An indictment of U.S. involvement in Latin America, “Welcome to the Occupation” is an unnerving examination of oppression and mistrust. Peter Buck’s tense guitar and Bill Berry’s martial drums give “Welcome to the Occupation” an atmosphere akin to a police state, which results in a riveting but also very bleak track.
After the tranquil beauty of Automatic for the People, R.E.M. turned up their amps for the follow-up record, Monster. This lead single announced very loudly that they were ready to rock, although Stipe’s paranoid lyrics undercut the track’s headlong fury by painting a portrait of a fictional character who is starting to lose his mind.
R.E.M. may be known for their edgy love songs, but “At My Most Beautiful” is one of their most heartfelt. Stipe sings about the challenges of long-distance love affairs and the pleasures of quiet intimate moments, while the background vocals conjure up the loveliness of the Beach Boys at their most beautiful.
R.E.M. dabbling with country, “So. Central Rain” demonstrated what an exquisite voice Stipe possessed. And as R.E.M. trivia buffs know, this was one of two songs the band played during their first appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, the other being “Radio Free Europe.”
As R.E.M.’s profile rose, Stipe began writing lyrics that offered hope to disenchanted listeners. The most moving of these was “Everybody Hurts,” the band’s unabashedly pop ballad about the need to hold on during tough times. Its embrace by mainstream audiences who normally wouldn’t dig an R.E.M. song annoyed the group’s longtime fans, but its soulful, gorgeous orchestration remains a thing of beauty.
On the band’s second full-length record, R.E.M. delivered what sounded like a love-gone-wrong song. With Stipe’s and Mills’ voices wrapping together in a web of chaos and angst, “Pretty Persuasion” hurtles along as it tells a story of disconnection and missed opportunities. Even if you can’t quite figure out the lyrics, Buck’s driving guitar is easy enough to understand.
R.E.M. have written songs for film soundtracks on occasion, but their best is this 1999 contribution to Man on the Moon, the Jim Carrey biopic about ‘70s comedian Andy Kaufman. A sequel of sorts to their “Man on the Moon,” which was about Kaufman and gave the film its title, “The Great Beyond” features the more electronic sound that was a highlight of the group’s 1998 album Up.
With an assist from master Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, R.E.M. proved that Monster was going to be a rock album with this gnarly ode to sexual insecurity and desperate lust. The album as a whole deals with desire and identity, but it was rarely as stirring as on this air-guitar beast.
The gem that concludes 1992’s Automatic for the People, “Find the River” is a deceptively simple acoustic track about embracing the future’s uncertainty. Using rivers and oceans as metaphors for life’s journey, Stipe takes the listener under his wing, explaining how we all need strength and courage to brave the perils of daily life. It’s a resonant, inspiring message, and the song’s gentle but resilient melody only reinforce its spirit.
During the early 1990s, R.E.M. were at the peak of their commercial powers, seemingly able to make hit songs about anything they wanted. Perfect example: “Man on the Moon,” a song about deceased avant-garde comedian Andy Kaufman that’s almost folk-rock in its construction. But beyond its obvious allusions to Kaufman, the tune is also a wistful ode to the slow, inevitable passage of time.