Though their previous album, 1988’s Green, can be counted as a commercial success, R.E.M. was still largely dismissed as a college rock band more known by the 120 Minutes set than the mainstream. That would all change with 1991’s Out of Time, and its hit single, “Losing My Religion.”
More than a career-making breakthrough, however, Out of Time helped to define a transitional phase in rock music, leading alternative music to the top of the charts while paving the way for the grunge revolution with its less contemplative lyrics and more severe sound. Eventually, groups like Alice in Chains, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam started to surpass groups like R.E.M. (at least for the moment), allowing Out of Time to take on another meaning, as the possible last gasp of the underground rock era.
On the 25th anniversary of its release today, Out of Time is still an immensely listenable affair and its importance should be celebrated. And so, with that in mind, we decided to rank the 11 songs on this immortal alt-rock classic.
“Belong” is a character study of a woman brought to the brink of a nervous breakdown by an unnamed news event who clutches her child close in an effort to steel herself and regain her composure. Although the song’s melodic wailing chorus from Michael Stipe and Mike Mills is haunting, the song feels oddly disconnected from the rest of the album.
Throughout the 1990s, countless mixtapes wrapped up with this gentle track as warmly as a parting farewell handshake to a friend. Here, Stipe belts out nonsense sing-song words, allowing the track’s lush instrumentation to take center stage. On the cassette version of Out of Time, “Endgame” was the final song on the so-called “Time Side” (with the other being the “Memory Side”). This is brilliant placement, as the tune’s reflective nature offers brief solace from the heavy emotions that dominate the rest of the album.
Given Michael Stipe’s dynamic persona, it’s easy to forget that R.E.M. contained another vocalist. This album afforded Mike Mills the opportunity to really step into the spotlight, with this track being his finest moment. As rustic as the environs from which it took its name, the song — whose melody and lyrics were also created by Mills — spins a yarn about a redemption-seeking man desperate for another shot. “Catch me if I fall,” wails Mills throughout the song, and you can and will be waiting to do just that.
8. “Shiny Happy People”
Easily the most divisive song in R.E.M.’s entire catalog, “Shiny Happy People” is, depending on your point of view, the group’s foray into disposable bubblegum pop or a cloying, insidious earworm that was the early ’90s equivalent of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Regardless of your opinion on the song’s merits, it’s difficult to not, at least, be charmed by the guest vocals from Kate Pierson of The B-52s, whom R.E.M. knew from the Athens, Georgia music scene.
7. “Radio Song”
For this heavy-handed condemnation of Top 40 radio, R.E.M. enlisted the help of Boogie Down Productions’ KRS-One to sing a closing rap verse about how “now our children grow up prisoners/ all their life radio listeners.” This song seems dated to the point of quaintness now that music fans have more options than ever to individualize what they listen to. Then, there’s the delicious irony of this being the fourth single released from Out of Time, issued at a time when R.E.M. owned the airwaves and had become the very thing they are criticizing here.
It’s worth noting that R.E.M. again attempted to incorporate rap into their music — with much greater success — by featuring A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip on “The Outsiders” from their underrated 2004 effort, Around the Sun.
A powerful song of frustration and loss, “Low” is a song whose impact isn’t immediately evident thanks to it being buried in the track-listing behind the juggernaut that is “Losing My Religion.” Michael Stipe’s lyrics here seem more personal — “I skipped the part about love/ it seemed so silly,” he muses — than the usual ambiguousness that he was known for, foreshadowing the heart on the-sleeve nature of the subsequent Automatic for the People LP.
By the time he angrily declares “you and me/ we know about time” just before the sad resignation that closes the track, listeners have discovered “Low” for what it truly is: The album’s secret weapon that exposes how devastating heartache can be.
5. “Near Wild Heaven”
It’s unclear exactly how much R.E.M. listened to Pet Sounds while crafting this summery slice of pop bliss, but I’m guessing it was a considerable amount. Mike Mills again delivers lead vocals here, marking the first time that an official R.E.M. single was released without Stipe being front and center. Sure, this is a lightweight track compared to the heaviness that will define the rest of this list but that’s more than okay. Sometimes you just want to drive around on a nice day and let music put the nastiness of life far from your mind. And when songs like this one can accomplish such a thing, why that’s near wild heaven, indeed.
4. “Half A World Away”
“This could be the saddest dusk I have ever seen.” Those words kick off “Half a World Away,” a devastating, if somewhat oblique, focal point from Out of Time. Hinting at a relationship gone wrong due to issues ranging from alcohol to physical and literal distance, Stipe’s mournful vocals are heightened by the happy musical dirge accompanying them. This cacophony of organs, harpsichords, and violins swirl into a stew of acceptance that the protagonist’s dreams will remain forever out of reach on the horizon.
3. “Me In Honey”
The closing track on Out of Time, “Me In Honey” is a melodic rocker in which yet another one of Michael Stipe’s lovelorn characters attempts to make sense of his life. Yet there seems to be not only hope, but glimpses of recognition, that to be head over heels or caught in honey, as the song would have it, is just as thrilling as it is daunting. The group once again enlisted the help of Kate Pierson to provide background vocals here, with her stirring vocals giving the song an added layer of sexiness.
2. “Losing My Religion”
This was the song that changed everything for R.E.M. In a mere 4 minutes and 28 seconds, the group went from being underground darlings to mainstream rock sensations. Despite some misguided grumblings from longtime fans who felt the group sold out by becoming successful with this track — a complete fallacy given how nontraditional of a pop hit it is — the general consensus was that the group had unveiled a masterpiece.
It helped that the accompanying video was a heavily rotated monster directed by Tarsem Singh that used imagery from Caravaggio and religious texts to convey its otherworldly mood. (Stipe’s frenetic dancing was pretty memorable too). The clip helped R.E.M. dominate the year’s MTV Video Awards, a ceremony at which Michael Stipe’s seemingly unending parade of T-shirts with political messages on them only got the band more attention.
But even with the airplay and marketing push that “Losing My Religion” received, it would have all been for naught if it wasn’t a great song to begin with. Beginning with Peter Buck’s mandolin strains and concluding with Stipe’s final tortured declaration of, “but that was just a dream, dream” the song is an absolute oddity about longing, heartbreak, and obsession that is still as striking as it was 25 years ago.
1. “Country Feedback”
Still the saddest thing that R.E.M. has ever recorded, “Country Feedback” is nothing short of shattering. More than just another somebody done somebody wrong song, this epic is an analysis of how it feels to be empty inside yet still filled with pain, rage, and sorrow. Here Stipe’s delivery alternates from a wounded hush in which he reflects on how everything from the 1970s self-help technique EST to physics were used to try to help resurrect a dead relationship. As all over the place as the lyrics are, what they represent perfectly is the scattered mindset of someone so consumed by loss. So when Stipe eventually and inevitably screams, “I need this,” you can’t help but reflect upon your own experiences with similar pain.
As you can see above, Michael Stipe refers to “Country Feedback” as his favorite song. In terms of real emotion, this one delivers like no other R.E.M. song before or after. So I more than agree with his sentiment.