Years active: 1980 – 2011
Michael Stipe (lead vocals) 1980 – 2011
Peter Buck (lead guitar, mandolin, banjo) 1980 – 2011
Mike Mills (bass guitar, keyboards, backing vocals) 1980 – 2011
Bill Berry (drums, percussion, backing vocals) 1980 – 1997
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
Out of Time (1991)
Automatic for the People (1992)
New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
Around the Sun (2004)
Collapse into Now (2011)
I would imagine, if you are reading these words, that you are not completely in the dark about R.E.M., the group, the music, and their impact on modern rock. But just in case you are, I’ll flesh out the quick facts from up above. Formed in 1980 in Athens, Georgia as a quartet, they lasted 31 years and ended things up as a trio, losing their full-time drummer to health issues along the way. They’ve released 15 studio albums in all, along with 16 compilations, selling a total of 85 million records worldwide, and were inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame in 2007. They were one of the first “alternative rock” bands and have influenced pretty much every group from that genre worth listening to.
My own first exposure to the group came after the release of their major label debut, “Green”, in 1988 and I saw the video for “Stand” on the Chum FM 30 countdown. I bought the cassette tape and wore it out, later replacing it with the compact disc. When I started transitioning my tastes from pop music to alternative, as the 80s gave way to the 90s, I decided it was still “cool” to like them and I began to explore more and more of their back catalogue. But it was the two albums that followed “Green”, during the period that they took off from touring, that I consider my favourite of their many ‘periods’ in the career. And I know that I am not alone here, but really, how can you argue with “Out of time” and “Automatic for the people”?
Speaking of the latter, we just passed the 25th anniversary of that great album’s release date a few days ago. In celebration of such an auspicious occasion, the album is due to be re-issued next month in a deluxe CD box set format, as well as a new pressing on 180 gram vinyl. Given that “Automatic for the people” is my all-time favourite album by the band, I jumped right on the pre-order wagon and am not-so-patiently awaiting the record’s delivery. The anniversary is also what prompted this particular post, in a sense. Though in truth, I’ve been working on putting together this list of my top 5 songs of R.E.M. for months but have been in serious procrastination mode, given the difficulty I’ve been having settling on just the five out of the great depth and wealth of their tracks.
As always, after reading about my picks, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below. Do you disagree with my choices? If so, what are your five favourite tunes by R.E.M.? Go ahead and choose your own. It’s not an easy task, I promise you.
The top five:
#5: Leave (from “New adventures in hi-fi”, 1996)
An ex-girlfriend got me a copy of “New adventures in hi-fi” on CD for my birthday. Otherwise, I might not have purchased it as soon as it came out. It had felt like decades had past since “Automatic for the people,” instead of just four years and lots had happened, both to R.E.M.’s sound and to my tastes. I didn’t listen to it right away and when I finally did get to it, nothing immediately grabbed me. But it was a slow grower. And this track is like a poster boy for the album as a whole, a song that on first listen, is annoying with that fire alarm guitar motif acting as a cover for the beauty of the song. I think it took hearing the alt. version of the track at Dance Cave one night (check it out here) for the song to really click. But where that one is shorter and quieter, I do prefer the album version for its length and boiling rage. The roaring and foreboding guitars threaten to overtake Stipe’s vocals but he doesn’t let them here, very much needing to be heard. So much emotion in all that sound.
#4: Orange crush (from “Green”, 1988)
From the files of misheard lyrics humour, I freely admit that for many years, I thought that when Michael Stipe sang, “Follow me, don’t follow me, I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush”, I thought that he was saying: “I’ve got my sprite, I’ve got my orange crush”. Sure, I thought it was strange to be singing about soda pop but I was young and full of shrugs. Of course, I know now that it is an anti-vietnam war song, the “orange crush” referring to a chemical weapon agent and the rapid fire drum beat that I loved to shuffle my feet to on the dance floor was meant to resemble machine gun fire. And sure, armed with the real meaning, the helicopter sounds and the marching chants towards the end of the tune make a lot more sense. But knowing their intent doesn’t change what a great pop song this is and didn’t at all ruin my love for dancing to it.
#3: Losing my religion (from “Out of time”, 1991)
I feel like this is the song that changed everything for R.E.M. It was their highest charting single up to that point and the video (seen below) was on constant rotation on all the music channels. It really is a brilliant tune. Not so obviously pop with its heavy leaning on Peter Buck’s mandolin and seemingly rambling and nonsensical lyrics, but the straightforward beat, string flourishes, and handclaps made it pretty catchy. But don’t let the name or all the religious imagery in the video fool you. According to the group, it’s a tune about unrequited love. And you can almost hear the pleading in Stipe’s vocals as he sings about the largesse of life, the lengths he will go to and the distance in her eyes. Really? Who is this woman that can resist that delicate mandolin and Michael Stipe’s one of a kind vocals? I’m projecting here, of course, assuming it’s a woman, but whoever it is, whatever it is, this feeling of being left like a lost fool is universal and now we have an anthem for us all to get behind.
#2: Nightswimming (from “Automatic for the people”, 1992)
“Automatic for the people”. As mentioned above, my absolute favourite of their albums, but also considered by a great many others to be the band’s best. ‘Dark and brooding’, it’s called. But I disagree, preferring ‘contemplative’ as a descriptive. It has its happy moments, as well as its sad, but it’s all very thought-provoking. “Drive”, “Man on the moon”, “Everybody hurts”, “The sidewinder sleeps tonight”, “Sweetness follows”, the list of great tunes goes on and on. I could have easily filled this top five list with songs from this one album (but that wouldn’t have been very representative). And yet, I chose “Nightswimming”, the penultimate track, a quiet wonder, a tune I didn’t even know was released as a single until I started writing these words. Why? Because it’s brilliant. It’s use of piano and strings is so anti-guitar rock and so anti-everything that was popular music in 1992. Michael Stipe is the star here, singing so lovely and waxing nostalgic about the end of summer and swimming naked by the moonlight. It’s all so real that the memory feels like its mine. A song I could listen to forever and not grow tired of its beauty.
#1: It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine) (from “Document”, 1987)
…On the other hand, this is a song that I feel like I have been listening to forever and has many real memories attached to it. One of these happens to have been formed in that year I took off between high school and university and I was having pints after my shift in the bar I worked at for few months. I got to talking with a gentleman a number of years older than I was (and probably quite a bit drunker that night) and we talked a lot about music, some of which I knew, some of which I would discover over time. At some point, this particular track came over the speakers and my “friend” started singing along. But when he got to the line, “Lenny Bruce is not afraid”, he insisted that “Lenny Bruce is not insane”. I didn’t argue with him for long because he just kept getting louder about it and of course, at the time, there was no such thing as google or wikipedia, so I just ordered us both another round of pints and joined him in singing the incorrect line. And really, with a song this great, so rocking and energetic, a rhyming off of historical moments and figures at a frantic pace, trying to get it all in before the end, what’s one wrong lyric? Cheers.
For other top five lists in this series, click here.