R.E.M. is one of the most prolific, influential, and respected American rock bands of the past three decades. It's no wonder everyone knows the song "Losing My Religion": the music is heartbreakingly beautiful and the lyrics cut deep. Michael Stipe's voice is absolutely unique, and when R.E.M. was completely in sync and on top, their originality was unstoppable.
So it saddens me that people seem surprised when I tell them that R.E.M. is my favorite band.
"I can understand liking them, but I don't know anyone who would say it's their favorite
band," they often say.
"Well, what songs do you know?"
"Losing My Religion,' um, 'Everybody Hurts,' 'It's the End of the World as We Know It'...I think that's it."
"Did you know that they made, like, fifteen albums?"
It's not just the sheer volume of material that's impressive, though: when you have a band as talented as this group making so much art in so little time, chances are great that a lot of quality music will be overlooked. After all, how many hit singles can one album have? If Automatic For The People
hadn't had "Man On The Moon" and "Everybody Hurts," you can bet that "Sweetness Follows" and "Monty Got A Raw Deal" (and even the sometimes-radio gem "Drive") would have impressed listeners just as much.
I suppose it's the nature of classic rock radio to play the same three selections from a band ad nauseum, even if that band is legendary (just look what they did to Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones). If that's the only way R.E.M.'s music will be passed on, I'm inclined to say that it's better than nothing. And don't get me wrong: their hit songs are top notch, and deserve the attention they receive. But it's too bad that after all these years, the legacy of the Athens, Ga. natives, the founders of American alternative rock, boils down to just a few tracks. And what makes it worse is that the popular rock of today has its roots back in the 80s cerebral college country rock scene, and nobody knows it.
Today, on the 30th anniversary of Murmur
, the little record that started it all, I want to share with you the secret R.E.M. - the songs that never made it to mainstream radio, the songs that made me a fan. Who knows? They might do the same for you.
[Note: some singles are certainly more well-known than others, and I am not claiming that "songs you already know" are in any way inferior. Additionally, you may already know the songs that often seem, in my experience, overlooked. This tribute is meant to introduce you to the best R.E.M. songs out there, no matter what level of knowledge you have now. Additionally, this article will only discuss the catalogue up until 1998. But that's a subject for a whole different article.]
The song you know: "Radio Free Europe"
The song you should hear: "Perfect Circle"
Amidst the jangly strumming and mumbled poetry of the fast-paced debut comes an anomaly way ahead of its time. The lyrics are annunciated but inscrutable, the mood strange but evocative. It's a fitting start for a band that would transform the face of alt rock.
The song you know: "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville"
The song you should hear: "Letter Never Sent"
This is a song that also came before its time: its minimal part-chords predate Sleater-Kinney and Sonic Youth's take on this type of shoegazing major-key punk.
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
The song you know: "Driver 8"
The song you should hear: "Feeling Gravity's Pull"
This song sounds like Stravinsky tried his hand at New Wave. The dissonant strings, ominous chords, and the vocals that build and pull you along with tentative anxiety still sound edgy today. This is what brought the sound of bands like Television into the next era of rock.
Life's Rich Pageant (1986)
The song you know: "Cuyahoga"
The song you should hear: "Swan Swan H"
This haunting song seems like a precursor to their later sound, with its plucked mandolin and symphonic accordion accents. It also helps us understand why Colin Meloy loves covering R.E.M.
The songs you know: "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", "The One I Love"
The song you should hear: "King of Birds"
was the album that brought the band from the US underground to world recognition as "It's the End of the World as We Know It" became a late-80s anthem. The rest of this super-political album, unfortunately, is often overlooked. This song's gentle but persistent marching beat, Stipe's knack for interesting lyrical rhythms, and the gorgeous string work make it a lesser-known classic.
The song you know: "Orange Crush"
The song you should hear: "You Are the Everything"
I'll admit that there's some personal nostalgia at work here, since this song is literally about being sleepy in the backseat of a car, and that's probably where I first heard it as a kid. As an adult, though, I appreciate it as a love song about devotion and the beauty of tiny moments. If you don't get around to the other under-the-radar tunes, this is one you can't skip.
Out of Time (1991)
The songs you know: "Losing My Religion", "Shiny Happy People"
The song you should hear: "Country Feedback"
Michael Stipe recorded just one take of this song: he walked into the studio with some notes on a paper, and proceeded to sing those lyrics and improvise the rest in perhaps the most raw desperation ever captured on tape. He has said that it is his favorite R.E.M. song, ever.
Automatic for the People (1992)
The songs you know: "Everybody Hurts", "Man on the Moon", "Nightswimming"
The songs you should hear: "Try Not to Breathe", "Find the River"
How do I even begin to express my love for this album? I never skip a single song when I listen to it (and we're talking hundreds of listens over my lifetime), and it seems to me today to be as dynamic and relevant as ever (in case you couldn't tell from the singles that made it to public memory). "Try Not to Breathe" could be about suicide or just the feeling of needing someone to trust that you know what's best for your fucked-up life, and "Find The River" is the most beautiful ode to herbs ever written.
The song you know: "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?"
The song you should hear: "Circus Envy"
The intensity of this song about jealousy and abuse sneaks up on you, and that whole Strokes/Hives garage rock revival has nothing on the raw power of these chords.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
The song you know: "Electrolite"
The songs you should hear: "Leave", "Be Mine"
I included "Leave" on a recent list of personal liberation songs, but if you missed it, make sure to listen now. "Be Mine" is a love anthem, plain and simple. Like the "Book of Love" of the 90s, it's the kind of song you want to sing up to your lover's balcony.
The songs you know: "Lotus," "At My Most Beautiful"
The song you should hear: "Hope"
R.E.M.s foray into electronic music after the departure of drummer Bill Berry is remembered with bitterness, since the quality of their albums deteriorated. But to me, Up
still has that unmistakable naked sincerity and avant-garde pop genius that always made them great. In the liner notes, "Hope" is partially credited to Leonard Cohen: it's an homage to "Suzanne" in the setting of hospital delirium and fervent prayer. It's no surprise that Up
was overshadowed by OK Computer
in 1998 (everything was), but this song remains a chilling and inspirational electronica ballad, and an important step into the music of the next millennium.