying on in order to satisfy a record deal. It was strange and — if you are the type of person to take rock bands way too seriously — it kind of felt like a betrayal. All of that was projected onto Reveal, which in retrospect seems like a pretty bad overreaction to an otherwise enjoyable album with a lead single that pleasingly nicks the chord sequence from “Driver 8.”
93. “All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)”
When I interviewed Mike Mills in 2011 right after R.E.M. broke up, he singled out Reveal as an album he wanted the band to be remembered for. This isn’t exactly a radical opinion — Bono once called Reveal “one of the best records they’ve ever made,” though he was likely promoting one of U2’s own late-career albums at the time. I still tend to view Reveal as a prettier but less emotionally engaging redux of Up, though “All The Way To Reno” sure is awfully pretty.
92. “Carnival Of Sorts (Boxcars)”
The upper reaches of this list are understandably going to dwell on R.E.M.’s later albums. But for a moment let’s preview very early R.E.M. courtesy of this characteristically bouncy track from their debut 1982 EP, Chronic Town. The clip above is taken from a show called Livewire that aired on Nickelodeon in 1983. It captures what was their essential appeal back in the days when they were tirelessly playing pizza parlors and gay bars in nowhere towns in D-list markets throughout the south, east, and midwest, helping to build what would become a network of indie-rock venues. At that time, R.E.M. was a party band — they made you want to dance and (in all non-Nickelodeon contexts) drink way too much beer. I think that’s what Robert Christgau meant when he reviewed Chronic Town for the Village Voice and called R.E.M. the “wittiest and most joyful of the postgarage sound-over-sense bands.” The sound of “Carnival Of Sorts” makes you want to move.
As an R.E.M. fan who came along too late to get in at the ground floor with Chronic Town, I had to go back and hear their 1983 full-length debut Murmur with the ears of someone used to more overt “rock” records like Document and Green. In that way, Murmur was hard to understand, because Buck — always my favorite R.E.M.er — doesn’t function as a traditional guitarist on that record. Instead of playing loud riffs and virtuoso solos, Buck provides shading and accents while Mills pushes his bass to the front of the mix. (Again, the need to groove and make people dance was vital to early R.E.M.) You can hear that dynamic in “Catapult,” which opens with a driving, melodic bassline that carries the song while Buck’s guitar lines dance around the rhythm.
90. “I’ve Been High”
Many of R.E.M.’s stylistic changes can be described as fluctuations in Buck’s ongoing love/hate relationship with the electric guitar. This was especially dramatic in the ’90s, when Buck’s whims swung wildly from favoring acoustic instruments on albums like Out Of Time and Automatic For The People to indulging in the most over-amped noise of R.E.M.’s career on Monster and New Adventures In Hi-Fi. During the troubled 1998-2004 era, he swung harder than ever back away from guitar. “I’ve Been High” is one of the most successful experiments from this period, an exercise in glacial ambiance that threatens to explode into a cathartic climax without ever doing so.
89. “Man-Sized Wreath”
Their 2008 comeback, Accelerate, meanwhile, was R.E.M.’s entry in the “we can still rock” subgenre of late-career albums by aging bands. Even more than Monster — which was conceived as an ironic air-quotes “rock” album — it is the most straight-down-the-line guitar music of their career. While not terribly sophisticated, Accelerate does have plenty of easy pleasures and a no-nonsense, “keep it simple, stupid” directness. For “Man-Sized Wreath,” R.E.M. realized that the sound of Stipe’s voice set against Mills’ honeyed backing vocal, all while locked into a chunky Peter Buck guitar riff, could still sound plenty invigorating.
You know what else R.E.M. was extremely good at? Mid-tempo folk-rock songs with difficult to pronounce titles. This track from Collapse Into Now was the last noteworthy example of this.
87. “Moral Kiosk”
For the early R.E.M. records, the critical conversation was dominated by whether Stipe’s low, mumbly vocal style — which made his lyrics impossible to decipher — was either an attribute or a hindrance. While many believed the latter in the short run, the former argument ultimately won out. As Eddie Vedder — a next-generation alt-rock singer obviously inspired by Stipe’s approach to songwriting and persona-building — remarked while inducting R.E.M. into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame in 2007, “He can be direct, he can be completely abstract, he can hit an emotion with pinpoint accuracy, and he can be completely oblique and it all resonates.” And that is due to meaning in R.E.M. songs almost always being intuited by the listener, if not entirely projected. What is a “moral kiosk” anyway? I mean, I definitely know what it is, but I’m not telling you.
86. “I Believe”
This approach to lyrics was also revolutionary in the burgeoning indie underground of the early ’80s, which was overloaded with pedantic punk bands that beat you over the head with explicitly shouted messages about the inequities of British society (The Clash), the pitfalls of Reaganism (The Dead Kennedys), or how much school sucks (The Replacements). But R.E.M. songs were always about instilling a certain feeling in the listener designed to be interpreted in a personal way; it’s why those early albums haven’t aged a day while many of R.E.M.’s contemporaries are forever locked in their time. Even when R.E.M. evolved into a relatively “normal” roots-rock band on 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, and wrote a song literally called “I Believe,” Stipe came at his declaration of personal beliefs from a dutch angle: “I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract / Explain the change, the difference between / What you want and what you need, there’s the key.”
85. “Little America”
An essential if subliminal ingredient in the unique stew that is Murmur is the plethora of random noises — dubbed “sound art” — buried in the mix, everything from zippers to clanging balls from one of the band’s many games of pool. For the next record, 1984’s Reckoning, R.E.M. opted for more of a “live in the studio” approach that hewed closer to the sound they achieved on stage. Producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, who had also steered Murmur, especially brought out Buck’s guitar and Berry’s drums by using Binaural recording techniques, utilizing two microphones raised to the height of a person’s ears. The result is a defining jangle pop record of the era, in which songs like “Little America” burst with youthful energy without sacrificing the band’s innate mystery.
84. “So Fast So Numb”
Just over a decade after Reckoning, R.E.M. put out New Adventures In Hi-Fi, which exuded different kind of live feel. Recorded on stage and at soundchecks during the Monster tour, New Adventures unwittingly captures a superstar band in the process of falling apart, fighting internal exhaustion and boredom as the rock world around them was changing dramatically. The bombed-out arrangement and Stipe’s ravishingly weathered vocal on “So Fast So Numb” are typical of a record with a “you are there” audio verité quality that evokes classic ’70s “road” albums like Neil Young’s Time Fades Away and Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty.
