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: #5 R.E.M. “Green”

R.E.M.’s sixth album “Green” was the first album I owned by the band. In fact, this album’s second single, “Stand”, was my introduction to R.E.M.. I distinctly remember watching a music video show, though I can’t recall now whether it was a countdown or not, and the video for “Stand” being played in the same segment as Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy”. (If that song gets stuck in your head today, I’m truly sorry.) I bought the album shortly afterward on cassette tape, but not just your run of the mill cassette. No. It was a ‘metal’ cassette, whatever that means. I likely paid a few extra dollars for that adjective too. Did I notice a difference? I was fourteen or fifteen, so likely not. Indeed, the only reason I remember this piece of trivia at all is that I still have said ‘metal’ cassette tape amongst my ‘things’ in a box in the basement.

“Green” was R.E.M.’s first album released on major label Warner Bros., having fulfilled their contract with I.R.S. the previous year. It was the second album of five produced by Scott Litt, a run of albums that can easily be considered R.E.M.’s glory years. It was the first album to introduce Peter Buck’s use of the mandolin, which would later be used as a basis for some of their biggest hits. So yeah, they were still being experimental and provocative on a major label and yet they saw greater success with the money backing them. The album hit both the US and UK album charts, saw a couple of hit singles, and went double platinum in the states. Perhaps the commercial success was related to those singles, which are easy to pick out from the album, sounding as if the band made a concerted effort to write hits, a possible concession to their label for allowing them such creative freedom.

It was these singles that definitely drew me to R.E.M. but I grew to love all of “Green” with repeat plays. As I mentioned above, this was my gateway to their excellent back catalogue and kept me coming back for future albums throughout the 90s. Two of my three picks for you are from these hit singles and the other, well, it’s a personal fave.


”Stand”: “Stand in the place where you live. Now face north. Think about direction. Wonder why you haven’t before.” The chorus of “Stand”, words which I’ve sung along with countless times, never wondering what they were all about, are, according to Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, among they stupidest and inane the band has ever come out with. Perhaps subconsciously this is why I’ve never thought too hard on them. Yeah, the song which introduced me to the group was purposely crafted to sound on par with the pop songs they loved from the 60s. It’s no wonder, then, that it’s so infectious and catchy. (Maybe not to the degree of “Don’t worry, be happy”. Whoops. Sorry.) The beat and melodious guitars just beg a hop and wriggle dance, not unlike the one featured in the video.

”World leader pretend”: Even before I learned that track five on side one was Stipe’s tribute to Leonard Cohen, I loved the tune. The wordplay, like on many R.E.M. tunes, is great, but particularly so here. “This is my mistake. Let me make it good. I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down.” The inner turmoil and internal war-waging game is strong and we are left guessing whether he wants to correct his mistake or make it a real doozy. Likely, it’s a bit of column A and a bit of column B. The instrumentation has always appealed to me on this song too, the pedal steel and cello further dampening the melancholy with a fresh run of tears. And Stipe nails it, resting his vocals on the low ledge, tentative and introverted.

”Orange crush”: “Stand” was a huge hit for the band but it wasn’t their first. “Orange crush” was the advanced promotional single and it was massive. Widely misunderstood, which is definitely not hard with Stipe’s purposefully vague lyrics, it is an anti-war song. And the hints are there, from the sampled military cadence and shuffling of boots to the machine gun guitar riffs and drum rhythms. The title is a reference to Agent orange (not the soda drink), a chemical weapon that was used indiscriminately during the Vietnam war, which brings a whole other level of hurt to this line. “I’ve had my fun and now it’s time to serve your conscience overseas (over me, not over me). Coming in fast, over me.” Heart breaking and beautiful and still with that R.E.M. jangle and shine.


Check back next Thursday for album #4. 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”

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