If there was a single band that shaped my teenage ears, that shook me from the confines of classic rock radio and awakened me to quirky, adventuresome college rock, it was R.E.M. Soon after discovering Document, I had worked my way back through every cassette in their catalog. And when that was exhausted, I started looking for other bands that just sounded something like R.E.M. I felt sheltered, even betrayed, learning that all this music had been made during my adolescence—just up the road in Athens—while I was mowing the lawn to Foreigner 4.
I kept buying R.E.M. albums, eventually on CD, even as the quartet became a trio when Bill Berry departed. Rumors flew that the band would play its last show on New Year’s Eve of 1999, and while they plowed on into the new millennium, the ‘00s haven’t been as kind to R.E.M. But Accelerate was a fine return to form. And as I was reminded when Rhett Miller came to the Paste studio and played “Driver 8,” there are some mighty fine songs in R.E.M.’s 30-year oeuvre. Here are my favorites:
20. “King of Birds” (Document)
This may have been the song that immediately made me such a rabid fan. With words crashing into each other during the chorus and Stipe’s voice soaring as 100 million birds flew away.
19. “These Days” (Life’s Rich Pageant)
Following on the heels of “Begin the Begin,” one of the band’s best rock songs takes the energy up another notch.
18. “World Leader Pretend” (Green)
High-school Josh had this song on repeat, and now it’s the one R.E.M. album not in my iTunes. I need to remedy that, if only for this song and “Hairshirt.”
17. “Cuyahoga” (Life’s Rich Pageant)
Starts with a perfect little bass lick from Mike Mills and gets lovelier as it goes.
16. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (Monster)
Grunge was still king in 1994, and R.E.M.’s album of fuzzy, distorted guitar mostly left me unimpressed, with this one glorious exception.
15. “Gardening at Night” (Chronic Town)
The band was already gelling on the debut EP, particularly on its best song.
14. “Man on the Moon” (Automatic for the People)
This tribute to Andy Kaufman contains one of the catchiest choruses of any R.E.M. song.
13. “7 Chinese Bros.” (Reckoning)
One of the classic Peter Buck riffs also works well on the alternate take (“Voice of Harold”).
12. “Fall on Me” (Life’s Rich Pageant)
This list could have solely been made up of songs from Life’s Rich Pageant.
11. “Everybody Hurts” (Automatic For the People)
I think it’s the subtle Hammond organ that really makes this beautifully sad, uncharacteristically straightforward ballad.
10. “It’s The End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (Document)
Sure it’s a little gimmicky, but sometimes gimmicks work. Windows down, with the tri-tone Monte Carlo overstuffed with my friends, this song was on repeat until we went all hoarse (ironically singing “It’s time I had some time alone.”)
9. “Radio Free Europe” (Murmur)
Track one of their debut LP had all the elements that would make the band famous: Mike Mills’ bouncy Rickenbacker carrying the melody, Peter Buck’s jangly guitar busily filling in the gaps, Michael Stipe mumbling vaguely intelligible but always intriguing lyrics, and Bill Berry holding it all together. Here’s the national TV debut on Letterman.
8. “So. Central Rain” (Reckoning)
Michael Stipe’s haunting refrain of “I’m sorry” is the entirety of the chorus, but that’s all that’s needed.
7. ”(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” (Reckoning)
These Southern boys released an alt.country song before alt.country was cool, complete with a sing-along chorus that must have had the college kids raising a glass everytime they played it. Mike Mills wrote the song for a girlfriend, who was headed home to Rockville, Md., and often takes lead vocals on the song when they perform it in concert.
6. “Losing My Religion” (Out of Time)
I hesitated putting this on the list as it has worn on me after getting overplayed on the radio. But then I listened again, and remembered why this song sent me
to a music store to buy a mandolin back in 1991.
5. “Finest Worksong” (Document)
The third single of Document was the best. Bill Berry was never as integral as on the driving beat to one of the band’s noisest songs. “What we want and what we need/Has been confused, been confused.”
4. “Nightswimming” (Automatic For the People)
The prettiest song the band ever recorded has Stipe clearly singing a sweet, nostalgic ballad about skinny dipping (“The fear of getting caught/The recklessness in water/These things they go away/Replaced by every day”). Stipe is at his most vulnerable in a song about literally being naked, and Mills’ simple piano tune is augmented by a swelling
orchestra arranged by John Paul Jones.
3. “Swan Swan H” (Life’s Rich Pageant)
I wonder if The Decemberists would even exist without this song. Bone chains? Wooden greenbacks? Without ever presenting a clear narrative, this song feels like the Civil War incarnate, accordion and all. And the band’s performance on Athens, Ga. Inside/Out is unforgettable.
2. “Driver 8” (Fables of the Reconstruction)
If there were such a thing as a jangle-meter, this song would be on the far side of red. Like many early R.E.M. songs, the highlight is in the bridge when Stipe sings about putting his children to sleep, his vocals momentarily breaking free of the frantic guitar and bass lines.
1. “Talk About the Passion” (Murmur)
Peter Buck’s guitar lick sings as much Michael Stipe on this early cut. “Combien du temps?” roughly translates from French into “How much time?” as in how long will people go hungry.