83. “Bang And Blame”
In the moment New Adventures In Hi-Fi felt like an extension of 1994’s Monster, though the former record is actually much weirder and darker. That aspect of Monster was made clearer by the 2019 anniversary box set. (In regard to Scott Litt’s remix of the album, I mean “clearer” literally.) But Monster still is commonly perceived as the album that turned off the legions of fans who loved Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, a reputation propagated by the album’s unofficial status as the most “used CD” used CD of all time. (The blaze orange cover made it stick all the more in so many used bins.) But I think that’s due less to Monster being weaker than its two predecessors — it is, but not by that much — than to the cast of unsavory characters that populate the record. Buck described as Monster as a collection of “obsessive-creep love songs,” and the sexual violence that permeates “Bang And Blame” puts it among the creepiest of creepy tracks.
82. “Sad Professor”
While Up is regarded as a “drum machines and keyboards” record, R.E.M. did also drift into surly Neil Young territory with “Sad Professor,” one of the most depressing songs on R.E.M.’s most depressing record. While Stipe typically alludes to despair in his lyrics, he states it directly in this song: “Everybody hates a drunk / Everyone hates a sad professor / I hate where I wound up / I hate where I wound up.”
81. “Supernatural Superserious”
Let’s chase that (beautiful) dirge with this uplifting tale of overcoming teenage alienation, a tale of triumph that foreshadows the “comeback” narrative of its host album, Accelerate. For Stipe, that record was unprecedented for R.E.M., and not necessarily in a good way. “It was a reaction to Around the Sun,” he said flatly to Pitchfork. “I never wanted to react, but there it is, you wind up reacting.” He actually liked the dour direction of the band’s chamber-pop period, and chafed initially against Buck and Mills pushing him to write lyrics quickly. Working this way did not always serve Stipe or Accelerate well. (The album’s closing tracks, “Horse To Water” and “I’m Gonna DJ,” are pretty dire.) But it does give “Supernatural Superserious” a proper mix of wisdom and tossed-off insouciance.
One of my favorite “I have no idea what the hell this song is about” R.E.M. songs. I have some idea what most R.E.M. songs are about, but “Hairshirt” remains a mystery no matter how many hundreds of times I play Green. “I am not the type of dog / That could keep you waiting / For no good reason / Run a carbon-black test on my jaw / And you will find it’s all been said before.” All I know is that “Hairshirt” reminds me of Led Zeppelin III, so I’m going to assume Michael Stipe is singing about tangerines and Roy Harper.
79. “Disturbance At The Heron House”
Here’s a little something that occurs in many R.E.M. songs and it never ceases to be magical — the part at the end of “Disturbance At The Heron House” when Stipe starts singing “When feeding time has come and gone …” and Mills trails slightly behind with a high-lonesome backing vocal. It’s not a harmony vocal or even a traditional backing vocal, it’s like a second lead vocal that both supports Stipe and functions as a parallel narrative in the song. That part kills me every single time. And R.E.M. did that thing better than anybody.
78. “Let Me In”
“Disturbance At The Heron House” is from 1987’s Document, the first R.E.M. album I ever heard and also their first to go platinum. Just as R.E.M. pioneered so much of what is now accepted as tropes of indie rock — how bands sound, look, act, and set themselves apart from the mainstream — they were also among the first bands to be accused of selling out. They responded to those charges with requisite dignity and snark. (“When something considered secret and wonderful is revealed to the world, it becomes a little less wonderful. It’s time to find something new. That’s a legitimate and healthy cycle,” Stipe told Spin. “But I think we’re still great, and I don’t have blinders on.”) Those qualities made them attractive to Kurt Cobain precisely because he couldn’t muster up the same grace. This deeply sad tribute to Cobain recorded not long after he died might have given him some solace had he been able to hear it.
77. “Be Mine”
For years, Stipe made a point to publicly declare his aversion to writing love songs. Typically he dismissed them on the grounds of being facile or redundant, but I suspect it was also tied up in his identity as a queer man who resisted mainstream gender roles, which put him outside the norms of even “progressive” indie music in the ’80s. By the time Stipe started writing about romantic topics in the ’90s, he did it from a gender-neutral, and often subversive perspective. For instance, the story about “Be Mine” — I think it was started by Stipe in a long-lost interview — is that the lyrics are composed of lines that Stipe took from candy hearts. But I can’t imagine “I wanna be your Easter Bunny” fitting on one of those things.
76. “Living Well Is The Best Revenge”
Accelerate garnered the best reviews for an R.E.M. album in years because people listened to the first three songs, got very excited, wrote their reviews, and forgot about the rest. As the lead-off track, “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” is the record’s real throat-grabber, a pithy politicalized putdown of low-life opportunists that’s as relevant in the age of The Lincoln Project as it was as the end of the George W. Bush years.
75. “Circus Envy”
Another “obsessive creep” song from Monster, only this time with a revenge narrative set to a deranged surf-rock beat: “If I were you I’d really run from me / I’d really, really wish that I were you.” Of all the characters lurking in this album’s shadows, the person in “Circus Envy” is the one most likely to make you cross the street.
74. “Shaking Through”
When R.E.M. started out, they were set apart by their ambiguity, which was deepened and mythologized by living in a bohemian Southern town. But as an indie band, they also separated themselves by consciously rejecting the “loud fast rules” sonic signifiers of punk. “We took the energy of punk, but not the aggro part,” Mills explained to Pitchfork. “As much as I love Sex Pistols, we were not into the safety pins-through-the-nose thing. It was more about thrift-store clothes and wild wigs and having a good time.” You can hear these elements come together in “Shaking Through,” a song about a very punk topic — mourning the loss of youthful vitality — that turns the energy inward.
73. “Letter Never Sent”
A fascinating wrinkle of R.E.M.’s career is that as they grew in popularity and moved from the indie world to the heart of the corporate rock mainstream, they actually gained more creative freedom, not less. The albums that they made in the ’90s are more varied and stranger than their records in the ’80s. (Those records also less consistent for the very reason that R.E.M. took more risks.) During the Reckoning era, R.E.M. constantly had to push back against overtures by their label I.R.S. to be more commercial after Murmur failed to do as well with listeners as it did with critics. This put them in a reactionary posture against anything that seemed trendy at the time, including drum machines and synthesizers. (When R.E.M. finally did embrace those things in the late ’90s, they were safely un-trendy again.) The ultimate goal was to make music that sounded timeless and, perhaps, quintessentially them, which is certainly true of “Letter Never Sent.”
