Top Five R.E.M. Discs

My memory isn't as stainless-steel sharp as it once was. But if you ask me to describe myself on March 12, 1993, I'd know the following as fact:

  • I'm wearing my Chicago Blackhawks jersey

  • I've got way too much hair

  • I've got horrible eating habits-- my daily lunch is Snapple, Combos, and a Nestle Crunch bar

  • I've got an R.E.M. mixed tape in my tape player

Over the past decade, the 'hawks jersey still makes frequent appearances, one of my favorite items in my Winter Comfy Clothes ensemble. I've ditched the crappy lunches and have tried to schedule haircuts at frequent intervals so that strangers no longer confuse me with Ted Koppel. My love of R.E.M. has gone the way of my love of Snapple-- I might enjoy it from time to time, but it's rare. One of those moments, though, happened last week when I caught "Fall On Me" playing on a local radio station. Hence, this article.

My fervent following of the Athens quartet peaked in 1995, when I saw them live twice, and faded in 1997, when a band called The Refreshments caught my ear. All of the music that R.E.M. has made since then seems less appealing to me. I've wondered aloud if that means they're getting worse or I'm just getting older. Since the group just announced another world tour, I'm guessing it's more of the latter. Between '91 and '97, though, you rarely found me listenting to anything else. In light of six years of listening, hundreds of dollars in CDs and merchandise, and three Michael Stipe posters, I feel qualified to list the top five R.E.M. discs. According to yours truly. (author acknowledges the subjectivity of such a thing.)

going backward.. actually, to Al, this would be going forward... let's just say the best is last...

Honorable Mention #1

Green (1988)

Highlights: "Turn You Inside Out," "Orange Crush," "Get Up"

Lowlights: "Hairshirt," "The Wrong Child," "World Leader Pretend"

I've got mixed feelings about Green. It's got one of my favorite songs ("Inside Out") and one of my least favorite ("Hairshirt")-- and it seems like every song on the disc I either love or detest. "Inside Out" still gives me goosebumps-- the entire song is driven by Mike Mills' bass, and all of the lyrics are delivered as a harmony between Mills and Stipe. To me, those two rival Simon & Garfunkel for greatest combined sound. "Hairshirt," on the other hand, combines a gnat-like mandolin with, well, rotten lyrics. Stipe's lyrics are rarely sensical, but they're also rarely out-and-out bad.

I didn't actually buy this on CD (had the tape) until 1999. There's a definite mood to Green, the group's first release after moving from I.R.S. to Warner Brothers. It's also got the catchy "Stand"-- c'mon, do the dance with me. The band also did an amazing version of "Orange Crush" on the 1995 Monster tour.

Honorable Mention #2

Reckoning (1984)

Highlights: "Harborcoat," "Pretty Persuasion," "Little America"

Lowlights: "Time After Time," "7 Chinese Bros," "Camera"

The token early-80's R.E.M. pick. Although I like several of the songs from that era, I just don't get into their sound on the pre-1986 discs. Of the best of these is Reckoning, featuring Peter Buck's jangly guitar leads and Stipe's nearly-indecipherable lyrics. The main difference between Reckoning and its two predecessors is that, instead of buried beneath the instruments, Stipe's vocals are brough to the forefront.

R.E.M. demonstrates a minimalist sound on this disc, similar to other bands at this time. Unlike Green, the music on this album is fairly simple, nothing that your average high-school garage band couldn't do. Yet R.E.M. was already developing its hook, with songs like "Pretty Persuasion" and "So. Central Rain" setting up camp in your head and not leaving for 2-3 days.


Out of Time (1991)

Highlights: "Texarkana," "Country Feedback," "Near Wild Heaven"

Lowlights: "Shiny Happy People," "Belong," "Half A World Away"

When coming up for a final ranking (which was harder to do than I expected), I was surprised to see Out of Time this low. This was the CD that got me liking R.E.M. in the first place, twelve years ago. (Eh? Where's my Metamucil?) At that point, though, I still could listen to "Losing My Religion" and "Radio Song" without running away, hands pressed to my ears. They were spared from the Lowlights because they are, in essence, good songs; just overplayed. That may be my problem with this entire disc, easily my most listened-to album from the group.

"Texarkana" is one of my favorites, the lead vocals sung by Mike Mills. It's also driven off of his bass line, nicely augmented by Buck's guitar and a string section. I gained an appreciation for "Country Feedback" after seeing it performed live; however, they're almost different songs-- the concert version is played at half-tempo, and features a blistering guitar solo. Bill Berry also played bass during the concert, with Mills on keyboards and Buck using a bass-drum kick to hit a tambourine while he played guitar. Stuff like that always interests me.

Maybe it was the emergence of the "harder" R.E.M. that made this album, with its violins and mandolins, less enjoyable. Or maybe it's the presence of "Shiny Happy People." There are times when the mood calls for Out of Time (like early mornings) but it's no longer my first pick.


