they rode mainstream success and were praised by their peers for maintaining their identity and individuality. with minor exceptions, they avoided the tumultuous tabloid lifestyles of being rock and roll stars. they inspired a new generation of artists, including the arguably two most influential bands of the nineties, nirvana and radiohead. today, their legacy can still be heard, most clearly in the decembrist's excellent the king is dead (literally: r.e.m. guitarist peter buck plays on two tracks)
i've been a fan of their since the early nineties, when they were the biggest band in the world and i needed something cooler than they might be giants to listen to (i was in junior high.) since then, i have collected every album of theirs. according to itunes, that amounts to 47 albums and 296 songs, many of which are rarities, b-sides, and infamous Christmas singles.
so, they've finished their career and you're* wondering where to start in discovering the wealth of music they created. a few years ago in a darkroom, i realized that r.e.m.'s career could be rather cleanly divided into pre-popular, popular, and post-popular eras. at one time or another, i think every album of theirs has been my favorite. follow me:
their full-length debut album (the five-song chronic town was their first release), this is often cited as one of the defining albums of the independent rock movement. to me, its most noteworthy feature is simply that it's the start of it all. "radio free europe", which opens the album, is the most well-known song on here and was a staple of college radio way back when.
- song to buy off itunes: "shaking through"
this continues where murmur left off. jangling guitars and incomprehensible lyrics carried on, and "south central rain" can still be heard on quality alternative radio stations today.
- song to buy off itunes: "(don't go back to) rockville," one of their best that was still played in concerts two decades later.
this is where the golden age of r.e.m. starts, according to some purists. the album carries some classic gems, such as "driver 8" and "life and how to live it." their indefinable sound continued to evolve, with cryptic lyrics and a sound that was more organic than the 80s new wave happening around it.
- song to buy off itunes: "wendell gee"
this is the album that hipsters wanting to discover classic r.e.m. own. 101.9 would often play "superman", the closing highlight here, but it's solid from the start. "cuyahoga" begins to show their political initiative, while "i believe" contains the typical southern energy of early r.e.m.
- song to buy off itunes: "fall on me." it's just the best.
new label, new sound. things are clearer, you can understand more of michael stipes lyrics, and they're rocking out a little more. "strange" is just loud and fun, while "exhuming mccarthy" continues their activism against a republican government. and good eats host alton brown worked as the cinematographer on "the one i love" possible the most mistaken love song of the era.
- song to buy off itunes: "exhuming mccarthy," because, if you're reading this, you already own "it's the end of the world as we know it."
after this, they toured the world for nearly a year. they were big and getting bigger. "orange crush" continued to rock against political agenda, the eponymous orange a reference to agent orange, the chemical used in the vietnam war. there was space for more fun, too, with "pop song 89" and nostalgic relaxation in "you are the everything."
- song to buy off itunes: "stand." yes, it's the most famous song off of here, but that doesn't mean it can't be the best, too.
worn out from a year of play around the world, they slowed things down, went acoustic and even brought in a mandolin. this produced "losing my religion", one of their biggest and most enduring hits, an iconic song, artistic music video, and atypical radio hit. "half a world away" ranks among their best bittersweet love songs, one that should be in every romantic's playlist. and, of course, there's "shiny happy people", which is has been described by the band as either irony or (apparently embarrassed) straight-ahead fun bubble-gum pop. but it did give us this. if that doesn't make you smile, you have no soul.
- song to buy off itunes: "texarkana"(provided you don't have the above listed songs already)
if you own just one r.e.m. album, it's this one. if you can only name one r.e.m. song besides "losing my religion", it's likely from this album. they now ruled the music world. critics, fans, the general public, and even the band usually concur that this is their best album. "everybody hurts" won video of the year (offending the beastie boys by beating "sabotage"), "the sidewinder sleeps tonight" makes no lyrical sense whatsoever but is so much fun, and "man on the moon" is the quintessential r.e.m. song. the album carried a big emotional range, moving around between political, upbeat, somber, melancholy, rock, and peaceful. it's all here.