72. “Green Grow The Rushes”
Of all the books I’ve read about R.E.M., the bitchiest one hands down is Denise Sullivan’s Talk About The Passion: An Oral History. No band members or anyone from their inner circle is interviewed; instead, the author seemingly talked to anyone who knew R.E.M. in the early days and eventually fell out with them because Michael Stipe was mean backstage once. While there’s still plenty of interesting tidbits — apparently indie bands like Husker Du and The Replacements rushed to book shows in Athens because it was a hotbed of cheap amphetamines — the portrait that emerges of gossiping vipers eating their own is contrary to the small-town southern romanticism that anchors albums like Fables Of The Reconstruction. Though the myth endures regardless in the new kind of Southern rock that R.E.M. invented with songs like “Green Grow The Rushes,” which eventually filtered down to everyone from Deerhunter to Jason Isbell.
71. “Old Man Kensey”
For coastal critics, R.E.M.’s Southernness sometimes registered as a hokey gimmick. The Village Voice could be especially withering on his point, likening character studies of redneck eccentrics like “Old Man Kensey,” incredibly, to a defense of Reaganism. This spoke to a larger bias in favor of East Coast rock bands that has long existed among old-guard critics like Robert Christgau, who once unfavorably compared R.E.M.’s “corn quotient” to the “downtown cool” of The Feelies. As someone who loves both R.E.M. and The Feelies, I would argue that Tri-State area bands signifying “downtown cool” seemed awfully corny not long after Marquee Moon came out, whereas R.E.M. promoted a new kind of localism that actually looks refreshing from the vantage point of our “everything now lives in the same box on the internet” times.
70. “Until The Day Is Done”
During my conversation with Mike Mills in 2011, he hinted that the conclusion of the lucrative contract that R.E.M. signed in the mid-’90s prompted the conversation to end the band on the eve of making Collapse Into Now. This all seems obvious now, but at the time R.E.M. had recovered enough goodwill and career momentum with Accelerate that their breakup announcement was still kind of shocking. (Not even Michael Stipe literally waving goodbye on the cover suggested to most fans that it would be their last record.) Not long after they disbanded, I declared that this deep-cut ballad from Accelerate was the last great R.E.M. song and I’ll stand behind that. It also hits like an epitaph now: “Providence blinked, facing the sun / Where are we left to carry on / Until the day is done.”
69. “Falls To Climb”
The final track on Up was conceived as a kind of pre-emptive epitaph for R.E.M., or perhaps for the R.E.M. that ceased to be after Berry left. Stipe tellingly was preoccupied with biblical imagery and tragic fatalism on that record, and it culminates with some of the most self-lacerating lyrics he ever committed to tape: “Who cast the final stone? / Who threw the crushing blow? / Someone has to take the fall / Why not me? Why not me.”
68. “The Apologist”
While the albums that R.E.M. made in the late ’90s and early aughts are their most maligned, if not flat-out ignored, they also happen to feature some of Stipe’s finest vocal performances. “The Apologist” reminds me of Bono’s comparison of Stipe to Bing Crosby, which Stipe took as a compliment. As R.E.M. turned to static soundscapes as an expression of their prolonged professional mid-life crisis, Stipe fully embraced his inner crooner, using his dulcet voice as a Trojan horse for poisonous lyrics.
67. “Second Guessing”
It’s possible that the single most influential aspect of R.E.M.’s legacy isn’t musical but rather business-related — their decision to equally share songwriting credits on every track, no matter their actual contributions. This came from Peter Buck, the resident rock scholar, who correctly surmised that arguments over money are the number one issue that derails bands. But even if it was premeditated, this enforced parity did ultimately reflect accurately the creative dynamic in R.E.M., a true “whole is greater than the parts” band. Especially early on, when Stipe insisted on burying his vocals in defiance of how pop songs are typically mixed, all of the musical elements of R.E.M. were uncommonly equal. In “Second Guessing,” that means Berry’s hyperactive drums are just as important as Buck’s ringing guitar, which is just as prominent as Mills’ pogoing bass, which sticks out as much as Stipe’s howling vocal.
A precursor of “Shiny Happy People,” this is another knowingly silly R.E.M. song, and therefore a magnet for abuse. As for me, I’ll always love “Stand” because I was 10 when I first it, and this was an easier song for me to comprehend than “The One I Love,” an adult psychodrama that gave me a stomach ache whenever it came on the radio. I’ll reiterate my previous point: R.E.M.’s ability to occasionally write goofy, childlike songs was a strength, not a weakness, and crucial in expanding the tent. More bands should have at least one novelty single that kids can like! Hating R.E.M. for “Stand” is like hating The Beatles for “Yellow Submarine.”
65. “Swan Swan H”
The silliness of songs like “Stand” and “Shiny Happy People” helped to balance out songs like this, the beautiful folk ballads that (depending on whether you like R.E.M.) either toe the line of preciousness or jump headfirst over it. It should be pretty clear where I, ahem, stand on this.
“Swan Swan H” was a relative curveball on Lifes Rich Pageant, which is otherwise dominated by drum-heavy, rootsy rock songs that don’t should all that different from the hits John Cougar Mellencamp was having at the time. In fact, the album’s producer, Don Gehman, was also Mellencamp’s producer. (A decade later, he produced Hootie And The Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View.) Gehman did a good job with Lifes Rich Pageant, one of the most likable and immediate R.E.M. albums, though he was sort of confounded by them. This song was especially confusing. “How will that connect?” he asks rhetorically in the documentary R.E.M. By MTV. When you’re used to songs about pink houses, “Hyena” really would be confusing.
63. “Finest Worksong”
After Lifes Rich Pageant, R.E.M. made their noisiest and most erratic album of the ’80s, Document. I have a soft spot for it, because it was the first R.E.M. album I heard, but the songwriting makes it the weakest LP of this period. It does have a certain cranky energy to it, though. The opening track sets the tone, lurching forward like “Begin The Begin” if it had been reworked by Pylon.
62. “Turn You Inside-Out”
R.E.M. eras can be essentially divided into half-decades — early-’80s R.E.M. is much different than late-’80s R.E.M., just as early-’90s R.E.M. barely resembles late-’90s R.E.M. In the lexicon of late-’80s R.E.M., Lifes Rich Pageant is the “heartland rock” record, Document is the “barbed-wire arena-rock” record, and Green is the “political/environmentalist” record. Though as often is the case with R.E.M., the political meaning of the songs on Green are difficult to surmise from the text; it’s more about how they were framed. For instance, on stage, Michael Stipe dedicated “Turn You Inside-Out” to the Exxon Corporation, which gave it a provocative, accusatory, “I will beat your ass because of oil spills” edge. But on the page, it could just as well be another example of Stipe returning to one of his pet themes — the imbalanced power dynamics inherent in relationships and how they can easily turn emotionally violent.
