The title would be a great joke about typical anthology bullshit, if it was actually a joke. The problem is R.E.M.’s career contains more than two discs worth of truth and heart—know many bands with more than ten good albums?—and a lot fewer lies and garbage than the ratio of each included here would lead a newcomer (presumably who this is for? In 20 years maybe?) to believe.
So first the lies and garbage. The oddly despised Monster has more than “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” to offer. At least one or two of its five(!) other singles deserves the spots reserved for “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” or the putrid self-parody “The Great Beyond.” “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” is more than enough to represent the good-but-not-Monster Accelerate; no need for “Supernatural Superserious” as well. This year’s solid Collapse Into Now does not deserve three songs. Should’ve killed the gross “Oh My Heart” in favor for a better waltz, Up’s “Daysleeper,” one of the few R.E.M. songs that could benefit greatly from a new context.
These are merely bitchings. But there are two actual crimes. This two-disc behemoth fails to eclipse 1988’s merely I.R.S. era-encompassing Eponymous by starting with the inferior “mumbled” take on “Gardening at Night” and the slower “Radio Free Europe” from Murmur, when clearer and more intense versions, respectively, exist. “Get Up”’s slot could’ve been given to the underrated “Romance,” which has no home of its own but on a redundant-but still-not-inferior compilation.
And then there’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, a secret favorite of more fans than I presume the band realizes. The graceful, elegiac collection was their last true album with Bill Berry and their most passionate, full-bodied, adventurous-indeed record ever. It’s mispresented with only “Electrolite” (lovely ballad) and “New Test Leper” (misbegotten fourth single or some shit). The widescreen epics “Leave” and “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” deserve to be on any kind of career reel for this band, and mismanaging that $80 million deal-sealing record is partly why their sales halted far behind U2’s in the first place. At very least it deserves more space than Green or Collapse Into Now.
I’m being a bitch. Every song a casual fan would know is here: “Orange Crush,” “Man on the Moon,” “Stand,” “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” Reveal and Around the Sun are rightfully reduced to one decent enough song apiece. I’m very grateful that they’ve outgrown their petty embarrassment for “Shiny Happy People,” which is every bit as gorgeous as “Losing My Religion” or “Fall on Me”. The track sequence flows like a lava lamp despite its lack of imagination. Fans who jumped ship will be glad to discover “Bad Day” and “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter.” And the three new songs are modest and lovely. A long way from “Gardening at Night”’s inscrutable beginnings, the loud and clear words share a theme: retirement. “Is this what you really want?” begs the penultimate “We All Go Back to Where We Belong.” Then you think back to the almost flawless 38 songs you just heard. And the answer is no. Box set, please.