Most of the other sections of this list changed significantly as this project moved forward. Songs moved up and down as my opinions about them changed and developed. The top ten has pretty much been the same for most of the entire project. There were a few minor changes (I dropped “Losing My Religion” into the 11-20 range and moved “Pretty Persuasion” up from that same section) but really my opinions on these songs has remained steadfast.
So, how much do I like Reckoning, R.E.M.’s second album? All three of its singles are in my top ten. Let’s create a chart. I’ll award each single a value from 1-9 depending on which segment of my countdown they appeared in. Then I’ll add all those values together per album and divide it by the number of singles released from the album. So, there’s three singles from Reckoning, they each receive a value of “1” for a total of three, which means the overall value of Reckoning is 1. I mean, this is stupid, but here’s my list based on that:
Collapse Into Now 7 (7 Singles)
Reveal 6 (5 singles)
Out of Time 6 (5 Singles)
Around the Sun 5.8 (5 singles)
New-Adventures in Hi-Fi 5.5 (6 singles)
Accelerate 4.8 (5 singles)
Monster 4.71 (7 singles)
Fables of the Reconstruction 4.25 (4 singles)
Life’s Rich Pageant 3.66 (3 Singles)
Up 3.5 (4 singles)
Automatic for the People 3.5 (6 singles)
Murmur 3.5 (2 singles)
Document 3.33 (3 singles)
Green 3.2 (5 singles)
Reckoning 1 (3 singles)
This surely proves something, though I’m concerned it proves something about the amount of free time I have right now. Anyhow, let’s get into the guts of this top ten list, which features 3 songs from Reckoning, 2 songs from Automatic for the People and 2 songs from Green, among other excellent songs.
10. Pretty Persuasion
From 1984’s Reckoning, Promo Single Only
Did you know that “Pretty Persuasion” was an “anti-consumerism take on advertising?” I didn’t! In fact, I’ve been listening to this song for 33 years with absolutely no clue as to its actual meaning and no interest in discovering it. Reckoning, to me, is an album by a band that has discovered its own unique voice and sound and has had enough success to be able to perform it with supreme confidence. Every single track on the album is confident, fully formed R.E.M. jangle rock. This album – and perhaps specifically this song – created a blueprint for two or three dozen other jangle rock bands in the mid-80’s. Every rock critic experienced la petit mort when they dropped the needle on this one for the first time in 1984. This song almost wasn’t recorded because R.E.M. had been performing it for a few years and were already bored with it. I got to see them play it live in 1985 (so they hadn’t shunned it yet) and they blew the roof off of the West Hartford Agora. Its a fantastic break-neck rocker with classically incomprehensible vocals, maybe best-ever Peter Buck guitar work, crazy tight rhythm work and a single harmonica blast. So. Good.
9. Can’t Get There from Here
From 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction, First Single
I am pretty sure I first heard this song on I-95 (our local rock station) in the summer of 1985 when Fables of the Reconstruction was first released specifically because they were promoting the upcoming R.E.M. concert. The playlist for that station tended to be a lot of 70’s classic rock mixed in with the tail-end of that particular generation of rock. To whit, on two-for-Tuesday, you’d hear The Who’s “Who Are You” immediately followed by “Eminence Front” and think “wow, The Who are still a thing.” Hopefully, you would go and buy the new Who album. They did mix in some new Rock – which in the 80’s meant Loverboy and eventually hair metal and occasionally R.E.M and The Talking Heads. I recall stumbling across that station 15 years ago or so and the playlist was largely unchanged (I think they stopped playing new music around Nirvana). Again, I have no idea what Stipe is singing (and don’t know that I want to know) but I love singing along with him – I can do this using nothing but vowels most of the time. I don’t sound like Michael Stipe when I sing but I have been told I sound like Michael Stipe. I promise I do not even slightly sound like him – my voice is not as bright, clear and confident as his and I often struggle with pitch. In my dreams, though, this song is what I wish I sounded like. So. Good.
8. Turn You Inside-Out
From 1988’s Green, Charted Song
So. Good. “Turn You Inside-Out” is a song about rock stardom. At least I think it is. I think Stipe is singing about the power you have when you’re the front-man of a rock band in an enormous stadium. He could turn you inside-out. He’s choosing not to. Other front-people choose to turn you inside-out. The song starts with a classic R.E.M. jangle riff before Bill Berry’s monster drums kick in (accompanied by a hypnotic Mills bass line). Stipe’s vocal is great but the real superstar in this song is Mills backing vocals leading into the choruses. Oh my lord, I love singing along with Mills on this song. During the second build into the chorus, he jumps an octave and takes my whole body with him. Oh, and then, the whole false stop with the “I could… I could…” business. Argh, even writing about this song I want to get up and wreck some stuff. Wreck it in a good way. There’s also this great organ part in the song – just listen to it. I mean, seriously, how good is this band?
