Best tunes of 2011: #22 R.E.M. “ÜBerlin”

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A couple of days ago I posted a tune from the era that is arguably R.E.M.’s apex for my Best tunes of 1991 list and today I present my favourite tune from the end of their career. “ÜBerlin” was the third single released off the American alternative rock band’s fifteenth and final album, “Collapse into now”. And yeah, it’s awesome.

R.E.M. had just come off one of their most successful albums in years, 2008’s “Accelerate”, and during the tour in support of it, all three members had independently decided that it was time to go out on a high note. With this in mind, they recorded their last album, knowing that these sessions would be the last time they would perform together. Then, they broke up officially, six months after its release. There are apparently hints throughout the record that this would be it but if the clues are there, I never heard them. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t want to hear them. I remember first listening to “Collapse into now” and falling for it, much like I did “Accelerate”, and thinking “They’re back”. I had lost interest in the band in the 2000s, feeling that they had stopped challenging themselves, though I am sure that’s not the case. Regardless, I didn’t hear a lot to be excited about on those years. So imagine my disappointment when I learned R.E.M. were done after being lured in by them all over again.

As I mentioned above, “ÜBerlin” was not just my favourite on the album but likely my favourite of their tunes for a decade or so. It’s because it feels so personal. Peter Buck’s acoustic strum and pluck is pushed forward in the mix, closely shadowed by Mike Mills’ bass, the tricky-tack drum beat and organs just add ambience. It’s a crowded coffee house, mugs are clinking and baristas are busy steaming milk but Stipe is there, in the corner with his stool, and his band in the shadows. It’s German noir, black and white, save for a red technicolor balloon. And this is hope. A hope that everything will be okay in the absence of R.E.M.

Five years later and I’m still not so sure but at least we have a recording like this to soothe us.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2011 list, click here.

Best tunes of 1991: #13 R.E.M. “Losing my religion”

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R.E.M.’s “Out of time” was a massive hit for the band in 1991 and many, the band included, would chalk up the amount of units sold to this one song: “Losing my religion”. I’ve already posted words on thIs great tune in these pages when it appeared on my Top Five R.E.M. Tunes post a year or so ago. So I’ll try not to tread the same ground too much here.

I definitely spent a lot of time with “Out of time” that year, having just recently become a fan of their music. I can remember listening to it on constant repeat while stripping the wallpaper from our upstairs hallway. Hot water, a sponge, and a scraper. It was a crappy job that was made slightly easier by the lightness and jangle of the album and of course, I always got that burst of energy whenever it came round to “Losing my religion” again.

It’s not super upbeat or high energy but there is something bright about and at the same time, it’s dark. It’s quite different for a hit pop song in that it leans heavily on the mandolin to keep it afloat. In fact, the whole thing is built around a riff Peter Buck came up with while fiddling around, trying to learn how to play the instrument. If you listen to everything on offer here, you’ll realize that the bass line and drums are mostly simplistic, taking a back seat to mandolin while it jumps around and jangles, much like Buck’s guitar would on any other R.E.M. song. Orchestral strings and hand claps were added to fill the midground between the Buck’s noodling and Mills’ bass and to give it more oomph.

Stipe’s vocals are mostly understated and plaintive, singing words that sound more deep and existential than they are meant to be. Of course, the religious imagery in the award-winning video doesn’t help to clear things up any. Stipe has tried to help things along, though, explaining that the title is an expression that basically means losing one’s shit and that the song is really just one of obsession, much like “Every breath you take”.

“Every whisper
Of every waking hour
I’m choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I set it up”

The great thing about their songs is that you can choose to adapt their original meaning or choose your own adventure. This tune, however, is so ingrained in all of us. It’s timeless and beautiful. It’s R.E.M.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.

Best albums of 1987: #2 R.E.M. “Document”

Athens, Georgia’s R.E.M. may be a household name in most circles these days but when they released their fifth studio album in 1987, they were just getting started. This was to be the band’s final album on indie label I.R.S. before jumping to the majors the following year. It was their first time working with Scott Litt as producer, a collaboration that would carry them through their most successful years, right up to 1998. He helped pick them up where they left off, further cleaning up the production work they did on “Life’s rich pageant”, and took them into rock and power pop territory on “Document”, scoring the band their first hit single in the process.

