I’ve spent the past day trying to figure out how to pay tribute to R.E.M., who all things considered are probably my all-time favorite band. So I decided to create a list of “Ten Overlooked Songs”. They’re not necessarily my favorite R.E.M. songs, but these songs add a lot to the myth of the band and deserve another look.
“Lightnin’ Hopkins” – Document, 1987
Document is the first album where R.E.M. decided that they actually wanted to “rock” and this song might be the rockiest of them all. Bill Berry pounds the drums into submission, Peter Buck trades in his signature ringing style for some fiery licks, and Michael Stipe gives one of his fiercest vocals as he shouts out “Lightning one! Lightning One!” The closest thing the song has to a chorus is an eerie chanting of the word “crow”.
“Letter Never Sent” Reckoning, 1984
Another R.E.M. song that doesn’t contain a proper chorus – just Michael Stipe singing “oooh” repeatedly in its place. A great version of this song can be found on the 2008 live album Live at the Olympia. “You love my clothes?” Stipe asks an audience member mishearing her adoration for the “oooohs”. “That was just go “oooh and ahh” and let Mike and Bill do their thing,” Stipe explains after the mishap.
“I Remember California” Green, 1989
I used to hate this song as a kid. It seemed to go on forever and never do anything. I came around to this song several years ago in part because of Peter Buck’s ringing guitar that floats it way out of the song. It’s the same riff played over and over again – and it perfectly suits the melancholy and nostalgic view of the song. “I Remember California” is one of those songs that conjures up the ending of an era, whether it’s summer turning into fall or moving to a new destination and looking back.
“Texarkana” Out of Time, 1991
Mike Mills has always been one of rock’s most under-appecriated bassists, and on “Texarkana” he completely dominates the song, taking over lead vocals and also showing his impressive bass breaks though out. “I would give my life to find it, I would give it all,” He declares. “Catch me if I fall.” “Texarkana” was always a song that I should have been one of the singles off of Out of Time.
“Ages of You” – Dead Letter Office, 1987
“Ages of You” off of the b-sides collection of Dead Letter Office takes the murky sounds of Murmur and gives it a Reckoning-style punch. Even though this song never appeared on any proper albums, it’s got all the hallmarks of a classic R.E.M. song – Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics, Buck’s guitar lines chiming after each line Stipe delivers, and of course the tight-knit rhythm section of Berry and Mills.
“Just a Touch” Lifes Rich Pagaent, 1986
“Just a Touch” is one of R.E.M.’s most infectious songs. R.E.M. are many things, but the word “fun” hardly ever comes to mind when you think about them. The song had been around since Murmur before the band finally recorded it for Pageant. The version found there is pure glee. The band sounds like they’re having a blast as they tear through this rocker. Stipe lets out a rare and unexpected “wooooo!” in the middle of the song. The song ends with Stipe’s tribute to his hero Patti Smith as he yells out her immortal line: “I’m so goddamn young”.
“The Aiportman” Up, 1998
I really wanted to like Up when it came out in 1998. Whatever grievances I had about the album, I found it hard to forgive this noise of a song. Where was Michael Stipe? There were no guitars. The song seemed to be the very antithesis of everything R.E.M. sounded and stood for. I’ve since come around and think it’s a very bold move for the band to start out their first post-Berry album with this song. I’d also like to point out that in retrospect, it seems very likely that Radiohead probably spent hours listening to this song when making Kid A.
“West of the Fields” Murmur, 1983
“West of the Fields” is the probably closest track on Murmur to jump out of the murk in an attempts to gain some energy. Like many early R.E.M. songs, “West of the Fields” makes use of Mill’s “lead bass”. The vocal interplay between Stipe and Mills is fantastic, and hints at the heights these two would reach over the years. A scorching live version can be found on the iTunes Live from London EP.
“Wendell Gee” Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985
Fables of the Reconstrucion was R.E.M.’s attempt at digging up the ghosts of the American South. Ironically, it was recorded in England. The poignant ballad “Wendell Gee” closes out the album. It’s almost a lullaby. Stipe notes that “there wasn’t even time to say goodbye to Wendell Gee”. Even though the song might have been inspired by the death of an old man, the song now feels like a good bye to the band itself.
“It Happened Today” Collapse Into Now, 2011
Collapse Into Now is a pretty decent album, but this song is the definite highlight of the album. For such a catchy song, it is damn weird. There’s no chorus and the entire last two minutes of the song consist of wordless harmonies. If there were ever a song that showed how well Stipe and Mills sing together, I’d put this one on the top of the list. Eddie Vedder also appears in the background as well, providing a deep compliment to the higher register of the other two.