Sunday, June 19, 2016

R.E.M. Top 10

I was given the task of capturing an R.E.M. Top 10 at our last meeting... I took it rather seriously unlike when I was (apparently) asked to do a Madonna Top 10.  I actually have no recollection of that but might be into it.  Let's see how this one lands first.  There's also a companion Spotify playlist out there for you to listen along as you read.  Enjoy!!

R.E.M. Top 10

‘Fall on Me’ (“Life’s Rich Pageant” – 1986)
Why it ranks:  This was the first R.E.M. track that got me.  It made me sing along, made me think, made me want to know every lyric Michael Stipe ever wrote.  It is classic R.E.M. from a sound, composition, and cryptic messaging perspective.  By sound and composition I mean Peter Buck’s ability to set a tone with a few opening chords while Mike Mills and Michael Stipe’s vocal volleys bounce over Bill Berry’s steady beats.  As for cryptic messaging, R.E.M. songs do not typically hit you over the head with what they are about.  You often find yourself saying “Yeah, I know what this song’s about, it’s ______. “ Followed up quickly by “…isn’t it?” In this case, the song is generally about oppression but other interpretations could be spot on too. There are a few tracks in the R.E.M. catalog where the band themselves do not even know what they are on about.  Love that and this quintessential R.E.M. song.

‘Driver 8’ (“Fables of the Reconstruction” – 1985)
Why it ranks: R.E.M. were alt country before alt country was a “thing”.  Did they create the genre?  At a minimum they defined it for a new era and though at the time it got labeled ‘college radio’, would we have a Whiskey Town or a Wilco if the boys out of Athens, GA did not pave a path?  Me thinks no.    
See Also:  ‘Don’t Go Back to Rockville’;  ‘So. Central Rain’

‘The Great Beyond’ (“Man on the Moon” Soundtrack – 1999)
Why it ranks:  R.E.M. have a dropped a number of movie references during their career but their Andy Kaufman work stands out, most especially this track.  Just as Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is a follow up to ‘Space Oddity’, ‘The Great Beyond’ is a follow up to ‘Man on the Moon’.  I would argue it has the same level of stunning success.  This is R.E.M. topping R.E.M.!
See Also:  ‘Let Me In’ (Kurt Cobain as inspiration); ‘E-Bow the Letter’ (River Phoenix as inspiration); ‘Monty Got a Raw Deal’ (Montgomery Clift as inspiration)

‘Sitting Still’ (B-side Single - 1981)
Why it ranks:  One of the first songs they wrote as a band, this was also their first single.  OK it was the B-side to their first single but for me it is better than the A-side.  Consider this:  There are no drum machines and no synthesizers.  It was 1981 folks; “Bette Davis Eyes” dominated the charts the summer this single dropped.  HELLO!  Some of R.E.M.’s defining sounds are captured on this first single; right out of the gate they seemed to have something distinctive.  A distant lead vocal, indiscernible lyrics (this is one of those songs that the band themselves cannot really articulate what it is about), the harmonies, the guitar.  This B-side leaves a mark in just over three minutes.  Three minutes that, unlike the A-side, did not call for re-recording when the full-length album was produced.
See Also:  ‘Radio Free Europe’ (the A-side)

‘Orange Crush’ (“Green” – 1988)
Why it ranks:  Different sounds, new instruments, collaborations, more political messages, bigger shows… ‘Green’ marked a creative shift for R.E.M..  Allegedly Michael Stipe did not want “R.E.M. type songs” on this outing.  The intention was to be “uplifting”.  How does a song about the Vietnam War manage to meet that intention?  That is part of their genius!  I will also confess there is a bit of nostalgia with this ranking.  My first concert?  The Green World Tour, spring break, 1989, at the L.A. Forum.  Michael Stipe brought this track to life by actually using a handheld electric megaphone during the bridge.   Talk about leaving a mark on an impressionable teenager from North Dakota… I remember it as if it were yesterday.
See Also:  ‘Crush with Eyeliner’, ‘The Lifting’

‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight’ (“Automatic for the People” – 1992)
Why it ranks:  R.E.M.’s ability to counter what are often “heavy” or “message” songs with joyous toe tappers is one of the things I love about them.  ‘Sidewinder’ is the best of those moments for me.  Perhaps in part because it is on one of their most critically acclaimed, pretty somber albums.  “A.F.T.P.” delves into some deep areas: suicide, loss, ageing, and family.  The tone of this track, especially getting to hear Michael Stipe’s laugh, breaks through the darkness so sweetly.  Some say it is a bit too much light relative to the rest of the albums tone, but whatevs.  It serves as a great example of the bands ability to channel light.
See Also:  ‘Superman’; ‘Get Up’

‘Bang & Blame’ (“Monster” – 1994)
Why it ranks:  Typically the weight on an R.E.M. album comes from a serious message.  On “Monster” the weight comes from darkness.  The rough sounds, creepy feel, the characters Michael Stipe created to express his state of mind, even the treatment of his voice were a departure from previous outings.  It is all a reflection of a tumultuous time for the band and resulted in my absolute favorite of their albums.  Skyrocketing success, media scrutiny (including intense speculation about Michael’s sexuality and health), the death of close friends. It all drove a harder sound that pushed the band’s limits and creativity.  ‘Bang & Blame’ feels and sounds like the sum of it all. 
See Also:  The entire “Monster” album; ‘Bittersweet Me’, ‘Lotus’

‘Me in Honey’ (“Out of Time” – 1991)
Why it ranks:  “Out of Time” brought the band and the mandolin (via ‘Losing My Religion’) to the mainstream.  It was a pop breakthrough moment of sorts and I would be lying if I said I did not struggle with the transition.  To be clear though, unlike U2, R.E.M. evolved they did not sell out. ;-)  ‘Me in Honey’ demonstrates that so well.  How? A song about unwanted pregnancy (written as a counter point to 10,000 Maniacs ‘Eat for Two’, from their 1989 album “Blind Man’s Zoo”) that carries the distinct sound of fellow Athens, GA indie Kate Pearson… That’s no “let’s get some airplay” mainstream sell out attempt.  It is stick to your indie roots creative muscle.
See Also:  ‘Radio Song’ (feat. KRS-One), ‘Photograph’ (feat. Natalie Merchant)

‘At My Most Beautiful’ (“Up” – 1998)
Why it ranks:  On their first outing as a trio (Bill Berry left the band in 1997) R.E.M. still managed to deliver.  This track was an effort to 1) be as Beach Boys as they could be and 2) pen an outright love song.  Despite what you see on this list, some of my go to R.E.M. songs actually do come from the bands later albums.  It is the artistry of this particular track that feels like a real achievement though.  Thus it is the one trio era track to land on the list.
See Also:  ‘Untitled’, ‘Leaving New York’, ‘I’ve Been High’

‘Find the River’ (“Automatic for the People” – 1992)
Why it ranks:  It has already been noted that “A.F.T.P.” as an album carries some weight.  Maybe that is where some of the critical acclaim comes from but that is not what drove two of its tracks to appear on this Top 10.  There was R.E.M.’s ability to channel light that got ‘Sidewinder’ on the list.  On ‘Find the River’ it is their ability to channel hope that is the driver.  Somehow hope rises up out of the melancholy.  It is something R.E.M. has a great knack for doing and I always feel that sense of hope when I listen to this song. 
See Also:  ‘I’ll Take the Rain’, ‘Nightswimming’, ‘Walk Unafraid’