From 1992’s Automatic for the People, Charted Song
With the acknowledgement that a substantial portion of you reading this list have already informed me that you’d swap this song with “Orange Crush” in a heartbeat, this is one of my all-time favorite R.E.M. songs. There’s more to it than this, but it sort of comes down the the little backing vocal “HUH” during Stipe’s fast build into the refrain. But its also because of that fast build into the refrain. And the maracas. Stipe is pissed off and acknowledges that the song is “mostly vitriol” that isn’t going to solve anything. That’s part of the genius of the song – R.E.M. leaned political on many of their songs but they also were resigned to the futility of trying to change the world with music. U2 were the true believers – rock was going to save the planet and their soul. R.E.M. was more like “well, that would be nice, but let’s get real.” I also love the “yeah yeah yeah” shouts. I play this song all the time just to sing along with the “HUH” and the “yeah yeah yeah.” My life is happier for it. So. Good.
6. “Photograph” (with Natalie Merchant)
From the 1993 various artists album Born to Choose, Charted Song
Do you know this song? Why don’t you know this song? Recorded during the Automatic for the People sessions, it was released as a track on Born to Choose in 1993 and features Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs on backing vocals. I have a rather lot to write about this song. The lyrics are about Stipe stumbling across an ancient photograph of a baby girl (“born between the wars”) and pondering about the life the child led from that point on. I find his ruminations to be profoundly moving in their simplicity. Every ancient picture is frozen moment in a lift. I mean, that is obvious, but the life was likely filled with joy and tragedy and everything that, well, happens in a life. The photo’s subject could have done almost any conceivable thing – she could have died young or lived to be ancient (and would still have been alive in 1993 when the song was recorded). She could have fought for greater rights for humankind or been complicit in the suppression of her fellow people. That’s the glorious thing about photos – we often lack the context to know who we’re looking at and so we create meaning and lives for the subjects.
I often think of the Tralfamadorians from Slaughterhouse Five, aliens who see all points in time. We see life like a flip book of moments, but they see a life like a giant frozen snake like thing – the being they observe exists at every point in its life at once to them, forever locked into its form. The baby in the photograph had the potential to go anywhere, but all these years later, it already represents the tail end of the snake of that person’s life.
About Natalie Merchant, I’ve always interpreted her singing on this song as being symbolic of the voice of the subject of the photograph. Sometimes she is in the foreground, loud and clear. Other times, her voice is back in the mix as if she’s haunting Stipe. I find this to be a spectacularly effective use of a guest singer on an R.E.M. song.
Anyhow, I might be reading a whole bunch of myself into this song much as Stipe reads some of himself into the found photo. So it goes. I love this song like crazy – it and “Fretless” from the Until The End of the World soundtrack are my favorite R.E.M. songs that aren’t on official R.E.M. releases.
5. Wolves, Lower
From the 1982 EP Chronic Town, Promo Single Only
Seriously, record company people, this is the only song you’re going to release from Chronic Town? I joined the R.E.M. bandwagon as of 1983’s Murmur. This meant that my first encounter with hipsterdom was listening to folks who’d been fans of R.E.M. for longer than I rambling on and on about how the five song Chronic Town EP was so much better than their (sniff) sell-out first album. This is one of my few memories of participating in early dial-up text-only Internet using The Source – music hipsters at 300 baud in 1984 telling me that the band I was just discovering already sucked. Oh, Internet, never change. By which I mean change. Change now. Holy cats.
Anyhow, as a result of these dudes (exclusively dudes) boring me for hours with all the reasons why my 16 year old taste in R.E.M. music was wanting (and due to the fact that when I’m told I will like something I immediately and stubbornly vow to never encounter that thing if I can help it), I avoided Chronic Town for as long as I could. I think I first heard “Boxcars” on WXCI and assumed it was an upcoming single from Fables from the Reconstruction (despite the fact that one of the few clearly articulated lyrics in the song is the phrase “Chronic Town”). I could never find that song anywhere and eventually some kind soul (I believe my friend Lynne) pointed out to me that it was from Chronic Town, which I immediately started seeking out. This was a fruitless endeavor and I don’t think I heard the whole EP until I started DJing at WRBC and discovered it in the stacks. My 16 year old stubborn self is sorry to report that the EP is as good as it had been described. Really, the EP is the sound of a musical genre being born. Its… I mean… its just fantastic.
