R.E.M. shocked the world by announcing their breakup on September 21, 2011. Since the release of their first EP in 1982, the band have been one of rock’s most critically acclaimed bands, blending enigmatic lyrics and adventurous guitar-driven music that has encompassed everything from pop to country. By the late ‘80s, they also become commercial successes, eventually figuring out how to make left-of-center tunes for the masses. Picking their 40 greatest songs is no easy feat, but here’s one man’s take on R.E.M.’s embarrassment of riches. If you disagree with my picks, sound off in my forum and let me know.
The late 1980s were a fertile time for politically-conscious songs, and R.E.M. were certainly one of the most outspoken bands at the time. “Orange Crush” is a bruising rock song told from the perspective of a soldier heading off to war. Boasting a powerful, barrel-chested delivery, “Orange Crush” pumps up its antiwar message to arena-sized heights.
1983’s Murmur is a gentle, mysterious album, but its final track revealed R.E.M.’s darker side. “West of the Fields” is characteristically dreamlike, but the crisscrossing vocals between frontman Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills during the chorus suggest sleep riddled with anguish and worry, and Peter Buck’s angular guitar only adds to the track’s palpable tension.
One of R.E.M.’s most underrated songs, “What If We Give It Away?” is a simple, breezy tune about learning to live with frustration and stagnation. But more importantly, this 1986 track’s acoustic arrangement and indelible melody hinted at the breakthrough successes R.E.M. would have on later albums that further exploited this lethal combination of sound and hook.
2001’s Reveal is a gauzy, sun-draped record, and this gossamer single captures the mood with offhand elegance. Gorgeous and wistful, “All the Way to Reno” may not have as pronounced a hook as R.E.M.’s bigger hits possess, but its graceful spirit is impossible to shake.
1988's Green was the band’s first record for a major label, so how did they celebrate the occasion? By opening with an ironic dance song. “Pop Song 89” finds Stipe addressing a long-lost friend whom he can’t quite remember, and the lyrics’ intentionally pointless conversation starters and non-sequiturs openly mock the idea that “pop songs” have any intellectual content at all.
On “Get Up,” R.E.M. subvert the lyrical trope of getting up and seizing the day by delivering a song about all the challenges life brings once you get out of bed. “Dreams, they complicate my life,” Stipe sings, as the background vocals respond, “Dreams, they complement my life,” suggesting that our waking and sleep states are really just two sides of the same unhappy coin.
R.E.M.’s first record, 1982’s Chronic Town EP, was a moody, mysterious five-track introduction to the band. (Later, the EP would be included as part of the 1987 Dead Letter Office B-sides collection.) “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)” is a highlight of this early period, catching Stipe muttering evocative phrases while the band lock into a bouncy groove.
Bassist Mike Mills is known for his remarkable backup vocals, but on Out of Time he handled the lead for “Near Wild Heaven,” an impossibly sunny track that has a bittersweet edge to it. Mills sings about being near wild heaven, but not near enough, and his beautifully melancholy voice fills the song with all the poignancy it can bear.
In their later years, R.E.M. featured several songs that reached out to lost souls, and this New Adventures in Hi-Fi tune is one of the band’s most insistent in that vein. Stipe addresses someone who’s living his or her life recklessly in the vain hope of recapturing some sort of past happiness, and the fevered guitars and organ mimic the lyrics’ desperate urgency.
On an album that was meant to signal their return to straightforward rock music, “Supernatural Serious” was a perfect first single, full of booming guitars and catchy hooks. And in classic R.E.M. fashion, this Accelerate tune also became a rousing cry for community that had an indelible sing-along chorus.