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Ten Overlooked R.E.M. Songs


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.





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In Defense of R.E.M.’s “Monster”


As I mentioned yesterday, Popmatters wrote a piece on “10 Albums That Supposedly Suck But Don’t”.  I was surprised to see that R.E.M.’s Monster made it to number two on that list. I had no idea that the album was considered to be that bad. That being said,  the loud and noisy Monster probably came as a shock to fans who discovered the band a few years earlier with their acoustic-based Out of Time and Automatic for the People. 

A bit of history and perspective, then. R.E.M. had spent most of the 1980s building up an impressive body of work – the run of albums from Murmur to Document is among the best in rock and roll. They came along at time when rock and roll seemed stagnant, and all but invented alternative rock on the college radio circuit. Peter Buck’s ringing guitar chords sounded were influenced by The Byrds, but Michael Stipe’s vocal delivery and lyrics were refreshing as they were confusing. They were more fragments than a cohesive thought. On the first few albums, his vocals were virtually impossible to understand. Every single album from the 80s sounded completely different. Their debut, Murmur was murky and understated. 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction was an exploration of the myths of the old South. Document turned up the volume a bit but still retained their core qualities. 1998’s Green was their version of Led Zeppelin III – rockers counter-balanced by acoustic ballads.

With Out of Time and Automatic for the People, R.E.M. achieved global super-star status, but no one could accuse them on selling out. In the hey-day of grunge, the band went the exact opposite route – soft and introspective. The band was proving that you could achieve a high level of success, while still maintaing critical acclaim. So it seems inevitable, that Monster would receive a back-lash. Though I have to ask because I was 13 at the time of its release, what is so poorly received then?

Certainly, Monster is the strangest of all the R.E.M. albums cut with original drummer Bill Berry. Its full of distortion, feedback, cackles and hisses, echoed vocals, and Prince-style falsettos. It’s also the first album where Michael Stipe  focuses on sex, a subject he seemed to avoid for a long time. Monster is the band’s attempt to try something different after delivering two subdued albums in a row.

The main problem with this is that even though R.E.M. could occasionally rock, they’re not rockers. They’re a bit of our of their element and songs such as the noise-laden “Circus Envy” and the electronic-vocal enhanced “King of Comedy” have not aged well. Michael Stipe’s falsetto on “Tongue” while laughable upon release, sounds embarrassing now.  When Stipe name-checks Iggy Pop on “I Took Your Name” it sounds hollow.

Yet, the album has plenty of merits. (Unfortunately, the awful cover isn’t one of them.) “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, perhaps the album’s best known song – shows they could match rock with melody. Peter Buck offers one of his best riffs, pushing the song along with a menace and crunch. Mike Mills and Michael Stipe give a fantastic vocal interplay, which has always been one of R.E.M’s secret weapons. Elsewhere, “Bang an Blame” has a unique echo guitar riff which blasts out of the speaker only to fade into the background before coming back again. The highlight of the album is the guitar-only fury of “Let Me In”, an ode to Stipe’s friend Kurt Cobain. It’s one of the best R.E.M. ballads only with the amps turned up to 12.

Some of the criticism of Monster might be just. I’m not so sure the sell-out label applies, especially if you listen to the album as a whole. While not as brutal as Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy (which came out the same year) Monster may seem like it was written as an attempt to get rid of the some of the casual fans. Although if this is the case, it’s odd considering that they launched a massive world tour to promote the album.

Still, Monster is not an unlistenable album and in the history of R.E.M. its not one of their worst detours into weirdness.


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Preview of R.E.M.’s “Collapse Into Now”

I’m getting pretty excited about R.E.M.’s upcoming album Collapse  Into Now. 2008’s Accelerate was a return to form, after about 10 years of three abysmal albums (1998’s Up, 2001’s Reveal, and 2004’s virtually unlistenable Around The Sun).  While I loved Accelerate when it came out, its break-neck speed which was refreshing at the time has proved to be its achilles heel.  R.E.M. is at their best when their songs are moody and reflective even in their rockers.  Accelerate in its urgency left little room for the listener to enter into the songs.

But the songs off of Collapse Into Now that have been leaked or officially find R.E.M. entering a territory both familiar and new.  “It Happened Today” sounds like something off of Out Of Time – except better than almost all of the songs combined with the exception of “Losing My Religion”.  Peter Buck’s ringing guitar chords sing through while Mike Mills, Michael Stipe, and guest vocalist Eddie Vedder spend almost two minutes in a wordless harmonizing chant that never ceases to be boring.  “Mine Smell Like Honey” sounds like an Accelerate out-take, with its blasting guitars.  Yet it’s more accessible in its melody, and a reminder than the interchange between Mike Mills and Michael Stipe is a force to be reckoned with.  The psychedelic “Discoverer” might be the weakest of the three tracks I’ve heard, but it’s still very good. Stipe’s chant of “Discoverer!” in the chorus might of course be a live-highlight.

If these three tracks are any indication, Collapse Into Now might be a latter-day R.E.M. classic, as opposed to just a very good R.E.M. album like Accelerate.

“It Happened Today”


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