“Wolves, Lower” isn’t even the highlight of the EP (“Gardening at Night” and the aforementioned “Boxcars” vie for that title). It is, however, an excellent song in its own right (it features what sounds like Stipe’s version of the Wilhelm Scream in the first ten seconds). I encourage you to listen to this song first for Buck’s guitar work and then second for everything going on with the lead and backing vocals. If you’ve never heard any songs from Chronic Town and you like R.E.M., don’t be like 16 year old me. Seek it out.
4. (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville
From 1984’s Reckoning, Second Single
Mike Mills finest hour – while the song is credited to all four members of the band, he wrote it as a plea to his girlfriend not to return to Rockville, MD. We had a Rockville in Connecticut, too. I always heard the song as a general plea not to allow yourself to get stuck in your hometown or, even more generally, to pursue your dreams now. Legend (well, Peter Buck) has it that the song started its life as a faster more rocking song and was originally slowed down to country music speed as a sort of joke. Hey, the joke worked and the song is a lovely and even moving. Furthermore, it suggested at the time that R.E.M. had much more going on musically than just jangle rock (I suspect I should have noticed this sooner, but I really only noticed it when I first heard this song). I didn’t own Reckoning when I arrived in college (though I’d heard the whole album a bunch of times thanks to WXCI and my friends) and it was one of the first records I taped in whole in the side-studio of the college radio station. I probably still have 60 tapes of music all surreptitiously recorded at WRBC. Kids, when you illegally record songs on cassette tapes, you’re killing the music industry. Remember that and make sure to just download them instead.
3. So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)
From 1984’s Reckoning, First Single
Take a second to watch R.E.M. playing on David Letterman in 1983 – Michael Stipe is hiding next to the drum set. The song didn’t have a name yet and its still just gorgeous. I especially love Mills’ bass run in this one before each verse, but really every part of the song is just pure beauty. It has something to do with a phone call (a frequent event in R.E.M. songs) and a flood (a less frequent event) and being sorry about either the flood or missing the call or maybe both. I had really loved Murmur in 1983, but when I heard this song for the first time in 1984, I knew I loved the band, too. Simply glorious.
2. The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite
From 1992’s Automatic for the People, Third Single
Another song about waiting for a phone call that may or may not ever come. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” draws a little hint of inspiration from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (listen for Stipe’s vocalizations at the start of the song) but that’s about it. Apparently, “sidewinder” in this context refers to the chord on a payphone. I’ve always believed the song is an ode to being on the road and unable to reach your friends (specifically, your lover). This is dated in the age of smartphones and instant, cheap communication, but back in the early 90’s, we relied on payphones and if you wanted to make sure somebody reached you, you’d need to camp out by the payphone. And if you wanted to reach somebody on a payphone, you really did have to let it ring a long long long long time.
Some of the things I love about this song include the interplay between the acoustic guitar and the organ, the too-fast-to-understand “ Call me when you try to wake her” business in the chorus, Stipe’s falsetto (near falsetto?), Stipe’s laugh after singing “Dr. Suess,” and the sudden unexpected appearance of the strings (courtesy of John Paul Jones) about halfway through the song. There are three or four phases in R.E.M.’s career and I think this song perfectly captures their third phase. I will love it forever.
1. Get Up
From 1988’s Green, Fourth Single
This one is personal. I think everyone has a song that they identify as their theme music. “Get Up” is the song that plays at the start (or maybe the end) of the movie of my life. Sleep, as the man sings, really does delay my life. Dreams really do complicate (and compliment) my life. Buck’s guitar work here is the sound of somebody hitting snooze again and again and again. The opening moments of the song are what it feels like to be flying in a dream right before that alarm goes off. You need to get up, but you want to find out what’s going to happen next in your dream. If you can just get back to sleep for ten more minutes maybe you’ll find that hidden door or figure out where that cat-you-never-owned named Kazuo is hiding or you’ll get to be 19 and going home again for just a few minutes. But there’s Mike Mills urging you to get up and there’s that alarm and you have important stuff to do. R.E.M.’s song are so often about dreaming and sleeping that it also feels right to complete this list with a song about waking up – but I would have ended with this song anyways because it really is my favorite. I spent a bunch of time in the late 80’s and early 90’s sleeping as little as possible (this song was my theme music then too for that very reason) but as I’ve gotten older its taken on that “not quite waking” meaning. Oh, then there’s the whole little music box interlude in the middle of the song – you go back to sleep just for a moment but it doesn’t last – you’re propelled into consciousness and your life begins again. I can listen to this song forever. If you want to play this whenever I enter a room, I’ll wait until the snooze button guitar starts before I walk through the door. It will be epic every single time it happens, at least for me.
Coming Soon: The Replacements then Madonna. Seriously.