61. “Wendell Gee”
By my count, every R.E.M. album save one has a great-to-classic opening track. (The exception is Out Of Time and “Radio Song,” probably my least favorite R.E.M. song. Sorry, KRS-One, but baby baby baby you drive me crazy.) R.E.M. albums don’t close out with quite the same level of consistency, especially on the post-Berry records. But there are still many strong final tracks, with “Wendell Gee” from Fables Of The Reconstruction ranking among the very best.
60. “Me In Honey”
Speaking of classic closers, here’s one from Out Of Time, an album that seems underrated now, perhaps because it starts with the failed experiment “Radio Song” and also includes the unfairly maligned “Shiny Happy People.” The rest of the album, however, is pretty fantastic and much weirder than you probably remember. It also ends very strong, with the run from “Half A World Away” through “Me In Honey,” in which Stipe and Kate Pierson once again duet over deceptively bouncy bubblegum pop.
One of the purest and sweetest R.E.M. songs, this is their best album closer that wasn’t originally listed as an album closer on the back cover. I once suggested that indie bands should hire Mike Mills to sing backup on their records, because it would make even mediocre tunes sound huge and joyous. This is not a mediocre song, but it is fine demonstration of this effect.
Starting with Up, R.E.M. spent three albums drawing on two main influences: The Beach Boys and Radiohead. This speaks to the muddled impulses ruling them at the time, as the former represents the height of classic-rock songcraft whereas the latter was dedicated to deconstructing classic-rock songcraft. Reconciling this, clearly, was a challenge even for a band as accomplished as R.E.M. But when they made it work, the results could be as stunning as “Parakeet,” a beautiful and plush sonic confection expressing utter disdain for the workaday rituals that define daily existence.
57. “How The West Was Won”
Before Radiohead influenced R.E.M., R.E.M. was a primary influence on Radiohead. And that continued even after Radiohead became famous. Thom Yorke has called New Adventures In Hi-Fi one of his favorite albums of all-time, and while it sounds almost nothing like his band, there is a cinematic feel to the album that is vaguely reminiscent of Radiohead’s work at the time. The opening track from New Adventures rolls out like an opening credits sequence, portending the doom and destruction that lay ahead: “This story is a sad one, told many times / the story of my life in trying times.”
56. “Monty Got A Raw Deal”
“Man In The Moon” is the more famous song about a dead Hollywood legend on Automatic For The People, but this Montgomery Clift tribute is notable for Peter Buck’s crisp acoustic lead and Bill Berry’s powerful, John Bonham-esque drum track. Berry apparently was a fan of the drum sounds R.E.M. had previously captured at Bearsville Studios in upstate New York, which is a shame given how often you don’t hear drums on Automatic For The People.
55. “7 Chinese Brothers”
Then again, as Stephen Malkmus points out in Pavement’s classic R.E.M. tribute song “Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence,” Bill Berry “knew restraint,” so not playing could be as crucial for him as actually playing. Elsewhere, Malkmus namechecks six out of 10 tracks from Reckoning but not this one, maybe because it’s impossible to find a word that rhymes with “7 Chinese Brothers.”
54. “Can’t Get There From Here”
R.E.M. entered its “horn section” phase right in time for their difficult and experimental third album, Fables Of The Reconstruction. This can be a red flag of impending staleness, but R.E.M. didn’t use horns to signify “soulful” gravitas but rather as a chaos agent that disrupted their insistently tuneful music. In “Can’t Get There From Here,” the tightness of R.E.M.’s first two albums is set askew. Things don’t really lock in until the bridge, when all of a sudden Buck’s stuttering funk riff aligns with the rhythm section and Stipe’s comically drawling vocal.
53. “The Flowers Of Guatemala”
This song supposedly is about the CIA’s involvement in toppling revolutionary movements in Central America, though I only know this because I read Marcus Gray’s It Came From The South. But taken just as a piece of music divorced from any after-the-fact explanations, “The Flowers Of Guatemala” sounds like a trial run for the arpeggio-heavy power ballads like “Everybody Hurts” and “Strange Currencies” that R.E.M. will go on to crush in the following decade. What sets “The Flowers Of Guatemala” apart is the inclusion of an excellent Peter Buck guitar solo, which this solo-averse band excised on the later songs.
One of the great Mike Mills performances, both on bass and vocally. Any college rock band who felt bitter about not being as successful as R.E.M. surely heard the key change at around the 3:40 mark and realized they had no hope of ever touching this band.
51. “Star Me Kitten”
Automatic For The People might be R.E.M.’s meditation on death, but don’t forget that it’s also the album with the rip-off of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love.” Before Monster, this was also their most explicit — as in direct, but also as in dirty — song about sex.
Please allow this clip to brighten your day.
50. “Crush With Eyeliner”
Monster was the moment where R.E.M. had to confront being one of the most popular rock bands in the world. After Out Of Time, they went into hiding and made Automatic For The People. Peter Buck drifted the furthest from fame, he told me in 2019. “I had a car and a box of cassettes I listened to, and a leather jacket. And I just kind of moved around from place to place.” But with Monster and the accompanying tour, R.E.M. exaggerated their rock-star playacting — typified by the swaggering glitter-rock ode “Crush With Eyeliner” — as a defense mechnanism against the very real hysteria going on around him. “It was the first and only time honestly where people were chasing us around and screaming at us in the streets,” Buck told me. “We would get to our hotel and there’d be 300 people waiting outside. And you think, ‘What the fuck? What is this all about?’”
49. “I Took Your Name”
The layers upon layers of dissonant irony that define the Monster period — it is somehow their funniest and most disturbing record, loaded with hit singles and yet still remembered as a relative failure — all but ensured that it would confuse listeners and hurt R.E.M. in the long run. For some fans, it seemed to go against what R.E.M. once stood for. In an early interview clip from 1983, you can see Peter Buck shrugging off the suggestion that his band could ever play stadiums. “We do this for fun,” he says. “We don’t feel we have to live up to that whole rock-star image of going onstage, like U2, being melodramatic or whatever.” But now R.E.M. was cribbing directly from U2’s Zoo TV-era playbook, and doing it in a very self-aware way, writing songs like “I Took Your Name” that address the dehumanization that fame was now imposing upon them.
