Archive for September, 2011

R.E.M. Songs: My Favourite 25

September 23, 2011

R.E.M. are now remembered as a stadium rock act, who inexorably downscaled into an arena rock act, but it’s important to remember that they started life as the USA’s answer to The Smiths: the leading lights of a burgeoning post-1977 indie scene. They introduced the world to brilliant underground acts such as Minutemen, Husker Du and the Replacements and (for better and worse) they created the template for “college rock”. Just listen to Pavement’s tribute ‘The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence’ and you’ll begin to understand the impact R.E.M. had on a large group of literate kids in such of an alternative to the mainstream.

When picking my favourite 25 R.E.M. songs, I could have picked almost all the tracks from Murmur, Reckoning and Life’s Rich Pageant, because they are all nigh-on perfect albums. Murmur in particular is a masterpiece: Stipe’s vocal delivery is mumbled and impenetrable, Buck’s guitar work is beguiling. Even 30 years on it sounds like it’s from another world. Fables Of The Reconstruction is flawed, but still utterly beguiling. I know it’s perceived as churlish and contrary to prefer their early stuff, but in the case of R.E.M. it’s almost impossible not to choose the early stuff. Bypassing the more popular stuff, doesn’t mean bypassing the best pop stuff, because all of these albums contain some of the band’s best pop songs. Fall On Me, Little America, (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville, So Central Rain, Radio Free Europe, Cuyahoga: these are all gorgeous pop songs, somehow both complex and devastatingly simple at the same time.

Having said all of that, just because R.E.M. went on to become megastars does not mean that the quality dropped. Document, Green, Out Of Time, Automatic For The People (a masterpiece that has suffered from over-exposure) and New Adventures In Hi-Fi are all fine albums (Monster is possibly unfairly maligned, but is still definitively not a fine album). However, for me, they don’t have the same sense of visceral excitement as the run of albums from Murmur to Document. I haven’t included anything post-New Adventures, despite a few decent songs (Imitation Of Life, The Great Beyond, Hope, Lotus). Up was ok, Reveal was meh, Around The Sun was “gah!” and the last two contained the dreaded phrase “return to form”, but didn’t deliver. R.E.M. just weren’t the same once Bill Berry left.

Anyway, enough blather: these are my favourite 25 R.E.M. tracks.

1. Harborcoat [from Reckoning] – This song perfectly sums up early R.E.M. for me. Jangling guitars, bewildering lyrics full of beautiful and desolate imagery (it appears to be about the decaying of Bolshevik Russia, but really it defies logical explanations) and the bewitchingly evocative line: “There’s a splinter in your eye and it reads ‘react’”.

2. E-Bow The Letter [from New Adventures In Hi-Fi] – It’s a perfect dirge. From Patti Smith’s sultry and seductive backing vocals, to Peter Buck’s perfect guitar parts, Mike Mills glorious bass line, Michael Stipe’s gorgeous imagery. Beguiling and glorious.

3. Fall On Me [from Life’s Rich Pageant] – R.E.M.’s greatest pop song. The lyrics were some of the first to begin to address Michael Stipe’s interest in environmental politics, though they remained vague and elliptical.

4. Country Feedback [from Out Of Time] – Michael Stipe’s personal favourite, this is an absolutely heartbreaker. It reminds me of Neil Young circa On The Beach and Peter Buck’s melancholic guitar part is, for me, his best.

5. Nightswimming [from Automatic For The People] – Sentimental without ever being mawkish, this is a lovely lament for the end of summer, serving as a bittersweet allegory for that feeling of moving out of the prime of your life.

6. Pilgrimage [from Murmur] – My favourite song from the perfect ‘Murmur’, it starts with a distant-sounding snippet from the chorus, before the verse’s distinctive rolling piano and bass line starts up. The lyrics are elliptical, but conjure up a disconcerting mood: “Rest assured this will not last/Take a turn for the worst/Your hate, clipped and distant”. The middle-eight is 60s pop perfection. A stunning song from a stunning album.

 7. Little America [from Reckoning] – A travelling song, seemingly about the state of the USA, with Stipe as the voice of America’s moral conscience: “Jefferson! I think we’re lost”. In fact, according to the band, the line was not actually about the founding father, but about their van driver, Jefferson, who had got them lost.

 8. Cuyahoga [from Life’s Rich Pageant] – A paean to the natural world, this is a lament to the environmental destruction being wreaked by people. It’s also hugely optimistic as to what community can achieve, without being shallow, facile and nausea-inducing (Heal The World, anyone?).

 9. Finest Worksong [from Document] – Unashamedly populist and probably the most overtly political song R.E.M. ever wrote. It’s seemingly a celebration of union power, with the great line: “What we want and what we need has been confused.”

10. So. Central Rain [from Reckoning] – A song about the inability to communicate, that manages to communicate everything with the simple refrain of the chorus: “I’m sorry!”. Beautiful

11. Radio Free Europe [from Murmur]

12. Feeling Gravity’s Pull [from Fables Of The Reconstruction]

13. Electrolite [from New Adventures In Hi-Fi]

14. Begin The Begin [from Life’s Rich Pageant]

15. You Are The Everything [from Green]

16. These Days [from Life’s Rich Pageant]

17. Perfect Circle [from Murmur]

18. 7 Chinese Bros. [from Reckoning]

19. (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville [from Reckoning]

20. Find The River [from Automatic For The People]

21. Let Me In [from Monster]

22. Exhuming McCarthy [from Document]

23. Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars) [from Chronic Town EP or Dead Letter Office]

24. Hyena [from Life’s Rich Pageant)

25. We Walk [from Murmur]

A selection of songs that didn’t quite make the cut, which I absolutely adore: The One I Love, Gardening At Night, Drive, Imitation of Life, Man On The Moon, Maps & Legends, Moral Kiosk, Half A World Away, Talk About The Passion, Low, World Leader Pretend, Driver 8, Leave, The Great Beyond, The Flowers of Guatemala, Life & How To Live It.

If you want to take a listen to these songs (including those that missed the cut), I have created a playlist on Spotify, which I will post on Twitter and Facebook.

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