Automatic For The People (1992)

Highlights: "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight," "Find The River," "Man On The Moon"

Lowlights: "Sweetness Follows," "Star Me Kitten," "Monty Got A Raw Deal"

Another surprise, finding that I disliked more songs on this disc than I liked. I think I anticipated the release of this CD more than any other in my lifetime. After "discovering" R.E.M. the prior year, I was giddy about a new set of songs to listen to. At that time, at least, I wasn't disappointed. "Drive" leads off the CD with its haunting melodies-- it's got an even-more haunting video, if you've ever seen it. The song could have become a teen anthem if it weren't so, well, violin-y.

As I look at AFTP now, I see it as two great up-tempo songs ("Sidewinder," "Man On The Moon") and two great slower songs ("Find The River," "Nightswimming"). I was always more of a "Sidewinder" fan until I saw R.E.M. perform "Man On The Moon" live. (Tired of me talking about that yet?) It clearly was the most electric song of the entire show, next to the closing "It's The End Of The World..." The group clearly had fun with it, including Stipe who did some pretty nice Elvis impressions. I've also liked "Find The River" better than "Nightswimming," unlike many people I know. It just seems to come together more at the end and makes me feel good.

Again, AFTP may suffer from me just listening to it way too much in high school.


New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996)

Highlights: "Wake-Up Bomb," "Departure," "Bittersweet Me"

Lowlights: "Be Mine," "Zither," "Low Desert"


Monster (1994)

Highlights: "Star 69," "I Took Your Name," "Let Me In"

Lowlights: "I Don't Sleep I Dream," "You," "King of Comedy"

NAIHF is made up mostly of songs recorded during sound checks of the group's 1995 Monster tour, hence they're grouped together. The sound is raw, distorted, and me likey. When looking at NAIHF, I truly had trouble finding three songs for Lowlights. Part of me things that it should be second, but I basically consider this album an extension of Monster, hence the original is rated higher.

This is arena rock, the stuff that worked so well for them on tour. Crunchy guitar, Stipe yelling, six or seven musicians contributing on every song. This tends to be one of the overlooked albums in R.E.M.'s catalog-- if you haven't listened, give it a try.

Unlike From the opening riff of "What's the Frequency Kenneth," you know that Monster was a departure from R.E.M.'s former sound. Was it a response to the emergence of groups like Nirvana and the alternative rock movement? Perhaps. Rumor also has it that drummer Bill Berry demanded a rock album after being bored through the acoustic Out of Time and Automatic. Whatever the reason, Stipe's lyrics, to me the allure of the group throughout its history, stayed normal by staying strange. For me, the group's third incarnation (jangly minimalism -> acoustic -> distorted rock) is its finest.

Monster's first single, "What's The Frequency Kenneth" is a microcosm of the entire disc-- power chords combined with Stipe's paying homage to the man who mugged Dan Rather in 1986, repeating "Kenneth, what's the frequency" as he kicked and beat the anchor.

An aside, that I just learned: In 1997, based on a tip from a psychiatrist, Rather's attacker was identified as William Tager. According to the psychiatrist, Tager, who was serving time for killing an NBC stagehand, blamed news media for beaming signals into his head, and thought if he could just find out the correct frequency, he could block those signals that were constantly assailing him.


Anyway, another highlight of Monster is "Let Me In," Stipe's memorial to Kurt Cobain. The two were trying to work on a collaboration when Cobain committed suicide in March 1994. "Let Me In" is one of the few songs where you can actually read the meaning behind Stipe's lyrics, and you can sense some pain. When performing this song live, Mike Mills played one of Cobain's Fender Jaguars given to the group by Courtney Love. This was before she became a complete hose-beast.


Life's Rich Pageant (1986)

Highlights: all of it

Lowlights: "Underneath The Bunker" if I had to name one.

Now didn't I just get done saying that I liked the hard-edge R.E.M. better than any of their previous styles? That may be true, but we're rating albums here-- and it truly doesn't get better than Life's Rich Pageant. It's just solid, from top to bottom. "Begin The Begin" starts everything out, driven by the standard-early-R.E.M. Buck guitar riffs and arpeggios. "Fall On Me" is also found on this disc, possibly my favorite song of theirs. It features a rare three-part harmony between Stipe, Mills, and Berry. We see the emergence of the political Stipe in his lyrics for "Cuyahoga" and "The Flowers of Guatemala"-- a phase that peaked during Green but thankfully died out soon after.

I can't say enough good things about this disc, and how it's put together. "These Days," "Cuyahoga," and "I Believe" could easily be the best song on any of R.E.M.'s previous four albums. The hidden track, "Superman," also rocks-- simple lyrics but great drums and harmony between Stipe and Mills. This album features a large number of sticky songs, staying in your head long after you put the disc away.

As I discovered last Saturday night, Life's Rich Pageant doesn't provide good background music for social gatherings-- Out of Time or Document are better choices for that. But if you want essential R.E.M., this is the disc to pick.



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