48. “Bittersweet Me”
Some people claim that Monster signaled the end of R.E.M.’s glory years. But I think the distinction actually belongs to New Adventures In Hi-Fi, their final masterpiece and Stipe’s personal favorite. In 2015, he told me that the decision to make “E-Bow The Letter” — a brilliant song I’ll get to in a moment — the first single sank the record, because “it’s not a pop single,” he said. “We were in a position to push radio away from the mainstream and toward something that was more fringe and outside, and we did that with every available chance. In the case of ‘E-Bow the Letter,’ we pushed too far.” The second single from New Adventures was “Bittersweet Me,” a stunning breakup song in the mold of “The One I Love.” It’s possible that any lead single from an R.E.M. record in 1996 — a period when nu-metal and teen pop were just starting to take over pop culture — would have tanked. But still, “Bittersweet Me” should have still been the first single.
Even back when R.E.M. was having hits, there was dissension about whether they could have had more hits. “There were a few times when we wrote a song that I thought had great pop potential, but Michael didn’t put pop lyrics or a pop melody to it, and it pissed me off enormously,” Mills told Pitchfork in 2011. One of the songs he mentioned was “Cuyahoga,” and you can see what he means — the music is robust and strummy, and the chorus is anthemic, and yet Stipe is singing about a river in Ohio.
While R.E.M. always presented a united front publicly, there were two cliques in the band composed of the pairs of friends who met before R.E.M. formed. There were the Macon boys, Mike and Bill, on one side, and the Wuxtry Records music nerds, Michael and Peter, on the other. According to David Buckley’s R.E.M. Fiction: An Alternative Biography, Stipe and Mills actually didn’t get along in the mid-’80s. (“There was love there but there was a great deal of oil and water for a while,” Mills says.) This is chalked up to the usual personality clashes, but I wonder if on some level they were competitive as the two main singers in the band. Mills in a way had a “better” voice, though Stipe was clearly more of a lead vocalist. Somehow, “Superman” acts both as a delightful rare lead showcase for Mills that also highlights (in his absence) what precisely Stipe brings to the operation.
45. “Pop Song 89”
I just watched this video for the first time without the black bars. The uncensored version is on YouTube; the first 94 times I saw it, it was on MTV. Conceptually, I feel like it works better with the black bars. Nevertheless, this is my favorite R.E.M. video ever.
44. “Welcome To The Occupation”
This song is perhaps the most obvious example of Peter Buck’s highly influential guitar sound. It’s often likened to The Byrds but it’s not as jangly or rooted in folk music. He plays his Rickenbacker like a man who grew up listening to Tom Verlaine, not Doc Watson. This is an incredibly insufficient way to describe it but it nevertheless seems appropriate — Buck’s guitar tone just seems more collegiate. “Welcome To The Occupation” doesn’t evoke “Mr. Tambourine Man” so much as 10,000 Maniacs or the Gin Blossoms.
43. “You Are The Everything”
Just a beautiful ballad about looking up at the sky and trying to talk yourself out of an anxiety attack. “You’re in the backseat laying down, the windows wrap around (say, say, the light) / To the sound of the travel and the engine (say, say, the light) / All you hear is time stand still in travel / And feel such peace and absolute / The stillness still that doesn’t end / But slowly drifts into sleep.” One of Stipe’s best lyrics.
42. “Gardening At Night”
A great example of Stipe’s painting a memorable image with a phrase that doesn’t make art literal sense. I’ve always interpreted this as a song about being a proud outsider, and operating in a way that deliberately goes against the established order. I’m basing this on my reading of lyrics that might not be accurately transcribed, since Stipe famously resisted publishing his lyrics early on, and frequently changed them up in concert. That said, I always liked the line, “The neighbors go to bed at ten / call the prayer line for a change.”
Another perfect song from side two of Out Of Time, which I’ll put up against any side of any R.E.M. album.
Out Of Time is R.E.M.’s poppiest album, but in more subtle ways it’s also the record in which R.E.M. started to embrace classic rock. This process culminated with inviting Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones to arrange several tracks on Automatic For The People, which would have seemed ludicrous just five years earlier. I wish they had thought to ask Ray Manzarek to play organ on “Low,” because it’s such a Doors song — the low-end drone, the funeral-parlor atmosphere, and Stipe’s husky vocal all nod to The Lizard King.
39. “Orange Crush”
My favorite story from the Green tour is about how there were two buses — a “loud” bus for Buck, Berry, and Mills and a “milk and cookies” bus for Stipe, manager Jefferson Holt, and lawyer Bertis Down. (Apparently Stipe literally kept milk and cookies in his bus’ refrigerator.) This is the only hint of any decadence during the band’s first big-time arena tour, though bootleg recordings from this era illustrate that R.E.M. had adopted a “big rock” persona on-stage. Not as cartoonish as the Monster era, certainly, but “Orange Crush” is as much a bombastic U2-style stadium-rattler as nearly anything on The Joshua Tree.
While R.E.M.’s batting average for album cover art is frustratingly low — I nominate Up as the ugliest, followed closely by Monster, but most of them look like freshman-year collages — the cover of Murmur is an incredible visual achievement. Those kudzu are simultaneously homey and utterly alien; R.E.M. made Athens look like Mars. While Murmur is hardly a prog-rock record, it does have an exotic surrealism that’s more in line with Peter Gabriel-era Genesis than, say, The Replacements or their other ’80s indie peers. Take “Laughing,” which references in the opening line a mythological creature named Laocoön who was eaten with his two sons by serpents. What’s doubly impressive about this — along with “Laughing” being such an accessible and catchy song — is that Stipe conjured this without the benefit of Wikipedia.
37. “Get Up”
And then there are R.E.M. songs in which Stipe merely sings about being too lazy to get out of bed. He contains multitudes!
36. “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”
The most traditionally Southern-sounding song in their catalogue, with a dash of E Street-style Jersey bar band rock. On stage, they originally played it faster and more like a punk song, only to slow it down in semi-joking fashion for Reckoning. This in a way is a precursor to alt-country, a genre that Buck played a direct role in fortifying by producing the third Uncle Tupelo record, March 16-20, 1992. (There’s long been a pronounced R.E.M. influence in Jay Farrar’s songs, especially this one.) On the Monster tour, R.E.M. invited Wilco to open some dates in Europe, prompting one of the worst migraines of Jeff Tweedy’s life. The Monster tour seemed to have that effect on people.
