Best tunes of 1992: #3 R.E.M. “Nightswimming”

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“Automatic for the people”.

It was indisputably R.E.M.’s finest hour and I’m not just talking commercially. Sure, the album spawned six singles and went gold and platinum for sales in pretty much every country. However, it was also universally acclaimed. And for very good reason: There’s not a single bad track on the album.

For me, though, and as I mentioned back when I wrote about “Sweetness follows” when it came in at the number twenty spot on this very list, it’s the less obvious tracks, not the hit singles, that have become my favourites on this album. And yes, I know. “Nightswimming” was actually released as a single but I didn’t actually know that until about three years ago when I wrote the piece counting down my top five favourite R.E.M. tunes on which this song appears at the number two spot. I am thinking that the single might not have gotten a wide release here in North America because it didn’t make the charts here, only placing in England and Australia, and a track this great should definitely have placed, given the chance.

It was originally recorded as a demo for “Out of time” but was used instead for the following album. The original recording had Michael Stipe singing over top Mike Mills’ piano and was augmented by a string arrangement put together by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, along with a forlorn oboe to seal the deal. Mills’s piano doesn’t meander or dance or tiptoe. Instead, it eddies in place, like a whirlpool to get caught in, a bit of danger that might be heightened if the swimming hole was ventured upon at night.

“Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
The photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago”

The penultimate track on “Automatic for the people” is a quiet wonder, Mills and Stipe without Buck and Berry. A song about memories and remembering. A track that brings back many memories. Many of them driving in a car at night. In the city. On a backroad. Memories that are mine and memories that aren’t mine. But could be.

“Nightswimming, remembering that night
September’s coming soon
I’m pining for the moon”

There’s a sadness in Stipe’s lyrics and in his plaintive voice. Perhaps there’s regret in those memories, a sentiment never expressed, a kiss never stolen, a nakedness needlessly covered up. Yet there’s also the heavy weight of nostalgia, the excitement of youth lost forever. It’s something one can never forget. And never should.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1992 list, click here.

Best tunes of 1992: #20 R.E.M. “Sweetness follows”

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If you were alive back in 1992, you knew R.E.M.’s  “Automatic for the people”. If not the whole album, at the very least, one of or a handful of its six (!) amazing singles.

I had already become a fan of R.E.M. by the time it was released, having discovered them with 1988’s “Green”, bought a copy of 1991’s “Out of time”, and gone back to explore their back catalogue, I was eagerly awaiting this album’s release. When I originally heard the first single, “Drive”, I knew we were in for it. And we definitely we. Now more than 25 years after its release, it is easily considered their finest hour. It was also a huge commercial success, selling millions upon millions worldwide and obtaining platinum status, in some cases multiple times over, in more than ten countries.

It was the singles that I loved from the beginning and they were definitely great but I’d be hard-pressed to point out a weak song on the album. And nowadays, it’s the less obvious that have stuck with me and become favourites. Case in point is today’s focus, “Sweetness follows”. It was never released as a single and is almost hidden on the album at track six, just behind the lone instrumental tune on the album. But it is there nonetheless. Beautiful.

I think its inclusion on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla sky”, almost a decade later, was what did it for me. The film itself wasn’t wonderful, a Hollywood remake of an excellent Spanish film, and starring Tom Cruise, but the soundtrack was a masterpiece. Glancing at the names, you might be forgiven for calling it eclectic. Listening to it, especially as a backdrop to the film, is a whole different experience and it almost saves the film, giving it its overarching mood and surreal feel. This song’s appearance late in the film was a pleasant surprise but while watching it play out, I realized that I may have not ever listened to it properly before that moment.

The reverberating and distorted cello shares a space with an acoustic strum, a sustained organ wash, and of course, Stipe’s inimitable vocals, forelorn, sad, and lost. It is all about death and loss and darkness and of course, the sun rising after the bleakest of nights, washing away the dread and sadness and the most heart-wrenching of nightmares.

“Oh, oh, but sweetness follows.”