I distinctly remember when “Monster” was released in 1994, the raw fuzz and rock was like a kick to the head. After the mandolin heavy, folk-influenced rock of “Out of time” and “Automatic for the people”, it was easy to forget that R.E.M. was originally a rock band. Slipping “Document” on every once in a while can be a good reminder of this fact. Indeed, there’s a bit of anger here but it’s restrained, Michael Stipe showing some politics and Peter Buck giving us reason to believe in rock beyond the hair metal prevalent at the time.

There’s a lot of good music on “Document”, some of R.E.M.’s best, but this album deserves to be remembered for more than just the songs. It is about how it positioned the band to be huge, critically and commercially, and was an important cog in the push for college radio rock to the mainstream, laying the groundwork for the alternative rock explosion later on. My three picks for you from this album might be obvious to you, they certainly were to me, but here they are nonetheless. Enjoy.

”Finest worksong”: “The time to rise has been engaged.” Yes indeed. That pretty much says it, right there. I’ve read that as soon as they wrote and recorded this tune, the band knew it was going to be the first song on the album. A blaze of guitar precedes the aforementioned opening line, likely requiring a volume adjustment on the stereo a moment after pressing play, up or down, depending on your age. But it’s not just the guitars that are aggressive here. The drums are muscular, the bass provides another melody layer, and of course, Stipe is just belting it out. This is rock! This is a very fine final single with which for R.E.M. to bow out on their indie career. Turn it up and play it again.

”The one I love”: During my last couple of years of university, I shared an apartment just off campus with two friends, Meagan and John, and we regularly hosted get-togethers/drink-ups that went late into the night. Invariably, as the party was winding down, our friend Terry would pick up Meagan’s acoustic guitar and strum out a few tunes, appeasing our requests if he knew the songs. It took him a while but he eventually figured out that we always asked for “The one I love”, just to hear him drunkenly struggle with hitting the high “Fire!” note in the chorus line. Still, he always appeased us. The song was R.E.M.’s first hit single and deservedly so, but it was mostly because people mistook the song as a love song. It’s like we chose not to listen to Stipe past the opening line and ignore: “This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind, a simple prop to occupy my time.” Or maybe the pop hook and simple song structure had us all fooled. Great tune, nonetheless.

”It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)”: “That’s great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, and aeroplanes. And Lenny Bruce is not afraid.” This is easily my favourite R.E.M. tune and it was comfortable in the top spot when I unleashed My Top Five Tunes by the band last October. In that post, I recounted a story of debated lyrics, something I’m sure happened quite a bit with the band, prior to this album and its predecessor, when Michael Stipe’s singing was more mumbling and was placed lower in the mix. On this track, he is relatively clear. It’s just that he’s throwing a lot at us. Rambling off a litany of historical disasters and pop culture references, he piles it all up like a precarious Jenga tower that wobbles and trembles with the just as rapid-fire guitars and drums. And if it does all fall apart, R.E.M. is fine with this and so should we be. Because we can just press play again. The music video is worth mentioning too, given that it doesn’t show the band at all, but a teenager hanging out with his skateboard in a house in shambles. And this always reminded me of the abandoned house near our high school, to where we would sometimes sneak off during our spare periods in our latter years. We imagined ourselves in some ravaged post apocalyptic world, instead of a house ravaged by ignorant teens like ourselves, and not unlike like that miscreant in the video. I can’t say this enough though: Incredible tune.

Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Dead Can Dance “Within the realm of the dying sun”
9. Spaceman 3 “The perfect prescription”
8. The Jesus And Mary Chain “Darklands”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Jane’s Addiction”
6. The Sisters of Mercy “Floodland”
5. The Cure “Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me”
4. U2 “The joshua tree”
3. The Smiths “Strangeways, here we come”

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