35. “Maps And Legends”
This from Fables Of The Reconstruction is more in line with the new kind of Southern music that R.E.M. pioneered. Three-fourths of the year, Fables is probably my sixth or seventh favorite R.E.M. album. But in the summer, it is my number one R.E.M. album, precisely because you feel the humidity coming off of songs like “Maps And Legends.”
34. “E-Bow The Letter”
As previously discussed, Stipe himself blamed this song for sinking the commercial prospects of New Adventures In Hi-Fi, even though he counts it among the best songs R.E.M. ever wrote. (“Aluminum / tastes like fear” certainly stands with Stipe’s most quotable lines.) But at least one member of R.E.M. might have anticipated New Adventures selling “only” one million copies months in advance. That’s a very intriguing theory forwarded in David Buckley’s band biography R.E.M. Fiction, which posits that Peter Buck was insistent about locking the band into a long-term record deal because he “predicted that the current massive commercial success for his band … was unusual in terms of how the industry operated, and might not endure.” R.E.M. subsequently signed a five-album deal worth $80 million, the largest deal ever awarded at the time, which gave them lifetime security right before alternative rock fell off of a cliff in the late ’90s.
33. “New Test Leper”
New Adventures In Hi-Fi also marked the point when R.E.M.’s positive relationship with the rock press started to turn sideways. Writing for Request magazine, Jim DeRogatis wrote a devastating profile that portrayed the band as pampered and disengaged millionaires who skillfully manipulated the media into overlooking their shortcomings, ultimately likening them to “corporate-rock behemoths like Aerosmith, Van Halen, Madonna, and Michael Jackson.” While uncharitable, that’s not a wholly inaccurate view of R.E.M. at their commercial peak. The overriding conclusion of DeRogatis’ piece was that R.E.M. possibly was at the end of their creative prime. This, again, wasn’t entirely wrong, though DeRogatis does underrate the quality of New Adventures, an album coincidentally (or perhaps not) obsessed with the media’s corrosive effect on American culture in the final years of the 20th century. This song is Stipe’s sharpest statement in that regard: “Talk show host was index-carded / All organized and blank / The other guests were scared and hardened / What a sad parade, what a sad parade.”
32. “At My Most Beautiful”
By 2000, Michael Stipe mused that R.E.M. was making music “for a radio market that doesn’t exist anymore. We are just completely out of step with what’s happening.” He could have been referring to this song, the third single from Up, their most successful allusion to Pet Sounds that was also completely out of place in 1999, the year that radio couldn’t get enough of “Smooth” by Santana and Rob Thomas. A delicate piano ballad with layered vocals and orchestration stood out that year like a blacksmith in Silicon Valley.
31. “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”
Of course, R.E.M. already felt out of place and somewhat uncool even when they were at the center of the rock world. Monster was interpreted as R.E.M.’s attempt to keep up with the grunge vanguard of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, even though those bands had already spent a good portion of their young careers trying to emulate R.E.M. But again, as it is with all things Monster, there is a meta-commentary about this “Losing My Edge” narrative built into the heart of the record courtesy of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”, a song later described by Stipe as being “about a guy who was trying really hard to ‘connect’ with a younger generation and just desperately failing at it.”
30. “Everybody Hurts”
Every legacy band has one very popular song that people dismiss because the culture has affixed so much distractingly corny baggage to it. This is that song for R.E.M., their big and grandiose power ballad about suicide. Michael Stipe on this song was a long way from mumbling and wallowing in obscurity. “Everybody Hurts” is about as clear, unguarded, and guileless as R.E.M. gets. It is a completely naked song about universal pain, and how we all need to be assured sometimes the holding on is better than letting go. You can hear and feel every single word that Stipe says, and the music is stripped back so much that you can’t really avoid what the song is about. That this sort of vulnerability makes people uncomfortable is obvious from the common urge to dismiss it or laugh it off. That is, until there is a moment in your life when you need to hear a song like this. And that moment will come, for reasons as plain and unavoidable as the song’s title.
29. “Find The River”
An interesting thought experiment is imagining how Automatic For The People would have turned out had Michael Stipe been in a different headspace. What if instead of being troubled by his grandparents nearing the end of their lives (as well as his dog being sick), he was keen to continue the sunny folk rock of Out Of Time? Based on the demos and outtakes collected on the 2017 box set, R.E.M. had the tunes to move in that direction. (Mills for one doesn’t look back on this period as a dour time for the band. In fact, it sounds pleasingly relaxed. “It was no problem for us just to wander down to the studio and hang out for a few hours. It was probably air-conditioned, which was better than half the other places in Athens in the summer,” he told me in 2017.) But Stipe was ultimately drawn to the most downbeat music to come out of those sessions, “very mid-tempo, pretty fucking weird… more acoustic, more organ-based, less drums,” as he explained to Rolling Stone. All of those descriptors could apply to the album’s closing track, “Find The River,” though the path of this questing song is out of the darkness and toward something resembling grace.
28. “World Leader Pretend”
Michael Stipe supposedly sang this song once in the studio, because he didn’t think he could top the original performance. But even better than his vocals are the lyrics, which were contextualized by Stipe as political but I read as an explication of the war that wages inside of all people between their best and worst selves that ends up negating their best interests. I guess that is a political message, but it’s political in a Leonard Cohen sense, not so much a call to action as a poetic expression of doomed fatalism laced with terrifying fear and loathing. “I divine my deeper motives / I recognize the weapons / I’ve practiced them well, I fitted them myself.”
27. “Wolves, Lower”
The first song on the first EP, an incredible burst of energy that justifies one of rock’s most egregious uses of unnecessary punctuation. Mike Mills’ once called Bill Berry’s drums on this song “orchestral,” and I’m not about to disagree with the man who plays bass in The Baseball Project about that one.
26. “Siting Still”
In his excellent Replacements biography Trouble Boys, author Bob Mehr occasionally brings up R.E.M. as a saner and less self-destructive point of comparison. Whatever R.E.M. did right from a career perspective, The Replacements did gloriously, spectacularly wrong, sometimes intentionally. But this contrast also applied to the band’s varying philosophies, especially for Paul Westerberg, who was guided by the very Midwestern chip on his shoulder to distinguish himself from Stipe in a dirtball sense. R.E.M.’s singer was “definitely more of an intellectual than myself,” Westerberg says in Mehr’s book, “so I’d play the guttersnipe to his more cultured hoo-ha.” Nearly 40 years later, these differences don’t really register, given that both bands were drawing from similar musical wells. In fact, I could almost imagine this song about wasting away your youth appearing on Let It Be, only with more references to erections and Gene Simmons.