- song to buy off itunes: anything. something you don't have already: "nightswimming" or "find the river."
they had done two largely acoustic records. it's great stuff but they needed something to tour with, now that they were selling out stadiums. so they wrote monster. i've seen interviews on vh1 where people talk about the first time they heard a particular song. i still remember the first time i heard "what's the frequency, kenneth?" on the radio; in my room one night as freshman in high school, i just stood there in amazement, loving that guitar and the fuzzed energy of it all. it's r.e.m. trying the grunge sound, but there are still plenty of solid songs on here.
- song to buy off itunes: "strange currencies." one of their best love songs.
this is the album where the crowd began to leave. after monster, they signed an $80 million contract with warner brothers, the biggest in the company's history. with all due respect to r.e.m., that was a bad move for warner brothers. from here on out, any album single was played on the radio for only a few weeks after it's release and the only people buying these albums are the ones who own all the r.e.m. albums.
which is a shame, because it's great music. it was best described to me as music to get on I-80 and head west (from utah.) "leave" rocks with the loud emptiness of wanting to escape from everything, while "electrolyte" is their most melodic closing since "find the river."
- song to buy off itunes: "electrolyte" or "leave"
drummer bill berry suffered a brain aneurism on the monster tour and, after the band assured him they would carry on, left the rock and roll lifestyle to be a farmer back home in georgia. their sound became a little more electronic, apparently taking inspiration from radiohead's work at the time. the album is introspective, carrying beautiful songs like "why not smile" next to the usual indecipherable "hope" (one of my all-time favorite r.e.m. songs.)
- song to buy off itunes: "at my most beautiful"
they're really slowing the tempo down here. the album has been compared to brian wilson's "pet sounds", which is apt. at any rate, it's best listened to on a rainy day. it's probably the album i listen to least, although it's not without its merits. "all the way to reno" is unfortunately forgettable, but "imitation of life" is classic r.e.m. (and one of the most creative videos not produced by michel gondry.) it's interesting how not having a drummer changes things up so much.
- song to buy off itunes: "imitation of life"
pretty much universally agreed as the weakest r.e.m. album, and that includes the band's vote. they've said it's a political album, and certainly songs like "the final straw" are. but if r.e.m. ever made a breakup album, this is it. and it's a great one. it's not a raging one, but a brooding, contemplative one. "leaving new york" is a solid song, but i knew i'd never again hear on the radio a month after its release.
- song to buy off itunes: "aftermath" if you need to get over a breakup. otherwise, buy a second song from another album.
they're trying too hard, but at least they're rocking again. trying to show that they aren't old and boring like "around the sun" was, every song is fast and electric. that's pretty much it. it's all good and fine, but all the songs sound like "supernatural superserious", their one strong single on here.
- song to buy off itunes: "supernatural superserious"
ok, i'll be honest; this is the first r.e.m. album since the mid-90s that i didn't pick up on day one. i just was expecting much and was hoping to get a digital download on sale off amazon a few weeks later. but after hearing good things from trusted r.e.m. fan, i bought it. and yeah, it was great. the best thing they've done since... the mid-90s. after trying way too hard on accelerate, this is what r.e.m. sounds like. introspective, melodic, soaring backup vocals, some good rockers; it's all here. and it was the best note they were going to end on and they knew it.
- song to buy off itunes: "alligator_aviator_autopilot_antimatter"
some other gems of theirs that aren't on their official studio albums include:
- "the lion sleeps tonight", a cover on the b-side of, obviously, "the sidewinder sleeps tonight." simply beautiful, if i've ever made you a cd, there's a change this is on there.
- "bad day", released only as a single around 2004, it's essentially an alternate version of "it's the end of the world as we know it."
- "wall of death", a great extra on the "e-bow the letter" single from 1996.
- "yellow river", a b-side of "all the way to reno" and soaring, jangling guitars with lead vocal by mike mills (because if you've read this far, you actually care about that).
- "silver bells." every year, they send out a Christmas single to everyone in their fan club. these are impossible to find otherwise. usually they're slightly sarcastic or really goofy (if you heard "silver bells" on the Christmas cd i made a few years ago, you also heard "Christmas griping." yeah...)
hopefully, that'll give you somewhere to start.
stay tuned for the next one whenever they might be giants decide to split.
(*i fully acknowledge that no one save one or two readers here are actually interested in delving through this. rather, this is a post for me. thank you for bearing with me.)