Yep. Beautiful.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1992 list, click here.

Best albums of 1988: #4 Pixies “Surfer rosa”

It was my friend Tim that introduced me to the Pixies, though I didn’t get them right away. They were just so radically different from the AM radio I was still transitioning from at the start of the 1990s. But he definitely tried. Every mixed cassette tape I got from his direction included a Pixies track (along with a Mission and a Sisters track, but those are other stories) so I got used to seeing their name. One Friday night, during my weekly ritual of watching and recording music videos off MuchMusic’s City Limits, I pressed the Record button and added the video for “Alec Eiffel” to my collection. It was this knee jerk reaction to a band name I recognized that became my gateway to the now legendary quartet from Boston.

I shortly thereafter bought a used copy of their second long player, “Doolittle”, which I now love unconditionally. However, the debut album took me much longer to appreciate. Perhaps even a decade, I couldn’t tell you now how long I held out but it all seems silly now, given that I hold all four of their original albums with such reverence. “Surfer rosa”, though, was a game changer. David Lovering, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, and Black Francis let their don’t give a shit attitudes carry over from from their first ever recorded release, the mini-album “Come on pilgrim”, mixing punk, surf-rock, and whatever else they pleased into their incendiary noise. It is seen as a template for what 90s alt-rock would eventually become, not just for the sheer brashness of the music but also its iconoclastic production, netting future jobs for Steve Albini with artists like PJ Harvey and Nirvana.

So for an album that didn’t sell particularly well (taking decades to reach gold status), it is quite an influential one and one that sits high on many best rock album lists, even winning over many of the critics that didn’t quite get it at the time. And though the whole album has become ingrained in my musical fabric, I still have my favourites and I’ve included them here in my three picks for you.

”Bone machine”: “This is a song for Carol.” Except that it’s not, it’s really a song about sexual deviancy in a few forms. Namely, molestation by priests (“I was talking to preachy-preach about kissy-kiss”) and infidelity and possibly, nymphomania (“Your blistered lips have got a kiss, they taste a bit like everyone”). The opening track on the album, “Bone machine”, is discordance personified, pummelling drums, punished guitar strings, screaming and yelping and carrying on. And then, they just pause everything while Black and Deal harmonize sweetly together: “Your bone’s got a little machine.” Oh, the Pixies.

”Gigantic”: “Gigantic” was the only single to be released off the album and happens to be the second longest track on an album of short bursts of adrenaline. It was one of only two tracks not sung by Black Francis in all of the Pixies’ catalogue and bassist Kim Deal, who did sing it, also co-wrote it with Francis. It is also remarkable for its muscular and big bass line that sets the tone and feel. Deal’s vocals are a case in contrasts, see-sawing between soft and delicate and violent rage, especially when she is joined by Francis at the choruses. Everything I’ve read suggests the song is about a married women watching a teenaged black man making love to another woman and fantasizing that it is happening to her. “Gigantic, gigantic, gigantic / A big, big love.” No, their lyrics aren’t irreverent at all.

”Where is my mind?”: If it wasn’t iconic beforehand, it definitely was after it was used to soundtrack the final moments of 1999’s “Fight club”. Indeed, “Where is my mind?” was never released as a single and yet it is considered one of the band’s best known songs. Francis has said that the song was inspired by a scuba diving experience but true to form, there definitely seems to be a lot more going on here than just talking to fish under water. It’s all very surreal and confusing and the music doesn’t help to steady the ship. Discordant (there’s that adjective again) and topsy-turvy, Santiago’s electric guitar line rolls over and over like crashing waves while the acoustic guitar stands timidly in its shadow. Lovering’s drum is big and sparse while Francis’s vocals range from soft coos to yells and yelps and Deal adds her echoing howl throughout. Wonderful stuff.

Check back next Thursday for album #3. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Sugarcubes “Life’s too good”
9. Erasure “The innocents”
8. Billy Bragg “Worker’s playtime”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Nothing’s shocking”
6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man”
5. R.E.M. “Green”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.