25. “Pretty Persuasion”
But in the ’80s, some indie-scene people really did resent R.E.M. for their professionalism and careerism, precisely because these things elevated them above nearly every single one of their peers. The band themselves were aware of this and commented on it drolly. (Peter Buck called his band the “acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff.”) Also consider “Pretty Persuasion,” one of their earliest songs, and how much that combustible Peter Buck riff resembles jangly ’80s bands like The Plimsouls and countless others that few people remember now. Very few bands that sounded like this made it out of the ’80s. R.E.M. had to outlast a lot of bands in order to go the distance.
24. “Talk About The Passion”
Another all-time Peter Buck guitar lick. So much of the music on Murmur is muted and blurry, but that riff rings through with epic majesty.
23. “Radio Free Europe”
This song means literally nothing. Michael Stipe didn’t have the lyrics completed when it was recorded, so a lot of the words are just mush-mouthed nonsense. But figuratively “Radio Free Europe” means everything. On Murmur, its assertiveness stands out immediately. It feels like a party, and was in fact partly written in a party atmosphere. (According to Mills, “I wrote the verse and the B section on an unamplified electric guitar in a deserted record store while there was a party going on upstairs.” Buck later added the chorus.) Even if you can’t understand what Stipe is going on about, it is delivered like an anthem, and the “radio” reference in the title suggests an impending revolution of the airwaves. Which is exactly what happened in the wake of “Radio Free Europe.”
A kind of son of “Nightswimming” with a more spritely arrangement. It’s also R.E.M.’s best album closer, though Stipe originally hated it. Only after Thom Yorke called it the best song R.E.M. ever wrote did he agree to put it on New Adventures In Hi-Fi. It’s crazy that Stipe didn’t recognize how good his own lyrics were: “If you ever want to fly / Mulholland Drive / Up in the sky / Stand on a cliff and look down there / Don’t be scared, you are alive.”
21. “Feeling Gravitys Pull”
The most dramatic R.E.M. album opener. Peter Buck’s riff hits like a jump cut to a dead body. It sounds like a person saying “oh shit” through a guitar. A shitty goth-metal band should cover it for the next big horror movie trailer.
20. “Half A World Away”
Another instance of R.E.M. channeling their Led Zeppelin III side, with some excellent organ playing from Mills. I suppose this could be interpreted as a song about touring, sung from the vantage point of a band that was in the midst of its homiest period. But what I love about “Half A World Away” is how expansive it sounds, especially for a folk ballad. R.E.M. had the budget and time to make a big-time record with Out Of Time, and this song shows them embracing the possibilities. By the time the string section swoops in to lift up the mix of mandolins and harpsichords, “Half A World Away” has achieved full flight.
19. “Strange Currencies”
In the bizarre, not wholly successful but ultimately fascinating 2018 neo-noir Under The Silver Lake, this song and “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” are utilized as “oldies” that preoccupy the film’s schmucky, nostalgia-prone protagonist, played by Andrew Garfield. In the film, “Strange Currencies” plays a dual role as a romantic cue and a more insidious nod to some unhealthy obsessions at the heart of the story. These aspects are also apparent on Monster, the “oppressive creep” record populated by unsavory characters. Even if this song is sweeter than most on the album, the darkness still lingers.
18. “Binky The Doormat”
Recorded toward the end of the Monster tour, this track from New Adventures In Hi-Fi is one of their most moving from this era, though it remains under-recognized. The title references a supporting character from Bobcat Goldthwait’s deeply unpleasant 1992 “comedy” Shakes The Clown, about a misanthropic children’s entertainer who is framed for murder. Stipe’s lyric uses this as a starting point to paint a picture of subjugation and alienation, though the power of “Binky The Doormat” comes from the performance, captured at what was then known as the Desert Sky Pavilion in Phoenix. Simply put, they sound gutted, with Buck bashing out a strangled guitar line that booms and echoes off the cold amphitheater concrete. It’s the last stand of alternative rock right as it was about to die, taken by the band that did more than anyone to carry the revolution forward. It never fails to move me, this band yelling “go away” at 20,000 people as their wave was about to crash.
17. “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It”
Lester Bangs is the most famous rock critic because of Almost Famous first, and then this song. If not for Stipe referencing him as one of his “L.B.” celebrities — along with Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, and Lenny Bruce — I would have never read Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung. And I probably would have never become a rock critic, and this list wouldn’t exist. So you can either thank or blame this song for what you’re reading.
16. “Man On The Moon”
The most morbid footnote to Automatic For The People is that it was the album that Kurt Cobain had on when he took his own life. I wonder how far he got into the record. Did he make it to “Man On The Moon”? Built around a riff written by Bill Berry, “Man On The Moon” would practically be a country song if they had added a prominent pedal steel guitar. There’s also a spiritual element to “Man On The Moon” that’s unique to Automatic For The People — Michael Stipe is picturing Andy Kaufman in the afterlife, while also suggesting that immortality reduces the iconic and the forgotten people alike to the same status. It’s a tribute song to a legend about how we all ultimately end up in the same place. I don’t know if Cobain would have found that comforting or not.
15. “Near Wild Heaven”
The R.E.M. song I most want to live inside of. The aural equivalent of taking E and slipping into a warm bath.
14. “Begin The Begin”
The next three songs are all album openers, as R.E.M. knew how to do this as well as any American rock band. The first lesson R.E.M. teaches us is that putting the word “begin” is a very good way to tell people that the album is about to start. Using it twice is even better.
R.E.M.’s second lesson about album openers is that if you insist on not putting “begin” in the title, then you should start with a Bill Berry drum roll and then kick into one of your fastest paced songs buoyed by a sneaky-funky Mike Mills’ bassline.
The third lesson is that you can completely disregard the first two lessons, and in fact do the opposite. “Drive” suggests forward movement, but the music is deliberately lethargic. (The basic track was laid down in New Orleans late one night after the bars closed.) If you follow R.E.M.’s advice, and then do the opposite, you will end up with one of the best side 1, track 1’s ever.
11. “Losing My Religion”
This should have been the first track on Out Of Time, and not the previously derided “Radio Song.” (I know I’ve already offended all “Radio Song” lovers all there so let me say this: I appreciate that R.E.M. attempted this! They were bridging the rap and alt-rock subcultures. This is noble! But two of the 10 worst R.E.M. songs feature rappers. Anthrax was just better at this.) “Losing My Religion” points again to the classic-rock leanings of Out Of Time; the conflation of personal and political strife over an easygoing folk-rock backing track is pure Jackson Browne, with maybe a dash of Hotel California Eagles. And like The Eagles, R.E.M. became enemies of the church because of this song. (At least that was true of my church — a visiting youth pastor railed against “Losing My Religion,” along with the Satanic backmasking that supposedly existed on Led Zeppelin and Queen records. This is the one time in my life that R.E.M. was considered dangerous.)
