R.E.M.’s brief, but sudden, split announcement on their website was a strange moment in my life. Formed in early 1980, R.E.M. were the only band that I love that had existed (and had stayed together) since the day I was born. I first became aware of R.E.M. in the early 90s. A friend owned Automatic For The People and told me how good it was. After listening to it, I had to agree. Released in 1992, it was the first rock album that I became a fan of, and coupled with the birth of Britpop in 1994, it steered me from an embarrassing life of listening to terrible ‘happy hardcore’ dance music.
Automatic For The People was R.E.M.’s 8th studio album, and as my interest in guitar music grew, I discovered their earlier albums, such as Document and Reckoning, as well as enjoying their subsequent albums. Although it can be argued that their most of their best music was released in the 80s, they hit their critical and commercial peak after signing with Warner Bros. Records for 1988’s Green album. Their sound became bigger and more ambitious, and they even attempted to join the grunge scene with 1994’s Monster (which featured Let Me In, an ultra-heavy distorted tribute to Kurt Cobain).
As the 90s turned into the 00s, the band seemed to lose their way, with Up (1998), Reveal (2001) and Around The Sun (2004) being less well received than their albums in the previous ten years. But 2008’s Accelerate felt like a return to form, and this year’s Collapse Into Now was generally well received, with many people believing it to be their best album in over a decade.
But after 31 years together, and 15 studio albums, it’s not a surprise that Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck have decided to go their separate ways. They could have split in 1995, when drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm on stage. Although he made a full recovery, he had lost his passion for drumming, and retired from the band.
So now that R.E.M. are no more, I’ve decided to compile a list of 10 of my favourite R.E.M. tracks. This is by no means a definitive list, as I could easily select another 20 songs that I love.
Leave (New Adventures In Hi-Fi)
Leave is probably one of more unusual tracks R.E.M. ever wrote. It initially appears to be a brief, gentle instrumental, but after pause, it bursts into life with what sounds like a fire alarm blaring over a beefed up version of the previous riff. It’s probably the nearest the band ever came to a ‘dance’ track, and New Adventures In Hi-Fi could be their most experimental record.
The Great Beyond (Man On The Moon Soundtrack)
In 1999, Milos Forman directed a movie about comedian Andy Kaufman called Man On The Moon. The title was taken from one of R.E.M.’s most famous songs, itself written as a tribute to Kaufman for Automatic For The People. The band were invited to write the score, and wrote several songs which were performed by an orchestra. The Great Beyond is the only new track performed by the band and became their biggest UK hit, reaching number 3.
Finest Worksong (Document)
Document was R.E.M.’s final album for IRS Records before they joined Warner Bros. and is now regarded as one of the finest albums of the 80s. Finest Worksong opens the album with a blast, with Stipe declaring that ‘The time to rise has been engaged’ as if commanding R.E.M.’s fan to make themselves heard.
Turn You Inside Out (Green)
Another of R.E.M.’s heavier tracks, Turn You Inside-Out appeared on Green, the band’s first album with Warner Bros. Backed by Peter Buck’s big riffs, Stipe tells an unknown agitator that he chooses not to turn him inside out, but he definitely could if he wanted to. The song appeared in Grand Theft Auto IV, as one of the tracks on the Liberty Rock radio station’s playlist.
What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? (Monster)
The first single from the band’s heaviest album, What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? began with a big riff from Peter Buck before Mike Mills and Bill Berry joined in. Because of Stipe’s obscure lyrics, it is unclear what the song is actually about, but what grabs the attention most is the accompanying video for the single. Mike Mills is wearing a flamboyant ‘Nudie suit’, while Peter Buck plays a guitar given to him by Courtney Love, which belonged to Kurt Cobain, upside down (due to it being left-handed). The video also marks the debut of Stipe’s shaved head.
Low (Out Of Time)
Despite featuring the horrible Shiny Happy People, Out Of Time is still one of R.E.M.’s best albums. Low is an under-rated track that starts off slow and understated. Stipe’s lyrics have a strange menace behind them as he seems to sing to a departed lover, or someone he’s grown apart from. Sandwiched between the more upbeat (musically) Losing My Religion and the previously mentioned Shiny Happy People, Low is a song that will grow on you the more you listen to it.
Man On The Moon (Automatic For The People)
One of the band’s most well known songs; Man On The Moon is about Andy Kaufman and the idea that the moon landings were faked. Regularly a highlight of the band’s live set, Stipe would scream ‘Cool!’ after ‘Then nothing is cool’. The song was used as the title of the Jim Carrey starring Kaufman bio-pic, and the song appears on the soundtrack.
Blue (Collapse Into Now)
The final track on the band’s final album, it is their second collaboration with Patti Smith, following E-Bow The Letter from New Adventures In Hi-Fi. A dark, brooding track, it features laconic vocals from Stipe and Smith and included the lyric that gave the album its name. Lenny Kaye also contributes guitars. The song ends with a reprise of the riff from album opener Discoverer.
Radio Free Europe (Murmur)
Radio Free Europe was the band’s first single, and the first track on Murmur, their debut album. Stipe has previously admitted to the song’s lyrics being ‘complete babbling’, something which would be a regular occurrence during the band’s career. Despite it being their first single, it gave R.E.M. a trademark sound, one that could always be recognised in at least one song on each of their albums.
The One I Love (Document)
A failure to listen to the lyrics properly has lead to The One I Love becoming a song regularly dedicated to loved ones on the radio. This despite Stipe proclaiming the one he loves to be a ‘simple prop to occupy my time’. The chorus is simply Stipe yelling ‘Fire!’ but is never-the-less a thrilling moment in the band’s career.