10. “The One I Love”
R.E.M.’s first big hit, which is probably why (along with The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”) it is the most misinterpreted “love” song in the alt-rock canon. Try to think of a lyric that’s meaner than “a simple prop to occupy my time.” When you put “this one goes out to the one I love” right after, it actually makes that line worse. But the most amazing thing about “The One I Love” is how Stipe’s performance makes you forget how few words there are in this song. Each time he repeats the same verse, his vocals infuse the words with new meanings — there is hatred in this song, but also guilt and loss and even tenderness. But, yeah, if someone calls you “a prop” in a loving voice, it might be time to move on from that person.
9. “Country Feedback”
Speaking of incredible Michael Stipe vocal performances, “Country Feedback” is him in exorcism mode. So much R.E.M. music is distinguished by craftsmanship, often honed over the course of years. But “Country Feedback” hits hard because it’s improvised and sounds like it. Over hazy, woozy music that sounds like a bull slowly dying of a heart attack, Stipe opens himself up with a pained, impassioned performance. Again, he works the same phrases over and over again — “I need this!” — turning them inside and out, exploring every emotional possibility, until the only destination is utter desolation.
8. “Perfect Circle”
R.E.M. started playing this Murmur classic frequently on the Up tour as a tribute to the recently departed Bill Berry, who wrote the melody. Along with “Everybody Hurts,” it’s the most celebrated song associated with Berry, though “Perfect Circle” also is a song to me about an idealized friendship from the past that didn’t last but continues to resonate for years afterward. (“A perfect circle of acquaintances and friends / Drink another, coin a phrase” evokes pretty much every happy memory I have from between the ages of 18 and 23.) For Murmur, they recorded it with two slightly out-of-sync pianos, giving “Perfect Circle” an unusual musical flavor melding classical and ragtime music that makes it sound about 40 years older than anything else on the record. From the beginning, it was song that was “out of time” and mysterious.
7. “Fall On Me”
Stipe once claimed this song was about acid rain but then he retracted. (Apparently it’s about general “oppression.”) To me, “Fall On Me” was really about the beautiful interaction of Stipe and Mills’ voices. Of all the songs where they function as co-lead singers, this is my favorite. (Though you can’t discount Berry buried deep in the mix, singing “it’s gonna fall.”)
6. “Try Not To Breathe”
Automatic For The People is such a heavy and profound record about mortality that it’s easy to forget how young they were when they made it. They were rock stars in their early and mid-30s, at the absolute peak of their profession, and yet Stipe was writing about taking control of the manner in which you will die. This is perverse! It’s like Van Halen following “Jump” with an album of Leonard Cohen covers. This is a gorgeous, mid-tempo track with a country-rock guitar lick and dreamy backing vocals from Mills in which death is addressed matter-of-factly, as something that just happens to you, rather than as a vague philosophical quandary or existential threat. That sort of insight seems to me like a miracle of empathy; John Prine’s “Hello In There” is the only song to which I can compare it.
5. “Driver 8”
“I can write that kind of stuff in my sleep,” Peter Buck once said of “Driver 8,” a “mid-tempo, minor-key rock thing” that he claimed the band tried to avoid replicating as it moved into the ’90s. If this is what they can write in their sleep, then I wish R.E.M. had taken more naps in the latter half of their career. Perhaps what Buck meant is that “Driver 8” is probably the most quintessentially R.E.M.-sounding R.E.M. song ever. Everything about it is extremely on the nose when it comes to their sonic signifiers — Stipe’s slightly twangy vocal, Buck’s arpeggio guitar, Berry’s snappy rhythm, and Mills’ vocal counterpoint. But in order to be on the nose, you have to find the nose. And if you love the R.E.M. sound, it doesn’t get more foundational than “Driver 8.”
4. “Sweetness Follows”
This is the song I want played at my funeral. I might also put this lyric on my tombstone: “It’s these little things, they can pull you under / Live your life filled with joy and wonder / I always knew this altogether thunder / Was lost in our little lives.”
3. “These Days”
My platonic ideal of a “fast” R.E.M. song. I love the opening line, which is a classic Stipe-ian threat/non-sequitur. (“Now I’m not feeding off you / I will rearrange your scales.”) It has one of my favorite R.E.M. choruses, though I can’t understand a word. (Apparently it’s “all the people gather, fly to carry each his burden,” when I thought it was “all the people gather, flyyyyeragehisbrrr.“) Mills, of course, is amazing on the backing vocal. The band overall plays hard and reckless but always stay in control. This is the hardest R.E.M. rocked but they never jeopardize the melody. They simply rearrange the scales.
One of the greatest songs ever written about memory and longing. “Nightswimming” is about remembering a formative moment so clearly and vividly that you can almost re-experience it, and the pain of knowing that the gap between what you can imagine and what is lost forever is narrow but ultimately insurmountable. It’s also about the beauty of Mike Mills playing the in-house piano at Miami’s Criteria Studios — the same one used for the coda of “Layla” — and the incredible string arrangement by John Paul Jones designed to finally send the few hardened souls who haven’t already started crying to “Nightswimming” reaching for the tissue boxes.
1. “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”
Ranking R.E.M. songs is extremely difficult! I can’t think of another band with so many potential “greatest song ever” choices. I don’t think they have an obvious “winner” like most bands do. I’ve considered every song in my top 25 to be my number one favorite at some point. The bench is really that deep!
But I ultimately had to go with “So. Central Rain” because it is the first tune that immediately comes to mind when I think of R.E.M. This song is R.E.M. to me — Peter Buck’s ringing introductory guitar lick, Bill Berry’s unflashy but insistent drumming, Mike Mills’ melodic bass and yearning backing vocals, and Michael Stipe’s opaque lyric and heart-rending vocal. Whatever musical and emotional landscape this song exists in belongs solely to R.E.M. And it still belongs to them. So many artists have followed in their footsteps but R.E.M. still owns this lane. In the end, they hung around long enough — putting out records that were at least good and often great for the better part of 30 years — to witness the birth of alternative rock, its tremendous growth and subsequent domination, and then eventual fade. R.E.M. is not just a chapter in the book about American indie music, they are an entire volume. A document, as they might put it, that is always a pleasure to revisit.